Saturday, February 04, 2012

What's It All About, Sebby?

Hoo boy! 

I think I looked forward to the Janacek/Debussy SFS program more than almost any other this year, its equals being Salonen's program (which I swear I will write about) and the upcoming performances of Bluebeard's Castle. (I've seen Bluebeard three times, all very well performed, but never with an orchestra of the caliber of SFS.) Oh, and maybe that crazy program Edo de Waart is leading, which includes, what, Rach 4 and the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony??? You rawk, Edo!

In any event. I'd never heard the Janacek live and until a couple of weeks ago, I'd never heard Debussy's Le Martyr de Saint Sebastien at all. To prepare, I got myself Ansermet's recording, which was available as an inexpensive download from eClassical. 

The Janacek was just what I expected (thank you, Karel Ancerl!), though even more wonderful in person than on record; heard live, the Debussy far, far exceeded my expectations, to the point that my head was exploding by the time it was over. That Ansermet performance is....mediocre at best. It's in constricted 50s mono and the soloist really do not seem to have a clue, as in, the altos in that mysterious opening can't even sing in tune with each other. It does not begin to adequately represent the beauty of Saint Sebastien

I see from his review and mine that Joshua Kosman and I both thought highly of the performance and staging, but I am rather more convinced by the piece than he is. Surely this has something to do with expectations and prior exposure to the piece; that is, I am assuming that Joshua knows it better than I do. But I think there's more to it than that.

For one thing, Joshua's working assumption is that the subject is martyrdom per se, as I read his review - though it's true that his opening line includes the phrase "rapturous ecstasy of martyrdom." My take on the piece is different: I think it's about the eroticism and ecstasy surrounding martyrdom and religious experience, not martyrdom itself.

Consider the text, which is full of references to ecstasy and love. The brothers ask whether there has ever been a love like theirs, for Jesus and St. Sebastien, but perhaps for each other. Sebastien longs to die at the hands of the archers, pierced; the music and text couldn't be more passionately erotic. The iconography of St. Sebastien is one of the glories of medieval and Renaissance painting, the nearly-naked Sebastien pierced by arrows.

Perhaps you need a more medieval or more Catholic sensibility for this to make the desired impact. No Catholic I, but I minored in medieval studies and retain a certain fascination for various facets of Catholicism. There's that collection of Annunciation painting postcards I have at work, for example.

So I emerged from the performance in a transcended state, carried away by the music and the excellence of the presentation. I own that a full five-hour performance would have involved quite a bit of suffering, not erotically, over d'Annunzio's text, which I'm sure is unbearable in full. Still, I'd go for it were anyone crazy enough to put it on.

I am a bit surprised that Joshua cites Messiaen while mentioning that martyrdom is a hard sell these days. So what do you think of Dialogs of the Carmelites, Joshua? That would have made an interesting point of reference for discussing Le Martyr.


Michael said...

Well, naturally, it's about all of the above, but you're right about the emphasis.

I think MTT's recording with the London Symphony is very good. I got it used via Amazon; the CD is out of print, but it's available via download at iTunes and elsewhere.

What a great gig for the chorus - gorgeous music, not much heavy lifting, and the soloists right up there in the terrace.

Lisa Hirsch said...

MTT's recording is also available as an ArkivMusic reprint! I need to get it; really adored the music. And yeah, great for the chorus, for sure.