Welcome to The Magic Mountain!

If you hope to hold a listener's attention for 37 hours, you'd better capture it at once, and David Rintoul does that. His reading of Thomas Mann's classic novel, in John E. Wood's marvelously fluent translation, is alluring right from the start, but in such a matter-of-fact way that listeners may be enchanted before they know what's happening (click here to listen):

An ordinary young man was on his way
from his hometown of Hamburg
to Davos-Platz in the canton of Graübunden.
It was the height of summer,
and he planned to stay for three weeks.

Hans Castorp's journey to visit his cousin Joachim at the Berghof Sanatorium, high in the Swiss Alps, will turn into a stay that is measured in years, not weeks. Before he's through, every idea in his head that summer afternoon will be challenged -- and most of them found wanting. This is a classic German Bildungsroman: the story of a character's moral growth. Yet at times it seems a parody, ironically questioning whether such growth is even possible. Rintoul keeps both sides of that ambiguity alive.

But what makes this audiobook so extraordinary is Rintoul's richly imaginative portrayal of Mann's characters: not just Hans, an engineer-in-training with a curious mind, but the entire international company of patients who come and go at the sanatorium, culminating in Mynheer Peeperkorn, the large-than-life Dutchman whose charisma overwhelms everyone, although he often fails to complete a sentence. The fellow would not be out of place in Dickens. 

David Rintoul and Greg Haiste, preparing for Jessica Swales' 
Nell Gwynn at the Globe Theatre (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Rintoul is just as successful with the narrator, whose cheerfully modest demeanor acts as a foil for Hans' strivings -- both to get well and to make sense of his life and the world around him. Rintoul's delivery is pitch-perfect, as when he addresses the gulf between the pre-war years at the Berghof and the readers of 1924. The narrator informs us that Hans' story "took place back then, long ago, in the old days of the world before the Great War, with whose beginnings so many things began; whose beginnings, it seems, have not yet ceased. But is not the pastness of a story that much more profound, more complete, more like a fairy tale, the tighter it fits up against the 'before'?"

The novel is certainly an enormous canvas, with room for evocative depictions of Alpine scenery alongside Mann's spirited dialogues and the expositions about physiology, which are as expansive as those about whales in Moby Dick. Rinoul has a prodigious ability to adjust his tone, tempo and dynamics for each of these, always keeping Mann's broader concept in view, just as a conductor must do with a Mahler symphony. Every variation is wisely judged.

The first German edition of Der Zauberberg in 1924
(Photo: H.-P. Haack, Leipzig)

Those who know the book will relish Rintoul's incarnations of Joachim Ziemßen, Hans' dutiful, soldier cousin; Clawdia Chauchat, the young woman Hans loves; Lodovico Settembrini, who guides his adventures in philosophy; Leo Naptha, who tries to make a Jesuit of him; and Director Behrens, the melancholy surgeon presiding over the Berghof's guests. Newcomers will find that the novel has lost none of its lustre, although readers have been enjoying and pondering Mann's story for nearly a century.

As for me, I'm already halfway through my second listen.

Christoph Eichhorn in the 1982 film adaptation by Hans W. Geißendörfer

My Hans is really a simple-minded hero, the young scion of good Hamburg society, and an indifferent engineer. But in the hermetic, feverish atmosphere of the enchanted mountain, the ordinary stuff of which he is made undergoes a heightening process that makes him capable of adventures in sensual, moral, intellectual spheres, he would never have dreamed of in the “flatland.”

(From Thomas Mann's "The Making of The Magic Mountain", which appeared in The Atlantic in 1953: see the first link above.)

Photo: the author in New York in 1943 by Fred Stein.

October 4, 2022

New songs from Anna Depenbusch

Anna Depenbusch (Bayerischen Rundfunks)

Anna Depenbusch, one of Germany's leading singer/songwriters, has released "Kingfisher Frau"-- the first song from her new album ---- in an intimate performance from Berlin's Meisterhall, an historic concert venue built in 1910.

"Kingfisher Frau" is dedicated to pioneering German mathematician Emmy Noether, but it speaks eloquently about anyone who, to use Depenbusch's metaphor, breaks from the ranks of the chorus and sings a song of her own.

Under the video, I've posted my translation of the lyrics, taking care to match the cadences of the German. I hope you'll like it.

Come on, let her dream what she wants to--
she will do that anyway.
A director is handing out roles:
Don Juan and Romeo.

Amidst the choir, half shadow, half light,
right past the tenor a new face steps out,
glittering feathers and heart deep-sea blue,
and she’s singing her song--
Kingfisher Frau.

Come on, let her think what she wants to--
she will do that anyway;
they sing the song they’re supposed to
in an opera called Figaro.

But for you the stage here is just too small.
I think these supporting roles no longer fit.
You shine so much brighter than spotlights can shine,
and we hear your voice all the way up in the very back row.

Amidst the choir, half shadow, half light,
right past the tenor a new face steps out,
glittering feathers and heart deep-sea blue,
and she’s singing her song--

Now for you the stage here is just too small.
It’s been so long now since supporting roles fit.
You shine so much brighter than spotlights can shine,
and we hear your voice all the way up in the very back row.

Glittering feathers and heart deep-sea blue,
as you’re singing your song--
Kingfisher Frau.

Come on, let her say what she wants to--
She will shine anyway.

Depenbusch will record her new album in a studio, but in a single take and with a small audience. Hence the title, Echtzeit (Real Time).

Elgar's song of anguish and survival

Brinkwells: the cottage the Elgars rented in West Sussex 

Thoughts on the centenary of Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor, first performed at Queen's Hall in London on October 27, 1919.

Imagine if Hamlet began with the Prince alone on stage, delivering the words, "To be or not to be . . . " -- no setting of the scene, just one character thinking out loud, leaving us to make what we can of what he says. Edward Elgar does the musical equivalent of that in his Cello Concerto, placing the listener in the middle of things from its first moments, with four insistent chords and then a quick fade into a diminuendo.

That's not the way most concertos begin. There's usually an extended orchestral introduction, after which the solo instrument makes a carefully stage-managed first appearance. In Dvorak's earlier Cello Concerto, for example, that opening music lasts a full three-and-a-half minutes.

Elgar in London in 1919, the year in which he composed the concerto

Elgar's abrupt beginning suits this highly concentrated work--about half as long as his Violin Concerto. What follows is a rising arpeggio on the cello that seems to promise some other, emphatic statement. Instead, we hear a subdued lament in 9/8 time, first in the violas, then by the cello and the full orchestra.

Elgar wrote the concerto during the first spring and summer after the First World War, often staying with his wife at a cottage in the south of England. This gently swaying melody is his elegy for all that had been lost--millions of lives, and, with them, faith in a social order that had sent foot soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets to face machine guns and  poison gas. The music seems to express both the numbed serenity of grief and the ache within it.

But the second movement brings a darting fantasy for the cello, with all the freedom of a bird in flight. What does this exuberance, which few cellists play without a smile, have to do with the solemn movement we've just heard? It reminds us, perhaps, that any elegy is both a celebration of what has been lost and an affirmation of a survivor's resilience. In the quiet andante of the third movement, the music breathes a middle-of-the-night atmosphere. The numbness of the first movement's main theme is long gone, and the simple but lovingly shaped melody unfolds with great tenderness.

Elgar marked the main theme of the finale risoluto (resolutely); if he had captioned the movement itself, as Beethoven used to do, he might have said: "Grief goes out into the world." There's a lively dialogue between cellist and orchestra, often in a swaggering mood that evokes the composer's Falstaff.

Eventually the cello retreats into an extended soliloquy, drawing together themes from throughout the work, now imbued with an even greater depth of feeling. Then, suddenly--as sudden as the four chords that began the work--cello and orchestra play eight bars in unison, and the concerto ends. We're left to wonder: does that brusque conclusion express resignation, or defiance?
The concerto had its first performance in Queen's Hall, London, with cellist Felix Salmond and the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer. Critic Ernest Newman described it as "the realisation in tone of a fine spirit's lifelong wistful brooding upon the loveliness of the earth." Elgar's own summary was more blunt: "A man's attitude to life."

Generations of cellists have been attracted to the concerto, by the beauty of its themes, by the close kinship among them and by the dramatic way in which they are presented and developed. Pablo Casals, Jacqueline du Pré, Steven Isserlis, Alisa Weilerstein and many others have recorded the work. Here is a gripping recent performance by Johannes Moser and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk. (Moser has recorded the work for Pentatone.)

                                  (Photo of Brinkwells by Peter Whitcomb)