February 19, 2009


Wagner’s Mastersinger, Hitler’s Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz. A film by Eric Schulz and Claus Wischmann. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2. Mikhail Simonyan, violin; Alexei Podkorytov, piano. Delos. $16.99.

     The ability of art and artists to survive and even thrive in the worst conditions is a source of ongoing amazement and, perhaps, an indication that there is hope for humanity even in the depths of despair. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp for the instruments available there (clarinet, violin, cello and piano), is often cited as a flicker of artistic light in the midst of widespread atrocities. But the story of Hitler’s favorite tenor, Max Lorenz, is more remarkable still – and is beautifully told in the 54-minute documentary by Eric Schulz and Claus Wischmann. Lorenz’s survival in Hitler’s Reich was extraordinary on many levels: the singer was a homosexual with a Jewish wife and mother-in-law, and he chose to stay in Nazi Germany and use his favored status not only to protect his own family but also to save others from death. And he was a wonderful singer, with the sort of imposing stage presence that the Nazis cultivated as a way to showcase their own self-image. Wagner’s Mastersinger delves intelligently but non-academically into the various elements and contradictions of Lorenz’s life, including interviews with the singer himself; plenty of archival footage, including some showing Lorenz working with Bayreuth Artistic Director Heinz Tietjen; and commentary by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, tenors Waldemar Kmentt and René Kollo, soprano Hilde Zadek, and other artists and critics. The astonishing survival of Lorenz and those around him – which became increasingly difficult as the Nazi era progressed – becomes part and parcel of this story of music, which is particularly about Wagner as presented in Bayreuth. Lorenz (1901-1975) not only survived the war but continued to perform on stage until 1962. Yet his glory days clearly coincided with those of the Third Reich, as the music within this film abundantly shows – especially the excerpts from Götterdämmerung (1934), Siegfried (1937) and Rienzi (1942). There is also the evidence of a wonderful, 74-minute bonus CD included with the DVD. It contains a 1938 performance (not from Bayreuth but from Buenos Aires) of the entire first act of Siegfried and part of the second act. Sound quality becomes almost immaterial here: this is a masterful characterization by a Heldentenor who, in real life, did not at all fit the mold into which Wagner’s music and Hitler’s support poured him.

     Yet Hitler was not the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century – that dubious distinction belongs to Joseph Stalin, and it was in Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that Sergei Prokofiev chose to live and produce much of his greatest music. In a new Delos recording, Prokofiev’s two Violin Sonatas get splendid performances by two artists from modern-day Russia: Mikhail Simonyan and Alexei Podkorytov. Both these sonatas were written for David Oistrakh during or close to World War II: No. 1, begun in 1938, was completed in 1946; No. 2 originated as a flute sonata in 1942 and was arranged by the composer for violin a year later. One of Oistrakh’s students, Victor Danchenko, is Simonyan’s mentor, giving these performances a direct line back to the sonatas’ origins. Equally important is the quality of Simonyan’s playing: the 22-year-old violinist has impeccable technique and considerable emotional fire, and pianist Podkorytov partners with him very effectively. The very dark Sonata No. 1 comes off particularly well here, with Podkorytov not afraid to ratchet up the intensity even at the risk of overwhelming Simonyan (although that never quite happens). Sonata No. 2, a more lyrical work with more strongly classical form and balance, is less well suited to the intensity and emotionalism of these performers, but they play it with strength and elegance in a performance that is highly convincing even if parts are not quite as relaxed as they could be. This meeting of modern Russia, which has its own authoritarian issues, with Stalin’s far more brutal USSR, is a testament to the ability of composers and performers alike to transcend geopolitics and present something of greater, more lasting value than the latest argumentative rhetoric.

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