Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Whatever happened to Reggie?

‘Even if you lived to be 150 years old you would still not discover all the secrets of the Ring,’ said Reginald Goodall, and indeed he continued to study the scores of this and other Wagner operas until the end of his life. And what a colourful life it was, as anyone who knows John Lucas’s biography of the conductor, Reggie, will confirm. Next month we will be reissuing the book for the first time in paperback, updated with a new Foreword by Sir Peter Moores, under the new title The Genius of Valhalla. Here is a short extract from the Introduction:

I first heard Goodall conduct in the 1950s. He was on the staff of Covent Garden, though his appearances in the pit there were sporadic. He gave performances of Manon, Turandot and Bohème that were cogent and illuminating, and he breathed life into Britten’s Gloriana after its unfortunate premiere under John Pritchard. His Meistersinger – “Not my Meistersinger,” I can hear him saying crossly, “Wagner’s” – won him glowing notices in the press, as did the performances of Die Walküre he conducted on tour. Yet by the end of the decade he had all but disappeared from view. It was puzzling, but I knew nothing then of operatic politics.

At a party at the 1961 Edinburgh Festival I was introduced to a Covent Garden stalwart, the baritone Geraint Evans, who regaled his fellow guests with tales of the Opera House. What, I asked him, had happened to Goodall? He adopted a solemn expression. “Ah, Reginald,” he said, rolling the initial R theatrically. “Poor Reginald.” He then changed the subject. Clearly, as far as Covent Garden was concerned, Goodall was a spent force. Yet seven years later, at the age of sixty-six, he made an extraordinary comeback, with a production of The Mastersingers for Sadler’s Wells Opera that demonstrated beyond dispute that here was a great Wagner conductor in a tradition stretching back through Hans Knappertsbusch and Karl Muck to Hans Richter, conductor of the first Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876.

Goodall had watched Knappertsbusch at work during his visits to Bayreuth throughout the 1950s, and from him had learned how to build the acts in great, seamless arches, how to relate one tempo to another, how to balance the sound so that each individual strand in the orchestral fabric could be heard, how to ensure, through close attention to the dynamic markings in the orchestral parts, that singers were never drowned. Goodall complained that most conductors failed to observe Wagner’s dynamics; as a result, he said, singers were encouraged to sing stridently in order to compete with the orchestral flood. Big steely voices were not for him – he liked voices that were even in quality and sonority from top to bottom of their range. “Too much metal, dear,” he grumbled at even his favourite sopranos when they sang high notes – and he would stick his fingers in his ears to underline the point. In low-lying passages he demanded the rich characteristic of the violin’s bottom string – “More G string, dear” was a constant plea.

Not all singers could cope with Goodall and the demands he made of them. But those who could revered him. A Goodall regular, the bass Gwynne Howell, has written, “He could be infuriating and cuttingly critical with, at peak moments, a quick stamping of the feet. With luck the next singer would arrive – preferably female, he liked female company – and calm would be restored. I would return home on some exhausted high, but just as I felt I wanted to give up it would all fall into place. All those shaky gestures of his conducting style would become clear and meaningful.”

Goodall attached the greatest importance to Wagner’s final injunction to his singers before the 1876 Ring at Bayreuth: “Die grossen Noten kommen von selbst; die kleinen Noten and ihr Text sind die Hauptsache” – “The big notes look after themselves; the little notes and their text are the main thing.” All the semi-quavers, said Goodall, were to be given their proper sonority; they were not to be “snatched at”. Words had to be sung with the utmost clarity and attention to meaning. Notes had to be “coloured”, either to mirror the harmonies in the orchestra or to reflect the emotional mood of the scene or phrase. “Angel of death,” he would say to his Brünnhildes in the Todesverkündigung in Act 2 of Die Walküre, urging them to adopt a dark, grave sound; during King Marke’s long solo in Act 2 of Tristan, he would ask the singer to match the timbre of the accompanying bass clarinet. Goodall was responsible for a remarkable flowering of Wagner singing that led to a generation of British and Commonwealth Wagner singers he had coached taking leading roles at Bayreuth, stretching from Jon Vickers in the late 1950s to John Tomlinson and Anne Evans thirty years later.

Goodall was sometimes mocked for his painstaking rehearsal methods, yet he worked in a way that would have been considered natural by Wagner’s earliest interpreters. He was shocked by the fact that international conductors in the latter part of the twentieth century rarely took the trouble to coach the singers for their own productions: “Imagine Klemperer behaving like that! That’s one of the things I like about Barenboim – he works with his singers. He’s one of the few who does, and it shows. Most of the others are flitting here and there, conducting this and that. It makes me tired.”

The Chandos recording of Goodall’s Mastersingers has been nominated for a Gramophone Award. The Genius of Valhalla: The Life of Reginald Goodall by John Lucas, author of the acclaimed Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music, will be available from all good booksellers from October.

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