Being John Malkovich

Malkovich recited Goethe in English (translation by Christopher Hampton), without emphasis, which might be provoked by the poet’s sublime verses.

On Wednesday, the Easter Festival all focused on one event, that being John Malkovich reciting Goethe in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Egmont, Op. 84, on the stage of the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall. Journalists had to be patient and determined because the star refused to be interviewed, but everyone hoped for a bit of luck. Malkovich, the memorable Viscount Valmont from an adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, came to Warsaw in the morning, almost immediately went to the rehearsal, and in the evening appeared in the second half of the concert, which was honoured with the presence of the President of the Republic of Poland, Andrzej Duda and First Lady Agata Duda. Following the concert, which thanks to a live broadcast on Polish Radio 2 could be heard all over Poland, the presidential pair went backstage. There, in the presence of Elżbieta Penderecka, they thanked the performers: the famous actor, the musicians of the Wiener Akademie and its director, conductor Martin Haselböck, and the soloist Marie Arnet (soprano). On Thursday, Malkovich and the Wiener Akademie went to Katowice to give an evening performance at the seat of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, as part of the Easter Festival events in Katowice.

How did it happen that John Malkovich performed at the Easter Festival? For some time now, the actor has worked with the Wiener Akademie orchestra, which is already familiar to the festival audience, on several monodrama projects: The Infernal Comedy, the chamber-opera play The Giacomo Variations, where Malkovich portrays an old Casanova and sings Mozart, and since this year also Just Call Me God, where he delivers lines from speeches by famous dictators, to the accompaniment of music by Bach, Franck, Messiaen and Ligeti. In turn, Egmont with Beethoven’s music was released last year on the album performed by the artists mentioned above. It was delightful, then, that this project was brought to Warsaw by Elżbieta Penderecka – for the Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival a project like this is in many respects attractive, because it presents the festival patron’s lesser known opus: Incidental Music to Goethe’s tragedy “Egmont”, of which only the concert overture in F minor is known to general audiences. As regards the genesis of the music, this was through the initiative of Goethe, intrigued by the uncontrollable talent of Beethoven, who, for the great poet, was an artist of the younger generation (an age difference of more than 20 years). For the composer, the tragedy of heroic Egmont, a nobleman fighting for the independence of the Netherlands against the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs, could be a godsend not only due to a collaboration with the great poet of the German language, but also because of the work’s liberation and rebellious ideals (as we know, Beethoven rebelled against monarchs and tyrants, admired heroes, including, up to a certain point, Napoleon, but got on well with aristocrats, because he needed wealthy patrons). Opus 84, which we heard on Wednesday at the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, is a set of pieces that includes only excerpts of Goethe’s text, and there is only an outline of the plot for the audience to know the context in which music appears. This is the way op. 84 had been performed during Beethoven’s lifetime, following an idea of Friedrich Mosengeil, Counsellor at the Meiningen court, who himself performed as a narrator.

We heard nine monologues, which Malkovich recited in English (translation by Christopher Hampton), without emphasis, which might be provoked by Goethe’s sublime verses. But with characteristically pronounced sounds and soft emission, as well as a heavy American accent, which together with English language softened the work’s harsh message. Indeed, this was John Malkovich’s voice live! And Malkovich was Malkovich. Thanks to his talent, we found ourselves in the centre of the drama, which ends with Egmont’s execution preceded by the death of Clara (“the girl Egmont loves”), the soprano part of which was sung by Swedish Marie Arnet. The actor has an ear sensitive to music – when he read the monologue about Clara’s death (“Sweet flower!”), to the orchestra’s accompaniment, his voice in the text cadences adapted to the tenor of the music.

The overture, which is usually performed separately as a prelude to concert programmes, sounded fantastic. Yet yesterday, in the context of Goethe’s tragedy as a whole, it acquired new meanings, a more lofty and revolutionary substance, which was emphasized so well by Martin Haselböck and passionate playing from the Wiener Akademie. The excellent string quintet is a great asset to this orchestra.

In the first half of the concert, which consisted entirely of Beethoven’s works, the musicians, as the starting point, gave an exhilarating performance of Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812), followed by juvenile Ah! Perfido Scene and Aria from 1796 with text by Metastasio, which has more in common with Haydn and Mozart than with Beethoven (soloist Marie Arnet).

Anna S. Dębowska

Wednesday, 5 April, 7:30 pm, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall