Sunday, April 30, 2006

Renunciation motif?

This Slate article deals with YouTube and lip-syncing. On the one hand, YouTube has made it easy for the Blogosphere des Operafanatiken to share performances once relegated to the backwaters of inscrutably obscure European television and PBS pledge-drives. On the other, some of this stuff doesn't deserve to see the light of day. Seriously.

Lip-syncing. What more does someone serious about music have to say? Not bloody much. Most of my music doesn't lend itself to the lip-sync. No, not at all.

Sean Paul's "Temperature" is strangely addictive. Only a stout draught of Fournier's 6 Suiten für Violincello solo can break the perverse hold of this song. Slate - I think, though I could be wrong - called the Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps" a truly evil song. I agree, but "Temperature" is just as evil because it shuts down my temporal lobe. I am very fond of my temporal lobe when it functions according to specs.

I feel like buying some Lacoste (collar popped, of course), Abercrombie, and Pumas.

Libera me, Domine. Libera me.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Messiah Roundup

I suppose that this work is best saved for Christmas, though it has the Nativity and Passion narratives, but I am bored. My boredom, and desire not to smoke a whole pack of Marlboro Lights Menthol before Mass, is your boon.

Hogwood/AAM/L'Oiseau Lyre
I like this one, perhaps more than the other two. It has a distinctly British feel, but without the thundering choir and soppy orchestration. If memory serves, this was one of the earliest HIP performances of this work, and - with a copyright date of 1980 - it is one of the earlier records in the second wave of HIP. Hogwood keeps things moving, and with a good sense of drama. Since I tend to judge Messiah recordings on the "Hallelujah" (a note on that at the end), a note on that. Hogwood turns in an explosive, jubilant account. That, I suppose, is the best way to define the whole record.

Pace Pinnock, et al., but this is the Pollux of the HIP Messiah recordings. Like all, or most, of Gardiner's recordings, it is a little drier than Hogwood. Gardiner has, probably, the better orchestra, choir, soloists, and recording; however, the excitement remains with Hogwood. Gardiner is a very variable conductor. His Wassermusik was superlative (though I still prefer the Boulez record), but his Bruckner D-minor Mass was a disappointment of the first rank. This is a good effort, and technically great; however, mere perfection will not suffice for a work everyone knows by heart already.

Harnoncourt/CM Wien/DHM
Nikolaus Harnoncourt already did the Messiah some time ago. I assume that SonyBMG wanted to cash in on Christmas and recorded a Musikverein performance. They should have recycled Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing "Little Drummer Boy" with a techno-remix by DJ Tiesto. I digress. This is a weird, weird record. Harnoncourt suggests that he went back with graphologists and musicologists to try to figure out what Handel really wanted. Sometimes he works, and sometimes he doesn't. His "Hallelujah" starts off slow and ends up really flying along at a good clip. It starts off boring and ends up having some teeth. That variability is a good metaphor for the whole shebang. I am not particularly impressed. If you like Harnoncourt, and I do, you'll find something to enjoy. If you like things to make sense all the time, then you'll be miffed.

Everyone needs one Messiah, some people need two, and most people don't need more than three. Buy Hogwood. Once you are bored by that, move on to Pinnock or Gardiner. I think that Pinnock got a little cheaper on a DG Originals disc. Save Harnoncourt for experts. Or the clinically insane.

*Why does the Penitent Wagnerite judge Messiah recordings on the merits of the "Hallelujah"? It is the biggest moment in the whole damn oratorio. If you cannot get the climax right, then you are just beating time. I could do that. So could a middle-of-the-line Dr. Beat electronic metronome. If done correctly, it can sweat blood. If messed-up, then it merely sounds like Easter services at the Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church here in town. So I guess. Being Catholic, I really don't get to sing much Handel at Mass. Plenty of Haugen, though...plenty of Haugen.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nicht gesamt...

A.C. Douglas, cultural reactionary extraordinaire, posts about a new production of Parsifal:

Perhaps this encouraging report is signaling the beginnings of a unique new European trend in opera production: staging an opera not according to the whims of the current director, but as the opera composer wrote it.

I will say only this, and like an artistic Iago, hold my piece: Wagner wrote Gesamtkunstwerk. The "gesamt" requires that the audience connect. It is not 1882, and Romanticism is not part of the larger cultural grammar any more. Seeing a bunch of Ritter mincing about on the stage, dressed like a egocentric 19th century composer would have imagined a magical Medieval past, is not going to do much more than arouse a sense of Camp in the audience.

The totality of total art fails when the auditor cannot make the necessary connection with the piece. Wagner's Bühnenweihfestspiel fails miserably and becomes a mere music-drama when the audience cannot integrate it into their life. Read what Wolfgang Wagner has written about Parsifal, here. Such heady philosophy and extended meditations on sin and redemption, as contained in the work itself, are daunting enough.

The sin of the cultural conservative, is, quoting Wolfgang Wagner (from Monsalvat):

This is Titurel's original sin, his betrayal of the living Grail idea. He misconstrues his function and guards the Grail by hiding it away, walling it in, reserving it for an élitist clique, appropriating it to himself and legitimising his claim to God's grace by using the Grail as an adjunct to magical, mysterious ceremonies. The tormented Amfortas longs to die, but Titurel, as ossified as his own conception of the Grail, wishes to obtain eternal life by means of that symbol of life. He creeps around the temple and withdraws to his government bunker. A cruel, unseen giver of orders, he mercilessly compels Amfortas to fulfil his office because he has no wish to renounce his life-prolonging drug, the Grail's sacred bliss.

Wagner's music certainly is sacred bliss, but to wall it away in a dead idiom is to commit the sin of Titurel over and over. Those who seek to preserve culture as it was at its creation affect Nietzsche's eternal return, however, willing an imperfect past is a noble pathology - but a pathology nonetheless.

Reappreciation?: Bernstein's Mass

I made a poor decision and slept during the early evening, which means that I will be awake for a while. Bored, I pulled my Sony recording of Bernstein's Mass off the shelf. Kent Nagano's recent, Grammy-nominated, recording pulled this odd score off the shelf of good-enough ideas. Perhaps it should have been left there.

I didn't make it past the 3rd track without being slightly annoyed. This work is better discussed as part of the progressive musical milieu of the 1970s than actually heard. One can tell exactly when it was written. Like Boulez' Pli selon pli and most of Philip Glass' stuff, works like these exist only within their context and their age. Bernstein's score, what of it seems to be actually engineered, is like an albatross - cumbersome and burdensome. The best music should explode and expand on its own. Listen to Bruckner's D-minor Mass if you don't believe me. Now, Bernstein probably shouldn't have written a Luftpause into "A simple song," but that doesn't mean that he should have tried as hard as he did.

The Kennedy Center is, to my mind, the centerpiece of the engineering of the human spirit that began with Rousseau and ended with the election of Ronald Reagan. Mass is the sort of piece that would fit nicely with the program of making people better through art. By rolling "deep" themes with "happening" music, one can see Lenny smirking at his desk. The kids are so going to get into Mahler with this stuff. It never happened. If Boulez and Stockhausen have written music that is all but inaccessible at best and unperformable at worst, then Bernstein wrote music that was all but useless. He wrote to amuse the enlightened, chic smart-set. This is avant-garde music for socialites with attention spans inversely proportional to their trust fund balances. This is Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic for musicians. Pope Paul VI would have come out of his depressed funk to swallow his tongue at stuff like this. Jean Cardinal Villot and Archbishop Annibale Bugnini would probably have reacted as poorly, though they were not liturgical conservatives by any stretch.

Is it worth it to listen to Mass? No. If you are religiously inclined, though you don't have to be the Roman Pontiff, you will be disgusted and offended. If you are musically inclined, you will be amused and inclined to dismiss it as the most excessive of 1970s Workers' Art.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The man had a way

In looking for Bernstein's article on Mahler, "His Time Has Come," I found his Young People's Concert talk, "Who is Gustav Mahler?" I liked this selection:

"It is like Mahler's own personal farewell to the old romantic kind of German music, as if he knows it's all over, and now he must begin a new kind of music, which he begins right then and there. And it comes out sounding very original. But at the same time he doesn't want to say goodbye to the old music; he loves all that Wagner and Schubert so much. So he says goodbye sadly, unwillingly, so that at the end of the piece, when the singer says the German word ewig, meaning forever, she sings it again over and over as if not wishing to let go of this beauty."

In an age when MTV profiles million-dollar birthday parties, I am struck with a profound sense of Weltschmerz when I think about a time when a great conductor would explain Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde to kids. Perhaps Pierre Boulez should do a few concerts like this before he goes up to his great nothingness in the nowhere. I can imagine his speech:

"Clearly, Mahler's Das Lied prefigures the decay of tonality begun - in earnest - with Tristan und Isolde. Any youth who has not experienced the absolute necessity for such language, i.e., dodecaphony, is worthless. Mahler straddles the brink between decadent, bourgeois tonality and the logical perfection of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. Listen well, and know that modern music is the only form of music worth the effort. Now, further this program yourselves and destroy the concert hall. Leave no rafter standing and salt the land, that nothing ever grow here again! Schnell! Auf, auf!"

But seriously, forks, Bernstein was a great teacher and - if America hopes to have any culture or Kultur - we need another like him.

De profundis...

Renée Fleming had no business singing the Mahler 4th. I am not as vocal in my distaste for her as I am of other super-sopranos today, but I don't think she comes close to Mahler's idea for this song. I'll quote from Robert Levine at

"The finale, with its beautiful soprano solo, is the worst work I've ever heard from Renée Fleming, who, in an attempt to sound innocent, as the score is marked, actually comes across as a teenaged brat simpering with pursed lips and a big voice she's trying to hide."

However, in Berg's Sieben frühe Lieder, she is more successful. No longer attempting to sound like she's a child seeing Heaven, she sounds more comfortable. Abbado does well with Berg's teetering post-Romantic score. The echoes of dodecaphonal music are everywhere. If Renée Fleming wanted to get some serious cred with the serious opera community (instead of appearing on every Live from Lincoln Center this season, I am exaggerating - not by much, though), she'd pull her weight with the Deutsche Grammophon executives and record Berg's Lulu. The Pierre Boulez/Orchestre d'Opera le Paris recording with Stratas has been top-dog for a while now. I am sure that Pierre or Abbado would love to put this ever-popular score back on disc. Oh, yeah.

As long as Renée leaves my Vier letzte Lieder alone, she'll be fine in my book. She also might want to avoid cutting too much Wagner. I can tell her that there is nothing quite as awful as a cadre of angry Wagnerites, copies of I Saw the World End in hand.

More on Abbado

I listened to the Abbado Mahler 4th on my Grado SR-225s in a quiet room and I was even more impressed with Abbado's concept of the score. Perhaps a good speaker setup or Sennheiser's top-line headphones would further impress me; however, I refuse to get into a debate over the relative merits of the Grado and Sennheiser sounds.

His new Mahler cycle has been called "Mahler-lite" in several places, generally following Hurwitz, and I understand that. However, the clearer and somewhat less emotional sound really allows Mahler's score to shine. Pierre Boulez, whose Mahler I still adore, is the master of total realization of the score, but I am not entirely sure that Abbado isn't far behind.

At the great climax toward the end of the 3rd movement (Ruhevoll), some recordings tend to get a little crowded. That's OK, but Abbado (and Boulez) keep things clear. The jarring wall of sound is cleanly composed of bricks.

I have not been entirely happy with the new Abbado series. His Lucerne Festival 2nd was disappointing to me. It seemed to be merely, as others have noted, a one-off record for Festival-goers. However, compared to his earlier Deutsche Grammophon cycle, this is successful.

Monday, April 24, 2006

More Vier letzte Lieder

I am rather in love with Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder. I thought that I would do a brief roundup of the four recordings I return to the most.

1. Jessye Norman/Masur/Gewandhaus
Probably the overall winner for so-rich-that-it's-fattening category. Norman's voice is so expansive and powerful that it overwhelms the sonic landscape. Masur's tempi are slow, but they work with Norman's voice. Is this what Strauss intended? Probably not, but it is the most beautiful realization of the score - right or wrong.

2. Gundula Janowitz/Von Karajan/Berliner Phil.
I agree with the Amazon reviewer who called this the most haunting recording of the Lieder. Janowitz' silvery soprano is almost otherworldly, and it fits in well with Von Karajan's similarly shiny sound. I don't generally care for Von Karajan, but his Strauss is perfectly and opulently conceived. There is a sort of alien perfection to this record, and it is probably the perfect performance of Strauss' intentions. For a long time, this was my favorite - and I still am very fond of it; however, there is only so much of this sort of crystalline perfection that one can reasonably handle.

3. Lisa della Casa/Böhm/Wiener Phil.
This is a weird performance, because Böhm (or the engineers) decided to perform the Lieder in Strauss' compositional order. That makes it a little jarring for me, especially with the entrance to "Frühling" serving as an introduction to Strauss' soundscape. Böhm also runs a bit quicker in the score than most, and the liner notes attempt to breathlessly explain that the slow tempi are a result of conductors' desire to artificially impose majesty and power on a score that has clear tempi marked. Böhm's tempi work, I suppose, and Della Casa carries it. Her voice is as beautiful as any I would ever want to hear. There is a restrained elegance to it that implies so much more than it reveals. This is, now - pace Von Karajan et al. - my favorite.

4. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/Szell/RSO Berlin
I don't care for Schwarzkopf. Her tinny, overly shiny tone doesn't do it for me. Her marriage to Legge guaranteed that she would be the EMI soprano-of-choice, explaining her otherwise incongruous appearance on the 1951 Bayreuth 9th with Furtwängler. There were better sopranos around, as referenced by the hard-to-find 1954 recording at Bayreuth. Szell is Szell, and if you don't like his steely, Germanic attitude, then you're S.O.L. - as they say here. He does well here, and the RSO Berlin band plays their hearts out for him, but that's like asking Fritz Reiner to make the Immolation Scene sweat blood. It just ain't gonna happen. This is a popular recording, but it is not my favorite - by a long shot.

Renee's Mahler

I bought Abbado's new Mahler 4, as it was only 14.99$ at the Barnes and Noble in Lafayette. David Hurwitz panned it, as he is wont to do.

Abbado does a good job. His quiet, somewhat reserved (and, in some cases, resigned) Mahler isn't for everyone. I like it because he strikes the balance between Boulez and Bernstein. His chamber textures do for Mahler what Herbert von Karajan's approach (similar, but not quite identical) in Der Ring des Nibelungen did for Wagner. Abbado opens up the music, and he lets it breathe on its own terms. You love it or you don't.

Renee Fleming, though, is the selling point for this disc. Why else include Alban Berg's lieder? The fourth movement of the 4th is supposed to be a child's view of Heaven. Lisa della Casa affected this nicely for Fritz Reiner on RCA. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf did too, but her tinny, shallow tone doesn't do it for me. Renee sounds like a forty-year-old dramatic soprano. Mahler would be furious. Renee needs to stay away from Mahler, and that's about all there is to it. She seems to shine in the stuff like the mainline operatic repertoire. She is not a lyric soprano, and that's what this score requires.

Buy it for Abbado, but remember that Fritz Reiner will be waiting for you, with an annoyed Teutonic scowl, when you want a superlative 4th movement.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sunday playlist

Since, as my real life is becoming busy, I find it hard to post as much as I would ordinarily like, I think that I am going to post a playlist or record and a few comments.

Today, I have been listening to Bruckner's D-minor Mass (no. 1) with Eugen Jochum on DGG. For some time, I was really into the F-minor Mass (no. 3), but as I listen to the D-minor more, I think that it is more in keeping with the overall Brucknerian program. There are quiet, reflective, and introspective moments and the soaring climaxes for which Bruckner is known. The F-minor is very good, as well, especially in Daniel Barenboim's EMI set. However, the D-minor is somewhat more grand and sweeping. If one sees the Catholic liturgy as the representation of Christ's sacrifice on Golgotha, and - thus - new Creation, then I think that the D-minor comes closer to that ideal.

Eugen Jochum was quite an excellent Brucknerian. At a time when Bruckner was not exactly in the repertoire, I think that Wilhelm Furtwängler and he did rather a lot to integrate him into the German symphonic repertoire. However, Jochum never seemed to have the metaphysical aspect to his Bruckner that Furtwängler did. There is a very workmanlike and serious aspect to Jochum and that allows his Bruckner to sing on its own terms.

In other words, listen to his D-minor Mass. It's good Sunday music.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Just a thought...

Since EMI's all-star, all-studio Tristan und Isolde was suitably well-received, perhaps they can go out with Götterdämmerung instead.

I am listening to Domingo's Scenes from the Ring disc, and "Brünnhilde, heilige Braut!" His voice, given enough time to get the best take and with enough studio trickery, could definitely handle the older Siegfried. He'll never tackle the role on stage at this point, but I think that a studio Götterdämmerung would be dandy.

I mention this to highlight the fact that there isn't really one on disc with a modern (-ish) super tenor. Levine had Reiner Goldberg. Need I say more?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Happy Easter

"The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood -
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good."

T.S. Eliot
"East Coker"
Four Quartets

Monday, April 10, 2006

Entartete Musik?

This article, reprinted by Alex Ross, is one of the most hauntingly beautiful things I have read in a long time. Hans Fantel, the author, was there in the Vereinsaal when Bruno Walter conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker in Mahler's 9th in 1938. With Hitler and the Anschluss roaring over the Tyrol and Oberösterreich, this performance takes on a grim - but poignant still - overtone.

This passage, in particular, resonates with me,

"I now had some musical understanding of what I had then heard uncomprehendingly. I could now recognize and appreciate the singular aura of that performance; I could sense its uncanny intensity — a strange inner turmoil quite different from the many other recordings of Mahler's Ninth I had heard since. Knowing now what nobody could have known at the time of the concert, it seemed that perhaps the playing of the music carried within it a foreboding of what was to come. Terror and anguish, not yet experienced but divined, were transformed into song. Was it by chance that Mahler's Ninth — that supreme expression of farewell — was on the program that day?

But it wasn't the music alone that cast a spell over me as I listened to the new CD. Nor was it the memory of the time when the recording was made. It took me a while to discover what so moved me. Finally, I knew what it was: This disk held fast an event I had shared with my father: 71 minutes out of the 16 years we had together. Soon after, as an "enemy of Reich and Führer," my father also disappeared into Hitler's abyss."

Mahler's 9th is a singularly tragic work, not only because it heralds a composer cut down in his prime, but because of all the tragedy and horror that it encompasses. If Beethoven's 9th is the music of exultation, then this is the music of deepest despair. Read the entirety of this article. It is rare that music criticism is this profound.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Pure Gould!

This post from A.C. Douglas explores, briefly, some aspect of Glenn Gould's style. I spent much of last night listening to Gould's Goldberg Variations, both the remastered 1981 and 1959 Salzburg recordings. I agree with Douglas, in that, when one listens to Gould, there is no doubt that the score should sound exactly like he plays it. It seems as though he is recomposing the piece as he goes along, so clear is his approach and rendition. The structures are clear and obvious when he performed. The same cannot be said for others.

Pardon the pun on the vile surtitles for The Great Wotan-sby, er, Rheingold.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

St. Louis-on-the-Rhine

For the record, I thought that the American Rheingold at the National Opera was a bad idea long before I heard anything about it. There is nothing in the concept, such as I understand it, that wasn't done by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer. Wotan and his divine social club were presented as nouveau riche, power hungry socialites in both the Chéreau and Kupfer cycles. Alberich is always sort of a lower-class industrialist, rising above the station the gods want for him. The milieu is different, though not really all that different, but the concept is the same. I heard an interview on NPR with Francesca Zambello, and I was somewhat bothered by her ideas. Opera should be made accessible for the kiddies? Trust me, a 17-year-old who wants to see Das Rheingold is going to go whether or not the production appeals to him. The rest of the class is too busy watching The O.C. or TRL or, I don't know, Anderson Cooper 360.

The production is being trashed on the blogosphere. Rightfully so.

Revise and extend

So, in an earlier, i.e., immediately preceding, post, I suggested that this Daniel Powter chap was OK. In sort of an inoffensive, sappy, soppy way, he is. If you want real music, you'd be better advised listening to Pli selon pli.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Random things

I'm back, not that I ever left, but I have been busy. My NCAA bracket got smeared, but I finished higher than a lot of guys. I picked UConn, like I do every year, but that didn't work out so well. I was in Indianapolis yesterday (i.e., Thursday, but it's very early Saturday morning, so it doesn't count), downtown is nuts. I suppose the Final Four will do that. For various reasons, I had to go to Monument Circle. The concerts that they're planning there closed off the place and made an enormous mess. I digress.

1. OOP recordings of important performances annoy me to no end. I understand the "business" part of "classical music business," but some of these things are far too important to keep locked away in a vault somewhere. The classics series of the various labels are nice, but there should be a more programmatic release system in place. In other words, DGG needs to rerelease the audio recordings of Boulez' Bayreuth Ring. At the risk of being macabre, I get the impression that a Boulez retrospective is a-coming with some speed.

2. When my Celibidache Bruckner 4 came, a neighbor of mine had to sign for it. I cannot imagine how grossly disappointed he would have been had he tried to abscond with it. That having been said, I don't mind this Daniel Powter fellow. Inoffensive pop music, a little pretentious to be sure, but sitting around mooning over Mahler isn't exactly populism at its finest.

3. Only a month until the Boulez M2.