Thursday, November 30, 2006

D. 929: Allegro moderato

I am currently listening to the later of the two Beaux Arts Trio recording of Schubert's E flat piano trio, D. 929. This one is from 1985 and on Philips. As part of the UMG rerelease and repackaging initiative, the one which brought you the Knappertsbusch Parsifal in snazzy new clothes, but the same as the Philips 50 set, this recording came out and it grabbed my attention.

I am a big fan of this one, in general, but especially the Andante con moto - thanks Stanley. However, I listened to the Allegro and the Allegro alone to see Schubert at the height of his genius as a chamber composer. The return of the Andante theme in the midst of the complexity of the Allegro provides a breakneck and ironic twist to an otherwise brilliant moment. Schubert shows how the severe, even Spartan, theme and orchestration of the Andante can be expanded into the lush environment of the Allegro. To a certain extent, and A.C. Douglas has done a better job of explaining this relationship, it recalls the Aria da capo of Bach's Goldberg Variations. A simple theme explodes into variations that are, to be sure, not simple. However, that theme was the progenitor of them. If that relationship doesn't accomplish that, though, the reappearance of the "march" theme - albeit with affronting boldness - certainly does.

However, the simplicity of the major theme of the Allegro deserves some small note. It, at first blush, reminds me of Schumann's "Mit Myrthen und Rosen," from the op. 24 Liederkreis, or the piano introduction. It is sort of wistful, simple - almost Kitschy - but, ultimately, effective.

Just some thoughts on a dreary afternoon.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Boulez/Chicago: ewige Macht

This past Friday, I made my annual pilgrimage to Orchestra Hall to see Pierre Boulez conduct Mahler's 7th with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As I learned with the live bootleg of Mahler's 2nd from Vienna and the DGG recording with the same forces, he is a different animal in the concert hall. That is not to say that he was anyone except Pierre Boulez. Spry would understate his condition. For an 81-year-old man, he acted like someone in middle age. It was clear, unlike the advanced Von Karajan, that there would be no nodding-off or phoning-in. Boulez was in control, and there are few "instruments" that would benefit from his absolute command like the CSO.

Boulez cut the 7th for his ongoing Mahler cycle with Cleveland, another virtuoso band. To a certain extent, I would say that the two readings are the same. In Chicago, like Cleveland, he decided not to get caught up in Mahler's orchestration; rather, he exposed all the various strands of the symphony and revealed how this elusive monster works. To my mind, the 7th is Mahler's most difficult (a judgment which I am sure that I will change at some point) work. Unlike some of his more overtly programmatic symphonies, or the easier ones - like the 1st and 4th - the 7th is Mahler at his most abstract and theoretical. Boulez is nothing if not a theoretician - in his rhetoric, composing, and conducting style.

Clearly, Boulez has a distinct view of the 7th, and that view fits the work. The final movement, the Rondo: Finale was as bright and powerful as the Sonnenaufgang from Zarathustra, something that Mahler would have no doubt had in mind. I think (or, I suppose, I hope). Boulez, despite his reputation for icy style, can really let loose and show any critic that it is possible to be both thrilling and correct. This was indeed an interesting performance. His style, simple - using only his hands - and commanding, really makes it clear that he has digested the score. Like him, love him, or hate him - he makes his views known and he backs his interpretation up with solid musicianship.

Hats off, once again, to the CSO brass. They, neither this year nor last for Barenboim's 5th, are not as aggressive as they were under Solti; however, they make it clear that they can match anyone beat-for-beat. I suppose that I have cemented my reputation as the leading fanboy for Pierre Boulez in the blogosphere, such as I have any reputation in the blogosphere, but this performance was really splendid. His four or five curtain calls, to a standing ovation, seem to indicate that my colleagues agreed.

Here is the Chicago Tribune's review, glowing - as expected for the hometown band and a local favorite - but still useful.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Alex Ross, last year, commented on Koyaanisqatsi in the New Yorker. I am a very big fan of Reggio's direction, Ron Fricke's cinematography, and Philip Glass' score. Here is a passage that I rather like:

When I saw “Koyaanisqatsi” in college, I dismissed it as a trippy, slick, MTV-ish thing, to which some well-meaning soul had attached hippie messages about the mechanization of existence and the spoliation of the planet. At Lincoln Center, I understood it as something else altogether—an awesomely dispassionate vision of the human world, beautiful and awful in equal measure. What made the difference, apart from the fact that I was no longer a facile collegiate ironist, was the experience of hearing the music live, with Kurt Munkacsi’s sound design adding heft and definition to every gesture. For all the deliberate coldness of some of Glass’s writing, “Koyaanisqatsi” is deeply expressive; its blistering virtuosity is often the only sign of emotional life on display, excepting a few wan smiles on the faces of pedestrians who hurry through Times Square.

One rarely sees that sort of critical introspection in critics. Of course, that might be why Alex Ross works for the New Yorker, and I write for - oh - about 12 people a day (assuming three constant readers and nine "wrong number" Google hits).

I watched the interview with Reggio before I watched the DVD, yes, I bought it unseen, a major fault of mine. He mentioned that the movie has been viewed as a hymn to technology (perhaps even in those words) or as an environmentalist manifesto. I think he asserted that it was neither. I would agree. It is the apotheosis of documentary filmmaking. It merely (irony heavy here) documents the world and man's place within that wider world. He does ask the fundamental question: has man thrown everything out of balance. It was a dramatic mistake on Reggio's part to include that bit from the "Hopi prophecies":

If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.

Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.

A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.

He had made his case otherwise, and there was no need to say, in essence, "You can't hug a child with nuclear arms." Everything before that moment had left the viewer to decide if technology was becoming too powerful, if man had thrown everything - including his own existence - out of order and balance. The evidence pointed both ways; then that ham-fisted give-peace-a-chance snippet.

In this article about Naqoyqatsi, which I haven't seen, Reggio notes, "The purpose of tragedy is not to depress; it's to purge, to rebel against our destiny." Well, having some small knowledge in the matter of drama, at least the classical drama of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, I can say that he's half-right. The point is indeed catharsis. However, the point is not to rebel against destiny - time and time again, we see (cf. Oedipus Tyrannis) that you cannot escape your fate. It was a dramatic error, on Reggio's terms, to explain how and why we're rebelling against fate.

Glass' score works beautifully and really does complement the music. However, by 2006, we've all heard "Philip Glass music" to the point where it isn't that revolutionary. When all is said and done, though, Glass did something more impressive than set nature scenes to the Prelude from BWV 1007; he made the music part of the movie. Only (aside from Reggio, who made an effort) Stanley Kubrick could do that.

The Hammerklavier and Me

Piano music isn't my thing. Glenn Gould and Martha Argerich excel(led) on the piano, especially in Bach, but they were creatures sui generis. Mozart, I am sure, wrote some splendid things for the piano; however, his output - for many - begins and ends in the third movement of Sonata no. 11, K. 331. In any event, the piano - except with the score of a master and the hands of a genius - seems a bit underdone and overdramatic to me. Shades, I suppose, of Liberace.

I still try.

I have been listening to Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 29 in B flat major, op. 106, quite a bit lately. Of all, and I am sure that there are those who would disagree with me, I prefer Emil Gilels' 1984 recording of the Hammerklavier. To my mind, Gilels shows Beethoven off in all his majesty. Op. 106 is the sort of piece that exposes weakness, but Gilels seems to let Beethoven lead in the proverbial dance. Too many of these modern soloists insist on taking the composer out for a drive. That approach will lead, inevitably and invariably, to disappointment. A composer of the second rank, like Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky, is still in the driver's seat. A genius like Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven is not only driving, but he designed the car and the freeway, engineered the gasoline, and has memorized all the pertinent facts. In any event, Gilels presents the Hammerklavier much as Pierre Fournier handled the Bach cello suites: he accorded demigod-like genius the respect it demands.

The sonata reminded me what a force of nature Beethoven was. One senses that Beethoven could, using nothing more than a piano, shake the gates of Heaven from their hinges. I don't care for piano music, but this sonata is something more. It is every bit as powerful as the finale of the 9th or the Kyrie from the Missa solemnis. Beethoven wrote piano music bigger than the piano, and that might be why I like it so much.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Die Frau ohne Schatten

This opera is generally, though not necessarily universally, considered a strong contender for Strauss' greatest opera. It certainly got Von Hofmannsthal's best, if most symbol-laden, libretto. I prefer Karl Böhm's 1977 recording (third act cuts and all) from Vienna. Indeed, his cast was a bit over-the-hill (though James King had sung Parsifal at Bayreuth only six years earlier, and was about to do so again for Kubelik), and Böhm's later years were not his best; however, he understood Strauss. A conductor like Georg Solti was very good in his repertoire, but Die Frau ohne Schatten is far from Das Rheingold. Furthermore, by the time Solti cut Die Frau, he was a better celebrity than a conductor, not that he was that universally great to begin with (his near-perfect Ring aside). Böhm still had a few years left in 1977, and he had yet to cut his very slow, very thoughtful, and oddly moving Beethoven 9th. He was a musician to the end, unlike Solti and Von Karajan, who seemed less interested in solid music-making and more interested in being seen with the Pope or in a red fedora. Respectively, in reverse order.

I like Die Frau, though much of Strauss is still a mystery to me. The Vier letzte Lieder, Ariadne, and now this seem to have their charms, rivaling Wagner and Mahler for my attentions.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

That time of the year

I am home for Thanksgiving, which means that I have lots of time to listen to records, read, and blog. Perhaps this will make up for the semester that I have spent keeping everyone in the dark. So to speak.

Thanksgiving is coming up, which means the dreadful round of pre-Christmas sales and commercials is only one day farther away. Simply horrible. Not that I have anything against Christmas, but it seems a little silly to act like it's Christmas Eve for a month. It isn't.

However, this fall (like last) I will be going to Chicago for a concert. Barring some unforeseen situation, I will be going to one of the performances of Mahler's 7th by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Pierre Boulez on the podium. His DGG 7th was pretty good, though the 6th and the 9th are the sleepers of that set, and this symphony is Mahler's toughest nut to crack. One hopes that he manages to let the band loose for the finale. Chicago has been, since Reiner and Solti, a virtuoso orchestra - and they could really have some fun with Mahler's most idiomatically jubilant music.

Of course, he might have been mocking Kapellmeister music or paying homage to Wagner. Take your pick.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


This post, a week old from Wellsung, caused me to stop what I was doing (mostly, though not entirely, wasting time) and go outside for a smoke. Were this the 18th century and I a foppish dandy, I would fain swoon, that my senses be no longer affronted.

It taps into two things: the weird place Messiah holds in my heart, given my indifference to the church-y, church-y stuff otherwise, and my utter loathing for Rent. When the filmed adaptation came out, so to speak, last year (??), the halls were alive with that insipid opening track.

In any event, it's still funny. Mostly, though not entirely, for the last joke. Sort of like my recall of that silly phrase from the first sentence of this post just now.

Politics: David Byrne on the election

Also from Alex Ross, David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) comments on the national political scene. Astute, in a way that I always sort of figured Byrne was, but never got any proof.

To me, those reality shows “teach” bully culture — that’s the lesson that is imparted — and that includes ones like [Laguna Beach], which seems to promote backstabbing, lying, duplicitous behavior and entitlement — all in a world where no one works.

That bit, though not the bit Ross quoted, is the trump for it all. In the last six years, this nation has fallen into all of that. Entitlement is the order of the day, and it's not at all healthy. For a nation built on hard work and really Cyclopean effort, we sure have become fond of entitlement. A nation that once believed in helping the little guy is now addicted to the idea that "I got mine, sucks to you." However, no one wants to work for what they have. Mommy and Daddy will always be there. One way or another. And these people talk about "traditional values."

Much as I might be an addled socialist at times, I am a big fan of consistency. Rich kid slackers of any age and stripe, cf. Congress, make it difficult for anyone to get anything done. That's why the government has to step in and make sure things are fair.

I don't think I need to say much about the backstabbing, lying, or duplicitous behavior. The American people have repudiated all of that. Morally compromised hypocrites have been sent a message. Mendacious, rapacious "wasters of life and limb" (pace Roger Waters) have been sent a message.

The message: "no more."

Admin. Note: This will be the last Politics post for the foreseeable future. The election is over for a few weeks. Also, this is a culture blog - and nothing about American politics says "culture."

The Dannies can't do anything right.

I go to Wabash College. I think I've mentioned that. Our biggest rival is DePauw University, and that rivalry culminates in the Monon Bell Classic (a football game). That game was played last Saturday, and Wabash kept the Bell for another year.

Then, I saw this post from Alex Ross. Not only can DePauw not keep up in terms of what goes on inside the classroom, but also they can't follow simple rules for concert etiquette. Furthermore, they pass off this ignorance as some grand experiment. At Wabash, student recitals are the order of the day, and they are always well-attended. It isn't suits and ties, except for the performers, but people "dress up" and are respectful. We have a couple of really first-rate pianists, and - mirabile dictu - people actually talk about their performances and discuss their relative merits. Suffice it to say, one is a decent interpreter of the Baroque and Classical, while the other prefers showy echt-Romantic stuff. Both are technically good, though.

To be fair, DePauw has a solid academic program. Their Classics Department (my maison de choix at Wabash) has really turned around and is revitalized. However, I cannot pass up the opportunity to knock the Dannies or see them slapped around a bit on a national stage.

Gloria all'Egitto, indeed.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A sustained volley

This 2002 Andante article, by Jochen Breiholz, is the most sustained critique of Harry Kupfer's dramatic idiom that I have read.

Here are some interesting extracts:

At this point of his career, Kupfer still insisted that a director should work with a different designer for each opera, since each work would demand a different style and an individual look. But by the late '80s, Kupfer had dropped this conviction. From that point on, most of the sets for his productions were designed by Hans Schavernoch, whose imagination — seemingly limited to turntables, mirrored walls, and neon tubes in black abstract spaces — did not allow for that much visual variation. In a similar vein, Kupfer chose a favorite costume designer, Reinhard Heinrich, whose obsession with black leather, military coats and often screamingly colorful costumes in tasteless GDR fashion, was just as limiting. The great director's productions became visually predictable.

And, this, on the Bayreuth Ring:

Instead, Wolfgang Wagner assigned Kupfer to direct the new Bayreuth Ring in 1988 — a gripping production but one that betrayed the patterns that would soon dominate almost every Kupfer production: heavy overacting; singers rolling on the floor, creeping and crawling regardless of whether the situation demanded this (in most cases it did not); exaggerated dramatic conflicts; and the cruelly reductive message that women characters were always much stronger than their male counterparts, but that they were still all victims of overpowering men.

This critique exposes a central problem with modern drama, i.e., what are the limits of a feminist-Marxist approach? There are those who would argue that an dramatic Konzept stemming from feminist and Marxist critiques of society and art are non-starters. For some works, that's trivially obvious. For example, anyone who harbors desires to set any of Mozart's operas, but especially the late stage stuff (e.g., the Da Ponte operas and Zauberflöte), to some sort of class-struggle and oppression-of-women theme is worse than an idiot. Update the staging, but leave Mozart in his own, well-deserved universe.

As to works that can tolerate a feminist-Marxist approach, a light touch is helpful. Operas should not be submitted to Socialist Realism. A simple, idiomatic reproduction of the action outlined in the score should reveal the oppression of women and the class struggle that defines history. Slathering on the camp and kitsch is like asking, after a particularly obvious or unfunny joke, "Did'ya get it, huh? Huh? Did'ya?" In other words, if it's obvious, such ham-fisted work is annoying or worse. If it isn't obvious, it isn't there. Marxists and feminists believe that everything, or most things, are framed in a context of oppression. Well, if that's the case, then it shouldn't be hard to see.

As to visual cues: I like abstract, minimalist art. However, I also like things to make sense. Wotan and Fricka mincing around in front of some neon tubing doesn't, well, make much sense. The ideological limits of feminism-Marxism are clear, and how much clearer, then, are the limits of abstraction? A lot.

Robert Wilson's Scandal

"Well, you'd be wrong, because the video is directed by the only man in the world who could make Brad Pitt in wet underpants look boring." - La Cieca, Parterre Box.

Apparently, the reigning emperor of minimalist, stylized opera (and theater), Robert Wilson, has gotten himself in a spot of trouble. Vanity Fair apparently used a still from Wilson's video-portrait of Pitt for the cover. The subject was, shall we say, less than pleased with Vanity Fair's editorial decision.

La Cieca weighs in, with usual wit. I found the "avant-garde impresario" bit amusing myself. Wilson hasn't been avant-garde for twenty years. Harry Kupfer's Berlin Parsifal and Bayreuth Ring were, whatever else they were, avant-garde. Wilson's works have been, at best, third-pressing Kabuki, and - at worst - tedious. He lets the music do the staging, but even Wagner wanted something pretty on stage. His sets for the ur-Parsifal were opulent. Wilson's: just mind-numbingly tedious.

It's good to see that he's stirring the pot. Just the wrong pot.