Monday, January 30, 2006

Handel a la Boulez

I assume that most readers of any of my blogs know that Pierre Boulez was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 1977. If you didn't, you do now. That was, to put it mildly, an interesting experiment. The crown prince of the modern musical world (I have over-used enfant terrible, so I'll have to figure something else out). was reduced to answering to wealthy, arthritic dowagers. Now, one benefit of this odd combination was Boulez's disc of Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks.

I don't really have strong feelings one way or the other about Handel. I have three recordings of the Messiah, but I am perpetually surprised by that fact. Furthermore, as I look, I think I have Gardiner's disc of the same stuff on Boulez's. It doesn't matter; the high Baroque, outside Bach, isn't all that interesting for me. I digress.

The Boulez disc is pretty good. Say what you will about his Wagner and his Mahler, but his deft touch and concentration on the score serves Baroque stuff well. He is a dry-stick (which is why I am so fond of him), but he has never had the emotion. Gardiner has more fire in the big moments, but Boulez manages to keep an even keel. Six of one, half-dozen of the other.

If you like Boulez, this is for you. However, this might be one of six or ten pieces that are absolutely impossible to screw up.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Bruckner's Te Deum

Bruckner is difficult.

His idiom is so necessarily tied to Wagner that he tends to be overlooked (or merely dismissed). His symphonies, Masses, and choral works are deeply and profoundly Wagnerian. In fact, it is only in the last decades that Bruckner has come into his own. Furtwängler and Von Karajan really helped that transition. The lack of a comprehensive critical edition doesn't help his cause, either.

In any event, I have been listening to his setting for the Te Deum quite a bit of late. The frequent metaphor for his symphonies is a "cathedral of sound." That's a bit facile, but it works. The Te Deum, though, genuinely evokes the majesty and glory of a Gothic cathedral. The soaring buttresses and vaults are mirrored in Bruckner's musical language. What Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres or Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen is to architecture, the Te Deum is to choral music.

On a somewhat less poetic - and certainly less serious - note, the Te Deum has the perfect vibe to be in the soundtrack for a highly-stylized horror film in the Gothic idiom. The emotional extremes that the piece has are perfect for establishing a stylish and menacing mood. There, never say I didn't give you anything.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Mediocrities everywhere...

A.C. Douglas points us to this piece.

Was Mozart a transcendent genius, receiving his inspiration from some great unknown? I don't think so? Look at Mozart's operas, which seem to be the most frequently identified acts of brilliance. Die Entführung aus dem Serail is, at first blush, a very nice singspiel - albeit a bit heavy on the Turkish stuff. It is, in effect, the 18th century equivalent of musical theater. The libretto falls far short of the Da Ponte operas. However, Mozart managed to take the idiom of the singspiel and innovate with some really brilliant moments. He took existing media and improved them. The same, albeit somewhat more metaphysical material, goes for Die Zauberflöte. It is good fun, and it has some really novel and startling innovations.

However, on a dour note, how many of Mozart's operas are regularly programmed and recorded? 6, maybe 7. His later output, i.e., Le nozze di Figaro through Die Zauberflöte receive the bulk of the attention. How many of his symphonies are done regularly? How many of his innumerable chamber and solo compositions? Not bloody many. Mozart hovers like an eminence grise over the scene, but isn't all that involved. Was he a towering genius? Yes. However, was Wagner, Verdi, Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, or any of about ten others a towering genius? Yes. For every Die Zauberflöte, there is Il sogno di Scipione. Never heard of that one? Neither have I. It's K. 126 for you catalog nerds out there, and it was written when he was 18 or so.

Mozart's fame rests on a few dozen brilliant and innovative works. Just like everyone else. He wasn't getting the scores from nowhere. He knew what he was doing, but we seem to attribute all manner of magical mysticism to "what he was doing." Was he a great creator? Absolutely. Is his oeuvre a pillar of gold, unblemished and perfect? No. He was, as his death indicates, merely human.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Kubrick and Music

I like the films of director (though auteur seems more appropriate) Stanley Kubrick. I am a fan of his films from the easy fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining to the more obscure stuff like Barry Lyndon and Paths of Glory. His use of music is particularly skillful. Of course, A Clockwork Orange has the most in-your-face presentation of music (the Alla marcia really needed that); however, his other films have clever and intelligent placements in their soundtracks.

Barry Lyndon's leitmotif of Schubert's E-flat piano trio (the Andante con moto) is ironic and sensitive at the same time. The piece comes to mean fate taking its course. Kubrick's glib interstitial cards only further that feel.

The Shining begins with Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, unfortunately a la Wendy Carlos, foreshadowing the deeply evil nature of the situation in which Jack Torrance will find himself. Turning the droning, repetitive nature of the early Romantic piece into an oppressive hymn of fear certainly comes close to the (alleged) intent of Berlioz.

Full Metal Jacket has a significantly different style of music, and it is somewhat more obviously ironic. Applying the hits of the 50s and 60s to the bloody milieu of Vietnam during the '68 Tet Offensive is a touch too on-the-nose. I don't care for this movie as much as I like other Kubrick films (it's a bit too disjointed, but that might be his point); however, it is a monument to Kubrick's vicious sense of style and sarcasm.

A Kubrick-directed Ring cycle would have been superlative. Compared to butchers like Schlingensief and Kupfer, I can't imagine that he would have done any harm to Wagner's directions.

Danke schön

A quick thank-you to the fellows at wellsung for their link to The Penitent Wagnerite.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Reines gold!

This "dialogue" from wellsung is amusing, to say the least.

Perhaps this will be the super-duper-digital Ring that has yet to appear. My dread is that it will be Thielemann's Bayreuth cycle, though I have concerns about the quality of the Bayreuth shows of late. The Barenboim/Kupfer production is probably the last one which can have some right to the lineage of Böhm and Knappertsbusch.

We'll see about the Met cycle. 2007 is a long, long way off yet.

Traviata travesty

I couldn't resist the title. Mea culpa.

Sieglinde points to this review. Seckerson also penned, in Gramophone, the best quote regarding Mahler - ever: "Requiem for a fashion victim."

This quote is particularly pithy: "We certainly got big and charismatic with the Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as Germont senior. A fine voice. But what of the long-breathed, enriching legatos that at least hint at the compassionate soul beneath the stern patriarch? Lucic's stolid phrasing suggested all the compassion of a tax inspector."

As I said this evening, history only remembers two groups: triumphant successes and spectacular failures. Thankfully, Mr. Seckerson is there for the latter.

More than mostly...

Here is Alex Ross's Mozart wrap-up, if you live in New York.

I like Mozart, but there is only so much of any composer that I can handle safely. This is a bit of a fluff post, but it seems fair to let my devoted readers know what's going on in NYC. I think a couple are on the eastern seaboard, so they might do something about that.

On the plus side, only seven more years until the Wagner bicentennial. Perhaps some of the great sets will be reissued.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Douglas digs in

Here are some of A.C. Douglas' typically and delightfully bilious comments about modern music and composer/conductor types.

For various reasons that are clear-enough, though I can't get specific at the moment, Douglas does not, not, not like Pierre Boulez.

Eaglen on Nilsson

Jane Eaglen has this piece on Slate about Birgit Nilsson. Nice. It is certainly interesting to hear what someone who passes for a good dramatic soprano has to say about the last truly triumphant one.

My favorite passage: "My teacher had worked with Nilsson at Covent Garden on several occasions, singing on the same stage with her in Turandot and when she played Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio. He spoke so highly of her as a singer and a person, which always made an impression on me. It was encouraging, as a student, to hear that one's idols were nice people, too! As I was first learning the role of Turandot, "In Questa Reggia," the big aria she starts with, was very daunting—a difficult aria as soon as you set foot on the stage. Joseph told me that he once asked her, in an elevator, how she went on and sang that aria cold, and she replied, "I just use it to warm up the voice." Having sung the aria myself many times, I can only marvel that anyone could say that about such a piece of music."

That is very amazing, but listening to her Immolation Scene makes it very believable.

Nilsson was less of singer and more of a force of nature. I've said that before, and I'll say it again.


I don't really care for Shostakovich, but this is his 100th anniversary, so I suppose I should make some comments of some sort or another.

Boulez is wrong. "Third-pressing Mahler" is a rash and insensitive judgment that has more to do with his postmodernist agenda than any other external factors. However, I think people tend to place his works solidly in the Stalinist milieu. That's fine, but that doesn't mean every note, bar, and movement has something to do with Stalin, the terrors, and the other world events of the middle age of the Soviet Union.

Shostakovich should be allowed to stand on his own merits, and that's where the trouble starts for me. I just don't think he's all that great. Certainly, he deserves a place in the repertoire, but to turn him into some sort of Stalinist Loge, commenting with ironic aside after ironic aside about the events in Moscow.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

James Levine on NPR

This is a really good piece from NPR about James Levine. It deals with his tenure in Boston (so far).

There is a fair amount of time spent on his health and his taste for new pieces. However, I would have liked to have heard something more about the Met, Europe, and elsewhere. His Bayreuth appearances are getting scarce these days, and the advent of Thielemann makes me really hope that he has a Ring or Parsifal left in him.

The pictures I've seen of him, of late, are not promising at all. He doesn't look well - even considering that he's 62. Von Karajan, Solti, Stokowski, Klemperer, and others conducted up to the bitter end. I hope that it comes at 85. Not 65.

Birgit Nilsson

Birgit Nilsson
17 May 1918 - 11 January 2006

There is not a whole lot to be said. Requiescat in pace, Birgit. You've earned it. Of course, at the risk of being glib - the choir invisible has a really solid dramatic soprano to keep Flagstad company.

Janowski's Ring

This has long been my favorite modern Ring cycle. The other competitors (on CD) have various flaws in cast, concept, or performance. However, this one is as close to perfect as one could expect in today's age. Janowski is all business, and the Dresden Staatskapelle responds well. One must remember, after all, that this is the band that produced Von Karajan's Meistersinger. I find that Janowski - even more so than Boulez - worries more about the score than anything else. There is no meta-concept. Dry? Most assuredly. Well-done? Absolutely.

Also, this cycle boasts a really first-rate cast. I tend to focus in on Peter Schreier's contribution as Loge (in Das Rheingold) and Mime (in Siegfried), which - I consider - are among the finest readings of that part. Now, for sprechgesang, one should look elsewhere. Schreier, very clearly, does not fall in the tradition of Zednik or Neidlinger. However, Siegfried Jerusalem (for Levine's Rheingold) does not quite manage to capture the character of Loge as well as Schreier. I do not really consider Schreier a character tenor (unlike Cangelosi, who is...hopefully...going to continue his Mime and perhaps Loge). However, he manages to pull it off brilliantly.

However, the one miscast comes with Altmeyer as Brünnhilde. She does well as Sieglinde and Gutrune for Boulez. However, she lacks the steel necessary for the Valkyrie. Now, I am not one of those fellows who complains that Flagstad was the last decent Brünnhilde. Nilsson, Jones, and Behrens all do the part well. Altmeyer, to her credit, gets some of the youthful innocence of her part. However, she just doesn't have that je ne sais quoi that a soprano needs for this part.

I like the cycle. I just wanted to share and get another post up here.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Revolutionizing Karaoke?

If one develops their musical sense with Wagner, Mahler, and Beethoven, then there is a pretty solid chance that Karaoke will strike that person as unbelievably tacky. It brings out the worst in music: bad songs, bad voices, and a strong streak of exhibitionism. Needless to say, there is a disconnect between Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Met and "Like a Rhinestone Cowboy" at the neighborhood dive. My post should end here, but it won't.

Is there any need to take what should be a dying "art" and bring it to kids? No. However, for various reasons, I was made aware of a video game called "Karaoke Revolution." The premise is ghastly. I don't know how to explain the game, so here is the IGN review. Let's face facts, we live in an age where test scores are on the decline, music education is at its nadir, and kids have the attention spans of fruit flies. Two hundred years ago, Beethoven could start a riot. One hundred years ago, people went about whistling Wagner. Fifty years ago, classical music was on major radio stations. To take the basest metal in the musical periodic table and alloy it with the ultimate pacifier for the masses is abhorrent.

If I told a potential purchaser (i.e., one of the kids) that Das Rheingold started with an E-flat Major triad, they would have no idea what I said. If I told them that Mozart wrote Die Zauberflöte, they'd be somewhat less confused, but still be at a loss. It boggles the mind that the brains of the "kids in America" are being rotted-out by this intellectual tripe.

It boggles my mind, anyway.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

A quote for the day

"Requiem for a fashion victim. Fair enough, it’s a view – Mahler for the new millennium. " - Edward Seckerson, Gramophone.

He is discussing the Boulez recording of Mahler's 5th. It's not really a quote with a purpose, but I thought it was clever and witty. That's all that counts. Leaner, meaner. Remember?

More on Boulez

If the Boulez/Chéreau Ring is a leitmotif for me, then Pierre Boulez himself is an idee fixe. For whatever reason, his clarity and dryness appeal to me. I suppose that I like austerity in general. However, Alex Ross wrote this piece about the maestro some time ago. I don't recall if it ever made it on to FtNW, but it is now here.

This is an astute reading, and - only now - do I fully understand his program. His Wagner prefigures his Mahler, and that prefigures the rest. This is a great and terrible idea. Intellectually, it's indefensible. Using Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and the rest as the standard for Mahler, Wagner, and Bruckner is a dangerous idea. It reveals deeper meanings, true; however, to deterritorialize the sign from the idiom is - with all due respect to Messrs. Deleuze and Guattari - a treacherous proposition. The disintegration of tone might be a fact. However, rewriting musical history to show that disintegration is revisionism.

Just because one can draw a family tree between Parsifal and Schoenberg does not mean that one should treat them equally. He's still brilliant, though; just look at his Bruckner 8 and tell me otherwise.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Eine Amerikanisch Tragödie

A.C. Douglas has this post regarding the new National Opera Ring.

For a chap so set against the Regietheater productions of Kupfer and Chéreau, he seems oddly enthusiastic about this equally-strange idea. Now, understand that I am staunchly in support of the Chéreau staging, but I think Kupfer made some grave, grave errors in dramatic judgment. Thus, it should be clear(er) that I think the new production is essentially the same idea as that which Chéreau staged twenty years ago. "Let's take the Ring out of it's original context and put it into a new, but still plausible, context!"

There are as many parallels, especially in a Marxist context, between the world of the gods and the Industrial Revolution as there are between the same realm and Native American mythology. Now, I admit that there are some meta-myths involved (in fact, the multiplicity of the same story should prove Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces theory). However, the premise is daffy.

If Chéreau and Kupfer deserve to be tarred and feathered for their dramatic license with Wagner's fairly explicit directions, then this new Ring will be an equal failure. Also, the preliminary designs look stupid as all get out. 25 March (my birthday) was Holy Thursday last year. This year, Das Rheingold opens the same day. Can I not get a break?

Giulini: The Chicago Recordings

Carlo Maria Giulini was never one of the stratospheric conductors. However, as an interpreter, he was one of them. For a few years in the 1970s, he was the Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (a position now held by Pierre Boulez). EMI was lucky enough to record some of their collaborations. Last year, before Giulini died, they released an affordable box set of the records. This includes a Mahler 1, Beethoven 7, and Bruckner 9. There is some other stuff, but I am not really that interested in it.

The Mahler 1 has stiff competition from, primarily, Rafael Kubelik's 1970 DG recording. Giulini is close, but the interpretative styles are radically different. While Kubelik has a youthful joie de vivre, Giulini treats Mahler with a distance and like the symphonic titan he was at the end of his life. However, both recordings are essential. Giulini creates a tension at the beginning and holds it to the end. Fritz Reiner, in his recording of the 4th, makes it clear that he didn't know Mahler - like Klemperer and Bruno Walter did. Thus, the Chicago band was at a distinct disadvantage. Nevertheless, Giulini wrenches a brilliant performance out of them.

The Beethoven 7 is pretty idiosyncratic. Giulini adopts tempi similar to Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1950 recording (though not quite as broad). I think he really takes Richard Wagner's statement of the 7th being the "apotheosis of the dance" to heart. The symphony is played as a giant dance, and the Allegretto is as gorgeous as anything Von Karajan put out.

The Bruckner 9, though, is the reason for buying this set. This period was when Giulini was beginning to add more Bruckner to his repertoire. However, he plays this with an intense spirituality and reverence. This is a far cry from the very, very broad performances of his later career. This is nearly perfect Bruckner. It has a glow to it. Now, Jochum and others turned in equally important Bruckner 9ths, but Giulini has something to it. One senses that he gets Bruckner as Bruckner would want him to.

Buy this set. Apologies, too, for my brief absence. I have been transitioning my dwellings.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Eine Mangel an Kreativität

Too much Mozart? Is that possible? For me, Mozart was an entry into classical. He was and is a safe bet. Die Zauberflöte still holds a special place in my heart as my favorite opera. Peter Schreier's "Zu Hilfe!" from Davis' 1984 recording reminds me over and over why I like Schreier, and - more to the point - why I like Mozart. However, I am all for a critical look at his legacy.

Norman Lebrecht writes, "Mozart is a menace to musical progress, a relic of rituals that were losing relevance in his own time and are meaningless to ours. Beyond a superficial beauty and structural certainty, Mozart has nothing to give to mind or spirit in the 21st century. Let him rest. Ignore the commercial onslaught. Play the Leningrad Symphony. Listen to music that matters."

What vitriol. What bile. However, compare that with the syrupy, saccharine tripe spewed forth in Milos Forman's adaptation of Amadeus. I withhold that judgment from the play, which has more to do with Salieri's relationship to an unknown and (to him) uncaring God than Mozart. We are in extremist country, kids, and there has to be a middle course.

In truth, Mozart was neither the voice of God nor an unoriginal music factory, spewing forth pleasing music for his aristocratic overlords. In the volumes of his compositions, most are nice but not triumphant. Of all his operas, only a handful are remembered or played with frequency. This anniversary should show us how little we care for Mozart. He is more of an ideal, an exemplar than a real figure. Now, he also produced some really brilliant music. He also set some brilliant libretti to music.

Mozart deserves his legacy, but we need to be sure what his legacy is.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Here are some comments from Wellsung, which is probably going in the links bar now. My favorite bilious blogger, A.C. Douglas, does his thing. This actually turned into a contest of sorts between some of my favorite bloggers in general. Here, as it was on FtNW, are Douglas's comments.

The comment in question makes no sense. As has been pointed out often in this exchange, Wagner worked with many Jewish people. Hermann Levi, who had nice things to say about Wagner, is the most notable example. If Wagner thought that James Levine could do justice to his masterpiece devoted to the mastersingers and "holy German art," then Wagner wouldn't give a damn what Levine did on his free time. Wagner was a vile man with vile opinions, but - lest we forget - he was first and foremost about Wagner.

Mahler and Me: Das Lied von der Nacht

I like Gustav Mahler's music. That is no great secret. I am waiting anxiously for Pierre Boulez to record the 2nd and 8th to complete his cycle. Of all Mahler's works, though, I like the 7th and 8th least. I spend most of my free time, so to speak, with the 2nd and 6th. However, I recently bought Pierre Boulez' recording of the 7th. Before that, I had done with Abbado's Chicago record.

Despite my notorious Boulez fanboy-ism, I have long since dispensed with any attempt to defend the conductor to his detractors. Pierre Boulez has been the same person since 1947, and I doubt he plans on changing soon. I am not unreserved in my praise for Boulez, as there are a few of his recordings that could have done with some temperance (cf. the 1970 Bayreuth Parsifal). However, despite his vociferous detractors (such as A.C. Douglas), his Mahler is my favorite.

So, what happens when my favorite living conductor meets my least favorite Mahler score? Not much. There isn't much to happen. That's the thing about Boulez, his hyper-analytical style creates a sort of transparency. Now the rhetoric behind this transparency is problematic, but any Wagnerite worth his salt (especially a penitent one) can separate art from rhetoric. The Song of the Night is what it is, a complicated work that defies my attempts to categorize and control it. Boulez just plays it straight.

Derrida forgive me for that last pun.

Boulez Ring

By this time, the Boulez Ring has become a bit of a leitmotif for me. I suppose that has more to do with Chéreau's staging than the maestro's conducting, but that is an issue of contention. Now, this cycle announced the triumph of Regietheater in the Festspielhaus; however, it did more than announce the arrival of Patrice Chéreau. The key to the whole cycle, in my opinion, comes at the end of Götterdämmerung - when the stunned Gibichungs turn 'round and face the audience in mute testimony to the twilight of the gods. That moment offers no resolution. The cycle leaves everything to the viewer.

In the Marxist milieu of the cycle, it is difficult to ascribe traditional meanings. I have always seen the Ring as - fundamentally - a story about what happens when one forsakes love. Alberich curses it to get the Rheingold, Wotan forsakes his love for the Walsung twins to keep Fricka pacified, and Siegfried forsakes it out of naïveté. In other words, the Ring emphasizes the negative of the point Wagner proves in Der fliegende Holländer and Tristan und Isolde. However, in Chéreau's conception of it, class struggle is (1) absolute and (2) meaningless. In the end, only the workers, plebeians, and proletarians survive. Was it worth it? The gods (i.e., bourgeoisie) and nobles (i.e., industrial captains) were too corrupt to survive, weren't they?