Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Barenboim in New York?

Alex Ross discusses the discussion of the next director of the New York Philharmonic. As of now, it seems Riccardo Muti is the front-runner. I might take some hope from this bit, right at the end,

Or, if the flirtation with Muti once again fizzles out, there's always the "interim conductor" option, at which point Daniel Barenboim might enter the picture.

I'm not a New Yorker (and Chicago is my band, so excuse me for expressing support for Barenboim), but I can't imagine anyone who could do more good for the NYPO than Daniel Barenboim. He is steeped in the Germanic (really, Mitteleuropa) tradition, and he does a splendid job with that work. As someone lucky enough to catch his Mahler right at the end of his tenure, and as someone who has followed his Mahler cycle on Teldec/Warner Classics, I can say that he has his chops.

Also, the man knows his Bruckner, Beethoven, and Wagner. With those four, assuming he can navigate Mozart, is there any reason to not pay whatever he wants? Letting him hide out on the Unter den Linden, beautiful as it is, would be a crime given his collaboration with the CSO. There, that's my fanboy moment.

Of course, Pierre Boulez might be up for another crack at New York. Maybe the matinée crowd is ready for Maderna and Berio. I hear they're doing wonderful things at Lincoln Center these days. Why not Carnegie?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

De Staat

Let me preface this by saying that I dare warrant that one of my regular readers could write circles around me when it comes to Louis Andriessen. In fact, if he would like to respond to this post, I will gladly print his comments verbatim here.

It is a shame that the music of Louis Andriessen is not more widely accepted, in my experience, than it seems to be. His 1976 work, De Staat (The Republic), is an excellent example of what we're missing when we pass over his unique musical language. Since discovering this work, I have listened to it at least once a day, and often more. It is overtly political in content and in form. I might say that Andriessen crafted a musical analog to Stalinist architecture, both stylistically and rhetorically in his music.

The music will likely be called minimalist, but I prefer the architectural term, "brutalist." It is a thundering, repetitive surface that seems to actively resist any attempt to scrutinize it. It is mysterious, but - at the same time - unflinching. Perhaps the only analogy that doesn't fall victim to the pathetic fallacy is that the work is granitic. There, inanimate object is related inanimate object. Ruskin would be proud.

The text, from Plato's Republic, deals with music and society, but it is in the original Greek and hidden behind the orchestration. To me, this is the work's most successful rhetorical gesture. Andriessen's statement about the government and music, especially in a repressive regime or revolutionary environment, is writ large. Perhaps that was, and there are those who could correct me quickly and definitely, Andriessen's snide aside at Pierre Boulez and IRCAM, which - to an "outsider" like Andriessen - could seem like a musical totalitarian state very simply. Still, it's hypnotic.

That is, perhaps, my best judgment on De Staat: its hypnotic quality. Andriessen wrote a piece of uncommon force and vigor. It is surprising to me how obsessive I am about this work. After getting my "education" in modern music from Boulez and Messiaen, I am not sure that I should have any use for a piece like De Staat. Still, it's a masterpiece of the modern era and fully worthy of extended listening.

Reinbert de Leeuw and the Los Angeles Philharmonic deserve some credit for programming the work as part of the Minimalist Jukebox series, and Deutsche Grammophon deserves as much credit for recording it. The splendid acoustic of Walt Disney Hall fits Andriessen's "cantata" as well as anywhere.

No, sir, I don't like it

In the late, great television show, Arrested Development, whenever something unfortunate and (often as not) ironic would happen to a Bluth, they would say "Come on!" I echo that sentiment when I listen to this record.

The Goldberg Variations do not need to be transcribed into a string-trio format. Bach said all he needed to say with a harpsichord (or a piano, as the case may be), and it is a testament to his genius that he didn't need a string ensemble, orchestra, organ, or anything else to make his point. Scott Ross and Wanda Landowska, though, I admit that I've never gotten Landowska, show how elegant and downright perfect BWV 988 can be. Neither of them needed anything except a harpsichord and a microphone to show off the beauty of the score. I'll except Glenn Gould from consideration, as it wouldn't be fair to anyone else to compare them to Gould - in 1955, 1959, or 1981.

To add orchestration where Bach left and intended none, despite the fluidity that some argue existed in Baroque compositions, is an insult to the towering genius of the keyboard. The recording is nice enough, but it's weird as all get-out to hear BWV 988 in any other context than the one Bach intended or its logical consequence on the piano. Frankly, pace Maisky et al., it sounds like Vivaldi dinner music. It's as though some A&R suit at Deutsche Grammophon decided that a harpsichord was too jarring to eat oysters, steak, and crème brûlée to, so they sweetened it to the point where the piece could be confused with the allegro from RV 269 (Don't believe me? Do yourself a service: A/B variation 1 and the RV 269 movement mentioned and then talk to me).

I can listen to the string arrangement, and appreciate it because, at the end of it all, it's still Bach (more or less), but I know the difference. That's the problem. When Scott Ross did the Goldbergs, they sounded like Bach. When Gould did them, they sounded - one imagines - like what Bach heard in his head. When the trio does them, they sound like a string trio. Not a crime against art, but a distraction.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Technocracies and Music

In today's Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout discusses a new (to me, at least) technology: Zenph's Disklavier. This is a variation on the player pianos of the days of yore, and it seems to be a modern analog to the Welte-Mignon machine, which managed to capture Gustav Mahler interpreting his own works. Here's the worrying bit,

Sony Classical is about to release a CD of Zenph's "reperformance" of Glenn Gould's celebrated 1955 recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," played back in a Toronto studio on a 9-foot Yamaha grand and rerecorded in glistening digital sound.

Mein Gott in Himmel. That idea is as profoundly idiotic as thinking that you can program a computer to reproduce a Giotto or a David. No one, apparently not even Glenn Gould (viz. 1955 v. 1959 v. 1981), could reproduce that performance. So personal and so meteoric was it that it would be foolhardy to try. The fact that the wizards have figured out how to "capture" the performance and repeat it at will and ad nauseam is disgusting and a little macabre. Furthermore, they do not have the slightest understanding of Glenn Gould and why he preferred recordings. Neither do I, but I do get the sense that he didn't have much use for the concert hall and wanted to perfect his reading in private and with perfect sound.

Let the mass exhumations begin.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut: 1922-2007

"I ask how humanity, against all odds, managed to keep going for another millennium. They tell me that they and their ancestors did it by preferring life over death for themselves and others at every opportunity, even at the expense of being dishonored. They endured all sorts of insults and humiliations and disappointments without committing either suicide or murder. They are also the people who do the insulting and humiliating and disappointing."

From Fates Worse Than Death
, 1991 (p. 148)

Kurt Vonnegut was one of the authors of the postwar period who managed to hold a mirror up to Caligula and laugh. Gore Vidal, who delights in much the same sort of commentary, never could have a hearty - but occasionally sad - chuckle at the state of affairs in the world. That was Vonnegut's talent, his genius.

Only when a satirist's wit and a humorist's charm are combined do you get a Kurt Vonnegut. I'll miss hearing from him.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


A.C. Douglas points us to this article, which I didn't see the first time 'round, but wish that I had. It is, indeed, a very nice exploration of Wagner's most (to me, anyway) elusive music-drama: Parsifal. This passage, in particular, I like:

Shall we tread carefully then? Heck no: he didn't. Let's do The Master proud, and declare Parsifal, the "stage-consecration festival drama" that he composed specifically for the theatre he designed at Bayreuth, and the work widely performed throughout the German-speaking world at Easter, to be the most extraordinary single achievement in opera.

Not the greatest opera, note, though it must be a contender for that non-existent honour, along with at least four of his other works. No, the most extraordinary - in its conception, sound, influence and history. Ever since Nietzsche called it "a work of perfidy, of vindictiveness", this opera of redemption, Wagner's "farewell to the world", has been loved and mistrusted in a way that is unique.

That's my idea of really incisive analysis. I might say, though, that the entirety of Der Ring des Nibelungen trumps Parsifal for the "most extraordinary single achievement in opera." Wagner would detest the term "opera" applied to any of his mature works (i.e., post-Rienzi), but I'll beg his forgiveness. Furthermore, the idea that Der Ring is a multiple achievement is attractive, but it is one story with one set of characters. I'll argue that it is a single work, and it is certainly the most monumental achievement ever conceived for the stage - and it might be the single grandest in all of art; however, there are some buildings (San Marco, Hagia Sophia, and Chartres) that might trump it - but that's another debate.

Of course, if Wagner had written one - and only one - of his major mature works, he would be considered no less a master. Such was Wagner.

Edit: A.C. Douglas suggests changing "post-Rienzi" to "post-Lohengrin." That's probably correct (in fact, it is correct), but I still see Holländer as the moment when Richard Wagner became "Wagner." So, I'll just append this note and let my readers, such as they are, decide for themselves.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

K. 331 and Me

Let me begin by saying that I'm going to use the Köchel numbers where possible, the original K1 versions, not the silly and equally obscure K6 revision. For the most part, the Köchel numbers are infinitely more useful and time-saving than saying, "Piano sonata no. 11 in A major." Look it up if you get confused. With that slightly annoyed preface out of the way, we can get to the meat of the matter.

I am almost in love with K. 331. In my mind, that sonata is one of the strongest proofs for the really towering genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The opening theme (in the Andante), the beginning of which looks like, (danke, Wikipedia)

is simplicity defined. The lyricism and elegance of that theme, and its impressive variations - all of which show Mozart as a man in complete mastery of his craft - is generally never matched in music. Even Beethoven's formidable Hammerklavier impresses with sheer power and muscularity: not this simple, polite theme. Mozart offers a massive come-on, not unlike Bach's aria from the Goldberg Variations. Whatever happens in K. 331, it happens sweetly and cleverly. I'll return to the Hammerklavier, not because you can compare them, but because they are two examples of two different masters at work. After the beginning of the Beethoven work, nothing surprises. Nothing could be that raw and impressive. Mozart makes you wait for the payoff.

I'll suppose that my readers, however many of them there are, are familiar enough with K. 331 that I can skip a detailed explication of the Menuetto and Rondo alla Turca (an Allegretto, as the case seems to be). However, some remarks are in order for the two movements. The Menuetto stays true to its origins in the dance. I think Mozart deviates a little from the classical form of it, but that's another matter where some expert can set me happily straight. It's another delicate, seemingly simple piece of writing that says more in its precision and balance than do many late-Romantic "masterworks." Mozart, if it could be said this way, was the master of the mot juste. He does not belabor any point in K. 331.

The Rondo alla Turca, one of the more-famous pieces of his (i.e., it has penetrated the usually impenetrable world of popular culture in a way reserved for some Bach, one movement of one concerto by Vivaldi, some Beethoven, and some Handel) is - at first blush - a showy, exuberant example of "Turkish music." Listen to it again, though. Is there a single phrase out-of-balance? Is there a note that doesn't seem perfectly placed. This movement, while this could be said of any of them, really gives truth to Salieri's comment from Amadeus (definitely in the film, but it could be in the play; however, my copy is about 100 miles away): "And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall."

That, I suppose, is why I really love K.331. It's perfect, but it isn't a glittering perfection like a hand-cut diamond. It's the sort of perfection that comes into existence on its own. It, despite the sweetness and lyricism of the sonata, is a perfection that is elemental. It has always been there and it always will be. On scope, this sonata (for me, and others can disagree) is as monumental as anything else in music - and the better of most solo keyboard music after Bach. This sonata, little, simple K.331, is really so perfectly balanced that it is like building a skyscraper on one glass pillar. It could be done, but only a genius of a structural engineer could do it and do it well.

That's Mozart. While I am not the biggest fan of some of his operas and more than a few of the symphonies that I have heard (not all), K.331 will always ensure him a place in my personal musical pantheon. To say nothing of the rest of his major works.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Modern Classical "Essentials" and Me

I really don't think in these "best-of" terms, but Terry has asked me to sort of give my primer of must-have discs for modern classical. I suppose this gets into the issue of "what's modern?" I don't have an answer, so I'll just say that anything between the Second Viennese School and 2007 counts. Frankly, I should say anything between Tristan and the rise of minimalism is modern, but that's just not how it works. We'll see. If you love, hate, or otherwise feel feelings about this list, let me know.

György Ligeti: Études pour piano, books I and II (Aimard '96, Sony Classical)
: Atmosphères (Abbado/WP '88, DGG)
: Lux aeterna (Franz '68, DGG)

Pierre Boulez: Le Marteau sans maître (Boulez '02, DGG)
: Pli selon pli (Boulez '69, Sony Classical)
: ...explosante-fixe... (Boulez '05, DGG)
: Notations (Aimard '05, DGG)

John Adams: Shaker Loops (De Waart '83, Philips)

Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa (Kremer et al., 1984)

Philip Glass: The Fog of War [soundtrack] (2005)

Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms (Boulez '99, DGG)

Steve Reich: Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards (De Waart '83, Philips)

Louis Andriessen: De Staat (De Leeuw '06, DGG iTunes exclusive)

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mantra (Mikhashoff et al. '88, New Albion)

Obviously, I'm not on the cutting edge of the avant-garde, if that's even possible anymore. However, this list of music will likely give you a solid-enough grammar of modern music to feel comfortable exploring the milieu. Obviously, I'm ignoring the central clique in post-Webernian serialism (the Darmstadt School, other than Boulez and Ligeti), preferring to concentrate on the primary force in music in the last third of the 20th century: the minimalists, or (in the case of Andriessen) post-serialists. Even Ligeti was his own composer, getting out of the Boulez-Darmstadt clique and finding new solutions to the problems of modern music. I suppose I could include Berio, Maderna, and Xenakis, but it doesn't seem worth the effort.

My problem with Terry's request is that, frankly, I've spent more time obsessing over Pierre Boulez' music and its implications than most other composers of the modern era. Boulez fascinates me not only because of his musical grammar, but because of the snaky, barely-restrained menace that lurks beneath the surface. His music is so controlled, so planned, that it gives the impression that it's entirely ready to snap and release a cacophonous rage quite out of Lovecraft. Ligeti is another one that I simply adore, as his music is so unique and so unabashedly experimental. Who else could write Lontano and Selbsportrait mit Reich und Riley? The minimalists are fascinating, but they're not as engaging (except, perhaps, Andriessen, who pushes the boundaries of politics and music - especially in De Staat) as some of the more experimental or simply "interesting" composers.

However, as in many things, I'm at least twenty years behind, so I have no idea what modern - i.e., contemporary - music is doing these days. Something with computers, I'm sure.

Reference Tracks

I remembered, having been distracted after the fact, that - despite a lengthy and technical (sort-of) piece on headphones - I did not list my reference tracks and works.

1. Gustav Mahler, Symphony no. 8, DSO-Berlin (Kent Nagano, DHM)
2. Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold, Staatsoper Stuttgart (Lothar Zagrosek, Naxos)
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano sonata no. 11 in A, Mitsuko Uchida (Philips)
4. Elton John, "Postcards from Richard Nixon," The Captain and the Kid
5. Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg-Variationen, Pierre Hantaï (Mirare)
6. György Ligeti, Étude 13. L'escalier du diable: Presto legato ma leggiero, Aimard (Sony)
7. Robert Schumann. "Mit Myrthen und Rosen," Peter Schreier and Andras Schiff (Orfeo)

These tracks, even in 128 kbps AAC (I'm not sure about MP3), will do a pretty good job showing what your 'phones are capable of. I think there's a pretty good mix of vocal (both solo lyric, operatic, and choral), orchestral, and instrumental in there. The one pop song on the list, Elton John's strange and strangely addicting "Postcards from Richard Nixon," is pretty good for putting 'phones through their paces. Sir Elton has been crafting pop that earns the name, and - while he probably can't stand against Wagner, Mozart, Bach, and Mahler, his stuff is better than most popular music out there today.

For the record, the song my computer alarm plays every morning at 7:45 is "Postcards from Richard Nixon."

I would never ask you to do anything I wouldn't.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Not to be snarky...

Jonathan of Wellsung asks a humorous question:

Now and then it's amusing to consider what would happen if you gave a bunch of immensely pretentious undergraduate theater students a wad of cash, a huge scene shop, and a wildly impenetrable text.

To be fair, aren't all undergraduate theater students "immensely pretentious?" Isn't that, you know, the point? However, if you stray from Brecht, Williams, or maybe O'Neill, things get dicey. Mention Harry Kupfer (at the Komische Oper, Unter den Linden, or Bayreuth) or Nikolaus Lehnhoff, and you'll get a blank stare. That is, if they don't try to re-frame the debate in their own terms.

While I am an undergraduate, I do love shutting my colleagues down with this question:

So, do you think Christoph Schlingensief's production of Parsifal re-imagines Wagner's music-drama in such a way that it is dramatically consistent? More so than any of Wieland Wagner's ur-minimalist productions?

Works every time.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Critical Reading Skills

Lisa Hirsch has decided that Patrick Smith (though, not, as she is quick to add, the Patrick Smith who edited Opera News) "doesn't see the Vienna Philharmonic's hiring practices as bigoted."

Is the Wiener Philharmoniker bigoted? The comments of their officials and other members say as much, and they certainly aren't offering tenure to boatloads of women. However, unless the Austrian officials decide to do something about it, there's not much to say. The Wiener Philharmoniker is ostensibly "private." They make a big deal about their autonomy and the absolute control which their members enforce over the organization.

So, here we are: some folks think that the Wiener Philharmoniker refuses to offer positions to Wiener Staatsoper players who are women or minorities, but it seems that the Wiener Philharmoniker is a private club (for lack of a better word). What's to be done? What can be done? So, then, that's where we're at: it seems to be a fact, but it doesn't seem like there's a solution in the offing.

Then, I ask, does it really even matter? A problem without a solution is just a curiosity. Is it anti-Austrian to say that this just proves, time and time again, that America has surpassed the rest of the world in matters musical? It does.

Edit: I doubt I would have bothered writing such an involved post, expressing the futility of complaint in this situation, if I'd recalled that this post was up on the main page. So, there: I've not only admitted elsewhere that their hiring practices are "unfortunate," but I've also expressed doubt at the rationale for their practices.

Windgassen singt

Deutsche Grammophon has apparently rereleased Wolfgang Windgassen Singt Wagner. This has the singer doing more or less a recital of some major Wagner Heldentenor bits. From the looks of things, this was a collection of recordings from the 1950s (though some expert should correct me, if I am wrong, and I'll fix it here). It is splendid to have Windgassen doing some "big numbers" in fine voice and on a good recording.

Frankly, I'd really rather have a reissued Windgassen disc than a thousand Domingo and Heppner sets. They're both fine tenors, but hearing Windgassen do "Nur eine Waffe taugt" should show the listener that neither of them have anything on a golden age Wagnerian. There is an intelligence and drama that theater-trained Wagnerians from that period (and the one preceding it) have that no-one has today. Those singers couldn't retreat into the studio to do works that they couldn't handle on stage (though Domingo has done Parsifal in Vienna); they had go out there and face an audience musically literate and passionate about music. Do a bad job, and the recent tantrums thrown by singers over the audience would look mild.

Windgassen is a known quantity, but that disc should get a spin from interested parties just to hear what a mighty Wagnerian with talent sounds like.