Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Festspiele in the house

Unless you're Alex Ross, or someone similarly well-connected on the Green Hill, it might be a little tricky to secure tickets to the Bayreuther Festspiele. Not just for this year. Any year. I'm almost tempted to start writing for tickets now, so I can be still relatively young and active when my name comes up for the ability to purchase. I'm also banking on Katharina to take over for Wolfgang, which should thin out the old-timers a bit. In any event, it's just not practical to run to the Festspiele every year - so I've prepared a set of recordings (all Bayreuth) that will keep everyone busy all month.

Der fliegende Holländer: Joseph Keilberth, 1955 (Testament)
This is another one of the treasures from Testament's spate of Decca stereo releases from Joseph Keilberth's performances at Bayreuth in 1955. Unlike his Ring, though, it saw the light of day in mono releases intermittently until Testament showed us what really went on in the Festspielhaus. Hermann Uhde is a Holländer for the ages: he really captures the torment necessary to bring the character off well. A first-rate recording.

Tannhäuser: André Cluytens, 1955 (Orfeo)
This is a good version of this one with a solid cast, but Tannhäuser isn't one that I've particularly taken to heart. Of the "Early Three," Holländer is my preferred choice. Still, Cluytens turns in a fine account of a score that does have moments of really beautiful music. Wieland Wagner opted for the mixed version (Paris Act 1, Dresden Act 2), which is a reasonable choice, if somewhat odd in my humble estimation. A very nice reading of a sometimes-tricky score.

Lohengrin: Eugen Jochum, 1954 (Melodram)
This has been my preferred Lohengrin for some time. It is a very solid, reasonable account of an opera that tends to get overlooked. Good "Golden Age" cast, excellent playing, and reasonable sound. A very good choice for this one. Nothing too fancy or out-of-left-field, though one would never expect that from Eugen Jochum. Just good, old-fashioned Wagner.

Tristan und Isolde: Karl Böhm, 1966 (Deutsche Grammophon)
The fundamentally nervous, restless nature of this music-drama fit Karl Böhm's style perfectly. He's still quick, but it doesn't seem as out-of-place here as it does in the Ring. It also benefits from fine stereo (It was 1966, after all) and a sort of dream cast in Nilsson and Windgassen. It would be hard, overall, to best Furtwängler's EMI set, or Kleiber's later set for DGG, but Böhm seems to be a little more in his element with this one.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Wilhelm Furtwängler, 1943 (Music & Arts)
This recording is famously incomplete, and a 1943 recording from Bayreuth isn't going to be something to show off the new hi-fi set with anyway. It is still, despite weaknesses in the casting, the best treatment Wagner's orchestration has received. Furtwängler was a great Wagner conductor, but never got the chance get his conception of Wagner's world down on record, in good sound, and completely. Still, it's worth a listen to see how a truly great Wagner conductor viewed Wagner's only comedy. (Hint: Surprisingly lightly, though he doesn't water things down).

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Joseph Keilberth, 1955 (Testament)
This Ring is the one that could. Testament led off with Siegfried, a traditional weak spot for many conductors, which was anything but for Keilberth. Since then, each installment has shown itself to be of magnificent quality - both in performance, interpretation, and recorded sound. It has a true "Golden Age" cast, and some of the singers whose voices would be shaky for Solti (Hotter, mostly) are in full prime. Really, the only competition to Keilberth comes from Hans Knappertsbusch's 1956 set. Keilberth's stereo sound and somewhat fleeter interpretation (though no Böhm or Boulez) tip the scales in his favor in my opinion.

Parsifal: Hans Knappertsbusch, 1962 (Philips)
This record needs no introduction and certainly no comment. This is, to me, a contender for "greatest Wagner record," and it only meets serious competition from Rafael Kubelík (and maybe Thielemann, though I find that one a bit too distantly recorded for my tastes).

If that doesn't get you your fill of Wagner, then you probably have already heard all of those and have your own favorites. Probably obscure favorites, too, like Silvio Varviso's 1974 Meistersinger. Still, those records represent - often as not - Wagner performance that you'll be hard-pressed to find today.

If you end up needing a break from Wagner, check out this disc (if you can get it quickly). Yet another really great Salzburg set, and another good Orfeo festival set.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Thielemann's Rheingold

So, we're now about an hour and forty-five minutes into Christian Thielemann's performance of Das Rheingold today. I might suggest that this is, roughly, akin to his Parsifal - where the orchestra is the real star of the show. The singers, of course, for the Wiener Staatsoper performances were considerably better than the Bayreuth cast. It might be the Bayern 4 feed, but Alberich strikes me as a bit nasal for my taste. I have no greater complaints, but this probably isn't a cast for the ages.


From the sounds of the applause immediately after the conclusion, the audience seemed to enjoy this Rheingold. All things considered, it was not a bad performance over the air. Thielemann took right about 2h30m to get through it, which is a pretty down-the-middle timing for this one.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Swing...and a miss.

A.C. Douglas collects the audience and critical response to Katharina Wagner's Meistersinger.

Alex Ross has some other stuff, with links to pictures of the production.

From my glancing understanding of this production, I have only this to say: Withdraw. The. Production. Now.

I lied: I have more to say. It isn't even Regietheater. It's just a confused, muddleheaded mess that is masquerading as a flop. Bayreuth has seen some real flops, and this would have to get better to be a dramatic flop. Is it true that Greek comedy often involved manually controlled, oversized phalloi? (No pun intended.) Yes. Is Die Meistersinger der Nürnberg a Greek comedy? What a profoundly stupid question: of course not. If Wieland Wagner's 1956 production was die Meistersinger without the benefit of "being" in Nürnberg, then this is a Meistersinger without the benefit of being remotely intelligent.

If Richard Wagner had wanted Sixtus Beckmesser to be the hero, and not Walther von Stolzing supported by the wise Hans Sachs, he would have written Die Meistersinger that way. Beckmesser, while not unsympathetic for various reasons, is the villain. Anyone with a libretto or familiar with the story knows why. Wagner made the point that true art is true art, whether or not it follows the "rules" as some might interpret them. That is, though, not entirely his final point and people tend to get hung up on Sachs' (and the townsfolk's final words)* What Richard Wagner didn't want, I know this because he was very specific about what he did want, is for his great-granddaughter to go turn everything upside down, introduce foolish staging and acting, and then produce it on the Green Hill.

This production, to my eyes, makes Harry Kupfer's conclusion to Götterdämmerung look brilliant, sane, and utterly consonant with the text and spirit of the work. Forget this: I'm going to listen to Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna again. I'm only headed for apoplexy with this line of thought, and Boulez might calm me down.

On the plus side, I dare warrant that - after ten or fifteen years of Fraulein Wagner's direction - I might be able to get tickets to the Festspiele. Assuming the Freistaat Bayern hasn't stepped in to correct the situation.

*Though, you might want to read them. What he says is this: polities come and go, but art lasts. Furthermore, if you want to avoid bad government, then you might want to follow the Masters' lead. To wit, and apologies for the size, but you can find this text elsewhere:

Habt Acht! Uns dräuen üble Streich': / zerfällt erst deutsches Volk und Reich, / in falscher wälscher Majestät / kein Fürst bald mehr sein Volk versteht, / und wälschen Dunst mit wälschem Tand / sie pflanzen uns in deutsches Land; / was deutsch und echt, wüsst' keiner mehr, / lebt's nicht in deutscher Meister Ehr'. / Drum sag' ich euch: / ehrt eure deutschen Meister! / Dann bannt ihr gute Geister; / und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst, / zerging' in Dunst / das heil'ge röm'sche Reich, / uns bliebe gleich / die heil'ge deutsche Kunst!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Schoenberg's Complaint

"I should be very, very sorry if I had to realize, that you do not only not pay attention to the respectfull [sic] way in which I am accostumed [sic] do be treated as a person of international reputation, but not even for the time which I have spent on this occasion."

Letter: Arnold Schoenberg to Irving G. Thalberg, 6 December 1935.

Alex Ross has an illuminating post about the time Arnold Schoenberg almost composed the score for a filmed adaptation of The Good Earth. Though he died of septicemia later that month, one would think that Alban Berg would have been a better choice to compose Filmmusik than Schoenberg, though that's a fairly unfunny joke.

All I can say is that Schoenberg must have been a pretty difficult chap. He has an "international reputation," and he is not going to be ignored, Irving. In the avant-garde musical milieu of Vienna before the Anschluss, after which there was no avant-garde anything in Vienna, Schoenberg was a pretty big deal. His Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen was a powerful force for new music. Other modernist figures like Webern and Berg were central figures, too, in that "club." Schoenberg, pace Boulez, wasn't dead yet. Quite the opposite.

In Hollywood? That's another story, and one senses the situation from Schoenberg's miffed response.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I am somewhat amazed that Pliable has taken up the banner of Bruno Maderna: he has praised his interpretation of Mahler's 9th, and now he has a lengthy post about Maderna and Pierre Boulez' memorial composition, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1974-5).* I am really impressed that Maderna, both his influence and his legacy, is being explored in such depth. The Darmstadt school has been, to a greater or lesser degree, either forgotten or transcended by critics and composers alike.**

Maderna, though, wrote music less obsessively rigid and more accessible, insofar as Darmstadt music is or was "accessible," than Boulez and music more sane than anything by Karlheinz Stockhausen. His Quadrivium (1970), performed on DGG's Echo 20/21 series by his famous student Giuseppe Sinopoli and (if I recall) the NDRSO forces required is a fine, fine piece. It is a shame that Maderna isn't more well known, but Boulez' Rituel at least keeps the memory there. Boulez worked in some very Maderna-esque percussion, which - though percussion and percussive sounds featured heavily in mature Boulez - wasn't exactly his thing.

An interesting piece, in any event, and an interesting project (i.e., raising Maderna's visibility).

*If you're interested in this piece, then you should check out the composer's recording on Sony, or Michael Gielen's interesting pairing with the Mahler 9th and Boulez' Notations.

**Though, there is a really bizarre article I'm thinking of in Contemporary Music Review, "Gay Darmstadt: Flamboyance and Rigour at the Summer Courses for New Music," which I might look into as time and access permit. If they can't contribute to modern music, gender studies seem like the next best thing.

Give Der Ring a chance

Thanks to an anonymous comment here, I have found Jad Abrumad's program on Wagner's Ring, "The Ring and I: The Passion, The Myth, The Mania." It is an interesting approach, which more or less explores the plot of the Ring, the music, Wagner, and modern responses. I'm fairly sure that none of the interpretations will be new to those who know the Ring, but it's a nice program nonetheless.

If you're really interested in what Wagner's doing and how it works, then you might want to check out Deryck Cooke's An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen. His interpretations aren't exactly traditionalist - nor is his incomplete I Saw the World End, but it's entertaining and engaging for what it is.

"Once I became afraid of my child..."

That quote, from the second act of this week's episode of This American Life, "Special Ed," deals with a mother whose son (with a severe genetic disorder) had some profoundly disturbing emotional and behaviorable problems. They mentioned that the child was put on Zyprexa. That should say something, since that drug is a pretty powerful antipsychotic.

I don't make any secret of my affection for Ira Glass' This American Life. Of all the programs on the radio today, it is one of the most intelligent, sensitive, witty, and - often - downright funny. Now, the format and the style has left the show open to criticism. The Onion, in particular, had a savage and dryly witty parody, here:
This American Life host and producer Ira Glass began work on the project in 1995 in Chicago, where he found himself inspired by and catering to an audience of professionals who dine out frequently and have a hard time getting angry. Glass and his team of producers, writers, and interns set about the exhausting task of gathering all available information on a range of subjects from minor skirmishes with the law to the rewards of occasionally talking to poor people. The raw data was then analyzed, deconstructed, reconstructed, re-deconstructed, organized under a broad philosophical title, and interspliced with musical interludes by rock duo They Might Be Giants.
Despite that, which is probably fair, it is still one of the few reasons that I listen to radio anymore (WNYC's Radio Lab, being another). Now, in the interest of fairness, I should note, as an aside, that I am the sort of person who would like This American Life. I'm not going to go into that, but it's probably the case. They made a smart move making podcasts of the episodes freely available through iTunes. I don't really do the "radio" thing at home, since the mighty Interweb has made it unnecessary, but having the episodes on my iPod for convenient and readily available listening is really nice.

I suppose that, then, this post is about the freely available episodes of This American Life. In an age when entertainment is cheap - cost- and quality-wise - it is nice to see quality programming available for free. Better, too, than the Plain White T's song, "Hey There, Delilah," which I see iTunes is shilling.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like Festspiele

Over at Wellsung, a conversation concerning the Kirov Ring (I don't care how Mariinsky they want to be, they'll always be the Kirov to me) - among other things. We'll concentrate on the Wagner content.

You know it's Wagner season when people start anxiously awaiting the broadcasts from the Green Hill (guilty as charged, here, too). I don't know why, but Wagner season puts a special spring in folks' step. Like the spring to combat whenever someone says, "I thought Flagstad overrated" or "Furtwängler wasn't that good." You'd better have a bottle at the ready if you want to discuss stagings or conducting styles, too, because "[them] fighting words" varies from setting to setting.

In any event, I might review some of the broadcasts, though I bet others do better jobs. Despite that Parsifal, I still have a hard time getting too worked up about Christian Thielemann. I might catch Adam Fischer's Parsifal, though.

Worth a read, and sharing

Any blog post that sends me scrambling for my Oxford Classical Text of Vergil (P. Vergili Maronis Opera) is worth a read. I'll admit, Latin poetry isn't my specialty (philology in general not being my primary course of study, such as I have one), but I know just enough to pick my way through Eclogue II (IV being my favorite, not for alleged Messianic connections, but for its hyper-political context and content). Now, I'm not really making any content comments - on Vergil, Dante, or the interpretations (for various reasons on all three counts) - but this is really the sort of stuff I like to read.

Despite the grim pronouncements of those who oppose 'bloggers, content like this would be hard to find in major magazines. There's hope yet.

As if there ever weren't.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Alan Gilbert in context

Alex Ross provides some interesting context for the appointment of 42-year-old Alan Gilbert as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic. For example, Gilbert is older than Barbirolli (37) and Bernstein (40) were when they took over, the same age as Zubin Mehta (42), and only slightly younger than Pierre Boulez (46). He isn't that much younger than a music director who was one of the greatest conductors of his generation, and who has since become one of the great composers of Germanic tradition: Gustav Mahler, who was 49 when he took the reins.

We'll see.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Half begun, but not entirely well done

Universal Classics, through its Deutsche Grammophon property, has released an iTunes exclusive recording of Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic (his future post) in Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (Sz. 116, if you keep that score), as part of what they once called DG Concerts (Decca, too), but are now marketing as "The Global Concert Hall." While I have (what I consider) some pretty serious issues with Dudamel (namely his somewhat ambiguous role in Chavez' public relations front), but that aside from that, Deutsche Grammophon has missed a great opportunity. Intentionally, I gather, and they're rubbing it in with their new marketing scheme.

What on Earth am I babbling on about, you may ask. As usual, these iTunes exclusives are 128 kbps AAC releases, loaded with DRM software. I'm less-severe toward the AAC codec since, often as not, it does sound better at lower bitrates than a file encoded at the same bitrate in MP3. Still, highly compressed files - laden with software that tells me what I can do with the file - at a cost somewhat more than trivial aren't exactly my thing. In defense of iTunes, they do have some records that are either rare or OOP, plus sometimes I'm lazy and can't be bothered to go to my nearest record stores. Also, the new EMI/Apple collaboration that has yielded the iTunes Plus option, which gives you 256 kbps files, DRM-free, is a good thing. Still, there is a lot of music, hyped and not, that puts the consumer at a disadvantage.

Here's the other thing: consumers can make their own digital recordings of live broadcasts (i.e., concerts), often in pretty good digital sound (assuming, of course, that they make these recordings in compliance with any applicable copyright laws). Online streaming and programs designed to capture those streams can produce recordings in any quality you want and in any concert hall you want - complying with any rights and laws applicable. This gives you a pretty big table, from which you can select a pretty diverse menu of concerts and performers. This is the great hole in the RIAA's totalitarian rights management regime. It always has been, too. The idea of taping live concerts isn't new, and it isn't verboten in every jurisdiction, though you should check - it might not be entirely OK. I'll put it like this: don't be a jerk about it, and obey the laws.

Now, and there's always a "but," I believe in supporting artists whom I like. That means buying things on which they'll collect some sort of royalty or allow them to keep fees up, going to concerts, and so on. I doubt that I am alone on that front. On the other hand, I don't believe in "licensing" recorded material to have a second-class license compared to physical media. I deal with it, because - well - sometimes my wants overpower my rationality. Universal is moving in the right direction, don't get me wrong, but until they (and other major companies) start offering a competitive product, they will always be in the Shadow between the motion and the act.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Vinyl's Place in the New World

Pliable has an interesting post from a Guardian article about the resurgence of vinyl records. Perhaps I spend too much time in online audiophile communities, but I've seen quite a bit about such records in the last few years. If you don't have the best system (or the record isn't out on CD), then vinyl is cheap and available. You can get great bargains on recordings that are really splendid, often paying as much - or less, if you're lucky - as you would for the CD.

I've never put a whole lot of stock in the sonic arguments for records pressed in the digital age, but I'll admit that - on a good system - excellent analog records are hard to beat (i.e., 1960s, but especially into the 1970s) for presence and warmth. In fact, having been able to do some A/B comparisons, I might say that (in some, but not all, cases) the entirely digital recording chain is soulless. Of course, in other situations, it's second to none - and a lot depends on the mastering process. Vinyl is a great option, but I tend to have some faith in modern technology. CDs engineered to sound good often do, but the quality of engineering is increasingly variable.

Also, as to this:
The extract above is from today's Guardian. And the header photo is a view into my soul. It was taken a few minutes ago and shows an LP from Deutsche Grammophon's 1973 Schoenberg, Berg and Webern orchestral set playing on my Thorens TD125. This Second Viennese School overview was played by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and, to my knowledge, has never made it onto CD complete, although I have the 'highlights' CD that was compiled from it in 1999.
The Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern set was matched with a Schoenberg-only disc that consisted of Pelleas und Melisande and Verklärte Nacht. It looks like the disc of the trio has gone out of print, but the Schoenberg disc seems to be where it should. They are fantastic sets, and DGG would - if they were smart, and they generally aren't - reissue the integrale. For some strange reason, Von Karajan shined in the Neue Wiener Schule material.

Richard Nixon's Albert Schweitzer Moment

This document, much in the news lately, details Richard Nixon's good deeds (some of which, such as dolls to sick kids, had been detailed earlier) - including a White House visit for Alexander Butterfield's daughter and phone calls to surviving members of soldiers' families. Nixon apparently wanted these things kept hush-hush.

The document would be a compelling and poignant view of Nixon-the-human-being if, you know, it weren't written by Richard Nixon (to H.R. Haldeman) in an attempt to improve his public image.

More on the Festspiele succession

A.C. Douglas responds to my response to his 'blog entry about the grim prospects for the Bayreuther Festspiele post-Wolfgang.

He comments, à propos my assertion that Wolfgang Wagner is a Regietheater-sort,
The difference between Wolfgang Wagner and his three potential successors in that regard is that Herr Wagner is a "passionate ... supporter of Regietheater" only to the extent that he imagines it will be good for Festspiele business.
Fair enough: point taken. That is, depending on how you look at it, a decent (if slightly misguided) way of keeping the Festspiele solvent and well-attended, or a cynical trashing of some monuments of Western culture for business' sake. Depending on the production, my preferred gloss changes.
His three potential successors, however, are ideologically committed to Regietheater, and that means the end of any restraint on the content and look of that grotesque crap should any one of them become the Festspiele's next Festspielleiter.
Again - there is enough of a corpus of evidence to support that statement (not least the productions staged by the Wagners in question) that there is no sense arguing against it. Nike and Katharina seem to be the wackiest, but I am not terribly familiar with Eva's work. At this point, the three leading candidates (plus one that I'll discuss below) are all tarred with a brush that would make Patrice Chéreau look downright reactionary.

The one figure in this that neither Mr. Douglas nor your author have discussed (in this go-'round) is Gudrun Wagner, Wolfgang's second wife. If reports are correct, and Herr Wagner is not in the best of health, she will likely oversee the transition into the Katharina years (save a rebellion by the Bayreuth board, which would likely require the Friends of Bayreuth to revolt openly and firmly). I would predict that as Gudrun goes so goes Katharina and Bayreuth. We'll see, though. It would be a massive sea-change for the Bayreuth supervisory authorities to resist Wolfgang Wagner's wishes, though it wouldn't be unwelcome.

A brief gloss, too, on Katharina Wagner - I meant that she hasn't committed herself to some left-field things like Nike has (if I recall correctly, staging non-Bayreuth-canon Wagner works and the mentioned other composers' works). Nike's pretty well outlined the Festspiele under her administration, and she'd be hard-pressed to abandon that program. Katharina, artistically, is right behind her, though.

Twilight of the Festival (?)

A.C. Douglas predicts doom and gloom for the Bayreuther Festspiele if one of the three Wagners likely to succeed Wolfgang Wagner does indeed succeed him. He notes,
And why do we forecast doom for Wagner's music-dramas at the Festspiele? All three of these candidates are avid, even rabid, advocates of Regietheater, a.k.a., Eurotrash. In addition, one of them, Nike, has even suggested that the Festspielhaus cease being an opera house that mounts Wagner's music-dramas exclusively, and would open the Festspielhaus to the presentation of operas by other composers.
I might suggest that Nike, despite being Wieland's daughter, is probably not on the top of the list. She has shot her mouth off too many times and has probably made too many enemies. If I had to bet, it will be Katharina or no one. That's no better, but she hasn't had the time to commit herself to something stupid. (She is, after all, only eight years older than me.)

This is not, though, my issue with A.C. Douglas' comments. Not to be a jerk, but I think it's safe to say that Wolfgang Wagner is as passionate a supporter of Regietheater as any director of a major opera house. Indeed, given some of the productions he's mounted, he's probably more of a supporter than most. Let's look at a few of them, shall we:

Der Ring des Nibelungen, Patrice Chéreau, 1976
Der fliegende Holländer, Harry Kupfer, 1978
Der Ring des Nibelungen, Sir Peter Hall, 1983
Lohengrin, Werner Herzog, 1987
Der Ring des Nibelungen, Harry Kupfer, 1988
Parsifal, Christoph Schlingensief, 2004

The Bayreuther Festspiele isn't, in my opinion, doomed because of who will lead it next. It's doomed because Wolfgang has controlled for so long, and - during his tenure - he has allowed and encouraged Regietheater productions that are, often as not, below par by Regietheater standards. No, if this is the Festspieldämmerung, it took Wolfgang's work for the last thirty years to get us to that point. He did, in fact, such a good job that I am not sure if Richard Wagner himself could pull things out of the fire at this point.

But, as the man says, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."

Monday, July 16, 2007

Another brick in the tower

Let me begin this review by quoting, at some length, Robert Levine at
There's always the fear of oversentimentalizing an artist who gave a great deal of pleasure and died young: just take a look at how the English have beatified the plum-voiced Kathleen Ferrier. But in the case of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, each newly discovered recording simply stabilizes her place in the pantheon of great singers.
When I hear a new (or new to me) Lorraine Hunt Lieberson recording, my thoughts tend to run in the same direction. I, though, tend to personalize it: "Do I like this because it's that good, or do I like it because of the tragic context?" Often as not, I tend to think her recordings were just that good. It is, increasingly, a rare thing when singers can really internalize and project the text, and - at the same time - have a gorgeous (luminous and full, in her case) voice. Her Urlicht, from Michael Tilson Thomas' 2004 Mahler 2nd, is a prime example of this: beautifully sung and convincingly interpreted. Another is the recently released Wigmore Hall recital (11/30/1998), recorded by the BBC, with Roger Vignoles on the piano.

The disc opens with Mahler's Rückert-Lieder (1905). Of all Mahler's Lieder, I have the easiest time with the five settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert (originally released with two Wunderhorn settings). I like the Kindertotenlieder, particularly Christa Ludwig's 1975 collaboration with Herbert von Karajan, but I find them somewhat more daunting than the Rückert-Lieder. Hunt Lieberson chooses an interesting order for the songs, putting "Um Mitternacht" and "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" together at the end, instead of opening the cycle with the latter and closing it with the former (like Bernstein and Von Karajan do). That tends to put the emotional climax in "Um Mitternacht" with "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" being a desolate coda. It is an interesting choice, and one with which I do not immediately disagree.

As to the music, Hunt Lieberson shows herself to be a fine Lieder interpreter. She uses the piano versions by Mahler, so she is a bit more on her own, without orchestration to cover up any of her rough spots. Her tone is beautiful, definitely so, but that's not the amazing thing. She turns these pieces into intimate confessions, prefiguring her justifiably famous Ich habe genug, and seems to internalize these works in such a way that she then connects with the audience. She does not tell Mahler's (and Rückert's) story - she makes it her own and then tells it. Really astonishing. Let me put it like this: a reference recording for the chamber Lieder (i.e., pure Lieder) version of the Rückert-Lieder has sat in the BBC vaults since 1998. It might not be to everyone's taste, but I think everyone would agree that it is a powerful dramatic and musical statement. I might say, furthermore, that if she weren't a commanding and in-control technical musician, that she would fall well short of the mark. By the same token, it would be an empty gesture were she not such a superb actor and interpreter.

There is some Handel and a large chunk of her husband's (Peter Lieberson) work. I am not familiar enough with those oeuvres to make a solid judgment, beyond saying that she brings the same intensity, vocal beauty, and intelligence to those works (and the encores) that she does to the Mahler. Her selection, which she introduces in concert, from Ashoka's Dream is particularly powerful. This is a disc I bought for the Rückert-Lieder, but she makes it worth the money for the rest of it. I'm now inclined to get her recording of Lieberson's Neruda Songs from this performance.

Let me sum up this way: a recording like this, released early in an artist's career, would propel them to some degree of stardom (and the astonishment of critics). Released at this point, it is another brick in a tower that has been increased with several impressive new releases. With records like these being released, her loss only becomes more tragic.

My only gripe is the distant recording, like Mr. Levine. As intimate and deeply personal as these interpretations are, the slightly far-away (not bad, but you can tell) recording doesn't quite do them justice. These are Lieder performances, not a staging of Alexander Nevsky. It's OK to mike them a bit closer, though this isn't the first such disc that has made that mistake. Oh, well, I'd rather have the performances in less-than-ideal sound than not at all.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Late Summer Listening Rotation

I saw, today, that I only have about a month before I go back to the ever-exciting and 'blog-conducive college routine. I'm strangely busy this summer, so my 'blogging isn't what I'd hoped it would be. Still, I thought that I'd tide everyone over for a little while with a list of my late summer listening rotation.

Bartók. The six string quartets (Emerson: DGG, 1988)
Haydn. Die Schöpfung (Gardiner: Archiv, 1998)
Bach. Matthäus-Passion (Klemperer: EMI, 1962)
Wagner. Der Ring des Nibelungen (Solti: Bayreuth 1982, private recording)
Mahler. Symphony no. 9 (Klemperer: EMI, 1967)
Beethoven. Symphony no. 9 (Böhm: Profil, 1941/2006)
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Wigmore Hall Recital - 11/30/1998 (WH Live, 2007)
Boulez. The piano sonatas (Biret: Naxos, 1995)
Kirsten Flagstad. Strauss/Wagner recital, 1950 (Furtwängler: Testament, 2007)
Bach. Das wohltempierte Klavier I (Beauséjour: Naxos, 2007)

And no summer would be complete without some mindless pop music, though I'm not inclined to immediate write off Warren Zevon as "mindless."

Maroon 5. It Won't Be Soon Before Long.
Rufus Wainwright. Release The Stars.
Warren Zevon. Stand In The Fire.

Friday, July 13, 2007

I'm with him this time.

Benjamin Ivry writes in Commentary, "Size Doesn't Matter." His "Wagner Without Tears" was a mite under-informed about great Wagnerians of the mainstream who suffered from (as opposed to being supporters of) the NSDAP regime. Still, I agree with his point about weight not mattering in opera.
Opera is an art of freakish, exceptional beings, not of marketing-friendly looks. If we allow unimaginative directors and opera house bosses to censor singers because they are fat, soon older singers will also be banned, and we will miss great autumnal performances like those of tenor Alfredo Kraus, who sang artfully into his late 60’s. Similar “realistic” criteria are already being used to keep singers of color from being cast in opera roles, especially in Europe. So cheer those fat ladies singing—after all, even Mr. Gelb’s Charlotte Church has put on weight.
I don't see why he's bringing up Kraus, though. Domingo is pushing 70 and is still, last time I heard, singing Parsifal. That makes loads of sense. Oh, yeah.

In any event, when you let marketing types into the "talent" side of music, this is what you get. Granted, there's a line, when the artist's weight becomes distracting to a majority of the people in the seats. A disturbing number of productions of most stuff, these days, are so overwrought and "stage-y" (i.e., painfully unsubtle) that the singers could be as fat or thin as they please and it wouldn't matter. In fact, it might even give the audience something less egregious at which they might look. Most directors, furthermore, should demand obese singers, as they could blame their infelicities on the heavyset artists.

When most major productions are ideal, or very close thereto, then talk to me. Until then, there are bigger problems than big artists.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

It's HIP to be demanding

Pliable quotes the autobiography of the late John Drummond, who was the BBC Controller of Music and director of the Proms, on Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Apparently, Sir John is a bit on an enfant terrible. To wit:
One year Gardiner persuaded me to accept a performance of the Bach B minor Mass without soloists, using members of his own excellent Monteverdi Choir for the solos. Much as I admired the choir, I was not entirely sure that individual members could carry such major parts in such a big building. However, I need not have worried. Without reference to the Proms office or any regard for the financial implications, Gardiner changed his mind and booked a roster of five distinguished soloists which cost me thousands. He was quite unapologetic, and I was considered impertinent to have questioned his judgement. His judgement was probably correct; his manner of achieving it was unacceptable.
You know, this really surprises me. I always assumed, I suppose, that the HIP crowd was a fuzzy-sweater bunch, sitting around over a fine port, discussing the merits of real catgut and witty banter about Beethoven's metronome markings. Or you know, telling amusing anecdotes about the singer who flubbed the opening bit to Monteverdi's Vespro.

Apparently not. Apparently, they're just like everyone else.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Oh, come on. Please.

The fine 'blog Mostly Opera, which I hadn't known of until now, tells me that René Pape has cancelled Sachs in Berlin next year. Our author expresses her hope that Pape isn't having second thoughts about the heavy Wagnerian bass-baritone roles. That is, will he still sing Wotan?

I'll say this, of the last two generations of Wagnerian basses, in my book, only John Tomlinson and René Pape have the pipes and acting ability to carry off roles like Wotan and Hagen. To put it another way, they don't embarrass themselves next to Friedrich Schorr, and often acquit themselves quite well. Tomlinson has proved his ability to sing Wotan (being a standout in Barenboim's Ring, and - moreover - a splendid Hagen for Haitink, in fact, one of the few reasons to seek out that Götterdämmerung). Pape has sung the part of, well, God. Let me justify that, he did the parts of the voice of God in Welser-Möst's recording of Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln* (EMI, 1998).

He can do it. Pape should sing Wotan, preferably at Bayreuth (with an equally outstanding cast), with Peter Schneider, Daniel Barenboim, or James Levine at the stick, and every record company should fall all over themselves to get it. Wishful thinking? Yes. A modern Ring that has a chance? Assuredly. A good idea? Absolutely.

* I really do need to write about Das Buch. I've had it on my mental to-do list ('blog section) for a year now. It's been too long.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

An alarming oversight

Saturday, 7 July 2007, marked the 147th birthday of Gustav Mahler. I was distracted last Saturday with some unpleasantness, and I didn't catch my oversight until today.

is a Mahler timeline. Neat, if you wanted to know the events of Mahler's life in musical and cultural context.

Monday, July 09, 2007


Michael Lodico of Ionarts reviews Boulez' starkly modernist program from the Aix-en-Provence festival (7 July 2007). As often as Boulez is in Chicago doing Bartók, in fact he's leading Uchida in the 3rd piano concerto in February, I've never caught one of his shows.* He did really splendid Bartók piano concertos 1 and 3 with Daniel Barenboim and then a complete cycle with three different pianists (Zimerman, Andsnes, and Grimaud).

Still, having Bartók and the principals of the Second Viennese School in one place under Boulez would be an interesting experience. As influenced as Boulez obviously was by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, I think that it would be difficult to put Boulez in context without Bartók. The rhythmic side of the older composer, coupled with the barely restrained rage - metaphorically speaking (yes, I'm falling victim to the pathetic fallacy) - of his music show through in Boulez. The violence of the ending of Bartók's first piano concerto would be at home in Boulez' oeuvre. Throw into that his Webern, Berg, and Schoenberg (in descending order of influence), and you've got the primordial musical soup whence Boulez sprang. More or less, I'm guilty of oversimplifying - a little bit. Of course, his unyielding ideological positions and ability to find the least-palatable (to his opponents, never really his supporters) way to put those positions made him something more than even Schoenberg was. Schoenberg made atonality and serialism seem attractive and logical. Boulez made it necessary if you wanted to be "avant-garde."

In any event, it must have been one nice concert.

And, yes, I'm consciously trying to "cut" the off-topic content of the last few posts. While culture as a whole generally concerns this 'blog, I would rather stick to musical culture. I just don't have the stomach for the rest of it anymore.

*I might (i.e., if at all possible) go to the Bartók concert, as I am a loud(ish) fan of Boulez and a quiet Uchida fan.

Nancy Pelosi, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you

This is my last politically themed post. There's nothing left to say: everyone inclined to intersect with reality on occasion knows how bad things are.

Do it.

Do it now.

Cut the funding. Bring the troops home. Hold them in contempt of Congress. Resolve the articles and send them to the Senate. They are not obeying their oaths to uphold the Constitution. In fact, they mock the Constitution at every step and at every opportunity.

Pure, murderous evil though it was, at least they voted on the Ermächtigungsgesetz.

This makes it harder

Alex Ross has praise for the iPhone. Like I said, this makes it harder for me to despise the iPhone as I once did. Alex Ross is usually pretty right about things.

Now, don't get me wrong, I use an Intel iMac, an iPod, and am generally a fan of Apple products. Still, I just don't like the iPhone. First of all, I cannot stand Ma Bell*: the Justice Department's antitrust breakup of AT&T has clearly failed, but now AT&T offers less service at a higher price. That's progress. My thoughts on the deal are detailed below, but I'll let it suffice to say that the soul-crushing telephone company and the free-spirited computer-company-that-could are strange bedfellows.

My other objection to the thing is that things that try to do everything end up being a pain. The iPod - though not until recently if you were a classical fan - did one thing really well: it played lots of music without much fuss. Then, it added video. OK, not a super-problem, but it got a bit trickier. Now, a phone, touchscreen, camera, and all the other stuff. Add to this, the obscene media groveling to a phone. Now, Apple gets "media darling" status anyway, but - let's be fair - some of this coverage is over-the-top. And, in some cases, over-the-top and back again.

Ross' endorsement makes it harder for me to loath the iPhone as much as I do, but I'm still keeping my BlackBerry 8830. I'll just go from table-pounding iPhone antipathy to quiet snark whenever it's brought up.

*I have a soft spot for the old Indiana Bell and I use Verizon, the product of Bell Atlantic, NYNEX, and Vodafone.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Motu proprio heard 'round the world

Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio, Summorum pontificum, which lifted the major restrictions, while denying that the restrictions ever existed, on the Mass of John XXIII (1962). If you have Latin, you can read the whole thing here. If you don't, then you'll have to make do either with this translation or the Holy Father's cover letter. To sum up, what Benedict has done - more or less - is revert to the Vatican position (first held under John Paul II) that the 1962 liturgy was never banned, and that the 1975 Missale Romanum is still "the" Forma ordinaria. In this regard, Benedict isn't saying anything new. Benedict has, however, said that priests may privately celebrate Mass according to the 1962 books, that people who want to be admitted to these Masses should be, and - if there are enough people in a parish who want such a Mass - the priest really should give it to them. He also said that, if the parish priest won't give the 1962 Mass to a group who wants it, then they should complain to the local bishop - who should help them.

Here's Benedict's major permission (in Latin):
Proinde Missae Sacrificium, iuxta editionem typicam Missalis Romani a B. Ioanne XXIII anno 1962 promulgatam et numquam abrogatam, uti formam extraordinariam Liturgiae Ecclesiae, celebrare licet.
Fine. Wonderful. This is, I suppose, as close to the universal indult, for which conservative and traditionalist Catholics have yearned as Benedict is going to get. It was a bit of a cop-out to say, "Well, uh, we never banned it, so it's OK to say it." Anyone who has followed the story of the traditional liturgy knows how little support it has received from the Church hierarchy. Still, Benedict has pretty well settled the matter.

My thought on this is simply this: Benedict is making one last ditch effort to get Lefebvre's Society of Saint Pius X back in the fold. That break, which happened when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF; Cardinal Levada's job now) was a major and fairly traumatic event. To 99.9996% of Catholics, it's a non-issue, but don't think the hierarchy hasn't given some thought to the problem. Most Catholics interested in the 1962 books are pretty well formed up and pretty well served. This seems like an attempt to get the remaining traditionalists served and get the reasonable schismatics back in line, especially since they have valid - but not licit - apostolic succession, a problem for a lot of the ultra-conservative schismatic sects.

Not musically related, but still interesting and important in its own way.

Speaking of Parsifal

I am a latecomer to Rafael Kubelík's 1980 Parsifal, but I am a convert, too. I might say that this recording, originally made for Deutsche Grammophon but shelved to protect Herbert von Karajan's recording of the same, is the best studio version of the score. Hans Knappertsbusch's 1962 recording for Philips has the live title, and it might have the overall title - but I'll get to that in a minute. Kubelík is, to my mind, one of the greatest and most under-appreciated conductors of his age. Like Karl Böhm, he was overshadowed by his Deutsche Grammophon colleague, Herbert von Karajan; again like Böhm, he was responsible for some of DGG's greatest records. Kubelík's Mahler (both on DGG and in contemporary live recordings now out on Audite) has a good reputation among the Mahler fanatics. His Mahler 1st is still a reference recording of that score.

Still, Kubelík's reputation as a Wagner conductor is not what it should be. He manages to wring a great performance out of the Bayerischen Rundfunks forces. This recording digs in and lets the music do the talking - the only Parsifal longer in my collection is Barenboim's. Like the greatest Wagner conductors, though, Kubelík suspends the rules of time. What should be four-hour tour through Wagner's densest and most complicated single opera flies by the listener when it's supposed to and slows to an ecstatic crawl when it's supposed to. Kubelík makes it work. He has a superb sense of tempo, phrasing, and the long line. Really, the only person who bests Kubelík is Knappertsbusch. It has been pointed out, though, that Knappertsbusch's Wagner style could trace a direct line of descent to Wagner - through one stop with two tracks: Hans Richter and Siegfried Wagner. If I wanted to be glib, I could say that Knappertsbusch's Wagnerian grandfather was Richard Wagner himself. It's hard to beat that.

Kubelík's cast, too, is probably the best of its age. James King sings Parsifal, as he did for Pierre Boulez in 1970, with the same echt-Heldentenor tone and phrasing that he had at his best. King, as I have said before, bore the torch of Melchior - a deep, baritonal tenor that had ringing power and reasonable security at both ends. His Parsifal was wonderful for Boulez and better for Kubelík, who wasn't rushing things. Bernd Weikl is a solid Amfortas, though George London for Knappertsbusch or Falk Struckmann for Thielemann might be preferable. Kurt Moll was no Hans Hotter, who is - to my mind - one of the six or seven really great Wagnerian basses; still Moll is a sensitive and powerful Gurnemanz. At the time, and until René Pape records it, he was and is probably the best available. Franz Mazura's Klingsor is probably the best of the modern interpretations, too. Sinister and powerful, in his own way. He was over the hill for Gunther in 1980 (Boulez), but had the voice for Klingsor. He knows how to make wizard with the poor judgment the figure of fear and revulsion he is to the Grail knights. Yvonne Minton's Kundry does the job, and is miles ahead of Gwyneth's "interpretation" or Waltraud Meier. Irene Dalis was fine for Knappertsbusch, but there's a tendency to take Kundry in a direction that tends too much in the "too far" camp. Matti Salminen was Titurel. No more needs to be said on that account. The only other modern Wagner bass who comes close is John Tomlinson, who was singing for Barenboim ten years later. Well, and René Pape. I'd like to see more from Pape on record, too.

This Parsifal is idiomatic, beautifully sung (despite my criticisms, it is probably the best cast post-Knappertsbusch), and directed by someone with enough respect for Wagner to let Wagner do the talking. Kubelík never got what he really deserved, which was a chance to get the support Herbert von Karajan did and make some really great records. It's in early digital, so it might not be as warm and genial as later recordings, but it is certainly a very well done 1980s-vintage sound. Deutsche Grammophon has, though, in my estimation, often lagged a bit or been downright weird in its sonic side.

In any event, this record - like Keilberth's Ring - is one that was recognized too late. Classic choices for Parsifal come down to this and Knappertsbusch, while modern ones are Barenboim and Thielemann. Choose any one of them, and you'll be fine.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Rheingold Lament

No, not the lament of the Rheintöchter. In fact, it's a lament that could extend to the entire Ring. The Lothar Zagrosek recording of his Stuttgart Ring on Naxos, and Hartmut Haenchen's recent effort on Etcetera are two Rings reasonably well-played and beautifully recorded. EMI, which is in the throes of serious trouble, I understand, has trotted out the largely lackluster Haitink Ring. Philips has reissued Boulez' set, out-of-print on CD for ages. Deutsche Grammophon hasn't done much since Levine's mixed bag from the late 1980s. Decca abandoned its early '90s project with von Dohnányi when things became difficult. Warner (Teldec, if you want to get picky) reissued Barenboim's Bayreuth set. In other words, none of the major classical labels has done much in the way of a Ring in better than a decade. This inactivity is in spite of major advances in recording technology, new delivery vectors, and a wide-open market.

I've harped on this subject before, but it's a disgrace to the major record labels to malinger around with decade-old, if not older, Ring recordings when "minor" labels are attacking what must be the most daunting project imaginable. John Culshaw took a great risk with his Solti Ring project, and he created one of the greatest recordings ever. Perhaps the Bayreuth Festival this year will inspire some bright young thing to return to the tried-and-true strategy of recording live at the Festspielhaus. I'd rather see Peter Schneider do a Ring than Thielemann, who is still spotty, despite that Parsifal.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Administration: Links of Interest

I have made some additions and changes to the Links of Interest. While I may come to regret this, if you have a link you would like me to add, pending finding it "interesting," then feel free to shoot me an e-mail at the link provided in the Links of Interest.

There's always room, I would think, for an interesting site. Even if I overlooked it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Politics: Obstruction

This story, much in the news, reminds me of this quote:

"When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women, when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it turns against humanity and society." (John Paul PP. II)

Crimes committed in thought and word, to say nothing of deed, even in the name of the president of the United States, are still crimes. There is no such think as an "excessive" sentence for those who abuse the public trust and obstruct the people's justice.

At least Richard Nixon had the good sense and the good grace to resign.

Beverly Sills: 1929-2007

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

The great American soprano Beverly Sills died today, aged 78. She was, in addition to her career as a singer, a passionate advocate for the arts and was involved deeply in their promotion in the United States. It is indeed a sad day for opera, music, and - indeed - the arts in America. One does hope, though, that her family takes solace in the joy she brought to millions.

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

Monday, July 02, 2007

More on Alex Ross' book

Mr. Ross has ensured that I know what I'm buying myself for my birthday next year (and to celebrate, the next day, Pierre Boulez' birthday). He has posted the chapter outline of his book, The Rest Is Noise. It seems to be divided into three major periods, the period before the Second World War, the period during (using Hitler's power-grab in 1933 as the beginning), and the period after. That is, to my mind, as sensible as anything else. In any event, take a look at the chapters and see how much grabs your interest. As for me, it all seems interesting. The problem is that I will probably have to read it all at once. Also, look at Ross' chapter on Jean Sibelius; conceptually, to me, Sibelius is the most interesting of them all. He just stopped. Ross explores why and Sibelius' influences on the way things are. The final paragraph:
In 1984, the great American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture at the relentlessly up-to-date Summer Courses for New Music, in Darmstadt, Germany. “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives,” Feldman said on that occasion. “The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.” And he began to hum the Sibelius Fifth.

Worth a read, as usual.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

iPhone assessment (I agree, by the way)

Tim Wu takes the iPhone to task in Slate. It's, for tech writing, a blistering critique by any real measure. Wu says,
It is in some ways astonishing that AT&T and Apple are partners at all. AT&T is the oldest of the old school—the most ancient major high-tech firm in the United States, founded in 1878. Unfazed by spending the last 23 years in suspended animation (after the great breakup of 1984), AT&T is back to its classic business model: own the largest networks and everything on them. Apple, meanwhile, is the original hippie computer company, a child of the 1970s, not the 1870s. At least in its origins, Apple is an ideological foe of IBM and AT&T. (Remember that 1984 ad?) Considering that these firms were born on the opposite sides of the tech Kulturkampf, the iPhone cannot help but be a little strange.
Indeed. Ma Bell and the long-haired idealistic techno-revolutionaries (technolutionaries?) getting in bed over a phone that LG had earlier this year (i.e., the KE850 Prada) is a little strange. What's stranger still is the almost slavish adulation and adoration of the iPhone by a lot of media outlets. It can't do as much as the BlackBerry (and the other smartphones by Motorola and Samsung), and it can't take over lives like those phones. Why get worked up?

Why pay two thousand dollars (phone and contract) for the last horse over the line, when the winners' circle is already crowded?

Another "important" record release

Of the classical labels today, one of the most consistently interesting and "important" is Great Britain's Testament. They brought us a good portion of Joseph Keilberth's work for Decca at the 1955 Bayreuther Festspiele (Der Ring des Nibelungen and Der fliegende Holländer) in excellent stereo. A quick look through their catalog shows important historical recordings and valuable re-releases. I'm not really "partial" to Testament in and of itself; I am, rather, partial to the idea of an independent label doing what the major record companies won't: issuing valuable but likely not profitable recordings.

One such valuable recording is the recent release of roughly 2/3rds of the May 22, 1950, program with Kirsten Flagstad, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and the Philharmonia Orchestra. This concert would, given Flagstad's discography, not be that important - if it weren't the world premiere of Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder. As the date of the concert marked Richard Wagner's 137th birthday, the bulk of it is devoted to Wagner. The concert began with a Meistersinger prelude, the Siegfried-Idyll, then the Vier letzte Lieder rounding out the first "half." In the second half, there was a Tristan prelude and Flagstad singing the finale ("Liebestod," though that isn't the most felicitous name), the Rhine journey from Götterdämmerung and the finale ("Starke Scheite" on to the end, missing "Zurück vom Ring!"). Of that concert, apparently everything except the Meistersinger and Siegfried-Idyll survives. Of course, the disc is most valuable for the Strauss (I'll detail why shortly).

Let me preface my remarks on the Strauss by saying that the sound is, despite having been recorded in 1950, none the best. It is serviceable, and Testament does a nice job cleaning this recording up (maybe even better than the Gebhardt release of the same concert), but you won't want to test your new hi-fi out on this disc. It's foggy and distant, especially in the delicate Götterdämmerung string and woodwind work, and it has a tendency to be bassy and over-favor the percussion in climaxes. But, that's partly the Royal Albert Hall and partly bad acetates made with imperfect recording equipment. It's bad, but it could be worse. Of all the Fächer, the Wagnerian soprano is not one that you'd immediately associate with the Vier letzte Lieder. Gundula Janowitz, under Herbert von Karajan, made an excellent case for a lyric soprano in the material. Jessye Norman, though, makes an equally compelling case (though one that deserves some scrutiny) for a dramatic soprano. Still Flagstad's soaring, powerful, and noble voice works beautifully in the Lieder. "Frühling," though, provides some difficulty. She ducks the high B (viz. the famous high Cs in the 1952 EMI Tristan und Isolde), which you'll want Janowitz or Schwarzkopf to hear in its fullness, but otherwise manages a compelling interpretation. In fact, her "Beim Schlafengehen" and "Im Abendrot" are really nice. From Flagstad's contribution, one could say that it is really wonderful - taking into account her age, Fach, and the material.

Wilhelm Furtwängler was not the Strauss conductor that Böhm, Von Karajan, and - much later - Sinopoli were. Furtwängler excelled in the central Germanic repertoire, like Beethoven and Wagner, among others. His Strauss performances, as a rule, stuck to tone poems like Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung. So, then, one could argue that the Vier letzte Lieder premiere was a departure for Furtwängler. He manages it beautifully with his characteristically warm tone and fluid tempi. His interpretation of the Lieder is on the fast side, more in line with Karl Böhm's later Lisa della Casa set, and - through the dim sonics - one can hear a dense and architectural interpretation. Furtwängler seems to view Strauss through a Wagner lens, which is not incorrect - while Strauss seemed to have an almost-Wagnerian concept of the orchestra, for him it was an end unto itself, not a dramatic device. In any event, the orchestral interpretation has changed, more or less, toward a lighter and more transparent approach (Cf. Pappano's new set with Nina Stemme); so, then, it's interesting to hear Furtwängler in the premiere.

The Wagner stuff is nice, theatrical, and pure Furtwängler. The problem, however, is that it is all available in better sound (even if Flagstad isn't necessarily in better voice) on other releases. I would recommend the EMI set of orchestral excerpts (with the same forces at times), including the Götterdämmerung finale with Flagstad, if you want to hear many of these pieces. There are others too, which make Furtwängler's 1954 death all the more regrettable. For Tristan, the EMI recording has been a reference (despite Ludwig Suthaus) since its release. So, it's helpful to have more of this historic concert - and the Vier letzte Lieder (with these forces, desirable in any context, but more so here) - but the Wagner is not as essential, unless you want to hear these forces live. It's worth it, but you'll still want better-sounding recordings of all this stuff.