Monday, October 29, 2007

Speaking of Alex Ross...

From the 5th November, 2007, New Yorker:
Quantity is the problem: Glass writes faster than most of us can listen. In this respect, he resembles two earlier twentieth-century figures, Paul Hindemith and Darius Milhaud, both of whom shifted in middle age from a brazenly youthful style to a mature, workmanlike one, generating hundreds of semi-interchangeable works. Hindemith was often linked to the concept of “music for use”: if asked to write a piece for three bassoons and ukulele, he would comply, not worrying about the approval of the invisible judges of posterity. In the face of such Stakhanovite productivity, the listener is tempted to throw up his hands in frustration and dismiss the entire catalogue as so much musical scribbling. But it’s worth taking the trouble to discover first-rate pieces amid the reams of pretty good ones. Certainly, no one can deny that Glass possesses an instantly recognizable signature sound; the question now is whether that signature is being produced by automatic pen.
"The Endless Scroll: New Works by Philip Glass."

This is an intelligent and considered piece about one of the most prolific composers of our age, but a composer who - in my view - has been writing (more or less) the same music as long as I have been listening (or, for that matter, alive). Ross' take is worth a read.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Rest is Waiting

Today, having made the effort to go to the bookstore for my semi-monthly CD- and book-buying trip, I was faced with a choice: Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin or Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. My title gives the game away, and I never had any doubt that I would pick up Ross' magnum opus (to-date). I was still torn.

Let me say that, despite the somewhat sensationalist coverage at the author's website, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar is a marvelous book. It can stand with such a tower of prosopography as Sir Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution (1939, repr. variously). I doubt that any more fascinating, comprehensive, and compelling study exists of Stalin and his inner circle at the zenith of his power than Sebag Montefiore's book. Stalin comes off as less of a vicious monster and more of a twisted, insecure, and - above all else - lonely man. One sees that his hardened Bolshevism and Robespierre-like willingness to spill blood toward the end of achieving Communism were balanced by an almost pitiful solitude. It made such an impression upon me that, at this point, his works are on my "Buy, sight unseen" list. No other sweeping historical study since Simon Schama's wonderful Citizens made such an impact.

The Rest Is Noise, though, has been on that list for some time now. Ross won my instant trip, but I did make a note in my handy-dandy notebook to order Sebag Montefiore's volume on Stalin at the earliest convenience.

Now, I just have to get through Ross' book and report my findings.

There's Something About Jane

Nick Scholl, longtime blogger at Trrill, has a piece in the Stranger (Dan Savage's primary home, for what that's worth) about Jane Eaglen and her absence from the 2009 Seattle Ring. He also has this blog post about the piece.

Now, in my other (real) life, I am a college journalist. Google being what it is, and piecing together what else I have said here, you could probably figure out what I do and where. Sometimes I wish that I hadn't said something, or that I had said something I didn't. I also can't cover some topics as heavily (if at all) as I would like in some cases. That having been said, I will stand by my whole page column on Richard Wagner. It might not have been successful, but I said what I wanted.

Now, Mr. Scholl has taken advantage of his blog to reexamine his column on Ms. Eaglen's non-appearance in the 2009 Ring. Good for him. He admitted, to my surprise,
The piece seems not to be my style, exactly. The sentences are choppy, and the whole thing seems to veer in this direction of Attacking Jane Eaglen and Pointing Out Jane Eaglen's Weight. That certainly was not what I intended, but I still do stand behind the real story (which I'm not sure is entirely clear)—Jane Eaglen is one of many singers who have become casualties of a changing art (and, more importantly, business). I wanted to indict the various administrations of opera companies more directly because—let's face it—Eaglen and all her colleagues, great and small, are simply trying to do the best within their particular circumstances.
To my mind, the closest he came to dealing with that issue (i.e., the attack and the weight business) was this,

The increasing pressure for perfection in opera has had plenty of mainstream press. There was soprano Deborah Voigt's gastric- bypass surgery, tenor Jerry Hadley's suicide, and reports of drug abuse—steroids, cocaine, opiates—to cope with overextended schedules and demand for "star quality" (read: hot bods). Opera is an increasingly image-conscious industry, and Jane Eaglen's is a name that conjures a certain size as well as a certain voice.

Even by passé fat-opera-lady standards, Eaglen's girth is problematic. It limits choices for directors (she gets winded just walking on stage) and puts unnecessary strain on her body, which compromises her singing.

Or, a little later,
Now the masquerade is over and Eaglen finds herself in a peculiar spot: a major artist whose body and voice have been pushed beyond their capabilities and usefulness to the stage. Eaglen is getting less work—her schedule lists nothing at the Met and just a few regional houses and concerts—and has devoted more time to teaching at the University of Washington and Seattle Opera's Young Artist Program. Teaching is always a dignified way to bow out.

The opera houses that have employed her in the past won't get off so gracefully. They won't hire her but they can't explain why—they're too polite to say it's her weight, but they are not going to suffer the embarrassment of admitting they were wrong about her voice all along.

I don't necessarily think that Eaglen's voice is all that bad, especially under ideal conditions. Robert Levine, reviewing Daniel Barenboim's 2001 Tannhäuser, had this to say,

Jane Eaglen's Elisabeth is well sung and put forth, and the voice can sound very beautiful, but she's not nearly as moving as, say, Dernesch (for Solti, in her finest recorded role) or Silja (with Sawallisch).
I would say, of modern Tannhäuser sets, Giuseppe Sinopoli's 1989 outing with Domingo in the eponymous role and Cheryl Studer as Elisabeth is probably the best. Barenboim has, of course, René Pape as Landgraf Hermann, which - to my mind - gives the set some horsepower that it wouldn't necessarily have (Listen to his "Gar viel und schön ward hier in dieser Halle," and tell me otherwise). Still, I found Eaglen adequate - to say the least. She doesn't necessarily have the same iron underpinning that Flagstad or Nilsson (for Otto Gerdes with Windgassen) had, but she is no flop. That is, of course, remembering that my Eaglen-experience isn't necessarily that broad or deep.

Mr. Scholl, though, hit the problem on the head with this,
It isn't just Eaglen, though—the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen a boom in singers who can negotiate the florid writing in baroque, classical, and bel canto opera, but a steep decline in the quality of dramatic Wagnerian and verismo singers. There are several reasons why: impetuous young careerists who fly all over the globe and stretch their voices thin, the decline of critical listening and quality training, and the anatomy of current beauty standards—casting tends to favor small, pretty women with small, pretty features that which often correlate with small, pretty voices that are completely unsuitable for stentorian sounds. (Ironically, this is also a problem for Eaglen: For all her girth, her throat and facial structure are average sized.)
There just aren't any great dramatic sopranos left. There are a few really excellent tenors, like Ben Heppner, and some fabulous basses like John Tomlinson (though he's running down the clock) and René Pape; sopranos, though: no dice. Hell, even Thomas Hampson, whom I can ordinarily not stand, has made a solid Gunther (not Hermann Uhde or Franz Mazura). Deborah Polaski? Maybe. Anne Evans? She retired, but - even then - if no one else is around. Hildegard Behrens? Next. You see my point. Look at Flagstad; look at Varnay; look at Nilsson.

My point is this: you have to be happy with what you have to be happy with. Eaglen probably can't stand on the same level as other great Wagnerian sopranos. She is, though, head and shoulders above some of her colleagues. Danielle de Niese's new Handel record (Saints preserve us!) broke my heart, only because William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants were the backup band. You see, from Netrebko to De Niese, that these singers are expected to be sex objects who sing. Well, excuse me if I stick with Jenny Lind or Nellie Melba on such matters. You see, then, that I feel that weight is secondary to voice. If you can't stage a Wagner music-drama because of the physical considerations, then do a concert performance.

Mr. Scholl was, though, spot-on. If the voice can't hack it, then it doesn't matter anymore. Weight is a superficial issue that distracts, gratefully, from the primary problem: the singer can't do his or her job. Ms. Eaglen, though, I believe comes closer than anyone else of whom I know.

If you can't make the live show...

Thanks to A.C. Douglas, et al., for this link to a talk by Alex Ross at Google, discussing The Rest is Noise.

If you cannot, as I said, make the live show, you can watch this. You can also sit, quietly cursing your college's Lecture Committee for not inviting Mr. Ross to campus to discuss his book.

Watch the video. It is pretty sweet, as the kids would say, and it has reminded me that I really need to get to the bookstore and buy Ross' book.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Notes toward a review of the Boulez Mahler 8th

I have now heard both this new recording, and the live aircheck from the Mahler-Zyklus last spring. I need a little more time to listen to both, digest both, and make some notes and comparisons. The studio recording, in particular, deserves attention - as his Mahler 2nd showed, Boulez-in-the-concert-hall and Boulez-in-the-studio seem to be different conductors.

I read an early review, by Dan Morgan at Musicweb International, and one passage jumped out at me.
It’s not just about weight and thrust, of course. Boulez seems to see this music as a precursor to Berg rather than a throwback to the 19th century. In that sense he finds a marvellous poise and transparency in the Faust setting in Part II, especially in the Poco adagio. Rarely has this music sounded so diaphanous. The Staatskapelle Berlin play with real unanimity, their every note and nuance clearly audible. So how does Boulez manage to make this music sound so frigid, so detached? Other conductors find an ethereal ‘otherness’ here without sacrificing overall warmth (Wit especially, with some unexpected sonorities).
In other words, Mr. Morgan is complaining because Pierre Boulez stuck to his well-known program of showing how music tends toward serialism. He did the same thing in Wagner, both in Parsifal and in Der Ring des Nibelungen (both at Bayreuth, as it happens). He has done largely the same thing at times in his Mahler cycle. About the only time where, if he has done it, it hasn't been obvious was his Bruckner 8th. It would be no surprise to find a structurally bare (i.e., architecturally transparent) and emotionally dry-eyed recording of any piece of music with Pierre Boulez at the stick, but - given the evidence - less so with Mahler.

I would not dispute the overall validity of Mr. Morgan's point, but I would, again, wonder why this is a surprise worth any note. Boulez can be startlingly (and happily) unidiomatic at times, like his 1971 performance of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto with Sir Clifford Curzon, but - often as not - he is Pierre Boulez, regardless of the material on the podium. He is not Leonard Bernstein, and he is not Otto Klemperer. There are not going to be any histrionics, nor are there going to be any granitic monuments to his mentor and once-colleague. Boulez is going to follow the score to its most transparent, skeletal conclusion.

I said that I have heard the new studio 8th. It's in line, more or less, with the 2nd of some time ago. That is to say, at first blush, it is very clear and very architecturally delineated. The choral and vocal work is simply fabulous, and - after Daniel Barenboim's 7th and 9th - the Staatskapelle Berlin is showing itself to be a superior Mahler orchestra. It is, though, not Solti's recording or Kent Nagano's.

I think Boulez would rather, like Gustav Mahler himself, be considered a composer who conducts than a conductor who composes. It is, then, natural that his musical ideology and his style will make it to the pieces he conducts. It shouldn't be a surprise. I might say that Boulez might be the only non-Baroque specialist who could effectively sort out the polyphony and various structures of the first part. That clarity alone saves this record. This isn't my review. This is a comment about a review. The most exciting intellectual business of all.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Alfred Kirchner's Götterdämmerung

Deutsche Grammophon, along with Unitel, brought out something like three video recordings from Bayreuth. We got Horst Stein leading Wolfgang Wagner's Parsifal, Daniel Barenboim in some production of Tristan und Isolde, and James Levine conducting Alfred Kirchner's Götterdämmerung. Wagner's Parsifal is a known quantity, and it is probably one of the better productions out there of the work. Modern, but it still makes sense. Kirchner's Götterdämmerung makes more sense to discuss, as it is more interesting on balance. A sticker, on the otherwise sleek and simple cover, informs me that this is "The only filmed opera [sic] from Alfred Kirchner's Bayreuth Ring, [sic] designed by Rosalie." Der Ring des Nibelungen is italicized in English, since it is the name of a major work of art, and it is made up of four music-dramas. Wagner himself called it a "stage-festival play," and if you wanted to be exceedingly reductive, you could say "The only filmed play..." I digress, but I also wonder how a company that has established itself as one of the most respected major classical labels could let the PR flacks get away with that.

Well, then, on to the production. This is, apparently, a rather famous and controversial staging. Time's Martha Duffy put it like this:
Kirchner and Rosalie set out to present a Ring that ignored the political -- mostly Marxist -- approach that has been popular in Europe over the past two decades. Reacting especially to Patrice Chéreau's influential 1976 production, set in the Industrial Revolution, the team rejected polemics in favor of a more classical approach. But they failed to come up with an alternative vision. The modest strength of this Ring is that it leaves the audience with scope to listen and think; the weakness is that the stage is empty of ideas or inspiration.
She went on to say, with a gloriously barbed tone,
Instead, Kirchner and Rosalie offer what is basically a high-tech light show -- perhaps the trendiest and most threadbare gambit now popular in Europe. Some of the stage pictures are inspired, like the glassy, green, undulating * plates that suggest the forest in Siegfried, but too often the choices seem arbitrary. In addition, Kirchner's stage maneuvers are inept. Time and again the cast is left singing directly to the audience -- just like the bad old days when operas were turned into stiff pageants. Some awkward direction will be corrected next year. Bayreuth stages no new productions of Wagner's other operas during the second year of any Ring cycle, wisely using time and money to make improvements, which can be extensive.
And, getting a mite personal,
For now, Rosalie overshadows the direction and even the music with stunningly ugly and capricious costumes. At a press conference she explained that since no one has seen a god or a giant or a dragon, she had to create them from her imagination. In fact the sources are painfully clear. Some influences are evidently classical -- warriors all wear plastic breastplates. Unfortunately they suggest Jean-Paul Gaultier's Paris more readily than ancient Athens. More striking are the costumes containing Oriental references. They make the wearers appear larger -- read fatter -- than they are, a particular pity with a fit and youthful-looking cast. The inspiration seems to have come from Issey Miyake, a master at making small figures look grand. Rosalie received her curtain-call boos in an outfit by the Japanese designer, but his magic touch turned out to be untransferable.
Would I that major magazines covered the arts as closely as this all the time, but I doubt that it's in the cards. Not with Britney Spears now ohne Schatten, so to speak. Getting to the production, though. It seems as though Kirchner and his mononymous colleague took the worst of Harry Kupfer's 1988 production and melded with the best theoretical aspects of Wieland Wagner's Neu Bayreuth style.

That is to say, it is aggressively abstract and futuristic, but it adopts a reserved, minimalist approach. At times, the images can be striking to the point of obsession. The Act II summoning of the Gibichsmannen has one scene in particular that sticks with me: Eric Halfvarson walking around the exultant vassals, every bit the man-in-command and every bit the scheming genius. While I would stop short of Ms. Duffy's critique, I would say that the Kirchner Ring is a collection of very striking, very powerful images. It's not necessarily a coherent staging, in the same way Chéreau's production was, or - even - Kupfer's (and it certainly falls short of the cohesiveness seen in Wieland Wagner's productions). It seems as though Kirchner and Rosalie attempted to use Stanley Kubrick's sweeping and powerful visual sensibility, without the broader narrative themes and directions that Kubrick always had. Even in Barry Lyndon. Especially in Barry Lyndon.

The costumes are distracting and, probably, too abstract for their own good. Chéreau presented the gods as wastrel aristocrats to the end of his own Konzept. Kupfer presented them as scifi-1930s socialites, but the abstraction of Kupfer helped distance him from this sort of comparison. Hips and chests are overemphasized in Rosalie's designs. It is as though she took the theoretical abstractions of various body parts and the purpose of various articles of clothing and just rendered those in material format. Frankly, the designs for Wieland's productions, while weird and stylized (his Heerrufer from Lohengrin is a good example) are seemingly rough antecedents for her work, but she took it too far by half. I like stylized, abstract designs - but there should be some modicum of sense to be found.

Levine's conducting and the cast cannot be faulted. They even look the parts. Wolfgang Schmidt is probably not going to be quite as heroic as he could be, but no tenor, no matter how fit and heroic-looking, is going to live up to the part of Siegfried. Deborah Polaski's Brünnhilde, on the other hand, is suitably godlike and powerful. Indeed, she was the imposing presence on stage that Gwyneth Jones most assuredly was not for Boulez. Falk Struckmann is a solid Gunther, but I am still partial to Franz Mazura's dim, stuffy plutocrat from Chéreau's Götterdämmerung. He was a bit past his prime voice, but his bearing and appearance fit the role to a "T." Eric Halfvarson managed to steal the show as Hagen. He was suitably menacing, without a countenance like Fritz Hübner's sweaty, unshorn, and sloppy performance for Chéreau. One could see Halfvarson inflicting some serious harm, one way or the other.

Anne Schwanewilms, though, deserves some special note. Her first soprano role was Gutrune, at the 1996 Bayreuther Festspiele, and she certainly pulls this one off, despite the staging and costuming issues. Her tall and, frankly, suitable appearance makes Gutrune somewhat more of a presence than in other productions. Rosalie made her look, equally frankly, a bit like Brigitte Nielsen in any of those really bad 1980s movies. There was possibility there for such an elegant and poised presence. While I don't know if her voice could stand up to the pressure, but she would make a fine Empress appearance-wise in Die Frau ohne Schatten.

James Levine turns in a very slow reading, but it is one that does service to the text. In other words, he's not dragging along: he's giving the score breathing room. Deutsche Grammophon would do well to release the whole 1997 Ring, and, barring that, just this Götterdämmerung on CD. Indeed, such a release would probably negate any need for his earlier set with the Metropolitan Opera, and would be a solid contender for the Ring of the 1990s (a title currently held, musically, by Daniel Barenboim). Deutsche Grammophon, however, is not paying me for strategy.

All in all, this is a very solid - musically speaking - set, with a "devilishly confused" (though, almost there, so to speak) staging Konzept.

It's hard not to like Domingo

Well, that's not entirely fair: his German pronunciation is not always what I would like. Listen to , oh, say, James King or Wolfgang Windgassen for my idea of good German, but I digress.

The ever-wonderful Mostly Opera has excerpts from an interview with Plácido Domingo. Here is one quote I find interesting and, mostly, appropriate:
Does anyone seriously believe that Verdi imagined Rigoletto at a monkey planet or that Mozart would have been delighted to see his operas as the zeitgeist of the 21st Century? And have those responsible for radically new interpretation of the established masterpieces ever thought, that perhaps they are the ones jeopardizing the future of opera?

These millions [used on semi-innovative opera productions] should instead be used to get something really new. In short, new works for both the eye, ear and intellect. To avoid misunderstandings: I have nothing against innovative staging approaches to masterpieces of the operatic literature, as long as they are tastefully executed and with talent behind. In Los Angeles, for example, William Friedkin set the prelude in "Ariadne auf Naxos" in the Malibu villa of a filmmaker. It was a great idea with which the audience could relate immediately... So what makes one "upgrade" acceptable and another not? It is the way a production is formed and how it is implemented. Whether talent and empathy is obvious and whether it becomes clear why it it is set in another era.
If anyone has an opinion, then it should be Domingo. He is now, probably, the king of the tenors. He is also a decent actor and administrator. He is, I am sure, quite familiar with the good, the bad, and the ugly in the musical world of today. It is refreshing to hear that he has a realistic view of the extreme side of most productions.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Records worth the trouble

This semester is uncommonly busy, and I feel like I am neglecting my blog. That won't do, will it? I'm now making a concerted effort to do something about that, and part of it is going to be making lists of records worth the trouble of finding and giving a spin, so to speak. If everything goes to plan, this will lead to posts on various issues and problems posed by the records. This is not a playlist either: if I recommend a record, I recommend the whole record. Don't get me wrong, I like playlists as much as the next twenty-something sitting safe and secure in my liberal arts college. I just like the more visceral and rewarding idea of records more. I won't comment much, if at all on the records here. I'd rather you seek them out or give them another spin without my nattering on about them. For now. With that out of the way, here we go:

1. Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Daniel Barenboim, cond. (Bayreuth; Teldec 1999)

2. Wagner: Tannhäuser. Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. (Philharmonia; DGG 1989)

3. Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 5 and Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 26. Sir Clifford Curzon, piano. Pierre Boulez, cond. (BBCSO; BBC Legends 1999: rec. 1971/1974)

4. Beethoven: Selected piano sonatas. Artur Schnabel, piano. (EMI 2005)

5. Mahler. Das Lied von der Erde and Mozart: Symphony no. 40. Araiza/Fassbaender, soloists in Mahler. Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. (WP/Salzburger Festspiele; Orfeo 2005: rec. 1987)
Note: I have commented here on this recording before, but I have been listening to it at length lately, especially "Der Abschied."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A note in favor of an excellent set

One of my favorite sets, and one of the really great bargains out there, is Orfeo's collection of Mozart piano sonata's from the Salzburger Festspiele. For forty or so bucks, less if you don't have to order it, you can get Arrau and Gilels in KV 310; Haskil, Gould, and Cherkassky in KV 330; Backhaus in KV 331/2; Gilels again in KV 398; and Curzon in KV 457.

This set, along with the Bayreuther Festspiele official recordings (including the 1956 Knappertsbusch Ring and Lovro von Matačić's splendid 1959 Lohengrin), really makes me like Orfeo. In addition to that, they put out the live Beethoven 6th and 7th by Carlos Kleiber, a wonderful Bruno Walter Beethoven 9th from 1955, Giulini's 1987 Das Lied von der Erde (my personal favorite) and the Schreier/Schiff/Schumann set. They really do a good job, both from an obvious musical standpoint, and a packaging standpoint. I'll say this: I have respect for any label that touches important stuff that the major labels wouldn't even consider putting out in their historical (or, as I like to say, amortized) recording series.

Back to the recording at hand, though. Orfeo has put together a very diverse and intelligent selection of recordings. While, at first, I was skeptical of having so many duplicates, after hearing the various interpretations, I came to appreciate the diversity of the presentation. Hearing Glenn Gould and Clara Haskil both have at KV 330 was an interesting experience. Arrau and Gilels, too, in the KV 310 sonata is revelatory. The choices that various performers make don't always seem that clear or, even, that important unless you put it in context.

Also, two performers outside of a broader context, Wilhelm Backhaus and Sir Clifford Curzon, make a stamp on the set that is wonderful. I am a particular fan of Backhaus (and, for that matter, though in an unrelated matter, Artur Schnabel), and I always enjoy hearing performers in the grand 19th century tradition, especially in such good sound. His KV 331 is a wonderful, all things considered, performance. Indeed, when I heard it, it displaced Idil Biret's 1993 performance (available at her website) as my favorite.

This is a great set, and well worth the money. Compared to some duds with which I have been confronted in the last few months, I can recommend it happily.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The once and future queen

Mostly Opera, which has been better than great in its coverage of the Bayreuth succession mess, posts an interview with Eva Wagner-Pasquier. My favorite line from the whole thing,
It disturbs me that the image of the Wagner family has most of all become like a Soap Opera.
To my mind, Eva Wagner-Pasquier is the only reasonable candidate, just as she was in 2001. Katharina Wagner and Christian Thielemann are already talking like they need a third member of the leadership team to handle the business side of things. So, you have a troika: artistic director, musical director, and managing director. This will not work. Trust me. Committee rule is rarely tenable, and almost never successful. More and more, this seems like a cynical attempt on Wolfgang Wagner's part to install Gudrun, his second wife, through Katharina. As the criticism mounts of his younger daughter, it seems more and more like he is suggesting that other co-directors be added to cover up for the deficiencies of Katharina. If that's the plan, he might as well see about getting Harry Kupfer or Patrice Chéreau to help her along as a "senior artistic consultant."

Mrs. Wagner-Pasquier has experience running festivals like, though certainly not identical to, Bayreuth. The Foundation found her the superior choice, and - while Wolfgang can certainly have an opinion - the Tankred Dorst Ring and Katharina's Meistersinger sort of indicate that she might have a better notion of where Bayreuth needs to be than dad. A wild, controversial production might be a shot in the arm, compared to the Age of Apathy currently underway.