Sunday, March 26, 2006

Happy Birthday, Pierre Boulez!

Pierre Boulez turned 81 today. Perhaps he has a Mahler 8th and a Wagner opera left in him.

For the record, my birthday was yesterday (25 March).

Monday, March 20, 2006

Wagner on conducting

This post from A.C. Douglas deals with some of Wagner's comments on the art of the conductor.

Listen, I got into a discussion with another blogger about Parsifal, and - more appropriately - Boulez' 1970 Bayreuth recording of the piece. My point was that Boulez' driving tempi created an internal pulse; the other blogger suggested that properly modulated tempi will do the same thing. I assume that Wagner agreed.

However, beating time and trusting the ensemble to know how both read music and play their instruments accordingly is another, fully appropriate, approach. Granted, any trained monkey can keep 6/8 time, but there is something to be said about keeping the beat and bringing the sections in on time. Is that inspired? Not particularly, unless the band knows its business.

It is an interesting factoid, though, that Wagner was quite a great conductor. He was, of course, eclipsed by Gustav Mahler.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Grosse Appel, or Live from Golgotha

I have finally had time to digest the live boot of the Boulez M2, live from Vienna. Wow. First of all, European digital radio is awesome. I hope that we get the same technology there. I had to be told by my source that it was an aircheck, not a hall recording. I would buy almost any ORF-produced record if the sound were this good. The hall noise is present enough to be slightly distracting, but no worse than any of my Furtwängler La Scala Ring discs.

If you like the Mahler 2nd and Pierre Boulez, you'll buy this. It's worth it. The man, for all his postmodern celibacy, can conjure up the Resurrection with the best of them. He hits the notes, which is incredibly important. I don't know if I can say anything more. I cannot really express my feelings about the M2, so I can only discuss how well he pulls everything off. Fortissimos are loud and pianissimos are soft. In Mahler, if you can manage the dynamics, then you can create a successful record. He gets the sensibility down about right, so what else is there to say? The soloists are pretty good, or as good as any singers today can be. At least we didn't get Frau Fleming emoting all over the place and wearing obscenely strange dresses. Thank Heaven for small miracles.

Buy it. The dean of postmodernism in music creates some magic. The Vereinsaal will not forget it soon.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Cognitive dissonance

Whilst listening to the Götterdämmerung Act 2 "wedding scene," the video for "Beeps" came on my volume-turned-95%-down-TV. Talk about cognitive dissonance. As a younger Matti Salminen turned in terrifying and baleful Hagen, I saw "The Pussycat Dolls" gyrating about as they chanted about rejecting the lecherous advances of men while approving of their lecherous leers. There are layers of dissonance here that boggle my simple mind.

Götterdämmerung was fantastic, as usual. I ended up going to Rheingold for Schreier's incomparable Loge. He is the king of the audio performances, as Graham Clark has the filmed lead.

Anxious anticipation...nervous concern

So, coming at speed unknown from Rhode Island is a copy of a recording of one of the performances of the Mahler 2nd conducted by Pierre Boulez using the same forces as the forthcoming DGG disc. As excited as I am about the DGG disc, I am even more excited about the other disc. I haven't been able to track down a copy of the BBCSO performance, so I have yet to hear Boulez in the Mahler 2. My sources tell me that this is an impressive performance, and I have been generally very enthusiastic about Boulez' Mahler.

I do wonder, though, about his forthcoming 8th. I alluded to this in an earlier post, but I will iterate my concerns. He is a great conductor, the most influential composer of the second half of the 20th century, and a postmodernist atheist. Two out of those three give him some kinship with Mahler himself. The third is troubling, from a Mahlerian standpoint. I am not sure how he will deal with the in-your-face spirituality of the Veni, Creator Spiritus section. That is to say, how can a man who asserts the non-existence of God get on the same wavelength with a composition of great spirituality and mysticism? If he, even at 81, is still Pierre Boulez, he'll do what he did with Parsifal at Bayreuth. He'll play exactly the notes written and nothing more. That is not so good (though I think it worked in the Bayreuth incident). How will he respond to the Faust material, dripping in transfigured love? Probably in much the same way, if I don't miss my guess. That approach works great, except in two scores: the 2nd and the 8th. We're about the see about the 2nd. Boulez' 8th, like the score itself, will just have to be mysyerious for the time being.

I love a good mystery.

So bad it has to be...well, bad.

This discussion from Parterre Box descends from the usual crap into a possibly-libelous interlude. I'll leave you to fill in the blanks. If you want to see some good old-fashioned slightly paranoid rumor-mongering, then some posts might be for you. Like a train wreck, the aftermath of which I once had the good fortune to see as a little shaver, you can't look away as much as you want to do so.

Levine out for the count. What next?

The classical blogosphere is buzzing, more so than usual, about the news that James Levine injured himself and is going to be out for a while. This is the NYT piece (registration required). Tragedy of tragedies, Levine won't be able to conduct his Good Friday Parsifal. Interested New Yorkers might be spared a four-hour wallow, given only three-and-a-half or even (as Boulez did at Bayreuth) a three-hour tour.

I suppose that this will give Peter Gelb some time to think about those whom he would like to see replace Levine as Music Director at the Met. I, personally, think Daniel Barenboim would be the best choice. He'll have free time, as his Chicago gig is over, and his work at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden proves that he is a great opera conductor. Frankly, I think the Met should embrace the German repertoire in which Barenboim excels. Their slight propensity toward the soppy and Italian might sell well in New York, but it's still a bore. I don't know, though, if they want a star conductor who will - at best - only give about half his time to the place. I don't care all that much, in any event, who they get as long as they don't get Thielemann. As much as it pains me to say this, he can have the Deutschen Oper and even Bayreuth, but it will kill me if he gets New York. The man cannot conduct.

Frankly, Levine has had nearly thirty years on top. He doesn't look well, and this injury might make his increasingly-poor podium performance even worse. He should take this opportunity to retire or assume some emeritus position. Let someone else have the throne. This king has had his day.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Karl Ridderbusch's Hagen

Listening to Act 2 of Herbert von Karajan's Götterdämmerung. My thoughts on this recording are fairly clear: Von Karajan's "chamber-Wagner" managed to create a performance more obsessed with orchestral textures than with the singers. The generally second-rate performers (with some exceptions) reflect this. In other words, I find Von Karajan's Ring to be an enormous Wagner Without Words set, but no one told him that he could cut the singers.

One performance that I rather like is Karl Ridderbusch's Hagen. Now, for sheer inhumanity and evil, Matti Salminen for James Levine is the reference. The lack of vibrato most of the time is pretty terrifying, if you ask me. Ridderbusch sounds more human and slightly less Satanic. This is a Hagen who remembers his human nature, but is forced to deal with his Nibelung patronage. Ridderbusch has a suitably dark tone, and has a certain nobility that one must grapple with in Hagen. He is doing his duty, as awful as that is.

However, my single favorite performance of Hagen has to be Fritz Hübner for Boulez in Bayreuth. Like my affection for Graham Clark's Loge for Barenboim, this has more to do with the filmed performance. Hübner has a sweaty, nervous quality that makes him seem like more of a schemer and the brains behind the whole Gibichung operation. The fact that he has Franz Mazura's aristocratic Gunther to play off of really helps.

In any event, Ridderbusch's Hagen is an attraction to a set with a few good moments. I really must get around to doing a guide to the Ring.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The real face of modern music

So, I am on I-465 today (the freeway around Indianapolis) as I am returning to school. Since there is no sense trying to listen to anything complicated, lest I allow my attention to lapse and entrust myself to the other "drivers," I listened to a Top 40 radio station. Big mistake.

A song called "Beep" by a group called "The Pussycat Dolls" came on the radio. If I weren't on the freeway, I would have pulled over to vomit and then have a good cry. If this is popular, modern music, then words escape me. I went to my good friend and cruel mistress and I Wikipedia'ed them to see what the fuss is all about...libera me, Domine. A cadre of underdressed twentysomethings prancing about, singing the most tuneless sonic excrement, and they still have the gall to talk about empowerment. The cause of female artists is set back immeasurably by this third-rate tripe. It's a good thing Birgit Nilsson is dead, as the passing of one of the greatest singers and best class-acts in music makes these women look slightly better.

Celibidache might have been a quack (possibly). Furtwängler might be an overrated fool kept at the top by memory more than talent (a craven lie, but I am being hyperbolic). However, even the most PR'ed, overhyped, and talentless hack in classical music (guess!) is far, far better than this crap. I fear for music, not for my sake, but for music's sake.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Barbirolli's genius?

David Hurwitz of Classics Today absolutely hates Sir John Barbirolli. I am not the biggest fan of his (or of Hurwitz, for that matter), but I am willing to give him a try. Thus, I bought the Testament release of his 1965 Mahler 2nd. It is neither the sublime experience the Barbirollites claim, nor is it the sonic excrement that Hurwitz would have you think it is.

In 1965, there was no way that the Berliner Philharmoniker was going to turn in a definitive account of any Mahler symphony. There was no performing tradition for Mahler in Berlin, unlike Vienna, which had some experience with the man himself. The war years drove out most of the best Mahlerians and gave America a big head-start. In fact, I would argue that they never really got into Mahler until Von Karajan's live Berlin Festival 9th in 1982 (I think). Barbirolli did (re) introduce Mahler to Berlin in the early 60s, but keeping Von Karajan happy kept him away from any substantial work with the Berliners.

This performance is absolutely worthless from interpretative and sonic standpoints. The 2nd has been done brilliantly so many times, from Klemperer to Mehta to Kaplan, that there is no new ground that is going to be broken by this disc. Barbirolli has a dramatic and broad vision of the 2nd, but so does Leonard Bernstein, especially in his DGG record. The massive score was clearly very unfamiliar to the Berlin forces, and this is obvious from the flubs and glaring errors that they made. The sound is mono, and not terribly great mono, despite the fact that it was 1965. The tape hiss is noticeable. Sir John's vocal stylings, though, were picked up nicely. This record has no practical value.

However, as a document of a nascent performing tradition, this is fairly valuable. It is interesting to see how a world-class orchestra reacts to Mahler when they have no substantial experience with his bigger works, like the 2nd. They did well-enough, but Mahler demands more than well-enough. So, then, it is useful to see a new era being born, but the Berliners aren't now much of a Mahler band, so this recording is for the specialist collector only.

And...I laughed!

"Wunderlich is like puppies or something: so universally liked that it's just incredibly boring to say anything about him, because it's just going to amount to 'yeah, me too.'"

Maury D'Annato, once again, writes something that makes me laugh. Or, at the very least, allow a smirk to crack my dour, granite-like visage.

Here, if you're so inclined, is the whole post - with a ribald coda to the above statement which I did not feel was wholly appropriate for inclusion. Really quite funny, though.

As to Wunderlich, as much as I think he was a swell tenor, he cannot force me to abandon Peter Schreier. I feel that Schreier, in addition to being the vocal heir to the lyric tenor line of Wunderlich, is far more intellectual and intelligent in his various readings. Had Wunderlich not taken his terminal tumble, I still cannot see him turning a Loge or Mime like Schreier did for Janowski. Nor do I think that Wunderlich did as well in Beethoven's 9th as Schreier did for Von Karajan - of all people. In any event, Fritz did hand in a gorgeous Salzburg Bruckner Te Deum which is probably the single best recording of that score ever. That doesn't save him, though.

Modern music? America?

Alex Ross reports that some insipid CBS human-interest poll showed that America wants to hear about a modern composer. Balderdash. At best.

Let me break the one Rule of This Forum, and get personal. If Americans really cared about modern music, then I wouldn't get dirty looks every time I decide to "rock out" to Boulez' Pli selon pli. I wouldn't get glazed stares every time I explain why I prefer the 1960s BBCSO recording on Sony to the more recent Ensemble InterContemporain disc on DGG. What am I talking about? If Americans cared about modern music, my peers would at least know who Pierre Boulez is. It's a stretch if I'm looking for name recognition of even Gustav Mahler.

The "hip-hop violinist" tag is interesting to me. It tells me that Americans are interested in composers insofar as those composers gel with popular music. Serialism? Nope. Atonalism? Not a hope. Second Viennese School? You have to be kidding. However, mention hip-hop and you've a recipe for success. You might as well do a special on the various types of champagne preferred by the rappers. I like Laurent-Perrier, but I get the impression Cristal is more in vogue. I suppose if you're interested in the prestige bottlings, L-P's Grand Siècle will do, and have a little more dignity. I digress.

Modern music isn't what Americans want. They want anything familiar. Modernism, especially in some of its more extreme forms, isn't familiar.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


The 1991 video of Harry Kupfer's production of Das Rheingold is finally out on DVD. It was recorded at Bayreuth, though not as part of the Festspiele, if I recall correctly, and Daniel Barenboim conducts. The cast is adequate, with two real stand-outs, John Tomlinson's Wotan and Graham Clark's Loge.

Tomlinson is authoritative and powerful. I read elsewhere that he makes you forget every other interpreter of the role. That's not entirely true, as I find him a little too mature for the Wotan of Das Rheingold. Fischer-Dieskau's much-loathed performance for Von Karajan hits the feel of a youthful, slightly stupid, and extremely arrogant god. Despite the fact that he is far too mature-sounding for the role, he was probably the best Wotan of the 1990s.

Now, I find Graham Clark's Loge to be the best performance of video. Heinz Zednik was solid for Boulez/Chereau, but Clark nails the role. His campy, arch, and witty performance captures both the playfulness and quiet menace of Loge. The other gods might be better looking, more glamorous, and more godlike - but there is no doubt as to who is in charge. Loge is the brains behind the operation, and he knows it. Clark's knowing smile after his disgusted scene 4 monologue is a foreshadowing of things to come.

The Kupfer staging is divisive. Either you like it or you don't. He makes Chereau look hopelessly conservative. Even Wieland's Neu Bayreuth couldn't have been as shocking as this staging. I like it, or - to be more precise - I appreciate it. Buy the DVD for the music, which is as well-conducted as anyone could want. Watch the staging, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Vier letzte Lieder

This is probably the more idiosyncratic of the major recordings of the Vier letzte Lieder out there. Schwarzkopf and Szell seems to be the standard recording, but I am not all that enamored with Schwarzkopf's sound. She is a little too brittle-sounding. She was also on the way out, vocally speaking, when she got around to doing this with Szell. His conducting is top-drawer. If you're into Szell and Strauss, this recording is a must. I am not all that taken with Szell (though he was quite an excellent Wagnerian), so the recording is a solid second or third, depending on how I rate Norman.

Speaking of, Jessye Norman's disc with Masur and the Leipzig forces is generally the "best" out there. Norman has the massive sound thing going for her, though Masur takes it all far too slow. Not that Von Karajan drives through the score (he is kind of drag-y, too), but the tempi for the Norman recording are oddly slow. Perhaps Jessye needed the room to be as expansive as she is, but the orchestral work is just weird. Now, it could be as weird and terrible as it wants (and it's not that bad), and her vocal work would still save the day. She sounds superhuman in this recording; it's hard to describe how big her voice is here. This might be the perfect recording if you like Norman or care about the soprano voice.

This one, with Von Karajan and Gundula Janowitz, is probably as close to ideal as this score can be. Her tone is called silvery, bright, and inhuman (less flatteringly, of course). She has a brighter reading than Norman's huge sound, and that might not go well with some people. However, I think that she blends in well with the Straussian soundscape. There is more cohesion here, speaking from an ensemble-interested point of view, than in the Schwarzkopf or Norman recordings. Yes, she is a bit impersonal, but I have never thought Strauss to be the most personal composer. He is always distant, even here, in his last songs.

I think I had an earlier post about this, but I use 1975 as a sort of line in Von Karajan's career. Up to '75, he was a great a conductor (in his repertoire) as there was. After then, he became indulgent and obsessed with a smooth, bright orchestral sound. This Vier letzte Lieder was cut in 1974. There were orchestral details I hadn't noticed before that Von Karajan brought out in this piece. Luckily, it was recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche and not the unacceptably boomy Philharmonie. There is a clarity of tone and orchestral precision here that is wonderful, to say the least.

If you want three Vier letzte Lieder recordings, buy Schwarzkopf/Szell, Norman/Masur, and Janowitz/Von Karajan. They each have their benefits. However, if you want only one, get the Janowitz disc. It strikes the best balances between orchestra and soprano. Janowitz has the most Straussian soprano for this piece. Von Karajan is still a great conductor in 1974. In other words, this is the best of all worlds.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Mahler's 8th

Gramophone loves Simon Rattle. I think Rattle is the new Von Karajan: better at P.R. than conducting, but prone to a few good moments. Therefore, I haven't bothered to listen to his new-ish Mahler 8, preferring Kent Nagano's really swell performance. Of course, Solti is emperor of the realm with this score. His drive and theatricality finally are a plus, not a detriment. In any event, I don't care what the critics say (except David Hurwitz, who generally favors my taste in Mahler), this Nagano set is probably the best of the decade.

However, this symphony bothers me. It is, and I'm lost for words here, too big. Even at the biggest moments in the 2nd, Mahler is intimate. He is always at hand, except in the 8th. Here, he seems to cease being the micro-manager and becomes the distant, unseen master of ceremonies. The overt spirituality is hard for me to grapple with, too. I tend to conceive of Mahler as a sometimes earnest, sometimes smirking symphonist who enjoys irony. It is hard to see the 8th as ironic in any meaningful way. I wonder how Pierre Boulez is going to grapple with this one, if he grapples with it at all. We'll see, after his new 2nd.

I can understand why people were put off by Mahler at the beginning when I listen to works like the 8th. The overt emotion, spirituality, and massive orchestration are off-putting to anyone. It is Mahler, and it is probably his most brilliant work (up there with Beethoven's 9th and Wagner's Ring for sheer creativity and scale), but it isn't my favorite. It's still the culmination of what Beethoven began with his 9th.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Falling in love again...

While I spend a lot of time on Wagner and Mahler, I have a very big soft spot in my musical heart for Bach's Goldberg Variations (BWV 988, if you keep score). Glenn Gould's second Columbia recording (1981, I think) has been my standard for as long as I have loved the piece. However, I just got a copy of the Sony "Glenn Gould Edition" of his 1959 Salzburg performance of the piece. This might be his best performance of the work. He isn't nearly as wild as he was in 1955, but he isn't as measured and stately as he would become in 1981. However, when he lets loose, there is still rather a lot of fire.

The ORF mono recording is fine, not as fantastic as the recently remastered 1981 disc, but still very good. The Mozarteum is a decent-enough hall. If Gould's vocal stylings put you off, this might be the disc. They are still there, but very distant on my setup. Sony's remastering is pretty solid on this disc, and I don't know what they sacrificed to get the noise levels low, but these sound very good. They are more of an audience perspective (as far as I can tell). There is a bit of a veil, but nothing too bad. Don't use this disc for your demonstration disc, though. Boulez' Bruckner 8 will do for that job.

Buy any of his records of this piece. Buy all of them. I think you'll find that this is the best of all worlds.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Bertini's Resurrection

Gary Bertini died recently, largely unheralded by the classical music establishment. That's a shame, as the Israeli conductor left a monumental Mahler cycle to his memory. EMI, after years of fooling around with the release, has finally put his 1-9, 10th Adagio, and Das Lied von der Erde out in one set. Is this the best modern Mahler?

Probably. It was recorded with the Cologne RSO by WDR engineers both in Germany and in Japan. The sound is about as good as I have heard for Mahler. On my Grado SR225s, which probably aren't the best for absolute neutrality, the sound has a transparency and a sparkle that is hard to explain. It is well-balanced and very detailed. If you complain about the sound here, you probably would complain about seeing brushstrokes on Guernica.

Bertini's interpretation is the best of both worlds. He never descends into overt, sloppy emotion like Bernstein, but he is far more engaged than Pierre Boulez. He pays attention to the score and the architecture. It doesn't seem like he is interested in dissecting Mahler, but he isn't interested in putting his own feelings and neuroses into the score. His fifth movement of the 2nd is a good example of this. He isn't ripping this apart, but he isn't wallowing in it, either. The grandeur of the score is allowed to breathe on its own. I found that time and time again in his recordings. They seemed like Mahler, not "Gary Bertini Presents Gustav Mahler."

For a man largely shut out by the British press, this is as good a resurrection as one could hope for. Simon Rattle could conduct for a thousand years and never get it. Gary Bertini got it, and kept going for a while.