Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Reluctant Socialite

As my summer heats up, literally and figuratively, I will be involved in social/cultural events. As they seem interesting, I might post interesting cultural tidbits.

I am also going to begin phasing in some coverage of other arts. There is a lot going on worth comment, and - as I try to take my blog to the next level - I think that The Penitent Wagnerite should not be left in the dust.

Au revoir from Troy.

Monday, May 29, 2006

More Goldberg fun.

I recently got a couple of new recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations. The first came out a year or two after Gould's phenomenal 1981 recording for Columbia. I cannot help but think that comparison hurt Andras Schiff's record. The usual epithets thrown against Schiff are that he is a bit too mannered and slightly fussy. I liken this situation to that which confronts the serious listener of Bach's Cello Suites: on one hand, you have the reserved and "correct" Pierre Fournier, the deeply personal Pablo Casals, and - in the middle - you have Paul Tortelier. One finds Gould II (III, if you count Salzburg) at one end, any of the HIP harpsichord recordings at the other, and Schiff in between. That is to say that Schiff indulges in somewhat more of the grandeur and ornamentation of the music. The laser-beam clarity and emphasis on counterpoint and architecture that one finds in Gould (especially Salzburg) are somewhat diminished in Schiff; however, they are replaced by a sense of play and style that Gould's spare, stripped-down versions could be said to lack.

Pierre Hantaï recorded the Goldbergs for Opus 111 ten or fifteen years ago, and returned to them recently. His harpsichord recording makes the attractiveness and splendor of the Variations obvious. It is somewhat more difficult to see the internal architecture of the piece when performed on a harpsichord, and that was probably Bach's intent. They were, by Bach's admission, written as enjoyable pieces - and I think that hearing them in all their Baroque ornament makes their enjoyability clear. Hantaï has a reflective quality, but not so much so that it makes the pieces the glorified Pachelbel Canons that some would have them become. These are interesting, even if one still prefers a good piano recording of them.

I will still stick with Gould's Mozarteum performance from the 1959 Salzburger Festspiele. The ORF sound is passable, but the performance would be magical even were it on decayed Berlin RF Magnetophon tapes. One sees Gould in transit between the wild 1955 record and the reserved, somber 1981 disc. It still has the best of both worlds, even if it is closer to one than the other.

Die Frist ist Um.

Well, it seems that Deutsche Grammophon has a new Parsifal out on the market, with no less that Domingo singing the eponymous fool's role. Superlative, as I have always felt that the last Parsifal with a real Heldentenor was Boulez' with James King in 1970. Barenboim had Siegfried Jerusalem, who is not my favorite by a long-shot, and Levine had Peter Hofmann (need I say more?).

The problem with this latest salvo from Monsalvat is the conductor. That's right Kinder, the execrable Christian Thielemann leads the Wiener Staatsoper in this performance. I haven't heard it, so it might be wonderful; however, I know Thielemann. If it's anything like his Tristan, it won't be worth the raw materials consumed. I have to hand it to Herr Thielemann, he is a master of public relations. There was a time when a conductor of his talents would have been relegated to the less-fashionable opera of a third-tier city.

I doubt this recording will do anything except cost me $70. Boulez and Barenboim still hold my affections, whatever their respective flaws are.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Penitent Wagnerite Honors

Like the English monarch, I am accustomed to semi-annual grants of honor. My Christmas and birthday indulgences are legendary among my friends. Though, that's more for the drinking that accompanies them. Since I have a blog, I have decided to give some honors out before I go back to serious blogging; call it a Friars' Club Roast. I thought about calling it "The Best of the Web," but decided against that fairly early in the process. None of these awards come with any compensation, except the warm feeling of accomplishment that having a postmodern zealot like your work gives you.

A.C. Douglas
, The Patrick J. Smith Prize
Mr. Douglas has distinguished himself by being an insightful, if reactionary, cultural blogger. Any man who can trash Harry Kupfer and tell you how to properly schmear a bagel in (seemingly) the same breath deserves a prize. He also spent a busy day lining me out, which fit into my need for publicity and self-aggrandizement very, very well.

Wellsung, TPW Blog of the Quarter Award
I really like that blog. Jonathan and Alex provide just enough serious substance to make their commentaries fun and informative. This is the sort of blog that I really just plain enjoy reading. It's like an opera after-school special: it's entertaining, and it makes you think.

Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise
, TPW Overall Quality Award
Alex Ross. The New Yorker. Need I say more? If you haven't been reading this blog, then you're under a rock, and you need to get out and among the surface-dwellers, O pitiful Morlock.

This is a roundup of some really swell blogs, and some blogs that make my face swell, and you should read them. If I took the time to do this, imagine how important they must be to me. Someone with a job.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Derelictio fiat!

Thielemann, who constantly surprises even me with his self-imposed self-importance, is only a month away from turning in yet another underwhelming, uninspired, and interminable Wagner performance. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't the Ring and the venue weren't Bayreuth. In discussions with several colleagues, I have heard Thielemann called "the great white hope." I call him mediocre. At best. His hype is infinitely better than his talent. Have you heard his Tristan? His Alpensinfonie? His Beethoven 7th? I have and I wanted to vomit. Repeatedly and with gusto.

With Rattle at the Philharmonie and Barenboim at Unter den Linden, perhaps it should be obvious what the Berliners think of Thielemann. Let him keep the Deutschen Oper. Keep him away from Bayreuth. His mediocrity, for all I know, is contagious.

Unless Wolfgang Wagner really likes conductors who wear salmon Polo shirts. That, friends, is indeed a horse of a different color. Did I say horse? I meant jackass. I get them confused.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

On comment boxes

I am not necessarily, among my friends, known for my tolerance of opinions that differ from my own. However, I recognize that this a blog, and conversation is important for blogs. That is why I have provided space for comments. I have also given out my private e-mail address, with the caveat that I would rather not be annoyed having given it out, rather than my public (i.e., school) address.

If you would like to respond to a post here, or would like to privately respond, please use the media I have provided. I will still engage in "distance conversations," because I have nothing from which I intend to run on this blog. However, my pleasure at doing so will tend toward 0 as the limit approaches infinity. Rapidly.

Good grief, Charlie Brown

Mr. Douglas has taken time out of his busy evening to respond to my points. As I have already been to Mass this week, I have a little time to respond. However, my response will be brief.

Patrick J. Smith responds. Mr. Smith has clearly missed the point and thrust of my argument against his mischaracterization of the Ring as "a meditation on power," which argument pointed out to him that the Ring is nothing of the sort, but, and in terms of Mr. Smith's own argument, rather, as I wrote, "a 'meditation' on the world-encompassing and -destroying evil that ineluctably ensues when love is usurped and replaced as a life principle by the will to human-created power." I didn't at all imagine that the distinction between what Mr. Smith argued and my counter to it was of esoteric or arcane subtlety, but apparently it is so far as Mr. Smith is concerned as the distinction seems to have gone well over his head, and so was missed by him entirely.

I would further point out to Mr. Smith that his new notion that "[t]he story arc of the Ring is ... based on love," is quite wrong — entirely wrong, as a matter of fact — and would suggest gently to him that he regroup and reconsider this new notion of his in the light of a clear-eyed rereading of Wagner's scores. I can assure Mr. Smith that there exist no "secret scores" consulted by me as he conjectured there might be. There's but a single Wagner score for each Wagner opera, and the ones he consulted previously are the very same ones consulted by me. The difference between our readings of those scores rests on the circumstance that Mr. Smith viewed them through a postmodern glass darkly, while my view of them was unencumbered by such pernicious impediments.

His response. Here's mine: Mr. Douglas wants it both ways on both fronts. That makes for a total of four ways. If the Ring isn't about love, then why do all the bad things happen when der Wille zur Macht replaces love? I think the answer is clear, and it results from a simple change in the predicate. I have already responded about the power angle, and Mr. Douglas has not convinced me that I am wrong. Evil results when the will to power runs amok? Fair enough. However, there would be no will to power without power. One cannot separate, with any hope of the twins thriving, the will to power and power itself. I am more than happy to entertain any argument to the contrary, but I see none.

If the story isn't about love, then Mr. Douglas was being disingenuous when he wrote,

[The] Ring is not a "mediation on power," but a "meditation" on the world-encompassing and -destroying evil that ineluctably ensues when love is usurped and replaced as a life principle by the will to human-created power. [bold mine - pjs]

I am not sure that he wasn't, but I will proceed in good faith. The sad fact is that the score (which is to say the story) has nothing but stories of love. The villains love power (or, the Ring itself) and the heroes (and heroines) love people. The conflict of the Ring is human love vs. the love of power. I could fill a thousand posts with simple, clear, and incontrovertible evidence of that. However, it strikes as obvious to the point of banality that such a view is the case. The story arc of the Ring is a story arc of love. Even Mr. Douglas has admitted as much.

Mr. Douglas is perfectly free to assert whatever he wants about the score. However, if textual literalism is the name of the game, then none of our respective metaphysical grumblings matter. However, if we're going to play, "What Did Wagner Mean?" then we need to play by the rules.

Sometimes, then, a story is just a story.

If you'll excuse me, then, I have to go read my Derrida and deconstruct Bruckner's D-minor Mass.

Leb' wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!

On the one hand, there is no such thing as bad publicity. It appears, not surprisingly, that I have hurt Mr. Douglas' feelings. Mr. Douglas has taken a very busy Saturday to rebut a recent post of mine. Oh, dear. Perhaps I should have sent him that snifter of brandy.

I love contradictions, and Mr. Douglas has been so kind as to provide me with a doozy:

There's so much wrong in that apologia one hardly knows where to begin ripping it apart. As good a place as any to start is, I suppose, to disabuse Mr. Smith of his curious (but, alas, not uncommon) notion that the Ring is "an extended meditation on power." It's, of course, nothing of the sort. Using the terms of Mr. Smith's own argument, the Ring is not a "mediation on power," but a "meditation" on the world-encompassing and -destroying evil that ineluctably ensues when love is usurped and replaced as a life principle by the will to human-created power.

The bold-face is, of course, mine. A meditation on the will to power is somehow different than a meditation on power? Parce mihi, Domine Jesu! My argument might not be a rhetorical masterpiece, but I do love painting in broad strokes. Playing the parsing game over "the will to power" and "power" is nonsensical. At best. There is no way that I can respond to his argument, for I cannot accept his premise. A meditation on the will to power is, like it or not, a meditation on power.

He does not like my "feminist" view of the Ring. That's too bad. Perhaps he is reading a different score than I. Perhaps there is a secret score for those who have decided that Wagnerian performance and criticism stopped in 1876. Alas, I will never know. The story arc of the Ring is, indeed, based on love. However, Wagner's concept of love in the Ring requires a man and a woman. The men, by and large, in his story are monumental failures. The women fix everything. Prove me wrong.

Mr. Douglas does not like my interpretation of the Ring. That's fine. He's wrong, of course, but I am perfectly willing to accept his interpretation. I promise that, if Mr. Douglas outlined his view of the Ring at one of my parties, there would be no derisive laughter or misogyny.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Champagne and Socialism: The new green eggs and ham?

No. However, The Penitent Wagnerite wishes to welcome P. Campbell Robbins and his blog Champagne Socialist to the Links Bar.

To be entirely fair, Mr. Robbins is my neighbor at school (full disclosure and whatnot). In any event, his posts are interesting, insightful, and funny as hell. These things The Penitent Wagnerite often lacks. Of dour cultural commentary and postmodern fervor, on the other hand, we've plenty.

We share some interests, but he blogs about sports. I like baseball (I was a Red Sox fan before it was cool to like the Red Sox), but cannot write about it. He can.

Read, and reading, learn!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Signifying nothing, it seems

Everyone's favorite cultural reactionary, A.C. Douglas has seemingly been taken with the vapors over a new, (gasp!) pseudo-feminist production of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Were I nearer, I would have sent - gratis - Mr. Douglas a draught of brandy to revive him.

You can read the production synopsis, as I did, and I think that you'll find it interesting, as I did. Der Ring des Nibelungen is - like it or not - an extended meditation on power. The 20th Century has been a series of experiments in power. From the fall of the old-line European principalities in the aftermath of World War II, to the rise of totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, to the democratization and collectivization of Europe, the story of the 20th Century has been one of power in all its forms. If Herr Holten wishes to explore that in the context of Wagner's Ring, then he is fulfilling the subtext of the music-dramas better than any silly, half-witted minimalist approach (pace, A.C.).

As to feminism, I can say only this: from Senta to Brünnhilde to Kundry, the power of women in Wagner's opera cannot be underestimated. Das Rheingold shows what happens when men make bargains, shutting out their female peers. Die Walküre shows that only women provide salvation from the corruption of the bourgeois men - through disobedience (i.e., self-empowerment). Sieglinde disobeys Hunding and "natural law" and Brünnhilde disobeys her father, or the traditional patriarchal power dichotomy. Siegfried makes it clear that a man can only be a man, i.e., know fear and overcome it, through the other - the female (as opposed to the effeminate, represented by Mime). Whether Götterdämmerung ends in an Immolation Scene or a birthing scene, it is a catharsis brought about by a woman. Now, we could explore the other operas, and even the other women in the Ring, but I think that I have made my point.

On one level, Wagner's Ring shows both what happens when women are disempowered and how empowered women can solve the problem. Brünnhilde, not Siegfried, cleanses the world. That should be all I need to say. However, I won't be starting my own car for a while now.

How the mighty have fallen...

Ian McKellen. Salieri in Amadeus; James Whale in Gods and Monsters. His performance in Gods and Monsters, in particular, was one of the best of the last twenty years. The man is really one of the great actors working today. Or, so I thought.

Then, these silly "X-Men" movies came along out of, seemingly, nowhere. Sweet Mary. As someone who spends time thinking about composers like Wagner and Mahler, artists like Kandinsky, and authors like (T.S.) Eliot, comic books have never been a function in my cultural grammar. It is utterly absurd to me that people would actually go see movies like these when there are so many really great movies that get little press.

What confuses me more is that a really great actor allows himself to be taken in by the allure of lots of cash. McKellen has all the artistic credibility he needs; he has taken on difficult roles before, and roles that are not exactly American fare (e.g., Whale). Seeing the schlocky commercials for the newest X-Men movie makes me sick. It's a shame they pulled Thalidomide off the market. I suppose Tennstedt's Beethoven 9th from the '85 Proms will have to do.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Hilarity ensues...

Alex Ross has a great post, a letter to a man from whom Arnold Schoenberg bought a car. It needs to be read. I can only imagine some other people of musical history whose routine communiques I'd like to read.

Richard Wagner returns some pants, "These pants make me, the great composer, look fat."
Gustav Mahler buys a carpet, "This carpet is imperfect. Make it perfect!"
Pierre Boulez orders a couch, "The most elegant solution is to burn all couches."
Herbert von Karajan sells a television, "You will see what I have seen. It will be perfect."
Igor Stravinsky complains to the phone company, "Neoclassicism? You've never heard of it?"
Anton Webern challenges a credit card charge, "I ddnt by ths sht yb ntdd I."

Hilarity will ensue.

Pliable's back

In the transition from From the New World to The Penitent Wagnerite (I needed a change, if no one else did), one blog that got (unfortunately) lost in the shuffle was Pliable's wonderful On An Overgrown Path.

This post is one of the best posts that I have read in a very long time, but certainly in keeping with Pliable's high standards.

His blog is worth more than the occasional visit. Like all of the blogs I link. Perhaps one day I will go into the reasons for the transfer and the thematic shift. However, I am currently of a mind to say only this:

A little mystery is more than a little fun.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Celestial Nonsense

Some pieces of music were written not for music lovers but for audiophile nutcases who spend ten thousand dollars on speakers and a couple grand on interconnects. Don't get me wrong, I spend more than I should on audio equipment, too, but I get what sounds good and I run with it. However, I don't want to talk about equipment. I want to talk about records.

Holst's extended tone-poem, The Planets, is one of those pieces that audiophiles just love. There is plenty of dynamic range, plenty of big moments to ruin the Spode in the cupboard, and plenty of moments that everyone knows by heart or by John Williams' liberal adaptation. Every audiophile label, from JVC's XRCD to the various incarnations of the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL), seems to have a recording.

The Zubin Mehta/Decca recording seems to be the audiophile gold standard, but it is a weird, weird recording. If you must have an audiophile recording, buy Susskind's disc on MFSL. Mehta has spot-miking out the wazoo. It seems like every instrument is miked, and the balance engineer tied one on before he mixed it. This is on the list for the least natural recording of all time. From Decca, no less. This exists on 180 gm vinyl and JVC's stopgap XRCD. It's interesting to listen to, just because bad recordings are as fun as bad movies. The LAPO does a good job, but it doesn't matter.

Audiophiles are to blame. If there weren't a market for this abomination, then it wouldn't get made. I bought it out of morbid curiosity.

Wagner III: The Reckoning

Here is another post from A.C. Douglas, both critiquing the "postmodernists" who castigate Wagner for being an arrogant German nationalist and showing that Mozart was just as big a nationalist. Great. Wagner was a German nationalist, as though the evidence of Parsifal and - to a lesser extent, Der Ring des Nibelungen didn't bear that out. Mozart was famously critical of the Italian influences in Austria and Germany. His fondness for Singspiel should show that, as well as a desire to eat. Of course, the problem of Beckmesser - as outlined by Barry Millington in "Nuremburg Trial: Is there Anti-Semitism in 'Die Meistersinger?'" (Cambridge Opera Journal, 1991) - is the bigger issue in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. " Verachtet mir die Meister nicht, /und ehrt mir ihre Kunst!" might be problematic for some, but the treatment of Sixtus Beckmesser poses more deeply-rooted problems for Meistersinger than any ode to German poetry. I am necessarily ignoring the problem of Kundry, which is probably as complex as the Beckmesser knot, but gets issues of gender and sexuality into the fray. Too much for today.

Is Wagner's nationalism and anti-Semitism of, ultimately, any importance to the music? Not really: the music deserves to be taken on its own terms. However, when one wants to place the music in context, then it becomes important - if not a sine qua non - to deal with the unpleasant aspects of Wagner and his philosophy. There is a choice: enjoy the music at the expense of the meaning(s) or apply the meaning to the music. I know what I would prefer to do.

However, if one wants to destroy the critics, it is easier to focus on nationalism, which was rampant in the milieu that produced Wagner and Von Bismarck, than deeply rooted anti-Semitism. For a change, I am going to cite a couple articles to read:

Barry Millington. "Nuremburg Trial: Is there Anti-Semitism in 'Die Meistersinger?'" Cambridge Opera Journal. v. 3 n. 3 (Nov. 1991): 247-260.

Ibid. "Wagner Washes Whiter." Musical Times. v. 137 n. 1846 (Dec. 1996): 5-8.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Domingo's Mahler

In the last ten years or so, Placido Domingo has managed to escape the Italian repertoire into the hard-core German post-Romantic stuff. He just cut Tristan und Isolde, and - I just learned - Das Lied von der Erde. That was six years ago, but it's new to me.

Oddly enough, Sony chose to go with the tenor-baritone arrangement. That is a problem because Bernstein's Wiener Philharmoniker recording with James King and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is the king of that field. Paul Kletzki's recording with Murray Dickie and Fischer-Dieskau is another good one, but something about Das Lied requires Lenny. The fact that James King was a really great Heldentenor is something else entirely. Of traditional recordings, I am fond of Bertini's disc with Marjana Lipovšek and Ben Heppner. That's back out in the Bertini EMI box.

As to this one, Esa-Pekka Salnonen does a good job with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He turns in an energetic, if slightly dry, account. The baritone, Bo Skovhus, is OK. This disc isn't about him, and that's OK. If it were, it would be a disappointment. He is a touch on the emotional side, but I didn't say "treacle," did I? He reminds some reviewers, and myself, of later Fischer-Dieskau: nice tone, weird phrasing. He doesn't hector, always a plus.

Domingo is a good tenor. It's good to have him in Das Lied, which is up there with Siegfried and Tristan und Isolde for tenor Everests (German ones, anyway). I am always partial to Peter Schreier (who did two recordings of Das Lied), but he is a different animal. Domingo has poor German diction and a slight tendency to get overwrought, but it's worth it to hear his voice in this score. Just don't throw out your Bernstein discs.

Contact information

Here is my contact information, which should be used sparingly. I do have comment boxes, but this might serve some people better.

trauermusik AT gmail DOT com

With great power to annoy the Penitent Wagnerite comes great responsibility not to do so.

This will also enter my links bar, in case anyone really wants to contact me.

Full disclosure and whatnot

A.C. Douglas, in a comment on this blog, suggested that I read this. It is a break with my autocratic tendencies relative to discussion, but the link will be here so that my readers (such as I can determine that there are any) can see his point.

I will quote this section, at length, and append a brief comment:

As even given today's formidable stage technology a convincing, non-distracting, and dramatically non-enervating naturalistic realization of the Ring's central and overarching physical context is a clear impossibility within the bounded space of a theatrical stage, and, further, that the result of any attempt at doing so will ultimately compete with the main transmitter and carrier of the drama, the music, one is, as consequence, ineluctably driven to adopt the solution of realizing that central physical context abstractly. That, in turn, dictates that the realization of every detail of the physical context of the entire work — its entire non-human mise en scène, right down to the costumes and stage decorations — be similarly handled, the degree and style of abstraction a task for the director in collaborative effort with the producer, stage designer, and music director to ensure that not only is the result visually convincing and dramatically expressive, but that it recognizes, accepts, and subordinately supports, rather than fights against or competes with, the dramatic centrality of the music, and is at all points consonant with the dramatic spirit and sense of Wagner's original idealized theatrical vision, and that of the music and the sung and mimed armature of the text.

Comment: This seems to leave the door open for any of the major stagings, particularly those of Harry Kupfer and Patrice Chéreau, as the primary criterion is "[consonance] with the dramatic spirit." I am sure Herr Kupfer and M. Chéreau would assert that their productions further the dramatic spirit of Der Ring.

However, I am just smart enough to know that I do not want to get into this fight.