Friday, June 30, 2006

Boulez Strikes Back

I have danced around this, but I got a live off-the-air recording of Boulez doing a show of the Mahler 2nd with the Wiener Philharmoniker. It kept me sated, and gave me a lot of hope for this record.

I finally bought the Boulez Mahler 2nd on DG. Aside from a OOP BBC Proms recording from 1975 (I think) and the ORF aircheck, and any other bootlegs out there, this is it for Pierre in the Mahler 2nd. I'll start off like this and meander around a bit: Boulez is still Boulez. After recordings that are towering Mahler discs in their own right, like the 3rd with Von Otter, he is back to making records in his own style. It is correctly-played, elegant, and very precise. If you're into Boulez' Mahler, then there are revelatory moments at every rehearsal number. If you're not, save your money.

To my mind, after the reception of the Mahler 3rd he did with the Wiener Philharmoniker, this record strikes me as a response. That one had been praised universally as uncharacteristically un-Boulez and a solid reading among solid readings. This one has been panned for being too characteristically-Boulez and uninvolving. That isn't surprising, but it is odd. He has responded by reminding everyone that he is going to conduct precisely as he sees fit. As one imagines Leonard Bernstein gyrating around on the podium, deeply affected by Mahler's heavenly vision, one sort of imagines Pierre Boulez, slightly annoyed that the horns came in a tenth of a beat late. That sort of image gives one the best idea why he should either love or hate Boulez.

I loved it, but I can see why one would absolutely detest it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Barenboim's Coda

"Finally, in the great Adagio that brings the symphony to a close, the picture snapped into focus; the heat of emotion remained, but the music coalesced into one long, glowing line."

Here is Alex Ross on Daniel Barenboim's last concerts. I think that I've discussed it here, but last October, a friend and I went to see Barenboim conduct Mahler's 5th. He later took the CSO to New York with the same piece. I had his 1997 (I think, but it is mid-90s) Teldec recording of a WDR performance with the same forces. In the intervening near-decade, his style changed. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. His Trauermarsch was grim then and grim now; however, he managed to follow the music and open up where it was needed.

However, and this is someone who loves Barenboim's Wagner, his problem is this: he doesn't know when to manage. He started as a pianist, an artist. A conductor has to manage as well as create. Sometimes, you have to stand back and, other times, you have get into the band and make them play as they must.

One wouldn't have to step back if he kept the fire lit all along the line.

Why Bach?

In a discussion with a friend of mine, I realized why I love Bach as much as I seem to: his music is the best window on the universe. It works in a cold, mathematical - indeed - almost inhuman way. However, when you step back, it becomes beautiful and perfect in its own way. No other composer can build the world anew with each composition. No other composer can take a harpsichord, a piano, a violin, or a cello and perfectly encapsulate humanity and divinity.

The more I listen to it, the Sarabande from the second Partita in C minor, BWV 826, is one of the better proofs for the existence of God.

More Vespro thoughts

In an age when Mahler cycles are the flavor of the month, if not the lingua franca, of the classical recording business, Hyperion must be praised for its intelligence and sensitivity. In fact, Hyperion is one of the more responsible and cerebral (in the best sense) labels out there. Today, crossover hits - dictated by the tsars at Sony-BMG and Universal - are the name of the game.

Hyperion, with Robert King and The King's Consort, has undertaken a complete cycle of Monteverdi's sacred music. The newest release is the 1610 Vespro della Beata Virgine. On its own merits, I think it speaks for itself. It eschews both Gardiner's theatricality (DG/Archiv) and Parrott's liturgically-oriented approach. It's pricey, but it's also worth it. Buy it. However, a thought or two about the three major approaches to the Vespro seems appropriate.

In some circles, there is a tendency to see Monteverdi writing an Italian opera in the guise of a liturgical cycle. This tends to put the score into a realm of bombast and swagger that is not wholly appropriate. Now, Counter-Reformation or not, there are always limits to church music, especially in the Roman Church. There is always the element of theater or drama, if you will, in liturgies of any sort. However, unless one is at the Vatican, the Mass (or any other Office) isn't exactly high opera.

However, one could go to far in the other direction, and deal with the Vespro as a solely liturgical piece. Parrott, to my mind, does exactly this. Plainchant connecting the motets, clear heritage between Monteverdi's work and the Gregorian chant that preceded it, and the like are pretty stark examples of this sort of approach. It works, I suppose. However, it also ignores the dramatic aspects of the work.

Obviously, I am advocating for a middle path here. I think King, and to a lesser extent, Jacobs, find this road. There is both the drama and the liturgy in their recordings. That is really the essence of Monteverdi...and all religious music.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Missa in tempore bello

"It's a number, and every time there's one of these 500 benchmarks people want something." - White House Press Secretary Tony Snow on the 2,500th casualty in the Iraq war.

The bold print is, of course, mine. The Penitent Wagnerite does not (usually) comment on political issues, as they are so uncivilized as to be an affront to culture. However, statements like that of Mr. Snow are so noteworthy as to demand a comment, to wit:

In the American Civil War, commanders were tortured over heavy losses. In some battles, twice or thrice the number of total casualties in our current war fell. If our cause is no less right, shouldn't we be no less tortured?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bernstein's Götterdämmerung

I think that I have already commented on this elsewhere, but I am listening to it now, and I thought that it was worthy of a "revise and extend."

Bernstein's Tristan und Isolde is (last check) the longest recording of that work, and it also has singers that can't pack the gear. Listen, for example, to Peter Hofmann's "Nur eine Waffe taugt" from Levine's Bayreuth Parsifal if you want to hear how underpowered he was as Wagnerian Heldentenor (pace Boulez). I am not sure why Bernstein let him be cast, but that's between Lenny and God now.

Lenny's Tristan aside, his Götterdämmerung excerpt with Eileen Farrell ("Starke Scheite...") shows that he had the understanding to be a great Wagnerian. In the mid-1960s, his tempi had not become the stretched, lugubrious mess that they later became. He shows a sensitivity of Wagner's demands, both on the orchestra and the singer, that allows him to modulate the tempo as he needs to make the piece work.

It makes me wish that he'd set a Ring to vinyl at some point.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The light of the East

In light of my new, contradictory approach, I suppose I should preface this by saying that deeper thought about Monteverdi, the Vespro, and the Counter-Reformation convinced me that they are neither a liturgical exercise per se nor Orfeo in St. Mark's. Parrott's recording is lovely, and it is certainly a good one to enjoy; however, I don't think that it represents the musical milieu (such as I understand it) of the time.

East of Indiana, anyway. In the last twenty or thirty years, along with a lot of Baroque stuff, Monteverdi's 1610 Vespro della Beata Virgine has become incredibly influential and popular. There are many very good recordings out there, mostly on period instruments, but there are two (really, two schools) that dominate. John Eliot Gardiner's Archiv set and Andrew Parrott's EMI/Virgin set. Gardiner seems to take the view that (1) Monteverdi, in a substantial way, prefigures Bach and (2) the Vespro are - essentially - a dramatic cantata with a little plainchant thrown in for flavor. His earlier performance, based on a limited audition, sort of reinforces that opinion. Parrott, on the other hand, takes Monteverdi at his word and creates a solidly liturgical record. It is not a stretch to imagine vespers in St. Mark's, one evening in the early 17th century, sounding precisely as Parrott directed these.

I prefer Parrott's sober, liturgical performance. The chamber scale and intense soloist involvement, especially in choral motets, really recreates the sort of performance that Monteverdi would have imagined and heard. Gardiner II is the sort of performance that uses drama, intense orchestration, and polyphonic density to emphasize what is to come. Parrott uses Monteverdi's score to link back to the past. There are deeply conservative elements, for all the innovation, in the Vespro. Gardiner chooses to ignore them, and that makes for grand entertainment.

Sometimes, though, less is more.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

As Bach heard it?

So, randomly, I bought Paul McCreesh's Matthäus-Passion (Archiv) today. It is on the first wave of the one-voice-to-a-part school of Baroque performance. On the one hand, it is a very well-done performance of HIP Bach. However, I think that McCreesh - in a his historical zeal - misses what Bach saw for what he heard.

I will say this upfront: my favorite moment in all music comes in movement 1, "Kommt, ihr Töchter," when the sopranos intone "O Lamm Gottes" across the main theme. With McCreesh's leveling of the singers, chorus, and orchestra, this moment is downplayed. The shimmering sopranos, inching up along the main theme, in Gardiner's performance are to be the exemplar on this point. Otherwise, it is lost. McCreesh's Matthäus-Passion is full of moments like this. We are a long way from Klemperer and even Gardiner seems distant.

However, I think that it is essential to hear the Matthäus-Passion as Bach would have. There is no performance that can effectively recreate the genius that Bach wrote on the page. In fact, in this work of all, there is no way to approach Bach's seemingly superhuman understanding of the things that define humanity. Not even Glenn Gould (for example), at his most inspired in 1981, could fully realize the Aria da Capo in the Goldbergs. That simple statement, almost a joke, of the source whence all the wonderful explorations launched eluded one of the keyboard genii of all time. In a work dramatizing the most dramatic event in Western history - nay, the event of Western history - some clearance must be given to err on the side of history. In that way, McCreesh recreates a performance that is probably like one Bach heard in his life in Leipzig.

In the end, though, any discussion of a performance approach must center on this question: do we want to recreate what Bach heard, or what he would want to have heard? I don't know, but I have a guess.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Penitent Favorites

Since I keep my own overall recommendations, especially for Wagner, pretty quiet, I thought that I would go through and make my preferences obvious.

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Janowski.
He has the best sound, best cast, and the best band. The Dresden Staatskapelle was Wagner's band and he helped shape their sound. His cycle is the best overall cycle.

Das Rheingold: Von Karajan
Simply wonderful. The orchestra shines, and the cast here is far better than the usually low level for Von Karajan's Ring.

Die Walküre: Böhm
Like Janowski, this recording benefits from the best cast and best Wagner band at the time. Böhm drives the score along to create a nervous energy that is really great for this pivotal opera.

Siegfried: Keilberth ('55)
Just released, this record shows what all the fuss is about when people talk about the "Golden Age." Pristine Decca stereo, a top-rate cast in great voice, and a committed Wagnerian conductor of the old school add up to make a fantastic record. Had this Ring happened, Solti would be an also-ran at best.

Götterdämmerung: Levine
This record is every bit as earth-shattering as Solti's but played with greater subtlety and in better sound. There is, also, no studio effects. This is just gorgeous Wagner, at the height of his powers, played to perfection.

Parsifal: Thielemann
Yes. This is my favorite Parsifal, unseating Boulez. The cast is perfect. The band is perfect. The conducting is perfect. There is no reason not to like this one. Believe me, I've tried.

Tristan und Isolde: Kleiber
The cast is not up to Böhm, but it isn't far behind. However, Tristan was one of the few operas Kleiber performed, and he did it perfectly. Bringing the same verve and intelligence to the score as he did to the famous 1989 Neujahrskonzert and he proved that he understood the score intimately. The Dresdeners only show how wonderful they were.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Von Karajan
This one isn't close. There is no other complete recording in good sound that deserves to be mentioned. Furtwängler's Bayreuth record is the best, but it's neither complete nor in decent sound.

Der fliegende Holländer: Klemperer
Once again, this is the first choice for a reason. Other conductors might do one aspect better, but no one manages to bring the whole thing off as well as Klemperer. This one speaks for itself.

Lohengrin: Jochum
Live from the Green Hill, this record benefits from Bayreuth acoustics, a great mid-1950s cast, and Jochum's businesslike conducting. Let's face it, this isn't Wagner's best, so an outstanding effort makes this opera very good. However, it's never going to be truly great.

Tannhäuser: Gerdes
It has an interesting cast, but the fact that I like this recording of an opera I generally don't like or think about much isn't saying volumes. It just sounds good, has a good conductor and band, and has a better-than-average cast. The Pilgrims' Chorus at the end is swell, and that's all that matters to me. It isn't Parsifal for a reason.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Der fliegende Holländer

I am listening to Otto Klemperer's 1968 recording of Der fliegende Holländer, which is probably the best single recording of this opera. Klemperer is still Klemperer, and there isn't much emotion outside of that which the score and singers introduce. However, I think that Klemperer makes a case for Der fliegende Holländer being one of Wagner's best operas. He did return to the love-saves-all motif time and time again. The musical language is far more traditional in Der fliegende Holländer, but that doesn't much diminish it.

Just a thought as I do other things.

Mahler Live!

Not really. He, in a crueler trick of fate than the third blow, died just before recording became commonplace. However, he did record some Welte-Mignon piano rolls. These have been out for a while, but their importance is undiminished. If you want to understand both the approach of the greatest conductor of his generation and how Mahler approached Mahler's music, then you must get this disc.

The two big surprises are how fleet his tempi were and how he approached the architecture of the music. Compared to Reiner, Levine, and the rest of the major interpreters of the 4th, Mahler positively sizzles through the score. I am not sure how many sopranos could keep up with an orchestra playing at what seems like Mahler's prefer tempo. However, on an internet message board discussing this record, I suggested that Mahler might have been speeding things up because it was a piano roll. To my mind, there could be some issues with ensemble cohesion if you took the finale at Mahlerian speed. However, it is illuminating to see how Mahler conceived of the piece.

His approach to the architecture of his own work, and, according to the oral history "Remembering Mahler," the work of others, was novel. Rather than deal with music in terms of measure or bar, he shaped tempo and dynamics on the phrase. In fact, it seems like he would all but stop the sound between the phrases to emphasize his approach. Only Wilhelm Furtwängler had an almost identical approach. John Barbirolli also seemed to deal with music, particularly Mahler, in a similar manner. In the opening bass 16ths of the Second, Barbirolli stops the band between runs in his June 1965 Berlin performance. Mahler does almost the same thing during the Trauermarsch transcription. Now, granted, there might be rests there - I don't have the scores in front of me, but there is a clear full stop. However, Furtwängler and Mahler seemed to have been on the same wavelength. Hearing how Mahler conducted, a loose, rhythmic style, one sees Furtwängler.

These are important records of the greatest composer and conductor of the late 19th Century and early 20th. They answer many, many questions that all serious Mahlerians have about Mahler and his style.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Off the bus

I suppose that the recent exchange here and elsewhere would paint me as a rabid postmodernist; however, I have my limits and I have to recognize excellence where it exists.

Here is a post from Sounds and Fury which proves that there are limits to postmodernism. To this, I can say only WTF? Seriously, WTF? Was the stage director high? Drunk? This makes absolutely no sense. None. It, in fact, makes so little sense that it takes sense away from other things that make sense. 2+2 might equal 5 after you explain this scene. No sane reading of the score can make this staging make anything resembling dramatic sense. This is not only "vandalism," but it makes the work of sensible postmodern directors that much harder. Pardon the pun.

Here is ACD's full post:

The focus of the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos's new production of Wagner's Das Rheingold may be Alberich's three-foot-long dong, but the real putz in this production is Eurotrash vandal Graham Vick whose handiwork it is.

Alberich is exceptionally well-endowed. Rejected by the Rhinemaidens, he rocks on his haunches, cradling his metre-long member. For a moment, when he swipes the disco-ball Rhinegold from these blue-frocked party-girls, self-castration looks likely. But no. He keeps the appendage, and it reappears in Nibelheim, thick as a man and as wide as the stage.

I was wrong.

I dropped the cash to get Thielemann's Parsifal. After a few hours alone with the discs, I can say only this: shit. It was wonderful. No, really. It might, given the cast, the band, and the conducting, be better than Barenboim. In the Germanic repertoire, I still prefer James King to Placido Domingo, but that's taste versus reason. Thielemann lets the music breathe, he knows it has legs and he takes the score out for a walk.

Thielemann turns in a reading light-years ahead of his Tristan. This was no limpid, self-indulgent performance. This was Wagner as - I think - Wagner would want to be played. Thielemann takes the more traditional path in giving the music a pulse; he varies the tempo and more or less lets the music define itself. Boulez' Bayreuth disc takes the other approach: driving the score at a pretty regulated clip. A.C. Douglas prefers Thielemann's approach, and I think that Thielemann makes an excellent case for his interpretative stance.

Hell, I am so floored by this set that I am going to post to a couple other reviews:

A.C. Douglas


I agree 100 percent with these reviews. Criminy.