Monday, July 31, 2006

Live from Bayreuth

Why on earth would anyone go to Bayreuth in late July? I've been to Bavaria in the summer, and sweltering is about the only way to describe the temperature. Put me in a dark suit and in a crowded, un-air-conditioned hall, and I fear that I'd pass out quickly. That's no way to experience Siegfried: collapsed all over some wealthy Bavarian matron.

However, like any self-respecting Wagnerian, if you offered me tickets, I'd be all over them.

Anthony Tommasini, refraining from using the word "strapping," posts a journal from Bayreuth. Not bad, but not particularly great - when all is said and done. He completely ignores the mind-numbingly complex dynamic of the Festspiele's control, choosing to make asinine suggestions that neither the Friends of Bayreuth nor the Bavarian cultural authorities would be inclined to brook.

Also, he suggests that the 1976 Centennial production is the one on the Unitel/Philips DVD. It isn't. That production was universally critiqued, and - probably - should have been withdrawn. I believe that, after some re-casting and tweaking, the staging of 1980 is used. That was also recorded on CD - which I'd like to see reissued. Or something. It's been nearly a decade since there was a Ring of note released that was recorded at the same time.

Just, you know, for the record.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The view from the pit

Apparently, people read this blog. I know people read this blog, but I am talking about people whom I do not know.

Kenneth Woods, with his blog a view from the podium, linked to my Shostakovich piece. Thanks, Mr. Woods. Also, a quick check of his website shows that he got his B.Mus. in cello from IU-Bloomington. He spent four years in my part of Indiana. Not as impressive as my 20, but - still - no mean feat. Especially for someone (likely) better acquainted with Pierre Fournier than Jeff Gordon.

Thanks, in the end, for the publicity.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Heppner does Wagner

I finally broke down and bought Ben Heppner's Wagner recital disc on DG. It, like Placido Domingo's of some time ago, consists of excerpts from Der Ring des Nibelungen. It was, for reasons I will outline below, competent and passable - but it was not the disc Domingo turned in, and a far cry from many Wagner discs.

First, I have some stern words from Herr Schneider and the Staatskapelle Dresden. I understand that Ben Heppner is the star here, but to allow the Staatskapelle - one of the best bands in the world - to be balanced so perversely is a major issue. This isn't Verdi or Rossini; Richard Wagner wrote his music to incorporate - not accompany - the voice of the singer. In fact, there are moments where the singer is distinctly secondary to the music. Furthermore, Schneider, probably under the direction of the DG producers, holds back the Staatskapelle when the orchestra should overwhelm everything. Let the beautiful, rich Dresden sound thunder forth - as Von Karajan did in Meistersinger (EMI, 1970) to his credit. For example, "Siegmund heiß ich und Siegmund bin ich" should not sound like a cleverly-chosen aria for a tenor recital. It should thrill and excite, so that the audience feels the exultation that Siegmund and Sieglinde felt at the end of act 1. Wagner intended as much. Let's not degrade Wagner so Ben Heppner sounds good.

I am going to preface these remarks with a sort of counterbalance: Heppner is beautiful and moving, if not overly emotional. His lyricism really brings out the inner voices of the roles in an intelligent and dramatic way. One senses that these are not middle-aged men, but youths with great enthusiasm and excitement. I also cannot fault, technically, his voice. Others might, and I leave my comment box open for a reason. My problem isn't with his voice, but how well-suited that voice is for Wagner, and the most difficult roles (save, maybe, Tristan) Wagner wrote - in terms of length, acting, and music.

And that brings me to my main point: Ben Heppner. I will avoid comparing him to Melchior, as - in comparison to whom - every tenor suffers. No, Heppner should be considered on his own merits. He is a very good lyric tenor, who can sustain the long line, and is ideal for many roles. Siegmund and Siegfried, sad to say, require something somewhat more than he has. James King had the dark, baritonal - but ringing when needed - tenor that Siegmund requires. By the same token, Siegfried Jerusalem - when he was on form, which was and is a dicey proposition - had the sort of bright, ringing voice needed for Siegfried. Peter Schreier never sang these ultimate roles of the Heldentenor repertoire. That should say something, as Schreier (heir to Wunderlich) is about as great a lyric as we'll see for some time.

Heppner has been very wise to steer clear of these roles. He is suited for a Lohengrin or Tannhaeuser; better-suited for a Walther von Stolzing or (maybe) a Parsifal. The disc isn't bad, but Domingo has made it very clear how well he does with Wagner. Maybe that's Heppner's problem: were Domingo in retirement, we might be able to accept his beautiful voice - but an underpowered voice - as a Heldentenor. As Wagnerian interpretation, this shows how the Ring would sound were it sung by a young-sounding tenor. However, as beautiful and moving as Heppner can be, I want my Wagnerian tenors to have some power and some lyricism. The Bayreuth bark should never appear, but it should be an amazement to the listener that the singer managed to sing the part without resorting to it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Misread mythos.

A.C. Douglas links to this article in Harper's.

Kevin Baker wrote, perhaps, one of the more-incomprehensible analyses of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Here is a quick quote:

The Siegfried legend in particular, though, has nuances that would mesh perfectly with right-wing mythology in the twentieth century, both in Germany and in the United States. At the end of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the downfall of the gods is followed by the rise of the Germanic people. The mythological hero has been transformed into the volk, just as heroic stature is granted to the modern state. Siegfried is killed just after revealing an unwelcome truth—much as the right, when pressed for evidence about its conspiracy theories, will often claim that these are hidden truths their enemies have a vested interest in concealing. Hagen, as a half-breed, an outsider posing as a friend, stands in for something worse yet—the assimilated Jew, able to betray the great warrior of the volk by posing as his boon companion.

Give me a break. Please. As "benighted" as some of my comments about Wagner and his Ring cycle can be (i.e., postmodern interpretation), I would probably not hold these thoughts. As much as I enjoy interpreting Wagner, I can honestly say this is a candidate for "dumbest thing I've ever heard."

While I am happy to discuss Wagner's intent - based on my reading (among others) of his text and score - I am inclined to say that Mr. Baker's interpretation is so wildly errant that it should never have seen the light of day. One can get out of Wagner's work a meditation on power, the will-to-power, love, or (in a particularly Marxist bent) a discussion on class struggle. Not that I am now endorsing any of those interpretations. However, this sort of "Deutschland erwache" nonsense is so far-removed from Wagner's text that it's ludicrous. Almost offensively so. No production of any dramatic merit, from Harry Kupfer's 1992 Bayreuth staging to Wagner's own in 1876, has bothered to assume Mr. Baker's point. That should say something.

Had Mr. Baker bothered to do any cursory research, he would have learned that Hitler and his National Socialist arts commissars banned complete performances of Parsifal (edit: this sentence originally referenced the Ring and I made the correction), which Mr. Baker also referenced - as I recall, though I might be wrong - during the war. Allied forces broadcasted Götterdämmerung to the Wehrmacht and SS forces to demoralize them. One should not assume in Hitler's enthusiasm for Wagner (a monumental misfortune for Wagnerians since) that there is any real consonance between Wagner's vision and NSDAP policies. Far from it, really.

I can understand his desire to tie Wagner to rightist elements, gravely mistaken as it is, but if you're going to do that, you're going to have to take both Wagner and the rightists at their own face value. Those face values are not equivalent, and Wagner most assuredly would not have appreciated Mr. Baker's nonsensical-to-the-point-of-destructive approach.

Here is Mr. Douglas' post.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Payola update

A.C. Douglas was kind enough to link my comments of the Fanfare payola nonsense. Many thanks. I'll say it again: this sort of nonsense will, if unchecked, destroy the credibility of that magazine.

Hopefully, Mr. Douglas and others will bring down the wrath of God sufficiently to convince the editors of that publication and others to (1) either make full disclosure of their reviews-for-advertising schemes, or - and this would be best - (2) abandon such schemes entirely.

This sort of venality, and I apologize for the continued use of the word - but it is the mot juste, cannot go unchecked.

Orchids and Onions: A.C. Douglas

I couldn't think of a better way to integrate this new feature (which will join Kulturpunkt and Foodscene) with a snappy title, so I just used the title every small-town newspaper uses.

Major orchids to A.C. Douglas of Sounds and Fury. In a post on the O.C. Register blog, Timothy Mangan reveals a disquieting "Payola"-esque situation at Fanfare Magazine.

I am going to reprint his second comment, a response to Joel Flegler's (the Fanfare editor) weak-kneed response to this just criticism:

That's an, um, interesting defense (or, rather, rationalization) of your magazine's CD review policy, Mr. Flegler. What undercuts that defense, however, is that nowhere in your magazine is that CD review policy made public. Would that you were as honest and straightforward with your magazine's subscribers as you apparently are with those seeking reviews of their CDs.

Here is a link to Mr. Douglas' post on his own blog. My take on the matter is this: such silly, venal policies that - at best - promise reviewing priority for advertising labels ensure that serious musicians without lucrative major contracts will remain in the shadows. It also ensures that there will always be doubt about the judgment of the reviewer and his review. This is a fine way to absolutely wreck an important part of the classical music world.

This is just the sort of thing that more of us need to do, that the classical press understand that their cozy spots next to the major labels is both unacceptable and silly.

Into Egypt.

From The Independent:

Or rather, what it adds up to is the rampant anti-intellectualism that I found Sir Peter Maxwell Davies raging against, when I visited him at the Royal Academy of Music. The Master of the Queen's Music has just been listening to David Cameron's Desert Island Discs choice on BBC Radio 4, and he's not amused. "In any other European country," he says, "a politician who chose that sort of garbage would be laughed out of court. The anti-artistic stance of our leaders gets up my nose. Their main aim is to turn us all into unquestioning passive consumers who put money into the bosses' pockets. That is now the purpose of education." As it happens, Max has put his money where his mouth is for his own Prom this year, by splicing a children's choir with orchestra and military trumpets in his setting of the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion's poem, "The Golden Rule", to create A Little Birthday Music for the Queen's 80th. As he puts it, "One must look to the future."

Two things: Angela Merkel is looking ever-better as a modern European leader. I keep making references to her comments on the Parsifal productions of both Lehnhoff and Schlingensief - like a moonstruck admirer - but read them. Incisive and intelligent. Second, why doesn't the United States have a music commissar this honest or this perceptive?

Wait, I don't know what came over me. This is, after all, the United States. I'm not even sure if we have a "composer-laureate" or some such other position.

Foodscene: The end of an era

Living in south-central Indiana is an "interesting" experience. To say the least. However, there are some good restaurants in Bloomington. My favorite steakhouse there, and, until this news, anywhere, was Janko's Little Zagreb.

No, it was never much for flashy, bourgeois decorations. In fact, if you wanted anything of that sort, you were well-advised to stay far away from the place. It wasn't on the "wrong side" of the tracks, but you could see that side from the front door there. It was unpretentious, cheek-to-jowl, and everything that good restaurants used to be. Everyone knew about it, but it still had the feel that it was a great, freshly discovered, secret.

The steaks were unlike anything I've ever had anywhere else. They had a garlic flavor to them that was hard to place. They were seared, so all bites had a satisfying snap to them, and some were crunchy - in a good way. While I have not had a steak that was unredeemably bad, neither have I had a steak that was as complex and interesting as these simple slabs of meat, cooked in the open for all to see.

Then the owner, John "Janko" Pouch died in a tragic fire. Despite the protestations from the staff, I got the sense that it wouldn't be the same. I haven't been there since, but my family has. The great little secret is now, while chipper on the outside, not so great. Once is an anomaly, and two is a trend. Steaks were sent back by people who can put a good spin on any beef. Disappointment was the order of the day.

Indiana, though, has several really excellent steakhouses besides, including the legendary St. Elmo in Indianapolis and The Beef House in Covington. But this one was special. It will be missed, as well as have thoughts expressed for it for a recovery from this slump.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Christie's Messiah

Whenever Wilhelm Furtwängler performed Beethoven's 9th, he would throw the finale (the "Seid umschlungen, Millionen..." recapitulation) into a mad tumble. In fact, one gets the sense that the orchestra is holding onto itself, but not by much - and lesser ensembles like the Bayreuther band in '51 don't give one much of that sense. Yes, I am going somewhere with this.

I bought the William Christie and Les Arts Florissants recording of Messiah. I have been on a Baroque kick lately, and I do love this quintessentially English work (despite the fact that it was written by a German). It is a very, very good recording - as is well-known. In fact, I am afraid that this recording will replace Pinnock as my new favorite. A great cast (is there anything Andreas Scholl can't do?), a great band, and a reasonable HIP sensibility contribute to a very sound set.

However, the "Hallelujah" chorus is my point, and my tie-in back to Furtwängler. This is done so fast, and so exuberantly, that one isn't sure upon a first audition that it can sustain itself. Everything is so taut and tightly wound that it seemingly explodes. When the chorus hits the big "King of Kings and Lord of Lords," (d.2; 2:47) it has a feeling that there is actual release and catharsis. While Hogwood, Gardiner, and Pinnock all sort of attack it as though it were already in progress, and Harnoncourt sort of builds up to it, Christie wraps the band ever tighter around his idea, and then lets them explode into the moment.

That is drama. That is what keeps Messiah from being a weird Anglo-Saxon Christmas ritual. Not that the HIP crowd ever gives that sense, but there are only so many times that one can sing that piece without it becoming an odd, and somewhat-stale, ritual.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Shostakovich? Enough. Please.

I am sick of Shostakovich. I understand that some composers become causes celebre, and that Mahler would be an obscure Austro-Hungarian composer (and more famous as a conductor) had he not been taken up as such a cause. However, this stupid Shostakovich mania is tiring, grating, and a little passe. This article, from the Guardian about Tikhon Khrennikov (Stalin's music commissar), shows how any discussion of music in Stalin's Soviet Union has to center on Shostakovich and his struggles. Pierre Boulez hit it best when he said, I think, of Shostakovich "third-pressing Mahler."

I, for one, don't give a damn about Shostakovich. I would be more interested in how Khrennikov's "socialist realism" program was directed by Stalin. He certainly imposed that critical theory on the writers through Gorky and through direct contact. The Stalinist centralization of arts control is far more interesting than the story of a third-rate composer who got some tough breaks and might have been autobiographical in his compositions.

The shame of Shostakovich is that for each of his drecky works that gets into the repertoire, a truly great work, like Franz Schmidt's Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, has to get left out of it.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The art of the opera putdown

"...imagine René Kollo on his USUAL form as opposed to his freakishly reasonable performance in Dresden." - Davyd Melnyk.

There is a subtle art to the opera putdown, and I think that a brief primer is in order. If you can apply all of these approaches, you will be quite the opera "expert," or at least fun in the nosebleed seats. All of these are presented with an ironic smirk, but - even the most offended party will have to admit that they work. Well.

1. The "good, but..."
"Sinopoli's Ariadne auf Naxos is quite good, but Sinopoli was never the Straussian like Von Karajan or Böhm."

This works by admitting that something is technically good, but lacks some intangible that would make it really "good." This implies some broad, and great, knowledge of a lot of artists. Solid for boosting your cocktail-party expertise on the matter.

2. The Golden Age
"Siegfried Jerusalem is a decent tenor, but lacks the real Heldentenor approach - like everyone since Melchior."

Things were so much better when singers you've never heard either live or in good sound were active. Oh, snap! Reserve this one for curmudgeonly pronouncements about the state of things. It is a doom-and-gloom approach if ever there was one.

3. The "Poor Dear"
"Deborah Voigt, the poor dear, has never been right since they cut her stomach up."

This implies both a real basis for your criticism and a basis solidly beyond the control of the singer. Somehow, I prefer this one, as it makes me sound authoritative within the context of both knowing the artist and knowing them before they had their mishap.

Kulturpunkt: "My Super Sweet 16"

My first utterance upon finally seeing this show was: "There is no God." Several highballs later, and my faith was restored. My psyche, on the other hand, remains shaken to this day.

The premise of the execrable show is that rich kids get obscene sixteenth-birthday parties. Now, these parties are not what I would consider either luxurious or decadent. A quiet dinner with friends, consisting of Kobe Wagyu beef steaks (medium) and Champagne Laurent-Perrier, followed by a night at the symphony (preferably Mahler)? That's luxurious. Plates of roasts and sweetmeats ported in by eunuchs, while dancers feed me and my guests grapes, followed by a feast accompanied - intermittently - by my improvisations upon the lyre? That's decadent. These parties? They're just gross.

It's everything horrible about today's culture rolled into one unholy burrito of excess. There are children who do not know their place. There are parents overindulgent to the point of abusive. There are friends who egg the little monsters into greater and greater obscenities. In other words, pace Forster, this show is a land where angels fear to tread. Instead of a birthday party, these little beasts should be taken to the town square and beaten with reeds as Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli is sung by an all-male choir.

I am sure that it will be said that I am merely jealous of these little plutocrats, as I never had a birthday like this. Well, I voluntarily stopped having birthday parties at the age of ten or so, opting - instead - for some shopping and dinner with family at my favorite steakhouse. That tradition has continued, with some variation, ever since. No, my problem with these kiddies is that they are providing fodder for the media machine that is destroying Kultur. These programs teach children that money is king, consumerism is queen, and you should always get what you want. Especially if you want something big and flashy, like a Mercedes-Benz convertible. Hogwash!

Tonight, at Borders, I bought the reissue of Palestrina's Missa Benedicta es, for ten dollars. This CD is culture at its highest: beautiful, transformative, and ennobling. For ten dollars. There is a world of art, literature, and music that is available cheaply and readily. Children should be encouraged toward that end. The Western cultural patrimony is so massive and important that to leave it be is a crime against humanity. Children should be made to desire that. Not this blind, grotesque consumerism. It's really better suited to Eurotrash heirs and Middle Eastern oil princes. Not to put too fine a point on it, or anything.

For the Feast of the Reformation

Long-time and reasonably intelligent readers of this blog know that I am Roman Catholic, and the editorial policy of this blog, The Penitent Wagnerite, is solidly so as well. However, that doesn't mean that I don't love Protestant music. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, wrote his most impressive choral music in a solidly Lutheran context. His cantatas, specifically, were choral and solo works written for Lutheran services. John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, which - as best as I can tell - goes about to German churches of Bach's era and plays cantatas on the days for which they were written, has created many outstanding recordings.

My favorite Bach cantata is, like a lot of people, "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott." Luther's thunderous Reformation hymn is suitably dramatic. Bach, a devout Lutheran, takes this massive ode to Protestantism and turns it into something that any prelate in the "corrupt" Church would enjoy hearing. Gardiner reconstructs a complete Reformation Day service using Bach's cantatas,

"Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild," BWV 79
"Nun danket alle Gott," BWV 192
"Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott," BWV 80

This program really shows off Bach's skill at crafting exuberant, dramatic, and intelligent cantatas. Like all of Bach's vocal works, one has to pay attention the whole time, as there is so much going on around you. "Nun danket alle Gott" is a swirl of themes and approaches that prefigure the Passions. The great duet for alto and tenor, from BWV 80, "Wie selig sind doch die," is as perfect as anything he ever wrote for voice. Bach seems to have understood everything and written from an approach of knowing how to balance clarity of purpose with the internal architecture. The interplay, counterpoint, and sheer musicality of that duet astounds me every time I listen to it. If ever you listen to this day's cycle, and you really should listen to the whole thing, that you might understand what's going on, take a moment and really understand what Bach was doing - and be amazed.

For my own reasons, I am a big John Eliot Gardiner fan. His style is a little over-dramatic, and that probably puts him at the liberal end of the HIP crowd, but I think he gets the spirit of the works, even if he doesn't quite get the style correct for the doctrinaire. His current recording of BWV 80, recorded in Wittenberg's Schloßkirche, has an outstanding choir in his Monteverdi Choir and an intelligent and sensitive band in the English Baroque Soloists. Karl Richter's version is worth the trip, too, as he was quite the accomplished Bach conductor, and he has Peter Schreier singing the tenor role. James Gilchrist is a wonderful tenor, and a rising star on the HIP scene, but Schreier was the best lyric tenor of the second half of the last century. Hands down.

Forgetting, briefly, my Schreier-fanboyism, BWV 80 is really extraordinary. Like everything else Bach wrote.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The King's Consort?

After a triumph with Monteverdi's 1610 Vespro, Robert King is in trouble. And not the musical kind.

The 46-year-old conductor and founder of The King's Consort has been charged with five counts of indecent assault on men, one of whom was under 16 at the time. Pliable and The Guardian broke the story. None of the alleged incidents was less than twenty years ago. At the time of the alleged incidents, he would have been in his mid-20s.

My comment: either he was a somewhat flamboyant youth with bad boundaries or his growing international fame have led some people to attempt character assassination.

Monday, July 10, 2006

I win

But at the same time, it was written in the classical idiom, an idiom that requires different listening habits from pop music. The old-style pops concert served two functions, then – to entertain and educate, with the goal of bringing new listeners to classical music. The new-style pops concert only entertains, and wins no ears for classical music. Which is a difference worth mourning.

My regional band, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, is putting on a show of video-game music. This coincides with some sort of scifi thing in Indianapolis. Nothing that Mr. Mangan suggests will be worse. Anything will be better; even the silly "best-of" concerts.

For Pete's sake, a band could play the first movement of Beethoven's 5th four times in a row and the audience would probably appreciate it. Or Holst's Planets. Or anything. Something.

Throw me a bone, kids, I'm dyin' out here!

Sunday, July 09, 2006


I don't sell shares on this blog, and I certainly don't brook any advertising beyond that which Blogger imposes. I'm like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Either you're buying what I'm selling, or you're not. However, when a major stakeholder complains, I am honor-bound to mollify them.

So, for Terry, I am going to post the top five reasons to buy the Keilberth Siegfried. He accompanied me to the excellent Barenboim performance of Mahler's 5th in Chicago. He was also there for the hour-and-a-half of social torture that preceded it. I owe him a small rationalization for dropping half as much as the whole Solti set on one opera.

5. Hotter's Wanderer is in much better voice than for Solti.
4. Windgassen has more sensitivity and intelligence.
3. This is probably the best Siegfried on record.
2. The Bayreuth forces play more echt-Wagnerian than the WP.
1. The Act 3 duet is perfect.

Bonus: I like it, and what more do you really need?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

1 March 1954 - 3 July 2006

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

May Ms. Hunt Lieberson experience the Urlicht, which she so wonderfully delivered for Tilson Thomas. Her voice always managed to convey a hint of sadness. I suppose that it is more than a hint, now.

I waited a couple days before saying anything, largely because - aside from her Mahler - I am not all that familiar with her work. However, from what I know and how deeply people who know much are affected, I can safely say that her absence will be noted. With much sadness.

It's her turn for some light - she certainly gave enough of it out in her short life.

Der völkische Tomfoolerei

"Come now, Die Frau ohne Schatten is up there with Beethoven's 9th for being popular. Why, just today I heard some school-children fighting over who got to borrow Boehm's recording. They had a whistle-off to see who could best reproduce the prelude."

I said it. I can't un-say it!

A very good day

Today, fresh from's warehouse, came my Knappertsbusch Parsifal (Philips' recording at the 1962 Festspiele) and Keilberth Walküre.

Knappertsbusch is a known quantity, like so many other standard recordings. However, unlike a lot of classic discs, his quantity is excellence. Every note, every phrase, and the achingly-beautiful arching architecture of the "long line" has that elusive and ineluctable feel of correctness. There is some crowd noise, not a major problem, but still - one wants complete silence for the Vorspiel. The tempi are on the slow side, but that isn't a problem - Knappertsbusch creates such tension that the tempi are (almost) an irrelevancy. The cast is nothing if not excellent, but I would really rather have caught James King in the eponymous role. Jess Thomas was no mean tenor, and he certainly captures the youthful side of Parsifal; however, as referenced by the 1970 Boulez recording, King was a Heldentenor in the line of Melchior. I am not saying that he was the equal of Melchior. However, to a greater or lesser degree, he possessed that dark - almost baritonal - tone that made Melchior so wonderful. In any event, this disc is a superlative record. Thielemann is almost as good, with better sound, though - if that were an issue.

The Keilberth disc is another excellent record from that 1955 cycle. Testament has managed a triumph out of Verdi with the records released so far. His sensitivity to the score, drama, and another excellent Golden Age cast are once again blindingly apparent. Walküre, though, is a crowded field. The feel here is somewhat more relaxed than Karl Böhm's 1967 record; if one needs this opera to sweat blood, it does. However, it is not the nervous tension that Böhm created. This is the energy that Wagner created. Each phrase is crafted expertly by a conductor and band that understood Wagner. Buy it. This cycle will probably be about $400, but it seems like it might be the only cycle anyone needs.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Why Keilberth?

It's a new Ring, from Bayreuth, with a great cast, in stereo. I get it. However, there are plenty of Bayreuth Rings (well, two that I can think of) and plenty of Golden Age casts out there. Why has Keilberth taken the opera world by storm, 51 years after the fact?

If I didn't have my theories, I wouldn't bother to post, would I?

People are sick of gimmicks. Wagnerians especially. Since, oh, 1966, the Wagner world has been one gimmick after another. In 1976, we had the Marxist Ring. In 1991, we had the sci-fi/1930s Ring. We have had a slew of weird Parsifals, Tristans, and Meistersingers. Wagnerites are ready for good, old-fashioned Wagner. Solid, stolid conducting - by someone who understands how to do it. Good singing - by people who can sing and act. Windgassen, for example, was no Melchior. However, he understood the role and presented a real Siegfried. Wieland's 1955 staging, classic Neu Bayreuth, is intelligent, modern-enough, and most assuredly linked to the music.

Don't get me wrong: I like many of the recordings I just trashed, but - more and more - I realize that they are about rhetoric and theory, as opposed to Wagner. Rhetoric and theory are great; however, Wagner left a great musical legacy, one that needs no frills or trills. Academic papers debating Marxism and Wagner are great, even desirable. However, in the opera house - Keilberth proves - ideology should be checked at the door. The great conductors, I am beginning to realize, understood that Wagner programmed the drama and message into the operas: in their music, in their libretti. The fact that people are taking to this new cycle, accounting for novelty and collectorism, shows that there is a demand out there for traditionally-Wagnerian performances. The fact that one has to go back to 1955 to find it shows the dearth of recordings of these stagings.

Keilberth's cycle, maligned and forgotten as it was or even is, is helping people realize that.

What is also needed is a good video cycle, preferably from Bayreuth, using a solid staging. Good pit work and excellent singers would blow the other recordings out of the water.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

My dream Festspiele

Since I doubt that I will be able to get to a Festspiele anytime soon, I thought that I would program my ideal Bayreuth Festival. You all can follow along, if you're so inclined. To be fair, I thought that I would limit it to recordings made at the Festspielhaus.

Der fliegende Holländer: Joseph Keilberth, 1955
Lohengrin: Eugen Jochum, 1954
Tannhäuser: André Cluytens, 1955
Tristan und Isolde:
Karl Böhm, 1966
Die Meistersinger von
Nürnberg: Wilhelm Furtwängler, 1943
Der Ring des Nibelungen: Pierre Boulez, 1980
Parsifal: Hans Knappertsbusch, 1962

As Frau Wagner said, it's far better to be furious than bored.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Now see here...

This is not impressive. I should have many Google hits. More than two pages, in any event. Now, before you get your feelings hurt and say, "Oh, Patrick, this isn't a popularity contest!" Let me respond unequivocally: of course it is.

Every endeavor in the history of humanity has been an effort to impress other people.

Elitism and Classical Music

ACD kindly corrected a misapprehension of mine, and reminded us that he feels that classical music in general should be marketed as a fine Latour (or Haut Brion). I agree, and do apologize for slightly misrepresenting his attitude on the matter.

I haven't addressed this point for a while, and would probably better serve myself never addressing it. I have an associate who fancies himself a classicist (sequence of tenses, Kinder?) and quite the elitist, and in the course of mocking his affectations, I have had some insights into elitism. There are two kinds of elitists: those who accept that some people are just better-suited to appreciate some things; and, then, there are those who gravitate toward the tastes of the manner-born to compensate for some vitamin deficiency or something.

Classical music appeals to the former. In fact, I really loath calling those people elitists. Some people just have the intellectual horsepower, the fortune to have the time to explore, and the aptitude to appreciate the stuff. It doesn't make them better in any ontological sense, nor does it qualify them to rule the less-able. These people, who listen to Bach and appreciate Poussin, are the cultural elite. Most are too well-mannered ever to make a big to-do over this. In fact, since the United States lacks a de jure aristocracy, these people come as close as anyone to the manner-born here. Classical music appeals to them a priori and Dei gratia, and they should be courted as the key demographic for classical. A.C. Douglas got it right when he suggested that new classical records should be marketed like a fine vintage Chateau Latour (though, I'd rather go with a Haut Brion). Flashy, trashy crossovers don't really do the thing. Look at the marketing of Philips' Bayreuth recordings (Knappertsbusch's Parsifal or Böhm's Der Ring des Nibelungen). A tasteful still and basic information. That attracts the people who are best able to appreciate the music. Deutsche Grammophon's recent blunder in packaging the sublime Thielemann Parsifal should serve as a cautionary tale. That opera, especially such a triumphant performance, needs no flashy package to recommend it.

As to the other kind of elitists in this country: well, it's nice to play dress-up and party until the sun rises. However, no one of substance will pay them any mind - and that most cruel historical caprice will visit them: they will be forgotten. If they need their chapbook elitism to fulfill that elusive deficiency of folic acid or some such other vitamin, I recommend Centrum. It's a good vitamin, but less palliative than my vitamin of choice.

Ex cathedra

Apparently, Pope Benedict decided that only Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony are worthy musical accompaniments for the Mass. Tell Beethoven, Bruckner, Mozart, Haydn, and the rest of them that their Masses - polyphonic only in the most tenuous of ways, and more chromatic than anything else - that Pope Benedict has no need of their contributions of the Church. What utter nonsense; I can only thank Providence that he didn't make this a matter of faith and morals, thus binding me to his taste in church music.

A.C. Douglas, as much as I have enjoyed his last handful of posts, really should bone up on the rules and history of the Church. A pope just can't go about abrogating the decrees of an Ecumenical Council. Furthermore, no decree - not Sacrosanctum Concilium, not Missale Romanum (which is technically post-Conciliar) - mandates the vernacular Mass. The official text of the 1975 Ordo Missae cum populo is still as Latin as it gets. The major Conciliar decree on the matter suggests making the Mass more palatable to the common folk, not redacting and revising the Mass wholesale. In fact, Sacrosanctum Concilium only suggests saying some prayers in the vernacular and altering a few parts of the Proper. The Roman Canon was preserved, largely untouched by Pope Paul VI and the 1975 books use that Canon.

Furthermore, the John XXIII (Tridentine, Latin, or wacko) Mass was never banned and certainly hasn't had any sort of pall on it since 1988, when Pope John Paul II excommunicated Archbishop Lefebvre and permitted reinstitution of the 1962 books in Ecclesia Dei adflicta.

And people wonder why no one pays any attention to the Roman Church.

The Glory of Gabrieli

Sony Classical should be commended for their new "Great Performances" series. Granted, the Yo-Yo Ma Bach cello suites didn't really need a rerelease, but the Columbia Bruno Walter Das Lied, the Ormandy performance of the first Cooke completion of the Mahler 10th, and a few other discs probably did need a rerelease. I appreciate the marketing side of this game, but as more and more labels get snapped up in mergers, it is nice to see the back catalogues reemerge.

The Glory of Gabrieli is a 1967 E. Power Biggs "stereo spectacular." Biggs had a pet project in the 1960s of playing the works of various composers on organs that they themselves might have played. In this way, he really does prefigure the HIP crowd in a big way. Helmut Walcha, an organist that I really do admire, did much the same thing for his Bach cycle on DG Archiv. For his Gabrieli disc, he went to St. Mark's in Venice. Unfortunately, the St. Mark's organ that Gabrieli would have played was no longer extant, so he had a Rieger hauled in to stand in the same spot. Wonderful. Grand. The two choirs, two instrumental ensembles, and organ make this a fun recording. Church music, to be sure, but still fun. This is the sort of record you put on when you want your music big.

Gabrieli, along with Monteverdi, is one of those composers who allegedly ushered in the Baroque from the Renaissance. His stuff is interesting; not as revolutionary or powerful as Monteverdi, though. Still, hearing these grand polyphonic pieces in St. Mark's makes his music seem whole. This would certainly be a nice way to pass the time for the Venetian nobility while the patriarch does his thing at the altar.

This disc takes a sort of programmatic view: an organ improvisation, a motet, another organ piece...wash - rinse - and repeat. Thankfully, there isn't plainchant between every piece, as the liturgical exponents were still in school when this disc was cut. It is also an example of Baroque music not played a la the HIPsters. This should serve as a reminder that there was Baroque music before everyone got all weird about A'=440 Hz, performance documentation, and proper instruments. When the brass begins their chorale in the "Sonata in the 9th tone for 8 parts," all that seems like a bunch of pedantic malarky.

Buy the damn disc.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

More thoughts on Solti's Ring

This weekend, I have set out to recover my affection for Wagner, especially the Ring. In listening to stretches from all my recordings, I have found myself deeply involved with Solti's cycle.

This cycle has all the comforts of a favorite chair and all the well-worn flavor of a favorite drink. I am not entirely sure that the Wiener Philharmoniker has ever managed to sound as good as they did for Solti. I am not always as thrilled with his singers, to be entirely honest, but they are old friends. Hotter, wobbly and woofy as he became by Die Walküre, is the sort of profoundly flawed Wotan that defines the role. Nilsson began her career as the Brünnhilde (and heir to Flagstad and Varnay) of the 1960s in this set. James King and Wolfgang Windgassen turned in career-defining performances. Georg Solti, previously a somewhat-obscure conductor (though that isn't entirely fair) zoomed to the top of the game and stayed there for thirty years. As I said, the Wiener Philharmoniker dropped its frosty Austrian reserve, rolled up its sleeves, and made simply wonderful music. Even today, no orchestra (save - maybe - the Staatskapelle Dresden) has created that luminous glow around its Wagner. The finale to Das Rheingold, for example, positively sparkles. This is music-making on a high level. Maybe the highest.

To be entirely fair, Solti's cycle might have been the first studio Ring on disc, but it marked the end of an era. After this, and especially after Wieland Wagner's death, things got weird. After more than fifty years of being held at bay, the Marxists ran into the Wagnerian world and had a field day. Now, a little Marxism never hurt anyone, but when one listens to Golden Age Wagner, one has to ask "Was it worth it?" Was it worth it to have the postmodernists dissect Wagner's scores and come up with a new world? Was it worth it to see somewhat hoary, but earnest, stage designs turned into obscene exercises in the pornographic?

I don't know. After a day with Solti's Ring, though, I see the argument against very clearly.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


It's nice to go home. I am listening to Georg Solti's Die Walküre and am being reminded that, after nearly fifty years, this recording is still about as exciting as one could want.

Kulturpunkt: Blogs and Feelings

I am listening to Pierre Hantaï's Mirare recording of the Goldbergs. That makes my venom ironic, elegant, and gives it a little more menace.

Blogs are great, aren't they? They provide a place for people like me to complain about classical music. There are all sorts of bloggers out there, and some of them feel the need to talk about feelings. I tried that, once, on a now-defunct blog. It wasn't much fun, and it certainly wasn't interesting to anyone involved.

If you have issues expressing, or even feeling, your emotions, then I am sorry. However, the interweb is not a place to work those issues out - far from it, really. The anonymous nature of the interweb is great, but it also gives people the idea that they have license to tell six billion of their closest buddies that they think things about stuff. Angsty fifteen-year-olds get to write emotional love sonnets to themselves. However, after the age of nineteen, it should stop.

Furthermore, emotion-laden blogs are more fun to read than a dry, somewhat arrogant classical music blog. People who are introspective and "deep" take readers away from me. That will not do. Not at all.