Monday, October 30, 2006

Politics: Take that, GOP!

Dick Armey, one of the GOP architects of the 1994 conquest of Congress and the largely symbolic "Contract with America," lets the party have it in the Washington Post. Here is a summary quote:

The answer is simple: Republican lawmakers forgot the party's principles, became enamored with power and position, and began putting politics over policy. Now, the Democrats are reaping the rewards of our neglect -- and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

He goes on to note,

Now spending is out of control. Rather than rolling back government, we have a new $1.2 trillion Medicare prescription drug benefit, and non-defense discretionary spending is growing twice as fast as it had in the Clinton administration. Meanwhile, Social Security is collapsing while rogue nations are going nuclear and the Middle East is more combustible than ever. Yet Republican lawmakers have taken up such issues as flag burning, Terri Schiavo and same-sex marriage.

They're fooling only themselves.

In other words, Dick Armey can see that the Republicans are no more the party of Taft, of Reagan, and of Goldwater. They're now the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He's right. It's a shame that he left Congress. It's only old-timers like him that can have any hope of keeping things in check and reminding the corrupt, power-hungry politicos how things used to be. Of course, I doubt that the Young Turks want to know what it really means to be a Republican.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Now, that isn't to say that Mariss Jansons' 2006 Neujahrskonzert performance wasn't better, but who doesn't love the Radetzky-Marsch?

Of course, if you want a real Viennese performance, you'll have to go back to 1979, for Willi Boskovsky's Neujahrskonzert, and his retirement as concertmaster of the Wiener Philharmoniker. There is nothing like a good Austrian march directed from the first desk.

In any event, enjoy!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Zagrosek's Rheingold

It's been a bumper crop for Ring aficionados lately. Testament rolled out Keilberth's splendid stereo cycle from the 1955 Festspiele. Warner Classics re-released Barenboim's 1991/2 set. Philips put Böhm's 1967 recording back out, along with EMI's reissue of Haitink's somewhat lonely Ring. Even Naxos has gotten in the act, releasing Lothar Zagrosek's set (originally filmed) from the Staatsoper Stuttgart.

I have the Rheingold, and I am of two minds of it. Zagrosek's really splendid orchestral palette, helped by good engineering, does justice to Wagner's score without watering it down. However, and this is to be expected from a second-tier city like Stuttgart, the singers just don't cut the mustard. For example, Wolfgang Probst's Wotan has a vibrato that ranges from distracting to cringe-inducing, with a couple moments that are downright sad. I can take Hotter, especially when Hotter's voice got bad, simply because he had the gravity and the power to soldier through the woofiness [sic?] and wide vibrato. Sadly, Probst doesn't have either of those to get through his problems. That man-against-himself bit could be tragic, but it's just unfortunate. Especially if you like the young Wotan to be proud and arrogant.

I do.

Robert Künzli's Loge, too, lacks something. I'd be inclined to toss, flippantly, je ne sais quoi off, but no. He doesn't have the bite that Schreier, Clark, Zednik, or Windgassen all had. Loge isn't the faintly fruity buddy of Wotan: he is an angry element-god who, for all his abuse at the hands of the gods, could flatten the lot of them. He is restrained, but barely. His outburst at the end of Scene 4 should reveal as much.

The Rhinemaidens, too, lack something - namely consistency of ensemble. During their lament, one of them is at least a quaver behind the rest. Not so good. One hopes that their lamentation would be of one mind, not follow-the-leader.

So, why then do I mention this record? The orchestra, sounding rather like the Staatskapelle Dresden, if not as technically precise, is fantastic. Zagrosek has an understanding of how to pace Wagnerian drama. He can also vary his tempi without seeming ham-fisted, which variation not many can do with anything resembling success. Clearly, he drilled his band for quite some time. Also, his German biography reports that he studied with Von Karajan, and it seems that he adopted some of the latter's notions of orchestral lyricism - but not Von Karajan's obsession with smoothness and sheen.

David Harbin reviewed this set, and I (clearly) agree with much of what he said. He was a little too forgiving of the singers, but I think he outlines the merits of the set. He also places it in context, and - with all the Rings out there now - you need to do that.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Politics: Kevin Tillman's Nation piece

Kevin Tillman, brother of friendly-fire victim and NFL player, Pat Tillman, had this to say in The Nation. Read it. You can't call Kevin Tillman some sort of armchair hippie liberal. He joined up with the Army after 11 September 2001. His brother was killed, not by the terrorists he was sent to kill, but by fellow American soldiers in a tragic accident. He has earned his right to dissent, and he has defended mine. Here is a brief passage:

Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.

Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.

Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.

Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.

Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.

Somehow, I think that he's not alone in thinking this.


A.C. Douglas links to this interview with Paul McCreesh. I would suggest that Mr. Douglas listen to McCreesh's 2000 recording of Bach's towering Matthäus-Passion.

He falls into all the standard HIP tricks: super-fast tempi and one-singer-to-a-part. Gardiner's recording, pretty much standard for a HIP Matthäus-Passion, though not as glorious and grim as Klemperer's echt-Romantic interpretation, is marginally slower and infinitely more dramatic. McCreesh revels in the "scholarship" of Parrott and Rifkin, which work attempts to undo two hundred years of received performance wisdom.

I quote from an interview in the liner notes,

However, if the early music movement is serious - and I'm not always sure that it is - how can we ignore 20 years of astoundingly erudite scholarship without trying to make it work?

Hmmm. Apparently, about as easily as you can ignore the performance history of the work since Mendelssohn's revival in 1829. The notes pay lip-service to the first critical editions of Bach, undertaken by the German Bach Society, while criticizing their concept of Bach. This performance is nothing more than HIP standard operating procedures applied to smaller-than-average forces. McCreesh might not claim a normative interpretation, but he certainly keeps step with his colleagues.

Only Sir John Eliot Gardiner, of the HIPsters of the first rank, understands that you can adopt period-performance style with a large ensemble. Had Bach foreseen the size of a modern orchestra, would have done things differently? You bet. These people, except Gardiner, don't understand that. Not for one second.

McCreesh ruined the soprano part, O Lamm Gottes, in the opening chorus. He'll never be forgiven by me for that gaffe.

Dialogues des Carmélites

"En des temps comme ceux-ci, mourir n'est rien."

Just as Mozart went through his "I have discovered Bach" phase, I can say that I have discovered Poulenc. More to the point, I have been listening to Dialogues des Carmélites nonstop for a couple of days now. The work was written in 1957, originally for La Scala, but premiered in French at the Opéra Garnier. Like Britten's War Requiem, and the best of Stravinsky, the work is undeniably modern but tonal. Poulenc uses a profoundly nervous and shifting tonal palette to express the anxiety of the Carmelites during the Revolution. It is as though Blanche's anxiety and weak constitution have been transformed into music.

Poulenc's spirituality created an environment for him to ask questions about life, death, duty, and fate. Within a profoundly Catholic environment, he answered those questions simply. Blanche de la Force has a peaceful and noble death, because the tragic and embarrassing death of the Prioress took her doubt and fear for her. Blanche became a hero for her Order because someone else shied away at the last trump for her. The opera is "about" Blanche, but that's like saying Der Ring des Nibelungen is "about" Siegfried. It is, "kind of-sort of." However, it's also about the place of servants and heroes in a "debased" time (i.e., Dialogues, not Der Ring). When there aren't priests, the new Prioress says, there are martyrs in abundance. However, you receive martyrdom from God Himself, and not through any wish.

That is why Mother Marie does not mount the scaffold. She was far too eager to meet a glorious end. Blanche, who cast the only "no" in the vote the community took on the vow of martyrdom, does. She got her reward. The "unlikely heroes" motif is overdone, but appropriate here. No. In another way, heroes are the ones who move, unknowingly, toward their apotheosis. If you want to be a hero, chances are you'll never get the opportunity.

The finale of Dialogues is, perhaps, the most tragic and jarring of the 20th century. The Carmelites, marched to the scaffold to be guillotined in accord with the will of the Assembly, sing Salve Regina as the blade falls on them, one-by-one. The choir gets smaller and smaller, until only one nun sings. The moment when Blanche mounts the scaffold, perfectly calm, is capped off with only the slam of the blade. Tragic. However, it's not unexpected. Like the great Greek dramatists, Poulenc makes you care about an ending that is foreseen and totally expected. Constance tells Blanche they will die together. They do. Still, you care.

This isn't an easy opera. And, like the questions of good, evil, love, and will raised by Wagner's Der Ring, this one leaves you with more questions than answers. Pierre Dervaux' recording has been canonical and non pareil for nearly fifty years. There's also Kent Nagano's, but - seriously? - why mess with a good thing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Movie music and me

I don't go to the movies that often. If there's a movie I want to see in a bad way, I'll go. Otherwise, I'll buy it when it comes out on DVD, after reading as many trusted reviews as I can. However, this piece on Slate got me thinking about movie music. Not who's best, but who's most influential - other than Gustav Holst. I think that the two composers who set out to create the world anew each time are, hands down, the most influential: Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler.

Wagner's music is the music of the world-mythic, of life, death, creation, and destruction. Mahler, on the other hand, was content with two things: life and death. Wagner created universes, even in works set in specific places like Tristan or Die Meistersinger. Mahler explored life and death in our universe. Of course, since he worked in and with archetypes, Wagner's music is better-suited for archetypal characters. Like Star Wars, for which John Williams borrowed "liberally," shall we say.

Mahler, on the other hand, works for the catastrophic and the emotional. The opening bars of Richard Robbins' music for The Remains of the Day reminds me of several moments in Mahler, not least the Urlicht from the 2nd. There are many examples of this sort of recreation or borrowing-effect. However, why borrow? Wagner and Mahler were towering genii who ended their genres, respectively. Opera (or music-drama) was pointless after Wagner, and symphonies were pointless after Mahler (pace Shostakovich). Take from them, with credit. Don't put their work through a mesh screen out of a sense of novelty. It's criminal.

The recent film, The New World, used Wagner's prelude to Das Rheingold as its opening music. Is there any other music more primal and world-creating? No. If you want to symbolize the creation of a new universe, a new reality, even, then you must go to the man who created and destroyed a universe with gods, mortals, and monsters. You must go to Wagner. The director of The New World, Terrance Malick, understood this. James Horner is adequate, but Wagner's worst note blows Horner's best out of the water.

Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, which really should have gotten him his "Best Picture" Academy Award, has - to my mind - one of the best uses of music in a movie. When Hughes (DiCaprio) takes the XF-11 up for its ill-fated maiden flight, the Fuge from Bach's* BWV 565 is played in an orchestral arrangement. Anything else would be a pale imitation if it tried to go for the same style. This is precisely the attitude intelligent directors should have.

Stanley Kubrick always understood this, from Ligeti's Lux aeterna in 2001 to Schubert's D.929 in Barry Lyndon, he used the composer's original, rather than letting some studio hack butcher it. Could anyone have replicated the cool, fatalistic rhythm of the Andante from D.929? Could anyone else's music have been so apt and so ironic at the same time? No. No one but Schubert. Kubrick was a genius, both as the gold standard for cinema in the modern era and as a director. He knew what he was doing when he used original music.

Perhaps other directors can learn from Scorsese (in The Aviator, as I think Peter Gabriel scored The Last Temptation of Christ, for example), Malick, and Kubrick. Or, in the words of David Byrne, "Said something once, why say it again?"

*Because BWV 565 has parallel fifths, something Bach avoided as a master of the Baroque, some assert that it isn't by Bach, but an enterprising forger of a student. I don't care, simply because only Bach could pull of the Fuge as brilliantly as it was done. No one else. Not even Mozart or Beethoven.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Böhm's Ring

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the Karl Böhm cycle from the '67 Festspiele was rereleased in the 1994 budget incarnation on Philips. I think that, elsewhere, I have made it clear that I sort of like this one. A.C. Douglas, who - often as not - provides the conservative Wagnerian opinion on most things Wagnerian, had this to say:

And that leaves the Karajan and the Böhm Rings, and they're both non-starters: Karajan because of his ludicrous and perverse conceit that Wagner should sound as lyrical as Verdi, and Böhm because, well, he simply doesn't much like Wagnerian Wagner, preferring his Wagner to sound more like Mozart on steroids and speed. Not cool. Not cool at all, especially for Ring virgins.

Fair enough. However, I thought I'd give it my spin. Böhm's Tetralogy repeats, in several key roles, the casting for Georg Solti's set. Replacing Hans Hotter with Theo Adam for the crucial Wotan/Wanderer role was a mixed bag. By the end of the recording process, Hotter had gotten woofy and a little wobbly*. However, Adam was not the Wagnerian bass-baritone that Hotter was. Don't believe me? Listen to the Walter/Seidler-Winkler/Vienna set or even the Keilberth Die Walküre from '55. At his prime, Hotter was a fine successor, though no equal, to Friedrich Schorr. Adam didn't quite have the heft or the nobility that a really excellent Wotan has. John Tomlinson, of recent years, is the only one with the power and the pathos. James Morris is boring. Three strikes right there.

Back to Böhm, though. His orchestral Konzept lacks a lot of the heft that echt-Wagnerian performances have. In fact, I'd call his Ring profoundly nervous. His tempi are fleet, though not so much as Pierre Boulez', ten years (give or take) later. Furtwängler saw, if his La Scala and RAI-Roma sets are any indication, the Ring as a grim, predestined mythic march to a bad end. Of all, Furtwängler had a sense of the world-mythic. Böhm seemed to see, though Wieland Wagner's Neu Bayreuth staging assuredly didn't help, the cycle as a psycho-drama. Like Hitchcock at his best, by the end, you're screaming for the tension. However, Böhm took it a step too far. Mozartean? Perhaps. Strained? Assuredly.

On that level, then, I like Böhm's set. Boulez, I see now, is just too fast. He tears through the music as though it were a particularly poor steak. You eat it fast just so the taste doesn't linger. Böhm has a purpose, but I don't think you can portray the Ring as a psycho-drama. It has its moments, but it - first and foremost - serves an archetypal function. Archetypes can have psyches (Hamlet, anyone?), but that isn't what they're getting paid for - rather the opposite, indeed.

*Not as wobbly, though, as the Wotan on Zagrosek's new Rheingold on Naxos. Pity, too, as the orchestral performance is good. Very good. However, a bad Wotan does not a good Ring make.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Hurry, hurry, I feel my temperature rising...

The [Wondrous] Boy-Horn Songs: Is anyone else just not that into these? I mean, yeah, there are gems, but I can't shake the sense that there's a bunch of filler too. And I like Mahler's songs! Hook me up with the [Lieder] of the Earth or the Dead Kid Songs and I'm in heaven. But the [Wunderhorn-Lieder]? So sue much of it just feels like Mahler phoning it in.

This post from Wellsung deals with Des knaben Wunderhorn in Chicago. My now-annual Mahler pilgrimage to Chicago happens in late November, when I travel to see Pierre Boulez conduct Mahler's 7th. I can hardly wait. His Cleveland 7th on DGG is really quite excellent, though recently eclipsed by Barenboim's Staatskapelle Berlin disc on Warner Classics.

As to the matter at hand, the Wunderhorn-Lieder make appearances in Mahler beyond his Liederkreis devoted to the "Youth's Magic Horn." The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th all have songs from the set. The contralto solo, "O röschen Rot," from the 2nd is a Wunderhorn text. The 3rd has that "Bimm, bamm" tintinnabulation that leads into, "Es sungen drei Engel." And the 4th has the song, "Wir geniessen die himmlische Freuden." Mahler obviously drew a lot of inspiration from the Wunderhorn texts, and used them in most of his symphonies that include voices (excluding Das Lied von der Erde, which I tend to put in a class of its own, neither Liederkreis nor symphony). Of course, he also used Klopstock, Hrabanus Maurus, and Goethe in those symphonies. In any event, he might be phoning it in, but there's no denying how important the "Youth's Magic Horn" was to Mahler.

With that pedantry aside, Mahler composed a lot of Lieder: the Kindertotenlieder, the Rückert-Lieder, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the Lieder aus Des knaben Wunderhorn, Das Lied von der Erde, and the stuff in the individual symphonies that include it. Having heard all of it, I can say it ranges from merely very good to really quite excellent. But, Mahler was not Robert Schumann or Franz Schubert. The notion of a man (or woman) singing with only a piano for backing seems a little alien to the composer whose sprawling symphonies attempted to encompass "life, the universe, everything" (42, by the way).

Mahler was a genius, in any sense of the word, but he was not a chamber composer. There is a difference.

The Golden Ring

It's an interesting time, as far as Wagner recordings go. Karl Böhm's 1967 Bayreuth Ring is back out in a budget-priced set. Bernard Haitink's Bavarian RSO set, disappointing as it was, is out on EMI's "Desert Island Opera" series. A cruel irony, especially for that cycle, which had a lot of raw talent, but not a lot of product. All this on top of the monumental Keilberth set from the 1955 Festspiele.

Of the re-releases, I am most excited about the Böhm. I could say that it, to a greater or lesser extent, repeated Solti - but Böhm's Mozartean tendencies softened up the music. This cycle, though, was the first complete one that I ever heard. On that account alone, it has some special place in my music heart.

However, the packaging on most budget cycles leaves a lot to be desired - save one. The now-defunct Warner Classics re-release of Barenboim's Teldec Ring set the gold standard for a budget Ring release. The Barenboim set has complete libretti for all the music-dramas, which is always helpful. The Teldec books, moreover, had one really cool feature: they had the Leitmotiven next to the passage where it occurred. So, for example, whenever the Walhall-motif comes along, you can see it next to the text. The packaging was sturdy, at least as much so as the latest Decca release of the Solti cycle.

And all for one hundred or so dollars.

Philips, like all the other UMG labels, has adopted the Deutsche Grammophon "DG Classics" program. The Böhm set is just a remanufacture of the 1994 centenary release. Philips would be wise to get a Philips Classics set out: with complete libretti, insightful liner notes, and lots of pictures. The 1967 cycle was, if my memory serves, an example of Wieland Wagner's last Ring. A more important moment in Wagnerian performance history, good or bad, you'd have to go back to 1876 to find. You don't have to like this Ring, but - considering that it's miles better than Von Karajan's opulently packaged DGG set - it really should get better than it does and has.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Knowing doesn't help

Apologies for my absence, of course, that's assuming that someone actually reads this.

I knew that Anne-Sofie was going to cut an ABBA disc at some point, not having any insider information (though if DGG wants a shill, I'm always available, provided I get a disc of the Mahler Violin Concerto with Boulez and Vengerov), but having read an interview with her about it at some point.

Pliable doesn't seem too excited, but how could anyone avoid the excitement, reading this,

The new album is titled ‘I Let the Music Speak’ and features six of Abba’s finest including ‘The Winner Takes All.’

I only hope it has her crooning out "Super Trouper." That would be sweet.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Worth the visit

Slate, perhaps my favorite online "magazine" (after, of course, The Nation), has a wonderful piece about the peculiar and witty humor of Johannes Brahms.

An excerpt,

Nottebohm, a Beethoven scholar, was also the victim of one of Brahms' most devious practical jokes. On a scrap of old music paper, Brahms jotted down a current pop tune in an expert imitation of Beethoven's handwriting, then bribed a street vendor to wrap the manuscript around a sausage and sell it to Nottebohm. Brahms was thrilled to see the old pedant unwrap the sausage, step under a streetlight to examine the paper with eyes popping, and with a furtive air slip it into his pocket, finishing the greasy sausage barehanded.

How wonderful. You know, stuff like this really should be read to schoolchildren. If they see composers as real human beings, and not Shaffer's Mozart's opinion on people "so lofty...," then they might actually care about good music. The problem is that education has become geared to the lowest common denominator, so the "children" aren't given the slightest idea about how human and how brilliant the greats were.

When you realize that the great masters of the past were human too, then you realize how towering their accomplishments were and are.