Sunday, December 31, 2006

Here we go...

I'd been waiting for this. A.C. Douglas, of Sounds and Fury fame, weighs in on the recent business in Iraq in, well, his own unique style. Yes, that. I knew he'd get around to commenting on it.

It isn't for the faint-of-heart or, shall we say, the easily excited pacifist sort. I would rather see a man accustomed to silk sheets, French bespoke suits, Cuban cigars, and excellent food confined to a drab, dreary prison cell (with all the mediocrity appurtenant thereto) until the Resurrection; however, to each his own.

Friday, December 29, 2006

More thoughts on American Cash

You know, listening to American III: Solitary Man convinces me that that disc was the high point of the collaboration between Cash and producer Rick Rubin. This record is also, likely, the most challenging - content-wise - of the series. The ultimate tone is hopeful, but many of these songs are a little more intelligent and introspective than the likes of "Hurt."

I might say that Will Oldham's "I See a Darkness," in retrospect, might be the best track from the series. Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" will likely be considered a contender for that position, too. Cash performed a miracle, saving Reznor's "Hurt" from angsty self-indulgence, but Oldham's song has a depth to it that embraces Cash - rather than the other way 'round. Cash's, by 2000, deep and weathered voice slides into Oldham's song, filling and fulfilling it.

Listen to it. The songwriting is a bit (understatement) better than "Hurt" or "God's Gonna Cut You Down" and the tone of the song fits the somber sound of Cash's late-career voice.

Unearthed, the outtakes box set that I bought only now - largely because I am really into the American Recordings series and I had the spare cash - shows that there was a lot of really good stuff left in the studio. Two tracks, in particular, probably should have made it to one of the discs: a cover of Marley's "Redemption Song" (with Joe Strummer) and Neil Young's "Heart of Gold."

Cash has the experience, in an abstract sense, and sounds like it enough that both of those songs work well. Perhaps American III would have benefitted from them. They are personal enough and hopeful enough that they might work there. They aren't in the mode that dominates American IV. Not eschatological enough.

Apocalypse indeed.

I am not in the habit of agreeing with David Hurwitz, for a lot of reasons, but his review of the finale of Iván Fischer's new Mahler 2nd is spot-on. This passage, in particular, earned my assent:

And if you thought, as I did, that the recent San Francisco performance under Michael Tilson Thomas was impressive in the closing pages, then you have to hear this--without question the most cosmically glorious finish yet captured on disc.

At 31:49 (d.2), when the chorus comes in with the triumphant, "Aufersteh'n, ja, aufersteh'n..." repeat, you sense the fullness of Mahler's vision. Too many conductors, including - but not limited to - Pierre Boulez and Simon Rattle, seem to underplay this moment on disc. A bigger mistake could not be made, as it is the very summit of the symphony. The final revelation, regarding salvation itself, is made in Mahler's vision of eschatology at that very instant. Tilson Thomas doesn't underplay it, nor does Fischer. Happily.

They don't descend into camp or parody, but they give the moment all the power and glory it needs to be really apocalyptic - in both the popular and etymological senses of the word.

I wish I could be surprised...

Alex Ross laments the snub of classical music (and the scene) by Entertainment Weekly. Here is, to my mind, the center of gravity for the piece:

If market share is the sole consideration, it's worth noting that Lorraine's Neruda Songs CD is currently #71 on the overall Amazon music chart, beating out the Happy Feet soundtrack and Akon's Konvicted. The crazy news these days is that classical music is regaining popularity, and it's time for mainstream publications such as EW, Time, and Newsweek — not to mention the TV networks — to pay heed.

I agree, but until the middle-class 18-35 set starts embracing classical music, with all their precious disposable income, one should expect to see vapid praise of the latest Hollywood "film" or the latest Dolce & Gabbana fashions. When the Blessed Demographic would rather spend $30 on Mahler or Ligeti, not on H&M or Express, you'll see the media follow. It's like Hal Holbrook, as "Deep Throat" (well, Mark Felt, hindsight being what it is) says in the filmed version of All the President's Men, "Follow the money." Until then, expect their silence and their stupidity.

Mr. Ross titles his piece, "Here we are now, entertain us." Nirvana was before my time (substantially so: Nevermind was released in 1991), but perhaps EW could have titled their spread, "I feel stupid and contagious."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On President Ford, 2: A comment.

Nation "Notion" blogger, John Nichols, turns in this piece about the late President Ford. He praises Ford's decency and service,

As president, Ford served more ably and honestly than many of his successors. But he was, and will always be, remembered as an accidental president. Perhaps that is not fair to him, but nor is it fair to the American people to have a president assume office in such a dysfunctional manner.

However, he criticizes the process that created President Gerald R. Ford,

There will be a bit of discussion about how best to honor Ford. But, in truth, the best way to honor this former president is to close the Constitutional loophole that allowed him to become president. The presidency is already too regal to permit chief executives to annoint [sic] their successors -- and, perhaps, to extract the promise of a full presidential pardon or some other favor, as critics suggested Nixon did with Ford.

This is, I submit, in a bit of an error. There aren't really any serious electoral tests for the vice presidency. In fact, my recent successful campaign for vice president of an organization at school was, likely, more of an electoral test than anything a vice president has to face. He is selected at the convention by the presidential nominee and, in Indiana, anyway, slated with the presidential candidate on a ticket.

Gerald Ford was confirmed by the House and Senate, more of a test - I warrant - than anything any vice president since Nelson Rockefeller has endured. He passed the test of a Democratic Congress (in 1973, one will recall, The vice president is elected in a coattails position; no one has, save maybe in the 2004 election, voted against a ticket based on the vice presidential candidate. In any event, the president, candidate or elected, anoints his de jure successor at the party convention - and the American people merely confirm it when they vote for the president. Of course, their votes don't count - we have an Electoral College.

Also, we have a Republic. That old chestnut hardly bears a rehash.

Haitink's Götterdämmerung

EMI has, individually*, strangely enough, re-released Bernard Haitink's Ring cycle. Knowing the dicey reputation, and coming to really like Götterdämmerung on a lot of levels (despite the dramatic problems), I bought the final music-drama. No need, then, to waste a lot of money on a set that has been bested. This set is, more or less, Levine's Ring with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (BRSO, for convenience) instead of the MET forces. There are some casting differences, some major and some minor, but the feel is essentially the same. Siegfried Jerusalem sings his eponymous role, as opposed to the utterly unsuited Reiner Goldberg, who sings Siegmund (a minor improvement). John Tomlinson, and I'll get back to this, sings Hagen - and this is a major benefit to Götterdämmerung. Still, it's EMI's attempt to get a Ring out to compete with Decca, Teldec, and Deutsche Grammophon.

Haitink has occasional moments of brilliance (his RCO Mahler 3rd from the 1970s), but is best known as a solid, solidly quotidian conductor. His Ring isn't much different. He follows Wagner's directions to the letter, and plays all the notes when they're supposed to be played. Nothing inspiring, and the BRSO is good-enough to be interesting, even if they aren't one of the great Wagner orchestras. Even within Germany. This set, especially Götterdämmerung, though I've auditioned the other ones, is just that: good-enough. It's a rehash of Levine, except for the profoundly boring James Morris, and Haitink is good-enough not to ruin things. In fact, if you have Solti or are acquiring Keilberth, there really isn't much sense buying Levine or Haitink, unless you really need super-modern sound or there's a singer there you like (see below).

There are some odd bits of luxury casting and one decision that makes no sense. At all. First, Anne Sofie von Otter and Jane Eaglen are Norns (2d/3d respectively). Yes. You heard right. Von Otter and Eaglen are Norns. Eva Marton is a bit weak for Brünnhilde, and Jane Eaglen is a Norn. Good one, EMI. Good one. To be fair, Altmeyer showed that Nilsson is one option, the less-ringing sopranos can be a bit more human and real. If that's what you want. Thomas Hampson is Gunther. No comment necessary. Bad call.

I like Hagen. He might be the most traditionally interesting character in Wagner's whole Tetralogy. Wotan probably wins the overall interesting-character award, but - remember - he stands with the protagonists of the Greek dramatists. Nothing traditional about that, especially seeing the 1876 date of the Götterdämmerung première. Hagen, on the other hand, is a nasty sort who schemes and manipulates to further the business of the family firm, so to speak. He is profoundly aware of his faults and handicaps, and - rather than attempting to overcome them (premature age and wan appearance, among them) - he embraces them. He wants revenge, not to be better. He is who he is, and the audience is fully aware that he's tricking Siegfried down the line. He's interesting, if nothing else, in a way that Siegfried and the rest aren't. It was Wagner's brilliance to make Wotan (primus inter pares), Alberich, and Hagen interesting; it was his error (of sorts) to keep Siegfried as the center of the cycle, even when Wotan had become a new Oedipus, a new Xerxes (Cf. hoi Persai).

John Tomlinson is, perhaps, my favorite Wagnerian bass of modernity. His Wotan from the Barenboim Ring is, perhaps, marred by the injuries to taste inflicted upon him by Harry Kupfer, my favorite and my reason for preferring him. There is a force and a power to his voice that are astounding. He has a voice ranging from a warm tone, to a bass as black as Frick, Ridderbusch, or Salminen. Good range, and he can act: necessary for a music-drama. His Hagen for Haitink is a redeeming virtue to an otherwise middle-of-the-road set.

*Don't believe me?

President Gerald R. Ford: 1913-2006

It might seem strange, since President Ford was generally considered a caretaker president, stepping in for the disgraced Richard Nixon, that I would take a post to eulogize him. In the stinking political swamp of Washington, and especially during the toxic last days of the second Nixon administration, Gerald Ford seemed to be a decent public servant trying to do a good job. He pardoned Nixon, which probably was the reason for his defeat in the 1976 election, though I doubt that any Republican could beat a Democrat after Nixon's excesses, but he closed the public book on Watergate. He inherited a darkened office in a time of national torpor and unrest. Still, he and Mrs. Ford proved that it is possible to lead with dignity under pressure.

A decent man, who should serve as a rebuke to politicians past and present who decided to emulate Richard Nixon at his worst, not Ford at his best. I only hope that the powers-that-be give Gerald Ford a funeral equal to the canonization of Ronald Reagan. Ford kept America from falling apart when it was most possible; Reagan broke the law.

The AP story, via CNN.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

More milestones, I suppose.

The Penitent Wagnerite has had over 3000 unique visits, 2300 likely from Google searches gone horribly awry. However, 3009 visits we have had (including my checks of the page), so that tells me - given a 31 Dec 2005 opening date - that we have had 8.41 visits/day since we opened up here. Not shabby, not shabby at all.

Kent Nagano's Mahler 8 on DHM is better than I remembered it, having been captured by Klaus Tennstedt's EMI effort. Some minor musical content.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

I couldn't resist forwarding this piece from the BBC, including this delicious tidbit,

In particular, two leading neo-cons, Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman, attacked the Bush team in Vanity Fair magazine. Both had been on a Pentagon advisory board. Both had argued for war in Iraq.

In an article called "Neo Culpa", Richard Perle declared that had he known how it would turn out, he would have been against it: "I think now I probably would have said: 'No, let's consider other strategies'."

No comment necessary. Wait: one comment necessary, conservativism is dead in the water. Mark my words. Two years of Democratic control in Washington and the complete failure of conservative social and foreign policy have shown Americans that the far right is way wrong.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Keilberth Rising

Der Ring des Nibelungen has finally been completed according to Testament, though not according to Amazon. Der fliegende Holländer is out, once again, and on a splendid-sounding CD set. From the 1955 Festspiele alone, there is enough evidence to reevaluate Joseph Keilberth. His Ring has really taken the Wagnerian world by storm, both for the quality of the singing and the brilliant conducting in the pit. Keilberth, it seems, was the sort of conductor content not to get in the way of the music.

He manages to allow the band to do its thing, and to allow Wagner to tell them what to do. Of course, he has the Bayreuth band - an organization that exists entirely in the context of Richard Wagner. Nevertheless, Keilberth deserves a seat among the great Wagnerians of his generation: Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, and Krauss. Had Keilberth not fallen out with Wieland Wagner, one senses that Bayreuth would have an altogether different character through the 1960s and into the '70s. Of course, the 1955 Holländer was a Wolfgang Wagner production - as most Bayreuth fanatics already know. So, one assumes that half of the Wagner team running the Festspiele in the 1950s and '60s got on with Keilberth, but Wolfgang was usually the financial whiz.

His Holländer might, in any event, given recognition, supplant Klemperer's as the default recommendation. Hermann Uhde is suitably angst-ridden, and might be the bleakest (or on the short list) Dutchman I have heard. He isn't avuncular or blah. Unfortunately, his life was cut short in 1965 - at the age of 51 - just when most singers are in the prime of things. He also managed to look brooding and tortured. James Morris, though now toward the end of his career, might have bothered to follow Uhde's lead as a grim Dutchman.

Rudolf Lustig is a credible Erik, but Windgassen might have been better. Astrid Varnay was Senta. Enough said. She really was a suitable soprano for the Green Hill, though Nilsson has her moments. Between the two, there were more than enough successors to Flagstad - insofar as one can ever succeed one like Flagstad.

Of course, Wilhelm Pitz drilled the Bayreuth chorus, and one can always tell a Pitz-prepared chorus from one done by another director. Just another reason why the 1955 Holländer is spectacular.

I have said enough about his Ring, and it looks like we're seeing Keilberth rising in the estimation of things. John Culshaw made an egregious error in pushing the Solti project beyond the already-wonderful (and paid-for, one assumes) Keilberth recordings. Now, fifty years after the fact, Testament is setting things right. Solti was a gifted Wagnerian, in the Ring (I cannot say the same for his Holländer), but Keilberth was a dyed-in-the-wool, consummate Wagnerian. His tempi are so carefully considered and intelligent that one must see the flash of real understanding. He refuses to sacrifice drama for drive. Of course, Keilberth stands in a tradition stretching back, through Mottl, to Wagner himself. It is natural that Keilberth was a Wagnerian to the bone.

It just took fifty years for anyone to pay attention.

Monday, December 18, 2006

One year (give or take) later...

This blog is the successor to From the New World. That blog got up to 200 posts and, while not moribund by any means, needed a change. I wanted to take it back to its original roots - culture, opera, and art. However, the increasingly personal content that I had been introducing over the last months made that difficult, if not impossible. So, I was left with a choice: get further and further away from my roots or scrap it and start over.

I made my choice: now make yours. Stay, and see a leaner, meaner blog, or leave.

That was written on 31 December 2005, a Saturday, as it happens. I have beaten 200 posts with The Penitent Wagnerite. In the past year, I have had (in my mind) some splendid posts, gotten into some splendid rows, and draw about ten people from all over the United States and the world each day. Not bad, not bad at all, if you consider my competition. I am not going to trash this one, simply because I have stayed more on-target, if for the occasional personal aside. It's still a solid two weeks to the anniversary, but I saw that post tonight, and I thought that I would make a mention of it.

The last few posts have been a bit pop-culture, but that's OK, in my book. Every good meal deserves a champagne sorbet between courses to cleanse the mouth of rich stews and interesting fowl. I'll bring us back to the regularly scheduled programming, especially with my original statement glaring off the screen at me whenever I open the site to get to the editing menu.

American V: A Hundred Highways

I don't like posthumous records. Warren Zevon's The Wind was a solid record, to be sure, but it wasn't as good as Excitable Boy, The Envoy, or Sentimental Hygiene. Zevon's very public illness and death got it a bit more press than it would have gotten otherwise. Of course, Zevon was a wry commentator on the dark side of the apotheosis of the American dream, Southern California. He wasn't a legend. Johnny Cash, on the other hand, was a legend twenty years ago. When he died, three or so years back, he was in that rare stratum of modern popular music: the unimpeachable. There was no point criticizing Cash, since everyone had decided long ago whether or not they liked him.

Therefore, a posthumous entry from Johnny Cash was something to fear. Not exactly in the same way as American IV: The Man Comes Around, which was completed before Cash died, but in another way. Could Rick Rubin, Wunderkind (though not much of a Kind these days) producer, complete what Cash started? Yes and no. The big track of American V will be "God's Gonna Cut You Down," which is a bit unfortunate. The thundering, repetitive percussion is (to these ears) antithetical to the American Recordings discs, which eschewed fancy arrangements to feature Cash's voice and an acoustic guitar. Unflinching and spare, perhaps, is a better way to characterize these sets. Also, covering Gordon Lightfoot? Give me a break.

Is American V a good record? Yes and no, once again. Compared to Death Cab for Cutie's Plans, Gwen Stefani's The Sweet Escape, or Justin Timberlake's "My Love," American V is the very hammer of God. Too mighty to ignore, but too overwhelming to fully appreciate. Compared to music that isn't immediately disposable (not that I don't like that music, too), it is in a more difficult position. In fact, I'll avoid running it against Blood on the Tracks, The Final Cut (an album which I should explore later), or Transformer. No, American IV: The Man Comes Around is a good comparison. They are similar albums with similar feels. However, American IV is far more valedictory than American V. There is a finality at the end of the earlier record, a release. American V, chronologically, picks up right afterwards, but the catharsis is gone.

Cash went from examining a life to exploring death. Granted, his resonant and understanding readings of songs like Springsteen's "Further On Up The Road" (off The Rising) blow Death Cab's "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" out of the water. However, that's like saying that Wagner blows Meat Loaf out of the water. But of course, my dear, but of course. Cash, it seems, did better with songs about life - songs about experience, which his ancient voice conveyed like an Old Testament prophet. Like a man knowing that God was there, backing him up and ready to take the microphone if he faltered.

The usually-risible Pitchfork Media (think ClassicsToday for hipsters in tight jeans and ironic t-shirts) made an astute comment about the Personal File set:

The Tupac'ing of the Man in Black stretches into the near future, with a fifth installment of his diminishing-returns American Recordings collaboration with Rick Rubin due in July. But for now, there's another posthumous chapter: the vault clearing.

I (for the most part) agree with that. American IV, with "Hurt," was as intelligent a personal statement and a farewell as one could hope to record. This record, for its part, has some very introspective and intelligent moments - but I am not sure that there was anything left to say. It was no longer an issue of talent, any country superstar "nearing the goal" who could take Trent Reznor's self-pitying, self-indulgent whine and give it some gravitas has talent. Cash said all there was to say, and - while he clearly disagreed (perhaps out of loyalty to his then-recently deceased bride, June Carter Cash) - he could have gone into the final curtain knowing that he proved himself once again.

American V is a solid record, as was the Unearthed box set, but there wasn't much need to say anything more.

For the record, I am listening to Karl Böhm's 1977 Don Giovanni from the Salzburger Festspiele as I write this. Why do I mention this? Just to prove I can maintain objectivity.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Meat Loaf, Music, and Kultur

The very apotheosis of Jim Steinman's Wagnerian power-pop, Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell, got a mention on Slate today.

Meat Loaf is campy, self-consciously ironic, and a little much at times, and he has been since "Hot Patootie" in Rocky Horror. Jim Steinman's music is such that I am not sure if he is making the most clever critique of rock and roll one could imagine, or if he is serious. If he is serious, then he has managed to combine Little Richard, Elvis, Richard Wagner, and the knowing arrogance of Mick Jagger - with a straight face. Like it or not, at their best, Meat Loaf and Steinman combine what's best about American rock and roll: exuberance, arrogance, and bombast.

Meat Loaf is the avatar for Steinman's music: larger-than-life, utterly committed, and loud. Together, it's Strauss and Hofmannsthal; apart, and I am not sure that I have been impressed with either of them (though Steinman's wit and style is unblunted).

Robert Christgau put it best when he said, "[If] this isn't adolescent angst in its death throes, then Buddy Holly lived his sweet, unselfconscious life in vain." He's right, you know. This is music for kids who sat around and listened to the Ring, imagining what it must be like to be Siegfried. Then, they hit later puberty, started noticing the objects of their sexual desire, and got all depressive. Meat Loaf combines that sort of egomaniac, manic bombast with music that seems to revolve around repression, rejection, and pursuit. This is Foucault power-pop.

It's finals week here. No explanation necessary? No.

Here's Michael Bay's magnum opus, the video for "I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)":

The Rock was nothing compared to this. Nor, methinks, was Harry Kupfer's staging of Parsifal at Unter den Linden. Of course, I love long leather coats, neon lighting, and abstract spaces as much as the next person.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A wholehearted "Yes!"

A.C. Douglas writes,

If the pig cop's persecution of the good doctor forces him off Vicodin, or the pig cop isn't dealt an ignominious and humiliating defeat at the good doctor's hands, then the ol' Uzi is coming out of the closet again, and I'm heading out to Los Angeles and the show's shooting set to do some shooting of my own. Ditto if the good doctor goes off Vicodin by virtue of the tough-love machinations of his colleagues.

(If you've no idea what I'm talking about, then you're missing the best series on commercial broadcast TV in the last two decades.)

I, for one, will testify at Mr. Douglas' trial for the defense. It is precisely this sort of melodrama that will take the only television about which I have ever cared from being brilliant to being a treacly disaster. I implore the creators, and Hugh Laurie (far from being the Prince Regent, in the show or reality), to cease and desist. Otherwise, A.C. might be on to something.

The Vogler arc from Season 1 was an excellent examination of "the good [doctor's]" methods and style. How could Wilson turn traitor? I always knew that the oncologist was a weak-kneed little girl with a self-serving streak. Chase staying loyal? Good God, the world of Princeton-Plainsboro has been turned upside-down since the arrival of Tritter.

Heaven help us all.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Turn the applause light off?

Here is a post from Wellsung, upon which A.C. Douglas has already commented.

I tend to have a sliding scale. If the folks in the balcony want to applaud "Vissi d'arte" at every single Tosca from now until the Universe dies its heat death, that's fine by me. However, if they even think about applauding between movements of Mahler's 2nd, 6th, or 9th: they will probably be told (in no uncertain terms) to stop. Now. Heaven help them if they applaud any part of Parsifal. Yes, yes, I know: the Master is alleged to have applauded the Blumenmädchen scene, but he was the only person who could break etiquette at his music-dramas. Let us not even imagine what would happen if they made a noise after "Nur eine Waffe taugt."

I would say, simply, this when it comes to applause: don't do it until the end of an act or concert piece. It's rude, distracting, and a little gauche. Also, you'll look like a moron if you're the only person clapping. Not good to do with the symphony set. As to this bit,

Thus, I call on non-inter-movement clappers of the world to unite. Listening to nonstop applause after every movement is annoying. People interested in the music don't like it and performers don't like it. It's just an inefficient way to run a modern concert. And it's a piss-poor way to attract new classical music lovers. I mean, who are the wilting daisy rock enthusiasts who are so wounded when they find out the concert hall protocol is no clapping until the entire piece is over? Do these people actually exist? And do we even want them in the club? I mean, we still have some standards right?

Yes, Alex, we do have some standards these days. However, the A&R people are willing to sacrifice every single one of the those standards if they think that their doing so will pack one more rear-end into the cheap seats. When I saw Boulez do Mahler's 6th last month, there were empty seats - even on the first balcony (one of the better places to sit in Orchestra Hall, especially if you like brass). He hasn't done that piece there in a decade, and it's one of the Mahler symphonies that he "gets" and does well. Still, on a Friday night - people would rather shop at Water Tower Place than take a five-minute taxi ride down Michigan to hear one of the great symphonies under a great conductor do a powerful (brilliant, even) symphony. The pencil-pushers (and, remember, I am a math minor - more specifically, algebra) will do whatever it takes to sell seats. If that means turning these concerts into bloody populist rallies, then that's what they'll do.

In other words, if it gets them out of Louis Vuitton and into Orchestra Hall, they'll do it. Whatever the cost to the rest of us who care about music.

Mark my words and give it a couple years.