Thursday, May 31, 2007

À propos de Glenn Gould

Astonishingly, after discussing my reservations to the Zenph "Re-Performance" of Gould's 1955 Goldbergs, Pliable, of On An Overgrown Path, links to this radio program that Gould produced.It is reasonably, though not widely, well known that Gould was a radio producer and presenter of some brilliance.

Listening to The Latecomers, with its stark base of waves crashing on the shore and the simple overlay of voices, one sees - rather, one hears - Gould's simplicity of vision and the complexity of his creative impulse. It's a soundscape and a documentary. One gets a sense of Newfoundland, as he saw it.

Wine and Beer.

This column from Slate discusses the ascendancy of wine in the United States, displacing the old standby, beer. Now, I really do prefer beer to wine, since high-quality beer is cheaper than high-quality wine. A six-pack of Anchor Steam or a bottle of my new favorite, the 12% French "La Bière du Démon," will be cheaper - when I can find it - than a bottle of Mouton Rothschild or Pétrus. In the event that I can't find good stuff, Rolling Rock or Coors gets me where I want to go without the nasty side effects of wine.

This passage, however, caught my attention:

At the same time, Americans, who had traditionally looked to a French and upper-class English model of the good life, one that emphasized refinement and formality, began in the 1980s to look farther south, to the Mediterranean, and particularly to an Italian ideal of good living, one that emphasized passion, spontaneity, and bounty; in other words, we went from Julia Child to Mario Batali. This American embrace of the Mediterranean spirit loosened things up—and the foodie tent got immeasurably bigger when food culture became better suited to the American temperament. Our fundamental attitude about the ceremony of food and the pleasures of the table changed: What counted was passion, which anyone can have, not refinement, which you must be born into, or cultivate very deliberately.

To be entirely fair, neither the northern nor the southern Europeans, with the exception the Germans, Swiss, and some Austrians, would recognize much about the Konzept of the good life in America. Furthermore, and this is based off both my own observations and the opinions of the infinitely better versed, the American idea of alcohol is, indeed, pretty diametrically opposed to the European one. In any event, America might have loosened up, but we're still pretty goll-darn uptight compared to our colleagues across the ocean.

For what it's worth, I still prefer the northern European way of life.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Parce mihi, O Domine!

The 29th of May, in the Year of the Common Era, 2007, will be remembered as - perhaps - the beginning of the end of classic and classical recordings. OK: that's being over-dramatic about it, but Zenph's "re-performance" of Glenn Gould's astounding 1955* recording of the Goldberg Variations is not the best thing ever to happen to music. The original recording, on the other hand, is probably on the short list for greatest records ever made.

First, the doom and gloom about classic recordings, and - broadly - classical recordings. If some technological wizardry can perform a quick resurrection, so to speak, of Glenn Gould, then there is no sense in young artists bothering to perform or seeking to perform. If a computer and a Yamaha Disklavier can put any great recorded pianist you can bother to name in the concert hall or studio, then what's the point. I'd rather listen to Solomon "perform" the Hammerklavier than Paul Lewis, based on the facts, but then I'd miss out on a young artist with a lot of talent. Classic recordings are more than just the piano notes and dynamics and whatnot, by the way. I could, conceivably, learn the Goldbergs and play them at the same tempi as Gould. However, I could no more recreate Gould's 1955 performance than I could recreate Michaelangelo's Last Judgment. Nothing, not even - in some cases - the artist, can recreate the spark of genius that makes a performance "great," as opposed to "good."

Before I am informed otherwise, I know Gould used studio trickery and editing to great effect. However, he viewed that as part of the art. The fact that he was a virtuoso in his sensibilities of recorded sound and in his sheer genius at the keyboard only makes him more impressive.

Now, the issue of Gould himself. His odd, well, for lack of a better term, vocalise and other mannerisms made him unique as a performer. Glenn Gould seemed to pour his entirety into each recording, each performance. You could tell. You can tell. Who cares if a machine can make and remake Gould's recordings ad infinitum? It's not Gould and you can tell. Furthermore, Zenph has made a binaural recording and mix of the set. Let's let it suffice to say that, "We also recorded a binaural version of the playing. In this technique, two microphones are positioned in the ears of a dummy head, so that headphone playback sounds quite immersive. You’ll be able to hear what Gould heard as he sat at the piano bench, an amazing experience!" (source) No, I'm sorry, but you cannot "hear" what Glenn Gould "heard" as he sat at the bench. I doubt you can "hear" what any great artist "hears" while performing. Why? Well, it's easy: they hear more than instruments and notes. Undoubtedly, they have their concept of the work in their heads, and they're trying to show the rest of us what's going on inside. Gould obviously had a concept of the Goldbergs, and he made no bones about letting the rest of us in on his vision.

Gould gave us the Goldbergs in shiny new digital stereo. As controlling and obsessive (both good things for an artist in this context) as he was in the studio, I am confident that the 1981 Goldbergs reflect his vision of the work as it stood then. Maybe the Zenph technology would interest him, he was in to all that techno-stuff. However, I prefer to let Gould's monumental corpus speak for itself, as it speaks clearly of one of the greatest artists of the recorded age.

I could be wrong, though. Maybe this is a good thing, and maybe I'm out of step. If that's the case, however, then I think we've got bigger problems than an ersatz Auferstehungs-Sinfonie and a time when all the greats are working again, with or without soul(s) as need be.

*By way of a public service, this A.C. Douglas commentary serves as a nice discussion of the two major recordings. I think I've linked to it before, but it bears rereading in this context. Again, I prefer the 1959 Salzburg recording. It's similar to the 1955 record, but it begins to show the faintest hints of 1981. I once said it was midway between. I was wrong, but it isn't a live regurgitation of the 1955 set, either.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Politics: "Why we fight"

While I have assiduously avoided any large-scale discussion of domestic and international politics here, I thought that I would post something here that sums up the "War on Terror" better than anything else: ABC News' revelation that the Bush Administration has sanctioned "a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions."

For me, the interesting part comes in the comments. I'll give you a representative sample:

I will never understand traitors. So now tell me Liberals - what will you do with this information? Sure you will talk about it and point the finger - but after its all said and done how will you benefit? Will you use this information in your job? Will it help get you a promotion? Probably not - but for the few people who perform these activities, whose lives depend on secrecy, this article and those like them jeopardize their lives. People who uphold these traitors will never understand the hatred of the enemy nor will they understand the heart of Patriots.

Someone called "Patriot" posted that piece of scintillating prose. Of course, the smartest people on the comments page were the ones that suggested that if the CIA and Bush Administration really didn't want this project to get out, then it wouldn't have.

Take this for what it's worth and what it says. You may be heartened or dispirited.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Lewis' Beethoven sonatas

On the piano, like it or not, Glenn Gould is still a force with which to be reckoned. However, he - and this is the mark of a real, bona fide, genius - knew he had limits. Ludwig van Beethoven's piano sonata in B flat major, his 29th such sonata and the 106th item in his catalog, was one such limit consciously for Gould. In the Sony "Glenn Gould Edition" release of his Hammerklavier, the liner notes reprint a letter from Gould, fretting about the sonata and his difficulties with it. Paul Lewis, whose Harmonia Mundi integrale of Beethoven's piano sonatas is ongoing, does not seem to have the same difficulties.

I have been soaking in volume two of Lewis' sonatas for most of the weekend (i.e., today). My aural sorbet, a day of Beethoven's sonatas would be more, even, than I could bear, Scott Ross' best-of from his Scarlatti sonata integrale. It's been interesting. Lewis has a way, maybe not the only way, but a way, with the sonatas. His style is something of a mystery to me, since I am not as well-versed in Beethoven's sonatas (aside from the Hammerklavier) as I am in other composers' works. There is, though, an obvious technical mastery at work in all of Lewis' sonatas. He's sure of himself: that is to say that he is not playing in a certain way because received opinion says he should, or (far worse) because Gilels, Pollini, Gould, or whoever played it that way. In other words, he hits all the notes, and the complicated issues (like dynamics, phrasing, lyricism, and the like) are sorted out in such a way that makes him seem - if not obviously right - at least sure that he is indeed right.

I said I am not as conversant with Beethoven's piano sonatas (in fact, truth be told, I'm probably better-versed in Boulez' piano sonatas) as others' works, but I still know good music-making when I hear it. Beethoven revolutionized every field of instrumental music to which he devoted serious attention, and his piano sonatas are - so I'm told - the New Testament of keyboard music. I might agree, but I think we're giving György Ligeti short shrift with that. Still, this (vol. 2) is a damned good record and worth the spin.

Judgment Briefs: Life in Cartoon Motion

I almost apologized for writing more about pop music, but then I realized that no-one is paying me to do this. If, however, certain corporations want to trade tickets to Bayreuth for favorable reviews, then I can be bought. I think that I am getting the better end of that deal.

Mika's record, Life in Cartoon Motion, is enigmatic to me. I've listened to it since its European début some time back. I'm sorry, but I don't quite get it: Scissor Sisters has been pulling this shtick for a while now, and even they can miss the mark (viz. several tracks on Ta-Dah). I get it: you're using camp (or, properly, Camp) to play on the sensibilities of your audience. How witty! How droll! However, like all irony, you're not if you're trying. In any event: it's been done.

It's infectious pop (i.e., "Grace Kelly" and "Love Today"), but - ultimately - I get the feeling that he's having an elaborate joke at my expense. It's not a bad record, but I don't have much room in my musical pantheon for people who want to be Freddie Mercury, especially since Live at Wembley '86 is still in print.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Why I read Slate every day

Slate, one of the old guard of online "magazines," is on my daily must-read list. Even if I don't look at my own blog, I look at Slate. Here are a few reasons why.

An exploration of Helvetica typeface. OK: I like Helvetica, but I also like Times New Roman. The fact that my copy of Microsoft Word sends me immediately to Times New doesn't hurt either. Still, I would have never thought to write an essay, much less a photo essay, about the venerable Swiss font. An interesting story, but if I decide to go crazy, I'm going to go there with Modern No. 20, one of my favorite fonts of all time.

Then, if that wasn't enough, they ask some high-powered authors about which fonts they use, which article yields one of my favorite comments of the year (by Andrew Vachss, of whom I have not heard, seemingly sadly):

Fancy fonts are fine for blogs, just as calligraphy is fine for diaries. But when you're writing for anyone other than yourself, you want to get as universal as possible.

Richard Posner is also queried. I'd hoped for a window into the mind of this formidable jurist, but - alas - no.

Now, without comment, and showing why Slate is the smartest news magazine on the web, I link to a debate between the Reverend Al Sharpton and the provocateur Christopher Hitchens, on Hitchens' new book, God Is Not Great. I lied: one comment. Where else are you going to find this sort of content, plus some other really first-rate stuff? Good question. Maybe The Nation's online component, but that's a different story.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Pop: Release the Stars

To prove myself an equal opportunity music blogger, though I don't lay claim on that title, I think I'll make a few comments on Rufus Wainwright's new CD, Release the Stars. I'll put it like this, I bought this CD on the "oblique recommendation" of a good friend. My taste in serious pop music is a little more severe and Prussian (watch for that joke to come back) than Mr. Wainwright's. Rick Rubin's work with Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, while not production-free is considerably less obtrusive than most that of most of his colleagues. Still, I've given the record five or six complete spins.

Wainwright is, at times, as literary and allusive as - say - Warren Zevon or Fagen and Becker. Unless I miss my guess, his "Sanssouci" is referencing none other than Der alte Fritz. Not exactly the sort of subject matter, about Friedrich der Große or not, that is going to find its way on to the next Justin Timberlake record. Whether or not it was his intention, and I'm going to show a preponderance of evidence that it likely was, Release the Stars is about as operatic a pop album as you could want.

It seems that Mr. Wainwright is the Richard Wagner of serious pop music (I'm not the originator of that thought). This new record isn't quite Der Ring des Nibelungen or Parsifal. However, it is still bigger in Konzept than most of the other records on the market. I bought the last Justin Timberlake album, which received so much praise on the interweb. It was supposed to be the triumph of producer Timbaland's art. That it might have been, but I found the production a little too in-your-face. No, that record was for the producer, not the artist. Release the Stars has a lot of production, but it seems as though it was intended to complement the vocal line. As to the songs, which I promise to get to and we'll see below, I find them interesting and engaging. They tell stories, to a greater or lesser extent, and on that level, they work.

As to why I think he's name-checking die alte Fritz, I suggest that you look up the life of der Große and some of his, shall we decorously say, interests. Also, this is the guy who wrote a song roughly about the Maysles' fabulous (take that one for what it's worth) film, Grey Gardens, and then proceeded to reference Mann's Der Tod in Venedig. That's doubly literary. That's why I say that he is the most elusive and allusive rocker since Warren Zevon. I mean, Zevon wins - having written a song about State Department diplomat Philip Habib.

This is a solid record, and probably a throwback to the good old days of singer-songwriters: worth the spin. I don't know if I'll like it in twenty years, not - at least - in the same way that I'll probably like The Envoy or Unchained, but it's worth it for the moment. That isn't an insult, since Mr. Wainwright's songs seem to be written in the moment for a specific moment.

The Secret Mozart

The idea behind Christopher Hogwood's "Secret" series is that some major composers, from Bach to Beethoven, would have used a clavichord at home and for composition. Furthermore, since most keyboard music was intended for "private consumption," they knew that most people playing their works would be playing them on the clavichord, as opposed to the harpsichord or fortepiano. That's well and good: Hogwood is an accomplished conductor and musicologist. Of course, this isn't a new idea. Ralph Kirkpatrick's 1959 recording of Bach's Das wohltempierte Klavier, Teil 1, was done on the clavichord - to great effect. That recording is probably my favorite, followed by Luc Beauséjour's recent outing on the harpsichord.

Before I turn to the CD at hand, I would like to say a few words about historicity and the period-instrument business. Did Mozart compose and play on a clavichord, more than on a harpsichord or fortepiano? Frau Mozart says that he did. However, if more modern instruments were available, would he still choose a clavichord? For that matter, would he compose for a period orchestra, or would he use the fullness of the modern orchestra to make his musical points? Historicity is great, and it does sort of give us a sense what the audiences would have heard and how the composer expected his music to be heard and performed. However, I am privately sure that no instrument or combination of instruments can really realize the visions of these composers, so it's a moot point. Still, we should wonder: would Bach still want his solo violin stuff played on a baroque violin with baroque technique if he saw modernity's answer? Or anyone for anything.

Now, with that prelude out of the way, let's look at the CD. I've listened to it pretty much every day since I bought it. Hogwood's other component of his stated mission is "rescuing" lesser-known compositions from obscurity. He does so, and he manages to bring off the better-known pieces nicely indeed. There is a delicacy to the clavichord, and it makes the pieces exquisite and even brittle. More on that later, though. Let's compare the Klavierstück in F, K.33b, which was made famous in Amadeus (it's the piece he plays for Pope Clement as a child), from Hogwood's disc with Ton Koopman's harpsichord performance. Hogwood makes it a delicious miniature: a youthful musical Mozartkugel. Koopman's harpsichord performance is considerably more muscular. Insofar, it bears noting, as this piece can be muscular. Hogwood's is fleeter, a bit tentative and flighty. That's half clavichord, and half Hogwood. Nothing wrong with his approach, or the instrument, but I am always nervous that Mozart will become "charming."

At the risk of sounding like Anthony Blanche, from Brideshead Revisited, the great potential blight on Mozart is charm. Turning him into a music box accompaniment is, possibly, the greatest crime against Mozart possible. His music speaks across the ages, and it tells of universal truths like love, brotherhood, knowledge, and the rest. He can be incredibly charming, but only when he wants to be. Hogwood manages to stay just this side of a crossover Mozart-the-Cute disc, but he comes dangerously close at times. Like I said, the clavichord is partly to blame. Nothing sounds terribly awesome on that quiet and reflective instrument. Still, there are some limits. Hogwood's performances are beautiful, and I really can't fault the disc in any sense beyond a vague - almost existential - discomfort whenever Mozart gets "nice."

Hogwood should know better, his Requiem is probably one of the most biting, especially in the big moments, on the market. His Confutatis is pretty damned bleak, and his Voca me, sweet in a real sense. Not the vernacular.

Addition: See here for a picture of the album.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Now, let's not be hasty

A.C. Douglas points us to this article, on Wagner, in Commentary. Now, I'm not going to get as hot-and-bothered as Mr. Douglas, largely because my mind on Wagner and Wagnerian performance is fast approaching the "made up" phase, though there is still some room for give-and-take. I will also say that Keilberth's 1955 Ring might just be the "real deal," but I should wait until next month, so to speak, before judging this one's flavor.

Still, I would like to offer my comments, such as they are, on some of the author's (Benjamin Ivry) main points.

Must music-lovers look to conductors like Herbert von Karajan or Karl Böhm, to name just two, as the final Wagnerian authorities? Yes, Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite who probably would have approved of Hitler’s Final Solution. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a fascist to produce great Wagnerian performances.

Since when (i.e., to the first point)? Georg Solti's Decca Ring has been the gold standard since its release. As far as I know, no one considers Von Karajan's attempt to be "final" in any respect. His strongest entry, Das Rheingold, is still well behind several stronger contenders. His 1951 Bayreuth performances, though, are a different story. As to Karl Böhm, his Ring tends to be overlooked these days - with Daniel Barenboim's recording, there's a new "live" set - and it's solid (though some would disagree). However, there are flaws, which I could discuss, that make it far from "final."

As to the second point, other than Von Karajan and Böhm, both of whom had associations that were regrettable at very best, most great Wagnerians of the generation old enough to be working during that time have been not only not fascists but also made to suffer by fascists. Toscanini was fairly safe in New York. Others, well-known all, were not so safe. Furtwängler was held in a state of limbo, personally and professionally, by the NSDAP "cultural" authorities. They weren't fond of his meddling and defense of unpopular artists, but also didn't want an artist of his stature to "disappear." As the story goes, Albert Speer, Hitler's armaments minister and architect, warned the conductor when the tide was finally decisively against him. Furtwängler was a broken man after the war.

The author mentions several lesser-known conductors. What about Otto Klemperer? His recording of Der fliegende Holländer, forty years old or better, has never really been surpassed. Even Georg Solti fell short of this transitional work. He was driven from his post at the Kroll and eventually out of Germany by the NSDAP madmen. Bruno Walter, whose Walküre first act is generally acclaimed to be one of the greatest Wagner records (and records in general) of all time, met with a similar fate. In fact, his famous record was taken from him when the fascists decreed him out of work.

The author discusses "Wagner without tears." I'll grant him that the performance history of Richard Wagner in the 20th century is spotty, to say nothing of his political and social philosophy, complex, often malevolent, and muddled though it is; however, there is no mention of the really great conductors driven to tears and worse by evil men - who still conducted Wagner beautifully.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Read this book.

I am a Classics major, at a small all-male college, not to say too much, so it is not unnatural that I read a lot of books relating to my field. One book I read, for Latin 302: The Age of Augustus, was Sir Ronald Syme's 1939 classic, The Roman Revolution. After having been in Italy for a while, I have been on an understandable kick on the subject - rereading the Res gestae divi Augusti and Tacitus' Annales, which books have only served to remind me why I'm on the social history side of things, not philology. My Latin is really not great, but it is just competent enough that I can sort of slog my way through it - with my old friends Charlton Lewis, Moreland, and Fleischer.

Syme, while he demands a lot of Latin and Greek, is still accessible enough to be really entrancing to someone like me. Here's an example,

"Populus autem eodem anno me consulem, cum cos. uterque in bello cecidisset, et triumvirum rei publicae constituendae creavit." (RG 1.4)

Sweet, isn't it? The people just up and made Augustus a consul when the two legitimately elected consuls were killed. Yeah, right. Let's see what Syme has to say:

"On the following day Octavianus [as he was then still known, C. Julius Caesar Octavianus] forebore to enter the city with armed men - a 'free election' was to be secured. The people chose him as consul along with Q. Pedius, an obscure relative of unimpeachable repute, who did not survive the honor by many months." (Syme (1939): 186)

With a deadly twist, some pages later (eleven, to be precise), Syme notes that the hapless Pedius - according to Appian - died of the strain of announcing the proscriptions of the Triumviri "rei publicae constituendae." That's really the charm of Syme's book: painstakingly researched history, told with charm and wit. He makes a controversial point, no less controversial than Amedeo Maiuri's 1942 book on Pompeii, though, that the Roman republic was broken and needed a new leadership and new government style. Read Erich Gruen's Last Generation of the Roman Republic if you want a considered response.

The collapse of the Roman republic isn't my area of research. In fact, the subjects on which I have done the most work in my academic career are "Paul's Gospel and the Historical Jesus" and prostitution in the Roman city. I couldn't say much about the former at this point, nor am I sure that I could remember much about the paper, and I could tell you more than you'd ever want to know about the latter (hint: it's not as interesting as it sounds). Still, Syme's tome is an example of really good history. It reads, though a touch dryly at times, like good historical fiction - until you chase down the references. Then, you see that it is a synthesis of contemporary (and, often, later-than-contemporary) sources. Syme imparts to these works a vividness that they must have had for the original readers.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Something for everybody

This Wellsung post clued me into something that I hadn't seen before: Hampson is the male Fleming. I have his Gunther on Haitink's on-again-off-again Götterdämmerung and all I can or should say is that just about everyone, including Boulez' over-the-hill Franz Mazura, does a better and less fussy job.

Not essential information, but still worth a glance, they say.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Maderna's Mahler 9th

Pliable mentions briefly Bruno Maderna's 1971 recording of Mahler's 9th symphony, a record for which I have great affection,

Another outstanding CD of twentieth century music from the path is the BBC Legends release of Bruno Maderna conducting Mahler's Ninth Symphony. This recording dates from 1971, and I was fortunate to hear Maderna conduct this work at a Promenade Concert shortly before his untimely death in 1973. That evening was one of the most profound musical, and emotional, experiences of my life. This CD of Mahler Nine is one that I will return to repeatedly; a reviewer described it as 'an incandescent performance of a masterpiece'. I can add nothing more to that other than to express the hope that we may see a revival of interest in Maderna the composer as well as Maderna the conductor.

I suppose, then, that I should briefly compare Maderna's Mahler to that of his erstwhile Darmstadt colleague, Pierre Boulez. I should confess, immediately, that I am not as familiar with Maderna's compositions as I am with those of Boulez. As I recall, Giuseppe Sinopoli cut a Maderna disc some time ago (obviously). Still, as a conductor, Maderna was worlds apart from Boulez, at a similar time. Listen to the Bayreuth Parsifal or, somewhat later, Ring. Boulez was rigidly controlled, at the expense of the drama of the music in several spots. No such control, though, is to be found with Maderna: his style is varied, manic, and downright explosive at points.

A pleasant surprise

After finals and a trip to Italy for nine days with a class, I am just now getting back into the swing of things. Imagine, then, my surprise when I saw my former workplace front and center on Alex Ross' blog. It was even nicer to see that Mr. Ross is covering Midwestern orchestras like the Hoosier State's own Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. When Leppard was there, it seemed to be pretty solid. However, I haven't followed it much through the Mario Venzago years.

Oddly enough, the new Wilco album played a part in my trip. Now, my tastes in popular music are complicated and probably not worth explaining. Let me just say that Johnny Cash's Unchained record got the most playtime of a pop. record on the trip, followed by Pink Floyd's The Final Cut and Mika's Life in Cartoon Motion. However, a friend on the trip (and a colleague at school) is, I gather, rather into Wilco. One thing led to another, and I found myself in a La Feltrinelli (an Italian Barnes and Noble as far as I can tell) on Largo Argentina while he looked for the record. He found it.

By the by, I worked in the building on the left-hand side of the frame. I was an intern in arts administration. Not terribly glamorous, but a really good introduction to the business of art in a fair-sized Midwestern city.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Apologies, past and future

To my readers, I know that I haven't been posting as often as I have in the past (and as often as I would like), but the end of the semester has barreled down on my head. I'm leaving for Italy on Monday, so it might be a while until I get back in the swing of things.