Saturday, June 30, 2007

Wagner in Italy

No, this isn't a historical post, dealing with Wagner's terminal stay in Italy (late 1882 - 13 February 1883, if you're interested). It is, rather, a report on a report on part of a new Ring production in Florence. The always-interesting Ionarts*, through Charles T. Downey, covers Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. (here, and here, respectively) A.C. Douglas comments, not unfavorably, here.

At the risk of being a gloomy Gus ("petulant Pat," perhaps), I might voice some dissatisfaction with the production. Especially the treatment of the Rheingold. Having it as a screen-projected gilt fetus doesn't strike me as a particularly elegant solution to the problem. The gold should represent an abstract quantity, but it should be - at the same time - tangible and real. It is, as I understand Wagner, really gold - it's what you can do with it (and what you have to do before you can do anything) that is the dramatically important bit. So, it is just gold, but when you renounce love and make the Ring, it takes on a new significance. It might, in my book, help if it seems like you can actually do something with it. It also seems to introduce the Kupfer/Everding eternal return business. I've argued, with Terry here earlier, that the eternal return completely undermines the dramatic (in the Greek sense) effectiveness of the Ring. Also, all the robotic stuff is a bit too much like Harry Kupfer's Bayreuth Ring to strike me in the right ways.

Other than the YouTube videos, the photos, and reviews, I haven't seen the production. It could be great and I could be dead wrong. Either way, it seems interesting - whether or not it has a major flaw (aside from the Kupfer-esque stuff) is for greater minds than mine to determine.

*Which reminds me, Ionarts really should be added to the Links of Interest.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Some light reading...and listening

John Tusa interviews one of my favorite composers, Louis Andriessen. A brief excerpt from the transcript,
All right, so why did you break away from serialism?

Because it was just one of those things I did. It's not, not, it wasn't, of course you had to have an answer because it was internationally acclaimed to be the, the stream, the mainstream. That is what in fact I didn't like at it. The Japanese twelve tone music sounded like the American, like the Icelandic, like the Spanish, sounded all the same, and I, and I didn't like it. I liked Leadwaben, of course we all loved Leadwaben, it was amazingly elegant music. I still find it very elegant, but I find it profoundly romantic, that's true. I find all the nuance and ... very vibrant, all sources, sources of, of very suffering ladies in long dresses you see, on chaise longues. That's what I hear in it, the decadent side.
Andriessen's De Staat, as I've said, is a modern work (well, modern-enough: 1976) that really operates beyond its contemporaries (i.e., contemporary works) - it's not serial, nor is it minimalist. It's its own thing. It's probably more explicitly political than a lot of contemporary art music (i.e., 1976-2007), and Andriessen doesn't seem to shy from politics or controversy.

Tusa interviews György Ligeti, too. Another one of the greatest modern composers, and one of the composers who did his own thing in a way that was unique. On Boulez,
Of course. So there's this extraordinary process of discovery for two to three years in and around Cologne and Darmstadt with Stockhausen, with Boulez, with all the other great names of the 20th century?


And what did you learn there?

I learned that there is a total different music. This was the music of Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen and a couple of other composers. But I think that Boulez and Stockhausen were most important for me - that there is a way which is so different and I was influenced. However, not totally influenced, because I rejected this idea to write Serial music. I am a constructivist, but not a dogmatic person.

What was it about Serial music that you found alien to the sort of music you wanted to write?

I was extremely interested in a piece which is not orthodox serial which is Le Marteau Sans Maitre [sic], everybody was deeply impressed by this piece of Boulez. Today, I also think this is a masterpiece. And in Cologne I could see the score and I wanted to analyse it, but I couldn't understand how it's made. And then I chose Structures 1A, because this is very simple to understand and I made - I wonder whether this is known - I made a very, very deep-going analysis to describe everything - like police researcher who goes on criminal...

To the scene of a crime?

Yes, scene of a crime. So, in fact, I analysed everything. I didn't know Boulez at the time, I just knew the score and heard a piece. And Boulez was not happy, knowing about it.

What, that you had analysed it so deeply?

Yes, and I discovered some mistakes and Boulez didn't like that somebody see that he did some...


Well, errors... in this kind of constructivity, you always have errors, because...

...who could be that consistent? Nobody can be that consistent, can they? Even within the terms of their own system.

Nobody, nobody.
If nothing else, two important - revolutionary, musically and otherwise - composers of the post-serialist and post-minimalist milieu discuss their choices. Interesting.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Juilliard makes my day

Juilliard has made its manuscript music collection available. You can explore manuscripts of Beethoven (e.g., the 9th) and Wagner (e.g., an edited copy of the Siegfried-Idyll), among others. It is a neat, neat site in which to lose a few hours.

More on Bruno Maderna

Pliable has posted, once again, on Bruno Maderna. It is indeed nice to see an important and interesting composer (no slouch of a conductor, either) get some attention. I posted earlier about Maderna's incandescent Mahler 9th. The fact that he could wring such a performance (1971) out of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is even more impressive when you remember that beginning his tenure as chief conductor of that ensemble at roughly the same time (1971-1976: contemporary with his NYPO directorship). The London audiences certainly got both sides of Darmstadt - the rigidly controlled Boulez and the impulsive Maderna - for a brief while.

Had Maderna not died in 1973 of cancer, he would have turned 87 in April.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Politics: No comment necessary.

A Slate article by Bruce Fein. A quote:

The vice president asserted presidential power to create military commissions, which combine the functions of judge, jury, and prosecutor in the trial of war crimes. The Supreme Court rebuked Cheney in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Mr. Cheney claimed authority to detain American citizens as enemy combatants indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay on the president's say-so alone, a frightening power indistinguishable from King Louis XVI's execrated lettres de cachet that occasioned the storming of the Bastille. The Supreme Court repudiated Cheney in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld.

The vice president initiated kidnappings, secret detentions, and torture in Eastern European prisons of suspected international terrorists. This lawlessness has been answered in Germany and Italy with criminal charges against CIA operatives or agents. The legal precedent set by Cheney would justify a decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to kidnap American tourists in Paris and to dispatch them to dungeons in Belarus if they were suspected of Chechen sympathies.

Again: no comment necessary.

You have killed me.

Maury D'Annato, of My Favorite Intermissions, does everyone a favor and posts this video. Words, for once, fail me. I'm not a big fan of Così fan tutte, but Mozart is Mozart. I pray that a "Mozart ist Gott" type doesn't see this and have a stroke.

One question, though: Now, I'm told I'm a student in college these days, and I have every reason to believe it. When I waste time, it generally doesn't involve Così. It certainly doesn't involve YouTube. I like to speak of "career-ending moves," and for most of my generation, putting our high-spirited hijinks on the Mighty Interweb would be such a move.

Still: who are these people?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

People say...

Thanks to the miracle of Marconi's wireless radio and Sen. Ted Stevens' mighty Interweb, "series of tubes," I heard a song. It's "Hey There, Delilah." Aside from the most undeservedly pompous music video since Michael Bay's profoundly confusing "I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That," the song has some devotees. Here's a lyrical sample:

"Hey there Delilah / What's it like in New York City? / I'm a thousand miles away / But girl tonight you look so pretty / Yes you do / Times Square can't shine as bright as you / I swear it's true // Hey there Delilah / Don't you worry about the distance / I'm right there if you get lonely / Give this song another listen / Close your eyes / Listen to my voice it's my disguise / I'm by your side"

Well. The comments tend to talk about how sweet and tragic it is. Fair enough. It's not Sophocles, I say, so you should give it its due. Then, in the car today, I was listening to Peter Schreier do "Ich grolle nicht" (the 2002 András Schiff-accompanied recital in Dresden on Orfeo). Yes. The pop song, not as good as the misses of Rufus Wainwright or Pulp, I might say, seemed - well - to be blunt, not good. Not good at all, or, putting it another way: bad.

What do people say? That mainstream pop music and classical are as good as each other, just different. You have some evidence, "Hey There, Delilah," and Schreier's "Ich grolle nicht." You can make up your own mind. There might be an objective hierarchy of quality after all.

From Der Fall Wagner

A brief excerpt from Der Fall Wagner, Nietzsche's 1888 critique (though that's too mild a word) of Wagner. I "like" Nietzsche Contra Wagner more, but when you're in terra incognita, you can make such judgments. You don't know enough to be wrong. I also don't know the text well enough to correct the errors I "see" in The Nietzsche Channel's translation, here's section 4, though:
I shall relate the story of the "Ring." It belongs here. It, too, is a story of redemption: only this time it is Wagner who is redeemed.— Half his life, Wagner believed in the Revolution as much as ever a Frenchman believed in it. He searched for it in the runic writing of myth, he believed that in Siegfried he had found the typical revolutionary.— "Whence comes all misfortune in the world?" Wagner asked himself. From "old contracts," he answered, like all revolutionary ideologists. In plain language: from customs, laws, moralities, institutions, from everything on which the old world, the old society rests. "How can one rid the world of misfortune? How can one abolish the old society?" Only by declaring war against "contracts" (tradition, morality). This is what Siegfried does. He starts early, very early: his very genesis is a declaration of war against morality—he comes into this world through adultery, through incest ... It is not the saga but Wagner who invented this radical trait; at this point he revised the saga ... Siegfried continues as he has begun: he merely follows his first impulse, he overthrows everything traditional, all reverence, all fear. Whatever displeases him he stabs to death. Without the least respect, he tackles old deities. But his main enterprise aims to emancipate woman—"to redeem Brünnhilde" ... Siegfried and Brünnhilde; the sacrament of free love; the rise of the golden age; the twilight of the gods for the old morality—all ill has been abolished ... For a long time, Wagner's ship followed this course merrily. No doubt, this was where Wagner sought his highest goal.— What happened? A misfortune. The ship struck a reef; Wagner was stuck. The reef was Schopenhauer's philosophy; Wagner was stranded on a contrary world view. What had he transposed into music? Optimism. Wagner was ashamed. Even an optimism for which Schopenhauer had coined an evil epithet—infamous optimism. He was ashamed a second time. He reflected for a long while, his situation seemed desperate ... Finally, a way out dawned on him: the reef on which he was shipwrecked, what if he interpreted it as the goal, as the secret intent, as the true significance of his voyage? To be shipwrecked here—that was a goal, too. Bene navigavi, cum naufragium feci ... So he translated the "Ring" into Schopenhauer's terms. Everything goes wrong, everything perishes, the new world is as bad as the old:the nothing, the Indian Circe beckons ... Brünnhilde was initially supposed to take her farewell with a song in honor of free love, putting off the world with the hope for a socialist utopia in which "all turns out well," but now gets something else to do. She has to study Schopenhauer first; she has to transpose the fourth book of "The World as Will and Representation" into verse. Wagner was redeemed ... In all seriousness, this was a redemption. The benefit Schopenhauer conferred on Wagner is immeasurable. Only the philosopher of décadence gave to the artist of décadence himself
[N.B. Some of the errors I "see," I leave as they stand, seeing them in the German text as presented. Some, like a misspelling of "Brünnhilde," I corrected as it wasn't present in the German] (See, kids? Being most of the way to an A.B. in Classics pays off - you can do fun stuff like that.)

Here's the German original, and if you "do" German, then it might be a little easier for you to slog through it. Kaufmann, though, was always readable - even when Nietzsche was flirting with being incomprehensible.

There it is, if you want it. I just put it up here to give you a better idea of Nietzsche's criticism of Wagner.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Worth a [befuddled] read.

I don't get Friedrich Nietzsche, especially in the "big" works. I can muddle through his Wagner writings, but only because I know about what he speaks. Other than that, as many times as I read his works (in the Kaufmann translations), I sometimes think I get them, and then immediately decide that I don't get them. His Über die alten hexametrischen Nomen was a pretty important work, as I gather, in the development of our modern understanding of ancient verse, but since I do social history stuff - turning deviancy, most recently, into questions of ideology and the existence of programmatic attempts to rectify that ideology with reality - I don't get to deal with that often. In any event, Nietzsche's writings on Wagner are of great interest, simply because Nietzsche had very definite ideas about drama and music - as did Wagner. A.C. Douglas, then, quotes from Nietzsche's works, expressing two "ambivalent" opinions of Nietzsche on Wagner. Interesting reading indeed.

Carl Nielsen's Criticism

I am a big fan of Carl Nielsen's fourth symphony (particularly in the Martinon/CSO recording), but I haven't done much research into Nielsen as a composer or critic. Thankfully, Alex Ross has done the heavy lifting for me. Nielsen's "The Fullness of Time" makes for a compelling and interesting read:
Nothing in all art is as painful as unsuccessful originality. It is like the twisted grimaces of vanity. We see the spirit everywhere. Some of us know it, but have no word for it; we exchange looks and shudder, like children at the sight of a skeleton. We see it in houses, paintings, statues, music; and most of all where artists have wanted to express strong emotion. Joy howls, Cupid squirms and writhes, mirth is stylized on stilts, and sorrow and grief look like the mask of some sphinx with great hollow eyes. This is what happens when a man of insufficient talent tries to be original and do things for which he has neither the feeling nor the powers. Oh, you artists, see how Albrecht Dürer painted a blade of grass, how Schubert composed a little song! Learn that the smallest shall be the greatest; that two colors, three notes, two right-angles and a circle sufficed for the man who found delight as a humble servant of art!
Fair enough, Carl. Fair enough. You can read the post and decide for yourselves what you think. It's worth a few minutes. You can also appreciate his blasé barb at Mahler, which - to me - indicates that Nielsen had wit and musical talent,
[Here] was a time in music, not long ago, when the pursuit of originality led to monster orchestras. Imagine the incredible naïveté of trying to get a greater effect with bigger orchestras! It is not more than 15-20 years ago and there are composers still living who took part in the movement. But of course the limit was soon reached. Orchestras of one, two, three, and four hundred players were the cry, and the mass display culminated with a thousand at a concert, I think, in Vienna. [Munich — ed.] And what then? That was far as it could go; and clear-headed people outside the profession — not conductors and musicians — began to react in speech and print.
Nielsen is talking, of course, about the premiere of Mahler's 8th, dubbed Symphonie der Tausend for the occasion, or "Barnum and Bailey symphony," famously by the composer. It took place in Munich on September 12, 1910. It was pretty damn' big, as Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange reports:
Monday 12 September 1910, 7.30 p.m. Built entirely of glass and steel, the vast new concert hall of the International Exhibition Centre in Munich was full to overflowing with an audience of 3,400. Facing them was a chorus of 850 (500 adults and 350 children) dressed entirely in black and white and spread across the back of a huge rostrum specially built for the occasion, as well as one of the largest orchestras ever to have been assembled since the first performance of Berlioz's celebrated Requiem: 146 players, along with eight vocal soloists and eleven brass players (eight trumpeters and three trombonists) positioned elsewhere in the hall.
A big undertaking indeed. Still, Nielsen's piece deserves some reading for a critical view on this sort of wild and woolly musical milieu.

By the way, I'm experimenting with formatting my longer extracts, and maybe even my posts in general. Bear with me, please, and pardon our mess.

How do you solve a problem [of] Gustav?

Here, from the proceedings of the 16th "Mahlerfest" in Boulder, Colorado (8-12 Jan. '03), is a presentation by Jeffrey Gantz on Mahler's 6th. This piece, by Mahler fanatic* Gilbert Kaplan, too, deals with the same subject, albeit in a less-specialist manner (as usual, NYTimes registration required). I'll quote first from Kaplan,

A controversy has raged since 1963, when a new edition of the Sixth was published, reversing the accepted order of the movements. Some musicologists objected to the change for lack of evidence, but since the edition was approved by the society, it has been followed by almost all conductors. (One notable exception has been Simon Rattle.)

Now it has become clear that the transposition of movements was no mere mistake but a willful act of an editor, Erwin Ratz. As it turns out, Ratz distorted the facts and withheld evidence contradicting his opinion that according to musical theory, there could be only one correct order, Scherzo-Andante.

For those inclined, here is Gantz:

In 1963, the Critical Edition of the Sixth came out from the IGMG, and lo and behold the Scherzo was back in its original second position, Erwin Ratz explaining that some time before his death Mahler had changed his mind. Ratz provided no evidence for this statement; he didn't even cite Alma's telegram. Nonetheless, few conductors challenged his edition. John Barbirolli continued to perform the piece with the Andante preceding the Scherzo, but when his recording appeared, EMI switched the movements (apparently without his approval) to conform to the Critical Edition. (In the most recent release of this performance, in its Double Forte series, EMI has reswitched them so they're back to the Andante/Scherzo order Barbirolli favored.) Harold Farberman, from 1950 to 1963 a BSO percussionist, stuck with the Andante/Scherzo order on his MMG LP with the London Symphony in 1982; when Vox released this performance on CD in 2000, however, the label switched the movements to conform to the Critical Edition (here again the conductor was not consulted). Benjamin Zander's first performance with the Boston Philharmonic (briefly available on tape in the mid '80s) had the Andante preceding the Scherzo, but on both his 1994 live BPO recording and his 2001 Philharmonia effort, he's reverted to the Critical Edition. Simon Rattle has been the most outspoken advocate of the Andante/Scherzo order, and his 1989 recording of the Sixth has become the whipping boy of uninformed reviewers.

This, though, isn't quite the point. Well, maybe it is: it depends on how "in to" Mahler you are. I'll lay my cards down and say that I prefer Scherzo-Andante, as it has both a "more 'modern'" sensibility, and it makes the final movement even more devastating than it is on its own. There. No, the overarching point, then, is this: in the absence of a clear textual tradition, what are we to do? Erwin Ratz might be the dastardly scoundrel here, but who's to say that Mahler wouldn't have revised it again? And again? And again? And so on. He died relatively young, so another twenty years could have both carried forward the direction in which he seemed to be starting with the 10th (as we can plainly see from the completed four-stave draft) and brought serious revisions to his symphonies. We don't know.

Mahler, then, provides something beyond which Wagner (or almost anyone) does. We know what Richard Wagner wanted. Indeed, we know down to the details (including acoustics and staging) what Wagner wanted. That's part of the game of music-dramas, though. Symphonies and other works, well, no one ever gives it as much consideration. There's no illusion to create: the orchestra is obviously playing the music and that's all they're doing (more or less). Mahler didn't help matters by not quite knowing what he wanted. Frau Mahler-Gropius-Werfel added to the confusion by pulling a Constanze Mozart and divining her dead spouse's wishes for decades after his death. What do you do?

I don't know, but I think the answer is pretty simple. You go on. In the case of the 6th, you pick an order to the movements, justify it (or not), and perform it. Eventually, I think - or hope - the experts and the "experts" will sort things out and arrive at either the "right" answer or the right answer. Until then, it's simply essential to do the fundamental business of music - make it. Everything else is details.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tennstedt: Rienzi

I was going to do a long and involved post about Boulez' second piano sonata and the recordings by Biret and Jumppanen. I don't have the energy at this point, other than to say that I think Biret does a better job, though Jumppanen is no slouch in this profoundly difficult work. Instead, I decided to give you Klaus Tennstedt conducting the London Philharmonic in the overture to Wagner's Rienzi.

I like this overture, and I don't see what else there is to say, other than Tennstedt never got his due during his too-short life (72, if I recall, "middle-aged" for conductors).

Friday, June 22, 2007

A damn' shame

So, I've been listening to an off-the-air recording of Giuseppe Sinopoli's Die Walküre, from the 2000 Bayreuther Festspiele. It's in passable (192 kbps) sound, and obviously taken from a broadcast, but it's still something. This production had Domingo singing Siegmund, Waltraud Meier singing Sieglinde, Alan Titus as Wotan, and Philip Kang as Hunding - about as good a modern cast as you could want. Sinopoli, though, was the star of this show. I, though, am not sure about Schnaut's Brünnhilde, but I haven't been sure about anyone since Nilsson. His tempi are sensible and broad: it's clear he understands how cosmic this drama is and he doesn't rush things. The staging was, shall we say, not well received.

The "damn' shame" is the fact that Deutsche Grammophon, who had Sinopoli's contract, if I recall correctly, didn't take the 2000 Festspiele as an opportunity to record a Ring in sparkling digital sound under a conductor who understood Wagner in the theater - especially the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Sinopoli wasn't the best Wagner conductor of his generation, but he certainly came closer than others. Of course, with his untimely death, DG won't have a chance to get back on the boat.


Here is a 8 August 1983 Time magazine article on that year's infamous Georg Solti-Peter Hall Ring at Bayreuth. That cycle was a dramatic flop, but - musically - I am beginning to see that cycle as the Ring of the 1980s. It doesn't have Boulez' obsessive (even anti-Wagnerian, depending on whom you ask) drive, but it has plenty of echt-Wagnerian style in an environment that repays such affection with kindness, in spades. Here is what Time said:

Presiding over the music in magisterial fashion at his Bayreuth debut was Solti, 70. The manic drive and headlong energy that once characterized his Wagner have since been tempered by a lyrical impulse that has broadened and deepened his interpretation, although he has lost some of his electric excitement in the process. When, as for much of this Ring, there was nothing compelling to look at onstage, the listener could always concentrate with pleasure on the primary motivating force of Wagner's unique vision: the music.

Solti's 1983 Rheingold is, probably, the best treatment that score received during that decade. Why do I bring this up? Well, the recorded Rings of that time were Boulez' Bayreuth effort (Philips) and Janowski's studio set in Dresden (RCA). I happen to like Janowski's set quite a bit, but Solti had a better (I suppose) cast and a better environment. That, and he wrote the book on Ring recordings. I bring this up, in other words, to show another missed opportunity to get a good set in good - thoroughly modern - digital sound.

I suppose Solti's been amortized and is pure profit, but - still - there's room for one in the house Wagner built. It needs to be the right one.

A small gripe (re: layout)

This is really nothing major, but I cannot stand the general 'blog-style layout. A block of text, with maybe some pictures, videos, and quotes, is OK - but it could be better. There's certainly more flexibility in a newspaper-style layout.

Just a mild gripe.

If you called your dad, he could stop it all

A.C. Douglas points us to the multimedia symposium, though, I have no idea what it really is, Engaging art: a public conversation.

Listen: my Blogger profile isn't kidding, I am 21. What do you want to know about young people? I spend quite a bit of time with them. Most of them can't be forced into a concert hall, even with the promise of slightly overpriced booze in the lobby before the show. Why waste money shooting at a target that isn't even in the same county, much less nearby? Orchestras would be wise to scrap the expensive "outreach" programs and multimedia extravaganzas, spending the money on important things like new sets of scores, recording equipment, and guest conductors.

The last time I was in Chicago for the CSO, there were plenty of young people. Now, there were the typical "hot date" couples (though why you'd want to hear Pierre Boulez conduct Mahler's 7th on a hot date, unless you're a musicology student with a thing for either Mahler or Boulez is beyond me), but there were as many young people who looked serious and interested in what was happening on stage. These people are the people you need to keep coming back, and only challenging and intelligent programming will do that. Laser light shows will get families of four, for one show. That's not enough to do anything except maybe turn the lights on in a pretty-empty house, the serious patrons having been driven away by the pablum.

No, the people who want to do something about their audiences for classical shows should start appealing to people who want to go. Those people are the only ones who can do anything about this. They're the ones more likely than not to attend multiple concerts and care about the music, beyond the "The World's Most [adjective] Classical Music" compilation snippets they've heard. The rest? They'll either catch up or continue being satisfied with Brooks and Dunn's cover of B.W. Stevenson's "My Maria." Either way, everyone should be happy.

Looking forward...again

So, I had heard rumblings about the Mahler-Zyklus in Berlin this past April. This blog has a nice roundup, which is for the best, as I had other things on my mind this past April. I thought the combination of Barenboim and Boulez was a bit odd: having followed their recording careers, especially in Mahler, and having heard them both live, I can say that they come from different directions to Mahler. Boulez is looking backward, through the Neues Wiener Schule and the affection of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Barenboim, on the other hand, is coming down through the Germanic tradition and winding up in Mahler's oeuvre. There's also the issue of Barenboim's position as the spiritual heir of Furtwängler, which may or may not be the case; Boulez , though, has never been anyone except Pierre Boulez.

Thanks to the marvels of the Interweb, I have heard Boulez' 3rd and 8th from the Zyklus. In the case of the 3rd, I have his 2002 Vienna recording (DGG) to compare. Boulez is a bit broader in the first movement of the 2007 performance, and then falls in line with his recording the rest of the way out. Either you like his Mahler or you don't. It's clear, precise, and rhythmically articulate. There's a snap and muscularity to it, and when it isn't ruined by recording engineers (viz. the DGG 2nd vs. the live aircheck), he can make Mahler sparkle. With one caveat: Boulez tends to revert to clarity and speed when the emotional content gets heavy. He's better than usual in his Mahler cycle, but there are times when you wouldn't mind him relaxing his grip a bit. He could have let the 2nd breathe a bit, especially in the "big" moments, but - alas - he is still Boulez.

Then there are whole symphonies where the relaxation seems like a good idea. Namely, the 8th. His Berlin 8th clocks in at 1:23:12, longer than Horenstein (1959), Kubelik (1970), Solti (1972), and just about as long as Klaus Tennstedt's magical recording on EMI (1986). Boulez navigates the first part well: his predilection for precision and rhythmic clarity serve the massive hymn with its fugues and counterpoint well. It's a shame Boulez didn't do more Bach. The emotional and religious parts would be lost on him, it seems, but he'd shine in the rest - his Handel Wassermusik from New York is still my favorite. In the near-Wagnerian second half, Boulez is sensitive and powerful. He generates the electricity necessary to make it work, and he still manages to keep it from being a footrace to "Blicket auf" and the end. When he gets to the end, it's as ecstatic as it should be. Johan Botha deserves a small mention for turning in a heroic Doctor Marianus, by no stretch an easy tenor part. In every respect, this was a splendid performance of an unwieldy, complicated, and downright difficult symphony.

So, then, I await DGG's release of the 8th in a studio environment and with record-quality sound, which the aircheck certainly has, but is still obviously a live aircheck. Boulez can handle it, though I never completely and fully doubted that, and he can handle it well. Also, the Staatskapelle Berlin - from Barenboim's Warner 7th and 9th and the live Boulez 3rd and 8th - is apparently a first-rate Mahler orchestra. Something the Berliner Philharmoniker is only on occasion, when it suits them and the stars are right. Perhaps the Unter den Linden has the new powerhouse orchestra. Simon Rattle can't be doing much for the Philharmonie's usual residents. In any event, I'd hope to hear more from Barenboim's Staatskapelle.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pardon me?

No, really, pardon me? I'm a little looped from some work done this morning, but I should be able to read:

It is, of course, very hard to extend sympathy to someone in King's position without seeming to overlook, or to condone, offences against minors. For my part, once the court has done its work, and the sentence of, in this case, three years nine months has been set in motion, I think that there is every reason for the individual to feel sympathy for the convicted. We are individuals. We are not the state. We are not obliged to agree with the sentence, and nobody can prevent us from keeping an open mind about the verdict.

The man apparently did some really execrable things, child (and teenager) molestation, and we should feel sympathy? Why, well, here's why:

For the ordinary, anonymous private citizen convicted in such cases, there is the sentence itself, and there is what you might call the multiplier: you lose your job, very likely your home, you are submitted to persecution by fellow prisoners, and so forth. There are many aspects to this multiplier, which continue well after your release. Anyone who has watched the multiplier in action will be bound to feel horror at its effects.

For the artist, there are all these aspects of the multiplier, and then some more. The case of Robert King has unique ramifications. The judge recognised some of these when not ruling against any future work with children. King, as a married man with a young child, was deemed to have entered a new phase in his life. And this decision is crucial to anyone who works with early vocal music. To be debarred for life from working with the male treble voice would have been a harsh fate.


So, John Q. Public - jacked on child molestation - suffers the legal and societal consequences of his or (in seemingly rare cases) her actions, but Robert King gets to hang around male trebles? Because it would end his career to restrict access to young men? Newsflash: no-one, not one person, would trust their child to him at this point. Even under close supervision. No record company really wants to tie this albatross around their neck. Nor should they.

Herbert von Karajan got forgiven for his odious political choice because it was obvious that he was just a careerist with a bad moral compass (if a moral compass at all), which is probably worse than someone taken in by the evil of National Socialism. Same with Schwarzkopf. Karl Böhm's enthusiasm for the NSDAP got forgotten and largely absolved because others took the big hit, and - frankly - Karl Böhm wasn't very exciting as a musical personality. An eminent Mozartean who did some Wagner at Bayreuth is probably not going to catch flak for any political decision. Wilhelm Furtwängler, on the other hand, watched his life and career interrupted from the time Albert Speer suggested that he might want to get out of Germany to the end of his life, in many ways; he stayed behind when many left and he paid a high price for it.

Artists are, like it or not, just like everyone else in these matters. Individuals are not the state, but they do have common sense.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


I suppose the "academic" title for this would be,

"Chéreau/Kupfer: a brief study of ambiguity in the finale of Götterdämmerung,"

but I prefer the "subtle wit" (read, "sophomoric cleverness") of my current title. I'm also a bit done with academic titles, having done a substantial-enough paper on ancient Roman prostitution. You'll want to watch, also, these two videos, if you're not familiar with the stagings, before reading the rest of this:

This is from the 1976 Chéreau production of the Ring (Götterdämmerung) at Bayreuth.

This, then, is from the 1991 Kupfer staging of the same at the same venue.

We see, then, two different approaches to the final bit of the finale. Chéreau has the Gibichung retainers staring out at the audience from the ruins of the cataclysm. Kupfer, however, has modern people watching TV, while two small children meet up under Alberich's gaze. While opponents (detractors, what-have-you) of Regietheater might argue that neither of these endings are much of anything, to say nothing of ambiguous, I'll pretend that they are for the moment. Before getting into this, I'll examine them in-depth (as far as I can).

Chéreau's Gibichsmannen (und -frauen, as the case may be) seem to be putting the final question, whatever that is, to the audience. Their silent stare is seemingly intended to make some connection with the viewers, in an attempt to drive home the lesson - whatever that is - of the Ring. However, despite Chéreau's overtly Marxist Konzept, Wagner's poem and music get their own meanings through. So, then, is the Ring a commentary on class struggle and its deleterious effects for the world, as Chéreau would seemingly have us believe, or is it a story of the will-to-power affecting love? And, you know, ending the world. Wagner's brilliant archetypal dramatic writing, the equal of any of the surviving dramatists of Greece, tends to mean that you can read into it whatever you want - but it has its own ideas, too. It will resist some interpretations, lie quietly to others, and respond to those closest to it.

Kupfer, on the other hand, seems not to know what to do. People are watching TV: have they just missed the cosmic drama, replaced the earth-shattering bits with the late, late show? Alberich is there, obviously ready to renew his attempts at reclaiming what is "his," and seemingly considering the children, who seem to have noticed it all, for his plans. Is this all about to happen again, and again? Terry, in our conversation about Dorst, mentioned Kupfer's introduction of the Eternal Return, and Kupfer certainly leaves the door open to it. However, Kupfer - while battering his "message" in - doesn't seem to make his message clear. In fact, I might say that Kupfer's approach to the Ring - in general - is pretty vague and confused. Neon tubes, Ray-Bans, and abstract spaces do not a Konzept make.

I suppose my question is this: is ambiguity a good thing in the Ring? Postmodern interpretation, reader-response and all that, is fun: granted. Wagner, however, knew what he wanted and was trying to say. Introducing ambiguity where there is likely none can serve a dramatic purpose, but I don't think Messrs. Chéreau and Kupfer succeeded in doing that. If one views the Ring as a cosmic drama on the scale and of the scope of Aeschylus' Oresteia, which is probably the best analogue to the Ring, then there has to be catharsis. That psychological function does not work in an ambiguous environment, nor does it work in a dramatic context. In fact, it can be counterproductive, since putting a stinger at the end of the Ring can - conceivably - overpower the preceding Tetralogy, you can pretty much trash the point of it all in about five minutes.

Chéreau seems to be saying, "Lookit: you can pretty much do whatever you want with this, I certainly did." Kupfer, on the other hand, seems to have a point, but doesn't make it. "Ach: this could all happen again, or no-one could be paying any attention, or something." Well, what does that do to the overall cohesiveness of a story, one with some flaws*, but one story with one message? Nothing good. Wagner wrote a drama of archetypes. Things you can recognize anywhere and in any context. They're programmed into our "cultural DNA," and - likely - our base psychology. If you want a "skeleton key" (bad joke) to the archetype of the hero, which Siegfried was supposed to be, Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces should do it for you. Still, if you make the archetypal conflict ambiguous, you destroy the dramatic (as the Greeks understood drama) integrity of the work.

In other words, ambiguity, poorly brought off, can destroy the meaning to be found in an otherwise-cohesive work. The theatrical Konzept is one thing, but not the only thing. Ambiguity should serve the work proper, and in doing, should serve the Konzept. If it doesn't work that way, then the director should revise his/her ideas. Not the work. In the case of the Ring, I don't think ambiguity - in a major sense - really helps the situation. Wagner was telling a pretty clear story and pretty damn' well, if I may say so. Monkeying with it can come to no good end. The Ring is the cosmic drama, and it is best to make it as clear and potent as possible. Not otherwise. A bit of formal logic for you, to conclude.

Clear and potent -> best for the Ring
~Best for the Ring -> ~Clear and potent

By my reasoning, if it isn't best for the Ring, then it isn't clear and potent.

*Wotan's extremely pathetic, in a philological sense, nature revealed in Walküre makes him the tragic hero of the cycle, and Siegfried becomes a well-meaning, but ultimately one-dimensional, clod.

Just a suggestion

Now that iTunes is offering DRM-free, 256 kbps downloads, perhaps it's time to revolutionize the music distribution chain. I've noticed that the radio stations of Mitteleuropa tend to make really good (digital, often as not) broadcasts. Why not make these performances available in near-real time through iTunes or some such other download site? How about this, as long as we're at it: do away with proprietary (or, near-proprietary) formats? The MPEG standards are pretty universal at this point, except for DRM-obsessed executives and profit-hungry project managers. Make the music available at a reasonable cost in 256/320 kbps MP3. DRM-free, of course.

Why don't we take it a step farther? Why not give American orchestras and radio stations grant money to make digital-quality broadcasts of most of their season? Because arts support is down there with scurvy research, ticket prices are higher than they should be. The grant money can be repaid with the sales of the recordings and orchestras can get a nice revenue boost once everything is repaid. That way, American orchestras, from the big to the small, can get their stuff out there - in quality that does their art justice and for a modest fee - the way their European counterparts do.

It will never happen, but it's nice to think. There's a reason for this post, and it might turn into a review. We'll see.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Böhm's Holländer

Deutsche Grammophon is, to both my pleasure and chagrin, getting back in a reissuing mood. On the one hand, I see it as an attempt to squeeze a few more dollars out of well-worn recordings. How many more issues of Herbert von Karajan's 1977 Beethoven 9th will we see? There was (at least, and off the top of my head) the DG Galleria version, the hybrid SACD (oddly enough, one of their first), the Karajan Forever issue, and now the Grand Prix disc. It's a good record, and it has Peter Schreier singing the tenor part, but how many do we need? However, the Opera House series has gotten some neglected discs back into the main. It's not all bad. Before the recording under consideration, my favorite release had been Böhm's 1977 Salzburg Giovanni. However, they've just put back out his 1971 Bayreuth Holländer.

I think I've said this before, but - to my mind - Holländer is a devilishly difficult work to bring off properly. It either works beautifully or it falls flat. Like a dead halibut. A brief list of conductors whose Holländers haven't worked: Georg Solti (CSO, 1977), James Levine (MET, 1997), and Giuseppe Sinopoli (DO, 1998). The last one was killed by Deutsche Grammophon more than Sinopoli, but it isn't convincing even notwithstanding the poor recording job. Before the release of the Keilberth set from the 1955 Festspiele, in its intended stereo, I would have said that Klemperer's 1968 account was the only really convincing version. He had experience with this piece in the theater from the artistically fertile days at the Kroll in Berlin. Still, Holländer, being - in essence - a transitional work for Wagner (it premiered, if I recall correctly, in 1843 - after Rienzi and before Tannhäuser), is a tough nut to crack. Is it among his last grand operas or is it among his first music-dramas? How a conductor and singers view it makes all the difference.

Karl Böhm is a bit controversial as a Wagner conductor. His Ring is often seen as a second-choice to Solti's, but it is fast. In fact, a brief check tells me that his times and Pierre Boulez' are usually neck-in-neck. Böhm tends to run a few minutes faster than Boulez over all the music-dramas, save Götterdämmerung, if that's a prize. Now, a few minutes over a four-day cycle don't mean a whole lot, so I'll just say Böhm and Boulez have almost identical timings. That's fast. Their orchestral textures are similarly light and fleet. If you're not into that, and I know some folks aren't, then it's probably best to steer clear of any Böhm Wagner - with one exception, Holländer.

Done in Bayreuth at the 1971 Festspiele, this set had been available until a little while ago on an import disc, sort of like Boulez' Parsifal, which Parsifal I might add has skyrocketed in price. Perhaps it's time for a DG Classics release. For a profoundly nervous and restless opera like Holländer, Böhm's tempi and style work. It's also early enough in Wagner's oeuvre to countenance such a style without rebelling or inciting rebellion on the part of the audience, most of whom are just there for Tristan, Der Ring, Meistersinger, or Parsifal. That's probably unfair and untrue, but I can't think of any die-hard Holländer aficionados. In any event, Böhm's leadership of the orchestra is solid. What would otherwise drive his ship, i.e., his tense and nervous conducting style for Wagner, on to the rocks keeps it in navigable waters.

The cast is good, but not great. Dame Gwyneth Jones is, happily, less shudder-inducing here than she will be for Boulez in 1980, but she's still Gwyneth Jones. Ridderbusch is great in pretty much anything, and - to my mind - was one of the best Wagnerian basses of his generation. His Daland is certainly in keeping with that judgment. Thomas Stewart is serviceable, but not Hermann Uhde. In other words, he lacks the really palpable pathos and torment that Uhde conveyed so simply and naturally. He's not as boring as James Morris (Levine), so that's always a plus. Harald Ek, as the Steuermann, is perhaps a bit too Helden- of a tenor for my taste, but he's competent. Hermin Esser's Erik is nice, but - you know - I've never paid much mind to Erik. Pitz' Bayreuth chorus is fabulous, just like any Wilhelm Pitz-prepared chorus.

In other words, this is a really first-rate Holländer. Keilberth and Knappertsbusch shared the 1955 performances, and those are probably still first choices, along with Klemperer's EMI studio set. Deutsche Grammophon really should start rereleasing more stuff like this, instead of churning the same twenty records in an endless cycle.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Six Degrees of Henry Wallace

What? The new party game for mid-20s urban, loft-dwelling hipsters? Franklin Roosevelt's vice president? No. Well, yes to that last bit. Just an easy way to connect Henry Wallace to Stravinsky's riotous Sacre du printemps premiere. The ever-informative Alex Ross gives us a story from his forthcoming book in more depth. An excerpt:

Roerich was a Russian symbolist painter who had come to America in the twenties and set himself up as a mystical guru of the Theosophist type. In the early thirties, he succeeded in ingratiating himself not only with Wallace but also with Roosevelt himself, whom he met on at least one occasion. The President took a fancy to Roerich’s proposal for a “banner of peace,” which was designed to fly over artistic monuments around the world to protect them from aerial bombardment. The idea was apparently forgotten by the time of the infernal Allied bombings of 1944 and 1945.

Yes, it is that interesting. You might want to read Gore Vidal's series on United States history for an equally engaging look at American history, such as it is.

This is, moreover, another reason why I am waiting anxiously for his book. If it's half as good as his blog, and it will be at the very least that, then it will be the best music book of the year. That's right, I pre-reviewed it. So sure am I of its quality that I'm just going to give it a good review now. That, and Mr. Ross has been so kind as to give us an excerpt. It will be a keeper. Mark my words.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Schiff on Beethoven

The Guardian has made, oh, some time ago, available a - it seems to me - complete series of Andras Schiff's series of lectures on Beethoven's piano sonata. I don't know if I linked to it then, and an interweb message board has brought it back to my mind, so here it is.

He is a delightful lecturer, and - while I am not always the biggest fan of his interpretations (occasionally too mannered) - he can articulate his art very well. The lectures are preserved in iPod-friendly MP3 format, perfect for downloading and home listening. Schiff's lectures deserve some serious thought.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Toscanini's Wagner

Due to an unfortunate slip of the fingers, I'm pretty well committed to this post. It's just one of those things, I suppose.

Arturo Toscanini was, perhaps, the last of the great 19th century conductors. He was conductor at La Scala by 1898, by way of comparison, Wilhelm Furtwängler was twelve years old and Herbert von Karajan wouldn't be born for another ten years. His ascendancy, before the turn of the century, puts him in a different class of conductors. He joins the ranks of Gustav Mahler, Wagner himself, Hans von Bülow, and others as great conductors influencing the generation which influenced the ones working today. It is some surprise, then, that his interpretations are so - for the lack of a better word - modern. Especially his Wagner, who would have been - for him - roughly contemporary music. Maybe a half a generation old, or so. However, modern though his Wagner is, I am not entirely sure what I should make of it.

In fact, it bears noting, Toscanini conducted the premiere of Puccini's La bohème; I don't know if it can be stressed, when one takes his work with Verdi, enough that he was present at the creation (pace Dean Acheson) of much of what we consider canon.

I'm no Toscanini expert: Furtwängler and Boulez tend to be the conductors I follow most closely. However, a brief example - his 1940 Parsifal excerpts (the prelude and the Karfreitagszauber, excepting his synthesis for the moment) tend to be a bit more leisurely than some later conductors'. His thirteen minute Parsifal prelude is longer, even, than Knappertsbusch's 1962 reference. (13'19" vs. 12'02"; as it happens, Daniel Barenboim is the only serious contender in the field with a longer prelude, at 13'42".) Let's not talk about Herbert Kegel and Pierre Boulez, for the moment. Does it drag? Does it seem long? Not a hope. So focused is it that it seems to arrest the ordinary aural laws. Now, a lot of that's Wagner himself and his transcendent (in the most precise sense) score, but some of it is Toscanini.

His 1941 live Götterdämmerung finale, with Helen Traubel, is another example of the intense, laser-beam like focus, for which he was famous, applied to Wagner. Toscanini seemed to reflect the drama (the literally cataclysmic cosmic drama, but that's a book - to say nothing of a blog post) in his tempi. They whir along, caught up in one of Wagner's most tense and taut scenes. There is no excess fat on Toscanini's recording. This focus, this insistence on playing the scores as they have come down (viz his famous "Allegro con brio" comment), and taut style make Toscanini - in fairness - a very modern conductor. I don't care who constructed the notions of a modern conductor, but it seems to me that Toscanini embodied them, even if he didn't create them.

His Wagner, given favorable remarks by none other than Gustav Mahler, is nice. But I don't really know what to make of it. It has intense focus, a sense of drama (not surprising for someone who got his start in operatic conducting and was a great success there), and a precision that many conductors would do well to emulate. Maybe I am too used to conductors like Boulez and the lesser-known Herbert Kegel*, with overt - seemingly - rhetorical programs behind their interpretations, but Toscanini seems like he is applying his usual bag of talents and genius to Wagner. That's good enough, but at times I wonder if it's good enough for Wagner.

*A conductor who studied under Böhm and turned in a recording of Parsifal (1975, RSO Leipzig) that is notable for electric tempi - not unlike Boulez' 1970 Bayreuth version - and the only time René Kollo has ever convinced me of his talent without some reservation on my part. His final monologue is, in this recording, second only to James King's for Boulez in my esteem.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Now for something completely different...

Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chéreau are together again, after 28 years, and seemingly very successful. In the Guardian, Tim Ashley reviews their production of Janáček's Z Mrtvého Domu (From the House of the Dead), giving it five stars. Of the staging he says,

Chéreau transposes the opera to a 20th-century gulag that is also a vision of hell. The vast concrete funnel of Richard Peduzzi's set resembles the pit of Dante's Inferno, where we first encounter the convicts circling and shuffling like the damned. Only gradually do the cast - faultless down to the last extra - reveal the existential integrity of each man, and by the end we are completely immersed in their lives, their dreams and their overwhelming despair.

That sounds pretty much like the Patrice Chéreau we all know and "love." In this case, though, a Siberian forced-labor camp is "pretty much" a Siberian forced-labor camp, whether the czar's governor runs it or a Stalinist NKVD officer does; which is to say, the experience is pretty bad either way. In this sense, I could argue that Chéreau's staging works pretty well, from the sound of things, regardless of artistic viewpoint. The fact that this is an obscure opera doesn't hurt. Of the conducting, Ashley says,

With the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the pit, Boulez unleashes rending dissonances that fill the air with pain and compassion. Harrowing, unforgettable and one of the great Janacek interpretations of our time.

To be fair, Boulez' style is such that, if you don't like him, you're arguing over interpretation and style, not technical proficiency. Not know this opera or having seen the show, I can say - with most degrees of certainty - that it sounds exactly as written in the score. If this is a piece that requires a lot of insight and assumption, then you might not like the consequences. If not, and I confess to knowing little about Janáček*, then this will be a roaring success. Boulez can do "modern" composers like no one's business. His Bartók piano concerti are my standards, as much for his contribution as for the pianists'.

In any event, as Boulez has vowed to retire from the live theater, this marks the end of one of the most successful collaborations - in strictly artistic terms and on its own terms - of the age. The Centennial Ring, love it or hate it, is pretty much the modern standard for Ring cycles post-Wieland. It aroused emotions, both ways, and I don't think Herr Dorst's even managed to do that. Chéreau and Boulez complimented each other. It's hard to believe that Boulez is 82, and the (in)famous Ring was staged first thirty-one years ago, but there it is.

Perhaps this will be released on CD/DVD, this being the Janáček, that is.

*I really should post, one day, about how it is possible to comment on art without having experienced it firsthand. It sounds simple enough, but it's a common attack on "critics." (Yes, I get the title, but only in irony-quotes).

Robert King's Schlußszene

In what has been a big day for the serious music world, conductor Robert King has been found guilty "of 14 counts of indecent assault between 1982 and 1995." (BBCNews)

I first reported on this, following others' lead, almost a year ago. At the time, the Guardian had this to say about the situation,

Scotland Yard said Mr King was charged with five counts of indecent assault on three men, identified only as A, allegedly assaulted once in 1985, B allegedly assaulted twice between April and September 1985, and C, allegedly assaulted once between 1982 and 1984, who was under 16 at the time. Mr King, who lives in west London, is due to appear before Ealing magistrates court on July 19.

Now, the BBC reports - as you have seen - that he has been convicted on fourteen counts. It seems, according to the charges on which he was convicted, that Mr. King had been involved in this sort of behavior for some time (1982-1995). I haven't followed the particulars of the case closely, other than what news makes it across the water, so I don't know what's transpired in court. However, a conviction is a pretty clear statement of probability. Pending appeal and whatnot: I don't really know how this works in Britain, so this might not be the last we hear.

I suppose, in addition to nearly four years of jail, appeal success notwithstanding, Mr. King's career is over. That's a pity: his Monteverdi Vespers were really reference-quality. However, any beauty he produced has to be weighed against the severity of the crimes for which he was convicted.