Monday, August 27, 2007

Finally, finally, finally

The ever-excellent Pliable hits the nail on the head about Gustavo Dudamel with this pithy graf:
Less well received were my posts on the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and Gustavo Dudamel. But I continue to remain uneasy about their volatile mix of musical vision, politics and commercialism, and believe that Venezuelan flags (see above via Deceptively Simple) and union jacks [...] are both out of place at the BBC Proms. Youngsters just having fun? Please tell that to the families of the millions of young people who died last century defending freedom of speech. At last the paid-for media, and some other blogs, have also started to question the link between music and politics in Venzuela. And the answers given by Dudamel certainly do not make me change my views.
Which stemmed from these comments:
But with Venezuela fiercely polarised over the "Bolivarian revolution" spearheaded by President Hugo Chavez (above), Dudamel's de facto position as an ambassador for his country is far from easy. Since the government refused to renew the licence for RCTV, the opposition television station, earlier this year, there is increasing unease about restrictions on the freedom of expression.

Dudamel himself was criticised when he conducted the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra playing the national anthem at the launch of TVes, the state-controlled channel that replaced RCTV. One "open letter" circulated on many blogs compared him to Wilhelm Furtwängler, the conductor accused of being a Nazi supporter.
Which is, itself, a quote from this article. I do take exception to a comparison between Mr. Dudamel and Wilhelm Furtwängler, the latter being one of the greatest conductors of all time and the former being a flashy kid with a good PR machine. That issue aside, I have some reservations about Mr. Dudamel and his band.

Let's face it: chavismo is, in reality, a pretty standard and pretty hardcore leftist ideology. We're not back to the Zhdanovschina or Brezhnev's neo-Stalinist regime, but President Hugo Chavez has been cracking down on freedom of expression, has given himself an Ermächtigungsgesetz and will likely increase his personal control over government institutions. In other words, the Chavez regime is trundling its way into fairly authoritarian country.

As it gets there, we must begin to ask questions of its employees - like Mr. Dudamel - and their role in Mr. Chavez' program. At what point is this just another showpiece for the revolution? When does this just become another empty agitprop statement for Bolivarianism? Granted, they can play Beethoven - and, I'm told, Mahler - pretty well. Good for them. Mr. Furtwängler's 1942 Beethoven 9th, performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker, is likely the finest reading of that work. Still, would the BP have been welcome in Los Angeles in 1942? Mr. Furtwängler?

The question is simple: do we support authoritarianism with every record, every ticket, and every endowment to pay Dudamel and his band's bills? Are we giving aid and succor to a regime that, by all accounts, should be isolated and repudiated? My frank opinion is yes. Yes, we are. "But, Smith, you tasteless cad, it's art," you say? Yes, it is. Should we bend Beethoven to the service of a showpiece ensemble for a pretty nasty regime? Should we record that? Should we pay for the privilege? "But, Smith, you right buffoon, what about that 1942 Beethoven 9th," you inquire? Obviously, Beethoven - in the hands of a genius like Mr. Furtwängler - is going to transcend any abuse we throw at him. Still, we have been down this path before. We ask these questions - of Mr. Furtwängler, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (among others) - and we never seem to get anywhere. Is "Vissi d'arte" a sufficient apologia?

Is Dudamel's Trauermarsch from Mahler's 5th a broader statement? Who are we burying? Democracy? Are we helping?

I don't know.

I'll bite

What with the beginning of classes, and my increased responsibilities on campus, I don't have loads of time for my 'blog. I hope that the mighty Interweb will forgive me. This quiz, from Soho the Dog, will undoubtedly give you a window into how my mind works. Or, at least, how I answer such questions.

1. What's the best quotation of a piece of music within another piece of music?

Gustav Mahler, in his 9th, quoting his Kindertotenlieder.

2. Name the best classical crossover album ever made.

Not my department, so I'll just say any of the Satie crossover discs.

3. Great piece with a terrible title.

Gustav Mahler: Rückert-Lieder.

4. If you had to choose: Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett?

Britten, if only for War Requiem and Peter Grimes.

5. Who's your favorite spouse of a composer/performer? (Besides your own.)

Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel: she has a problem named after her, which is impressive, as she managed to mess around behind Mahler's back to the point that Sigmund Freud got a visit.

6. Terrible piece with a great title.

Shostakovich. Symphony no. 7 in C major, op. 60 "Leningrad."

7. What's the best use of a classical warhorse in a Hollywood movie?

The Andante con moto from Schubert's D. 929 piano trio in Barry Lyndon. Talk about music expressing quiet currents of fate, as opposed to blustery explosions of destiny.

8. Name the worst classical crossover album ever made.

Too many contenders to do something so small as to make a decision.

9. If you had to choose: Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye?

Marvin Gaye

10. Name a creative type in a non-musical medium who would have been a great composer.

Stanley Kubrick


For opera nerds: If you had to choose:
a) Lawrence Tibbett or Robert Merrill?

Robert Merrill

b) Amelita Galli-Curci or Lily Pons?

No preference.

For early-music nerds: Name a completely and hopelessly historically uninformed recording that you nevertheless love.

Otto Klemperer's massive and granitic (in the best sense) Matthäus-Passion. In fact, I tend to look at "Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit" from that recording as one proof that what you make up for in "authenticity" you lose in feeling.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Praise opening up a minor gripe

AC Douglas praises, albeit guardedly, Donald Runnicles' BBC Proms concert Götterdämmerung. He mentions that he is unwilling to give his highest praise, the "Wagner Gene," without hearing the rest of Der Ring and Tristan und Isolde.

My minor gripe is that Runnicles did record Tristan und Isolde a while back, as part of (if I recall) a series of one-act-per-night performances. It's out on Warner Classics, and I assume, though the collapse of that label with the usual record merry-go-round make things questionable, it is still available. It was, though, overwhelmed by the obsessive and (in my opinion) idolatrous mania surrounding EMI's Domingo Tristan und Isolde. It was done with the BBCSO and a solid cast, with Brewer's incandescent Isolde at the very top. John Treleaven's Tristan was good, but I won't be throwing away my Böhm set with Windgassen.

Runnicles, too, seemed to have a very good grasp of Wagner's score. It is a shame that the EMI set took pole position. Pappano is a solid conductor, but I don't know that he is any great shakes as a Wagner conductor (notwithstanding either his or Mr. Runnicles' possession or not of Mr. Douglas' gene). Runnicles, though, seems willing to let Wagner do his thing.

In the final tally, that, then, is the only thing that matters. It's a good set, though Kleiber probably still takes my top honors - despite Kollo and Fischer-Dieskau.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

An interesting tangent to the matter before us

Alex Ross obliquely responds to AC Douglas' (see below) attack on iPods. He also makes a trenchant and precise point, which point, of course, reminds me why he writes for The New Yorker. And, I - shades of Chevy Chase here - don't. His point:
My attitude remains this: all recordings are fakes, and CDs happen to be more convincing fakes than MP3s.
I don't think you can get a much better précis on the matter. Ross also looks at the death of the CD among the pop-music set, through another's essay - but a still-interesting take,
By the way, Jeremy Schlosberg has written a persuasive essay linking the decline of the CD among pop listeners — classical listeners show no inclination to abandon it — not to the Internet but to the CD's hour-plus running time. Few artists, he says, can come up with seventy-five minutes of first-rate material in any given year. Plus, there's something ideal about a forty-minute listening session.
Again, I'll iterate my point that "a collection of great dance songs" doesn't need to be 78 minutes long. That is, these days, all a record is. There is no chance that Wish You Were Here or Thick as a Brick would get made in 2007. There is a negative chance (i.e., a positive chance that this idea is being worked against by executives) that something like Quadrophenia or The Wall would get made.

The industry isn't interested in seeing what pop can be. They're interested in pandering to the lowest common denominator. Why? Well, to take a modern example and not run back to Sgt. Pepper's, Release the Stars (Rufus Wainwright) might be an interesting and complex record, but it won't sell nearly as well as Rihanna or that God-awful Plain White T's single.

So, they'll pander to the mighty Interweb (Did anyone else notice that Senator Ted "A Series of Tubes" Stevens is in trouble with the FBI and IRS?), which - with its track-by-track sales and universal distribution - is their ideal business model. The record, as a cohesive and interesting whole, is all but dead. Radio, then video, killed it. Then they stopped actually showing videos, except from 6 AM to 10 AM, while their target audience is either at school or still asleep, so radio finished their job.

I'll never meet "their" children, but I'd still be interested to know what "they" told them.

My [final] take on the iPod

Let me preface this by saying, I have an iPod. I've had one for several years now, and I am very fond of it. There is a good deal of classical, as you might imagine, on there - but only in complete records. The idea of a "greatest classical hits" playlist is alien and more than slightly abhorrent to me. If Richard Wagner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or Gustav Mahler needed a complete work to make their point, then I should have enough respect for those men and their respective genii to make an effort to have their complete works. So should everyone.

Here's a thought experiment: Boil Götterdämmerung, to pick one evening of Der Ring des Nibelungen, down to one monologue, duet, trio, chorus, or prelude that sums the whole thing up. Not the idea. Not the feeling. Not the sensibility of the music-drama. The whole plot. Good luck. This is why bleeding-chunks records are a bad idea without a solid knowledge of Wagner's overarching idea. Symphonies and chamber works are right behind, in the sense of a contained cohesion and need for completeness. For example, Franz Schubert's piano trio in E flat (D. 929, if you're keeping score) has a memorable theme in its second movement. Stanley Kubrick used this movement to great effect in Barry Lyndon (1975), which is - to me - Kubrick's greatest film. I digress. He, i.e., Schubert, quotes himself in the last movement of the trio. If you picked the "wrong" movement, you wouldn't get it. The reference would be lost on you. These are just a couple of examples from my listening this past week, and there are infinitely more.

For popular music, save "concept albums," this isn't a problem. I can listen to "What Light" off Wilco's Sky Blue Sky all I want. I'm not missing one thing. The eponymous track and "Hate It Here," for a pair of examples, don't really need "What Light" and vice versa. It's not even close to a problem, though it once would have been, and I blame radio for, in its turn, killing "albums" in favor of "a collection of great dance songs" (pace Pink). Classical music, though I should say "serious art music," can't handle this treatment. The iPod, though, with its basic architecture, until recently all but imposed this treatment on classical records. Apple finally introduced gapless playback, so it's less of a problem, but it took them long enough. The iPod is a great way to hold, enjoy, and transport a great deal of music relatively cheaply and efficiently.

Sound quality is another story. On one of the online classical music message boards that I frequent (there aren't many, so guess), another member made some snarky comment about people who listen to low-quality rips, while he had lossless files. My argument, there as here, is that the iPod and - indeed - computer listening is antithetical to the idea of serious art music. The quality of the file doesn't matter if you're going to be listening to it in a state of mind not wholly devoted to it. You can make line-level (i.e., 1411 kbps) files, listen to them on high-end headphones (I'm increasingly in love with the Grado RS-2), but - if you're in a bus, on a plane, or otherwise distracted, you're missing the point. Only Erik Satie wrote music designed to be wallpaper. Serious music must be taken seriously, and the iPod cries out, "No! Music is just another part of your daily routine." God save the society that views Beethoven's 9th or Wagner's Parsifal as "just another part" of workaday life. These composers wrote their music with the utmost seriousness and the expectation that their audiences would take it at least as seriously. Mahler, anecdotal evidence has it, feared that his Das Lied von der Erde (I think, but could be mistaken) would drive people to suicide. It doesn't get more serious than that.

One caveat to sound quality: obviously, higher bitrates are better. I've never noticed much lack of detail, though you can tell the difference if you A/B some files, but low bitrate recordings seem constrained and boxed-in. They don't have room to breathe, largely because the audio codec assumes that you can't hear the "breathing." That's just not true. In fact, some venues breathe differently (which is why the Philharmonie seems boomy and warm on record, and the Jesus-Christus-Kirche seems drier and more analytical). They're not making this stuff up, professional-grade microphones are awfully sensitive and air moving is going to do its thing, whether or not we hear it. One exception is historical recordings, some - like Furtwängler's premiere of the Vier letzte Lieder - just aren't going to sound good, no matter how high you push the bitrate up. Degraded source material isn't going to have much of a difference made by file size.

Now, for the general caveats. I listen to serious music on my iPod. I listen to it in situations where I fall victim to my hated "sonic wallpaper." But only after listening to and obsessing over these pieces. On a decent CD rig, in my easychair, and often in the "right state of mind." Like Iago, I'm not going to say much about that last bit. It's not a grave sin against music to listen to serious music on an iPod; not the same way, at least, that a song like "Fergalicious" is a grave sin against music. It helps, though, to remember that you're diminishing not only the composer's intention (unless otherwise stated), but also - and more worrying - your enjoyment of the music if you aren't giving it your full attention.

These men (and women) have something to say that deserves to be heard. The least we can do is hear it.

The essay that prompted this post.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

More modern music

I sincerely doubt that Terry cares anymore, but I'll continue to give my readership - such as it is - helpful suggestions for modern music. Even though the Bartók predates Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, though they come from different planets - stylistically.

György Ligeti. Musica ricercata (Aimard, Sony 1996)
Luciano Berio. Sinfonia (Boulez, Erato 1986)
Hans Werner Henze. Das Floß der Medusa (Henze, DGG 1968)
Pierre Boulez. Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (Boulez, Sony 1976)
Dimitri Shostakovich. Cello concerto no. 2 (M. Shostakovich, Philips 1985)
Béla Bartók. Piano concerto no. 1 (Boulez, EMI 1970)
Bruno Maderna. Quadrivium (Sinopoli, DGG 1979)

I make no secret of the fact that I really like Rituel, and I've mentioned it before. Given that phase of Boulez' career, and his seeming propensity to revise and to withdraw, it is astonishing that he "finished" it then and has left it finished. He seems to have one major issue of the piece (the Sony set, coupled with Eclat/Multiples - a work then-unfinished, by the way), and that might be the only Boulez-led version. It is relatively accessible, and a good place to start with Boulez. It might be the canonical "middle period" Boulez piece. You should give a listen to Maderna's Quadrivium, ably conducted by his student, Giuseppe Sinopoli. It provides another perspective on Darmstadt.

Berio's piece is worth a listen, too. It might be the more important, more interesting, piece on here - though it is difficult to overestimate Bartók. It is probably "the" example of real postmodern music. It has a real sense of play, and is deeply allusive. The quote of Boulez' "Don," for example, is beautifully and wittily handled. It deals with Mahler, especially in the third movement, in a very sort of postmodern way. Berio's own notes, dedicating (mon Dieu!) the piece to that paragon of the avant-garde, Leonard Bernstein, are illuminating to a fairly high degree, though you'll probably want to do some research of your own. This is an important and (unsurprisingly) "important" - yes, there is a difference - work, conducted in what has become the reference recording by Pierre Boulez.

The other stuff on my list is, to my mind, a fairly good second helping of 20th century music. More Ligeti, showing his somewhat more ominous side. Shostakovich, of whom I'm still not sure what to think. Bartók, which reminds me again that I need to get some of my thoughts down about him before I get busy. Henze. There should be a post on Das Floß, but don't hold me to it. All I'll say is this: Das Floß needed more than a raft itself. In any event, these are a few more suggestions. The great and terrible thing about 20th century music is that there are so many directions that no one set of recordings will suffice.