Tuesday, February 26, 2008

It's the pictures that got small

A.C. Douglas links to some things, decrying the loss of the whole movie experience on an iPhone or something like it. (David Lynch's brilliant parody, for one).

Ordinarily, especially when it comes to cinema, I'd agree. Let's take Mr. Lynch's advice, though, and "get real." The people likely to put a movie on their telephone are not the people likely to be putting the Criterion Collection version of Godard's À Bout de Souffle on there, or - for that matter - Altman's Secret Honor or anything by Welles.

They're putting movies on their iPhone, most likely, of the most execrable popcorn-matinée variety. All the schmaltzy, sappy stuff that Hollywood churns out like so much sorghum does not need to be treated specially, since it doesn't really need the experience to work. Melodramas, shoot-'em-up action flicks, and cheap comedies can be preserved on an iPhone, since there's nothing to preserve.

Great movies deserve to be viewed as intended when possible; good movies deserve to be viewed and appreciated as art; bad movies deserve the iPhone. If they're lucky. It's like the difference between ripping a good recording of Das Rheingold at 320 kbps and the latest Killers record at 128 kbps. You might be losing data at 128 kbps, but you're not losing anything.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ross on Nielsen

Alex Ross has made my week with this piece on Carl Nielsen. Nielsen's 4th might be on the very short list of pieces that I tie to a particular place and time. Strangely enough, at least for this Danish composer, it's modern Pompei last spring. As part of an immersion trip for my Ancient Roman City class, which was - in addition to an interesting course - a great excuse to spend better than a week on the Bay of Naples and in Rome in May, we started out in Pompei in a nice-enough hotel (the Hotel Iside, which I recommend highly for various reasons). It might have been our first or second night there, and - still a little frazzled from the jet-lag - I laid awake one night listening to Nielsen's 4th. For whatever reason, it clicked and it worked.

Ross, though, has this to say,
Given the blazing individuality of Nielsen’s voice, it’s puzzling that he has yet to find a firm place in the international repertory. He is ubiquitous in his native Denmark, where he holds the place of National Composer-Hero; he is a mainstay throughout the Nordic countries and, to a lesser extent, in Britain. For American orchestras, however, he remains a tough sell, despite periodic attempts to whip up the same enthusiasm that has long attended his contemporaries Mahler and Sibelius. Leonard Bernstein tried to set off a Nielsen fad at the New York Philharmonic in the nineteen-sixties, but it didn’t quite take. Orchestral players, percussionists excepted, tend to groan a little when Nielsen shows up on their music stands; his habit of writing furiously fast figures, and then passing them from one section to another, relay style, can make even an ensemble of virtuosos sound like a mess. Audiences, for their part, often go away from Nielsen performances pleased but a little dazed, not sure what hit them.
I, for one, would not mind it one bit if Nielsen became more popular. After forty years, Gustav Mahler entered the standard Germanic canon as it is performed in the United States. Bruckner is making strong inroads, though I don't think Bruckner is nearly as popular as Mahler. Nielsen, though in different ways, has at least as much claim to a spot in the Pantheon as Mahler or Bruckner. As to Sibelius, though, I am still not sure that he has gotten quite the spot that Mahler has. He's certainly canonical, but - let's be fair - if a music director wants to fill seats, he's going to program Mahler's 5th or 9th, not Sibelius' 7th. Those are the breaks.

In any event, Ross' article is - as usual - well worth your time.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Now what gives here?

Orfeo, as part of its series of releases from the Bayreuther Festspiele (including Knappertsbusch's monumental 1956 Ring and Lovro von Matačić's 1959 Lohengrin - which might be the best on record), is coming out with Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1951 Beethoven 9th from the Festspiele.

Ah, my perceptive reader, you've no doubt said, "But, Smith, wait. Hasn't EMI had that 1951 9th on the books forever?" Yes, they have. I could understand if this were some other, heretofore unheard, performance, but it says - on the Orfeo cover, "Live Recording / 29. Juli 1951." The EMI release, in its Great Recordings of the Century incarnation, gives, "29.VII.1951, Festspielhaus, Bayreuth," as its recording information. In other words, EMI says that its record was done on 29 July 1951 - the same date as the Orfeo disc.

At first blush, something is wrong here. Orfeo, as part of its Bayreuther Festspiele releases, has covered familiar ground, like Knappertsbusch's '56 Ring and 1964 Parsifal, the Von Karajan Tristan from 1951, and that Lohengrin, but they have, more or less, been doing 'official' releases of material captured by the 'historical' labels. Indeed, it seems, that they have been getting Bayreuth's imprimatur and better Bayerischer Rundfunk tapes for stuff put out, mostly, by Golden Melodram. In this case, though, they are duplicating a famous EMI recording that has seen itself liveried in several different series. In my estimation, anyone who wants Furtwängler's 1951 Bayreuth 9th already has it.

As a brief aside, the 1951 9th is generally the third-ranked Furtwängler 9th. His 1942 Berlin performance and his final 1954 Lucerne 9th generally get higher marks. Of the postwar 9ths, I generally gravitate to his 1954 Bayreuth performance, out on Music and Arts, as it has - in my book - the better soloists: Gré Brouwenstijn, Ira Malaniuk, Wolfgang Windgassen, and Ludwig Weber. The sound is not what I would call good, worse even than the Berlin performance, but the performance and the singers are first-rate. So, I'll revise my statement, anyone who wants the 1951 9th already has it, and most people interested in Furtwängler already have a 9th, usually '42 or '54-Lucerne, that they like.

The EMI liner notes shed some light on the matter, though how much is a matter of interpretation,
One of the soloists, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, later recalled the atmosphere as being 'incredibly moving'. She remembered that there was a rehearsal in the morning, and a 'run-through' just before the performance. (p. 6)
That's the thing, as far as I can tell. If that run-through was a complete performance, as its definition of 'an uninterrupted rehearsal' seems to imply, then EMI could have snagged it and the performance, inter-cutting the two as necessary. The recording date would be accurate, and there would be a performance under near-studio conditions whence to draw any patches. (There has been some discussion on RMCR about this issue.) This would not be unheard-of with Bayreuth performances. When the Keilberth Siegfried from 1955 dropped, there was talk that the Forging Scene had been patched, as Windgassen's anvil-strokes were off the beat. I don't know if Decca or Testament ever made a definitive yes-or-no statement, but it wouldn't surprise me. What would surprise me even less is if Walter Legge did some magic at the mixing board in 1951 for Furtwängler.

I don't have the Orfeo release, and I would like a little more certainty as to what precisely is going on with the recording. I agree with the RMCR poster who raised the point that a sense of outrage or the need for a special release because a recording was drawn from multiple performances is a complicated issue. It raises all sorts of questions about all manner of recordings. There are several Ring sets, from Bayreuth, that were drawn from several recordings over a period of time: does that mean we need a rerelease of one-off, single-night recordings? I don't know.

If a one-off Bayreuth 9th is your order, Karl Böhm has a great one from 1963. It has Jess Thomas in the tenor role in good sound. That's enough to recommend it to me.

Belated Boulez

Tears of a Clownsilly has a screamingly funny post, of some time ago, on Pierre Boulez' hair.

Let's face it: Boulez has some of the worst hair of the current crop of composers and conductors. His comb-over is painfully obvious and shellacked down with what I can only assume is some sort of industrial epoxy. He also doesn't seem to jump and jive in concert, so that probably helps fly-aways. In the late 1960s, he sported an H.R. Haldeman-esque 'do that made him seem like a slightly irritable chemistry teacher. His penchant for white, button-down dress shirts and dark ties didn't help, but his current penchant for sweater-shirts buttoned up to the top seems even less appropriate.

I have decided that Boulez is everyone's nice, very smart grandfather who used to be a holy terror in the 1950s and 1960s, but - for whatever reason - has decided to mellow out and be agreeable.

Before you ask, Stockhausen is everyone's slightly kooky uncle with grandiose ideas and massive schemes, and is the guy your father refuses to talk to at family reunions.

As a bonus: Graduate thesis: Modern archetypes in the modern nuclear family - 1950-2007. You'll do very well in comparative lit. programs, and you might just get an appointment at some sort of progressive American university.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Ring up the bill for Keilberth

Testament, after their wildly successful release of the 1955 Keilberth Ring, which was seriatim, beginning with Siegfried, passing through Walküre and Rheingold, and ending with Götterdämmerung, is now releasing a complete all-in-one box of that Ring. This might be a great opportunity for people curious about the Keilberth set, if they haven't sampled it by now, to take the plunge. It also provides considerable savings over the four separate releases, which I bought separately, I might add with a note of bitterness, a fact which I shall demonstrate below.

Amazon has it priced at $165.97 (a discount from the list price of $206.98). If you order it from Testament's own website, you can get it for £98.91, which is equivalent to roughly (depending on how hard the dollar is getting shellacked on a given day) $194.35. Amazon currently lists the four records separately at, for Das Rheingold, $27.97; for Die Walküre, $59.97; for Siegfried, $59.97; and for Götterdämmerung, $91.98. This comes to a grand total, if you bought the four together right now, $239.89 plus shipping and handling which, naturally varies. If you did the same thing at Testament's own website, you could get it for £153.86, or roughly $302.32. That's a lot of numbers, but - hey - I'm a math minor (pure math, though, so financial stuff boggles my mind at times, too).

I have two comments. First, Decca made a serious tactical error licensing this set to Testament. Don't get me wrong, I really like Testament, which has - consistently - some of the most interesting, engaging, and high-quality historical recording releases on the market. The Keilberth Ring is, obviously, the flagship release, but they have others (Claudio Arrau's Beethoven concertos with Otto Klemperer, Flagstad's premiere of Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder with Furtwängler, and some interesting - if not great - Mahler recordings of Barbirolli with the Berliner Philharmoniker come immediately to mind) of similar quality for various reasons. It is probably a fact that Testament has one of the best Ring cycles on the market in their catalog at the moment. Still, it sat in Decca's vaults for fifty-one years, and that company showed no real interest in releasing it. Culshaw had it shelved back in 1955 so he could do his cycle with Solti, and - for better or worse, more of the former than the latter, though - Solti's cycle is still the benchmark. I have argued before, and I still believe that Solti's cycle wouldn't have happened at all if Keilberth's had been available.

Decca could have had it both ways, though. They could have let Solti seize the market, as he did, and - in the last decade or so - brought out the Keilberth set. Critics, both professional writers and serious listeners, for whom I have a lot of respect, have praised the earlier cycle to high Heaven. It seems that, fifty-some years after he led the performances and now forty years after his death, Keilberth has entered the special Walhall for Wagner conductors. In other words, Decca could have had two landmark Ring cycles in its lineup. Solti's set is great indeed, but Keilberth's set captures Bayreuth in the Golden Age in great sound. I might have a slight preference for Hans Knappertsbusch's 1956 Ring (on Orfeo), but the sound is mono - and, at that, not as good as Keilberth's, speaking relatively.

This misadventure on Decca's part (i.e., coming off as a company dominated by internal politics and slightly slow-witted in missing this particular boat, plus missing the credit and the profit) shows me, at the very least, that the real innovation and important recordings in the classical record industry usually happens at the smaller labels. Deutsche Grammophon has yet to have a consistently good Ring. Von Karajan is, in places, too weird, and has only Rheingold as what I would call a successful record. Philips has Böhm and Boulez, but neither set is to everyone's taste - the latter, twenty-three years after the fact, still being pretty contentious. Telarc (now Warner Classics and even more-now Rhino) had Barenboim, but that set never really achieved the same currency and circulation as Decca's Solti box. Maybe that's it, Decca already has a great Ring, but the new gold standard for live sets and the most innovative studio recording - perhaps of all to-date - is a hard-to-beat combination.

My other comment is this: Why not drop the complete Ring and the four separate installments at the same time? Save some of us some money, while offering a choice of purchases, that is. It's pretty simple: I, and a lot of others, I suspect, would have bought the complete Keilberth Ring at the outset, instead of fooling around for two years - more or less - collecting each record as it dropped (I'll admit, it took me darned near a year to get Götterdämmerung, though I had what I will call a substantial and complete long-term audition). A boutique label like Testament likely has similar concerns to the major companies, and would prefer to sell four pretty consarned expensive records, as opposed to one moderately expensive one. Let's be realistic, though, most serious music listeners will only have one Ring in their collection (likely either Solti or Böhm). Most listeners with a more-serious interest in Wagner will only have three or four (expanding to Levine, Barenboim, Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Krauss and the like). Wagnerian fanatics might have ten or twelve copies (some maybe more), but we're not talking about a big audience here. That is to say, Testament's choice is directed at a small segment of the serious music listener community, and likely has more latitude than - say - Deutsche Grammophon with yet-another-Beethoven 9th recording to consider how to price the product intelligently.

What do I know, though? As I like to say.

Harnoncourt's Figaro from Salzburg

I finally got around to buying Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Le nozze di Figaro (recorded at the 2006 Salzburger Festspiele). At the outset, one can see that Deutsche Grammophon cares little for the contributions of Herr Harnoncourt and the Wiener Philharmoniker. This set, like the DVD that preceded it, is all about Anna Netrebko and, to a lesser extent, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo. I understand: the Russian-born soprano is very attractive, and her voice doesn't make me pray for acute tinnitus. Of course, comparing her to Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, or - of the modern crowd - Christine Brewer would serve only to make me look like a jerk whose standards are far too high.

Of course, Netrebko looks far better in a little black dress than any of those women. They might have the tone and the power, but - times being what they are - if you can't be smeared all over some cheap advertising booklets, then you're at a disadvantage. Lest her legion fans tear me asunder, much like the Great Old One would, given half a chance, I'll say this: she isn't bad. Taken on her own. In context, I think we need to get serious. She's very good, but I doubt she'll enter vocal Walhall.

In any event, there are plenty of places to discuss Ms. Netrebko, and this isn't one. What I would like to discuss is Harnoncourt's interpretation, which was not well-received. I understand many reviewers' problems with the orchestral contribution. This is a slow Figaro, the slowest - in fact - of my versions. The only other recording I have that comes close is James Levine's (underrated, in my book) 1991 outing on Deutsche Grammophon. It lacks a certain lightness and verve that a recording like René Jacobs' has, or even Erich Kleiber's Decca set from 1955. This is a heavy and dense Figaro.

I'll be the first to admit it, Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a maddening conductor. Some of his recordings are indisputably good, like his Dvořák 9th or Mozart Requiem (his Bruckner, too, is a consistently high quality), and others are indisputably weird - I'm thinking of his Messiah, which still seems, for all the world, to me to be a last-minute Christmas cash-in for BMG. He is variable, and he doesn't seem to have a consistent interpretative stance. From all I gather, it seems that he tries to approach each work on its own terms and in its own style. As I recall from the notes to Messiah, he consulted with musicologists and graphologists, trying to get to Handel's intent when writing the score.

His Figaro is as maddening, no doubt, for folks accustomed to Jacobs', Kleiber's, and any of the other, lighter sets out there. I don't agree with their assertions. It's taken me a while to get to that point, but I just cannot accept their abuse of Harnoncourt's set. René Jacobs is a rare exception to my general view of hardcore HIP recordings. John Eliot Gardiner might be hip, but he is miles away from the one-voice-per-part, play-it-exactly-as-first-performed school of interpretation. Indeed, Jacobs' interpretations are so singularly wonderful as to say that, assuming he could pull it off, he could perform the works on kazoos and still retain some of the artistic merit. He is, then, a pathological case in the best possible sense.

As to Harnoncourt, though, I believe that he has - in a sense - rescued Figaro from the "faster, leaner, and lighter" school of thought. Now, he achieves great clarity and precision, but never once did I get the sense that his Figaro was anemic. I have already registered my objections to period performance taken too far from what were pretty good ideas. Harnoncourt's recording seems to meet my specifications: intelligent adoption of period ideas, but respecting the music and the intervening performance tradition enough to allow for some amalgam of the two. The Wiener Philharmoniker, drawn from Wiener Staatsoper players and at Salzburg every year, has Figaro in their veins. They know this music forward and backward, and, as performers familiar with the material, they respond well to various interpretations. Indeed, I imagine rehearsals were spent working out the orchestral concept to the piece, rather than polishing their sound or performance.

That orchestral concept is the weird part. Apparently, Harnoncourt and the director Claus Guth approached Figaro as a sort of psychodrama. That's an approach, but not likely what Mozart had in mind. I could see it with Don Giovanni, which is, after all, a dramma giocoso. A jocose drama, whatever that means, is not how I would describe Le nozze di Figaro. Indeed, I would say that - while Figaro is dramatic - one has to appreciate Da Ponte's and Mozart's use of irony and subtlety. It's a comedy and it doesn't start off with blasting diminished sevenths (I think, which makes the Commendatore's entrance music so interesting since it repeats the overture, more or less: We find out that, as Eliot might have said, "In Giovanni's beginning is his end."). That might be a leading indicator that it's a pretty standard comedy. As best as I can tell, Guth decided to play Figaro 'straight,' which made for interesting outcomes. The slowness seems to complement the staging, so if psychodrama it is supposed to be, then psychodrama it is.

I don't buy Guth's Konzept, for what it's worth. It's an interesting take, but any attempt to suck the joy out of Figaro goes against, well, everything ever about this comedy. The plot has its ups and downs, but everything ends more or less on the level and happily. Harnoncourt might have been following the staging in his interpretation, but he achieved something ultimately more interesting with his reading of the score. What he did was let the score breathe. He seems to say that it's OK to let a score of the Classical period expand and fill space. He doesn't take Wagnerian liberties with scoring and scope, but neither does he confine Mozart's genius to a period-specific box. To me, that is the sort of interpretation Mozart needs. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a great composer on a lot of levels in most genres, and he deserves neither to be fettered with the conventions of his time nor to be expanded upon using language that wasn't his own. Harnoncourt comes close to that ideal, though he might miss the mark at times (the full pauses for tintinnabulation strike me as unnecessary, for example).

In other words, I like this recording, if only because it lets Mozart do the legwork. Harnoncourt gives him the room to do so.