Monday, March 24, 2008

Beethoven was always hip

Bad title, I know, but this Ionarts piece about a new HIP-informed version of Beethoven's 3rd forced my hand.

I thought that I would give a plug for my favorite HIP Beethoven recording: Jordi Savall's 1997 3rd. Good luck finding it, as it seems to have disappeared in the ten or so years since its release. Writing in Gramophone, Richard Osborne had this to say,
There is a real sense of burgeoning excitement at the start of Savall’s performance; and the sound of the orchestra really does conjure up the sense of one being transported back to some dusky Viennese concert room c1805 where the musicians are as dangerous a crew as the militias roaming the mud-filled streets outside. Yet as the musical arguments begin to multiply and deepen, so the performance gets more garbled. For all Savall’s skill in moulding and modifying the pulse, there’s a jauntiness about parts of the first movement development section which muddles and trivializes the music.
He went on to note,
Again, in the Marcia funebre, the Savall performance is astonishing for the mood it conjures. The drum (calf skin head, hard sticks) is fierce and seductive, an instrument of war that suggests also the soft thud of death. Savall’s brass are similarly remarkable, at once brazen and mellow-sounding. The horn section alone – Thomas Muller, Raul Diaz and Javier Bonet – deserves an award for the way the players colour and characterize this astonishing music.
Osborne noted that the tempi for Savall's recording are unconventional. Yes, they are. Very much so. It is one of those things, having begun my Beethoven investigations with Furtwängler, that I don't really mind. I do, however, take issue with the 'jauntiness' claim. There is a certain swagger in Savall's interpretation, but never where I find it inappropriate.

I haven't heard Manze's version, but I would like to point out that Savall's recording - if you're lucky enough to find a copy - provides an excellent example of the HIP approach on historical instruments. None of this mealy-mouthed hybridization.

Ac toto surget gens aurea mundo

Vltima Cumaei uenit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeculorum nascitur ordo.
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna,
iam noua progenies caelo demittitur alto.
tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum
desinet ac toto surget gens aurea mundo,
casta faue Lucina; tuus iam regnat Apollo. - Verg. Ec. IV.4-10

Like a lot of Wagnerites, I am not usually terribly interested in revising my views on Wagner recordings and what deserves a spot on the list of undeniably great records.

Keilberth's 1955 Ring is one example of a set that reorders my particular Wagnerian universe. EMI's just-released set of Wagner arias and duets with Birgit Nilsson and Hans Hotter is, likely, another such disc.

"Arias and duets" is probably not the best description, especially of the selling point for most listeners: the whole of scene 3 of Act 3 of Die Walküre. This set was done in 1957, released in 1958, and - as such - it predates Hotter's performance for Solti by nine or so years. His voice, as such, bears more in common with Keilberth's 1955 Ring and Knappertsbusch's 1956 reading of the same (out, most notably, on Orfeo). Birgit Nilsson takes the soprano roles, and - as one would expect - she acquits herself wonderfully.

Nilsson here is in fresher voice, but, to my ears, the expiration date with her was somewhat later than 1966 or so. I might even say that her voice has a softer edge here than it did later (e.g., Böhm's 1977 Die Frau ohne Schatten in Vienna). She never really had the warm, human ('womanly,' too might be apropos) aspects of someone like Flagstad or Varnay; still, catching her in 1958 reveals her not to have as much steel as she would later. A Gramophone reviewer called her tone her "clear, gleaming," and I wouldn't object. I would point out that, though, there is a difference between that and a steely, ringing voice.

Suffice it to say that Hotter is in much better voice here than he would be for Solti. To be fair, on the low end there is still a tendency toward what can only be called woofiness, but it is much more constrained and controlled here than it would be by 1964 (Knappertsbusch's final Parsifal at Bayreuth) or Solti's Walküre. It came as some surprise to me to find that Hotter's last Walküre Wotan was in Paris in 1972, unless his wobble and low-end problems stabilized, that would have been a painful experience for anyone who had heard him in his prime. In a post-Keilberth environment, where we could see just how great Hotter was in his prime, it only cements the opinion of long-standing with a recording under ideal studio conditions.

His reading of Wotan's Farewell ("Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind..." to the Feuerzauber music) is worth the price of admission. In addition to a voice that sounds like a deeply conflicted god, trapped by his own designs, we have a reading of the text with intelligence and pathos. In other words, we have Wagner's fusion of music and drama. You know what? Hotter's performance here might be the downright saddest I have heard. One is deeply moved with this scene, just as Wagner intended.

Leopold Ludwig, like Joseph Keilberth, was a Kapellmeister of the great German tradition. Really, once the maestro became the industry standard, such conductors - trained in their repertoire by long evenings in the various local and regional opera houses - were outmoded and relegated to session work. There is something to be said about learning the trade through solid work without flash or pretense. Given a band as good as the Philharmonia was in 1957, Ludwig's solid chops as a conductor who understands Wagnerian idiom, the orchestral contribution cannot be faulted.

I should note, before making some general comments, that this EMI release seems to duplicate - to some degree or another - a couple of Testament releases (the Tannhäuser, Holländer, Lohengrin, and Walküre excerpts were on one set, with the Tristan and Isolde track on another). The Walküre excerpts have been released before in at least one EMI set, but this appears to be the first time when the whole run has been collected together on CD (correct me if I'm wrong).

Hearing this disc wasn't a surprise to me. After Keilberth and Knappertsbusch, it is no secret that Hotter in full voice is bested only, really, by Friedrich Schorr. Nilsson is a known quantity, from the Solti and Böhm sets, plus some of her other records, so there is no real question about her. Leopold Ludwig is a bit less well-known, especially in Wagner (He did a fine Mahler 4th back in 1957 with Ammy Schlemm and the Staatskapelle Dresden); still a quick listen reveals him to be a competent, if not world-beating, Wagner conductor.

The surprise to me is that the major labels continue to churn out sets like Domingo's Scenes from the Ring, his Tristan, or any of the self-indulgent messes put out monthly when they have sets like this one in the vaults. For example, did we really need to have Herbert von Karajan's complete recorded output dumped onto a market already saturated with...well, Herbert von Karajan's complete recorded output? No. We did not.

My distaste for the record business is pretty clear at this point, and sets like this one only serve to further my disdain for the process of putting these records on the market. In my view, this should be the go-to set for 'bleeding chunks,' especially if you want the emotional climax of the Ring in one scene. (I'm prepared to justify that statement at some length, but not here.) It has enough other selections to provide a pretty good overview of Wagner, but its primary appeal are those Walküre tracks. It is also another set that justifies and amplifies the glories of the Golden Age of Wagnerian performance.

At a time when Wagnerian performance - both orchestral and vocal - is not at its all-time best, Golden Age sets remind the listeners that there have been moments where Wagner's music, text, and intent blend together seamlessly to form a dramatic statement unseen since the great Greek dramatists (especially Aeschylus and Sophocles.)

This set is, as I have intimated, such a reminder.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Kirchner's Götterdämmerung Redux

Mostly Opera, a blog that has all the news you can use, especially when some of us are off on our tangents, reviews Alfred Kirchner's Götterdämmerung, out on DVD. I trod the same soil a while back. Here are my comments.

Our correspondent from Copenhagen, however, hits the nail on the head when she notes,
The major point being, however, that Kirchner does not really seem to have a sense of direction of the work. In that respect, it distinctly reminds of the current Bayreuth Ring production by Tankred Dorst, in which the characters also wear odd semi-Japanese Star Wars clothing, as well as being placed in a production with no intrinsic drama. Wagner can be about many things. But in this production, nothing seems to happen underneath the surface.
She is, of course, right.

My comment would be: Look at the epithet applied to the Kirchner Ring. It's not called the "designer Ring" because it is a sensible, intelligent, and sensitive approach to a cycle of music-dramas that demands nothing less. I am sorry, but most avant-garde fashion is the triumph of form over utility or substance.

On later viewing, I was reminded of nothing more than, say, P. T. Anderson's Magnolia. Kirchner's Ring is a very slick, very stylish, and very smart production that doesn't say a whole lot on its own power. It has a good cast, a good conductor, and an audience that likes it some Wagner. Nevertheless, it skates on the surface of the Ring.

This goes back, in my mind, beyond Chéreau and Kupfer, back to Wieland Wagner's stagings.

A.C. Douglas has a view of Wagner's designs that places them at the root of the Welt-Asch of Regietheater (Eurotrash) interpretations of Richard Wagner's music-dramas. The intent, [as Mr. Douglas points out - see below], behind Wieland's designs was - in my view - to strip away eighty or so years of baggage and superfluities and arrive at a staging that allowed the fundamental drama and music to make their points. Regietheater, by its very name, makes it pretty clear that the "fundamental drama" is the last thing on the book for these productions.

The problem is one of a tipping point. If you carry this minimalism and text/music-focus too far, you arrive at a place where the reduced and decentralized surface becomes the focus. In other words, you're too busy looking at Brünnhilde's fabulous bloomers to worry much with Wotan's Farewell or the prelude duet from Götterdämmerung. To put it still another way, you arrive at a situation where the surface becomes an end in itself.

The music and drama are left in the dust, and the artistry of the Konzept becomes the primary concern. Just like haute couture.

Not an outcome devoutly to be desired, to put it mildly.

Revision: 20 March 2008

A.C. Douglas, in the comments section to this post, notes, "You've given the impression here that I've said otherwise, and took a negative view of Wieland's original stagings of the Ring. I did no such thing."

For context, and since the link is what Mr. Douglas left us with, here is the relevant passage from his post, "Elegy,"

And who was the very first there to break totally with Bayreuth tradition and Wagner's original stagings of his works, and replace them entirely with his own? None other than Wagner's grandson, the hugely gifted producer, stage designer, and director, Wieland Wagner. His so-called New Bayreuth production of the Ring — first presented in 1951, and subsequently each succeeding year thereafter through 1958 (and about which I here write as firsthand witness) — set a new standard for Wagner productions worldwide, and showed what could be done by the use of inspired modern stagecraft in the service of Wagner's own idealized dramatic vision, that last being the key to this production's great artistic success.

With the production's almost total absence of stage furniture, and its use of non-period-or-place-committal costumes, and the creative use of lighting to model and shape space and the characters who inhabit it, Wieland — taking his grandfather at his word when in 1853 he declared that the yet unwritten music of the Ring "will be such that people shall hear what they cannot see" — created, so to speak, a neutral "frame" for the tetralogy that permitted the music itself, working in tandem with the audience's own imagination, to fill in all the missing stage detail as if it all were right in front of their eyes. It was a brilliant stroke, a stroke of genius even, as it made manifest to the audience in the most intimate way imaginable Richard Wagner's deepest interior vision of the Ring, while rendering Wieland's all but invisible.

Unhappily, this wasn't to last. Along with Wagner's physiognomy, Wieland inherited as well Wagner's monstrous ego, and it wasn't long before he began not only to replace Wagner's original stagings with his own, but Wagner's original idealized vision as well, and thus did Regietheater first ensconce itself within the Bayreuther Festspiele where it still reigns supreme to this very day, influencing Wagner productions everywhere.

As Mr. Douglas has pointed out, he does not take a negative view of Wieland's Neu Bayreuth style, but apparently objects to later designs (i.e., 1958-1966) that "replace[d] Wagner's original staging with [Wieland's] own." Point taken. He does, however, place, as I paraphrased, Wieland at the top of the flowchart from Neu Bayreuth to Schlingensief's execrable Parsifal.

On a less-contentious issue, has Mr. Douglas ever addressed his own 1958(?) visit to Bayreuth at length? I can't recall, and - since, with the release of the Keilberth set and the Knappertsbusch set from 1956 having made the rounds for a while now, interest in the Golden Age seems high - it would interest me, and likely others.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Adding to Amadeus

A.C. Douglas has this to say about Milos Forman's* Amadeus,
But even though Amadeus is Salieri’s story about Mozart and a work of fiction, the film’s portrayal of Mozart captures and embraces in a brilliantly dramatic, theatrical, and, as is befitting of Mozart, comic way the awesome contradiction between the to all appearances ordinary man — a man, pace Maynard Solomon, as much child as man — and an astonishing body of work that in number, multifariousness, and profundity beggars the imagination as I’ve elsewhere put it on this blog.
I might say that Milos Forman's adaptation, written by Peter Shaffer - who wrote the play Amadeus - amplifies the themes in the play, even as he downplays others. The play had much more about the conflict between man and an inscrutable, distant God (as Salieri sees Him in the play) as anything else. Indeed, the title of the play - which could very well have been Mozart with no concomitant loss of effect - gives away the game at the beginning: God's love. [1] Indeed, if one wanted to boil down the play to a very cursory and very glib summary: "Salieri sees that Mozart has more talent, which apparently came from God. Salieri does not respond well."

That is a gross oversimplification, but one must realize that contradictions and confusions are at the heart of the work. When we see Mozart himself as a complex, three-dimensional character, it is because the context of the work demands it. Otherwise, he becomes a parody of the genius with the bad sense of humor, or the image on a Mozartkügel wrapper. To have a work as deeply rooted in very human responses to situations that transcend the human, but have a two-dimensional parody, would be to subvert the work itself. As drama, Shaffer's play only really works if the audience connects and empathizes with Salieri - not Mozart! As viewers the contradictions of Mozart - in Salieri's view: a man with the greatest talents and very human flaws - must work on us the way they work on Salieri.

Does that necessarily imply that we react in the same way as Salieri does in the play? No. Of course not. Indeed, I would say that the message of the play demands that we react differently. Salieri couldn't rectify great talent with humanity, and he was driven to grotesque extremes as a result. He cannot be any more a cartoon villain with a vendetta than he can be totally reasonable and correct in his assessment of the situation. In other words, Shaffer's Salieri is a human-all-too-human protagonist.

The only way that happens is if Mozart is a human character with all the genius and flaws that he had. Flaw is also a pretty strong word. What do we really have? By the time of 1791, it looked like the days of borrowing heavily were on the way out and he started to make payment. In other words, Mozart was not without his faults, but we're not talking about incurable alcoholism or penury.

That's the genius of the play and the movie: where the temptation existed to paint in glittering generalities with a broad brush, Shaffer and Forman chose a human presentation. The sympathy such a presentation engenders makes Amadeus the sort of drama that really works in a classical sense (is there another?) for me.

*I continue to contend that Forman is the only director who has made an intelligent, funny movie starring Jim Carrey, Man on the Moon, which is more of a testament to Forman than anything else. Even Amadeus.

[1] The history of how Mozart ended up with 'Amadeus' is a bit complicated. He was baptized, Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. It appears that he dropped the John Chrysostom bit, leaving himself with Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. Amadeus is the Latinization of the Greek Theophilus, but Mozart seemed to like Amadè - though Amadeus and Gottlieb were used somewhat interchangeably.

Stochastic Tuesday

Check out Alex Ross' "Random Rules" on the Onion AV Club site.
That lasted through the Dylan moment: I was in Berlin staying at a friend's apartment with only five records, and for whatever reason, it was a quasi-religious experience. You know when you're in isolation—William James talks about this in The Varieties Of Religious Experience—you're kind of prone to it. So I became this crazy Dylan fanatic, and then started working on a piece that took several years to write, for TheNew Yorker.
It's worth a read.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

With a little bit of concentration...

George Grella, responding to my post expressing my distaste for Testament's integrale of the Keilberth Ring, makes a valid point,
With each of the separate recordings, I had the opportunity to spend many months listening to them, and they are tremendously listenable performances, really alive and musical and direct. They gave Wagner the chance to start to work his particular magic. Yes, like the other writer, I did pay more cash to buy them separately than to wait for the whole box, but the opportunity I’ve had to get to know the work has been worth the small premium.
I don't know that I necessarily disagree with that point, either.

I am not the sort of listener who hammers through a set at once. I am not implying that Mr. Grella is, either; in fact, I get the impression that he takes his time. With Wagner, especially in the Ring, you have to take it slowly. Miss one important plot point or any of the relevant Leitmotiven, and you're S.O.L. as we say here in Indiana. I generally approach a new set of the Ring (the complete set, as I'll get to in time) by listening to it once through, and coming back to it - either in certain passages or complete evenings. (Like Messiah, there are a few scenes that have to be absolutely right before I start throwing around the superlatives.) There is also a process of comparison and intense review.

For example, in the prelude to the second scene of Rheingold, as Fricka starts to wake up, there are some string runs underneath the brass work with the Walhall theme. Neither Pierre Boulez or Karl Böhm focuses on these to any great degree, which is to say that he doesn't really add emphasis, while Von Karajan (unsurprisingly) for a set known as the "Chamber Ring") and Lothar Zagrosek (on Naxos) do make them apparent. Did Wagner intend for them to be heard? Probably not, since Von Karajan brings them out, but they're something for which I listen.

Mr. Grella, I think, comes pretty close to making the point that - let's say - some of Wagner's intended orchestral magic needs to be reviewed and appreciated slowly and carefully.

It's never been about that for me, though. I am a believer in choice. If Testament, and I know it's a silly business decision, offered listeners a choice, then I wouldn't complain. I'll put it like this, don't give me coal and tell me it's a diamond. Give me both and let me pick. Buying the whole set wouldn't make me approach it differently. I would have listened the same way that I always do, but I would have done it at a different pace (i.e., not waited egregiously long before finally buying Götterdämmerung).

That's all.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Ross wins award; No one shocked

Proving that Alex Ross is wonderful in every single regard, he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

He then went on to singlehandedly cure most forms of cancer, teach tough inner city kids to trust and to love again by setting down rules and giving them self-confidence in his music appreciation class at a rough high school, and led the slobs of Camp Sioux Valley to a resounding victory over the snobs at Camp Greenbriar Hills in a no-holds-barred game of football.

He has been greeted at most events with, "Santo subito!" and "John Paul Who?"

All levity aside, having read The Rest Is Noise, I can say that it is a fantastic book and Alex Ross is probably, though I don't have much doubt, the preeminent music critic of the times. "Il miglior fabbro" and all that.

He's really good.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Criteria for success

I like the Criterion Collection. Indeed, any serious movie fan should have more than one Criterion release on their shelves. It is hard to imagine a commercial venture that is more serious about art and its preservation and presentation than the 'studio.' There is, though, a side to the business that seems - at best - pretty silly, and - at worst - mendacious.

Let me use two examples, Bertolucci's 1989 film, The Last Emperor, and Huston's 1984 movie, Under The Volcano.

I like films like Michael Cimino's 1980 Heaven's Gate and The Last Emperor. They are bloated, ecumenical messes that labor under their own bulk. Judgment-in-a-nutshell on the latter (the former, too, if you're interested): Beautiful visuals cannot make up for a confused movie. Scott Tobias, of The [Onion] AV Club, though, had this to say:
Because Pu Yi wields so little control over his destiny, his passive nature makes The Last Emperor a difficult epic; it doesn't help that Lawrence Of Arabia himself is around to remind viewers what a more purposeful hero can do. But from The Conformist to The Dreamers, Bertolucci has always been fascinated by characters who are whisked away by powerful forces; that a "son of heaven" and ostensible leader of half a billion people could be among them is one of the film's many rich ironies.
That's generous. Pu Yi is not an entirely sympathetic character. Indeed, it seems that Bertolucci went out of his way to introduce a sour note every time the audience looked like it might like him. There is, to my mind, a serious problem when the Maoist prison governor is more sympathetic than the protagonist. It's like a half-witted attempt to recreate Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, where a second-tier character becomes more interesting and pathetic (etymologically speaking) than the hero. Unlike - oh, say - Heaven's Gate, The Last Emperor is not an unmitigated disaster. It's pretty good, but it seems that a little judicial trimming and some plot-focused drama would have taken a good movie and made it great. I disagree with Mr. Tobias' argument that, "The new four-disc Criterion edition makes an imposing and mostly convincing argument for the film as a truly great epic, one which attempts to capture the political turmoil that gripped 20th-century China without getting too reductive or bogged down in minutiae." The film is not a truly great epic, on the scale of - for example - The Godfather or even Spartacus. It's a big movie, it's pretty good, but it's not a great epic.

My problem is with Criterion's presentation: Does The Last Emperor really need four DVDs? Do we really need a television version, with a Bertolucci-approved cinematic version in the tray to the left? Do we really need two discs of supplemental material? No, no, and no. For contrast, let me give you some intra-Criterion statistics:

Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour and Nuit et brouillard: 1 disc each.
Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups: 1 disc
Carol Reed's The Third Man: 1 disc
Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon: 1 disc
Federico Fellini's 8 1/2: 2 discs
Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle: 2 discs
Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus: 2 discs
Terry Gilliam's Brazil: 3 discs

Those are all 'safe' movies, which is to say that they are all safely better than The Last Emperor. Indeed, Resnais' two entries on my list are - even with we just go with Nuit et brouillard - safely miles ahead of Bertolucci's set. Now, I can understand the case of Brazil, where the studio ruined Gilliam's original vision and forced an 'omnia vincit Amor' (Ver. Ec. 10.69) ending on the director. Even if Criterion is making a case for its film in this case, it doesn't need so much material that the film is given a premature apotheosis. The age of the sweeping historical picture is over, and - in my not-so-humble opinion - it reached its apogee in 1975 with Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. The Last Emperor is good and entertaining in most of the right ways, but it torques my gears a little bit to see it given a treatment that not even Citizen Kane received.

But then Criterion redeems itself with the release of a film like John Huston's Under The Volcano.

If you haven't seen it, let me say that, to get a good idea of the movie's general character, imagine if Evelyn Waugh co-wrote A Woman Under the Influence (1974) with John Cassavetes, and set it in Mexico. Malcolm Lowry's book is probably much better than that, but a boozy British ex-consul melting down and hurtling toward the gaping maw of the sepulchral abyss does lend itself to certain comparisons. I won't spoil the movie more than I already have, other than to say that Albert Finney's Geoffrey Firmin is one of the great performances of the 1980s, and the fact that it has been overlooked, more or less, this long is a crime against art. I know: He was nominated for an Academy Award, but - let's be fair - which do you remember from 1984: F. Murray Abraham's brilliant turn as (a heavily fictionalized) Antonio Salieri from Amadeus, or Finney's Firmin?

You remember Salieri.

What makes this release so great, especially compared to the overblown, overloaded The Last Emperor set, is that its extras are confined to one disc and so tastefully chosen as to be exquisite. They have the requisite making-of documentary, which isn't as bad as the genre usually is, an interview with co-star Jacqueline Bisset, an archival interview with John Huston, and the coup de grace, a 1976 documentary: Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, about the author of Under The Volcano. This documentary, directed by Donald Brittain and narrated by Richard Burton, was itself nominated for an Academy Award. It's not Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974) or the aforementioned Nuit et brouillard, but it's pretty good. As Larry David would say, pretty...pretty...pretty...pretty good.

I've dawdled around with this long enough. The Last Emperor is a decent movie, but not one that deserves four discs with more features than Spartacus. It's silly and it smacks of mendaciousness. On the other hand, if Criterion wants to keep up its standards, then it should imitate its release for Under The Volcano. That is, it should choose classics - neglected or not - and package them with interesting extras that enhance the movie, not make a Richard Nixon (circa Checkers)-style plea for acceptance and forgiveness. In other words, it should follow its mission statement.

I'm done.