Thursday, May 22, 2008

What is it these days?

Are record companies getting smarter or are performers being given freer reins over their recordings? Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Deutsche Grammophon début was Bach's Kunst der Fuge - not exactly light after-dinner fare. Hilary Hahn increased the Schoenberg Violin Concerto discography by 25% when her disc of that and the Sibelius concerto dropped. These are major-label releases of works with a lot of publicity, and I wouldn't expect either release to be backed by the labels as strongly as they have been - especially considering the eldritch necromancy being practiced on Karajan's discography for the umpteenth time.

I am not a big fan of the cult of performers - conductors, soloists, and groups alike. The composer should be the primary focus (part, I am sure, of the nausea that rolls over me when I see a Karajan anniversary advertisement), not the performer. The cult of performer, however, is a clever and effective marketing tool. It seems, though, that some artists are using it as a platform to perform and promote valuable and intelligent music that is underrepresented in the catalogs and underestimated by the mainstream musical establishment.

I can live with that.

Aimard's Bach

I am fairly familiar with Pierre-Laurent Aimard's work through his performances of György Ligeti and Pierre Boulez, so I - like many reviewers - approached his recording of Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge with some trepidation. It is, however, as I almost expected, an intelligent and articulate exposition of one of Bach's towering masterpieces.

Hugo Shirley, on Musical Criticism, had this to say,
Listening to the concentration and sheer pianistic skill on show on this new recording, though, this definitely muscles its way in as an important addition to the catalogue. Immediately any fears we might have about Aimard mastering the notes and delineating the counterpoint clearly and cleanly are allayed. His technique is such that he's able to articulate clearly the voices within the most complex textures, dotted-rhythms are always tight and passage-work is purposeful and strong.
I agree, more or less, with that assessment. I have reservations about Bach - especially something like Kunst - on a modern fortepiano (unless Glenn Gould is at the keyboard). Aimard discusses this at some length in the interview contained in the liner notes. He notes,
In fact, The Art of Fugue is written for a keyboard instrument, but which one? The harpsichord seems to be suitable for Contrapuncti II and IX and Canons I and III, whereas Contrapuncti I, III, V and X are better suited to the organ. In turn, the expressive but interior lament of Canon IV suggests a clavichord. And then there is Contrapunctus IV, which evokes a chamber-music ensemble, Contrapunctus XII, which seems to have been conceived for an a cappella choir, and the highly expressive Contrapunctus XI, in which the successive chorales contribute to a powerful sense of drama, plunging us with its daring modulations and insistent chromaticism into the world of the Passions.
He goes on to say, "Properly regulated, the modern piano of our day, with its wide range of possibilities, is an excellent instrument for The Art of Fugue, allowing a realization that is both convincing and unrestricted."

I suppose, ultimately, my preference for Bach on the harpsichord comes from the lack of dynamics imposed by that instrument. The contrapuntal writing of Kunst (i.a.) works best, to my ears, when every voice is given equal prominence. Unless one is superhuman (e.g., Gould), a modern fortepiano can allow one voice to be given more attention or prominence. I don't Aimard falls into that trap altogether, but there are times that I think he falls somewhat short of Gould's standards.

Of course, Gould recorded many of the Contrapuncti on an organ and was probably the greatest pianist of his generation (and on the all-time shortlist), so that's not a fair comparison. It's inescapable, however. All in all, Aimard's record is a very good one. We've seen stuff like Simone Dinnerstein's echt-Romantic wallow through the Goldberg Variations of late. (Or is it ersatz? I can't remember. It seems to have a weird duality to it.) It is nice to have intelligent and high-quality Bach on a major label by a major pianist.

Aimard's modern-repertoire training, I am sure, served him well. I am sort of reminded of Pollini's reference account of Boulez' Piano Sonata no. 2 and his brilliant Hammerklavier, from something like 1977 and 1978 respectively in reverse. In Aimard's case (though it's applicable to Pollini, too), one might be afraid of a certain emotional vacuum in his work, given his impeccable modernist credentials. Of course, some facility with Aimard's Ligeti would show that there is plenty of feeling, but appropriate feeling - none of this emotion for its own sake nonsense. Aimard presents Kunst with precision, concern for the variables that separate good Bach from bad Bach (vis-à-vis performance, never text), and intelligence.

It's also interesting - as well as heartening - to see the major label début of a major performer be something as challenging and serious as Bach's Kunst der Fuge. Deutsche Grammophon, I am sure, would have felt more comfortable with some Chopin or Beethoven. Even within the realm of Bach's solo keyboard music, Kunst is a fairly difficult - in a lot of ways - BWV entry. Aimard deserves some credit for choosing the work, and DGG deserves some credit for allowing him to do so.

All in all, a good release. It might be one of the better ones of the last few years.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Apologies for the delay

I know that I have been remiss in updating the blog as often as I should, but I doubt that my five or six (I'm likely being generous) regular readers care.

If you do, then here is a rundown of the stuff I have had to do between then and now:

1) I was graduated from college with my A.B.
2) I had to move out of my old dwelling of four years.
3) I had to move back home briefly.
4) I had to move in to my new dwelling for the next three years.

Four items. Not too hard, you say? Ha, I say. Ha.

Without getting specific, my computer access has been spotty and not necessarily blog-centric.

I'll try to be better. I really will.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu

It's official. Wolfgang Wagner is stepping down as Festspielleiter on 31 August 2008, and his daughters Katharina and Eva Wagner-Pasquier are the front runners to get nod from the Wagner-Stiftung to take up the reins.

Everyone knows that, and I've been busy with finals and pre-graduation business. I haven't given the matter much thought, other than this is a bad idea.

Katharina's Meistersinger is not the beginning of a new era in the same way that Wieland's "Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg" was. Indeed, having seen some of the pictures and read the reviews, it seems to me that the Wagner-Stiftung would be better served getting Patrice Chéreau, Harry Kupfer, or Robert Wilson to head up the Festspiele. At least they're good at the Regietheater style. Katharina's production, as best as I could tell, was not that great. It seemed to me from what I saw that she was making "Important Statements" rather than articulating a Konzept. Regardless of what one thinks about Regietheater or Brechtian dramatic theory (I have theater-major friends), "Important Statement" theater smacks of trying too hard, and it lends itself to a sort of disjointed, schizophrenic approach to a score.

If the Neu Bayreuth of the 21st century is "Important Statement"-based, then the point of the Bayreuther Festspiele is lost. The acoustic is not, in the final accounting, sufficient to warrant years of waiting, expensive tickets, an expensive trip to Bayreuth, and a week in likely stifling heat. The best singers will show up in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Vienna, Berlin, or any of a whole host of great cities. There are a few excellent conductors of Wagner's works. There are several really good Wagner bands.

The point is this: If Katharina's Meistersinger is the harbinger of things to come, then Bayreuth's day is done. Productions verging on the insipid diverge so wildly from Wagner's Konzept - which should matter more than it seems to these days - cannot be redeemed by a great acoustic, solid singing (though, even that is occasionally in doubt), and variable conductors.

Eva Wagner-Pasquier is a solid administrator and designer, though she isn't going to win any prizes for theoretical and literal fidelity to the Ur-Konzept, and one can hope that she'll moderate the wackiness on the Green Hill.