Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Wagner Cube

I've had a chance to digest those parts of the behemoth Decca set, Wagner: The Great Operas [sic] from the Bayreuth Festival, with which I didn't already have some acquaintance. That is to say that the Böhm Ring and Tristan (both from the late Sixties) have been in my collection for some time now, so I didn't feel the need to listen to those music-dramas one more time. Indeed, for the latter music-drama (the importance of which to Wagner's oeuvre can hardly be overstated), I generally recommend Leonard Bernstein's SOBR 1983 recording on Philips. It's not without its flaws, but Bernstein knows that you can't hurry love - or Tristan, depending on how metaphysical you want to get.

Bernstein's Tristan (like Donald Runnicles' BBCSO recording of the same on Warner) was done, as I recall, over a series of live concerts done one act at a time. It is not, however, from Bayreuth, which means that it is still as obscure today as it was before the Cube dropped. It seems that the Universal people more or less released the bulk of the Philips' Richard Wagner Edition, with some key changes (Sawallisch's 1961 Holländer for Nelsson's 1985 recording and Böhm's Ring for Boulez', which isn't as big of a transition as the other one). That means, of course, that if you like the approach to Wagner of either Wolfgang Sawallisch or Karl Böhm, then you're in luck. You'll get the former's Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin - all from 1961-62. What you'll get from the latter I mentioned earlier.

The Sawallisch stuff is nice, since it documents Bayreuth at the end of the Golden Age. There are better documents for Höllander and Lohengrin (Keilberth '55 and Von Matačić '59, respectively), but compared to what was coming down the pike, there's not much wrong with Sawallisch's entries. His conducting is pretty straightforward by Wagnerian standards: he is certainly in the Joseph Keilberth mold of conductors (Sawallisch followed Keilberth in Munich). I suppose you could, in a fit of derogation, call Sawallisch a Kapellmeister, but that would imply that he spent years working through the same material (though he did début very young at Bayreuth). Nothing wrong with that, given the proliferation of conductors who really have no business touching a Wagner score with anything other than a wistful "Someday..." on their lips.

His readings are all very solid, musically speaking, even if I prefer other conductors and other singers in the same material. As fits the time when these were recorded, Jess Thomas and Wolfgang Windgassen are his tenors (Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, respectively) and Franz Crass is his Holländer. Really, I have always felt that Thomas was at his highest and best use as Parsifal for Hans Knappertsbusch in 1962, though I prefer Jon Vickers from 1964, despite the mono sound. Anja Silja features prominently as Sawallisch's go-to gal for the soprano roles of Elsa, Elisabeth, and Senta. I don't know that I am in love with Silja, but she's not terrible. I could go on about these recordings, but they're well-known and known quantities just like Karl Böhm's Ring and Tristan (love 'em or hate 'em - you know where you stand).

What were, however, less well-known to me were, of course, Silvio Varviso's 1974 Meistersinger and James Levine's 1985 Parsifal. I knew the latter somewhat better than the former through a highlights disc I had at one point, but one does not "know" any Wagner music-drama, much less Parsifal, through a ten-or-thirteen-track highlight disc. I'll start with Levine's work, though. This is a slow, slow Parsifal. Of the nine versions I have, this one takes the prize for the longest runtime. Here's some statistical information that might put that into context:

Levine '85 ---- 4:38:14
Barenboim '91 ---- 4:16:12
Knappertsbusch '64 (Orfeo) ---- 4:15:46
Karajan '80 ---- 4:15:09
Kubelík '80 ---- 4:12:44
Knappertsbusch '62 ---- 4:09:53
Thielemann '06 ---- 4:02:11
Kegel '75 ---- 3:40:06
Boulez '70 ---- 3:38:34

Now, runtime doesn't say a whole lot, since a good conductor is going to go at a pretty good clip in some places and linger in others, but you can begin to see a correlation, at least from the orchestral contributions, between versions that are pretty solid and a runtime around ten minutes (rough, eyeballed average) over four hours, with Thielemann at the low end and Barenboim at the high end. Levine takes almost thirty minutes more than that, or, to compare it to another, equally radical version, about a hour more than Boulez did in 1970.

Flexibility be damned, a recording with a runtime like that is going to be a little slow. Levine's Parsifal is slow. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but Levine's recording falls short of the standards set by Knappertsbusch and Kubelík. A spin of the recordings by those two conductors shows where the problem is. They let the music dictate the terms of the performance. Their approaches are tailored to allow the internal pulse of Wagner's score carry through and carry the day (you might call it a sensitivity to the longest lines). Levine's Parsifal, though, is a little bit stretched. Call it the opposite of the Boulez set, which is Parsifal compressed and thinned out to reveal the interior architecture (which really isn't idiomatic Wagner); in this case, it's Parsifal expanded to emphasize what would have been clear from the music itself.

Is it a bad performance? Well, no. It's probably better to add fifteen or twenty minutes and have a blogger twenty-some years later call it a slightly self-consciously grand and affected performance than it is to cut half and hour and strip away Wagner's sound. Knowing both the Boulez and Levine sets reveals the brilliance of Hans Knappertsbusch and Rafael Kubelík because it shows how precarious the balance of a great Parsifal really is. Take it too fast, and it sounds weird; take it too slow and it feels a little affected in places

This post has gone on far too long, so I'll deal with the Varviso Meistersinger later.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mirabile dictu...

It appears that Senator Obama's ghastly seal has seen its last day.

While the slightly grating, paranoid ramblings of some of the commentators don't seem quite justified, I really do want to know who convinced the campaign managers and handlers that Latin is cool. Latin is, in fact, pretty neat, but so, then, is abstract algebra and the theory of numbers. That does not, though, make it "cool" by any stretch of the imagination.

No, Latin and math literacy are not as cool as "change" and "hope," or whatever other abstract nouns the marketing gurus and speechwriters think will sell with the slacker crowd or the painfully earnest meritocrats covering college campuses in flyers.

Senator Obama's key demographic, last time I checked, is not known for a love of litterae humaniores. Neither, for that matter, is the demographic to which Senator McCain appeals, but you don't see the senator from Arizona putting Latin on a campaign logo. I am reminded of an Onion article of particular piquancy vis-à-vis this issue.

There's a lesson here: Never, ever trust public figures on matters of Latin syntax and style. Consult your neighborhood philologist or buy a good grammar.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Read J.M. Coetzee before you die (?)

This list, of the 1,001 books you must read before you die (their words, not mine), has - I think - ten entries from South African-Australian author J.M. Coetzee. For comparison, Thomas Mann has four entries, Gore Vidal one (and Myra Breckinridge, at that), Günter Grass two, George Orwell five, and none from Vergil, Homer, Horace, Catullus, Cicero, Caesar, Herodotus, Thucydides, and...well, you take my point.

The message I take away from this list is that I really should just read everything J.M. Coetzee has ever written. Point taken and noted for the record.

Now, I really liked Waiting for the Barbarians. It was good. I haven't felt the need to delve more deeply into Coetzee's oeuvre, despite his recent Nobel Prize, largely because I am pretty sure that I will only be disappointed when I compare the work to Waiting. At the same time, does the author of this list really mean to suggest that I need to read Coetzee's Slow Man or Philip Roth's The Plot Against America before I read Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra or Homer's Iliad?

If not, he really should qualify his list a little bit. As I sit here venting my humanities-major steam, it crosses my mind that, if you're going to read Zarathustra, then you'll want to read Die Geburt der Tragödie, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, Der Fall Wagner, and Götzen-Dämmerung, and that's just enough to give you a flavor of Nietzsche's thought - not exhaustively or completely, though, by any means. It also forces me to realize that the selection of those books - just by Nietzsche - are motivated by my own readings and my own interests: thus, they highlight the problem of these lists. What I want and need to read before I join the Choir Eternal is different, in some way or another, than that which must be read by someone else. These lists are just too subjective for my taste.

Better, especially in today's world, to say "You must read 1,001 books before you die." Such a required project would, to my mind, solve many of the problems of today.

Ionarts had it first, by the by.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Yes, we can (except when it comes to Latin)

Well, Senator Barack Obama has a new logo - which I suppose was intended to make him look "presidential," whatever that means in this race - and it included the Latin phrase, vero possumus.

That translates to, "Certainly, we can." This is obviously an attempt at translating his campaign's motto, "Yes, we can." The problem, as I see it, is as E.C. Woodcock notes,
125. Possibility. Except in the main clauses of conditional sentences (Sections 192, 197-9), the ideas of 'can', 'could', 'could have', 'may', 'might', 'might have', expressing possibility, are more often conveyed by the indicative of possum with the infinitive, than by the potential subjunctive. [Woodcock, A New Latin Syntax § 125, pg. 94; bold mine - pjs]
Senator Obama's new motto, vero possumus, lacks an infinitive. That's no surprise, since "Yes, we can" makes an effective rhetorical point in English, but doesn't quite go as far, as best as I can tell, in Latin. To but it bluntly, it's really very bad Latin. Indeed, though I took my A.B. in Classics, as opposed to Latin (a non-trivial distinction in my former department, but hardly the point for this post), I might go so far as to say that it's pseudo-Latin at best. At the least, assuming that it's functional in the way that it was intended to function, it's really inelegant, which makes it pseudo-Latin in my book.

A better way to put the motto would be vero possumus excurrere, or "Indeed, we can hasten forwards." Or whatever verb Obama wants us to affect, since there's probably an analogue in Latin and there's an infinitive form of that verb.

Or, how about this: Go with what you know, and clearly Latin ain't it.

Off-topic? Sure. As I like to note, however, it's my blog.

Didn't we just do this?

Mostly Opera reports on the new Bayreuth Parsifal, directed by Stefan Herheim. This tantalizing little blurb reveals, to me, more than it really should,
According to Bayreuth Festival spokesman Peter Emmerich, the staging concept is "a kind of time travel" with scenes ranging from "The Wilhelminismus of the 19th Century to the First World War, the 1920s, the Nazi era, the founding of the Federal Republic and the economic miracle." Heike Scheele is the set designer. Both the Bayreuth Festival House and Villa Wahnfried will play "a visually important" role in the concept. He furthermore promises the production will be "controversial".
So, in other words, this is a meta-Parsifal, full of ironic, self-referential winks and nods to the audience.

So, like I say: Didn't we just do this with Christoph Schlingensief's headache-inducing production of some years back? It seems like sensory overload to have one "controversial" performance after another, and - like with any repeated shocks - these productions run the risk of blunting their effects.

Furthermore, directors should avoid kitschy Wagner-references just because Katharina Wagner's half-baked Meistersinger alluded to Wagner himself in one scene. That strikes me of the visual equivalent of the director standing on stage and screaming, "THIS IS POSTMODERN, GET IT?" every time some ersatz-ambiguity or tripe-filled trope is forced down the gullets of the audience members who paid good money to see the stuff.

There is plenty of room for creativity without idiocy, though, with productions of the sort that this one appears to be, that might be a bit of an overstatement.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Zenph finally gets it right

I will continue to hold that the "reperformance" of Glenn Gould's 1955 Goldberg Variations was nothing short of eldritch necromancy out of a Lovecraftian nightmare. Indeed, Dr. Herbert West, M.D., couldn't have imagined something quite as macabre as resurrecting such a performance. Only Joseph Curwen would have dreamed it.

All levity aside, my problem with the Zenph disc was that Gould did in fact record a super-digital version of the Goldbergs. It bears little resemblance to the 1955 set, and the digital tracks were scrapped for the better-sounding analog tapes; it is, however, a modern stereo interpretation of the same work by the same pianist.

Now, the latest release from Zenph is another story. It's Art Tatum's Piano Starts Here (a combination of his first discs cut in the 1933 and a live concert from 1949), and it shows what Zenph should be doing with its new technology. Having some experience with live recordings (and recordings in general) from the 1930s and 1940s, I can tell you that there isn't anything there that you would want to use to show off your Klipsch La Scala speakers. The problem isn't the artist's interpretation, but the primitive technology.

Tatum was good. Very, very good. Indeed, the only thing holding him back is the neolithic (relatively speaking) technology used to capture his style on disc. Zenph, using whatever eldritch trickery they've devised to get every aspect of a performance off the acetate and onto a MIDI file, has managed to get his brilliance onto a modern, well-tuned piano and capture it in modern sound.

That's the idea. Don't fix what isn't broken. Now, let's hit up some of the great masters of the last century.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Another political post? You know it.

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has launched a new website:

I comment only to say that this race is not that nasty. Indeed, if the Obama campaign (or the McCain campaign for that matter) thinks that they are taking unwarranted heat and getting "smeared," then they should seek out some information on the elections of 1824 and 1828. The former ended up in the "Corrupt Bargain," and the latter ended with the death of Rachel Jackson, General Jackson's beloved wife.

I think most people forget how rough-and-tumble political life was in the early years of the Republic. Short of reading a stock academic history or one of the dreadful popularized histories (e.g., Team of Rivals), I recommend Gore Vidal's Burr. Having some experience with Vidal, I can say that his books - particularly the Narratives of Empire, though Julian is also a good example - are meticulously researched and readable. Now, it's fiction (spirited and feisty fiction), but Vidal does a wonderful job evoking the partisan, personal, and pointed competition that marked political life in the early Republic.

I mean, before the current incumbent, what sitting Vice President had ever shot anyone, much less a former Secretary of the Treasury?

"Fight the Smears"? Give me a break. This is polite teatime conversation compared to what it used to be.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Really? No, I mean, really?

File this one under "really bizarre."

I don't know how to start this one, so I'll just quote the LA Times.
One of the highest-ranking federal judges in the United States, who is currently presiding over an obscenity trial in Los Angeles, has maintained his own publicly accessible website featuring sexually explicit photos and videos.

Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, acknowledged in an interview with The Times that he had posted the materials, which included a photo of naked women on all fours painted to look like cows and a video of a half-dressed man cavorting with a sexually aroused farm animal. Some of the material was inappropriate, he conceded, although he defended other sexually explicit content as "funny."
I know, right? Alex Kozinski. The same judge who is occasionally mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee. Really very bizarre. Frankly, though, what he does on his own time is his own business. I don't think arguing that some of the stuff is "funny" is a good course of action, but I don't think that dragging him from pillory to post is a good idea, either.

A lapse in judgment is just that. I think judges should be held to a higher standard, but I know judges are people, too. Frankly, given some of the other "scandals" that have beset one or the other Constitutional branches of government over the last couple of years, this is pretty tame. (Though I never saw the pictures in question.) It's still a surreal thing to read. In fact, I am most reminded of the time David Souter got mugged.

Maybe Judge Kozinski should consider a brief leave of absence while this blows over. He could write a book or, I don't know, review the blogs of law students who didn't shout Crucifige eum!

I'll be free in three years.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Varviso's coming

It is with no small excitement that I am awaiting Amazon's delivery to me of the new Decca set, Wagner: The Great Operas from the Bayreuth Festival, which - despite the inapt and frankly inappropriate title - contains Silvio Varviso's 1974 Meistersinger. The set has received some really glowing praise from some quarters, and I am interested to hear it - and not the version available from under-documented ArkivMusic on demand service (I really would like to know what the source material is, what the digital transfer vector looks like, and more about the CD-R media before I get too happy about paying their prices).

Kempe's Ring. Varviso's Meistersinger. Good times.

Mengelberg's Mahler

My previous post, which mentioned Willem Mengelberg's 1939 Mahler 4th with the Concertgebouw, has got me thinking about the issue of the authenticity of Mengelberg's Mahler. By that, of course, I mean: How close is Mengelberg's Mahler to Mahler's Mahler? The Pristine Classical site notes,
Secondly we have to look to the performance, as this is one which is simply unique. [Mengelberg] had been a close friend and associate of Mahler's; he had been present at the premiere of this symphony; the two conductors (for conducting was for what Mahler was chiefly known during his lifetime) worked on the score together, adding timing marks, annotations and fine detailed notes throughout.
A more reflective and incisive analysis of the situation comes from Tony Duggan,
Mengelberg sat in the audience in Amsterdam in 1904 to hear Mahler conduct the symphony with the Concertgebouw Orchestra twice in the same concert. He also attended the rehearsals, discussed the work with Mahler, and made copious notes in his score with Mahler's co-operation. Mahler in turn had a very high opinion of Mengelberg's conducting of his music so any recording by the Dutchman must carry a degree of authenticity but with the caveats that need to be applied to that word in this context. Whether what we hear in the "live" concert recording from November 1939 [...] can be said to represent Mahler's own wishes is another question. I would only point out that by this time twenty-eight years had passed since Mahler's death and Mengelberg, a conductor known for a very expressive style, must have developed his interpretation in those years however much it may have been influenced by Mahler to start with. However, I think we can say this recording gives us a window into the way the generation nearest to the composer saw and performed his works.
Now, in the case of Mahler, everyone knows that there are no extant recordings. He died in 1911, just at the cusp of the recording period; had he lived ten or fifteen more years (still dying relatively young as such things go), he undoubtedly would have made some recordings, given his stature as a conductor - if not a composer. The thing is, however, that (through the Welte-Mignon player-piano magic) some performances by Mahler exist. One of them is the fourth movement of the 4th, which Mengelberg performed here. There are some issues, however, with the Mahler 'performances.' The primary concern is that a person playing the piano is not going to have the same concern for the human voice in the fourth movement that a conductor would (the same thing goes for ensemble and the other concerns). That's a polite way of saying Mahler's interpretation is very fleet. He does, though, vary his tempos pretty wildly (though in ways we'd expect). Indeed, Peter Gutmann isn't far off when he calls the interpretative approach "far more akin [...] to hysterical passion."

The problem is, as I noted, comparing Mahler's 1905 piano rolls to Mengelberg's 1939 performance of the 4th is like comparing apples to oranges, speaking in a substantive sense. Mahler performing at the piano solo is going to do things differently than Mengelberg leading an orchestra, but there are approaches to the same material that are going to remain roughly constant, regardless of media. That's where the piano rolls (and another source, to be touched upon anon) come in handy. We see that Mahler had a very fluid, very variable approach to his music. Fast, slow, relaxed, and tense seem to flow together in sequence, if not always in congruity; Mengelberg seems to have a similar orchestral concept. It seems as though he is constantly adjusting, nudging the orchestra in different directions as the performance progresses.

Another key piece of evidence is the "Remembering Mahler" oral history piece, containing interviews with people who played under Mahler. One former player notes, with palpable excitement, "Flexibility, that's what Mahler had. There must be a certain liberty in the tempo [...] No matter where it is and what it is, it is what the composer demands, not what the composer, what his composition demands." [Transcription mine] So, then, this sort of variation, bar-by-bar, phrase-by-phrase, was an integral part of Mahler's approach - at least as far as we can tell from anecdotal and limited recorded evidence. Mengelberg seems to have had the same idea, and we know that Mahler and Mengelberg were reasonably close (indeed, there seems to have been a lot of cooperation and collaboration on the 4th).

So, then, what does this mean?

Ultimately? Not much. By the time we get Mengelberg's Mahler 4th (1939), the composer had been dead for 28 years. It would be a prodigious feat of memory indeed if, 28 years after the death of the composer (and 35 years after Mahler's performance of the 4th in Amsterdam, when the younger conductor did his work with the composer on the symphony), Mengelberg could remember Mahler's interpretation well enough to affect a reasonable facsimile of Mahler's performance. I think that's suspending disbelief a little too much.

So, then, what gives? Well, I think it's relatively simple: conductors before the advent of a certain one of whose centennial we're currently in the throes modulated tempi and dynamics to fit the music. Look at Mengelberg, look at Furtwängler, and look at the rest of the Mitteleuropa-trained composers in the past one hundred years. They all knew how to do it. Mengelberg's Mahler sounds rather like Mahler's Mahler because they came out of the same musical tradition. Does Mengelberg's approach reflect Mahler's precisely at the time of the Amsterdam premiere of the 4th? Of course not. Memory and approach changes over time: Look at Solti's Decca Ring and his 1985 Bayreuth Ring. They have some similarities, but there are some key changes. The tradition leaves an imprint, regardless of changing taste (and Mahler's approach, by his own account, changed day-to-day based on mood and taste), and that imprint is where the similarities appear.

It's ultimately an academic question, but - more than that - it's a testament to what has been lost in conducting over the last fifty or so years.

More on the historical front

As you might have noticed, an anonymous comment on the post immediately below this one pointed the curious to Pristine Classical, whose downloads include (some) of the Music & Arts discography. Pristine also has some interesting releases on its own, like that 1939 Mengelberg Mahler 4th, with Jo Vincent, which has been floating around for some time (and has attained some measure of popularity).

It's an interesting site with some interesting music. The problem, of course, is that it's priced in the euro, which means - if you're an American - you'll take a bit of shellacking on the exchange. Vissi d'arte, I suppose, right?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tahra's getting the right idea

Tahra is one of those small, independent record labels that seems to beat all expectations. Run by Rene Tremine and Miriam Scherchen, famously the daughter of Hermann Scherchen, the records are somewhat obscure and hard to find in the United States. Here is a NPR story on the label. I suppose, and they seem to agree, that their issue of Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1954 Lucerne performance of Beethoven's 9th is their best-known CD.

They have started, however, to put some of their recordings on Apple's iTunes Music Store (iTMS). These include Eduard van Beinum's 1955 Mahler 6th and Bustabo's 1943 Beethoven violin concerto with Mengelberg (which performance helped contribute to the premature end of Bustabo's career). I have, privately - though I might have made the sentiment known here, long wished that historical labels would enter the digital age. Their distribution is so narrow and sporadic (Arkiv, for example, doesn't appear to have any Tahra titles in stock) that a digital sales model seems perfectly fit to the situation. Indeed, I have often - after seeing something at Arkiv or Amazon - have wished that Orfeo, Testament, and Music and Arts have had some sort of readily available digital downloads.

Tahra, it seems, is making progress with the digital downloads I have mentioned. My only issue is that they are issuing them in the DRM-laden iTMS 128 kbps format. Another small, historical label - Arbiter Records - is putting out its stuff on iTMS, but in the iTunes Plus (i.e., 256 kbps, DRM-free) format. Now, I suppose this is just me dithering around, but I have two points (vis-à-vis Tahra). First, for the 1943 Bustabo / Mengelberg Beethoven VC, 256 kbps might be excessive. Indeed, it probably is, but I want to find that out on my own. It makes little sense to hear how much sound quality matters to the Tahra folks and then see these apparently carefully crafted transfers in 128 kbps AAC files.

Taking an example from Arbiter, the 1951 Brahms violin concerto with Fritz Busch as the soloist sounds terrible. It sounds, in fact, about ten years older than it is. It could, probably, be pretty happy at 128 kbps, but it's in 256 kbps and DRM-free. It's nice to have the extra bandwidth and to be able to do what I want with the record. Now, the thing about Arbiter is that some of their stuff does not really appeal to me (though they've got a couple of Paul Jacobs collections that are pretty nice - including a very interesting live Waldstein).

That leads me, however, to my next point: Tahra's catalog selections for the online nods are not nearly as broad-based or as comprehensive as I would like. Granted, beggars can't be choosers, but there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason behind their choices, and easy picks - like that '54 Furtwängler 9th - seem to be overlooked. Now, don't get me wrong, the Bustabo / Mengelberg thing is nice, but when you consider the popularity of some other records like that Kondrashin Mahler 7th from Amsterdam, it's hard to square the issued stuff with the popular stuff.

Such, however, is the record business, I guess.

To sum up, Tahra (and Arbiter) is leading the way for independent historical record companies (or record companies with a substantial investment in historical releases). I wish, however, that Tahra would release more of their catalog on the iTMS (or, better still, Amazon's MP3 download store) and in high-definition. So much is made of Tahra's meticulous remastering that 128 kbps seems like a paltry share for the fruits of someone's labor.

From the Editor's Desk

Well, I'm not so much an editor as a sole proprietor. Regardless, I forgot to mention at the time that Vincent Vargas' Wagner Operas site has joined the other interesting sites in my Links of Interest.

It's an interesting reference source for Wagner's life and works.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

This is why historic recordings are safe

The splendid Mostly Opera reports on an opera singer's response to a blogger's criticism. Frankly, I would be honored if a singer took my criticism seriously enough to respond, but since most of the singers I discuss are dead (and have been for a little while in some cases, longer in others), I doubt that's going to happen.

This does, though, raise the question in my mind: When did classical music get so nice? I don't mean the 'Riot of Spring' time mêlées when I say that I have a more muscular, rough-and-tumble attitude to art music, but I do mean that criticism isn't always nice. Maybe the singer in question hasn't experienced the give-and-take the way others have, but - come on! - Slonimsky shows that the reviews of great music (whether Turandot meets that criterion is for a greater mind than mine to determine) have been meaner and ruder than the tidbit that got the knickers of the singer in question in a knot.

To wit, I append a selection from Slonimsky's great book, Lexicon of Musical Invective, concerning some music that has since taken some stature onto itself,

"Cette musique ne peut que remuer les sens les plus bas. La musique de Wagner réveille le cochon plutôt que l'ange. Je dis pire, elle assourdit les deux. C'est de la musique d'eunuque affolé." (Figaro: 26 July 1876)

That's right, friends: Richard Wagner was called, in effect, a demented eunuch (a charge with at least half of which Mathilde Wesendon[c]k might have disagreed). One wonders what our singer would have done had he been called as much.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Waiting for Kempe

Let's see if lightning can, indeed, strike the same place twice.

Testament promises, though I haven't seen any indication that it's on the U.S. market yet, a 1957 Ring from Covent Garden with Rudolf Kempe leading the band (SBT13-1426). I am surprised that Medici didn't take this opportunity to have a flagship recording on their ROH Heritage series (which has a very interesting Solti Don Giovanni from 1962), but it looks like Testament has the set.

After the 1955 Keilberth Ring from Bayreuth and the 1950 premiere of Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder (which has a nice - and impressive, given Flagstad's age - Götterdämmerung finale on the disc), I am becoming convinced that Testament is one of the smartest labels out there. They seem to know what will be popular, and they seem to have good licensing agents. Scoring the Keilberth tapes from Decca, in particular, given the reissuing impulse of Universal at the moment, was a major coup.

The Kempe Ring, though, seems a bit more complicated. The conductor has had some fine Wagner records on the market under his name (Lohengrin and Meistersinger, both EMI), but he seems to be more or less obscure. Like Klaus Tennstedt, his relatively early death might have something to do with his second-tier status. The cast seems pretty solid and solidly Golden Age (Nilsson, Hotter, Windgassen, Vinay, Uhde, and Böhme all apparently appear). That, then, is my one reservation about the set.

Will this be something other than the Keilberth cycle? That is to say: Didn't we hear this one with the Keilberth/Bayreuth set? I understand Varnay sang Brünnhilde, but we got Nilsson with Böhm in - what? - 1967. I can understand the need for the Knappertsbusch Ring from 1956, since he and Keilberth had two different approaches to Wagner's score. I guess the question is this: Is Rudolf Kempe's approach to the Ring so fundamentally different that it overcomes the substantial duplication of most of the key roles?

I suppose, too, if you really want to hear Birgit Nilsson's Brünnhilde in 1957, you can get the EMI (and Testament) set with the finale from Walküre - with Hotter in excellent voice. The latest EMI release - which might be the same as the mastering on the now-legendary Les Introuvables du Ring set.

Now, for all my dithering, I'll probably buy the Kempe Ring when it becomes widely available (unless Testament wants to send me a review copy, which would be very nice, but highly improbable). Still, I think - in a reissue market that's becoming crowded - that consumers should use some rational thinking when it comes to releases like this.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Off-topic, but still strangely compelling...

As I read this report, provided through Slate's Hot Document series, I was struck by the almost Kafkaesque absurdity of the situation. It really is like a Stalinist show-trial: a child, apparently diagnosed with autism, is taken from a classroom under police escort for disruptive behavior, and when he returns, he is confronted with the "evidence" against him and voted out of the classroom.

The really bizarre thing is that a state-paid teacher, whose job it is to instruct students, let a student's continued participation in class be determined by what amounted to a popularity contest. This strikes me as a silly exercise - at best - designed to camouflage seemingly well-justified weariness and exasperation with the will of the students.

Now, let me say that this is based off one document and not all the sides are presented in the same manner (naturally, one person is complaining about another), but - even if there is a grain of truth in the incident - it's still a weird exercise that really has no place in any school.

Bizarre, bizarre, bizarre.