Thursday, October 30, 2008

"Top" Ten Immolation Scenes?

I'm told that Mike Ashman, in this month's Gramophone, made a list. And, boy howdy, what a list!

You see, and this was a surprise to me, Mr. Ashman decided to make a list of the top ten Immolation Scenes. Until learning of this, I didn't think there were ten "top" recordings to wedge into a list. I'd be conservative and say, maybe, there's half a dozen to be found. Maybe.

Which one did Mr. Ashman name "Number One"? Why, it was that perennial favorite: Lillian Nordica under Alfred Hertz and the Met orchestra. According to Ward Marston's website listing for the compilation featuring the Götterdämmerung excerpt, this recording (in the sense of its constituent parts) was made on 23 and 28 February 1903 on one of Mapleson's wax cylinders. Now, forgive my intolerable ignorance, I was under the impression that a 1903 recording was useful as a historical document, and my experience confirms that recordings of that vintage are best avoided if you want to glean real musical information from them.

Of course, on the flip side, you have John Culshaw's earth-shattering engineering of Georg Solti's Ring. On a good system or on good headphones (think the wood-bodied Grados, for various reasons), there is a realism and presence that a wax cylinder just cannot match. I'll admit that the Culshaw production is a little over-the-top, and Joseph Keilberth's 1955 Ring has a far more natural sound to it (done by Decca). Regardless, when listening to Birgit Nilsson's Immolation Scene, you can tell what's going on -- both orchestrally and vocally.

Mr. Ashman declined to include Nilsson's performance for Solti or Böhm or Kempe (Covent Garden 1957). In other words, Helga Dernesch and Herbert von Karajan made the cut, despite frankly unidiomatic contributions from Karajan, but Birgit Nilsson -- under three different conductors, all in better sound than a 1903 wax cylinder.

In other words, this list seems -- and there are several more egregious examples, just none more egregious than this one -- intentionally designed to obscure and weirdly specialist. Sometimes, and I'm not universally enamored with Solti, the commoner examples are common because they are that good.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Minority Report on Dr. Atomic / Redux

Ron Rosenbaum has a scathing critique of Peter Sellars' libretto for Dr. Atomic over at Slate.

I'll concur with an even more general point: a lot of modern opera libretti aren't terribly good. Now, I don't know that one needs to lavish the sort of care on a libretti -- especially in a traditional (i.e., non-Gesamtkunstwerk) opera -- that Richard Wagner did in, for example, the Ring or Parsifal; I do know, however, that libretti are something more than an excuse for a pleasing vocal line.

I do not, however, think that the folks in love with Dr. Atomic really care about the quality of the libretto. I see three alternate possibilities: (1) people love the music, (2) people love the staging, and/or (3) people love the philosophical/political content or implications. I think most folks would be pretty upfront about (1) and (2), but I get the impression that it might be a little déclassé to admit that one loves a work of art solely because it fits into one's subjective political or philosophical worldview.

At the risk of making this really awkward, I am not at all surprised that the libretto ranges from not the strongest point of the work, in some of the better reviews' judgment, to Rosenbaum's walkout-worthiness opinion. This opera seems to want to make a point that anyone who's ever been an undergraduate or precocious high-school student has made, probably at a party when it wasn't terribly appropriate to do so. In other words, this opera seems to want to make the point that using (developing) terribly destructive weapons is a difficult moral choice. It's along the lines of the Philosophy 101 question, "Would you kill one man if you could save a thousand? A million?"

Of course, gentlemen of a certain age didn't and don't really express a lot of moral angst about the use of atomic weapons in August 1945. Indeed, there's a reason why Dr. Atomic is about Oppenheimer rather than Edward Teller, to say nothing of combat-weary men who saw -- rightly or wrongly, given the later revelations of history and the effectiveness of firebombing Japanese cities -- only the rising sun in their futures.

It's not a great surprise the libretto was done poorly, or at least not brilliantly.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Period-performance Bruckner

In a sense, Herreweghe is doing with Bruckner what Boulez did with Wagner, circumventing a century of performance practice and move from massive density to more transparent clarity.
Charles T. Downey, writing on the ever-interesting Ionarts, briefly discusses Herreweghe's Bruckner recordings. To be blunt, I don't find the works particularly successful.

While I don't subscribe to the Bruckner-as-the-Wagnerian-symphonist idea, especially since the second part of Gustav Mahler's 8th symphony is as Wagnerian as anything Bruckner ever wrote, I think it's essential to understand Bruckner coming out of the tradition that informed Wagner. There is an emphasis on sound in Bruckner's works, and while the cathedrals of sound analogy is stale, I don't think it necessarily inapposite.

Boulez' Wagner is not necessarily universally beloved or even successful. Indeed, absent the Chéreau staging, I get the sense that it would join his 1970 Parsifal on the "for specialists only" rack in the metaphorical Wagner record shop. I like his Ring -- I like most Boulez interpretations, to the point of experiencing firsthand how different the live experience is from the occasionally anemic recordings -- but I would never say that his Ring is idiomatic. Indeed, it is the antithesis of idiomatic Wagner, thought out with an icy logicality and precision.

Herreweghe's Bruckner, on the other hand, doesn't strike me as a bold statement on Brucknerian idiom and modern practice. It certainly doesn't strike me as clearly delineated and thought out as Boulez' Wagner. Indeed, the recording of the 4th, which does seem to be a bit of a low point of Herreweghe's recordings to date, strikes me as a slapdash attack on Bruckner using some HIP practical and theoretical tools. Others have said this (maybe David Hurwitz, or maybe it was a message-board denizen: I'd give better attribution if I were inclined to track the comment down, but I want to make it clear I was not the ur-source), but just because Herreweghe likes Bruckner doesn't mean he's any good at conducting the works.

Listening to the recorded Bruckner corpus, one sees that there are a lot of ways to conduct the works. One can be as massive and powerful as Otto Klemperer's Köln 8th (1957), as expansive and slow as Reginald Goodall's BBC 9th (1974), or as dreamlike and spiritual as Herbert von Karajan's final Vienna 7th (1990). All of those conductors, in their own ways, however, understood the Brucknerian idiom and worked within those guidelines. To my mind, it is a little silly to apply period-performance techniques to the works of a composer who fell solidly in the "modern" musical age. There are no pressing questions about Bruckner performance like "With what shall we replace the Serpent?" or "What gives us the most authentic hautbois sound?" Bruckner knew the modern orchestra, so I don't see any need pretending that we're going to get any closer to Bruckner's world than Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler, or Bruno Walter did.

Of course, I have never been one to get too hung up on period-performance theory. A good performance of a given work knows no period and requires only the authenticity it gives itself.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

OT Fun: Stone, Bush, Nixon(?)

There is an interesting "discussion" over at Slate about Oliver Stone's W. Unlike most movie-related jaw sessions, this one has some commentary from folks who might know something about the Bush Administration. Two players are Stone himself and Bush court historian Bob Woodward. It's interesting enough to read.

I saw the movie last weekend, and I think that Stone fell short of his own personal best, Nixon. That's understandable, however, since comparing the current President Bush to Richard M. Nixon is like comparing MTV's The Hills to Shakespeare's King Lear or MacBeth (probably the latter). In both cases, the former provides drama while the latter provides tragedy. Stone didn't reveal his subject to be a roiling mass of contradictions and conflicting motivations, undeniably great and almost pathologically driven to wreck himself in his time and for posterity, but that's because I doubt George W. Bush is all that conflicted.

Richard Nixon could be a generous, progressive-minded visionary and statesman; three seconds later, however, he could be petty, vindictive, and nasty in the basest way. (Anthony Summers had a better turn of phrase along those lines in The Arrogance of Power, which is a little more gossipy than Ambrose's three-volume snoozer, but I probably didn't have to tell you that.) Even an author like Joan Hoff, writing a reevaluation cum defense in Nixon Reconsidered, has to call Nixon "aprinicpled," like someone is amoral. George Bush, on the other, hand is always George Bush. It's hard to dissect and analyze the motivations of a man whose public persona is, if not transparent, at least easy to read.

I think the other major problem with Stone's latest movie is, of course, the simple fact that we have been living in the epoch of George W. Bush for the last eight years. All of us are familiar with the specific incidents and general personalities that make up the story of the 43rd chief magistrate of the Republic. Any judgments about George W. Bush that needed to be made after 2000 (see, e.g., 121 S. Ct. 525) were made in 2003-4. Oliver Stone, to be frank, isn't telling us anything we didn't know or sense and he's not informing a decision most of us have already made. In the absence of a compelling character or novel story, what is there in a movie?

Well, there's cinematography and individual performances. Stone follows the Nixon formula nicely in W, but uses some weird dream sequences and other things that don't quite work. Indeed, Stone follows the Nixon formula without the Nixon ingredients. W is a far less experimental (or creative, if you will) film than its predecessor. Hardly coincidence, if you ask me, which you didn't. The technical moviemaking is fine, which is to say both that it's at least as good as anything else you'll see this fall, and that you shouldn't throw out your Criterion disc of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Josh Brolin deserves praise for his portrayal of George W. Bush, and you'll hear that elsewhere. What I found impressive was James Cromwell's turn as George H.W. Bush, however. That veteran character actor, which isn't an insult, created a man who appeared bound by tradition and propriety, but still expressing his emotional side as he knew how. Everyone ranges from very good (Toby Jones' turn as Rove) to a Pacino-esque, scenery-chewing caricature (Dreyfuss. Cheney. QED)

It's worth a view, and, with the increasing uniformity of quality to be found in most movie-theater popcorn selections, to say nothing of DIY Flavacol and "butter" stations, you'll get something out of the trip. Even if it is a clogged artery.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

National security and intellectuals

I say this with some confidence: No one in the Bush Administration cares about John Adams. He is an undeniably good composer, and that alone guarantees him a resounding yawn from the least intellectual government in recent memory. If he's on a list, it's not because the men and women into whose hands we have entrusted the Republic, but rather because, probably, of Klinghoffer or because he shares a name with some IRA terrorist from the late 1970s.

I've pointed this out before, and it still blows my mind: Angela Merkel has interesting things to say about Wagner and various directors, though the things are interesting, probably, because of the low standards for cultural awareness to which most Americans hold their leaders. George W. Bush would probably be hard-pressed to name one or two of Wagner's music-dramas. I'd even spot him Walküre. If one of the titans of Western music doesn't register on the Generalissimo's radar, then I doubt John Adams is even in the same universe.

That's the tragedy here. I don't ask that the First Magistrate be able to hold forth intelligently on Thomas Mann or Friedrich Nietzsche, but I would like him to know who Mann and Nietzsche were. Our leaders, regardless of innate intelligence, have been forced to pander to the base (take that how it's meant) to the point where you'd have a hard time telling them apart from barely literate teenagers.

John Adams might be under surveillance or an INS flag, but it's not because he's an intellectual. It's either because some Google-searching flack in the bowels of one of the government agencies managed to get a hit connecting "John Adams" and "Palestinian sympathies" (from Klinghoffer), or because some terrorist has the same name. Intellectuals don't matter in the current equation of the Republic.

Thanks to Pliable for the point.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The interweb comes through again!

So, in browsing iTunes and Amazon, I found the 1996 (as I recall) Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, with Horst Stein leading the Wiener Symphoniker. Score!

Now, I would like to point out, once again, that Dimitri Mitropoulos' legendary 1959 Salzburger Festspiele recording is still unavailable -- either in electronic form or on a CD (which is, I know, as electronic as a MP3) -- but I won't harp on unpleasant matters. In fact, if ArkivMusic really wanted to make this blogger happier than he already is with them generally, it would most certainly put out the Mitropoulos Das Buch with full documentation on their ArkivCD series. I digress.

It is unfortunate that there isn't an unreservedly great Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln out there, as it really is one of the neglected triumphs of the 20th century. Horst Stein leads an interesting account, but, like Järvi, I don't feel like the climaxes were played to their fullest. The Wiener Symphoniker does a good job, as do the singers, but one gets the sense that the relative obscurity of this work creates a certain uncertainty. There are a lot of big moments in this piece, too, and to let one of them go by without really hitting it hard (as I get the sense Stein does in a couple of places) seems like a waste. In other words, there isn't an unreservedly great Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln out there. I don't regret the purchase, since I am happy to get any recording of this work, but it drives home the fact that there is a wide opening available for a conductor who understands Schmidt's idiom and has a great cast and band. If DG would give Fabio Luisi the WP, René Pape, Ben Heppner, and a great quartet, then I am sure that there would be a good record in the final balance.

That having been said, I am sure that there are at least two sets (Nikolaus Harnoncourt's set, which went straight to Berkshire, I'm told, and Mitropoulos') that major labels have. Direct-to-digital releases aren't a bad idea, as Profil has shown us with the Stein set. Let the hard-core Das Buch nuts have their records without going to the cost of printing and marketing sets of an obscure 1937 oratorio.

Now that I've wandered around a while, let me say that -- for the money -- Stein's set is a solid download. Burn it to a CD, put it on your iPod, and listen to it for a while. There is a lot of great music to be found in Schmidt's magnum opus.