Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reconsidering the Boulez/Chéreau Ring

N.B. This post started life as a series of posts responding to questions about the Boulez/Chéreau Ring at one of the interweb classical-music message boards I frequent. I have made some changes and minor additions/subtractions to adjust for the change in venue. If you would like the unadulterated original text, shoot me an e-mail.

Musically, it's [i.e., the Boulez/Chéreau production from 1976-80 at Bayreuth] unidiomatic. Dramatically, it's interesting, but it introduces a political content that may or may not be present in Wagner's conception of the Ring.

Boulez flies through the cycle and clarifies the orchestral architecture to the point where every sinew and nerve, so to speak, of the piece is visible. Let me put it this way, imagine putting a magician or an illusionist in a white room, surrounded by bright lights and cameras, and then asking him to show you his tricks. There would be no illusion to it, because you can see every nuance of every move. Clarifying and simplifying Wagner's orchestration does just that. The illusion to be created by Wagner's orchestration is lost. Also, I might note that Richard Wagner was a composer of no mean talent: if he wanted skeletal renderings, then he would have arranged for them.

The cast is about as good as one could expect for 1976-1980. That's not saying a whole lot, though. Gwyneth Jones was in her Wagnerian best for Karl Böhm in the 1968 Bayreuth Meistersinger.

Chéreau's staging is unabashedly Marxist, though it doesn't go for Stalinist socialist realism. Indeed, the allegory to be found in Chéreau's Konzept is trivially obvious. If one takes a teleological view of the Ring, then the pursuit of wealth and capitalist excess, in Chéreau's view, will lead to the end of the world. Only the labors of proletarian heroes like Siegmund and Siegfried, despite their divine lineage, will bring things back to order. I'm sure that there are far better explanations offered by Chéreau and others, but the symbolism is so trivially obvious that it forces similarly obvious interpretations.

Now, an astute student of Wagner would realize that the problems begin when Alberich renounces love to gain the Rheingold. Now, there are some general dramatic and musical problems with Götterdämmerung, which others have examined elsewhere, but it is clear that Brünnhilde's act of love restores balance by wiping away the corrupt and debased world of the gods. Indeed, the theme of love is apparent throughout the Tetralogy in a way that silly Marxist screed is not. George Bernard Shaw was an intelligent and perceptive critic, but I don't think he should be taken as the final authority on Wagner. In any event, assuming Wagner regressed to 1848 (which isn't impossible for Rheingold, done in 1853-1854, though it's unlikely) and wrote a socialist parable, why make the allegory obvious? That's not dramatically clever, so such a move on Wagner's part would be massively out-of-character for Wagner.

Chéreau's staging wasn't all bad, and it's downright reactionary in the light of productions like Harry Kupfer's or Alfred Kirchner's 1997 show. It does do some clever things moment to moment, even if it's a little obvious in the long run. It would, however, be more appropriate to a Zeitoper revival than Wagner's supreme artistic achievement. Jonny spielt auf is not Siegfried, hard as that may be to believe in our time.

I do like the set, though Philips' recorded sound is a little anemic. Boulez' interpretation requires some close-miking, otherwise it sounds weak. It's unidiomatic and dramatically sort of obvious, but it's enjoyable. Boulez has a different take on Wagner, and his approach deserves attention, even if it is ultimately rebuked. Chéreau's production is important for the history of Wagnerian performance and for theater generally. Whether or not that approach was the right one, or even well done in its scope, is a lingering question, but it deserves attention. It's not a first recommendation, like Solti or Keilberth, but it deserves a listening/viewing -- like Karajan or Böhm.

You're depriving yourself of a valuable Wagnerian experience if you don't give the Boulez/Chéreau Ring a view. It is simply impossible to understand Wagnerian staging in the second half of the twentieth century without seeing Chéreau's production. I might go so far to say that the 1976-1980 cycle was the last really interesting one at Bayreuth. Peter Hall's production was a failure even at the time, and Georg Solti couldn't save it (for a lot of reasons, not least because of casting holdovers like the odious Manfred Jung). Harry Kupfer's production is even weirder than Chéreau's, though Barenboim turns in a musical contribution that is more idiomatic and full-throated, so to speak, than Boulez' (and Tomlinson simply embarrasses McIntyre, as do some other singers to their counterparts). Kirchner's has been, more or less, forgotten (though it has its moments of being reminiscent of Wieland Wagner's Neu Bayreuth). I can't be bothered to remember the last couple of directors, though it was a shame when Lars Von Trier pulled out of the Ring.

You see, then, that the very heart of Wagnerian performance has Chéreau's Ring as a major artery. You can say what you will about the trend of Wagnerian staging post-1976, but make no mistake: the most recent epoch (excepting really offensive productions like Schlingensief's Parsifal) is most assuredly denoted "post-1976." It is, of course, fairly easy to punt on the Boulez/Chéreau Ring, though -- in my opinion -- Levine's DVD set is dull as dishwater, even by traditional standards, and I understand that. Siegfried is the weak link, with Rheingold and Götterdämmerung (sans the "epilogue," which I can and might discuss later) coming out strongest. The thing is, as I keep saying, musically and dramatically, it's unidiomatic. It's also a little obvious in places, which isn't good for effective theater outside the mystery or morality play genres. It is however both important and instructive.

The benefits, in my mind, of a traditional approach are not clearly shown by excessive productions like Kupfer or Kirchner, but by productions like Chéreau's, which are not so apparently revolutionary with a few decades' worth of hindsight. The latter sorts of productions force consideration beyond a visceral reaction. Wagner's music-dramas deserve at least serious consideration, if not serious study.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

TPW Year in Review

It has been an interesting year for music, but I suppose they say that about every year. I was, I think, surprised to see Kanye West veering wildly toward Joy Division (indeed, at times making Joy Division look like ABBA) with 808s and Heartbreak, but I was heartened by the Killers' Day & Age. The Smiths' The Sound of the Smiths, while duplicating Louder Than Bombs to a certain degree, was a compilation deserving of attention. That's saying something when you consider how many compilations they've gotten for only four studio albums. If the pop scene has been interesting, the classical scene has been even more so in its own way. We've seen impressive and intelligent releases from major labels and the usual, lovable independent labels alike, but I think that the year can be boiled down into ten records:

1. Wagner: The Great Operas [sic] from the Bayreuth Festival (Decca)
2. Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Karl Böhm cond. (Bayreuth 1968/Orfeo)
3. Mahler: Lieder, Bertini cond. Quasthoff/Hagegard soloists (Phoenix Edition)
4. Schmidt: Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, K. Järvi cond. (Chandos)
5. Beethoven: Symphonies 2 and 7, O. Vänskä cond. (BIS)
6. Liszt: Transcription of Beethoven: Symphony 9, McCawley/Wass, pf. (Naxos)
7. Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge, Aimard, pf. (DG)
8. Schoenberg/Sibelius: Violin concertos. Salonen, cond. Hahn violin. (DG)
9. Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Trio Wanderer and Pascal Moragues (HM)
10. Mendelssohn/Chopin/Strauss: Cello sonatas. Gregor Piatigorsky, vc. (Testament)

I don't know that I'll do a blurb for each entry. I suppose, on the other hand, that I should give my general rationale for the selections. First and foremost was my personal taste. There are all sorts of "important" records each year, and they seem to garner critical praise regardless of whether or not I like them. They might be "important," but if they're not good, then what does it matter? Second, I looked at merit. This can best be defined as the question, taste aside, how interesting is the record? There are a few entries on the list that are, to my mind, so interesting that I could not help but like the record. The Schoenberg violin concerto, for example, is a work that is fascinating and pretty enjoyable (despite its forbidding idiom). I gave bonus points, so to speak, to major-label releases that piqued my interest and curiosity. Why? Well, when an industry based on the pairing of Beethoven's 5th and 7th turns out an interesting record, it's an occasion for celebration. Finally, I considered the records vis-à-vis their discography. If it filled a major or notable hole in the catalog, then it got some points.

We'll see how 2009 shapes up, then.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Alfred Brendel's last concert

This item, from the BBC, has informed me that Alfred Brendel will be winding up his public-performance career tomorrow (i.e. Thursday, 18 December) in Vienna. Barring any comebacks or perpetual "retirements" like some other performers, it will be the end of an interesting career. I guess, despite a fondness for Glenn Gould and Maurizio Pollini, that Brendel has made appearances in my recording library. His relatively recent recording (2000, I think) of KV 331 is one of which I am rather fond. In any event, he is generally -- at least as far as my listening and cursory search of the literature is concerned -- regarded as intelligent and thoughtful, neither as deeply personal as Gould nor as icily cerebral as Pollini (stereotypes both, but stereotypes rooted in some truth). The kicker for me, of course, is this quote, from a 2002 profile:
It takes a lot of imagination to bring a work alive but it is on the terms of the compositions and not on the terms of showing off. It is not possible without you, but I am responsible to the composer and particularly to the piece.
Such an attitude, to my mind, can do many things to a performance, but -- at the very least -- it's an insurance policy of a competent, reasonably transparent performance.

Of course, during Brendel's first explosion into the Philips stable, even the idiosyncratic performers were deeply interested in understanding the music and representing their approach to that music. Things have changed, and I need only to cite to a pianist so nice he used his name, which rhymes closely with a common onomatopoeic word, twice to make my point. Idiosyncrasy without thought seems to be a bit of a fashion statement these days, and that makes a solid, intelligent performer a rare commodity. Brendel has been performing for 60 years (though his big break came in the 1970s), but I would hope that someone else can pick up the torch of clarity, simplicity, and fidelity.

At the very least, one can hope that Brendel keeps recording for a while. If he doesn't, at least I have my Backhaus records.

"some safe, undecisive [sic] pc mush mouth ..."

Due to a posting elsewhere, the previous post has earned some criticism from an poster on one of my increasingly infrequently frequented message boards, which criticism, as best as I understand such a typical response from someone who can be called charitably "not a contender for the Fields Medal," is the title of the post.

While the interested can track down the discussion, I won't get into the debate over how music can be dangerous. Like all abstractions, it is nothing until put into action, and it is remarkably hard to put music into action in such a way that would cause actual peril. Of course, if one accepts the proposition that ideas and trends of thought have their own lives, then it is possible for another, contradictory, vein of thought to create a danger. That would, of course, anthropomorphize abstractions and render them somewhat less abstract.

As to the remainder of the "critique," such as it was, I can only say that responding to stereotypical criticism is roughly akin to using a pancake to fix a Diesel engine. It might work, but it's probably more for your benefit than the machine's. That aside, my views on Boulez (ever-evolving as they are) are fairly clear: it's obvious, in 2008, that dodecaphonic atonal music didn't win the battle for the hearts and minds of the musical cognoscenti. Boulez' own music, for what it's worth, didn't even win the battle for preeminence, which is to say the token programming spot. He is a talented conductor, but, even then, he isn't universally beloved. When he gets it, he gets it, but when he misses, the results aren't pretty.

When I say that Boulez' music and conducting work for me, that's what I mean. There are plenty of folks on the other side of that divide who would vomit at the suggestion that they listen to Pli selon pli. That, in and of itself, is not a probative point of much other than de gustibus non disputandum. It is, for me, the fact that Boulez and his musical cohorts ran rampant for, at best, 15-20 years. Looking at the recorded output for that period on major labels, there was still a lot of stuff from the "main sequence" of the European canon. Indeed, the Mahler renaissance (such as it was) got started in earnest around the same time that the post-Webernian serialists and their fellow-travelers were in high swing. What do I mean by that? Largely I mean that the phenomenon was academic. No lasting phenomenon can survive in the anemic, anoxic halls of the academy without making some allowances to the environment.

These aren't new criticisms, but that doesn't mean they're not valid. The problem, of course, is that I like the music on a visceral (and, to a certain degree, intellectual) level. So, responding to criticism that most of my devoted readers probably haven't read, I stand here vis-à-vis Boulez at this point: I like his music, but his music has passed its prime and its relevance.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"...my music is also seductive, even spiritual"

I'm sorry not to have posted more frequently, but I am smack-dab in the middle of finals right now at IUSL-B, which is now the Maurer School of Law. I did, however, want to call your attention to this interview with Pierre Boulez.

The title is, of course, a quote from the interview. I would agree with the former, but not the latter. I am also not entirely sure that I like the idea that seduction is on the way to spirituality, but I don't see the need to get into that right now. No, I am reminded of a interweb message board comment by someone whose judgment on music I trust, the gist of which comment was that Boulez' music was attractive but dangerous (like a poisonous snake), or something like that.

It is, I think, the barely controlled violence of Boulez' best work that makes it so attractive to my mind. While the works have a glittering beauty (I think, of course, of Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna and Mémorial, which led to ...explosante-fixe...), they also seem perpetually on the edge of devolving themselves into pure atonal violence, almost to the point of sheer noise. There's also, in some of his works, a sense of festination -- of explosive speed, though that doesn't have quite the same connotation as "to festinate" -- as though the work is hurrying to get through itself before devolving into violent noise.

Of course, whether the seduction will be successful -- or even accepted -- depends entirely on the listener. That, of course, forces one to ask how seductive the music really is, after all. It works for me, but that doesn't mean it's universally successful.