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29.1.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 24 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 3, P. Boulez, Wiener Philharmoniker, Anne Sofie von Otter
When it comes to Mahler, I will admit that I don't understand all of his symphonies (if any), and the third (together with the 7th) can still be elusive to my mind. Perhaps it is because of this inability that I find Pierre Boulez's version so compelling. His "see-through" Mahler lifts the rug a little and lets you peek. Because of superior transparency, the structures come out more clearly than with any other conductor I have heard, and the less I understand a work, the more I tend to like his interpretation. That the Vienna Philharmonic and Anne Sofie von Otter worked with him on that recording can't hurt. In fact, her voice is clear as a mountain brook, seductive, and well controlled. (No excesive hissing when she sings - pianissimo - "Menssssschhhh.") The sound, especially in the SACD version (costing the same and, being a hybrid, making the Red-book-standard-only-CD version rather pointless) is every bit as good as in Riccardo Chailly's even more recent and highly appraised third. Both count perfection in playing and sound on their plus side, and both could be accused of giving the emotional side short shrift. Disagreeing with almost every reviewer (save for the American Record Guide's in-house Mahler specialist), I don't quite know what makes Chailly's interpretation so special. It impressed me, but it also left me cold without telling me anything new about the work. In contrast, I don't find Boulez rushed, but haunting and subversive, instead. Ask ten Mahler lovers for their favorite interpretation of any symphony and you get ten different opinions. This is mine.

P.S. The regular CD has a nasty, if very brief, editing error in the third movement... a mistake that was thankfully corrected on the SACD.

27.1.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 23 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

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L. v. Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 29 (orch. Weingartner), Symphony #5, Prometheus Overture, Weingartner (Naxos 8.110913)
You may have heard Liszt's transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies. They are fine works and an interesting way to listen to all-too-familiar masterpieces. Their reason for existence was the spread of Beethoven's music when symphonic concerts were rare and out of the reach of most people – not to mention the unavailability of sound recordings. In this role reversal, Weingartner took the Hammerklavier sonata and orchestrated it during a time when recordings were still nascent and piano recitals sparse.

Though certainly symphonic in length, op. 106 does not seem to be particularly suited to such treatment, and the very notion defies all our sensibilities of Werktreue. Still, it's a curious and curious-making monument of Weingartner's admiration of Beethoven. I am not sure if it reveals much new about the work, and I am certain that it sounds better on the piano. Charles Rosen thought it "silly." The 1930s sound, remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn, is restricted and full of hiss (though listenable). The Prometheus Overture and 5th Symphony (1933) feature the LPO in a bad accoustic and are not even Weingartner's best recordings thereof. Still, it's "interesting" in the more flattering meaning of the word for hearing the Hammerklavier strung up... at least for the very, very curious of us.

24.1.05

World Premiere with Messrs. Ackert & Forough 

(published first at ionarts)

Sunday, the 16th of January, regulars at the National Gallery of Art's Sunday concerts saw the head of the music department, Stephen Ackert, in a role they had likely not seen before: behind the Steinway on stage. Together with violinist Cyrus Forough, he presented a program of Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), a contemporary piece (in fact: a World Premiere!) by Alan Fletcher, Saint-Saëns, and J. S. Bach. A program that is my heart's delight: I always am all for "music with a pulse" – works by living composers – and my abiding love for Bach as well as any obscure or even just slightly off-the-beaten-path composer isn't a secret, either. Even a little ear candy like the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso can count on my kind disposition in such surroundings.

The opening "Tambourin" sonata for keyboard instrument and violin from 1723 is a little baroque sparkler in four movements, showing the violinist off like few other pieces of its time. Mr. Forough's playing needed a little warming up in a West Garden Court that was (mercifully) not overheated.

Stephen Ackert, who should know the acoustics of the space (and its difficulties) better than anyone, delivered a performance that was like tailored to his surroundings. Easy on the pedal and with all things legato, you could hear virtually every note, finely separated. If any fault could be found at all with his playing, it was that either as a result of his acoustic-adjusted approach or a dash too much modesty, he operated more in the background than my ears are used to from modern performances, where violinist and pianist are more equal partners than soloist and accompanist, regardless of repertoire. (Not that Bach or Leclair used the keyboard part just for a "realisation" of the violin part, either.) Another very minor quibble might be that I had recollected (perhaps erroneously) a program to announce Mr. Ackert at the piano and harpsichord. I would have been very keen on hearing him on the latter, the instrument he studied (along with the organ – under none less than Helmut Walcha, among others) and in general a woefully underrepresented music-making machine that (in small enough doses) can delight like few others.

After the Bach sonata, BWV 1015, played every bit as amiably as the Leclair, came the world premiere of Alan Fletcher's Study (Woman Holding a Balance) (2004). One does not get to hear world premieres all too often, much less of music that is actually pleasing to the ear without having to jump through any intellectual hoops. Some of the hesitancy and ambiguity of the work I can ascribe to the ethereal nature of its violin part, but for all my enthusiasm, I have to say that it sounded rather under-rehearsed on Mr. Forough's part. Lyrical, wafting along comfortably, with a floating motion and harmonies generous to the ear (the more cynical critic might say, "harmless") and not too technically challenging to either player is how it seemed (despite the slight deficiencies). Before you knew it, it was over and the composer was on stage, taking a quick bow between his two interpreters.

The program notes (.PDF file) explain more about this NGA-commissioned composition based on Vermeer's painting of the same name. If Saint-Saëns's Introduction and Rondo (played better by Mr. Forough than any other piece that night – sure-fingered, with good, clean intonation and panache) – at the end of the program is a flashy and outwardly fancy showpiece, Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin—most famously, the second sonata in D minor presented here—are the exact opposite. It is an inward-turned showpiece: it shows the player how good he (or she) is, more so than the listener. It is musical cleansing of the soul, spiritual respite, and recharges the performer, even as it demands a lot from him.

For the listener, acquaintance with the music certainly helps in appreciating it, though the Chaconne that ends the sonata in monumental fashion should reel most everybody in, granted they can take the sound of 14 minutes and 39 seconds (as in Mr. Forough's case that night) of solo violin sound. His interpretation was in the edgy, muscular category, as opposed to the mellifluous, melody-enhancing group around Shlomo Mintz and Itzhak Perlman, but far from extremes. It was brisk, but not rushed. It accentuated the corners and rhythmic pulse of the work, but not at the expense of forward movement. It was certainly not "historically informed," and it wasn't all-out romantic idiosyncrasy, either. A happy (?) medium, mostly well played. Hollering and applauding wildly, the audience then extracted a Fauré Berceuse from Messrs. Forough and Ackert as an encore.

Long as the line is to get to these free concerts, some upcoming events need special mention:
  • On January 23rd, pianist Gülsin Onay will perform works of Liszt, Elgar, and - most tantalizing - the most excellent Turkish composer Saygun. His music alone—20th-century, western European-oriented, conservative but innovative—is most definately worth going!
  • On February 27th, Leila Josefowicz will perform modern music (Yay!) by composers out of Los Angeles, among them some of E. P. Salonnen's works. Music with a pulse, again!
  • On March 6th, the chamber music event of the year (I can say so much already, with the year young, still) takes place at the NGA when the Takács Quartet will perform their completely ravishing Bartók (Quartets 3 and 4) and Beethoven's third "Rasumovsky Quartet." If you think you don't like Bartók, I especially urge you to go and get a seat where you can see them: you will leave a convert!
The complete schedule can be checked out here.

23.1.05

Haydn - Analogies and Tonality 

(published first at ionarts)

After posting the little piece (Haydn?, January 9) in which I lauded Terry Teachout's spotlight on the underexposed (not an insult) composer but took umbrage at TT's referring to tonality as a "natural law," I got an e-mail from an acquaintance whose criticism I cherish infinitely more than most people's compliments.

I defended my stance on 'tonality not being natural' (in the universal sense) by evoking other cultures who have lived happily (and still do, to some extent) without it - and on 'tonality not being a law' of any sort by making note that natural laws - gravity, for example - will pull a chinese musician down to earth as much as it will keep Bach from floating.

The problem about getting smart with people smarter than I is that they write back. And, with a sentence or two, can take the air out of my argument and the smug, self-content smile off my face. Sure enough, I am being told that while gravity does work everywhere, "some cultures created airplanes by using gravity creatively and other cultures created cargo cults when they saw their first airplanes. Same thing with tonality."

Go outwit that. I can't - but I (until I get the next e-mail, no doubt) gleefully detect a slight mismatch in the analogy here. I can assume that the cargo-cult brothers were a certain three men from Vienna (two in particular!) and their followers... some of whom perpetuated their most heinous and hideous crimes in the thenceforth most irreputable town of Darmstadt.

Alas - "discovering tonality" and sticking with old ways turns out to be more a jab at the retinent Chinese who still blow air into their reed flutes or Indians who squeeze more distinctive notes into five fingerboard inches of a sitar than an extended Bösendorfer yields. If I may pick up the analogy I was given and extend it (against my instincts perhaps, but I think rather accurately) to those at whom it was aimed, it would go like this:

Some among the 'aeroplane flying folk' figured one day, that, really, there's only so far you can go with gravity and flying and all... let's go for more! So they built themselves a splendid, fancy rocket - state of the art, academically sound, and all - fueled it - stood a good distance away and watched. The rocket, sure enough, exploded into bits and pieces, getting (if that) a few inches off the ground.

The engineers looked at each other, at the shards littered about, at their blueprints and each other again and - slapping each other on the back - exclaimed: Capital! Now there's really something! Regular flying? Puh... how bourgeois when you can have this!?! Since then, their burst rockets' craters have littered the Western musical landscape and their originators have been named Knights of the Order of Transcendental Flight.

P.S. I made someone (innocent) listen to all of Pierrot Lunaire last week. Somebody stop me before mere bystanders get hurt.

22.1.05

Борис Годунов 

(published first at ionarts)

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M. Musorgsky, Boris Godunov (1869 & Rimsky Korsakov editions), V. Gergiev, Kirov
Valery Gergiev is a common guest in Washington (and a friend of Alberto Villar's, whose fortunes seems to have improved enough to have sponsored his visit) and brought the Kirov Opera and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre to the Opera House at the Kennedy Center. Apart from Cinderella and a rather odd "Kirov Spectacular" hodgepodge of a program, he brought Modest Musorgsky's (usually misspelled with two s's) greatest work, Boris Godunov. The opera is based on Pushkin's drama and was staged in its rarely seen "original" version, that is, the unedited 1869 version in which women have just barely more import than in Billy Budd. A good synopsis and explanation of the differences of the two versions can be found at the Stanford University Opera Web site.

The opera (Tim Page thought so, too) was a stunning success. From the oboe's opening statement to the fainting, soft, and spaced-out drum beats at the very end of it, Gergiev had his delightfully wild, coherent, and even scrawny (in a very appropriate way) sounding forces under complete control. He reigned them in when they were about to get too excited, and he pushed them on if they ever needed any - though I doubt that was ever necessary last night. The occasional breath of Wagner (in particular Der Fliegende Holländer) often clashed immediately with the particular Russian sounds of the score - chromatically dense and perhaps difficult to digest at first hearing.

Boris, the opera, came in seven scenes, without intermission and mercifully shorter than the usual fare with its superimposed love story. It was the first time that I got to see the work live, and it was also the first time that I was thoroughly convinced by it. The Kirov's traveling set—all light and foldable—was exquisite, and not just taking the restrictions into account. Boris, the Tsar, stunned upon entry with a great costume: a coat of woven iron wire, somewhere between jewel-encrusted beehive, birdcage, and iron maiden. In the background hovered an onion-shaped dome, reminiscent of the tsar's crown. (It also looked like it might have housed "I Dream of" Jeannie.)

Tsar Boris, sung by Vladimir Vaneyev, had a powerful and clear organ (shame on your dirty mind if you think of anything but his voice), dramatically captivating. Meanwhile, the Kirov's gong- and bell-people in the pit had more work cut out for them than an average Nieblung. Cling, dang, dong it went to scene three, where Pimen the monk was endowed with the voice of brilliant bass Mikhail Kit. Dimitri, the Pretender (a.k.a. novice Grigory) was Oleg Balashov, whose tenor voice came from the the back of the chest (chin firmly down - adding to the slightly restrained quality often heard in Russian tenors), was remarkable, too.

To be sure, there was no weak spot in this production. Gennady Bezzubenkov as Varlaam, the drunken monk, Vladimir Veneyev's Boris, Mikhail Kit, as mentioned, and the treble Mihkail Gavrilov, playing and singing the role of Tsarevitch Fedor deserve special reckognition for their outstanding contribution, both vocally and dramatically. I have never before been able to stand (much less like) children on stage - here I did. There were no stage hawks in the choir, no embarrassingly stiff "opera acting". While Tsar Boris got subtly madder and madder, the Tsarevitch acted so naturally that it was difficult to believe he was acting at all. Shy and accepting, slightly uncomfortable but confident, mildly bored, quiet, singing as though he was in his own bedroom, he delivered a most remarkable performance. (In his running around he shortly imitated an airplane... the only historical inaccuracy I could detect. Or, perhaps, it was a bird he imitated.) Alexey Steblianko's Shuisky was fine, too, but outdone amid his even more impressive colleagues.

The costumes and the lighting contributed magnificently to the complete success with stunning effects. The hallucination scene included 18 of those hollow onion domes cum bubbled crowns... martian-like in how they crept up on the Tsar and with their pest-boils neon-lit from the inside. The metallic spider that unfolded in the sublime death scene of Boris (which ends this version of the opera), too, was poignant, not gimmicky. (If anything, I could have done without the first scene, which I thought pointless... but that was quickly gotten over with.)

If you haven't fallen victim to the Washington hysteria about the couple inches of innocent snow (as a Bavarian I simply cannot fathom how the whole city shuts down at the mere sight of a flake), you ought to treat yourself to one of the finest ways in which Russian opera can be presented. Tickets are available at www.kennedycenter.com.

21.1.05

Philip Glass World Premiere and Matthias Goerne 

(published first at ionarts)

I am jumping from World Premiere to World Premiere. Last Sunday at the National Gallery of Art (review forthcoming) and now, at the Kennedy Center, with Philip Glass's 7th Symphony. The preconcert speach of Leonard Slatkin's pointed out similarities in the presented composers (next to Glass there was Gustav Mahler) that, really, don't exist. Slatkin's post-ex-facto rationalisation for the program was that, somehow, Mahler had premonitions of Schoenberg and rejected him - and that Glass jumped out of a musical world that was dominated, still, with the legacy of Schoenberg. It's silly, of course, but it made a few people laugh.

The 7th symphony of Philip Glass - an NSO commission - starts in somber and soft tones, with a rattle and brass-hums providing a first, tame rhythmic pulse. Shimmering strings and vibraphone (?) descend repeated scales and slowly, comfortably, everything gets under way. All the Glass elements are there: short, repeated arpeggios and little runs, the forward driving repeated notes (increasingly threatening) that were so prominently featured in the Fog of War soundtrack - into which the wailing short voices of other instruments fall. It is as easy on the ears as the second and third symphonies of his are... and equally far removed from the all-out minimalism (think Einstein on the Beach, Koyaanisqatsi) as them. Instead of using his signature phrases to make them the work, he uses them as building blocks in a far more varied tapestry of sound. Crackles and outbursts puncture the run up to the end of "The Corn," the first movement, before it falls into a calm, complacent state. In variety, the third symphony in particular has a little more to offer for a first movement - but the sense of rise and fall (less so of 'Mother Earth' and our duties to her and her corn, feeding us) was easily experienced and enjoyed.

The second movement opens with timpani and rattles, followed by almost electronic sounding little looped musical figures that litter all of Glass's compositions. It also features a chorus (the Master Chorale of Washington performed) - text and translations not necessary - in what sounds like Glass reinventing the Carmina Burana. The whole work is called "A Toltec Symphony" and refers (through its titled movements) to the Wirrarika - a Mexican people that descended from the Toltec cultures of the Post-Classic Mayans and their sacred trinity: corn, a sacred root (Hikuri), and a blue deer. (I couldn't make that stuff up, even if I wanted to!)

For all the different textures in the second movement with the choir, it remained monochromatic, firmly on the ground and - with or despite its abrupt stop - rather weak and derivative. The glorious rising - stop - and falling - stop - of "The Blue Deer," the third movement, was very enjoyable - stop - in its divided legato passages and harmonies that evoked composers other than Glass himself. Soft and and happily humming along, it was stronger on "pleasing" than "novel" - but of course, almost every Glass composition is a textbook example of (successful) self-plagiarism. While that does work for many pieces (and certainly for Glass as a composer... though he admitted in the talk afterwards that it is much harder to lose 'your own voice' again than is finding it in the first place), I would have wished for much more from movements 2 and 3 especially. There were simply no surprises around any of the corners... just good old acquaintances. The musical vernacular of Glass is not very deep - he would, I am pretty sure, be the first one to admit. Still, it would be silly to quip that once you've heard one of his works, you've heard them all. I find Vivaldi - also much maligned along these lines - more tiresome and 'same-ish' than Glass. The question must be asked, however, at which point the possibilities for a meaningful musical statement have been exhausted when the tools with which Glass creates his works don't change. The "Fog-of-War..." err... "Toltec" Symphony is at the cusp between wonderful and empty. This time I still loved it - Symphony No. 8 will have to go somewhere else, though, if I am not to loathe it.

The organ-backed finale, by the way, was positively rousing. Applause was civil, rather than enthusiastic - despite some hollers and a solid block of standing ovations - and lasted long enough to convey that the work had much pleased the audience from the youngster in the muscle shirt to the elderly lady in her tweed suite and purple-tinted white hair.

If that hadn't been draw enough, the second half of the program featured none less than Matthias Goerne, one of the foremost baritones in Lieder of our time. (A review of his latest Schumann disc is also forthcoming.) He sang songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn - and gave the answer to how the two composers, Glass and Mahler, are really connected; namely that they both could shamelessly quote their own work - verbatim - and still provide masterpieces.

The NSO that played the Glass with enthusiasm also gave a good, agile Mahler performance. Herr Goerne, whose low notes in "Der Schildwache Nachtlied" and some of the final songs got lost behind the Orchestra, made much of the varied nature and tempi in the songs. His tone had the usual, remarkable, and burnished quality his admirers have come to expect of him. His voice, round and velvety, is all-around pleasant sounding... though a tone that is more open and clear - natural? - would be equally welcome by my ears, especially in Mahler. The sublime "Urlicht" may be even more pressing and immediate with a mezzo soprano going about it (as in Symphony No. 2) - but Goerne, the NSO, and Nurith Bar-Josef in the solo violin part did their best to move all but the most hardened hearts in the two-thirds full Orchestra Hall. (Tickets are, by special promotion, available for $25 for orchestra seating - if I am not mistaken.) "Lied des Verfolgten im Turm" came through as a boisterous assault on the prisoner's ill fate - less the soaring defiance that marks the poem and popular German song "Our Thoughts are Free" that I learned as a kid and would hum when disagreeing with parental decisions.

The whole night had spelled magnificence - and the audience, safe from all the inauguration hoopla outside, responded accordingly. With one more song from the cycle as an encore, the night ended as one of the more memorable evenings with the NSO - and two more chances to experience it: today (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday) at 8:00 pm. A preview of the symphony was given by Tim Page in the Post (Jan. 16th) - and Cecelia Porter reported for the Post today.

For a symphonic Glass experience, meanwhile, try Symphony #3 or #2 (with the concerto for Saxophone Quartet) on the Nonesuch label with Dennis Russel Davies - or, almost as well played and combined on one inexpensive Naxos disc, Marin Alsop.

Available at Amazon
Philip Glass, Symphony No. 3
Available at Amazon
Philip Glass, Symphony No. 2
Available at Amazon
Philip Glass, Symphonies No. 2 and 3

18.1.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 22 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

Available from Amazon:
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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 3, P. Boulez, Wiener Philharmoniker, Anne Sofie von Otter
When it comes to Mahler, I will admit that I don't understand all of his symphonies (if any), and the third (together with the 7th) can still be elusive to my mind. Perhaps it is because of this inability that I find Pierre Boulez's version so compelling. His "see-through" Mahler lifts the rug a little and lets you peek. Because of superior transparency, the structures come out more clearly than with any other conductor I have heard, and the less I understand a work, the more I tend to like his interpretation. That the Vienna Philharmonic and Anne Sofie von Otter worked with him on that recording can't hurt. In fact, her voice is clear as a mountain brook, seductive, and well controlled. (No excesive hissing when she sings - pianissimo - "Menssssschhhh.") The sound, especially in the SACD version (costing the same and, being a hybrid, making the Red-book-standard-only-CD version rather pointless) is every bit as good as in Riccardo Chailly's even more recent and highly appraised third. Both count perfection in playing and sound on their plus side, and both could be accused of giving the emotional side short shrift. Disagreeing with almost every reviewer (save for the American Record Guide's in-house Mahler specialist), I don't quite know what makes Chailly's interpretation so special. It impressed me, but it also left me cold without telling me anything new about the work. In contrast, I don't find Boulez rushed, but haunting and subversive, instead. Ask ten Mahler lovers for their favorite interpretation of any symphony and you get ten different opinions. This is mine.

P.S. The regular CD has a nasty, if very brief, editing error in the third movement... a mistake that was thankfully corrected on the SACD.

15.1.05

Haydn? 

(published first at ionarts)

It was worth purchasing the latest edition of Commentary for Terry Teachout's article ("Haydn!") alone (the draw of my former professor Joshua Muravchik's article "Why the Democrats keep losing" notwithstanding). In what is a fairly introductory piece on Haydn, rightly one of TT's great musical loves, he marvels at Haydn's relative lack of popularity. I myself have wondered about this a great deal, although not from the erudite consideration of TT, but because of my very different experience with the Austrian composer from childhood on.

Growing up with "Haydn for Kids"-like biographical cassette tapes and enjoying at least the most obvious jokes of his works (recorded for me by my father, grandfather, and uncle), Haydn was very naturally and clearly and by a wide margin my favorite composer. Add to that the far greater reputation and importance of Haydn in central Europe with regards to recordings, broadcasts, and concert programming, and it's easy to see how I thought him curiously missing from the American musical landscape. His stature in central Europe is such that if you asked ten Austrians who the most quintessentially Austrian composer was, some eight would give "Papa Haydn" as the answer (or else not know what to make of the question).

Listening to classical radio stations in the U.S., I noticed early on that his place is rather neatly occupied by Dvořák, a composer who has much less clout in Europe. Dvořák's popularity is easily (if superficially) explained by pointing to From the New World and the American String Quartet. He's the honorary American composer, never mind how genuinely un-American especially the quartet is.

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J. Haydn, Die Schöpfung, N. Harnoncourt

Available from Amazon
J. Haydn, Die Jahreszeiten, R. Jacobs
Terry Teachout now goes some way into explaining Haydn's lack of true and broad popularity (and his fall from grace at the end of the 18th century). While TT may be overly glum about "no great artists championing Haydn" (Harnoncourt recently recorded The Creation [in German, naturally - BMG] very well, René Jacobs's brand-new Seasons [Harmonia Mundi] blows all previous recordings out of the water, Emanuel Ax likes and records the Piano Sonatas [I - II - III - Sony], Leif Ove Andsnes has two wonderful discs with Haydn keyboard works [sonatas and concertos - EMI], Mme. Piazzini's complete traversal of the piano sonatas was just issued on Oehms, Jenö Jandó's versions on Naxos [he also recorded all of them] are most enjoyable in their dry, classical style), his general point is well taken.

One element of TT's explanation is what I call the "Mendelssohn conundrum of lasting greatness." Much like Mendelssohn, Haydn was a composer who enjoyed job security, had a generally unexciting, scandal-free private life, was all-around pleasantly mannered, friendly, healthy and hygienic, prosperous; in short, frightfully well adjusted. Of all the things you can do wrong to secure yourself genius status, Mendelssohn nailed but one: dying young. (A big plus, but not enough to make up for his other flaws.) Haydn couldn't even oblige there and had the impunity to live to the ripe old age of 77. There is, as TT points out, no redeeming factor in his biography that would endear him to our still essentially Romantic world view. No brooding, ill-fated, half-mad, badly tempered off-kilter genius here. No wonder Haydn—The Movie has, unlike (distorted) accounts of Beethoven and Mozart, yet to pour forth from Hollywood. And yet, according to the formula of "quality over average quantity plus originality," he is the greatest composer to have lived. Teachout's tribute is very fine, and I see only a point in adding a few remarks to his discussion of recordings.

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J. Haydn, "London" Symphonies, E. Jochum
In the symphonies, Thomas Beecham's recordings of Nos. 93-98 / 99-104 are splendid and cheap (93-98 is the more successful of the two sets) and the sound is monaural at its very finest. But Eugen Jochum's equally economic DG set is even better for the lighter touch, greater spring in its step and—I'd like to think very importantly for TT—Jochum plays the harpsichord continuo in No. 98, making for one of Haydn's best (if subtle) moments of musical humor in the finale.

The Beaux Arts Trio set of the complete trios he recommends is phenomenal and unlikely ever to be bettered. Get it! Alfred Brendel's Haydn is some of his best playing on record: alas, the four-CD set TT comments on is available only in Europe or through Amazon.co.uk or Towerrecords.co.uk. A taster has been made available in the US with the release of one of those discs as part of the Penguin Rosette Collection issues by Universal.

The Emerson String Quartet's Haydn Project, to put it in no uncertain words, sucks. The playing is formidable and technically flawless, alright, but humor and wit and vivaciousness are given short shrift... and unacceptably so. Better look for alternatives with the Kodály Quartet's fine Naxos recordings, or the miraculously joyful Quatuor Mosaïques (Astree—see Ionarts review).

And then there is one more little thing. One sentence in TT's article where I gnashed my teeth violently: "... so did Haydn acknowledge that natural law of tonality...." A statement that—with all due respect to TT, a man more erudite and experienced than I shall ever hope to be—is of course boorish nonsense and a great, if excusable, folly. There is nothing natural about our modern-day tonality which has as much to do with Pythagoras's findings as Brooklyn slang has to do with ancient Athenian Greek. Nor is the 'circle-of-fifths-twelve-compromised-semitones-to-the-octave-tuned-tonality' in any way, shape or form "natural," much less akin to law, to other cultural realms.

Now I'll defend my values, arbitrary as I know them to be, almost as vigorously as Terry Teachout might... and I, too, think that in music, western tonality as we now know it produces superior results... but I find that calling "natural law" that which is verifiably neither 'natural' nor 'law' decidedly unhelpful. Let us be content that our music, for its tonality, is more beautiful (to our ears, at least) and that in that happy realm there were few greater than Master Haydn!

11.1.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 21 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

I had heard mixed things about the Gewandhaus-Quartett's Beethoven string quartets on the little Swiss lable NCA. Or, to be precise, I had heard fairly unflattering things. The tenor was: ‘Why bother?’
The new issue of Fanfare reviews the complete set and comest to a different, much kinder conclusion. I paraphrase: "Not a first, much less 'only' choice - but interesting for those who know the works well and want to hear the works in a different way." Well, Tower Records had some of the issues (the late quartets) in the clearance section, so I picked three up at $5.25 each. The Fanfare review is better than anything I could write... and accurate enough for all I can tell. The point I wish to make is one I have not seen commented upon elsewhere - namely the inclusion of Beethoven's own transcription of his op.14, No. 1 E-major piano sonata for string quartet. No other cycle of LvB-String Quartets I know of includes this oddity, nor - off the top of my head - do I know of single discs that do.

This is a fine semi-precious to enjoy, not just for completists. Beethoven hated most transcriptions of his works and judging from what he had to say about particular transcriptions (of his works - by others), he felt downright raped by them. Still, he did a few himself (the Violin Concerto - twice, the 4th Piano Concerto, the 2nd Symphony, “Die Grosse Fuge”) - and in this transcription he took considerable pride. Rightly so, because without altering the work much (it's transposed up a semitone to F), he manages to make it sound as though it had always been a string quartet (especially the first movement). And for what would have been his first work in the genre, it's a very fine speciment, too!

Whether you love the piano sonatas or the quartets, it is worth looking into it - at least (or especially) at the clearance price. (Last I looked, there were a few more copies at the 2000 Penn Tower.)


8.1.05

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 4, Gergiev 

(published first at ionarts)

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 4, Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra, Philips 02894708422
Valery Gergiev continues with his cycle of Shostakovich's "War Symphonies," a concept that he stretches to include Symphonies No. 4 through 9. The idea of a new, even if truncated, DSCH cycle from a Russian conductor and outfit is an exciting one, given the allure that the Mravinsky cycle (Melodiya) still holds and the technical polish that the Kirov has achieved under the often fiery Gergiev. Certainly this—especially if ever completed—would be a rival to the Western Bernhard Haitink traversal and the "East-West hybrid" that is Rudolf Barshai's survey? With four of six planned symphonies under his belt, the verdict is not quite in.

His recording of Symphony No. 7 was widely considered a minor effort, but his recording of Nos. 5 and 9 (an ingenious coupling of DSCH's most accessible and enjoyably wild symphonies) I thought was quite excellent. No. 5 is bombastic, much like André Previn's famous recording (RCA), but sharper and better recorded. It does not have the refinement of Haitink (London) or the clarity of Barshai (in a very different, transparent version on Brilliant) but could well go near the top of anyone's list. No. 9 is even better with Gergiev perfectly capturing the wistful character. The whole symphony becomes a dancing feast of music; not the only way to play this music, but the most fun I've heard so far.

Now Symphony No. 4 is out, and I was initially taken by it. If this most Mahlerian of Shostakovich's symphonies (just listen to the opening of the 2nd movement to hear Mahler with a Russian accent) is not as difficult to grasp as the disjointed structure and independent, parallel elements would suggest, it is because of its wild, riveting, sometimes abrasively glorious assault on our senses.

The momentum Gergiev builds over the course of the third (and last) movement is near irresistible. Alas, it also points to what, under closer examination, becomes one of its flaws: Gergiev is off to an awfully slow start. You have to stick with him for at least the first movement's 25 minutes to know that the ride will be worth the price of admission. Compare to that Barshai's first movement (at 27 minutes a bit slower) and it will only underscore that impression. Barshai (who knew DSCH personally and had worked with him) gets his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra worked up from the start, like a twitching race-horse out of the stalls. Barshai enters into the first movement headlong; Gergiev, cautious.

The playing of the Kirov, meanwhile, is everything we have come to expect of them. Precise, but not entirely at the cost of the Russian sound: that lingering of chaos just beneath the surface of cohesion. The second movement, too, seems dormant, but then, three minutes into the largo of the 3rd movement, the whole work, very broadly, picks up momentum, shifts like a stone giant awoken, and even the lyrical passages cannot thwart the ensuing energy. It's subtle, less forward than the blazing Barshai, fostered by the softer, rounder sound of the Philips recording. (That sound is more of a distraction in the earlier movements where the xylophones, especially, could be a bit more "bony" for a greater, harsh effect. The SACD version of this recording will be forthcoming in early 2005 and should be an improvement on the already commendable sound.)

Imperceptibly, Gergiev builds up this force in the Allegro of the finale and rides it home with great fanfare (literally). While better than many other recordings, I hesitate to make it my top recommendation. But given that Barshai is only available as part of the (admittedly ridiculously cheap and consistently wonderful) complete set on Brilliant, it will be worth to acquire the Hybrid SACD version (for the same price), especially for those with high-end systems.

7.1.05

Cultural Calendar 

I miss many performances, simply because I never find out about them in time or forget about them, or forget to check in the first place. This is the first of, I hope, many (and increasing in completenes) cultural calendards at IONARTS. Where possible, links to ticket-purchases are indicated... Performances colored in Green are free of charge, performances colored in dark green are free but require tickets.

Performances in bold are considered to be particularly noteworthy by IONARTS. Abbreviations are KC for Kennedy Center, TT for Terrace Theater (at the KC), 'Freer' for the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian, NGA for the National Gallery of Art, LOC for the Library of Congress.


Sunday, Jan. 9th
02.00 pm Freer Gallery: Iranian Film Festival: Canary
06.30 pm NGA: ???

Monday, Jan. 10th
06.00 pm KC, TT "What to Listen for in Music: American Composers of the 1940s"

Tuesday, Jan. 11th
07.30 pm KC, Kirov Ballet: Cinderella

Wednesday, Jan. 12th
04.00 pm KC, Kirov Ballet: Masterclass
07.30 pm KC, Kirov Ballet: Cinderella

Thursday, Jan. 13th

07.00 pm KC, NSO, Heinz Fricke: Christine Brandes (soprano) in Wagner, Mozart, R.Strauss
07.30 pm KC, Kirov Ballet: Cinderella

Friday, Jan. 14th
07.00 pm Freer, Iranian Film Festival: Here, a Shining Light
07.30 pm KC, Kirov Ballet: Cinderella
08.00 pm KC, NSO / Heinz Fricke: Christine Brandes (soprano) in Wagner, Mozart, R.Strauss

Saturday, Jan. 15th
01.30 pm KC, Kirov Ballet: Cinderella
02.00 pm KC, TT, Krzysztof Jablonski (WPAS - sold out)
08.00 pm KC, NSO / Heinz Fricke: Christine Brandes (soprano) in Wagner, Mozart, R.Strauss

Sunday, Jan 16th
01.30 pm KC, Kirov Ballet: Cinderella
02.00 pm KC, TT, Kennedy Center Chamber Players in Monteverdi, Poulenc, Hindemith and R. Strauss



6.1.05

Schöne Wiege, meiner Leiden 

(published first at ionarts)

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Schöne Wiege Meiner Leiden, Werner Güra, Christoph Berner (2004), Harmonia Mundi 79488175252 – HMC 901842
Three very different approaches to the Lied from very different singers came out in the last months: all-Schumann discs with baritones Christian Gerhaher (RCA) and Matthias Goerne (Decca) as well as the concept album Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden with tenor Werner Güra and pianist Christoph Berner, containing songs by Johannes Brahms (ten of the Volkslieder), seven songs by Clara Schumann, and her husband's Liederkreis, op. 24.

The close relation between the three composers and their Lieder output is emphasized by letters between the three, included in the gorgeous booklet. Starting with Brahms, the selection includes the most beautiful, charming, slightly melancholic songs of the collection of German folksongs. The Clara Schumann songs are based on poems by Rückert, Rillett, and Heine, and the Liederkreis, too, represents the finest of the sweetest of the German Lied.

Da unten im Tale is easily my favorite Brahms song. Neither his deepest, nor his most intricate, nor likely his best song, but unsurpassed in simple beauty and earthy intelligence stemming from the combination of melody and text (in dialect) that breathes the relaxed, subtle wisdom of ages; gentle, but disarmingly realistic. If all you know of Brahms songs are his Vier ernste Gesänge, this will be the cure you needed to love, rather than admire, Brahms's songs.

Werner Güra, meanwhile, offers one of the most pleasing tenors in songs that I have heard in a long time. Admittedly, I am (positively) biased towards lower registers, and perhaps it is the low center of gravity of his voice (not a low range, mind you) that gives his notes, even the high ones, a well-rounded quality. There isn't the clarity of a young Peter Schreier or Ian Bostridge, but audible comfort, an armchair of a voice, miles away from shrill or high-strung. Meanwhile, Christoph Berner supplies felt and sensitive playing on an 1877 Friedrich Ehrbar piano (which takes care of the balance automatically, it seems), as well the booklet notes which are, as well as the letters, provided in English, German, and French.

Clara Schumann's Warum willst Du and're fragen? shows that she could, in Romantic songs, match her husband step for step in beauty and effect. The Liederkreis provides most satisfactory listening; maturity and romantic yearning in equal measure. Pronunciation is not an issue for Güra; diction impeccable. The interpretation is closer to the lyrical Bostridge (EMI) than the declamatory, sober Fischer-Dieskau (DG).

As the booklet notes, "this CD relates an astonishing musical conversation between the three [Brahms and the Schumanns] of them. Here in songs and letters is a musical and literary journey into Romanticism at its most exalted." True enough; and a very successful concept album for once. While booklet notes, no matter how extensive, cannot pretend to give a detailed picture of the correspondence between the three and is more a whetting of the appetite than it is a full fledged "literary journey," it is splendid for what it is. As an introduction to German art song, I could not think of a better CD in existence. But even to veterans of the Lied it is worth a listen for both the luscious selection of songs and the luscious tenor of Mr. Güra. An hour of pure enjoyment—highly recommended!

4.1.05

Mahler, Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" 

(published first at ionarts)

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No. 2, Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (SFB 82193600062)
It may be coincidence that my Mahler collection contains more Mahler 2nd symphonies than any other. It may also be coincidence that that symphony seems to have been particularly well served by the recording industry, but its popularity is certainly no coincidence. It combines all the elements that make Mahler's symphonies great. It is typical of his work, yet accessible, imposing; has folk influences, mystic gravity; it has voice solos and a choir; it isn't as over-the-top as the garishly divine Eighth nor as forbidding as the Seventh, more varied than the First or Fifth.

I have not yet heard a bad recording of it, either. "One-piece-conductor" Gilbert Kaplan brings raw excitement to it in his LSO recording (Conifer—sadly no longer with the lavish presentation but with better sound and at mid-price); in his second recording (of the newly edited score) with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG) he achieves perfect sound and great polish. Simon Rattle (EMI) presents the Birmingham SO at its best and is blessed with Arleen Auger and Janet Baker as the soloists. Claudio Abbado's first two recordings (Chicago, Berlin, DG) were splendid, and his third (Lucerne, DG—see ionarts review) tops both for capturing the excitement of the live performance. Bruno Walter (Sony) brings his intimate knowledge of Mahler to his recording, and Seiji Ozawa has the most electrifying version in his all-Japanese recording with the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Sony). Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic (DG) is broader but still heart-on-sleeve his second time around with that band, and perhaps it is because of this competition that Otto Klemperer's seminal version with Schwartzkopf and Rössl-Majdan (EMI) is a bit disappointing upon revisiting it. Add to these (and several more) the latest installment of Michael Tilson Thomas's Mahler cycle with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on their own label. His soloists are Isabel Bayrakdarian (soprano) and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo soprano), and the recording enters the catalogue as a success.

I have to note that I did not yet have a chance to listen to the recording in SACD surround sound, clearly an essential part of the issue's attraction (limiting the direct competition in the field to Messrs. Zander and Kaplan II.) But the performance itself is worth a review.

Hunt Lieberson has become one of the greatest mezzos over the course of the last six years, and yet somehow did so overnight. Her Bach and Handel recordings showcase her rich voice, casting hues that many other singers should envy, if they don't already. At the same time, her natural and honest tone is perfectly suited to Urlicht ("Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht"—Very solemn, but simple/plain). It is worth noting that that simplicity and naturalness in the "Primal Light" fourth movement come out of a score where the first 35 bars witness no fewer than 21 changes of meter.

MTT's take on this symphony, recorded live in June 2004, feels elastic, lithe (but not light), sometimes tip-toeing, sometimes smashing with all the requisite weight into the sea of music. There is freshness to how he bursts into the finale, and the brass are well captured, in tune, and never brash or blazing. The soundstage is closer than in Kaplan's recording, where the distant horns, in their attempt to attain maximum effect and authenticity, border on the gimmicky. In stereo, the orchestra is well balanced.

The two-disc set splits the symphony after the first movement (23:19), giving each listener who should be so inclined the chance to observe the Mahler-mandated five-minute break before resuming with the next three movements before the finale. The choral entry in that 5th movement is sufficiently hushed but maybe not the most impressive. But the SFSO, by now well versed in Mahler, picks it up wonderfully, transporting the movement to a plane where Mme. Bayrakdarian enters with her soft voice at maximum vibrato. MTT gathers the fine momentum for the last five minutes and brings the symphony to a rousing finish.

While final thoughts carry with them the caveat of not having been able to experience and compare the SACD sound, this second symphony is a strong contender in a strong field. A perfectly fine account for anyone looking for a first Mahler 2nd, but not the only one to have and not an unambiguous first choice. Ozawa and Abbado III (especially if the latter ever comes out as an SACD) ought not to be missed, and I'll probably turn to Rattle (sadly overpriced as it is) just as often. For those who have followed MTT it might be a must-have, although a friend and Hi-Fi "Mahlerinarian" whom I trust told me rather unflattering things about the surround sound, denting its chances to become the High-Fidelity listener's favorite.

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