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29.7.05

Final Summer Thursday Classic with the BSO 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Calm Sea..., Mass in C, J.E.Gardiner, ORR
The final Summer Thursday Classics concert of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s series at Strathmore was a worthy finale, indeed. The 9th Symphony of Beethoven – one of the musical pillars of Western civilization – alone has the nobility and grandeur to make for an eminently uplifting evening. The most welcome coupling with the all-too-rarely heard “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” (Goethe’s Meereststille und gückliche Fahrt further sweetened the deal.

As the program notes (sadly without texts) helpfully pointed out, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is not the description of an all-ideal watery journey but rather contrasts the negative with the positive. A calm sea, when sailing was the way to get about on the seas, was the last thing you needed to get swiftly from A to B. It would have taken forever and you better not have had perishable goods or impatient passengers on board. Get a good wind under those sails though and you’d have advanced speedily and happily if roughly. Accordingly the two elements in this work are calm and mourning for the first poem, wild and joyous for the second.

The BSO and Baltimore Choral Arts Society’s hushed entry was as delicious as the more forceful parts were rousing. Only in terms of clarity (and possibly diction) could the choir have improved upon; without the text it was impossible to catch more than a few words. A minor quibble, admittedly, given the limited number of German speakers in the audience.

Some of the principal players of the BSO were not present – we assume that they are in Marin-Alsop-appreciation-Boot-Camp – but that didn’t keep the BSO from following Jeffrey Kahane with agility and verve. I’ve heard bigger-boned ninths and I’ve heard more otherworldly openings (an entry that suggests, like Wagner’s Rheingold prelude – the very beginning of the universe), but there were no faults to be found. Wherever instruments had particularly exposed moments, excellent individual contributions (flutes especially, horns perhaps less so) could be registered. It was heartening that barely a seat was empty at an continuously impressive Strathmore hall that strikes as slightly less booming than it had been in the first few months. Mr. Kahane took the work at a crisp speed (the 9th, alone among his symphonies, does not have metronome markings, which probably makes whichever chosen speeds less controversial than where there are retrofitted ones as in, say, the third symphony) leaving the Allegro in the Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso of the first movement, for example.

The second movement, separated from the first by well-meant if slightly misplaced applause, with its wonderfully modern, punctuated runs was superb fun and a truly Molto vivace. (If you want to check out how extremely modern that movement really is, watch Clockwork Orange and listen to the Wendy/Walter Carlos synthesized version!) If the beginning of the fourth movement (Presto and Allegro assai vivace, alla Marcia) was not at the same level as the preceding three, it was due to individual instruments breaking out in a part where they should be part of a fluctuating whole. But even that was reined in quickly. The soloists for the performance were Indra Thomas (soprano), Barbara Rearick (mezzo), Michael Hendrick (tenor) and Michael Borowski (bass). The singers can make or break a performance of the 9th – here they did neither. Mr. Borowski certainly left nothing to be desired in terms of volume or sonority. But there was also an inappropriate vibrato that made the words and several phrases rather a mush. Nor were the other soloists’ voices distinctly in the service of the music but rather vice versa. Mr. Hendrick (who I have heard quite a while ago in the NSO’s staged La Clemenza di Tito) was slightly better in that regard and if he didn’t present a great voice, he managed the challenging Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen admirably. The Choral Arts Society music director Tom Hall’s choir, heavy on female voices (67 vs. 26) thundered away with palpable delight and to impressive effect. And though outnumbered almost three to one, the men were hardly lacking in heft.

Even if the soloists turned part of the fourth movement into a vanity fair of vocal chords – humility would have befitted the singers more in this work than operatic flair and ego – it was not sufficient to drag down an entirely enjoyable and moving performance that should have caused at least a few moist eyes. Bravo.

A repeat performance will take place at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tonight at 7.30PM .

The Ninth out of the Can

So many recordings of the 9th exist that choosing one (why only one, anyway?) might be daunting. And then the question remains whether one wants the most inspired or fervent or beautiful or uplifting performance. Here are a few candidates for consideration along different lines of preference:

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.9, W.Furtwägler, BPh
Historic(al) performances: Furtwängler remains one of the – if not the – most important interpreter of any Beethoven symphony and particularly the 9th. His post-war Bayreuth (EMI) and Lucerne performances are rightly famous. But most searing, truly chilling and heart wrenching are some of the war-time recordings. Performed in the knowledge that they might well be bombed mid-triad, these readings have an urgency that is unsurpassed. You may also wish to read something political into a performance that calls upon all people to become brothers in the midst of fascist Berlin. The 1942 radio broadcast (currently available on Archipel, Music & Arts and Classica D'Oro) might be the best example. Probably not a ‘first’ recording due to the naturally limited sound quality, but once you know the work well, you should give it a try and listen through the hiss to the actual interpretation.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.9, L.Bernstein, BPh
Historic, if not historical, is also Bernstein’s live Berlin performance (DG) in celebration of German unification. The record is titled “Ode to Freedom” as Lenny poignantly exchanged “Joy” (Freude) with “Freedom” (Freiheit) in the text. Not only appropriate given the context – the end of communist oppression for almost 20 million Germans – but also with a claim to would-be accuracy. As Jeffrey Kahane pointed out in his helpful, brief introduction, Schiller is said to have considered calling the poem “Ode to Freedom”. Perhaps he wasn’t too excited about another spell in prison and thought better of it…? The performance with strong soloists may not be the last word in recordings of the 9th, but it captures the excitement of a historic moment from the midst of our lives very well.

Karajan’s 1962- and more so the 1977 versions are beautiful and offer polish without overdoing it as much as in his 80’s recording (all DG). I always go back to the Abbado recording from the Salzburg festival (live) with the Berlin Philharmonic and an outstanding cast of singers in Jeanne Eaglen, Waltraud Meier, Ben Heppner and Bryn Terfel. On a mid-price Sony, I’d make it the library version, ahead even of a similarly priced, wonderful RCA recording with Günter Wand.

For those who crave authentic instruments and performance practice, the Gardiner recording with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Archiv) is the go-to disc. He, alone among his ‘performance practice’ brethren, pulls the 9th off without making it sound a poor and haggard relative of its more ‘traditionally’ interpreted versions.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.9, C.Abbado, BPh, Eaglen, Meier, Heppner, Terfel
available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.9, J.E.Gardiner, ORR, Orgonasova, von Otter, Cachemaille, Rolfe Johnson

It's Shadowtime 

(published first at ionarts)

When ‘jumping for joy’ in honour of a known work, or holding it up to execration, you may be writing in accordance with the prevailing view or against it. Now suppose that you are urging your readers to amend the unfavourable opinion they entertain of works which you think highly of: you are promising them something positive, an addition to the range of their enjoyment. They may wonder at finding works which leave them cold described as thrilling and lovable, yet eventually be swayed by the inducement held out.
On the contrary, if you are trying to make people see that their taste and faith is at fault, the position is that you are holding out no direct, positive inducement: ostensibly, you are proposing, not to add to their stock of artistic pleasure, but to detract from it. The task is as graceless as that of taking a bone from a dog. […] Wordsworth is reported to have alleged that ‘a stupid invention, in prose or verse, is quite harmless’. Knowing how much smaller the average man’s capacity for and chances of assimilating music are than with literature and the other arts, how very much less varied his musical experiences are than any others, one could hardly say the same with reference to the stupid inventions in music with which the world is overrun. Judicious criticism, therefore, has a great and much needed part to play with regard to the extirpation of bad music.
(M.D.Calvocoressi, "Musical Criticism", 1931)
Last Friday, I saw “Shadowtime”, Brian Ferneyhough’s “thought opera” on the life and work of Walter Benjamin at Lincoln Center Festival. As the Star-Ledger wrote on July 10th, 2005, the festival has a way of “showcasing experimental new operas that likely could not find a home at a standard American opera house.” And experimental an opera “Shadowtime” is. Some might question whether it is opera at all, but that of course would be as silly as the claims (that I’ve heard) that “Peter Grimes” is not opera or, for that matter, should not be called art. Shadowtime an opera, it is art… it is merely difficult art based on a difficult subject and with an aim (according to composer and librettists Charles Bernstein) to target the engaged and thinking, rather than sympathetic listener. I am not sure if “unreconstructed high modernism” would do any more to explain the opera than a summary of the non-existent plot or the suggestion that it sounded like sheet music of John Adam’s sent through the shredder and randomly glued back together, but it is this critic’s best attempt to describe charitably the experience that has brought him the closest to physical pain ever experienced in a concert.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Schlosberg, A hero takes morphine, but it won't ease the pain (New York Newsday, July 26)

Fred Kirshnit, Shadows of Schonberg (New York Sun, July 25)

Anthony Tommasini, For a New Operatic Type, Complexity Rules (New York Times, July 23)

Bradley Bambarger, Ferneyhough's 'Shadowtime' -- Absolutely inscrutable (Newark Star-Ledger, July 23)

David Patrick Stearns, Daunting imaginary journey (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 23)

Anne Ozorio, BRIAN FERNEYHOUGH: Shadowtime, An opera in seven acts (Seen and Heard International, July 9)

Tess Crebbin, Life and Death (Music & Vision, June 3, 2004)
As the New York Times pointed out in an article on the subject of this opera on July 17th, Theodor Adorno defended difficult music as “having its own social value precisely because it teaches us to withhold understanding and therefore helps us resist the allure of false clarity in the world beyond the concert hall. Complexity, in other words, is a worthy ideal in art because reality is even more complex and dissonant than the thorniest work of modernism, even if politicians and the commercial culture reassure us that everything is simple, clear and harmonious.” But does that really justify the “ambiguity and often impenetrable surfaces” that Mr. Bernstein figures are crucial because of the opera’s subject matter? That impenetrability starts from the opening sounds. Street-scene like, a cacophony arises with chattering aborted here and there, sparks of ideas that fade away as soon as they flare up. Before long the tones and musical sputtering settle in, though… attributable to the ear and mind adjusting, I suppose, rather than the music relenting. And that is just Shadowtime’s – dare I say “traditional” – overture.

Language is employed as a formative element of the rhythm and music, but all a garble of German phrases, English sentence fragments and hissing, hiccupping. Which might be arresting, if it were in the least bit new – which, full-blown modernism though it may be, it simply isn’t. If you’ve heard a faire share of modern works, vocal or not, then you’ve heard the truncated musical huffs, the upward surging lines and other stock phrases that are almost identical in every second avant-garde work. (Eespecially those for solo flute.) The long guitar solo of scene II gave plenty of time to be mesmerized by a video-loop of changing train-schedule boards… or at least ponder the point whether such music, such an opera, can convey anything (and if so, what) to its audience.

Somewhere between Scene II and III (it seemed like an interlude at first), the bass Ekkehard Abele, who portrayed Walter Bejamin, sat in his chair, holding a cut-out of Benjamin’s likeness in front of his face and did not move for over 20 minutes. The chorus hissed and hummed around in abrupt patterns. “Ideas are supposed to beget ideas” in these short-breathed musical phrases of Brian Ferneyhough (in accordance with Benjamin’s philosophy ) – but all too orderless complexity begets only numbness of the mind and other senses. Rather than preparing for the complexities of the real world, it seems to undermine our willingness to deal with any complexities whatsoever. Certainly the fair share of audience members that had fallen asleep by now, were successfully avoiding present complexities.

At one point, Marimba-sounds accompanied a Walter Benjamin striptease, tempting commentary on the philosophical depth of seeing the layers of the impenetrable philosopher fall before us, down to the very nakedness of the man – if not existence itself. Well… its boxer-shorts at any rate. An anagram section in scene III (13 Canons on the Doctrine of Similarity) plays with the many possibilities of reassembling Walter Benjamin’s name. "Bann A Real Jew Tim" or something of the sort. The visually appealing backdrop with shadowplays and projections had, at times, a Monty-Pythonesque character. The costumes of chorus, various shapes yet uniform looking through the use of similar shades of blue could have doubled as North Korean concentration camp garb.

Pianist Nicolas Hodges was swirled around the stage with his Steinway in scene IV “Opus Contra Naturam” as he performed fiendishly difficult music while reciting text. Brian Ferneyhough’s piano writing revealed no particular purpose or goal or inherent quality: it merely was… and therefore quite unlike the intellectual appreciable Boulez sonatas, or the gorgeous and telling Carter sonata, recently heard at the French-American Contemporary Film Festival. Humor was attempted with nonchalant combinations of high-brow phrases with off-beat delivery and the banal. After 90 minutes of sounds lacking any form resembling anything graspable, the very mention of a warmly familiar phrase like “knock knock” was able to score laughs of palpable relieve. The Pseudo-existential questions of the interrogations in Scene V “Pool of Darkness” were cute at times (“is it possible to know to have forgotten without remembering?”) but more often were as deep as “if 7-11 is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, why are there locks on the door?” Not terribly mind-bending, at any rate, even if this particular ‘conundrum’ may not actually have appeared in the work.

The backdrop for this scene was a collection of suspended red/black cut outs featuring: A gargoyle (or headless ghoul, as the program tells me), three mouths (at least two of which come close to violating a trademark of the Rolling Stones), a Nosferatu (actually Baal Shem Tov, disguised as a vampire), a screaming Hitler (“who considers the nature of existence”), a triple headed hydra with Groucho and Karl Marx’s and a French bulldog's head, Pope Pius XII, a pipe-sucking Albert Einstein, one Jean of Arc and a late addition of a peasant zombie (Golem).

The penultimate scene (VI) over “Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia (Second Barrier)” finally was poignant as all the behind-the-scenes elements of stage props, lighting, hydraulics, neon lights etc. were revealed. This utter nakedness of the stage and the views into the wings it allowed, slowly, pulley by pulley, prop by prop, was a deconstruction along Brechtian lines that nearly made sense of the pondering tableaux that included phrases like “Truth / Is a gun loaded with a parachute”, “if you can’t see it, it can still hurt you”, “whether what is is so because / Is so because it’s not”.

Without trying to be ungrateful, I think the performance fell into the "Happy to have been there, happier yet not having to go back" category. Brian Ferneyhough’s music, challenging our senses (or tolerance) was mastered with the greatest imaginable aplomb by the singers and players of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, pianist and reciter Nicolas Hodges and guitar soloist Mats Scheidegger. Jurjen Hempel conducted; Frédéric Fisbach directed.

27.7.05

Shostakovich 8 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
D. Shostakovich, Sy. #8, M. Rostropovich / LSO
Even if you know how to approach and appreciate Dmitry Shostakovich’s works, it might take quite a few repeat experiences with any particular symphony in order to have a modest grasp of it. The 8th symphony is no different in that regard. “Unhealthy individualism” and “pessimism” were attested to this stubbornly tragic work when it was singled out for criticism at the 1948 conference of culture-apparatchiks that condemned Russia’s best composers. (It was to have celebrated the turn of the tide in the war - and it just didn't sound like much of a celebration...)

The opening upward fifth after a few introductory bars teases with expectations of the 5th symphony, but neither the younger sister-symphony’s increasingly propulsive character nor her final (if disingenuous) victory march are to be had in the 8th. There is much tumult in the long first movement as well as the short and fast second and third movements. But the Largo and the final Allegretto are calm and cold in comparison.

available at Amazon
D. Shostakovich, Sy. #8, M. Jansons / PittSO
Rostropovich knew Shostakovich (though I was not was not aware that they were “dear friends” as the booklet claims) and he seems to be setting out on a second cycle of DSCH’s symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra on their own label. (A good idea, because the first cycle was mostly forgettable. So far, a fine 5th and an 11th are out. My copy of the latter has a serious production flaw and I have yet to hear from the label if that was just an off-batch or if indeed it is a more widespread problem.)

The overall structure of the 8th may be put into words easily enough, but it is difficult to understand ‘from the inside’, partly because of the meandering first movement, the Adagio-Allegro non troppo. The latter part of the movement has a rather typical Shostakovich build-up of force (with repeated themes and small musical cells, rhythms, xylophone and timpani-supported marches and many mini-climaxes) but then ends in a long, quiet and reflective (or numb?) cor anglais melody that takes you out of the movements’ greatest upheaval.

The resonant and forceful second movement (Allegretto) may be grim and sardonic – but the inner ear can grab a hold of it and with the Allegreo no troppo of the third movement (both are about seven minutes long, compared to over 20 minutes for the first movement and around 15 for the last two) it is one of the keys through which the symphony reveals itself.

Despite slightly recessed sound that is lacking that last bit of clarity (everything very dry, not quite muffled though), Rostropovich brings this live performance off most impressively. I like the sound of Barshai’s (Brilliant – West German Radio SO) and Jansons (EMI – Pittsburgh SO) recording a smidgen better (Barshai’s clear but cool, Jansons rich but not damp) and the third movement is more resistible with Rostropovich. But the cellist-turned-conductor holds more than his own in this symphony. BBC magazine for one, though they might have to be excused for their British bias, thinks that this is the new reference recording of the 8th. I myself would have a difficult time rating any of the three versions I compared between as significantly better than another – all three satisfy. Gergiev’s version of the 8th is bound to come out soon and should make a new, interesting comparison. Like the Rostropovich recording, the Gergiev would be available in the SACD format.

25.7.05

Alsop the Third 

This is the third (and presumably last) article discussing the appointment of Marin Alsop as Music Director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Previous opinions can be found here and here.

Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop, as we know now, will be the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Designate in the 2006-07 season and then the Music Director from 2007-08 to 2009-10. Lacking divination, we won’t know what those years will bring exactly, but that can’t keep us from speculating wildly.

There are enough positives about Alsop that even those who regard her critically might find reason for hope. Ironically, one of those great strengths – her devotion and particular ability with 20th century and contemporary repertoire – may not even appeal to the musically more conservative circles that so urgently wanted her to lead the BSO. (So urgently indeed, that they did not mind ruffling many feathers among the BSO’s presumably most important employees, the musicians.) Ionarts, however, should be very excited about that particular aspect of Ms. Alsop’s tenure to come. While Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Ellen Twaafe Zwillich, Joan Towers, Jennifer Higdeon, Christoph Rouse and John Adams are hardly hard-core modernist fare among contemporary and recent classical music, it’s still choice repertoire that has been neglected in the region, despite Leonard Slatkin’s worthy and admirable efforts. Since I have decried the BSO’s conservative programming of romantic stalwarts under Yuri Temirkanov on a few occasions, I ought to hail the naming of a conductor as MD that excels in the above named composers and has her baton-holding hand very much on the beating pulse of music. (Not coincidentally she will conduct Rouse and Corigliano performances with the BSO in 2006) I can only hope that she will bring the enthusiasm, communicativeness and ingenuity of a David Zinman to the BSO.

available at Amazon
Philip Glass, Symphony Nos.2 & 3, M.Alsop / BmthSO
available at Amazon
J. Adams, Shaker Loops, M.Alsop / BmthSO
If you are interested in dipping your ears in some of that which might be to come, try two particular recordings of maestra Alsop. Her recording of Philip Glass’ 2nd and 3rd symphonies is a must-have, anyway. Those two works are among the most enjoyable works of Glass’, especially for those who have reservations about too much minimalism á la “Einstein on the Beach”. Superior to symphonies nos. 5 & 8 (the other ones either available on record or recently heard live), they are at least as well recorded and played as the Nonesuch recordings under the estimable Dennis Russell Davies. They may lack the attractive couplings, but on one disc at eight dollars as opposed to two discs á $17 each, it is a steal.

The other record I particularly recommend is the John Adams “Shake Loops” disc with “Short Ride in a Fast Machine”, “The Wound-Dresser” and “Berceuse Elégiaque”. Also on Naxos, playing and interpretation is exemplary. I’ll be sure to listen to those recordings whenever my gripes about her nomination threaten to take over. Hopefully Marin Alsop won’t swear off that repertoire, tough, given that she has recently expressed her displeasure with the automatic association of her with contemporary American repertoire. In the San Francisco Chronicle (August 5th, 2004) she told Joshua Kosman that she is “trying to get away from the American Stigma”, relating how her European career (Bournemouth, mostly) and her recording projects (Brahms with the London Philharmonic Orchestra) were “steeped in the standard repertoire”.

It is that standard repertoire that I have my doubts about with Ms. Alsop. Her recording of the Brahms 1st Symphony I thought to be nothing special, to say the least (though got some favorable reviews in the press) – and her Brahms 3rd at the Strathmore recently was less inspiring, still. To be fair though: one really ought to ask Bournemouth audiences to get a better picture of her way with such works. Everyone can produce lackluster Brahms. Bernhard Haitink, for example, just finished a distinctively indistinctive Brahms cycle with the LSO and no one would dare question Maestro Haitink’s abilities re: Brahms or any other “standard repertoire” composer. (Nor would it keep me from dancing on the table – as I promise I would/will – if Haitink were to be nominated a conductor in the region!)

Recording prolifically has raised Marin Alsop’s profile considerably and we can hope that she might continue that with the BSO who could use the challenge. Unfortunately, that may remain a hope elusive given the self-defeating and (quite frankly:) insane restrictions and powers that the unions in U.S. orchestras impose and wield. Only if the BSO moved outside the union restrictions for the purpose of recording – like the Philadelphia Orchestra had to in order to sign a contract with Ondine – might there be a chance to profit from Ms. Alsop’s recording activities. (The unions still hold enough power, as any Philadelphia Orchestra member can tell you. Just recently the union rep. successfully managed to torpedo a patch-up session for Mahler that the PhilO had recorded on their Asia tour, because it was likely to go beyond the session limits by 15 to 30 minutes.)

If you add to Marin Alsop’s record with new music and her recording success two more crucial elements that work in her favor, it becomes clear why the board shoved its MD pick down the musicians’ throat: She’s undoubtedly a media darling – not the least because she’s a female in the last bastion of a rampantly chauvinistic and patriarchic profession. This might well translate into favorable and extensive media coverage and particularly more, new, sponsors and donors for the needy (very needy) BSO. Also: the maestra is inexpensive. Word has it that she will take in less than half a million US dollars per year – a basement bargain for a renown conductor… and somewhere between a third and 10th of what Temirkanov costs the BSO. To whatever extent it is also a statement about her rank among conductors – glass ceiling or not – is difficult to tell.

Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop
What remains most important about a conductor is their ability to bring an Orchestra to the next level. The BSO, for all its quality, has plenty of room for improvement. Is Ms. Alsop the conductor who can do that? I have my doubts. Not only is the move from Mr. Temirkanov – and I am no enthusiastic fan of his, either – to Ms. Alsop not a step up, I simply can’t see in her the drill-master that the BSO needs to reach those new and higher planes. (Lorin Maazel, for example, could be the type that would ensure pristine playing and no missed entries ever again… even if he isn’t always the most inspiring of conductors. Coincidentally Maazel has some experience with players of an orchestra not taking to his appointment very kindly when he started out in Cleveland.)

The orchestra certainly does not think she is what they need – as evident in their substantial disagreement with the board’s decision to name Alsop the MD. That disagreement itself should be the main worry. Starting a tenure with that many players less than enthused about their new leader might doom the all-important relationship between orchestra and conductor. In an interview on NPR’s Performance Today on Friday, Marin Alsop said that she had thought about not taking the position given the dissent among the ranks. Which begs the question: What made her decide to take it, after all? Did she, after pausing for a moment, think: “Ah, f*$# the musicians?” (It’s hardly her style, but the thought occurs.) It’s particularly puzzling since the BSO’s was certainly not the only offer from a major US orchestra likely to come Ms. Alsop’s way over the next few years. I suspect she figures that she is able to mend fences sufficiently by 2006. (If her moving speech to the orchestra ahead of the official press conference is anything to go by, she may well be right!)

Another worry I have, meanwhile, is that what (not only) I consider her strength – aforementioned way with conservative modern American classical music which could do so much to ‘Americanize’ the classical music tradition and experience here – may not be played out to its full potential. The BSO seems comfortable in the romantic (and less challenging, less novel) repertoire that has been a Temirkanov hallmark. The approach may have worked, too, as the BSO seems to be gaining audience members out of the stock of (former) NSO patrons that occasionally refuse to go along with Mr. Slatkin’s more imaginative and sophisticated (all my very subjective opinion, of course) programming. Not that I mind a Bruckner 9th, Mahler 2nd and Schostakovich 1st symphony (all of which the BSO will serve up next season… especially the DSCH should be a hoot with the acoustics of the Strathmore – Tip: Get tickets all the way up on the upper tier for a stomach-tickling rumble!). But even the tiniest bit of Carter, Wourinen, Salonen, Henze, Berio et.al. would be great for orientation in the world of (near) living classical music.

David Zinman
David Zinman
As it is, audiences can hope for the best and the players can start getting over their rightful frustrations. Meanwhile we can start delicious speculations about whom the NSO might appoint as a successor to Leonard Slatkin. Last Season has converted me from a Slatkin-doubter to a Slatkin-near-enthusiast. I dare say it’s a shame he will leave… and despite reports that say otherwise (Washington Post), it is my understanding that the players of the NSO actually would not mind if he stayed, too. (We hear that opinions that suggested that the players dislike Slatkin had been prominent in direct relation to their isolated nature.) But leave he will – and it will take a foremost conductor to fill his shoes, much less signify a step up. The NSO’s board promises to shy no expenses to get only the best. Unfortunately, there is a caveat, namely: “…that can be gotten.” Most of the great conductors that would fit the NSO are not on the market or seem unlikely to take the job. If we focus on English-speaking conductors reasonably familiar with the US cultural scene, the two foremost figures – Esa Pekka Salonen and Michael Tilson Thomas – are not going to switch coasts. A Simon Rattle could not be lured away from Berlin shy of a ticket to Paradise. Maazel is a bit old and wants to compose more, but would be very good for the NSO. David Zinman may not be a distinctive move up ‘on paper’, but would in many ways be my ideal. Ricardo Muti I can just imagine to say: “Washingtone is-a – how do you say… beneath-a me.” Another great catch might be James Conlon, a conductor who happens to be a champion of one of my favorite composers, Zemlinsky… so I am biased right there. Dennis Russell Davies and Hugh Wolff would fit part of the profile, but aren’t the big names that would necessarily scream “best-of-the-best”. Roberto Abbado doesn’t seem to popular among the players here – and Stéphane Denève whom Tim Page mentioned as a possible successor allegedly behaved in such ways during rehearsals that won’t see him reengaged in Washington for some time to come. (Unlike in Baltimore, the players’ representation on the board of the NSO – also a third – can, like any other third, veto the respective other two thirds.) All this is idle speculation of course – but it’s great fun. Like speculating on NBA trades during off-season or whether Real Madrid is sacking Beckham for Ballack. As regards the BSO, we’ll prepare for Alsop (listen to those CD’s!) and at the Kennedy Center we’ll hopefully enjoy Slatkin surpassing himself again and again in two more seasons with the NSO.

20.7.05

From Goerne to his Distant Beloved 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
L. van Beethoven / F. Schubert, Song Cycles, Goerne / Brendel
Live from Wigmore Hall come Mathias Goerne and Alfred Brendel in this Gramophone Editor’s Choice record of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (op. 98) and Schubert’s Schwanengesang (D957). EMI and Decca seem to be going toe to toe in their Saengerwettstreit - the red label pitting English tenor Ian Bostridge with Leif Ove Andsnes (Winterreise - nay) or with Mitsuko Uchida (Die schöne Müllerin - yay) against the German baritone (Ionarts reviewed his recent Mahler here in Washington) and his lieder traversals with Brendel (Winterreise - yay) or his recital pianist Eric Schneider (Schumann songs, Ionarts review here).

The winner is, no doubt, the listener. Both artists bring different qualities to the Lied (apart from the obvious difference in register), and though both can be very dramatic, they are so in dissimilar ways. Both are never less than musical and impeccable; both have some more and some slightly less successful outings. (I didn’t think much of Bostridge’s Winterreise, while I like Goerne’s; I was less taken by Goerne’s Schumann disc but love Bostridge’s Die schöne Müllerin.)

With the Beethoven/Schubert disc, Goerne has another winner. Live as it is, one might imagine a more polished or more nuanced account (haven’t we our fair share of those, though?), but Goerne leaves nothing wanting as regards drama and a compelling forward drive that adds urgency without evoking haste. With a Beethovian of the first rank like Brendel at the piano, it is needless to say that Goerne gets a most sensitive, robust, and confident accompaniment that is second to none.

Schwanengesang, too, is expertly presented, but unlike in the Beethoven, his voice appeals a little less to me here. Partly, it has to do with a shift in my preferences in songs. The more I listen to Lieder, the more I prefer a tone that just flows out of the singer’s mouth. Seemingly without effort and with a very natural sound. (Ian Partridge, Werner Güra, François LeRoux, to name a few, often embody that ideal.) In contrast, Goerne sounds slightly forced in some of the Schubert songs, with that deeply anchored chest voice of a darker, dead-serious quality. Perhaps he was, at that point in the concert, more conscious of producing the necessary volume to fill Wigmore hall with his sound? I don’t know if the Schubert was actually sung after the Beethoven, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that had been the case, given the change in naturalness of voice over the progress of an hour. (The order of applause and the encore Die Taubenpost suggest so, too.)

That personal caveat notwithstanding (and disagreeing significantly with the Gramophone reviewer who found the Schubert dramatically thought out to the last phrase), it is a very impressive and enjoyable recording of Schubert’s last songs, conveniently lumped together in a posthumously named cycle. These 14 plus 2 songs contain some of the most haunting works Schubert wrote for the voice, and unlike Brahms’s genial but austere last such efforts, are a good and accessible example of his art. The Beethoven standard, like it or not, must be Fischer-Dieskau. Brilliant as I think Dieskau’s Ferne Geliebte is, Goerne has so much to add to the cycle with his very different baritone voice and its darker quality. (In many ways, Dieskau is matched more closely by Bostridge’s singing.) An die ferne Geliebte has not seen so many recordings that we could ignore a new one of such quality. The artists themselves ought to be enough for interest in this CD, and if I withhold my most glowing recommendation from this effort, I am pleased as punch whenever I listen to it.

Decca 475 6011

15.7.05

The Return of the King? Abbado in Mahler's 6th 


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G. Mahler, Symphony No.6, C.Abbado / BPh
Claudio Abbado’s Mahler is always an event. “The Return of the Former King” remarked a Berlin Newspaper, noting Abbado’s first concert with the Berlin Philharmonic since he stepped down from his post as music director in 2002. The result was this Mahler 6th – a further step towards a complete (?) Mahler cycle of Abbado’s recorded with the Berliners in live performances. Although Abbado’s Mahler seldom strikes me as the most notable performance of any particular Mahler symphony (his accounts of the 7th – both with Chicago and Berlin excepted), I’d declare the Italian maestro the supreme Mahler conductor of our times in a heartbeat.

Generally, Abbado combines an uncanny ability for lyrical lines with complete mastery of the rhythmic subtleties and insights that allow for superior absorption of the music. He never sacrifices the emotional content in favor of analytical rigor – yet he can hardly be accused of wringing every last ounce of feeling out of the notes (á la Bernstein – not that there’s anything wrong with that… in Mahler, at any rate). Barbirolli brings more rawness, Zander a zanier punch, Bernstein dances and brings the Jewish elements to the fore, MTT has some of the finest touches when it comes to dramatic arch and unending lines, Boulez analyses like none other, offering tremendous insights, Chailly knows all about orchestral polish. What has Abbado here, that others don’t? Try him for his unimposing grasp of the music, his quiet, absolute authority, and the commitment he gets from the players in his orchestra, down to the last fiddler and the fourth flute.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.6, B.Zander
There’s humanity in his Mahler – and a universal message rather than a singular point of view. Sometimes that is more obvious (apart from aforementioned 7th’s in the 2nd from Lucerne and 3rd from Berlin), sometimes less (5th and 9th from Berlin). This 6th symphony, perhaps the hardest to enjoy upon initial meeting, is a fierce struggle between life and optimism on one side and death and resignation on the other. It’s hard on our senses, but with several listenings it will invariably yield meaning. Indeed, to me it’s like an open book compared to the 7th which I find rather more impenetrable. Perhaps it is graspable because of it being designed like a classical symphony – though of a size and with outgrowths as if it had vacationed on Three Miles Island. The last movement alone is longer than anything Brahms ever wrote.

The 6th also contains two favorite debate-items for Mahlerians. Should the Scherzo – so similar to the opening Allegro - be played as the second movement (as Mahler composed it and initially published the score) or after the falsely calm Andante as the third movement (as Mahler always performed it himself)? The other point that gets the Mahler-lover all exited is the question of whether to employ two or three ‘Hammer-blows’ in the finale. These crushing thumps (for which Mahler had a specially constructed device in mind) symbolizes (none to subtle, at that) the ‘cutting down’, the felling of the symphonies’ hero in mid-strive. Once – and he gets back up, marching on with determination. Twice – getting up, still… and seemingly overcoming adversity again. And then, the third blow falls, and this time for good – a final, fatal blow. Each one of these blows should go to the bone of the chilled listener. Mahler composed the third – but withdrew it before the first performance. Superstition – fear of its prophetic power? – is the often credited with that decision, at least by those who restore that awful, terrifying third blow.

The first controversy is somewhat muted by the programmability of our CD player – but remains an important point in live performances (and presumably recordings of live performances). Abbado opts for “Mahler the Performer” and takes the Andante first. I myself am agnostic on the issue. Or rather: Ignorant enough to side with whose good explanation for either choice I have heard most recently. If Abbado says "Andante first", then so be it.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.6, "Sir John"
When it comes to the Hammer-blows though, I am in the camp that demands three. I don’t find the effect cheap but overwhelming instead. The “superstition-argument” strikes me as very plausible. After all, this concerns the man who even tried to avoid writing a 9th symphony – by wedging Das Lied between the 8th and "9th" – for fear of the precedence set by Beethoven, Dvorak and Bruckner). The argument that the third blow should be “imagined” – expected but withheld – does not jibe with me, either. Not only is it hard for me to imagine something so real and specific on the account of its absence, but the third blow itself does not come at the ‘expected’ time anyway. Rather, it is delayed by a few bars, opening hope for a few seconds that the pinnacle has been successfully passed after all… only to strike all the harder, more devastatingly unto the hero’s neck when no longer expected. I get goose-bumps just thinking about it… and am not wont to give it up in my ideal 6th.

Unfortunately – for me – Abbado does; dampening my excitement about this installment by a good margin. It isn’t for that reason, though, that I can’t warm up to this recording altogether. It’s too nice, not gripping enough, it tells a story, rather than living it. It is in complete (but not necessarily good) contrast to the foam-at-the-mouth Barbirolli 6th. The sound is good for a live recording, but too murky to enthuse; pianissimos to subtle to hear or notice in regular listening mode. To hear the final notes – plucked A’s in the strings – I had to put on headphones and crank the stereo all the way up. Winds and strings are often surprisingly indistinct from one-another.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.6, HvK
I want to rave about Abbado’s Mahler – but this release does not give me much to play with in this issue. Perhaps the surround sound SACD, just issued, improves the matter – but I doubt anything will turn this into my favorite 6th, yet. (Apparently, the dynamic level is low on the SACD, too.) Maybe I am missing something here - as I've heard others love this recording, but I just don't know what it is. Thos who don't like the rushing, unsubtle and clipped Zander recording might find their match here. An Abbado fan won’t be talked out of this by my review (I could not even talk myself out of it), the playing and the long lines are superb, anyway… but it’s certainly no first sixth and not altogether recommended.

12.7.05

Opere on Archiv 

(published first at ionarts)


We’ve all heard how the classical music recording industry is in dire straits and how no company invests in studio opera recordings anymore. Except Harmonia Mundi when they issue perfection in Mozart, courtesy of René Jacobs (Cosi, Nozze). And except EMI when they indulge Placido Domingo in a recording of Tristan und Isolde. And, well, except Deutsche Gramophon’s Archiv label that just issued two operas that should make any classical music lover’s heart leap. The two operas in question are works that have not been recorded often and never in full before, and both have outstanding casts. Perhaps classical music is more alive than often assumed, after all. Gluck’s Paride ed Elena and Handel’s Rodelinda, under the batons of Paul McCreesh and Alan Curtis, respectively, ought to be on anyone’s wish list for this year.

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C.W. Gluck, Paride ed Elena, P. McCreesh
First to Paride: Gluck is the bridge between Baroque opera and Classical opera in such an influential way that it makes him one of the most important composers of opera, on the same level as Monteverdi and Wagner. Of the trio of Gluck’s ‘reform operas’ (Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste, Paride ed Elena, all with libretti by Raniero de’ Calzabigi), only Orfeo got a solid foothold in the repertoire. Alceste less so – but at least it’s been recorded well – magnificently so a few years ago by John Eliot Gardiner (Philips).

And here comes Paul McCreesh with Paride ed Elena and unearths magnificence. Be it Gluck himself or just the genre of opera as such, but whereas ‘transition’ in orchestral music from the Baroque to the Classical style meant ‘mannerism’ or the ‘gallant style’ of the several Bach-juniors (much maligned in the past, now more appreciated again), the three mentioned Gluck operas have none of the stylistic uncertainty, structural aimlessness, or musical free-wheeling style of the J. C. Bach keyboard concertos or their like. These works, and Paride just as much as the others, know exactly what they want (namely to rein in the “ruinous excesses of opera seria, a form bedeviled by singers whose only interest was vocal display, and dramatic truth be damned…”) and have all the traits of stylistic maturity (if, admittedly, in a style you can’t quite put your finger on at first).

Gluck took opera to a new level by fusing word and music. Prima le parole – dopo la musica! (or vice versa) as we are told in Strauss’s Capriccio on the same topic. Gluck wanted the drama to be supported by the music and not have it be an excuse for music. The acrobatic vocal binges on which composers and their ego-driven singers had gone were put to an end. Thankfully. While there is legitimate difference of opinion on this (Debussy: “Long live Rameau, down with Gluck”), I’ll happily side with those who find that by emancipating the drama, Gluck actually strengthened the music rather than making it a mere vassal to the text. The libretto becomes the dramatic reason for the music, which is elevated by eliminating empty phrases and imbuing it with dramatic meaning. Everyone wins.

That the listeners win is in good part the doing of this recording. McCreesh states that Paride “might not work in a third-rate opera house with a fourth-rate cast, but if you have a wonderful cast, then I’m convinced that it’s more than worthwhile.” He certainly convinced me of it being “worthwhile,” and he never had to worry about a fourth-rate cast. Magdalena Kosžená, Susan Gritton, Carolyn Sampson, and Gillian Webster are Paride, Elena, Amore, and “A Trojan” as well as Pallade (Pallas Athene). They sound excellent from Webster’s “Non Stegnare” to Gritton and Kosžená’s “Sempre a te saró fedele.” The music is a constant joy; it was soothing and calming to the mind when I went to bed, and it was energizing and spirited when it accompanied morning espresso and FT the next day. Libretto in Italian, French, English, and German as well as good notes are included. Godi, trionfa! Elene é tua.

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G. F. Handel, Rodelinda, A. Curtis
Rodelinda exists in a live, cut, English-language version with Janet Baker and Joan Sutherland – glorious as a vehicle for their voices but heard from the perspective of how Baroque opera is performed today, it simply won’t do. The inferior sound quality does not help. Nicholas Kraemer on Virgin (with countertenors instead of mezzos) is better in almost every regard, but Sophie Daneman is not in top form and the orchestral contribution somewhat listless. At $60 it's also rather pricey.

Alan Curtis goes back to Handel’s original version, one that is less marked by compromises to different casts as are consequent editions though he does pick two raisins from the later additions. “Vivo, tiranno” most notably – Bertarido’s aria in the penultimate scene – as well as Unulfo’s “Sono i colpi della sorte”, where a simplified, more sensitive version replaces an original that Alan Curtis describes as “‘buck up!’ vocal muscle-flexing.” (That original, if Curtis’s description intrigues more than it cautions, is included in the appendix of the recording.)

With Il Complesso Barocco under Curtis’s exacting leadership, the cast answers most every wish upon initial listening and does not let on to weaknesses that might disappoint down the road. Simone Kermes as Rodelinda, Regina de’ Longobardi is impeccably in tune, and precision and projection are outstanding. Though forceful, her voice stops short of being piercing, is never shrill but instead thick and round. The marketing coup for this recording would have been the inclusion of Renée Fleming as Rodelinda. At least in the United States, after her MET performance, this would have meant a few extra thousand copies to an audience that is less associated with Baroque opera. I only heard the broadcast, and Fleming’s voice with the warm fuzz around its edges may indeed be more comforting to a wider crowed of infrequent opera listeners… but I am not prepared to declare a qualitative difference between her and Ms. Kermes.

Marijana Mijanović, Steve Davislim, Sonia Prina, Marie-Nicole Lemieux (with lovely sounding Handel credentials on a disc with Italian cantatas by Handel), and Vito Prisante may not be household names (yet), but I found none a weakness, most a strength. A hearty welcome to this recording too, then.

If pressed to chose between the two, though, the Gluck would be my pick. The music is just a dash fresher and we might have rather more Handel operas on our shelves than Gluck, anyway.

8.7.05

Four Live Recordings of Mahler's Eighth 

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.8, Rattle / Birmingham SO
Kent Nagano's latest Mahler recording is now available in the U.S. and should bring the warm rain of Mahler-8 (re-)issues to a halt until Michael Tilson Thomas finishes his cycle with the garishly divine "Symphony of a Thousand". Prior to Nagano, Sir Simon Rattle's recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra that was hailed to the high skies in The Gramophone by Edward Seckerson. I was going to review it, but in stark contrast to Mr. Seckerson, I found it relatively un-special and, if anything, a bit rushed in the first movement as well as lacking heft and mysticism in the second. In the same review Seckerson also tore apart the Nagano recording in the same over-the-top way with which he praised the Rattle 8th that, even before hearing either account, I felt that the review was probably a tad lobsided. I put the Rattle review off until the Nagano recording came out in the U.S. and bought myself two other live recordings of Mahler's 8th to compare for myself, meanwhile. The two were Kubelik's re-released live recording on an Audite SACD and Neeme Järvi's 8th on BIS. The latter not what might come to mind for great Mahler, but it was highly recommended.

To have thought Mr. Seckerson's review "a tad lobsided" was, as it turned out, a mild understatement. To be sure, the Rattle recording is very fine - and I'd compare it to the famous Solti recording. (That, for most, would be some of the highest praise available. Not so with me, as I don't particularly think that the 'epic' Solti recording is "all that", either.) The contributions of vocalists Brewer, Isokoski, Banse, Remmert, (Jane) Henschel, Villars, Wilson-Johnson and Relyea are certainly more than adequate, but not spine-tingling exceptional. The same can be said about Nagano's Greenberg, Dawson, Matthews, Koch, Manistina, Gambill, Rother and Rootering - the latter a better Pater Profundis than Mr. Releya. But I find Nagano's recording not only not worse (forgive me for the triple negatives) but indeed better than Rattle's. Everyone knows that Gramophone has a pro-British and pro-Rattle bias... but, difference in taste acknowledging, is silly. Did Nagano shoot the editor's dog?

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.8, Nagano / Orchestra d.Dt.Opera, Berlin
For once, I could not agree more with David Hurwitz's review on Classics Today, being usually rather sceptical of their reviews. He, too, hears the heft, the mystery in this work that is so utterly lacking from other performances.
No other performance captures more of the music's mystery and sensuality, revels in the rich details of its orchestration to such a welcome degree, or offers such a clear and characterful distinction between the work's two parts. [...T]he atmosphere is palpable[...]


That is perhaps one step further than I would go (I still think that the Ozawa recording has the edge on mystery and unearthly shimmer - especially in the Chorus mysticus), but it's very close to how I feel. Nagano does offer that shimmer, that deeper, more mysterious feel, a sound from other spheres - whereas Rattle offers sound from Birmingham Symphony Hall. The prominent organ in Nagano - never overwhelming but far more present than in many other recordings - is a much appreciated touch, too. At 88 minutes (the time it takes him for the second movement is well spent!) it comes on two CD's and is - much to its detriment I think - not priced at a single discs' cost but at over $30. A major mistake on the part of Harmonia Mundi - given that much of the competition comes at the full price for one disc or less.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.8, N.Jaervi / Gotheburg SO
Before the positive impression, the first listen on inferior headphones was a shock. The choir, further back than in most recordings, sounded muffled to the point of inaudible. Set back it is, though fortunately not nearly as badly captured as the ten-dollar headphones suggested. On speakers and Sennheiser headphones alike, it was a very different story.

Speaking of sound: on that plane, the Neeme Järvi recording can compete with any - live or studio. It is clear, brilliant even, yet not too bright and it lets in plenty of light. At just about 70 minutes it is the fastest performance I know of - and it is proof that speed has little to do with whether a performance is great or not. I don't hesitate including Järvi's 8th among the great performances on record. The singing is very capable, again, and the orchestral contribution outstanding. Crisp it might be, but it transmitts a sense of greater meaning, of a truly special occasion. Actually, it was performed for a special occasion, namely in honor of the victims of the M/S Estonia tragedy. Perhaps that explains the flawless performance of the orchestra - more than astounding for a one-off performance.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.8, Kubelik / Bavarian Radio SO
Speaking of such a performance, Rafael Kubelik's 8th on Audite was also captured on one night. (June 24th, 1970, to be precise.) There are truly glorious moments in it, especially among the chorus and the singers which surge without bounds. Martina Arroyo, Erna Spoorenberg, Edith Mathis, Julia Hamari, Norma Procter, Donald Grobe, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Franz Crass certainly help. Vocally, this may be the most impressive 8th yet - unfortunately repeat listening is marred by some flat woodwinds and off brass. The first time it is hardly noticable, but knowing the moments of slight failure has me cringe in anticipation. It's not a debilitating flaw, but a flaw nonetheless.

Among these four, although none are 'must-haves', Järvi comes out the unexpected 'victor' - but the more I listen to Nagano, the more I cherish his recording. Especially with Ozawa still out of print, this might be worth thinking about, despite its price.

7.7.05

Sinking notes 

(published first at ionarts)

Jul 7th 2005
From The Economist print edition


Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall
By Joseph Horowitz

Norton; 606 pages; $39.95

PERHAPS the most vivid historical writing proceeds from personal engagement. The genesis of Joseph Horowitz's magisterial survey ultimately dates from his realisation, at college, “that there was something incongruous about being at one and the same time an American and a passionate devotee of classical music.” Since then, as author and adviser to leading orchestras, he has tried to relate the artistic heritage of the old world to the restless, uncharted territory of the new, and this volume sums up a lifetime's reflections and frustrations.

In a nutshell, the problem is that “America's musical high culture has at all times (alas) been less about music composed by Americans than about American concerts of music composed by Europeans.” More's the pity, since in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century America seemed full of possibility, spearheaded by such visionary movers as Henry Higginson, the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Indeed, Boston prided itself on its connoisseurship and produced a number of talented composers, who sought to adapt the great German tradition to American themes. Music lovers in New York were even more extrovert (and to the Bostonians, unruly) in their passion for Wagner. They too supported the creation of an American school of composers, encouraged by Dvorak, who premiered his “New World Symphony” in the city and praised Negro spirituals as rich material for native composition.

As Mr Horowitz points out, American appreciation of classical music was distinguished by its moral and spiritual intensity—what he terms “sacralisation”. In Boston, Beethoven was literally good for the soul; New Yorkers viewed Wagner's Siegfried as the embodiment of American idealism. But after the first world war, that exalted view came to be associated more with the experience of old works than the creation of new ones, and performers inexorably eclipsed composers. Rugged individualists such as Charles Ives were shunned by the classical establishment, as were the likes of George Gershwin, who dared to incorporate jazz.

In a culture increasingly driven by market forces, the new stars were charismatic conductors such as Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski. But Stokowski's insistence on performing new works diminished his popularity, the same fate that befell Boston's Serge Koussevitzky. Conversely, according to the author, Koussevitzky's hugely promising protégé, Leonard Bernstein, never fulfilled his artistic potential because he was “upstaged by his own celebrity”. Even more powerful than the conductors were the soloists: legendary pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz, commanding staggering fees and performing the same repertoire of works on endless tours, basked in the kind of réclame bestowed on film stars. But they offered nothing new or American.

In recent years, as a result of such stultifying repetition, a refusal to engage with the realities of time and place and the irresistible rise of pop culture, the bottom has finally dropped out of the classical music market. Formerly august, unassailable institutions are fighting for survival. Mr Horowitz offers no easy solutions to a crisis that he sees as inherent in the very contradictions of classical music in America. There may be hope in the creative eclecticism of such composers as John Adams and the ambitious, wide-ranging programming of conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

In the meantime, as a comprehensive, convincing analysis of the contemporary dilemma, and a riveting portrait of the century and a half of events and personalities which brought it about, Mr Horowitz's account would be hard to beat.

6.7.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 36 ) 

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J.S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, A.Schiff
The set of Goldberg Variations contains some of the most beautiful keyboard music J.S.Bach ever wrote. Supreme control of counterpoint and mellifluous melodies; it is all there. The music is so indestructible, so timelessly good that you could play it on the marimba and it would still sound fairly good. Most people prefer the piano, though – even over the harpsichord for which the works were written. Of course Glenn Gould’s recordings are still paramount here - love or hate them. But Schiff brings his felt, sensitive and immaculate no-nonsense musicianship to the Variations in his first recording, a “Penguin Classic” (He may well have achieved a few more subtle shades and depth in his latest ECM outing, but this one is still very fine, indeed.) Lore has it that these pieces were commissioned as a cure for an insomniac. Well, you might find the music calming your spirits, but you won’t fall asleep.

Decca 02894761659

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