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30.9.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 46 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
W.A. Mozart, Symphonies nos.35 "Haffner" & 36 "Linz", J. Bélohlávek
“I shall work as fast as possible, and – as far as haste permits – I shall write well” were Mozart’s words to his Herr Papa when he accepted the commission for a serenade that was to celebrate Siegmund Haffner’s elevation into the nobility. The opening double octave upward leap might seduce to attach symbolic meaning to the work – but the six movement serenade had a different opening before ‘WAM’ reworked it into the symphony that we know now as no.35 – the “Haffner”. (He did so mainly through cuts in the score and additions in the orchestration.)

I rather hear the Così fan tutte overture in it (single octave downward leaps) – but that’s rather superficial, too. Clear enough, though, is the fact that Mozart wrote very well and haste be damned. With works like that, it’s no wonder that the perception that Mozart’s music just flowed from his pen onto paper in instant perfection manifested itself. It’s true enough in this case and that of the following symphony, no. 36 “Linz” – also on this recording with the Prague Philharmonic under Jiří Bélohlávek – which Mozart composed in four days when he needed a symphony for a concert in Linz but had forgotten to pack any into his suitcase. But Mozart had to labor hard on plenty on occasions, even if that never did keep critics (me on occasion among them) from labeling him “master of (pretty) perfection” which is shorthand for “how dare anyone compare him to Beethoven”. Listen to any of his six mature great symphonies and you’d never want to interrupt it midway for any of Beethoven’s, though – no matter how much higher you’d place LvB in a (perfectly meaningless) ‘top-ten’ list of composers.

The Haffner is Mozart at his Mozartian best, if not quite yet the symphony in which he would show the way to the ‘modern’ symphony that led from the “Linz” to the “Jupiter” to Beethoven and eventually the romantic symphonies. The Finale-Presto is a whirlwind with the Praguers (Pragueians?), much in accordance with Mozart’s dictum that the finale be played “as fast as possible”. At under four minutes Mozart injects a little micro-universe of classical music into a moment the length of which it takes a Bruckner symphony just to take a breath. The Adagio opening of the “Linz”, before it falls into a more traditional Allegro spiritoso, is a bolder move in the development of the form than we can now discern. Fortunately Guido Fischer’s excellent liner notes help out – and allow hacks like me to shamelessly appropriate so that we may seem particularly erudite.

The music, we could have known without any of the above, is a delight. But the interpretation makes it a particular one. Zest and feisty playing make the fast movements especially exciting. The young orchestra – just over ten years ‘old’ – excels and plays significantly better that what Ionarts has heard from the Prague Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center recently. If the timings on this disc seem glacial compared to Böms still competitive 1960’s recordings, it’s because Bélohlávek takes every repeat while Böhm doesn’t bother.

HMU 901891

NSO Gets Lucky With Truls Mørk 

(published first at ionarts)

Truls Mørk - click through for recordings
Truls Mørk
Massachusetts native and Washington-state resident Alan Vaness Chakmakjian, better known to us as Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000), had 131 opus numbers under his composer-belt when he took to his second symphony, “Mysterious Mountain.” Even though this relentlessly prolific composer went on to add 65 more symphonies and 303 more works altogether to his output, “Mysterious Mountain,” the work the National Symphony Orchestra opened Thursday’s concert with, remains his most famous work, by far. His popularity is no surprise, given his musical language. It is very approachable, easily enjoyable, but never panders. It is never saccharine and does not deny its 20th-century frame of reference. His influences were many… Japanese, Korean, and Indian music among them (they all came after the composition of Symphony No. 2) – but the most important was Armenia, the homeland of his ancestors. Hovhaness knows how to employ large orchestral forces to great effect (if not always maximum variety), and for all the breadth of his symphonies, he was always wise enough to be no more elaborate and lingering than necessary. “Mysterious Mountain” sounds like it should be an hour-plus symphony, but it only lasts some twenty minutes. Hovhaness sounds very English with a distinct North-West flavor. The width of Bruckner, sounds of Elgar, Holst, or Delius with a teensy-weensy bit of New Age… if that helps. It’s music that seems to suit Slatkin particularly well, and it is music that makes for a very good prelude to the Elgar Cello Concerto that followed.

The Elgar is one of the great concertos for the cello, even if it took Jacqueline du Pré to catapult it to its current fame. (Listen to her first recording with Sir John Barbirolli and you will understand…) Truls Mørk is one of the great cellists of our day, and it was a shame that he played to a shockingly empty Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Opting for expression over beauty, Truls Mørk has a tone that, while not very big, is meticulous, and he gets a very distinguished sound out of his 1723 Domenico Montagnana. This is not to say that beauty was in short supply. Both performance and work had and have more than plenty of that to offer. Indeed, it is near-impossible to listen to Mr. Mørk play the Elgar concerto and simultaneously think of a living cellist one would rather hear in it. The NSO did very well, too, but in the second and third movement I should have liked to hear them dig a little deeper.

Dvořák’s 6th symphony is a welcome departure from the more regularly performed last three of his symphonies. It’s not neglected, really (it was last played by the NSO just under five years ago), but given how satisfying a work it is by a composer as popular in this country as Dvořák, you’d think it would be more common fare, still. (I am not sure if all the NSO players feel the same way about it… perhaps some have yet to be convinced of the work’s value.) The symphony – and the first movement especially – is like a walk in the lush forests of central Europe, taking in the fresh air in deep breaths and enjoying the gusty winds. For those for whom that description is too lofty I offer the - admittedly crude - division of Dvořák’s symphonies in three bundles for orientation. “Wagner” (1-3), “Brahms” (4-6), and “Echt-Dvořák” (7-9). But the sixth, while noticeably ‘Brahmsian’ (again: especially in the first movement) is by no means derivative (even if it were, worse things could be said of a symphony than that it has a ‘Brahmsian’ touch…); and come the Scherzo (Furiant): Presto you will find yourself in the very Slavonic world of Dvořák’s dances.

In a recent discussion of the relative merits of BSO and NSO (I insisted the latter to be superior by a fair margin, still – although perhaps less consistent) I conceded that I would not mind swapping (almost) the entire brass section with Baltimore for the NSO’s benefit. (The Dvořák 9th with the BSO last week had exactly that last bit of warmth and hue that Charles and I thought missing in an otherwise impressive NSO 'Tchaik.4' performance.) The NSO’s trumpets made that point again in the Dvořák 6th. The mentioned Scherzo and the spirited finale danced and brushed away most qualms, though, ending a nicely balanced program successfully.

I won’t pretend that there aren’t concerts that deserve to play to empty seats, but this one is distinctively not one of them. You may not have heard of Truls Mørk, but if you don’t hear him now you’ll come to regret it before long. With such music and performers, there is no reason the NSO should be playing to less than a half-capacity crowd. Tickets will be available a-plenty for anyone who walks up to the Kennedy Center either today or tomorrow at 8PM. Ionarts’ academic crowd shoud note that with the student discount it should be an inexpensive way to get lucky with impress that classical music-loving sophomore from across the hall.

27.9.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 45 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
C. Franck, In Spiritum, O. Latry
Massive French organ music of the late Romantics is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you like organ music and have no problem with the sometimes fairly dense structures of Vierne, Dupré, and Co., you should give Olivier Latry’s latest CD with music of César Franck, In Spiritum, a listen. A big draw is likely the SACD surround sound this disc offers – it is not even issued in a Red Book-only version. (Latry’s disc before this one, Midnight at Notre Dame, was chosen by Gramophone Magazine to be the best disc to test the abilities of your surround sound system.) If the regular stereo and stereo SACD sound of this hybrid are anything to go by, it must truly be a sonic spectacular and definitively a major nuisance to your as-always noise-oversensitive neighbors. The Grande Orgue de Notre Dame had its beginnings in 1402 when Frédéric Schambantz built it but got its unashamedly Romantic grandness largely from the famous French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll when he took to it in 1868 (it has since been restored and added to twice, in 1963 and 1992). It is lovingly and enthusiastically helmed by Latry, the Notre Dame organist who has, among other recordings, made a name for himself with his excellent integral Messiaen organ music cycle.

César Franck’s talent with the organ received the attention and support of Cavaillé-Coll, and his organs were in turn the impetus behind some of Franck’s compositions for the instrument. So, for example, the Pièce héroïque, the third of the Trois pièces pour la grande orgue from 1878, a secular piece composed to show off the grand Cavaillé-Coll organ at Trocadéro, built for the World Fair. It gives downright delicate insights into the compositions of Franck, who was working on his piano quintet at the same time. The work’s two themes merge for a simply awesome finale.

Prélude, Fugue et Variation, op. 18 (also in B minor), is the conclusion of Six pièces d’orgue, written in the late 1850s. Romantic polyphony in a classical structure makes this a particularly interesting semisacred musical contribution. The melodic, serene prelude comes back throughout the variation – the fugue, more or less in the middle, provides an instantly recognizable and hummable melody… not necessarily the norm in heavy-duty Romantic organ music.

Trois chorales pour grande orgue (E major, B minor, and A minor) from 1840 are more ‘Bachian’ yet, perhaps hence the particular appeal? It’s the only work presented within their complete set and at over 40 minutes it is the most substantial offering. If Romantic polyphony sounds more or less appealing but Reger’s music doesn’t quite do it for you, this probably would.

As a disclaimer I have to say that having grown up with Bach’s organ music enthusiastically piped through our house, I am partial to the instrument. (I did have a crisis of faith when I first realized that church organs, for lack of pumping choristers, need electricity; something that had not occurred to me until I switched the local church organ on. I have since recovered.) Still, while this is not a disc for everyone, those who take to the kind of music and aren’t afraid of cranking it up will be delighted. I myself am left with the greedy question of when we can have the complete Franck organ works with Latry.

ECM 4775418 hybrid-SACD

25.9.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 44 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
Shostakovich, Stravinksy, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Messe Noire, A. Lubimov
Messe Noire is a piano recital of Alex Lubimov’s in best ECM fashion. From the stark, immediately recognizable ECM-typical cover to the programming all the way to the name, taken from Scriabin’s 9th piano sonata. (Scriabin did not give that name to his sonata – it was attached by Alexei Podgaetsky in reference to its sinister nature compared with the open, light mysticism of the 7th sonata that Scriabin dubbed Messe Blanche.) Where Scriabin’s fairly dark work (he called it “saintly,” himself) concludes this disc of Russian piano sonatas of the first half of the 20th century, Stravinsky’s Serenade in A (1925 – dedicated to his wife) opens it. Hymn, Romanza, Rondoletto, and Cadenza Finale as movement titles already point to its neoclassical nature. It’s not so in a pastiche-like way, nor as harmonically obvious as the Pulcinella Suite, for example, but rather a cubist painting of whatever models and structures he used. It’s difficult to see it on the same level as the other works.

Shostakovich’s second sonata (1942) – especially the third movement, Moderato con moto - is very much DSCH, especially the dominant theme (F-sharp, B, B, D, D, D-sharp, D, C-sharp, B if – lacking a score – my ears are correct) and its variations which can remind of his preludes and fugues. At over 12 minutes, it’s by far the longest (if not most substantial) movement on the disc. (I ended up humming those nine notes for days.) A charged, superb Prokofiev sonata with ‘oiled muscles’ comes after the Shostakovich, before Lubimov comes to a most impressive performance of the Scriabin. Helped by excellent sound (a warm, full, round but not fuzzy piano appears right between the speakers – only for a Pollini recording might I prefer a bit more of an edge), Lubimov plays the 9th sonata (1913) with tremendous insight and calm. He takes his time in the single movement, clocking in at 8:45 where Michael Ponti, for example, needs just 7:05. (Ponti bangs a little, but appropriately so. Alas, his Vox recording suffers slightly from a glassy piano sound.)

Alexei Lubimov is known for his innovative programs as much as for his superior musicianship and championing of contemporary music, even when that was difficult to do in the Soviet Union. His pianism, too, proves to be outstanding. In some ways this could well be the pianistically most impressive disc this year – even if it will not likely be acknowledged as such by many. When has anyone put the Andante caloroso of the Prokofiev sonata so close to Beethoven? (Richter, undisputed master in these works, plays it with more urgency – perhaps because he got to know and play the work in a much more war-conscious context?) I am usually not too keen on multiple-composer discs but for something like this I’ll make a glad exception. Not music for everyone, but serious lovers of piano music or those interested in the repertoire probably want to hear this!

ECM 1679

24.9.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 42 ) 

Not available at Amazon
Schnittke, Bach, Webern, Faust Cantata, Ricerar et al., Boryeko, Hamburger Symphoniker
I compulsively collect every piece of music that has Faust as its theme. That includes standards like Mahler’s 8th, Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Mephistophele (Boito), Faust (a.k.a. Marguerite – Gounod), and La Damnation de Faust (Berlioz), as well as works farther off the beaten path, like Busoni’s Doktor Faustus (unfortunately, I lost my copy and Warner took their excellent and literally unrivaled recording with Ozawa out of the catalogue), Spohr’s Faust, or Nadia Boulanger’s Faust et Hélene. Also among the lesser-known works is Alfred Schnittke’s Historia von Dr. Johann Fausten, a riotous, crazy, and lovable work. The only recording seems not available, much to my dismay. But there is the patch – and more than that. Schnittke, this still much under-appreciated “polystilistik” composer who deserves everyone’s ear, spun the opera out of his Faust Cantata, his most important religious/musical statement. Like the other Germanocentric composers (Spohr, Busoni) Schnittke does not dare (?) tackle the overwhelming Goethe treatment of the subject but instead the earlier German tale printed by Spieß. (Busoni’s is based on the old puppet play, Spohr’s on Joseph Carl Bernhard’s.)

Faust isn’t a hero in that version – he’s a warning example. That is part of the reason why Faust is a baritone (Andreas Schmidt) while the speaker is a tenor (Justine Lavender ) – like in Bach’s passions. Mephisto is split between countertenor (when in disguise and charming - Matthias Koch) and an alto (when revealed and malevolent - Marina Prudenskaya) to creepy, eerie effect. The night-scene of Faust’s death is a fin-de-siècle conjuring ghastly tango of doom and likely the most immediately appealing part of the 40-minute work. It is very appropriately framed by two Bach chorales. The encore, if you wish – as this was a live performance, although you’d never know from the total lack of audience noises - is Anton Webern’s Ricerar, his orchestration of Bach’s Ricerata a 6 voci from Die Kunst der Fuge. Webern and Schoenberg understood Bach like few other composers, and what Webern does to the austere fugue is a miracle on top of the wonder that is Bach. It’s a bit like what Kurusawa’s Throne of Blood is to Shakespeare’s Lear (only much closer to the original). Like a film that gains in translation, structures and strands become clearer and visible while the work does not suffer but gains in coherence. I played this devilishly difficult 10-minute delight (it’s a challenge to every woodwind section and the players of the Hamburger Symphoniker under Anrey Boreyko do particularly well) four times in a row on first hearing.

edel classics / Berlin Classics 1776

23.9.05

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Siegfried 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
Centennial Ring, Siegfried, Chéreau / Boulez
Of the Ring's operas, Siegfried may be the least performed as a stand-alone, and probably because it propels the drama more than it contains its own. Still, endowed with enough wit, it can charm me more than either work that flanks it. The Chéreau set offers plenty of humor, but I was not entirely disarmed by it. There are moments in Sawallisch’s Siegfried, for example, that do more for me. But Siegfried does not stand or fall by how funny it is, or how cruel, but by how Siegfried sings. Manfred Jung makes a good entry, for sure, but the good impression does not last very long without reservations. His sound is loud and forceful but not always natural, and the pushing comes at the cost of the lyrical line.

In the forest, adjacent to the signs of industrial encroachment on nature, Mime forges another sword for his stepchild Siegfried. Boulez’s Mime here is Heinz Zednik, his Loge, rather than Helmut Pampuch, the Mime par excellance from Das Rheingold. Zednik impressed me as one of the finest, most interesting and most entertaining character singers I have seen in Das Rheingold, but to think of him as a Mime (especially when one expects Pampuch) took some getting used to. For Pampuch, the comically befuddled works. With the vocally splendid Zednik (how he acts with his voice!) I don’t quite buy it right away, and his routine becomes a tad slapstick.

As Mime loses the bet with the Wanderer by squandering his three questions when he should have asked how he (or who) could forge Notung, he loses claim to his life to "the one who knows no fear." A panic-stricken Mime/Zednik naturally wants to teach Siegfried fear, and if necessary off him in the process, or be killed himself by that ungrateful brat who has threatened to kill him previously, even without divine encouragement. With Chéreau, Mime is not merely evil or an innocent fool (though definitely on the fool side of things). Neither is Siegfried just the obnoxious hooligan, though undoubtedly obnoxious in his ignorance, which he flaunts rather than hides. The scene where Siegfried forges Notung with a mechanical anvil has, prop by prop, transformed itself from forest/nature with hints of industry to a little metal workshop with a hint of nature in the background. At the premiere, Chéreau’s message of the ills of industrial revolution and materialism must have seemed controversial and imposing. In 2005 the production actually comes across as borderline old-fashioned and presented with minimal subtext by Chéreau – even to those, like me, who disagree heartily with most of his premise. (Chéreau’s interpretation was not all that novel, either. A Leipzig production of The Ring – for a production in the socialist GDR, this doesn’t surprise – extolled the same theme in a Ring production a few years earlier. Both can be traced back to their spiritual fathers, Rousseau and Marx.)

Also on Ionarts:

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Die Walküre (September 14, 2005)

Patrice Chéreau's New Film at the Mostra (September 8, 2005)

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Das Rheingold (September 7, 2005)

Boulez Comes Down from the Green Hill for Good (September 5, 2005)

The Chéreau Ring Cycle - The Making of... (September 2, 2005)
Before Fafner’s cave, the Wanderer (a.k.a. Wotan, the Licht-Alberich) meets Schwarz-Alberich, whose dress, identical to the Wanderer’s, only further stresses their similar, if (perhaps diametrically) opposed natures. It’s not quite as simple as God vs. Beelzebub, because both have fallen and are victim to the ring’s curse; both are compulsively drawn to it. In front of an actual bird, Siegfried tries to squeeze the birdsong motif out of his reed flute. It is, as usual, played on the English horn (Wagner wanted a specially designed alto oboe) from the pit and Jung’s Siegfried is rather an angry character. Nothing approaches the humor of Sawallisch’s Kollo-Siegfried playing the reed on stage, truly to the best of his ability, truly awful... and then, in consternation rather than anger, noting “Dieser Ton taugt mir nicht!” (“That don't sound quite right...”). It’s as close as you’ll come to a knee-slapper in Wagner... not quite so in this production, though. This missed opportunity is interrupted by Fafner’s worm very soon, anyway. That worm is a rather statuesque and silly looking dragon on wheels and otherwise not instilling much fear in anyone – least of all in Siegfried.

Save for the mechanical anvil, Siegfried turns out to be a fairly conventional affair. It lacks the ingenuity and richness of Das Rheingold which is in part due to the drama of Siegfried itself. It also exposes the vocal contributions more than in the preceding installments. With (your) eyes open, Jung is an adequate Siegfried – with eyes closed, however, his voice is notably near its limits and with the lack of mellifluosity (especially compared to a Windgassen) it can’t be – and isn’t – the last word in the interpretation of that role. I find that Siegfried can be acted all with the voices and gains the least in production over recording.

There is, after all, only so much the hero can do when he finds Brünnhilde lying on a rock (or in a burnt-out castle as here), finds to his shock that it isn’t a man, and then concludes without hesitation that it must be his mother. Not unusual in his family, this conclusion does not keep him from kissing her on the lips to waken what is fortunately not his mother but merely his aunt. (Of course, apart from Gutrune and possibly Freia, every one of the 18 other women in the Ring is – as Anna Russell has pointed out to great humorous effect – Siegfried’s aunt or great-aunt.) Siegfried, at any rate, copes with the discovery quickly and adapts to the new situation Wälsungen-style by letting nothing get in the way of his natural instinct to rape Brünnhilde on the spot. In a nod to true love he does wait, however... all the five minutes it takes the valkyrie to consent to the admittedly seductive shimmers of the Siegfried Idyll that emerge magnificently out of Boulez’s pit.

Meanwhile, looking at pictures of Jane Eaglen in Seattle’s Ring will make you appreciate Gwyneth Jones’s Brünnhilde, if the voice (slightly thinning on top, sometimes bordering on shrill) does not. As the Boulez/Chéreau Ring is a DVD, that point can’t be overestimated. (The heft of some singers – Eaglen, Marc – simply does not allow for dramatically convincing performances, whatsoever. Deborah Voigt, at least, was able to endow her characters with some grace even before she tied her stomach into a knot and losing – as we now know, thanks to Sieglinde having found her kg-lb conversion table again, 110 pounds as a result.) Jung and Jones scream at each other for another ten minutes in “Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich,” and the curtain falls over Siegfried ‘approaching’ Bruünnhilde in his natural, unrestrained way. With all the reservations – mainly about things that could be better, rather than being bad – this is still a formidable achievement and as part of the integral cycle it doesn’t let the viewer down.

18.9.05

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Die Walküre 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
Centennial Ring, Die Walküre, Chéreau / Boulez
The second leg of The RingDie Walküre — is widely regarded as the most popular of the four operas. I know why, but I don’t quite follow… it is perhaps the one I care the least for, assuming the others are done well. As part of an integral cycle, such preferences don’t really matter, as you wouldn’t skip any of them, just because you prefer another. In the overture, Boulez’s touch is apparent through a fluid and wide range of dynamics. American Jeanine Altmeyer is what turns out to be a formidable Sieglinde, with good (but nothing more than that) pronunciation, who only gets stronger from Act I on. Rock star/actor/Heldentenor/Parkinson's victim Peter Hofmann is Siegmund (we know someone who particularly takes note of his bare-chested performances) stars alongside her.

Chez Hunding is a mid-19th-century industrial building in less-than-inviting grays. Matti Salminen’s Hunding booms the second he comes on stage. He already made a premature exit in Rheingold, courtesy of Fafner; it’s a shame that his vocal contribution is once more cut short, this time by Wotan. His (Hunding’s) men are with him – minor industrial captains or his managers (just what did you call a ‘manager’ back then?) around Hunding’s ermine-clad industrial baron, all with perfect faces, like period photographs come to life. Hunding, meanwhile, is really not that bad a guy – given that it is his duty to take care of this feckless rival, troublemaker and convention-breaker Wehwalt (Siegmund) who threatens the way of life and public order that Hunding and his like depend on. (Never mind ogling his wife right upon arrival.)

Also on Ionarts:

Patrice Chéreau's New Film at the Mostra (September 8, 2005)

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Das Rheingold (September 7, 2005)

Boulez Comes Down from the Green Hill for Good (September 5, 2005)

The Chéreau Ring Cycle - The Making of... (September 2, 2005)
Donald McIntyre’s Wotan is somewhat domesticated in Die Walküre, his hair less wild, his dress the railroad tycoon’s or a banker’s. Fricka, his 19th-century upper-class wife, is sung by Hannah Schwarz. Fricka’s legitimate moral concerns and Wotan’s freewheeling liberalism regarding the institution of marriage (both as regards himself, his incestuous kids, and Sieglinde’s marriage cum white-slavery to Hunding) is portrayed well, although I can imagine more impressive vocal and dramatic contributions. Mme. Schwarz warms up to the role, though, as she represents the most realistic character in the immoral world of opera: the wife of a philandering husband who tries to instill at least a basic sense of morality and adherence to rule in Wotan. Even if Schwarz is not as convincingly the moral conscience as Elena Zaremba was in the WNO’s Walküre it is a role that should elicit far more sympathy and understanding than thinking of her as a party-spoiling nagging hag. Come to think of it... Fricka actually succeeds in making her husband reconsider and retract at least some of his plans at least once... and as such she is perhaps a highly unrealistic character, after all, in the world of opera, where faithfulness and marital and ethical virtue are rarer to be found than in any other profession, including the oldest.

Jeanine Altmeyer rises to top form in Scene III of Act II. Because of their looks and physique, Hofmann and Altmeyer don’t require any suspension of disbelief, either. If Hofmann seems a little weak in the high notes (though not terribly so), it is exacerbated by Sieglinde’s vocal excellence and covered up by fine acting. His “Winterstürme, weichet dem Wonnemond” is heart-wrenchingly delivered over beautiful orchestral playing.

Act III shows McIntyre a little on the vocally shy side next to Gwyneth Jones, who doesn’t produce the prettiest sound and varies between very impressive moments and the sound of effort (though not yet strain). Again, watching the opera takes the edge off these possible shortcomings. Subtitles, too, help immensely where the diction is not great in the already hard-to-understand Walküre scenes. Jones certainly looks fairly convincing as Brünnhilde, even if 1980 saw her a few years older than the playful hero-collecting girl in Chéreau’s production would have been. Still, a non-obese Brünnhilde with pleasant features makes this Walküre very pleasant to watch, even if it does not quite match the qualities of Das Rheingold. The orchestral elements under Boulez are above criticism... at least above mine. Even if his is not one’s favorite way of conducting Wagner, the mere quality and drama of it must be acknowledged and convince on some level. To my ears it is among the finest orchestral contributions to The Ring – certainly in modern sound, where I only find the two very different approaches of Barenboim (caring, with attention to detail, broad and muscular) and Sawallisch (self-effacing almost, loving no-nonsense crispness) equally convincing.

Dramatically, “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind” – Wotan’s last aria in The Ring (before he becomes the “Wanderer”) does indeed become a family affair under the directing hand of Chéreau. With intensely moving (yes, I cried) portrays of Brünnhilde’s frailty and childlikeness that makes her character in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung all the more believable, she and Wotan say their last goodbyes. The curtain falls upon the misty eyes of the viewer and a second installment in the centennial Ring that does not match the first but is convincing and enjoyable all the same.

13.9.05

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Das Rheingold 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
Centennial Ring, Das Rheingold, Chéreau / Boulez
Rheingold. The first (and to some mercifully shortest) of the Ring operas has the three Rhinemaidens (if you know Anna Russell’s take on The Ring, you start snickering by now) appear on top of a hydroelectric dam under the direction of Patrice Chéreau. They are dressed in clothing of the mid-19th century, from around the time Wagner started working on The Ring. Flirting, tempting maidens that they are, they are dressed exactly as a member of their trade would have, then. Norma Sharp (Woglinde), Ilse Gramatzki (Wellgunde), and Marga Schuml (Flosshilde) are these three (very attractive!) prostitutes. Hermann Becht’s excellent Alberich approaches them from beneath (as according to the text) and is teased as mercilessly as explicitly by the wild-haired, skirt-waving lasses.

Scene two is ‘upstairs’ with the Gods, the just-finished Walhalla behind them. Walhalla itself is a hodgepodge of architectural styles of the time, with the verticals accentuated. A pilaster here, a neoclassical Corinthian pillar there, features of the industrial palaces of its time… The gods are power-hungry, decadent slackers decked out in silk and brocade (not unlike Wagner liked to dress). A passed-out Wotan — Donald McIntyre — is wakened by Hanna Schwartz’s Fricka. (Hanna Schwartz is a multipurpose Ring singer, contributing to every modern Ring cycle of importance, except Barenboim's. Apart from her Fricka here, she’s Waltraute for Levine, Flosshilde for Janowski, and Erda for Sawallisch.) Carmen Reppel is a vocally supercharged Freia with ample natural assets of love, befitting her position among the gods and justifying Fafner and especially Fasolt’s coveting her. Matti Salminnen’s Fasolt is all that one could ask for, Fritz Hübner’s Fafner not far behind. That they are about eight times the size of their human and godly counterparts makes them impressive and slyly humorous as well. They must walk on the shoulders of others and have huge arms that they can use with very modest precision. (Note Freia’s unacted look of surprise when Fasolt’s hand goes prematurely for her golden apples!)

Also on Ionarts:

Boulez Comes Down from the Green Hill for Good (September 5, 2005)

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — The Making of... (September 2, 2005)
Demigod Loge meanwhile is vocally magnificently portrayed and characterized as well as superbly acted out by Heinz Zednik. Quite different than in other productions, Loge, probably my favorite character in the Ring, is not the aloof seer but rather a Wotan-toadying weasel. But he’s the brains of the Walhalla-god operation and the only one (together with Wotan, to an extent) of the immortal men that has his wits together. To get an idea of Loge/Zednik imagine two-thirds Gene Wilder as the sheep-loving physician in Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex… but Were Afraid to Ask, part Scrooge, and a good dose of Terry Gilliam from Monty Python. He’s clearly the outcast among the gods, not prone to frolicking with Donner or Froh, both of whom are on-the-money airheads acted and sung by Martin Egel and Siegfried Jerusalem, respectively. If they, too, seem awfully familiar, check Louis and Oswald from the Drew Carey Show. Loge’s dress is a shabby, black, and more modest silk suit; his shirt lace is in perpetual disarray. The weakened gods’ stumbling (after the giants made away with the golden-apple-of-youth-supplying Freia) is a mix between Brueghel’s Blind Leading the Blind and a scene from Fellini’s Satyricon.

Scene three takes place in the coal mine-like shaft of Alberich’s realm, where his enslaved Nieblungs and Mime, his equally enslaved brother, are busy at work retrieving more gold from the mountain. Wagner seems to have had Helmut Pampuch in mind when he created the role. He hasn’t the most impressive projection to be found among voices, but his acting with voice and body are dramatically so convincing as to leave no doubt about his unique suitability. (Listening to him in that role in Sawallisch’s Ring is a particular joy, and on Barenboim’s just about as much.) Alberich’s capture further highlights the acting bonanza that is the cast under Chéreau, showing the theater director in him who brings out the best in what are no longer acting singers but singing actors. Donald McIntyre’s veteran Wotan is respectable and more, and if he is overshadowed by Loge and Alberich, it is because of their strength, not any weakness on his part. His dramatic abilities are unquestionable, anyway.

After Wotan has been warned by Erda (Ortrun Wenkel), Freia freed, and the wailing Rhinemaidens insulted, the gods ascend into Walhalla and Loge draws the curtain – literally – to the excellently sonorous and deep sound of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra playing the brassy last notes of Das Rheingold. I listened to it in impressive PCM Stereo – DTS 5.1 is available and must be better an experience yet.) Pierre Boulez may take down some phrases to chamber-like transparency (or so it is said and repeated all the time) but there’s no lack of heft in the playing when called for. I know the complete set has its detractors – but just coming off the high of watching this performance, I cannot imagine how anyone could find another version of Das Rheingold better – much less object to it on some grounds (Gwyneth Jones hasn’t even appeared yet…).

12.9.05

Visual Music - Musical Vision 

Photo by Håkon StyriKnown more to pianists and piano music aficionados in this country, Håkon Austbø is a musician who has received an enviable slew of prices and awards for his performances and recordings. With Pierre Laurent Aimard, he is among the foremost interpreters Messiaen interpreters of our days. (Incidentally he studied with Messiaen and was a piano student of Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod.) As the sparing but informative program notes revealed to me, he is also one of the founding members of the LUCE Foundation which – among other things – aims to “provide a platform for further preparations and management of Scriabin’s Prometheus.” (More about that in Charles’ article on the discussion with Håkon Austbø that followed the concert.) The concert was the concluding event of the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art’s Visual Music exhibition and with works by Scriabin and Messiaen included two composer who creatively tapped into (or suffered from) their pronounced kinesthetic disposition.

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O. Messiaen, Petites esquisses d'oiseaux / Catalogue d'oiseaux, H.Austbø
available at Amazon
A. Scriabin, Complete Piano Sonatas, H.Austbø
After the 6th sonata that Scriabin thought so dark and threatening that he never performed it publicly himself, he may have had to write the 7th, a light-flooded work he dubbed “White Mass” and enjoyed playing. It’s far from being light, though; even when bright rays trickle into the work from above it is over a robust, shifting body where various sounds reciprocate like a slick of oil on a puddle. It is music that the well behaved five-year old in front of me must have thought the adults around her crazy for liking… and not so many years ago I would have sided with her. Now the music and the complete and passionate involvement of Mr. Austbø had me completely enchanted. With such gusto flung the performer the finale of the sonata into the room that all notions of cool and austere Scandinavians flew out of the – admittedly windowless – Rotunda Auditorium of the Hirshhorn. Sonata no.10 – sometimes known as the “Trill Sonata” is calmer, earthbound like a hovering morning fog would be. It has a few very rousing climaxes before it descends into its primordial slumber again. Scriabin himself called it a “Sonata of insects” which were “born from the sun” – alas such notions were not on my mind when listening spellbound.

If you understand Scriabin’s musical language (and I mean ‘understand’ in the loose sense of being able to derive pleasure from listening to it), then you are only one step away from ‘understanding’ Messiaen. I’ve listened to Messiaen for much longer than Scriabin – but my reaction had long been a sort of peripheral enjoyment at best. (That excludes his accessible and darkly-delightful Quatour pour le fin de temps.) Not having heard Messiaen piano works live before, I could have not asked for someone better than Håkon Austbø as my first.

Like a good deal of modern classical music, Messiaen benefits invaluably from the live experience. (If perhaps not so much as to have won over the still impeccably behaving girl in the first row who gave a curious and doubt-sodden look towards Austbø before snuggling against her father’s arm.) The works that Håkan Austbø continued to shake out of his hands with seeming ease and complete sovereignty were Regard du Silence and Noël from Vingt Regards sue l”Enfant-Jésus and La Bouscarle from the Catalogue d’oiseaux. If I say that it sounded a bit like watching Pollock paint one of his canvases might, you will be able to decide for yourself whether you would have loved or loathed it. Intriguing it should have been to anyone present.

Håkan Austbø’s appearance was kindly supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy as one of the first events of their Centennial Anniversary celebrations that will include many appearances of Norway’s finest artists all over Washington.

9.9.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 41 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

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R. Strauss, Burleske, Rosenkavalier Waltzes, Capriccio Sextet, Tibaudet / Blomstedt
If Johann Strauss II is the musical equivalent of whipped cream, Richard Strauss’s waltzes from the Rosenkavalier are whipped cream with a pound of sugar and half a dozen egg yolks. Your doctor might not agree with it as part of your diet, but who is going to keep you from listening to it? Herbert Blomstedt and the Gewandhausorchester certainly invite you to indulge. For this lush music – pleasant as can be with a little tinge here and there – lusciously played and topped off with a rich, resonant, and full sound, it all comes together on this new Decca release.

Because two such servings in a row would be too much, the Sextet from Capriccio comes before the second Rosenkavalier Waltz Sequence. The Sextet is the ideal in-between. It is all of Strauss’s harmonically dense language, all his sophistication and unearthly beauty condensed into some hauntingly light twelve minutes of string sextet performance. (The work is the phenomenal, unexpected overture to Capriccio, one of the finest operas ever conceived.) Well played and in excellent sound, this sextet will make you want to get the entire opera!

Before all that, Jean-Yves Thibaudet joins Blomstedt for the Burleske, a one-movement concerto-fantasy for piano and orchestra that takes a Brahmsian language, adds Rachmaninov-like pianistic challenges, and sprinkles it with touches of mid-Strauss’s sound world. It may not be an unalloyed masterpiece, but it is not heard often enough given that it offers considerable beauty. The sound here is naturally better than the 1976 Kempe/Frager recording (EMI – part of their landmark set of all of Strauss’s orchestral works) and Glenn Gould’s loving rendition for CBS/Sony.

Three wonderful and different angles of Strauss’s music brought together on one lovely disc with committed playing. Perfect as an introduction and a lovely, if hardly mandatory, indulgence for Strauss veterans.

Decca B0004645-02

2.9.05

The Centennial Ring: The Making of... 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
Centennial Ring, The Making of..., Chéreau / Boulez
Until 1976, the centenary of the Ring der Niebelungen, there had only been two general strands of new, Ring-defining productions of Wagner’s tetralogy (albeit in many different variants). Wagner’s original (which displeased Wagner a good deal in the only production he ever got to see) and its refinement first under Cosima Wagner and then under Winifred Wagner and Heinz Tietjen lasted until 1944. In 1951, Wieland Wagner’s production rang in the era of Neo-Bayreuth – the strict geometric figures, accentuation of lighting (or lack thereof), and the clearing of all accumulated clutter. It was carried on with two Wolfgang Wagner productions in 1960 and 1970. For the hundredth anniversary of the Ring, something special had to be done, and Wolfgang Wagner withstood the temptation to stage The Ring himself again (if he ever even felt so tempted) and trusted his conductor, Pierre Boulez, with his choice of the young French theater enfant terrible Patrice Chéreau – at the time only 31 and with a mere two opera productions under his belt. Chéreau’s Ring became one of the most controversial stagings in the history of Bayreuth – as well as its most cherished. At the premiere in 1976 it was derided, while at its last showing in 1980 (admittedly improved and much honed by the participants) it received a Bayreuth record 85-minute ovation and over 100 (!) curtain calls. It almost never saw the light, too – since Chéreau only had four months' notice and considered declining the offer with so little time to stage four operas.

Thanks to UNITEL and the Bavarian broadcasting service (Bayerischer Rundfunk, BR), that Ring was painstakingly recorded for television (oh, to be Bavarian) and fortunately for us, for video (now DVD) as well. One of the few important items that had been available from the UNITEL catalogue even before Leo Kirch’s media empire went bankrupt (now Universal Music is making them all available, staggered out over the next year or more – including the complete Bernstein Mahler cycle!), the centenary Ring is now re-released in 5.1 surround sound. Apart from Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, DG also threw in The Making of the Ring, a $20 DVD detailing how the Ring was made, filmed, and produced – with plenty of interviews and anecdotes. $20 seems a bit more than you might want to spend on a The Making of…, and while I agree that Universal might have fared better selling it for $10 and hope that more people would buy it and consequently the actual Ring, it’s very worth seeing… perhaps borrowing from someone who has it or Netflixing it, once it has been suggested they take it into their stock.

Hearing Boulez speak about bringing Chéreau on board makes for this memorable and revealing quote – although perhaps more revealing about Boulez and art in Europe than the Chéreau staging itself: “You never know – you take a bet [sic] […] if things will be successful or not – I mean successful from an [artistic] achievement point of view; I don’t think first of the audience…” And this from the master about his conducting which is still controversial among some opinionated Wagnerites – as last year’s Parsifal showed: “My main goal was to get rid of so-called ‘tradition’ – which is really unbearable to me. What is tradition anyway… it really is just mannerisms, habit… […] transmitted through generations they become worse mannerisms…”

Boulez’s Wagner is brisker than many other conductors’ interpretations, less heavy and – to the extent possible – lithe. But the idea that it is Boulez’s ‘French deconstructionism’ is a label they attach to Boulez the conductor because of Boulez the composer. If Boulez were a conservative German composing in the style of Pfitzner, he could conduct the very same way and would never hear of the criticism. Just compare his to Clemens Kraus’s conducting of Wagner: although not quite as light, it is every bit as fast and faster. Kraus’s famed 1953 Ring, of course, is hailed among many of those Wagner lovers that cringe when talk comes to the Boulez / Chéreau production. (Joseph Keilberth, too, in another great historical Ring cycle, is nearly as fast as the Frenchman. The quickest Ring I have is Sawallisch’s at 13:07. Krauss clocks in at 13:23, Janowski at 13:25, Boulez at 13:45, Keilberth at 13:55, Barenboim at 14:09, and Schleppmeister Knappertsbusch at 14:38. Judging from three out of four operas I have of Goodall and Levine each, they might actually give Kna’ a run for his money.) Boulez (like Herreweghe and Norrington in their Bruckner efforts – the former which I like, the latter not so much) is probably right that tradition has done a disservice to Wagner’s music by reflexively associating slowness with meaning and gravitas. Even Wagner complained about his operas being taken too slowly, predicting then that people would fall asleep if the conductor trudged through them. (Levine – although a magnificent conductor in many ways - never read that quote, I think.)

For those of us who love opera as a living art and not a museum – and Ionarts is all about that – the DVD is a treasure trove of good quotes. From the fairly well-known one of Wagner himself (“Kinder, schafft Neues” – Children, create new things) to Winifred Wagner’s words to Patrice Chéreau at the 1980 artist party after the final production of his Ring. It was the first time they met because whenever Chéreau had tried before, Mme. Wagner (Siegfried Wagner’s wife, born after Wagner himself had died) refused to meet him and instead threatened to kill him, if she saw him. Chéreau was introduced to her by her daughter Friedlind. She turned around and charmed by Chéreau’s good looks and his hand kiss said: “You know, many times I wanted to kill you… but after all, isn’t it better to be furious than to be bored?!”

That about sums up my attitude toward staging opera. I’d rather take the risk of failure in a new production than the tried (trite)-and-true which, to me, is certain failure on the production level. Chéreau’s staging, to be sure, is no failure. It is gorgeous, it is insightful, it is funny, cruel. It is dominated by Chéreau’s theatrical Occam’s razor… the simplest way of telling the story is the best. No unnecessary clutter or alien storylines meddle with the success of his Ring – which sets it apart from the oft derided German Regietheater. Watching it in 2005, it is difficult to see how the premiere could have been anything but a success. It is almost impossible to understand that it should still create any controversy today. And to this particular set of ears and eyes it is completely incomprehensible why anyone would ever chose the murderously boring MET production over this gem. Because of the “theater, not only opera” approach, it comes closest to the Wagnerian ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk. Even with gods and Rhinemaidens, it is still supposed to be realistic drama, after all. The “Making of” disc may produce high levels of anger with our state of television… no one would go through the expense of filming a Ring cycle for any national channel in the U.S. – much less with as much effort as Brian Large and the BR. It is also recommended (if not even mandatory) watching for everyone involved and very interested in opera in the D.C. region. Just to push Charles over the edge this little teasing fact: together with this DVD release, the entire Ring was also released in movie theaters across Germany.

I shall be posting more detailed articles about each of the four operas over the next few weeks… but they are not likely going to be anything less than enthusiastic. This morning (and I’ve only downed Das Rheingold and act one of Die Walküre so far) I’ve scared the cat by thundering Wagner arias at her (“Winterstürme weichet dem Wonnemond” transposed down a third), and I have been feeling rather transformed altogether.

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