The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Thursday, March 30, 2006


Fresh off the Bach concert, I went to see Fidelio for the first time at the Met.

I loved it. I think the opera has some problems, and Beethoven is not as his best in opera, but there's a lot of great music in there, and when it's performed as wonderfully as it was on Tuesday, it is immensely enjoyable. Mattilla is simply amazing. Her voice has the piercing power and clarity of a Nilsson or Eaglen without the cold-steel quality. Heppner is still not in his 1999 Tristan form, but he still sounded excellent. The rest of the cast was all terrific. The orchestra sounded great, and was well-conducted by Levine-sub Paul Nadler. He took the score fast and tight.

I actually had only gotten to know the piece recently through the von Karajan recording with Vickers and Dernesch. I was having trouble getting really into the opera, but now I think that's due more to the recording's faults and not the opera's. Vickers is famous for this role, but he sounds strained on the recording. Part of this may be Beethoven's strained writing (he couldn't really write for the voice -- or maybe, really, for any earthly instrument), or maybe I'm just crazy. But I just don't like him on the recording. And Dernesch is, well, Dernesch. She has such an odd voice, this artificial-sounding rapid vibrato. I wonder if she really ever existed, if maybe von Karajan created her voice in studios during post-production, like the model in that awful Pacino movie. As is the case with many of Karajan's opera recordings, the performance also sounds generally manufactured and unnatural. The microphones sound shoved down the throats of the singers, while the orchestra sounds distant and echoey, with the 2 elements brought into parity by adjustment of the levels. No actual live performance could sound like this, and you wouldn't want it to. Hearing this wonderful performance at the Met motivated me to find a better recording -- perhaps Maazel/Nilsson or Bohm/Jones, King (Gwyneth Jones is not optimal, but James King is one of my absolute favorite singers).

Bach in Zankel

I took in a concert at Carnegie's Zankel Hall for the first time on Monday. Of course, I didn't go for the hall; I went for the strangely rare opportunity of hearing Bach well-played on period instruments (here, by the Bach Collegium Japan).

But first, a note about the hall. It's clearly not designed primarily for the pure sound of real instruments. The ceiling is entirely covered by lights and other equipment. It's like a dense, black forest of technology hanging over your head. I think this hurt the acoustics. I thought the concert sounded distant and muted for such a small hall. I was sitting in the first row of the balcony, which is not that far back.

On the other hand, perhaps the playing style contributed to that muted quality. On recordings (I've heard several of the BCJ's Bach cantata records), I've always found the sound similarly muffled and dead. They lack the immediacy, clarity, and liveliness of Gardiner's recordings, even if the playing and singing are polished. I had assumed that the problem lied in the engineering inadequacies of an obscure label (BIS), but after hearing this concert I wonder if it wasn't at least partly due to the group's style. As Teri Towe pointed out (in characteristically strong terms), the group played in the all-too-typical overly-staccato style of many period instrument groups. They don't use any portimenti, they fail to "connect the notes." I understand the criticism, but I have to say it didn't bother me too much. And although the notes were brief and isolated, they didn't sound abrasive as can also be the case with these groups. Suzuki and the BCJ seem to temper the effect of the staccato style by playing lightly. The problem is the cumulative effect is one that lacks energy.

But eh, who cares. It still sounded lovely and (relatively) clear, and like I said, I crave any opportunity to hear the music of the greatest composer in history performed on original instruments by a properly sized ensemble. And they played some of his best orchestral music: the Orchestral Suite no. 2 (the flute one), the Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, the Concerto for 2 Violins, and the Brandeburg Concerto no. 5. The Suite was the one piece on the program where the interpretation was actually interesting as well. The second movement was played in a lilting "Lombard rhythm," and some other notes were held and phrases tapered to pleasing effect. Everything was well-paced. I just wish I could hear the flute clearer, but again, I blame the hall.

I really liked Suzuki's harpsichord playing in the D minor concerto and the Brandeburg. He didn't vary the registers very much (I believe just engaging the second register for the various finales) and never used a buff stop, but it was still lively and exciting, interesting but still rhythmically vital. When I saw Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque do some Bach orchestral pieces at Alice Tully a few years ago, Koopman in his excited state banged the harpsichord so hard that it made a knocking sound. One would think that someone so familiar with the instrument would know that hitting the keys harder doesn't make it play any louder. Suzuki didn't do this, so you just heard the plucking without any knocking.

So why, in this greatest of classical music cities, do we so rarely hear period instrument groups doing Bach and Handel (frankly, I don't need to hear any other Baroque composers)? I can't wait until the next opportunity comes along.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Anti-Maazel?

The BSO paid one of its regular visits to Carnegie Hall on Monday to perform Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony no. 1 and, of course, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. My hunch tells me it was the latter piece that brought droves of people in line for partial view rush tickets earlier in the day.

As an aside here, how strange is the unique level of popularity this piece holds? Obviously, it's a wonderful work. But there are so many works that are just as great, and arguably many that are even greater, even by Beethoven himself. Given the choice, I'd rather hear the Missa Solemnis (if the choir was up to the task), but no such line would have formed for that work. It would at least make sense, even if it would be unfortunate, if NO piece of classical music attracted that kind of crowd to Carnegie. But once this mob appreciates the greatness of the Ninth, aren't they just a bit curious about what joys other similarly transcendant works might hold for them? As a kid, I got to know a few pieces of music from my parents playing them in the car. I loved a few of them. And sooner or later, I got curious: if that's great, what else is? Why aren't more people asking this question? I really have no idea. I suppose one answer is that people are simply lazy; it took no effort to become familiar with the Ninth -- or at least with the finale -- because it's so ubiquitous, and to become familiar enough with anything else as great would require the repeated listenings that a song by U2 does not. But I'm just not satisfied with that answer. Anyone who can crack this puzzle can save classical music.

Anyway, as for the performance, Allan Kozinn's review in the Times did a good job summing it up. It occurred to me during the performance that it sounded a lot like a von Karajan recording -- relatively fleet, unfussy, but lush and thick at the same time. Kozinn notes that the phrases seemed "clipped." I think this is an interesting way to put it. In fact, Janowski merely pressed on, keeping strictly to the beat even in the first movement, where we are so used to certain phrases "breathing," to certain moments being suspended before the next dramatic episode, that when this does not happen the music seems "clipped." If these conventions of phrasing had never developed, we would never have given Janowski's reading a second thought. He would just be following the score and its steady rhythm. After this performance (the first time I've ever heard Janowski), I'm inclined to think of him as the anti-Maazel.

As for the singers, it's hard to even hear the women in Beethoven's notoriously clumsy vocal scoring ("he can't write for the voice," my singer-father grumbles). The tenor had an odd voice; he sounded almost like a baritone with an unusually wide vibrato. The bass was very bass-y indeed; his name (Albert Dohmen) was familiar to me but I couldn't place it. As soon as he started singing, however, I knew what role I heard him sing: Gurnemanz, that role always sung by that very particular kind of deep voice that's difficult to describe. If you're familiar with Parsifal, you know what I'm talking about. The Tanglewood Chorus -- and I have to be careful here, I have a relative therein -- was just too big. It was kind of overwhelming and lacked transperancy. Beethoven's vocal music can easily sound shrieky, and having an oversized amateur (I mean this in the technical sense) chorus usually doesn't help.

Of course, I'm nitpicking; the performance was overall a joy, terrifically exciting. As it always does, my heart started racing, triple-speed, at the buildup to the coda, and didn't calm down until after a couple of curtain calls.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Samson et Dalila

I finally saw Samson et Dalila at the Met on Thursday. I got the tickets on a whim on Tuesday, and spent the next couple says listening to a recording repeatedly to get to know the work. It turned out to be a good whim.

I saw a great quote about Saint-Saens in a Gramophone Magazine review: "his genius was literally superficial, in the sense that it was for the surface of things—for the fine cut of a melody, the thin but firm texture of good orchestration." Samson exemplifies Saint-Saens' talent for melody and texture. He might not have been a genius of Brahms' stature, but he was an exceedingly skilled composer.

Seeing this performance made me rue my failure to see this opera when Domingo did it while I was in college. I had intended to go, but never did. Jon Frederic West sang it on Thursday, and he was frankly rather disappointing, especially after hearing Domingo soar on the recording I had listened to over the past couple days. West barked and wobbled his way through the role. The barking style might work all right when he does Siegfried, but in French music this style is death. Olga Borodina, however, was terrific, infinitely better than the horrendous Obraztsova on the Barenboim recording. The latter performance must be the worst performance in a title role on a major studio recording that I have ever heard, outside recordings conducted by Herbert von Karajan, who had very idiosyncratic tastes (Hofmann's Parsifal, for instance, is even worse. He single-handedly wrecks an otherwise transcendant recording.). It is simply baffling that this was allowed to happen, as Barenboim does not generally seem to share Karajan's idiosyncracies or imperiousness.

Anyway, back to the opera. Many have noted the parallels between the thrilling Bacchanale in Samson and the Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome. I thought the parallels don't end there; the entire atmosphere of that last scene is darkly ironic in a way similar to all of Salome. About twenty years before Salome, Saint-Saens composed a climactic scene novel in that it's exuberance is one that celebrates evil, and this effect is well-reflected in the orchestral coloring and aggressive, even brutal melodies. Salome, of course, is more deeply ironic, as even the hero, John the Baptist, is being mocked by Wilde and Strauss. The entire scene is absurd. But an element of that is seen first in Samson, as the Philistine's decadence is not meant to be taken at face value, but thinly covers a darker menace.

Speaking of Salome, if you missed Mattila's performance two years ago at the Met, I can't think of a better reason to invent a time machine. It was flat out the most stupendous operatic performance I have ever seen. It left me breathless. The precision, the power, the control, the tone! Hopefully, she'll be back to do it again. I look forward to seeing her as Leonore at the end of the month.

Aida II

I said before that I had two thoughts on Aida after seeing the Met's performance, and here, somewhat belatedly, is the other one.

The conductor, James Conlon, adopted speeds that, although relatively conventional, irritated me. His style involves accelerating and halting at various points, making the music swell and recede as the drama dictated to him. Although this approach seems to be considered nowadays as authentically Verdian, I think it's unfortunate. As I mentioned in my last post, Verdi has such a great rhythmic vitality and flow, and this quality is hindered by the approach exemplified by Conlon. The Rome recording conducted by Mehta, with Nilsson in the title role, has similar problems.

I think the approach is particularly problematic in the 2nd act. In the wonderfully tense scene between Aida and Amneris, as the latter toys with the former's emotions, Conlon had the music surging and halting as the two go back and forth and Aida's mood shifts. These emphases are entirely unnecessary, and hurt the overarching buildup to the incredible climactic moment when Amneris exclaims "Radames... vive!" Then in the triumphal second scene of the act, the ending after ending that Verdi throws on top of each other was separated by sharply varying speeds and lurching stops. When critics put a positive gloss on this approach, they call it "letting the music breathe" and "shaping the phrases."

Take, as contrast, the severely underrated recording conducted by Erich Leindorf on RCA (with Price, Domingo, Bumbry, and Milnes). The tension in the first scene is unrelenting, and when the unparalleled Grace Bumbry comes to that incredible climactic line, the music just explodes. (Bumbry, by the way, delivers one of those once-in-a-lifetime, stars-are-perfectly-aligned dynamo performance on that recording. It MUST be heard. It's the greatest possible performance of the greatest of mezzo roles.) And the second scene builds evenly to the grand finale. The recording, and Leinsdorf's approach, have been unjustly maligned. The speeds seem unconventional, but only because they are not extreme, while people have grown used to the extremes. I've heard several recordings, and Leinsdorf's is far and away my favorite, and not just because of the unbeatable cast.

Another similar contrast consisted in the last two runs of Otello given at the Met. First, Gergiev conducted a blazing fast performance, but one that had lots of acceleration and seemed frenzied without being exciting. Levine, on the other hand, had more moderate speeds, but his control is impeccable; as always, the inner voices of the score come through so clearly, but the rhythmic delights of the opera do as well. Despite being slower, Levine's performance was more exciting and rhythmically vital due to the tight control he exercised over the pacing. That control was even more crucial in the terrific performances of Falstaff this past fall. Levine is at his best in Verdi.