The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I noticed the Bachfest "schedule" is finally up on WKCR's website. It's rather vague. Are they doing to have a whole day of "discussion"? I should hope not, and I doubt it.

Gotta wonder about the new management, the first classical director(s) since I joined up in college that I haven't personally been acquainted with. They totally cut me out of the loop, even though I've been a regular, devoted, and I daresay positive contributor the past 6 years. The Bachfest is its shortest length ever, only a week. They didn't put the schedule up until the last minute, and that "schedule" is only a rough sketch of themes and "discussions."

Well, I hope it goes well. I mean, it can't exactly be bad as long as Bach's music is prominently involved.

Don Carlo

Finally, December 18 arrived -- Don Carlo! The Met's performance lived up to my expectations in every way, it was absolutely terrific.

At the outset, I was treated to something new. I had gotten to know the opera from the classic Giulini recording, and the Met's performance kicked off with an introductory scene involving Elisabeth and the chorus that is from a version not used in the recording. I gather from the program notes that this scene was cut just before the first performance and never published, but discovered some time later. I'm not sure when it was translated to Italian, as the original performance was in French. At any rate, the scene made a lot of sense, it helped set up Elisabeth's dilemma at the end of the Act. It's not essential to understanding that dilemma, but it beefed it up by providing more context. As for the music, it was typically nice Verdi, but nothing earth-shattering.

I don't think I had heard Patricia Racette before (although I've seen so many performances it's hard to remember every performance), so I didn't know what to expect. She was excellent as Elisabeth, with an impressive combination of prettiness and power in her voice. She also had the powerful low notes that are so necessary for this role. There was only the occasional moment when her voice lost some focus or had an edge for a few notes. Consistent difficulties with harder passages can detract from a performance, even when the performer is otherwise singing beautifully, because you start to anticipate the problems and brace for them, which is distracting. This was NOT the case with Racette, who handled many of even the hardest passages beautifully, so her occasional minor imperfections at odd times were easily ignored.

Johan Botha in the title role had a great night. I have heard him before as Walter in Meistersinger and Radames in Aida, and I've thought him a solid tenor with a nice, powerful voice. On Monday, he sounded even better than I remembered from those other performances, especially in how agile his voice was. Every note, even in fast passages (made especially fast by Levine's tempo choices), rang brightly and clearly, with perfect timing. He doesn't have the syrupy tone and smooth, flowing lines of Domingo or other great Italian-repertoire specialists, but the punchier, Vickers-like style can work just fine. Since I was used to listening to Domingo on record, it took me a few passages to adjust, but once I did, I was completely sold.

Rene Pape was as awesome as ever. One of the great things about the Met is that they have some truly excellent singers who they are able to get very frequently for even relatively small roles. They are house singers in a way. Pape is a great example of this, and the audiences really appreciate it. His great aria at the beginning of Act IV received the biggest ovation of the night.

The only hole in the cast, but one I anticipated, was Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rodrigo (aka Posa). I have heard him before and not been impressed. He had a loud voice but a completely boring singing style. He sings with zero expressiveness or variation, every note sounds precisely the same. This style can sometimes be excused when the voice is beautiful enough, but I also find his tone rather cold. On Monday, he did not even sound as powerful as he had in the past, and was frequently drowned out by the other singers in this strong cast. This struck me especially in his big scene with King Phillip in the 2nd Act. The singing imbalance in favor of Phillip in both character and tone completely changed the tenor of this scene from what I was used to. On the Giulini recording, it is the Rodrigo (in the form of Sherrill Milnes) who dominates, and the Phillip (Ruggero Raimondi) who is rather weak and dull. When listening to the recording, the central character in the scene, the person whose feelings and motives seemed to be the focus, was Rodrigo, with Phillip being a mere foil. In Monday's performance, it was Phillip who I was concerned with; Rodrigo seemed merely to be a plot tool used to set up Phillip's development. This showed how the singers in an opera can affect fundamentally the shape of the drama.

Samuel Ramey still has a big voice, and unlike Hvorostovsky was not dominated by Pape in the great, great scene between the Inquisitor and Phillip in Act IV. Like Hvorostovsky, Ramey's performances (even in his prime) can be a bit monotonous, but his tone is more menacing, and that combination of menace and solemn monotony works perfectly for the Inquisitor. The performance of the key scene was thus ideal and one of the highlights of this great performance.

Olga Borodina is another reliable Met regular. She has a powerful but smoky and typically Russian mezzo voice. In a perfect world, I prefer the firmness of Horne, Verrett, Bumbry, or Cossotto in Verdi mezzo roles, but I very much enjoyed Borodina as Eboli all the same. She sang her big Act IV aria with great gusto.

Another great thing about the Met is that they fill the small roles with great, young talents looking to break out, such that the singers in the small roles can sound almost as impressive as the stars. Andrew Gangestad, who I happen to know is also an incredibly nice guy, excelled in the small but juicy role of the monk who the neurotic main characters mistake for the ghost of King Charles. The other small roles -- the page, the bass who announces the Grand Inquisitor, etc. -- were also filled out with some very good singers.

And the orchestra! They played with more beauty and precision than Giulini's orchestra, and the latter is a studio recording. Particularly impressive passages included the fast opening to the 2nd scene of Act III and the gorgeous orchestral opening of Act IV and Phillip's aria, especially the incredible cello solo. The playing had great expressive power and the phrases, especially in the Act IV passage, were shaped so effectively and convincingly by Levine.

As I've discussed before, Levine is a true master at Verdi. However, he did not seem quite as attentive to the rhythmic pulse of Verdi as I've found him to be in the past. He rushed and slowed passages more frequently than usual. But the performance was still very convincing overall, and the performers, singers and players alike, responded with great precision even in the "rushed" passages.

The only significant problem with the performance probably had nothing to do with the performers. In the big crowd scene, the Met, as they like to do, actually put on stage the trumpets being played in the action. But I'm not sure whether it was the direction the trumpets were facing, if they were placed too far back stage, or some other reason, but they were barely audible, and the orchestra was frequently drowning them out. Levine actually had to quiet the orchestra at odd times so that the trumpets could be heard. I have no idea how this problem has not been worked out over the course of the several performances this production has had already this season. Very strange.

But a mere quibble. It was overall a wonderful night involving one of the great masterpieces of opera.

Monday, December 18, 2006

...Oh, and Purcell

Purcell is a bit earlier than Bach and Handel, but he was every bit as great (or as great as Handel at least). But Bach, Handel, and Purcell Orchestra would probably be a bit too wordy.

Period Performance in New York

My reference to the "strange paucity of period performance in New York" provoked this response, which I published as a "comment" but wanted to bring attention to it in the body of the blog:

I see you read Oesterreich's review in the Times and have taken his prejudice at face value. The notion he perpetuates, that New York does not offer top-notch period performance, is a habitual thorn in the side to those of us who routinely perform period music at a top-notch level.

As a vocalist active in church music, I urge you to take into account the work of early musicians that goes overlooked by the reviewers. Just two examples:

The Magnificat offered yesterday at Holy Trinity Lutheran's Bach Vespers by professional period performers (with the able contribution of parish singers!) was expert technically and powerful musically. Judging from your description, it sounds like we did a better job than Koopman's people did!

Also yesterday afternoon, downtown at Trinity Church, Wall Street, another professional church choir with a period sound, together with Ensemble Rebel's instrumentalists who travel from all over the world to gig in New York, offered Messiah in a performance that has gained a worldwide audience (thanks to annual radio play and webcasts) AND acclaim by the press.

New York may not perceivably be the crucible of period performance that we wish it to be. But to assume that top-notch period performance is rare here is false. It's definitely out there. We, the musicians, are here and working.

I'm so glad to hear from an early music musician and I salute you for your efforts! First, I'll offer what weak defense I have for my remark: I wasn't quite merely "assuming" it to be the case. I certainly wasn't taking anything Oestreich said at face value, because I don't think he's a terribly good reviewer. I look through the music listings in the Times for performances, and I don't generally see very much in the way of baroque music on period instruments. (And by "baroque music" I basically mean Bach and Handel, because I confess I'm not much interested in anything else.) There may simply be a publicity problem -- do you have a place where interested concertgoers like me can find out about these performances? But I admit that I have allowed the blanket comments in Times reviews to confirm my (mis)impressions gained from perusing listings. I missed the performances you mentioned, and I would have loved to have heard them.

One group I'm aware of and whose mailing list I'm on is the New York Collegium. I went to the New York Collegium's performance of the St. Matthew Passion. The playing seemed excellent, but it was hard to even hear it clearly because the performance was given in such a hopelessly cavernous venue (a large church on the east side, I'm blanking on the name). The fast, contrapuntal parts were completely lost.

As a group that has had its struggles, the NY Collegium is not offering many concerts in its season, a problem they are obviously trying hard to remedy. Their current season offers only four programs. But another problem for which they are perhaps more to blame is what they choose to play in those few programs. The next concert, advertised on their home page, features 17th Century works by
Biber, Weichlein, Rittler, Vejvanovsky and Schmelzer. Who? You lost me after Biber.

If I were to start a period group, I would simply call it the "Bach and Handel Orchestra," and play almost exclusively music by those composers. There is simply a huge dropoff in quality of Baroque music after those two titans. A smattering of music, perhaps for historical context, is certainly welcome, but it seems to me that any series of baroque performances would have to center on Bach and Handel. This is really not all that limiting -- both these fellows wrote REAMS of gorgeous music, much of which is not heard all that often.

I also had in mind the lack of visiting period groups at New York's big venues, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. The Amsterdam Baroque's performances (and ones by the Acadamy of Ancient Music later in the season) seem to be marking a significant change. I have been in New York and attending concerts for 8 years, and I don't ever recall seeing major period groups in Carnegie's schedule before last season. Lincoln Center has had occasional visits, but still at a rate disproportionately small relative to the greatness and importance of, say, Bach and Handel and the top-notch period groups that do them justice.

But really, getting back to the original point: the problem, if there is one, is perception, publicity, and venue, and clearly not any lack of talent or effort on the part of musicians. Please post more comments and let us know about more performances.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Gettin' Psyched for Don Carlo

I'm seeing it on Monday. James Levine is conducting this year's edition, and that's always a cause for celebration. He's a total master at Verdi. He brings out so much detail you might never notice, as he does with many composers, but he also masterfully controls the rhythms in Verdi, an element a lot of conductors seem to ignore. And Don Carlo is a masterpiece, a fact I've only discovered recently.

To get to know the opera, I obtained what seems to be the consensus pick, the Giulini Covent Garden recording. Consensus pick for good reason. What a cast! Domingo at the absolute top of his game, singing those glorious, melting, soaring lines. My appreciation for Sherrill Milnes has really grown since I first heard him, and he also sounds in top form. And Caballe, whom I actually wasn't familiar with before, is the complete package. Nice, creamy tone, solid power, good low notes, and most incredibly, GORGEOUS pianissimos. When she tapers a phrase, it holds me breathless.

The downsides of the recording are the two basses: Raimondi as Phillip is boring as usual, but especially Giovanni Foiani, whoever that is, as the Inquisitor. It's a small role, but an important one, and Foiani is just awful. Considering how starry the rest of the cast is, they didn't seem to be limited at all in terms of whom they could get, so it's strange that there would be such a weak link. His vibrato sounds bizzarre, almost as if he's flapping his hand over his mouth.

But hey, no recording is perfect, and overall I am just loving this one. I've listened to it probably twenty times already, and I'm still enjoying it more every time. We'll see how the live version goes, I just have to prepare myself for singers that surely will not be Domingo and Caballe.

Monday, December 11, 2006

I'm back

I neglected this little blog for a while, but WKCR's Bachfest is (or should be) approaching, and I recalled this page. I won't be participating in Bachfest this year, unfortunately. I'd provide info on it, but oddly enough, I haven't received any. I hope the new folks in charge have their act together.

Speaking of Bach, I heard the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra last week at Carnegie Hall. It was one of the most disappointing concert experiences of my concert-going career. (Oh if only that were a career).

On the program were two great Bach choral works, the first cantata of the Christmas "Oratorio" and, the piece I was especially looking forward to, the Magnificat (D Major version). Based on past experience, Ton Koopman is not the most exciting or brilliant Bach interpreter, but his performances tend to be at the very least pleasant and competent. This experience included a live concert at Alice Tully a few years back of orchestral works and a solo cantata (I think Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen), which I thoroughly enjoyed. So considering the strange paucity of top-notch period performance in NYC, I was anxiously looking forward to hearing one of my favorite Bach pieces performed by such an accomplished period group.

Well, as I said, my expectations were not met. The performance overall was very flat, overly staccato, too light and too limp. These are criticisms commonly leveled against period performance groups in general, but they are often not justified, cf. John Eliot Gardiner and Phillipe Herreweghe. Even the previous Ton Koopman performance I attended had far more energy.

Worse, the performance was just sloppy. I understand baroque trumpets are very difficult to play, especially at the speeds Koopman chose, but the Amsterdam trumpeters really struggled, especially in the Magnificat. Also, in the opening movement of the Magnificat, the oboist accidentally paused where there was no pause in the score, and quickly had to cover it up. The soprano, who only had one number in the concert, had serious intonation problems. And most egregiously, the mezzo, who actually had a terrific voice and whose performance up until that point was the highlight of the evening, entered her second aria of the Magnificat a measure too early. Granted, Bach at that point adds an unexpected little extra musical phrase at the end of the orchestral introduction; but obviously you'd think a performer would be well aware of this before taking the stage at Carnegie. There were other moments that just seemed ragged. On the plus side, the bass and the chorus were excellent.