The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Friday, January 12, 2007

Rite of Spring, and some other piece

It's Zubin Mehta week at the Philharmonic, apparently, and I got tickets to both of his programs. Not really because of Mehta, they happen to be good programs.

So Tuesday was the Rite of Spring, one of the most stupendous works to hear live. Although relatively popular for such a daring, still modern-sounding work, the place would not have been so full had the orchestra not also been playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto, one of the most inexplicable works in the core repertoire. I think this piece is a true turkey. Perhaps not on the level of Wellington's Victory, the Choral Fantasy, or Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, but when you consider the ratio of quality to frequency of performance, this piece tops them all. And when I say "them all," I mean all pieces ever written. Beethoven's Violin Concerto is astoundingly banal.

And yet, it packs the house! One reasons seems to be the strange, disproportionate popularity of violin concertos and violinists in general. I don't really understand why this is, for several reasons: first, the idea of a solo violinist on stage is not terribly novel -- in any orchestral work the stage is already mobbed with violinists; second, in a related story, the format just doesn't work very well, instrumentally and sonically speaking. The violin gets drowned out by all the other stringed instruments. Recorded sound was the best thing to ever happen to the violin concerto, as now the instrument can be closely and artificially enhanced. Third, the violin can't play with near the complexity of the piano, for the simple reason that it can only play at most two notes at once. That's a full eight fewer than the piano!

Beethoven's concerto wasn't particularly helped in this performance by the ponderous pace Mehta took, especially in the first movement. It just plodded along. The highlight was the cadenza, which was not Beethoven's but Kreisler's, played by Pinchas Zuckerman. It contained an almost Bachian simulation of counterpoint, very cool.

The finale had some energetic moments, and that one glimmer of beauty, the unexpected melody played by the bassoon. The bassoonist was busy that night, between that melody and the famous, opening to the Rite of Spring.

In fact, I thought the bassoonist milked that opening too much, reeeeeeeeeally drawing out those first few notes. It was a bit much. In general, I thought the performance was a little too romanticized and gushing. The real genius of Stravinsky is in the rhythms, and to really bring out his incredible rhythmic effects, the piece should be played sharply, with jagged, pointed phrases. Mehta seemed to be treating the work like a Strauss tone poem.

So of the three performances I've witnessed (that I can recall offhand), this was probably the least (the other 2 were Eschenbach conducting the Philharmonic, and David Robertson conducting his Lyon Orchestra). But it was still an absolute joy to hear, and when this orchestra plays big, it's a magnificent thing. What band would I rather hear beat out those incredible brass choruses? A feast for the eyes and ears.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Discovering new pieces

One of the great joys of classical music is its practically limitless nature. Although I frequently go to concerts and buy up CD's, I still regularly have the pleasure of discovering truly great pieces of music. The best is that period of time where you're just getting to know a piece well enough to hum along.

I'm in that honeymoon period with a couple of works right now. One is Handel's oratorio Semele. I of course love Handel in general, so bored a few weeks ago, I was browsing Amazon looking for potentially good recordings of oratorios I don't know. I generally ignore the operas -- it's not Handel's fault, I'll just come out and say it: opera seria is dull by nature, despite the sudden, recent movement to establish otherwise; it's like an emperor-with-no-clothes situation.

The piece I found actually proves this: Semele is very dramatic, basically an opera, but since he wasn't constrained by the opera seria straightjacket, Handel was able to let loose. Unlike some of his oratorios, which often have their boring sections, the music here is almost uniformly excellent. It contains some typically great Handelian choruses, but also some really inventive, moving arias and duets. The duet "You've undone me" in Act I merits the "back" button on my ipod for a repeat listen pretty much every time.

The name on the box that enticed me to grab the set was, of course, John Eliot Gardiner. The performance is typically excellent. It dates from the very early days of the Monteverdi Choir (1981), when Gardiner had not quite yet polished the group into the model of precision, clarity, and expressiveness it became a few years later. But they're still very good. And the cast of soloists is top notch: deserving special mention is the ever-reliable tenor Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, who is just so darn good in this kind of thing. Even better, though, is the mezzo Della Jones, who brings down the virtual house in the thrilling aria, "Hence, Iris, hence away!"

I'm generally not a huge fan of Papa Haydn. I admire his tremendous skills, but his music (especially the symphonies and quartets) usually fails to give me the deep pleasures that are ultimately what I'm looking for in great music. There's something cold and overly ironic and clever about much of his music. Just when you think something is building to a gorgeous melody or climax, it suddenly shifts to something else. Every tender moment is so fleeting it is barely there. It so often seems like a giant tease, as if Papa is saying: "You can see I could blow your mind with great music; but I'm just gonna mess with it instead."

One exception to this, I've always felt, is the Creation, where Haydn finally really seems to be letting lose and reveling in the pure beauty and ecstasy of nature. Well, casually browsing my uncle's CD collection on a Thanksgiving visit, I found another Haydn work to embrace: the Nelson Mass. It helps that the performance, on this Trevor Pinnock recording, is absolutely sublime. The pacing, the chorus, the sound, the soloists are all absolutely perfect. Felicity Lott is especially brilliant. The piece still doesn't take place among my very favorite masses, but it is full of wonderful and exciting moments. As if to prove it's not just the exceptional performance that's carrying the day, I was completely unimpressed with the Te Deum, which is at intervals either dumb and cheesy or just weird.