May 20, 2017

A not so odd couple


I'm sure you've read about occasions when a great composer's work was performed by his contemporary fellow composer of comparable stature who also happened to be a distinguished musician.  Ever wondered what it would be like to hear such performances?  Vivaldi concertos played by Bach (in transcriptions for organ)?  Mozart's D minor piano concerto played by the young Beethoven?  How about Chopin's etudes played by Liszt?  Or perhaps Mahler's interpretations of operas by Puccini and Richard Strauss?

But why spend time on daydreaming when you can hear the real thing: a live recording of Elliott Carter's music performed by his friend, fellow composer, and one of the century's great conductors Pierre Boulez.  These performances of Carter's Oboe Concerto and Three Occasions for Orchestra come from the concert given by Boulez and the Philharmonia Orchestra on 7 February 1993 at the Royal Festival Hall, London.  The soloist in the Oboe Concerto is Laszlo Hadady who was at the time the principal oboe of Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain.

The analog FM broadcast of this concert by the BBC Radio 3 was recorded - via an English-made vacuum tube tuner Leak Trough-Line II - to hard disc by a British Carter enthusiast who kindly sent me a flac copy not long ago.  Whether due to the vacuum tube tuner or to the excellence of BBC's analog FM transmissions at that time, the sound in these recordings is remarkable for its warmth, depth, and detail.

April 11, 2017

Blue Balls Lohengrin


In the middle of one his stand-up acts, the American comedian Steven Wright - whose onstage persona is by turns morose, dejected, or depressed - suddenly took a deep breath and said very slowly, very darkly, and with a deep sigh: I am soooo excited...  That was funny and the joke took all of two seconds.

Recently I was reminded of Steven Wright by what I thought (for a moment) was a similar joke, except that it went on for more than twenty minutes and wasn't in the least funny.  The joke in question was the Bridal Chamber Duet from Lohengrin conducted by Joseph Keilberth at the 1953 Bayreuth Festival (with Wolfgang Windgassen in the lead role).[1]  To say that Keiberth's tempo was sluggish would be a severe understatement.  It was comatose.  Had this been a piece of instrumental music, one could conceivable justify such a tempo as an exercise of 'artistic license', akin to Glenn Gould's catatonic recording of Siegfried's Idyll or Sviatoslav Richter's glacial performances of Schubert's piano sonatas. Alas, with opera musical decisions cannot be completely unmoored from the text [2]; and it is because of the text that Keilberth tempo struck me as being simply freakish.
     To explain:

March 14, 2017

When smart people say stupid things III



Our admiration for the great singers of the past is based on gramophone records. But what do we know about the precise circumstances in which they were made?  Undoubtedly performances by tenors like Max Lorenz and Lauritz Melchior were stellar events ... although I am inclined to doubt whether both these singers had such tremendous voices as is claimed for them today.
Christian Thielemann [1]
________________________________

Perhaps only a German mind can so effortlessly misrepresent obvious facts and then raise doubts as to whether there are any such facts at all. (This, after all, is the principal characteristic of German philosophy from Kant to Heidegger.)  Coming from a highly experienced and internationally acclaimed opera conductor, Thielemann's doubt is worse than frivolous. It is delusional.  There is no gentler way to describe his state of denial in the face of readily available and utterly compelling evidence that Lauritz Melchior's legendary status as a Wagnerian Heldentenor is fully justified by the unmatched glories of his singing.

So lets take a quick look at the evidence.

February 15, 2017

Hurray for Musical Colonialism-Imperialism!


Mozart did it with the Rondo a la Turca finale of his piano sonata K.331.  Beethoven - with the Thème russe in his Razumovsky Quartets.  Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre alludes to the sounds of Balinese gamelan music, while Steve Reich's Drumming is a minimalist recollection of his trip to Africa.  Fortunately for art music, its pathetically low profile in today's American society has kept such colonialist-imperialist musical transgressions invisible to vigilant social justice warriors who are always ready to flood social media with indignant yapping about the evils of cultural appropriation - say, when they see a photo of some Caucasian celebrity bimbo wearing an 'ethnic' Halloween costume.  Lets hope things stay this way.  My Go-Fuck-Yourself List is already way too long to accommodate what must be nearly the entire Twitter-cum-Facebook generation of useless whiny assholes.

December 31, 2016

No better way to end the year


Any piece written by a composer past the age of 80 has a good chance of being his last.  Which is why I am not inclined to hear a special 'farewell message' in Elliott Carter's Instances for Chamber Orchestra, his last orchestral composition completed a few months before he died, aged 103, in November 2012.
     Still, one feature of Instances sets it apart from Carter's earlier orchestral works.  Instead of a brief, deliberately perfunctory ending I've come to expect from this unsentimental composer, Instances ends with a 2-minute-long coda of unprecedented emotional openness, in which the slowly and regularly breathing strings use their dreamy, bittersweet harmonies to console a melancholy flute.
     Even more remarkable than this coda is the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I could hear neither its beauty nor its emotional significance in the wooden and lifeless studio recording made by the conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony.  These were revealed to me only yesterday when I came across my first live recording of Instances performed by the New York Philharmonic under Matthias Pintscher in June 2014.  Talk about a happy New Year!