March 23, 2012

Why not make excuses for Le Nozze di Figaro?


Listening recently to a beautifully performed broadcast recording [1] of Luigi Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero I kept thinking that stubbornly conservative audiences and lack of public funding are not the worst enemies of modern music in America.  That distinction belongs to patronizing, condescending, and (as we shall see shortly) largely incompetent music critics who think that discussions of important non-tonal compositions must begin with (a) veiled excuses for the work's idiom, and (b) smarmy assurances that despite its idiom the music has much to offer to lovers of Chopin and Verdi.
      One American music critic, who attended the very production of Il Prigioniero I've been enjoying so much, described this opera as

... a bleak, 12-tone, boldly modernistic work from the mid-20th century ... [whose] 12-tone musical style ... is certainly complex - tremulous with astringent harmonies and fraught with skittish thematic lines.

Then, to assure his readers that the music does not call for doubling their usual doses of Zoloft and Ritalin, he added that Dallapiccola

...used the 12-tone language in a sensually lyrical way ... [with] intervals that produce plaintively consoling sustained harmonies. [2]

(How the poor reader is to make sense of an incoherent description of the music's  harmonic language as being both "astringent" and "plaintively consoling" was left unexplained.)

This kind of writing makes me feel as if I'm being set up for a blind date with a woman of stern looks and uncompromisingly difficult personality, yet whose acquaintance I'm promised to find rewarding once I get to know her well enough.  Such attitude would be annoying even in the case of genuinely challenging music (e.g., Helmut Lachenmann's Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern), but with works like Il Prigioniero - and even in the context of a newspaper review for non-specialist readers - it is simply unintelligible.

March 7, 2012

Elliott Carter: Night Fantasies; Au Quai


ELLIOTT CARTER

Night Fantasies
Gilbert Kalish
November 2008
Lincoln Center, NYC

Au Quai
London Sinfonietta
January 28, 2009
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


This is the first live recording of Carter's magnificent Night Fantasies that I've come across so far.  As one of the co-commissioners of the piece (the others being Ursula Oppens, Charles Rosen, and the late - and sorely missed - Paul Jacobs) Gilbert Kalish must have played this music for quite some time.   His Night Fantasies unfold at a much quicker pace and, as a result, are not nearly as dark hued as what I hear in Paul Jacobs' well-known studio recording (Nonesuch).  But the thrill of hearing this piece played live by one of the outstanding interpreters of 20th century piano music really makes comparisons with studio recordings irrelevant.
    Because almost at the same time I also came across my first live recording of Carter's Au Quai - wonderfully played by members of London Sinfonietta - I thought that it would be well to add this charming short piece to Kalish's recording.