"Sounds from the Studio"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Sept. 26, 2005.
The EMI label’s new version of “Tristan und Isolde,” starring Plácido Domingo, has received weirdly apocalyptic advance publicity: it has been described as the final large-scale opera recording in history. “Twilight of the CD Gods? A Studio ‘Tristan’ May Be the Last Ever,” read a headline in the Times. With its opulent production values and showy cameos in minor roles—Ian Bostridge as the Shepherd; Rolando Villazón, Domingo’s heir apparent in the Italian tenor repertory, as the Young Seaman—the set is a throwback to the golden age of the nineteen-fifties and sixties, when EMI summoned all-star casts to make generally unsurpassed recordings of “Don Giovanni,” “The Magic Flute,” “Fidelio,” “Tosca,” and, under the helm of Wilhelm Furtwängler, “Tristan.” They don’t make them like that anymore, but they are still making them. Virgin Classics, which is distributed by EMI, just issued a glamorous recording of Vivaldi’s previously unknown “Bajazet.” Decca is releasing a sumptuous studio recording of Richard Strauss’s “Daphne,” with Renée Fleming in the title role. There’s even a competing “Tristan” out, a feisty budget effort from the Naxos label. Where did the end-ofeverything story about EMI’s “Tristan” get started? Probably in EMI’s publicity department. Only in classical music would the alleged death of a genre be used to hype it.
What does seem to be dying out is the practice of spending a million or more dollars to make a studio recording of an opera that could just as easily have been taped live. And that’s no cause for mourning. Modern technology allows engineers to preserve performances with a clarity that was impossible back in the fifties. Deutsche Grammophon, for example, captured a vital “Tristan” at the Vienna State Opera two years ago, with Thomas Moser and Deborah Voigt in the leads and Christian Thielemann conducting. In the case of Domingo’s “Tristan,” EMI resorted to the studio because Domingo has never sung this punishing role onstage. The increasingly ageless tenor, who is experiencing perhaps the longest Indian summer in vocal history, helped round up the money to realize his aim of singing Tristan from beginning to end. Don’t be surprised if he soon repeats the feat with some other dream project, such as Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.” That one, presumably, will be marketed as really, truly, and absolutely the last.
Was it worth the million dollars? Is it worth your $50.98? Domingo pulls off some amazing feats of interpretation in the third act: one line after another is given a heartrending spin. Elsewhere, particularly in Act II, he sometimes sounds oddly wooden, and self-consciously careful in his articulation. The endless love music never goes over the brink into delirium. (Compare Domingo with Wolfgang Windgassen on the legendary 1966 recording from Bayreuth—a Heldentenor in heat.) When René Pape comes on at the end of Act II to thunder the role of King Marke, he seems to be giving Domingo a primer in the dramatic recitation of German. Nina Stemme, the Isolde, is a singer of deadly precision, firing off consonants as if they were bullets. But she lacks both the ravishing warmth and the lacerating rage that characterize the perfect Isolde. (She comes closer than most, though.) Mihoko Fujimara and Olaf Bär are miscast as Brangäne and Kurwenal. Antonio Pappano coaxes awesomely voluptuous sounds from the Covent Garden orchestra, but there’s something labored about this effort, as if the cast were too consumed by the imaginary burden of making the Last Opera Recording to make a living, breathing one.
In Borges’s surreal story “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” an obscure French Symbolist becomes the author of Cervantes’s masterpiece by copying it word for word. The Pierre Menard of our time is Lionel Sawkins, an English musicologist, who recently convinced a London court that he had composed several motets by the French Baroque composer Michel-Richard de Lalande. Or, to be precise, Sawkins convinced the court that he was owed royalties on a recording of Lalande, which appeared on the Hyperion label, and for which he had prepared scholarly editions. Little of his work could be considered original in the conventional sense—the purpose of such editions is to be unoriginal—but Sawkins was declared the rightful owner of the works. As a result, Hyperion has been forced to pay Sawkins’s legal fees, which ran close to two million dollars. Hyperion, an independent label, does not have that EMI-size sum in its coffers, and it has been reduced to begging for donations on its Web site.
If you want to give support to one of the most intrepid and principled outfits in the classical business, buy a few Hyperion CDs this month. The label was founded in 1980, by Ted Perry, who, for a while, financed his projects by driving a cab. It is responsible for two of the most monumental projects in recording history: a thirty-seven-volume survey of the complete songs of Schubert, with Graham Johnson at the piano, and a fifty-nine-volume survey of the piano music of Franz Liszt, with Leslie Howard. A list of Hyperion’s greatest hits would fill this column; some favorites are Brigitte Fassbaender’s harrowing disk of Schubert’s “Songs of Death” (Volume 11 in the complete series); Howard’s compilation of Liszt’s translunar late piano works (also Volume 11); the shimmering canons of John Sheppard’s “Cantate Mass” and other sacred works, as sung by the Sixteen, a vocal ensemble; Frank Martin’s archaic, piercing “Mass for Double Choir,” held aloft by the Westminster Cathedral Choir; and, in a recording due in October, the noble Canadian baritone Gerald Finley singing the heck out of the songs of Charles Ives.
Hyperion has made a specialty of obscure composers, often British ones. Fans of Hamish MacCunn, Granville Bantock, Hubert Parry, and Robert Simpson speak of the label with hushed reverence. But one of its strongest recent issues covers music of overwhelming familiarity: the Rachmaninoff piano concertos, with Stephen Hough at the piano and Andrew Litton conducting the Dallas Symphony. These are live recordings, and they crackle with life. Hough, a pianist of keen intelligence, is alert to every emotional turn in the music without ever falling into the trap of Romantic cliché; he lets Rachmaninoff’s great melodies bend and sway, but not in the expected places. Legions of great pianists and orchestras have recorded these concertos, but Hough and the Dallas musicians may have outdone them all.
“Ayre,” a new song cycle by the Argentinean-born composer Osvaldo Golijov, which Deutsche Grammophon is releasing on CD on September 27th, is not only an ecstatically beautiful piece but also a radical and disorienting one. Many people, on first encountering its rasping sonorities, hurtling rhythms, and welters of lament, will be unsure whether they are listening to pop music or to classical music or to some folk ritual of indeterminate origin. However they answer, they will be right. Golijov, whose work will be celebrated at a major festival at Lincoln Center in January and February, has woven his cycle from a skein of Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian, and Sephardic material. He has enlisted the Argentinean rock producer, film composer, and guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla to give heft and color to the sound; this music jumps out of the speakers in a way that classical records seldom do. Dawn Upshaw, the soprano, delivers an electrifying performance in which she assumes a half-dozen vocal guises. Early in the record she makes a hairpin turn from a fragile, softly glowing Sephardic song entitled “Una Madre Comió Asado” to a bloodcurdling Sardinian number entitled “Tancas Serradas a Muru”—I had to double-check the credits to make sure that Upshaw was still the singer. If a modern classical work could ever crack the Top 40, this is it: Golijov has created a new beast, of bastard parentage and glorious plumage.