Be sure to read the obituaries for the remarkable Boston opera impresario Sarah Caldwell — Richard Dyer's and Anthony Tommasini's are authoritative. I saw only one of Caldwell's productions, in 1988, and I don't think I caught her at her best. It was Médée, an unforgettably strange staging combining Cherubini's elegant 1797 score, declamations in ancient Greek, and Michalis Christodoulidis's harsh-toned reimaginings of ancient Greek music. Josephine Barstow gave a forceful rendition of the title role, but it was a long night. This, believe it or not, was my introduction to live opera. I also saw part of Caldwell's 1988 festival devoted to modern Soviet composers (Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Kancheli), which, as the obituarists relate, nearly caused a diplomatic incident.
March 25, 2006 | Permalink
The young right-wing activist Ben Domenech has been caught plagiarizing in his articles for the National Review and other publications. Readers will be happy to hear that a bit of classical music can be found in the mix. Here is what critic Stephen Wigler wrote in an Amazon review of an Eduardus Halim CD: "Anyone who misses Vladimir Horowitz would be wise to investigate this all-Chopin recital by Eduardus Halim, the last of the master's students. ... [H]is phrasing has a similar Horowitz-like freedom, permitting him to move easily from the gently intimate to the explosive." Here is what Mr. Domenech wrote in a year-end notice for the National Review: "For those Chopin lovers who miss Vladimir Horowitz's beloved piano interpretations, this album presents a recital by Eduardus Halim, one of the last of Horowitz's students. Romantic, yet subtle, Halim's piano is an astoundingly poised creature of beauty, with a blend of tones that can be remarkably intimate, or extraordinarily incendiary — it's the best recording of Chopin in years." Let's not call this plagiarism; the change from "explosive" to "incendiary" is astoundingly, extraordinarily original. Halim, by the way, is not that great.
March 25, 2006 | Permalink
Madeleine Milhaud, widow of the composer of The Creation of the World (danced vividly tonight by the Mark Morris Dance Group at BAM), celebrates her 104th birthday today.
On a sad note, Tears of a Clownsilly observes the passing of Mozart's last mobile contemporary.
March 22, 2006 | Permalink
A few addenda to my current column about Ian Bostridge's Britten recital. The tenor's recording of Serenade, Nocturne, and Les Illuminations, with Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, was released last year by EMI, and it's a great document. There's also his very fine account of The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and other songs for Hyperion, although he would probably bring more emotional edge to the material if he were to record it again today (which he should, alongside Winter Words). For the more advanced Brittenite, I recommend a Virgin Classics disc of the five Canticles. I haven't heard the Virgin recording of Turn of the Screw with Bostridge as Quint. If Britten is totally new to you, start with Jon Vickers's stupendous recording of Peter Grimes, although unfortunately the latest reissue contains no libretto. A few nights after the Britten recital, Bostridge presented a second, equally gratifying concert, with the expert, extroverted Belcea Quartet: Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge, Fauré's La Bonne chanson, Shostakovich's Third Quartet. (See Charles Downey's lovely review of the DC version.) Two more Perspectives are slated for May.
I begin my column with a brief account of Britten's visit to the
former concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in July, 1945, in the
company of Yehudi Menuhin. A remarkable anecdote about their performance
can be found in Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed's edition of Britten's
correspondence and diaries (Letters from a Life, vol. 2, pp.
1273-74). In the notes, the editors quote from a letter that Anita Lasker, a young cellist who had survived the camp,
wrote to her aunt after the recital: "It was a beautiful evening.
Both soloist and accompanist were of a simplicity regarding their
attire which almost bordered on the slovenly, which fitted the local
atmosphere perfectly, No need to mention that Menuhin played
violinistically to perfection.... Concerning the accompanist, I can only
say that I just can not imagine anything more beautiful (wonderful).
Somehow one never noticed that here was any accompanying going on at
all, and yet I had to stare at this man like one transfixed as he sat
seemingly suspended between chair and keyboard, playing so beautifully."
Across the pond, Helen Radice is playing in a performance of Britten's War Requiem in London. She quotes the composer as follows: "It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love." Britten said relatively little about music in public; he once told Joan Peyser of the New York Times that composers talk too much. What he did say counted.
If you read the article online, you'll be missing a masterly portrait of Bostridge by Steve Pyke, who took memorable photographs of Gerald Finley and David Robertson for past articles of mine. I took the above sub-Pykean photo in Britten's home town of Aldeburgh in 1995.
March 22, 2006 | Permalink
Charles Noble, violist for the Oregon Symphony, reports that he heard a conductor tell the orchestra: "The attack should sound like a Hummer hitting a baby deer." This sounds Spanoesque to me, but Mr. Noble isn't naming names. Leif Segerstam remains the reigning champion of the gobsmacking podium utterance.
March 21, 2006 | Permalink
"Songs of Experience"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 27, 2006.
In July, 1945, Benjamin Britten accompanied the violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a brief tour of defeated Germany. One day, the two men visited the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, and performed works by Mozart and others for a silent but intent crowd of former inmates. Stupefied by what he had seen, Britten went home to the East Anglian coast and set to music the most spiritually scouring poetry that he could find—the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. He composed nine songs at feverish speed, beginning, on August 2nd, with “Oh my blacke Soule!,” and ending, on August 19th, with “Death be not proud.” While he wrote, Death had more to celebrate: several hundred thousand people were vaporized by the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japan. On August 6th, the day of Hiroshima, Britten set Sonnet XIV, which begins, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” There was an eerie coincidence at work here, for Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the American nuclear program, was spellbound by the same poem, and had it in mind when he named the site of the first atomic test Trinity.
Britten is not the kind of artist one associates with great turning points in history. He was, despite his reputation as England’s preëminent composer, a loner, an independent man. He prided himself on his parochialism, tailoring his works to churches and halls around East Anglia and to the amateur musicians who patronized them. He also wrote big operas for international stages, but he kept returning to his roots, his obsessions, his elliptical self. He thought that there was too much intellectual grandstanding in modern music, and demanded that composers make themselves more useful to ordinary people. All the same, his “Holy Sonnets of John Donne” are a titanic statement, one of the most penetrating responses to the Second World War. They do not try to depict horror; instead, they offer the consolation of sublime, transcendent rage. At the end of the cycle, the tenor declaims, on a rising major scale, the words “And death shall be no more”; then he bears down on the word “death” for nine long beats; and, finally, over a clanging dominant-tonic cadence, he thunders, “Thou shalt die.” Death does not die, but possibly shudders for a moment.
Ian Bostridge, the British tenor, recently sang an all-Britten program at Zankel Hall, the space underneath Carnegie. It was the first in a series of concerts that the singer is presenting this spring, under Carnegie’s Perspectives rubric. Now forty-one, Bostridge has assembled a repertory that ranges across several centuries and several languages; his Carnegie concerts include German lieder, Italian arias by Handel, and twentieth-century works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, and Lutoslawski. The role of curator falls naturally to him, for he is not only a lyric tenor of uncanny focus and intensity but also an accredited scholar (D.Phil., Oxford, 1990, “Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c. 1650-c. 1750”) and a deft commentator on musical matters. The day after his recital, I went to talk to him about the undervalued art of singing Britten.
Britten’s operas are heard reasonably often in New York—Gotham Chamber Opera recently mounted a musically well-turned production of his 1947 comedy, “Albert Herring”—but the songs do not get their due. At Zankel, Bostridge sang Britten’s five Canticles, based on various religious texts, together with the surging song cycle “Winter Words,” a setting of Thomas Hardy poems. A search of Times reviews and listings suggests that the cycle has received six or seven performances in New York in fifty years. Bostridge may have given the New York premières of the last two Canticles. Even stranger, I couldn’t find any evidence of a performance of “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne” in this city since 1989.
“The way some people talk about Britten is an example of everything that went wrong with music appreciation in the late twentieth century,” Bostridge told me, over lunch in Chelsea. “For example, they say that he’s not very bright in a literary way. You hear this patronizing guff about how there is something wrong with his setting of Rimbaud’s French in ‘Les Illuminations.’ In fact, Rimbaud’s diction is on purpose peculiar, because he was in London when he wrote, and was mixing French and English words. Actually, I can’t think of any other composer who was so ambitious in his choice of poetry.” Bostridge also mentioned the continuing unease over Britten’s personality, his psychology, and, above all, his sexuality, which expressed itself in one enduring relationship, with the tenor Peter Pears, and in a series of sexless infatuations with boys.
“I have to confess that none of that is very interesting to me,” Bostridge said, with a rueful smile. “What strikes me is that so many of Britten’s songs aren’t about romantic love at all. Quite a bit of the poetry I sing—the German Romantic lieder of Schumann and Schubert—is, when you get down to it, slightly embarrassing, adolescent stuff. Britten is an adult composer, writing about adult things. The first Canticle, ‘My beloved is mine,’ is maybe coincidentally a sweet tribute to Peter Pears, but it is really a seventeenth-century poem using erotic imagery in a religious way, and there’s a very strong current of that in Christian tradition. The ironic thing about Britten was that he was actually so buttoned up, so embarrassed by sex—so, you know, English."
Bostridge, like many of his generation, was introduced to Britten by way of the composer’s huge repertory of music for children. Growing up in London, he sang in a boys’ choir, learning pieces like “Friday Afternoons” and “A Ceremony of Carols.” He played a Rat in “Noye’s Fludde” and the Captain in “The Golden Vanity.” In his teen-age years and early twenties, as he became a devotee of the German lieder tradition, he lost touch with the composer. Then he came across a classic Decca LP that featured Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing “Songs and Proverbs of William Blake” on one side and Pears singing “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne” on the other. “If somebody had asked me in the abstract if someone could make fantastic music out of Donne’s sonnets, I’d have said, ‘Come on, they’re great as they are. They make music themselves.’ But, when I heard this music, I was completely bowled over.”
“The Holy Sonnets” were a calling card for Bostridge early in his career. Difficult as it was to compete with Pears’s electrifying delivery, Bostridge made the music his own, in concert and in a fine recording for Hyperion. Recently, with the Berlin Philharmonic, under Simon Rattle, he made an authoritative recording of “Les Illuminations,” “Serenade,” and “Nocturne,” three major cycles for tenor and orchestra. He is also making his way through the Britten operas; he has sung “The Rape of Lucretia,” “The Turn of the Screw,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and will soon take on “Billy Budd” and “Death in Venice.” Eventually, he wants to tackle the role of the abusive fisherman in “Peter Grimes,” which, these days, is usually assigned to a heroic tenor. “I’m keen to explore my inner sadist,” he told me.
“As a tenor, I’m just grateful for the existence of this music,” he went on. “As with Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf, you can take the serious, single-minded approach—you can do a one-composer recital, and it really works. It’s complex, sophisticated music, but it’s also an endless pleasure to sing. At the center of the ‘Serenade’ is the Dirge, which is very dark stuff, and terribly grating on the voice. Straight after comes the Hymn, with its coloratura, so health-giving for the voice. Out of nowhere, you get this gift.”
There was no question that Bostridge’s first concert at Zankel was music for adults. This was not the sort of vocal recital at which the listener could expect to skim the poems in the few minutes before the lights went down. The Canticles, which call not only for tenor and piano but also, at various points, for countertenor, baritone, harp, and French horn, incorporate the ecstatic devotions of Francis Quarles; the Chester miracle play “Abraham and Isaac”; an apocalyptic wartime ode by Edith Sitwell (“Still falls the Rain— / Dark as the world of man, black as our loss”); and two of T. S. Eliot’s most abstruse Christian meditations, “Journey of the Magi” and “The Death of Saint Narcissus.” Britten wrote each Canticle in the wake of a major operatic effort, as if to purge theatricality from his system. All his life, he veered between a childishly innocent view of human nature and a preacher’s consciousness of the workings of sin: he had trouble reconciling the light and dark within himself. Bostridge, who says that he is “not stunningly religious,” points out that in Canticle II, as in the Sanctus of Britten’s “War Requiem,” the composer’s sense of God is “alien and frightening and Other, a voluntarist God who can do as He likes.” He added, “It’s a quite scary thing to grapple with.”
This riven consciousness is something that Bostridge conveys supremely well. He is not the sort of recitalist who processes all different kinds of music through the same lovely tone and smooth technique. Instead, he works to bring out the storytelling and the drama inherent in song. He is capable of singing in many voices at once, sounding like Noël Coward in one moment and the God of Abraham in the next. Fischer-Dieskau was his model early on, but he also admires Bob Dylan and others who use their voices like knives, to cut through convention. In “The Death of Saint Narcissus,” a harrowing scene of failed martyrdom, Bostridge did a hairpin turn in the lines “Then he had been a young girl / Caught in the woods by a drunken old man,” going from a smooth, silky delivery to a creepy sort of muttering shout. The singer is almost too happy to take risks, but his technique is secure enough so that he almost always gets away with them.
It was a tribute to Bostridge’s standing within the vocal world that he was able to attract two star collaborators to fill out the extra roles in the Canticles: the countertenor Bejun Mehta, who sang the part of Isaac in Canticle II, and the baritone Nathan Gunn, who filled out the complement of the Magi in Canticle IV. David Jolley provided richly melancholy horn solos in Canticle III, and Bridget Kibbey, the harpist in Canticle V, caught the various shades of glitter and menace in the music. Most important, Julius Drake, at the piano, provided a kind of resonant stage for Bostridge’s personae, creating a meticulously nuanced play of light and shadow around the voice.
Bostridge’s singing of “Winter Words” went to another level. When Britten wrote this cycle, he was no longer the ferocious young genius who had written “Peter Grimes” and the “Holy Sonnets.” He was turning forty, and had experienced disappointments together with triumphs. He had discovered that his domestic life with Peter Pears was not going to erase the darker strains in his nature. For “Winter Words,” he collected various Thomas Hardy poems about the fleetingness of experience, which weigh the sensations of the instant (a boy’s boredom on a long train ride, the creak of an old table, a certain light in the trees in November) against the unfeeling vastness of time. Britten’s music finds precise images for that heavy theme, often by juxtaposing bursts of figuration against extended, hypnotically repetitive chordal patterns. Bostridge here set aside the slightly demonic aura that he often delights in presenting onstage (and that cannot be detected in his lunch-table manner); instead, he emphasized the tenderness of his voice, its straw-in-the-wind quality.
Britten’s song cycles very often end with a world-stopping cry from the heart: “Death be not proud”; Shakespeare’s Sonnet XLIII, in “Nocturne”; Keats’s sonnet “To Sleep,” in “Serenade.” Each is a passionate protest against mundane consciousness, the facts of life, the way things are. “Before Life and After,” which closes “Winter Words,” is the most extreme, and most affecting, of these denunciations of the outer world. Over a slow, solemn procession of triadic harmonies, it remembers “a time there was . . . when all went well,” a primal state before “the disease of feeling germed,” and wonders whether such a time could come again. I don’t remember anything about how Bostridge sang the last words, “How long, how long?”—only the storm of emotion that was contained in them, the desperation, sorrow, rage, and hope.
March 20, 2006 | Permalink
Sibelius famously remarked to his fellow composer Bengt von Törne: "Never pay any attention to what critics say. Remember, a statue has never been set up in honor of a critic!" Not quite true. Commenters at Felsenmusick point out that the Canadian artist Joe Fafard made a statue of Clement Greenberg, and that there is a statue to the literary critic Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Also, I seem to remember seeing a statue of the Russian critic Vladimir Stasov — dedicatee of Pictures at an Exhibition, subject of several extraordinary portraits by Ilya Repin — in St. Petersburg. These, however, are obviously the exceptions that prove the rule. The way I see it, critics can play a useful cultural role, but composers should ignore what they say, even when it's positive. Praise can be as unnerving as criticism, as Sibelius learned after paying too much attention to Olin Downes.
March 19, 2006 | Permalink
Last year I noted with a certain amount of excitement (to quote Swallow in Peter Grimes) that the Milwaukee Symphony had put recordings of its concerts online. The New York Philharmonic has followed suit with its own online plan, in collaboration with DG; the first offering will be Mozart's last three symphonies. You can already listen to archived broadcasts on the Philharmonic website. Not about to be left behind is the standard-setting LA Phil, which, Scott Timberg testifies, will be offering two of its Minimalist Jukebox concerts at the beginning of April, together with recent programs combining Beethoven symphonies and contemporary works. The concerts will be available through iTunes and will cost less than $10. This is good.
March 19, 2006 | Permalink
This site may have become a clearing-house for classical hilarity, but there's a fair amount of in-depth analytical commentary out there in the bløgösphêré, as we like to call the classical corner of the web. See, say, Jeremy Denk on the Kreutzer Sonata or Kyle Gann on Glenn Branca. The latest analytic blog I've come across is Unconquered Sound, which has a post called "fun with hemiolas" and what appears to be the definitive explication of "Let It Snow." For something much less technical, read Corey Dargel's thoroughly absorbing account of new trends in songwriting at NewMusicBox.
March 17, 2006 | Permalink
What will James Levine do on his forced vacation? To judge from this review [now corrected — 3/20] in the Financial Times, he's made a surprising choice — to take up music criticism. In his debut effort, he trains his experienced ears and eyes on the Metropolitan Opera itself, modeling his prose style on that of the sharp-tongued critic Martin Bernheimer. The third-person self-references are very sly.
March 16, 2006 | Permalink
I assume it's been done before, but this is my first glimpse of it in the classical field: Andrew Druckenbrod's fine piece on John Adams's Naive and Sentimental Music, for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is outfitted with sound samples, so that you can click on descriptive phrases and hear the music in question.
March 13, 2006 | Permalink
Mark Swed writes an excellent overview of musical minimalism for the LA Times. It's in preparation for the LA Philharmonic's Minimalist Jukebox festival, which looks on paper to be one of the best things an American orchestra has ever done, convening such classic works as Terry Riley's In C, Reich's Four Organs, Glass's Akhnaten, Andriessen's De Staat, Pärt's Tabula Rasa, and Adams's Harmonielehre, together with such latter-day phenomena as Glenn Branca's Hallucination City for 100 electric guitars (Branca is seeking players), Michael Gordon's film symphony Decasia, and a performance by The Orb. (I'd be covering all this, but after some agony I've decided that there is more news value in the Paris premiere of Kaija Saariaho's second opera, Adriana Mater, which is happening at the same time. Esa-Pekka Salonen is conducting, Peter Sellars directing: there is no escaping the LA domination.) Swed recounts a Berkeley professor's reaction to In C: "[Riley] betrayed Berkeley. He betrayed music. He betrayed Gedalge [author of Treatise on the Fugue]. He betrayed everything this department stands for. I will not allow that album to be brought into my classroom. This has nothing to do with Vietnam. It is about preserving civilization." Minimalism is civilization, dear sir. It is tradition made modern. Also, here is Alan Rich's minimalist paean, replete with memories of the infamous 1973 performance of Four Organs in Carnegie Hall, which caused the last great musical scandal of the twentieth century. By the way, if you want to see something very haunting, watch the video of the June, 2001 premiere of Hallucination City, in a place that no longer exists. (Photo above by Emily Watkins.)
March 12, 2006 | Permalink
Dolor descends on the New York opera world as it is announced that James Levine, who slipped and fell at a recent Boston Symphony performance, is undergoing rotator-cuff surgery and canceling his Met appearances for the remainder of the season — the new Don Pasquale, Lohengrin and Fidelio with Karita Mattila, the traditional Easter-time Parsifal, and (this must have been an especially hard decision) the Joseph Volpe farewell gala. Let's hope for some interesting guest-conductor choices to make up in part for the loss of the Levine touch. The announcement puts in relief the fact that Levine has been a rock of dependability throughout his Met career. All wish the Maestro a speedy recovery. I went through months of rotator-cuff problems last year, and it was no fun.
March 11, 2006 | Permalink
"Every year," the front page of CBS News' Assignment America website states, "the major networks (CBS included) spend millions of dollars trying to figure out what people want to see on TV. Yet, in the end, much of the programming isn't what you would have picked at all." No kidding! Last week, CBS asked viewers to vote for one of three possible news subjects: 1) a Holocaust survivor who never had his bar mitzvah; 2) an in-flight dating service; or 3) a composer who earned his masters from the University of Michigan, studying with William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, and William Albright. Interestingly, the student of Bolcom won — although it must have helped that he was advertised as a "hip-hop violinist." As anyone who follows American music will have guessed, I'm talking about composer-violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, who, having won the viewers' votes, will be profiled on the CBS Evening News this Friday. I'll tune in for that, and, later, for Conan O'Brien's report on his grand tour of Finland. I'm hoping Conan makes a pilgrimage to Ainola. (Via NewMusicBox.)
Not entirely unrelated is Kyle Gann's profile of the excellent young composer Mason Bates. As it happens, both Roumain and Bates are featured on a March 17 program by the American Composers Orchestra at Zankel. Unfortunately, I will miss that promising-looking event; I'll be on my way to the University of Michigan (!), to talk about Shostakovich.... Odd coincidence: Robert Gable and I seem to have simultaneously purchased used LP's of Peter Lieberson's Piano Concerto (No. 1). What a powerful, gratifying piece that is.... On the theme of composers showing up in unexpected places, here's an article on Brian Ferneyhough in Popmatters.
March 08, 2006 | Permalink
I've been looking some more at the first page of Beethoven's piano arrangement of the Grosse Fuge, which was recently donated to Juilliard. My
uneducated guess, on briefly studying the document back in December, was that
in writing out the beginning of the piece Beethoven first imitated what
had done in the quartet and then decided to amplify the octave G's
in various ways — by adding extra bars, piling on more octaves above
below, and bringing the dynamics up to ff. The fact that some staff lines in the third bar have been redrawn suggests that the composer
first attempt, and the "squeezed" look of the barlines suggests that
new material was added later. I still think this is how it went, but
it's hard to be sure. I probably should have written
"Beethoven seems to have replicated...." Best to say "seems" when dealing with a man like Beethoven.
Several readers have commented on Beethoven's decision to tie two eighth-notes together in the first soft statement of the theme at Allegro. The composer's practice of writing tied notes where a single note might have sufficed has long puzzled scholars and performers; Jonathan Del Mar recently wrote an entire article on the subject for the journal Early Music. Ian Hampton of the Langley Community Music School, in British Columbia, observes that a string player can "'suggest' these ligatures [slurs] even in the heat of battle in ways that the piano cannot." He also notes that the keyboard action of instruments in Beethoven's time would have allowed the player to hint at the breaks between notes. To answer Hampton's question, the slurred notes are indeed carried over into the piano arrangement. As I said in the column, Karl Holz twice asked Beethoven about the slurred notes in the Conversation Books. The first time was in early January 1826, when Opus 130 was being rehearsed. The second time was in April 1826, when the four-hand arrangement was in preparation. Evidently Beethoven's notation was as puzzling then as it is now. Incidentally, my copies of the Conversation Books once belonged to Claudio Arrau, as I relate here.
Finally, I'd like to mention two essays that offer rich ideas about the quasi-operatic aspects of Opus 130, especially the relationship of the Cavatina and "Overtura" of the Fugue. They are Lewis Lockwood's "On the Cavatina of Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130," in Liedstudien: Wolfgang Osthoff zum 60. Geburtstag (Tutzing, 1989) and Richard Kramer's "Between Cavatina and Ouverture: Opus 130 and the Voices of Nature," in Beethoven Forum 1 (University of Nebraska Press, 1992). Lockwood writes: "By taking so intense an operatic aria-type into the string quartet, Beethoven shows in the most palpable way that this late quartet is itself a transcendent composition of a new type...." Kramer writes of the dramatic G's: "The effect is [close] to some fantastical scene from the fictions of E. T. A. Hoffmann. The mock cavatina is shown to be just that: an act of fantasy, not really a cavatina. The repudiation is all the more painful because the music is in any case very real. The beauty of the thing is real, not simulated."
March 07, 2006 | Permalink