Listening on the Road

IMG_1031I knew I would be spending a lot of time in the car for my trip to North Carolina this past November, so I brought a good-sized stack of CDs, more than I could possibly go through. Here the ones I got to:

Mahler: Symphony #9.  Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, conductor. Decades after conducting the premiere, Walter recorded Mahler’s last completed symphony in a reading that is notable more for its serenity than its angst.

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. This isn’t a trio plus soloist album, but an integrated whole, a quartet – true to the Bad Plus ideal of being a band. The material consists entirely of originals, with each member of the ensemble contributing.

Harbison: The Great Gatsby Suite; Darkbloom; Closer to My Own Life. Mary Mackenzie, soprano; Albany Symphony; David Alan Miller, conductor. I was there for the performance that preceded the recording of this music from Harbison’s opera, and found the Suite a compelling narrative in its own right. Darkbloom was inspired by Nabakov, while Closer to My Own Life sets texts by Alice Munro, with my friend and advocate Mary Mackenzie sounding radiant in her recorded debut as soloist.

Wagner: Tristan Und Isolde. Deborah Voigt; Thomas Moser; Petra Lang; Peter Weber; Robert Holl; Choir and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. Christian Thielemann, conductor. It won’t make you forget the Windgassen/Nilsson/Böhm version, but there is much to savor in this live recording. I was most impressed by Voigt and Lang, as well as the gorgeous orchestral playing.

Eric Chasalow: Are You Radioactive, Pal? There are many practitioners of electronic music but not so many great pieces. But Eric Chasalow’s work constitutes an exception to that rule because he is that rare combination: an artist with complete technical mastery of the medium who is also a first-class composer. Superb performances by Daniel Stepner, violin, and Philipp Stäudlin, saxophone, on pieces that combine live player with electronic sound; the remainder of the album is for fixed media alone.

Duke Ellington: Black, Brown and Beige. This is a 3-disc set of RCA recordings from 1944-46. One astonishing track after another, with compositional ingenuity and brilliant performances in full bloom. Besides excerpts from the title composition, the album includes The Perfume Suite and some remakes of earlier Ellington hits. Even the novelty numbers are a delight; who can resist Ray Nance on Otto, Make That Riff Staccato?

Expectation in New York

Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation) was the closing work on the New York Philharmonic concert I attended back on the 9th. Like a good deal of Schoenberg, it is music I more respect than love.* Quite unlike Wozzeck, to cite another expressionist opera,  I have no emotional connection with Erwartung.** The piece lacks a compelling shape, something Wozzeck certainly has. (I am not referring to the formal schemes Berg employed – suite, symphony, etc. but to the dramatic contour.) The individual gestures in the Schoenberg are striking – some rather more than others. Unsurprisingly, the moments where the ear can latch onto some sort of repeated pattern are the most telling – for example, the brief bustling spot where the harmony is built up and then quickly dismantled in steady sixteenth note rhythm. The fertility of invention is astounding, but ultimately tiresome. Deborah Voigt’s performance was powerful, with plenty of variety in tone and character. It was a good example of a strong performance selling a difficult piece, as the audience called her back repeatedly. I thought David Robertson was superb here and all through the evening. I have commented elsewhere about sitting at a performance of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth and thinking, “Well, it ain’t Berg”. I’m sorry to say I was thinking the same thing at Erwartung.

The program started with Shostakovich’s first symphony. I had forgotten the piece, but the bits that show up in the orchestration textbooks – the timpani and piano solos, for example – brought it back to me. Even with a piece that early in Shostakovich’s career, the listener is left wondering just how sincere and how ironic the music is supposed to be. After intermission, there were announcements and speeches honoring retiring members of the Philharmonic. Surely there was no playful intent, but it was a little funny to then perform Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead immediately after a ceremony for retirees!

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*Kyle Gann has written about how few pieces by Schoenberg people actually like. I think my list might be longer than his, but it includes the 2nd and 4th quartets, Transfigured Night, Gurrelieder, the first Chamber Symphony, Pierrot, the piano suite, the Serenade, Book of the Hanging Gardens, the String Trio, Ode to Napoleon, Moses and Aron, perhaps a few others I am forgetting. The “respect” list includes a number of other pieces; and then there are the ones I actively dislike. Everyone  I have ever talked to about it (OK, so not that many people) hates the Wind Quintet.

**I also feel little emotional connection with Lulu, but that is a different situation because the music is so gorgeous.

Sunday Afternoon Miscellany

– go here for video on The Crossing, Donald Nally’s splendid new music choir here in Philly. They began their Month of Moderns today.

– first you say, ‘huh?” – but then you say, “of course.” You are reacting to news of The Cleveland Orchestras programs of Bruckner and John Adams at Lincoln Center next month.

– I will be heading up to NYC this week to hear Erwartung with Deborah Voigt and the NY Phil. Rachmaninoff Isle of the Dead and Shostakovich 1st also on the show. The Rachmaninoff and Schoenberg kind of go together; how will the Shostakovich fit?

 

Saturday Doubleheader

It was a musical doubleheader in New York for me last Saturday as I attended both the Met matinee and the NY Phil in the evening.

I am not a big Puccini fan, (even though I cry at Bohème) but I was very impressed by Fanciulla, the last performance of the run at the Met. This was a strong cast, especially Deborah Voigt.  She sounded great, singing with both power and beauty of sound. The range of expressive types Minnie has to project is remarkable: she is playful, steely, vulnerable, kind, heroic, and Voigt conveyed them all. The theme of the piece is Wagnerian – a man redeemed through a woman’s love – but this time the woman survives to get her man, not just redeem him. Alex Ross smartly observes how Minnie beats the men in the piece at their own games (both literally – a poker game – and figuratively) “and then breaks down their macho codes”. The first and third acts end in a remarkably low key manner, with the ambiguities of the final curtain nicely summarized in the figure of the sheriff, left alone on stage, handling a gun, still wanting to kill the tenor, but unable to move. Ross found fault with the production, and it is on the literal side, at once a bit stiff and very busy. Voigt remarks in an interview how she has to handle tons of props in this staging. She seems to spend a long time in the first act putting away whiskey glasses. I suppose this is necessary given the amount of drinking that goes on – per capita at about at the level of an Albee play.

In the evening I heard two men named Thomas – Hampson’s Kindertotenlieder was deeply affecting, and Adés played his piano concerto with video, a collaboration with Tal Rosner. I am an Adés fan, but I was not consistently held by this piece. Anthony Tommasini’s review makes the music sound much more varied than it seemed to me. Too much of the work involved streams of regular durations, often layered against similar streams moving at slightly different speeds, but still lacking in sufficiently characterized rhythmic profile. Still, there was much to admire when the rhythms were less static. I found the video was at its most compelling when most dense, with various geometric patterns intricately overlaid. However, there were also brief moments that were dangerously close to screensaver images, or the visualizer in iTunes, or even the abstractions that accompany the Bach toccata and fugue in Disney’s Fantasia.  I appreciated the fact that the music and image were closely coordinated. I always hated the way the jump cuts from frantic activity to stasis in the Godfrey Reggio/Philip Glass collaboration Koyaanisqatsi are not quite in sync, but that is not the case here.

Update: hear the Adés on Instant Encore here.