Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Sander & Sander: Die Schöne Müllerin

Die böse/liebe Farbe
Ah, spring. The drought of March is pierced to the root, and just as surely as folk long to go on pilgrimages, the thoughts of Lieder-lovers everywhere turn to Schubert's most famous wanderer. Or at least mine do... and the Heidelberger Frühling suggests I am not alone. A new recording of Die Schöne Müllerin was, then, a listening opportunity I embraced. The collaboration of a husband-wife team, baritone Klemens Sander and pianist Uta Sander, intrigued me, as promising a reservoir of trust and good communication practices on which to draw. K. Sander (whose credentials as an experienced Lieder interpreter are distinguished) sang with a pleasing, plangent baritone, and impeccable diction. Uta Sander offered lucid playing throughout.

And yet. And yet, I found myself disappointed, missing a sense of the cycle's arc. There was polish and precision; but there was surprisingly little variation of tempo or dynamics. From the piano, there was often a strangely forceful attack at the beginning of songs, which, in my view, contributed neither to musical flow or dramatic tension. The whole frequently felt sluggish, which was particularly odd in this cycle where the impetuous protagonist is either brooding or striding about, but never, surely, plodding. In the trailer for the album, K. Sander speaks with warmth (in German) about the rich emotional variety of the cycle, but that understanding was rarely communicated to the listener.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Crossing Over: Sacred Music for the Agnostic

Light and darkness (Edinburgh sunset, photo by me)
The 40 days of Lent: season of prayer and fasting for adherents of Christianity, and of Requiems and Passions for devotees of classical music. With a seasonally appropriate release date of March 25, Crossing Over, the new album of the choral ensemble Skylark, answers the question: what might musical meditations on mortality look like without religious affiliation? The results are musically creative and intellectually rich. Indeed, the musical substance of the album--available for pre-order here--is weightier than the somewhat fulsome accompanying text would suggest. (The expressions "near-death experiences" and "pseudo-consciousness" raised only skeptical alarm in me.) Composers of several generations and traditions are represented. Works by Nicolai Kedrov and Jón Leifs date to the first half of the twentieth century; song cycles by William Schuman and John Tavener to the latter (and just beyond.) Daniel Elder, Robert Vuichard, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir represent the generation of composers who have come of age in the twenty-first century. I mention this as a matter affecting the spiritual textures of the works, almost more than the musical textures.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Il tempo vola... baciami! Manon Lescaut at the Met

Thwarted lovers: Alagna and Opolais in Act III (Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera)
I got to see Tuesday night's performance of Manon Lescaut, and I'm very glad I did. Hearing Kristine Opolais live for the first time was a highlight. Despite the infamously unsatisfactory development of Manon's character, her singing was both sensitive and thrilling. Also a pleasure was the ardent Des Grieux of Roberto Alagna. The lovers were supported by a strong cast, a lush orchestra, and a production that speaks my emotional language. To be honest, despite Richard Eyre's undoubted expertise, I wasn't sure how his Manon Lescaut would turn out (I'd found his recent Met Nozze deeply disappointing.) In the event, I found the production very effective. Not only is the stylized visual vocabulary of 1940s film a sure way to my heart and the breaking of it, but the historical setting of Occupied France was used to provide meaningful external pressures on both of the lovers. If there was anything lacking, it was only an indefinable spark... but I luxuriated nonetheless.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Brief Notes on Beethoven in Boston

While recently attending a conference, I took time off to attend a very alliterative concert. Harry Christophers helmed the Handel and Haydn Society in a concert devoted to Beethoven at Boston's Symphony Hall. It was satisfying and stimulating to listen to, as well as to name. My brain being reduced by the weekend's academic labors to something like mush, my notes will be brief. I'm making them anyway because Friday night's concert offered me the exhilarating experience of hearing a beloved composer in new ways.

The evening opened with a nod to Handel, with a crisp rendition of the "How Excellent Thy Name" chorus from Saul. The forces of the Collaborative Youth Concerts were impressively professional in manner and expressive in diction. I'm sure there's been scholarly ink spilled on the political and social significance of Old Testament oratorios, and the orchestra's vibrant performance had me wondering where I could find it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Met in 2016-17: Tristan and Beyond

I know, the announcement's old news by now. But because I have many and complicated feelings about the opera house I've so long called home, I'm writing about it anyway. The Met's much-deplored habit of relying on blockbuster singers at the expense of interesting programming or productions still dominates, I think. There are some honorable exceptions in next season's lineup, though. I'd be much more excited about these if the Met didn't congratulate itself for them so vociferously. Still, I am cautiously allowing myself to be heartened about the fact that the publicity for the season and for individual productions is at least giving more time to the directors. Also, there are some exceptions to the "more is never enough" aesthetic in the promotional materials, notably in Willy Decker's sleek Traviata. The chances of my returning to NYC for the upcoming season are, alas, slim, so here's an annotated list of the things I'm most likely to make pilgrimages for. Feel free to tell me what else you think I should see, and who else you think I should hear, in the comments.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Semi-Scholarly Summary: Verdi's Macbeth

As an itinerant scholar, I've recently written a small piece about Verdi's Macbeth. The commissioning body doesn't know what it's unleashed. Among other things, it gave me the idea of starting a series of semi-scholarly summaries here, featuring historical background, colorful anecdotes, and a highly subjective selection of recommended reading and listening. As has been intermittently obvious on this blog, going to the research library as preparation for attending an opera performance is my idea of a good time. It would seem that I have a kindred spirit in Verdi himself; he paid a great deal of attention to the historical setting of Shakespeare's Macbeth, writing to his publisher and set-designer about political details of eleventh-century England and Scotland.

Macbeth was Verdi's own favorite opera at the time of writing. In 1864, however, when undertaking substantial revisions, he wrote of parts of it as "weak, or even worse, lacking in character." The mid-twentieth century saw a brief revival of the 1847 version, and in recent years, both versions have found place on the operatic stage. The work's very unconventionalities - to judge by essays and interviews - helped it to a mini-boom in the early years of the twenty-first century. (I've written about performances I've seen at the Met here and here.) Macbeth was Verdi's first foray into adapting Shakespeare, and he was unsurprisingly perfectionistic in working with Piave on the libretto, intent on having language echo feeling and fit with musical form.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Far More Than Mediocre: Salieri's Les Danaides

Look at that cover design!
In some corner of my mind, Salieri will always be F. Murray Abraham. I can't help it. To be honest, this was one of the reasons that I jumped at the chance to review a gorgeously-produced recording of his sweeping 1784 opera, Les Danaïdes. Another reason was that it was simply and irresistibly beautiful (see left.) It has the kind of apparatus I can't resist, with critical essays in French and English, lucidly written and in a nice typeface. (I do realize that I'm revealing novel facets and depths of my nerdery, here...) With Les Talens Lyriques led by Christophe Rousset, the musical quality promised to be similarly luxurious, and I was not disappointed. There is an energy and brio to the entire performance that is irresistible. There's also orchestral creativity and moral nuance that I found fascinating. I'm not alone in this. Berlioz, seeing a performance in the 1820s, enthused about the éclat of the drama, the harmonic cooperation of chorus and orchestra, and the talent of the singers. Even without the benefit of dramatic tableaux, it's easy to echo his praise.


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