Monday, May 14, 2007

Haydn, Faure, Poulenc And Others, With Fats Waller, Too!

We listened to music all weekend, and my mother selected the discs for us. My mother loves French music, and two of the discs contained music by two of her favorite French composers.

Haydn's "Paris" Symphonies, performed by The Academy Of Saint Martin-In-The-Fields under Neville Marriner, on the Philips label

Faure Chamber Music, performed by Gil Shaham, Akira Eguchi and Brinton Smith, on the Vanguard Classics label

Poulenc Choral Music, performed by The Joyful Company Of Singers under Peter Broadbent, on the ASV label

A recital album featuring Dawn Upshaw, with the Orchestra Of Saint Luke's under David Zinman, on the Nonesuch label

"Ain't Misbehavin'", a disc of music by Fats Waller, arranged for brass quintet, performed by the Canadian Brass, on the RCA label

I love Haydn symphonies, and so does my mother, and so does my father, and so does Josh. They are ceaselessly inventive, and surprising, and bewitching. Each one of the six "Paris" symphonies is individual and unique, and shows Haydn at his very best. I could listen to these works daily, I almost believe. The Marriner performances are very good. They are analogue recordings, from the very late 1970's, and the sound is superb. The playing is superb, too. Marriner gets good results from his players without ever getting in the way, trying to make interpretive points. Recordings of Haydn symphonies are now more-or-less the exclusive province of original-instrument ensembles, but modern orchestras can sound wonderful in Haydn if the conductor knows what he is doing. Marriner knows what he is doing, and these performances are very successful.

Not long after he made this particular set of recordings, Marriner became Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra. His appointment was greeted with great acclaim--it was during the period of his greatest success as a recording artist, before his repertory was taken over by original-instrument ensembles--and his first year or two in Minneapolis featured a warm reception by the public and by the members of the orchestra, who had grown tired of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski after nineteen years. Things soon soured, however, and Marriner left Minneapolis after only six years, accepting a lesser post with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. In Minneapolis, after he settled in, Marriner was viewed--both by the public and by the members of the orchestra--as a master of the orchestral repertory from 1700 to 1800, but not in command of repertory from 1800 onward. Marriner's departure from Minneapolis was hastened by his dislike of some important members of the orchestra's administration and Board. Two Principal Guest Conductors during the Marriner years--Klaus Tennstedt and Charles Dutoit--also cut short their Minneapolis stays because of conflicts with these same individuals. Marriner still returns, on occasion, to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra. Next season, I see from the 2007-2008 brochure, Marriner will return to conduct one week of subscription concerts.

The Faure disc was the first recording made by Gil Shaham after his former label, Deutsche Grammophon, cut him loose in favor of Hilary Hahn. It includes much of the music Faure wrote for violin and piano, as well as arrangments of music for cello and piano adapted for violin, as well as his string trio. The Sonata For Violin And Piano No. 1 is well known, and the Berceuse For Violin and Piano is well known, and the Trio For Piano And Strings is well known, but most of the other compositions on the disc are seldom played. It is a nice disc, and Faure's music has its own unique "cool beauty", as that tired saying goes, but I do not think that these performances are the last word in Faure performance. The performances do not seem to be "internalized" and natural. They are performances in which the musicians can be heard to be striving for the essence of the music, instead of simply realizing it. Faure's music is very difficult to perform well, which is why his music is not often programmed, and Shaham and Eguchi and Smith are clearly not natural Faure musicians.

I love the music of Poulenc, and I especially love the choral music of Poulenc, and the ASV disc contains several of Poulenc's most important and most beloved choral works, including "Figure Humaine", Poulenc's masterpiece, and "Four Motets Pour Le Temps De Noel". The disc also includes "Seven Chansons" and "Salve Regina" and "Un Soir De Neige" and "Four Petites Prieres De Saint Francois D'Assise" and "Ave Verum Corpus" and "Exultate Deo". This is all magnificent music, beautifully written for massed voices, and we enjoyed listening to this disc very much. However, the Poulenc disc paralleled the Faure disc to the extent that both discs contained marvelous music, but not marvelous performances. The Joyful Company Of Singers is a London-based chamber group, and British singers are not as effective in Poulenc as French singers or, in a fairly recent development, German singers. Further, The Joyful Company Of Singers is not a choir on the exalted level of the Westminster Cathedral Choir, surely London's finest, and these performances are under-nourished (perhaps a larger chorus was needed) and under-characterized. I kept longing for a larger sound, as well as for the "tanginess" that French choruses supply in this repertory. This is perhaps the most disappointing Poulenc choral disc I have ever heard.

The Dawn Upshaw recital disc is, I believe, her very first such recital disc for Nonesuch. Many were to follow, and I think that I have heard them all. There are only four works on the disc: Barber's "Knoxville: Summer Of 1915", Harbison's "Mirabai Songs", the great aria "No Word From Tom" that closes Act I of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress", and an aria from Menotti's "The Old Maid And The Thief", "What A Curse For A Woman Is A Timid Man". This is a lovely disc, with lovely performances, and we were captivated by each of the works. The Barber is his masterpiece, or so I have always believed, and this is one of the very greatest pieces of American music, despite the fact that its four sections are cut and pasted together instead of flowing organically from one section to another. The Harbison song cycle is very, very fine, and the Menotti aria is, surprisingly, very effective and even charming. And is not the Stravinsky aria the very greatest 20th-Century opera aria? I have always thought so.

Upshaw is a wonderful singer, and I have always admired her. My admiration is not unqualified, however, because there has always been something slightly "schoolmarmish" about her and her performances. In fact, there is something about her--something indefinable--that absolutely ticks off some people. My father, for instance, loathes her. Myself, I sometimes find Upshaw's performances to be slightly under-characterized and lathered with an all-purpose "sincerity" that is anything but sincere. In the Nonesuch disc, these shortcomings come into play in the Stravinsky--purely sung, but ultimately unmoving--and in the Barber, which seems to be too "fake simple", if not even arch on occasion. Further, in the Barber, while listening to Upshaw, I kept recalling certain phrases from the Leontyne Price recording--and it cannot be a whole-hearted endorsement of a performance if the listener is involuntarily thinking back to a different performance of the same music by a different artist.

Upshaw is now working regularly with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, having assumed a post as one of the orchestra's "guest curators". The word "curator" should never be used outside a museum setting, as it displays both the writer's pretentiousness and a counterfeit learnedness when used in a non-museum context, and I have been dumbfounded as this particular word has seeped into fashionable musical lexicography. Concert programs are "organized" or "devised" or "constructed"; they are not "curated". The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has made a mistake in abandoning the presence of a Music Director in favor of a series of "guest curators". What can Dawn Upshaw possibly have to contribute to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra except her presence as a guest soloist?

The Canadian Brass disc of music by Fats Waller is pure joy. My mother selected this disc, I know, because she knows that Josh loves brass music. The music is delightful, and the arrangements are delightful, and the performances are delightful. Waller was a very skillful composer: his rhythmic inventiveness was endless, and his tunes are original and individual, and they are susceptible to complex and unusal harmonic treatments (which cannot be said, for purposes of comparison, about much of the music of Cole Porter, a contemporary of Waller who also wrote popular music of some sophistication and skill). This disc appears to be out of print, and I cannot imagine why. It should be a constant and considerable seller.


  1. Interesting comments on the various discs. I love Poulenc also. Most of my recordings are old - Regine Crespin, for instance. Stabat Mater never fails to move me. My first encounter with Poulenc was singing one of the "Four Motets for a Time of Penitence."

    One of the first records I purchased as a freshman in college was Eleanor Steber's recording of the Barber. Many of the critics of that period (early '60's) considered it a classic recording. Although her voice didn't move me, I came to love the piece.

    Finally, and I don't remember if I mentioned this in another comment, I saw/heard "Dialogues" at the Chicago Lyric in March. I was unprepared for the impact of the piece, particularly the ending. One endures many uninspired performances for the occasional emotional wallop.

    Have a good time in Denver.

  2. Hello, David, and all best greetings, and I trust you are doing well.

    You know, that Eleanor Steber recording of the Barber never did anything for me, either, although I fully realize that it is supposed to be a classic.

    I like many Crespin recordings, too, and she can do something in Offenbach that no other singer can do: break the listener's heart. I, of course, never heard Crespin in person, but my parents did. They said that her voice, in person, was more colorful and powerful than her recordings suggested. They also said, however, that she was a disappointing stage actress.

    I love the Poulenc opera, and I wish I could have attended this year's production in Chicago. I heard nothing but good things about it. I am glad you enjoyed it.

    I have seen the Metropolitan Opera production, and I think that "Carmelites" is one of only two Metropolitan Opera productions that are any good. The other good Metropolitan Opera production is "Billy Budd", by the same director, the late John Dexter. Both productions are from the late 1970's. That does not say much about current standards at the Met, does it?

    I know exactly what you mean about enduring many uninspired performances in order to catch the occasional "emotional wallop". When that "wallop" hits, it hits hard, doesn't it?

    On another subject, I visited the website of the Kansas City World War I museum, which you brought to my attention, and it was difficult for me to get an idea of how large the museum is and what, in particular, is on display there. From the website, I noticed that there seemed to be a rather hefty admission charge, which would seem to me to inhibit visits to the collection.

    Was there much national attention when that museum opened last year? I do not recall reading anything about the museum when it opened.

    Thank you for your wishes for a successful Denver trip. We are looking forward to it very much.

    All the best to you,


  3. Hi, Andrew, and thank you for the wonderful comment you wrote in the Kiri entry on my blog.

    I do love the Barber Knoxville extremely much; I was surpsied to read that the Eleanor Steber recording didn't do much for you. To me it is the definitive recording: I think that there are phrases in her performance ("Now is the night one blue dew" and the final "But will not ever tell me who I am") that are some of the most gloriously sung in the history of recorded sound (now that's not going out on a limb or anything, is it?)

    I love aspects of the Leontyne recording, but I must say that the sing-songy faux-childish way that she inflects the first section really puts me off, though once she gets into the meat of the piece, it is ineffably moving.

    Another singer I am about to write about on my blog is Roberta Alexander. I just listened to her recording of Barber songs (with piano) yesterday and found it stupendous. It jogged my memory of her other Barber recording of the two big scenas (Knoxville and Andromache) as well as excerpts from Vanessa and Antony & Cleopatra. At the time I thought it ranked with the very best versions I know, right after Steber, in fact, although for you I suspect that's faint praise. I checked and it seems not to be available anymore.

    A few years ago when I was singing at the Châtelet, she was appearing in the world première of Eötvös' Angels in America. I met her at the final dress rehearsal and she was as lovely as she could be. The production featured two other divas who were prominent in the eighties (Julia Migenes and Barbara Hendricks). Roberta's music was written in the basement and it was not at all clear that there was any voice left whatsoever, but a friend of mine in the cast told me that one day he heard her from his dressing room singing Mozart and he said it was as fresh and beautiful as you could imagine.

    And if that isn't a comment on the short memories of people in the music business, I don't know what is!

    I look forward to reading more of your blog.



  4. Daniel, I probably need to listen to the Steber again. I have not heard it for quite some time. My father has it, and I shall have to dig it out and have another listen.

    As a whole, I do not like the Leontyne Price recording. However, there are portions of the Price performance that hit me in the solar plexis. The part that I can never erase from my mind is the part in which Price sings of the other family members: "One is an artist. He is living at home. One is a musician. She is living at home. One is my mother, who is good to me. One is my father, who is good to me." Price sings those words with great simplicity and warmth and feeling, and it is all I can do to keep from weeping.

    I did not know that Roberta Alexander had recorded "Knoxville". I shall try to locate that recording.

    Barbara Hendricks recorded a fine "Knoxville" with Tilson Thomas on the EMI label, and I like that performance, for what it's worth.

    Daniel, I believe that my parents heard you here in Minneapolis in Handel's "Julius Ceasar". I shall have to dig through their old concert programs to confirm this.

  5. "Solar plexus", not "solar plexis", with thanks to my sister-in-law, who is my human spell check.