Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Bach-Beethoven-Brahms-Debussy-Dutilleux And French Operetta

All last week we listened to music while we were at my parents’ house, trip-planning.

We listened to three discs of basics—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms—and three discs of French music, which my mother loves.

Music of Bach transcribed for guitar, performed by Enno Voorhorst, on the Naxos label

Beethoven’s String Quartets Nos. 15 and 16, performed by the Vermeer Quartet, on the Teldec label

Brahms’ Sonatas For Clarinet And Piano, performed by David Shifrin and Carol Rosenberger, on the Delos label

Debussy Piano Music, performed by Jacques Rouvier, on the Denon label

Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto and Violin Concerto, performed by Truls Mork and Renaud Capucon and the Orchestre Philharmonique De Radio France under Myung-Whun Chung, on the Virgin Classics label

French Operetta Arias, performed by Susan Graham and the City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Yves Abel, on the Erato label

The music of Bach seems to thrive in transcription, and the Bach Naxos disc is very fine, and provides a great deal of listening pleasure. Voorhorst is a Dutch guitarist who made the transcriptions himself, and I thought the transcriptions were quite good. If the listener did not already know the origins of the different pieces, one would think that the works were written for guitar performance.

Some of Bach’s most cherished works are on the disc: Sonata For Violin Solo No. 1 In G Minor, BWV 1001; Partita For Flute Solo In A Minor, BWV 1013; Harpsichord Concerto In D Minor After Allessandro Marcello, BWV 974; Prelude In E, BWV 954 (from The Well-Tempered Clavier); Prelude In C, BWV 939; and the Adagissimo from the Capriccio In B Flat On The Departure Of His Most Beloved Brother, BWV 992.

This is beautiful music that can be listened to, over and over, for a lifetime, and the performances were beautiful, too. Bach is Josh’s very favorite composer, and Josh loves this disc—he said it is one of the most beautiful discs he has ever heard. We listened to it many, many times.

Music of late Beethoven is very difficult to perform, and very difficult to listen to, and very difficult to appreciate. I sometimes think that human beings are unworthy of this music. I often feel inadequate whenever I listen to late Beethoven piano sonatas or late Beethoven string quartets or the Missa Solemnis. Whenever I am not enthralled by the music, or by the performance, I always feel that there must be something wrong with me.

I did not care for the Vermeer performances, which struck me as dull and academic and lifeless--especially the Vermeer reading of Number 16, Beethoven’s final completed work (other than the Grosse Fugue, an appendage to an earlier work)—and I would have ascribed my lack of appreciation solely to myself and my own shortcomings, except that I HAVE heard performances of Number 16 that fully aroused my intellect and my emotion, and except that I HAVE heard comparable performances by the Vermeer Quartet, in other repertory, that I found similarly dull and academic and lifeless.

The Vermeer Quartet is one of those string quartets that is dominated by its first violinist. A quartet with a dominant player always seems to me to fail to give the music enough richness, and texture, and resonance, and character. There is always something one-dimensional about a quartet dominated by a single player.

The Juilliard Quartet was another prominent exponent of this problem. In fact, the Juilliard should always have been named the Robert Mann Quartet, after its first violinist, who dominated that quartet to an extraordinary degree for fifty years. Other than Robert Mann, the lone constant, the Juilliard Quartet changed personnel several times over its first half century, and yet its performances, no matter the personnel, were always the same: lean, energetic, hard-driven, with plenty of surface excitement, with a rough edge to its sound--and very unsatisfactory in music requiring elegance, or reflection, or melancholy, or charm.

In addition to being dominated by one player, the Vermeer Quartet has a second problem: its second violinist is conspicuously weak, and its violist is not much better. This means that, in a Vermeer performance, the first violinist and the cellist are always called upon to carry the full load, and this simply does not work in quartet performance.

The Vermeer Quartet has been around for a long time—since 1969, I think—and I believe that one of the reasons why the Vermeer has not obtained broad recognition is because two of its players have simply not been up to snuff. (Once, I walked out of a Vermeer performance in disgust over the second violinist.)

The Vermeer Quartet recently decided to call it a day, and the group will disband at the end of this year. In residence at Northern Illinois University for many years, the Vermeer will be missed by many concert-goers, I am sure, especially music-lovers in the Chicago area, where it has a loyal following. However, given how many fine quartets there are, everywhere, I cannot say that I will mourn this quartet’s end.

I asked my father what he thought about these Vermeer Beethoven performances. He looked at me, for a very long time, as if he did not know what to say. Finally, he remarked “I’ve heard better . . . much better . . . performances.”

Then he asked me if the Hagen Quartet was still my favorite active quartet, and I told him that it was. Then he asked me if the Italian Quartet was still my favorite quartet from the past, and I told him that it was.

“Then I would not worry about not liking these performances” he said.

I then asked him whether HE liked these Vermeer performances.

His answer to me, after a pause, was “Yes—but primarily because they are so plain.”

And I knew exactly what my father meant. He did not need to explain further. He meant that the Vermeer performances allowed him to think through the music, without getting caught up in, or even distracted by, inspired music-making. And I understood that. At different times one listens to great music for different things, and I understood, precisely, why my father had selected this disc.

And my father saw that I understood what he meant, and he smiled at me, and I smiled at him. I am grateful that music is one of the deep bonds we share.

Beethoven was still exploring, exploring, exploring at the end of his life. Brahms, on the other hand, late in life seemed to be following the admonition Stravinsky was to issue many years later: “Eliminate, eliminate, eliminate”.

I love the spareness of late Brahms, in which everything has been reduced to essentials (and in which the high rhetoric of his earlier years has been abandoned, but without stripping the music of its richness), and I love his Opus 120. In fact, Josh and I listened to the viola version of these works a few months ago, in the splendid Lars Anders Tomter/Leif Ove Andsnes recording.

I happen not to care for the Shifrin/Rosenberger recording. A lot of my dislike is due to Shifrin’s sound. My ideal clarinet sound is that produced by Karl Leister: dark, focused, with clean and clear (but not over-emphatic) articulation.

American clarinetists tend to adopt a broader, more liquid sound, with lots of overtones, and indistinct articulation, in emulation of the human voice. (Richard Stoltzman takes this practice to an extreme.) I happen not to care for this approach, and I happen not to care for America’s current crop of clarinetists, and I happen not to care for David Shifrin.

Pianist Carol Rosenberger, a personal friend of the founder of Delos Recordings, the late Amelia Haygood, was always the Delos “house pianist”, and Rosenberger’s work never impressed me, in any area of the repertory. She always struck me as a pianist who should be on staff at a university, giving lessons to piano students, and offering the occasional faculty recital. Her work on this disc shows that she is not a Brahms player.

This disc also includes Schumann’s Fantaisiestucke For Clarinet And Piano. The order of play on the disc recreates a famous concert in Vienna on November 13, 1894, at which the Brahms works were premiered, with Richard Muhlfeld, Clara Schumann and Brahms as the participating artists: Opus 120, Number 2, followed by Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, followed by Opus 120, Number 1.

That historic concert provides a nice idea for a disc, and it is disappointing that the performances here are not better. Whenever I hear these works, I always think back to the old Primrose/Firkusny recording, which I do not think has ever been equaled. I first heard that recording when I was a junior in high school, and I have never been able to get those performances out of my mind. The Shifrin/Rosenberger recording does not hold a candle to the old Primrose/Firkusny recording, nor is it anywhere near as good as the much more recent Tomter/Andsnes recording.

The sound quality of the Delos recording is also unsatisfactory. Either the recording venue provided an inhospitable acoustic, or the artists were recorded too closely. There is no sense of space around the clarinet and the piano, and no sense of a natural acoustic, and no sense of a natural balance—both instruments seem to be playing directly into microphones, in a small and airless space, with the final sound picture assigned to the whims of an engineer during the editing process. I have never liked the sound of Delos recordings, none of which suggests a spatial arrangement, and I do not like the sound of this disc, either.

The Debussy disc features the Children’s Corner Suite, as well as several short pieces, including some of Debussy’s most popular piano miniatures: Reverie, La Plus Que Lente, Le Petit Negre, Berceuse Heroique. This is a nice disc to hear, but Rouvier is no Gieseking or Michelangeli. Unlike those two great Debussy pianists of the past, Rouvier’s Debussy does not captivate the ear or bewitch the imagination. Rouvier’s Debussy is tidy and neat, but it is also humdrum and foursquare, and it lacks the subtlety and cool concentration of Gieseking, and the color and blinding virtuosity of Michelangeli.

Rouvier seems to have disappeared from the world’s concert halls. Apparently he was fairly often engaged throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s (this disc was recorded in the late 1980’s, when Rouvier did a lot of work for Denon), but I have never heard him in recital or in concert, nor have I seen his name appear on concert bills anywhere, even in Paris. Rouvier is currently on the faculty of the Paris Conservatoire, and perhaps he now devotes all of his energies to pedagogy—he was one of the teachers of Helene Grimaud and Arcadi Volodos.

The Dutilleux disc was a Christmas present to me from my sister-in-law. She knows that Dutilleux is one of my favorite composers, and my favorite living composer, and she guessed, correctly, that I did not have this disc, since it was only issued last year (however, my sister-in-law checked with my mother, who did a bit of detective work to make sure that I did not already have the disc). Only last week did I at last get around to listening to this disc.

I have liked every piece of music I have ever heard by Dutilleux. I especially like Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto, which I got to know from the Rostropovich recording, and I especially like Dutilleux’s Violin Concerto, which I got to know from the Stern recording. The Virgin Classics recording, I believe, improves upon both of those previous recordings, in large part because the sound is so excellent, and because so much more of the orchestral material comes through.

A Dutch conductor who is a friend of my parents [no, not former Minnesota Orchestra conductor Edo De Waart] once asked me, during a visit with my parents, which living composers I liked. I told him that I liked many living composers, but that the one I liked most of all was Henri Dutilleux.

He seemed surprised by my answer, and he asked me to explain to him, in as much detail as possible, why the music of Dutilleux appealed to me (he was curious about what a young American layman would have to say, nothing more).

I told him that what intrigued me most about Dutilleux’s music was, first and always, the orchestration. Dutilleux’s orchestration was exquisite, I said—elegant, delicate, refined, imaginative. Dutilleux’s sound world was unique to himself, and he clearly took great pleasure in the pure joy of sound, in and of itself. In this respect, I said, Dutilleux reminded me of Ravel, although Dutilleux’s music bore no other similarities to Ravel’s music in the least.

I told him that the second point of entry into Dutilleux’s music, for me, was that it was so perfect, so well-crafted, so fastidious. Dutilleux must be the most self-critical, painstaking composer since Brahms--like Brahms at the end of his life, Dutilleux wrote music that seemed, to me, to exhibit perfection of form, and perfection of content, without a single superfluous note or gesture. I told him that each time I heard a Dutilleux composition for the very first time, I could tell, instinctively, that there were great ordering principles at the root of the composition, ordering principles that were inherently logical, if not immutable, even if I could not articulate what those ordering principles were (and even though I would not think or even care about these principles while listening).

The third thing I liked about Dutilleux’s music, I told him, was that it evolved, organically and naturally, from a few cells and from a few fragments, into a coherent musical journey, with convincing emotional arcs, a journey that captured the listener’s attention and kept it until the composition’s end.

When I was done, the Dutch conductor told me that I had missed two things.

He first asked me whether I was familiar with Arnold Schoenberg’s writings about Brahms, and Brahms’ use of “developing variation”. I told him that I was familiar with that, and he said that Dutilleux uses the cells and fragments I had mentioned in a process that was not much different from Brahms’ “developing variation” technique.

The second thing I had missed, he said, was Dutilleux’s harmonic structures, the most sophisticated and masterful use of harmonic structures of any composer working today.

He told me that my instinctive sense that logic and order were at the root of Dutilleux’s music was more the result of Dutilleux’s sophisticated harmonic organization and his use of developing variation than anything else.

Finally, he told me that my answer had surprised him. He told me that he was surprised that my answer had not been an American composer. In response, I asked “You mean John Adams, don’t you?”, and he laughed. Then I asked him who HIS favorite living composer was. His answer: “Nobody”. Then I asked him who his favorite American composer was. His answer: “Nobody”. (But he has conducted American music in the United States.)

Dutilleux’s music is seldom performed in the United States, so American music-lovers have little opportunity to hear his music other than through recordings. I think, between my father and me, that we have every Dutilleux recording ever issued. Serge Baudo is the finest of today’s Dutilleux conductors, I believe, and Baudo has made several fine Dutilleux recordings for the Harmonia Mundi label. However, the Virgin Classics disc under Chung is awfully good.

Truls Mork is the equal of Mstislav Rostropovich in the Cello Concerto, I believe, and this is probably because Rostropovich’s recording was made immediately after the work’s premiere, while Mork recorded the concerto only after having the work in his active repertory for some time.

Renaud Capucon would not be my ideal candidate to hear in the Violin Concerto. My experience with Capucon has not been positive, and he was the perpetrator of the single worst violin recital I have ever experienced. However, there is not a wide range of recordings from which to choose in this work, and the sound quality of this recording makes it a superior alternative to the Stern version (and Dutilleux was hardly Isaac Stern’s cup of tea, in any case). I would like to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter in this work; I think she would be perfect for this concerto.

Chung is fully involved in this music, and so are the orchestra musicians. The performances are committed, and energetic, and focused, and confident. This disc is a major addition to the Dutilleux discography.

The two concertos are supplemented on the disc by Mork’s performance of “Trois Strophes Sur Le Nom De Sacher”, a work for solo cello, written for Rostropovich, in honor of Paul Sacher.

Dutilleux continues to compose music, despite the fact that he has now passed his 90th year. He recently completed a new work for Renee Fleming (!), and the work will be premiered in Boston next season.

My parents like Dutilleux, and they liked this disc very much. Josh liked this disc, too, even though it was the first time he had heard any of Dutilleux’s music. I wish Aksnav Omso and the Minnesota Orchestra would program Dutilleux’s two symphonies. It is past time for those symphonies to enter the active American repertory. The attention Aksnav Omso lavishes on Kalevi Aho would be better devoted to Dutilleux, I believe.

The disc of French Operetta Arias is somewhat of a misnomer—the items are actually closer to French musical comedy than French operetta. The selections were written between the Turn Of The Century and the early 1930’s, and are from popular stage shows of the day. Most of the selections were composed by Andre Messager and Reynaldo Hahn; in addition, two of the items are by Moises Simon, with one item each by Arthur Honegger and Maurice Yvain.

Little of this music is well-known, even in France, and yet most of these stage songs are quite charming. The conspicuous exception comes from the finest of the composers represented on the disc, Arthur Honegger, whose included song sounds more like an extract from his “Joan Of Arc At The Stake” than from a Parisian boulevard comedy.

The songs I most enjoyed were by Reynaldo Hahn, who was a very skillful composer of light music. I wish that Hahn’s delightful “Ciboulette” would be staged in the U.S., because it is a minor masterpiece, and would surely be popular here.

We had a lot of fun listening to this music. The music is tuneful, generally well-orchestrated, and much of it is saturated with that singular French melancholy so different from the melancholy of Central European composers. In one of the Reynaldo Hahn numbers, Graham sings, unforgettably, all three parts of a trio.

However, the disc is under-produced. It could have been special—very, very special—if a good recording producer had been in charge of the project, offering suggestions to Susan Graham and Yves Abel about how to make their performances come alive for the microphone.

Graham is too straight with the music, and too straight with the texts, and she should have been encouraged to stretch a musical line here and there, and play with the words more, and heighten her characterizations, and personalize the material she was given. As it is, she is far too bland, and the songs suffer from a certain sameness in her treatment of them. The songs come across as “radio standards”, not as theatrical songs derived from the stage.

Abel seems reluctant ever to take charge of the proceedings. Abel should have been encouraged to make the orchestral accompaniments more expressive, and more suavely colorful, and more theatrical--and more French. And why was the Birmingham orchestra engaged for this project? This was a mistake--the Birmingham orchestra has nothing special to offer in this repertory.

With a little more guidance in the control room, from the right producer, this might have been an historic recording, one to be listened to for the next fifty years, rather than an enjoyably transient one.


  1. My God, Andrew, your knowledge of classical music verges on the scary. There aren't many lawyers I know who are also musicologists!

  2. I am no musicologist, I assure you, Opera Chanteuse.

  3. I agree with you about the Susan Graham French Operetta Arias CD. She’s got a lovely voice and yet, the overall package lacks a certain something.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a two CD set that has just been re-issued called Regine Crespin, Prima Donna in Paris. The first CD is French opera arias from Gluck onward.

    The second CD is entirely devoted to French operetta and music hall numbers. Crespin is delightful here – saucy, clever, moving and sexy. You might enjoy comparing Crespin and Graham in this delightful repertoire.

  4. Drew, check out the psycho's blog today when you have a chance! You and Lizbeth will have a field day with all the kitsch in the latest entry.

    On a trip to "Ashville", he went to the High Museum, and thought the entire complex was designed by Richard "Meyer". He was too obtuse to see that two different architects were patently and obviously involved, and he was too stupid to tell the difference between Meier and Renzo Piano! You will die laughing!

    He didn't go see the Louvre exhibits! Instead, he went to see the "amazing Georgia folk art" and Benzoni's kitschy "The Veiled Rebecca", which greatly impressed him and which he described as a "classical Roman woman". You will wet yourself laughing!

    He did not even recognize the Benzoni from the Berkshire Museum! What an idiot!

    Drew, you have to read the whole thing. It is unbelievable. Unbelievable. I sent the text to your email, and I sent it to Lizbeth, too, so she can continue to diagnose his encyclopedia of disorders!

    See you soon,


  5. Yikes! And Yuck!

    What can I say? The guy's definitely a nut.

    Baltimore is definitely on for the 28th and 29th. We have already informed the other side that if it backs out again, we are going to seek sanctions.

    See you in two weeks.