Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mozart-Rossini-Bartok-Kodaly And Choral Music

Joshua and I have kept the following six discs in our player for the last week and more, and these discs have, by and large, provided us with a very rewarding listening experience.

Mozart Harmoniemusik, performed by The Amadeus Ensemble under Julius Rudel, on the Musical Heritage Society label

Rossini’s complete opera, “L’Italiana In Algeri”, performed by Darina Takova, Jennifer Larmore, Laura Polverelli, Raul Gimenez, John Del Carlo, Allessandro Corbelli, Carlos Chausson, the Choeur De Grand Theatre De Geneve and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra under Jesus Lopez-Cobos, on the Teldec label

Music for String Orchestra by Bela Bartok, performed by the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra under Adam Fischer, on the Nimbus label

Orchestral Music of Zoltan Kodaly, performed by the Montreal Symphony under Charles Dutoit, on the Decca label

A disc of choral music, “Appear And Inspire”, performed by The Robert Shaw Festival Singers under Robert Shaw, on the Telarc label

The disc of Mozart Harmoniemusik provides very agreeable listening. It includes the Harmoniemusik from “Abduction From The Seraglio” and “The Magic Flute”, two of Mozart’s most enchanting operas, arranged for woodwinds and string bass.

Josh always loves listening to music performed by winds or brass, because he spent so many years playing in high school and junior high school bands, and he loves this disc. The tunes are captivating, and hearing this familiar music in woodwind arrangements is totally delightful.

Johann Nepomuk Wendt made the arrangements from “Abduction From The Seraglio”, and Wendt’s arrangements are vastly superior to the work of Joseph Heidenreich, who provided “The Magic Flute” arrangements. Although the same instrumentation is used in both sets of Harmoniemusik, Wendt’s set has greater piquancy and sustains the listener’s interest much more than Heidenreich’s, whose arrangements seem bland by comparison—even though “The Magic Flute”, of the two operas, has by far the greater music.

The performances are OK, but I can imagine performances with greater tonal luster and character and wit.

Josh and I chose to listen to “L’Italiana In Algeri” because The Minnesota Opera will present the opera this Fall, and Josh and I plan to attend a performance. Vivica Genaux will sing Isabella in the Minnesota production, and we are eager to see and hear the presentation. We heard Genaux in recital in Saint Paul in June, and we thought that she was a very fine singer.

As a general rule, I am not particularly interested in Rossini operas. He was a musician of genius, and a composer of genius, but his operas do not hold my attention. For me, there are too many longueurs in Rossini’s works for the stage, and the dramatic conventions of the Italian stage of the time were corrupt and they are unconvincing for a modern audience. Whenever I listen to a Rossini opera on disc, or whenever I attend a Rossini opera in the theater, I am always thankful when the work at long last reaches its conclusion.

Many music-lovers find Rossini comedies to be captivating, but Rossini comedies have always left me impatient and uninvolved and uninterested. Antonio Pappano says that the only Rossini comedy worth reviving is “The Barber Of Seville”, and that the other Rossini comedies should remain in a drawer. I do not share this view, because I think that “La Cenerentola” and “Le Comte Ory” (and “Il Viaggio A Reims”, which shares much of its music with “Le Comte Ory”) are superior, musically, to “The Barber Of Seville”.

Nonetheless, all of these works are of limited interest to me, and my lack of interest has only been exacerbated by the fact that I have never managed to attend a good Rossini performance anywhere. Each Rossini performance I have ever attended was fraught with problems, whether in the singing, the orchestral playing, the conducting or the staging (or some combination of all of the above).

From a purely musical standpoint, I admire Rossini’s late opera seria more than his comedies, because Rossini uses an expanded orchestra and a more “Germanic” orchestration in his late opera seria and because he uses more extended musical forms in his late opera seria. However, from a purely dramatic standpoint, his opera seria, early or late, are not, in general, convincing or satisfying.

From both a musical and a dramatic view, Rossini’s operas—comedies and opera seria—are very, very difficult to perform well. Each work requires virtuoso singing and virtuoso playing and virtuoso conducting and virtuoso staging in order to work, and such singing and playing and conducting and staging seldom go hand-in-hand.

The Teldec “Italiana” set is enjoyable, and performed at a high level. Jennifer Larmore is the star of the set, and her singing is clean and lively and full of fun. Larmore is a good exponent of Rossini style. The coloratura poses no problems for her, and yet the coloratura is never allowed to slip into mere instrumental note-spinning. Instead, for Larmore, the coloratura serves a comedic and dramatic purpose. It is obvious that Larmore was having a grand time during the “Italiana” recording sessions. Her work here is the only reason to listen to this set of discs.

Any performance of “L’Italiana In Algeri” stands or falls with its Isabella and its conductor. It is Jesus Lopez-Cobos, a conductor I generally admire, who lets this set down. The recording features clean and lively playing, but it lacks drama and point and excitement and momentum. Further, the orchestra never glistens as it should in a Rossini comedy. The recording is akin to a concert performance—it is like a sequence of discrete, unrelated numbers that do not cohere into a fully-satisfying whole. There is no whiff of the theater in this performance, and no sense that a dramatic event is under way.

And for “Italiana” to sustain the listener’s interest, the opera must move. It must go somewhere. There must be a point to the flurry of notes as they pass by. And Lopez-Cobos does not succeed in turning this recording into a dramatically-convincing listening experience.

Conductors in competing sets of “Italiana” do no better, with one exception: Claudio Abbado managed to bring this opera fully to life on disc in his famed Deutsche Grammophon recording with Agnes Baltsa. Abbado succeeded in capturing the giddiness and mounting excitement of Rossini’s opera, as well as its moments of repose, and he managed to combine these two elements into a successful dramatic entity. The listener’s attention never wanes in an Abbado performance of a Rossini comedy, and yet Abbado’s Rossini is more expressive, with a wider emotional range, than the Rossini of his peers. Abbado, alone of today’s conductors, seems to hold the key to success in a Rossini score.

For the most part, Josh did not like “L’Italiana In Algeri”. Aside from Larmore and a few of the funnier bits, he found the opera to be boring. However, he was happy to become familiar with the score in order to make our upcoming visit to a live performance more meaningful. We earnestly hope that “L’Italiana In Algeri” will succeed in its Minnesota Opera staging.

“L’Italiana In Algeri” will be the second Rossini opera Josh and I will have heard at The Minnesota Opera. Last season, we attended a performance of Rossini’s opera seria, “La Donna Del Lago”, and we sort of enjoyed it, but primarily because of the presence of Ewa Podles, who was indeed very imposing. I attended another Rossini performance within the last year, when I attended a performance of “La Cenerentola” in Houston. This is more Rossini than I would normally wish to hear within such a short period of time.

The Bartok disc contains the Divertimento For String Orchestra and the Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta. These are good, solid performances, but not the last word in finesse—and not the last word in Bartok performance, either, for that matter. The performance of the Divertimento is better than the performance of its more famous coupling. There is a touch of opaqueness in the recorded sound that inhibits listening pleasure.

The Zoltan Kodaly disc includes his four most popular orchestral works: the “Hary Janos” Suite, the Dances Of Galanta, the Dances of Marosszek and Variations On A Hungarian Folksong (”The Peacock”).

I have always believed that Kodaly was a major composer, and I have never heard a composition by Kodaly that was not first-rate. This includes his orchestral works, and his choral works, and his works for solo instruments and small ensembles. The music of Kodaly is not played much in the U.S., and it should be. His music is colorful, and bold, and virtuosic, and expressive.

His music is also highly original, a quality for which Kodaly receives no credit in the English-speaking world. (Among other things, Kodaly was one of the originators of the “Concerto For Orchestra” form as we understand it today, and he wrote one of the finest works in this genre he helped create.) Kodaly borrowed virtually nothing from his Central European forebears. Inspired by Hungarian folksong, he created his own compositional forms virtually from scratch.

According to those who knew him, Kodaly was an extremely spiritual man, but also entirely impractical, and completely out-of-step with the realities of his own time and place.

Kodaly continued to compose during the darkest days of Budapest’s history. In the latter stages of World War II, when Germany, dissatisfied with Admiral Horthy’s foot-dragging on the “Jewish question”, occupied Budapest and began liquidating its Jewish population, Kodaly wrote his great Missa Brevis (and actually premiered it in the cloak room of the Budapest Opera House while The Battle Of Budapest—which destroyed eighty per cent of Budapest and resulted in more than 40,000 civilian deaths—raged in the streets outside the Opera House).

Kodaly continued to compose during the Communist period, mostly undisturbed by party officials. Unsure of his political views, newly-installed Communist officials initially planned to execute him, but they quickly retracted Kodaly’s execution warrant, realizing that he was not only harmless but that he was malleable, as well, and of possible use to the new regime. As a result, party functionaries showered Kodaly with official honors and official positions, and they allowed him to work in peace until his death in 1967 at the age of 85.

Although Kodaly’s music has largely disappeared from North American concert halls, his music continues to be recorded with some frequency. The Montreal/Dutoit recording was released in 1996. It was one of the last of the Montreal/Dutoit recordings, issued shortly before Decca stunned the music world in 1997 by terminating the contracts of several prominent Decca artists, including Charles Dutoit. Those terminations were a harbinger of what was to become widespread in the classical music world just a few years later.

Personally, I was not surprised at the time Decca walked away from Montreal/Dutoit. By the time Decca ended its association with him, Dutoit had already recorded almost all of the repertory for which he was suited and he was already moving into repertory in which he had nothing special to offer. The Kodaly disc is a good example of a recording that need not have been made.

The recording quality is excellent—clear, brilliant, spacious—and the playing is clean if not quite distinguished. However, the performances lack spice, and grit, and bravura, and élan, and rhythmic abandon, qualities all of which are essential for performing Kodaly’s orchestral music. Instead of offering a ravishing Hungarian goulash spiced with paprika, Dutoit serves up Canadian mutton. Kodaly’s music does not come to life when performed in such a bland and faceless manner, and Dutoit’s Kodaly compares unfavorably with the recorded Kodaly performances by Eugene Ormandy and George Szell, both of whom were masters of this repertory. I can understand why this disc received no attention when it was issued and why it went out of print almost as soon as it was released.

The Robert Shaw disc is very special. It was recorded by participants in one of Shaw’s summer choral institutes in France, and it is amazing to hear what Shaw could achieve with a pickup group of singers in only a few weeks of work.

The singing is ravishing, and I am in awe at how well-blended the choral sound is. I am not sure that I have ever heard finer choral singing in my life, at least from a medium-sized group.

There are six works on the disc: Britten’s Hymn To Saint Cecilia; Debussy’s Three Chansons De Charles D’Orleans; Ravel’s Three Chansons; Poulenc’s Un Soir De Neige; Henk Badings’ Chansons Bretonnes; and Dominick Argento’s I Hate And I Love.

All of these works are incomparably well-written for chorus, except for the Argento, which does not display the same fluency and command of writing for massed voices as do the Britten, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Badings compositions.

The Debussy and Ravel songs are sublime, and the Britten and Poulenc works are not too far behind that unmatchable standard. The Badings is a minor masterpiece, I believe, and I was very pleased to make this work’s acquaintance, as it was the sole work on this disc that was new to me.

The longest work on the disc is the Argento, a work commissioned by and written for The Dale Warland Singers, the Twin Cities-based group that was long the finest chorus in the Upper Midwest until it disbanded upon the retirement of Mr. Warland a few years ago. Argento is a Minneapolis-based composer, and I have met him several times, and he is a very nice man, but I have never responded to his music and I have always disliked I Hate And I Love, which strikes me as frivolous and lacking musical tension and genuine wit. I do not know what Robert Shaw found in this particular composition that made him want to spend time with it.

Shaw was a wonderful trainer of choruses, perhaps the best America ever produced. He could do wonders with massed voices.

As an interpreter, however, Shaw was nothing special. His performances always tended to be bland and under-characterized.

Those tendencies, happily, are not present in this disc, probably because the works recorded are fairly short and somewhat self-effacing. All of the works on the disc are either reflective or very restrained in their emotions, and Shaw’s very understated approach works well with such music. High drama is not called for in these works, and Shaw’s expository style of conducting proves exemplary for this material.

I think this is one of the finest discs Robert Shaw ever recorded. Josh and I have listened to this disc over and over and over, with the greatest of pleasure and admiration.

I can fully understand why Shaw is so much missed.


  1. Andrew, for me, the only creations of Rossini that interest me are his famous overtures.

    His overture to "Barbieri" and "La Gazza" are two of my very favorites.

  2. Oh, yes, Opera Chanteuse, I love those overtures, too. I love almost all Rossini overtures.

    You know another Rossini work I love? His Stabat Mater, which I think is unbelievably beautiful.

  3. I could never get into Rossini, either. I never listened to that Abbado set with Baltsa because I can't stand her. Is it really worth getting?

  4. Although I am a "bit" more of a Rossissian, I too find myself checking y watch daring some of the more, ahem, 'elastic' moments. But the good bits are usually worth the wait.

    I had a chance to hear Larmore sing Isabella in 1994 in Dario Fo's Pesaro prodcution (under the quite good David Robertson) and again in Geneva with much of the cast featured on the Teldec recording (Lopez-Cobos turgid, as he was in 2003 in "Comte Ory" also in Pesaro). Her voice was really free and sparking.

    I just discovered your blogs and am greatly enjoying reading it - both the content and the flair of the writing style. BTW I heard Chailly conduct the Gewaddhaus in the pit of the Oper Leipzig (Ballo in Maschera) a few months ago and completely agree with what you wrote about him and the orchestra (or was that in the other blog - sorry for the confusion).

  5. Thank you for such kind comments!

    I am disadvantaged because I have never been fortunate enough to have attended a truly excellent Rossini performance. I suspect that a truly excellent live Rossini performance must be enchanting.

    I have always liked Larmore, and I have always been somewhat puzzled that American theaters have tended not to engage her.

    We heard Larmore twice in the last year or so. In June 2006, she presented a very fine solo recital in Saint Paul. In June 2007, she was one of the soloists in a Minnesota Orchestra Mahler Second. She is still a remarkable singer, I believe.

    I am pleased that you like Chailly.

    I think Chailly is stunning. I think Chailly is the finest active conductor (Claudio Abbado being more or less in semi-retirement), even far, far finer than such excellent active conductors as Mariss Jansons or Colin Davis or Pierre Boulez.

    Chailly just keeps getting better and better and better, and I don't think he has any competition anymore.

    I hope Chicago succeeds in landing him--but I am not getting my hopes up.

    Thank you again for your kind remarks, and all the best to you.