Saturday, January 08, 2011

Sheer Unadulterated Provincialism

A couple of days ago, Joshua picked up—for $1.00—“The Penguin Guide To Compact Discs And Cassettes: 1989 Yearbook” at a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge.

My father has twenty or twenty-five or thirty of the Penguin Guides, and my father probably owns the very volume Josh bought.

The Penguin Guides are useful compilations of recorded music, but the reader must overlook—if not outright ignore—the absurd British bias the authors exhibit.

In the 1989 Yearbook, Penguin’s top recommendation for a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is—amazingly—Richard Hickox’s recording with the Northern Sinfonia on the ASV label.

Hickox, now deceased, was nothing more than a provincial conductor of British repertory—and only British repertory. Hickox was not competent when he moved into Central European (or other) repertory.

The Newcastle/Gateshead-based Northern Sinfonia was and is nothing more than a provincial group. A comparable American ensemble would be the Phoenix Symphony.

Nevertheless, Penguin rates the Hickox recording of Beethoven’s Ninth superior to the efforts of, among others, Wilhelm Furtwangler, George Szell, Leopold Stokowski, Eugen Jochum and Leonard Bernstein.

According to Penguin:

In his pacing throughout the work, Hickox is unerring and conveys from first to last the tension of a genuine performance, in a way that his rivals among international stars do not manage.

Penguin fails to explain how Furtwangler was unable to convey “the tension of a genuine performance” in Furtwangler’s legendary—and live—1951 recording from Bayreuth, a performance discussed on the very same page as the Hickox.

Penguin’s top recommendation for a complete set of Beethoven symphonies is equally astonishing. The choice is Walter Weller and The City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on the Chandos label, whose Beethoven cycle is deemed superior to the Beethoven cycles of, among others, Claudio Abbado, Bernstein, Riccardo Muti and Georg Solti.

Weller, too, was nothing more than a provincial conductor, and the Birmingham orchestra did not in 1989 and does not today approach the quality of an international-level ensemble.

Nevertheless, Penguin praises “the warm, refined, Viennese quality in the playing and interpretation” and, further, claims that “the ensemble matches and even outshines that of such orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic”. Penguin ends its assessment of the Weller recordings with a glowing endorsement:

Altogether an outstanding set, easily outshining the other recent Beethoven cycles from the international brigade.

It is not often that one encounters such sheer, unadulterated—even spectacular—provincialism.

The Penguin Beethoven assessments are camp.


As a people, the British do not understand and cannot “do” music, and there is simply no getting around that fact.

The same is true of art: as a people, the British do not understand and cannot “do” art. The British attitude toward art is a purely provincial one, similar to the British attitude toward music.

A prime example is Stanley Spencer. Non-British persons hoot over the paintings of Spencer, readily seen as examples of purest kitsch. There are only two Spencer paintings in public collections outside Britain; both paintings are in France, and neither painting is ever on display. Spencer’s work is simply not exportable.

However, for reasons non-British persons can never fathom, British persons respond to Spencer paintings. Spencer paintings are on display throughout the British Isles, and they are taken seriously by British art lovers—while persons of other internationality roll their eyes and mutter “Oh, dear” when encountering a Spencer painting.

I was reminded of the provincial British attitude toward art when I came across a dumbfounding assessment of the work of Paul Gauguin (subject of a current exhibition in London) posted on a British website this week. The author—who had no business writing about art (or anything else, for that matter)—found Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings to be inferior not only to Gauguin’s Breton paintings but to Gauguin’s religious paintings, of all things (the writer described Gauguin’s religious paintings as “premonitions of Stanley Spencer”):

The two Breton and Christian rooms see the painter at the height of his powers, both in vision and execution. Imagination is key.

Wow! To encounter ignorance and idiocy on such a striking level is rare indeed!

In case the reader had missed the writer’s earlier boneheaded and spectacularly wrong assessment of Gauguin’s development as an artist, the writer reiterated his fundamental lack of understanding of Gauguin in his closing paragraph:

As Tahitian woman follows Tahitian woman and muted colors fail to recapture the iridescence of the Breton images, I longed for [Gauguin] to return to France and recapture imagination . . . But the final rooms, dominated by the South Seas, come across as a murky waste.

Wow again! What a moron!

At least the reader is presented with a few hearty laughs!

And the reader, while acquiring a deeper understanding of the British incapacity to appreciate art, can enjoy the dangling modifier—of which there are others in the article, one of which was supremely laughable (“although a Gauguin skeptic, it was impossible not to be lured by the reviews”).

Camp is alive and well—if not positively thriving—in ever-provincial Britain.

Addendum of 11 January 2010:

My sister-in-law, born and reared in London and educated at Cambridge and a resident of the U.K. until age twenty-eight, tells me that my discussion of British attitudes toward art is too harsh.

First, she insists that I need to point out that Britain has always under-appreciated (and often misunderstood) the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and that this state of affairs is as true today as it was in 1875. This accounts for the fact that British museums have such conspicuously-weak collections of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism compared to museums in the United States, France, Germany and Russia and, further, explains why Britain has not produced any lasting scholarship in the fields of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. She tells me that it is totally unsurprising and totally unremarkable that British writers would misread and misinterpret the work of Paul Gauguin, even as late as 2011. The British have simply never grasped Impressionism and Post-Impressionism on the same level as the rest of the world.

Second, she insists that I need to point out that British art has always been outside the international mainstream going back to pre-Western art and, further, that most art-lovers in Britain realize that British art has always been insular. She insists that it is unfair to compare the art of Britain with the art of the Continent or the art of the United States, and that the British themselves realize, as a people, that they have no particular genius or flair for art.

Third, she insists that I note that many British art-lovers, too, realize that the paintings of Stanley Spencer are kitsch. She tells me that there are at least as many persons in Britain that sniff at Spencer’s work as there are persons that like his paintings. She also tells me that there are at least as many museum curators in Britain that want to remove Spencer paintings from museum walls as there are curators that want to keep Spencer paintings on display. In another fifty years, my sister-in-law insists, Spencer paintings currently hanging in Britain’s museums will be off-view and consigned permanently to storage.


  1. You'll find the CBSO is up there with the best in the world especially with Rattle, Oramo and now Andris Nelsons( in demand worldwide) at the helm. Try hearing them in Symphony Hall( one of the best if not the best hall in the world) and then talk from a position of strength.
    Charles Wall

  2. I have heard the Birmingham orchestra in concert several times. It is a purely provincial ensemble, albeit very heavily promoted by the British musical establishment and the British musical press.

    The Seattle Symphony, on the very lowest rung of America’s orchestral ladder, is a much, much finer orchestra than The City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

    It would be nice if the Birmingham orchestra would learn to play in tune. Once it masters basic intonation, the Birmingham orchestra might begin to work on developing a satisfactory sound quality, since the quality of the Birmingham orchestra’s sound is that of an American youth ensemble. Once it acquires a minimally-satisfactory sound, the Birmingham orchestra can begin to work on a host of other vital technical issues.

    No one outside the UK believes the Birmingham orchestra “is up there with the best in the world”. The orchestra has amassed a larger portfolio of dismissive reviews (some of which have been brutal eviscerations) on overseas tours than any other European ensemble—except, perhaps, the BBC Symphony.

    Your statement is a demonstration of the very provincialism, dreary and tiresome, that I decried in my post.

  3. "Premonitions of Stanley Spencer".

    I love it.

    If that's not camp, nothing is.

  4. The Gauguin exhibition is next scheduled to arrive here in DC after London. I'm so looking forward to seeing firsthand the intensity of the colors--unmodulated, soaked onto coarse canvas (purchased because he was too poor to afford anything better), jarringly unexpected. Maybe just not to the civilized taste of Brits? For example, I was suprised to find that the sentimental work of the Manchester painter L. S. Lowry was so revered (?) when I was a student in London last year. Local color...

  5. There are so many minor, unremarkable British painters, extolled by the British themselves but completely unworthy of attention beyond Britain's borders, that it is startling to outsiders.


    RICHARD WAGNER: "Der Ring Des Nibelungen." Gabriele Schnauzer (Brunnhilde), Maurice Mistgesicht (Wotan), Alfred Muffly (Hunding), Peter Hoffmanly (Siegfried), Lucia Popptart (Sieglinde), Hermann Preyingmantiss (Siegmund), Cher (Erde), Hans Hotterthanhagen (Hagen), Johnny Spieltauf (Mime), Donald McEntire (Alberich), Matti Salminella (Faufner), Heinz Redneck (Loge), Carmen Ribalda (Freia), Catherina Ligendza (Gutrune), Robert Hell (Donner), Dietrich Fischer-Dachau (Gunter), Richard Queen (Froh), Anya Zilja (Frinka), Birgit Nilsson (woodbird); THE Portsmouth Sinfonia, Gavin Bryars (conductor). Round Records, Doris Bellpepperhoeffer, producer. Sung in German with libretto in English.

    This live concert performance at the Barbican from the summer of 1978 came and went under the radar on Obscure Records, a shameless excuse for professionalism; but today we have a newly remastered 14-CD set from Round Records of Iowa City, US, in my judgement, the most captivating Ring ever.

    English composer Gavin Bryars leads an incomparable ensemble he helped to found nine years before with the late BBC actor Bruno Agaree, “the man with a hundred personalities,” remembered fondly today as the Portsmouth Sinfonia, together with the golden voices of some thirty finely-etched, unforgettable singers. For the first time ever in a live recording of the Ring a conductor has built a genuine performance, swelling with emotion but always keeping touch with Wagner’s architecture, the “wuthering” ebb and flow of which never discontinuing to tug this exacting hearer’s unsentimental heart strings during a single, edge-of-seat sitting.

    Though they never played Wagner before or after, these CD’s proved that the Portsmouth Sinfonia was without doubt the greatest Wagner orchestra of its day - easily making the Bohm’s Vienna (dirty “smelling”) and Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonics (“schizophrenic”) sound wearily provincial by comparison – “soulless.”

    Fine is the cast, which includes Birgit Nilsson’s woodbird in “Siegfried,” with this exception. Even more than fine, Maurice Mistgesicht’s Wotan soars, equalling any great Wotan who ever put an eye-patch on the Bayreuth stage. His art is so arresting, one can almost experience the gut-wrenching sensation of his own reflection staring penetratingly and contemptuously back at him, long after the listening experience, especially during the final scene of “Die Walkuere,” as exhilaratingly nuanced and timeless an image of internalized “Gehenna” as Stanley Spencer’s final, 1959 “Self Portrait.”

    Gabriele Schnauzer’s Brunnhilda out-manoeuvres even those of, say, late Gwyneth Jones or a Nadejda Plevitskaya; and Hans Hotterthanhagen’s Hagen is a fierce, “contemporary” villain, no more evidenced than when he curdles our blood, having stabbed Siegfried to death at the end of "Goetterdaemmerung," singing “Meineit raecht sich!” (“Yo bullcrap gonna get you back, man!”).

    The recording remaster is exceptionally clear; American producer Bellpepperhoeffer provides her own libretto translation, which should appeal to younger generations.

  7. Hans Hotterthanhagen has always been one of my favorite artists—but how could anyone possibly have cast Lucia Popptart as Sieglinde when Popptart was nothing more than a soubrette? (That said, I’m rather sorry I missed Cher’s Erda.)

    However, once again, at the risk of becoming tiresome, I must address the issue of Penguin’s decided bias, in this case its distinct anti-Minnesota prejudice in preferring the Portsmouth/Bryars “Ring” over the acclaimed set released by The Royal Edina Opera Company, whose “Ring” recording is superior to all others in every way.

    It must be admitted that TREOC’s set appeared on a private label, never widely distributed, and that the score was very heavily cut, omitting entire acts. Nonetheless, the playing of the Eden Prairie Civic Sinfonietta far outshone the rather mundane work of the VPO and BPO on the Solti and Karajan sets. Further, the TREOC set used the combined forces of the Hennepin County Chorale and the chorus of The First United Methodist Church Of Winona. The result: a choral splendor simply beyond the capabilities of more international groups.

    The cast on the TREOC set, too, surely was the best ever assembled. Imported from Mankato, the singers demonstrated a depth of characterization and nobility of utterance unmatched by more famous singers in other “Ring” recordings. For instance, the Brunhilde of Faribault native Helen Smith-Jones, glorious of voice and unmatched in her understanding of the part, trumps every other singer ever heard in the role. Smith-Jones, alone, makes the TREOC set indispensable.

    What sets the final seal of approval for the TREOC set is the work of conductor Oswald Dillwood. Dillwood’s command of Wagner’s epic work puts all other interpreters in the shade—and leads one to ask: why was this great artist so little-engaged beyond Minnesota’s borders? It is, truly, a scandal that international opera houses ignored his gargantuan talent until he became too ill to venture beyond the Twin Cities greater metropolitan area.




    William Eddins, Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, announced last month that the ESO will perform Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” in its entirety, in a concert format, on May 3-8, 2011, at the Francis Winspear Centre for Music. The orchestra, composed of 58 full-time musicians, will be augmented by outstanding free-lancers in the Alberta area, along with two professional brass ensembles that are as yet unidentified. (The Orchestra confirms that Wagner tubas are on loan from the Chicago Symphony and that a steerhorn is donated by RAM.)

    The performance is to be recorded by “Round Records,” an independent label, and released on 18 CD’s.

    Mr. Eddins will present the Ring over six consecutive evenings in a rather unique and unorthodox format, first of all “combining opera with dinner theatre,” according to sources. “Whimpy’s” hamburgers and chips will be served in the Centre on all six nights; patrons will be seated at tables in the hall for the duration. “I got that idea from the Boston Pops,” said Mr. Eddins recently.

    Astonishingly, there will be no singers in this Ring, according to the Music Director, who famously complained about the “conservative Canadian government,” which, in his words, “[refused] to give the project the moneys necessary to hire world class singers.” Steadfastly rejecting any compromise of his "sine-qua-non, Liberal standards," Mr. Eddins decided to present the Ring anyway, “without the lacing of song or the distraction of foreign tongues bearing subtitles.”

    By far, the most controversial - and certainly the riskiest - component of this "Ring without Words (and Thought)" may send many of the deafest junk food junkies to the doorways before the end of the first night. Mr. Eddins plans to “sandwich,” between the Acts - or even between Scenes – of the Ring the complete “opera” (sans vocals, of course) of American composer Leonard Bernstein. The first Mediation from “Mass” will immediately precede the “Todesverkuendigung” in Act II of “Die Walkuere,” for example. The “Jeremiah” Symphony will come between Siegfried’s breaking of the Wanderer’s staff and the awakening of Brunnhilde on the mountain top. The suite from “On the Waterfront” will be heard just before the Rhinemaidens plead with Siegfried to surrender the Ring to them. Ballet music from “On the Town” will be played just before “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” in “Das Rheingold”; and “Symphonic Dances from Westside Story” will be wedged between “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and Act I of “Die Goetterdaemmerung.”

    Local critics have already loudly voiced concern over the lack of even the most tenuous association between Wagner’s Drama and the proposed insertions.

    We shall have to just wait and see.


    I can hardly wait, Andrew! Move over, TREOC!

  9. Oh, dear.

    It sounds like Edmonton has set out deliberately to trump Edina's incomparable "Ring" production (the Edina production was retired a few years back, a victim of the company's change of venue from a Goodwill warehouse to a disused automotive repair shop).

    I am appalled and outraged over Edmonton's aggressive eye jab, a jab unmistakably directed at Edina . . . and I will never speak to William Eddins again!

    I earnestly hope Eddins's "Ring" production flops . . . and I hope that the opera patrons in Edmonton are served rotten hamburger!

  10. I was surprised when you did not post anything regarding your Christmas vacation in Minneapolis. I was wondering how your family was doing. I was also wondering how Rex was doing.

    How were the ballet programs last weekend?

  11. Everyone at home is doing very well—and thank you for asking. We had wonderful Christmas holidays. My niece is a real person now, which makes spending time with her more fun than ever.

    Rex is aging. He is not as active as he was even two years ago, and it appears that both his hearing and his eyesight are beginning to fail. He is more and more content simply to rest on the daybed in the kitchen—the only piece of furniture in my mother’s house he is permitted to occupy—and observe what everyone is doing.

    Since Christmas, I have been very busy at work. My boss has taken a turn for the worse, and I have been called upon to cover much of the work he routinely handles.

    I plan, this weekend, to write about the three New York City Ballet programs we attended last weekend. On Saturday, we attended both the NYCB matinee and evening programs, both all-Balanchine. It was not until we received the program booklet on Saturday afternoon that we realized that Saturday was Balanchine’s birthday, a fact that accounted for two all-Balanchine programs that day.

    Tomorrow night we go hear the Boston Symphony under Dohnanyi.

    Had anyone else but James Levine been on the podium, we would not have missed the Stravinsky/Bartok BSO program earlier this month (Oedipus Rex and Bluebeard’s Castle). However, Levine is terminally boring—“the finest conductor of our day who isn’t any good”—and we do not go near his concerts if we can avoid them.

  12. I was hasty in responding to your comment this afternoon, as I was trying to leave the office by 5:00 p.m.

    May I say that I trust that your Christmas holidays, too, were most rewarding? It was unforgiveable of me not to have stated such earlier today.

    And please excuse my dangling modifier. What I should have written earlier was "Had anyone else but James Levine been on the podium, the Stravinsky/Bartok program at the Boston Symphony earlier this month might have been of interest to Josh and me."

    Now, please excuse me, but I must go enroll in Dangling Modifier Prevention classes.

  13. As penance for my shortcomings, I promise to listen to Richard Hickox's immortal recording of Beethoven's Ninth.

  14. Even the most grammar-conscious among us slips in a dangling modifier on rare occasions, Andrew. It isn't worth listening to Hickox's Beethoven, though.

    When I notice mistakes on my own contributions to your blog - always after I've published - I recall a comment by the late novelist John Gardiner in one of his books about, well, novel writing. He had been a college English teacher for 30 years (once at Oberlin) before his first novel was published. He professed in his book that he considered himself a better copyeditor than the publisher's own, based on his routine reading (and frequent correcting) of galley proofs. He always approved the galleys only after the most meticulous proofreading on his part; but, without fail, as soon as the book came out he immediately noticed a hundred errors that had escaped his eagle eye.

    While you and Josh were at Symphony Hall last evening, I was at the Arsht Center in Miami hearing the Cleveland under Welser-Moest. The concert was not completely satisfying, I regret to report. I wish Franz had programmed something more challenging like the Ligeti which you heard in Boston (I have never heard that Concerto live).

    Franz opened with the superbly played Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." The Schumann Piano Concerto came next with Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

    The Schumann was a crashing bore, I must say. I couldn't tell whether I was bored because of Aimard's "low-profile" interpretation or because of my take on the piece itself, which has always bored me. I really wish that Franz had scheduled the Bartok Nr. 2 instead, a piece (also with Aimard) that the Orchestra will play Wednesday in Chicago and next Saturday at Carnegie Hall. (It would be a good decision, in my opinion, to abandon the Schumann before Carnegie.)

    Fortunately, Franz redeemed himself spectacularly with Strauss's "Ein Heldenleben," which closed the concert. The performance was glorious. As he is often capable of, Franz found the perfect middle ground between Dionysian ostentation and Apollonian tepidity. And all those laser-precise, ear-melting sonorities of the playing unfolding in jaw-dropping, perfect balance at every dynamic level . . . words fail me, sorry (I'd be a lousy critic).

    My own Christmas vacation was uneventful. There were just my mother and her sister and myself. Thank you for inquiring though.

    I am very sorry about your boss.

  15. It is regrettable that Miami does not sponsor an annual residency for a more worthy ensemble, such as the Northern Sinfonia or The City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Nevertheless, I am happy you enjoyed the concert.

    Welser-Most is a very good conductor of Richard Strauss.

    I am not particularly fond of the Schumann Piano Concerto. However, you might want your library to obtain through interlibrary loan a copy of the Maria Joao Pires recording, with Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra Of Europe, on the DGG label, coupled with the Piano Quintet. It is a very fresh reading, beautifully played and recorded. You might enjoy it.

  16. You are absolutely right, Andrew. Why would Miami engage such a lack-luster, has-been ensemble like the Cleveland. Oh, my! I just don't understand it. EVERYONE with ears knows that Franz Welser-Moest has wrecked the Orchestra, as aptly pointed out in the following comment posted on January 27, in Ann Arbor, Michigan:

    James Leonard at 8:14 AM on January 27, 2011

    Dear Ms. Nisbett,

    I read with interest your preview of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra's impending appearance in Ann Arbor under their music director Franz Welser-Most. I'm sure many folks will read your preview and anticipate the concert with pleasure.

    Not me. Though the Cleveland Orchestra was once one of the top five orchestras in America, it lost that distinction when it hired Welser-Most. Anyone with ears to hear could tell that, including your former colleague at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Donald Rosenberg.

    "Former colleague" because Mr. Rosenberg was removed from his post as the Plain Dealers' classical music critic after he pointed out in his reviews Welser-Most's lack of talent, ability, and taste. And to make matters worse, Rosenberg was removed at the behest of the Cleveland Symphony.

    I vowed after that to never attend another concert by the Cleveland Symphony. And I would have thought that a conscientious music critic, feeling solidarity with one of their number who was treated so badly, would have felt the same way.

    James Leonard

    I must be unable to hear at my advanced age, Andrew! I might as well just hang it up.

  17. It was thoughtful of Mr. Leonard to take time out from his beer truck route to offer his views on the Cleveland "Symphony".

    Is an "impending" appearance the same as a pending appearance?

    And is there more than one newspaper in Cleveland named the Plain Dealer?

    Mr. Leonard has provided much for the reader to mull over.