Sunday, March 13, 2011

Two Concerts

Joshua and I stayed in town over the February holiday weekend, and we made use of a bit of free time to attend a couple of concerts.

On Friday evening, February 18, we went to Jordan Hall to hear the Takacs Quartet.

On the program were Haydn’s Quartet No. 55 (1793), Bartok’s Quartet No. 3 (1926) and Schubert’s Quartet No. 15 (1826).

Membership of the Takacs Quartet has been in flux over the last several years. What began as a quartet with exclusively Hungarian membership has become a quartet one-half Hungarian, one-quarter British and one-quarter American.

The Takacs in its current incarnation lacks a uniform sound. The quartet’s sound is that of four disparate string players. The lack of a uniform sound became a serious shortcoming in the Schubert, where absence of tonal allure became tiresome if not fatal to the integrity of the performance.

I enjoyed the Haydn and Bartok performances. Both performances were energetic and focused if in no way memorable or distinguished.

The Schubert was another matter.

The performance did not work at all. Schubert’s final quartet demands concentration coupled with relaxation, Beethovenian drama matched with Mozartean grace, and the Olympian detachment of Goethe offset by the Viennese sentiment of Grillparzer. All are seemingly opposite requirements—yet without a perfect balance of these qualities, a performance of Schubert’s Quartet No. 15 quickly becomes interminable.

And the February 18 performance was indeed interminable. The musicians were unable to sustain forward momentum—Schubert’s “heavenly length” became nothing so much as a trial to endure—and there were no offsetting compensations. It was a performance without elegance, refinement, style or grace.

I saw several concert-goers nod off—and one awoke with a pronounced start and made a loud exclamation, which an idiot reviewer writing for one of Boston’s small newspapers attributed to mounting excitement from an appreciative audience.

The Takacs concert soured Josh on quartet performance for the present.

We had anticipated obtaining tickets for the Emerson Quartet’s Boston appearance (an appearance already come and gone)—but Josh, having endured the Takacs in Schubert, put paid to that notion.

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The Boston Globe needs to do something about its music coverage. The newspaper’s reviews are laughable.

A Globe stringer—Matthew Guerrieri—covered the Takacs concert. I have no idea whether he was genuinely in attendance at the concert, but I suspect not, as his review discussed the music rather than the performance. Guerrieri’s review was a total hoot, a splendid example of how spectacularly bad music criticism in the United States has become.

Until I read Guerrieri’s foolish blathering, I had never before witnessed so many bald-faced clich├ęs paired up with so many fevered, overwritten Barbara Cartland phrases, all packed into a mere four paragraphs: “high-concept thematic programming”, “a well-curated selection”, “a dialogue between historical repertoires”, “collective fluidity”, “sharp-edged bowing”, “a firmly enunciated rhetoric”, “energy that percolated from the center”, “a concentrated bustle of conversation”, “gateway drug to atonal modernism”, “hung on intricate intellectual scaffolding”, “dark dissonant swirl”, “the birth of the quartet as audience clarification”, “the modernist frisson of challenging audience expectations”, “grand, picaresque epic”, “crackling with electricity”, etc.

One feels the need to shower after emerging from such appalling muck. Guerrieri’s review was camp, an embarrassment both to the newspaper and to Guerrieri himself.

Does not the Globe employ copy editors? And did not Guerrieri take first-year remedial writing courses in college? The entire review should have been scratched out with red pencil.

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On Sunday afternoon, February 20, Josh and I went to Symphony Hall to hear The Handel And Haydn Society perform Handel’s oratorio, “Israel In Egypt”.

“Israel In Egypt” is one of the greatest of Handel’s oratorios. Indeed, some musicologists have argued that it is THE very greatest of all Handel oratorios.

“Israel In Egypt” is unusual in that the burden is placed almost exclusively on the chorus. There are a handful of arias in “Israel In Egypt”, but their number is small. The chorus is relied upon to tell the story; the soloists have less significance than in almost any other Handel oratorio. (In Boston, the soloists were drawn from the chorus.)

The Boston performance included Parts I, II and III. Sometimes Part I is omitted from performances of “Israel In Egypt”—Part I, with alterations, is also performed as an independent, standalone work, “The Ways Of Zion Do Mourn”—but the Boston performance included Part I.

I enjoyed the performance—Josh did not—despite the fact that one had to overlook the quality of the choral work.

The chorus was not as fine as it should have been. The sound quality was not up to standard, unanimity was not in evidence, intonation was spotty—and I have no idea what kind of blend the chorus master was going for (and I doubt that the late Robert Shaw would have had a clue, either).

It was very much laissez faire choral singing that was on display February 20—and I feel compelled to echo Tim Page’s assessment from a few years ago that choral singing in Boston is nowhere near as good as its reputation and nowhere near as good as in most other large cities.

The “Israel In Egypt” performance was conducted by Harry Christophers. I thought Christophers was quite good, given the circumstances. Using fast tempos, Christophers moved things along enthusiastically and obtained a fair degree of drama from his forces. There was a suitably rousing quality to the afternoon, although the nobility of Handel’s music was certainly shortchanged.

My father has noted that it is one of the singular laws of music performance that conductors good in Handel are invariably good in nothing else. I have found my father to be correct in all judgments on all subjects at all times.

I have had the misfortune of hearing Christophers conduct Mozart, and Christophers most assuredly is not a competent conductor of Mozart. I suspect that Bachian counterpoint would leave Christophers equally flummoxed, and that his Bach would come out sounding much like Handel.

Christophers should continue to ply his trade where he is shown to best advantage.

14 comments:

  1. I cannot stomach John Eliot Gardiner's universally praised Bach recordings, while I CAN abide his Handel most of the time. I haven't heard anything conducted by Gardiner, in fact, that I rather liked which WASN'T a work by Handel.

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  2. Gardiner is the perfect example of my father's Law Of Handel Performance. Gardiner is inept in anything not by Handel.

    I bought a couple of discs from Gardiner's Bach cantata series, and was bored out of my mind.

    I haven't the stomach to try Gardiner's Mass In B Minor.

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  3. I recommend avoiding the Gardiner B-minor. To me Gardiner sounds like an alien from outer space who came across a drifting copy of the B-minor and decided to "try it out."

    Gardiner's Weihnachtsoratorium is even worse. After hearing "Jauchzet, Frohlocket" only once I was so nauseated that I threw that 2-disc set into the garbage without listening to the rest.

    If one MUST have one of those (misnomered )"historically informed" recordings, both Herreweghe and Suzuki are vastly superior to Gardiner.

    I have tried and tried to "get" Gardiner's Bach and I have always failed. Gardiner once admitted while being interviewed about his "Pilgrim" cantata series that we all live in "comparable pagan times." Is that this man's excuse for his absolute cluelessness?

    As you know, I grew up with Karl Richter's Bach; he remains the standard for me. That said, my favorite DVD music performance is Blomstedt's B-minor, which is almost as fine as Richter's. Blomstedt has the added advantage of the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester and choir, together with good sound recording within the accoustic of Thomaskirche.

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  4. Have you heard either of the Jochum recordings of the Mass In B Minor? I like them more than any other recordings of the work.

    The Mass In B Minor has been very, very unlucky on disc. There are more bad recordings of the Mass In B Minor out there than any other work in the repertory.

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  5. You know, I have never heard Jochum's interpretation of the Mass that I can remember. I HAVE heard Klemperer (EMI), who used forces that were just TOO massive for my taste. (Details of texture are compromised.)

    You are right about the dearth of good recordings of this awesome masterpiece. Though I would recommend the Herreweghe and Suzuki - and even the Dunedin Consort - in this work, I am not really satisfied with any of these; they at least easily trump Gardiner, however, whose popularity (judging from online reviews of his Archiv recordings) utterly mystifies me.

    I think I may have mentioned this before, Andrew, but I heard Karl Richter's very last concert in Munich, in January, 1981. A month later he died at the age of 54. That last concert was the Mass in B Minor. Even that live performance was not fully satisfying, principally on account of the fact that the Munich Bach Orchestra was having a "bad brass" night.

    This Mass is SO great that it may be simply impossible for any group of human beings to do full justice to it.

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  6. My father has several Richter organ recordings, but very few other recordings of Richter. I do not think my father was much of a Richter fan, or so is my assumption based upon his collection of recorded music, which includes very little Richter.

    I remember from one of Beverly Sills's silly autobiographies that she took a nasty swipe or two at Richter. Something about a performance in Buenos Aires, if I recall correctly. I think she objected to Richter's tempi.

    I think the Jochum recordings are on EMI and Philips. One is from the 1960s and one is from the 1970s. Both are excellent. I have no idea whether either is officially in print. It is no longer possible for me to keep up, what with the near-death of the recording industry.

    I am not really a fan of the original-instrument racket.

    It might be different if the conductors in the field were good.

    Did not Eugene Ormandy record the Bach Mass In B Minor in the 1960s? I think he did. I would like to hear the recording, out of curiosity if nothing else.

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  7. Richter had a wide repertoire, including Bruckner, though I never heard him conduct anything but Bach. A lot of musicians didn't like him, including a student of his who gave me several organ lessons. When I inquired about Richter's character one day, Herr Hueber lowered his head and intoned, "Er war ein Miststueck."*

    My view of the whole HIP movement is in line with that of Pinchas Zuckerman: I think it is largely a marketing ploy fueled by pseudo-scholarship. None of the HIP conductors I've heard made any lasting (positive) impression on me; some of them, like Mr. Norrington, were embarrassingly incompetent.

    Ormandy may have recorded the Mass in B Minor with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as he did "Messiah." I can't think of anything that he DIDN'T record at least once in Philadelphia, excepting Berwald, Panufnik, Holmboe, and Pettersson, or course.

    His poor taste in choirs aside, I believe Ormandy was a terribly underappreciated conductor.

    *I know I've written before that it is rude to use a foreign language on an English blogsite but then some things are more rude than that.

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  8. I was not trying to make fun of Ormandy—in anything written between 1900 and 1950, he was better than practically everyone else—but I doubt that we would find his Bach interpretations to be satisfying today.

    And Ormandy DID record the Bach Mass In B Minor. I just read a review on the Gramophone website, from the June 1963 issue, discussing Ormandy’s recording of the Mass with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Temple University Choirs (yes, choirs, plural). Eleanor Steber and Rosalind Elias were among the soloists.

    I think Leonard Bernstein also recorded the Mass In B Minor during his NYPO days, did he not?

    Have you heard Joshua Rifkin’s one-singer-to-a-part recording of the Bach Mass In B Minor? I suspect I would find the result laughable.

    As I noted, I am not a particular fan of the original-instrument racket.

    On Saturday night, Joshua and I went to Jordan Hall to hear the Akademie Fur Alte Musik Berlin (which has always performed without a conductor) play Bach, Handel and Telemann. The group was far inferior to British and Italian original-instrument ensembles: incredibly poor intonation, nonexistent balancing, no attempt whatsoever to “voice” the instruments made for a grim evening.

    You should read the Boston Globe review if you need a laugh.

    I don’t think the reviewer was actually in the house.

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  9. Matthew Guerrieri’s review of the concert by the Academie for Ancient Music Berlin reminded me of a humorous story I read years ago about one of Maria Callas’ last master classes. One particularly hapless young woman offered a pretty snow-job-of-a “heartfelt” defense of her art in order to justify her poor intonation – to which Callas snapped back, “It’s a B-flat!”

    I suppose Mr. Guerrier should be congratulated for his trenchant perception of the guest ensemble’s “percolating proficiency,” even while this critic is apparently oblivious to whether or not the notes are sounded with true pitch. A while back you suggested that I check out the Academie’s recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. I did. (By happenstance, the very same week I heard that CD a suspicious critique of the Academie’s playing of a new Nicholas Maw opera appeared in The Amphisbaena Whisperer.) The performance of Nr. 5 on that disc was egregious. May I assume that you and Josh were unable to discern any improvement of basic technique when you heard the same work live?

    Mr. Guerrieri seems to be a member of the post-modern “Fred Kirshnit” movement of musical criticism in America, as much a “snow-job” of fake professionalism as the popular pseudo-science of man-made climate change. Both “schools” attempt to hide Incompetence underneath “relevant” re-creations of history, whether such re-creations are falsified temperatures or spurious Barbara Cartland quotations.

    By Guerrieri’s owns words, the HIP movement is all about “re-creating history,” whether or not (one presumes) the basics – you know, like pitch in music – of history are true or not.

    Joshua Rifkin is the perfect example of why I called the HIP movement “pseudo-scholarship.” I don’t think I have ever heard Rifkin’s take on Bach’s Mass in B Minor, but I DO remember 30 years ago a friend played for me a cantata sung according to Rifkin OVPP (One-Voice-Per-Part) style. After a few minutes I asked, “Please turn it off.”

    I HAVE heard John Butt’s recording of the B-minor with the Dunedin Consort, which adheres, more or less, to OVPP (the Consort “cheats” at times by employing ripieno singers). The “Kyrie,” “Gloria” and “Sanctus” are as laughably anemic as you can imagine.

    I have read the most astonishingly stupid defenses of OVPP style. One of the earliest, espoused by Rifkin himself, was that Bach’s loft in Thomaskirche was too small to contain a chorus larger than 5 singers (!). Strange, since my DVD recording of Blomstedt’s B-minor shows the same loft easily accommodating both the Gewandhausorcheser (albeit, properly reduced) and the full Kammerchor of some forty members.

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  10. Rifkin has disappeared from musical discourse, and the music scene, too, hasn't he?

    Maybe he's dead?

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  11. Rifkin is still alive, according to Wikipedia. I don't think he works in the classical field much anymore (I could be wrong). Perhaps he is busy with his career as a countertenor: Rifkin, after all, sang the countertenor part in P.D.Q. Bach's cantata "Iphigenia in Brooklyn" (no joke).

    I look forward to your review of the Academie concert.

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  12. I don’t have much to say about the Berlin original-instrument group. The group was not very good.

    Josh and I went to the concert because we won’t have many chances to hear original-instrument ensembles once we leave Boston. Such ensembles seldom appear in the Twin Cities these days, although they did appear in the Twin Cities with some regularity in the 1980s and 1990s. The Schubert Club has cut back significantly on the number of guest artists and guest ensembles it presents each year, so we will be left with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera and little else. (Northrop Auditorium, however, has apparently increased its dance offerings the last couple of years, or so my parents say—but that venue closed for long-overdue renovations a month ago, and is not slated to re-open until late 2013. Northrop dance events will switch to downtown theaters the next two seasons.)

    Organizations everywhere have been cutting back. The Boston Celebrity Series is only presenting one guest orchestra this year, whereas each of the last two years it had presented two guest orchestras. This year’s orchestra will be the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic under Temirkanov. I hope Temirkanov does not cancel. Temirkanov has cancelled the last two times I wanted to hear him—but, so far as I know, he is still scheduled to lead next month’s concert.

    Everyone is canceling in Boston this season. Most recently, Colin Davis cancelled his two forthcoming weeks with the Boston Symphony, which Josh and I wanted to hear. As a result, we probably will not hear another Boston Symphony concert while we are in town. We have been to only three BSO concerts this season, and those were the Zacharias week (my parents were in town), the Masur week and the Dohnanyi week.

    Levine’s constant cancellations have bothered us not at all, as we did not plan to hear any of his concerts. (We half-heartedly considered the Levine Bartok/Stravinsky week in early January, but we decided to take a pass, although at the moment I do not remember precisely why).

    One thing I can say: Josh and I are VERY ready to go home. I hope time flies the next ten weeks.

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  13. The time will go by quickly, I'm sure. Your Boston law associates will not be as happy to see you go, I'll wager.

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  14. Please. . .

    They're already doing cartwheels and handstands in the hallways.

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