Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Back Home

Joshua and I are back home.

Our trip was a long one, but we had a good time, and we very much enjoyed our brief visits to Oklahoma and Denver.

The high school graduation in Oklahoma on Friday night was a major affair. It seemed as if the whole town had turned out. There was an enormous crowd, and the ceremony was very dignified and very moving. It was reassuring to see so many wholesome young men and women mark the official end of the first twelve years of their formal education in what will be the last time they will ever congregate as a group. From this point, over 75 per cent of the class will matriculate to various colleges and universities, in Oklahoma and elsewhere—and, if statistics hold true to form, over 50 per cent will seek their fortunes outside of Oklahoma once they graduate from college. These young men and women will disperse south to Texas, north to Chicago, east to New York or Washington, and west to Southern California, and most of them will never again return home other than for seasonal visits. This occasion, therefore, was both a happy event for the students and their families as well as a sad one—it marked the beginning of the process by which over half of these young men and women will say farewell to their native soil.

It was good to visit my brother in Denver, too, if only for a short time. We only stayed in Denver for one day and two nights, because we accomplished everything we set out to do on Sunday. Josh and I helped my brother with some cleaning, and we helped him pack a few boxes for shipping things home. We also packed boxes for Josh and me to bring back home with us. Other than cleaning and packing, we did not do much—I cooked a few things for my brother to eat over the coming week—but we had a good visit. He is very much looking forward to getting out of Denver. In another month or so, he will be home for good.

The road part of our trip was not too bad, all things considered, because we had our own food with us and because we had good music to listen to. During each leg of the trip, we listened to “The Magic Flute”, “Fidelio” and “Der Freischutz”, in sequence.

The recording of “The Magic Flute” we took with us was the legendary Otto Klemperer recording from 1964 on EMI, one of the greatest opera recordings ever made.

This was the final opera recording produced by Walter Legge, and the microphones captured a great, great performance. It is hard to believe that shortly after this recording was completed, Legge retired from EMI, disbanded the Philharmonia Orchestra, and abruptly and rancorously ended his decade-long professional association with Klemperer (the two never spoke again, although Legge did maintain contact with Klemperer’s daughter, Lotte).

Much of the credit for the success of the venture must go to Klemperer, a great Mozart conductor still in full command of his artistry at age 79. In Mozart, Klemperer always emphasized the writing for woodwinds, and the playing of the winds of the Philharmonia Orchestra is one of the special glories of this set.

Klemperer also possessed a remarkable command of rhythm and pulse, which served him well in practically everything he conducted. Here, he chose mostly leisurely tempi, which he then invested with great rhythmic definition, vigor and spring, allowing him both to emphasize interesting orchestral detail and to propel the music-making (and the story) forward.

More than any other conductor, Klemperer understood that “The Magic Flute” is a deeply serious, noble and spiritual work. Today “The Magic Flute” is generally treated as frivolous comedy, musically and dramatically, but Klemperer understood that the essence of the work was the profound spirituality of the music, not the veneer of Viennese singspiel that serves as skeleton of the plot.

Klemperer rightly sees the lengthy tenor recitative with chorus, “Die Weisheitslehre Diese Knaben”, as the turning point of the drama, and his sovereign handling of this number, given perfunctory treatment in almost every other recording of the score, is one of the greatest moments in the entire recording. He also understands, better than any other conductor who recorded the opera, the Bachian counterpoint of so much of Act II of the score.

The large cast assembled by Legge is probably the starriest cast in the history of the gramophone, with so many legendary singers that it is almost impossible to count them.

The women are the attractions among the singers more than the men. A very young Gundula Janowitz and a very young Lucia Popp, both making their recording debuts, give the finest recorded performances of their roles on disc. Janowitz’s Pamina carries the set—justifiably so, since Pamina is the central character—with a voice of unparalleled purity, creaminess and freshness. Janowitz is as delightful in the lighter moments of the score as in the most profound. Popp’s performances of the two arias of the Queen Of The Night are, simply, nonpareil.

Producer Legge was as good a talent spotter as ever lived, and he was fearless in assigning major roles in important projects to unknown young artists if they possessed the talent. Janowitz and Popp were only 27 and 25 years old, respectively, at the time this recording was made, and both were virtually unknown—but both immediately became major international stars upon the release of this recording.

The Three Ladies (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Marga Hoffgen) are the finest on disc, voices well-matched and full of character, and the Three Boys (Agnes Giebel, Anna Reynolds, Josephine Veasey) are finer than the Three Ladies on any competing set.

The men are excellent, too, but their work is not quite as memorable as the remarkable work of the women. If any of the men is disappointing, it is Nicolai Gedda, who sings cleanly and with the appropriate sense of style for Mozart, but whose Tamino is bland, almost faceless, in comparison to his fellow cast members. Given that, however, music-lovers of today would kill for a Mozart tenor of similar accomplishment.

I have known the Klemperer “Magic Flute” for years—since I was eight years old, in fact. I know the set so well, and I love the set so much, that I can hardly listen to any other conductor in the work, on disc or in the theater. Even the recordings conducted by Thomas Beecham, Ferenc Fricsay and Karl Bohm, all excellent in their own ways, fail to move me as Klemperer does.

Josh loved “The Magic Flute”. He fell in love with the opera, and the recording, on the very first listen, as I suspected he would.

On the other hand, “Fidelio” did not move Josh the first couple of times we listened to it. Josh thought the work lacked drama and theatricality, and he thought the music was absolute music and, as such, unsuited for the stage. However, Josh is in the process of changing his mind about this, I believe.

Klemperer recorded his “Fidelio” set in 1962, Legge again serving as producer. Just as Klemperer’s “Magic Flute” recording is the standard version of that work, Klemperer’s “Fidelio” is the classic account among “Fidelio” recordings. By comparison, Arturo Toscanini in “Fidelio” sounds positively lightweight, Herbert Von Karajan is stiff, and Fricsay lacks spirituality and his reading is bereft of philosophical qualities.

It is, again, Klemperer’s powerful rhythmic thrust that propels the drama forward. Even in the curtain-raising singspiel, Klemperer’s rhythmic definition is like granite—and his rugged approach works splendidly. By springing rhythms so effectively, he satisfies the domestic, human-scale concerns of the work’s early moments before more dramatic—and universal—themes begin to emerge midway through Act I. Klemperer manages this transition more successfully than any other conductor who recorded the opera. Only Karajan came remotely close.

Klemperer is also up to the work’s great final scene, which in other hands comes across as little more than a run-through of Beethoven’s unremarkable “Choral Fantasia”. There is power and majesty, rejoicing and emotional release in Klemperer’s treatment of the finale. In other recordings, the finale is a conventional symphonic finale tacked on, somewhat lamely, to a stage work.

The cast members have come to exemplify their roles for most listeners. The Leonore—Ludwig, again—is a mezzo soprano, but she has the high notes not only to handle but also to triumph in the “Abscheulicher”. Jon Vickers is a peerless Florestan, and much more convincing than he was to be ten years later for Karajan. Walter Berry is a frightening Pizarro, Gottlob Frick an understanding and fatherly Rocco, Gerhard Unger a youthful, impetuous Jaquino and Ingeborg Hallstein an echt “keck” Marzelline. Never was a recording producer better at gramophone casting than Legge.

There is one peculiarity about EMI’s reissue of this recording: EMI has appended Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 at the end of Act II, borrowing a performance of the overture from a different Klemperer disc. It was Gustav Mahler who first adopted the practice of performing “Leonore” No. 3 before the final scene of “Fidelio” in the opera house, and over the last century this has become virtually standard practice worldwide—but Klemperer and Legge believed, rightly, that to perform the overpowering “Leonore” No. 3 before the final scene destroyed the great culmination that Beethoven had created for the final scene of his only opera. Accordingly, the “Leonore” No. 3 was never part of the original Klemperer recording. Now, unaccountably, it has been included, but at least “Leonore” No. 3 is placed at the end of Act II, and not before the final scene. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the artists’s original wishes on so important a matter should have been disregarded for the reissue of this classic performance.

(However, exactly one year before this studio recording was made, Klemperer conducted a now-legendary set of “Fidelio” performances at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. During those 1961 performances, Klemperer DID conduct the “Leonore” No. 3 immediately prior to the final scene, whether at David Webster’s instigation or his own.)

Weber’s “Der Freischutz” is an opera seldom staged in the U.S. The Metropolitan Opera last mounted the opera in 1972, during Rudolf Bing’s last year as General Manager, and that 1972 production was not well-received and was retired after one season. New York City Opera presented “Der Freischutz” in 1981, and the NYCO production met the same fate: a poor audience reception and a poor critical reception. It, too, was sent directly to the warehouse, never to be revived.

During the Terence McEwen era at San Francisco Opera, “Der Freischutz” was staged, successfully, and the San Francisco production was revived once or twice. However, that is the sole U.S. production of “Der Freischutz” in the 20th Century that lasted more than a single season.

Why do American audiences not respond to this incomparably great work? I genuinely have no idea, because I have always firmly believed that “Der Freischutz” is one of a handful of the greatest operas ever written. It has been in the repertory, continuously, in Central Europe since 1821, a mainstay of the operatic stage. It holds the stage in Scandinavian countries, and it is performed periodically in Italy and Britain. Only in France can I not recall a single production in recent years, somewhat surprising given France’s abiding love for the music of Robert Schumann.

A greatly-respected conductor once told my father that there are two reasons why “Der Freischutz” has not taken root in the United States: first, the Weber style is simply beyond the capabilities of American singers and conductors—only German singers and conductors are successful in realizing the special style and ethos the music requires; and, second, the many choruses in Weber are impossibly difficult, just as demanding, if not more so, than the choruses in Wagner operas.

The 1958 Joseph Keilberth recording on EMI has always been my favorite version of “Der Freischutz”. It is as brilliant as the version conducted by Carlos Kleiber, but the Keilberth trumps the Kleiber set in its depth of feeling and spirituality. Kleiber, in comparison to Keilberth, sounds brittle and lacking in conviction.

“Der Freischutz” is the only studio recording that keeps the memory of Joseph Keilberth alive, but it has served to keep his name before the public for 50 years. Like the Klemperer recordings of “The Magic Flute” and “Fidelio”, Keilberth’s “Der Freischutz” is the classic reference account of the work. The recording has never gone out of print in Europe.

The Keilberth “Der Freischutz” was recorded in Berlin. The orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic and the chorus is the Chorus Of The Berlin Stadtische Oper (soon to become the Deutsche Oper). Both ensembles are in splendid form.

The cast was the best available at the time, and even the smallest roles were cast from strength (a young Hermann Prey is the Prince Ottokar; Frick—the only singer common to all three opera sets—is the Hermit). The set is most famous, above all, for the Agathe of Elisabeth Grummer, generally acknowledged to be the finest Agathe who ever lived, and for the Annchen of Lisa Otto, the great German soubrette of the immediate post-War years. Both are exceptional. The Max of Rudolf Schock may not be to all tastes, but the role of Max is an almost-impossible one to sing, combining as it does the requirements of a Mozart singer with the demands of a Wagner singer. Every singer I have heard in the part has failed to some degree.

I was twelve years old the first time I heard this “Der Freischutz” recording. It was my first exposure to the work. By the time I had heard the famous overture and the magnificent opening chorus, I was hooked on this work, and I have been hooked on this work ever since. The mere thought of listening to this score again always gets my blood racing. The score is eternal, retaining its freshness and charm after literally dozens of encounters.

Josh loved “Der Freischutz”. In fact, he preferred “Der Freischutz” to “The Magic Flute” and “Fidelio”. He said that “Der Freischutz” was the best opera he had ever heard, and he immediately wanted to know why we had waited so long to listen to it. It was all Josh could do to keep from joining in the choruses, especially the great Act III hunting chorus, which he especially loved.

The post-War era that produced the great opera recordings of the 1950’s and 1960’s is long gone. “The Magic Flute”, “Fidelio” and “Der Freischutz” were remarkable products of remarkable men and women working in remarkable times. The musicians associated with those recordings are gone now, too, or in a very few cases (Franz Crass, Janowitz, Ludwig, Otto, Vickers) still living but long retired.

With the exceptions of Crass, Janowitz, Popp, Prey and Vickers, all of the artists—conductors and singers—involved in all of these recordings were trained in the small opera houses of Central Europe before or during the Second World War. Central European opera houses served as great incubators of talent during the first half of the 20th Century. The sheer number of great artists that emerged from small theaters throughout Germany and German-speaking territories is astonishing. Nothing remotely comparable exists any longer, not even in the German theaters of today.

The German operatic tradition has died out, victim of internationalization that began in the mid-1960’s—by which point all of Germany’s opera houses had been repaired or rebuilt, and had reopened, and were in the process of abandoning the pre-War custom of performing all operas in the German language—and has snowballed since the 1970’s. Today there is little difference in style of operatic performance between Berlin and Barcelona or London and Leipzig, whereas fifty years ago there was a distinct discreteness in national performing styles among different countries and nationalities.

After World War II, the French style died first, followed by the Italian style, ending with the German style. The only way to encounter “authentic” performances of French, Italian and German repertory today is via recordings documenting the work of past generations.

If sales figures are any indication, these now-historic documents are treasured by countless persons worldwide, and listened to and enjoyed constantly.

That is a very reassuring thing.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Long Road Trip Is Over!

Joshua and I are back home.

We did not see a single tornado, although we spent three of the last five days driving through tornado zones.

Time for some rest.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Five States In One Day!

We arrived safely in Oklahoma a little more than an hour ago.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Long Road Trip Ahead

As Joshua mentioned on his blog this morning, very early Thursday morning he and I will embark upon a long road trip.

On Thursday, we will drive nonstop from early morning until late at night from Minneapolis to Oklahoma in order to attend the Friday night high school graduation of Josh’s sister.

On Saturday, we will drive nonstop from early morning until late at night from Oklahoma to Denver in order to help my brother prepare for his move back home in July.

On Tuesday, we will drive nonstop from early morning until late at night from Denver back to Minneapolis.

The first leg of our journey will be almost 800 miles, the second leg will be over 600 miles, and the final leg will be over 900 miles. Virtually all of our journey will be on interstate highways, happily, but it will be a very long program of nonstop driving.

En route to each destination, we will stop only to replenish fuel. We will take our own food with us so that we do not have to stop and eat along the way. We decided tonight what foods to take with us, foods we can eat in the car without leaving a trail of crumbs.

We will get the foods together Wednesday night, and put everything in a cooler, ready to be picked up and placed in the car early Thursday morning: tuna salad sandwiches with cucumber on whole wheat bread, chicken salad sandwiches with cucumber on rye bread, roast beef sandwiches with Swiss cheese and green pepper on onion rolls, ham sandwiches with Swiss cheese and radish on potato rolls, and salmon sandwiches with red onion on English muffins; cucumber slices, carrot sticks, celery sticks and radishes; apples and pears and boxes of raisins; oatmeal raisin cookies; individual servings of apple juice, cranberry juice and apple-cranberry juice; and thermoses of milk and coffee.

My mother is going to help us, because she will bake the oatmeal raisin cookies on Wednesday afternoon. She will bake a pot roast and a small ham on Wednesday afternoon, too, and she will bring those items over to us on Wednesday night, when we will all have dinner together. Josh and I will boil chicken pieces and grill tuna steaks and poach salmon that night, and between the pot roast, the ham, the boiled chicken, the grilled tuna and the poached salmon, all of us can eat a little of anything or everything for Wednesday night’s dinner. After dinner, we will prepare the sandwiches for the road trip and send the remainder of the food home with my parents, who will have their Thursday night dinner virtually ready for them a day in advance.

My parents only have to worry about food for Thursday, because on Friday morning they will go to New York to visit my older brother and his family over the Memorial Day weekend.

Tonight Josh and I selected the music we will listen to during our road trip. Josh said that he wanted to listen to three operas—operas he has never heard, operas completely new to him, but nevertheless mainstream operas that every civilized person should know—but he also stipulated that the operas had to feature “great, great, great” music, be “immediately appealing”, and be assured of sustaining his interest for the length of the drama over repeated listens.

That’s a tall order, which seemed to eliminate just about everything, but we settled upon Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and Weber’s “Der Freischutz”. Consequently, on Wednesday night my parents, in addition to the pot roast and the ham, will bring over Otto Klemperer’s recordings of the Mozart and the Beethoven, and Joseph Keilberth’s recording of the Weber. If Josh dislikes all three of these works, I will be immensely surprised—and I will be forced to entertain him with my Jimmy Stewart impersonations.

Josh and I did not have any notably good or original ideas what to present to his sister for a graduation gift, so we had asked her what she would most like from us. She told us that what she would most like would be to go somewhere this summer, before college, and to go somewhere interesting—I do not think she found the family baseball road trip last summer to be her ideal version of a vacation—and that her parents had agreed to allow her to go somewhere this summer as long as she was accompanied by Josh and me. (Apparently her and Josh’s parents suffer under the grave misapprehension that Joshua and I are responsible individuals. Wherever did they get such an absurd notion?)

Josh’s sister knows that he and I are considering going somewhere in July and/or August, and she wants to come with us if the destination interests her. If our chosen destination does not interest her, she wants us to take her to New York for a few days before school starts.

Our gift to her, accordingly, is a summer trip, final destination yet to be determined. However, we also have another gift to present to her in person on Friday to mark her very special occasion.

My mother will be busy with some of her own gifts, too. She told us tonight that she will bake zucchini bread and lemon poppy seed bread on Wednesday for us to drop off in Oklahoma and Denver (my mother’s zucchini bread, made with lots of walnuts and raisins, and lemon poppy seed bread are to die for).

She also mentioned that someone in Denver will be eating chocolate whiskey cake very, very soon (I have literally no idea whom she’s talking about).

My mother’s chocolate whiskey cake is made from the very darkest, very richest chocolate, and it is divine.

I just hope Josh and I don’t lose all discipline and self-control, and eat the chocolate whiskey cake ourselves en route!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lunchtime Brahms

Tomorrow evening, after work, Joshua and I will go up to the lake for the weekend. It will be our first visit to the lake this year.

My parents have decided to join us. They look forward to a quiet weekend of peace and silence.

The dog will be assured of having a good time—and passing kayakers on the lake will be assured of being barked at!

For lunch today, Josh and I went to hear the second half of a Minnesota Orchestra concert. We were not interested in hearing—and frankly did not have enough time for—Schubert’s Symphony No. 4, played before intermission. American orchestras cannot play Schubert, and this week’s guest conductor, Helmuth Rilling, is not a Schubert conductor.

We timed our arrival for 11:30 a.m., right about the time we assumed the first half of the concert would conclude.

The second half of the program was devoted to choral music of Brahms: the great Nanie and the great Schicksalslied, both for chorus and orchestra, between which was sung Four Songs For Women’s Voices, Two Horns And Harp. The orchestra was joined in the Brahms by the Minnesota Chorale.

The performances were competent, nothing more, but Josh and I enjoyed hearing these rarely-performed works, and it was an odd treat to be able to hear them in the middle of the day.

After the concert, we grabbed a quick sandwich and headed back to our offices.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Perfect Mother's Day Weekend

Joshua and I did not do much this weekend.

We stayed home Friday night and did our laundry and caught up on our reading.

We stayed home all day yesterday, too, and continued to catch up on our reading. Yesterday afternoon, Josh wrote about one of the books we just completed, “A World Undone” by G. J. Meyer, a one-volume (but nevertheless fairly comprehensive) history of World War I. I think it is the best thing Josh has ever written.

One of the books we are still plowing through is an English translation of “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, And The Nazi Welfare State” by Goetz Aly, the German journalist and lecturer. “Hitler’s Beneficiaries” is a 488-page argument, poorly-advanced, claiming that the reason the German populace supported Hitler’s regime throughout the war was largely due to generous tax breaks, lavish welfare programs, prosperity based upon theft from Europe’s Jewish population as well as theft from occupied countries, currency manipulation, and a constant stream of luxury goods imported into Germany from all over the world in order to bribe the German people.

Aly’s is an extremely irritating book, partly because his arguments are not tight and do not hang together, partly because the research cited is not logically organized or comprehensively analyzed (nor is the research necessarily complete, or even reliable), partly because Aly ignores any facts contrary to his controversial proposition, and partly because Aly is simply bone-headed, demonstrating a typical German resolve stubbornly to refuse to accept or address or consider anything not purely consistent with his hypothesis.

Aly’s book has been received with great acclaim in some quarters, and with great dismay in others. I reserve final judgment until I finish reading the book, but I can state, without reservation, that the standard of scholarship demonstrated in the book is shockingly low—and, unlike others, I am not convinced that the book was written solely to be provocative. I believe Aly has convinced himself that what he has written is eternal truth.

There is definitely something very wrong with the German mind and the German character.

Last night, Josh and I had my parents over for dinner, an early Mother’s Day gift for my mother. Josh and I had not seen my father for exactly two weeks—we had last seen him on the evening of April 26, when we had seen him off at the airport.

Josh and I had deliberately left my parents alone on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the first two nights after my father’s return from Taipei, and we had declined my parents’ invitation to accompany them to a Friday night concert by the Minnesota Orchestra.

From my parents’ accounts of that concert, we did not miss much. The orchestra played Schubert’s Eighth and Mahler’s Ninth under Mark Wigglesworth, and the concert apparently was not any good in the least. My parents said that Wigglesworth was totally at sea in the Mahler, and that numerous concertgoers had in fact walked out, with departures picking up steam as the Mahler symphony progressed. It must have been a truly awful account of the Mahler, both because the Mahler Ninth is such a cherished work and because Minneapolis audiences are generally far too polite to walk out during a performance.

Ten years ago, I thought that Wigglesworth might turn into a major talent. I no longer believe that.

His career appears to reflect that assessment—it is a career going nowhere. The Detroit Symphony took a serious look at Wigglesworth shortly after Neeme Jarvi retired, but it took a pass on Wigglesworth, and his name has not cropped up on the lists of any other orchestras currently seeking conductors.

It was the very thought of Wigglesworth conducting Mahler that had prevented me from wanting to attend this week’s Minnesota Orchestra subscription concerts in the first place. If a good Mahler conductor had been engaged, I very well might have attended one of the concerts.

While we were preparing last night’s dinner, Josh and I caught up with my father on what had happened in Taipei. Happily, my mother and the dog did not object to having to hear the details of his trip a second time.

Josh and I gave my parents a good dinner. We gave them a dinner of fresh tomato-cream soup, followed by a garden salad with shrimp, followed by stuffed pork chops, escalloped cheddar potatoes, lima beans, carrots and an apple salad. We gave them homemade vanilla pudding with delicate, lacey French chocolate cookies for dessert (the cookies were from a bakery). I think my parents had a nice evening. The dog certainly enjoyed his pork chops and pork chop bones! We sent the box of cookies home with my parents, because both my mother and my father love that particular kind of French cookie.

During dinner, Josh and I asked my parents whether they wanted to attend today’s matinee performance of Theater In The Round’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. We thought that might make a nice Mother’s Day outing for my mother (and my father, too). They declined—probably an act of naked retaliation for our refusal to join them for that Wigglesworth Mahler!

So today, after church, Josh and I went downtown by ourselves to catch the Sunday matinee performance of the O’Neill, the final performance of the run.

I thought the performance was quite poor. I did not think anyone in the cast was up to the demands of his or her role. I readily acknowledge that “Long Day’s Journey” is a demanding if not exhausting play, and that its actors are called upon to go through a draining, if not agonizing, range of emotions throughout the course of the lengthy drama. Nevertheless, this production was nothing to write home about.

One of the company’s actors had become seriously ill during the rehearsal period and had had to be hospitalized, setting back both rehearsals and performances for over a week (the entire first week of the run had to be cancelled). I sympathize with everyone associated with the project, because that illness had to have thrown a major monkey wrench into the production’s development.

The text used by Theater In The Round had been judiciously pruned, but the production nonetheless came in at three-and-one-half hours (there were two intermissions), making for a very long afternoon in the theater. To be endurable, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” must soar. This production did not soar.

My parents did not miss much, as things turned out (which is what they had heard from friends).

After today’s matinee, Josh and I went to my parents’ house and we picked them up and we took them out to an early dinner, another gesture to my mother for Mother’s Day.

We went to a nearby French restaurant, which some persons insist is the best French restaurant in the Twin Cities (while others insist that it is not). Josh had never visited the restaurant, and neither my parents nor I had been to the restaurant in ages and ages and ages.

The menu is a la carte, so we had to be mindful what we ordered (we all took a pass on the $79.00 seafood appetizer, for example).

We all ordered the same thing: a very simple dinner of Salade Lyonnaise, Steak Dianne, Pommes Frites and Green Beans Amandine. We skipped dessert, but we did ask for and accept the waiter’s recommendation for a bottle of wine to accompany our meal.

It was a nice dinner, I thought, and I believe my mother enjoyed it very much.

After dinner, Josh and I took my parents home, and we stayed for a bit to chat and to play with the dog and to eat some of the lacey French chocolate cookies.

Josh and I have nothing on the schedule for this coming week—although we are thinking about going to hear the Minnesota Orchestra at lunchtime on Thursday (if we go, it will be to hear only the second half of the concert, featuring three rarely-performed choral works by Brahms).

Next weekend, I think we shall go up to the lake for the first time this year.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Back From Asia

My father returned safely early this afternoon.

My mother retrieved him at the airport, took him home, fed him oyster chowder and chicken breasts with noodles, brought him up date on what had happened during his absence (not much of anything happened, and there was not much of anything to impart) and put him to bed.

He was asleep by 5:00 p.m., settled in for a long night’s rest.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

"Summer Ist Icumen In"

Tonight is the last night Joshua and I will stay with my mother. My father will return from Taipei tomorrow, and Josh and I will go back to our own place.

My father is scheduled to arrive in Minneapolis just past noon tomorrow. His outbound flight to Taipei involved a journey of almost twenty hours’ duration. His return flight to Minneapolis will be considerably shorter, assuming everything proceeds as scheduled: fifteen hours and thirty-five minutes. My father and his colleagues were routed through San Francisco on the outbound flights. The return flights will be routed through Tokyo. Happily, travel between Minneapolis and Taipei involves only one change of plane.

He will get some rest when he arrives home tomorrow, but he must go into the office on Thursday and Friday. My mother has kept this coming weekend free, so that my father need do nothing but rest.

It is possible that my parents will use their tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra this weekend. The orchestra will play Schubert’s Eighth and Mahler’s Ninth under Mark Wigglesworth. My mother asked Josh and me whether we wanted to use the tickets, and we told her to keep the tickets in the event my father wanted to hear the concert. My parents will probably decide at the last minute whether or not to go, depending entirely upon whether my father wants to stay home that night or venture out.

Josh and I have nothing planned for this weekend. The following weekend, we may go up to the lake for the first time this year. If we decide to go, we will probably ask my parents whether they want to go, too. The following weekend is Memorial Day weekend, and Josh and I will spend that weekend in Denver while my parents will spend that weekend in New York.

I cannot believe it, but summer is almost here.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Rameau-Berlioz-Gounod-Debussy-Vierne-Les Six

While my father has been away, my mother and Josh and I have been listening to six discs of French music ranging from the Baroque period to the early 20th Century. These discs have given us a lot of pleasure.

Orchestral suites from Rameau’s “Nais” and “Le Temple De La Gloire”, performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan, on the Harmonia Mundi label

Berlioz’s Prix De Rome Cantatas, performed by Michele Lagrange, Beatrice Uria-Monzon, Daniel Galvez-Vallejo, the Nord-Pas-De-Calais Chorus and the Lille National Philharmonic under Jean-Claude Casadesus, on the Naxos label

Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass, performed by Barbara Hendricks, Laurence Dale, Jean-Philippe Lafont, the ORTF Chorus and the Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique De Radio France under Georges Pretre, on the Musical Heritage Society label

Piano music of Debussy, performed by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

Organ symphonies of Louis Vierne, performed by Michael Murray, on the Telarc label

“Paris 1920”, a disc of music by Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger, performed by the Orchestre De Paris under Semyon Bychkov, on the Philips label

The Harmonia Mundi disc of Jean-Philippe Rameau orchestral suites from “Nais” and “Le Temple De La Gloire” is a real disappointment. The disc features dull playing and even duller conducting.

For some reason, the U.S.—unlike France, Germany and Great Britain—cannot produce high-quality period-instrument ensembles. California-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the oldest period-instrument ensemble extent in the U.S., has been playing for over 25 years, and during this period it has witnessed the establishment and demise of several other period-instrument groups in other parts of the U.S.

Why has the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra survived when so many other U.S. period-instrument ensembles have foundered? I have no idea, because the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is certainly not any good—it plays at the level of a barely-proficient amateur ensemble, nothing more, and it is far outpaced in terms of ensemble and musicianship by even the most second-rank of European groups.

Music schools in France, Germany and Britain devote much more attention to period-instrument performance than American music schools, which is probably why American ensembles are so dismal in this field.

I, for one, have no problem with this—and, further, I have no problem with conceding the entire field of period-instrument performance of Baroque music to European specialist ensembles. Such endeavors should hardly be the mission or province of musicians of a young, vibrant nation.

Nevertheless, performances by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra are so lame it borders on the ridiculous, if not the outright scandalous. Isn’t it long past time this feeble ensemble disbanded? And what does it say about the musical knowledge, taste and judgment of its local audience that this pathetic group continues to attract paying customers?

The orchestral suites from the two Rameau stage works are comprised of the overtures and selected dance movements. This is glorious music, hugely affective and hugely effective, marked by beguiling tunes, captivating rhythms and piquant instrumentations.

However, none of this comes across in the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s playing, which is dull as dishwater. The playing is positively comatose. There is no sense of French style anywhere, no French verve, no French fragrance, no French timbre and no French elegance. Rhythmically lifeless, the music-making is inexpressive and unenergetic. Given these shortcomings, the fact that the ensemble work is inexcusably shoddy is practically irrelevant. This disc is a non-starter. I am appalled that it was ever issued.

Much of the blame must be assigned to British conductor Nicholas McGegan. In a field crowded with marginal British talents serving as period-instrument leaders (John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, Trevor Pinnock, a group known as the “semi-conductors”), McGegan is generally considered to be the least talented of all. Why does this man still get work?

For the past couple of years, McGegan has appeared often in the Twin Cities, serving as one of the “associates” of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. A couple of months ago, the orchestra announced that it was ending its association with McGegan, effective at the end of the current concert season—to no one’s surprise, surely, because McGegan has hardly been a success here—and I was pleased to see that he had been given the shove so quickly, and without ado. There was simply no point in keeping him on.

The disc of Hector Berlioz Prix De Rome Cantatas is both fascinating and frustrating. First issued on the Harmonia Mundi label in 1996, and reissued by Naxos in 2003, the disc is the only recording ever issued of all four cantatas, although the two cantatas for female vocalist, “Herminie” and “La Mort De Cleopatre”, are very well-known and have been recorded many times.

Berlioz competed for the Prix De Rome for five consecutive years. He failed to pass the first round on his first try (a counterpoint examination), but he moved on to the second and final round in 1827, 1828, 1829 and 1830, the year in which he finally was awarded the prize. In order, his entries were “La Mort D’Orphee”, “Herminie”, “La Mort De Cleopatre” and “La Mort De Sardanapale”, all written to prescribed texts handed to the contestants 25 days before their compositions had to be submitted to the adjudication panels.

All four of the cantatas are of very high quality, and quite original for 1820’s France (a nation still under the musical domination of Luigi Cherubini). They display all of Berlioz’s hallmarks—interesting rhythmic and harmonic twists, imaginative settings of text, the widest possible range of emotion, and glorious orchestration—and it is instantly apparent that these cantatas are from the same period as Berlioz’s youthful “Symphonie Fantastique”.

The first cantata requires a tenor, female chorus and orchestra, the second a soprano and orchestra (although it is often sung by mezzo soprano), the third a mezzo soprano and orchestra, and the fourth a tenor, male chorus and orchestra. Only a fragment of the winning cantata, “The Death Of Sardanapalus”, survives.

The performances on the Naxos disc are not distinguished. They are capable, and pleasing, but not memorable. “Herminie” (soprano Michele Lagrange) and “The Death Of Cleopatra” (mezzo soprano Beatrice Uria-Monzon) receive the finest performances on the disc, but these two cantatas are widely available in even finer performances elsewhere, including at least one standard-setting set of performances of both works involving Janet Baker and Colin Davis on the Philips label.

This is only the second recording of “The Death Of Orpheus”, and the very first recording of the surviving fragment of “The Death Of Sardanapalus”, but these two cantatas are less well-served on the Naxos disc. This is because the tenor, Daniel Galvez-Vallejo, is very unimpressive. As captured by the microphone, Galvez-Vallejo’s voice is not pleasing—the voice is grainy, and registers are not knit together. He also does not make much of the music or text. He simply strains to sing notes. I would very much like to hear what Roberto Alagna could do with these works.

The orchestra, chorus and conductor are minimally competent, nothing more. The whole enterprise has the whiff of a radio-performance run-through (which I suspect it was). It is easy to understand why this disc did not survive long in the Harmonia Mundi catalog. It remains, however, the only disc ever issued containing all four Berlioz Prix De Rome cantatas. As such, it is invaluable, especially since it is now available at budget price.

Charles Gounod’s mass devoted to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was written in 1855 and premiered on November 22 of that year (Saint Cecilia’s Day) at the great church of Saint Eustache in Paris, three years before the composer completed writing “Faust”.

I have loved this work since the first time I heard it. It is tuneful and voluptuous, but also pious, befitting Gounod’s original intention to enter the priesthood.

Some people find Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass to be insufficiently serious. They object to its tuneful sequence of marches, dances and songs used to underlay the text of the Latin mass. Some commentator somewhere wrote that Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass was an incongruous mixture of operetta, Palestrina and salon music, all somehow sandwiched between occasional pages of Beethoven. If so, I love the combination.

My father detests the Gounod mass. He invariably describes it as “a sugary confection”. My mother enjoys it somewhat more, although she says that the individual components, pleasing as they are, do not amount to a satisfactory whole.

I prefer to take the work on its own terms, and to accept it as the sincere, lush, enjoyable work of devotion it is. It is very French, and very French Roman Catholic, and very Napoleon III, but within that realm it is entirely successful. I also find it to be a work of great power and beauty.

The work has been recorded a few times, but the only version I have heard is Pretre’s, recorded in 1983 and originally issued on EMI.

The Pretre recording is OK, although the orchestra is not very good. The chorus is somewhat better, and the soloists better still, although only soprano Barbara Hendricks is truly first-class. Nonetheless, this disc always gives me pleasure, and it was good to hear it again after five or six years.

I wish American orchestras and choruses would program the Gounod mass on occasion. I think audiences here would like it.

Josh hated it.

In Josh’s eyes, however, the Michelangeli disc of Claude Debussy piano music made up for anything sub-par in the other discs we listened to. Josh had never heard the Michelangeli Debussy disc before, and he found it to be overwhelming.

One of the classics of the gramophone, Michelangeli’s Debussy disc has been legendary from the day it was issued in 1971. It has never been out of print. Today, thirty-seven years after its initial release, it remains in the catalog at full price, despite the fact that it contains only 45 minutes of music. It is the most profitable piano disc ever issued by Deutsche Grammophon in the 110-year history of the company, having sold, literally, hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide.

Is this the greatest Debussy piano disc ever made? I can think of none finer.

Only three compositions are on the disc: Images I, Images II and the Children’s Corner Suite.

Michelangeli’s virtuosity is blinding. He may have been the most virtuosic of all 20th-Century pianists. The evenness of his runs in the opening movement of the Children’s Corner Suite, for example, is jaw-dropping. The power and control (and subtlety) he brings to the first movement of Images I are dumbfounding.

Michelangeli was much more than a virtuoso, however. He was also a great colorist, summoning an unparalleled array of color and texture and voicing from the keyboard. He had no rival in creating a unique and unlimited sound world from an instrument that, in other hands, sounds monochrome by comparison. Only Gieseking, another great Debussy pianist, had a comparable command and range of keyboard color.

Debussy was the most original of composers, especially in his writing for the keyboard. Debussy was so original that it was difficult for other composers to borrow from him. Other than his use of the whole-tone scale, borrowed by everyone from Scriabin to Puccini to Bartok, and his use of modal writing, borrowed by English composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Debussy’s music is so original that it does not easily lend itself to theft. Debussy’s harmonies are so unique, so “Debussian”—parallel chords, ninth chords, thirteenth chords, unprepared harmonic shifts—that no one else has been able to make use of these harmonic devices in a satisfactory, individual way (Karol Szymanowski probably came closest).

Drawing harmonic inspiration from Cesar Franck, an inspiration for exotic sounds from Jules Massenet, and an inspiration for clarity and brevity of expression from Emmanuel Chabrier, Debussy broke French music free from German hegemony and influence. French music has never been the same ever since.

Much as I love most Debussy orchestral works, I have always believed that Debussy wrote his very greatest music for the piano. Both sets of Images, along with the Preludes and the Etudes, are the very heart of his compositional output. In these works, Debussy changed piano writing forever, abandoning the Mozart-Haydn model on which most 19th-Century keyboard music was based, in favor of something new, different and wholly original. I could listen—and have listened—to Debussy’s mature piano music for hours on end.

The Michelangeli Debussy disc is one of those recordings that may be enjoyed repeatedly, if not endlessly, and never become stale. Josh loved his first encounters with this disc, and we played it again and again and again.

The Telarc disc contains Louis Vierne’s Organ Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, recorded on the Cavaille-Coll organ at the Abbey Church Of Saint Ouen in Rouen in Normandy.

Vierne, legally blind, was organist of the Cathedral Of Notre Dame in Paris for thirty-seven years. He died in 1937 at the Notre Dame organ’s keyboard at the conclusion of a recital, felled by a heart attack at age 67.

I have attended several Sunday afternoon organ recitals at the Cathedral Of Notre Dame, and at a recital I attended at Notre Dame in 2004 Vierne’s Organ Symphony No. 3 was programmed. Parisians must like the music of Vierne: the Cathedral was full that afternoon, and the audience applauded for eight minutes at the conclusion of the work.

That afternoon and evening were memorable for me. I remained at the Cathedral after that particular organ recital in order to attend the early evening Sunday Mass. During that service, either one of the thuribles malfunctioned or one of the altar participants got carried away and put too many hot coals into his thurible, causing the incense to catch fire. Whatever the cause, the giant Cathedral filled with smoke, and the Mass had to be halted as half a dozen priests hurriedly tried to deal with all the smoke belching from the thurible. Finally, one of the priests removed the offending thurible from the Cathedral and the service continued, although worshippers were coughing themselves silly because smoke still filled the vast space.

Vierne is one of the central figures of French organ music, both as composer and performer. Vierne was a pupil of Franck and Charles Marie Widor. In turn, he taught Marcel Dupre, Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Durufle, Olivier Messiaen and Jean Langlais, among others. Several renowned specialists in organ music have written that Vierne was the most important composer of music for organ since Bach.

Myself, I do not hear greatness in Vierne’s music. Franck’s harmonies were more interesting than Vierne’s, and Franck’s music more profound. Widor had a greater melodic gift than Vierne, and Widor’s music has more overt energy and thrust. Vierne’s music, to me, operates at a much lower level of inspiration than that of his two teachers. It is well-crafted but bland, lacking memorability and genuine depth of expression.

I also believe that Vierne lacked an individual voice, always the sine qua non for a great composer. One may argue that Franck and Widor lacked individual voices, too, but those two composers were paragons of individuality compared to Vierne. For me, a little of Vierne’s music goes a long way.

Organists appreciate Vierne’s music because it is so well-written for the instrument, but the musical public outside of France seems never to have exhibited much interest in Vierne’s music. All glowing assessments of Vierne’s music I have come across were written by fellow organists.

I suppose the performances on this disc are exemplary, because Michael Murray was a student of Dupre. Murray has always struck me as an extrovert, even flashy, musician—totally at sea in the music of Bach, for instance—but there are no signs of undue flashiness on Murray’s part on the Telarc disc. These are serious performances of serious music.

It is the music itself that does not maintain my attention. About seven minutes into each Vierne work, my interest starts to wane.

My mother thinks somewhat more highly of Vierne’s music than I do, but Vierne is hardly one of her favorite composers. For Josh, the beautiful organ sonorities were nice for a few minutes, after which he lost all interest in the music. Repeated listening did not make the music more attractive or meaningful for him.

“Paris 1920” is one of the discs Semyon Bychkov recorded during his unsuccessful tenure with the Orchestre De Paris. The disc is comprised of scores to two ballets, Francis Poulenc’s “Les Biches” (the popular suite from the ballet, not the complete ballet score) and Darius Milhaud’s “Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit”, to which Arthur Honegger’s Mouvement Symphonique No. 1, “Pacific 231”, is tacked on as a makeweight.

These scores are delightful, but the performances are not. The orchestral playing is not good—the ensemble “swims”—and the sound quality of the Orchestre De Paris is not pleasing. Further, Bychkov has no feel for this repertory. Just about every performance and every recording of these works I have encountered have been much, much better than the indifferent, unstylish, uninflected performances offered here.

For persons familiar with this repertory, the disc is a waste of time.