In which German art songs converse with the introduction to a book about Puritanism; Or, Sometimes Music Is A Distraction from Work

Lied: Guten Tag! Ich bin ein art song.

Puritanism: Are you a psalm?

L: Nein.

P: Would you please speak English. Or, alternately, Latin.

L: Ich bin kein Psalm.

P: I conclude from your strange behavior and stretchy meter that you are not a psalm. You should therefore not be sung, because you will lure the weak from the path of righteousness.

L: Ist that path of righteousness in the forest? Because I do like the forest.

P: I see you are speaking English now. Very good.

L: Ich am not sprechend the English; it is simply easier for us to have this conversation if what I say is rendered in your bizarre Frenchified version of Deutsch.

P: So how does this work precisely? Also, I take exception to “Frenchified.”

L: Do you want to go for a walk in the forest? There is a Bächlein – I hear the rauschending is good this week. And some birds.

P: I think perhaps we should discuss clerical vestments, and how I prefer not to wear them.

L: Because it tears at your soul, and draws you you know not where?

P: [brief pause] Well, actually, kind of, yes.

L: I think someone needs to go listen to the Bächlein.

Weekend Bootleg

I spent part of yesterday listening to an “unofficial” recording of the concert version of Alcina that I heard last fall in New York. This was a different performance – I know this not because I have the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory, but because the horn flub in “Sta nell’Ircana” was a slightly different sort of flub – but it had the same strengths as the performance that I saw. I’m pretty sure this was recorded on someone’s phone because of how the applause sounds (claps are right there by the microphone). It’s striking how differently a microphone and a human set of ears pick up sound in an auditorium, even when placed at pretty much the same spot – the voices sound echoey and a little distorted, like the sound is being pulled at the edges, and the loudest moments push the boundaries of the mike. The orchestra, oddly enough, sounds much more natural. The whole thing left me wishing they’d collect all these people in a studio and make a recording (or that there would be an official one of one of the live performances!) but I am not holding my breath. Also that Apple or Samsung or whoever made the phone that I am assuming is the source of this thing needs to step up their game, microphone wise, if they want to be The Phone that opera maniacs use to surreptitiously use to record concerts. Imagine if your iPhone 6 came with a little opera app that was of course solely for the use of recording private opera performances in your home?

I guess the problem is that phones generally have line-out jacks for headphones, but not a line-in that you could hook a small but better quality microphone to, unless the charger/USB plug could be used for such purposes – data can clearly travel along it to the phone, after all. I’m thinking one could just tuck the phone into top of one’s shirt, or a blazer pocket or something, wear a big scarf and have the microphone poking out somewhere. Provided one didn’t move too much, it might work.

We can add this idea to the list of Ways You Can Get Banned From Carnegie Hall. I think it comes right after You Saw The Ricola Dispensers And Started Filling Up Your Bag By the Handful and You Rushed The Stage During Natalie Dessay’s Encore.

More Lohengrin

I spent a few hours this morning watching Richard Jones’s production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Bayerische Staatsoper, with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and Anja Harteros as Elsa. I am not sure that even this production, which was a worthwhile concept performed well, has brought me around to this opera. In part, this was because I was watching it with le spouse, who started laughing and snorting coffee when Mr. Kaufmann came in cradling that animatronic-ish swan and who proceeded to sit there and nitpick the logic of the entire thing and then went and sat on the other side of the room reading a treatise about thermodynamics and enjoying the music.

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Deep thoughts about Wagner’s Lohengrin

vlcsnap-00012Led by some excerpts on one of Karita Mattila’s recital CDs and one too many evenings with Tristan und Isolde, I watched a 1980s Met production of Lohengrin because it was the only one that the library has. The hair was a little big for my taste, but at least I know what the whole thing sounds like now.

By the end of this opera, both the women are either dead or banished and the Duchy of Brabant is in the mature hands of a twelve-year-old kid. Order has been restored, I guess. Then again – perhaps this is just me – when I am told that the opera takes place in Belgium, something in me knows from the get-go that this is probably not going to turn out well. (The scene is given as Antwerp, which is in modern-day Belgium, but the medieval Duchy of Brabant if I remember correctly included areas that are now part of the Netherlands).

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Monday Lieder Interlude

I was listening to Frau R’s Portraits CD this afternoon. It made me think of the first recital recording of hers I heard – by the end, the intensity of it left me with a pleasant feeling of exhaustion. This recording has the same quality; you get to the end with an awareness of the distance you traveled between the Schubert songs and the Wolf and Strauss. Also, those few bars in “Gretchen am Spinnrade” at about 1.30 (“sein hoher Gang . . .”) where she and Martineau draw out the tempo just a little with the growing drama in the text are one of the best moments in this. I think my colleagues can hear my music through the office walls – I know I can hear theirs sometimes – so my colleague who likes indie rock and alt-country was subjected to about ten minutes of Gretchen on a loop, for which I absolutely refuse to apologize.

vlcsnap-00010And thanks to my mom, a massive box of Haydn string quartets turned up on my doorstep yesterday, along with a toy for Finn. So Finn chewed on his new ball and I listened to Haydn, which for all practical purposes I can do indefinitely; this is probably a good thing, because Haydn wrote 19 CDs worth of string quartets and I haven’t been in the mood for sitting down and listening to much opera lately. This is indicated by the fact that I watched the Decker production of Verdi’s Otello last weekend, and my sole critical reaction was that it seems that Venice was populated primarily by Lord and Lady Whiteadder.

Mozart at the Stavovske divadlo (Estates Theater)

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/5ac/30104774/files/2014/12/img_0695.jpg This is the theater where two of Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito premiered. These happen to be two of my favorite operas, so naturally I had to take a look.

The interior of the theater feels – I think petite is the right word. The stairs and hallways for each level aren’t grand or sweeping, but there little mirrors and teal blue velvet seats tucked into little corners, and a rather charming snack bar area sort of folded in halfway up. I don’t know how much the interior has been remodeled since the late 18th century; I can’t imagine it’s exactly the same. The auditorium itself is small, but it packs a wallop. I half wondered if they weren’t using amplification of some kind, but I don’t think so. Every instrument popped out, and some combination of stage and ceiling (I was up in the very top gallery) made some parts of the show surprisingly loud. There is a strip of the stage towards the front such that if a singer with a loud voice sings there at fullish volume, it’s enough to make you want them to dial it back a bit. The woman singing Marcellina had a big voice (she drowned out Susanna now and then during their duet in Act I) and at times she was a bit much for my eardrums. Same for the ensemble at the end of Act II. Isn’t that weird? I have rarely, if ever, been to an opera performance that was too loud for me, but this one was on the edge.

But the too-loud moments were few. The performance itself was visually rather drab (and some of the stage comedy, like Cherubino and the Count’s game of hide and seek in Act I, was rather clumsy) but musically unobjectionable-to-pretty-good. I found myself listening to the orchestra more than usual, because I was enjoying how it sounded. Not a Figaro to change your life – but I haven’t seen one of those in some time. And there was some fun with the supertitles in Act II. Someone rested an elbow on a button backstage or something, because during the part where Cherubino and the Countess are making googlly eyes at each other over the ribbon, and then the Count comes in, the supertitles started flashing by faster and faster until they’d finished the act before Cherubino was even in the closet. They came back in later. And whoever did the English translation was having a bit of an off day, to the extent that some of the little word plays and jokes failed to be funny, e.g. in Act IV when the Count is trying to entice “Susanna” away and she demurs that it’s dark, normally he says in English something like “we’re not going in there to read!” but here it was “We won’t read there!” which is not quite as effective.

That wasn’t really why I had come, either, of course. Listening to the orchestra during the overture, I couldn’t help but want to hear what, say, Clemenza sounds like in this space. It wouldn’t sound like it did way back in the eighteenth century, of course. Modern instruments and performance style for one thing, and modern ears and taste for another. But you kind of wonder, you know?

Big Clock

This is a 15th-century clock in the town square – it shows the time in three slightly different ways. I am told that on the hour, there’s a parade of little clockwork figures (apostles, etc. and medieval bogeymen like Death, Vanity, Turks and Jews). We kept missing the clock striking the hour, though, what with being distracted by trying various fried dough food items and inspecting the Jan Hus monument, which at the moment is surrounded by the backsides of a circle of food carts. There’s also a meridian marker across the pavement of the square, indicating how old Bohemian time was calculated (I think so, anyway. It has a label set into the ground next to it in which its purpose is explained in both Czech and Latin. The Latin I could cipher out with some effort.)


Also, phrase of the week, rendered here in English rather than Czech: “I don’t want to die like Tycho Brahe,” meaning “I have to pee” – Brahe died as a result of being too polite at a party. He didn’t want to get up before the host, and as a result suffered a burst bladder which got infected. He died five days later.

Verdi Surprise

I was supposed to be in Budapest this weekend, but we had an abrupt change of plans, so we ended up going to the opera instead. (What else you going to do on a Sunday night, right?) We saw Il Trovatore at the state opera. Good points: small opera house. I like small opera houses. You think you’re up in the Family Circle, but in terms of stage distance, you’re in the Grand Tier. The sound is more intimate, and in this case I was hearing individual members of the chorus, which was interesting. Bad points: rather unimaginative production, moving at times into awkward (at various points in the story large groups of people – soldiers, gypsies – have to funnel through small apertures, and it gets a bit awkward. Also, the chorus was doing this weird hand-waving thing during that famous anvil chorus, or whatever it is. And the guy singing the part of the Count de Luna had the most annoying voice – vibrato that was an entire step if it was anything, and a few weird little clicks and odd things in it too. But the tenor (Manrico) was pretty ok, and indeed at time seemed to be pulling things along by sheer force of will. And the woman singing Leonora had a voice that was nice, most of the time, although it took some arm-twisting on her part to make it hit the top notes. And I kept getting distracted by the supertitles. They were in both Czech and English, one on top of the other, and I kept trying to figure out what corresponded to what. I remember noticing the construction that means “the more [noun verbs], the more [different noun different verbs]” in English, and it seems that vocatives often end in an ‘o’ but I did have an opera to watch, after all.

And I just discovered that they’re doing Rusalka on the 26th, which I would have liked to hear, but we already had tickets for a different concert. I feel like I have not engineered this vacation with the sort of satisfactory precision that I have done with vacations past. On the other hand, we did have some fun in the pretty much empty museum of Czech baroque art the other day, and along with their beer, the Czechs make some top-notch potato chips. Also: this Christmas market thing, with glühwein and sweets and children – and a few adults – gleefully devouring fried dough products as big as their faces: I approve. We should have these at home. (It’s a bit like the State Fair, but there’s hot wine and it’s winter and you can have fun figuring out what the signs say: I know the words now for potato, hot wine, almonds and tea.)

Prague – Dvořák Museum

There is a small Dvořák museum here in a house that the composer never lived in, though based on where he did live, he would have walked past it a lot. I can now say that I have seen Dvořák’s wallet. And he was 178 cm tall as an adult.


Also, did you know that he was a trainspotter? Apparently he used to take walks to the train station every day to catch the number of the Vienna-Prague express train. One day he knew he would not be able to make it, so he sent Josef Suk instead. Suk used opera glasses, but he was not an experienced trainspotter, so he wrote down the wrong number.

That is the end of the story, at least as explained in the English-language bit of the display.

Prague – Lobkowicz Palace

This isn’t a picture of the palace; it’s a picture of the view from the outer wall of Prague’s castle (Pražský Hrad), which is more like a bunch of little castles and aristocratic houses and churches and cathedrals all connected together. The part of the castle that I visited today was the Lobkovický Palác. (And I have just learned that my keyboard is biased against Czech, because it will not allow me to put an accent mark over a y. I have to copy and paste. This strikes me as silly. I feel like we Anglophones ought to be as accomodating as possible to languages that mark things like pronunciation and emphasis, by way of apology.)


But the Lobkowics Palace is interesting, because this family were patrons of Haydn and Beethoven. (For those uninterested in music, they also have the largest surviving complete set of 17th-century Delft ware, which is on display in its entirety.) There is a room in the exhibits that has not only a few 17th century lutes that one Lobkowicz used to play, but an honest-to-god Gluck manuscript, a manuscript of Mozart’s orchestration of Handel’s Messiah with some of Mozart’s notes in, a performance copy of one of Beethoven’s symphony scores, and a few other things that I forget because one is not allowed to take photographs, and my brochure was (ahem) disposed of by le spouse, who was zealously preventing us from being bogged down by garbage. We did the lame touristy thing and got audio guides, and having listened through most of those in both English and German can confirm that the Lobkowicz family is also the owner of the world’s oldest loop recording of main theme of Smetana’s The Moldau.

Music for putting off packing

IMG_0542.JPG I have listened to Yuja Wang’s Transformations album twice today. I don’t listen to a lot of solo piano music, but hearing Mitsuko Uchida’s Schumann CD a while back made me think. That one I bought primarily for the hidden track at the end, but I ended up liking the rest of it a great deal. And I also kept hearing great things about Wang, which is how I ended up with Transformations.

I know nothing about piano performance, but she’s got the sort of technique where you occasionally wonder if she doesn’t have an extra pair of hands. You can hear all these interesting shapes and spaces in how she interprets the music – precise, but exciting. (These seem to be my go-to words when I like something: you can tell exactly what the performer is doing and why they are doing it. There is no gap between intention and execution, and the effect is: YES. THAT.)

Two of the pieces, the Scarlatti sonatas, I have heard before (I have Igor Kipnis playing them on the harpsichord, and Michael Pletnev on the piano). I absorbed the harpsichord versions of these first, and sometimes they sound like different pieces played on a modern piano. Here, they are little transitions between Stravinsky and Brahms, and then between Brahms and Ravel at the end. Not filler, though – just something that operates in a different mode from the modern material.

Dorothea Röschmann / Portraits

Dorothea_Ro_schmann_Portraits_Sony_Strauss_Schubert_Wolf_Cover_ArtHearing this recording was a little anti-climactic, in that with the exception of Schumann’s Op. 135 Mary Queen of Scots songs, I already had a sense of how Röschmann interprets this material. The recital moves forward through time, beginning with Schubert songs, then the Schumann, and Strauss and Wolf at the end. I was struck by the same things that I have been in the past with her performances – the way the mood shifts between sets of songs, as well as within songs themselves, and how every phrase has an interpretive role to play. Mary Stuart has a different quality of character than Gretchen or Mignon; and Röschmann gives the Strauss songs, especially “Die Nacht,” a kind of shimmering quality that is distinct from the other selections. I also found myself appreciating Malcolm Martineau’s piano playing, especially in Strauss’s “Schlechtes Wetter” and Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” where he does those repeating patterns in a more prickly sort of way than I often hear; throughout that song, his playing gives me that feeling of the piano part conversing with the vocal line: or maybe not conversing, exactly, but articulating parts of Gretchen’s character and what she is thinking that aren’t in the vocal part alone.

After I listened to this, I thought about the first recording of Röschmann’s I encountered, the Handel Nine German Arias one, and how at the time since I was expecting a more “early music” sound with less vibrato, I didn’t like it – but I realized years later that despite not having a reaction of immediate and overwhelming enthusiasm, I had unwittingly managed basically to memorize the thing, I had listened to it that often. Her voice has changed since then – high notes take more effort, and her intonation can be iffy up there (e.g. in live versions of “Schlechtes Wetter,” though not on this recording as far as I can tell) and I think the sound doesn’t have quite the same gloss as it did ten years ago, but that said, I can and do listen to her sing pretty much anything over and over. Not just the sound of her voice itself (she can still lay out those ringing, bell-like high notes, like in “Die Nacht” when she feels like it; and as I remember feeling when I heard her as the Countess that one time in L.A., there is a quality to the voice in general that just gets me every time) but all the little details of the interpretation too. I said once after hearing “Der König in Thule” in a recital that I wished I could ask her to do it again, because I was fairly sure there were bits of detail that I had missed – and hey, here it is! to repeat and absorb at leisure.

If I was in the business of making requests, I would ask her to do a CD just of Hugo Wolf songs – just for fun, you know?

Playing Catchup

This past week:

Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Met on the 25th. I had seen this opera only once before when I went to Moscow a few years ago, and I am far from having absorbed it – I notice the forays into waltz at appropriately bourgeois moments (I was reminded, oddly enough, of Baron von Ochs’s irritating waltz tune), and I kept getting pulled in by the woodwind writing at various points in the story/score, but I suspect I may have to find an audio only version of it and go through it a few more times before. My friend and opera buddy S (we went to Russia together, so she saw that Russian performance with me as well as this Met one) is dating a Russian and working away at learning the language; her verdict is that Eva-Maria von Westbroek’s (Katerina’s) Russian is not very good. I cannot comment on this myself, but the production, by Graham Vick, was a little edgier than what I’ve grown accustomed to at the Met recently. It gets at the story’s mix of tawdriness, real sadness and dark humor – there is something about lurid green lighting, astroturf, packs of insane blood-spattered wedding-dress wearing dancers and shabby living room sets that works for this story. Katerina and Sergei put the husband’s body in the trunk of a car rather than in the cellar, which is a bit odd both visually and logically, but this doesn’t really detract from the effect of the whole.

Had internet meltdown resulting in no streaming at home. (Apparently, using your phone to create a local wifi network at home has a data limit that is different, and much smaller, from one’s total cellular data limit – even if one has paid for unlimited data – and results in no more phone-created home wifi until next month. Just when I thought I had figured out a way to have internet and not have to set up an additional service/bill, T-Mobile lets me know that no, that will not work. Meanies.) This actually results in me listening to CDs or not-the-internet, which I suppose will do wonders for my dwindling powers of concentration. Always look on the bright side of life, etc. etc.

I am going to Prague this month and also Budapest for two days and I have no opera or other music tickets. I am not sure how this happened. I am also not sure what (if anything) to get.

Finally, I have been tantalizing myself by listening to fragments of Frau R’s new song recital CD, but not the whole thing yet because I have a work thing that I have to finish and I need some motivation. But as I have discovered via dog training, there is such a thing as a reward being too motivating. My dog will smell a freeze-dried liver treat and forget everything he’s learned and simply try a series of things in quick succession (shake hands, sit, lie down) in the hopes that one of these will be the thing I asked him to do and he will get the liver. In my case, I have trouble doing a good job on the work thing because I have severely downgraded my definition of “finish” in anticipation of German art songs. When my dog ceases to learn and simply starts assuming familiar postures in order to get the treat, I switch from freeze-dried liver to bits of apple.

What is the musical equivalent of bits of apple?

Sunday Symphonic Interlude

IMG_0541.JPG I have been on this thing lately where I have been re-ripping old recordings that I have on my computer at only 192 kbps (things I bought between about 2002 and 2005) and as I’ve been doing this I have been listening to the recordings, including this one of Schubert’s eighth and ninth symphonies.

I had forgotten how much I love Schubert’s ninth. I haven’t listened to it literally in years – there are parts of it that I waited for with anticipation (repeated horn solo bit in the first movement), and other aspects that I had forgotten about until I heard them again (large chunks of movements 3 and 4). Many of his songs have been in heavy rotation on my iPod and phone lately, and it’s amazing the contrast in scale between the two types of composition. It’s like hearing someone you are used to conversing with in one language suddenly speak to you in another, but without an accent.