I am on a roll as far as not getting thrown out of concert halls is concerned. (Has anyone ever been? I have never seen a concertgoer forcibly ejected from a venue, but the venues I frequent tend to be fairly staid – perhaps if I attended more song recitals in rough areas of Jersey there might be more action. You know, like in Blues Brothers where the band is behind chicken wire because the audience yells and throws beer bottles until they hear something they like. “Heidenröslein! Heeeiiidenröööööösleeeeeiin!”)
Sometimes I wonder if chamber music isn’t a bit like art songs – it loses its force a bit when performed in a large concert hall (as opposed to a little space where the piano makes your molars vibrate). I usually wonder this at the beginning of chamber music concerts and have entirely forgotten about it by the end, which is what happened yesterday.
There were three works on the program, the last of which, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, I missed bits of because I started thinking about the fact that I would have to move my car so as not to fall afoul of the street cleaners the next morning, and got into a bit of GOD DAMN FUCKING CAR I HATE THAT CAR mode that was difficult to snap myself out of. But the first two pieces, Mozart’s violin sonata in B-Flat major K. 378 and Beethoven’s piano trio Op. 70, no. 2, had my entire attention the whole time. Particularly the pianist, Juho Pohjonen, who was really something extraordinary. My note taking skills fail me a bit on details here – I remember the little flashes of the “trout” theme in the Andantino of the Schubert, for example, and the dialogue with the violin in the Mozart, and – well, all of the Beethoven; more of that in a minute. Anyhow, that guy can play that piano. He doesn’t have any albums out yet that I could find, but I suspect he will soon.
One thing I particularly enjoyed about the first half of the program is how the first piece set up the second. The Mozart, performed by Erin Keefe on violin and the aforementioned Juho Pohjonen was light and engaging, particularly the last two movements – it was a good preparation for the Beethoven trio, which was much heavier and richer. With this one, you really got a sense of how a trio of musicians can fit together as precisely as puzzle pieces, even though the puzzle is constantly moving. The rapport among this ensemble was excellent. The music seemed to be anchored by the piano and cello (Jakob Koranyi), though the violinist (Paul Huang), was no slouch either. I particularly enjoyed the little key shifts at the end of the second movement.
Also, have you ever noticed how sometimes some really weird shit goes down in Beethoven’s chamber music? It’s like:
Sonata: [operates within normal classical-period specifications]
Sonata: [operates within normal classical-period specifications]
Listener: [Beethoven!!] [mind wanders for an instant as someone unwraps a cough drop]
Sonata: [checks over shoulder to see if anyone is watching and then bolts for modernity, skids around corner, kicking up a shower of key changes]
Listener: What the –
Sonata: [operates within normal classical-period specifications]
Listener: You were –
Sonata: No I wasn’t. Here, have a cadenza.
1. When the director explains that there is no “concept” and then proceeds to explain the concept, which is basically a literal depiction that would have been recognizable to the opera’s initial audience: NOT HAVING A “CONCEPT” IS STILL A CONCEPT. You can’t perform something without interpreting it. That’s not how it works. I suppose here we are operating on that dangerous knife’s edge between concept and “concept.” Or concept and “concept” and Konzept.*
2. You know the libretto is bad when those in charge freely admit that a) they had to re-write bits of it so as to avoid confusing the audience and b) the cast routinely cuts up over the dialogue during rehearsals and have to work very hard to keep it together.
3. That said, I find that I don’t mind a certain amount of yelling in German in my operas.
4. This is off topic, but why does Florinda faint so much? Once when she gets into the tower and I think there’s another point when someone says “consciousness has left her” or something like that. Maybe that palace has some kind of carbon monoxide problem. Or maybe the librettist figured that since she goes around yelling (in German) and brandishing a weapon and at one point it’s even implied that she took out a guard getting into that tower, it would be best to reassure the (original 19th century) audience that she doesn’t do this sort of thing all the time.
5. I think I’ve had it with Schubert operas for a while. Dude was not cut out to be an opera composer. The music is great, but it keeps getting dragged underwater and getting the shit kicked out of it by the plot.
*It’s a Regie knife. It has the sort of edge that three things can balance between. Among. Whatever.
Hearing 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?
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.
I ended up with this by accident, in the way that sometimes you go to a used record/CD store in New Jersey and you end up with things because, well, they are there and they are cheap and you have money.
I am supposed to be working on my next book this summer. (The first is still in process, and despite the whole contract thing, I am terrified that the press is going to change its mind and spit it back in my face. But never mind about that right now.) But obviously if one is going to spend the morning playing with library catalogs, one needs music. I was thinking about the chamber concert I heard a few weeks ago which included Schubert’s second piano trio, so I picked this:
The first movement is a little slower than the recording I have (Kungsbacka Piano Trio on Naxos), but I like how the phrases get stretched out when the cello has its solo moments in the first movement, and the tempo brings out the detail beautifully in the second.
This concert was supposed to have happened back in February, but had to be postponed due to heavy snow in New York. It was certainly worth the wait, although one of those things that tends to happen around here happened: the programs printed up for February were supposed to have been saved for today, but somewhere along the line there was a miscommunication and they all got recycled. We are very good at that kind of thing here. (Fuckups, not recycling.)
Is it just me or do CDs from the 80s and early 90s have a slightly tinny sound? I had this experience with a Schubert recording by the Alban Berg Quartet (“Death and the Maiden” and Rosamunde quartets) and again just now with Schubert’s Octet which I hadn’t listened to in ages.
In the case of the Alban Berg Quartet, though, the performance is worth the slightly weird sound (if indeed it is a quality of the recording and I am not just imagining it).
I should offer a caveat going into this description: I slept only four hours the previous two nights, and as a result I fell asleep for a little bit of Part I. But I got the gist.
This both is and isn’t an oratorio by Franz Schubert. Schubert did begin an oratorio called Lazarus, but he didn’t finish it. The score breaks off as Mary and Martha are mourning their dead brother Lazarus – it ends on the word “and” halfway through a phrase. So, what the collaborators on this project (more information here) did was to weave together some other bits of music by Schubert and – wait for it – Charles Ives to finish the story. The director of this interesting operation is Claus Guth. Like many things Guth related, it makes more sense than it sounds like it would if you merely hear it described.
These are the songs and the Program Notes that I sent to my mom as per earlier discussion. WordPress is being weird for some reason about displaying the player widget for the ones that are m4a and not wav files, but I think they all work. I also managed to include one very authentic Liederabend moment: before the Wolf song begins there is great hacking and wheezing from the audience.
Here is Anja Harteros singing Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” This interpretation sounds unusually (and not unpleasantly) spacious to me, probably because the version of this song that I first absorbed was much more of an “anguished Gretchen! anguished!” sort of vibe.
Nature is sometimes more fun in oratorio form than it is in real life, isn’t it? Having enjoyed Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten the other day, I came home after being away for a week to find a spider in my sink the size of a silver dollar and a dead cat in my back yard.
My modus operandi with music – and a lot of other things, I guess – is to hear something, get obsessed with it and listen to it over and over again until everyone I talk to is heartily sick of hearing about it. The thing I have been obsessed with the last week or two is this recording, or rather compilation of parts of other recordings, of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Schubert, Schumann and Strauss songs.
It has been an interesting week around here. There was a tornado warning Wednesday night, which meant that I spent about 45 minutes curled up in the bathtub reading a book about the early republic. (There was no water in the tub. It was just me, in pajamas, with the bathmat for comfort, and my book and my phone and a flashlight in case the power went out. If you live, as I do, in a house without a basement, the safest place to be in a tornado is an interior room, like a bathroom – and tubs are good because the shell of the tub/shower can protect you from debris.) It was quite a howling storm – one of those evenings where it’s weirdly warm beforehand, and the air is moving in big gusts with pockets of stillness in between, so you know that something is up, meteorologically speaking – and pretty soon it is clear what that something is. A great big shingle-ripping rainstorm that threatens to get mean and swirly. (Opera moment, sort of: my other half, who is up on Long Island, was watching the weather on the internet for me, since my internet always goes out in storms, and was telling me over the phone that there was this thing on the map called a “meso-cyclone” which apparently is a sort of proto-tornado. Except I was hearing “mezzo-cyclone” and thinking “a half-cyclone? what the hell is that?” And then I got laughed at.)
I woke up at four-thirty yesterday morning and could not go back to sleep. It happens sometimes. Normally I can teach and work adequately on four hours of sleep, although I tend to get a little punchy and silly by mid-afternoon. (Fortunately, I teach in the morning. Also fortunately, I have the sort of job where if you feel like shutting your office door and curling up on the floor for a nap mid-afternoon, no one objects.)
I have been listening to some of Schubert’s string quartets over the last few days – more cheap but high quality recordings from the lovely people at Naxos. In this case, the Kodály Quartet playing his String Quartet No. 15 (D887) and a different CD on which they perform D112, 18 and 46 (I love catalog numbers! I remember being very pleased as a young person finally figuring out what BWV stood for. Small triumphs, you know?).
Because I am nothing if not thorough, I listened to “Shilric and Vinvela,” D293. Here are Roman Trekel and Ruth Ziesak singing it:
What goes on in this song is as follows. Vinvela describes her lover, Shilric, who is a ‘son of the hills’ and a skilled hunter. She says that she will behold him unseen from a high rock, just as she first caught sight of him – the best looking among all his friends. Shilric hears this ‘voice like a summer wind’ and laments that he has left and sees her no more. ‘Then thou art gone!’ Vinvela replies. ‘I am alone on the hill.’ Shilric asks Vinvela to remember him and raise him a tomb. (It is as confusing as it sounds. Possibly the conventions of being in one place and not in another operated differently in the misty Gaelic past.) Vinvela promises that she will. They both seem certain that Shilric will die.
As we know, Vinvela ultimately gets the jump on Shilric as far as dying goes. But leave that aside for now. I am still figuring out what if anything I think about this song, and I think the way to go about this is to describe it.
It is in the form of a dialogue. This is a conversation, not a duet, which is significant. It is a series of little recits and mini-arias. Shilric and Vinvela’s voices never touch one another. Schubert could have written this so that the lines of the two speakers overlay one another, but he didn’t. Shilric and Vinvela might well be already apart, as the text suggests. In addition, there is often (if I am hearing this right) a key change when the text changes speakers, e.g. at 3.30 and 6.30. Musically as well as dramatically, the doomed lovers are in different places. These two are communicating with one another, just not in a way that allows them to be in the same place at the same time.
I suppose the argument, then, is that fate’s decree that poor Shilric and Vinvela will never experience a real duet (so to speak) is built into Schubert’s music. Whether this makes you care about Shilric and Vinvela or not is a separate question.
(Part one of this review, including a summary of the story, is here.)
Listening to this was a strange experience. I got absorbed in it, but I’m not sure it is something I would necessarily return to over and over again.
The orchestral music is recognizably Schubert’s, and it’s often very fun. Here is the introduction. This is a live recording from Berlin in 2005, which I have because . . .well, the audio clips further along will probably make it obvious why. Anyhow. There is something about the way the thing moves that made me think of this recording of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri, but I think this is because Harnoncourt is conducting in both cases. Or possibly I am imagining it.