PLAYLIST Week 1, 2014

Great recordings of masterpieces from the romantic era. All highly recommended, especially the upcoming Harmonia Mundi releases:


Playlist, Research Edition

Something on my mind that has come from listening to these, and listening to these has put something in my mind. That and my endless, sub rosa obsession with Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 7:

The Dude Ambles By

John Adams, *City Noir,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustav Mahler, *Symphony No. 9,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall:

  • March 27, 2013; John Adams, The Gostpel According to the Other Mary
  • March 28, 2013; Claude Vivier, Zipangu, Claude Debussy, La Mer, Igor Stravinsky, The Firebird

It’s not that I believed the hype about Gustavo Dudamel, it’s that I figured that anyone who had gone so far, so fast, had some real promise, some unpolished talent that the LA Philharmonic saw and wanted to have for themselves as it grew, like what the Washington Nationals see in Bryce Harper. Harper was spectacular at times during his rookie season, and less than ordinary at other times, but the former meant that there might be more often in the future. I assumed that was the case with Dudamel, and now that I’ve heard him on a handful of recordings and seen him lead the LA Phil at Lincoln Center in an intriguing program of Stravinsky, Debussy, CLaude Vivier and John Adams, I realize that, as the saying goes, I’ve made an ass of myself.

VLA 10049 byMathewImaging 12965Dudamel’s new Mahler 9 recording is superficial and schematic. He handles the musical traffic skillfully and the LA Phil is playing at a high technical level, but those qualities amount to watching a machine run, the music-making doesn’t seem to have any particular ideas or to be done for a particular reason, other than habit. The opening bars are perfunctory, there is no musical statement made with the stumbling rhythm, no tension, and so the two-note descending string line, which is a musical manifestation of the exhalation of acceptance that begins life’s final journey, is totally flat — it’s one of the key moments of the symphony! After that, there’s no feeling that one phrase leads to another, that the point of Mahler’s writing out the notes was to get the musicians to go from the beginning to the end. Everything is episodic, with one phrase and section clipped to the next. Mahler organized the work, but Dudamel seems to find it arbitrary. I have no idea what he thinks about the music, intellectually or emotionally, because he doesn’t lead it as if he was thinking of anything.

This was a strength with *The Firebird* because it’s an episodic piece, the short sections juxtaposed for dramatic and narrative purpose, and so his ability to handle textures, dynamics and rhythms is important. The audience broke into spontaneous and deserved applause after a breathtaking “Infernal Dance.” *The Firebird* almost plays itself, though. *La Mer* doesn’t, and this was the first performance of this beautiful, profound, involving masterpiece I had ever heard that was so … indifferent. Conductors like Charles Dutoit, Michael Tilson Thomas and David Robertson give you their understanding of the music’s colors, drama and important structural innovations, but Dudamel offered no ideas. It was pleasant enough in a boring way and completely forgettable and meaningless.

For the afficianando, the draw of this program was Claude Vivier’s *Zipangu*. Vivier’s music seems to be undergoing a slow and very welcome rediscovery, in no small part due to the promotion of his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. He was a pioneer of the spectral movement and easily the most accessible and powerful proponent of the style, fixing magical sonorities to gracefully strong structures. Vivier wasn’t just exploring the possibilites of microtones and diaphanous harmonies, but expressing ideas through them. Dudamel marked each moment of the piece with an excessively vertical attention, getting the notes write and missing the point that they existed in the context of others. The latter pieces confirmed to me the impression this opening work left, which is that he is didactically focussed on making sure each moment is technically right and has no idea why each moment matters.

It’s a sad change from the Salonen years. Under him, the LA Philharmonic was frequently a rough ensemble, but they played with ideas and a tremendous commitment. There was a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 that almost set my hair on fire, and while that may not be every person’s idea of how the music should go, it was an idea, it was something! The excessive palaver of the Dudamel style turns art into baubles for the bourgeoisie to collect as signifiers of their cultural prestige. It’s awful.

His lack of personal art leaves me at a loss to judge the qualities of John Adams’ *The Gospel According to the Other Mary*. It’s an Easter companion to his brilliant Christmas oratorio, *El Nino*, and not nearly as accomplished. The libretto, put together with Peter Sellars, is ungainly and drives the structure, which has a first half malformed by an endless scene involving Lazarus’ death and resurrection. Once that passes, everything starts to move. But nothing much moves for the character of Mary Magdalene, who steadily laments and regrets throughout, and at times the music goes for effect rather than meaning, eviscerating Adams’ strength as a composer. Taken together with his awful copy and paste pastiche of Beethoven, *Absolute Jest*, I think he is cursed with being too busy as a composer, and is taking shortcuts. But perhaps there is more to the music than Dudamel can give it, which I feel is also true for *City Noir*, which does everything that Adams does well: it’s smart, irreverent, sincere and even a little hip, but the one performance available is unfulfilling.

Dudamel has a jejune touch, and it effects the music he leads. Considering the clamor that greets him when he steps out onto stage, the yelling and cheering, and that he’s got a long contract, that seems to be what audiences and trustees want. It’s classical music as upper-class lifestyle accessory, and that’s nothing new of course. Nonetheless, I hate it.

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Links and Kinks

The miscellany of the intertubes … my post on Mahler brought up a ping-back that led me to this good article on Mahler’s orchestration … quite often, the web is like high school, full of people who’s experience and thinking are limited, and since they can’t see beyond the walls of their own enclosure, they live in smug assurance of their own superior taste and intellect. Exhibit the Nth, this boor from Toronto who feels Asian musicians have removed the ‘oomph’ that he expects from … The Messiah? Audiences like this are the ones who give classical music a bad name … I am sympathetic to the sentiment at Pentimento, but I disagree with the root problem. Culture is not a zero-sum game, and there is nothing wrong with emphasizing what is personally indigenous: everyone could use Beethoven, but if Americans truly cared about their culture they would study Sun Ra. The problem is that everything is a commodity, everything is a market, everything has a price and nothing has a value. One important political party wishes to dismantle society and leave everyone on their own, so of course they don’t want to invest any money in education, and the other is in thrall to the most material measures of mechanical achievement, which might be fine metrics for robots but have nothing do with humanity …  I was curious about The New Inquiry after this mildly ridiculous New York Times article, and now I think that it demonstrates problems with undergraduate education at some of our more clubby universities … and I never tire (well, maybe I do), of wondering why good musicians usually have fine taste in books, while good writers usually have mediocre and behind-the-trends taste in music; Vampire Weekend? Death Cab for Cutie? At least there’s Murakami.

The Year in Mahler

After a particularly generous sesquicentennial of Mahler’s birth last year, with essential collections and vital new thinking about the composer, this has been a relatively subdued centennial of the composer’s death. David Zinman’s solid, beautifully played and recorded but slightly anodyne cycle concluded with a strong Symphony No. 10, and Valery Gergiev finished up his dynamic live cycle in typically breathtaking, powerful and slightly uneven fashion with a Symphony No. 9 that is a little rough in the transitions that are so important to the piece, but fabulous in the extended developments and dance movements. There was also the appearance of curious new cycles from Somtow Sucharitkul and the Siam Philharmonic and Emil Tabakov and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s this, and some influence of age, time and fatherhood that has me less rabid, as a rabid Mahlerian , to hear and collect every new recording that comes out. It’s also a somewhat regrettable challenge to the impetus to take the plunge and shell out for the Mahler Discography.

The important new Mahler recording of 2011 was Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in a live Symphony No. 5, digitally released on their in-house media label. It’s well-played and generally effective without being particularly noteworthy or memorable. Nézet-Séguin lets the music flow but doesn’t seem to have many thoughts about the large scale architecture that is vital in the piece, and his “Adagietto” is almost ridiculously slow. What makes this recording important is that the Orchestra itself is in the process of being destroyed by its Board, much the same way that Mitt Romney destroyed companies and threw workers out of jobs in order to reap a high return on his investment. Perhaps this will be a successful blow for the musicians, proving the point that they are the most important parts of the organization and deserve their rewards. I mean, who would you rather see in the concertmaster’s seat, a violinist or a lawyer? And who adds more to society?

In the Mahler discography, the big events this year were archival. There was  a surprisingly solid and consistent live Symphony No. 8 from Klaus Tennstedt (who I frequently find both brilliant and weird in equal measures in the same piece), and a truly great Symphony No. 2, again in concert, led by the underrated William Steinberg. Testament released a live Das Lied von der Erde with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Berlin Philharmonic. This concert is from the same era that brought their exceptional studio recording on DG, the single most beautifully played Das Lied, and this live disc augments that with intense singing and expression from Brigitte Fassbaender and Francisco Araiza. There was also an invaluable document as well, the three CD set, also from Testament, that illuminates the endeavor of constructing and finishing Mahler’s final work, the Symphony No. 10.

When Mahler died, the first and third movements of the work had been essentially finished, although in what was draft form (Mahler’s process included revisions up to and through rehearsals for performance). The first movement is frequently performed, the third less so. Musicologist Deryck Cooke undertook the assembly of of the complete work — in some sense the symphony was complete, in that all the bars were laid out, but not all the inner material had been notated in detail, and the orchestration was far from finished. Cooke made the first performing edition (which he later revised, and which has been joined by four others). As he neared completion of the endeavor, the BBC agreed to broadcast the work, and an incomplete version was played live on the radio, with Cooke introducing sections of the music, and the orchestral performance was preceded by Cooke discussing the music, his work, and illustrating it at the piano (transcript available here). When finished, the symphony had its premiere performance in 1964. This set collects all three of these events, and is deeply fascinating and illuminating. Despite what one may think of the task of completion, it is invaluable to hear Cooke’s reasoning, it’s a way to know more about Mahler. The premiere performance is also quite good and exciting, not on the level of Rattle, Ormandy or Gielen but, in this context, essential for any Mahlerian.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2, 'Resurrection', William Steinberg, Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie, et. al.

This recording dates from  pivotal time in the long and ongoing Mahler revival. It’s a concert performance, dated September 10, 1965, at which time Leonard Bernstein was near the end of producing his first recorded Mahler cycle, a project that was essential in boosting the composer’s popularity.

Steinberg was never the public star that Bernstein was, although he does have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He had important tenures with the top shelf of regional American orchestras, like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and San Francisco. He was also of an era, born in 1899, that knew Mahler’s music either first-hand via playing in orchestra’s the composer conducted, or through collaborating with musicians who, themselves, played under Mahler.

Star conductors are great musicians, of course, but non-star conductors who work productively for decades are also great musicians too. This excellent performance is a testament to that. The orchestra is fine but not flawless, the singers – Stefania Woytowicz is the soprano and Anny Delorie is the contralto – are colorful but perhaps a little weird, but the music-making is gripping and thrilling throughout. Cologne was Steinberg’s hometown, which may mean a lot for the music, or nothing at all. We’ve had decades to examine Mahler interpretation closely, and that means many more opportunities to indulge in mannerism. Steinberg’s account is so flowing and unforced, and taken into conjunction with other contemporaneous accounts, it says something interesting about an unselfconscious style in Mahler; like Klemperer, the Allegro maestoso movement is fast (this is a single disc recording), while the great scherzo seems, after hearing dozens of other, more recent discs, strangely slow. But it all works beautifully. This is one of Mahler’s great horizontal constructions, the flow of time from beginning to end is paramount, especially through eighty or so minutes, and the polyphony that snakes and entwines around the central line must be full of import and emotional weight yet not heavy. Steinberg makes this so. This is a performance that focuses attention from the very start, is full of excitement and beauty and comes to a marvelous and maturely measured conclusion. A real find for Mahler discography.