Mozart

Recording of the Week: Kristian Bezuidenhout , Mozart: Keyboard Music Vols. 8 & 9

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Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano

This two disc set is the conclusion of Bezuidenhout’s series of recordings of Mozart on the fortepiano, all on Harmonia Mundi. Bezuidenhout has not recorded all of Mozart’s piano compositions, but the series amounts to a substantial body of music: the eighteen sonatas, concertos K. 453 and K. 482, a good helping of fantasies, rondos, variations, fragments, and more—ten discs altogether.

I am sorry to see this project come to an end, because there is nothing like these . Bezuidenhout is a great fortepiano player, he really understands what the different construction and string layout means for timbre and sustain, and has exceptional command of tone and color in all registers (one of the charms of the instrument is that the sound varies depending on how hight or low the pitch is). He is also a great Mozart player.

All these recordings show how much he understands the music,and how much one can do with it, but the opening of the first disc here is an ideal example: the Sonata in C Major, K. 545 (one of the most famous). In the opening sonata-allegro movement, Bezuidenhout ads wonderful ornaments and tiny improvisations whenever the theme is repeated, so organic and judicious that one both notices them and feels they were expressly composed by Mozart. In sequences, and during repeats as well, he is both expressive and judicious with rubato and, pauses, and explores free coordination between hands—you’ll hear this in the repeats as well.

In the Andante movements, Bezuidebhout captures the cantabile quality that is essential in Mozart, the sense that he was so often writing with a soprano, rather than an instrument, in his head.

Everything on here is superb: the Variations on “Dieu d’amour” is poised and moving; Sonata K. 279 has what I can only describe as an exceptional bourgeois quality, elegant and well-mannered, but full of humor; and the rarely heard Modulating Prelude in F-C, K. 624/626a is amazing, an outstanding composition given a bravura performance. Finish or start your fortepiano Mozart with this set, but do get it, unless you can’t bear the thought of not wanting to hear Mozart on the modern piano again.

Consumer Reports

Because it’s the time of year you should also spend some money on yourself, here’s another Consumer Reports …

Theodor Currentzis’ excellent, refreshing recording of Le Nozze di Figaro has a spot on my top classical recordings for 2014, and if that interests you at all, you should take a look at his next installment of his Da Ponte operas recording project, Cosí fan tutte. Like the previous release, you can get the CDs in a lovely, bound book, or pay more for an edition that includes Blu-Ray. The set is currently available at Presto Classical, but if you can wait until the domestic release date of 3 February, 2015, the best price is at Amazon.

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If you have a turntable, you can enjoy the vinyl reissue of a fine set of early Steve Reich pieces from Ensemble Avantgarde (best price right now is at ImportCDs). The program is Phase Patterns, Four Organs, Piano Phase, and three different performances of Pendulum Music. This is fascinating music that show Reich in transition to his most familar style, and Four Organs is an avant-garde masterpiece.

If you want to save your dollars for something really special, there are two substantial boxes of recordings from Sviatoslav Richter coming out early next year, The Complete Album Collection on Sony (18 CDs of Columbia Masterworks and RCA Victor live and studio recordings), and the Complete Decca, Philips and DG Recordings, 51 CDs. I don’t really need to say much about these; Richter is arguably the greatest pianist of the last century, and absolutely one of the greatest musical artists of the recording era. These are the kind of things that, if you are serious about music, you acquire, and cost doesn’t really matter.

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These are listed both at ImportCDs and Amazon, the former at much better prices, but it’s worth checking out the balance of price and speed you can find through AmazonUK. What you get there is a better price than US Amazon, pretty fast delivery, and the same pre-order guaranteee available domestically: if you pre-order, you get the lowest price that ever comes up by release date. I ordered my Boulez box that way, got a better price than even at ImportCDs, and it came in three days.

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The Mozart-ologue

Allan Clayton, Rod Gilfry, Philip Cutlip, photo by Carol Rosegg

(A review of New York City Opera’s Cosí fan tutte, and a dialogue with Olivia Giovetti)

Dear Olivia:

Now that I’ve seen New York City Opera’s new production of Cosí fan tutte, I’m caught up with you, and I’ve also quickly found myself in a similar position. I have a one-word takeaway: excellent.

We have a similar viewpoint about this and the other Da Ponte operas, and I come at mine as an opera composer (or at least that’s how I like to think of myself). In a musical tradition that has produced many true, enduring masterpieces, Mozart is the composer I always turn to for lessons in how to create music drama, he’s that essential. Not just to me, but to all of opera, which started off as a mature form under Monteverdi and then, weirdly, almost immediately entered a decadent phase as shallow entertainment produced by and for the wealthy fools of the Pre-Enlightenment .01%. Mozart not only revived the form but returned it to the integration of music and drama, and added an inherent humanity. The connection between what he put on stage and the philosophy of the Enlightenment is real and worth exploring, but what I personally love about his operas is that he put people on stage, not archetypes, and treats them with so much sympathetic imagination. <iframe class="alignright" [amazon_enhanced asin="0393313956" /]

I think more highly of Le Nozze di Figaro than you, in fact I think it’s perfect. The characters are real, what they think and feel speaks directly to all ages, and of course, the music is incredible, both in the moment and on the larger scale that integrates the arias, recitatives and ensembles into a structure that is always pushing at the tensions of the relationships and the plot, allowing the characters to speak for themselves and ultimately moving everything towards ultimate reconciliation and resolution. The problematic ones, for me, are Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte, and Joseph Kerman expresses my reservations best in his essential book, “Opera as Drama.” The problems comes from Da Ponte’s libretti, which leaves the Don-Leporello axis underdone in the former and hones everything to mechanical, inhumane perfection in the latter.

<iframe class="alignleft" [amazon_enhanced asin="0520246926" /]Cosí, Kerman thinks, is too perfect, leaving no space for the messy complexity of how we all actually think, feel and behave that would make the proceedings sympathetic. I have no problems with the music, which is fantastic, and I love the opera on record (it’s had some fabulous recordings, like Bohm’s and Jacobs‘). It’s on stage where it ends up being shiny and cold, and I’ve never seen a production that makes it live and breath. Until this one. Here is where I want to emphasize what I’ve said before, which is that the budget issues that City Opera has been struggling with are a blessing in disguise. When spectacle is economically impossible, all that’s left is drama, and when a 2,000 seat venue is unaffordable, then all that’s left is halls that are the perfect size to present that drama. Mozart is not grand and blustering, he’s intimate. Christopher Alden gets that and, with incredibly modest means, does so much. Through costume and setting, he sets the opera in bourgeois culture, with all it’s post-Marx, post-Freud psycho-sexual/eco-social hangups. Cosí is a very modern sex farce with a clear-eyed view of its characters. Mozart is not condemning them, he understand their sentimentality about themselves but doesn’t treat them sentimentally. If anything, he is saying that an artificial emphasis on chastity and sexual loyalty is not honest, loving intimacy. Philip Larkin wrote that “sexual intercourse began/in nineteen sixty-three,” and contemporary audiences suffer from the viewpoint that their passions and paraphilia are all new, that no one could have thought about this stuff before, much less done something about it. But Mozart and Da Ponte (himself something of a libertine) lived in an age when Casanova and de Sade were real presences.

What I’ve seen onstage in that past has been dizzy, ditzy and patronizing, a view of the opera as the frivolous production of an age that didn’t know any better. The couples are fools, Don Alfonso is a buffoon and Despina is effervescent. Our culture likes to think it is a legacy of the Enlightenment, but Romanticism has pulled us back into fervid and solipsistic sentimentality. Lay on structures of political and intellectual ideology, and we seemingly know more but see a hell of a lot less than Mozart and Da Ponte did. In City Opera’s Cosí, Alden takes advantage of our era’s smug viewpoint to show exactly where we came from and where we are. The key is his Despina, who here, instead of a flute of champagne, is a shot of bourbon.

Marie Lenormand as Despina, photo by Carol Rosegg

She appears as a slightly addled, homeless woman and will gladly, amorally, do anything for money. Through her lens, everything else is believable. A standout performance too by Marie Lenormand, in a consistently fine cast. This is always the fundamental strength of City Opera, performers who both sing the music and play the parts. That combination obviates the usual fussy comparisons of things like Allan Clayton’s Ferrando to Leopardo, and Sara Jakubiak and Jennifer Holloway to Ludwig and Schwartzkopf. Who cares? They, and Philip Cutlip as Guglielmo and the Rod Gilfry as a great, funny, sinister, altogether real Don Alfonso, made the drama onstage work, and made it sound great, and that’s the bottom line.

Alden really has the courage of his convictions too, which is rare and admirable. At the resolution, which is musical but not social, the couples look like they’ve been through a car wash in a convertible with the top down. They are exhausted by what they’ve discovered within themselves, which is that they’re not as pretty as they imagined. Instead, they are people like you and I, doing their best, imperfect, causing pain to those they care about but able to accept and forgive and still live and love. That’s real drama.

Jordi Savall, La Capella Reial De Catalunya, Le Concert Des Nations: Mozart, Requiem

[amazon_enhanced asin=”B004DY5B2Q” /]Jordi Savall is one of the leading music-makers of any kind in all the world. The range of his accomplishments is beyond those of mere mortals; a virtuosic, improvising gamba player, a conductor, musicologist and impressario, everything he does balances ambition and accomplishment, intellectual investigation and simple pleasure. His musical values come together in this remastered and repackaged recording (originally from 1991) of the Mozart Requiem, along with the short Maurerische Trauermusik K477.

Playing classical music on period instruments is no longer a novelty or a specialty. Well into the second generation of the style, as exemplified by the likes of Savall and Rene Jacobs, it has gone past didacticism into what is the most humane way to make music. The ensembles are small in scale and in sound, and even such details as hearing, in greater detail than with modern instruments, the yard head of a drum stick striking the skin of the timpani adds a human touch. It is the sound of people, rather than ideas. Savall is a master of this.

He has a ringer in his wife, Montserrate Figueras, one of the most unique singers around, in any genre. She combines technical finesse with an astonishingly earthy, even eerie, sound, and takes Mozart out of the realm of the esoteric. Requiem masses are for the living, and Savall’s version is just that. It is not grandiose but dignified, it is not anguished but quietly restless, not tragic but clear-eyed. There are certain technical things he does that are wonderful; a gorgeous blend of vocal and instrumental choirs, a properly and thrillingly swift tempo in the “Dies Irae,” clearly pointed rhythms in the “Rex Tremendae” that are almost menuet-like, and a consistently moving way with shaping phrases. But the most important thing he does is really unquantifiable, except in the ears and the heart. He has the musicians play this music with a narrative line that I have never heard, and always wanted to hear. It is the tale of death, grief, wonderment and an acceptance that offers that resignation is possible, but resolution is better. It is the comfort of inevitability. This music is so well-known that from the first moment, we know how the ending will be and how we get there. In his simple way, Savall makes everything almost surprising, deeply involving, and so even more satisfying at the end. Exquisite in every way. Simply one of the best recordings of any kind you will hear in 2011.

September Songs

I don’t have the standard recommended listings this month; since the performing season gets its official start, I’ll be doing some individual posts on different organizations, what they’ve been doing and what they have coming up. Expect the usual suspects, i.e. City Opera, the Phil, Miller Theater, Issue Project Room . . .

I do want to point out some worthwhile recorded/streaming audio that will be coming out in September:

UPDATED: Fixed typo, added link to Oval appearance

Idomeneo

Mozart’s music has excellent and enviable social skills – that is one of its aesthetic values. At it’s best, it seeks to please not by pandering or being superficially agreeable, but by sincerely expressing charm, fluency, curiosity, empathy, humor and the display of common bonds. It is dignified but never stiff, it is witty and even vulgar in measures but never base – it has admirable poise every moment. It conveys a great deal more, of course, but it greets us with an almost effervescent pleasure with our company and the desire to show us great and wonderful things about it and the world. Mozart’s masterpieces would be the honored guest at a dinner party who makes us laugh, fascinates us with dramatic tales of conflict and resolution, praises the host and the cooking extravagantly and honestly, never drinks too much, turns boorish or stays too long after desert and coffee.

Some of his greatest music is the opera “Idomeneo,” his first mature opera. The story is of the King of Crete, Idomeneo, saved from shipwreck by Neptune and pledged to sacrifice the first person he sees in tribute. The first person he see is, tragically, his son Idamante, himself involved in a love triangle with Ilia and Elettra. The themes of duty and love are consistently important in the composer’s career and were personally deeply appealing. These themes are always best explored in his operas, and “Idomeneo” does that spectacularly, musically. While it is not his greatest opera, his greatest combination of written and musical drama, the more I listen to it the more I feel it is his greatest on a purely musical basis, beyond that even of “Le Nozze di Figaro” or “Die Zauberflote.” The music is ravishing and transporting, the vocal line and accompaniment unceasingly involving, dramatic, surprising, compelling and inventive. Good opera writing requires that the music convey the drama of the tale and the text, that it differentiation moods, moments and especially characters, and in “Idomeneo” Mozart does this with indescribable brilliance and success. The music so clearly defines each character, and so clearly describes their emotional states (this includes the music for the chorus), that a sensitive listener with no knowledge of the plot or Italian is still left with a good idea of the shape and resolution of the opera. Beyond conquering that daunting technical challenge, the music is great in the ear and the heart; the love music charms, the ballads weep, the storms terrify and angers rage. In a form made for the stage and only infrequently an unqualified success in audio format, this is an ideal opera for listening again and again.

And so the new recording from conductor René Jacobs is welcome. Jacobs is a former singer who has become and excellent and important Early Music scholar and leader, and has already produced outstanding recordings of “Figaro,” “La Clemenza di Tito,” “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Don Giovanni,” the last two the best Early Music style recordings of those operas. His methods are a contrast to the other leading Early Music conductor of Mozart operas, John Eliot Gardiner; Jacobs tends towards a smaller, intimate sound and takes far greater liberties with the score than Gardiner, who favors a a bigger sound with more edge and drive and is consistently concerned with discerning the fundamental goals of the score and emphasizing them. These are gross generalizations, of course, with many exceptions, but the two conductors do produce different work and it is a strength of the Early Music approach that they both fit the philosophies of the movement and succeed in their music-making. Gardiner has already made an absolutely tremendous recording of “Idomeneo,” and so it is appropriate to discuss this new one on that basis.

Both feature deep rosters of excellent singers (as does the best of the ‘normal’ recordings, Sir Charles MacKerras’ set on EMI with a luxury cast that includes Ian Bostridge, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Lisa Milne); Gardiner’s leads are Anthony-Rolfe Johnson ad Anne-Sophie von Otter and Sylvia McNair, while Jacobs uses Richard Croft in the lead role, Bernarda Fink as Idamante, Sunhae Im as Ilia and Alexandrina Pendatchanska as an astonishing Elettra. It’s a great credit to all three recordings that the trouser-role of Idamante, which asks of our modern sensibilities a self-consciously willful suspension of disbelief, is natural and easily acceptable. On all three recordings, the singers execute the music with great skill and beauty and convey the characters well – although Mozart must again be given credit for music that so clearly and powerfully conveys all the characters’ mercurial thoughts and feelings. The character’s arias convey an enormous range of emotion, all in the most natural sounding music; “Fuor del mar” expresses a balance between thanks and anguish, the music for the famous quartet “Andro ramingo e solo” fits together beautifully while the characters themselves are full of doubts and conflicts, and the chorus “Corriamo, fuggiamo” is a powerfully effective expression of terror.

What distinguishes this set is Jacobs approach to the score. The simplistic way to characterize Early Music performance practice is to stress issues of tempo, i.e. everything is played much faster than in more common, standard approaches. That is broadly true but also misleading. Jacobs overture is not only slower than Gardiner’s, but also considerably slower than Peter Maag’s recording. Elsewhere, Jacobs presses tempos faster. He seems to be making these decisions based on the musical material itself, and what it is trying to convey. Elettra’s arias are an example; she is unhinged by jealous fury in “Tutte nel cor vi sento” and “D’Oreste, d’Aiace,” and the music is played at just the edge of hanging together. It’s effective and exciting. Jacob’s smaller ensemble, the Freiburger Barockorchester, allows this, and it’s another interpretive choice. He pares down the number of strings – there are only a dozen violins – and produces a sound that is closer to chamber music, with a complex blend of brittle, woody and throaty colors. He also has a lighter approach to phrasing than both standard practice and Gardiner; the string articulations are gentle, especially in the initial attack of notes, and there is a tendency towards greater legato playing, even in passages marked staccato. If you feel that all of Mozart’s art aspire to singing and that the proper approach to playing his music is to emphasize a cantabile quality – and I feel this way – then this is an ideal concept.

What makes this recording extraordinary are the recitatives, and the conductor’s conception for how they should be played. The score indicates predominantly sustained long tones under the vocal part, and most conductors, including Gardiner, present this straight and unembellished in the strings. Jacobs first augments the recitatives with a fortepiano and then uses the score to indicate the harmonic structure for improvised continuo accompaniment of the singers. On the Gardiner recording, the recitative for Idomeneo and Arbace that opens the second act begins with a sustained chord in the strings, while the Jacobs recordings presents an improvised fantasia on the fortepiano. The difference is startling, as if one is hearing something that is no longer Mozart’s opera, but that is because of what has been a 100 years-long and inappropriate approach to music like this. As Jacobs writes in the booklet notes:

“The instrumental accompaniment of the recitativi semplici calls for improvising continuo players with an unceasing flow of ideas and a strong feeling for style. It is nonsense to think that Mozart himself, an improviser of genius, would have played only ‘dry’ chords when accompanying recitative, that he would not have ‘commented’ on the action from time to time as the strings and wind do in orchestrally accompanied recitatives, that he would not have played a prelude at the start of an important recitative if he wanted to, and as the fortepianist in our recording dares to do at the beginning of the second act by paraphrasing the end of the overture.”

He is not merely making a willful assertion, he is conveying an important truth about the composer, the era and music itself. The distinction between improvised and composed music is artificial and meaningless. Composed music, better understood as notated music, is improvised music that has been fixed at a moment in time and development by some kind of recording process, whether paper or cylinder of magnetic tape. It is a record of a moment meant to convey information past the immediate vicinity of the composer, and also, often, to maintain a record of information which the composer may further manipulate. It is also, from the composer’s standpoint, improvisation – it begins as such and remains so, even when recorded. Someone is making it up in the moment, and many great composers were also great improvisers and musicians had to be able to improvise. This was lost, for complex reasons, in the 20th century, but is now returning thanks to musicians like Jacobs and Alfred Brendel (who, for example, adds judicious and idiomatic improvisation to his recording of the Mozart piano concerto K. 488, which the composer would have expected of any decent performer).

While this approach will jar some listeners, it gives great life and excitement to the music even beyond what Mozart left us in the score’s pages. What Jacobs is doing is arguably the most appropriate approach, a way of performing the music that fits as closely to what Mozart would have known and expected in his day. Those are very different ideas than what we are used to in listening to recordings of the past several generations. It is unfamiliar and characterful – the primary focus is on conveying the character of the music, rather than the notes themselves – and so is perhaps less immediately accessible, but it rewards repeated listening. There is a real sense of human drama beyond the musical drama, which makes the effect intimate and a bit disarming. It really demands to be seen on stage – the opera concludes with a ballet and Jacobs leads the music with a strict sense of dance, with clear and slightly stiff separation between the style of dance and tempo in each of the sections. Gardiner, on the other hand, plays the music in a more symphonic way, making it a complete work, a kind of large-scale reverse overture that musically wraps up the entire work. It makes for more satisfying listening which succeeds because we are experiencing a recording, not witnessing and actual performance. His overall approach is large scale, with every recitative, aria and chorus integrated into an overall line and conception, and he makes it work. Jacobs is working his way from the bottom up, from inside the characters and out, so musically his recording is a bit choppy and more vivid. It is an ideal complement to Gardiner’s set, and together they make wonderful bookends to this wonderful opera (the Jacobs CD box comes with a forty-five minute documentary on the making of the recording).

Somewhat Mozart

It’s a first for me, actually attending a Mostly Mozart event. In the past, I had never been interested in it. It was inaugurated with the aesthetic of Mozart as palatable, easy-listening type music, meant to provide low energy charm for a midsummer evening’s snooze in the air-conditioned concert hall, and unfortunate cultural aspect of Lincoln Center generally (and one that the NY Phil, among other groups, still can’t seem to let go of).

But the festival has grown in artistic ambitions, although not to everyone’s delight, and there’s an interesting mix of the old and new. I was are Rose Hall yesterday for a newish version of something old, a concert performance of La Clemenza di Tito. Newish in that it was presented by the period instrument group The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, playing on old instruments, which is still a newish style.

It seems there is a minor revisionist trend to place this opera, Mozart’s last, in the group of his great dramatic masterworks, and there is a fine new recording of it. But experiencing this in performance, I can’t say that either works or is appropriate. The opera was written in under two months, and it shows. Much of it was written by Mozart’s assistant Süssmayr – the program notes indicate this was the simple recitatives, but my ears tell me it’s more than that. The opera is heavy on recitatives, and they are competent, as are many of the arias, but they are nothing like the music in Figaro, for example. The most inspired music is indeed wonderful, the overture is fine and the climaxes to each act, with ensemble pieces and wonderful clarinet obligati, are great, but the work itself is mainly rote, stiff, second-rate Mozart. The libretto by Caterino Mazzolá is shallow and stiff and the dramatic structure is more like Händel, with characters singing at rather than with each other, than the great Mozart dramas. Not a surprise from a rush job by committee, but it’s best to hear it for what it is, rather than what the audience would like it to be.

This audience loved it, actually, and there’s no fault in that. It may be second rate Mozart, but the performance was superb, great playing from the orchestra and some of the most consistently fine singing I have ever heard, beautiful and committed. The star was Alice Coote as Sesto, and Toby Spence was terrific as Tito. There’s more opera to come, and it will be truly new, and hopefully first rate.