Monday, May 30, 2011

goodbye mahler

The Germans have a great word for a death anniversary—Todestag—which we unfortunately lack. It’s a bit weird to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of someone’s death, but we do, and it’s not always the worst thing. It motivates the industry, allows for budgeting of occasionally-interesting festivals, and gets everyone excited. The best birthday/deathday celebrations are of composers who don’t necessarily define the repertoire list—Liszt last year, or Messiaen in 2008—and we get to hear a lot of music we wouldn’t otherwise.

Alas, Mahler rings out every year. It seems the great orchestras are now embarking on perpetual Mahler cycles, which anywhere between three and nine symphonies per season. I love, love, love me some Mahler, and I am 100% guilty of falling prey to the Mahler Industry. But not everyone needs to do Mahler all the time, which a Staatskapelle Berlin concert last week confirmed.

But before that, let’s talk about awesome Mahler. The Berlin Phil organized a last-minute Mahlerathon on the hundredth anniversary of his death, a one-off concert with their former director Claudio Abbado. We heard the adagio from the Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde—the ultimate music of farewell.

Abbado’s Mahler has a certain transparency—not of orchestral texture or balance, though there was much of that—but of presence. There is a kind of mystical impersonability to his conducting: rather than hearing an interpretation of Mahler (and Mahler, more than any other composer, yearns to be interpreted), we seem to be hearing the voice of Mahler himself. Whether it can be chalked up to his age, his recent recovery from cancer, or simply his magisterial technique, Abbado has the ability to simply disappear behind the music. He is so finely-tuned to the message that there doesn’t appear to be a medium at all between the composer’s voice and what floats out of the orchestra. There is Bernstein’s Mahler and Rattle’s Mahler and Gergiev’s Mahler and Mengelberg’s Mahler. With Abbado, we have just Mahler.

His volcanic account of the adagio from the Tenth, the composer’s third swan-song, showed the Berlin Phil at their most alive—the best they’ve sounded under anyone besides Rattle.

In Das Lied von der Erde, we saw three generations at work— Jonas Kaufmann (41), Anne Sophie von Otter (56), and the maestro himself (77)—to mixed results. The work is truly a symphony, not a song cycle, and the orchestra often overwhelmed Kaufmann’s small voice. Though he has a beautiful lyric tenor, he could have used more swagger in the drunken opening, and overall lacked the dominating presence required by the music. Von Otter had the dramatic nuance which Kaufmann lacked but often seemed distant from the music. I couldn’t help but compare her to Magdalena Kožená, whose Das Lied a few months ago was overwhelming. Abbado paced the music perfectly—it begins with a shudder and ends with a sigh—and the orchestra sounded phenomenal, with the added bonus of Emmanuel Pahud’s luxurious flute solos in Der Abschied. The symphony concludes with the twinkling timbres of celeste and mandolin, the apotheosis of a bittersweet end, and Abbado and the Philharmonic sent Mahler off in style.


A week after the deathabration, though, Mahler rolled over in his grave. James Levine was due to conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin in the Sixth Symphony, as well as play four-hands piano with Daniel Barenboim. Well, you can imagine how that turned out. Barenboim stepped up in Levine’s place, replacing the Sixth with the Ninth (a welcome change, since the Berlin Phil is playing the Sixth this coming week), and replacing the Schubert fantasy with a refined performance of Mozart’s sublime final piano concerto.

I was eager to hear Barenboim’s Mahler, and was hugely disappointed. Barenboim is a busy man, and I have the utmost respect for the ways he keeps busy. But last-minute Mahler benefits no one. The orchestra sounded under-rehearsed and it was never quite clear how well Barenboim knew the score—he was constantly glancing down at his music stand.

From the opening of the first movement, there was no clear direction from the podium, and the wrenching music passed listlessly. Often Barenboim looked strangely disengaged, except for in the more dramatic sections, when he would suddenly seize control. The result was a lazy patchwork, with the steady flow of Mahler’s music chopped up into erratic pieces. He achieved the right amount of brusqueness in the second movement Ländler and a compelling brutality in the Rondo-Burlesque, but never before have I been so completely bored by Mahler (and the Ninth is one of my favorites). The finale, one of the most breathtaking things ever written, lacked any sense of continuity, and the players seemed lost in the woods. Barenboim’s conducting was often indulgent, full of heaving motions and empty profundity: attempting to make a statement without having anything to say. Brass fracked notes, the woodwinds rolled in and out of tune, and the strings mostly held it together.

It isn’t difficult to hear Mahler’s music in Berlin; if you ventured a couple hours outside the city, you could catch an entire festival in Leipzig. A concert like this just begs the question: Warum?

Friday, May 27, 2011

weekend linkage

1. Well, it's the weekend, and for once I have zero concerts to attend. But if you're in the Chicago area, you should be checking out Dal Niente's season finale on Saturday, with music by Ligeti, Feldman, Andriessen, Augusta Read Thomas, and a Drew Baker premiere. On Sunday, don't miss what is assuredly The Best Band in America, Northwestern University's very own Symphonic Wind Ensemble--some quality transcriptions and my main man Colin Oldberg playing Artunian's trumpet concerto. It's free at at Millennium Park, so pick up some Giordano's and consume deep dish and deep music in the great outdoors.

2. The Guardian's new "Artist's Artists" series asked pianists about their favorite pianists. The ever-insightful Pierre-Laurent Aimard cites Aloys Kontarsky, a formidable figure who premiered just about everything for keys in the Darmstadt/Donaueschingen heyday of the 1950s and '60s. His duo with his brother Alfons was essential for crafting the two-piano avant-garde repertoire of that time, a legacy more recently assumed by the pair of Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher (I saw their excellent rendition of Berio's Concerto in September as well as a scintillating performance of Zimmermann's Monologue in the winter; they have a great recording of Messiaen's Visions). The youngest Kontarsky, Bernhard, also conducted the Stuttgart production/recording of Die Soldaten, which you should buy. Above, the brothers play Monologue.

3. Although this is pretty old, I just saw it a couple days ago. William C. White's analysis is spot-on--all the info you need to know to get through a conversation with me. I'm pretty sure I've done the Mussorgsky Gambit at least a couple times.

4. Watch Joshua Frankel's video for Judd Greenstein's Change, which appears on his NOW Ensemble's new album.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


The best opera evenings are where everything simply coalesces. The singers are on the mark, the direction is sharp, the sets and costumes agree with the music, the orchestra sounds fresh. Rarely does this happen. Certainly I didn’t expect it for the Staatsoper’s production of Don Carlo, a revival of a seven-year-old production, billed specifically as a vehicle for René Pape to sing the towering role of Philip II. Generally if one singer is trumpeted over the rest, the result is an uneven affair of awkward dominance, with the star reigning supreme while everybody else runs scared.

Fortunately, this was not the case at Friday’s Don Carlo. There was not a single weak link in the cast, the orchestra gave a sturdy if undistinguished performance under the baton of Massimo Zanetti, and Philipp Himmelmann’s staging matched the drama of Verdi’s opera, performed in its four-act, 1883 Italian revision.

Don Carlo, based on a Schiller play, tells a grim tale of religion intersecting with politics and love: King Philip II of Spain is to marry Princess Elizabeth of France to seal peace between the countries, though his son Don Carlo is madly in love with her. In revolt, Carlo takes up the cause of freeing Flanders, various machinations occur, the Inquisition rears its ugly head, and all ends in misery.

Himmelmann places the opera in a vaguely contemporary setting, with the characters clad in the outfits of modern aristocracy (tuxedos, three-piece suits, slinky dresses). Much of the staging rotates around a dinner table at which the principal characters sit, eat, and make love, emphasizing the family dynamic of the opera and the stifling conformity demanded by both royal and Catholic authority. Schoolgirls point guns at the audience, heretics are hung from their feet, but nothing gets too crazy by Berlin Regie standards.

Verdi’s opera is about the irrelevance of speaking truth to power. The loyal, freedom-loving Rodrigo fails to win over Philip’s support for Flanders and arouses the ire of the Grand Inquisitor, ending in his death; the people, finally compelled to rebel against Philip’s tyranny and free Carlo from prison, balk at the presence of the Grand Inquisitor—they will overthrow the government but not the church. Himmelmann matches this oppressive dynamic with stark sets drained of color. At the end of Act II, the four principals dine together while watching an auto-da-fé hanging of heretics, the ultimate sign of complacency in the face of evil.

Pape commanded the stage, embodying the role of the tormented monarch and achieving a resplendent terror in the opera’s most agonizing moments. His tortured monologue in Act III, when he realizes that his wife never loved him, was haunting and nuanced, his stentorian bass flecked with pain as he seemed to drown under his own power. Fabio Sartori and Alfredo Daza were a potent pair as Don Carlo and Rodrigo, the former with a soaring voice and the latter commanding with rich, bold hues. Amanda Echalaz sung the role of Elizabeth with glowing piety and Nadia Krasteva displayed refined coloratura as the sex-crazed Princess Eboli. Rafal Siwek made a fearsome Grand Inquisitor, regrettably looking like a Men in Black extra in sunglasses and a suit (the only real mistake of the production).

Verdi is at the height of his abilities in Don Carlo, with slashing music constantly racing towards the opera’s tragic end. At times, the orchestra seethes with rage before suddenly evaporating into bouncy lightness; the charming music which accompanies the execution of heretics makes a horrifying juxtaposition. In the final scene, after his friend Rodrigo has died, Don Carlo attempts to flee to Flanders and is stopped by his father and the Grand Inquisitor. Verdi writes that Philip demands Carlo’s execution, but suddenly the king’s father, the ghost of the emperor Charles V, rises from the grave and steals Carlo away. Instead, in Himmelmann’s version, Philip’s lackeys shoot Carlo in cold blood. As Charles V sings “The sorrows of the earth follow us even in this place,” Philip, the Grand Inquisitor, and Elizabeth sit down to dinner. The king butters bread and his wife pours tea, chillingly indifferent to the voice of God.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

das ende

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of Gustav Mahler's death. More than that of any other composer (besides maybe Schubert) Mahler's music and, accordingly, his reception, have slanted towards this event. The symphonies are premonitions, announcements, refusals, acceptances of the end. To more fully appreciate the master, we probably need to escape this cliche--there are far more ways to interpret the Ninth than as a man slowly sliding into his oblivion. But for today, we listen to the Ninth, Das Lied von der Erde, and the Tenth. I'll be hearing the Adagio from the Tenth as well as Das Lied with the Berlin Philharmonic tonight (you can watch it live here).

I am reminded of a short, poignant article which appeared in the Times in 1989 (and which Alex Ross quotes in Listen to This). There's no need to explain it; you can read it here. The Ninth can be Mahler's death; it can be the death of tonality; it can be the death of political freedom in Vienna. Tomorrow, it will be something else entirely. Perhaps life.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

weisst du, wie das wird?

Last week saw a short tour through Germany, with stops in the historical cities of Heidelberg, Worms, Bonn, and Weimar. Besides offering textbook examples of cultural tourism, each city had a classical music connection—Schumann’s residency in Heidelberg, Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, Liszt and Bach’s tenures in Weimar (not to mention those of Schiller and Goethe, as well as the founding of the Bauhaus, where Stefan Wolpe honed his craft). Worms’ musical association is a bit more metaphoric. Nestled by the Rhine river, the small town has a rich history but no famous composers to its name. Instead, it is home to the legend of the Nibelungs, the medieval epic Nibelungenlied poem which became the basis for Wagner’s Ring. And fortunately, a new museum adorns the town where Siegfried slew the dragon and Hagen threw the Nibelung treasure into the Rhine.

The Nibelungen Museum deftly handles the complicated story of the Nibelunglied and the even more complicated story of its effect on German history and culture. Patrons slowly ascend two tall towers, equipped with audio guides which automatically play short excerpts every few feet. As you wind up the staircase of the Seeing Tower, you view clips from Fritz Lang’s Siegfried and hear from the anonymous author of the original Nibelungenlied, an indignant narrator from beyond the grave who describes his epic poem while disparaging its various appropriations by everyone from Wagner to the Nazis.

The narrator makes a bold attempt to divorce his story from its after-story, pointing out history’s distortions of the poem, the differences between it and the Icelandic Edda, and the ways which Wagner’s Ring muddled it entirely. He viciously indicts the adoption of the Nibelungenlied as a metaphor on the national scale—the idea Brünhild stands in for a victorious Germania, that Siegfried is an archetypical Aryan, or that the soldiers dying at Stalingrad were the modern embodiment of the suicidal loyalty of the Nordic race. Angry that politicians and musicians alike adopted his work as a symbol of national unity and then nationalistic jingoism, he speaks coldly of “that mad reinterpretation machine” which created the Wagner’s Ring and Fritz Lang’s Siegfried but also the iconography of the Nazi party. It is an exercise in intertextuality disguised as a museum narrative, both informative and shockingly clever.

And at various times, the narrator’s voice breaks away into a haze of music—original music! In a museum audio guide! The low Eb of Wagner’s Rheingold hums under webs of electronic distortion and an eerie, spectral madrigal by the French composer Thierry Fournier floats through (listen here).

The museum is built around a portion of city walls which dates back to 1200; traveling from the Seeing Tower to the Hearing Tower, you walk along the ancient structure. The second tower tells the actual the Nibelungenlied, with the audio guide providing excerpts from the poem and interesting asides. Having learned the history of the epic, you listen with new ears. As you leave the museum, explosions and screams echo through the headphones, suggesting that though the medieval author of the legend may not have been responsible for the horrors of the last century, their saga is inextricably a part of his own.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Nightafternight style.

Karlheinz Stockhausen's Sonntag at the Cologne Opera
The New York Times, May 6, 2011


Corey Dargel - Last Words from Texas (free; NY Times)

Lisa Bielawa - Kafka Songs - Carla Kihlstedt (Tzadik)

Kurt Weill - Speak Low - Anne Sofie von Otter, John Eliot Gardiner, et al (DG)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

pellet reviews

So this past month, Berlin has seen a wealth of performances. A wealth, I tell you! Seriously, it was kind of nuts. I ended up missing a bunch of stuff for various reasons—mostly related to a project which will bear fruit soon enough—but caught plenty of awesomeness. I wanted to write it all up, and it seemed that short reviews would be the best way to get it done.

So, here we go:

Wednesday, April 13th: The Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Philharmonie

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands rolled into town a few weeks back, with everybody’s favorite entourage—the Concertgebouw. Dutch royalty mixed with German politicians, fanfares were played, and national anthems were vigorously conducted (but, oddly, not sung along with?). Native Dutchwoman Janine Jensen gave an intimate, glowing account of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, with the orchestra, under the direction of Mariss Jansons, achieving an appealing lightness in the bubbly finale. Brahms’ Fourth could have used a bit more vigor, but the orchestra’s creamy sound—they use much more vibrato than the Berlin Phil—more than made up for it. Though lacking in apocalyptic momentum, the finale had a burnished sparkle under Jansons’ towering presence.

Thursday, April 14th: Frank Wedekind’s Lulu at the Berliner Ensemble

With the Berliner Ensemble being the child of Bertolt Brecht, it didn’t seem too surprising when a woman came out at the beginning of Robert Wilson’s Lulu staging to announce that what would proceed would be some combination of theatrical catastrophe and wonder. But it turned out that it wasn’t some Brechtian alienation effect or breaking of the fourth wall—the Lulu, of Lulu, could not perform. The show would go on as a musical revue, a cabaret evening of Lou Reed, who wrote the music for Wilson’s production. The cast’s spectacularly dreadful costumes, straight out of Nightmare Before Christmas, fit Reed’s grotesque, comic songs (“I want to see your suicide” was one lyric) to a tee. The evening had a loose, improvisatory feel, with various singers often reading their songs directly off of lyric sheets. At one point, a little old woman came out and sang the Velvet Underground classic “Sunday Morning,” in a quivery voice hearkening back to Threepenny Opera. Reed’s four-piece band played with flair and verve. All in all, more wonder than catastrophe.

Monday, April 21: Leif Ove Andsnes at the Kammermusiksaal

Leif Ove Andsnes is a terrific, intellectual pianist, with a keen eye for interesting programming as well as a warm, sensitive keyboard touch. All of this was evident at his Kammermusiksaal recital, an arch-Germanic affair of Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Brahms. His Waldstein Sonata eschewed heroism in favor of clarity, avoiding the usual tendency to treat the work as battle music, and he achieved a luminous tone in the solace of the final movement. The rarities of the program—Brahms’ Opus 10 ballade and Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces Op. 19—complemented each other nicely; the Brahms was riveting if somewhat long, and Andsnes teased lush mysteries out of the Schoenberg aphorisms. Andsnes’ account of Beethoven’s final sonata, the majestic Opus 111, though, was both refreshing and disappointing. Most pianists embrace the metaphysical pretensions of the work, using ample rubato to emphasize its swan-song nature; Andsnes played it straight, with his lustrous sound. On the one hand, it made for an invigorating, unusual performance, with Beethoven’s rhythms and ethereal harmonies immediately palatable; on the other, it never quite achieved the grandeur which Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno so eloquently described in Doktor Faustus.

Wednesday, April 20th: The Leipzig String Quartet at the Konzerthaus

It was a good month in Berlin for late Beethoven. The Leipzig Quartet gave a fluid, exquisitely-balanced account of Opus 132, the composer’s penultimate quartet. Their performance of the otherworldly slow movement—the Heiliger Dankgesang—matched the grace of Andsnes’ Opus 111. After intermission, the quartet presented Othmar Schoeck’s Notturno, a gleaming, eclectic combination of late Romanticism, atonality, and weirdly jazzy licks. Schoeck sets a series of poems by Nicholas Lenau (and, at the end, a short text by Gottfried Keller), with string writing which alternates between mellifluous lyricism and tremendous power. Baritone Stephan Genz initially sounded somewhat harsh, but he gradually warmed into the work, finding a round, creamy glint; the Leipzigers matched his dramatic passion, achieving a sublime beauty in the work’s final moments, a lullaby-like chaconne in radiant C-major.

Wednesday, May 4: Orchester-Akademie der Berliner Philharmoniker

The Berlin Phil’s Orchestra Academy—one of a number of training ensembles in the city (the opera and radio orchestras also have them)—comprises an elite, international group of musicians in their early twenties. I heard them give a breathtaking Das Lied von der Erde a few months ago, under the direction of Simon Rattle, and last night they proved equally excellent in a (mostly) contemporary program. The players exhibited remarkable control in Ligeti’s wispy Chamber Concerto, balancing the composer’s uncannily layered textures with apparent ease and providing fierce commitment in the final movement, a gridlock of ostinatos recalling the clacking metronomes of his earlier Poeme symphonique. Two of Steve Reich’s more generically bouncy pieces—the Duet for 2 violins and strings, and Nagoya Marimbas—were given vibrant, precise readings. An ensemble of winds did justice to the goofiness of Bernd Zimmermann’s frivolous Rheinische Kirmstänze (an arrangement from music written for a radio play), but played a rather unconvincing rendition of the boring, piquant neo-classicism of Stravinsky’s Octet. The evening ended on a literal high note, with Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, an arrangement of arias for trumpet and ensemble from his spectacular opera—musicians whistled, crumbled newspapers, and shouted as soloist Balazs Toth wailed away on frantic, coloratura-style stratospheric passages.