Friday, January 15, 2010

first listenings

I'm always a little embarrassed when I realize that I don't know some major piece of classical music. I like to think that I know the repertoire pretty well, with the exception of Italian opera (I just don't like it, but that's a post for another day). At some point around Christmastime, it occurred to me that I had never actually heard the entire Handel Messiah. I still haven't rectified that one. But when I was at Amoeba Records in December I stumbled across a $5 recording of the Berlioz Requiem with the BSO/Ozawa, a piece I've never actually heard but read plenty about.

I am never really sure how I feel about Berlioz. I acknowledge that he's a hugely influential and important composer, perhaps underrated for his pre-Wagnerian innovations. I hear them when I listen to his music, which I appreciate for its originality, but he never grabs me in the same way that Wagner does. For whatever reason, I have never enjoyed the Symphonie fantastique, and Harold in Italy does nothing for me. I will admit that I've never heard any of the operas. I like some parts of Damnation of Faust, but over-exposure to trombonists playing the Hungarian March excerpt has pretty much ruined it for me (the same way, after 4 years of music school, I can never enjoy Ride of the Valkyries again). The only piece I like unequivocally is Romeo and Juliette, but any time I listen to it, it just makes me want to listen to Tristan. While Berlioz has an acute sense of how to use the orchestra to produce vivid effects, Wagner takes similar effects and transforms them into a kind of musical narcotic, which grabs the listener more immediately than Berlioz does. Berlioz never feels as fluid or oceanic as Wagner, but also never as intricate or carefully-constructed as Brahms.

So: the Requiem. I decided to give it a fair listening and follow along with the score. There were a few interesting moments in its eighty or so minutes. The opening of the Dies Irae, in the transition from tutti low strings to chorus, is one of the eerier things I've heard recently. But the movement, and the whole work over all, just felt too meandering. I can't help but compare it to the height of 19th-century Requiems, the Brahms, and it falls very short. In Denn alles Fleisch, the Dies Irae equivalent in the Brahms, there is a palpable (and powerfully emotional) sense that you are always headed towards or away from something. The epic recap with trombones feels inevitable. The Berlioz rambles, with a number of interesting musical moments that don't seem to cohere. I will say, though, that the opening brass fanfares of the Tuba mirum come out of nowhere in a very cool way. The opening of the Sanctus is absolutely gorgeous, sounding a bit like the spiritual Wagner of Parsifal and Lohengrin. Some of the orchestral and vocal effects are remarkably weird for music written only ten years after the death of Beethoven--Berlioz, with his flair for orchestration, creates an impressive imitation of three-dimensional space within the orchestra and chorus.

I don't think the Requiem changed how I feel about Berlioz; if anything, it confirmed what I already thought. I should stress that this is all based on first impressions with a recording and score. Obviously I know this is a "masterpiece," but what better place to criticize a canonical work than a blog? All of my criticisms can easily be shot down; in fact, I hope I shoot them down myself when I spend more time with the music. I would like to see it in live performance, which is probably the best way to hear a piece of this scale. Chicago Lyric Opera is doing Damnation of Faust in the spring, which I hope to attend.

What's next on the docket for music I haven't really heard? I haven't spent much time with any Mozart operas besides Don Giovanni, so that's a possibility. And there's always the Messiah, I guess.

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