Thursday, September 30, 2010

double retrospective, part three

(photo by Kai Bienert)

Musikfest also gave a chance to evaluate a large swath of the German classical scene. I witnessed nine concerts, six orchestras, two new-music ensembles, and about fifty flower bouquets. One cannot grasp a national musical culture in the course of twelve days, but I could at least see the tip of the iceberg. Nearly every orchestral program was filled out by a work of the repertoire, allowing the opportunity to evaluate the ensembles on more traditional terms. Of course, the Berlin Philharmonic remains in the lead, with incredible precision, warmth of sound, and depth—in both Coro/Pulcinella as well as their second concert, a Boulez-led program of his …explosante-fixe… and Stravinsky’s short opera The Nightingale.

...explosante-fixe... is one of Boulez’s decidedly experimental works, a frantic bombardment of three flutes, orchestra, and electronics, given a razor-sharp performance by Berlin principal Emmanuel Pahud. The Nightingale demonstrates Rimsky-Korsakov’s enormous hold on the young Stravinsky, with its mysterious orchestral mist in the first act. The latter two acts, written after The Rite of Spring, show Stravinsky beginning to shrug off his teacher’s influence, with moments of Rite-esque frenzy. All the parts were well-sung, with excellent contributions from the Rundkfunkchor Berlin and the sensational coloratura of soprano Barbara Hannigan.

Under the direction of Marek Janowski, the Rundfunk-Orchester Berlin had a commanding presence in Stravinsky’s hyper-muscular Apollo and Strauss’s kitschy suite Der Bürger aus Edelmann. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester disappointed, the former with an unpolished Daphnis et Chloe completely lacking in nuance (the only time I’ve ever been dissatisfied with David Robertson), and the latter with an dreadful Metamorphosen courtesy of Kent Nagano. The Staatsorchester maintained their lush string sound in the Strauss, but Nagano drained the tone poem of all its passion in a sterile and disheartening interpretation.

The grandfather of the new-music ensemble, Ensemble Incontemporain, continues to amaze, though I only witnessed seven of its performers in Boulez’s Le marteau. Amazingly, a 2.5-hour concert of difficult works by Cologne-based MusikFabrik, conducted by Hungarian legend Péter Eötvös, held a rapt, attentive, and large audience. It provided the greatest variety of music in the festival, with two very different works by Berio, Xenakis’s vicious but long-winded N’Shima, Pousseur’s rather stale La Seconde Apotheose de Rameau, and Eötvös’s Steine. Berio was represented by the dwelling, sweet Naturale for viola, percussion, and recorded samples of a Sicilian folk-singer, as well as Kol od—Chemins VI, an orchestration of his trumpet Sequenza, given a searing performance by Marco Blaauw. Steine, Eötvö’s clever deconstruction of his role as both conductor and composer, was an utter delight; he led the ensemble by tapping two stones against each other, and the instrumentalists resisted but eventually give in to the peer pressure, creating rhythmic games and visual comedy.

The best performance of the entire festival, surprisingly, was neither Boulez nor Berio, nor from the Berlin Philharmonic. It was the blissful combination of Wagner’s Siegfried-Idyll, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and conductor Jonathan Nott. Bamberg and Nott have produced several fantastic recordings in the last few years, especially their Schubert Epilogue. Under Nott’s baton, Siegfried-Idyll was absolutely spellbinding: silky and sparking, exquisitely shaped, with each instrumental entrance a subtle delight. The interpretation sounded particularly fresh, and on a program with Pli selon pli it felt like the newer piece. In a series focused on echt modernism, it was Wagner that was the most electric.


This is the final part of my review of musikfest 2010, which took place from September 2-21 at the Philharmonie and Kammermusiksaal in Berlin. You can check out their whole program here; here's my part 1 and part 2.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

double retrospective, part two

(photo by Kai Bienert)

Having already written about Coro, the Berio work which made the deepest impression on me, I thought I would discuss one less successful. Berio’s Concerto, played in the middle of the festival by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, comes from the stylistic period of the similarly generic-titled Sinfonia and Coro. Written for two pianos (played stunningly by Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher) and orchestra, Concerto takes upon the same task as those pieces: to sum up the history of the genre as well as expand it in new directions.

But where the post-modern deconstructions of those works yield to a free-wheeling Romanticism, Concerto dwells in the clichéd tropes of high modernism: scurrying figures, meandering exercises in orchestral timbre, explosive but limited gestures. It holds promise in the beginning, opening with the two pianos playing unaccompanied at an unsettlingly soft dynamic. Starting a concerto with the soloist is a tradition that goes back to Beethoven, which Berio decidedly mocks. In the Emperor Concerto, Beethoven uses the piano to immediately command the stage; Berio’s two soloists are directionless, playing stereophonic games which elude both the audience and the orchestra sitting patiently behind them. It’s a small revenge for all the soloists who have ever had to wait through five minutes of orchestral pomp before entering in their own concertos. Unfortunately, the rest of the piece is rather bland.

Concerto is a work which shows Berio’s affinity with the steely modernism of Boulez. One of the highlights of the festival, a performance by the Konzerthausorchester under the direction of Lothar Zagrosek, drew further parallels and demonstrated each composer’s breadth. Berio was represented by his Sequenza II for harp and Chemins I, a re-working of the piece with orchestral accompaniment. Coro glances back to resplendent tonality; Berio’s Sequenzas push forward in their extremes of virtuosic atonality, setting new limits for each instrument’s abilities. Sequenza II is an icy twinkle with webs of perplexing notes. Chemins I employs the orchestra to explore possibilities within the harp’s strange harmonies, enhancing the atmosphere without overwhelming the soloist. Frédérique Cambreling proved a stunning interpreter and executed both pieces with ease while continuing on as a soloist in Lutoslawski’s manic Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and String Orchestra.

Ritual in memorium Bruno Maderna is a dreary, underrated masterpiece and an unusually self-expressive work for Boulez. The Konzerthausorchester was divided into eight groups surrounding the audience, perfect for a hall like the Philharmonie. A memorial to the brilliant composer-conductor Maderna, Ritual creates a funereal procession of muted colors, with the antiphonal choirs resembling something like a community in mourning. The instrumental timbres feel muted, purposefully drained of color, and the regular beating of percussion sounds like the pealing of hollow bells. Pillars of brass, eerily shrieking clarinets, and transfixing gongs evoke the sound-worlds of Boulez’s mentor Olivier Messiaen. It is a distinctly emotional piece for Boulez—one can hear him turning back to the language of his predecessor to find a voice with which to lament.

My final two-concert marathon day at the Philharmonie demonstrated Boulez’s strengths but also his weaknesses. The Ensemble Incontemporain performed Le marteau sans maître, perhaps the quintessential Boulez work. Written for seven performers (flute, viola, mezzo-soprano, and percussion), it creates a dreamy world out of stiff timbres and elegant color combinations. Not a single note resonates; even the part of the mezzo-soprano, singing the poetry of René Char, is as dry as a martini. The economy of means employed by Boulez creates a silvery sheen which makes the work’s 35 minutes feel like ten.

Hearing it on the same day (in a morning concert, paired with an incisive rendition of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata by Dimitri Vassilakis) as the Bamberg Symphony’s performance of the gargantuan orchestral Pli selon pli showed exactly where Boulez’s skills lie. Pli selon pli, which unites five separate movements written over a 32-year period, lacks a sustainable narrative. It strives for grandeur, with an arsenal of percussion, four harps, and a mass of other instruments, but lacks the rigor of Le marteau or the bleak ferocity of Rituel. It feels indulgent, only fully emotionally engaging in the final cataclysmic Tombeau, in which an enraged soprano snarls words of Mallarmé.


This is part two of my review of musikfest 2010, which took place from September 2-21 at the Philharmonie and Kammermusiksaal in Berlin. You can check out their whole program here; part 3 coming later this week.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

double retrospective, part one

With limited room for modern music in the regular classical concert season, it is difficult in America to gain a complete view of the shape European music took after 1945. A large group of composers tend to be lumped together: Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, Hans Werner Henze, Iannis Xenakis. Even in university classrooms, little is made to distinguish between these radically diverse composers. Rather than celebrate the differences between them, we cordon them off under the words “Darmstadt avant-garde.”

In America, this is partially due to a lack of context. Though we sent some of our best and brightest overseas (Cage, Babbitt, Feldman), found positions in our own universities for many of the Europeans, and have imported quite a bit of their style and technique, European high modernists still remains out-of-focus in the states. When they do regularly appear, it’s in ill-conceived festivals like the New York Philharmonic’s pairing of Berio and Beethoven in 2008, or when Pierre-Laurent Aimard is in town. Even when Pierre Boulez or Daniel Barenboim leads a performance of some radical work, it is paired with modernist classics from the first half of the twentieth-century.

Which brings us to Berlin’s musikfest 2010, a comprehensive, two-week survey of music by Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, and many others. Rarely in America do we have the opportunity to compare two living or recently-deceased composers; festivals in the U.S. are structured to engage contemporary figures with the distant, not recent, past. So we get our Berio paired with Beethoven, our Ligeti with Bach. This narrows our view of the immense field that was and is music after World War II, never allowing us to actually compare what Ligeti and Berio might sound like side-by-side.

Musikfest presented a far more fragmented reality than the one which places Berio and Boulez as like-minded colleagues. Berio falls into a loosely-defined group of European outsiders who dabbled in the avant-garde but ultimately sought out others means of expression. Where Boulez and others at Darmstadt abandoned all traditional and popular forms for a severe experimentalism, Berio, along with composers like Alfred Schnittke, Bernd Zimmmermann, and Hans Werner Henze, attempted to re-ignite the embers of musical Romanticism via eclecticism. If Boulez’s motto was “No compromise,” Berio’s might have been, “Well, why not?”

Berio found his escape through adopting nearly every musical style available, from swing to Schubert. Folk music, Italian opera, American fiddling, and Mahler are all colors in his palette, drawn upon with ease and irreverence. Boulez’s music incorporates non-Western elements and French symbolist poetry but he purposefully purifies those influences, scrubbing away extraneous materials and cleansing the music of resemblance to anything but itself. Berio embraces all his influences: in works like Coro and the Folk Songs, he dispels the purity which Boulez so fervently seeks.

That is not to say that Berio’s music lacks a modernist rigor, or that Boulez’s lacks expression. Though the latter was a dogmatist and the former far from it, both have written music of intense complexity and beauty. In works like Rituel in memorium Bruno Maderna and Le marteau sans maitre, Boulez creates gorgeous moments of crystalline timbres and exotic colors; Berio’s expressionism in Coro or the viola concerto Voci is of a more conventional sort, the kind listeners are used to hearing in Schumann or Ravel. Berio and Boulez represent opposite ends of a spectrum, but their actual music encompasses that entire broad range.

I attended nine of musikfest’s twenty concerts and went to almost everything in the second week. I regret missing out on Berio’s Folk Songs and Sinfonia, as well as a number of rarely-played Boulez works. That said, in nine evenings I think I gained some insight into the shape and nature of musikfest, and the towering presences of its two main composers.

This is part one of my review of musikfest 2010, which took place from September 2-21 at the Philharmonie and Kammermusiksaal in Berlin. You can check out their whole program here; parts 2 and 3 coming later this week.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Last week I made a brief visit to the Neue Nationalgalerie, housed in a crystal wonder designed by Mies van der Rohe, which specializes in early 20th century, mostly German art. And how could you have a museum of early German modernism without some portraits of early modern Germans (or adopted Germans)?

So here is Max Oppenheimer's jagged painting of everyone's favorite eclectic, Ferrucio Busoni.
Busoni is one of the unsung heroes of nascent musical Expressionism, an Italian who prized the German canon and decided to place himself within it. His unfinished opera Doktor Faust is a pluralistic dreamland, packed with every imaginable musical style available in 1916, but one of my favorite Busoni works is the super-duper indulgent Piano Concerto. It's seventy minutes, an incredible drain on any performer (Garrick Ohlsson, one of its only interpreters has an excellent recording with the Cleveland Orchestra), and to top it off, it ends with a male chorus. The best part? They're singing from a German version of Aladdin. It's basically Mahler 2 minus women plus piano plus Arabian Nights.

Weirdly enough, there is a huge Wikipedia entry on the piece--apparently there are 13-plus recordings.

I also discovered that Edvard Munch painted a portrait of the Weimar Republic's most well-connected dandy, Count Harry Kessler.
I wrote about/excerpted Kessler here and here; his diaries provide invaluable description of the political, social, and artistic fabric of post-WWI Europe.

Friday, September 17, 2010


On Thursday I re-visited the Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, a quiet little garden next to the Brecht Forum which houses the graves of dozens of German artists and intellects. Strolling through the cemetery is a bit like celeb spotting for Teutonophiles. Hey, there's Heinrich Mann! OMG it's Herbert Marcuse. *is that Hegel, right next to Fichte?*

And of course there are a few composers-in-residence.

We have the highly-underrated Paul Dessau, Brecht-collaborator, fervent socialist, and author of seven strident, Bartók-ian string quartets.

And who could forget the second most popular Brecht composer, Hanns Eisler?

Everyone should check out Eisler's Deutsche Sinfonie, a brooding, political masterwork (it's labeled an "Anti-Fascist Cantata"). There's a solid recording floating around with the Gewandhausorchester and Lothar Zagrosek (who conducted last night's Rituel in memorium Bruno Maderna). I'm waiting diligently for a performance.

I attempted to find the grave of minor composer Rudolf Wagner-Régeny but was not successful. Wagner-Régeny, the other Wagner, was embroiled in the tragedy of musical life in Nazi Germany. He is a frequent subject in Michael Kater's two excellent studies of the period, The Twisted Muse and Composers of the Nazi Era. I can't say I've heard any of his music, though.

Brecht's presence hovers over the entire cemetery, as he would like it.

There's also Heinrich Mann, who sits somewhere between Klaus and Golo in the list of Best Manns.

Finally, Hegel and Fichte, BFFL*
*and I guess, BFFD too.

fantasy boulez-ball

I sat about ten feet from Pierre Boulez at the Konzerthausorchester Berlin performance of his transfixing Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna. At intermission, I worked up the courage to talk to him (actually the second time I've done so--but the first was three years ago in Chicago, and I asked him some stupid question about Mahler).

Here is a very rough transcription of what I remember from that conversation:

Seated Ovation: (sweating, mumbling) Mr. Boulez, I'm a fan of your music and I just wanted to ask you a quick question. Is it true that you're working on a Godot opera?
Boulez: Well, that's what the papers's for now an idea in my head.

Don't take that as a direct quote, but he said something along those lines. Anyway, you heard it here first: Boulez might write a Godot opera.

The second wave of speculation is: who would conduct? Who would direct? At what opera house? Here's what would be awesome: in March 2015, for Boulez's 90th birthday, a simultaneous premiere at the Met and Staatskapelle Berlin, both productions directed by Patrice Chereau. The line-up of conductors: Barenboim and Peter Eötvös sharing honors at the Staatskapelle, and David Robertson and James Levine splitting it at the Met. The same month, Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Phil in Messiaen's Saint Francis at the Park Avenue Armory as part of a four-week festival organized by Lincoln Center, which also includes a joint Met-Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Gruppen (led by Levine*, or whoever's subbing for him). Robertson leads the Juilliard Orchestra in the complete orchestral works of Boulez over the course of two weeks. And to top it off, Boulez conducts the Ensemble Intercontemporain at Alice Tully on the eve of his 90th birthday. After the concert, a party on Governor's Island DJed by Tristan Murail and members of IRCAM.

*Does Jimmy conduct Stockhausen?

Monday, September 13, 2010

constructions and games

Saturday, September 11 2010

Berlin Philharmonic
Simon Rattle, conducting
Stella Doufexis, mezzo-soprano
Burkhard Ulrich, tenor
Ildegrando D'Arcangelo, bass
Rundfunk Chor Berlin

Luciano Berio, Coro
Stravinsky, Pulcinella

I cannot promise it will be an easy thing for me to review the Berlin Philharmonic. No orchestra is flawless, but for me the Berlin Phil composes the perfect storm of orchestra: brilliant musicianship, a strong and dedicated music director, intelligent and progressive programming, an amazing concert hall, great online presence, and outreach which seems to work. So if I tend to gush when writing about their concerts, that's probably because I was gushing when listening to them.

This year's musikfest, to which Saturday's performance belonged, explores the triangle of Berio-Stravinsky-Boulez. A thoughtful and well-researched program brochure with essays by Paul Griffiths and others elucidates Berio's and Boulez's different stances on their groundbreaking predecessor. Theoretically, these positions will be made clear by the music. I have now heard Berio and Stravinsky in this program as well as the Rundfunk-Sinfonie's concert of Berio's Voci, Stravinsky's Agon, and a completely forgettable Strauss suite. After this week of concerts, which will encompass all three composers, I should have a better assessment of the festival's programming successes.


The more music I hear by Berio, the more confused I get about his general reception and role in the canon. Most music history courses teach Berio as the author of the third movement of the Sinfonia and the creator of the Sequenzas--post-modern, intellectual, cerebral. But in reality, his music is more unabashedly neo-Romantic than any of his European contemporaries besides Henze. With the exception of the Sequenzas, nearly every work brims over with tonal or quasi-tonal splendor, Ravel-esque colors, and incredible lushness. This is a composer who should be as equally celebrated and embraced by conservative audiences as sappy, actual neo-Romantics like Tan Dun and Richard Danielpour.

Descriptions of works like the Sinfonia, Coro, and Folk Songs do not do justice to the pieces themselves. We get the idea of Berio as a deconstructionist, breaking down the notions of symphony and choral work, nitpicking at forms of grandeur and creating postmodern commentary. But if anything, Berio is a constructionist: he builds rich, detailed canvasses of sound. Coro deconstructs the notion of a choral/orchestral piece while at the same time building a massive paean to poetic love. It's beautiful in a very conventional way; ignore the composer's name and program notes, and you might mistake it at times for John Adams.

In Simon Rattle's and the Berlin Philharmonic's hands, Coro was something truly extraordinary. Berio assembles his chorus out of solo voices, mixed together with the smallish orchestra on-stage. It begins with a solo soprano singing a Sioux poem, "Today is mine," accompanied by an ambiguous, quasi-Expressionist piano line. Gradually, other orchestral and vocal parts enter, creating a wave of sound and intoning the first line of the Pablo Neruda poem which forms the basis of the work. A section from the long poem "Residencia en la Tierra" acts as a kind of motto statement throughout the piece; it returns in different forms between almost every text (which range from Peruvian dance tunes to The Song of Songs).

Each reprise is set to the same gorgeous, pulsating chord. Early on, it is a violent shriek of timbre, but it acquires a different significance in each repetition: sometimes it glows with light; sometimes it feels carved in stone. It's a testament to Berio's miraculous gifts of orchestration, which produce a composite chorus/orchestra texture in which individual voices cannot be separated from an organic whole, as well as the Philharmonic's remarkable balance.

With 31 short, continuous sections and nearly as many different poems, it might seem that Berio was attempting something pluralistic or fragmented, but it is the opposite. Coro feels almost overly unified, progressing from dark art-song to exotic primitiveness without skipping a beat. The orchestra sounded resplendent and the singers of the Rundfunkchor Berlin were fantastic both as soloists and as ensemble despite Berio's excessive vocal demands. Rattle paid careful attention to not only timbral blend but also the over-arching drama of the work, forming a sustained narrative over its fifty minutes.


Reading anything Stravinsky says is like gazing into a hall of mirrors. Why did the 1920s cosmopolitan public think poorly of Beethoven? Because Stravinsky said so. Why did Stravinsky say so? Because he thought that was what the 1920s cosmopolitan public wanted to hear. It's an endless maze of puzzles and masks, lies about lies, further complicated by confidante Robert Craft's dabbling . Stravinsky fed the Zeitgeist and the Zeitgeist fed Stravinsky. No other composer has tried so hard to fit in while simultaneously defining the culture into which he tried to fit.

And then, the music says something entirely different. Stravinsky hid behind a veneer of neo-classicism, proclaiming "Music expresses nothing but itself" while couching that very music in some of most outwardly expressive of forms. Pulcinella embodies that aesthetic: at times, it is almost painstakingly sensitive, wonderfully evocative, direct and immediate in its musical affect and rhetoric. But by declaring it a kind of game, a musical "object," Stravinsky set the tone for how the piece would be perceived--and more importantly (and more unfortunately), how the entire musical epoch from which the piece originated would be perceived. There is nothing emotionally stagnant about Pergolesi or his contemporaries. No period of musical history is inherently more "expressive" than another.

Today, most performers of Stravinsky see through his comments and take the music on its own terms. Rattle crafted a genial, loving interpretation of Pulcinella. From the opening gesture of the bouncy overture, the Philharmonic played with heft and character entirely appropriate to Stravinsky's Commedia dell'arte. Each of the three soloists--tenor Burkhard Ulrich, mezzo Stella Doufexis, and bass Ilderando D'Arcangelo--played his part, singing the Italian texts with crisp diction and careful attention to their rhythmic games. The individual members of the Philharmonic were sensational, with great violin solos from concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto and inhuman flute and trumpet virtuosity from Emmanuel Pahud and Gábor Tarkövi.

The final vocal number, an understated, majestic minuet, gleamed with the sterling sound of the orchestra. Each of the soloists sang with hushed intensity. Then, as if to shrug off the emotions of music, Stravinsky ends with a brisk, brusque finale. It's too late; objectivity has already been stolen away but the relentlessly expressive music.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

in good company

At the Philharmonie, two copies of The Rest is Noise, German edition.
Side-by-side with Kleiber, Mahler, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn.

Friday, September 10, 2010

your correspondent in berlin

I went the Pergamon today, which I missed on my first visit to the city two summers ago. Nico posted a few weeks back about the museum's most jarring exhibit: Colorful Gods, a series of statues painted as they might have been in their time of creation. The Pergamon is entirely devoted to relics of antiquity; they've got almost two entire temples crammed in there, along with a ton of other stuff from various pre-Christian cultures. It reminded me of the Metropolitan Museum's ruins--actually, it reminded me more of Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum, but that's another story.

As Nico mentioned, there is something unsettling about seeing Greek statues covered in such outlandish colors. Assuming that the painting done by the museum's curators and scientists is authentic to the original designs, why does this this "restoration"/"modernization" seems so odd?

Take Bach, or Handel. Every Christmas and Easter, some provincial music critic inevitably writes an editorial bemoaning the hiring of HIP conductors for their St. Matthew Passion or Messiah. "Why can't we have 200 choristers? Where's my Wagnerian-size orchestra? Why isn't Thomas Beecham still alive?" What they really seek, though, is the old aesthetic of the great Klemperer and Walter and Furtwangler recordings of Bach: heavy, deep, all-embracing, profound. When confronted with something fleet, brisk, and lively, they recoil. It's not what Bach's supposed to be!

That is the same problem I found when gazing on this.
It just feels wrong, somehow. It looks straight out of Legoland, it seems too shiny and new. Which is what the period-instrument-haters usually hate on--they want their old aesthetic back. But what is tied up with our view of ancient ruins (whether Byzantine, Roman, Greek, Assyrian), is the idea that they are ruins. The aesthetic is so dependent on the idea of the civilizations as dead that to breathe life into them seems sacrilegious. We like our statues gray-scale to historicize them and set the old civilizations apart from ourselves. There, isn't this better?

The old aesthetic, the pre-HIP and pre-Colored Gods aesthetic, puts these past civilizations on a pedestal. We make the art bigger than ourselves: we consider the statues and the music the way they considered their gods. The St. Matthew Passion, rather than Jesus, is the thing we worship. And there's not anything really wrong with that--elevating art to religion has produced some incredible art.

Back to Bach. The first audaciously-HIP recording I remember hearing was Rinaldo Alesandrini's Brandenburg Concerti with his Concerto Italiano. The only other Brandenburg recording I knew were the rather average rendition by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Marriner's is a modern instrument affair with light orchestration, quick tempos, and star soloists. The opening of Brandenburg No. 1 sounds entirely perfunctory, bouncing merrily along in the way of the Bach of WQXR and The Teaching Company. Here's the Concerto Italiano:

Those horns hit you like a punch to the face. It's wild, it's scrappy, it's alive. Alessandrini, and his greatest contemporaries, consider Bach a living reference point rather than a holy shrine--they interact with him rather than worshiping at his feet. Obviously, not all Bach should be this fun. But we should try not to take the artists more seriously than they took themselves (improvised vs. fixed cadenzas is the classic example).

In historicizing the statues of antiquity, the dominant emotion is melancholy. The act of observing the art becomes one of mourning lost civilizations: the lack of color and the fractured limbs of the figures is almost more important to us than what the completed statues might have looked like at their time. I cannot imagine that all the artifacts of these civilizations were meant to observed so bleakly.

Here is a lion:
It looks like how you'd expect an ancient lion to look: regal, maybe even a little woeful.

Now here's another lion:
The colors make it almost cartoonish. What the lion might lose in nobility, though, it gains in a sense of the visceral. Nearly all ancient sculpture looks sedentary, but with these fierce colors it finally moves, and savagely so. Tthe crazy difference between the unpainted and painted lions throws our entire view of these civilizations into question. How did they view their lions?

Apparently, color was as essential to these sculptures as it is to any painting today. In Euripides' play Helen of Troy, the title character weeps:

My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,
Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.*

Taking away the color, for the ancient Greeks, stole the beauty from their creations. We seek out these placid, colorless statues in order to distance ourselves from this society, in order to view their relics as art in the modern sense. We used to clothe Bach in the garb of Wagner, which was fine for some of it, but definitely not okay for all of it. What you hear in that Brandenburg recording is one of the most vital things about the HIP movement--the restoration of color to Baroque and earlier music. Klemperer's sweeping B-minor Mass and Stokowski's overpowering Toccata & Fugue in D minor are driven not by color or texture but by drama--the same values they ascribed to Wagner and Mahler. Bach should certainly have drama, but newer performers show that the music can breathe with exotic textures, bizarre quirks, and glimmering colors. If we lose just a smidgen of nobility in favor of immediacy, as does the lion, maybe it's worth it.


*this excerpt was in the museum, and can also be found in Matthew Gurewitsch's Smithsonian article, which describes ancient ruins, in a brilliant analogy, as "frozen Beethoven." I read the article after writing my blog post, and it says basically the same thing, but with a bit more eloquence and a few more facts.