Monday, September 7, 2009

Une isole sapin

I adore this song. Curse that I'm not a mezzo.

Janet Baker

Anne Sophie von Otter

Un sapin isolé se dresse sur une montagne
Aride du Nord. Il sommeille.
La glace et la neige l'environne
D'un manteau blanc.

Il rêve d'un palmier qui là-bas
Dans l'Orient lointain se désole,
Solitaire et taciturne,
Sur la pente de son rocher brûlant.

courtesy of the Lied and Art Song Texts Page

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I just remembered...

When I was a kid, my parents somehow got ahold of certain audio tapes made by a Canadian company Classical Kids.

They were basically stories about classical composers as told through imagined interactions with children. In one, a girl is reluctantly practicing the piano (a gigue by Bach), and just as she is frustrated and wants to go outside to play, who stops by but (the spirit of) dear old JS himself. In another, we hear the narration of a little boy whose mother is the landlord for Mr. Beeethoven who moves in upstairs. You get the idea.

We did a lot of driving around on weekends as I was growing up, and it was always engaging to hear these stories. My sister and I are really big on nostalgic repetition -- I guess we kept that childhood habit of wanting a favorite bedtime story read to us nightly.

For some reason, I was just thinking about them -- (well, I know the reason -- I was reading Rosand's Opera in Seventeenth Century Venice, which reminded me of one of the favorite tapes: Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery).

Also, so far as I know, this is the earliest instance in which I've been convinced that I can see the (handsome) "face" of a voice. The voice-acting on this is pretty rad. Why does Canada always get nice things?

(the CBC is rad as hell)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Re-evaluation time

You know the drill. Sometimes you dismiss an artist/singer as "not your cup of tea" for many years.

Curiously, you reinvestigate and suddenly, BAM, you totally get what they're trying to do. And you can't remember why exactly you didn't like so-and-so, even when you go back to what you had previously experienced when making your first evaluation.

That's happened big-time for me with Eleanor Steber and to a lesser extent Hildegard Behrens.

As you may know, Hildegard Behrens recently passed away in Japan. Obits and retrospectives and starting to sprout, and in the manner of hagiography, more people are speaking of her refulgent and glorious voice than I think were willing to do so while she was still alive (but not actively performing).

The best description I've read of her as an artist is "a true artist adroitly handling an indifferent voice" (JJ of parterre [I believe] when comparing Behrens to a singer who indifferently handled a marvelous voice). The minor revelation came when Nick Scholl posted clips of Behrens in a 1994 outing of Elektra at the Met.

For considerable stretches of the singing, there is a new body to the sound that I hadn't associated with her voice (certainly not present in the singing of the Farberin for Solti) which I always had thought rather washed out pastel in tone color. Slightly whiny and weak-sounding, even though the voice by all accounts had impressive thrust and cut.

These Elektra clips show a more balanced voice -- an upper register that, for the most part, feels anchored in one place rather than the unstable, moorless sound I first associated with her.

Here is an impressive Isolde from Behrens (comparatively early in '81 with Bernstein conducting). The connection is in place. It's certainly more consistent than even in the Elektra.

Weh, ganz allein!

This is in marked contrast with her Kaiserin (it's more dramatic in comparison to her Farberin, but that isn't on the interwebbbbssss)

(Also, why does lesbian sex come up when I do a google video search for "hildegard behrens mozart"?)

Speaking of this very "aria" -- this is the very aria that caused me to re-evaluate Eleanor Steber. I had listened early on to a couple clips -- I think the Ballatella from Pagliacci, a Spectre de la rose (which I thought very bruising after Crespin's, which might be an unfair comparison, since it irrevocably redefined modern conceptions of the piece away from what Maggie Teyte held), but it certainly wasn't this stunning Come scoglio (English) (bonus picture in the last couple minutes of young Steber looking like Renee Fleming).

Steber was famously always fighting what she thought was Met's management underutilization of her. Terribly undiplomatic is how I think people would put it if they were kind. In any event, she arranged a Carnegie Hall recital in which she trotted out an INSANE lineup. The Kaiserin's first act Aria, her Third Act monologue, Qui la voce from Puritani, and a whole crapton of others.

Listening to the below, it brings everything back to focus. I get her singing now.

Ist mein Liebster dahin?

Pace pace

(She has some freaky eye movements though, which makes me think she might have been kind of unbelievable whilst acting. No such worries about Behrens (and OMG, Crespin's performance demeanor is stunning. You can't take your eyes off her) -- while for me, she crosses over a bit into over-the-top flaily flail that Dessay does a lot (and I like not so much in her case either), I haven't ever seen her "singing" even when the camera is shoved in her face. Steber definitely is singing, however well, in the closeups of the Ballatella.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Why stop there?

In the bonus portion of the Glyndebourne DVD of Poppea, so and so talks about the first production of Poppea directed by Raymond Leppard. His orchestration is pretty out of current taste when dealing with this period of rep, but at the time, it was fresh, new, and because it was only the very beginning of the historically informed performance movement, it was a miracle at all it was put on.

But, there is this hangover of making certain decisions: if so and so were alive today, he (because women composers aside from Strozzi?) would have looooooved the piano/modern horns/non-gut strings that don't go out of tune at the drop of a hat/etc.

The problem is -- why stop there? I had a lesson with Katherine sensei who said (and she was addressing this to deleterious vocal practices [in her view] at the altar of HIP performances) that Beethoven would have picked a piano over a pianoforte. But I also bet he would have loved the shit out of an electric guitar. Mozart too. Like, saxophone concerti, hellllooo! And Bach? He's totally be all over this theremin and ondes martenot stuff.

Ok ok, so the issue is that there are no real ancient counterparts for all this stuff, so it's not like you can perform the Goldberg Variations on electric guitars and call that equivalent to playing it on a piano. It is, after all, written for a keyboard. (Most annoyingly, modern audiences still have gender hangups with respect to baroque operas where gender performance was more fluid -- any sort of modern benefit of having a Baritone Cesare is outweighed by the violence done to registral/timbral choices of the composer)

But here's the thing -- I bet you that almost every composer would have loved the bejeezus out of amplification. And that's a dirty word to classically-trained vocalists now. But for every argument that people make about so and so loving the piano over the harpsichord or pianoforte -- I can point to cultural reactions to the Mannheim Rocket and 17th and 18th century practice of writing for and employing on the opera stage brilliant performers with incomplete vocal techniques.

Nancy Storace, the various Venetian singers at the birth of opera, Schikaneder, the list is much longer. Modern amplification of voices would allow these works to be performed for larger audiences. Composers could pick compelling stage performers who haven't the dynamic range naturally or via training to project throughout a huge space. But somehow this is super-anathema to the modern classical music community. And I'm pretty convinced composers revered in the classical canon would have gone for it. classical music filled with super stuffy people? Probably. Should those making adjustments to works of dead composers invoking what said composers would have done if they were alive be more careful about their justifications? Undoubtedly. Could we stand to redefine classical music in a way that doesn't come across as bizarre neo-ludditeness? YES. I want to do this.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Yesterday was marked by a couple events. One, I managed to become much more proficient in hands-free bike-riding. Second, on said bike ride, I saw an aggressive roadbiker take a nasty spill (and helped him, natch). Third, homemade burgers are the booooomb. Fourth, this fresh butter from a farm in NC (which I visited this weekend) is also the bomb.

But the first one is the biggie. It's such a visceral pleasure to figure out how to do something -- how it's mainly a physical coordinative process gently led by quick analysis of what's needed.

As MRR would say: "it's soccer player intelligence"

Saturday, August 15, 2009

return from hiatus

Life got bumpy but it's now back on track. During the craziness, I managed to drop a couple bucks on the Jeffrey Tate recording of Berg's Lulu. I haven't made it very far, but so far, it's kind of irritating. Patricia Wise has a luxuriant sound and the range for Lulu, but the intense animal magnetism required for the plot is missing (I imagine it's harder on a recording, but even on stage, the role is complicated enough that from a sheer sound standpoint, the character has to be magnetic). Also, the pitches are kind of sloppily handled, sigh. It makes me want to take another listen to the Reck recording of Acts 1 and 2 + suite. I remember Anat Efraty being a very compelling Lulu, but it's been at least since college that I've listened to it.

In a way, I think the approach to Lulu is symptomatic of what a friend calls a basic acting mistake: basing a character around adjectives rather than nouns. A mutual friend of hers and mine was participating in a (med school) production of the Vagina Monologues and was kind of wigged out about acting/being on stage. My friend (who at the time was in the 2nd year at Tisch) told her not to think about being "sexy" or "alluring" or any adjective because then the character dissipates and there's no believability, no cohesion. Instead, think of nouns. Med school friend decided that she wanted to be a motivational speaker (she was excellent). So the trouble with characters like Lulu who compel the sexual attentions of all the other characters tend to be incredibly fractured. And the sinuousness and gorgeousness and appeal built into the music is teased even further to the point of distortion. Indeed, I think this is a huuuuge problem. It's a big feature of Fleming's singing nowadays (in which the large architectural cohesion of the piece suffers at the highlighting of every damned note, genuine desire to communicate notwithstanding), but it's also nascent in a CD recital of Jan De Gaetani's that I was listening to in the car today -- aaaaand Danielle de Niese's performance of Poppea on the Glyndebourne DVD that was the partner purchase of the Lulu.

Poppea needs to be enormously sensuous and appealing. It's part of the plot. And Monteverdi's put it into the very bones of the music. But it's just completely overdone and isn't appealing at all -- rather like a stunning person who is just trying too damned hard and comes down on the side of looking incredibly desperate rather than tantalizing. There are people who seek out trainwrecks so as to capitalize on that desperation, but let's face it -- it's usually repellent (though maybe that's kind of a hot reading for how corrupt Nero and devastatingly disturbed Ottone are drawn to her, she who keeps no loyalties).

I have another thought arising from the musical side of the DVD and Raymond Leppard and all sorts of justifying practices/decisions encountered in classical music, but that'll be for tomorrah.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Evelyn Glennie

Watch this -- you'll thank me. Unless you won't. but who knows -- this is incredible.