Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 21, 2007

Wagner Without Tears

A commenter asks if I can recommend any performances conducted by the German conductor Hermann Abendroth (1883-1956). Abendroth was the “only conductor who ever made me genuinely love anything by Wagner,” says the commenter, citing a 1943 Parsifal from Bayreuth. Abendroth, who mainly conducted in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and East Germany, also produced dynamic recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony circa 1950, of which two, with the Berlin and Leipzig Radio Symphonies, have been reprinted on CD by Tahra.

Must music-lovers look to conductors like Herbert von Karajan or Karl Böhm, to name just two, as the final Wagnerian authorities? Yes, Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite who probably would have approved of Hitler’s Final Solution. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a fascist to produce great Wagnerian performances.

Try listening to the conductor who was—with good reason—considered the truest Wagnerian at Bayreuth and Salzburg, until his anti-Fascist convictions made him refuse to perform there in the 1930’s: Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957). Volume Seven of RCA’s Immortal Toscanini series is devoted to Toscanini’s fearlessly virtuosic performances of Wagner with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” from Götterdämmerung has its typically intense dramatic emotional imagery—it sounds like a noble person has died and we are mourning him with grandeur—along with high intellectual clarity. (We can actually see Toscanini conduct Wagner on Volumes One and Four of “Toscanini—The Television Concerts 1948-52” on DVD from Testament.)

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A commenter asks if I can recommend any performances conducted by the German conductor Hermann Abendroth (1883-1956). Abendroth was the “only conductor who ever made me genuinely love anything by Wagner,” says the commenter, citing a 1943 Parsifal from Bayreuth. Abendroth, who mainly conducted in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and East Germany, also produced dynamic recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony circa 1950, of which two, with the Berlin and Leipzig Radio Symphonies, have been reprinted on CD by Tahra.

Must music-lovers look to conductors like Herbert von Karajan or Karl Böhm, to name just two, as the final Wagnerian authorities? Yes, Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite who probably would have approved of Hitler’s Final Solution. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a fascist to produce great Wagnerian performances.

Try listening to the conductor who was—with good reason—considered the truest Wagnerian at Bayreuth and Salzburg, until his anti-Fascist convictions made him refuse to perform there in the 1930’s: Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957). Volume Seven of RCA’s Immortal Toscanini series is devoted to Toscanini’s fearlessly virtuosic performances of Wagner with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” from Götterdämmerung has its typically intense dramatic emotional imagery—it sounds like a noble person has died and we are mourning him with grandeur—along with high intellectual clarity. (We can actually see Toscanini conduct Wagner on Volumes One and Four of “Toscanini—The Television Concerts 1948-52” on DVD from Testament.)

Another of the greatest Wagnerians is Pierre Monteux (1875–1964), a French Jew whose exultant embrace of life expresses the inherent sensuality in Wagner’s music. His performances are available on CD’s from the EMI Great Conductors and BBC Legends series, as well as a fascinating 10-CD box set from Music & Arts, Sunday Evenings With Pierre Monteux. And how about Fritz Busch (1890-1951)? Busch’s musical career might well have flourished under the Third Reich—he was of Aryan birth—but his principles pushed him into exile from Germany. Busch’s exalted 1936 performance of Parsifal at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires has been released on CD by Marston. This performance features a number of great talents, including the bass Alexander Kipnis, a Ukrainian Jew who would later be forced into exile by Hitler’s regime.

Other must-hear conductors of Wagner include Italy’s Guido Cantelli (1920-1956), who spent most of World War II in concentration camps because of his brave anti-Fascist activities. Cantelli’s fervently poetic performances of Wagner with the Philharmonia have been reprinted by Testament. The Czech maestro Karel Ančerl (1908-1973) was interned in Terezín and Auschwitz (where his family was killed), yet after the war he recorded a pellucid and humane version of the “Prelude to Act I” of Lohengrin with the Czech Philharmonic, reprinted on Supraphon.

Conductors of moral rigor and human depth like Toscanini, Cantelli, and Ančerl overcame the historical stain on Wagner’s music to find its inner value. And thankfully, listeners today need not be limited to historical performances from the Third Reich to find the “real” Wagner.

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Our Unshakeable September 10th Mentality

Suppose a CIA officer stationed in Madrid identifies an al-Qaeda operative by the name, let’s say, of Jihad Jihadi, and observes him talking on a cellphone. Using tradecraft taught on the Farm—the agency training camp back in Virginia—the CIA officer skillfully manages to find out the cellphone’s number and then puts in a request to the National Security Agency, the U.S. government’s signals-intelligence arm, to scoop up all conversations from the phone and have them translated. Can it be lawfully done?

Even if it turns out that the number Mr. Jihadi is telephoning belongs to a man named, say, Osama Fatwa, who is a pupil in a flight school in Florida where he is studying how to fly 747′s but not to land them, and even though Mr. Jihadi is located on foreign soil, the NSA might nonetheless be compelled to decline the CIA request.

Michael McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, explains in an op-ed in today’s Washington Post:

Many Americans would be surprised at just what the current law requires. To state the facts plainly: In a significant number of cases, our intelligence agencies must obtain a court order to monitor the communications of foreigners suspected of terrorist activity who are physically located in foreign countries.

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Suppose a CIA officer stationed in Madrid identifies an al-Qaeda operative by the name, let’s say, of Jihad Jihadi, and observes him talking on a cellphone. Using tradecraft taught on the Farm—the agency training camp back in Virginia—the CIA officer skillfully manages to find out the cellphone’s number and then puts in a request to the National Security Agency, the U.S. government’s signals-intelligence arm, to scoop up all conversations from the phone and have them translated. Can it be lawfully done?

Even if it turns out that the number Mr. Jihadi is telephoning belongs to a man named, say, Osama Fatwa, who is a pupil in a flight school in Florida where he is studying how to fly 747′s but not to land them, and even though Mr. Jihadi is located on foreign soil, the NSA might nonetheless be compelled to decline the CIA request.

Michael McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, explains in an op-ed in today’s Washington Post:

Many Americans would be surprised at just what the current law requires. To state the facts plainly: In a significant number of cases, our intelligence agencies must obtain a court order to monitor the communications of foreigners suspected of terrorist activity who are physically located in foreign countries.

In the aftermath of September 11, such restrictions—a consequence of the 1978 FISA Act—were rightly viewed as dangerously anachronistic, and President Bush set in motion his top-secret Terrorist Surveillance Program, under which the NSA was authorized to tap the conversations and intercept the emails of suspected terrorists without a warrant, if one party in the conversation was located abroad.
 
The New York Times revealed the existence of this program in December 2005, arguably compromising it, and the disclosure has been roiling our politics ever since. Whatever damage to our national security was inflicted by our newspaper of record, McConnell is urgently pushing for reform of FISA. “Technology and threats have changed,” he notes, “but the law remains essentially the same,” and our failure to keep pace “comes at an increasingly steep price.”
 
What exactly is that steep price? We made a downpayment with attacks on our embassies in Africa in 1998 and a major installment with the horrors of September 11, 2001. The fact is that tracking terrorist communications would be a problematic enterprise even if we were not tying our hands behind our backs. Insight into the tremendous difficulties involved comes from a recently declassified—and heavily redacted—top-secret NSA report looking back at the agency’s counterterrorism efforts in the 1970′s.
 
The report acknowledges that as terrorism emerged as a significant security concern in that era, with the rise of the Japanese Red Army, the Italian Red Brigades, and numerous Palestinian groups taking the lead, the NSA was “slow to take up the problem” and its “overall approach was rather haphazard.”

The explanation offered for the NSA’s lackluster response is that the signals-intelligence profile of a terrorist group was markedly different from the conventional military and diplomatic communications profile that the agency was accustomed to monitoring. “For the most part, terrorist groups lacked dedicated communications systems,” and as a result, the NSA was “confronted with the prospect of picking out the needles of terrorist transmissions in the haystack of [XXXXXX].” The nature of the “haystack” remains classified and the words defining it were excised from the report. But we do not have to guess in the dark. The report explains the essential difficulty: “the volume of traffic was so high, and the nature of terrorist communications so subtle, that finding anything transmitted by terrorists was problematic.”
 
Technology may have changed a great deal since the 1970’s, but the nature of terrorist communication has not. As in the 9/11 plot, terrorists cells are tiny and they do not use dedicated communications systems. Our intelligence agencies are still looking for a needle in haystack. Are we going to strew obstacles in their way beyond the formidable technological ones that are intrinsic to the problem? Or to put the question another way, are we in the grip of an unshakeable September 10th mentality and determined to set ourselves up for catastrophic failure once again?
 

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China’s Buying Spree

Yesterday, China announced that it is investing $3 billion of its foreign exchange reserves in the Blackstone Group, a New York private equity firm. The investment gives Beijing a potentially higher return on its $1.2 trillion of reserves, which are currently invested mostly in low-yielding debt instruments.

There are few coincidences involving China, and the timing of the announcement comes at a crucial time in Sino-American relations. A large Chinese delegation arrives in Washington this week for the second round of the Strategic Economic Dialogue. It will have limited flexibility and, as I explained in an earlier post, will not be able to make many concessions to the United States. This is also a politically sensitive moment within China, on account of the 17th Communist Party Congress, which will be held later this year.

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Yesterday, China announced that it is investing $3 billion of its foreign exchange reserves in the Blackstone Group, a New York private equity firm. The investment gives Beijing a potentially higher return on its $1.2 trillion of reserves, which are currently invested mostly in low-yielding debt instruments.

There are few coincidences involving China, and the timing of the announcement comes at a crucial time in Sino-American relations. A large Chinese delegation arrives in Washington this week for the second round of the Strategic Economic Dialogue. It will have limited flexibility and, as I explained in an earlier post, will not be able to make many concessions to the United States. This is also a politically sensitive moment within China, on account of the 17th Communist Party Congress, which will be held later this year.

The Chinese have tried to lower the temperature before the Washington talks. They went on a buying spree of U.S. products recently—a tactic employed in the past—and on Friday they marginally loosened controls on the renminbi to defuse anger in Congress over their rigging of their currency. These maneuvers are transparent and will not help Beijing alter its well-deserved image as a trade outlaw. But the Chinese apparently think that the Blackstone investment could change the political calculus in this country—they rushed to close the deal before the talks, putting it together in just three weeks. It’s not far-fetched to see in this an attempt by Beijing to use its mountain of foreign cash to buy influence.

The investment in the Blackstone Group will not be as sensitive as China’s attempt, in 2005, to buy Unocal. Nonetheless, it may be more significant, foreshadowing a trend. As Xinhua, Beijing’s official news agency, stated earlier this year, China’s foreign-exchange reserves are sufficient to “buy Microsoft, Citibank, and Exxon Mobil Corp., as well as General Motors and Ford.” This is a good time to begin thinking about how much of corporate America should be owned by this authoritarian state.

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