Commentary Magazine


Topic: Richard Strauss

Bookshelf

• The last time I had occasion to write about the late, unlamented Edward W. Said in COMMENTARY, I called him “an intellectual thug who poses as a thoughtful, troubled citizen of the world while simultaneously serving as an apologist for Arab terrorism.” Now I find myself confronted with a posthumous collection of his essays on music, most of them originally published in The Nation, and so I suppose you are entitled to take with a stalactite of salt the fact that I didn’t think much of Music at the Limits. Nevertheless, I feel bound by duty to report that Said’s music criticism, next to none of which I had read prior to examining this volume, isn’t very good—though not always for the reasons I’d expected.

Said was, of course, an amateur pianist of what I take to have been considerable seriousness, and when such folk write about music, they not infrequently combine technical understanding with breadth of culture to interesting effect. Thus I was hugely surprised to find that in his capacity as a music critic, he was a merchant of bromides, of which choice specimens can be found by opening Music at the Limits virtually at random. I especially like the clunkingly obvious sentences with which he invariably launches his essays:

Glenn Gould is an exception to almost all the other musical performers in this century.

Pianists retain a remarkable hold on our cultural life.

Reading the brief but intelligent article on festivals in Grove’s Dictionary, you become aware of the deep divergence between premodern music festivals as symbolic rituals connected with religion and agriculture and modern music festivals as commemorations of great composers or as commercial and tourist attractions.

Nearly half a century after his death, Richard Strauss’s role in twentieth-century music remains an unresolved matter.

I have always agreed with Richard Wagner about the Jews.

O.K., I made that last one up. But the first four sentences quoted above really do kick off the first four chapters of Music at the Limits, and there’s plenty more where they came from. How is it possible that the editors of The Nation thought such platitudinous stuff worthy of publication without extensive and ruthless editing? The truth is that Edward Said had next to nothing fresh or individual to say about music, and I can only explain the fact that he was allowed to say what he had to say at such enervating length in so widely admired a publication by the sheer novelty of its having being said by so celebrated a scholar. Alas, that didn’t and doesn’t make it any less boring.

As for the matter of Wagner and the Jews, Said did in fact describe the anti-Semitic views of the composer of Die Meistersinger as “vile” and “despicable,” though he also disapproved of the Israeli ban on public performances of Wagner’s music (no surprise there) and apparently found it impossible to discuss the subject without dragging in the subject of Israeli-Palestinian relations (ditto). He also says pretty much what you’d expect him to say about John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer:

But as you sit there watching this vast work unfold, you need to ask yourself how many times you have seen any substantial work of music or dramatic or literary or pictorial art that actually tries to treat the Palestinians as tragically aggrieved, albeit sometimes criminally intent, people. The answer is never, and you must go on to ask Messrs.-the-nonideological-music-and-culture-critics whether they ever complain about works that are skewed the other way, or whether for instance, in the flood of images and words that assert that Israel is a democracy, any of them note that 2 million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza have fewer rights than South African blacks had during the worst days of apartheid, and that the paeans and the $77 billion sent to Israel from the United States were keeping the Palestinian people endlessly oppressed?

Whatever else that is or isn’t, it definitely isn’t criticism. Or good writing. Or interesting.

• The last time I had occasion to write about the late, unlamented Edward W. Said in COMMENTARY, I called him “an intellectual thug who poses as a thoughtful, troubled citizen of the world while simultaneously serving as an apologist for Arab terrorism.” Now I find myself confronted with a posthumous collection of his essays on music, most of them originally published in The Nation, and so I suppose you are entitled to take with a stalactite of salt the fact that I didn’t think much of Music at the Limits. Nevertheless, I feel bound by duty to report that Said’s music criticism, next to none of which I had read prior to examining this volume, isn’t very good—though not always for the reasons I’d expected.

Said was, of course, an amateur pianist of what I take to have been considerable seriousness, and when such folk write about music, they not infrequently combine technical understanding with breadth of culture to interesting effect. Thus I was hugely surprised to find that in his capacity as a music critic, he was a merchant of bromides, of which choice specimens can be found by opening Music at the Limits virtually at random. I especially like the clunkingly obvious sentences with which he invariably launches his essays:

Glenn Gould is an exception to almost all the other musical performers in this century.

Pianists retain a remarkable hold on our cultural life.

Reading the brief but intelligent article on festivals in Grove’s Dictionary, you become aware of the deep divergence between premodern music festivals as symbolic rituals connected with religion and agriculture and modern music festivals as commemorations of great composers or as commercial and tourist attractions.

Nearly half a century after his death, Richard Strauss’s role in twentieth-century music remains an unresolved matter.

I have always agreed with Richard Wagner about the Jews.

O.K., I made that last one up. But the first four sentences quoted above really do kick off the first four chapters of Music at the Limits, and there’s plenty more where they came from. How is it possible that the editors of The Nation thought such platitudinous stuff worthy of publication without extensive and ruthless editing? The truth is that Edward Said had next to nothing fresh or individual to say about music, and I can only explain the fact that he was allowed to say what he had to say at such enervating length in so widely admired a publication by the sheer novelty of its having being said by so celebrated a scholar. Alas, that didn’t and doesn’t make it any less boring.

As for the matter of Wagner and the Jews, Said did in fact describe the anti-Semitic views of the composer of Die Meistersinger as “vile” and “despicable,” though he also disapproved of the Israeli ban on public performances of Wagner’s music (no surprise there) and apparently found it impossible to discuss the subject without dragging in the subject of Israeli-Palestinian relations (ditto). He also says pretty much what you’d expect him to say about John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer:

But as you sit there watching this vast work unfold, you need to ask yourself how many times you have seen any substantial work of music or dramatic or literary or pictorial art that actually tries to treat the Palestinians as tragically aggrieved, albeit sometimes criminally intent, people. The answer is never, and you must go on to ask Messrs.-the-nonideological-music-and-culture-critics whether they ever complain about works that are skewed the other way, or whether for instance, in the flood of images and words that assert that Israel is a democracy, any of them note that 2 million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza have fewer rights than South African blacks had during the worst days of apartheid, and that the paeans and the $77 billion sent to Israel from the United States were keeping the Palestinian people endlessly oppressed?

Whatever else that is or isn’t, it definitely isn’t criticism. Or good writing. Or interesting.

Read Less

What’s Up With Itzhak?

The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”

A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”

For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.

Read More

The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”

A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”

For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.

Instrumentalists who are “naturals” as conductors are few. One example is Peter Oundjian (born 1955), former first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, now Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director of New York’s Caramoor Music Festival. Oundjian has proven a passionate maestro with a real sense of symphonic line, who motivates both orchestral musicians and soloists to surpass themselves artistically. A decade older than Oundjian, Perlman may have left playing for conducting a bit late in his career.

Music fans will always rejoice in the best of Perlman’s sweet-toned, dazzlingly effortless playing, which can be heard on a recently reissued 1965 New York recital with pianist David Garvey, and in the delightful camaraderie of Isaac Stern’s 60th Anniversary Celebration, starring the so-called “Kosher Nostra” of Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, et al. Perlman is joyously virtuosic in a 1976 Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, in delightful miniatures by Fritz Kreisler, and in a program of rare Romantic works usually only played by students, Concertos from my Childhood.

Itzhak Perlman has won the hearts of a vast music-going public with his emotional playing, indomitable spirit, and sometimes raucous sense of humor. Westchester audiences surely will give him the benefit of the doubt and cheer his on-the-job training as conductor. Yet by the evidence so far, his main achievement looks likely to remain, first and foremost, as a violinist.

Read Less

Old Gould

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) would have celebrated his 75th birthday on September 25, had he not died of an untimely stroke on October 4, 25 years ago. These two anniversaries have sufficed for a great deal of worldwide hoopla, from the naming in his honor of a plaza in his native Toronto, to a commemorative envelope issued by the Canadian post office. Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization is offering a major exhibit, “Glenn Gould: The Sounds of Genius,” which runs through August 10, 2008. Sony/BMG, Gould’s longtime record company, is reissuing an 80-CD “complete original jacket” box set as an import. This offers a good occasion for an evaluation of Gould’s contribution, not a “re-performance” of “The Goldberg Variations”—which, in any event, already has been attempted, as I described in a previous post for contentions.

Setting aside the endless stories of his personal eccentricity and hypochondria, Gould’s musicianship could be brilliant when bizarreness did not intrude, making him the Bobby Fischer of classical music (before Fischer’s latest, definitive dip into darkness). Although Gould is unmistakably linked with Bach, whom he played with a jittery, edgy verve, he claimed to prefer the music of Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), and indeed, his CD of Gibbons and other English masters like William Byrd has an entrancing dignity and poise absent from many of his other recordings. Gould’s very lack of empyrean calm may have helped in the modern romantic repertoire, and he was an invigoratingly dramatic performer of Prokofiev and Scriabin, as well as of Richard Strauss. Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, long dismissed as arid, were rediscovered with unsurpassed dazzle by Gould. In neo-classical works by Paul Hindemith, which can seem all too Apollonian in other hands, Gould’s storm and stress add contemporary, improvisational skittishness, also ideal for chamber works by Francis Poulenc and Dmitry Shostakovich.

Read More

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) would have celebrated his 75th birthday on September 25, had he not died of an untimely stroke on October 4, 25 years ago. These two anniversaries have sufficed for a great deal of worldwide hoopla, from the naming in his honor of a plaza in his native Toronto, to a commemorative envelope issued by the Canadian post office. Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization is offering a major exhibit, “Glenn Gould: The Sounds of Genius,” which runs through August 10, 2008. Sony/BMG, Gould’s longtime record company, is reissuing an 80-CD “complete original jacket” box set as an import. This offers a good occasion for an evaluation of Gould’s contribution, not a “re-performance” of “The Goldberg Variations”—which, in any event, already has been attempted, as I described in a previous post for contentions.

Setting aside the endless stories of his personal eccentricity and hypochondria, Gould’s musicianship could be brilliant when bizarreness did not intrude, making him the Bobby Fischer of classical music (before Fischer’s latest, definitive dip into darkness). Although Gould is unmistakably linked with Bach, whom he played with a jittery, edgy verve, he claimed to prefer the music of Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), and indeed, his CD of Gibbons and other English masters like William Byrd has an entrancing dignity and poise absent from many of his other recordings. Gould’s very lack of empyrean calm may have helped in the modern romantic repertoire, and he was an invigoratingly dramatic performer of Prokofiev and Scriabin, as well as of Richard Strauss. Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, long dismissed as arid, were rediscovered with unsurpassed dazzle by Gould. In neo-classical works by Paul Hindemith, which can seem all too Apollonian in other hands, Gould’s storm and stress add contemporary, improvisational skittishness, also ideal for chamber works by Francis Poulenc and Dmitry Shostakovich.

Some readers may be allergic to the Second Vienna School, but Gould was one of the rare pianists (like Italy’s Maurizio Pollini, who played Arnold Schoenberg’s works with genuine love. A 1960’s meeting with violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the Schoenberg “Phantasy,” has a feeling of affection (tied to Gould’s admiration for Menuhin) unmatched in the discography. A gentler version of Schoenberg’s modernist investigations came from the Norwegian composer Fartein Valen (1887– 1952). Gould found spooky poetry in Valen’s work, too.

All of these achievements are essential elements of Gould’s artistry, and those who love—or dismiss—Gould based on his Bach recordings alone are missing the forest for the trees. Some who admire Gould’s Bach have missed his obsessively intense recording of Johann Sebastian’s “Art of Fugue” on the organ. Yes, Gould’s “Goldberg Variations” from 1955 and 1981 are both remarkable, but they are not the summa of all things Gouldian. Yes, there are bad recordings by Gould, like his Mozart sonatas (music he despised) or his famously ungainly 1962 Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Leonard Bernstein. Yet the best of Gould is splendid indeed.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• Is the Holocaust a fit subject for novelists? It’s tempting to reply with the oft-quoted words of Terence, the Roman playwright who declared that “nothing human is alien to me.” As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made surpassingly clear, it is possible to make humane art out of the most monstrous of historical events. But if there is any act of human monstrosity that resists fictional treatment—especially by those who did not witness it at first hand—it is the Holocaust. The very phrase “Holocaust fiction” makes me squirm, and to look at a list of novels in which that dread occurrence figures is to be struck by how few have succeeded as art, whatever their value as testaments of man’s inhumanity to man. The more I reflect on the problem of Holocaust fiction, the more I find myself inclined to echo Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Be that as it may, novelists continue to grapple with the Holocaust, and on occasion something readable emerges from the struggle. Eugene Drucker’s The Savior is by no means a great novel, but it is exceedingly thought-provoking, and it also has something interesting to say about one of the deepest mysteries of the Third Reich, which is the corrupting effect it had on German art. Drucker comes by his interest in this subject honestly, for he is not a novelist de métier but a member of the world-renowned Emerson Quartet, and his father, a violinist who played in the Busch Quartet, got out of Germany in 1938, just in time. Small wonder, then, that his violin-playig son should feel moved to reflect on the nature of Hitler’s appeal to the artists of the Third Reich.

Read More

• Is the Holocaust a fit subject for novelists? It’s tempting to reply with the oft-quoted words of Terence, the Roman playwright who declared that “nothing human is alien to me.” As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made surpassingly clear, it is possible to make humane art out of the most monstrous of historical events. But if there is any act of human monstrosity that resists fictional treatment—especially by those who did not witness it at first hand—it is the Holocaust. The very phrase “Holocaust fiction” makes me squirm, and to look at a list of novels in which that dread occurrence figures is to be struck by how few have succeeded as art, whatever their value as testaments of man’s inhumanity to man. The more I reflect on the problem of Holocaust fiction, the more I find myself inclined to echo Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Be that as it may, novelists continue to grapple with the Holocaust, and on occasion something readable emerges from the struggle. Eugene Drucker’s The Savior is by no means a great novel, but it is exceedingly thought-provoking, and it also has something interesting to say about one of the deepest mysteries of the Third Reich, which is the corrupting effect it had on German art. Drucker comes by his interest in this subject honestly, for he is not a novelist de métier but a member of the world-renowned Emerson Quartet, and his father, a violinist who played in the Busch Quartet, got out of Germany in 1938, just in time. Small wonder, then, that his violin-playig son should feel moved to reflect on the nature of Hitler’s appeal to the artists of the Third Reich.

That a considerable number of German artists approved of Hitler, or at least cooperated more or less willingly with the Nazi regime, is incontestable. As I wrote four years ago in COMMENTARY:

The list of distinguished non-Jewish artists who left the country after Hitler came to power is brief to the point of invisibility when placed next to the rogues’ gallery of those who stayed behind, in many cases not merely accepting the inevitability of Nazi rule but actively collaborating with the regime. The composers Carl Orff and Richard Strauss, the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, the Nobel Prize-winning author Gerhart Hauptmann, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the actor Emil Jannings, the stage designer Caspar Neher—all these and many more were perfectly prepared to make their peace with Nazism.

Gottfried Keller, the central character of The Savior, is a small fish in this big sewer, a good-but-not-great violinist who in the last weeks of World War II is forced to take part in a a grotesque “experiment” devised by the music-loving commandant of a forced-labor camp. The purpose of the experiment is to find out whether exposure to classical music will raise the spirits of the camp’s demoralized Jewish inmates high enough to increase their efficiency. Later on in the novel, we learn that Keller was once engaged to a Jewish musician who gave him the opportunity to emigrate to Palestine, but that he chose to remain in Germany instead, and by book’s end we come to realize that this fateful decision has made him an “accomplice” (Drucker’s word) to the Holocaust.

This is Drucker’s first novel, but he has written many program notes for the Emerson Quartet’s concerts, and from time to time he disgorges undigested chunks of technical language that betray his inexperience as a writer of fiction (“An accelerando leads to a Presto that plummets from the highest to the lowest registers, where the music briefly regains its repose”). For the most part, though, he tells his terrible tale with an appropriate plainness. Moreover, Drucker is well aware of the difficulty of saying anything meaningful about the Holocaust through the medium of fiction, going so far as to put the following words into the mouth of one of the inmates of the unnamed camp portrayed in The Savior:

I can’t tell anyone here what I’ve seen. It would be a useless repetition of their story, of what they’ve seen; it would be self-indulgent, a way of asking for sympathy. There’s no place for sympathy here. Only an outsider, who understands maybe one-millionth of it, could feel an emotion like sympathy.

Does The Savior add to our understanding of the camps? Not really. But what I did find striking was its author’s willingness to engage directly with the implications of Hitler’s homicidal dream of purifying German art and culture through mass murder. The commandant is made to speak for all the artists and intellectuals who allowed themselves to share that dream, whether in whole or in part: “You’re surprised to find a cultivated man in charge of such a place. But then you have no idea how closely these camps are related to the core of our culture.” And were they? That we should still be asking that question is a measure of Adolf Hitler’s dark victory over the German soul.

Read Less

Maestros Debunked

If you talk to orchestral musicians, inevitably the conversation turns to complaints, sometimes of intense vehemence, about conductors. Indiana University Press has just given us, in The Right Place, The Right Time!: Tales of Chicago Symphony Days by distinguished flutist Donald Peck, one of the most candid examples in print of this phenomenon.

For over 40 years, Peck was principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he played under four music directors and made 300 records with the group. Highlights included recordings of Richard Strauss with the fiery conductor Fritz Reiner (1888–1963), the orchestra’s music director from 1953 to 1962. Peck reports that after recording Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan in a single take, “Reiner sat on the podium looking completely fulfilled.” Peck also lauds the “symbiotic relationship” between the CSO and its director from 1969 to 1991, the Hungarian-born Georg Solti, despite Solti’s rehearsal habit of addressing the orchestra in garbled English: “I need a few help,” “I will faster as I was,” and “Softer your noise passion.”

Read More

If you talk to orchestral musicians, inevitably the conversation turns to complaints, sometimes of intense vehemence, about conductors. Indiana University Press has just given us, in The Right Place, The Right Time!: Tales of Chicago Symphony Days by distinguished flutist Donald Peck, one of the most candid examples in print of this phenomenon.

For over 40 years, Peck was principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he played under four music directors and made 300 records with the group. Highlights included recordings of Richard Strauss with the fiery conductor Fritz Reiner (1888–1963), the orchestra’s music director from 1953 to 1962. Peck reports that after recording Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan in a single take, “Reiner sat on the podium looking completely fulfilled.” Peck also lauds the “symbiotic relationship” between the CSO and its director from 1969 to 1991, the Hungarian-born Georg Solti, despite Solti’s rehearsal habit of addressing the orchestra in garbled English: “I need a few help,” “I will faster as I was,” and “Softer your noise passion.”

Less amusing was the CSO’s relationship with star conductors like Christoph Eschenbach, whose “stick technique was not good” and his interpretations “very mannered and fussy, with tempos getting slower with each performance,” according to Peck. George Szell, a legend in Cleveland, was dismissed by the CSO players as “too much of a pedant” who “made mistakes on the podium,” resulting in performances which were “rife with conductorial errors.” The noted Swiss maestro Günter Wand (1912-2002) was found guilty of “rude behavior” as well as being “studied, technical, and uninspired.” The Austrian Michael Gielen (b. 1927) was seen by the CSO as “too technical, with no music.” Others, like the Russian-born Yakov Kreizberg and Italian Fernando Previtali “seemed egocentric, with no real musical ideas.”

Given the potential hostility between conductor and musicians, examples of ideal cooperation are to be treasured all the more. Peck rightly praises Claudio Abbado’s CSO recording of Bartók Piano Concertos with soloist Maurizio Pollini on Deutsche Grammophon for being “bright and exciting but in a civil way.” Likewise, Abbado’s performance with the CSO of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite, also on DG, is indeed delectable. Peck also devotes fond word to conductors Pierre Monteux and Leopold Stokowski, whose televised 1960’s CSO performances are must-see viewing on DVD from Video Artists International. Peck also correctly praises the CSO’s Brahms Fourth Symphony on EMI, led by Carlo Maria Giulini, capturing that conductor’s “deep maroon orchestra tone and tragic inner feeling.”

With performances of this magnificence, musicians can afford to be harshly discriminating about conductors, especially when their own artistry is as exemplary as Peck’s, as heard, for example, on a Bach CD from RCA alongside his longtime colleague Samuel Magad, the CSO’s legendary former concertmaster. The Right Place, The Right Time!: Tales of Chicago Symphony Days implies that the next time a concert by a top-flight orchestra disappoints us, we should blame the conductor, not the musicians.

Read Less

Size Doesn’t Matter

Opera is about voices, not bodies. It is an art of long-distance perceptions: only a small portion of the audience is close to the stage, and TV or film distorts the medium entirely. Yet some opera house directors and managers (who cannot tell a good voice from a mediocre one) focus instead on an easier criterion—namely, who looks fat onstage and who looks thin.

The Met soprano Ruth Ann Swenson recently complained that she is underemployed because she is not “skinny enough” for Met general director Peter Gelb, who in his previous job as head of Sony Classical was guilty of promoting the ghastly, shrieking British “crossover” singer Charlotte Church. In 2003, the American soprano Deborah Voigt was fired from a London production of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos because she could not fit into a skimpy costume.

Read More

Opera is about voices, not bodies. It is an art of long-distance perceptions: only a small portion of the audience is close to the stage, and TV or film distorts the medium entirely. Yet some opera house directors and managers (who cannot tell a good voice from a mediocre one) focus instead on an easier criterion—namely, who looks fat onstage and who looks thin.

The Met soprano Ruth Ann Swenson recently complained that she is underemployed because she is not “skinny enough” for Met general director Peter Gelb, who in his previous job as head of Sony Classical was guilty of promoting the ghastly, shrieking British “crossover” singer Charlotte Church. In 2003, the American soprano Deborah Voigt was fired from a London production of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos because she could not fit into a skimpy costume.

Ever since the art of opera developed—its first stars were castratos who became fat after being snipped— singers both fat and thin have gained stardom. Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1941), the Italian coloratura soprano after whom a caloric chicken-and-pastadish was named, would say in her later years: “I am old, I am fat, but I am still Tetrazzini.” Indeed, her buoyant, exuberant performances may be enjoyed on CD reissues from Pearl and Nimbus. The hefty German-born contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936), a legendary glutton, sang with gusto and virtuosity into her 70’s, as CD’s on Nimbus prove.

Other female singers with lower voices followed in the Schumann-Heink tradition, like the stout Italian mezzo-soprano Ebe Stignani in recordings of Bellini’s Norma, with soprano Gina Cigna, and Verdi’s Requiem, alongside tenor Beniamino Gigli. Both recordings are available from Pearl. The most exuberantly overweight singer today is the Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballé (b. 1933), whose soft singing and breath control were superhuman in her prime, as a new EMI set of vocal highlights shows.

Always humorous about her weight, Caballé celebrated her 74th birthday recently in Vienna by paying public tribute to the Sacher-Torte, singing a brief serenade to the dessert before sampling it and then announcing, “Calories don’t exist!” I recall witnessing Caballé’s 1985 performance of Puccini’s Tosca at the Met, during which she eschewed the title character’s traditional jump off the ramparts of the Castel Sant’ Angelo, and instead just walked offstage with dignity. Considering her ravishing singing in “Vissi d’arte,” the aria that preceded her exit, she was forgiven by the audience (if not by some persnickety critics).

Opera is an art of freakish, exceptional beings, not of marketing-friendly looks. If we allow unimaginative directors and opera house bosses to censor singers because they are fat, soon older singers will also be banned, and we will miss great autumnal performances like those of tenor Alfredo Kraus, who sang artfully into his late 60’s. Similar “realistic” criteria are already being used to keep singers of color from being cast in opera roles, especially in Europe. So cheer those fat ladies singing—after all, even Mr. Gelb’s Charlotte Church has put on weight.

Read Less

Rebirth of the Classics

The online classical music vendor ArkivMusic has been developing a sales program that solves one of the great problems besetting CD collectors. Superb classical CD’s are often abruptly withdrawn by record companies for reasons having little or nothing to do with intrinsic quality, and much more to do with marketing ploys and vagaries of taste. The Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff, for instance, is generally considered one of the supreme keyboard artists of our time. But since he stopped recording for Decca, the label has allowed many of Schiff’s CD’s to go out of print in the U.S. Happily, ArkivMusic is offering a solution.

Over 2,700 previously unavailable CD’s (originally released by Universal Classics, EMI, Sony BMG, and smaller labels) can once again be purchased on a production-on-demand basis. The sound quality, according to ArkivMusic, is comparable to that of the originals; the original liner notes are, however, absent. These CD’s include landmarks like Schiff’s delectable recording of Mozart’s Music for Four Hands (played with his mentor, the British pianist George Malcolm). Or Schiff’s exuberant CD’s of Mozart piano concertos with the Hungarian maestro Sandor Végh, formerly unavailable from Decca’s U. S. catalogue. Another newly available summit of Mozart performance (which Decca also allowed to go out of print in the U.S.) is a 1970’s recording of Mozart’s violin sonatas by the wizardly violinist Szymon Goldberg, with Radu Lupu* on piano.

Read More

The online classical music vendor ArkivMusic has been developing a sales program that solves one of the great problems besetting CD collectors. Superb classical CD’s are often abruptly withdrawn by record companies for reasons having little or nothing to do with intrinsic quality, and much more to do with marketing ploys and vagaries of taste. The Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff, for instance, is generally considered one of the supreme keyboard artists of our time. But since he stopped recording for Decca, the label has allowed many of Schiff’s CD’s to go out of print in the U.S. Happily, ArkivMusic is offering a solution.

Over 2,700 previously unavailable CD’s (originally released by Universal Classics, EMI, Sony BMG, and smaller labels) can once again be purchased on a production-on-demand basis. The sound quality, according to ArkivMusic, is comparable to that of the originals; the original liner notes are, however, absent. These CD’s include landmarks like Schiff’s delectable recording of Mozart’s Music for Four Hands (played with his mentor, the British pianist George Malcolm). Or Schiff’s exuberant CD’s of Mozart piano concertos with the Hungarian maestro Sandor Végh, formerly unavailable from Decca’s U. S. catalogue. Another newly available summit of Mozart performance (which Decca also allowed to go out of print in the U.S.) is a 1970’s recording of Mozart’s violin sonatas by the wizardly violinist Szymon Goldberg, with Radu Lupu* on piano.

But ArkivMusic is not just rehabilitating recordings from decades ago. The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’s CD of works by Schumann was nominated for a Grammy in 1998. Yet it too went out of print (although it is well worth hearing today.) The acclaimed young German baritone Matthias Goerne recorded an aria recital in 2000, including youthfully pliant versions of opera excerpts by Wagner and Richard Strauss. Decca let this fine CD, one of Goerne’s best, languish. But both are newly available on ArkivMusic.

Sometimes musical trendiness seems to have determined which recordings labels drop from their catalogues. As the “authentic approach” in Baroque music passed in and out of fashion over the past 30 years, a number of top performances fell by the wayside. In 1977, the Dutch bass Max van Egmond recorded two Bach solo cantatas for Sony Classical, which are among the most elegantly sung Baroque performances ever. Now they can be heard again, as can a brilliant recital of François Couperin’s harpsichord music, originally recorded by Gustav Leonhardt for Philips and long unavailable.

There are dozens of such high points among ArkivMusic’s new offerings. But perhaps the most compelling of all are recordings by the composer Benjamin Britten (also a splendidly sensitive conductor) in a program of British music. Or the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s companion and prescient musical partner, in a program of Elizabethan lute songs with the lutanist Julian Bream. These CD’s are truly authoritative, and we were poorer without them.

*Editing introduced an error, which has since been corrected.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.

If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.

• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50′s and early 60′s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.

• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.

If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.

• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50′s and early 60′s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.

Read Less