Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday Classics diary: I love this theme, especially when it's played like this

by Ken

I love this theme. It's majestic, maybe even monumental, irresistibly forward-moving, even swaggering, and at the same time tender and uplifting -- if I could put it into words, I guess I wouldn't need the music.

Now, the theme can be played kinda fast:

And it can be played kinda slow:

And it can be played the way we just heard it:


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Re. release of the "Senate Torture Report," what might Beethoven's Don Florestan and Donna Leonore have to say?

"We need reliable intelligence," Young Johnny McCranky said today on the Senate floor. And, he insisted, "Torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence."

by Ken

Earlier this evening Howie wrote about the will-they-or-won't-they-release-it situation of the "executive summary" of what I'm just going to call the Senate Torture Report. And he already had me thinking about it yesterday when he passed along the above clip of Young Johnny McCranky on the Senate floor.

As it happened, I took a half sick day this morning, and listened on the radio on to ongoing yammering about the Torture Report release issue, and while most of the commenters -- including local callers-in to WNYC -- were lining up in the expectable ranks for or against, I was made aware that Young Johnny has broken ranks loudly with his normal compadres, the national-security nutjobs for whom any matter slapped with a "national security" label becomes a hot-button issue, whether real national security is really involved or not. I don't have to name names, right? You know the mentality: To invoke "national security" is to end all discussion.

But, as we've known, Young Johnny doesn't toe the "national-security nutjob" line when it comes to torture. And we know that his thinking about the subject comes from a different source than does the "thinking" of, say, "Big Dick" Cheney, who has no reality outside his diseased imagination. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but, having mostly written Young Johnny off as a person of any intellectual or principled responsibility, I'm refreshed to hear him standing by his principles.

And it matters. Because normally when it comes to matters slapped with that "national security" label, it's hard to find turf to his right. Not so here.

In the clip, after acknowledging that, yes, release of the Torture Report summary might lead to violence in some places, but noting that "sadly, violence needs little incentive in some quarters of the world today," and after pointing out that for the world there aren't going to be a lot of surprises in the account of the "degrading treatment" inflicted by American interrogators on terror suspects (black sites, secret prisons, waterboarding -- the standard kaboodle), and arguing that while the report might provide "an excuse" to harm Americans, people who would do so "hardly need an excuse for that," the senator gets to the heart of the mattter:
What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice, and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow. That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials, on the record and in private, that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism. And I suspect the objection of those same officials to the release of this report is really focused on that disclosure: torture's ineffectiveness. Because we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much.


. . . but this afternoon at work I had a set of proofs that really had to get read, especially after my morning's absence. So naturally I was thinking about a blogpost instead. In the hope that it might possibly help me block out outside thoughts, I decided to put on a CD. For various reasons I don't do this much these days, and so I don't have that much on hand in the office. One thing I do have is the 85-disc-or-so Toscanini Complete RCA Collection, and occasionally I'll pull out a disc at random, which is what I did today. It turned out to be a compendium of shorter Beethoven pieces that begins with a Leonore Overture No. 3 from June 1, 1945, and so this is what I found myself listening to with Young Johnny McCranky still talking about torture in my head.

Talk about being "on point" for tyranny, authoritarianism, torture, and the suppression of any awkward information on those subjects! Leonore No. 3 was Beethoven's third attempt at an overture for his only opera, which happens to deal with these very subjects, and after musically recollecting the happier-days memories of the secretly imprisoned and tortured Spanish truth-teller-to-power Don Florestan, the overture evokes the trumpet calls that in the opera will herald the arrival at the prison of the royal minister Don Fernando. Unfortunately for Florestan, his nemesis, the governor of the prison, Don Pizarro, has had just enough advance warning of the Minister's visit to take the necessary step to eliminate any risk of his exposure: planning the elimination of Florestan. In Pizarro's hastily improvised plan, this should cover his ass, and he and the minister can enjoy a lovely session of mutual congratulations.

So here I was trying to read my proofs, and we came to the first lyrical subject of the overture, and I was struck by how beautifully shaped this Toscanini performance is. Beautiful shaping, you have to understand, is something we don't usually think of in connection with Toscanini, at least the later Toscanini who is most familiar from his most-circulated recordings, which are more often thought of as impressing with their sense of drivenness. And here is old Maestro Arturo (he was 78 at the time of this recording), without sacrificing any sense of forward movement, giving beautiful shape to the music to which the tortured and starved Florestan, dying in his secret dungeon, will recall:

Julius Patzak (t), Florestan; Vienna Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond. Live performance from the Salzburg Festival, Aug. 3, 1948

Plácido Domingo (t), Florestan; Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, cond. Teldec, recorded 1999

Jon Vickers (t), Florestan; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Feb. 13, 1960

Here is the section of Leonore No. 3 in question, as played by a conductor of almost the opposite reputation from Toscanini, the ever-so-spaciously inclined Hans Kanppertsbusch (from a complete recording of Fidelio with the Bavarian State Orchestra made in December 1961):

And here's the Toscanini performance sandwiched between two performances of Leonore No. 3 we've heard before:

BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Live performance, Feb. 22, 1941

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded in Studio 8-H, New York City, June 1, 1945

Philharmonia Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. Capitol-EMI, recorded c1958


I wrote at some length about the uncompromisingly principled Don Florestan and his equally uncompromising wife in a May 2012 post called "Beethoven's superhero couple: The Florestans have for sure done their duty," with particular reference to the monologue he sings as we first meet him in his dungeon, gaunt and skirting death, at the opening of Act II. We really don't know what Florestan's "crimes" were against the governor of this state prison, Don Pizarro, but it's obvious that Pizarro regards him as a mortal threat. He seems to understand all too well: the thing we need to keep in mind here: that Florestan doesn't compromise his principles, rergardless of the consequences. And the same is true of Leonore.

I realize that the torture dynamics here don't align exactly with those investigated in the Torture Report. Here the tyrant isn't trying to extract information from his torture victim; he's just trying to ensure his permanent silence. Still, what wouldn't the like of "Big Dick" Cheney give for the ability to similarly silence their enemies at home?

Here I'm thinking not of the high dramatics of the dungeon scene, and how the Minister's arrival by sheer luck comes just in the nick of time to prevent Pizarro from exacting his final revenge on Florestan. I'm thinking of the following scene, in which the prisoners have been released and the Minister -- a close personal friend of Florestan and Leonore -- arrives and sings in platitudes so plangent that it's hard to believe a political prisoner has just barely escaped execution.

Although the Minister has only a few more lines to sing than we hear here, the role is so important, the writing so beautiful and noble, that even in the opera house it is usually assigned to something close to a front-line baritone or bass -- and on records it has been cast with genuine front-line talent, as we also hear here. (You'll note that in the orchestral introduction Toscanini definitely lives up to his reputation for, er, getting on with it.)

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio: Act II, Scene 2, Arrival of the Minister
Outside the prison. A crowd of people and liberated prisoners are gathered before the gates.

PEOPLE and PRISONERS [variously]: Hail! Hail!
Hail to the day, hail to the hour,
long yearned for, though unimaginable,
when justice and clemency together
appear before the gates of our tomb!
Hail! Hail!
Hail to the day, etc.
Hail! Hail!
[DON PIZARRO and the Minister, DON FERNANDO, enter, escorted by soldiers.]
DON FERNANDO: Our noblest king's wish and suggestion
lead me to you, you poor souls, here,
so that I may lift the veil of wickedness
which has wrapped you all in heavy gloom.
No, no longer kneel slavishly --
harsh tyranny is far from my mind.
A brother is seeking his brothers,
and if he can help, he gladly will.
PEOPLE and PRISONERS: Hail to the day, hail to the hour!
Hail! Hail!
DON FERNANDO: A brother is seeking his brothers,
and if he can help, he gladly will.
ROCCO [rushing through the guards, with LEONORE and FLORESTAN]: Well then, help these poor people!
DON PIZARRO: What do I see? Ha!
ROCCO: Does it move you?
DON PIZARRO: Away! Away!
DON FERNANDO [to ROCCO]: Then speak!
ROCCO: Let all mercy, all mercy
unite this couple!
Don Florestan --
DON FERNANDO: The man believed dead?
That noble man who struggled for truth?
ROCCO: And suffered numberless torments.
DON FERNANDO: My friend, my friend,
the man believed dead?
In fetters, in fetters,
pale he stands before me?
LEONORE and ROCCO: Yes, Florestan!
Florestan, you see him here.
ROCCO: And Leonore!
ROCCO : Let me present this jewel among women.
She came here --
DON PIZARRO: Let me say two words!
DON FERNANDO: Not a word! She came --
ROCCO: -- to my gate there,
and entered my service as a boy
and did me such good, loyal service
that I chose her for my son-in-law.
MARZELLINE [who with JAQUINO has joined the crowd]: Oh, woe is me! Woe is me! What do I hear?
ROCCO: That monster in this very hour
wished to bring about Florestan's death.
DON PIZARRO [pointing to ROCCO]: Bring it about, with him!
ROCCO : In league with us.
Only your coming called him off! Etc.
PEOPLE and PRISONERS: Let the villain be punished,
who oppressed the innocent!
Justice holds the sword
of vengence poised for judgment!
Let the villain be punished!

José van Dam (bs-b), Don Fernando; Karl Ridderbusch (bs), Rocco; Zoltán Kélémen (bs-b), Don Pizarro; Helga Dernesch (s), Leonore; Helen Donath (s), Marzelline; Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. EMI, recorded 1970

Nicola Moscona (bs), Don Fernando; Sidor Belarsky (bs), Rocco; Herbert Janssen (b), Don Pizarro; Rose Bampton (s), Leonore; Eleanor Steber (s), Marzelline; NBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond. RCA-BMG, broadcast performance, Dec. 17, 1944

Franz Crass (bs), Don Fernando; Gottlob Frick (bs), Rocco; Walter Berry (b), Don Pizarro; Christa Ludwig (ms), Leonore; Ingeborg Hallstein (s), Marzelline; Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded 1962

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Have a happy Charles Ives-accompanied Thanksgiving!

"Certainly one of the things Ives wants to do is to provoke us, to challenge us to think about music in ways we never have," says Michael Tilson Thomas as he talks about and performs Charles Ives's Holidays Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in their PBS series Keeping Score. You can watch the Ives show here.

by Ken

We've done it before, and by gosh, we're going to do it again: celebrate Thanksgiving with the symphonic poem the American original composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) created to depict Thanksgiving, which formed part of his Holidays Symphony (or New England Holidays), made up of Washington's Birthday, Decoration Day, The Fourth of July, and lastly Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day, which fall somewhere between independent pieces and movements in a collective whole.

This commentary appeaers on the webpage accompanying the Keeping Score show devoted to the Holidays Symphony.
A hundred years ago, Charles Ives composed a portrait of a year in New England. The Holidays Symphony veers between tender sentiment and savage chaos, a sonic three-ring circus. Beautiful and provocative, the composition, like the rest of Ives' music, encourages the listener to think about sound in new ways.

The poet Walt Whitman makes an interesting comparison with Ives. Both men experimented with their art forms, juxtaposed serious themes with frivolous beauty, and spent decades editing and revising their masterpieces. Also like Whitman, Ives imagined various musical strains from around the world merging into a single song of mankind, but whereas Whitman used music as a metaphor, Ives used music as his medium.

The emotional material for Ives' music came from his experiences growing up in the town of Danbury, Connecticut, the son of the town bandmaster, George Ives. George had been a Union Army bandmaster in the Civil War and had a playful relationship with music that he that he passed on to his son. Once, George had two bands march toward each other while playing different songs, just to know what it would sound like.

Ives wrote most of his music between 1900 and 1920, a period in which the United States became a world power. He worried that prosperity was leading Americans to lose touch with their values. In an attempt to enshrine the America he cherished, Ives composed four movements that trace boyhood memories of seasonal celebrations, an American "Four Seasons." This was the Holidays Symphony.


including one conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas -- an earlier recording with the Chicago Symphony. Along with the performances we have the Keeping Score Web commentary on Thansgiving.

IVES: Holidays Symphony:
iv. Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day

Baltimore Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, David Zinman, cond. Argo, recorded September 1994

Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, cond. CBS-Sony, recorded 1986
The Thanksgiving movement can be traced to Ives' college days at Yale. Music originally written for the organ at Center Church in New Haven was reworked into the final movement of the Holidays.

Thanksgiving illustrates the changes that occur when ideas confront one another. Once again Ives divides the orchestra into groups playing hymns in two opposing keys. Most prominent is the traditional Thanksgiving hymn, "The Shining Shore." Again, the bottom drops out, and we hear the swing of a scythe—either the harvest or the Grim Reaper has arrived. The ultimate question is asked again and as the music picks up again toward celebration and noise, the listener expects a confrontational crunch.

Instead, Ives surprises us. A large chorus sounds out Thanksgiving hymns. The choir sings a round and the whole procession passes into the distance. The different songs merge into one universal hymn of mankind.

Recognition came late to Ives. Thanksgiving was first publicly performed at the premiere of the complete Holidays Symphony in April of 1954, just a month before Ives' death.

Happy Thanksgiving! (And also Forefathers' Day, though that's not till December 22.)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Classics report: The Schneider Quartet's legendary Haydn recordings finally make it to CD

The cover of the booklet accompanying the indispensable Music and Arts CD reissue of the legendary not-quite-complete 1951-53 Haydn Society cycle of the Haydn string quartets by the Schneider Quartet

by Ken

For decades now it has been one of the gaps in the ranks of available recordings, through much of the LP era and, until now, the whole of the CD era. But this month Music and Arts has released a specially priced 15-CD set of the 54 Haydn quartets recorded by the Schneider Quartet in the early '50s, "newly remastered mostly from the original master tapes." The massive project was spearheaded by company founder Frederick J. Maroth but was pursued, becoming a memorial, following his death in November 2013.

Alexander Schneider (1908-1993), described by Tully Potter, in his customarily excellent essay for the album booklet, as "one of the more remarkable musicians of the last century." was a violinist who expanded into something of a one-man music industry." He had spent a dozen years (1932-44) as second violinist of the Budapest Quartet, the third Russian to replace the old Hungarian players. (His older brother Mischa, a cellist, had preceded him by two years. A few years later, with the coming of violist Boris Kroyt, the Russianization of the Budapest would be complete.) Schneider eventually rejoined the Budapest, and even though the second violinist is normally thought to play the least defining role in a string quartet, to be the most interchangeable element, it's fascinating how much animated and musically probing the Budapest was with Schneider than without.

In the period between his Budapest stints, Schneider undertook also sorts of chamber music initiatives and became a mainstay, first of Pablos Casals' Prades Festivals and then of the Marlboro Festival (more and more often as a conductor), and devoted more and more of his energies to performances with young performers. Around 1950 his attention turned to the great body of Haydn's string quartets, and it became known that the newly formed Haydn Society, taking advantage of the dawn of the LP era, was planning to record all of the string quartets with a Haydn formed for the purpose by Schneider, which came to include violinist Isidore Cohen (later second violinist of the Juilliard Quartet and the violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio), violist Karen Tuttle, and cellist Madeline Foley, in time replaced by Herman Busch (whose brothers included the outstanding conductor Fritz Busch and violinist Adolf Busch, the father-in-law of pianist Rudolf Serkin).

The quartet did perform all the Haydn quartets in concert, but with funds critically short was unable to record the 24 quartets of Opp. 9, 54/55, 64, and 71/74, though it turns out that Op. 64 was actually begun; the first and last movements of Op. 64, No. 1 have their first commercial release, edited from unedited master tapes from a session in October 1954. The Schneider Quartet Haydn performances remain unmatched for their combination of structural integrity with personal relish and big and bold interpretive choices.

By way of illustration, I thought we would listen to a couple of movements we've already heard, the first movement of Op. 33, No. 2, and the famous theme and variations movement of Op. 76, No. 3, and then dip into the early quartets.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Last scherzo with Anton

The prince of symphonic scherzos? Leonard Bernstein conducts the Scherzo of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra augmented by players from numerous other international orchestra, in this Christmas Day 1989 performance of the symphony in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

by Ken

Last week we got (eventually) to the first movement of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony -- a massive report, I'm arguing, that all is far from well in our world. Next week we will get to the last movement that Bruckner composed, a crowning Adagio that, I will argue, reports that all is way far from well in our world.

And in between we have Bruckner's last scherzo.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Bruckner 9 -- what "cathedrals of sound"? With a detour through Wagner's "Ring" cycle

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor:
i. Feierlich, misterioso (Solemn, mysterious) -- opening

[A] Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. EMI, recorded Dec. 1-2, 1976

[B] Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. DG, recorded live, June 1988

by Ken

Yes, these are the "A" and "B" performances of the opening of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony we heard in last night's preview ("We said it wasn't over till we heard Bruckner 9"), which I described as "very different (but significantly related)." Longtime readers will probably have guessed, because I've used this trick before, that the significant relationship between the performances is that they're by the same conductor, as noted in the listings above.

I want to get to the reason why I excerpted this pair of performances, but first, let me throw out a question for your consideration as we listen through the three movements of the Ninth Symphony that Bruckner actually composed. (Eventually I suppose we'll have to talk about the movement he never did compose, a finale, but for now we will be considering these three movements the "complete" symphony -- and they form a quite satisfying whole to me.) The question is:

Is this happy music?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics preview: We said it wasn't over till we heard Bruckner 9

by Ken

It's going to be pretty much a quick in and out tonight -- an actual, you know, preview. Sunday, as you may have guessed, we finally tackle the Bruckner Ninth Symphony. I still haven't decided whether we're going to do the whole thing in one fell swoop, which is going to make for an extremely large and unwieldy post, because there are any number of issues that come up, or we're going to work our way through the piece in pieces. Either way, here's a preview of what we're going to hear.


BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor

excerpt from i. Feierlich, misterioso (Solemn, mysterious)

excerpt from ii. Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft (Animated, lively)

excerpt from iii. Adagio: Langsam, feierlich (Slow, solemn)

Bavarian State Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. Orfeo, recorded Dec. 23, 1984


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Who is the author of Hoffmann's misfortunes?

Her mother's portrait sings to her --
Erin Wall as Antonia, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2011
ANTONIA: Heavens!
MIRACLE: Listen!
VOICE: Antonia!
MIRACLE: Listen!
ANTONIA: God! My mother! My mother!
VOICE: Dear child, whom I am calling
as in olden times,
it's your mother, it's she;
hear her voice!
Dear child, whom I am calling, etc.

Felicity Palmer (ms), Voice of Antonia's Mother; Jessye Norman (s), Antonia; Samuel Ramey (bs), Miracle; Staatskapelle Dresden, Jeffrey Tate, cond. Philips, recorded 1987-89

Christa Ludwig (ms), Voice of Antonia's Mother; Edita Gruberová (s), Antonia; James Morris (bs-b), Miracle; Orchestre National de France, Seiji Ozawa, cond. DG, recorded c1986

Patricia Kern (ms), Voice of Antonia's Mother; Beverly Sills (s), Antonia; Norman Treigle (bs), Miracle; London Symphony Orchestra,Julius Rudel, cond. ABC-EMI, recorded July-Aug. 1972

by Ken

As I indicated in last night's preview, here we are for one more week with Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann.

I'm going to try to keep my prattling to a minimum. I just felt we needed a better focus on the unfortunate life situation poor Hoffmann has situated himself in. At one point he asks the students whether they would like to know who is "the author of my misfortunes," presumably having in mind Councillor Lindorf, whom he casts as the bass-baritone "villain" in his three tales -- and who is in fact busily engaged in sabotaging Hoffmann's current grand passion, for the great actress La Stella. But by the end of the opera, I think we have a better idea -- apparently better than Hoffmann himself has -- who the author of most of his misfortunes is.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics preview: Our Frantz knows it's all a matter of technique

"It's technique" -- tenor Kerry Jennings as Frantz

by Ken

This was looking like the week for our curtain-lowering Bruckner Ninth, but I've made an executive decision that we can't leave Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann the way we did. So in preparation for tomorrow's farewell to Hoffmann, I thought tonight we'd enoy a tasty morsel from the Antonia act (which we're resolutely calling Act III, the last of the three "mad loves" promised to recount in the Prologue.

As regular readers know, some of my most loved operatic activity takes place with or even among the minor characters, and there aren't many Iove more than the servant in the Crespel household, whom we almost met last week, when we picked up at the point where Hoffmann had just been admitted into the house by the servant Frantz, in direct contradiction of the specific instructions of the departing Crespel not let let anyone in while he's out.

Frantz, alas, is pretty deaf, though one gets the feeling that he perhaps doesn't listen all that attentively. In any case, the master-servant exchange left Crespel in a rage and Frantz in a snit over the constant abuse he takes from his master. Now, left alone, he licks his wounds.

We hear first the celebrated comic actor Bourvil, who sings the "comic" tenor roles in the 1948 Opéra-Comique recording; then the cherished Swiss character tenor Hugues Cuénod; and finally the veteran French character tenor Michel Sénéchal (whom we've heard in a variety of musical settings, including Mahler!).

OFFENBACH: The Tales of Hoffmann: Act III, Song, Frantz, "Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre" ("Day and night I wear myself out")
FRANTZ: Day and night I wear myself out;
at the least sign I shut up.
It's just as if I was singing.
But no, if I was singing,
he'd have to moderate his contempt.
I sing alone sometimes
but singing isn't easy.
Tra la la la la la la la la la la la,
it's not the voice, however,
tra la la la la la la la la la la la,
that I'm lacking, I think.
La la la la la la la la la la la --
[His voice cracks.
No, it's technique, no, it's technique, etc.
Tra la la, etc.

Heavens. one can't be good at everything;
I sing pitifully.
But I dance agreeably;
I say so without false praise.
Gosh, dance is my strong point,
and dancing isn't easy.
Tra la la la la la la la la la la la,
With women my shapely legs,
tra la la la la la la la la la la la,
aren't what let me down.
La la la la la la la la la la la --
[He makes a false step and falls.
No, it's technique, no, it's technique, etc.
Tra la la, etc.

Bourvil (t), Frantz; Orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1948

Hugues Cuénod (t), Frantz; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Richard Bonynge, cond. Decca, recorded 1971

Michel Sénéchal (t), Franz; Orchestre National de France, Seiji Ozawa, cond. DG, recorded c1986


We finish up with Tales of Hoffmann.


"The poet Hoffmann and the legend of Kleinzach" (Sept. 14)
Preview, "The name of the first was Olympia" (Sept. 19)
"Hoffmann just can't get over is 'three mistresses'" (Sept. 21)
Preview, "Our Frantz knows it's all a matter of technique" (Sept. 27)
"Who is the author of Hoffmann's misfortunes?" (Sept. 28)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Hoffmann just can't get over his "three mistresses"

"It's a song of love that soars aloft sadlly or madly": Nazhmiddin Mavlyanov (Hoffmann) and Hibla Gerzmava (Antonia) at Moscow's Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater

by Ken

In preparation for our quick survey of the poet Hoffmann's account of his three "mad loves," as set out last week, in last night's preview we made the acquaintance of the first of them, Olympia-- the "artist," according to Hoffmann's reckoning. (We'll come back to this in a moment.) As I noted last night, making Olympia's acquaintance is more than Hoffmann did before he fell soul-convulsingly in love with her. (It doesn't help that the poor fellow is literally looking at her through the equivalent of rose-colored glasses, sold to him by one of Olympia's creators, the eccentric inventor Coppélius.) Of course this is only the teeniest exaggeration of the way many of us so frequently fall just as consumingly in love as our poor hero has.

As noted, we're going to sample some of the astonishing music by which Offenbach captured the states of need and urgency and bliss that afflict Hoffmann in all three of his mad stories. First, though, let's meet another, very different object of the poet's passion: Antonia, one of the theatrical literature's great creations.

(Note that we're going to hear a sprinkling of German-language performances today. As with Gounod's Faust, the German-sourced Tales of Hoffmann -- the fantastic fables of E.T.A. Hoffmann, the source of the opera's tales, are standbys for German readers -- was taken up by German audiences if anything faster and more avidly than by French ones.)

OFFENBACH, The Tales of Hoffmann, Act III, Orchestral introduction and Romance, Antonia, "Elle a fui, la tourterelle" ("She has flown, the turtledove")
Munich. The home of Crespel. A bizarrely furnished room. At right a clavichord. Violins suspended from the wall. At left a window. At the back two doors, one the door to Antonia's room; in front, at left, a window casement that leads to a balcony, which is closed by a curtain. Between the two doors at the rear a large portrait of a woman hanging on the wall. The sun is setting. ANTONIA is seated at the harpsichord.

Romance, Antonia
She has flown, the turtledove!
Ah, a memory too sweet!
An image to cruel!
Alas, at my knees
I hear him, I see him!
Alas, at my knees
I hear him, I see him!
[She walks to the front of the stage.]
She has flown, the turtledove,
she has flown far from you;
but she is always faithful
and she keeps her faith!
My dearly loved, my voice calls to you!
All my heart is yours!
All my heart is yours!
She has flown, the turtledove,
she has flown, she has flown far from you!
[She approaches the harpsichord again and continues, standing, leafing through the music.]
Ah, dear flower that has just bloomed,
in pity answer me!
You that know if he still loves me,
if he keeps faith with me!
My dearly beloved, my voice implores you,
ah, let your heart come to me,
let your heart come to me!
She has flown, the turtledove,
she has flow, she has flown far from you.
[She lets herself fall on the couch in front of the harpsichord.]

[in German] Julia Varady (s), Antonia; Munich Radio Orchestra, Heinz Wallberg, cond. EMI, recorded 1979

Rosalind Plowright (s), Antonia; Symphony Orchestra of the Opéra National du Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels), Sylvain Cambreling, cond. EMI, recorded June-July 1988

Victoria de los Angeles (s), Antonia; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1964

Beverly Sills (s), Antonia; London Symphony Orchestra, Julius Rudel, cond. ABC-EMI, recorded July-Aug. 1972


"The poet Hoffmann and the legend of Kleinzach" (Sept. 14)
Preview, "The name of the first was Olympia" (Sept. 19)
"Hoffmann just can't get over is 'three mistresses'" (Sept. 21)
Preview, "Our Frantz knows it's all a matter of technique" (Sept. 27)
"Who is the author of Hoffmann's misfortunes?" (Sept. 28)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics Preview: "The name of the first was Olympia"

Party chez Monsieur Spalanzani! A real doll is Olympia, the first of Hoffmann's "mad loves" (Matthew Polenzani and Anna Christy at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2011).

by Ken

We heard the ineffable line "The name of the first was Olympia" last week -- five times over, actually -- as the poet Hoffmann prepares to give his crowd of adoring students in Luther's tavern his account of the first of his promised three "mad loves." Now we hear it again, in three languages, showing how hard it is to make the line work quite as poetically in any language but French, where "Olympia," being accented -- like most all French words -- on the final syllable, can stand at the top of the line's upward rise.

We're also hearing the line with a bit more in context this week, including the hauntingly resonant chorus of the students, which we can now hear is the tune that echoes after Hoffmann's ethereal announcement of the name "Olympia," and also including the Entr'acte that follows immediately -- or rather two of them. Cambreling and Beecham use a quiet mediation on the haunting "Écoutons! Il est doux de boire" theme, while Wallberg uses the more traditional first statement of the grand minuet that will be heard later as entrance music for the guests at Monsieur Spalanzani's grande soirée.

STUDENTS: Let's listen! It's pleasant to drink
during the telling of a mad story . . .
STUDENTS and NICKLAUSSE: . . . watching the bright cloud
that a pipe throws into the air!
HOFFMANN [sitting on the corner of a table]: I'll begin.
STUDENTS: Silence!
In an hour, I hope, they'll be dead drunk.
HOFFMANN: The name of the first was Olympia.
[The curtain falls while HOFFMANN speaks to all the attentive STUDENTS.]


Ann Murray (ms), Nicklausse; Neil Shicoff (t), Hoffmann; José van Dam (bs-b), Councilor Lindorf; Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of the Opéra National du Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels), Sylvain Cambreling, cond. EMI, recorded June-July 1988

[in German] Ilse Gramatzki (ms), Nicklausse; Siegfried Jerusalem (t), Hoffmann; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Councilor Lindorf; Bavarian Radio Chorus, Munich Radio Orchestra, Heinz Wallberg, cond. EMI, recorded 1979

[in English] Monica Sinclair (ms), Nicklausse; Robert Rounseville (t), Hoffmann; [Lindorf's line omitted]; Sadler's Wells Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. Decca, recorded 1947-51 (soundtrack of the Powell-Pressburger film)


"The poet Hoffmann and the legend of Kleinzach" (Sept. 14)
Preview, "The name of the first was Olympia" (Sept. 19)
"Hoffmann just can't get over is 'three mistresses'" (Sept. 21)
Preview, "Our Frantz knows it's all a matter of technique" (Sept. 27)
"Who is the author of Hoffmann's misfortunes?" (Sept. 28)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: The poet Hoffmann and the legend of Kleinzach

"Le nom de la première était Olympia"

Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1964

Richard Tucker, tenor; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. Live performance, Dec. 3, 1955

Léopold Simoneau, tenor; Orchestra of the Concerts de Paris, Pierre-Michel Le Conte, cond. Philips-Epic, recorded 1958

Plácido Domingo, tenor; Orchestre National de France, Seiji Ozawa, cond. DG, recorded 1986

Francisco Araiza, tenor; Staatskapelle Dresden, Jeffrey Tate, cond. Philips, recorded 1987-89

by Ken

I don't think I have, but it may be that you've heard music more hauntingly beautiful than this tiny bit -- the final half-minute of the Prologue to Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, as the drunken poet Hoffmann offers a tavern's worth of adoring students, hanging on his every word, his promised account of the first of his promised three "mad loves." I've gathered five distinctly different performances, plain and fancy, but all, I think, decently haunting. (Any preferences?)

I've painted myself into a corner here. For a good part of this week it was seeming like the time for the giving up the Sunday Classics ghost. However, while we already had, goodness knows, lots of loose ends that will be left dangling, one that I added just last week is strikes too close to home for me. I explained that last week's assortment of operatic (mostly) drinking songs touches me too personally. (There are times when Hoffmann is my favorite opera.)



"The poet Hoffmann and the legend of Kleinzach" (Sept. 14)
Preview, "The name of the first was Olympia" (Sept. 19)
"Hoffmann just can't get over is 'three mistresses'" (Sept. 21)
Preview, "Our Frantz knows it's all a matter of technique" (Sept. 27)
"Who is the author of Hoffmann's misfortunes?" (Sept. 28)
Starting by going just up to the point where something clearly goes wrong with the song.