Sunday, December 21, 2008

Thaïs: Triomphe

Renée Fleming, who in two months enters her sixth decade of life, stole the show in the title role as the young Egyptian courtesan during the December 20 Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Jules Massenet’s Thaïs. Fleming’s angelic face and a svelte figure accentuated by the stunning costumes of Christian Lacroix were perfect for the role. In this regard, her appearance as a lithesome temptress was much more satisfactory than another we saw at the Met earlier this year. Karita Mattila, in her appearance as Salome, looked like a middle-aged woman unsuccessfully parading around as a youngster in sometimes ungainly fashion.

As in the Met’s production of Salome, I was disappointed by pointless, intentional, gratuitous anachronisms. The story is set in ancient Egypt, but at the beginning of the second scene of the opera Athanaël, a Cenobite monk, travels to Alexandria to convert Thaïs and is confronted with someone wielding a rifle. Hmmmm. Up until that point things looked chronologically coherent. And then Athanaël’s childhood friend Nicias, now the lover of Thaïs, wears a tuxedo shirt and bowtie. One almost gets the impression that this is done because it is easier to find tuxedo shirts than create costumes appropriate to the era. Or maybe it’s just a way of avoiding any criticism of the production for being anachronistic: if you’re obviously not trying to have things make sense—because major details are out of place—then nobody will notice or criticize the minor details that are inappropriate. Of course, wild anachronism is all the rage in the arts. But one wishes producers would not just toss it in for no apparent reason. Anachronism can be an interesting dish, but it makes a horrible spice.

Another odd element of this production borrowed from the Chicago Lyric Opera was the set for the final scene. It had the dying Thaïs sitting upright on an elevated platform placed atop the desert scenery from the preceding scene. This seemed awkward. The death scene also seemed troublesome in that Fleming looked fit, well, even radiant, and then suddenly drops dead. Nobody ever looked more well than Thaïs at the moment that she dies.

Thomas Hampson’s Athanaël was magnificent. His powerful baritone voice conveyed the unshakeable strength of his character’s convictions. The role seemed very demanding and his voice stood up well. Fleming’s singing was wonderful, particularly her ability to sing pianissimo during some high, sustained notes. One had the impression that the very highest notes of the performance brought her out of her comfort zone, but she hit them, and this is a trivial concern given the excellence of every other aspect of her performance.

This opera boasts the famous and beautiful Méditation for violin as a transition between scenes during Act II. The piece was performed with great feeling by Met concertmaster David Chan. The reprise of this melody in Act III adds much to the beauty of the opera.

The courtesans Crobyle and Myrtale were ably portrayed by Alyson Cambridge and Ginger Costa-Jackson. Michael Schade’s Nicias was well sung, as were the roles of Palémon, by Alain Vernhes and Albine, by Maria Zifchak.

Fleming and Hampson teamed up on the Decca recording of Thaïs from 2000. That performance is the standard for recordings of this opera on CD. This HD performance will no doubt soon be available on DVD and when it is this performance will also be the standard.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Defense of Mozart in the Form of a Monty Python Scene: Redux

I visited with a friend last summer and we were talking about Mozart when he stated that “all his music sounds the same.” He then expressed the opinion that he did not consider Mozart one of the truly great composers. The remark left me speechless. After some time has passed, I think a response is appropriate.

When walking down a shore covered with small rocks some may see them and maintain that “all the rocks look the same.” But even the amateur rock hound knows that the rocks are in fact very different. He inspects carefully and finds great variety. Some of the rocks turn out to be quartz, others granite, others perhaps agates. So too it is with Mozart. He wrote music that was loud and furious; he also wrote music that was soft and tender. He wrote music for solo instruments, such as the piano and violin. He wrote pieces for the human voice. He wrote pieces for string quartets, and for quintets, and octets. He wrote for the symphony orchestra. He wrote for piano and orchestra. His works reveal incredible variety.

Compare these two works. The first is the last movement of his Symphony No. 35, the “Haffner” Symphony, K. 385. The second is a trio from Così Fan Tutte, one of his last and greatest operas. Here's the last movement of the Haffner Symphony.

Now the trio “Soave sia il vento,” from the opera Così Fan Tutte.

Those pieces are obviously quite different and sound not at all alike. The variety of Mozart’s work is amazing. He wrote concerti—pieces for orchestra and soloist—not only for the piano, but also for clarinet, oboe, French horn, bassoon, flute, and flute and harp together. But that’s not even the full extent of his variety. Marches, songs, sets of theme and variations on songs, choral music, even two pieces for the glass harmonica (an odd invention of Benjamin Franklin that mechanically creates sounds in a manner similar to circling one’s finger on a wine glass).

But it’s not just the variety that makes Mozart’s music so special; it’s the quality. To continue the rocks on the shore analogy, you are walking down the beach and you find something of seeming unpromising provenance. It’s one-fourth of one of Mozart’s thirteen serenades. Let’s bend over, pick it up, and see if it has any merit or interest.

Then there is the sheer volume of work. Some 40 symphonies. 27 piano concerti. Five violin concerti. He wrote 18 masses, 20 operas and 17 piano sonatas. His musical catalog contains more than 600 works—and he lived only to 35. And the Marriage of Figaro, about 3 hours of music, like his nineteen other operas, counts as only one work.

Okay, so he’s versatile and incredibly productive, but what beyond that?

Well first of all he was a guy with a great sense of humor. One of the pieces in his catalog of works is called Ein Musikalisher Wurfelspiel—A Musical Dice Game. In this odd musical dice game/musical piece one can build their own minuet by rolling dice. Each of 16 bars has 11 possibilities based on the roll of two dice. The minuet is written so that no matter what combinations occur, the minuet fits together to make a passable piece of music. Mozart also engaged in musical parody in a piece called Ein Musikalischer Spass—“A musical joke”—by demonstrating basic compositional errors—and this was two centuries before P.D.Q. Bach.

One of the raps against classical composers is that they are not spontaneous. They write great music, but it’s stuffy and staid because their music is too calculated. But Mozart was an incredible improviser. Before he was ten someone could give him any tune and he would gladly improvise on it, sometimes at very great length. Of course there was no audio tape or film back then, so all that survives is what is written down. The closest we can come to recreating his improvisational efforts is to play some of his themes and variations. One example for solo piano was heard in the soundtrack of Out of Africa, when the Isak Dinesen character and her love interest camped on the African plain and played a record while resting by the fire.

But the most important thing about Mozart’s music is its beauty.

Consider these tunes and ask yourself if these could be improved on:

First another Hollywood favorite from what I felt was the key moment in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, a piece from The Marriage of Figaro: Sull’aria.

Now another movie favorite, the middle movement of a piano concerto, whose theme is now called the “Elvira Madigan theme” because it was used in a 1967 movie about Elvira Madigan, a 19th century Danish tightrope walker.

Next two tunes from his singspiel, The Magic Flute: “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” and “Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton.”

Okay, so Mozart wrote many different kinds of music for many instruments; he was prolific; he had a sense of humor; and the music he wrote was very beautiful—but still I hear that it all sounds the same because the harmonics of the music are all based on a common musical language.Well between 1782 and 1785 Mozart composed six string quartets for Joseph Haydn. Here’s the first movement of the last of these six string quartets. I think it is possible to agree that the first two minutes of this movement, the introduction, were written by someone who is pushing the boundaries of the Viennese classical tradition. When I first heard it I thought it might be Samuel Barber or one of his cronies.

But apart from writing music of differing styles, writing for a wide range of instruments, writing some of music’s most famous pieces, writing incredible volumes of music, having a good sense of humor, being spontaneous, writing beautiful gems, and pushing the tonal boundaries of music, what did Mozart ever do for us?

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.