Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Ethereal Glenn Gould

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould was a wonderful Monday offering at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. I have been a Glenn Gould fan for many decades and appreciated the opportunity to consider him from another angle.

My introduction to Gould, like most, was through his Bach recordings. The piano repertoire was an early love and my first recordings of Bach's keyboard works were of Gould's performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. I savored them. I transferred them from records to cassettes and played them until the cassettes wore out. Later I purchased a wide variety of Gould recordings when a local record chain went out of business and was selling them for a couple of dollars a piece. Among these were discs of Gould playing the harpsichord, Bach keyboard concerti, the Art of Fugue, Inventions, Partitas--and anything else I could find. When I heard Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, it became a touchstone.

Later I fell for Gould's wit. Tim Page's A Glenn Gould Reader, a collection of Gould's writings, had me laughing out loud. I particularly enjoyed the pieces where Glenn Gould interviewed Glenn Gould about Glenn Gould. At one point in such an interview, Gould the interviewee announced that his favorite Mozart piece was a piece that although once assigned a Kochel number, had later proved to be written by someone other than Mozart. His parody of Arthur Rubinstein, also included in Page's book, was fetching.

And through the years I always watched with chagrin as the Gould recordings disappeared from the record and CD guides, to be replaced by the recordings of Bach newcomers. Did anybody ever really "own" Bach the way that Gould did, though? Could any other pianist play with the contrapuntal tenacity and clarity of Gould. I have never thought so.

So I was excited to see the movie. The most interesting revelation for me was the fact that Gould had an intense love affair with Cornelia Foss, the wife of a prominent composer of the 1950's and 1960's, Lukas Foss. Cornelia Foss and her children described their years living with Gould and hit upon his eccentricities. I had always ascribed Gould's summertime coat-wearing behavior to schizophrenia, but it appears that Gould was taking dozens of prescribed drugs and this no doubt contributed to both his bizarre behavior and the decline of his health. The film also presented colleagues who worked with him on Canadian radio. They explained that Gould was a perfectionist who was consumed by his work and detailed how those who worked with him were soon caught up in his passionate pursuit of his endeavors of the moment.

Much of the movie, though, was film I had seen before. In particular, the footage from his time as a young recording artist in New York and the clips of his Russian visit were known to me. Also, some of the Canadian television interviews at his lake home have circulated quite a bit lately. But despite the fact that not everything was new, the film really was an interesting try at plumbing the depths of Gould's fascinating genius.

By odd coincidence, when I left the theater and got in my car there was one song left on the disc I was listening to and then--this was not planned--the next disc was Gould's 1955 Goldberg Variations, a disc I had put in a few months ago, but not listened to recently. I decided to find out why this disc, one of the most famous classical recordings of all time, is not considered the best recording of the Goldberg Variations. As I spent time with it, and particularly as I compared it to another recording of the Goldberg Variations by Simone Dinnerstein, I began to understand the problem that many have with Gould's conception: his tempi are idiosyncratic, often insanely (and I think humorously) fast, occasionally torturously slow. While Dinnerstein's recording was moving, measured, and lyrical, Gould's was savage--an assault on the piano.

Later the next evening I went in search of Gould's 1981 recording of the Goldbergs, which I had purchased when in law school. Unfortunately, it was vinyl, so I could not play it. But then I stumbled on the You Tube videos of Gould playing the Goldbergs in 1981. What a treat! Although some oddities remain, some of the supercharged tempi seemed moderated a bit. But in watching Gould perform these pieces I wondered at his total commitment, brilliant execution, and utter mastery of his craft.

I am fairly confident that my children's generation will find little here to warrant their attention. But to me there are few things as meritorious as these videos of a homely, myopic, fifty-year-old man sitting on a tiny chair, eyes just above the keyboard, back hunched, performing a 300-year-old piece of music. In fact, Gould's famous 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations was released only weeks before he died. Of course, this was the same piece that had catapulted him to fame in 1955. I've always thought it fitting that Gould's career ended where it began, just as the variations end with the reprise of the opening aria. Gould always said that he would die at age 50 and I wonder if there was not some belief or knowledge on his part that he would soon die when the 1981 recording was made.

Because the movie reminded me of this old friend of mine, someone I never knew, I have to count it, or at least my attendance, a brilliant success.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

International Film Festival: Suddenly Sami

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival is now in its 28th year and this year sports what I counted to be 143 full-length films. The films show at the St. Anthony Main Theaters, a collection of smallish theaters on the river in the mill district.

We saw "Suddenly Sami," by Norwegian director Ellen Astri-Lundby, who was in attendance. The film revolves around Astri-Lundby's exploration of her family roots, particularly the fact that her mother was a "Sami," a member of an ethnic group from the northern reaches of Scandinavia. The film details the discrimination and scorn encountered by the Sami peoples in Norway, at one point comparing this racism to that of the United States or South Africa.

The film starts with a focus on her mother's life and includes reminiscences of childhood, visits with relatives, and forays to the fjords of northern Norway. At one point Astri-Lundby finds herself in the midst of a reindeer roundup, a moment that best captured her exploration of her family heritage.

In my view, the best aspect of the film was its humor. The Sami relatives and friends that the director encounters are coy about being Sami and usually people of subtle humor and wit.

There was a detailed Q and A session with Astri-Lundby following the film, the highlight of which was a man with Sami ancestry shocking the whole audience by using the n-word while quoting his Sami mother regarding what happened to the color of her skin if she went outside too much.

The festival runs through April 30.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Maurizio Pollini's Carnegie Hall Chopin Recital

I had not seen Maurizio Pollini in recital since he performed the Beethoven piano sonatas in a cycle at Carnegie Hall in 1995-96. I am a long-time Pollini adherent, having attended my first Pollini recital, an all-Brahms affair, in London in 1979. Because he had won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1960 at age eighteen, and because of his luscious 1970’s Chopin recordings for Deustche Grammophon, I had always regretted that I had never heard him play Chopin in concert. Thus, it was with great interest that a week ago I spied a notice of a Pollini recital at Carnegie Hall on the very day of a scheduled trip to New York. The only problem was that my flight was to land at Newark Airport only 62 minutes before Pollini would take the stage.

I therefore decided to pass on tickets. But my dear brother came to the rescue. He bought two tickets and told me that if I got to Carnegie Hall on time we would go; he was also willing to wait and enter at intermission if need be. But my Delta flight landed twenty minutes early and I arrived at the concert hall with thirty minutes to spare. As it turned out, it was my brother who almost missed the recital because of Midtown traffic. The seats were the best in the house: eight rows back, keyboard side, on the aisle. We were so close that I could hear Pollini breathe.

The program Pollini selected was a Chopin aficionado’s dream: two Nocturnes; the 24 Préludes; the G-minor Ballade; the B-minor Scherzo, and a selection of eight opus 25 Études.

I had trouble enjoying the two Nocturnes, opus 27, nos. 1 and 2, that started the program because the audience was still not really settled when Pollini began. To me, Chopin’s Nocturnes are as much about silence and quiet as they are about the wrenching notes, so the rustles caused by late arrivers that were just sitting down as Pollini sat down and the cannonades of coughs that accompanied his playing of these pieces were a bit of a distraction. But Pollini seems to pay the audience’s indiscretions little mind—even during the couple of incidents involving premature clapping—and he simply proceeded through his program in unhesitating fashion. Eventually, the audience quieted down.

The Préludes as a group were not in my view the strength of the program. It seemed that there was a pedal problem during no. 4 and a small slip during no. 8, and perhaps a few other minor imperfections in other numbers. The fast Préludes were generally played with panache, though the slower ones, such as the A-flat allegretto, no. 17, a particular favorite of mine, seemed more solid.

Pollini is not a showman. He is not extravagant with his gestures. In fact, both at the piano and while taking his bows, his movements are parsimonious. He does not raise his hands high before pounding home a loud chord, like Rubinstein, or swoon at his own playing, like Lang Lang, but simply plays the notes. I had forgotten this aspect of his live performances. But he is like a great gunfighter: he is not intentionally flashy and may not speak much at all, but his ability is something that is unquestionable and should not be doubted.

The second half of the program wowed the crowd. It started with the big G-minor Ballade, a piece made popular several years ago by “The Pianist,” Roman Polanski’s movie about a Polish Jew who emerges from hiding in the Warsaw ghetto. In the movie, the desultory, starving pianist comes out of his lengthy silence by playing this piece in a scene that succeeds in leaving movie audiences awestruck. Pollini’s performance was at least inspiring enough to gain more quiet from the Carnegie Hall audience.

The B-minor Scherzo was a highlight of the program. Impeccable virtuosity was welded to masterful control of the instrument’s sonorities. The performance of this piece was beyond criticism; it was a joy. And then, with the opus 25 Études, Pollini really took control of the audience, particularly with the last three—all showpieces of the top order. After the B minor Étude, no. 10, an audience member or two tried to break through with applause, but Pollini would have none of that. He dove right into no. 11, known as “the Winter Wind,” and reminded everyone of the reason for his long-held reputation for precision and speed. And then no. 12, the C minor Étude, was driven home furiously. At this point, all around me were shaking their heads in disbelief.

He performed three encores. While the middle of these three pieces was a gentle Mazurka, two of the encores, one the “Revolutionary” etude, and the other the big C#-minor scherzo, played last, were exceedingly generous offerings. I am not accustomed to hearing such weighty encore fare. These two were simply stupendous.

This was the most memorable piano recital of my life. I’ve heard many great pianists through the years—Arrau, Brendel, Kempff, Bolet, Ashkenazy, Gilels, Horowitz, Barenboim, and Lang Lang for starters—but the combination of the kind gift from my brother, a recital by my favorite pianist, perfect seats, and an ideal program, had me exiting onto the sidewalk on 57th Street on this sunny Sunday afternoon with a smile as wide as a long block.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Is Pollini in the Offing?

I will be visiting New York tomorrow. Last weekend I noted that there is an amazing piano recital scheduled: Pollini will be playing an all-Chopin concert at Carnegie Hall. Only glitch is that my flight arrives in Newark at 1:58 p.m. and the concert begins at 3:00 p.m. Changing flights would have been prohibitively expensive, so I decided not to buy tickets to the recital. Disappointed. I have attended several Pollini recitals over the years, but never heard him play what I most wanted to hear him play: Chopin.

(For those who don't know how I really feel about Pollini, here's a link.)

But then my dear brother stepped forward and bought tickets anyway, figuring that the traffic on Sunday will not be bad and that I might be able to make it. I hope so. The first half of the concert includes Chopin's 24 Preludes, a work I have dreamt of hearing Pollini play since I first heard his 1975 Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Preludes in the late 1970's. The recording won the prestigious Grand Prix du Disc award and the alternating power and delicacy of his playing is jaw dropping.

So we'll see if I can make it to Carnegie Hall by 3:oo! If not, I should be in time for the second half of the program, which will be joy enough.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nabokov's Lolita

Just finished Lolita yesterday. An amazing and disturbing book. I think I should let my thoughts ferment a bit before blogging about it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Brush with Fame: Meeting the Challenge

Like other states, Minnesota is experiencing a budget crunch. State park budgets have been hit hard. Services and staffing have been cut. Given this, how do the state parks find the funds to hire celebrities to staff the park offices?

Here's what happened. I was looking to photograph wildflowers and called ahead to the park office, asking, "Are there any spring ephemerals out yet?"

"What?," a gruff female voice grunted.

"Are there any spring ephemerals, any early wildflowers out yet?"

"No. It's too early."

This seemed odd to me given the recent warm weather. So I drove to the park and stopped at the park office. And who should I see, but Roz, the star of Monsters, Inc.!, live and in the flesh.

"I called earlier to see if you have any wildflowers out. I've seen them elsewhere."

"Well we don't have any. We just had a flood through much of our park," barked Roz.

"Besides," she continued, oozing her natural charm, "there aren't many wildflowers in this park anyways."

I was shocked to see that the State of Minnesota could afford to pay Pixar the huge royalties necessary to put this star power in the front office. But I went for a hike anyways.

Roz had apparently been spending too much time indoors because I did manage to see a number of spring ephemerals: Bloodroot; Dutchman's Breeches; Wild Ginger; and Marsh Marigolds--as evidenced by the photos above.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

B. Traven: The Bridge in the Jungle

While on my recent Nabokov foray, after hacking my way through his sesquipedalian tangles, and then wrestling with the fantasy of some of his short stories, I saw a clear, easy path ahead and decided to follow it for a while: B. Traven’s “The Bridge in the Jungle.” I found it in a second-hand bookstore in Tacoma and snatched it up for $3.50. It was a quick, easy read, everything that the Nabokov I had been reading was not: direct, unpretentious, and seemingly more concerned with the world than with its own creativity.

The narrator, Gales, is hunting alligators somewhere in the South American jungle. He visits a loose acquaintance, Sleigh, who lives in a hut in a primitive Indian village. The village is feeling the encroachments of industrialization, including railroads and oil exploration. The oil interests had some time ago built a bridge across a narrow river at the village, but without railings. During an evening celebration, a young boy, Carlosito, vanishes. His mother rouses the villagers to search for him. Some believe that he slipped off the bridge because he was wearing new shoes, shoes which had just been given to him by his brother, Manuel, who had recently returned from the Texas oil fields. As the search progresses, Gales silently regrets that he said nothing when he earlier had heard a splash in the river. Eventually, Carlosito’s body is found stuck in some brush in the water beneath the bridge.

Thereafter, this short novel consists of a straight-forward description of the funeral rites in this small village: the grief of the mother; the preparation of the body; the community’s offering of gifts to the mother for the adornment of her son at burial; the preparation of the coffin, fashioned from unmatched scraps of wood; the funeral procession; the graveside speech; and the burial.

Traven’s language never gets in the way of his story. He leaves the descriptive mode only occasionally, and usually not for long. The work captures perfectly a universal human experience, something that connects us all: the community’s response to death of a young child. The villagers, who have few worldly possessions, still find ways to show their concern for the dead boy and his family. Some make coverings for the body; some make decorated crowns for his head; others bring candles.

The narrator is at times maudlin—a trait I perhaps share and therefore can tolerate. And sometimes he seems too proud of the fact that he sees all humanity in the simple dignity of these primitive people. But his measured description of the funeral rites is a dissection of grief, one that expresses humanity’s commonality. The narrator’s open assertions of the impressiveness of the villagers is hardly needed, though was perhaps warranted given the time of the work’s publication, 1929, and the date of its republication in English, 1938. In fact, given the brewing world storm and the intolerance and bigotry that came with it, it is hard to imagine any message that was more needed in 1938 than the one delivered by this story. This is a noble work.

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.