An Aptly Titled Boulezian Primer

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,”and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) , Stravinsky’s “Rite,”Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,”and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is merely a stuffed-shirt academic. The students at Lucerne are, indeed, inheriting a lifetime’s worth of aesthetic dedication.

The filmmakers follow Boulez’ cue, structuring the film itself with commendable lucidity and professional visuals. It helps tremendously that the Lucerne summer festival provides beautiful location footage. Although Boulez remains an ambiguous personality, he is devoted to what he loves and, in his advanced years, he remains remarkably active in order to ensure the survival of contemporary music. Only the most jaded viewer will be unimpressed. Equally valuable is some of Boulez’ recollections on peers such as Bruno Madera.

A delightful and valuable example of music on film that is not only an apt homage to an unquestionably great composer, conductor, and teacher, but also a homage to the younger musicians following the lead of the veteran avant-gardist. Boulez seems in no hurry to slow down and we can only hope that he will have many active years ahead of him

THE WAGNER DEAL OF THE DECADE FROM OUR GREATEST LIVING WAGNERIAN

This is a no brainer. In the Teldec packaging, Barenboim’s complete Wagner operas are available at roughly three dollars per disc. No librettos are included, but at this price, one can easily obtain those elsewhere.


By “general” consensus, Barenboim is the greatest living Wagnerian. Dull ADD listeners are predictably apt to lazily compare him, unfavorably, to Furtwangler, but Barenboim merely is part of the same German romantic school, one that Klemperer, and others belonged to as well. The entire collection here is in clear sound, an important factor. Luckily, the conducting is as lucid and as animated as the recording quality.  BARENBOIM KUPFER RHIENGOLD

This Ring is one of the best modern recordings available. John Tomlinson’s Wotan can join the elite and he gives his own rogue take on it. Siegfried Jerusalem is also a characterful standout as Siegfried, Graham Clark is so slimy as Mime that he leaves a trail and Waltraud Meier’s Waltraute is colored in earthy hues. Of course, this is the same Ring that is available on DVD (with Harry Kupfer’s apocalyptic design) and may be the overall best filmed Ring to date. It compares favorably to many audio Rings, especially the stereo sets, such as Solti, Karajan, Bohm, and Boulez. Barenboim’s Ring probably surpasses all but Solti here and may, arguably, surpass the famous Culshaw produced Decca version. The Barenboim Teldec does not rely on an overabundance of effects and so, musically, may be more pure, but one’s preference will be reliant on priorities. While I might historically rank the Rings from Furtangler, Knappertsbusch, Keilberth, and Krauss on a more elevated plane, sonically those Rings, of course, cannot compete.

BARENBOIM KUPFER . TOMLINSON AS WOTAN

BARENBOIM KUPFER WALKURE

 

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THE VULNERABLE AND VIVACIOUS POET OF JAZZ: A RARE FILMED CONCERT OF THE LATE ABBEY LINCOLN.

This performance of the late jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln was filmed at New York’s Promenade Theater in 1991. The film here is an hour long in the round concert and rare glimpse of the enigmatic, introspective artist. The singer’s television special “You Gotta Pay the Band” has never been released on DVD and Carol Friedman’s in-progress Lincoln documentary “The Music Is The Magic” has been struggling to see the light of day due to financing difficulties, which makes this Kultur Video/Lucy II production all the more valuable. To date, it is the only release of a Lincoln performance in visual medium. Fortunately, the documentation intensely captures the singer’s level of expressiveness.

If Jazz singers are assessed foremost by depth of purpose, depth of spirit, then Lincoln shoots straight to the top or very close. Time -wise, she is midway in the history of this relatively small group of singers, which began with Billie Holiday followed by Lena Horn, Lincoln, Nina Simone, and is carried on by Cassandra Wilson ( THE current bearer of that tradition).

Lincoln strongly resisted efforts of record labels to promote her as a sex symbol, wrote most of her own songs, and unflinchingly voiced social concerns in her music. She gained notoriety for her participation in “The Freedom Suite” composed by jazz drummer Max Roach, who became her only husband (their marriage lasted eight years, before divorcing in 1970).

Her great influence was Billie Holiday. Some music critics maintain that, artistically, Lincoln, even more poignant, surpassed her role model. Of course, that is debatable (although I wouldn’t debate it, even as much as I edify Holiday). Lincoln was selective in what she sang, preferring to invest only in music that held meaning for her. This directly led to her taking on the role of composer. Following her divorce from Roach, Lincoln was absent from the music scene for nearly twenty years, sporadically appearing in films and television. Among her notable film works were her roles as the alternate Hollywood beauty in “The Girl Can’t Help It-1956”, the intimately sublime “Nothing But A Man-1964”, and the perfection of aged wine in Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues-1990.”

In 1990, with the release of her cd, “The World Is Falling Down” on the Verve label, Lincoln embarked on the twilight of her musical oeuvre, which lasted until her death, at the age of 80, in 2010. By general consensus, her late work ranks with and often surpasses her earlier efforts, with her swansong “Abbey Sings Abbey” (2007) considered as vital as the revelatory “Straight Ahead” (1961).

Of the songs performed here, Lincoln wrote, or co-wrote five of the eight. They are as follows:

. Summer Wishes (written by Marilyn and Alan Bergman)

. Up Jumped Spring. (Abbey Lincoln & Freddie Nobbard))

. A Time For Love. (Paul Francis Webster & Johnny Mandel)

. Bird Alone. (A.L.)

. You Gotta Pay The Band. (A.L.)

. Brother Can You Spare A Dime? (Paul Francis Webster & Jay Gorney)

. When I’m Called Home. (A.L)

. I’m In Love. (A.L.)

The camera work in this performance is economical, intimate without being intrusive. As for the concert and Lincoln herself, she is, simultaneously, a class act, intelligent, powerfully evocative, self-assured, buoyant, yet projecting vulnerable ethos. A pronounced highlight here is her idiosyncratic rendition of a song made popular by Bing Crosby, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” Of course, this was, possibly, the quintessential anthem for the depression-era man. Lincoln taps the common denominator that she finds at the heart of the song and she does so with an empathetic level of perception. By filtering this standard through her own sensibilities, she makes it her own declaration.

Towards the end of her life, Lincoln, looking unflinchingly at her own mortality, wrote: “When everything is finished in the world, the people go to look for what the artists leave. It’s the only thing we have really in this world-is an ability to express ourselves and say I was here.”

Without phoniness, Lincoln lived her life, saying: “I was here” in her various artistic mediums (she was also a painter). This documentation is among the records she left behind, records which serve in making her one of our treasured companions.

BLUEMAHLER CYCLE: SYMPHONY ONE

BlueMahler’s intensely subjective and brief presentation of his personally ideal recorded cycle of the Gustav Mahler symphonies.

Arnold Schoenberg claimed all that is representative of Mahler is to be found in his First Symphony and I sure as hell am not one to argue with Schoenberg, so the first is the inevitable place to start.  Naturally, no single interpretation can say everything there is to say, so here are a choice seven performances and I will start with Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein is to Mahler what Wilhelm Furtwangler was to Beethoven during the war years. Since the days of Bernstein, the recorded Mahler cycle has become annoyingly faddish, but, in the end, Bernstein’s Mahler remains one of the most vital for the ages.  In Bernstein’s DG recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, this legendary conductor flings off any idea of a hair shirt; he is buoyant, bright, and contagiously enthusiastic.  After the first two bucolic movements, Bernstein invests the funeral march with humor, aplomb, and zest; a bit like the adolescent enthusiasm for Edgar Allan Poe. Bernstein follows the march with a prophetic finale that literally sears everything in sight.

Rafael Kubelik leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a poetic performance which milks every ounce of color from the composer’s palette. It will wash right over you. The Marketing team at DG knew what they were doing when they chose a painting from Gustav Klimt for the cover.  This performance has had a considerable reputation since its release. It is well deserved.

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A SWEEPING AMERICAN LANDSCAPE

I miss Leonard Bernstein. Lenny could generate excitement for music like few others (Stokowski could) and his advocacy for American music propelled awareness for our great composers. Of course, there have been advocates of American music since Lenny’s passion and much of it has been quite good, but no one touches Bernstein’s enthusiasm, consummate skill and color palette.

This collection, unfortunately oop, is essential and a dream come true. It is available, at last look, on Amazon.co.uk and is heartily recommended.

One can easily visualize the great American landscapes while absorbed in Lenny’s edifying performances of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Ned Rorem, Samuel Barber,  etc. Those landscapes encompass the traditional West (Copland), the modern west (Harris), rural America (Schuman and Gershwin), dissonant America (Charles Ives) and Jewish America (Ernest Bloch and Lukas Foss). This is Americana at its most beautifully diverse.

You will not find a better performances of Samuel Barber’s withering “Unanswered Question”, Ives’ cantankerous “Bells on the Gong & Ladder”,  Copland’s populist “Appalachian Spring” or his “Symphony No. 3” which, for once, sounds like a masterpiece.

Lenny recorded most of these works with the New York Philharmonic many years earlier on the Sony label, but, with the exception of Roy Harris’ monumental and influential “Symphony 3” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” he tops those earlier performances (The DG Harris  and ‘Rhapsody’ are still superb).

If only Lenny were alive to be championing new, home grown music today. Of the DG Complete Recording sets, this is the most valuable, and that is saying quite a bit (The Mahler set is just as essential and still has yet to be topped in sheer musical intuition and passion).

Lose yourself.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: BOULEZ CONDUCTS THE MAHLER LIEDER.

MAHLER LIEDER.

In his recordings of various artists’ song cycles,Boulez,it
seems,often has been inspired to producing some of his most profound
performances.
His classic recordings of the little performed songs of Ravel,
Schoenberg, and Berg still remain the yardstick by which all others
are measured.
Now, comes his arrival of three Mahler lieder and the results are
something to celebrate.
Indeed, this may prove to be his best Mahler yet.
In the Ruckert Lieder, Boulez coaxes both the Viennal Players and
Violeta Urmana into producing sensuous sounds and colors which could
come straight out the most transparent Klimt paintings.
It’s my personal favorite of the three, but that opinion is already
biased, as I have a definite soft spot for this piece.
Thomas Quasthoff is appropriately noble in the Lieder eines fahrenden
Gesellen and Anne-Sofie von Otter has arguably never been more
profund than in the Kindentotenlieder found here.
Boulez proves here that he’s far more than ‘just’ a musical
intellect, he also has acute rhythmic instinct.
Each singer is perfectly cast, the sound is superb and Boulez’s
conducting is among his most crystal clear and lucid to date.
Like his other song cycles, this should prove to be a
genuine ‘classic’.

MAHLER SYMPHONY 2

This is a highly theatrical Mahler 2nd,not theatrical in the narrative sense, but something more akin to the theatricality found in Oskar Schlemmer’s “Triadische Ballet”.

Boulez’s vision of the “Resurrection” seems more conceptual performance art than opera house minded. This is a resurrection imbued with cubist light (think Georges Braque’s ‘Candlestick”, his lighthouse from “Harbor in Normandy” or the cool light colors found in Schlemmer’s “Four Figures and Cube”.

I was reminded much of the (often surreal) gnostic preoccupation with light and while this may not be a hardcore believer’s orthodox “Resurrection”, it certainly springs from a uniquely individualistic perspective.

Those wanting a full throttled, operatic, goose bump inducing “Resurrection” should be steered towards Leonard Bernstein’s let you hair down Sony recording with New York.

Personally, I want them both.

MAHLER SYMPHONY 5

This is a much recorded work, yet Boulez has something to add.

Some reviewers have claimed this is Boulez’s most ‘traditional’ performance of Mahler’s works and point to the pretty standard length of the famous adagietto as evidence.

I disagree.

Boulez’s approach to Mahler (like his Wagner) has been strongly Debussian from the beginning, and this fifth is one of the most pointedly Debussian, for this is not the stereotypical approach of hazy impressionism, but the diaphanous prism of ‘Jeux”.

For, the most part, Mahler shed his Wunderhorn skin with this pivotal work and so too does Boulez divorce the work from the nostalgic associations it has since acquired (Kennedy’s funeral, “Death in Venice”), yet he doesn’t jump the gun towards an easily predictable, superficial route to clarify his point. He savors the adagietto as an unraveling composition in it’s own right, drawing out every nuanced color,yet without over sentimentality.

Boulez yields supreme control over the whole canvas and there is elegance aplenty.
This is a challenging performance and, upon repeated listening, yields many surprises and rewards.

* My take on the Boulez Mahler lieder from a 2005 Fringe post. 5 years later, it is still the one I always pull out. Posting it here, along with my take on Boulez’s M2,  and M5 (strangely, I never wrote on his M7, possibly his most idiosyncratic Mahler and, therefore, my favorite).  DG will be releasing Boulez’ adagio from the M10, later this year (You have to give it to Boulez, he has never accepted the Cooke addition as valid and still refuses to conduct it, regardless of how popular it has become. His Sony recording of the M10 adagio was once described as having the quality of steel and I agree).

Of course, DG will undoubtedly release that with a coupling and I am hoping they do so with Boulez’s Bruckner 7th or 9th, both of which he has performed in Chicago. Boulez’s DG recording of the Bruckner 8th stunned many, myself included.

Luigi Nono: La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura

While Gidon Kremer’s premier version (below) is more compact, extrovert and focused, the Arditti/Richard version is more open spaced and clear as a bell. This version from Melise Mellinger (violin) and Salvatore Sciarrino (sound projection) is more exploratory.

Sciarrino refers to “La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura” as Nono’s diary, containing glimpses of the work’s creation; Sounds of the composer and Kremer talking, juxtaposed against moving furniture, electro-acoustic trains, etc. Sciarrino describes the tape as the music’s soul with the music itself being “discovered” alongside the pre-recorded sounds. Likewise, the performance seems to find itself along the way, taking the listener along, never knowing what to fully expect, even if this is not the first version encountered.

Sciarrino probes the life of those tapes as deeply as Kremer, and predictably takes it to its fullest, hour length (Kremer’s version is twenty minutes shorter).

Mellinger/Sciarrino discover lyricism underneath a white chaos and this performance certainly adds to and is a welcome addition to the composer’s recorded legacy.


Nono struggled greatly with ” La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura “, literally delivering it on the eleventh hour to Gidon Kremer.

The composer expressed doubt about the pre-recorded material and his ability to communicate an almost inexpressible spirituality. Later, he expanded it’s title and lengthened the work by about twenty minutes.
Kremer uses the earlier, shorter version and there’s little doubt that is a more extrovert performance.

Arditti uses the revised,longer version and,frankly, there’s both pluses and minuses.

While Kremer’s star soloist version revels in brazen colors, the Arditti begins with a piercing silver which shrieks, then dies, only to re-emerge as a whispering white.

There’s a truer sense of the work’s madrigal quality here and a more pronounced realization of a wanderer’s pathless travel.

While Arditti delivers a typically gutsy,thorny, bravo performance (with partnered sound projectionist Andre Richard delivering an equally zealous interpretation) there is,on first listen and in comparison to Kremer, reduced contrast and sagging tension,thus minimizing it’s accessibility.

On repeated listens, it becomes apparent the Arditti/Richard team is meticulous in realizing Nono’s wishes.

Struggling with this work is part of it’s inevitable reward and this performance demands a focused concentration.

The Kremer version remains the ideal introductory work, while the Arditti/Richard performance is the next plateau and is an absolutely essential alternative.


There’s something uniquely special about Gidon Kremer’s ” La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura” and even though there has, to date, been five different recordings of this late Nono composition,I suspect Kremer’s will remain the supreme “first” choice, but certainly not the only choice; The Arditti/Richard, Mellinger/Sciarrino and Merkel/Heiniger versions all have further and unique things to convey here.

For an introverted work that’s about a communicative struggle, Kremer’s interpretation seems decidedly self-assured and intensely focused.

While Kremer relishes the extrovert soloist’s spotlight, imbuing it with the richest of colors, his genuine love of the composer and composition is evident throughout and fully enhances the experience(and reading his essay on the composition is almost as illuminating as the performance itself).

Aptly, one does not come to terms easily with “Nostalgia for a Far Away, Future Utopia”, which makes the Kremer version all the more worthwhile and essential.

That said, one big misfire here is in the pairing with Kremer’s version of Nono’s valedictory work,” Hay que caminar”.

While Kremer’s version is a formidable one, it simply cannot compare to the sheer poetry of Arditti’s incomparable performance and immediately following “Utopia” with another work only seems to diminish an experience that should unquestionably end with silence.

LUIGI NONO: PROMETEO, TRAGEDIA DELL’ ASCOLTO

Conductor Peter Hirsch, who worked with the composer and Claudio Abbado on the premiere,has thoroughly done his homework in this clear as a bell performance.

Not only is the performance itself lucid and attune to the all those essential,subliminal,nuanced details, but the recorded sound is crystalline,ideal.

Also,the packaging is handsomely mounted with complete listening score, commentaries,history etc,making this the quintessential recording and preferable to the out of print EMI version .

This is by no means a casual listen or something one comes to terms with in a single hearing, but like “La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura”,with repeated exposure,the complexities,immense struggles and elongated silences give way to an emotionally rewarding, intellectually stimulating, uncompromisingly poetic,provocative, yet exquisite soundworld of diaphanous pink and white, yellow and blue timbres.