ARIA (1987)

It’s no  revelation to say that supporters and patrons of the arts mantle an attitude of progressiveness and promote themselves as such. For the most part, in the contemporary West at least, that’s a fallacy. A spirit of ultra-conservatism has hijacked virtually every art form. One finds it even in the least expected places. Impressionism can be found in bland texture-less prints  at Corproate Christendom’s Hobby Lobby, who even have their own dead hypocritical hack pseudo-impressionist: Thomas Kinkade. Abstract expressionism has gone the way of J.C. Penny office decor. Surrealism has been relegated to melting-clock Dali stickers on the folders of angsty teenaged boys. Horror and sci-fi film aficionados subscribe to formula expectations, often reacting with hostility to anything that contains an ounce of originality, style, or challenge (i.e. A.I. Prometheus, The Babadook, The Witch). With damned few exceptions, rock and roll is dead, as is jazz, which has been sabotaged by the self-appointed tradition preservationists (i.e. Wynton Marsalis) and devolved into the oxymoronic smooth jazz (Kenny G). Nowhere is orthodox contagion more in evidence than in that Queen Mother of all art forms: Opera. American opera fans are about the only demographic that can actually render comic book fanboys a comparatively innovative lot. Who would have thunk it?

Yet, the tradition of opera, ballet, art music hardly paved the way for such conservativism. As both conductor and opera director, Richard Wagner found no one’s music or ideas sacred, not even his own, and complained that younger conductors were playing his music too reverentially. Gustav Mahler took an equally innovative approach to stage direction. His own body of work took the art form (the symphony) into an astoundingly elastic direction, even influencing the Second Vienesse School (which makes the sanctification of both his and their music rather baffling).

When that uncouth Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney teamed up forFantasia (1940) and dared to suggest that art music could be both dangerous and kitsch fodder for transcription and animation, the purists were outraged. The outcome was an unparalleled flop for Disney; it took decades to recoup his investment and earn critical reevaluation (Stoki, par for the course, weathered everything). Financiers took note, and nothing on this scale was really attempted again until Aria (1987).

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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.




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