Tag Archives: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

LEONARD BERNSTEIN CENTENARY: A BELATED THANK YOU, LENNY

I grew up watching Leonard Bernstein’s The Young People’s Concert. Lenny instilled in me a love for music, which I have to this day almost fifty years later. He’s been gone since 1990 and although he’s had wonderful successors (Michael Tilson Thomas and Marin Alsop are two who immediately spring to mind), no one has been able to match his charisma and I doubt ever will.

Lenny probably had a impact on me that equals the influences I’ve had in my own chosen art (performance, painting, writing) so, in celebration of his centenary, this is a belated thank you, Lenny for the immeasurable joy you’ve brought to my life.

Below is a short introductory list of what (for me) is quintessential Bernstein. It is by no means all-inclusive.

I’m going to start with Bernstein’s own music and the music of his which has resonated with me the most is Mass.

I was a teenager when I encountered and fell in love with Mass. It premiered in 1971 to mostly negative reviews. Year later, it played at the Vatican. Imagine that. The FBI, having kept files on Bernstein, warned then President Nixon that Mass was both anti-war and anti-establishment. Oh my. Needless to say, Nixon didn’t attend. Commissioned by Jaqueline Kennedy, Bernstein composed it for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. Reportedly, there were cries of “blasphemy” at the premiere, which inspired Lenny to literally bang his head against the wall in frustration. Some have called it a rock opera, but labels ultimately are silly. It definitely reflects the tumultuous 60s and has a reverential spirit of irreverence. Like much of Bernstein’s music, it’s about the struggle of faith, heard most beautifully in “Word of the Lord” and most comically in “God Said.” This Sony recording is the composer’s own.

As she is apt to do, Marin Alsop actually topped Lenny with her 2009 recorded performance on Naxos. Go with both.

Of course, Lenny’s operetta Candide is based off the famous Voltaire novel of bite. It was a major flop at its1956 premiere and underwent numerous revisions until the final one in 1989. This is the essential video performance (still waiting for it on blu-ray) from Deutsche Gramophone. Some prefer the original. It’s a case of both/and, but if I had to pick I’m going to go with seeing (a quite ill, but spirited) Lenny conduct what is perhaps his finest score. Christa Ludwig singing “I’m so easily assimilated” is the stuff of satirical dreams.

West Side Story. Bernstein’s most famous work needs no introduction. Most refer to the movie. Don’t. Bernstein finally got around to recording the full score himself in 1985. The result was controversial with many objecting to his use of opera singers. Jose Carreras was the most debated casting. Personally, I respond enthusiastically to Carreras’ and wonder how anyone could doubt him after hearing “Maria,” “Tonight,” or “Something’s Coming.” For me, Kiri Te Kanawa is more questionable; gorgeous but ultimately too cool, especially when compared to the warm and much missed Tatiana Troyanos, who practically steals the entire show. Perhaps the video “West Side Story: Making Of The Recording” has colored opinions against Carreras when we see Bernstein chain smoking (nobody inhaled smoky treats as cool he) and mercilessly grilling the soprano. Small flaws aside, both the recording and documentary are musts. An extra bonus on the cd is Bernstein’s robust and authoritative score for On The Waterfront, which only makes one wish he had done more of this. Still, for that proverbial desert island paradise, I’d have to foremost recommend Michael Tilson Thomas’ 2014 performance with his SFO. However, be forewarned, with Thomas’ performance; delightfully spontaneous but smooth, you’ll probably never go back to listening to another.

Perhaps no other American musician had a better pulse on suburbia than Bernstein in his 1952 opera Trouble in Tahiti. It’s wittily devastating. Later he incorporated it into the longer A Quiet Place. Stick with the compact original.

Symphony 2, The Age of Anxiety

Although Bernstein’s First Symphony, Jeremiah is right acclaimed, I have a soft spot for the eternally underrated Second Symphony: The Age of Anxiety, composed in 1949 and revised in 1965. It’s titled after the famous poem of W.H. Auden. Bernstein later recorded this, with the first symphony, Chichester Psalms, Fancy Free, and Symposium Serenade on DG. Those are fine, but his earlier traversals on Sony are spikier. All three are mandatory Bernstein, even if Alsop again surpasses him.

In other composers, with Bernstein, you almost have to start with Mahler because although he was by no means the first Mahler conductor, he was the force that was most responsible for the Mahler revival. That he was a damned fine conductor of Mahler is icing on the cake.

Mahler Symphony 9

A great artist’s final essay on a great artist’s final completed work; Bernstein’s Concertgebouw recording of the Mahler 9th is incinerating. The closing adagio is not just the end of Mahler’s life, and Lenny’s life, but all life.

 Mahler Symphony 7

Mahler’s most problematic symphony (AKA Modern-Schoenberg adored it) is a Bernstein language. Only Herman Scherchen painted the scherzo more macabre. If you can get through the second nightmusic without mauling your better half, you might want to check your pulse. As for the finale, only Daniel Barenboim is as psychedelic. Bernstein recorded it three times, but it’s the earlier Sony NYP technicolor version that boils with a young conductor’s blood. Bernstein’s DG recordings of the 6th (watch out for loose putty on the wall) and 5th (a melting Adagietto that will beautifully break your heart) must also be experienced.

 Mahler Symphony 2

Constipated New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg incessantly complained about Bernstein’s New York Mahler 2nd, saying the conductor over accentuated and was heart- on-sleeve. Actually, Lenny revels in musical kitsch. His later DG recording is probably the yardstick by which all future Mahler 2s will be measured and you really cannot go through life without them.

Mahler Symphony 1

The climax is really in a funeral march straight out of Edgar Alan Poe.

George Gershwin Rhapsody In Blue and An American In Paris

Nobody conducted American music like Lenny and so I’ll start with his George Gershwin. Lenny conducts Gershwin from the piano and although there’s a lot of competition (including his own later versions on DG) it is these youthful traversals for Sony that sweep the field.

Roy Harris Symphony 3

Possibly the greatest American symphony by America’s greatest conductor. Nuff said.

Charles Ives (various)

Probably America’s wackiest composer in red-blooded readings. The Unanswered Question was a lifelong quest for Lenny.

Aaron Copland (various)

People are still mixed on Copland. Put all hesitations aside. With Lenny, you’ll believe.

Samuel Barber Adagio For Strings

I hope to leave this mortal coil listening to this.

Edward Elgar Enigma Variations

In one of his scant explorations into British music, Lenny screws Elgar. Since I can’t abide Elgar, I adore this because whatever it is, it’s not Elgar. Lenny at his most heterodox, which is saying a lot.

Joseph Haydn London Symphonies

Bernstein never failed to surprise, as he does here. Who would have thought that Lenny, of all people, would have an orthodox love affair with Haydn? Pure Nirvana.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Great Mass In C Minor

Ok, Lenny was not at his most natural in the boy from Salzburg, but I defy anyone to find a better Great Mass.

Ludwig Van Beethoven String Quartets 131 & 135

Lenny was a vastly underrated conductor of Beethoven, especially compared with some of the master’s grossly overrated interpreters (I’m looking at you, Herbert). Bernstein identified as much with Beethoven as he did Schumann (below) and listed this recording of the String Quartets as his own personal favorite. He dedicated it to his late wife; Felicia. Theirs was an epic, flawed love story. Lenny never recovered from his having wronged her or her untimely death. These will literally send you to the chapel. His piano concertos with Serkin (Sony), Eroica (both recordings), 7th (from the Vienna cycle) Missa Solemnis, and Fidelio are manna from heaven. His final recorded performance was a Beethoven 7th with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He knew it was his last and it’s agonizing (he barely gets through the third movement). It should be experienced, if not visited too often. It’s too personal and too painful a valedictory.

Robert Shumann Four Symphonies and Pyotr Tchaikovsky (various)

Schumann and Tchaikovsky are artists that Bernstein personally identified with as strongly as he did Beethoven and Mahler. He elevates them both to Mahlerian planes.

Jean Sibelius (various)

Lenny was an early impassioned advocate of Jean Sibelius. Lock yourself in the house for a week.

Antonin Dvorak Symphony 9

If there is a reference recording of this much performed music, this is it.

Igor Stravinsky Le Sacre Du Printemps

Early heavy metal. Stravinsky was in the audience of this performance and said merely: “Wow.” Although, I have better testimony for its greatness; my cat-who leapt off the speaker.

Richard Wagner Tristan und Isolde

Forget that Wagner was a monster. Forget that Bernstein (understandably) normally avoided that virulent anti-semite like the plague. This is molten Tristan und Isolde that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Wilhlem Furtwangler. One of Bernstein’s most forgotten and criminally underrated, incandescent hours.

and of course…

Leonard Bernstein 1918-1990

Into the woods

A spot on review of Claus Guth’s staging of “Don Giovanni.”

operaramblings

Claus Guth’s 2008 Salzburg production of Don Giovanni divided the critics along entirely predictable lines.  It’s a very unusual treatment of Don Giovanni but the concept is stuck to with real consistency and it works to create a compelling piece of music theatre.  The treatment on video too is not straightforward and, in a sense, the DVD/Blu-ray version is as much the work of Brian Large as it is of Claus Guth.

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INGMAR BERGMAN’S MAGIC FLUTE (1975)

Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute advertisementIngmar Bergman The Magic Flute (1975)

The conductor Bruno Walter once suggested that “The Magic Flute,” rather than the unfinished “Requiem,” was Mozart’s true valedictory work. While there have been many great recordings of “The Magic Flute,” Wilhelm Furtwangler’s famous performance stands out for its pronounced mysticism, which justifies Walter’s claim.

Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute (1975) advertisementIngmar Bergman The Magic Flute 1975 ad

In Milos Forman’s superb but highly fictionalized Amadeus (1984), Mozart (Tom Hulce) dismisses “The Magic Flute” as vaudeville. The jealous but perceptive Salieri corrects Mozart: “It is sublime.” Although “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” represent Mozart’s greatest achievements in opera, “The Magic Flute” is nearly an equal masterpiece that transcends its “vaudeville” genre. As with audio-only recorded performances, there have been numerous excellent filmed performances. Both David McVicar’s imaginative, yet traditional “Flute” for the Covent Garden and Julie Taymor‘s abridged English language version for the Met predictably dazzle.

Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute '75Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute vhs edition

The opera’s fanciful dressings of Masonic symbolism, mythological dragons, sorcerers, bird catchers and a silly plot can, under less perceptive direction, distract from Mozart’s philosophical “higher meaning.” In worst-case scenarios,”The Magic Flute” can be rendered like a Humperdinck “Hansel und Gretel” for the powdered wig audience. The opposite extreme can also be taken. In 2006, Kenneth Branagh produced a predominantly well-received, full-fledged film version (in English), which transported librettist Emanuel Shikaneder’s scenario to the First World War. In 2007, Martin Kusej, always a controversial director, used provocative conducting from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to transform the opera into an amorous, Expressionist nightmare.

Ingmar Bergman directing The Magic Flute

Continue reading INGMAR BERGMAN’S MAGIC FLUTE (1975)

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA GIARDINIERA

LA FINTA GIARDINIERA (DORIE)M22 LA FINTA GIARDINIERA

La finta giardiniera (“The Pretend Garden Girl”) is an opera buffa from Mozart’s youth (written in 1777, when Mozart was all of 18, with a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini).  The jealous Il Count Belfiore has attacked and stabbed his mistress, La Marchioness Violante Onesti.  Believing he has killed her, Belfiore flees.  The frayed, but quite alive Violante disguises herself as one Sandrina and, with her servant, Roberto (who also takes a disguise, as Nardo), she sets out to find Belfiore.  Nardo and Sandrina find employment as gardeners for Don Anchise, the Podesta (Governor) of Lagonero.  The Podesta falls head over heels for his new gardener while Nardo falls for Serpetto, the housekeeper.  The Podesta’s niece Arminda enters the story; she was was once the lover of Il Cavalier Ramiro, jilted him, and is now engaged to Count Belfiore.  Sandrina eludes the Podesta’s constant advances; she’s further stressed when she discovers Belfiore’s engagement.  Tension increases further when Ramiro appears at the estate.  The characters are thrown into a whirlwind of confusion: Arminda’s engagement is called off when Belfiore is officially charged with the murder of Violante.  Sandrina comes to her ex-lover’s rescue, revealing that she is Violante, alive and well.  Initially, no one believes Sandrina, but Belfiore reasserts his love for Violante.  Sandrina and Belfiore go mad in a cave, believing themselves to be gods, but their madness subsides after they fall asleep and reawaken in each other’s arms.  Arminda decides to marry Ramiro after all, Nardo decides to  marry Serpetto and the Podesta will remain single until he finds another Sandrina.
Now what is an artist to do with such a ludicrous plot?  As he often did when tackling an absurd libretto, Mozart responded with inspired music.  In the true Mozartean spirit, director Doris Dorrie has just as much fun with Giardiniera as when she bounced through her 2003 staging of Cosi fan Tutte (set in the psychedelic 60′s flower children era).  Dorrie’s personality is stamped all over this charming production.  Primary colors abound. Continue reading M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA GIARDINIERA

Not one for the opera fundamentalists, but a vital Figaro for the 21st century.

If one thinks comic book fans are a tad over-zealous in filmed approaches to their tight-wearing heroes, then a quick glance at reactions from many American opera fans, to contemporary opera, will reveal that those Marvel boys are a subdued lot. American opera fans tend to approach staged/filmed opera the way some fundamentalist Christians approach the good book, insisting on face value inerrancy and or the King James Version. So impassioned, or insistent on orthodox and/or period staging, are such American Opera fans that their first line of attack is to typically spew the over-used, tiresome, and oh so predictable “EURO-TRASH” slur. The idea, for those inclined, is to keep the composer locked in his or her own boxed time and, thus, shut the composer off to newer generations and fresh interpretations (Traditional Shakespeare fans are almost as bad). However, Mozart is still a vital voice in music, regardless of his worshippers. It is no accident that opera in Europe is far bigger, far more attended, and better supported than it is here in the states where the opera “fans” make a false religion out of the art form, slap an institutional sheen on it and transform breathing theater into a museum piece.

Over two hundred years after its debut, The Marriage of Figaro remains an extraordinarily three dimensional work, which does not flinch from portraying deeply flawed characters. Numerous filmed versions of the opera have been released, but the 2006 Salzburg entry may be the most uncompromising to date. There is, of course, Peter Sellars mid-nineties version which, aptly, takes place in Trump Tower, but the line-up of the 2006 film should be a yield sign to opera fundamentalists. The conductor, Nikolas Harnoncourt, has a well-earned reputation for “weirdness.” In that, Harnoncourt,an Austrian by birth, possibly even surpasses that typically eccentric German music director Michael Gielen. Harnoncourt lead several of the M22 projects but Le nozze di Figaro is Harnoncourt at his most personal and insightful.Harnoncourt’s is not porcelain conducting here; he mirrors the disconcerting underside of Da Ponte’s libretto as interpreted by star director Claus Guth. Harnoncourt’s seasoned pacing reinforces the nuanced poignancy, beauty, mature humor, and prospective, life-affirming drama of this music. Thankfully, Harnoncourt does not try to coat Mozart’s writing with a kind of Rossini whipped topping.

Continue reading Not one for the opera fundamentalists, but a vital Figaro for the 21st century.

Claus Guth, Mozart, Czernowin: Relentless Communication

ZAIDE.ADAMA

Mozart’s unfinished Zaide is considered a slightly older, less memorable brother to the composer’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio.]. Zaide is a rescue opera, with a plot based on Voltaire’s “Zaire.” The exiled Christian Gomatz is visited by the Muslim harem slave Zaide, the sultan’s favorite concubine. Zaide falls in love with the enslaved Gomatz, rescues him, and together they flee with the aid of the overseer, Allazim. Zaide chooses spirited freedom over financial security, and invokes the Sultan’s wrath. Zaide and Gomatz are recaptured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Awaiting execution in the dungeon, Zaide remains defiant, and the opera abruptly stops with an emotional quartet in which the principals express their anxieties, hopes, and fears. Entfuhrung/Seraglio ended on an optimistic note. Had it been completed, it is doubtful Zaide would have followed suit; Voltaire’s original play ended tragically. Zaide ends with the Sutlan’s decision to kill Zaide and Gomatz. The unhappy ending may have been the reason for Mozart’s eventual abandonment of the project.

For his Salzburg production, Claus Guth’s intertwines Mozart’s neglected, unfinished work with Adama (Earth in Hebrew), by 21st century Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, commissioned especially for this project. During Mozart’s brief lifetime, he worked with traditional forms and then, especially later in his career, defied those forms. It is one of the great tragedies of music that Mozart did not live another ten to twenty years. His late works (such as the Symphony in G minor ) saw Mozart at his most expansive and innovative. To achieve a true Mozartean spirit, contemporary directors, when interpreting Mozart, should first and foremost forget that this is the work of “THE” Mozart.

Continue reading Claus Guth, Mozart, Czernowin: Relentless Communication