Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Toll booth, Whitestone Bridge, NY

Driver to Toll booth attendant: How you doing? You got air conditioning in there?
Toll booth attendant: Oh yeah. Since Obama got in, we all got air conditioning.

Yes, Les Introuvables de Nereffid is coming to you live from the U.S.
Expect fewer posts and lots of typos that mix up @ and ".

Friday, July 23, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 5: Songs and Songs

Mahler's first volume of Lieder und Gesänge comprises 5 pieces, but which of them are lieder and which are gesänge? Deryck Cooke begins his commentary on this collection rather dispritingly, saying "Only three are of real interest", and Donald Mitchell remarks that "The five songs... are not of equal importance". They both agree that the 3 decent ones are "Frühlingsmorgen", "Erinnerung", and "Hans und Grete", the last of which we've already encountered as one of the songs Mahler wrote for Josephine Poisl.
I'm not going to go into the details and relative merits of the various recordings of these songs that I've been listening to, as things would get very bitty. Suffice to say I've heard Janet Baker and Geoffrey Parsons (Hyperion) doing all 5 songs; 2 each from Christianne Stotijn/Julius Drake (Onyx) and Christian Gerhaher/Gerold Huber (RCA); and the mixed contributions on the EMI and DG "complete Mahler" sets.

"Frühlingsmorgen" ("Spring Morning") is charming; in it, the singer is encouraging a "sleepyhead" to get out of bed - "the bees and beetles are buzzing, and I've already seen your lively sweetheart". The song itself is rather sleepy, and you suspect the singer's rather sympathetic to whoever it is that's cosily tucked up. Some singers more than others highlight the lullaby nature of the ending.
"Erinnerung" ("Remembering") is, as its title might suggest, a nostalgic number, the singer thinking about some lost or failed love and how it inspires songs. It rises to a passionate climax before sinking down into sadness and finally a very dark conclusion on the piano. Donald Mitchell points out that this song provides an early example of progressive tonality in Mahler's music - it begins in G minor and ends in A minor - and cites Schumann as an influence.
And, indeed, the first song in Schumann's Der arme Peter begins with the line "Der Hans und die Grete tanzen herum", which brings us neatly to Mahler's "Hans und Grete" - which, as I've said, we've already encountered. I suppose I can interject here that the DG Mahler edition includes, rather oddly, 2 of Luciano Berio's orchestrations of these songs ("Frühlingsmorgen" and "Hans und Grete") at the expense of the original piano versions. I'm not sure what the thinking was there. Berio's versions are certainly worthwhile, though the orchestra seems unnecessarily large. But it did help me notice a little bit of accompaniment in "Frühlingsmorgen" that shows up in the second-movement trio of the Symphony no.1.

The two unloved songs here are "Serenade" and "Phantasie", both using texts taken from Tirso de Molina's Don Juan. Go on, admit that you don't know who Tirso de Molina is. There's no shame in it. But why are Cooke and Mitchell so dismissive of these two songs? Well, with "Serenade" it's pretty obvious. There's nothing wrong with it as such, but it just doesn't sound like Mahler at all. You could fancy that there's a few notes of accompaniment that prefigure the Symphony no.9, which would I suppose open up a whole critical can of worms, but by and large I think it's possible to love every single thing Mahler wrote except this one.
Poor old "Phantasie", though. It's a short ballad about a "fisher-maid" who "traps hearts" but whose own heart "reflects no love". It starts with a tune that makes me think of one of those fanfares from the Knaben Wunderhorn songs, although Mahler's instruction was that the piano should try to sound like a harp (it also reminds me of a guitar). Like "Serenade" it can be regarded as insufficiently Mahlerian, but I must say I like "Phantasie" a lot. It helps to have heard Christian Gerhaher's recent recording - he invests it with a darkness I don't hear elsewhere that moves it away from being a lied and into the realm of folk song. As I noted in my comments on the Piano quartet, there's a constant tension between what the professionals may consider good music and what your humble listener thinks.

And that concludes "Mahler: the early years". What will happen next? Will Mahler mature into a great composer who produces magnificent symphonies encompassing all of human emotion, or will he just spend the rest of his life writing incidental music to second-rate plays? Join us next time to find out!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bayreuth in non-controversy shock horror

A report on Bayreuth from Irish Times correspondent Derek Scally today sort of missed its own point. "New score at Bayreuth as opera upstages warring Wagners" says the headline, and beneath it "The buzz at the festival is all about the performances for the first time in years". And indeed Scally begins with "For the first time in many years the on-stage action – a Lohengrin premiere and the Bayreuth premiere of star tenor Jonas Kaufmann – has attracted more attention than the off-stage intrigues of the composer’s warring descendants". Well, that's good, you're thinking. This is one (soap) opera that's gone on long enough and it's nice to talk about the music for a change. Unfortunately most of the article's about Gottfried Wagner, Wolfgang's disowned son. (Wolfgang is the grandson of Richard and is also Brunnhilde's uncle and half-brother and husband. Ask Anna Russell.) And in the print issue that picture of Jonas Kaufmann is accompanied by one of Eva and Katharina Wagner, and of course... Winifred Wagner and her chum Adolf Hitler. Sorry, did somebody mention music?

Avoiding Inception

I'm really looking forward to seeing Inception but I probably won't get to it for a couple of weeks. And I want to see it on my own terms, which means significant portions of the Internet and other media are now temporarily closed off to me. One of the reasons The Matrix impressed me so much is that I had no idea what it was going to be - didn't know much about it, apart really from "it's supposed to be good". There were no expectations to be met or disappointments to be avoided. Unfortunately the world and her uncle are keen to talk about Inception and tell me what I should think about it before I come within 5 miles of a cinema. I don't want to know. I have a rough idea of what might be the general basic concept, and I know there's a good cast, and that's it. I don't want to know if it's rubbish or the best film ever or the best film of the summer or the worst film of the summer or the most overhyped piece of crap since Avatar or the most staggering work of genius since The Dark Knight or a bit meh or it's got a surprise ending or the surprise ending is stupid or the CGi is crap or the acting is rubbish or it's just a rip-off of The Matrix or it will leave me in floods of tears and deserves at least fifty Oscars and/or Razzies. Just leave me the fuck alone. Why in the name of arse do you think I want to hear your opinion? Go away.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Charles Mackerras, RIP

Those of us who like the music of Janáček are of course forever in his debt...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 4: The Singing Bone

Das klagende Lied (The Song of Lament) was completed in 1880. It's a "dramatic cantata" for soloists and chorus based on a folk tale - or rather, on two similar folk tales. In one collected by Ludwig Bechstein, a prince and princess compete to succeed the queen, who has decreed that the winner will be whoever finds a particular flower in the forest; in the Grimm brothers' tale, it's two brothers who are competing for a wife. In both cases, one murders the other and wins the prize, but later someone (a child or a minstrel) discovers a bone in the forest and carves it into a flute. When he plays, a voice emerges from the bone, telling the whole sorry tale. In Mahler's cantata, two brothers are competing to win the queen's hand in marriage, and the bone is discovered by a minstrel, who brings it to the castle on the day of the wedding and simply ruins everyone's day.

Mahler was 20 when he finished the work, and by now much of the groundwork for the Mahler we know has been laid. You can have fun playing "guess the influence", though - a mix of German romantics from Weber to early Wagner and Bruckner. Das klagende Lied has an odd compositional history, in as much as Mahler wrote it in 3 parts but subsequently dropped the first part entirely. How could he manage that? Part I tells the story of the brothers and the murder, and then in Part II the minstrel discovers the bone and learns the story; so there is a certain amount of dramatic repetition (Part III covers the minstrel's appearance at the wedding). Part I remained out of sight until 1969 (according to Wikipedia), and I think it's been essentially reinstated - aside from whether it's good music, the point is it's nearly a half-hour's worth of Mahler and so can't be ignored.

And yet, when listening to it for the first time in years, in the recording by Simon Rattle/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI), I could see why Mahler chose to drop Part I. For all its musical qualities - already he's a master of the orchestra - the dramatic pacing's not great. He really shouldn't need 25 to 30 minutes to tell this story. I suspect he was enjoying himself a bit too much, revelling in the use of the orchestra to paint the tale. But then again, a couple of months later I heard for the first time the recording from Riccardo Chailly/Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Decca) and found that I enjoyed it a lot more, and time seemed to pass much quicker. Was this just a case of increased familiarity, or is Chailly's performance better than Rattle's? Probably just the former; dramatically speaking there's not much to choose between them, I think. So yes, we could in theory dispense with Part I but then we'd be missing out on so many wonderful moments, not least the intriguing depiction of the murder itself. The relevant verse is His eye gleams with savage joy, Its look has told no lie; A sword of steel hangs at his side, Now he has drawn it! The elder laughs 'neath the willow tree, The younger smiles as in a dream. (This is from Eric Mason's translation with the Rattle disc). The big climax here is on the last two lines - and on the word "smiles" (lächelt), the choir descends in a weird, well, laughing phrase that we can assume is also the sound of the sword descending. Almost immediately, the music becomes serene and beautiful and gradually transforms into something that is recognisable as the ending of the song "Die zwei blaue Augen" from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, where again it's associated with a death-like sleep or sleep-like death (more on that ambiguity when we get to those Lieder). This is the sort of psychology we Mahlerians love - death, happiness, murder, and peace all mixed up together. And indeed in Part III we get another such juxtaposition, when Mahler uses an off-stage wind band as part of his depiction of the wedding festivities. After the minstrel has revealed the terrible truth, and everyone is stunned to silence, the band strikes up again, completely unaware of what's going on. It's a wonderfully twisted moment.

Although in terms of story-telling there may not be much to choose between Rattle and Chailly, I much prefer Decca's sound to EMI's, which is a little too close up and doesn't allow the orchestra much delicacy. This might well have been a contributing factor to why I was happier with Part I once I heard Chailly. A more pertient fact is that overall I prefer Chailly's soloists - Susan Dunn (sop), Brigitte Fassbaender (mez), Werner Hollweg (ten), Andreas Schmidt (bass) - to Rattle's - Helena Döse (sop), Alfreda Hodgson (mez), Robert Tear (ten), Sean Rea (bar). (The score calls for a baritone, not a bass, but I've written them as they appear on the discs. I just compared the 2 singers in one passage and I'd have said Rea was the bass and Schmidt the baritone. Go figure.) One key piece of casting I've omitted here is the singing bone itself. Mahler's original idea was to have a boy soprano and boy alto, the alto combining with the contralto when the flute begins to sing. He dropped this idea, but Chailly reinstates it, or rather has a boy alto (Markus Baur) without the contralto. The effect is ghostly - he's not an ethereal child soprano but is still not quite in the world of the regular singers - and certainly adds to the drama.

Conclusions, then: we're not quite at mature Mahler, and indeed the handful of songs that we'll look at next may even be regarded as a step backwards, but pretty much all the elements are in place by now. Hopefully Das klagende Lied's appearance in DG's and EMI's Mahler editions (the two recordings above, in fact) will prove an impressive surprise to those who haven't yet encountered it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Now that's service

Went out this morning to put some things in the recycling bin, while idly thinking that the latest issue of International Record Review should be arriving some day soon. Just as I'd completed that thought, up walks the postman with that very issue in his hand.

(I really should use Twitter, shouldn't I?)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The size of the niche

The latest (July/August) issue of Fanfare brought me up short when I read the annual "Statement of ownership, management, and circulation", which is required by U.S. law. The (average) total paid circulation per issue over the past year was a tiny 3,420. In 2009 it was 3,412; in 2008, 4,367; in 2007, 4,297. Why the drop between 2008 and 2009? They seem to have stopped over-the-counter sales, which only accounted for about 800 copies.
Of course, Fanfare is available as a web-only subscription too, which these circulation figures don't address. But still, 3,420 is pretty damn small. Playboy has a circulation of 2 million in the U.S., but obviously collecting classical music recordings is not as common a pastime as masturbating reading interesting articles. Or shooting things - the NRA's American Rifleman sells 1.7 million copies. So Americans are 500 times more interested in Glocks than Gluck. Rolling Stone, nearly 1.5 million; and so on. Jesus, Canadian Home Workshop sells 97,000 copies (all figures via Wikipedia, of course).
American Record Guide doesn't have a web-only option, but is still available on (some) shelves. Its January/February 2010 statement puts average total paid circulation in 2009 at 4,611, including 1,093 non-mail sales. For 2008, it's 5,905 (2,112 non-mail); for 2007, 5,617 (1,886 non-mail). So in terms of mail subscriptions, Fanfare and ARG have roughly the same circulation. I wonder how much overlap there is - probably quite a bit, collectors being what they are.
But we can safely say that there are between about 4,600 and 9,000 people, presumably mostly Americans, sufficiently interested in collecting classical recordings to purchase a magazine dedicated to that pursuit.
In 2008, there were 16,272 murders in the U.S. My hobby is less popular than killing people.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Part of an irregular series of comparative reviews where we ask "Did you even listen to the same CD?"

Mozart: Piano concertos nos.24 & 25.
Valerie Tryon; London SO/Robert Trory

Our competing reviewers today are Erik Levi of BBC Music Magazine and Gil French of American Record Guide.
Levi: ***** for performance, ***** for recording.
French: "The less said about Tryon-Trory's Mozart the better"
Levi: "The immediate interest... lies in the featured cadenzas... [both] work equally well in their very different ways"
French: "The cadenzas by Godowsky and Hummel are leaden"
Levi: "playing of great delicacy and subtlety"
French: "She has heavy fingers on quarter-notes... lack of tone color..."
Levi: "considerable affection... no lack of sentiment... great tenderness and musical sensitivity..."
French: "a generic, prosaic recording with all the notes and no character..."
Levi: Orchestral Choice of the Month.
French: "... the kind usually found in bargain bins in discount chains".


I'm really bad at spelling "sonata" when I type quickly. It often comes out as "soanta". I suppose the left hand is so keen to get to the a that it preempts the right, which has to move down from o to n. But I'm not the only one. Google "piano soanta" and you get 10,700 hits.

This blog post was sponsored by the Society for People Who Don't Feel Like Using Twitter.

His first concert

Well, technically not his first concert because early in the school year they went to a Music in the Classroom event in the Helix, so for the sake of argument let's say that Tuesday was The Seven-Year-Old's first trip to the National Concert Hall. And my first trip in far too long. I figured a summer lunchtime concert would be a good introduction, as the program is short and the music's not too demanding. The theme this year is "Musical Postcards", so as you'd expect each concert features the music of a particular country. Tuesday's was "Northern Lights: Norway". Would there be Grieg? Well, name another Norwegian composer. Sinding, of course. And Halvorsen and Svendsen and Tveitt. Yeah, okay, your imagination exceeds that of whoever programmed this concert. We got Grieg. But things were complicated by the fact that each concert also features a "rising star" who gets to show off their talents. Sadly nobody seems to have thought to match "rising star" with "musical postcard". So mezzo Rachel Kelly sang arias by Mozart, Rossini, Handel, and Meyerbeer. I guess she did a good job - we were up in the side balcony so she was projecting away from us; the audience applauded warmly. I thought before the concert that her contributions would seem out of place, mingled among the Grieg (the program went Grieg - 2 Norwegian Dances; Mozart; Rossini; Grieg - a Symphonic Dance; Handel; Meyerbeer; Grieg - another Symphonic Dance) but in fact it was the Grieg that seemed incongruous by the end. After "Sta nell'Ircana" from Handel's Alcina and "Nobles Seigneurs, salut!" from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, you're in the mood for more opera, not folksy Grieg. So the end of the concert was something of a damp squib for me.
As for The Seven-Year-Old, he'd lost interest by the end of the second Grieg piece, but he stayed well behaved for the rest. Maybe if the Black-Eyed Peas had been playing he'd have enjoyed it more.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Typing Tchaikovsky

If your job involves a lot of typing, I highly recommend Stephen Hough's new Tchaikovsky concertos recording for accompaniment. What you do is, you time yourself to finish a lengthy paragraph just as a concerto finale approaches its thrilling climax. You end with a dramatic flourish, and the audience cheers!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Playing with the Proms

The BBC Proms now has an archive of all past performances. Watch as your afternoon fritters away! Sure, you could have been working, but then you would have missed the chance to find out what the prommers heard on your birthday every year since 1895...
Hmm. No prom on September 2nd, 1895. But next year's was mostly Mendelssohn - three overtures, the violin concerto, the Italian symphony, and a handful of songs. That would be enough for modern audiences, but the concert also included Henry Wood's "Grand Fantasia" on Carmen, some songs by now-obscure figures such as Frederic Cowen (middle name "Hymen"!), cornet player Howard Reynolds's arrangement of Schubert's Ständchen, Halvorsen's Entry of the Boyars, and, to conclude, the overture to Auber's Fra Diavolo.
Let's jump forward to 1913: Weber's Oberon overture, the Act 2 prelude from Humperdinck's Konigskinder, "O don fatale" from Don Carlos, Vaughan Williams's Wasps suite, Tchaikovsky's Hamlet, the first Peer Gynt suite, a bit of Coleridge-Taylor's Song of Hiawatha, Sibelius's En Saga, Rossini's Semiramide overture, WH Squire's "When you come home", Arturo Buzzi-Peccia's "Lolita", and finally Elgar's 4th Pomp and circumstance march.
This is all very Classic FM, really, isn't it? Nothing to frighten the horses these days. But it is interesting to check out the dates of composition of these works - Rossini 1823, Weber 1826, Verdi 1867, Tchaikovsky and Grieg 1888, Sibelius 1892, Coleridge-Taylor 1898, Humperdinck 1900, Elgar 1901, VW 1909. What would the chronologically equivalent Prom from today include? How about Ravel's La valse, Honegger's Pacific 231, an aria from Barber's Vanessa, John Adams's The Chairman Dances and Maxwell Davies' An Orkney Wedding, maybe Rautavaara's Piano concerto no.2... after that it gets a bit tricky. Today's equivalent of a composition from 1898 is one from 1995, so I suppose we'd have to plump for - heh - Birtwistle's Panic. After that, my old spreadsheet and Wikipedia start to fail me. What's been written in the last decade-and-a-bit that will still be doing the rounds in 2107?

Friday, July 2, 2010

'Ave a banana!

Listening to the recent Chandos relase of ballet music by Malcolm Arnold this week... high on entertainment value, of course. Sweeney Todd is plenty of fun (with some blood thrown in), and it all ends with a right old East End knees-up. What's more, it makes full use of the Cockney leitmotif "'Ave a banana". Which leads us to...

(btw, sexy music naked? Well I suppose it gets you noticed on YouTube...)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 3: Three songs

In 1879 the still-teenage Mahler fell in love with the postmaster's daughter in his home town of Iglau, and the following year he began to write 5 songs for tenor and piano, to be dedicated to her. He only managed three - Im Lenz, Winterlied, and Maitanz im Grünen - and these weren't published until 1990. Unlike the piano quartet movement, you can hear quite a bit of Mahler in these pieces, specifically the Mahler of the Knaben Wunderhorn, folksy in theme and/or style.
Im Lenz alternates happy and sad verses, the latter of which quote the cantata Das klagende Lied (see next episode!). Winterlied seems to be painting a cheerful picture of a cottage, a fire, and a spinning wheel before turning to a reminiscence and then pivoting to sadness on the last line, though - real Freudian Mahler stuff - the spinning wheel keeps spinning happily. Maitanz im Grünen pretends to be a real folk tune, with its exhortations for dancing and kissing, and its calls of "Juchhe!". Mahler seems to have particularly liked this song, as it shows up again in his next batch of songs, this time under the title Hans und Grete. The fact that it's in the Ländler form does make it the most Mahlerian-sounding of the three songs.
I suppose their long absence from publication has held these songs back from being popular; if you want to use the phrase "minor Mahler" then I'll allow it, but they're all enjoyable little things. They show up in the recently released "complete editions" from EMI and DG, performed by, respectively, Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano and Thomas Hampson and David Lutz, and Janet Baker and Geoffrey Parsons recorded them for Hyperion back in 1983, on an album of "Mahler's Songs of Youth" (now on the Helios label). Yes, I know: only one tenor among them. I believe Hampson's recording is an old Teldec issue, whereas Bostridge's recording is brand new, done for the EMI edition; in fact the recording was made last February, a mere 8 days after I began my listening for this Mahler project. On first audition I wasn't sure Bostridge had the right voice for this music - it's pretty simple stuff, and he sounds a little too sophisticated perhaps. But he brings a wonderful Puckishness to Maitanz im Grünen, and the speed with which he takes Winterlied, even in the nostalgic bit, brings an added sense of sudden tragedy to the ending. As for Hampson and Baker, I'll be saying more about them when we get to the song cycles. After Bostridge they sound a little slow, but then nobody records anything with the express purpose of having it heard immediately after someone else's recording. There's plenty of room for everyone here.
Whatever happened Josephine Poisl, the postmaster's daughter, anyway?