Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fricsay's Beethoven 5

I've been listening to Ferenc Fricsay's 1961 recording of Beethoven's Fifth with the Berlin Phil, and by gosh it is slow. How slow is it? The second movement is more than 13 minutes long, is how slow. It's common to see it done in less than 9.
Let's bring in someone with more expertise. Here's Edward Greenfield's review in the February 1963 issue of Gramophone:
I can only assume DGG have decided to issue this now just to show how superbly responsive the Berlin Philharmonic is to the most hair-raisingly contrasted demands. Where Karajan in the new complete cycle is all strength and light, Fricsay is slow and heavy. Klemperer for one can make such speeds as these sound convincing and even inevitable. But even Klemperer comes nowhere near Fricsay in his speed for the slow movement.
To illustrate with statistics, Fricsay takes no less than 87 seconds by my reckoning for the first subject to bar 22. Karajan in his new version takes 53 seconds for the same passage, and both Klemperer's versions come closer to Karajan than Fricsay-60 seconds and 62 seconds respectively. Fricsay's speed is just grotesque, with no thought for the marking con mote, and so it is again in the Scherzo. The double-bass passage at the beginning of the Trio has been likened to the lumbering of elephants, but under Fricsay that is the movement's most impressive passage, and it is the rest which is elephantine. The outer movements, too, are very much on the slow side, but there simple massiveness and orchestral efficiency help to make some amends. But not only are the basic speeds slow, Fricsay tends to drag still further with exaggerated rallentandos and pauses. The recording is dim and cloudy by comparison with that given to Karajan. A depressing issue, though for once there can be little complaint about the Fifth taking two whole sides: this must be quite the longest version ever put out.
So yes, it's slow. Very slow. But depressing? I disagree. What the slow movement has a lot of is sadness, and I also hear a dignified stoicism. Perhaps Edward Greenfield didn't know when he was writing his review that Fricsay was dying of cancer (he died on February 20, 1963, aged 48). Perhaps the nature of the slow movement has nothing to do with Fricsay's illness, but it's hard now not to make a connection. Certainly the performance makes more sense that way, if not as the conductor's personal tragedy then something more universal, to see it more in the mould of the Eroica's slow movement - or, in places, prefiguring the rapt nature of the Ninth's. Otherwise, the symphony doesn't really have a slow movement, only a "relatively slow" movement.
The Scherzo is rather slow too. It's not a Scherzo. But if we're already accepting the darkness of this reading of the symphony, well then here's more of the dark. The Trio is certainly lighter, but that doesn't last especially long. Dubbing the rest of the movement "elephantine" rather misses the tensile strength of the music that comes after the Trio.
Ironically, the last movement is shorter than usual, but that's because he's left out the repeat. Whereas in your typical reading the battle's been won by the time the fourth movement starts, with Fricsay there seems to be some lingering doubt - not much, but the triumph's not quite as clearcut. The climactic bit before the return to the third-movement material has more than a hint of menace about it. But we do win out in the end; again, the rest of the Finale is a bit slower than others, and you might at this stage hope for a little more release. But there's glory here, and the payoff is worth it, because by dragging out the final chords Fricsay makes the ending not just fun but funny, really emphasising the "I'm finished - no, I'm not finished!" aspect. I doubt if he conducted this with a twinkle in his eye, yet there's a suggestion that he's just daring you to applaud too soon.
I must point out here that I came to this recording with no preconceptions at all about it or Fricsay; I was instantly struck by its slowness, and yet also very quickly convinced that this all made sense. Perhaps I was caught on a good day; maybe a week earlier I'd have dismissed it as "grotesque". But that is part of a larger thesis about criticism and perception that can be saved for some other time. Our thoughts for today are two: first, Fricsay's Beethoven 5 is really different but really good, and second, I wonder what he'd have sounded like in Mahler's symphonies?

(The above image, by the way, is from one of those here-are-lots-of-recordings blogs, Sentidos. If the transfer is from the original 1961 LP, then next year it will be perfectly legal in Europe to download the transfer.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

About Cardiff

Valentina Naforniţă won the Cardiff Singer of the World last Sunday, so she had better get used to people spelling her name without those diacritics at the end. I admit to being a bit disappointed she won it, or rather that somebody else didn't win it, but I realised subsequently that what put me off her somewhat was her acting style, with arms and face in constant motion. When I just listen, I'm much more impressed. Andrei Bondarenko, who won the Song Prize and was my favourite, does most of his expression with his eyes; actually in comic arias he's reminiscent of a young Michael Palin. His final piece in the Song Prize final - the last song in Sviridov's Russia Cast Adrift - was a real discovery for me, a right barnstormer for the pianist.

Other favourites for me were Máire Flavin - I expect to be seeing her name show up in recordings of baroque operas and the like - and Olesya Petrova, who I thought might win in the final. A couple of other highlights were Wang Lifu's impassioned, despairing performance of Mahler's "Der Tamboursg'sell" and Hye Jung Lee's spectacular "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung" from Adams's Nixon in China, which starts at about the 7-minute mark below:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

This just really annoys me

We interrupt normal Les Introuvables de Nereffid programming to bring you some casual bigotry. Over on Bloomberg View, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about a retired airline pilot who died when he tried to save his son from drowning in an 8-foot-deep septic tank. It was a post for Father's Day, you understand. As it happens, the man was a devout Catholic. So far, all very human-interest and a touching story of what a parent will do to protect their child. Then Goldberg tosses this out:
I’m reasonably sure an atheist would sacrifice his life for his child. But I also don’t doubt that Thomas Vander Woude’s powerful faith cleared the path into the tank. A person who has an articulated calling, who believes in something larger than himself, could more immediately accept the gravity of the moment.
For fuck's sake. He's reasonably sure an atheist would sacrifice his life for his child? He's not certain, of course. I mean, atheists, you know... it takes them that little bit longer to accept the gravity of the moment.
Leaving aside the absurdity of this last claim - might not an atheist regard death as rather more significant if there's no happy-ever-after afterlife? - what we have here is the implication that atheists are pretty much by definition lacking a certain morality, or as Cardinal Murphy O'Connor so obnoxiously put it recently, "not fully human".
A subtle piece of hate-speech. I don't know if Goldberg or others who use this kind of language even realise how contemptible it is. Or am I giving too much benefit-of-doubt? Commenting on Goldberg's post, I suggested that the atheist/religious comparison could be replaced with (as an example) a Jew/Christian one, to clarify how unpleasant it sounds.
As for whether atheists make good parents... I'm reasonably sure an atheist wouldn't have his son tortured and executed in order to save the world from a punishment that he himself devised.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A spelling error

I do apologize. In the previous post I misspelled Petroc Trelawny's name. And in the course of confirming this, I discovered that the first couple of pages of a Google Image search for "Trelawney" will give you nothing but variations of the one here.
Oh dear. Now I have contributed to the hype over the final Harry Potter film.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Drama in Cardiff

I've been making a proper effort to catch this year's Cardiff Singer of the World - sorry, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World - on TV and radio.
On BBC Four, they've made the decision that this is a sort of highbrow X Factor, while accepting that you can't really do anything to interfere with the performances themselves. So in the thrilling buildup we get things like shots of the singers in a group, with a slow zoom followed by a sudden, rapid zoom. You know the one - achieved not with a camera but in the editing room afterwards, so it's jerky. They even add a "whoosh" sound effect so that the visually impaired will know the editor is doing amazing things. And they get each of the contestants and judges to pose so they can swirl the camera at them while they look menacing, lovable, or just perplexed, all the while accompanied by extremely dramatic music, so dramatic that you're half expecting one of them to be Russell Crowe. So dramatic that you might think that at some point in the program David Warner's going to get decapitated by a sheet of glass. I suppose the program makers do have to commission new music for the occasion, but if you want operatic-sounding music for a song contest, well, you could do worse than model yourself on Wagner. He could tell the difference between a song contest and the siege of Minas Tirith.
Elsewhere, presentation descends to the banal. In an effort to, I don't know, make the contestants seem more human or something, we get little vignettes in which presenter Josie d'Arby hangs around with each singer and asks them complicated questions like whether winning the competition would be important for them. This kind of interviewing, or perhaps more accurately this way of editing and presenting an interview, seems to be aimed at viewers who lack all empathy with the person being interviewed and need to hear the bleeding obvious spelled out. It also tends to infect Petroc Trelawney's brief conversations with judges.
Trelawney: Reknowned Swedish baritone Håkan Hagegård, do the judges have to make tough choices when deciding whom to declare the winner?
Hagegård: What do you think, you gobshite?
Then there's the awful bit where, after the singer has walked off and Trelawney asks one of his guests something, we quickly go backstage to where d'Arby finds out how the singer is feeling. You may be fascinated to know that their feelings tend towards being pleased with how it went, some relief, perhaps a few little things went wrong but overall they're happy. As you would imagine, but it's nice to be told directly, isn't it? Otherwise you'd go to bed that night wondering about it. In fairness the singers haven't yet told d'Arby to fuck off and leave them alone, not even Olga Kindler of Switzerland, who forgot where she was in her aria from Aida.
You just know that somewhere in the BBC was a producer desperate to get footage of Kiri Te Kanawa swearing at Kindler and saying "You're fired!"
Are there any good things about the show? Yes. The music, and the singing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Let's Televise the Proms!

I have sent in a patent application for a FUN new game called "Let's Televise the Proms!"
Each player is provided with a full Proms schedule and must allocate a specified number of concerts for showing on BBC television. Players agree in advance how many concerts are broadcast and how many of those can be live. Once the broadcast schedule is complete, players judge each others' work, awarding points based on pre-agreed criteria. Players must try to promote classical music to a wider audience while also satisfying the existing population of classical lovers. Customise the game to prioritise one over the other! In one version, give extra points for managing to show a Prom on BBC One or BBC Three; in another, take them away! Appearances by Wolfgang Rihm and Petroc Trelawney can be scored accordingly.
For two or more players. Age 8 and up, as in "Jesus, who designed this schedule? An eight year old?"

The BBC loses major points for not showing the September 2 Prom, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Mahler and Liszt. It is my birthday. I demand Mahler and Liszt on the telly for my birthday. I pay the TV license, you know. OK, maybe not the British one. (Yes, obviously we can listen to the radio transmission. It's not the same though.) They are showing Roger Norrington's Mahler 9, though. I'm sure BBC switchboard personnel are to be taught how to respond to the anticipated tens of thousands of complaints about the orchestra's lack of vibrato. What else? Ooh, Tim Minchin in a Comedy Prom. No doubt it'll be broadcast while I'm on my holidays, like the Sondheim one last year. And I'll miss the Grainger one also, buggerit. See? This is why we need board games that allow us to control the universe.

Still scratching your head over the picture above? Simple! It's a shot from Apocalypse Now, with Chief Phillips played by Albert Hall.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

8tracks mix: Awards 2010, part V

You never know, I might get these done in time for next year's awards.
This is the Solo Vocal and Choral categories - same as before, one winner and four runners-up in each.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Two ways of serving breakfast

I found myself listening to breakfast-time radio for the first time in a long time this morning, and by coincidence in a short space of time both BBC Radio 3 and RTÉ Lyric FM played excerpts from Orff's Carmina Burana.
Wait, let's break off there for another pun, this time courtesy of Victor Lewis Smith on the telly many years ago:
You say Carm-ee-na, I say Carm-eye-na,
You say Bur-ah-na, I say Bur-ay-na,
Carm-ee-na Bur-ah-na,
Carm-eye-na Bur-ay-na,
Let's call the whole thing Orff.
Anyway, over on BBC Radio 3, Rob Cowan played us the orchestra-only "Tanz" followed by "Floret silva nobilis", then informed us it was the Eugen Jochum/Deutsche Oper Berlin recording. Perfectly normal classical radio presenter behavior. Not long before that, Marty Whelan on Lyric had given us "O Fortuna" prior to noting how it gets used a lot on X Factor and how some people say Simon Cowell has had work done and... that was the point I switched over to BBC, actually.
Radio 3 may have dumbed down in recent years but if you want really dumb, then Marty's your man.

A Sibelius pun

A nice one from Richard A. Kaplan in Fanfare. Reviewing a recording of Sibelius's String quartet and a Piano quintet in G minor from 1890 by Martin Roscoe and the Coull Quartet (on Somm), he remarks that the quintet, a student work, shows how Sibelius hadn't yet mastered large-scale musical form:
It's a long way to Tapiola.