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Posted by acdtest on February 3, 2004


First, there’s this brief proposal last month on this weblog. There then followed an eMail exchange on the matter with Drew McManus who maintains a weblog on ArtsJournal, which weblog is devoted to discussing the problems of modern-day orchestra management. Mr. McManus liked the idea, but had serious doubts concerning my proposal.

Today I read Mr. McManus’s weblog, and find this. No mention of my original article, our eMail exchange, or this weblog, of course.


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A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Posted by acdtest on January 23, 2004

A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Had anyone suggested to me before yesterday that I’d spend two consecutive days listening four times through a complete Stephen Sondheim musical — listening in the same way I listen through, say, a complete Wagner opera — I would have thought that person lunatic.

But that’s just what I’ve finished doing, and I can report (and, yes, I know just how late to the party I am) Sweeney Todd is a veritable wonder, and the original cast CD (RCA) a wonder as well. The audio is sterling, and the performances first-rate all round, vocally and dramatically, the chorus most decidedly included. And Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett — an impossible role, vocally and dramatically — is done so superbly the performance beggars adequate description or praise.

But most amazing of all is the orchestral music; music as dramatically Wagnerian-integral to the play as anything any of Wagner’s successors ever wrote. The music itself is astonishingly rich, complex, and difficult, and here performed to utter perfection by this supplemented pit band conducted by Paul Gemignani (a name unknown to me); a performance, ensemble-wise, the equal of, or better than, any of this country’s major symphony orchestras.

I’m totally blown away by Sweeney, and haven’t finished with it yet.

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One Helluva Fiddler

Posted by acdtest on May 26, 2003

One Helluva Fiddler

ome few years have passed since I last sat down to listen to the readings of Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin done by violinist Rachel Podger (in two volumes, here and here), and hearing them again today reminded me afresh of what a first-rate talent Ms. Podger is, both as a fiddler and musician. Hearing these recordings again also caused me to search this weblog for my remarks on these readings, and — mirabile dictu! — they were nowhere to be found. I hasten now to correct that egregious oversight.

First, a dispelling of some unfortunate notions that might be provoked by the hyped manner in which these recordings have been billed and promoted.

Rachel Podger is billed as a Baroque specialist performing on a “Baroque violin.” Quite apart from the fact that there is, per se, no such instrument, this sort of hype instantly conjures a picture of a pasty-faced, gruel-blooded little wonk, performing on an instrument with a sound about as rich and subtle as a kazoo, who will do everything in her power to rob the music of anything remotely musically expressive, and produce readings at breakneck tempi, and with a superabundance of gratuitous Baroque ornament — which is to say, produce readings fit for nothing other than the trash bin.

None of the above is the case with these readings. Ms. Podger’s instrument, from the sound of it, is on the classic model of the Cremona school, strung with gut rather than steel-wound strings. In other words, the kind of fiddle we’re all used to hearing, but with a warmer, very slightly more nasal sound. As for Ms. Podger herself, no pasty-faced, gruel-blooded little wonk she. Her playing glows with robust good health, and is as full-blooded as any produced by the famous fiddlers of the Auer School (Heifetz and Milstein being the most well-known of that group). So y’all can rest easy on those points.

As to the audio of the recordings themselves, a quick note. Both volumes employ an acoustic a bit too reverberant for my tastes (Volume 2 seemingly more than Volume 1), but it’s in no way intrusive or even close to being inappropriate.

And so, on to the music and the performance.

As Shiva is the destroyer of worlds, the six Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin are collectively the destroyer of fiddle players. No fiddler dares even approach them unless his technique is nothing short of formidable. But that’s only the first requisite. If you’re a concert fiddler typical of the current generation whose technique is certainly formidable, but whose readings of the repertoire are replete with the grafted-on expressive schtick of the Auer Gang (sorry, couldn’t resist) as it typically is, you’d best stay away from this music, for if you attempt it you’ll be revealed instantly for the musically empty shell that you are.

Ms. Podger, however, has nothing to fear on any count. Her technique is formidable indeed; formidable and secure to the point of transparency. And there’s no schtick or grafting-on of anything in her readings of these works. Her playing is muscular, lyrical, sinewy, sweet, or impassioned as the music variously requires, with the overarching principle of the poetic always and prominently in evidence. From the mystical Adagio of the G minor Sonata, to the furious Allegro Assai of the C major; from the playful Corrente of the B minor Partita, to the majestic and profound Ciaccona of the D minor, everything resonates right and true. There’s no greasy kid stuff here, and no heroic, Romantic posturing à la…every other fiddler who has recorded these works, the second Milstein reading alone perhaps excepted. These readings will take a little getting used to for many (especially the Ciaccona), but will repay a thousand-fold the slight adjustment required.

I’ve been waiting for it seems forever to hear a fiddler do these works in the same transcendent way Gould does the keyboard works. I’m still waiting, but these readings come closer than any other in my experience.

Ms. Podger is one helluva fiddler, and a first-rate musician into the bargain.

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Vintage Gould: Earlier Or Later?

Posted by acdtest on October 9, 2002

Vintage Gould: Earlier Or Later?

ovely Weekend Guest, a first-rate pianist and knowledgeable lover of Bach’s keyboard works (she often refers to them by BWV number, for instance) spent part of her last weekend evening here in a friendly but, um, animated discussion with me of Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1981 recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (or BWV 988 as LWG calls it just to piss me off). On the whole, I rather prefer the earlier reading, she the later. The readings, both of them, are, of course, genuine marvels, and display in equal measure Gould’s trademark, irreproducible, and nonpareil performance technique — the preternatural delineation of multiple contrapuntal lines; the uncanny rhythmic sense, perfectly precise but infinitely plastic; and the equally precise and plastic articulation which commentators and critics insist on referring to as détaché, but which is rather a near-perfect pianistic analogue of the highly prized and near-impossible harpsichord legato — but are otherwise world’s apart in spirit.

Rambunctious, LWG calls the earlier reading. Staid, I call the later, but only half mean it, using the term largely for reasons of symmetry with her rambunctious. About the only interpretive point on which we agree is that both Gould readings of this without-equal crown jewel of the Baroque keyboard repertoire blow away all other readings, truly excellent though some are.

I’ve had the recordings of both readings in my library almost since the day of their releases (both of which recordings survived the catastrophe that consumed most of the rest of my libraries several years ago), and though I listen to them often, I never really made the effort to nail down exactly why I preferred the one reading over the other. Better late than never, I decide, and so use the previous evening’s discussion with LWG as a spur.

Leaving aside the aria and aria da capo which, respectively, open and close the set of variations (I leave them aside mostly because I suspect I’m missing something important concerning them in the later reading as I simply cannot contrive a reasonable aesthetic, musical, or emotional justification for the funereal, almost structure-destroying tempi taken for them by Gould in this reading), I always vaguely imagined it was the generally slower — at times significantly slower — tempi of the later reading (i.e., slower as compared with the earlier reading) that provoked my antipathy for, even annoyance with, that reading. But I now see that’s not it. Something else. And that something else is, I think, most clearly exemplified in Gould’s two readings of Variation 25; an astonishing piece of music that enters the set of variations like some alien presence, and at its departure leaves one slack-jawed with amazement and wonder.

With its mind-boggling modulations and implied enharmonic shifts, Variation 25’s chromaticism is so extreme it makes the music of Tristan and Parsifal seem positively diatonic by comparison. Gould, in his liner notes for the 1955 release, refers to this variation in his typically provocative way as a “Chopinesque mood-piece,” and elsewhere as a “Romantic effusion.” It’s neither of these, of course, but thoroughly and essentially Bachian throughout. It’s simply that it appears to not belong to this set of variations, but oddly — and magically — still remains one with them while at the same time seeming to inhabit another world altogether.

In his earlier reading, Gould captures this other-world quality to perfection, largely by his circumspect and strategic use of rubati, a musical device more appropriate to Chopin and the Romantics than to Bach, but here used to brilliant effect. This variation is one of the few where the tempo of the earlier reading is taken slower overall than the later (but only marginally so; 6’28” vs. 6’03”; a mere 6% difference in timings). The confluence of the marginally slower overall tempo and the strategic use of rubati, however, makes the melodic and harmonic lines of this earlier reading seem to play out on a scale cosmically slow, their internal pulse seemingly proceeding as do the slow wheeling of galaxies through infinite eons of boundless space, the lines’ modulations and implied enharmonic shifts, given point by the rubati, all the while suggesting tonalities mystically strange and vastly remote.

As I said, music that leaves one slack-jawed with amazement and wonder.

In the earlier reading this is unmistakable. In the later reading the rubati, while still present to some extent, are largely emasculated, the internal pace and inflection of the melodic and harmonic lines spun out in deliberately and soberly considered fashion, the variation seeming to belong more at home with the set of variations than in the earlier reading because more metrically and sensibly proportional to them. The mind-boggling modulations and implied enharmonic shifts are still there, of course, and still give this variation the sense of a vaguely alien presence within the set of variations, but the other-world magic of the earlier reading has gone missing. Gould’s deliberate and sober approach to the music bars such mysteries. One’s amazement at the music’s harmonic boldness remains, but the wonder has fled.

This stately, deliberate sobriety characterizes most (but not all) of Gould’s later reading of the Goldberg; a sobriety achieved by various musical means, one of which is Gould’s singling out of an inner contrapuntal voice (typically, the unifying element of the aria’s bass line) as if to say, “See? Here it is.” The device is somewhat reminiscent of that used in those idiot “Konzept” opera productions where the self-involved director insists on repeatedly hitting the audience over the head with his particular “vision” lest they miss it. It’s a device as annoying here as it is there.

The sheer audacity — the “rambunctious[ness]” — of Gould’s earlier reading may be considered by some a mark against it, but for me it’s that very audacity that gives revelatory life to that earlier reading, while the deliberately sober later reading largely (but, again, not entirely) eschews audacity as if to act as corrective for the implied youthful excesses of the earlier. While the later reading may achieve its end in that respect, it does so at a cost, and to my way of thinking, the price is simply too high.

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Revisiting Landowska

Posted by acdtest on April 14, 2002

Revisiting Landowska And The Forty-eight

n the slow rebuilding of my fire-consumed libraries, I only recently replaced my copy of the Landowska recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. It’s been some seven years since I last heard this reading, and what a glorious reading it is. Landowska’s approach to Bach has often (and more often than not, pejoratively) been characterized as Romantic, and it is that indeed; an arresting contrast to the purity of Glenn Gould’s clean-and-lean if idiosyncratic approach, and a jarring departure from the school of so-called (and self-servingly-called) “authentic” period performance. On this recent hearing, however, it struck me that Landowska’s reading is as much gothic as it is Romantic. A sense of the darkly mysterious is everywhere present, even in the most joyful of the fugues, and no small credit for producing that effect is due the specially designed and built to Landowska specifications Pleyel harpsichord, a modern instrument that bears resemblance to the period harpsichord only in its general technical details.

Compared with a period harpsichord the Pleyel is a bit of a monster in both sound and aspect, and in these recordings its sound is not flatteringly or accurately dealt with by the technical limitations of early-’50s recording equipment and techniques, and by the circumstance that many of these preludes and fugues were recorded in Landowska’s home in Connecticut rather than in the controlled acoustic of a recording studio.

All that notwithstanding, there’s something to be said for hearing Bach’s great summa performed — and performed by a profoundly informed virtuoso such as Landowska — on this strange, iron-framed, seven-pedaled instrument, with its several registers which have no equivalent in the historical harpsichord.

The Pleyel’s sound is quite big for a harpsichord, and more metallically nasal than the period instrument, and if one approaches listening to Bach performed on the Pleyel by naively comparing or attempting to reconcile its sound with that of the historical harpsichord one is fairly certain to end up defeated and not a little repelled by the sound of the former. If, however, one listens to this music performed on the Pleyel not by comparing its sound with that of a period instrument, but by hearing its sound as that of an instrument that would logically, and almost certainly, have evolved from that period instrument had not the fortepiano come along when it did, one gets a different sense of the thing altogether, and an opening-up to a remarkable new listening experience. One has only to hear Landowska’s reading of the deceptively simple C-major prelude that opens Book I, with her mystical and evocative registration shifts — shifts impossible on a period harpsichord as the equivalent registers do not exist — to understand immediately the enormous expressive capabilities of the Pleyel under the right pair of hands. And no hands are more right for the Pleyel, for Bach especially, than those of the great Landowska.

For those of you with a more than passing interest in Bach’s keyboard works (and even for those of you without, for that matter) who do not already own this great historic recording, this luminous, gothic-Romantic reading of the Forty-eight is a reading you owe it to yourselves to give a considered hearing. For those of you who already own the recording, you owe yourselves another critical listen with new ears. In either case, I promise you your time will be revelatory and well spent.
The CDs (Books I & II) may be purchased here

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