December 15, 2016
(+++) STUDIES IN CONTRAST
Gilbert and Sullivan: HMS Pinafore. Tim Brooke-Taylor, narrator; John Mark Ainsley, Elizabeth Watts, Toby Spence, Hilary Summers, Neal Davies, Andrew Foster-Williams, Gavan Ring, Barnaby Rea, Kitty Whately; Scottish Opera conducted by Richard Egarr. Linn Records. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach. Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs, spoken text; Lucinda Childs Dance Company and Philip Glass Ensemble conducted by Michael Riesman. Opus Arte. $29.99 (2 DVDs).
André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry: L’épreuve villageoise. Sophie Junker, Talise Trevigne, Thomas Dolié, Francisco Fernández-Rueda; Opera Lafayette conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos. $12.99.
Schubert: Death and the Maiden—A Collaborative Exploration. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Alpha. $18.99.
Schubert: String Quartet No. 13, “Rosamunde”; Ralf Yusuf Gawlick: Imagined Memories. Hugo Wolf Quartett (Sebastian Gürtler and Régis Bringolf, violins; Subin Lee, viola; Florian Berner, cello). Musica Omnia. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Stravinsky: The Firebird; Vladimir Nikolaev: The Sinewaveland—Homage to Jimi Hendrix. Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.
Everything considered here is experimental to a greater or lesser degree, with greater or lesser success. Linn Records’ live recording of an August 2015 Edinburgh International Festival performance of HMS Pinafore is an effort to do Sullivan largely without Gilbert, or without Gilbert’s connecting dialogue, at any rate. The music, and the words that go with it, are here, but the plot is communicated by narrator Tim Brooke-Taylor, who does a fine, straightforward job of explaining the context of most of the musical numbers and occasionally gives a few of Gilbert’s actual words in the process. This works reasonably well, except when it doesn’t – for instance, the additional “encore” verse of When I was a lad, explaining the importance of “the expression ‘if you please,’” makes no sense at all, since here it is not preceded by Sir Joseph Porter’s insistence that Captain Corcoran request that his able seamen step forward. And speaking of Sir Joseph, John Mark Ainsley has him in large part speaking his lines rather than singing them – an approach occasionally heard in performances of HMS Pinafore, but one that works less well than simply having the arias sung as librettist and composer intended. Also, for some reason, the sailors’ chorus does not sing about Sir Joseph’s “crowd of blushing beauty” as the barge approaches – instead, they repeat their earlier line about sailing the ocean blue. Perhaps the original was deemed insufficiently politically correct for the 21st century. Matters like this diminish the enjoyment of this performance for those who know HMS Pinafore already – as do the decisions not to alter the accents of Ralph Rackstraw and Captain Corcoran when they change places at the end, and not to have the whole work end with the traditional three rousing cheers. But if these “updates” (or, at any rate, changes) are less than delightful, the music, propelled by Richard Egarr’s sprightly tempos, remains as bright and bouncy as ever. And the singers are fresh-voiced and enthusiastic, especially Elizabeth Watts, whose Josephine is in such fine and even voice that she sounds nothing like what famed parodist Anna Russell once described as “the British piercing-type soprano.” Andrew Foster-Williams as Captain Corcoran and Hilary Summers as Little Buttercup also deserve to be singled out for characterization and liveliness, although Toby Spence is not quite equal to the role of Ralph – his voice noticeably cracks several times and is always thin in its higher register. As a fleet and flighty handling of HMS Pinafore, this version, characterized by particularly fine orchestral playing, is a great deal of fun. And it has an exceptional a cappella version of A British tar is a soaring soul that is as good as any ever recorded. Still, there are enough omissions and rough edges here to make G&S fans long for the days of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company – which were, alas, “a many years ago.”
It is hard to imagine a contrast greater than that between the light, parodistic, strongly audience-focused concept of the 90-minute HMS Pinafore and the seriously intended, audience-is-expendable, music-is-only-sort-of-there approach of Philip Glass in his four-hour-plus Einstein on the Beach. A sense of what Opus Arte’s world première DVD recording of this work looks like may be gleaned by dedicated G&S fanciers from Patience, where the lovesick dragoons sing and pose awkwardly to try to interest the 20 lovesick maidens: “You hold yourself like this [pose]. You hold yourself like that [pose]. By hook and crook you try to look both angular and flat [pose].” Everything in Glass’s work, directed by theatrical producer Robert Wilson, is posing of one sort or another. The extreme length of the opera, which has no intermissions, led Glass to say that the audience can enter and leave whenever it likes – in other words, that the audience is largely irrelevant and the music is what it is on its own, independent of whether anyone is paying attention to it. The musical style itself is now familiar, although it was less so when Glass wrote the work in 1975 (the first performance was in 1976). And the opera itself, although it remains Glass’s longest, is now known as the first part of a trilogy that also includes Satyagraha (1979) and Akhnaten (1983) – two other works focused on seminal, transformational non-military figures. But perhaps “focused” is not the right word for Einstein on the Beach, for its focus is more on the idea of Einstein than on Einstein’s ideas. It is essentially a static work filled with Glass’s essentially static music – hypnotic and involving if you like it, distended and boring if you do not – and it is left to the almost-expendable audience to determine what the whole thing “means,” to the extent that the word “means” has any, well, meaning here. The whole endeavor looks and sounds determinedly contemporary (even 40 years after its composition) and remains determinedly self-referential and self-important. The performers on this two-DVD set appear to believe in what they are doing, and there are visual moments that possess a kind of beauty analogous to that of some aural moments in Glass’s score. But these are only moments, and the opera does go on and on and on – even Glass’s determined fans may wish to treat the DVDs the same way Glass suggested Einstein on the Beach be treated in the opera house, by letting the discs continue to play while they, as audience members, wander in and out more or less at random. Einstein on the Beach is a rarefied experience intended for the cognoscenti, certainly not an opera in any traditional sense but more of a sort-of-musical semi-staged play (actually, Wilson’s staging has some very interesting elements). In general, the music of Glass is an acquired taste; this opera may not be the best place to acquire it if you do not have it already, but if you do, the DVD set will be intriguing and thought-provoking even if it is difficult to sit through the whole thing from start to finish.
The contrast between the glacial place of Glass’s work on the one hand, the carefully integrated text and words of Gilbert and Sullivan on the other, and L’épreuve villageoise on the third (yes, a third hand) is extreme. This Naxos release is another world première, in this case the first-ever recording of a work from 1784 that was one of the most popular creations of André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813). As frothy and inconsequential as Glass’s opera is portentous and pretentious, L’épreuve villageoise (“The Village Trial”) has only 50-some minutes of music and four singers: two sopranos, a tenor and a baritone. All that happens here, and it is not much, is that a widow and her daughter -- both roles sung by sopranos, an interesting touch – decide to teach the daughter’s jealous fiancé a lesson about jealousy, with the daughter herself learning something about it in the process. Where Glass extends everything on an ever-expanding time scale and Gilbert and Sullivan fit the pieces of their plot and music together with the intricacy of a jigsaw puzzle, Grétry simply spins a kind of cotton-candy delicacy around the misgivings and misadventures of characters who would once, before political correctness, have been called country bumpkins. The score enchants precisely because the composer establishes the types quickly and then goes against them from time to time – for instance, when Denise (Sophie Junker) complains to her mother (Talise Trevigne) about the constant jealousy of André (Francisco Fernández-Rueda), it is in an aria whose mournfulness approaches that of far more serious fare. And when Denise, who pretends to be interested in the attentions of La France (Thomas Dolié), later learns the hurt of jealousy herself after André in turn pretends to have found another lover of his own, the scene is genuinely affecting despite its brevity. Ryan Brown and Opera Lafayette specialize in rediscovering lost (or simply misplaced) works of the 18th century, and this particular one is an especially happy find, zipping along with beguiling jauntiness. It never attains, or seeks, any deep meaning, but makes it clear that bringing pleasure to the audience is what is foremost in the composer’s mind.
The contrasts among various releases can be intense, but sometimes, so can the contrasts within a single CD. That is the case and the whole point in an Alpha recording called Death and the Maiden—A Collaborative Exploration. This is a strange disc and is not for anyone unfamiliar with Schubert’s famed “Death and the Maiden” quartet: No. 14 in D minor, D. 810. This brilliant, beautiful and somber work from 1824, which gets its title from Schubert’s use in its second movement of the theme from his 1817 song to a poem by Matthias Claudius, is heard on this disc in Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s chamber-music adaptation. This enlarges the work sonically without deepening it emotionally, despite the first-class playing of the conductorless Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. But the quartet is not played as a quartet: the four movements are broken up by other music instead of being given in sequence. And although in one sense these movements are the jumping-off point for this performance-art project, in another way they are only a small part of it. The CD, recorded live in concert, might actually have been better as a DVD, since the visual elements of the performance art were clearly as significant as the music. The overall focus is death, and specifically the medieval “dance of death.” So the disc opens with a Toden Tanz by organist Augustus Nörmiger (1560-1613), followed by an anonymous Byzantine Chant on Psalm 140, after which the first movement of the Schubert is played. Then comes a pavan by John Dowland – Schubert uses the pavan rhythm in his quartet’s second movement – and then that second movement is offered. Next is a madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo, followed by the third movement of the Schubert. And then come two works by György Kurtág (born 1926): Ligatura-Message to Frances-Maria (The Answered Unanswered Question) and Ruhelos (Restless) from Kafka Fragments, the aim apparently being to offer something odd and unsettling before returning at the end for the final movement of the Schubert. This CD memorializes a kind of performance art in which the performance is of high quality and the art is – well, it is certainly not Schubert’s quartet, or even a chamber-orchestra arrangement of the quartet, nor is it exactly a commentary on or some sort of deepening of the quartet’s musicality and musical message. It is an admixture of varying death-related thoughts, variously expressed, attached rather loosely to the scaffolding of a great chamber work by Schubert that is taken apart by the performers and left for the audience to reassemble mentally and emotionally if it chooses to do so – rather as Glass expects the audience of Einstein at the Beach to assemble and calculate the opera’s message and meaning. An intellectually interesting Schubert-based experiment rather than a musically convincing one, this “collaborative exploration,” an attempt to go beyond Schubert, ultimately shows that the original “Death and the Maiden” quartet can stand quite well and quite affectingly on its own, without needing anyone to emphasize the reality that, yes, thoughts about death were integral to its creation.
The contrast between a Schubert quartet and much-later music is handled differently and to somewhat more-convincing effect on a new Musica Omnia release featuring excellent playing by the Hugo Wolf Quartett. Here the Schubert quartet is No. 13 in A minor, D. 804, the “Rosamunde,” and here it is heard as written, the performers giving it an attentive, beautifully balanced and warmly convincing reading. The ensemble playing is particularly fine, the individual players’ sound clearly evident even as their blending into a whole provides the music with warmth and solidity that makes its recollections of other Schubert works all the more affecting. This is a quartet of reminiscence, not only of the Rosamunde incidental music but also of the songs Gretchen am Spinnrade and Die Götter Griechenlands, and there are passing references to other Schubert works as well. The subtlety with which this material is integrated into something wholly new is likely what Ralf Yusuf Gawlick (born 1969) was also striving for in his Imagined Memories (2016), a quartet in which he reaches out to the biological mother he never knew. Indeed, Gawlick says his work was partly inspired by the Rosamunde quartet, which he quotes directly at one point. The Hugo Wolf Quartett, to which Gawlick dedicated Imagined Memories, approaches the work with the same intensity, excellent ensemble and ability to extricate meaning that they bring to the Schubert. The work itself, however, does not repay this level of attention and attentiveness particularly well. It is certainly a technical showpiece, demanding unending attention to the means of sound production even as Gawlick attempts to convey a series of emotions that, however, all sound much the same because of his determined use of acerbic atonality that tends to distance feelings rather than evoke them. It is possible to hear Gawlick striving to make connections with his unknown parent, and thus with the equally unknown audience for this music, and certainly there are gestures that encompass intensity and a sense of longing from time to time. But Imagined Memories comes across as episodic and unstructured despite the fact that it has clearly been put together with care, with its focus on “memory footprints” and its occasionally haunting sounds. As personal in its way as Schubert’s quartet is in its, Gawlick’s work is one that clearly has considerable meaning for the composer; but the meaning is not fully conveyed, on an emotional level, to an audience with its own unique life experiences – not even when the technical quality of the performance is as fine as it is here.
Juxtaposition and contrast along the lines of Schubert and Gawlick have become something of a regular feature of concerts by the Seattle Symphony and CD releases on the orchestra’s own label. The use of familiar music to lure audiences into concerts where they will also hear less-known, usually contemporary pieces is actually a longstanding tradition, but Seattle Symphony practices it with more frequency and dedication than do many other ensembles. How well the compare-and-contrast concerts work depends, of course, on the quality of the pieces offered, as well as the skill with which they are performed. In the case of a new live recording of music by Stravinsky and Vladimir Nikolaev (born 1953), the performance skill is certainly there, but the musical idea of the mixture is only so-so. Certainly the Stravinsky is not the problem: Ludovic Morlot here leads the original 1910 version of The Firebird with rhythmic sensitivity and a particularly strong feeling for the warmth of the writing and the firm planting of this particular ballet in the Russian Romantic tradition – despite the fact that Stravinsky was very soon to take a great leap forward from that tradition with The Rite of Spring. There is much that is sinuous and delicate in The Firebird, and much that is presented with a rhythmic intensity that looks ahead to later Stravinsky ballets. Morlot has honed the sound of the Seattle Symphony into one whose warmth and precision coexist easily, and the orchestra’s handling of the textures of this ballet also shows admirable attentiveness to the details of Stravinsky’s scoring. Stravinsky managed always to keep matters controlled despite the fairy-tale intensity of this work’s story – the music had to be danceable, after all – but Nikolaev faces no such constraints in The Sinewaveland: Homage to Jimi Hendrix. So he insists that the performers, here including solo violinist Elisa Barston, play with all-out fury a great deal of the time, evoking the intensity of rock music to rather too great an extent: after all, typical rock songs last just a few minutes, but this work goes on for 12. Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle, so the orchestra presumably has some sort of “hometown musician made good” feeling about this material. But for anyone who is not a big fan of Hendrix and not familiar with his style (and his famous propensity for burning his guitar), this “homage” sounds as much like noise as music. The performers labor mightily and bring forth a great deal that is loud and a great deal that is frenetic, and in that sense Nikolaev’s work effectively imitates the excesses of Hendrix and his music. But as the glissandi continue and continue and the climaxes pile upon each other and the whole piece goes on and on, the totality becomes rather less than the sum of its parts: a visit to a “land” where many people want to go (Hendrix remains enormously popular, after all, at least with a certain age group), but one which those not already interested in visiting will find rather overdone and vapid. The contrast with Stravinsky is not to Nikolaev’s benefit, or to that of Hendrix.