October 04, 2012


Bach: St. Matthew Passion. Christina Landshamer, soprano; Stefan Kahle, alto; Wolfram Lattke and Martin Lattke, tenors; Klaus Mertens and Gotthold Schwarz, basses; Thomanerchor Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig conducted by Georg Christoph Biller. Accentus Music DVD. $39.99.

Die Thomaner: A Year in the Life of the St. Thomas Boys Choir Leipzig—A Film by Paul Smaczny & Günter Atteln. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.

Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre. Chris Merritt, Inés Moraleda, Ana Puche, Werner Van Mechelen, Frode Olsen, Ning Liang, Barbara Hannigan, Brian Asawa, Francisco Vas, Simon Butteriss; Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu conducted by Michael Boder. Arthaus Musik. $39.99 (2 DVDs).

      The eye is inevitably guided in DVDs of classical-music performances: the director of the video decides what to show and when, and if what is shown happens not to be what a viewer would have looked at during an actual concert performance, there is nothing to be done about it.  Skilled directors – and directors as a group have been getting better at this in recent years – find ways to mix wide shots with closeups, overviews with intimate pictures, and full-ensemble shots with ones of individual players or singers.  The best directors do this after careful study of the score, so the video and audio elements of a DVD are as much in harmony as are the sonic elements themselves.  Nevertheless, even in an especially fine performance – perhaps especially in such a reading – there is always something a little bit discordant about the visual elements, which can easily become a distraction from music that is intended to sweep the listener away from and beyond worldly concerns.  Watching such a work as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on video anchors a viewer rather too firmly in the everyday world.  The performance directed by Georg Christoph Biller is undeniably splendid, packed with knowing and sure-voiced soloists and featuring the remarkably smooth and elegant voices of the justly renowned St. Thomas Boys Choir Leipzig.  Solos, choral and orchestral elements blend beautifully here in an interpretation that fully captures the religious transcendence packed by Bach into this remarkable work.  Surely the provenance of the St. Matthew Passion informs the intensity of this reading: Bach wrote the work for the St. Thomas choir of his day, and he is buried in St. Thomas Church.  It would be facile and inaccurate to say that the composer’s spirit somehow imbues this performance, but it is surely true that all the performers are well aware of the venue and of Bach’s intimate connection with it – and thus give their all to the music.  The result is a performance whose sheer beauty will likely often have viewer/listeners closing their eyes, the better to appreciate the lovely sound and highly expressive interpretation.  Of course, that reaction wars with the whole point of a video recording; but such a situation is inevitable in DVDs of classical performances.

      Viewers wanting to know more about just how the St. Thomas Boys Choir Leipzig gets so good and sounds so harmonious (literally so) will enjoy Die Thomaner: A Year in the Life of the St. Thomas Boys Choir Leipzig, which actually includes excerpts from the St. Matthew Passion to demonstrate the points made by filmmakers Paul Smaczny and Günter Atteln about the group’s sound and spirit.  The bonding techniques used to create this sure-voiced ensemble are time-tested, perhaps not since the choir’s founding in the year 1212 but certainly over the last several centuries.  The boys live together, practice together, relax together, play sports together, and share their feelings of uncertainty, pride, doubt and homesickness with each other – and with viewers of the film.  Performance pressure is everywhere, not just in music practice, and the boys are as driven to excel as they are to develop camaraderie that will be reflected in the remarkably homogeneous sound they produce in performance.  The film, which lasts nearly two hours, provides snippets of the boys’ experience not only in Leipzig, where they are seen in classroom music-practice, sporting and relaxation settings, but also on tour, following them to South America.  Well-traveled, sophisticated, intensely groomed for their musical roles, the members of the St. Thomas Boys Choir Leipzig certainly have an atypical childhood – particularly by American standards for youths ages nine to 18.  But what an effect this life has on them!  The way they feel the music they perform is quite remarkable, and the way they unite on stage to provide mellifluous, even transcendent audience experiences is little short of miraculous.  The film is only for viewer/listeners with a strong interest in learning the ins and outs of one of the world’s great boys’ choirs – but for them, it will be revelatory.

      What is revealed in the world première recording of the only opera by György Ligeti (1923-2006), Le Grand Macabre, is something very different.  Written in 1974-77 and revised in 1996, the opera has a libretto (by Ligeti and Michael Meschke) that was specifically created to be readily performable in multiple languages. And so it has been: in German, Swedish, English, French, Italian and Hungarian.  This recording, in English, was made at a performance at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in November 2011, as staged by La Fura dels Baus; it was a true multinational endeavor, also involving Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Opera di Roma and English National Opera.  And it was all in the service of – what?  Ligeti created this work as an anti-anti-opera, intending to recognize both opera traditions and criticisms of the genre.  The music, which is sometimes noise, begins with rhythms scored for a dozen car horns at different pitches and ends with a mocking passacaglia, including in between everything from urban sounds to pastiches of Beethoven, Rossini and Verdi.  Intended to have a serious message communicated in a light way, the disjointed work partakes significantly of surrealism, and it is hard to escape the notion that it is more a play with music than an opera in any recognized sense of the word.  It is all about death and mortality, and indeed Death is the central character, personified as Nekrotzar (leader or ruler of the dead: “necro-” plus “tzar”); bass-baritone Werner Van Mechelen handles the role with considerable skill.  The action takes place in a just-barely-pre-apocalyptic world, where a brilliantly realized gigantic female form towers over litter-filled streets.  Nekrotzar picks up some peculiar, disturbed people (Chris Merritt, Frode Olsen) as assistants and takes them with him to the court of Prince Go-Go (Brian Asawa), where deliberately disconnected scenes are designed to keep it unclear whether the audience is watching a farce, a descent into doom, or something else.  Ligeti plays throughout with expectations; for example, he creates an opposite-sex couple, Amando and Amanda, but has the roles written for two women (Inés Moraleda and Ana Puche).  There is an outstanding, scene-stealing performance in Act II by Barbara Hannigan as Gepopo, the prince’s espionage chief, who sings entirely in code phrases and incomprehensible babble while tossing herself around the stage – and who, per Ligeti’s intention in another of his plays with expectations, has also sung Venus in Act I.  As for the instrumentation, its most notable component is percussion, including numerous standard instruments plus a wind machine, paper bag, signal and steamboat whistles, a large alarm clock, a metronome, two whips, a large sledgehammer and many more items.  Clearly, opera or anti-opera or anti-anti-opera, Le Grand Macabre is a spectacle, and as such it really does need to be seen to be believed (or perhaps disbelieved).  The Teatre del Liceu performance is a superb one, with staging that emphasizes the surreal elements of the story and absolutely marvelous lighting effects that accentuate them further.  The music is – well, sometimes it is music, sometimes not, and somehow it does not really seem to be the point of the whole enterprise.  To say that this work is not to all tastes is something of an understatement; but certainly this recording will be a must-have for people who do have a taste for post-modern and in many ways post-musical stage productions.  For such viewer/listeners, it gets a rousing (++++) rating; for those seeking something more traditional and less disturbing, it is perhaps better, and in the spirit of the production itself, to give it no rating at all.

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