Monday, July 25, 2011

The critic speaks

All of a sudden, the music critic Andrew Porter keeps jumping out at me.

Alex Ross at the New Yorker talks about how once Porter was jumped by a mob in Milan. Well, the mob thought they were attacking him but got the wrong man. It's funny. Read the link. I guess Porter was interviewed in the new issue of Opera News and this story comes from that.

Ross says that many people, himself included, would consider Porter the greatest music critic alive.

Also the other day I was working on a story about the upcoming "Magic Flute" in Chautauqua and they were proud of that they were using the translation by Andrew Porter.

So, all of a sudden Porter is everywhere! And this means something to me because I am doing the book on Leonard Pennario. And when Pennario was 28, Porter -- who was a couple of years younger -- heard him and could not believe what he was hearing.

I have no idea what Andrew Porter looks like and I cannot find a picture of him. So at the top of this post I have substituted a painting of myself listening to Pennario.

I will tell you this, though: When Porter heard Pennario live at the Wigmore Hall in London, that was when he said, "No one today plays the piano better than Pennario."

In Gramophone he wrote how dazzled he was by Pennario's treatment of the Schulz-Evler transcription of Johann Strauss' "Blue Danube" Waltz.

"But what playing!" I love that line.

I have seen mean-minded critics take lines out of context, to make it sound, for instance, as if Porter, when he said Pennario's trills went off like electric bells, meant that he sounded mechanical. In context you can see Porter meant that in admiration. The question to me is, why would other critics go out of their way to turn it around and make it seem otherwise. Pooh on them! Naturally I will be more professional in the book but let me tell you this, I am going into it, the ups and downs of critics.

Thanks to the miracles of the Internet you can hear the record Andrew Porter was raving about. It is fun to listen to it and match it up against what the critic was saying.

You can also hear Pennario's own arrangement of the Kaiser-Waltz -- that is the Emperor Waltz, but Pennario always called it the Kaiser-Waltz -- that Andrew Porter praised. (Here is a video with less scratching.) This was always my favorite Strauss waltz and I am happy I was able to tell the old man that I loved that he arranged it. Those wistful, beautiful themes.

Anyway that is what I like about Andrew Porter.

It is great to see him back in the limelight!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The mark of the maestro

The other day I was going on about -- I know, as usual! -- the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh. I am sorry, I liked it was a teenager. I am afraid I am still a teenager.

Anyway, I found myself watching Herbert von Karajan conducting it on YouTube.

That is von Karajan up above.

There are moments when you see why a great conductor is a great conductor. I remember watching, also on YouTube, Leonard Bernstein conducting Mozart's "Ave, Verum Corpus." Here Bernstein was, not Catholic -- not even Christian -- and yet, for while he is conducting that music, he is. Because Mozart was, and that is what it takes to understand that music.

It is amazing. I want to say it is like watching a great actor but I think it is deeper than that. Bernstein brings out this music's reverence and mystical beauty as I have never seen anyone else do. He takes that moment at the beginning and gets into the zone. You see him mouthing the Latin along with the chorus. He was drawing the music out of everyone. You can see it.

That was, honest, the first time I "got" Bernstein. I looked at that and thought, that is a great conductor! That is what I am seeing.

The other night, watching Herbert von Karajan, I saw the same thing.

Watch what the maestro does at the end. He is guiding the music to a close, cuing the woodwinds, the hushed pizzicato on the violins. Then ... at the last chord. Look at that gesture.

It is a great bit of showmanship but it is genuine, too.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Kaiser Wilhelm

This morning I am listening to Wilhelm Backhaus playing Beethoven sonatas. Actually there is nothing special about this morning.

Pretty much every morning I listen to Wilhelm Backhaus playing Beethoven sonatas!

There is this CD that crossed my desk at work and somehow it became lodged in the CD player in my back room. Somehow for me it takes great organization and initiative to change a CD and so Wilhelm Backhaus has stayed. He has become family. On this disc he is playing four Beethoven sonatas including two that I love, the "Hunt" and the "Waldstein."

I get up early to work on my book on Leonard Pennario, which I am slowly but surely bringing into shape. And so here I am, in my pajamas, drinking my coffee and typing away, surrounded by huge binders full of newspaper clippings and letters, and my card files detailing where Pennario was from day to day, year to year. My neighborhood is noisy. When it gets to be, oh, 7:30 a.m., everyone starts waking up and shouting and screaming and blasting their car stereos. So that is when the Backhaus goes on.

Wilhelm Backhaus is my friend!

I love Beethoven and normally his music would be too distracting to work to. Pennario is also too distracting to work to, I find. I think back on the old man and I get weepy. But this Backhaus, I am used to this disc. I know all its twists and turns, and so I can work to it. The music is strong and robust and encouraging.

Backhaus is like Pennario, and this is high praise, in that he is unpretentious. These performances are live and sometimes old Wilhelm comes down -- hard -- on the wrong notes. Whole chords, he gets wrong! But it does not bother him one bit. He soldiers happiily on. I get such a kick out of him. I just grin hearing him play the "Hunt" Sonata. That galloping finale! Nothing stops him.

We should all be like that in life!

This morning for the first time I looked up Backhaus on Wikipedia. There is a somewhat hagiographic and annoying entry but there are a few facts in it. Wilhelm Backhaus was the first pianist to record a concerto.  He recorded the Grieg. On July 15, 1909. Yikes, that is today! Isn't it July 15? Well, in my life I am used to coincidence.

Speaking of coincidence, I just found that picture to post up above. And I know the man Backhaus made the autograph out to! He was Dr. J. Warren Perry. He was a Buffalonian. I met him. He just died recently. Isn't this strange? I just found that picture at random on the Internet. 

Here is a young picture of Backhaus with Evgeny Kissin hair.

Here is a cool interview with Backhaus discussing technique.

Here he is playing the finale of the "Tempest" Sonata.

Play it, Wilhelm!

Play it!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Birthday boy

Today is Leonard Pennario's birthday and to my surprise, it was on Twitter without my putting it there!

Three pianists were on Twitter posting that it was Pennario's birthday. Well, two of them were pianists. I am not sure about the third one but she was a fan, anyway.

Pennario would have been 87 today. That is an early publicity shot of him up above. I used to laugh with him about how great looking he was.

I guess the odds of his surviving until now were pretty slim because of his Parkinson's, but when he was 83 he had a lot of life in him. Pennario had the kind of spirit that lasted. You could not accomplish what he accomplished without a bright and strong spirit. There was so much about life he still loved.

He would have loved it, pianists noting his birthday on Twitter. When he was alive, if he was mentioned on the Internet, I used to love to tell him. Once people got into a fight about a Leonard Pennario recording on YouTube. The person who loved the recording was flinging epithets at the person who hated it. I told Pennario about that and he got a big kick out of it.

Oh well. It will all be in the book!

This morning I listened to him playing this. I like how romantic he makes it. So many pianists make it sound angry. Pennario knew better. I love the turn he takes at ... hmmm.... 1:09. And the seductive sound he brings to the middle section.

My thanks go out to everyone who joins me in admiring Pennario's artistry on his birthday.

His spirit lives.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The music of the heart

Today I heard about a death that made me emotional. The violinist Josef Suk died. He was 81. There he is up above! I never knew what he looked like.

Suk -- you say it "souk" -- had significance to me. I wrote about it once before. He was descended from Dvorak and the composer Josef Suk but I did not care beans about that. What I cared about was that he played the version of Mozart's Adagio in E for Violin that I fell in love with when I was 14.

The reason I remember I was 14 -- I had just turned 14 -- was that it was 1976 and the classical station was playing music for the Bicentennial, music written in 1776. This glorious Adagio in E came on and I was taping it with my primitive cassette recorder. I know, nerd! I was a hoot when I was 14. I was leading this double life. None of my schoolfriends knew anything about my Mozart obsession. Well, they knew I was obsessed but they knew nothing about it.

Josef Suk played the daylights out of this piece and I will always remember hearing it for the first time. There is this one part of it so passionate and grown-up and I remember listening to it and thinking I would faint.

After that I learned the lesson in music everyone learns, that not all recordings are equal. I got somebody's recording from the record store, I forget whose, but it did not measure up.

So periodically even as I got into my 20s I would dig out that old cassette and listen to my old Suk recording.

To my delight I found it on YouTube. Well, I found one recording by Josef Suk. It is not quite the one I had, because I remember the cadenza of the one I had, and it is not this one. But it is as good.

I knew what I liked when I was 14, you know? The things I loved then, I love now. And it is funny because when you are a kid you see the world in primary colors. You LOVE this. You HATE that. Often there is no middle ground.

Back then I never knew what Suk looked like and it is strange to see him now, this square looking Czech guy with big glasses. But man, can he play.

Listening to Suk play this piece now, I can put into words what I loved about it, and still do. I like the passion he puts into it. I like how he sails and soars through it. The part I love, and I wrote about this before but I must write about it again, it starts at about 2:51. It repeats later. I am not a violinist but it seems to me what you have to do at this point is just sing your heart out. Don't hold back. I have heard other violinists who pull back and that is not the right thing to do. Suk does not. He sings out the music, and he does that consistently through the whole piece. This is a quality by the way that I love in Leonard Pennario's playing. He doesn't play stupid games with you.

It is great on a hot night like this to listen to this beautiful and passionate Adagio accompanied by a big glass of chilled white wine, as God and Mozart surely intended.

Rest in peace, Josef Suk, you wonderful musician who showed me the beauty of this wonderful piece.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Someone's in the kitchen with George Szell

Shows where my mind is, here I am reading the new George Szell biography by Michael Charry, and what thrills me the most?

The part about how someone noticed that Szell's music library held a copy of "The Joy of Cooking."

And it turned out Szell was friends with Irma von Starkloff Rombauer, the original author! That his her full name. I had always thought it was just Irma Rombauer. But it is not!

Charry explains that Szell liked Rombauer's German heritage, which I would concur is a most excellent thing in a woman. A friend of Szell tells him that Szell contributed some of the recipes.

Wow! Which ones?

Perhaps the Chicken Paprikash? (Or Chicken Paprika as it is called in the 1940s edition I scored at a garage sale.)

Or perhaps some of the German Christmas Cakes? Cookies are called cakes in that old edition.

Perhaps I have been cooking Szell's recipes and never knew it.

Szell is quoted as saying about Irma Rombauer: "She was living in St. Louis when I went there to conduct and we became very friendly. That was one of the reasons I went back the second year. You know how it is when people live far apart. Nothing came of it but I'm still very fond of her. Some of the recipes she got from me."

"Nothing came of it.." This book is kind of dense and gray but that is a paragraph I have pored over, I will tell you that right now. It is on page 28.

At the time they met, Charry writes, Rombauer was 54 and Szell was a young whippersnapper of 33. But the book says, "Her vivacious personality, her love for music, and her interest in cooking would have made her attractive to Szell.

Here is a picture of Irma Rombauer.

"Nothing came of it."  Hmmmm.

I guess sometimes it gets hot in the kitchen!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lost in la la land

Just a couple more thoughts on "Meistersinger" and then we will move on, I promise. I think what has happened is, I never saw this opera before in its entirety, and so it has been on my mind.

It is funny how sometimes you hear something that colors your life. You wake up in the morning feeling a little different because of it. One of these days I should list some of the music that has done this to me in the past.

I did finish watching the Glyndebourne production. As I shared yesterday, it took all kinds of doing including getting up that morning at 4 a.m. -- and being late for a party later that day. Yikes, I was almost an hour late because I had to finish watching the thing before Glyndebourne pulled the plug on it.

Howard ended up watching the last scene over my shoulder. We had it on full screen. Howard always kills me. As Beckmesser was making his sorry attempt at singing the Prize Song, Howard said, "I don't know, he sounds all right to me." By the way what I wrote the other day about the name Sixtus Beckmesser, I was wrong. Beckmesser was a real actual Mastersinger, I have learned.

When the opera was over I had to scramble to explain away the last scene, the one that always gets quoted, about keeping German art sacred and pure. Awkward!

I said, "Howard, I don't want you to think I am watching Nazi opera, or anything." I explained "Meistersinger" premiered in 1868 (was it? I am in a hurry right now) and furthermore there was that speech Hans Sachs makes earlier condemning man's inhumanity to man.

Also I tried to tell him how it is supposed to be set in the Middle Ages and these Mastersingers, you know, they are these provincial tradesmen striving for something greater. They are gently comic figures. This opera is bittersweet in a kind of Mozartean way -- there was one instance where I am sure Wagner is quoting Mozart -- but it is not meant to be serious as a heart attack.

Also, I did not say this to Howard but face it, no German opera is complete without crowds of people shouting "Heil" to something. It just has to be done. I mean, look at "The Magic Flute."

OK, time to put this all to bed. But it is not easy!

This morning I realized it was time to snap out of it so while I was drinking my coffee, I looked into this new memoir that came my way, by Katherine Weber, the granddaughter of Kay Swift, who had the long affair with George Gershwin.

And there "Meistersinger" was again!

I could not get away from it!

Apparently Gershwin went with Kay Swift to see "Die Meistersinger." The book said, "He was enamored of the score."

That is fascinating! It is fun to look at "Meistersinger" through Gershwin's eyes and wonder what he took away from it.

But it is time for me to stop thinking about this.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Nuernberg all-nighter

No one can say I do not practice what I preach! Yesterday I encouraged people to check out "Die Meistersinger" from Glyndebourne. I said I was going to even though we had less than 48 hours left to do it. And trust me, I had a lot scheduled for those hours.

I was up at 4 a.m., watching the first act!

I could not sleep because I had a lot on my mind so I thought, as long as I am good for nothing anyway, I may as well watch "Meistersinger." Anyway that is time well spent. It is one of the dumb things about the world that reading a book is looked on as being productive while listening to music in general is not.

So, somewhere around 5:30, 6 a.m., there my life is, mirroring art. Hans Sachs has been up all night and so have I!

The Hans Sachs in this production is Gerald Finley, a Canadian singer. I am not an expert on this opera, though I am fast becoming one. I had never really seen it before, not even on video. I knew parts of it and had a sketchy concept of the story. My father loved this opera and I remember when I was about 16 he sat me down and we listened to it together. I guess I liked it but I do not remember a lot more than that.

My father had a book of Wagner librettos that I inherited after he died and he had made pencil notes about the dates he listened to "Die Meistersinger." It must be written in there when exactly he and I listened to it. I will have to go look. My dad did that for one other thing that I know of. In "The Forsyte Saga," he noted down whenever he read "Indian Summer of a Forsyte." That is extremely affecting, too. So beautifully written.

I was up all night when I read "Indian Summer of a Forsyte," too! I remember when I finished it the sun was coming up.

What is this all adding up to? Darned if I know.

Back to "Die Meistersinger." I still have half of Act 3 to go but I took a break to, ahem, share my observations, should you wish to call in sick to whatever plans you had today and catch it at the last minute.

Glyndebourne set the opera in the early 19th century. It is obvious right away -- you have the top hats and the Empire waist gowns. It does not quite go with the opera's reflection of the medieval age of faith -- the night watchman calling the benediction as he calls the hours, the entire town at Mass, the hymns to and celebration of the Feast of St. John the Baptist. Also there is that last act when -- I remember the opera expert Father Owen Lee pointed this out  -- Wagner brings the Middle Ages to life as no play or movie has been able to do. You are kind of wasting that if you set the opera in a different era. "Die Meistersinger" is medieval and I can't understand why people can't leave it that way.

Still, the costumes are charming and you kind of forget they are not medieval. The opera puts you back in the Middle Ages no matter what the costumers are doing, I guess I am saying.

Finley, pictured up above, is tremendously moving as Sachs. He is a young Sachs. His hair is not even gray. He has a kind of pugnacious look, like a bulldog, and his ears stick out, and he's cute. Never having seen the opera before there were some things I had not realized. Sachs is kind of mean, for one thing. His apprentice is afraid of him. Sachs beats him. Sachs is wrestling with all kinds of stuff that the other people in the opera do not see.

Granted, my sleep is all over the map, and this ravishing music gets to me anyway, but I teared up watching the Prelude to Act 3. It just exposes all the secret messiness of this man's life. How he represses the memory of his dead wife -- and children, too, it seems. How he drinks too much. This might have been a Glyndebourne touch, the bottles lying around, but it rings true. Just looking at him slumped over his desk, his wine glass in his hand -- then opening the shutters and confronting the sunlight -- your heart just goes out to him. Finley shares the credit with Wagner on this one.

You hear so much, too much, about how Hitler loved "Meistersinger." Hitler must have been sleeping through the part where Sachs despairs over man's inhumanity to man. How come you never hear that quoted? I am just saying. You hear all this blah blah blah about the ending, when he talks about the sacred German art, but you never hear the other things that Sachs says.

Two other things and then I must get back to Glyndebourne because time is short.

One, Beckmesser -- this is Johannes Martin Kranzler -- pretty much steals the show whenever he is on. You cannot look away from him. He has a marvelous comic face, and something is touching about him, too. I would imagine that is important in a good Beckmesser. You do not want some cartoon, or some blatant idiot. Most of us have some kind of inner Beckmesser and Wagner was smart enough to know that.

Two, the part where Eva comes to see Sachs and she kind of flirts around with him, gently, about whether he is going to try to win her hand.... God knows how this works, but music fools around with your subconscious. And opera in general -- and Wagner in particular -- is very good about getting across people's foggy relationships with each other. Things that can't be spoken or acknowledged or put into words, that is what you get from the music.

I think I should get back to it now!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Free Wagner

You have one more day to catch "Die Meistersinger," the complete opera, streamed from Glyndebourne.

Not to fall back on Valley Girl talk, but it is So Cool. Gerald Finley is Sachs

It really puts you there. The camera pans over the crowd. You hear the clipped British announcement to turn off your cell phone and that the taking of photographs is prohibited. So exciting!!

I have not seen the whole thing but from the half hour or so that I managed to wedge in so far, it looks great. The British have a great sense of humor and a lack of vanity that I admire. I mean a lack of vanity in the service of comedy. You see this in Britcoms. They don't care how blowsy they look, how ridiculous. In "Die Meistersinger" this quality translates into great Sixtus Beckmessers. Although the Beckmesser in this production seems to be a German, Johannes Martin Kranzle.

Sixtus Beckmesser. Wagner and his friends must have been sitting around with their beers laughing and laughing when they came up with that name. Originally I heard Wagner wanted to name the guy Hans Lick, after Eduard Hanslick, the critic who hated him.

Back to the opera. I started watching it at work the other day and got so drawn into it that when someone came up to say hello to me I just about jumped out of my skin. It is that good.

Sometime between today and tomorrow I vow to get back to it.

I must!