Editor's note: In Auxiliary Input, which debuted in February, Andrew Anderson, a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library, will review classical and opera recordings, including by local organizations. We hope to tie them to local performances by guest artists with various orchestras and chamber music organizations.
For this fourth edition, Anderson looks at Jaap van Zweden conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic on Act One of Wagner's Die Walküre, pianist Danny Zelibor's recording of works by Alexander Tansman, and a DVD set of the most recent production of Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach, conceived by Texan Robert Wilson and featuring Lucinda Childs Dance Company.
If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wagner, Die Walküre
Jaap van Zweden, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Matthias Goerne, Michelle DeYoung, Stuart Skelton, Heidi Melton, Petra Lang
Naxos Records: 8.660394-97
Released: November 11, 2016
In April of 2016, when Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony performed the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre in a concert performance, I thought “that’s great—Act One has some great stuff in it, but it’s still a shame they aren’t performing the whole thing.” Evidently having read my mind, van Zweden and the DSO will be performing the whole thing toward the end of their 2017-18 season. If you missed the 2016 first-act concert, or even if you didn’t, you can get a pretty good idea of what to expect from next season’s full three-act concert via the recent Naxos-label release (available here) of van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s performance of the work.
I didn’t attend that one-night-only Walküre of a year ago, but I remember it nevertheless. After all, when two Dallas Symphony musicians on two unrelated occasions offer unsolicited endorsements of van Zweden’s interpretation of Wagner, you notice it, at least if you like Wagner at all.
And I guess I do. I’d be presumptuous to style myself as a Wagner geek, but I’ll confess openly that I really like Parsifal, the entire slow four and a quarter hours of it. My first live Wagner was a Met touring company production with Jon Vickers as Siegmund, and I realize it might be a problem to set that as a standard.
Yes, there’s more to a production of Die Walküre than Siegmund, but he does have the first big-money number in the opera: the Act One, Scene Three “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond,” which Vickers nailed. In the van Zweden/Hong Kong Philharmonic recording, Stuart Skelton’s rendition of it starts out a little too hesitantly, and to do so highlights the tune’s shortcoming: Wagner doesn’t milk it. At all. The big tune is gone in 60 seconds, never to return, so whoever is singing it had better make it count. Don’t misunderstand: Skelton is quite good, with the intensity, stamina and brightness that whoever sings this role ought to have. But he’s not the Siegmund we’ll hear next April; that will be Simon O’Neill, Dallas’s Siegmund from last year (although Skelton will be performing Beethoven’s 9th the following week in Dallas).
So you can look on this as a chance to make an interesting, if not rigorous, comparison: same conductor, many of the same principals—Michelle DeYoung, Matthias Goerne, and Heidi Melton are singing on this recording, and they’ll be in Dallas next year. In the recording, however, you’ve got DeYoung singing Fricka, whereas next year she’ll be Sieglinde. Melton, the recording’s Sieglinde, will be Brünnhilde when she gets to Dallas. Confusing? That’s Wagner for you. Goerne’s Wotan may have his powers of concentration tested, because everyone knows you can’t sing the same things to your wife that you sing to your illegitimate daughter. And you’ll also have orchestras to compare. Hong Kong does killer Wagner tubas. They’re bright, crisp and fun, they lay to rest claims that only the Europeans can do Wagner tubas, and they make you wonder if Dallas’s brass is up to the challenge.
Yes, this recording indeed shows that van Zweden really is a great Wagner interpreter. Sure, he gives you a fierce Ride of the Valkyries at the third act’s opening, and his magic fire at the end of it will curl your hair. But his greatest strength may lie in his handling of the material that often seems to plod. Honestly, this recording marks the first time that I have ever been interested in what Wotan had to say in Act Two when he recaps the history of the Volsungs, and Wotan’s third act farewell to Brünnhilde is likewise more involving than in any other recordings I’ve heard (with the possible exception of Theo Adam’s rendition in the Janowski/Dresden recording from the 1980s). For much of that I must certainly thank Matthias Goerne, who is turning into one of my favorite Wotans. But it’s van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic that keep it moving, Wagner tubas and all. Dallas, are you ready?
Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs: Einstein on the Beach
The Philip Glass Ensemble, Conducted by Michael Reisman
The Lucinda Childs Dance Company
Directed for the Screen by Don Kent
Opus Arte: OA1178D
Released: October 28, 2016
Leaving the theater after the Dallas premiere of Spielberg’s Lincoln, I heard a guy, probably a critic, calmly saying into his phone, “I’d say it was a…towering work of genius.” Well, I have never considered Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach a towering work of genius. For one thing, it’s really long. At four and a half hours, lots of otherwise towering works of genius would fall over. But another reason may be that all I’ve really been exposed to is a truncated version of it. True, all the available recordings have been abridged, but that isn’t what I mean by truncated. This huge opera’s visual aspect is crucial, and unless you’re one of the people who has seen it live (and it’s been revived roughly every 10 years since its 1976 premiere, so there are some of you out there), you’ve likely never seen it.
Now you can. Opus Arte has put together a 2-DVD set which brings all 264 minutes of it to you, if somewhat indirectly. It was filmed live at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris during its 2014–15 international tour, and even if it isn’t quite the same as seeing it live, this long overdue mediated version gets us a lot closer to that experience than we’re likely to get any other way.
Like virtually every other production of the opera to date, this one was mounted with not only the blessing but the participation of the three main parties responsible for it in the first place, composer Philip Glass, dancer/actor/choreographer Lucinda Childs, and that Waco-born and UT-educated garden of ideas, Robert Wilson. It would be difficult to overestimate Wilson’s importance to Einstein, since Glass’s composition of the opera’s music started with Wilson’s storyboards, and these are substantially Wilson’s response to the poetry of Christopher Knowles, some of which forms part of the spoken text of the work. The drawings specified in detail what happens onstage, down to the movements of the individual actors. These movements of the schematic, sometimes almost mechanical characters seem to grow naturally out of Knowles’ looping, aphoristic poetry, and it’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate cement for their union than Glass’s music.
The trouble with audio-only recordings of Einstein is that all you have is the cement. You don’t have what it’s supposed to hold together, so you might as well cut some of it. Without being able to see what’s going on, you can’t appreciate how, for much of the time, you have a host of white-shirted and suspendered Einsteins all over the stage, above the stage, in the pit, and probably in the balcony, too. And you can’t really appreciate that it’s also an Einstein playing the solo violin, a visual-musical motive that helps tie so many of the scenes together (and even when he’s not there, his chair is there—try to get THAT on a CD). The Bed scene seems way too long for its own good. And you’re left feeling—or at least I was—that the Night Train scene is a big, useless placeholder.
Instead, with this exceedingly welcome addition to the opera-on-video shelf, you get some sense of what the whole thing must be like. You enter the theater, like everyone else, with the “Overture” already having started, before the house lights even go down. You get so many references (most of them visual) to Einstein thrown at you all at once in every scene that it’s almost overwhelming. And that Night Train! What used to seem like a big wooden block of numbers and solfege syllables becomes, along with the two “Field Dances”—newly choreographed by Childs for this production—one of the places along the way where you can catch your breath.
And you need to. Wilson’s trademark “Knee Plays” are far too discursive to function as mere entr’actes, which is how they are often labeled. They’re as densely texted as many of the capital-S Scenes, even if they take up less space.
Even so, don’t come to this work looking for dialogue. And plot? Forget it. There are Einsteins all over the place, but don’t expect incidents from his life or anything like that. The cover art for the DVD sort of warns you of that, though, by showing Kate Moran and the great Helga Davis in a pose that fairly screams “Wilson!”: the two indentically Einstein-suited women—white shirts, gray pants, suspenders, wristwatches, and Converse All-Stars—seated, with their bodies arranged in what must be the maximum number of right angles, both leaning about sixty degrees to the left. And smiling. You know this won’t be “Einstein for Dummies” (and, as if to drive home that fact, the DVD has no subtitle options—a significant omission).
Towering work of genius? Maybe and maybe not, but now we can judge Einstein on the Beach a little more fairly. Now we can see it, if not completely as it was intended, at least in an incarnation that comes to us with Glass’s, Child’s and Wilson’s blessing. And, in some ways, it’s better than seeing it live, because, at least in the seats that I would be able to afford, I would have missed Davis’s sly smile at the end of the Night Train scene as she pulls a gun on a terrified Gregory Purnhagen. I don’t think I would have missed his silent scream, though, which now strikes me as one of the loudest moments in the opera. Funny, I never heard that before.
Alexandre Tansman: Piano Music, Volume One
Danny Zelibor, Piano
Toccata Classics TOCC 0170
Release date: Dec. 5, 2015
Polish-born French composer-pianist, lawyer, and one-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Tansman always considered himself Polish, though he lived much of his life in Paris. His musical career—his survival, even (he was a Jew in Europe in the 1930’s)—was championed by Eugene Ormandy, Serge Koussevitzky, George Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Stravinsky and others—and, as we shall shortly see, somewhat more recently by pianist Danny Zelibor.
Zelibor is a native Texan, educated at Texas Christian University and the University of North Texas. He’s a good writer, a respected speaker, and, oh yes: a pianist. Forgive me that understatement. He’s really talented, and Mr. Tansman could not have found a better spokesperson.
Spokesperson? Well, he recently spoke to the Dallas Music Teachers’ Association about Tansman. He also provided the explanatory essay for the booklet that accompanies Toccata Classics’ CD Alexandre Tansman: Piano Music, Volume One (available here). The disc includes a Sonata from 1925, four Danses Miniatures from 1923, Book I of Mazurkas (1918-28), 7 Preludes (from 1921), the Sonatina from 1923, and 5 Impromptus from the early 1920’s.
That the label is calling it “Volume One” is encouraging, even exciting. That means they’re planning to give us more of Tansman’s piano music, and with Zelibor playing it, we hope. This first volume shows us Tansman’s early affinity for the best of (simultaneously) Stravinsky and Schumann. With Stravinsky—and I’m just using Stravinsky to stand for all those early 20th-century composers whose so-called primitivism quite naturally transferred to what we now call neoclassicism—he shares a predilection for rhythmic drive paired with skillfully crafted melody that often defies expectations. With Schumann he shares a preference for the number four.
Tansman’s preference for squares isn’t much of a weakness, though. Yes, his melodies usually come at us in four measure blocks, and these often show up in pairs, as well (even in pairs of pairs). But Tansman, like Schumann, sometimes breaks things up a little with slightly longer phrases, and these tend to show up when he’s sort of destabilizing things. All of which is to say, this music is not unfriendly; the bunches of four with an occasional six thrown in may not make the music accessible, but they certainly don’t impede accessibility.
While accessible is not a synonym for “short,” most of the pieces on this disc do opt for the quick getaway. In fact, the disc’s 33 tracks don’t even last an hour and fifteen minutes. The lightest works are probably the Mazurkas (written between 1919 and 1928), only few of which make it past the 90 second mark. For slightly heavier fare, take the 7 Preludes from 1921, some of which, like #4, end simply by stopping after two and a half minutes. Sure, they could easily take their material another 9 minutes further, but why try to squeeze every last drop of music out of your idea? Having said that, I must confess that one of my favorite tracks is the “Carillon et Ronde,” Number 2 (1925) from the 5 Impromptus. At over 4 minutes long, it’s one of the longest tracks on the disc. There are plenty of four-bar groups in there, but sometimes it’s hard to tell, and that’s exhilarating.
Exhilarating as well is the pianist’s deft handling of Tansman’s fondness for the clash of multiple keys. In works like the Etude-Scherzo and the third movement of the Sonatina No. 1 (marked “Toccata”), Zelibor’s superb technique, combined with his extraordinary sensitivity, allows him to negotiate the percussive effects while directing our attention to melody easily lost in the polytonal haze.
So now I’m waiting for Zelibor to finish Volume Two, and it looks like Tansman’s piano music might bear more volumes than that. While we’re waiting, what do you say we watch Flesh and Fantasy? That’s the movie score that garnered its composer an Oscar nomination. And if that’s not available...well, maybe we’ll have to settle for Spellbound.
» Andrew Anderson is a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. He holds a bachelor's degree in music composition from Baylor University, a Master's degree in music composition, and a Ph. D in music theory from the University of North Texas, and an MLS from Texas Woman's University.
» Auxiliary Input will appear on the third Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.
PREVIOUSLY IN AUXILIARY INPUT
- February 2017: A recording by composer Adam Schoenberg; and a Fort Worth Symphony recording from 2016 of works by Lutoslawski and Brahms, the latter arranged by the other Schoenberg
- March 2017: Two volumes of a set of Wagner music transcribed for solo piano by Peruvian pianist Juan Guillermo Vizcarra; and two albums of songs by Fauré and Flegíer, both featuring bass Jared Schwartz