In Auxiliary Input, Andrew Anderson, a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library, reviews 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 the February edition, Anderson listens to the live recording from the Dallas Opera's world premiere of Great Scott, a recording of early orchestral works by Martinů, and Morton Feldman's For John Cage (1982).
If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Music by Jake Heggie, Libretto by Terrence McNally
Joyce DiDonato, Ailyn Pérez, Frederica von Stade, Nathan Gunn, Anthony Roth Constanzo, The Dallas Opera and Chorus, Patrick Summers conducting
Release date: January 12, 2018
I'm often reluctant to evaluate an opera at the time of its premiere. I prefer to spend time with something as substantial as Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's Great Scott before deciding how I feel about it. Now, thanks to the issue of Erato's recording of the Dallas-premiered and co-commissioned work, I can (and so can you--it's available here and here).
It's recorded live, and I'm generally not a fan of live recordings, at least for audio-only format. But this Erato effort helps me to see that as my problem (perhaps a conditioned response to the uneven quality I've heard in, say, the Opera d'Oro line). There's not a thing wrong with this recording. Even the audience noises work, to the extent that the audience becomes a participant in the performance.
The onstage performers are thoroughly committed to the work. Joyce DiDonato as opera singer Arden Scott, Ailyn Pérez as her ambitious protégé/rival Tatyana Bakst, Sid Taylor as Scott's former boyfriend—I wish I had space to praise all participants individually—everyone involved clearly enjoys singing Heggie's music. A performance is never this engaging if they aren't.
Clearly is an operative word here. I can understand every word of the text. That's partly a tribute to the recording engineer, sure, but it's more of a tribute to the composer and librettist. McNally's text is well-crafted, and the music fits words to voice well. Of course, Jake Heggie has a lot of experience fitting words, music and voice (I'm probably not the first to observe that, in the solo vocal literature, he may be America's Richard Strauss). I almost never wonder what the text is when Heggie is composing, and when I do, it's probably the singer's fault, something I forgot when the CD showed up. I was miffed that the disc's booklet didn't include the libretto. I should have known I wouldn't need it (I also should have known it would be available here).
I chalk up my momentary lapse to the fact that it's difficult to make American English prose sing. I'm not sure Heggie knows this. Versification or some other method of stylization can sometimes help the situation by imposing a structure on a text, but much of the libretto for Great Scott is conversational, and if anything sings with greater difficulty than American prose—it's American conversation. When McNally, in his essay in the CD's booklet, refers to opera as "an art form that has never been entirely comfortable with the American experience or vernacular," he is probably not talking about this, but he certainly could have been.
His observation may be more of a reflection on the fact that American life doesn't always sing, even when portrayed as skillfully as it is here. I'm not sure it's a uniquely American story, but the opera's plot, all too briefly put, concerns the efforts of the American Opera Company to premiere a lost hemi-semi-demi-masterpiece of Italian opera while competing with the Super Bowl. Now, never mind the question of singing about football, a subject which—like a Midas in reverse, for me—reduces the value of anything it touches. The treatment of the equation, American opera = American Opera (that is, the problems this company is facing are those of every opera company in America) seems a little heavy-handed, and Ms. Flato's declaration that "American Opera [the company, and by extension opera in America] is here to stay" strikes me as someone whistling in the dark. The question might have benefited from a more elliptical approach, but that might have taken three acts.
Score-based gripes? Brace yourself, Jake: the only one I have (apart from the fight-song-type football music's being a little too close to the real thing; now there's a fertile field for musical humor, and I'm serious) is that sometimes characters speak lines which they could easily sing. "Cool tattoo!" could be just as easily sung as "to hell with the Super Bowl"—easier, even. Furthermore, some kids can sing. Let 'em. In a Heggie opera, speaking feels like someone's poking me in the eye.
Listen to that: if Jake Heggie would just run his stuff by me first, he'd be famous. That's rich. Clearly, he knows what he's doing, and I guess sometimes I don't get it. But I sure get his send-up of the sports-arena rendition of the national anthem, and it's hilarious. Plus, I really like the way the opera-within-the-opera's music bleeds over into the scenes outside the onstage production (but I think I like the bogus Italian bel canto music more than I'm supposed to).
In a work as complex as Great Scott, there are bound to be problems. And, in case anyone's so obtuse that they need me to point it out, most of the ones I've cited are my problems. There's plenty of time for reevaluation (and, as the authors of Ariadne auf Naxos will tell you, revision), and a premiere version—or review—is seldom the last word.
For Great Scott, thanks to this CD, it's probably not.
Morton Feldman: For John Cage (1982)
Erick Carlson, violin, and Aleck Karis, piano
Bridge Records 9498
Release date: Jan. 19, 2018
When Alvin Lucier contrasted the modes of listening we adopt for Robert Ashley's Wolfman (in 1964, it was the loudest piece ever) with Morton Feldman's music, he could have been contrasting Feldman with practically anything else. Typically, music presented in concert settings does all the work: it comes to us, and we sit back and let the music sort of wash over us. Performances of Feldman's music, on the other hand, have us leaning into the music, and we may even wonder if we're hearing it all, as Lucier says. Recordings of Feldman's music can work on us the same way, and a perfect example is Bridge Records' recent issue of For John Cage, Feldman's work for violin and piano (available here).
There are several ways to listen to a work like this...scratch that, there are no "works like this," save other pieces by this same composer, and even those are so individually distinct as to defy the words "like this." Nevertheless, listen to For John Cage for its gradation of contrasts within a narrow range: the piano, with its comparatively narrow range of tone colors, against the violin with its wider range. Or listen for the gradation of tone behaviors: the piano, which usually strikes and rings (by virtue of the sustain pedal, which is almost always on, or half-on, or on rare occasion quarter-on), versus the violin, which can pluck, strike, and draw out a tone in a dozen ways. Listen for contrasts in tone variation: the piano, which is restricted to 12 notes to the octave, compared to the violin, which can provide the minutest variations in intonation of a single pitch, from the jarring to the near-inaudible.
Listen to the way Feldman manages repetition. There's plenty of it, sure, but how far can a composer stretch varied repetition before it becomes something else? Maybe we need to adapt Kant's phrase semper idem sed non eodem modo ("always the same, but not in the same way," which Heinrich Schenker adopted as a kind of motto): for Feldman, let's translate it as "it'll be symmetrical, but usually a little off." How and where music is repeated in a Feldman composition is complex and elusive, and really difficult to talk about, but it's extremely important; and, thankfully, it's easy to hear. Easy in the same way that Feldman's idea of "crippled symmetry" is easy to see in the Eastern rugs he admired so much, and which Meg Wilhoite has discussed here in such rich detail—in the context of this very piece, in fact.
For John Cage requires expert musicianship. Aleck Karis, the pianist, manages to make us believe that the now tentative, now peaceful sounds coming from the piano are all his, but make no mistake: Feldman has built the piece to sound at once serene and worried; only a pianist of Karis's caliber can make it believable. And violinist Erick Karlson succeeds in conveying the most minute distinctions in timbre and rhythm—perhaps the main challenge of the piece—with a perfect blend of compulsion and detachment.
Together—and again, this is something Feldman built into the work—they make us wonder about any distinction between stasis and motion (look up Zeno's paradox of the arrow). There's motion, but so thoroughly controlled as to be almost imperceptible at times. There's stasis, but that doesn't mean nothing is happening. The result? We hang on every note. We listen as if every measure matters.
It must have been a challenge to engineer a recording like this, to make sure that neither instrument is allowed to obtrude, while recording at a level that allows us to crank up the volume to 22 so we can hear the musician's fingernails growing, if we want to; but—as Karis recommends in the excellent booklet that accompanies the disc—we can also listen with the volume way down, the way it was played (pianississimo, as he says) and the way it would sound in a good performance. Furthermore, Karis's essay includes clear, even engaging, description of some music-theoretical points, as well as a fascinating account of violinist Paul Zukovsky's aggravated pressing of Feldman for clarification of some notational quirks in the piece.
Years ago, I would have complained that this disc it has only one track, and it's over an hour long. That's not really an issue now, what with scrubbing capability on our listening devices. Still if I want to listen to the CD in my car, I can't do that. My CD player won't scan forward or back, so I always have to listen to the work from the beginning. Come to think of it, that's not so bad in this case.
Bohuslav Martinů: Early Orchestral Works, Volume Three
Sinfonia Varsovia, Ian Hobson
Toccata Classics TOCC 0414
Release date: January 19, 2018
It's tempting to think of Bohuslav Martinů as a latter-day Mozart. Like Mozart, he was super prolific, and his musical trademarks brand everything he wrote, even if the nature of those marks seems elusive at times. I realize I'm sticking my neck out in making a sweeping claim like "brand all of them," because I've only heard the tip of the nearly-400-work iceberg that is the Martinů catalog. But, perhaps concerned for my safety (or at least my reputation), Toccata Classics, is seeing to it that my neck isn't stuck so far out anymore: they've issued a third volume of Martinů's early orchestral works (available here), and I find it the most exciting one yet.
This latest installment includes the Ballade after Böcklin's picture: Villa by the Sea (c. 1915) from an otherwise lost set of pieces, and Dream of the Past (1920), a movement from a planned orchestral cycle which likely was never completed. The rather dark Ballade offers a feint in the direction of a piano concerto; the similarly melancholy Dream distinguishes itself as the only work on the disc that has been previously recorded. But the biggest treat is the three-movement tone-poem-cum-symphony, Vanishing Midnight, completed in 1922.
Biggest, indeed: there's over 45 minutes of terrific music in this work, but that fact alone doesn't begin to convey how much labor—in mastery of individual parts and in ensemble rehearsal—it must have taken to prepare what must be a tremendously difficult score. Ian Hobson and Sinfonia Varsovia bring it off brilliantly, however, as they have on the previous two discs in the series (available here and here).
If you know the Martinů symphonies, you'll hear plenty of recognizable gestures in Vanishing Midnight, and you'll hear melodies that you'd swear you've heard in those and other works from the mature composer. The work's three movements have titles that grow out of a discursive piece of prose that Martinů provided for the work's 1923 premiere (which was actually just a premiere of the middle movement): "Satyrs in the Grove of Cypresses," "The Blue Hour," and "Shadows."
In the booklet that accompanies the disc, Martinů scholar Michael Crump provides a translation of the composer's rambling paragraph: "...I caught the distant sound of their celebrations amid the woods in the pale light of the moon. Their time had come, fate had found its fulfillment. And today the leaves are already starting to fall...." The composer doesn't seem to be talking about something so much as talking around it, and, to my ear, the circuitousness of the description relates to the interrelatedness of the three movements: they sound more like three ways of looking at one thing rather than three separate musical treatments of the paragraph's successive sections.
It's immature Martinů—so, what? Listening to Vanishing Midnight's thick textures provides some insight into the mature, more spare orchestration of the unique passages of the slow movement of the fifth symphony or the quirky, complicated work of the opening of the Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, which the Dallas Symphony recently performed (read the review here). Honestly, I'm not sure Martinů was ever a "mature" composer. To hear his biographers tell it, he didn't linger much over a work after he had drawn the final double bar. He wasn't even wild about proofreading his own scores.
It may be that our romanticized model of the artist who develops along some ascending trajectory that culminates in Olympian late works is contrived, oversimplified and misleading. Composers may get progressively better at expressing their ideas, and from one stage to the next, their ideas may exhibit something that we could call growth. But skills, abilities, "talent"—these qualities rarely pursue a course we can describe as perpetual ascent. I think these recordings of early orchestral Martinů prove that. Sure, the textures in the symphonies are leaner, the lines more athletic and self-assured, but Vanishing Midnight proceeds with no less confidence, and certainly no less clarity than those later works do. For anyone who admires Martinů's symphonies, concertos and chamber music as much as I do, this recording is an absolute joy.
» 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 appears 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
- April 2017: Releases from pianist/composer Marc-André Hamelin
- May 2017: Jaap van Zweden with the Hong Kong Philharmonic; and the DVD release of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach
- June 2017: Houston Symphony's March release of works by Dvořák; the Fort Worth Symphony's 2016 recording with pianist Vadym Kholodenko on Prokofiev's Concerto Nos. 2 and 5; and two 2015 recordings of pianist Alessandro Deljavan on works by Chopin
- July 2017: A 2015 recording from Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal featuring a piece by composer Sam Moussa, which the Dallas Symphony will perform in September; the second volume of Alexandre Tansman piano music played by Danny Zelibor; and the much-talked about The Lost Songs of St. Kilda.
- August 2017: Cliburn Gold Medalist Yekwon Sunwoo; pianist Marc-André Hamelin performing Feldman's For Bunita Marcus; and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra on Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.
- September 2017: A release by local outfit Ensemble75; a 2015 release of early music called Love & Lust; and a new recording by the North Texas Wind Ensemble of the University of North Texas in Denton.
- October 2017: A recording of Liszt songs featuring Jared Schwartz, bass, and Mary Dibbern, piano; harp music by Emily Levin of the Dallas Symphony; and a Finnish recording of works by Sibelius, featuring conductor Hannu Lintu
- November 2017: A DVD recording of Mark Adamo's Becoming Santa Claus at the Dallas Opera in 2015; Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's It's a Wonderful Life at Houston Grand Opera in 2016; and the 2016 performance of Du Yun's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angel's Bone.
- December 2017: A Lithuanian recording of Verdi's Rigoletto featuring the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Nadine Sierra; a stellar recording of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring; and pianist Peter Froundjian's Christmas Piano Music.
- January 2018: A themed album from pianist Emanuele Arciuli; recordings of Haydn works for the baryton, and the early orchestral works of Bohuslav Martinů