Das Lied von der Erde at SF Symphony

Last Sunday afternoon, Dave and I went to Davies Hall to hear MTT conducting the San Francisco Symphony in a terrific performance of Gustav Mahler’s melancholy Das Lied von der Erde. It’s not a work I know well at all; I’ve heard it in concert only once before, and I don’t recall ever listening to it much on recordings.

I enjoyed the performance a lot. The work is a series of songs for alto and tenor (according to Mahler’s score, a baritone can sing the alto part an octave lower, but he apparently thought it would be too unseemly for a soprano to sing the rowdier tenor part, which contains songs praising wine and drunkenness, an octave higher).

I’m a words person more than a music person, and so as much of my pleasure was in the texts as it was in the music. The poems are German translations (very loosely) of a number of Chinese poems. Mahler himself made some changes to the German poems to make the words fit better with the music he wanted to write, and then the German poems themselves were not translated directly from the Chinese but from a French translation of the Chinese. Dave sent me the link to a website that has all four versions of the poems: Chinese originals, French translations, German translations of the French, and Mahler’s versions. Looks fascinating, and I hope to get into it as I have time.

The performance was very good. The orchestra was huge — they had more musicians crowded onto the stage than I remember ever seeing before. The music was clear and vivid and eloquently conducted. The singers were good; the tenor Simon O’Neill especially. The vocal parts can’t be easy: The work would seem to call for more of a Lieder style of singing, where communicating the poetry with nuance and detail is as important as singing beautifully; yet the way Mahler wrote the music, the singer is sometimes accompanied by the whole orchestra playing loudly, and in that kind of situation it’s difficult for the singer to do much more than just be heard at all. Mr. O’Neill, I thought, handled it well, making a good loud sound when needed and giving attention to the subtleties in the poetry when he could. The mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke, has a lovely, strong sound, but even when the orchestra was hushed and she could be clearly heard, one couldn’t really tell what words she was singing. Many of her vowels sounded a lot more Italian than German, at least to my ear, and many of her consonants were inaudible. Oh well. There are certainly music lovers who prefer it that way.

Dave tells me that Das Lied was written after Mahler had learned about his wife’s affair with the architect Walter Gropius; he was shattered by it (though, really, Dave has showed me a few of Mahler’s letters to his wife, and they are so patronizing and controlling of her — in one, he explains why it’s bad for her character to be reading the plays of Ibsen, and recommends to her that she stop! — that it’s not hard to see why she might have been feeling increasingly claustrophic in her marriage to him and inclined to rebel sometimes). And then it was another blow for him to lose one of his young daughters to scarlet fever, and yet another to learn that he himself had a heart condition that required him to give up everything strenuous, and which might cause him to die relatively young anyway (and it did, just a few years later at the age of fifty, after a month of hard work conducting and touring with the New York Philharmonic). So Dave says that Das Lied was Mahler’s farewell to his wife, to his daughter, and to life itself.

So now I’ve got a 1960 recording conducted by Bruno Walter, which Dave recommended, on my smartphone, and I’m listening to it and getting to know it better.

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Two Instrumental Limericks

I.

A rakish violist named Vinocour
Once went for a spin in a spinnaker.
  He sailed to Tahiti
  In search of a sweetie
With whom he could make lots of sin occur.

II.

That powerful trumpeter Inouye
Once put a whole bottle of gin away,
  Took a man into bed
  And then tried to give head —
But he just about blew the guy’s skin away.

© David Scott Marley

Hearne, Barber, and Tchaikovsky at SF Symphony

Last Friday Dave and I went to Davies Symphony Hall to hear the San Francisco Symphony play a new work by Ted Hearne called Dispatches, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 6, Pathétique. A young composer named Christian Reif conducted the Hearne piece, and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the other two.

Dispatches is scored for a large orchestra including lots of unusual percussion (including various kinds of drums and cymbals, glockenspiel, ratchet, Thai gongs, marimba, xylophone, wood blocks, and — according to the program — a “set of kitchen knives”) as well as electric guitar and electric bass. The music was full of interesting and unexpected sound combinations, but I found it hard to detect much structure running through it. I’m sure it was there, but it seemed to me to be obscured rather than made clearer by the controlled chaos of the orchestration. It was rather like listening to a kid with a brand new box of 64 musical crayons who was determined to use all of them in one picture.

Knoxville was beautifully played and sung. The soprano, Susanna Phillips, has a beautiful, rich voice, but she could have been singing in Hawaiian for all the consonants I could make out, and while the text (words by James Agee) was printed in the program, the house lights were brought down nearly all the way so that it wasn’t possible to follow along. You could appreciate the wonderful music during the performance, and then appreciate the wonderful text afterward during intermission, but you couldn’t appreciate both together at the same time. So that was a shame. Still, beautifully played and sung.

The program ended with a terrific performance of the Pathétique. It’s a very familiar work, but MTT nevertheless found some ear-opening new aspects to bring out. He played down the romantic side of it; I don’t think I’ve ever heard the first movement played so bleakly, so that even the Big Theme sounded like something out of Sibelius. I have heard the big march in the third movement played as sincerely triumphant, as ironic, as desperate, but I think this was the first time I’ve heard it sound angry and rigidly defiant.

The Golden Apple

Two weeks ago I received my long-awaited copy of a full-length recording of Lyric Stage’s production last year of The Golden Apple. And not long-awaited merely in the sense of my having wanted it since hearing last fall that it was coming, but long-awaited in the sense of my having craved a full-length recording ever since first learning about the show some thirty-odd years ago, back in my college days.

This is the first complete recording of the greatest musical you’ve probably never heard of. It was a big hit off Broadway in 1954, then moved to Broadway and bombed, probably due to very poor promotion as much as anything. The show is fully sung, with no spoken dialogue, so the one-disc original cast album preserved less than half of the music and didn’t give much of a sense of the piece as a whole. The sound quality of the original cast album is also not all that good.

But not long after coming across a used copy of the LP in the late 1970s, I also found a used copy of the libretto (which Random House had published) and I quickly got to love the show, or at least as much of it as I could get to know.

In the last decade I’ve also gotten copies of the piano-vocal score and a bootleg recording of mediocre quality of nearly the whole show (both gifts from Dave), and through those I had gotten something of a sense of what the entire score is like. (There was also a semi-staged production by 42nd Street Moon some years back that Dave and I went to two performances of; it was a welcome chance to hear the whole score, but with piano accompaniment only, and unfortunately the company didn’t seem to really understand the piece, either musically or dramatically.)

It is insane that such a great musical has had to wait sixty years for a complete recording of good quality. This last couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling grateful to have lived long enough to listen to it.

Despite being so little known, The Golden Apple seems to me to be one of the most influential musicals ever. You know the often-used (and much overused by now) device of writing the score to a musical as a pastiche of one or more distinctive popular styles that are in some way related to the period and/or setting of the story? Like the way Bernstein wove a series of pastiches of national musical styles into Candide to reflect Candide’s travels around the world? Like the way Sondheim wove a series of pastiches of bygone popular song styles into Follies? Like the way Kander and Ebb wove a series of pastiches of Kurt Weill-esque numbers into Cabaret? The Golden Apple did that first, and brilliantly.

The recording is taken from live performance, rather than being recorded in a studio, so it isn’t always completely polished. However, the performers are terrific (the chorus is a little sketchy here and there) and they get it: they get the show, get their characters, get the words that they are singing. The orchestra sounds wonderful. The musical direction is intelligent and sympathetic, and the orchestra sounds very good.

The Golden Apple is a retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey in the style of American folklore and folk humor, as though the story took place in a small agricultural town in Washington state in the early 1900s. Helen is a farmer’s daughter, and Paris is a traveling salesman from the big city on the other side of the mountains. Minerva, Juno, and Aphrodite become the town’s most important and socially influential women — respectively the town librarian, wife of the town’s mayor, and wife of a general. Ulysses is a captain in the army, just back from the Spanish-American War. When Helen runs off with Paris, Ulysses leads his men to the big city to bring her back, and gets caught up in a series of big-city snares — Madame Calypso is a leader of society, Scylla and Charybis are tycoons manipulating the stock market, and so on.

Most of the score is written with the flavor of American folk music (Moross was part of Copland’s circle, and his music has a similar feel to Copland’s — later, Moross would go to Hollywood and basically define for us all what Hollywood Western film music sounds like), but Ulysses’s mishaps in the big city are written as a series of vaudeville turns (in some cases based on actual vaudeville numbers, just as in Kander and Ebb’s score for Chicago, though as with Chicago, we are now so far from vaudeville that I’m sure not one person in a thousand nowadays gets any of the specific references). So there’s a sharp contrast in the second act, where suddenly the music sounds like you’ve slipped into a different show.

I don’t know of any earlier musical that contained anything like this vaudeville sequence. And if it wasn’t a direct inspiration for the pastiche numbers in Candide (Latouche was the original lyricist for Candide, by the way) and the Loveland sequence in Follies, I will eat my laptop.

After several listenings, I don’t think most of the performances on the new recording have quite the richness of those on the original cast recording. But they are very good all the same, and imbued with a deep understanding of who the characters are and what they want. A lot of care was taken, both by the singers and the musical director, to make sure the words were clear and meaningful. The quality of the recording is so much better than that of the original cast recording that I am hearing all sorts of details in the music that I hadn’t noticed before.

Dave (whose knowledge of recording history is vast) has pointed out to me that the poor quality of the original cast recording was probably a matter of unlucky timing. The show was probably recorded shortly after its Broadway opening on April 20, 1954. (Recording the show soon after opening was and still is the usual practice. Curiously, the liner notes don’t give recording dates, though they do list two different conductors, which may mean the show was recorded in two or more sessions. In any case, it can’t have been recorded during the off-Broadway run, because the recording includes Charlotte Rae, who wasn’t in the show until it moved to Broadway.)

The show, however, had the bad luck to be recorded by RCA, which was not focusing much attention on musicals at that point. If it had been recorded by Columbia, where Goddard Lieberson was a strong advocate for recording musicals, it probably would have gotten better treatment. But RCA was focused on classical music, and in fact in mid-March 1954 had begun experimenting with stereo. During the next few months, RCA recorded among other things Toscanini’s final two concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, concerts by Reiner with the Chicago Symphony and by Munch with the Boston Symphony, and a studio performance of the Franck Symphony by Cantelli with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Dave suspects, then, that RCA’s best sound engineers would have been working on the experimental stereo recordings during that period, and that RCA would have assigned a second-rank recording team to The Golden Apple.

More ASMF at Davies

Dave and I went back to Davies last night for the second of two concerts with Jeremy Denk and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. All in all, I felt it was a more consistently enjoyable concert than the night before, though nothing in it pleased me quite as much as the Suk Serenade had. The program featured another two keyboard concertos by J.S. Bach, this time flanked by two works for strings by Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra opened the first half, followed by Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1. The second half began with Bach’s relatively brief Keyboard Concerto No. 5, followed by Stravinsky’s ballet Apollon Musagète. The keyboard concertos were a lot of fun; the problems of balance between piano and orchestra from the night before were gone, and Mr. Denk and the string players all seemed to be listening to each other and playing off each other in a way they hadn’t the night before. The Stravinsky works are not among my favorite ones, but both got bright, rich performances. Good stuff.

The Academy of St. Martin Playing Suk, Bach, and Dvořák at Davies

Last night Dave and I heard Jeremy Denk and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields playing Josef Suk’s Serenade for Strings, two J.S. Bach keyboard concertos, and Antonín Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings.

The best came first: Suk’s Serenade was just drop-dead stunning, beautifully nuanced, lovely rich tone from all the string sections, played with all kinds of care and attention to detail.

Bach’s Keyboard Concerto no. 2 was a lot less wonderful. The orchestra sounded great, and Mr. Denk sounded great when he was playing alone, but whenever they were playing together, things got muddy. Mr. Denk played with a lot of rhythmic freedom in contrast to the orchestra, which played in strict tempo; this might give a appealingly jazzy, improvisational feel to the music if it were played on a harpsichord and/or played in a smaller, less reverberant hall, but on a grand piano in the huge space that is Davies Hall, it more often just sounded blurred. Dave hypothesized that perhaps they hadn’t been able to rehearse much in the hall beforehand because of the chamber music concert that afternoon, so hadn’t had a chance to adjust to the acoustics of the hall.

After intermission, the Keyboard Concerto no. 4 was much better. Mr. Denk played with a bit less rubato, and the orchestra dropped down to a whisper of a pianissimo whenever the piano was playing over them, and the result was much clearer. Still not the dry sound of Bach that I’m used to, and it lacked a sense of conversation going on between the soloist and orchestra that I tend to expect in Bach, but it was enjoyable enough.

With Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings, though, we were back to wonderfulness again, with all the same beauty and care that had made the Suk so glorious. I do hope they get around to recording these pieces, if they haven’t already — particularly the Suk, as it’s not done very often.

As an encore, the Academy performed a lively piece that sounded like it must be by Percy Grainger, but we’re not sure what it was.

Later: Dave finally figured out what the encore was: the last movement of Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite.