The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Music critics of The New York Times name their favorite recordings — historical and current — of Richard Wagner to celebrate this year’s bicentennial of the famous opera composer’s birth. What are your favorite Wagner works and recordings?

August 27, 2013
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This year is the bicentennial of the birth of composer Richard Wagner.

Just about everything about Richard Wagner (below) is epic and titanic, dramatic and revolutionary.

Little wonder, then, that he is known especially for “The Ring of the Nibelung,” that 16–hour, four-opera mythological cycle that challenges the most resourceful singers, actors, stage directors, orchestras, conductors and opera companies. It took many complications and until the 1960s for conductor Sir Georg Solti to make the first complete recording of “The Ring” for Decca — and it still holds up to the best complete recordings since then.

Richard Wagner

Stop and think and consider this: In the time it usually takes to hear “The Ring” you could listen to all the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, or all his string quartets and most of his piano trios.

True, some of Wagner’s vocal music is quite stirring and enthralling.

But only some of it — at least to my ears.

I share some of the sentiments of his detractors, who included some pretty good artists and discriminating musicians.

Take the composer Gioachino Rossini, who quipped “Wagner’s music has great moments but dull quarter hours.”

The American writer and humorist Mark Twain observed that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

The comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen remarked: “Every time I listen Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”

If you like those, here is a link to some more quips about Wagner, including some by French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire and French composer Claude Debussy:

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Richard_Wagner

I am probably a dissenter, but I think Wagner generally wrote better for instruments than he did for the voice. At least I generally find his orchestral music tighter and more enjoyable to listen to.

Indeed, I would like to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra do one of the various versions of “The Ring Without Words,” perhaps the orchestral anthology of highlights from “The Ring” and other operas that famed conductor George Szell (below) arranged and conducted with the Cleveland Orchestra (in a YouTube video at the bottom).

George Szell wide BW

I love the overtures and preludes, and I don’t think they get programmed often enough these days. Same for the charming “Siegfried Idyll.”

I remember an old vinyl LP recording with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. How I loved, and found endlessly thrilling the Overture to “Tannhauser,” the “Prelude and Liebestod” to “Tristan und Isolde,” the Overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” preludes from “Lohengrin,” and the magically static and haunting Prelude to “Parsifal.” They are terrific curtain-raisers.

So I was happy to see orchestral recordings by Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer included on the list in The New York Times.

I also love “best moment” anthologies so it is also good to see choices like the new recording by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann – a great choice since Kaufmann (below) seems a perfect Wagner singer who has a huge but subtle voice, stamina and the handsome good looks for the parts.

Kaufmann Wagner CD

Anyway, here is a link to the Wagner discography in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/arts/music/critics-name-their-favorite-wagner-recordings.html?pagewanted=all

What is your favorite Wagner recording? What piece and what performer?

And do you favor his vocal or instrumental music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Why is Brahms’ “German” Requiem so great? Ask the American poet Emily Dickinson.

December 10, 2012
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Great musical works, like great poems, get analyzed and  eventually overanalyzed. Yet they still stand and endure and continue to speak to us and to move us and make us think. That is why they are masterpieces.

So just maybe we can use one masterpiece to discuss another – counterparts in beauty, as it were, or “correspondences” to use French poet Charles Baudelaire’s term. After all, poets and musicians seem to have a lot in common.

Let me be specific. I have in mind the “German” Requiem, Op. 45, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897, below).

Johannes_Brahms

I could talk about the two outstanding performances of the 75-minute “German” Requiem that I heard this past weekend. I could mention how robustly and, at the same time,  subtly the University of Wisconsin  Symphony Orchestra played under conductor Beverly Taylor (below left).

Beverly Taylor and Choral Union and UW Symphony Brahms German 12-7-12

I could praise how the choral parts, as performed by the campus and community UW Choral Union (below top), brought so many degrees of shading and dynamics to convey the mood and meaning of the text. I could single out how the undergraduate soloists, baritone Benjamin Li (below middle) and soprano Olivia Pogodzinski (below bottom), stood out for their full, strong voices.

Choral Union Brahms 2012

Benjamin Li, baritone Brahms German 12-7-12

Olivia Pogodzinski soprano Choral Union Brahms 12-7-12

But something deeper and more elusive haunts one about this music. And if it didn’t, would I perceive the music as so great?

We have a long history together, the Brahms “German” Requiem and me.

I first sang it when I was 14 or 15.

Since then it has remained for is one of the greatest pieces of music. I see it as the greatest choral work ever in part because it is more a secular humanist work rather than a religious one, and because the Scriptural texts seem so universal. Plus, the work feels so perfect in how carefully it is composed and written, for both voices and instruments. It feels so spontaneous and heart-felt, yet it is also so crafted and well thought-out. It is a perfect blending of the heart-felt and the analytical, the personal and the objective.

For a long time I have played the “German” Requiem to privately mourn the deaths of family members, friends and even the sadness of world events. This year too it once again holds special meaning for me. (And for others too, since these performances were dedicated to UW Professor Emeritus David Schrieber, who sang with the UW Choral Union for more than 40 years and recently died.)

But what words could really do justice to this great work with its sweeping melodies; its alternating drama and lyricism; its mix of Classicism and Romanticism; with its using  counterpoint and fugues both to offset and to enhance its soaring melodic lines and rich harmonies? (At bottom is Movement 6 with baritone soloist Dietrich Fischer Dieskau.)

I wondered.

Then I found the right words – not from me but from a great artist who lived closer in time to Brahms and who seems to share his sensibility and whose work even follows the same as the “German” Requiem.

The words come from one of those short and sometimes cryptic, but deeply moving poems by the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886, below, in a daguerreotype photograph from 1846) –- and it is absolutely worthy of Johannes Brahms and his “German” Requiem:

emily dickinson BW photo daguerrotype 1846

AFTER GREAT PAIN, A FORMAL FEELING COMES

By Emily Dickinson

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

As Brahms’ text , drawn from  “Revelations,” says in the last movement: “Their works live on after them.”

Do you also think the poem captures some or even much of the Brahms?

Do other poems or passages of literature come to mind when you think of the Brahms?

And what did you think of the performances this past weekend?

The Ear wants to hear.


    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,196 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,066,589 hits
%d bloggers like this: