YouTube, without which …

Two items that are pretty tough to refute:

1. YouTube, unfortunately, is biting off a bigger chunk of what is left of the classical music industry with each passing year.

2. There’s a solid reason for that. For free, you get to see some truly great stuff otherwise unavailable.

So, every once in a while, I intend to pass along various live performance gems (some of them rarely viewed) that I’ve come across and can highly recommend. Here are four:

1. Mahler: Symphony No. 10/Michael Gielen/Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg

This still occasionally maligned score is being performed more and more these days, as conductors are finally taking on board its crucial importance in understanding one of the world’s most popular composers. Yes, Mahler would undoubtedly have done a considerable amount of expanding upon and filling in of the three movements he did not have the chance to complete. But I feel that some conductors’ decision to consign Deryck Cooke’s masterly “performing version” of the 10th  to rarity or “I won’t perform it” status – as Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti did – must today be regarded as ridiculous. The symphony’s basic identity seems crystal clear.

To me, the work’s greatest importance is showing where Mahler was – and was not – going at the time of his death in 1911. Yes, the opening Adagio is probably the most “progressive” movement he ever penned, but the next three are pretty darned familiar sounding – more installments in the “twisted laendler” and “grotesque scherzo” vein, which I believe Mahler had thoroughly exhausted by 1911 (and perhaps earlier). The 24-minute Finale, however, is something remarkable – not new, mind you, but remarkable. It is unquestionably one of Mahler’s greatest slow movements, quite as expressive as its stellar counterpart in the Ninth Symphony. Bernstein’s and Solti’s belief that the world would be better off not hearing this music is a stain on their posthumous reputations, in my view.   

What I’ve gleaned from the 10th over the years is that Mahler was soldiering on down his unique path – and would have evolved further in only a slow and gradual fashion. One of music’s most fascinating unanswered questions, of course, is how he would have reacted to the imminent ascension of such iconoclastic and brilliant composers as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Berg, Bartok, Hindemith, et. al., had he lived only a decade or so longer. Great as he was, I suspect that Mahler would have been profoundly disturbed by the appearance of a whole new generation who had no use for his sentimental postromanticism. Still, to be fair to him, we should hear the 10th performed as regularly as any of the others in his symphonic canon; it’s a work not to be missed.

This superb performance is led by one of Europe’s greatest conductors, Michael Gielen, who remains sadly little known in the United States, remembered mainly for his seven years as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony. For many decades, he has been a leading advocate for contemporary music and the core 20th century repertoire. Here he leads the excellent Southwest German Radio Symphony in a sensitive and committed performance of the Mahler. No dancing a la Lenny, no shaking of the curly locks a la Dudamel. Just the music. Thank you, Maestro Gielen.

2. Richard Strauss: “An Alpine Symphony” — finale/Bernard Haitink/Concertgebouw Orchestra

One could say that YouTube has been very kind to Strauss. While I am a fan of his music, there are a number of works where episodes do suffice to illustrate the overall artistic worth; you don’t necessarily have to listen to the whole thing. “An Alpine Symphony” is one such piece; the first half of it is spotty, the second half highly worthwhile. Thanks to YouTube’s liberation of excerpted material, we get to listen to the last 11 minutes of this work separately; it is one of Strauss’ longest-sustained flights of pure lyricism and one treasured by practically everyone to whom his music speaks.

Not only is this music extraordinarily beautiful, “Alpine” is possibly the ultimate example of his total mastery of scoring for the vast orchestras that briefly held sway in the early 20th century. Yes, those are nine French horns you see, five clarinets and overloaded complements of just about every other instrument. And they make a gorgeous sound; can there be any argument? Just sit back and enjoy this authentic slice of musical history. Strauss’ huge forces are deployed with care, subtlety and poetry.

The conductor is Bernard Haitink, 83 as of this writing and one of the key figures in European music making since the 1960s. He has always been an outstanding Strauss conductor and the clip illustrates that enthusiasm in his characteristically dignified and understated way. It’s also quite wonderful to see how many women are in the Concertgebouw’s ranks these days.       

3. Richard Strauss: Transformation Scene from “Daphne”/ Ricarda Merbeth, soprano/Semyon Bychkov/Vienna State Opera

There have only been two DVDs made of “Daphne,” which remains one of Strauss’ least known operas. This is the last 11 minutes of a Vienna performance video that is apparently not obtainable in the U.S. In it, the mythological wood nymph Daphne sings a series of faltering, then accepting lines as she is slowly transformed into a laurel tree by Zeus at the request of Apollo, ridden with guilt after slaying Daphne’s friend Leukippos. This section is extraordinary enough; it is then followed by an orchestral interlude of extreme beauty and pathos. At the end, Daphne’s wordless voice is heard singing through the branches, her union with nature made complete. 

This dramatically static section invariably poses a stiff challenge for opera directors, and the solution here leaves much to be desired. German soprano Ricarda Merbeth, a Vienna stalwart in recent years, sings wonderfully. Unfortunately, she is daubed with unflattering makeup and a ratty-looking wig and gown that faintly suggest the Norma Desmond character from “Sunset Boulevard.” So, as ever in such cases, we learn to ignore the visuals and focus on the music. No problem, as this is some of the most outstanding written by Strauss in his long career. The sound, conducting and playing are excellent.

If the music stirs you, you’re likely to have the same reaction to this opera’s second most memorable excerpt, the stunning extended aria “Unheilvolle Daphne,” sung here (with one ill-advised cut) by the great Hilde Gueden at the 1964 Salzburg Festival (an audio-only clip) –

Over the years there have been some quite rare performances and recordings of “Unheilvolle Daphne” and the Transformation Scene packaged together as the Final Scene from “Daphne.” The two add up to around 20 minutes of Strauss at his very best – every bit as sublime and rewarding as the “Four Last Songs.”

Symphony conductors! What’s up with this?? Why do you never program this music???

4. Mahler: Kindertotenlieder (In Diesem Wetter)/Jesus Suaste, baritone/Kenneth Woods/State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra

It’s been said many times that music is the universal language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clip that portrays this more movingly than this rendition of the last of the five “Kindertotenlieder” – a piece that rarely leaves a dry eye anywhere it is heard throughout the world, dealing as it does with the death of children in a storm. “ … They are resting, as if in their mother’s house, not frightened by any tempest, sheltered by God’s hand.”

For me, this one is less about the performance – which is outstanding indeed – than about the people making the music. It was filmed at a concert in Toluca, Mexico, with an American conductor, Kenneth Woods, a fine regional orchestra, and a superb Mexican baritone, Jesus Suaste, about whom I’ve been able to turn up little information.

The combination of the heart-rending music, Suaste’s intense performance, and the wonderful faces of the multiethnic Mexican orchestra members make this a very special piece of video.


Santa Monica Pilgrimage

Messiaen, Dutilleux and Gubaidulina – all on the same program! Hard to pass up. So I pointed the old white Mazda up the 5, the 73, the 405 and the 10 to Santa Monica Saturday night for my first experience with the wonderful Jacaranda concert series at the First Presbyterian Church.

The first half was comprised of three Messiaen organ works – the second and fifth movements of Meditations sur le mystere du Sainte Trinite and the concluding “Dieu parmi nous” from La Nativete du Seigneur. I’ve been listening to Messiaen for 35 years or so, my knowledge of his organ output confined to recordings of La Nativete, L’Ascension and Livre du Saint Sacrement. Though I’ve always had mixed feelings about him as a composer, I looked forward to an overdue first live helping of the organ music – one of the most striking slices of his oeuvre.

The soloist, Jacaranda co-founder Mark Alan Hilt, did not disappoint. He played brilliantly, displaying a fine feel for Messiaen’s singular sonic universe and infusing as much dynamics as the music allows. The organ pipes at First Pres are spread across an unusually wide physical space, an ideal setup for exploring the possibilities of stereo spatiality in the music. Hilt had clearly spent much time on the registrations and it paid off for the audience, providing a maximum palette for Messiaen’s color-inspired effusions and his obsessional expropriation of birdsong. A stunning performance.

Yet, for all the rapturous descriptions written over the years of this composer’s “multi-hued sound world,” “innovative rhythmic structures,” devotional characteristics placing his organ works “halfway between heaven and earth,” and the like, I was left somewhat cold. Messiaen is incontestably one of the most original figures of modern music. In both his organ and orchestral music, however, the same devices are heard over and over – the extraterrestrial-but-faintly-saccharine-sounding harmonies, the all-the-subtlety-of-a-sledgehammer “elbow” chords, the delightful birdsong (whose relevance to the compositional whole I sometimes wonder about), the computer-like dynamics and – most annoyingly for me, his predilection for resolving highly complex harmonic movement into bone-simple triads. Messiaen gave the world something unique, without question. But I feel that his style of writing is so hyper-organized and, at times, grandiose, that it often precludes any sense of spontaneity and ambiguity, qualities that count for a lot with me in musical expression.

A stark comparison was afforded by Hilt’s magical second-half performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s only solo organ work, Light and Darkness, a 1976 piece of about eight minutes. I’m still gathering my impressions of the 80-year-old composer from the Tatar Republic, but Light and Darkness struck me as clearly outdistancing the Messiaen works in terms of expression – in a fraction of the duration. Recordings have shown Gubaidulina’s virtuosity in ensemble writing to be on a lofty level; this gift was transferred here to a single instrument in such a way as to convincingly suggest more than one player without needing to lean unduly on the organ’s considerable multitimbral capacity. I would have to hear Light and Darkness again to give a detailed description of the music. It was mysterious, spare, devoid of rhetoric – and utterly spellbinding. Above all, the piece left the impression of a consummate artist working by intuition, both refined and raw, wherever it may lead — rather than a system.

Equally breathtaking was Henri Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, a solo cello piece masterfully played by Timothy Loo. Dutilleux, now 96, remains little known to the American public, but I consider him in the very top rank of living composers. An unmatched craftsman of both sound and architecture, his relatively modest output includes two superb symphonies, several concertos, a number of standalone orchestral works, a solo piano catalogue and a string quartet. Trois Strophes is of the same high quality, managing to be both deeply thoughtful and a display piece in the best possible way. Dutilleux deploys all the standard articulations – from arco to pizzicato, harmonics, tremolo sul ponticello, strumming and plucking open strings while playing a figure on others – so seamlessly and in such an organic-sounding fashion that the listener can almost accept the notion of this four-stringed instrument as an orchestra unto itself. Yet the poetic element is never absent; Dutilleux has always had a lot of technique in his quiver but it is invariably placed in the service of the music. I can only surmise that the fabulously talented Loo had a ball learning and playing this piece. It’s a cellist’s dream.

The evening ended with something of a head scratcher: Gubaidulina’s intermittently raucous Risonanza, scored for these curious forces – organ, three trumpets, four trombones and six strings. The piece begins with an ear-piercing shriek from a piccolo trumpet and proceeds on a journey dominated by the brass, with the organ often providing a suffusing sonic underpinning. Risonanza has a consciously avant-garde flavor to it, though Gubaidulina provides plenty of substance along the way. On first listening, I had trouble discerning the arc of the piece. The thought “What was the point of that?” took hold after the concert, but I would certainly give Risonanza another listen. It is clearly a piece of virtuosic writing making virtuosic demands on the brass players, who acquitted themselves marvelously.

I left kicking myself for not having learned about the Jacaranda series earlier. The stellar musicianship and interesting, penetrating repertoire are to be treasured. I’ll be back.

— April 23, 2012