Sunday, August 25, 2013

EC PC: Lateiner v. Oppens

Over the past week, two of my most knowledgeable correspondents have written stating their preference for the premiere recording of Elliott Carter's Piano Concerto — Jacob Lateiner, soloist, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf — over all subsequent versions. They were so articulate, and so sure of themselves, that I began to doubt my own judgment in favor of Ursula Oppens’ recording with Michael Gielen and the Cincinnati Symphony. So this afternoon, while nursing my usual headache after the Saturday end to my work week, I went back and listened to both recordings, back to back.

I can see the attraction for Lateiner. My friends were right about the sensitivity and comparative luxuriance of his playing, as reflected in the longer track times. (The difference in the total timing between the two versions is three and a half minutes.) The approach yields many memorable and beautiful moments.

If forced to choose, however (and let’s be thankful we never are), I still have to go with Oppens/Gielen as my preferred version. Considered as a whole, the performance is stunning. “Gripping” was the word I used in my Amazon review, and I meant that almost literally: It grabs me from the first and doesn’t let go. I can’t sit still while listening to it. Oppens’ headlong rush has great cumulative power, as if she is becoming more desperate to escape the orchestra as the piece evolves. The Cincinnati Symphony, as an ensemble, gives the concerto a greater unity and direction than the BSO does, with a surer grasp of phrasing and dynamics and a great burst of fury at the end. It just sounds, well, better rehearsed.

I knew there was a reason I found the recording so compelling the first time I heard it. Now I remember.

Where my e-pals and I agree is that the concerto is one of the great works of the past century.

There are three other commercial recordings of the work, including a second with Oppens and Gielen, this time with the SWF Symphony. I’ll be getting back to them soon.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Another vote for Lateiner

Another of my correspondents also prefers the Lateiner/Leinsdorf recording of Carter's Piano Concerto to the competition. He writes:

I have to admit the Lateiner/Leinsdorf recording of Carter's Piano Concerto is still my favorite despite whatever momentary insecurities are audible in the orchestral playing. Compared to the extraordinarily sensitive Lateiner, Oppens strikes me as expressively blank, and Leinsdorf is an ideal partner for Lateiner's intensity and expressivity. (Oppens' clangorous technique doesn't exactly result in the most ravishing sounds, either.) And what a tour de force giving the premiere was: the Boston Symphony Orchestra had never performed a Carter piece before or virtually any other post-war music of comparable difficulty. It's thanks to Leinsdorf that they got through it all, let alone with the degree of comprehension that they did.

I have a similar reaction to the Rosen-Jacobs-Prausnitz recording of the Double Concerto, minus any reservations about the security of the ensemble playing. With the Kalish-Jacobs-Weisberg recording of the Double Concerto made a few years later, we enter the era of technically impeccable but expressively faceless performances of modernist repertory. Magnificently musical, Prausnitz and Rosen still had one foot in an older and more expressive performance tradition, like Carter's music itself.

I agree about Prausnitz, Rosen, and Jacobs, but I still disagree about Ursula Oppens. What my correspondent hears as clangorous, I hear as strength, a quality the soloist needs as she contends against the orchestra. And if it's an expressive, faceful rendering of the Piano Concerto you want, try Rosen/Smirnoff.

An all-Carter-Piano-Concerto weekend may be called for here.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Carter News

John G. writes:

I thought you might like to know that the first (LP) recording of the Carter Piano Concerto (Lateiner / Leinsdorf / BSO) was released last May by Sony, as part of a five disk set titled Prophets of the New. The set is already unavailable, but each of the disks can now be had, individually, from ArchivMusic. And the Carter CD is well worth having. It features the Prausnitz recordings (originally Columbia; 1968?) of the Variations for Orchestra and the Double Concerto, together with the inaugural Lateiner performance of the Piano Concerto (originally RCA). All three of these performances are worthwhile, but for my money it is the Piano Concerto that steals the show. As I remembered, this account is slower than all of the recorded competition, and it pays off. The Boston winds and solo strings are stunningly eloquent; the byplay among them and the piano is much more telling here than in any other recording. And Lateiner! He makes every note expressive, and the whole comes vividly, tremblingly to life (for me) as in no other performance to date, including the Rosen one. His account of the "poetic musing" of the opening phrases is just right, and sets the tone for what follows.

Have a listen. I'd be curious to know whether or not you agree with me.

If only some gifted pianist with a sufficiently high profile would champion this score, surely one of the greatest of the last century. Like so many of the Carter's orchestral pieces (even now), it is not performed remotely as often as it should be. Oh well.

I was not aware of this release, but I've had the original LPs for more than 30 years, and I ordered my copy of the CD immediately. I must say I've never shared John's admiration of the Lateiner/Leinsdorf/BSO recording of the Piano Concerto — I never really turned on to the piece until I heard Ursula Oppens' recording with Michael Gielen and the Cincinnati Symphony — but I promise to give it my full attention again once the CD arrives. The Columbia LP of the Variations and Double Concerto, with Prausnitz conducting, was the first Carter recording I ever owned, and it is still a favorite. There are no better recordings of either piece (and I love the photo of the composer on the cover). I urge any of you who have not heard them to grab the CD while you can.

In other news, I have just learned that Leon Botstein will conduct the American Symphony Orchestra in an all-Carter program at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, November 17. I am already counting the days. The program will include the early Pocahontas and the great Concerto for Orchestra. There is some question out here in blogsville over whether Botstein is up to the task. He's an ambitious, knowledgeable follow, but not an especially inspired interpreter. Still, it's the Concerto for Orchestra, for heaven's sake. John G. writes that he heard Botstein conduct the piece about ten years ago, and, in his words, it wasn't half bad.

That's recommendation enough.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Which bios d'ya read?

These days I’ve been breezing through Alan Pryce-Jones slim little study of Beethoven. The book repeats my favorite anecdote about the composer, which ends with his stunningly arrogant -- and accurate -- assertion of his own historical importance. I quote Pryce-Jones’ version in full (pp. 61-62):

In 1805, while Beethoven was staying at the Schloß Grätz with one of his earliest and kindest benefactors, Prince Lichnowsky, a French officer, among other French officers also staying at the house, was rash enough to ask Beethoven if he “also understood the violin.” This question so annoyed him that he flatly refused to play for the party, quarreled with the host, and left the house on foot, there and then, carrying the manuscript of the Appassionata sonata under his arm through heavy rain. On his arrival in Vienna he wrote to the Prince:

“What you are, you are through accident and birth. What I am, I am through my own efforts. There are princes and there will be thousands of princes more, but there is only one Beethoven.”

Yet, though this is only one example of his churlishness to Lichnowsky, their friendship was eventually restored. This particular piece of bad manners is sometimes excused by the picture of a patriot outraged by the presence of his conquerors; but since in the same year Beethoven played Gluck to a gathering of French generals who sang to his accompaniment, it does not seem a reasonable excuse

This account is contradicted on several points by Philippe A. Autexier, who also relates the incident in own slim (and beautifully illustrated) biography, Beethoven: The Composer as Hero. Again, I quote in full (p. 61):

One evening in October 1806, when Beethoven was staying at Prince Lichnowsky’s castle in Ostrava, his host promised his French guests the opportunity to hear Beethoven play piano. But Beethoven disappeared. He did not want to perform -- above all, not before officers in Napoleon’s army. The prince insisted. Beethoven became angry and fled the castle on foot, in the pouring rain. The next day, before returning to Vienna, he wrote Lichnowsky: “Prince! What you are, you are by chance and by birth. What I am, I am by myself. There have been, there will be, thousands of Princes. There is only one Beethoven.” Unhappily for Beethoven, however, there were few princes like Lichnowsky. The dispute that fall caused a total break. For the composer, it meant the loss of his 600 florins yearly and, most serious, of his most reliable friend, whose devotion never faltered in any circumstance.

The two versions agree on some particulars: Beethoven was staying with Prince Lichnowsky, there were French officers present, and it was raining. Everything else is open to question or interpretation: The year was 1805 or 1806. Beethoven’s departure was a patriotic act or a fit of pique over an unintended insult. The composer wrote his letter after his return to Vienna or just before, and the break it caused was either total or eventually repaired.

The letter is essentially the same in both instances, allowing for variations in translation, and for me, it has always been the best part of the story. There is only one Beethoven, and he is worth more than all the nobility combined. To say something so outrageous to a friend and a patron -- and to be right -- shows an awareness of one’s gifts and achievements few of us will ever experience, princes or not. Beethoven, whose personal and emotional life was a mess, must have felt a godlike sense of power and control while he was composing. He knew what he was, and what he was capable of.

Yet even the letter is doubtful. Wanting the original, definitive story --how naïve is that? -- I looked it up in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, your one-stop shop for all things Ludwig, and found yet another version (p. 403), which differs in detail from both Pryce-Jones and Autexier. In this one, quoted verbatim from a mere appendix in Seyfried’s Studien, the French officers (not the prince) pestered Beethoven to play, which he refused to do because he regarded it as “menial labor,” and he stormed out only when one of them, in jest, threatened to have him arrested.

Thayer relegates the letter to a footnote with the following comment: “Authentic or not, it may well have come from the lips of Beethoven in a fit of anger.” In this telling, the titan’s manifesto is reduced to something he might have said.

Moreover, according to the footnote, the earliest mention of the letter dates from the Aug. 31, 1873, edition of the Wiener Deutscher Zeitung, which printed the recollections of a grandson of Dr. Weiser, Prince Lichnowsky’s house physician. It is therefore a second-hand recollection, told nearly seventy years after the event. Nor does the letter itself appear in my copy of Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations.

Surely, something happened that October night in 1806 (the year is confirmed by Thayer and Seyfried), but that wonderful, Nietzschean assertion of the will to power, which for me had become something of a creative ideal, remains at best a conjecture. It seems biographies are never definitive. They are rarely ever stable. I should remember that when I read any new study of Ives.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Russian program

I’ve gotten behind on this site, mostly I’ve been reading a book I intend to mail away today as a birthday present. Most people get behind on their blogs at one time or another. It is the human condition.

I want to take time today to mention the all-Russian program the Philadelphia Orchestra played July 31 at the Mann Center. The young Ukrainian Kirill Karabits conducted, using only a few basic gestures, and the musicians delivered a wonderfully big sound for him. They seemed freer and more relaxed than they do under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. (Granted, the Russian music was livelier and more colorful than the Brahms and Bach I’ve seen Nézet-Séguin conduct, but to my ear, the music sounded unnecessarily stiff — chiseled in granite — with him on the podium. I’m not quite sold on him yet.)

Di Wu was the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. At age 28, she’s the real thing. Her playing was fluid and graceful, with a wonderfully light touch, especially in what I like to call the piano-bar sections. Rachmaninoff has never been one of my favorites, and the finale of the Variations is a cheesy, if successful, attempt to bring the audience to its feet, but the playing was gorgeous.

The concert started with a bright reading Rimsky-Korsakonv’s “Russian Easter Overture,” which is a favorite of mine. This is picture-postcard music, a sonic tour of the Motherland. You can just picture the troikas, the onion domes, Edward Snowden sitting at the airport ...

Of course, the highlight of the evening for me was the capper — a centenary performance of The Rite of Spring, the fastest thirty-five minutes in all of music. The performance was spot-on. I’m tempted to say it was maybe a little too pretty, too sensuous for the depiction of a primitive ritual, but that’s a quibble. The Rite is sturdy enough to bear it. The lovely, all-too-brief solos of associate concert master Juliette Kang deserve to be singled out, both in the Stravinsky and the Rimsky-Korsakov.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Another perspective

As I might have expected, my favorite blogger has the pithiest response to Daniel Asia's takedown piece on Elliott Carter. The rest of us felt we needed to be polite, reserved, scholarly. This gentleman has no such compunctions, and he's right. The only appropriate response to this kind of crticism is essentially two words. Bravo.