Sunday, December 21, 2008

It doesn't get more eloquent than Maureen Forrester singing Mahler's "Urlicht"


The great Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester sings "Urlicht" with Glenn Gould conducting (left-handed!), from a 1957 Gould CBC telecast.

"Urlicht" ("Primal Light")

O rosebud red!
Man lies in the greatest need.
Man lies in the greatest anguish.
Far rather would I be in heaven.

Then I came to a broad path.
Then a little angel came and wanted to send me away.
But no! I didn't let myself be sent away.

I am from God, I want to return to God.
Dear God will give me a little light,
will light me all the way to eternal blessed life.

-- text from the collection of German folk poetry
Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn")

by Ken

At some point we'll continue with Tchaikovsky, and come back to the comment left by our friend Balakirev in response to last week's music piece. I don't agree with much in it, except for the rather lengthy list of works by Tchaikovsky he gives a thumbs-up. The one thing that distresses me is that he so readily associates himself with the ranks of what I called "'serious' music critics," which leads me to believe that I wasn't sarcastic enough in dismissing such charlatans, whose "seriousness" resides only in their tiny brains. And yet here's someone proudly claiming membership in their ranks.

What distresses me is this evidence that I wasn't sarcastic enough. One charge I thought I would never have to face is being insufficiently sarcastic.

As I say, we can come back to Tchaikovsky. One point that might have arisen, which I thought might be interesting to talk about, is the way commentators' aesthetic dislikes may be less interesting than their likes, if they can make a useful case. Tchaikovsky himself, for example, wasn't the greatest fan of Beethoven, especially the later Beethoven, and that really doesn't tell us much, except about Tchaikovsky's own musical makeup.

Glenn Gould's eloquent case for early Beethoven

Which sent me back to thinking about the late Glenn Gould (1932-1982), the eccentric (to put it mildly) Canadian pianist, who had something close to unmitigated contempt for later Beethoven. Unlike most of us, who see the composer's artistic development as a process of unparalleled broadening and deepening, Gould thought Beethoven became ponderous, pompous, and tedious -- generally unbearable.

Again, this doesn't tell us nearly as much about Beethoven as it does about Gould, but that's still much less interesting than the case Gould made on behalf of the earlier Beethoven works, both in his writings and, in the case of the piano works, in his performances. To the works he believed in, he brought to bear the full resources of his singular imagination, and as a result, many of the earlier sonatas -- works too often thought of as way stations on the path to the composer's "greater" later sonatas -- achieve an emotional stature we rarely encounter.

(Among the Beethoven string quartets, you shouldn't be surprised to learn that Gould had no sympathy for the late ones, reckoned by most of us the composer's most searching and visionary imaginings, and not much more for the daring middle ones. But the Early Quartets, the six quartets of Op. 18 -- ah, these he loved! What a shame it is that we can't hear performances of them lit up with the kind of passion, not a word we often associate with the severely repressed Gould, and insight that abound in Gould's performances of the early sonatas.)

So who's your favorite composer?

One day we'll get around to that piece too, but so far it won't write itself. (And I need to be able to present appropriate musical selections in audio and/or video form.) That set me to thinking, how about tackling the question I'm asked so often and have never been able to answer in a way that satisfies or even means much to the questioner: Who's your favorite composer?

Because I have at least a dozen "favorite" composers, maybe more, depending on the particular kind of favoring in play. I thought it might be fun to play with that. I still think it may be, but not for now. With the weekend slipping away, I thought, well, what about offering just a glimpse one of my "favorite" composers? Then I thought perhaps I could communicate something about one of the composers whose way of looking at the world resonates most personally with me. That list would be (in provisional form):

maybe Shostakovich

I went shopping on YouTube. If I could find just one decent clip, why, there we would be! Because I'm still fumbling with computer audio and video technology. In order to enable you to hear at least a sampling of the music I'm writing about -- and what's the point of writing about it if I can't? -- I'm still mostly dependent on "found" clips.

We hit paydirt!

Imagine my surprise to stumble across a clip I've looked for a number of times online -- the one at the top of this column, which was included in the first volume of Sony Classical's early-'90s Glenn Gould video series, drawn from the extensive work of various sorts he did for Canadian television throughout his career. This is a rare example of GG conducting -- and yes, conducting left-handed. (Normally left-handed conductors conduct just the way right-handed conductors do, for the simple reason that that's what every orchestra is accustomed to seeing. I guess GG figured that since he had no intention of presenting himself before the world's orchestras, he could conduct however he damned pleased, as long as it was "readable" by the little studio orchestra scraped together out of his modest CBC budget.)

It's a 1957 performance of the little Mahler song "Urlicht" ("Primal Light"), which serves as the fourth movement of the composer's monumental Second Symphony, the Resurrection. The soloist is one of the great Mahler singers, the Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester (born 1930), and the 1957 date would make this her first recording of "Urlicht," since she didn't take part in her first recording of the Resurrection Symphony until the following February, with Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic. (Unless I've missed one, she made her last Resurrection recording in October 1982 -- not a bad time span, 25 years. I'm alarmed to note that Forrester seems barely remembered today. How could that have happened?)

This haunting, childishly innocent little song sets the stage for the monumental half-hour finale of the symphony, where a soprano soloist, the alto, and a chorus join in for a setting of Klopstock's "Resurrection Ode." (The composer took pains to specifiy that these two movements should proceed without pause, but an appalling number of LP versions inserted a side break between them, and even on CD it's far from unheard-of to have a disc change here.)

The text of "Urlicht" comes from a remarkable collection of German folk or folklike poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), "edited" by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano and published near the start of the 19th century. The anthology, which covers quite a wide range of subject matter, from idyllic flirtations to military horror stories, was an important source of inspiration for the budding German Romantic movement, and was invaluable to Mahler in the earlier stages of his career.

Not only "Urlicht" but the immediately preceding movement of the Resurrection Symphony, a nonvocal scherzo based on Mahler's wise and witty setting of "Antony of Padua's Fish Sermon," is Wunderhorn-based. (One of these days we will definitely get around to talking about that wonderful song, in which Saint Anthony gathers a large and surprisingly attentive crowd of fish species to listen to his harsh sermon about their behavior, after which the audience members, richly edified, all go back to doing exactly what they were doing before.)

To perform "Urlicht" successfully, you have to strip all artifice and manipulativeness from your performing arsenal. The singer is totally exposed, both vocally and emotionally. Sometimes the result can be surprising. Maybe the most moving performance I ever heard from Marilyn Horne was a live "Urlicht"; I wish I'd heard more performances from her with that degree of lack of artifice.

For a song of such cosmic implications, it plays above all on simplicity and directness. Enjoy!


Tchaikovsky's ballets: Terrific recordings of all three for $20!
(music: "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker)

Leonard Bernstein's Candide Overture: Guess who conducts our mystery performance
(music: Candide Overture)
The mystery conductor revealed, and further musings on Candide
(music: "Oh, Happy We," Candide-Cunegonde duet from Candide)

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At 5:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely! and WHAT an exciting growth opportunity for you KenI to be able to reflect on not being Sarcastic Enough.

Therefore I award you the Rare

"NOT Sarcastic Enough KenI Award".

I do this by the power vested in me from one of
favorite Refrigerator Magnets.

(E Pluribus Smart Assimus)
Like We Need Your Support

At 7:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The one thing that distresses me is that he so readily associates him with the ranks of what I called "'serious' music critics," which leads me to believe that I wasn't sarcastic enough in dismissing such charlatans, whose "seriousness" resides only in their tiny brains."

Whenever I've seen serious used sarcastically, it's always been by the likes of Greenwald, who (correct me if I'm wrong) usually capitalizes the thing to show us he means it about self-regarding twerps. That kind of music critic, I loathe. Agreement on that point. These are the same people who snicker at Vaughan Williams and Dvorak, and write books illustrating their extreme erudition. The books are invariably remaindered after first being praised to the skies by NPR.

(By the way, I've thumbed my nose at this bunch more than once in print, calling them out on their snobbery and lack of critical values. Since they get their opinions from one another, not from listening to the music.)

But when someone simply refers to serious music critics, I figure they mean people who write music reviews regularly, and take the music, at least, seriously, regardless of how they may take their own reviews. That's how I understood you to mean "serious." Can't say it was clear you meant it in any other fashion.

Perhaps you can adopt Greenwald's way of referring to Very Serious People, with capitals to emphasize the spotlights each wears to emphasize their own dome.

Mahler, Forrester: complete agreement. Again.

Shostakovich? One of my favorites. I've been known to laugh out loud in concerts featuring either of his piano concertos. Most of the symphonies are great, the piano quintet is a charmer, and the quartet series is magnificent. Ditto, the preludes and fugues.

Barshai on Brilliant Classics has the best current series of the symphonies, I think, and at a bargain price, which makes Shostakovich much more affordable to the average person who has been taken for a long ride by a corrupt federal government for so many years. Though for the 1st and 9th, I still prefer a little known, delightfully manic performance by Milan Horvat and the Zagreb Phil. It used to be on a Turnabout LP years ago, and has long been deleted. Shame, but no one else for me caught the feeling of teeth drawn together in a snarling grin.

At 11:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Zappa Rules.

Use it or lose it.

At 8:16 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Sorry, I have to work on my daily sarcasm-building exercises.



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