One opera and a pile of CDs
Thais at the Met last week. According to the program notes, Anatole France -- author of the novella on which Jules Massenet's opera is based -- lavishly praised the composer for his treatment of the subject. There's no denying that the music is skillfully written or that each of the principal characters has a clearly delineated musical personality, but somehow or other the composition as a whole is undistinguished. The famous "Meditation" interlude is lovely, but when Massenet brings his hit tune back for the umpteenth time later in the opera you feel like blue-pencilling the score and scrawling the word "REDUNDANT!" here and there. There's a fair amount of Wagner-with-rouge in the work, and it seems clear that Massenet was thoroughly familiar with the musical exoticism of Aida, especially the opening of Verdi's third act, elements of which can be detected in Thais's Act II quartet. But it's equally obvious that Strauss picked up a trick or two from Thais before he wrote Salome.
Anatole France's hatred of sanctity and sanctimoniousness is mainly respected in Louis Gallet's libretto, but the novelist's brilliant irony -- which, after all, was his most salient characteristic -- is nowhere to be found. Agreed: communicating irony through music is extraordinarily difficult, but in this case no attempt whatsoever seems to have been made by either Gallet or Massenet; thus the story is automatically condemned to two-dimensionality.
In the punishing title role, Renee Fleming gave one of the finest performances I've ever heard from her, musically and dramatically, despite some shrillness once in awhile, whereas Thomas Hampson, in the less obviously virtuosic but equally tough and important role of Athanael, was dramatically convincing but vocally monochromatic. Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducted fluently but also rather flaccidly -- and this is an opera in which a bit of rhythmic drive every now and then would be welcome.
The first act and part of the third take place in the Egyptian desert (effectively stylized in this production by John Cox), with a group of religious eremites wearing the sort of ragged tunics that seem to have been de rigueur for fourth-century Christians in the wilderness. But in the second act we find ourselves in a modern palace in Alexandria, complete with rifle-toting guard; a swanky dressing-gown for Nicias (Thais's lover-of-the-week -- a tenor role, of course), formal evening garb for the guests, and a glittering palm tree that could have been stolen from a Miami Beach hotel lobby. We chumps in the audience are not supposed to ask why, in a modern Muslim country, folks would be praying to Venus and the other gods of ancient Rome.
But enough of that: it's holiday time! Concert life has slowed down, even in New York, and the last time I turned on the radio I heard, within a short time-span, "White Christmas" sung by -- if I'm not mistaken -- Bing Crosby, Benjamin Spock, Imogene Coca, T. S. Eliot, Kirsten Flagstad, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Buffalo Bob, Margaret Thatcher, and Leonid Brezhnev. Better to concentrate on CDs, of which some interesting examples have recently landed on my desk.
I've had many qualms, over the years, about quite a few British early music artists and ensembles, but I was greatly impressed last season by Harry Bicket's conducting of La clemenza di Tito at the Met. This made me curious to hear his recent recording, with the English Concert on the Virgin Classics label, of Bach sacred arias sung by countertenor David Daniels. The disc contains excerpts from the Mass in B minor, the St. John and St. Matthew passions, and three cantatas, and the results are excellent and profoundly moving throughout. These are artists well worth following.
EMI and Sony BMG have been reissuing valuable historic recordings from their vaults; these are in part consolation prizes -- meant, perhaps, to distract us from the realization that the "majors" are making relatively few studio recordings of today's artists -- but in themselves the re-releases are always more than welcome. From EMI comes a wonderful, seventeen-CD box of recordings by David Oistrakh, the centennial of whose birth passed largely unnoticed this past September. The great violinist's serious musicianship, technical mastery, beauty of tone, and expressive intensity are all to be heard here, in repertoire that stretches from the Baroque masters to his friends Prokofiev and Shostakovich. His interpretations of some of the earlier works may sound stylistically old-fashioned today, but the care that he lavished on every detail of every piece and the coherence with which he put those details together are always a great lesson. One of the reasons why I don't mind being over sixty is that I was able to hear Oistrakh live on many occasions.
I have a close relative who was born the same year (1917) as the remarkable Romanian pianist Dino Lipatti and who is still in excellent physical and mental shape, which makes it all the more difficult for me to absorb the fact that Lipatti, whose reputation and influence have never waned, has been dead for fifty-eight years. Nearly his entire recorded legacy can be heard in EMI's recent seven-CD release of his recordings of Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Grieg, Ravel, and Bartok; the quantity is not vast, but the beauty and intensity of the playing have moved and continue to move generations of musicians and listeners.
And speaking of pianists: Sony BMG has reissued, in its "Original Jacket Collection", two ten-CD sets of RCA Victor recordings, one dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein (all Chopin), the other to Vladimir Horowitz (mixed repertoire). All but one of the Rubinstein CDs contain the well-known recordings that he made between the late 1950s and mid-1960s, when he was in his seventies (the remaining one dates from 1946); the sound is beautiful, the interpretations are often more cautious than what one heard from him in the concert hall during the same period, but they do give a very good idea of the Rubinstein phenomenon. The Horowitz set is spread over a longer time-span, from 1940, when the pianist was thirty-seven, to 1982, when he was seventy-nine, although there are gaps during the periods in which he was recording for Columbia and Deutsche Grammophon. I have never been and am not now a Horowitzian, but these CDs demonstrate not only his almost terrifying virtuosity but also his repertorial curiosity: Clementi, Scriabin, Barber, and Kabalevsky are heard alongside the more typical Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, et al. No Horowitz admirer who does not already own these recordings will want to be without them..