Lieder

Apart from the Matthew Passion and Nina Hagen (yet more unlikely bedfellows), here are further compelling reasons to learn German. While I’ve never been drawn to the mainstream lieder scene, I owe my enchantment by these song cycles, yet again (cf. Mahler’s Rückert lieder, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade), to Boulez:

First Wagner—the Wesendonck lieder. Christa Ludwig, with Klemperer, 1962:

or the wonderful Anne Sofie von Otter:

Then Berg, exploring a path opened up by his mentor Mahler. The Seven early songs (which I got to love at our 1971 NYO Prom):

(or a live version here, with helpful Japanese subtitles);

and the (five, nearly as early) Altenberg lieder—to picture-postcard texts (Ansichtskartentexte, another entry in our lexicon of German mouthfuls. Fin-de-siècle Viennese haiku?):

The third song is haunting:

Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus
Hattest nie Sorge um Hof und Haus
Leben und Traum von Leben—plötzlich ist alles aus!
Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus

(After the menacing whisper of “plötzlich ist alles aus!” (plötzlich is officially my favourite word), find me a singer who can diminuendo from pp up to that final top C—Nina Hagen, perhaps?!)

 

Conducting

We musos may be critical of conductors (cf. Norman Lebrecht, The maestro myth: great conductors in pursuit of power), but don’t get me wrong, we deeply admire great ones—such as Boulez, Tennstedt, Gardiner, Rattle (unlikely bedfellows…).

Apart from Boulez, another highlight of depping regularly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was working for Rozhdestvensky.

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky—conductor or conjuror is a wonderful film:

In a work that otherwise requires little imaginative filming, do watch the wonderful scene from from 32’40”—the traffic cop Marcel Mehala should take a bow too.

Believing in a kind of spontaneous combustion, and trusting his players to match his own mastery, taking risks together, Rozhdestvensky is renowned for his aversion to rehearsal—greater still than that of orchestras. Once, turning up for the first of a couple of whole days’ scheduled rehearsals for a fiendishly difficult and unfamiliar modern piece, he conducted the first few bars and then told the band, “Good, see you at the concert”. In a rare reversal of the musos’ “It’ll be all right on the night” philosophy, the leader took him to one side and asked him if he wouldn’t mind just playing through it once first.

His gestures are by turn minimal and flamboyant. Doing Petrushka, it was as if we were all composing it, living it, together with him.

And the Scriabin piano concerto with Viktoria Postnikova was exquisite too:

The shock of the new

Though The Rite of Spring has become standard since the 1970s, it remains an overwhelming experience today, whether you’re familiar with it or not. Playing it in 1970 with the National Youth Orchestra, conducted by Boulez, was one of the great experiences of my life. Never mind that it’s the kind of imagining of “pagan rites” that academically I would dispute—it’s a world away from romanticizing!

Remember, at the 1913 Paris premiere the ballet was just as shocking as the music—this gives an impression (first of three parts):

See also here.
Among endless discussions, try this.

And here’s an attractive quandary:

“Stravinsky once joked that the dauntingly high-register bassoon solo which opens the piece should be transposed up every year to stop players getting complacent about it. He wanted the effort to register.”

But “it’s complicated”—see also here (and note the ritual wind instrument connection).

I’m not sure about the dudka, but if it’s really related to the Armenian duduk, then there’s a link to the guanzi of north Chinese ritual bands!

There’s a wealth of discussion of that opening solo in bassoon blogs.

And then there’s the “original instrument” debate—the “lite Rite”, as Richard Taruskin called it:

By the way, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, less revolutionary but no less captivating, must have suffered by its proximity.