Loved to dearth. Without remembering any legal documents I signed that had Satan written in the small print, just when I forget how tawdry and thin Liszt’s Faust Symphony is, it comes around again and I give it another chance. Too late. I hear the old guy cackle and the doors of Albert Hall clanging shut. The only way to overcome the symphony’s clattering banality is for the conductor to bash the score within an inch of its life. The thing won’t die — no fear of that — and if there is truly inspired leadership, as from Leonard Bernstein and Jascha Horenstein in their classic recordings, the music will bring genuine pleasure, like the circus.
A London Summer with Huntley Dent
Too clever by halves. Although T.S. Eliot was describing Marlowe’s once popular, now buried play, The Jew of Malta, when he dubbed it a savage farce, the phrase is a wide paintbrush for Jacobean tragedy, whose absurd motivations, wildly outsized emotions and sheer body count tempt us to burst out laughing. One of the breeziest writers of the day, Thomas Heywood, shuffled genres like a card sharp, and there’s no reason to believe that he took his most famous tragedy, A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603) too seriously. There’s not much reason to revive it either, except as a study in stage contraptions antecedent to the great age of folderol bien fait in the Victorian theater, which gave us masterly contrivers like Scribe, Sardou, and the like.
Stilettos, ready! To keep the audience entertained, the postwar French choreographer Roland Petit resorted to high jinks, low jinks, whatever jinks he could summon. He’s a one-man, nonstop coup de theatre. Petit’s women, long-legged and aloof, aren’t asked to be graceful so much as dangerous and strange: they slither, prance and stamp, opening and closing their knees in insectoid twitches and mechanical jerks. It’s as if they are perched on high-heeled toes. The men must earn advanced degrees in acrobatics (with post-graduate liniment for their abused muscles) to perform Petit’s Cirque de Soleil cartwheels, tumbling, and feats of strength (such as forming a human bridge for the ballerina to stretch out on — at least she doesn’t walk over it in stilettos). These antics were on display in a triple bill mounted by the ever-ebullient English National Ballet, the romping younger sibling of the Royal Ballet, which soberly covets its right of primogeniture.
Temporary immortality. The Verdi Requiem is an event, a masterpiece, an emotional catharsis, but also an old shoe. Well worn by dozens of recordings since two great ones, by Toscanini and De Sabata, started the grooves turning, it hasn’t been saved from familiarity by being magnificent, any more than the Grand Canyon has. What do you do to breathe life back into music that has been worn down by so many feet? (I apologize to readers who feel that I’m asking the equivalent of “Caviar again? Didn’t we have that yesterday?”)
Music at the close. The adage is leave ’em wanting more, not less, but Stephen Sondheim has barely skirted the latter fate. At eighty-one, he’s been erratically revising a problem child since 1999 that is now called, blandly, Road Show. Under various uninspired titles — Wise Guys, Gold!, and Bounce — the musical flipped and flopped around the country from Chicago to New York and Washington D.C. At every step of the way Sondheim, being Sondheim, attracted the biggest names to direct and star, including Hal Prince and Nathan Lane. But no luck.
Star-crossed Geliebte. The trouble with taking Shakespeare as your model is that you can’t hide it and you will always be in his shadow. In 1784, writing his third play, Friedrich Schiller remixed the ingredients of Romeo and Juliet to concoct his perfervid tragedy, Luise Miller. Two lovers die by drinking poison at the end, and there are contending fathers, anguished partings, and extravagant avowals of undying passion (“undying” seems to be an automatic death sentence in the theater). Without the poetry, Shakespeare loses an immeasurable amount, but the twenty-four-year-old Schiller was left with a template for doomed romance. He made extraordinary use of it, and although Luise Miller contains no Mercutio, emotions get so capriciously out of hand that it can seem as if everyone on stage is a Mercutio.
The French Orchestra at the Proms: Myung-Whun Chung Conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Whee! Paree. A general moaning arose from music reviewers, starting around forty years ago, about French orchestras. They no longer sounded French. No more pinched oboes being played through the nose. No more horns sounding as if they were warbling underwater or inbred with the saxophone clan. No more lean, on-the-dot precision in the strings. As they lamented this loss, the same bemoaners forgot that they once carped about the very sound that was fading away. Uncharacteristically, the French were listening.
OMG! The appearance of Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony is like the biblical Leviathan surfacing in Hyde Park. It’s epochal. The buses lined up behind the monster aren’t full of gawkers but the assembled forces needed to perform the work, not counting trucks loaded with 32 timpani, eight brass choirs, a horde of extra offstage trumpets, and more — much, much more. Choruses throng from all points of the compass. Somewhere at the musicians’ union a shop foreman is screaming into the phone, “Don’t tell me we’ve run out of ophicleides and sarrusophones! This is apocalypse!” Oh wait, it was Berlioz who calls for ophicleides and sarrusophones. But some wisp of his spirit hovered over Stoke-on-Trent when the very, very dotty composer, Havergal Brian, was born in 1876.