Saturday, February 29, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/29/20

Fortuna was not with me today, I desperately meant to get to Cleveland to hear the great Herbert Blomstedt do Bruckner's Fifth Symphony - one of my favorite pieces of music in the world and my pick for the greatest symphony written between Beethoven 9 and Mahler 1 (with all due apologies to Brahms and Tchaikovsky....). I'm a little too young to have much experience of the recently passed generation. I've heard Blomstedt (Brahms 2 - Gewandhaus), Harnoncourt (Schubert 4 and Dvorak 9, Vienna P), Davis (Ariadne auk Naxos - ROH), Haitink (Brahms 3&4, LSO), Dohnanyi (Brahms 1, Philharmonia), and Mackerras (Glagolitic Mass, Philharmonia - to this day the greatest performance I've ever heard) once each. I never heard Abbado, never heard Gielen or Sawallisch or Skrowaczewski or Masur or Pretre, I had to miss Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conduct Mahler 3 in Cincinnati when I was there for a wedding, and Boulez cancelled the concert of his own music that I was supposed to hear him conduct in London. There are, of course, a number of others from that generation I had little desire to hear, but the thought that Blomstedt is still around in his 90s, giving the best concerts of his career, and I might miss the last of that generation's legends, is more than my messhugas can bear. 
I firmly believe Bruckner 5 is his greatest symphony, and one of the greatest symphonies ever written. Unfortunately, Bruckner is one of those composers whom it's incredibly easy to get wrong. Play him too slow you bore the audience to death, play him too fast and it sounds generic, play him with too much brass sound and you give them a headache, play him with too little and the sense of awe is gone. It is a conductorial death trap and so many of the greatest names in conducting fail to achieve liftoff: Karajan, Wand, Celibidache, Harnoncourt, Sawallisch, Jochum, Schuricht, Thielemann, Sinopoli, Skrowaczewski, Venzago, Masur, Matacic, even Klemperer (perhaps especially Klemperer...). It's practically a Brucknerian honor roll of failure. The conductors I've heard who achieve liftoff can usually only do it in one recording: Furtwangler in wartime Berlin, the elderly Barenboim in recent Berlin, Bohm in wartime Dresden, Dohnanyi in Cleveland, Abbado in Vienna, Phillipe Herreweghe (of all people), the young Franz Welser-Most in London, the very young Bernard Haitink in Amsterdam, the very elderly Blomstedt in Hamburg, Michael Gielen in Stuttgart, Eduard Van Beinum in Amsterdam, Jascha Horenstein with the BBC in London, Jaap van Zweden on Dutch Radio, and the seldom-heard Volkmar Andreae with Vienna's second orchestra, the Vienna Symphony. 
Who the f*** is Volkmar Andreae? The little known Swiss composer and conductor who lead the Zurich Tonhalle orchestra for nearly fifty years, and at the end of his career recorded the first ever complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies. This is not Bruckner-the-monolith people heard from so many geriatric Germans for the last fifty years that lasts 90 minutes. This is personalized, swift, romantic, and played with extreme sloppiness. It is Bruckner played, perhaps as he always should be, as Alpine folk music. As always with Bruckner, it is sometimes devotional, but if this Bruckner achieves liftoff to heaven, it's because he so often dances nimbly upon the earth. 
This is Bruckner played in the romantic tradition. Perhaps you might hear something resembling this style from Furtwangler or Jochum or Bruno Walter, but by the era Karajan and Celibidache, orchestral playing was so homogenized that this style of earth and individual expression within the collective was barely ever possible again. This is Bruckner in the style he probably envisioned his music played, with the country dance band firmly in the ears of performers and listeners. Once you hear it, it's unforgettable, and later Bruckner performances will sound as though something's missing.

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/28/20

Finland had Sibelius, Denmark had Nielsen, Norway had Grieg, Sweden had.... Stenhammer? Berwald? Alfven? 
Finland's great cultural product is music, but Sweden is the land of Bergman and Strindberg, its great cultural products seem to be some hybrid of theater, cinema, and marital dysfunction. It would seem that Sweden's national composer is yet to reveal herself. Some would pull quite vociferously for the name of Allen Pettersson, but I've never quite understood Pettersson's appeal, his music is almost a perfect manifestation of every stereotype casual listeners hold about Mahler - morbid, bombastic, self-absorbed, and rambling.... Perhaps one day I'll better understand the appeal...
But if I, in my not particularly expert opinion, had to propound one musical figure as Sweden's great composer, my immediate thought would be of Kurt Atterberg. He writes so beautifully, with such a diversity of expression, with so much color from instruments and such interesting harmonies, that it can only be from lack of awareness that people don't consider him a front-rank composer. And he produced an enormous output while simultaneously holding a career as an electrical engineer and being secretary of the Swedish Composer's Union. 
Atterberg was yet another composer who wrote nine symphonies, but the one which has always captured my fancy is the sixth, entitled the 'Dollar Symphony" because in 1928, it won an international $10,000 prize from Columbia Records. The prize was handed out to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Schubert's death, the winner was for the score which best re-captured the spirit of Schubert's music. 
An online inflation calculator tells me that $10,000 in 1928 is the rough equivalent to $150,000 in today's currency, so many composers were understandably bitter about Atterberg's good fortune, and Atterberg was accused of writing a symphony in a panderingly conservative style to make his music more palatable to a commercial audience and conservative jury. Later, Atterberg would admit that he wrote the last movement not in the style of Schubert but as a 'parody' of Schubert, but parody, in its way, is often a labor of love. 
Atterberg is the most compelling Swedish composer I've so far discovered. To me, his music exists in some twilight region between Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, Bartok, Respighi, Sibelius and Richard Strauss. He was younger than all six, truly part of the generation of Prokofiev and Hindemith, and his musical language was certainly not as progressive, and while Prokofiev and Hindemith took their cue from Stravinsky and pared down the orchestra to neoclassicism, this is probably the closest Atterberg gets to neoclassical. Atterberg's gods was not Stravinsky and Bartok, his gods were Sibelius and Nielsen. Even his pared down simplicity is lush and full of romantic sehnsucht. But what a beautiful piece of music this is, of a lush type that seemed quite passe by the time he wrote it. But it's now nearly 100 years later, and even if there's something backward-looking about Atterberg's music, the nostalgia he conjures is so vivid as to be experienced through the other senses.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians: 2/27/20

If you want to understand why this is one of the most underrated pieces of music ever written, just listen for exactly four minutes....
So there was Bartok, then there was Kodaly, and then.... there was Dohnanyi...
Erno Dohnanyi, also known as Ernst von Dohnanyi, was known as the #3 composer in Hungary. A shame, because next to Bartok, every composer pales in comparison.
The reason I mention Dohnanyi today was that on a Jewish website I frequent, somebody mentioned the great hero of World War II, Hans von Dohnanyi, son of Erno, father of Christoph, two of the great musicians of the 20th century - and Erno's grandson, now in his early 90s, is returning to conducting and all things proceeding according to plan, will be conducting in Boston in late April. 
Hans von Dohnanyi, son of Erno, was both a famous legal jurist and brother-in-law to the great liberal Protestant theologian, Dietrich Boenhoffer, both of them heroes of the German resistance. Hans von Dohnanyi made precise private records of all the Nazi crimes he could possibly document. In addition to keeping true records, he was also responsible for making forgeries that allowed high-level German-Jewish lawyers and their families to escape to Switzerland in disguise as members of the Abwehr (the Nazi intelligence agency), and when Henning von Tresckow initiated the second plot to kill Hitler and mount a coup d'erat, it was Hans von Dohnanyi who personally smuggled the bomb aboard Hitler's plane which, unfortunately, failed to go off. Three weeks before Hitler's death, Hans von Dohnanyi was hanged in Sachsenhausen concentration camp by piano wire. 
His father, Erno Dohnanyi, or Ernst von Dohnanyi when addressed by Germans, was of a very different disposition than either his son or his grandchildren, one of whom - Christoph's brother Klaus - was a longtime Social Democrat mayor of Hamburg. Erno was, unfortunately, a fascist collaborator for almost the entirety of the 20's and 30's. At the beginning of Hungary's quarter-century of right-wing dictatorship, Erno Dohnanyi made exactly one show of resistance and refused to fire Zoltan Kodaly from the once very famous Budapest Academy of Music; Kodaly was a committed leftist whose politics very much informed the folk-brined music he composed. Dohnanyi was immediately sacked, but in place of being director of the Academy, made director of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, where he could promote all the modern composers he wanted, so long as he publicly made no more show of resistance to Admiral Horthy's regime. By 1934, the Horthy regime trusted him enough to reinstate him as director of the Academy of Music. 

By the 40s, perhaps under the influence of his son, Dohnanyi seemed to finally understand the impossible moral compromises into which he entangled himself, and in 1941 resigned as director of the Academy rather than force the academy to submit to anti-Jewish legislation. All through the Horthy regime, he managed to protect all of the Jewish members of his orchestra, and managed to do so until early 1944, when Germany finally occupied Hungary, fearing that Horthy would forge a separate peace treaty with the Allied Powers. 
Dohnanyi was a towering all-around musician, not just a brilliant composer, but also Hungary's most important conductor in the generation between Arthur Nikisch on the one hand and Fritz Reiner/George Szell on the other, he was a touring pianist whose recordings are legendary to this day, and a teacher who taught both piano and composition to many of the most important performers of the 20th century, and a few of the most important composers too.... 

Morally, Dohnanyi is a complicated figure, perhaps like Wilhelm Furtwangler, an aristocratic conservative by upbringing who was privileged to be naive about the forces with which he was collaborating, and once he realized the damage wrought, did his best to repair what was already too broken to fix.
His music has neither Bartok's revolutionary musical experiments, nor Bartok's far-reaching spiritual vision, nor Bartok's encyclopedic knowledge of folk music. But Bartok is the kind of musical genius that comes around perhaps half-a-dozen times in a century. What Dohnanyi's music does have is magnificent virtuosity and facility. It's possible that this composer had just as much talent as Bartok, but the greatest artists are not necessarily the most talented, they are the artists with the greatest vision, and there are so many brilliantly talented artists of every form who never quite figure out in what service their talent belongs. My friend Steve Schwartz, himself probably the internet's best champion of underrated classical music, writes that Dohnanyi's music is almost reactionary, music the vein of Brahms and Saint-Saens, but I think that does Dohnanyi both too little and too much credit. This is the music of a completely individual voice who is quite distinct from the voice of any other composer. Unfortunately, this is also the music of a man who lived until 1960, and still does not understand the 19th century ended. Perhaps the music of a composer still writing witty music based on nursery tunes as the world around him grew serious indeed.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians: 2/26/20

So I was just through 2/3rds of a long post talking about the careers of Marin Alsop and Joann Falletta that my computer just swallowed whole without even so much as a warning. So instead, here, just enjoy some music-making from Joann Falletta, an unsung heroine to underrated orchestral composers of all generations: 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/25/20

When Beethoven was asked who was the best composer of his time other than him, he named Cherubini. This was a rare display of generosity from Beethoven from someone who was not particularly generous back to Beethoven. When Cherubini, thought the greatest composer of Paris, arrived in Vienna to present one of his own operas, he went to hear Beethoven's Fidelio (though admittedly, Beethoven was not a natural opera composer and Cherubini was), Cherubini was not complimentary. He later said that the general demeanor of Beethoven was that of 'an unlicked bear cub.'

Far more generous to Beethoven was Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Hummel's generosity was mostly paid back in scorn. So gifted a musician was Hummel that he was admitted to be Mozart's pupil at eight years old, free of charge. When Hummel was nine, Mozart gave him his solo debut at one of Mozart's own concerts. He then toured Europe as Mozart did, studying not only with Mozart but with Haydn, Salieri, and Clementi. If you asked a knowledgeable Viennese music lover in 1800 who would be the greatest composer of the next twenty years, the smart money would have been on Hummel. But when Hummel heard Beethoven for the first time, he apparently considered giving up composition altogether.

While Beethoven was slaving away at getting his compositions exactly right, it was Hummel who made piano arrangements of Beethoven's symphonies, making a boat-load of money for them both. But apparently, Beethoven neither liked Hummel's arrangements nor Hummel's music, and they of course had a falling out, as so many people did with the 'unlicked bear cub.' And yet, when Beethoven died, it was Hummel whom Beethoven asked to play piano at his funeral. Clearly, as many bones as Beethoven picked with the details of Hummel's musicianship, about its foundation Beethoven had no dispute.

It was also at Beethoven's funeral that the clearly quite agreeable Hummel met another manic musical genius whose music earned Beethoven's favor at the very end of their lives: Franz Peter Schubert.

So well did Schubert and Hummel get along that when Schubert wrote his unforgettable final three sonatas, they all were dedicated as a set to Hummel, and yet by the time Hummel heard of the dedication, Schubert too was dead, barely 30 years old.

Hummel was clearly highly esteemed in his way by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Was he their equal? No, but against nearly any other composer he would be an equal, and has the unfortunate luck of having to write his music in the same style as the very greatest of the great.

This piano concerto was beloved of both Chopin and Schumann, and clearly had enormous influence on both of their own piano concertos. We will come back to Hummel again, and probably compare his music to the next generation's, upon whom he had a truly enormous influence.

Underrated Classical Musicians: 2/2/20

It's Super Bowl Sunday.... Well, so far as I know there's never been a great piece of classical music written about American football, but there is 'Rugby' by Arthur Honegger, music about an even more violent sport that comes without all those commercials. Does it sound like Rugby? I have no idea, I haven't watched anybody play Rugby since college, but I remember seeing all the bruises on the Rugby players and thinking what a hard sport this is to play, and this sounds like a hell of a piece to play accurately. Honegger described it as: 
"It would be wrong to consider my piece as program music. He is simply trying to express, in my language as a musician, the attacks and responses of the game, the rhythm and the color of a match at the Colombes stadium... In Rugby,... I wanted to oppose the diversity of the human movement: its sudden impulses, its stops, its flights, its bends."
I'll be honest, I have no idea what that means.....
Honegger again might be a little too famous for this group, but he's nevertheless as underrated as it gets - a Swiss composer who sounds like Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Mahler had a child in joint custody. This piece is not particularly well-known, and this recording comes with Hermann Scherchen, who is a top five most underrated conductor in the history of the profession - there wasn't anything he wouldn't play, and whatever he played, he played it differently than anyone else.

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/2/20

Kansas City won the Super Bowl. Doesn't Joe Montana play for them?.... The great classical musician of Kansas City is, almost without a doubt, Virgil Thomson. And his most famous piece is Mother of Us All - an opera with a script by Gertrude Stein and whose main character is Susan B. Anthony. 
For fifteen years, Virgil Thomson covered music for the New York Herald and he ruled the music scene with an iron pen. He now has the dubious fate of being better known as a writer on music than a composer. If you listen, you'll realize that he was a very good and original composer, but he was a great writer. He was biased, venomous, uncomprehending of many composers, and extremely funny. One could also make the argument that in a contemporary context, he was also corrupt because he clearly saw no conflict of interest in reviewing groups who played his music. After a bad review, the conductor George Szell once programmed Thomson's piece, Louisiana Story, when asked why he programmed it, Szell replied that he was making a 'Louisiana Purchase.' 
'Mother of Us All' is still his most famous piece. Thomson, like so many young American musicians after World War I, came to the newly cheap Paris to study under Nadia Boulanger, younger sister of Lili. Not only was Thomson obviously as literary as he was musical, but he was also gay. Mentioning this is important because Mother of Us All particularly came out of the volatile friendship between Thomson and his partner Maurice Grosser on the one side, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas on the other. The entire plot, in fact, comes from Grosser, an artist and art critic (the same dichotomy as his partner) who is the the only one of the four whose writing is no longer iconic. The plot not only includes Susan B. Anthony, but Daniel Webster, Andrew Johnson, Thaddeus Stevens, John Quincy Adams, and Ulysses S. Grant. 
Is it a great opera? Well, not in any traditional theatrical sense, but then, it's not meant to be a traditional opera. It's an experimental piece by ferociously intelligent people grappling with issues too large to be in their grasp of even the smartest people. Generally speaking, opera uses the emotional extremes available in singing to deal with primary emotions - the text is usually about three things: it's either 'what should I do?', 'I love you!', or 'I should kill this guy!' But Mother of Us All is dealing with some of the largest issues on earth: history, time, perception, memory, morality, human behavior... it's all there. Thomson is a good composer, and his score is certainly interesting, but there's no way he can find musical means of portraying all that. To come up with the proper music for issues that large you'd have to be a 20th century Mozart.
It's absolutely worth listening to, the music of nearly each scene is great on its own, it's only a problem when you put them together over the course of a whole evening. It's quite beautiful music and beautiful in extremely strange ways. Stein's script (or libretto) is easy enough to hear through the music, and unlike so much opera, the sentiments have not aged a day. Perhaps another composer, or a team of composers, or a woman composer, could try having another crack at setting Gertrude's libretto.

Underrated Classical Musicians: 2/4/20

The Iowa Caucus was last night, or at least it was supposed to be. So the preeminent composer from Iowa, so far at least.... is Michael Daugherty, and his most famous piece is his symphony about Superman - the Metropolis Symphony, which premiered 26 years ago in Baltimore, right here where I'm writing. 
There's a lot to say about Michael Daugherty, and about this symphony, but I'm not ready to group my thoughts together on all of it.... I will say that I truly love his music, more than any of the 'big three' in contemporary American composition of Glass, Reich, and Adams. His idiom is classical music about popular culture... think of it, American music that is actually about America - it gives his music the breath of modern life that is all too rare in our rarefied music; oxygen of which we could stand to bring in so much more. A symphony about comic books may sound like nothing more than a novelty, but it expresses something both very real and very American, both very funny and very moving.

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/3/20

It's Brexit Day. Is Britain part of Europe or is Britain its own entity? This question has been asked basically since the beginning. The question is all over Shakespeare, and with no definitive answer. On the one hand, Richard II has the famous 'sceptered isle' speech where Prince John of Gaunt pronounces Britain "This precious stone set in a silver sea/Which serves it in the office of a wall/Or as a moat defensive to a house/Against the envy of less happier lands. On the other hand, Cymbeline ends happily with Britain rejoining the Roman Empire. The whole question of Brexit sets out to define something that cannot be defined. Britain is both Europe and not, it is an island defined by its coasts and the enormity of water surrounding it. 
English history is, in so many ways, the history of its relationship to the water surrounding it. So much of British history is tied up with the water: the Norman conquests, the Spanish Armada, the Medway Raid, the Glorious Revolution, Barfleur, the South Sea Company, the African Company of Merchants, Waterloo and Trafalgar, the Battles of the Chesapeake and Fort McHenry, the Imperial British East India Company, Jutland, Dunkirk, the Hood and the Bismarck, the Suez Crisis, the Falkland Islands - all of those are historical episodes of the sea, and water has always been Britain's gateway to the rest of the world. So if I had to take an insufficiently educated guess, the fact that so much of the most consequential English history takes place on the sea rather than in its own land means that Britain much more Europe than its own entity. 
Frank Bridge came from the generation of the 'English Pastoral' composers, but he was not one of them and consequently suffered extreme neglect in proportion to his accomplishments. As a general rule, the English pastoral composers idealized the British land and created very peaceful, often beautiful music which is sometimes quite accomplished, but it was fundamentally cut off from the influences of how music was made in the rest of the world, and consequently not a sustainable way of creating art, and by the 1960s, there was no English pastoral left. It's a story rather like the Hudson River school among American artists. The world intrudes on every idyll, and if not prepared for the intrusion, its shock is irrecoverably great. But Bridge's orientation was squarely toward the continent, in his music you hear everything from Mahler to Debussy to Schoenberg to Sibelius, and he therefore wrote much more turbulent music that was much more realistic about the human condition. The nationalist composers of the English pastoral controlled Bridge's present, but it was Bridge who won the future of British music. His star pupil was Benjamin Britten, and Bridge ensured Britten's exposure to all the most 'dangerous' continental influences: Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg.... and consequently Britten became a very different kind of English composer than his predecessors, and a model for a new kind of English artist who lets in the world as equals rather than keeping it at arm's length as inferiors. 
The Sea, of course, owes a debt to Debussy's La Mer, but as towering as La Mer is, I honestly wonder if Bridge's piece is better. Debussy paints the sea like a stereotypical Frenchman, who doesn't really go into the water and loves the interplay of light and cloud on the surface of the waves, as though the sea is just a different kind of garden. Debussy doesn't bring in the subterranean undertow until the final few minutes. Bridge's Sea certainly has its peaceful moments, but it devotes quite a bit more time to the sea's dangers, it speaks as though its composer had dealt much more with the reality of what the sea is, and what awesome horrors the sea can unleash upon us in the future.

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/1/20

Tonight we'll talk about our first non-musician classical musician - the East German opera director Walter Felsenstein. I had a long conversation with a good friend last night about traditional vs. modern opera productions and how there is a reactionary and trollish group called 'Against Modern Opera Productions' which trolled reviews of a production she really loved. Apparently it didn't take much research to figure out that the troll also belonged to a men's right's group.... 
I understood her point of view and had lots of sympathy with it, the only people who truly want to relive the same experience over and over again are dead inside, but revisionist opera productions are a very recent phenomenon, it's only truly in the last forty years that they've become an unalterable fact of opera. Even 50 years ago, it was enough for hundreds of opera lovers in every city, even thousands, to know that every time, they'd see different singers, a different conductor, who would perform the same work differently. But in our era, very few people know Verdi and Wagner well enough to remember how one opera musician differs from another anymore, so the differences in their mind must be made according to the mis en scene's relation to the plot. But even modern opera production can fall prey to the same unvarying sameness - I remember sitting in a bar with a friend's friend who's father spent his career in European opera, as we tried to explain to our mutual friend that all European opera productions seem to follow the rule that all modern opera productions must include 'Cocaine and Sodomy.' A lot of modern opera productions are incredibly illuminative, but a lot of them demonstrate little knowledge of and little but contempt for their source material. 
Those old traditional productions had some glorious moments, and never more often than in mid-century German speaking lands on either side of the iron curtain, where mostly forgotten names like Felsenstein, Max Reinhardt, Petr Weigl, Otto Schenk, Götz Friedrich, created traditional opera productions that so engaged with the drama, were so nuanced and grounded in the text, that they were works of art in themselves. There is no more modern, revisionist opera productions without directors like these (or Italian equivalents like Zefferelli and Visconti) showing what an extraordinary theatrical experience opera can be. 
Much of this work, particularly Felsenstein's, was done behind the Berlin Wall and the iron curtain, and the difference is that for the vast majority of Communist history (though curiously not all of it) an modern, updated staging would have been considered politically subversive and ironically combed for all sorts of 'counter-revolutionary' meanings. Paradoxically, aristocratic arts like classical music, opera, classic drama, classic literature, were the only places where many citizens of Communist governments felt that they were truly alive. 
If you ever want to understand what an extraordinary, sublime theatrical experience opera can be, look up Walter Felsenstein on youtube, and just look at any of the movie versions of his productions. it is ground zero of opera production, Felsenstein, even more than Reinhardt or Wieland Wagner, showed the opera world that opera is as much theater as music, and he did it in one of the world's most colossally difficult regimes. In the 20th century totalitarian regimes, the space for artistic innovation was so small that the effort had to be put into what there already was, and created an artificially preserved 19th century whose recreations of the 19th century were, ironically, perhaps even more glorious than the original.

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/5/20

A dark day in American history, all the more dark for being so expected, and of course, we're in the middle of a long series of them. The one bright spot was, of course, the rather unexpected move of the Senator from Utah. 
Romney made me think of Utah's great 'founding musician': Maurice Abravanel, a conductor that almost literally built an oasis in the desert by leading the Utah Symphony for 32 years - often without pay because the orchestra's money was stretched so thin. 
Abravanel was everything a musical leader should be. Not just an amazingly perceptive musician whose recordings never get enough credit (and I mean it, he's seriously one of the top 25 or 30 conductors of all time) but who stands by his organization through all the bad times as well as the good. 
Once upon a time, he was the youngest conductor in Met Opera history, who led seven performances of five different operas in nine days (Many music directors at the biggest opera houses conduct as few as two operas a year now). As Kurt Weill's favorite conductor, he was also extremely active on Broadway and turned down an incredibly lucrative offer to be the chief conductor of Radio City Music Hall so that he could take a one-year offer to lead the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City, a rag-tag group who would never amount to anything without leadership that was absolutely transformative. He secured a recording contract for the orchestra with the Westminster label and recorded nearly the entire standard repertoire, including the first ever complete Mahler cycle (he even beat Bernstein...), and for audiences of conservative Mormons, he performed so much of the most difficult modern music. 
Abravanel deserves so much more attention than he gets. Next time the classical cognoscenti among you are tempted to put something on by Karajan or Maazel, listen to Abravanel instead.

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/7/20

'Papa' Santi died today. Somehow Nello Santi conducted opera for nearly 70 years while being well over 300 lbs the whole time, but aside from his size, what made him truly great has died with him.
From Toscanini onward, Italians are known for producing particularly great conductors, but there's another type of Italian conductor, in many ways more valuable than the star maestro, who knows Italian opera so well that he can tell you exactly what every instrument plays in every bar of every opera and how to balance the instruments against the exact vowels and consonants of every singer's word. He came up through the old 'repertory' system of the Italian opera houses, beginning as piano accompanists to the singers, graduating to vocal coaches when they learned about the voice, graduating then to repetiteurs (who run offstage rehearsals) when he sufficiently learned the operas, who then graduated to choirmaster, then to assistant conductor, and then finally makes his debut with an opera without any rehearsal so the opera house can see if he sank or swam. After his debut, the orchestra and singers gave reports about whether or not the new conductor was any good, and if he was, the opera house gave him another few operas without rehearsal. Eventually he'd get a post somewhere as a third or second conductor in a small town opera house and he would get a few rehearsals to implement his own ideas, and if he proved talented, he'd get an opera house of his own, where he would mentor not just new singers, but the next generation of conductors who'd have to come up through a system just as rigorous as the system that trained him. 
Nello Santi was probably the very last of these conductors, who by the thoroughness of their training had the entire Italian opera repertoire committed to memory - every note, every word. Opera is chaos, but by all accounts, musicians always felt completely secure under Santi, who was beloved all around the world and earned the widely used nickname 'Papa.' Claudio Abbado was just two years younger than Santi, but though Santi outlived Abbado, Abbado seemed like a thoroughly modern European, while Santi seemed from an era when Verdi and Puccini were still writing their next opera. 
These old-school Italian opera maestri never get the credit they deserve. They're generally dismissed as anonymous and generic time-beaters who stayed out of singers' way, indulged singers' egos, and contributed nothing inspiring of their own. But if you go back to recordings of so many of these marginalized podium footnotes: Cleva, Gavazzeni, Molinari-Pradelli, Erede, Molajoli, Sabajno, de Fabritis, Prevatali, Gardelli, Cellini,..... every one of them is different from the other. Every one has their own personal signature on every opera that is, if anything, far more distinct, far more nuanced, and far more creative, than later conductors, often stars, who imposed their own vision and often shoehorned singers to fit within the framework they set rather than create a partnership. 
Just play this one scene, Rigoletto's famous explosion on the courtiers who kidnapped his daughter, "Cortigiani, vil razza danata.' ("Courtiers, you race of the damned". Listen to the way Santi surrounds Rigoletto's lines. On the one hand, the strings have to be a mirror of Rigoletto's rage, they must sound like the flames of hell, on the other, the singer has to be heard over a wall of string sound. So every time Rigoletto stops singing, those fiery strings go off from soft to loud (piano to forte) like an ascending rocket, and then the moment Nucci starts singing again, the strings immediately go back to soft like they'd hit a brick wall. None of that's written in the score. Only a true maestro would think of a solution like this, and it makes the scene five times as exciting. That's the kind of problem a real maestro knows how to solve.

Underrated Classical Musicians: 2/10/20

So Kyle Gann was in the 'classical music headlines' yesterday for complaining that nobody performs his music anymore. On the one hand, revenge is a dish best served cold. I have no idea what Kyle Gann is like in his personal life, but there was a time he was an absolute ass to me. I once left a comment on facebook and using a pseudonym he went after me like a rabid dog, basically calling me a fascist who wants to stifle debate because I made a snarky comment about how pointless it is to have yet another naval-gazing composer debate about the efficacy of tonality vs. atonality. Being who I am... I responded by going after him even more rabidly, telling him that our generation of musicians is basically just waiting for his generation to die off so we can finally get some jobs and stop having to re-litigate the Baby Boomer psychodramas that even permeate classical music. I had no idea it was Kyle Gann until someone told me, and assured me that this relatively famous and powerful composer now viewed me as an enemy for life. 
What makes this weirder is that I'd read Kyle Gann's writing about music since college and loved every word of it. He was the music critic of the Village Voice for twenty years and for many years had an extraordinary blog which seemed to wade through the ouvre of every obscure and eccentric American composer. If you read him, you could literally find dozens of great pieces of music that would have completely passed you by. Whatever Gann's reputation as a composer, he may well be remembered as a music writer for hundreds of years. 
Is Gann's music as good as his writing? Well... frankly, not a lot of it. But some of it is very good indeed. I can't say I find his microtonal music interesting at all, and he was sufficiently brutal with me that I don't have any problem giving an honest appraisal of what I've heard. Some people are almost too smart to create art in a way that's particularly natural, and Gann's natural intellectualizing gets in the way. He is so erudite, his knowledge of other music so eternally present, that a lot of his music sounds as though grown in a laboratory in an extremely self-conscious attempt to be original. On the other hand, when he stops with the games and writes simply, perhaps reverting to the smart Texas kid he once was, the music can become incredibly compelling. I'm going to link to a couple of his etudes here, which are really remarkable. I don't know if they're meant to be played by a pianist or a piano roll, but these clearly sound played on a MIDI piano. 
The first is called 'Texarkana', a kind of Conlon Nancarrow take on saloon pianola music. The second is called 'Petty Larceny', and for those who know their Beethoven, it's a thrill ride. The third, the fantastically named 'Nude Rolling Down an Escalator,' presumably a take on Duchamp painting, can make you dizzy. The final one, 'Bud Ran Back Out' is jazz-inflected, only still more drugged out than any of the great jazz pianists - I don't know if it's supposed to be a tribute to Bud Powell but it wouldn't surprise me. This music is the real musician, a composer who writes with the same personality as his writing - clever, funny, affectionate, and incredibly inspired by other people's music.

Underrated Classical Musicians: 2/12/20

As I figured would happen, Bernie Sanders is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Whatever one feels about Bernie or about socialism, it can't be denied, leftist belief has inspired some truly great art, in America and all around the world. If Bernie's momentum continues, there will be plenty of occasion to talk about so much of it. 
Part of what is fascinating about the Bernie Sanders phenomenon is that while his modern followers are largely inspired, whether directly from reading or from cultural osmosis, by modern concepts of intersectionality and Frankfurt School critical theory, Sanders himself, or at least his outward rhetoric, is clearly inspired by the New York socialist movements of the 1930s, and leaders like Henry Wallace and Eugene V. Debs. It was the era after the Great Depression beset America, when the Roosevelt administration seemed, for a hot second, to embrace the best of socialism while letting in none of the worst, and by World War II, it was all over. By 1937, the government passed a balanced budget amendment. By 1942, the Civilian Conservation corps was disbanded. By 1943, the Worker's Progress Administration was no more. By 1945, the Tennessee Valley Authority, thought by so many a model for the redevelopment of countries decimated by World War II, was decried by Republicans as socialist overreach and prevented from becoming a model for structuring recoveries abroad. 
Hardly anyone's situation improved from Rooseveltian recovery more than artists, and hardly anyone stood to lose more if Roosevelt's governmental stimuli were discontinued. But even at its height, there were some dreams that were too progressive even for the Roosevelt Era, and in such an incubator of idealism against the forces of corrosion was Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock formed. 
It was auspiced by the Federal Theater Project, a program from 35-39 to fund live theater around America for the employment of artists of every trade. It was to be directed by none other than the 22-year-old Orson Welles, and produced by his longtime collaborator John Houseman (sadly best remembered by people today as the Driver's Ed instructor in The Naked Gun). Highly influenced by the musicals of German communists Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill, the musical is set in Steeltown, USA, and tells an archetypal story of corruption and greed by the ruling class. The villain is a rich man named Mr. Mister, who holds a town wide monopoly on all the means of production, including the press and the church, and uses these means of production to attempt the destruction of a resilient union. 
The premiere has long since passed into such legend that the musical is a landmark of American culture. There's even a movie about the premiere directed by Tim Robbins. Under pressure from conservatives who saw Cradle Will Rock (perhaps correctly) as agitprop, the WPA shut the production down just a few days before its premiere. But government restrictions only specified that the play could not be staged, so Welles found an unused theater, Blitzstein played the piano onstage in place of an orchestra, and the cast declamed their lines from the audience seats. Welles's Mercury Radio Theater later recorded an abridged version of the musical for radio broadcast, but unfortunately I can't find the recording on youtube. Shortly before Welles's death, Welles himself wrote a screenplay for a meta-movie about the play's premiere, the script was published nine years after his death. 
Instead of the Mercury Theater recording, here's a bunch of scenes from the 1964 revival directed by original cast member Howard de Silva (best known today as Ben Franklin in the movie version of 1776), and starring Jerry Orbach (yes, THAT Jerry Orbach) as Larry Foreman. Attempts to move audiences to social action have been a huge quotient of theater's purpose since Henrik Ibsen, but in many ways, The Cradle Will Rock is the climax in the entire story of theater as social action.

Underrated Classical Musicians: 2/13/20

Of all the masterpieces we never got from composers' deaths, some really sting. Haydn never got around to his Paradise Lost Oratorio, Verdi never got to write King Lear, Wagner never got to write the symphony he planned or his opera on the life of Christ, Beethoven never finished his Tenth - or the opera he wanted to make from Macb*th, Debussy never got to make his opera from Fall of the House of Usher, Prokofiev never finished his Oscar Wilde opera, Britten never began his based on a Jane Austen novel nor Ligeti his on Alice in Wonderland, Ives never finished his Universe Symphony, Scriabin barely made a dent in his 'Mysterium', Bernstein never even began his Holocaust Symphony nor Boulez his Waiting for Godot opera, Elgar never got to do the fourth oratorio in his 'Choral Ring Cycle,' and before the Ring of the Nibelung was a Wagner project, it was Mendelssohn's. And let's not even get started on Schubert or Mussorgsky or Mozart....
But one of the most painful of all is that had Tchaikovsky lived another year or ten, we probably would have gotten a Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet OPERA. On the third published draft, Tchaikovsky finally got his R&J overture right, and it's just about a perfect piece of music. But getting it right didn't mean that the project ever left him, because after his death, sketches were found for the famous love music with lines for Soprano and Tenor to declaim the Balcony Scene in Russian translation. 
It was completed by Tchaikovsky's younger contemporary and close musical friend, Sergey Taneyev, a composer to whom we will soon return no doubt. The sketches were vague, and this must be counted as being by Taneyev, not Tchaikovsky, but just listen, dear listeners and lovers, and weep at what might have been.

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/15/20

In a few minutes I'm driving up to Philadelphia to hear the Philly O perform Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortileges, one of my favorite pieces of music in the world. It will be conducted by one of the world's most underrated conductors who is about to become the director of the St. Louis Symphony. America has a lot of very good orchestras, and only a very few at any given time are great. My hometown orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, is a very good and underrated orchestra that fell on some hard times recently, but when I was growing up, it was a great orchestra. Right now, San Francisco and LA are great, Pittsburgh is great, Minnesota is great. Forget all the bigger names, that's about it. But in my opinion, the next place in America to get a great orchestra will be St. Louis.
About ten years ago I had breakfast with a Boston music critic (at least he was in Boston at the time), the Boston Symphony was in the middle of a huge crisis, and the search for a transformative young music director was on. I asked what was happening, and he told me that management wanted the now very famous Andris Nelsons, but while the orchestra liked Nelsons fine, the one they really wanted was Stephane Deneve.
When Andris Nelsons is on, he can be transcendent, but on the nights when he's not transcendent he can be dull indeed. Stephane Deneve may not scale Olympus in the same way, but I have never heard a performance of his that was less than first class, full of detail and insight.
Deneve has the unfortunate luck of being a potentially great conductor in a generation that teems with them, and is not particularly telegenic, so he will never be a huge star. I always thought Deneve was a French specialist, but this Mahler 5 is really something - completely idiomatic, with all sorts of dynamic shifts in different places than usual, and magnificent soft dynamics. If this is a foretaste of what Deneve is capable of in repertoire he's not yet known for, his partnership with the St. Louis Symphony will belong to the ages.

Underrated Classical Musicians: 2/11/20

The first ever uncut recording of a complete symphony. 1913. If you can stand the sound, it's bloody great, even if it is just plain'ol' Beethoven's 5th. 
The conductor was the first ever superstar conductor, Arthur Nikisch. People don't realize that the role of the conductor is mostly a 20th century invention. Sure, conductors existed before, but they were not the stars among stars - and rightly so, they didn't play an instrument, and cities were so much less populated that a full and full-time orchestra who could play symphonic music was astonishingly rare, and wherever there were full-time orchestras, they generally played opera much more often than they played symphonic music. Until the age of recording, most music lovers only knew full symphonies by playing them on the piano in their own houses and imagining the orchestral instruments. 
But while Artur Nikisch is barely remembered now, supplanted in the imagination of classical music lovers by so many of the next generation of conductors whom he inspired, Nikisch was the longtime director of the Berlin Philharmonic, and thus the first true high priest of orchestral music. He played orchestral violin under the baton of Wagner, he knew Liszt, he talked to Brahms and Bruckner and Tchaikovsky and Dvorak about how to play their music, and Brahms even said after a performance of his second symphony, 'You've changed everything, but your way, not mine, is the way it must be performed from now on.' 
There will always be something creepy about the cult of the conductor, which reached its peak in the 1930s, right as other cults of personality were formed in the countries where orchestral music was most beloved. But in 1913, you could only record orchestral music by piling about 20-or-less musicians around an acoustical horn. The double bass was so faint as to be inaudible, and its part had to be played by the tuba. How great a musician must Nikisch have been that he can give a performance this fiery under these circumstances?
Musicmaking before recording seems to be so completely different from how contemporary classical musicians are trained, and the secrets of what made it so compelling have long since died out. Some of the tempos are so quick as to be nearly the same as Beethoven's metronome markings, thought by most for a hundred-eighty years to be unplayable. And yet the tempo changes all the time. The execution is dirty as hell, and yet it doesn't matter at all. This is classical music played as though it's folk-music, in a manner as though present at the creation, with inflections Beethoven himself may have expected the music to be played with. 
And yet, at the very moment all of it could be caught on record, at the very moment when orchestras popped up at an exponential rate, the secrets died out, and as much as half of what made this music so compelling was lost forever. It is only in the generation of Nikisch and the conductors immediately in his wake that we can hear the old music of the most standard repertoire played as though it was still new.

Underrated Classical Musicians: 2/16/20

If you ask every classical music lover around the world who the greatest orchestra is, the overwhelming majority will answer only one of two: the Vienna Philharmonic, or the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic will get the majority within that majority. 
But the Berlin Philharmonic isn't even the best orchestra in Berlin! if you want a blanket of perfect sound, the Berlin Philharmonic is the orchestra for you. But if you want musicians who reach deep within themselves to create something ecstatic and meaningful, don't go to the Philharmonie. The Berlin Philharmonic hasn't done that since Wilhelm Furtwangler died in the mid-50s. The charitable interpretation is that the Berlin Philharmonic became a luxury product, everything subversive about classical music denatured for an orchestra designed to be the ultimate in comfortable listening for the same people who wear Rolexes and drive BMW's. The uncharitable interpretation is that their aesthetic was designed by Herbert von Karajan to be the musical equivalent to the films of Leni Riefenstahl. A mass of perfect surface for which individuality is completely subsumed into a totalizing collective. The effect can be awesome and thrilling, it also contorts humanity into things we're not meant to be. Simon Rattle, the epitome of the modern maestro (and for my money perhaps the best currently active), led them for sixteen years; and not even Rattle could bring the Philharmonic into the modern era. Rattle aged horribly over his Berlin years, and eventually retired rather than persisting in a task that was self-evidently futile. 
The irony is that just two kilometers east of Karajan's perfect surfaces played an orchestra whose sound was both more refined and rawer. The Staatskapelle Berlin does not make you think of Germany's darkest moments, but it's brightest. Hearing that sound is to recall the Germany of Goethe and Beethoven, and in the darkest days of East Germany, the Staatskapelle Berlin retook its place as the greatest orchestra of Germany's soon to be united capital, even as no one in the West ever noticed.
The Berlin Philharmonic is a relatively modern invention. It was only formed in the early 1880s, right around the time Wagner died. Most of the great German tradition was already written. But the Staatskapelle Berlin goes back to 1570, when it was established by the Elector of Brandenburg to be the court orchestra to the King of Prussia. In the 18th century, it was reformed and expanded to be the orchestra of the Court Opera. It was an orchestra led at varying times by relatively famous minor composers like Spontini, Meyerbeer, and Otto Nicolai, but in 1899, the director became none other than Richard Strauss, and it was during Strauss's period as director that he premiered the operas for which he's now best known. it was only after Strauss's resignation in 1913 that the Berlin Philharmonic became the unquestionably the more important organization, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the year the Berlin Phiharmonic cut its first recording of a complete symphony. 
The Staatskapelle hardly declined, in 1925 it premiered Alban Berg's Wozzeck, which is often considered the greatest opera of the 20th century. It had some very productive periods with a number of conductors whose last names started with K. But in 1964, East Germany invited the Austrian conductor, Otmar Suitner to cross over into East Germany to lead the orchestra both in concert and in the opera house. Suitner was one of those incomprehensible musicians whose performances were invariably understated, reliable, and tasteful, and yet still managed to be overwhelming in their excitement. The Berlin Philharmonic overwhelmed with the power of their sound, but in nearly anything written before 1800 and after 1914, they sounded hopelessly clumsy. The Staatskapelle could match them force for force, but in low-key masters like Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, there was no competition at all. Under Karajan, modern music was virtually non-existant, while the Staatskapelle seemed to play literally everything up to the present day, even under the Communist regime. With the Philharmoniker, Karajan was so the star that Karajan even had a new concert hall built in which the conductor's podium would be in the exact center of the hall. But with Suitner, the orchestra was the star. 
Suitner retired just after the Berlin Wall fell, and with a new era came a new star to be their director. Daniel Barenboim may be a dictatorial egomaniac on the Karajan level, but he is a much better musician, and a far worthier heir to Furtwangler with the same ecstatic drive to wring the most meaning from the music. I sometimes find Barenboim's interpretations misguided, both of music and history, but there is no doubting the natural force of his music making. 
Just look at this clip here, the Staatskapelle playing Siegfried's Funeral March in London on what seems to be an illegal cell-phone capture (the sound is inevitably distant so turn it up). The orchestra has already been playing for four hours that day, and fifteen hours in the last four days. And yet, from the deepest well of their viscera, they summon something truly frightening. The Berlin Phiharmonic can generate this mass of sound, they would make you hear the individual notes more clearly, but they would remain on the music's surface. They would not let go of themselves to summon this deep, ecstatic fury. This is something only a truly great orchestra can do, greater than the Berlin Philharmonic.

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/17/20

Every small European country has its major composers, some of whom are treated as equivalents to Beethoven within its borders even if nobody hears their music elsewhere. A few of them, like Sibelius or Grieg, are well known across the world, but most of them are still undiscovered. 
In Serbia, the 'national composer' is Stevan Mokranjac, who is considered such a consequential figure in Serbian history that his picture graces the 50 dinar banknote and a Serbian village mounts a festival of his music every year. But more interesting, I think, is the music of Ljubica Marić, the first Serbian to ever get a degree in composition - from her studies in Prague with Josef Suk (who himself will get quite a few posts in due time...), and whose music earned vociferous praise from Shostakovich. Listen to Branko's Round Dance, a piano miniature that somehow combines the best of Debussy and Bartok. For those willing to take a larger dive, listen to her Byzantine Concerto, which lies somewhere on a spectrum between Martinu and Messiaen. This is a major composer whom, in the age of representation, has as strong a claim to greater presence in the concert halls of the world as any musical figure of her generation. 
...and for any politicos wondering, yes, it was Rod Blagojevic that made me think of Serbian music....

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/18/20

So for the last few days I've been pondering how to memorialize Reinbert de Leeuw, who died Friday. He's possibly the most consequential performer and advocate of new classical music of the last generation, and consequently, perhaps the very definition of underrated. Do you link to his compositions? Do you link to his conducting? His piano playing? Do you link to the various works he advocated for? The other musicians he mentored?
My sense is that, over time, one has to do all of that. But to start with, we'll just go with the composer he will be linked to for all time. The world of new classical music is roughly ten or twenty thousand people at most. I suspect that if you polled them about who the greatest living composer is who does not happen to be a friend of theirs..., the plurality would say Louis Andriessen. 
I always had trouble warming to Andriessen's music for many of the same reasons I suspect others loved it. Andriessen is the perfect meeting place between new music's two largest camps, atonalists cannot accuse Andriessen of being overly simple, and minimalists cannot accuse Andriessen of being overly complex. So much of Andriessen is minimalism refracted through the lens of Schoenberg and Bauhaus, and then refracted again through German art-rock like Kraftwerk and Faust. If Glass and Reich grew up in the remnants of a hollowed out continent, this is the sort of abrasive music one might expect them to write. To me, it always seemed neither fish nor fowl. It neither had the pleasing sonorities of most minimalism nor the complex form and texture of most atonality to draw one in. 
But last night, I put on Andriessen's de Staat (based on Plato's Republic, though for the life of me I can't see the connection of the music to the philosophy) in a de Leeuw performance I'd never heard before, and for the first time ever, I was absolutely riveted. This rocked. 
Andriessen and de Leeuw were part of a new wind blowing through European music. Marxists though they may have been, they were part of the generation who grew up in the fruits of the Marshall Plan, and there is something deeply American that touched their Amsterdam-grown aesthetic. When Pierre Boulez, a killjoy even at twenty, wanted to draw attention to himself and the new generation who had so much trouble getting noticed, he simply had his cadre boo a Stravinsky concert. A generation later, when Andriessen and de Leeuw wanted to draw attention the same way, they didn't boo, they brought nutcrackers, rattles, bicycle horns, to disrupt a concert at the Concertgebouw. de Leeuw and Andriessen represented ia very different modernism, more fun, more inclusive, more democratic.

Underrated Classical Musicians 2/19/20

A good musical friend and I were talking last night about Das Rheingold, which is one of those Wagner works that you really have to buy what Wagner's selling to love it. It is the ultimate in Wagner's 'inhuman' side, an opera full of gods and giants and dwarves and mermaids is rather difficult for the average human being to relate to, all of whom seem to indulge in lots of ambling, often seemingly pointless conversations. 
And yet, when he mentioned his view that Wagner's Rheingold begins as comedy and ends as tragedy, a key was unlocked in my mind. Das Rheingold will never be a barrel of laughs, but for much of the first hour, the spirits are Rossini-level high, which makes the tragedy all the more shocking. Most performances, with their slow tempos and huge voices, emphasize the music's mythic dimensions, which almost inevitably distend the attention span to dimensions they're not supposed to reach. 
As evidence, he linked me to the early-80s recording conducted by Marek Janowski, one of those self-effacing German conductors who knows his craft so well and has been around for so long that everybody takes his excellence for granted. Earlier this year, I heard Janowski conduct Bruckner with the National Symphony in Washington, and it was excellent, but if you asked me to name a distinguishing feature about it, nearly all I could recall about the performance was that it was faster than usual....
In the early 80s, Janowski recorded a Ring Cycle that was rumored to originally be a project meant for none other than Carlos Kleiber. This is a completely different Wagner than we're generally accustomed to - much much closer to the world of early-19th century than the fin de siécle. It often seems as though Wagner is the only composer who sprung fully-formed from his head without any historical precedent, but that's because Wagner's influence on music is so overwhelming that it's impossible to hear his music without his own shadow cast over it. The more you remove the grandiloquence and bombast, the closer Wagner gets to Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, even Rossini.
This is just one of dozens of excellent Janowski recordings. I'm particularly fond of the Brahms cycle he did in Pittsburgh while being their principal guest in the mid 2000s. While he refuses to conduct opera anymore (that's a can of worms we won't get into...), I believe recently recorded (in many cases re-recorded) all the Wagner operas over the course of a single year. I haven't heard any of them yet, but if the recordings are anything like this, they could change your view of Wagner entirely.