7 years ago

Volume 14 - Issue 1 - September 2008

Book Shelfby Pamela

Book Shelfby Pamela MarglesThe Russian Life of R. Aloys Mooser,Music Critic to the Tsars: Memoirs andSelected Writingsedited by Mary S. WoodsideThe Edwin Mellen Press286 pages; photos. 9.95 USIn 1896 a twenty-yearoldSwiss musician, R.Aloys Mooser, went toRussia to take up a jobas a church organist.He immersed himselfin the musical life ofSt. Peters burg, got toknow all the major mu- ...'t it::;.::\~sical figures of thei,~·.;r .\: r~,;:·,;~'~:~:time, and soon became ' ·· q·~~~--~·an influential musiccritic. Thirteen years later he returned hometo Geneva. But it wasn't until he was overninety years old that he wrote this remarkablememoir.In her introduction, University ofGuelphmusicologist Mary Woodside describes howshe came across this volume, at that time stillunpublished, in the Geneva library where shewas studying Mooser's collection of rare earlyeditions of Russian operas.Mooser does not share many details abouthis private life - either how he lived or whathe felt - during his Russian sojourn. But hetakes full advantage of his unique position toprovide a vivid perspective on Russian musicallife at the turn of the century. His anecdotesand portraits are based on his experienceswith the leading composers, performers,conductors and patrons of the time in St.Petersburg, like the composers AlexandrGlazunov and Mily Balakirev, and the "greatestRussian cellist of his time", the charminglydissipated and undisciplined AlexandrVerzhbilovich. Affection never prevents himfrom criticizing these characters-he callshis dear friend and teacher Rimsky-Korsakov,whom he considered too musically conservative,"a sheep in wolfs clothing".Woodside underscores the significance ofMooser's memoir by pointing out that evenafter the vicissitudes of Soviet rule, "the culturallife celebrated in his memoir has notbeen destroyed, and is the most enduring andillustrious part of Russia's identity." Her assessmentof Mooser as an important bridgebetween romantic and modern music isbacked up by the selections from Mooser'smusic criticism that she has included, which,like the memoir, are being published in Englishfor the first time.The deft translation by Neal Johnson succeedsin capturing Mooser's considerable witin passages like his description of a concertgiven by "a perpetually shaky orchestrawhose phrasing was characterized by the utmostfantasy" . Footnotes are placed convenientlyat the bottom of each page, althoughyou need to be alert to distinguish Woodside's52annotations from Mooser's own. There is adetailed index, a bibliography and a terrificcollection of photos .The Voiceby Thomas QuasthoffPantheon252 pages; .95Even readers whohave never heardThomas Quasthoff ssinging voice arebound to be moved bythis memoir. TheGerman bass-baritonewas born a thalido­mide baby in 1959. In his own description, hegrew up to be "a four-foot three-inch concertsinger without knee joints, arms or upperthighs, with only four fingers on the righthand and three on the left."Quasthoff takes a jocular and sardonicview towards his own life. His perceptivenessis startling, his candour appealing. Weget a sense of the difficulties of his day-todaylife, as a child acting the class clown inorder to cope at school , and as an adult lookingfor a loving relationship.Against extraordinary odds, he thrived."Luck," he says, "has never been shy withme. " He devotes a good part of this book tothe remarkable people who made that luckpossible. His wise, adoring parents nevergave up their determination that he be treatedas functionally normal, even when faced withblock-headed administrators and his ownbouts of self-pity. His brother Michael, whotook down this memoir as Quasthoff dictated,has been a true friend and companion. Hismentor, conductor Helmut Rilling, early onrealized the possibilities in his voice and providedopportunities. His accompanist JustusZeyen spends more time with the singer thanwith his own family .Quasthoff doesn't give his characters muchof a life outside his own world, which makeshis story resemble a fairy tale - completewith happy ending. By the close of the book,when he has become a singer and teacher ofrenown, he is a happily married father.This unforgettable autobiography came outin the original German four years ago. Thetranslation by Kirsten Stodt Wittenborn,though readable, is uneven. Tenses are muddled.Books originally written in English, likeCharles Rosen's The Romantic Generation,are cited in German. What I take to be colloquialismsare translated awkwardly, resulting inphrases like "that's nonsense with gravy ".Quasthoff shows a penchant for the surreal -but for the incomprehensible, not at all.Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art and Literatureedited by Christopher Dingle/Nigel SimeoneAshgate 382 pages .95 USNo composer dominated the past centurymore than Olivier Messiaen. It wasn' t justthrough his compositions. His teaching influencedavant-garde composers like PierreBoulez and Iannis Xenakis in his nati ve'"WWW. TH EWHOLEN OTE.COMFrance, KarlheinzStockhausen in Germany,and Serge Garantin Canada. This, ,r ·. \'- .invaluable collectionof essays manages tocover essential facetsof his work asboth a composer andteacher.Musicologist JeanBoivin, who teachesat the University of Sherbrooke, looks atMessiaen's massive Traite de rhythme, decouleur et d 'ornithologie, completed after hisdeath in 1992 by his wife, the pianist YvonneLoriod, and his former student, Alain Louvier.Boivin shows how the treatise reflectsMessiaen's teaching methods. He describeshow Messiaen would sit at the piano and explorewhat he called ' unexpected links' byplaying from memory examples of orchestralrepertoire from all periods.Gareth Healey discusses how Messiaen'sextensive reading of literature influenced hismusical thinking, and mentions that the authorsmost frequently cited in Messiaen'swritings are Rainer Maria Rilke, Edgar AllanPoe, Henri Bergson and Roger Tory Peterson,the author and illustrator of a seriesof field guides to birds.Editor Nigel Simeone relates how Messaiengot involved in an unfortunate legal messover a ballet score he wrote, due to hisna"ivete about both human nature and money.His co-editor Christopher Dingle illuminatesaspects ofMessiaen' s grand opera SaintFranrois d 'Assise, and in particular the birdsthat "litter" the score.There's a speech by Messiaen himselfabout the contemporary tapestry-maker JeanLurcat. Admiring a detail in Lurcat's work,Messiaen invites a comparison between lepidopteryand his own system of rhythmicmodes by commenting that butterflies are livingnon-retrogradable rhythms. •Dingle and Simeone rightly call L 'Ameenbourgeon (The Budding Soul) "the heart ofthis collection of essays" . This set of imagery-ladenpoems by Messiaen's mother,Cecile Sauvage, has been scrupulously translatedfor the first time, with the French onone side and Philip Weller's sensitive Englishtranslations on the other. Weller contributesan essay on Messiaen's complex, adoring relationshipwith Sauvage.Pere Jean-Rodolphe Kars explores the allimportantspiritual dimension in Messiaen'smusic. In an autobiographical note Kars tellshow he was born Jewish, trained as a concertpianist, then, under the direct influence ofMessiaen's music, became a Catholic priest.He reminds us that Messiaen was above all,as he once told me in an interview, "un musiciencroyant" - a devout musician.Note: Kent Nagano conducts the Canadianpremiere of Messiaen' s Saint-Fran

EDITOR'S CORNER:September 200817@1I~Qi_;~t: recordings reviewedThrough the longand lazy days ofsummer I foundmyself drawn to anumber of vocaldiscs which on thesurface have verylittle in commonwith each other.The first is the newalbum by Toronto's own darlings of "punkbaroque", I Furiosi, their first for the prestigiousDorian Sono Luminous label. Crazy(DSL-90902) features the pure tone of sopranoGabrielle McLaughlin in a variety ofsettings by Jonathan Eccles, G.F. Handel,Godfrey Finger, Thomas Arne, AlessandroStradella and John Blow which all seem toexplore some aspect of madness (although it'shard to be sure as the "eco-friendly" programnotes - i.e. no paper used - to be availableonly on-line at the Dorian website afterthe September release were not yet posted attime of writing). While these songs involvefairly sparse accompaniment, they are interspersedwith instrumental selections in whichFuriosi violinists Julia Wedman and AisslinnNosky and cellist/gambist Felix Deak arejoined by James Johnstone (harpsichord),Stephanie Martin (organ) and Lucas Harris(theorbo and guitar). The full and energeticsound achieved at times belies the size of theensemble. Highlights for me include an ariafrom Handel's Giulio Cesare, Arne's To FairFidele 's Grassy Tomb, an aria "con violines"from Stradella's Susanna, Vivaldi's trio sonata"La Folia" and the viol da gamba soloDeth by Tobias Hume. One unexpected treasureis the final selection, an intriguing arrangementof Leonard Cohen's Suzanne. Imust confess I cringed when I saw it on thetrack list thinking this was not something Iwas going to want hear in "period style" butfrom the opening plucked arpeggios on thecello through the entry of the oh-so-unlike LeonardCohen high and crystalline sopranovoice and the long haunting violin lines, I wasdrawn in and convinced. I'm left wonderingwhat they would do with Cohen's Halleluiah.Concert note: I Furiosi 's concert season beginson October 4 with "The T-Word", adrag show with guests Matthew White andStephanie Martin at Calvin PresbyterianChurch. Edition is a new European label beingdistributed by Naxos and one of its firstreleases is the world premiere recording offour secular cantatas by Joseph MartinKraus. Kraus, a contemporary of Mozart(they were born in 1756 and Kraus only outlivedMozart by one year, dying of consumptionat the age of 36 in 1792), was born andeducated in Germany but spent most of hisS EPTEM BER 1 - O CTOBER 7 2008career in Stockholmwhere he served aseourt conductor toGustav III, becamevery interested in theculture of his adoptedhome and establisheda high standardfor Swedish music.His broad outputincluded a wealth of instrumental music andhe composed operas in Swedish, but it is fourof his Italian cantatas which are presented onthe CD La Primavera (Phoenix Edition ·101). We are told that the main reason thatthese works fell into obscurity is that theirparticularly difficult soprano lines were writtenfor a specific singer, Lovisa (Sofia) Augusti,also born in 1756, whose death in 1790devastated the composer. On this recordingwe are treated to the extreme facility of sopranoSimone Kermes whose technical abilitiesand comfort in the stratospheric upperrange make it all sound simple (and musical).The soloist is required to employ what Iwould call "machine-gun tremolo" over extendedphrases. In lesser hands this techniquecan be simply abrasive and unpleasant, butKermes' control and warm tone, even in thehighest register, makes it an exhilarating experience.Although the booklet notes are inGerman, English and French, the cantatas'lyrics - Anacreonic poems by Pietro Metastasioentitled "La Gelosia" (Jealousy), "LaPrimavera" (Spring), "La Scusa" (The Apology)and "La Pesca" (Fishing) - are givenonly in the original Italian and in Germantranslation. Another seeming oversight in theotherwise thorough liner notes is lack of biographicalinformation about the composer,although there is an essay about the cantataswhich puts them into the context of his careerin Sweden. That quibble aside this excellentrelease which features L' Arte de! Mondo - ayouthful offspring of Concerto Koln under thedirection of the Concerto's founder WernerEhrhardt - should go a long way towardsbringing the music of this important and under-recognizedcomposer of the classical erainto the light of day.The next CD alsofeatures Swedishmusic, but it couldnot be more different.One morning inlate July I was surprisedto see whatappeared to be apunked-up version ofthe Dixie Chicks onBreakfast TV - three young blond womenplaying a kind of hard-edged country musicand really rockin' out. What really surprisedWWW. TH EWHOLENOTE.COMme was that the (six string) banjo player wasusing a "bottle neck" slide while also playinga kick drum, snare and tambourine with herfeet and singing lead lines along with her sisters(who play slap-style upright bass and resonatorguitar respectively). Although theirfamily name is Bondesson, the group is calledBaskery and their debut album Fall AmongThieves (Veranda Records VERCDOOl) isbeing launched with an international tour thatincluded 16 stops across Canada over thesummer. I must say I was impressed enoughby what I saw on TV that morning to head outto the Dakota Tavern to catch their Torontoclub date that evening. Baskery's live show isamazing and the CD reflects this energy. Asa matter of fact it was recorded live at DecibelStudios in Stockholm - "nothing hidden,nothing added" they say - where they constructeda stage on sound floor to create aconcert-like setting. Although not all of thesongs are masterpieces, there is enough craftand energy here to recommend the group asmore than a curiosity. Check them out or have a look at theirintroductory video on You Tube.The final disc seemsto have been lost inthe shuffle when itappeared last February.Reading TiinaKiik's review ofMitch Smolkin's "ASong is Born" (seePot Pourri on page60) reminded methat A viva Chernick who sings on that releaseput out her own debut CD recently. Inthe Sea ( is an eclecticcollection ofLadino and Yiddish/Hebrewfolk songs interspersed with such gemsas Kurt Weil's Pirate Jenny, Randy Newman'sI Think It's Going To Rain Today and aparticularly effective version of Leonard Cohen'sDance Me To The End of Love. It's funnyhow Mr. Cohen keeps popping up thismonth. You'll find another reference in OriDagan's review of DK Ibomeka's new CD'Tm Your Man" in the Jazz reviews on page59. But back to Ms. Chernick. The first timeI heard this young singer's powerful voicewas as the alto soloist in "Mother Was Standing",an amateur production of Pergolesi'sStabat Mater that I had the pleasure to be involvedin about a decade ago. Since that timeher voice has matured and her technique hasdeveloped and focussed. In the trio settinghere with pianist/music director Tania Gilland cello/bass player Andrew Downing sheshines with confidence and style. But mostimportant, she is obviously having the time ofher life.Editor's Corner continues on page 5453

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