Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), Vespro della Beata Vergine, under Kent Tritle, at the Berkshire Choral Festival

In his study of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, John Wenham quotes the musicologist Denis Arnold:

“No doubt all professions have their hazards; and for the student of Monteverdi the principal one is surely that musicological Lorelei, the Vespers (of 1610, of course). To edit it is to receive the kiss of death as a scholar. To perform it is to court disaster. To write about it is to alienate some of one’s best friends. Even to avoid joining in the controversy is to find oneself accused of (i) cowardice, or (ii) snobbishness, or (iii) sitting on the fence, or (iv) all three.”

What is it that makes the Vespers so problematical? A brief historical background will help the reader and listener to understand.

Neuenfels; Lohengrin at Bayreuth. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Jörg Schulze.

Neuenfels’ Lohengrin at Bayreuth – 2010 / 2011: a (P)review

I was no less fascinated than any writer by the troops of rats Hans Neuenfels mustered for his production of Lohengrin, which premiered last year (2010). It isn’t fair or even intelligent to focus on the most obvious twist in his Neuenfels’ vision of Wagner’s first grail opera, but Neuenfels turned the rodents loose on us as bait, and in the world of theater, it is only right to jump on it with all the alacrity of one of the rats, when he or she sniffs some appetizingly ripe garbage—or bacon, as Herr Neuenfels has said. And I don’t mention this to demean the rats, Neuenfels clearly did not intend them as red herrings, but as an intellectually nutritious and tasty Vorspeise.

Spoils of Conquest: Crescendo Performs Latin American Choral Music (1600–2010) Saturday, April 17, 2010, First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Christine Gevert, the indefatigable choral conductor, early music specialist, harpsichordist, and composer, consistently makes her mark in producing unusual and meticulously prepared theme-centric vocal concerts. In the past, we’ve heard rarities of the Mendelssohns (Felix and Fannie), a U.S. premiere of Telemann’s impressive oratorio the Hamburische Kapitänsmusik, and tonight, an exotic syncretism of indigenous Latin America culture and seventeenth-century western European Christianity.

Christian Tetzlaff and James Levine at Tanglewood: Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps and Brahms’ Violin Concerto

After Friday’s intelligently conceived, but incompletely realized Pathétique Maestro Levine deserved a personal triumph, I thought, and it came, not quite by surprise, in the form of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. His performances of this work have been highly regarded for years, most recently in December of last year, when it was performed as a hundredth-birthday tribute to Elliott Carter, whose career was shaped by a performance of the work he heard in his youth. Hence, this afternoon, every detail was thoroughly polished.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine: Berg Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

The Berg Violin Concerto (1935) and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1910) are indeed a magical pair. Not only did Berg have a great affection for Mahler, both works are suffused with an elegiac, deathwards-inclined but lifewards-looking mood and a kindred morbid lyricism. The formal affinities between the two works are also intriguing. The concerto consists of two movements in two sections, while the four movements of the symphony also fall into a binary pattern, one of two slow movements framing a pair of fast movements. Their differences are also enlightening. Mahler’s thematic vocabulary remained full of the popular motifs which he first absorbed in his early work with Des Knaben Wunderhorn and street music, and Berg, while weaving in a wistfull memory of a Viennese waltz, constructed the last of his two movements on a chorale of Bach (“Es itst genug!” from the Cantata, Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort whose rich setting was sympathetic to Berg’s own harmonic vocabulary. As rich and contemporary as Berg’s treatment was, it evokes the purism of the “back to Bach” trend of the twenties and thirties. For more biographical background and analysis, click here for the rich program annotations by Michael Steinberg, which also include a fascinating defense of Mahler’s music by Aaron Copland, actually a letter to the New York Times from April 2, 1925, which was reprinted in the BSO program to the Mahler Ninth’s American premiere in 1931 under Serge Koussevitzky.

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