December 2010

Greenberg: The Music of Wagner

Robert Greenberg- The Music of Wagner ★★★★
It is hard to dislike anything that Greenberg does, and this Teaching Company series is no exception. Many of us waited for years for Greenberg to produce this set of lectures, as I’m sure it did not come easy to him. Throughout the lecture set, you sense a very strong love-hate relationship between Wagner and Greenberg. This feeling is reflected in the cynicism found throughout each and every lecture, though usually presented quite humorously, like suggesting, when the sword was named Notung, that perhaps Wagner even had a name for his pillow. In his animosity against the person of Wagner, Greenberg has forgotten his comments on the operas of other composers. Almost every opera has a silly if not ridiculous plot. Almost every opera is inconsistent with real life. No opera is believable. One could crack insults at Verdi for writing an opera where a larger-than-life character becomes fatally obsessed over a lost handkerchief, or a Puccini opera where ladies die of consumption at precise moments and heroes magically appear at the right moment to save tragedy, or Mozart operas where heads of state are made to look like bumbling idiots, Queens of the night appear out of no-where, etc., etc. Greenberg seems to love the music of Wagner but writhes in agony at the consummate anti-semitism of the composer. Greenberg certainly is correct when he spends long hours describing Wagner as inconsistent, arrogant, self-adoring, egotistical, impetuous, racist, mean-spirited, and any other possible negative epithet. All of these are correct, and would Wagner be alive today, he would be regarded as a despicable Arschloch. Greenberg is quite informative in showing how the thinking of Schöpenauer and virile anti-semitism is reflected in all of the music of Wagner, and this was most informative.
Greenberg does a marvelous job of following the chronological history of Wagner. Of interest is his almost certain Jewish father, which Wagner probably was aware of informing many opera characters with a lost identity. Greenberg probably added too much comment regarding Wagner’s desire for German unification. Most German intellectuals were desirous of unification, just as France had accomplished earlier, and Italy was in the process of accomplishing it. It is wrong to presume that what was right for France, England, the United States, and Italy was wrong for Germany, and perhaps the world wars came partially as a result of this prejudiced exceptionalism of the rest of the world to German unification. Wagner reflected a German ethos rather than a personal arrogance in desiring to see a unified country.
Greenberg is correct when he repeats often that one cannot separate the man from his music. He is incorrect in not stating that perhaps the greatest insult to Wagner the man is for his music to be performed by Jewish conductors (such as Levine) with absolute disregard for the “deeper” meaning in his writings. Such disregard is not only possible but necessary so that even in an unforgivably flawed person like Wagner, there remains genius to be appreciated. I await the day when a Jewish conductor with an all-Jewish orchestra from Israel performs Parsifal at Bayreuth in a comic fashion.

Felsenstein Edition

Walter Felsenstein Edition ★★★★
This set consists of  Beethoven: Fidelio ★★★★, Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen ★★★, Mozart: Don Giovanni ★★★★, Verdi: Othello ★★★★★, Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffman ★★★★★, Offenbach: Barbe-Bleu ★★, Mozart: Le Nozze de Figaro ★★★★.
Felsenstein was the manager of the Comic Opera in East Berlin, and also the producer of these operas. Their distinction with this set is that the operas were all performed in German, though only Fidelio was actually written in German. They are also produced as movies for film. Oftentimes, the opera script was heavily edited, such as Fidelio, with a number of inessential sections removed. In the Tales of Hoffman, additional spoken material is added, and acts 2 and 3 are reversed. The operas work unbelievably well in German, and the modifications mostly improve rather than diminish the operas. These recordings have as much a historical value as well as entertainment value. The first three operas above were in black and white and thus somewhat lacking in the best of quality. The later operas were very impressive, and the Tales of Hoffman and Othello were competitive with the best productions of those operas. The singing and acting were superlative in all the operas. The only opera that I didn’t like so much was Offenbachs’ Barbe-Bleu, but that had nothing to do with Felsenstein or the production, as it was not an appealing opera compositionally.

Widor Complete Organ Works

Widor Complete Organ Works, performed by Ben van Oosten ★★★★★
Charles Marie Widor, the principal organist at Saint Sulpice in Paris and the most distinguished organ position in all of France, commanded the international scene from the late 19th century up to his death in 1933. He had multiple distinguished students, including Louis Vierne, Dupre, Varese, as well as Albert Schweizer. Widor had a strong interest in the organ works of Bach, and these organ works definitely have the distinct imprint of Bach on them. These are very attractive works, and while his most memorable organ symphony is his 5th, it would be a disservice to one’s self to limit listening to only his 5th symphony, as the grand total of his oeuvre is remarkable and worth listening to. This set consists of 7 CDs, and Ben van Oosten does a marvelous and flawless job of performance. I have not heard other sets of Widor and so can’t offer a comparison, though this set seems to have a high rating on most public forums.

Vierne Organ Works

24 Pieces en style libre, 24 Pieces de Fantasie, Complete Organ Symphonies, by Ben van Oosten ★★★★
Louis Vierne was an assistant to Charles-Marie Widor in Paris, and during the first third of the 20th century was a formidable organist at Saint Sulpice in Paris. He was legally blind, and had a fairly unfortunate life, being involved in an accident that injured his left leg, having an unfortunate marriage and social life, but otherwise commanding a great presence in the organ scene. His improvisations often became the subject of many of the compositions above. While he is distinctly different from Widor, there are many similarities in their compositional style, including a Debussy-style compositional trait of painting moods rather than distinctive tunes. The result is organ music that is very easy to listen to, yet compelling enough to never venture towards being boring. Vierne is unfortunately not well enough known, and his works are definite masterpieces worth belonging in a good classical collection. There are a grand total of 9 CD’s in this 3 set collection, and the performance by Ben van Oosten is most compelling.

Rocky & Bullwinkle

Rocky and Bullwinkle, seasons 1-4 ★★★★★
It’s a cartoon, but it’s intended for adults as much as for children so that both will appreciate and laugh at the jokes and antics. Bullwinkle is a moose without too much of a brain, and Rocky is his partner the flying squirrel, with only slightly more intelligence. Together, they fight the arch-criminals Boris Badenov and Natasha from Pottsylvania. Between the Rocky and Bullwinkle story is multiple other features, such as the fractured fairy tales, Aesop’s fables, Dudley Do-right, Mr. Know-it-all, and other small fragments, mostly featuring Bullwinkle. If you remember any of the Bullwinkle series, this is very much worth sitting through. Eventually, the last (5th) season will be made available. Until then, we’ll continue to enjoy most of the antics of the dynamic duo fighting crime and evil.

Understanding the Land of the Bible

Understanding the Land of the Bible—A Biblical-Theological Guide ★★★★
This is a short, very easy-to-read text that describes the land of the Bible in order to help one understand the biblical history and teaching from a perspective of understanding the lay of the land. Robertson briefly describes the geography of Israel, followed by various topics such as the climate, vegetation, and various cities/populations over the epochs of biblical times. This book is an enjoyable read, as Robertson is able to include in a meaningful fashion how the geology and land of the Old and New Testaments affected the understanding of various historical events that occurred. It has some deficits. It is a little too brief, and one has a hard time grasping the actual terrain without actually being there. While reading the text, I spent about half of the time on Google Maps, trying to get a better grasp of the geography of the area. It could have used more illustrations other than just maps. A brief chapter on the geology of Israel would have been nice in order to understand such geological deformities as the Jordan Valley/Dead Sea. The vegetation section describes various Mideast plants but leaves us wondering what those plants are, such as the Terebinth. A photo, if not a brief description, would have been quite helpful. Many locations are described, but one is left wondering where those locations fit on a modern map of Israel. Where is Shechem, Samaria, etc.? Why is Capernaum no longer in existence? What happened to it? Where does the city of David’s Jerusalem fit into modern Jerusalem? I could go on. The strongest chapter was the last, which describes five ways of viewing the land of Israel. Does the land of Israel belong to the Jews? Will they reoccupy the land someday? Were the crusaders correct in trying to re-conquer the Holy Lands for Christianity? Is it even proper to name the land of the Old and New Testament the “Holy Land”? All of these questions are answered in a most proper fashion. Through all the chapters, Robertson is able to add biblical insights that show how the land of Israel indeed was certainly created specifically as the stage for the appearance of our Lord. This is a worthy book to read, yet I hope that perhaps a second edition will remedy the deficits mentioned above.

Shostakovich Piano Trios

Shostakovich Piano Trios #1 & 2, Seven Romances on verses by Alexander Blok ★★★★★
I’ve been listening to the works of the Beaux Arts Trio, which perform a number of classical as well as modern composers, but have selected a few that are my favorites. Of the modern composers, Shostakovich has written the best piano trios. They are tuneful, easy to listen to, and conducive to many repeat listening sessions. There aren’t many piano trios that are wearisome to listen to, whether they are from Beethoven, Mozart, Chausson, Faure, Brahms, or whoever. Yet, the Shostakovich trios stand out as the best of the best. These are NOT Schubert quartets. They are far more soulful, heart-wrenching, agonizing. The trios are accompanied by seven romances that consist of the piano trio plus a solo soprano, also well done, but doesn’t totally fit with the two trios on this disc. For the 20th century classic music aficionado, these are piano trios of that genre at their best, and a must-have.

Schubert Piano Trios

Schubert Piano Trios, performed by the Beaux Arts Trio ★★★★★
This is a most compelling set of piano trios and flawlessly performed by the Beaux Arts Trio. Schubert’s best knack is that of coming up with highly memorable tunes, developing them in complex fashions, and then delivering them in a most enjoyable fashion. These discs are very easy listening, and yet would not be identified as “elevator music” as creative genius exudes from each measure that is performed. Of all my music (of which there is much), this is one of my favorite sets for a relaxed encounter with the sublime.

Haydn Piano Trios

Haydn Piano Trios, performed by the Beaux Arts Trio ★★★★★
I’ll be reviewing the Haydn piano trios here, and the following two reviews will go over the Schubert and Shostakovich trios by the same group. All of the performances are superbly done, with a delicacy and interpretive style that conveys a richness to the pieces that are hard to not notice. The Haydn piano trios are a “must hear” set. This is a lengthy set as one would expect with Haydn, but gives an opportunity to see the progression of the composition style of Haydn. The first trios of a young Haydn are attractive but slightly pedantic, with a sense of predictability, but the later trios truly reflect the genius of Haydn. It is possible that the interaction with Mozart, especially with the novel compositional style of the Mozart Haydn quartets, triggered the most delightful and mature Haydn to compose as he did. With the superlative performances of the Beaux Arts Trio, this is a set that should be in every classical collection.

God’s People in the Wilderness

God’s People in the Wilderness; The Church in Hebrews, by O. Palmer Robertson ★★★★★
This is a rather short book, 149 pages, and easy to read in several evenings. Robertson writes in an efficient style without wasted verbiage, yet is not challenging to read. He writes in an academic style and manifests the art of exegesis of Scriptures at its best. In sum, he is a joy to read. This is the second book that I’ve read by him, and you should be seeing a number of further reviews of this author, as he merits our full attention. Robertson now teaches in Africa at Malawi Bible College but lives as one of the veritable giants among living theologians today. Robertson is best known for his book “Christ of the Covenants”, showing that the Covenants throughout Scripture are indeed one, though progressively contributing to or fulfilling prior “versions” of the covenant.
The introduction to this text provides the theme. While Christ often referred to the church as the “Kingdom of God”, and Paul referred similarly to the church as the “body of Christ”, these metaphors for the church are never used within Hebrews. Rather, the author of Hebrews develops the likeness of the church as Israel during the time of the Exodus, living in the wilderness. The first chapter develops the thesis of the living church today as being the church in the wilderness. Subsequent chapters note the covenant that binds Israel (the church) in the wilderness, the unity of people within the wilderness sojourn, and the tensions encountered in the wilderness such as the temptation to rebel or the failure to heed the instructions of the law, the worship of the church in the wilderness, and the ultimate goal of eternal rest of God’s people in the wilderness. Indeed, throughout the book of Hebrews, the theme of the church, like Israel, living in the wilderness is used, and the cautions, admonitions, and exhortations for the church remain the same as God gave the Israelites in the wilderness until their goal of rest for God’s people is found. That rest is symbolized by the arrival in the promised land but represents our final rest in Christ after death. Until then, the tensions and struggles of the wilderness will remain.
Perhaps the best summary of the book might be given by a brief quote from the book. “If the church of today could grasp the eschatological nature of its present pilgrimage, it could be saved from many current disillusionments. Bodily health and material wealth, an abundance of creaturely comforts, should not be the promise held out to believers today. Escape from troubles and troublous times should not be the church’s expectation. On the contrary, the spoiling of material goods along with society’s rejection that leads to a life out of the camp should be openly presented as the norm for the disciples of Jesus. At the same time, a simplified philosophy of pie in the sky bye and bye cannot properly represent the Christian’s perspective on the present life. Instead, currently living out life within the inner chamber of God’s Most Holy Place, constantly communing intimately with the three persons of the one true triune God, fellowshipping in daily life and worship with the loving brotherhood, while all the time anticipating the final rest, perfection and realization of consummate hope – these are only a few of the elements that describe the eschatological lifestyle of believers in Jesus as the Christ. As the church of today discovers its true identity as God’s People in the Wilderness, she may find the fullness of life that only the Christ of God can give”.
As an aside, there is a book titled “Truth Triumphant-the Church in the Wilderness” where the church in the wilderness metaphor is used in what a careful observation would show to be a strictly non-biblical usage. In this text by B. Wilkinson, the argument goes that the wilderness church remains a small remnant of the church that has separated from the mainline church to remain Saturday-Sabbath observers and maintain the purity of the “true church”. A reading of Robertson’s text, or a simple reading of Hebrews, would demonstrate the error of using the wilderness church metaphor in the fashion of Wilkinson.