Thursday, March 10, 2016

In memoriam: Alan Curtis, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Pierre Boulez

The past few months have seen the passing of three conductors, each of whom was in his own way revolutionary:

Alan Curtis, 1934-2015

Alan Curtis died on July 15 of last year after a fall at his home in Florence. Curtis was a key figure in the rediscovery of Baroque opera. With the period-instrument group he founded, Il Complesso Barocco, and a team of renowned international singers including Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin, Anne Hallenberg, Sandrine Piau, and many others, he recorded more than a dozen operas by Handel, along with operas by Vivaldi, Gluck, and other composers. (For my review of one of his many excellent recordings, please see Handel's Floridante.) Many of his projects were world premiere recordings.

Curtis was also a highly regarded musical scholar. He was the first to propose that much of the last act of Monteverdi's final opera L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), including its famous concluding duet "Pur ti miro," was not actually composed by Monteverdi—a position now widely accepted. His research and his long acquaintance with Baroque performance traditions enabled him to reconstruct performance scores for operas for which sometimes only fragmentary materials survived.

Curtis led the musical forces for Berkeley West Edge Opera's production of Handel's Serse (Xerxes) in 2010. This was an astonishing undertaking for a small, underfunded local company that at the time was performing in a high school theater. Curtis was able to bring in musicians from many Bay Area early music groups and to recruit a soprano of international stature, Paula Rasmussen, for the title role. The staging by company artistic director Mark Streshinsky was a bright, bold updating that highlighted the work's ironic and comic elements. It was a brilliant success. Here's a small taste: Atalanta's aria "Un cenno leggiadretto," sung by Anna Slate:

By all accounts Curtis was a warm and generous colleague; you can read more about his life and work in this memorial article from Limelight magazine, and in reminiscences posted on the UC Berkeley Department of Music website.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, 1929-2016

Like many early-music groups, Alan Curtis' Il Complesso Barocco was founded in the 1970s. Nikolaus Harnoncourt formed Concentus Musicus Wien with his wife Alice more than two decades earlier, in 1953. Pioneers in the performance of 17th- and 18th-century music on period instruments, they rehearsed for four years before appearing in public, and then didn't issue their first recording until five years after that. Over the decades, though, they issued hundreds of recordings, with a special focus on Bach: Harnoncourt led highly regarded performances of the St Matthew and St John Passions, the B minor Mass, and (together with Gustav Leonhardt) the complete cantatas.

Harnoncourt was known for his highly personal approach to music from the Baroque, Classical, and even Romantic repertory. The results could sometimes be jarring, or even grating. I found his landmark 1974 recording of Monteverdi's Poppea to be unlistenable, and I'm not the only one. Charles Downey, in a review on Ionarts, wrote that "Harnoncourt responded to the absence of indications for over-orchestrating the score most fancifully for a vast consort of instruments that do not always sound all that good. Every time the honking shawms come out of their cage, one just cringes."

But his approach could also bring out fiercely dramatic qualities in music that could sound polite or staid in other hands. Harnoncourt was at his best as a conductor of music by composers who emphasized strong contrasts, such as Haydn and Mozart; I reviewed his superb recording of Armida in my post on Haydn's operas. But I think my favorite Harnoncourt-conducted opera is Mozart's Mitridate, re di Ponto (Mithridates, King of Pontus) as seen in Jean-Pierre Ponelle's 1986 film. From that production, here is the first aria of Queen Aspasia (Yvonne Kenny), "Al destin, che la minaccia":

Harnoncourt's exhilarating conducting is essential to the success of Ponelle's film, which records a performance given without an audience in Vicenza's Palladio-designed Teatro Olimpico. A production that could have seemed mannered, or whose energy might have flagged due to the circumstances under which it was filmed, instead sweeps you up in the emotions of the characters.

For more detail on Mitridate, please see my post "The insane frenzy of an illicit love." A fuller account of Harnoncourt's life is offered by Barry Millington's article in The Guardian.

Pierre Boulez, 1925-2016

It might seem as though Pierre Boulez's musical ideas were diametrically opposed to those of Curtis and Harnoncourt. After all, Curtis and Harnoncourt were primarily concerned with recovering the music of the past. As a composer and conductor Boulez was an uncompromising modernist who was quoted as saying that opera as an art form had ended with Berg, and that the solution to opera's endless repetition of a relative handful of works would be to "blow the opera houses up."

However, in the polemical essays collected in his book Text and Act (Oxford, 1995), musicologist Richard Taruskin argued that the early music movement was, in fact, a modernist project. He suggested that contemporary performances of both early and 20th-century music shared ideological and musical approaches. One key element that united them was a rhetorical insistence on Werktreue, or performing music in a way that remained as true as possible to a composer's intentions. Taruskin felt, though, that the early music movement's claims of "authenticity" were meaningless. In his view they simply provided an unnecessary justification for performances that reflected a modern taste that favored fleet tempi and transparent textures. You don't have to fully accept all of Taruskin's arguments to feel that perhaps these three conductors had more in common than might appear on the surface.

Although he claimed that opera was dead, Boulez was at the podium for two of the most significant opera productions of the past 40 years: the centenary Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1976, and the first performance of the Friedrich Cerha completion of Alban Berg's unfinished Lulu at the Paris Opera in 1979, both directed by Patrice Chéreau. Although initially greeted with protests (not least among some of the singers and musicians), the Wagner production has come to be seen as transformative. Chéreau's brilliant realization of George Bernard Shaw's insight that the Ring functions as a parable of 19th-century capitalism gave many, myself included, a way to approach Wagner's epic for the first time. It remains a highly compelling concept, despite the flood of imitative and inferior Regietheater that has swept onto opera stages in the years since. And the Boulez-Chéreau Lulu production set a new standard for this work. So it is very odd that Paul Griffith's lengthy New York Times obituary of Pierre Boulez mentions both productions only in passing.

Neither opera can be easily excerpted, but the famous opening of Act III of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) will give you a good sense of what was radically different in Boulez's approach. While it may lack the overwhelming force of some other conductors' readings, you can hear details of the music that are often obscured in a wall of sound. Boulez wanted to defamiliarize this music so that we could learn to hear it again:

Avoiding the overly familiar, and making the well-known new again, were principles that Curtis, Harnoncourt, and Boulez held in common, despite the differences in their preferred repertory. We are fortunate that all three were active at a time when their work, particularly in opera, could be thoroughly documented by recordings. Their deaths within a few months of one another mark the passing of an era.

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