Thursday, April 4, 2013

The amazing Eötvös, the great Ligeti and perhaps greater Bartók

Among Opera lovers with IQs over sixteen (alas there aren't many of those) Peter Eötvös is best known for setting that quintessentially American Classic Play Angels in America as an opera (a quintessentially American Classic play is a "masterpiece" that will be forgotten and seen as self indulgent pompous camp after a while). The play by the astonishingly obnoxious and unbelievably self important Tony Kushner goes on approximately forever.

The opera, though, is musical comedy length, and indeed, some of it sounds like that ruinous fetish of the musical comedy genre, Stephen Sondheim. A good twenty years of American musical composers condemned themselves to irrelevance in an art form of shrinking importance in America by imitating the lyricist Sondheim, oh yes, he composes, too. He's an acrostical wordsmith with a tin ear.

The moronic 'critical establishment' of America, a grotesque bunch of stupid, uncultured vampires (they seem to live forever) anointed Sondheim as important based on his imperious arrogance, not on the gifts once not so unusual in musical comedy (one must call it Musical Theater today, doncha know) -- after all, Julie Styne could actually write a tune, and Cole Porter was a real composer (tunes instinct with a kind of theatrical wit mixed often with a rueful insight into what living is, witty harmonies -- he did study with Vincent D'Indy at the Schola Cantorum in Paris -- and all without even a smidgen of pretension). The classy alcoholic/sex addict, Dick Rodgers, was only correct when he averred in a rare introspective moment, "I piss melody".

Hard to know if allowing a bit of Sondheim in, Eötvös was trying for an "American" effect -- New York, pretension, phoniness. He has used indigenous music in many of his works. Angels, the opera, is very clever, and deserved to be heard more widely -- it was premiered in 2004. But the life of a new opera is usually brief. Musical comedies can still make a lot of money and last forever on Broadway, no matter how bad they are (I realize, dear reader, you can sing and dance to all the so called tunes in Legally Blond); but opera is pretty much dead, and new ones are like Bishop Berkeley's tree falling over in an empty forest.

Eötvös is an interesting figure. He began composing film scores at 18. He worked with those terrors Stockhausen and Boulez, becoming among other things, a computer whiz as well as a master of sonority and the use of various kinds of electrical enhancement and distortion in live performance -- instructions for "programming" such effects are all in his scores. Perhaps his most successful opera so far is Three Sisters (1998). Instead of Chekov's four acts, composer and librettist, Claus H. Henneberg, concentrate on one section shown from three perspectives. This prompts a vast array of sonorities and techniques from a simple accordion solo to start to sometimes amazing tonal clusters to dreamy clouds of sounds, wisps of tune. Oh yes, the three sisters are sung by counter-tenors! There are two orchestras: one of 16 players in the pit, a full orchestra behind the scenes. There is a DG recording and a video circulates but this is something I would adore to hear live. The so-so, inexplicably successful Kent Nagano (fired recently from Munich but cheered to the echo by the supposedly discerning audiences there), co-conducts with the composer. It's amazing to hear but I wonder how our beloved Met audience would react to such a work (one that is actually painfully beautiful at times).

Eötvös is also an accomplished and very versatile conductor and this new CD gives one a strong impression of what he can do. It contains three violin concertos, one by György Ligeti -- a major influence on Eötvös.

The violin concertos of György Ligeti and Bela Bartók are two of the greatest works of the 20th century, joined by Eötvös' own violin concerto (2003). As a programming “hook” Eötvös uses the Romanian region of Transylvania, associated with Dracula, but with its large Hungarian population the place where Bartók did his researches into folk music, and where Ligeti and Eötvös were born.

Ligeti’s amazing piece, finalized in 1992, is a compendium of all the styles he had worked in: grotesquerie, folk dance gestures, games with tuning, with glances backward to Medieval and Renaissance sources, and into his own ever-surprising dream world, with a new, almost “romantic” feel. There are five movements: the three slow movements have a soaring, almost rhapsodic quality, song-like at first but finally dissolving into despair; the fast movements are dizzyingly ferocious. It is a hypnotic, unforgettable work of remarkable although unique beauty.

The Ensemble Modern plays for Eötvös as though their lives depended on it. The orchestra accomplishes Ligeti’s extreme demands with sizzling intensity. Similarly, Patricia Kopatchinskaja plays the near-impossible solo part with a biting, unflinching incisiveness, unfazed by the sometimes bizarre effects called for, and etching her way through the soulful material with an aching lyrical intensity. Ligeti left the final cadenza up to the soloist and Kopatchinskaja uses material discarded from the first version of the piece in a very original, slightly crazy way. This performance alone is worth the price of the two CDs.

Bartók’s violin concerto (his second, the first is considered a love-besotted experiment) has become part of the repertory. Eötvös obviously feels it has been taken for granted. He points — some would say overpoints — all the remarkable details in the first movement in ways that risk segmenting the structure. Kopatchinskaja shifts color a great deal, inserts some unusual “gypsy” portamentos, and uses a folk-like freedom in rhythm while suppressing vibrato and adding a tough edge to her tone. There isn’t another performance like this.

The slow-movement variations are given a hard-edged treatment that perhaps too scrupulously avoids the romantic gestures Bartók was starting to use when he composed this work in 1938. When even Pierre Boulez (in his performance with Gil Shaham on DG) sounds glossy in comparison you realize that Eötvös has made quite a statement about the piece.

Speaking of Boulez, he conducted the world premiere of Eötvös’ concerto, which has the sub-title “Seven” (the number dominates the work, the number of movements and the way it is scored) and is dedicated to the seven astronauts who died in the Columbia disaster, who are named in the score, and each of whom is given a “cadenza”. The violinist is called on to execute extremely difficult lines in a declamatory, fierce style. Eötvös evokes the folk music of India and Israel to commemorate the nationalities of two of the astronauts. Occasionally, a more elegiac feel sneaks in, and eventually Eötvös evokes a dream landscape of uncanny timbres and musical lines.

Ligeti is given a great performance; Eötvös is worth knowing. Those coming to the Bartók for the first time may want to look to one of the more agreeable performances, but anyone who knows the piece well will find this an interesting and at times revelatory performance.


  1. Eötvös already has a new violin concerto, premiered in January by Midori (the violin concerto is called "DoReMi") and the LA Phil. Tonight was the European premiere in Leipzig. Swed, who certainly listens to plenty of contemporary music, found it difficult to digest at first hearing. Check the German papers this weekend to see the reaction of critics there.

    Love the Boulez recording of the Ligeti concertos - I'll pick up the Kopachinskaya/Eötvös to see how the two Violin Concertos match up. I can't get enough of those ocarinas!

  2. Thanks for bring this cd to my attention. I know I've heard the Ligeti with Tetzlaff and possibly Zimmermann(?)...fascinating work.

  3. Thank you for the heads up on what looks like a cd not to miss. I have loved Eotvos music since first hearing "Chinese Theater". I share your enthusiasm for "Three Sisters". I find "As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams" as exciting — and it does have some unmistakable Cole Porter thrown into the mix ( more provocative in a 10th Century Heian Era Japanese setting than in "Angels in America" ).
    Why would your blog have to be exclusively about opera? Modern nonoperatic music is also interesting — and maybe less depressing a topic. And please do continue to offer your models of restrained, diplomatic discourse.
    I remember the alias Mrs John Claggart from way back when I still was reading Parterre Box. I laughed for days. I should have known it was you.