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Cue Sheet – December 2008


Here are reviews I wrote for Fanfare of three recent Handel SACDs. It's hardly unknown Handel, but it does provide some relief from Messiah overload:

HANDEL Water Music; Music for the Royal Fireworks * Jordi Savall, cond; Le Concert des Nations * ALIA VOX 9860 (hybrid multichannel SACD)

HANDEL Water Music; Music for the Royal Fireworks * Federico Guglielmo, cond; L’Arte dell’Arco * CPO 777 312-2 (hybrid multichannel SACD: 66:05)

Jordi Savall’s sometimes rowdy 1993 Handel recording was issued in conventional stereo on Astrée; now Savall has brought it out on his own label, refurbished as an SACD with subtle rear-channel ambiance. Until recently, some Fanfare critics were in the habit of recommending the Savall disc as a prime choice for brave listeners, just as the intense and sui generis wartime performances of German classics by Wilhelm Furtwängler are recommended only but especially to those not faint of heart. Savall hasn’t been mentioned in recent Fanfare reviews, so here’s an opportunity to call his Handel to your attention again. It’s spectacular work, really, with the individual instrumentalists (especially the horns) playing with abundant character. The slow movements are very warm and lyrical, and the fast movements are exceptionally quick, but lilting. All the minuets in the Water Music, for example, are very fast, but they all swing as well. Savall includes a drum that sounds rather like the tambor that often pops up in Rameau’s ballet music, and the field drum is prominent in the Fireworks Music; now, there’s an exuberant performance truly worthy of a spectacle, with great power and pomp in the Overture and the same characteristics found in the Water Music. The recording is realistic and beautiful, even though it’s pre-DSD technology; engineer Pierre Verany was always one of the best.

The new SACD from Federico Guglielmo’s L’Arte dell’Arco would be fully satisfactory heard in isolation, but pales in comparison to the Savall. The two ensembles are about the same size (by the way, both use strings in the Fireworks), but L’Arte dell’Arco is less full-bodied, and the recorded sound has slightly less presence than Savall’s. The fast movements are chipper, but not as strongly accented and individually phrased as Savall’s. Some of the playing is actually a bit swifter than Savall’s, but the phrasing is less pointed and detailed. On the other hand, the approach to most slow movements is even more lyrical than Savall’s. Guglielmo’s horns are a little less secure, and more distantly situated than Savall’s, but his recorder players are given to some fine ornamental flights of fancy. The Fireworks performance is forceful, but there’s no percussion in the Water Music. (The awkwardly translated booklet notes refer to percussion as “cymbals.”) In effect, Guglielmo’s treatment is the song, and Savall’s is the dance.

By the way, in the Water Music, Savall groups the pieces more or less according to the expected three suites, except that he bunches the horn and trumpet items together. Guglielmo, in contrast, redistributes the horn and trumpet movements among the others, in keeping with the order found in editions going back to the 18th century.

Of these two releases, Savall’s is certainly the more gripping performance and benefits from more immediate sonics. For a less in-your-face but still lively and stylish version of this music, a more fully satisfactory SACD than Guglielmo’s would be Perlman’s on Telarc, which I reviewed in Fanfare 26:6. James Reel

HANDEL Water Music; Music for the Royal Fireworks * Hervé Niquet, cond; Le Concert Spirituel * GLOSSA GCDSA 921616 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 64:45)

This is a multichannel reissue of a 2002 recording Glossa put on the market in standard two-channel format a few years ago (and was apparently never reviewed in Fanfare). Glossa bills this as “first historical version (original instrumentation and tuning),” but also states that the music was transcribed by conductor Hervé Niquet. The point about tuning is salient, and the performance involves 24 newly-built period-style oboes carefully matched to the meantone temperament of the nine trumpets. Consequently, some passages sound a bit out of tune to our well-tempered ears, but that doesn’t excuse some brass intonation that is simply erratic. The 50-some strings are more reliable, but it seems that they could be balanced with the overabundance of other instruments only by keeping them up front and pushing the woodwinds and brass far to the rear. At least that’s the impression left by the recording. The sheer size of the wind forces generalizes their sound to a burr, and the performance consequently sounds less gutsy than Niquet’s tempos and attacks would otherwise produce. In short, the instrumental definition is remarkably mushy by SACD standards.

It’s an ensemble big enough to sink the river barges on which Handel’s Water Music was first performed, but more relevant to the Royal Fireworks Music (played here with strings as well as big wind band). The Water Music trips along smartly, but lacks the level of interpretive detail offered by Jordi Savall (I reviewed the SACD edition of his marvelous account two issues ago). The Fireworks prelude burns at a very fast pace that actually makes more musical sense—the themes cohere better—than at the old ponderous trudge. Even so, Niquet’s performances lack the aplomb of Savall or the debonair grace of Pearlman, and no number of woody oboes and warbling hunting horns can compensate for that. James Reel

Classical Music,


Behold! I bring you tidings of Christmas pageants upon the Tucson stage:

Last weekend brought two more Christmas shows to local theaters: one new, and one tried and true. The new one is Joe Marshall's self-explanatory _The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever!_ The familiar work is the sort of thing that Marshall gently sends up: Borderlands Theater's annual _A Tucson Pastorela_. This is the 13th year for the _Pastorela_, yet it's the freshest holiday script Max Branscomb has produced in a long time.

You’ll find the full review(s) here in the Tucson Weekly.



I admit it: I have friends and acquaintances in literature studies (English, German and French), and I myself have a lit-oriented bachelor’s degree (French). But I have long complained that, especially at the graduate level, lit studies have been so consumed by competing critical theories that the programs are now concerned almost exclusively with theory, not literature. What a relief to discover that mine is not a voice in the wilderness; or, at least, there’s another wolf howling in the distance. Here’s part of what Bruce Fleming, a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The major victory of professors of literature in the last half-century — the Great March from the New Criticism through structuralism, deconstruction, Foucauldianism, and multiculturalism — has been the invention and codification of a professionalized study of literature. We've made ourselves into a priestly caste: To understand literature, we tell students, you have to come to us. Yet professionalization is a pyrrhic victory: We've won the battle but lost the war. We've turned revelation into drudgery, shut ourselves in airless rooms, and covered over the windows. … We're not teaching literature, we're teaching the professional study of literature: What we do is its own subject. Nowadays the academic study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the more rarified a college you attend, the less literary studies relates to the world of the reader. The academic study of literature nowadays isn't, by and large, about how literature can help students come to terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes, and victories, and pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that make us human and fill our lives. It's, well, academic, about syllabi and hiring decisions, how works relate to each other, and how the author is oppressing whomever through the work. The literary critic Gerald Graff famously told us to "teach the conflicts": We and our squabbles are what it's all about. That's how we made a discipline, after all.

The full article is here.



A wine blogger I follow is saddened by the notion that a remarkable French collector of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century wines wants to place his 20,000 bottles in a museum. That means 20,000 corks that will never be popped (not that all that wine is drinkable anymore, anyway); thousands of fantastic wines, now difficult to obtain, will never be tasted.

I can sympathize with blogger Alder’s position. Imagine a vast library of books and recordings that can never be touched. Actually, such libraries have effectively existed for a very long time, because their access privileges are so restrictive. At the British Library, for example, even certified scholars have had to go through all sorts of credential contortions to get their grubby hands on certain items. But at least a select few have gotten to the books; what if nobody could? What would be the point of such a library, or museum? Why not just rely on a catalog of titles, and not waste space with the objects themselves? Forgetting about wine for the moment, does a medium of communication—a book or recording or painting—have any value at all if its line of communication is cut off? Well, yes, it may have value as a rare physical specimen, but it ceases to exist as a conveyor of information. In that sense, a museum or library may not really fulfill its mission of preservation.



Talk about the Christmas rush … forget shopping; it’s the almost last-minute reviewing that’s kept me busy. Here’s what I have in the latest Tucson Weekly. First, a review of a surprisingly good musical at Invisible Theatre:

I know what you're thinking, because I thought the same thing--and we're both wrong. Invisible Theatre is putting on _Gunmetal Blues_, a musical inspired by the gritty 1930s-'40s private-detective stories of writers like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. It rattles off lines like, "The rain on my face was a washrag full of straight pins." You can't really take that seriously unless it's coming straight from Hammet or Chandler. And this is a musical, remember, in which two of the stars are longtime regulars at Gaslight Theatre. You're thinking: This is just another silly, fluffy spoof. But you're as wrong as stilettos on a choirboy. Sure, _Gunmetal Blues_ starts off as a send-up of more noir clichés than you can list on a corpse's toe tag, but the writers, actors and director take their characters' emotions seriously. They're using some well-worn conventions to tell us a story about people worth caring about, not laughing at.

The full review awaits you here. Then there’s a very good production of a not good show:

_Hair_ is tremendously important in the history of American musical theater. Opening on Broadway in 1968, it was one of the first real rock musicals; it brought nudity and profanity to the stage; and it left in its wake a series of court decisions that liberalized American censorship laws. Unfortunately, _Hair_ is not a very good show. It features three or four enduring songs, but its first act is an irremediable mess; its characters have less depth than an R. Crumb cartoon; and its plot, such as it is, boils down to a simple question: Should Claude burn his draft card and continue to frolic with his hippie friends, or not? _Hair_ is not effective as an anti-war protest or a pro-love rally, yet it will soon be revived on Broadway after a Central Park run this past summer, and Arizona Theatre Company has mounted its own version of the show. However limp _Hair_ may seem now, ATC has done a terrific job of giving it new life and body.

The rest of the review can be found here. I hope you haven’t lost your appetite, because I also contribute a Chow review this week:

I avoid chain eateries as much as possible, but sometimes in the line of duty, I must review such establishments. Sertinos Café (it lacks an apostrophe, but the corporate office does like the proper accent on the "e") is a franchise outfit based in Portland, Ore. It's part Starbucks-style high-end coffee shop, part deli sandwich shop, part ice cream parlor. The newish location at Tanque Verde and Bear Canyon roads is partly ordinary, and partly very nice--which is better than the franchise/chain average.

The full review is here.



Have you read about those acoustical recordings, mostly vocal, buried in a time capsule at the Paris Opera a century ago, recently unearthed and being prepared for issue on an EMI CD? They document the work of Enrico Caruso, Nellie Melba, a prime Parisian wind band and other performers. It isn’t as though the recordings have been missing for a hundred years; most were commercially available at the time. But the sound quality of these unworn copies is much better than you’ll find on other surviving versions (although there’s a great deal of hiss). If you’d like to sample the recordings before the CD comes out, visit this French EMI site and click on the images. The performers and compositions will be identified in French on a little bar above the graphics as you roll your cursor over them.

Listening to old recordings like these, you can realize how free and personal interpretations were back then, compared to today’s nose-glued-to-the-score practice; but you can also hear how technical standards of performance have improved in the interim. Some of the professional singing on the old recordings sounds amateurish compared to what you can hear today in any music school or conservatory.

Classical Music,

About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.