Thursday, January 28, 2010

Munich's Nationaltheater

Munich’s Nationaltheater, which we passed many times while we were in Munich. The Nationaltheater is home of The Bavarian State Opera.

The Nationaltheater was destroyed in October 1943 and was not to reopen for more than twenty years. The first post-war performance in the Nationaltheater was held on November 22, 1963.

“Tristan Und Isolde”, “Die Meistersinger”, “Das Rheingold”, “Die Walkure”, “Konigskinder”, “Il Segreto Di Susanna”, “Die Vogel”, “Der Mond”, “Capriccio” and “Lear” are among the renowned operas that have received their world premieres at the Nationaltheater.

Such eminent figures as Hans Von Bulow, Hermann Levi, Richard Strauss, Felix Mottl, Bruno Walter, Hans Knappertsbusch, Clemens Krauss, Georg Solti, Rudolf Kempe, Ferenc Fricsay, Joseph Keilberth, Wolfgang Sawallisch and Zubin Mehta have served as Music Director.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Treasure

Tomorrow my middle brother will celebrate his 32nd birthday.

He was born during one of the worst weather disasters ever to strike the United States, The Great Lakes Storm Of 1978, a massive winter storm that deposited 60 inches of snow on Chicago, caused the entire State Of Ohio to close for a week, and resulted in a federal declaration of National Emergency.

The 1978 winter storm, happily, bypassed Minneapolis. My parents, knowing my brother was due, had been following weather forecasts very closely, but the morning of January 27, 1978, was perfectly clear in the Twin Cities.

My parents had no trouble making their way to the hospital that morning. In fact, according to my parents, they ate breakfast and gave my older brother a bath before leaving home, and drove to my grandparents’ house to deposit my older brother before at last proceeding to the hospital.

My brother arrived just past 12:00 Noon.

My parents, applying the law of averages, had expected their second child to be a girl, but it made no difference to them whether the newborn was a boy or a girl. Granted a second son, they loved the new baby without limit.

That evening, my grandparents visited the hospital to see their new grandson, and they took my older brother with them so that he could see his new brother.

“Too small” was his judgment that night—but I believe he has changed his assessment since.

Tomorrow night, there will be a big celebration at my parents’ house. My mother has planned a dinner of filet mignon, twice-baked potatoes, steamed fresh green beans, grilled red and yellow peppers, and a raspberry-nut salad, preceded by genuine salmon mousse prepared from fresh Alaska salmon. My brother’s birthday cake, by request, will be a maple cake.

Joshua and I mailed our gifts on Saturday, via Priority Mail, and our package arrived at my parents’ house this afternoon. Everything is set for tomorrow night’s grand celebration.

Much has changed over the course of the last thirty-two years—and much has remained the same.

On January 27, 1978, a new president had occupied the White House for one full year and, to anyone paying attention, it was already apparent that he was nothing more than an oddity, an accident of history, clearly destined to be a “one-termer”.

The night my brother was born, Jimmy and Rosalyn and Amy Carter, according to the official White House calendar, spent the evening in the White House theater, where they viewed, for the umpteenth time, “A Town Called Plains”, a Democrat-produced advertising film used in the 1976 election campaign.

Satire could not produce anything half so grotesque. The Carters always were—and still are—indescribable boobs.

My brother, on the other hand, is good, and decent, and noble. He has the great gifts of kindness, and generosity, and loyalty, and friendship.

He is a treasure to everyone with the good fortune to know him.

The world would be a far sadder place without his grace.

Happy Birthday!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Before You Speak . . .

Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.

Bernard Meltzer

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Munich's Gartnerplatz Theater

Munich's second opera house, Gartnerplatz Theater, which we visited on August 1 of last year.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Five Performances

On Thursday night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Colin Davis conduct the Boston Symphony in music of Mozart and Elgar.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”) opened the program. Davis offered a large-scale and stately performance of the work, but there was very little drama in Davis’s interpretation. The “Prague” was Mozart’s most overtly-dramatic symphony until his final three masterpieces in the form, but Davis offered more sturdiness than drama.

The attraction of the concert was the second half of the program: Elgar’s Violin Concerto played by Nikolaj Znaider.

Znaider is a great, great artist. I can offer no higher tribute.

Znaider has a very individual sound, a sound that is his and his alone. His sound is as unique as a human voice and, like a human voice, cannot adequately be described and must be heard.

Znaider’s sound has great purity and focus, and in this respect he reminds me of a Jascha Heifetz. He eschews overt lush sound such as that produced by an Itzhak Perlman or a Pinchas Zukerman, and he does not seek to display the excessive brightness of a Zino Francescatti or a Midori. His sound has warmth and color, but not as much warmth as a David Oistrakh and not as much color as an Anne-Sophie Mutter. His sound is dark, but he does not cultivate the extreme darkness of a Maxim Vengerov.

In his phrasing, Znaider displays great specificity, great intelligence and great personality. He does nothing “odd” or different for the sake of being different, yet his playing is unlike anyone else’s. He has a thousand shadings and a thousand touches at his disposal, and he can seize one’s attention from his very first entrance and hold it for the duration of a performance. At age 34, he is already a master violinist and a master musician.

I did not think that the Elgar was necessarily Znaider’s concerto, because I thought Znaider missed some of the grand rhetoric inherent in the work. An artist who errs on the side of understatement, Znaider nonetheless offered an absolutely mesmerizing account of the concerto, tragic when required, dramatic when called for, and fully convincing in the concerto’s many whispered personal utterances. The concerto was all of a piece in Znaider’s hands, and had a distinct English sensibility as well. One can ask for nothing more.

On Thursday night, we witnessed greatness.

I wish my parents had been in the hall.

The conductor and orchestra contributed very little to the performance, but I suspect that Davis and the Boston musicians were fearful of interfering with the genius of the man with whom they shared the stage.

Josh fell in love with the Elgar Violin Concerto Thursday night.

Thursday night was Josh’s third encounter with the work. We had heard the Minnesota Orchestra perform the concerto a couple of years ago (conductor: Neville Marriner; soloist: Jorja Fleezanis). Eighteen months ago, we had listened to Zukerman’s second recording of the concerto (with Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony). Those unsatisfying experiences had not prepared Josh for Thursday night, when he was gripped by the concerto for the first time. The Elgar concerto is, perhaps, one of those works whose greatness may be revealed only by a great performance—and Josh changed his opinion of the piece after Thursday night.

We were happy we had decided to make use of our tickets.

On Friday, we drove down to New York for the weekend, still talking about the Elgar during our drive. We both regretted that we did not have a disc of the Elgar with us in Boston so that we could listen to it again as we made our way down 95.

We arrived in Manhattan in the middle of the afternoon. After check-in, we stayed in our hotel until late afternoon. We were not in any hurry to get out and about and walk the streets; instead, we enjoyed the views of Central Park.

At 5:30 p.m., we left our hotel and walked to Times Square.

We ate dinner at the Times Square Ruby Tuesday—and we chose a chain restaurant only because we knew that the food at Ruby Tuesday would be reliable and dependable and meet a certain standard. I have suffered more poor dinners in New York than in any other city except London, and neither Josh nor I wanted to hazard a bad dinner. We were, after all, hungry, having skipped lunch.

We ordered crab cake with steamed broccoli and white cheddar mashed potatoes, and we were entirely pleased with our food. We even had dessert: Italian cream cake.

From Ruby Tuesday, we walked to the Walter Kerr Theatre, where we had tickets for the Friday evening performance of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical, “A Little Night Music”. Neither of us had seen a staging of “A Little Night Music”.

There is one fatal flaw in the original material that is disguised to those, like Josh and me, familiar with the show only through its original cast recording: Hugh Wheeler’s book.

Wheeler’s book is dreadful: inept, coarse, and completely in the wrong tone for a musical with such an elegant score. I am astonished that the book passed muster with the original director, Harold Prince—and I am astonished that the Wheeler book had not been discarded for this revival, and a new book commissioned. It is inevitable that the gruesome Wheeler book will be thrown out in a decade or two—why wait to delay the inevitable? The book should be shelved now.

The book aside, “A Little Night Music” holds up well, although there is little evidence of this in the current Broadway production.

Jonathan Tunick’s beautiful 1973 orchestrations have been discarded for this revival, replaced with a “minimalist” arrangement played by eight musicians. The arrangements are not good, and render the score more small-scale—and colorless—than it should be. I assume this maneuver was a result of cost-cutting, one of many indications on view that this particular revival was “on the cheap”.

The stage design was a shamelessly low-budget affair, costing next to nothing to create and requiring what must be the smallest number of stagehands in the history of musical theater to manage.

The costume design was no better—black costumes in Act I, white costumes in Act II, a silly construct—and the costumes (and materials) looked as cheap and listless as everything else in the production.

If tickets had cost $20.00 per seat, none of this would have mattered. However, “A Little Night Music” is commanding top Broadway prices, and the public is paying through the nose for an approximation of the score and a physical production that is bush league. At the conclusion of the performance, I felt as if we were entitled to ask for an 80% refund.

Aside from Angela Lansbury, who portrayed Madame Armfeldt, the Broadway revival is totally miscast and performed at a level that does not even arise to summer stock.

Catherine Zeta-Jones was very much a down-market Desiree, brassy, vulgar and lewd, an aging showgirl straight from a Las Vegas revue. She should have portrayed the maid.

The Fredrik was a London import that came with the production. He, like the production, should have remained on the other side of the pond.

The Charlotte and Carl-Magnus offered civic-theater performances, and the Henrik and Anne offered performances that did not even arise to that low standard. None of the cast members could sing.

The current “A Little Night Music” is, truly, about as bad as it gets.

Throughout the show, Josh and I heard people around us grumbling, constantly, about the feebleness of the whole enterprise.

Why did not this disastrous revival close after opening night? Bloomington Civic Theater produces musicals to a higher standard (and apparently employs far higher budgets, too).

The answer, of course, is the presence of Lansbury and Zeta-Jones. Without those two names on the marquee, this revival would have sold approximately three tickets.

Lansbury is a legend, a stage actress of consummate skill, and it was a privilege to be in her presence. Zeta-Jones is a Hollywood figure, not particularly talented and not particularly appealing, and it was painful to watch her go through the motions of portraying a character onstage.

Friends of my parents saw the original Broadway production of “A Little Night Music” only a couple of weeks after it opened, presumably when the original cast’s performances were still fresh. To this day, they contend that it was one of the best things they have ever seen, and they also insist that Glynis Johns was heartbreaking as Desiree.

My parents saw The National Touring Company production of “A Little Night Music” in Chicago in November 1974, exactly one month before my older brother was born. The National Touring Company production featured the same cast (Jean Simmons was the Desiree) that was to open the show in London in 1975. My parents recall that the production fell flat as a pancake, lacking all magic. They recall Margaret Hamilton, the Madame Armfeldt, flubbing her lines so badly in “Liaisons” that she settled for humming two-thirds of the number. They also recall Jean Simmons able to make absolutely nothing of “Send In The Clowns”.

The natural realm of “A Little Night Music” is no longer the commercial theater—it is the opera house. The show requires a full orchestra and trained voices to make an impact, a requirement demonstrated time and again Friday night, when not a single one of the musical numbers “worked”. Over the coming decades, “A Little Night Music” will live on in opera houses and nowhere else, and this is as it should be—the show, at root, is a variant of operetta, and should be performed only by forces familiar with the requirements of the form.

On Saturday morning, we ate breakfast at one of the restaurants in our hotel. The food was excellent, exceptionally well-presented yet also absurdly overpriced. A glass of orange juice (albeit fresh-squeezed) cost $9.00

We ordered four-cheese omelets followed by banana-macadamia nut pancakes with whipped-banana brown-sugar butter. We were very happy with our meal—and, at the price, we should have been. Once taxes and gratuities were added, we had to shell out $175.00.

After breakfast, we took the subway up to the Guggenheim Museum. Josh had never visited the Guggenheim, and he wanted to see the building more than the collection.

We spent a couple of hours at the Guggenheim, exploring the portions of the building that were open (the Guggenheim is between major exhibitions at present, and portions of the building are closed).

In addition to enjoying the building itself, we viewed two small exhibitions, both taken from the museum’s permanent collection: a display of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from the Thannhauser Collection; and a display entitled “Expressionist Paintings Before World War I”. We enjoyed both exhibitions very much.

After the Guggenheim, we took the subway back to Midtown, because we had matinee tickets to Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter”, a production of Roundabout Theatre Company currently in previews at American Airlines Theatre (the official opening is scheduled for Thursday night).

“Present Laughter” is a diverting and moderately amusing play, and we enjoyed the afternoon.

Victor Garber played the lead. Garber is a fine actor, but he lacks the “star quality” demanded of a play about a matinee idol (and he is also too old for the part by twenty years). Harriet Harris, an actress we had last seen in “The Glass Menagerie” at The Guthrie Theater, was in the cast, as was Nancy E. Carroll, a Boston-based actress we have seen in two Boston productions, “The Year Of Magical Thinking” and “The Savannah Disputation”.

This was by no means a stylish or unified production of “Present Laughter”, and the production level was that of regional theater, yet the material registered. It was not a waste of our time.

After the matinee, we walked down to Macy’s Herald Square in order to kill time until the evening performance. Josh had never visited Macy’s, and he wanted to experience the store. We walked around for ninety minutes before heading back to the theater district.

We ate dinner at an Italian restaurant that claimed to specialize in Venetian cuisine. We probably ordered the wrong entree—we both ordered chicken breasts and baby vegetables, which may be ordered at any American restaurant—but at least our soup was genuinely Italian: soup made with cannellini beans and homemade pasta. Our food was perfectly acceptable.

After dinner, we walked to the Cort Theatre to attend a preview performance of Arthur Miller’s “A View From The Bridge” in its revised, two-act version from 1956 (the official opening is scheduled for next Sunday).

A labored melodrama, “A View From The Bridge” is one of the least subtle plays ever written. The play is one of Miller’s many thinly-veiled attacks on McCarthyism, already out-of-date by 1955, the year in which the original one-act version was first performed. The lines assigned to the various characters derive from placards. There is a musty, 1930’s sensibility to the work, as if Miller had never been able to recover from the early years of The Great Depression. Many persons have contended that Miller wrote the same play over and over for fifty years, and there is some merit in that assertion: Josh had never seen a production of “A View From The Bridge” before Saturday night and yet, at play’s end, he announced that he had already seen this play a hundred times.

I did not know what to make of the New York production, which was heavy, blatant and staggeringly obvious. The material is so bad, however, that the quality of a particular production probably becomes an irrelevant consideration. No director and no cast could possibly bring such agitprop to life. I doubt that anyone alive accepts “A View From The Bridge” as genuine drama. Revivals of the play are surely mounted as historic artifacts.

Why did we buy tickets for “A View From The Bridge”? We elected to see “A View From The Bridge” for the very same reason we had elected to see “A Little Night Music” and “Present Laughter”: those were the only three productions on Broadway that held the slightest interest for us.

Broadway is dead. I cannot believe that Broadway now offers nothing more than a proliferation of musicals, most of which I cannot imagine sitting through. I simply cannot comprehend the attraction of “Jersey Boys”, or “In The Heights”, or “Bye, Bye, Birdie”, or “Finian’s Rainbow”, or “West Side Story”, or “Hair”, or “The Lion King”, or “Billy Elliott”, or “Mamma Mia!”, or “Mary Poppins”, or “Wicked”. Broadway has become Las Vegas.

On Sunday morning, we ate breakfast in the same hotel restaurant as Saturday morning, as we had liked the food so much. We ordered bacon and eggs, followed by Belgian waffles with fresh berries and Devonshire cream.

After breakfast, we walked down to the Morgan Library And Museum, which Josh had never visited. We arrived as it opened for the day, and we spent a couple of hours viewing the current exhibitions and touring the restored rotunda, library, librarian’s office and J.P. Morgan’s study, all designed by Charles McKim in the early 20th Century. The McKim interiors were the highlight of our visit—the grand rooms, considered to be one of the architect’s greatest legacies, were magnificent.

The current Morgan exhibitions we did not find to be particularly interesting. One exhibition was devoted to Jane Austen, another was devoted to the history of the Morgan buildings, and a third was devoted to Near Eastern cylinder seals.

After the Morgan, we walked all the way up to Lincoln Center. We had tickets for the 3:00 p.m. matinee at New York City Ballet, a performance of Peter Martins’s version of the full-length “Romeo And Juliet”.

We had never seen the Martins’s “Romeo And Juliet”—it had premiered in Spring 2007—and we were keen to see what Martins had made of Prokofiev’s masterpiece.

I hated the thing. I thought it was atrocious.

Martins’s is a very pared-down version of “Romeo And Juliet”, starting with the title, which has become “Romeo + Juliet” in City Ballet lexicon. Martins dispensed with a good portion of the score, too, reducing Prokofiev’s carefully-conceived three-act structure to two, with the intermission placed at the conclusion of Act II, Scene I.

The stage designs, abstract and not handsome, as well as the costume designs were disastrous, featuring garish colors and geometric patterns seemingly inspired by early productions of Stravinsky’s “Jeu De Cartes”.

There was a great deal of activity onstage—indeed, there was activity galore—but the story got lost amid all the frenetic movement. Some of the choreography worked quite well as a series of set pieces, but as drama this production was inert, a true non-starter.

“Romeo And Juliet”, despite its great score, may be an impossible ballet to bring off: no one has ever done it.

In the ballet world, there has long been a joke about the three versions of “Romeo And Juliet” that have managed to hold the stage for some reasonable period of time.

QUESTION: Which “Romeo And Juliet” version is best? The Ashton? The Cranko? The MacMillan?

ANSWER: Whichever version I am not currently sitting through.

Each of the three well-known versions of “Romeo And Juliet” has its problems, but each of those versions has something to recommend it, too. Martins’s version has absolutely nothing in its favor. It is a case of no merits and all demerits.

We could not help but notice that City Ballet’s 2010 repertory season is heavily weighted toward full-length ballets, something I have never seen before at NYCB. “Swan Lake”, “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Romeo And Juliet”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Jewels” are all part of the 2010 season. Is this unprecedented focus on full-length ballets a concession to the current economic environment?

After the “Romeo And Juliet” performance, we walked back to our hotel, retrieved the car, and drove back to Boston.

We arrived home, famished, a few minutes past 10:00 p.m.

We had eaten nothing since breakfast and, Monday being a holiday, we stayed up late and prepared a full dinner: an elaborate garden salad, baked steak (using my mother’s recipe), French-fried potatoes, steamed lima beans, steamed white corn and Waldorf salad.

Despite the late hour, it was worth the trouble.

Update Of 24 January 2010: My mother has just informed me that Jean Simmons, the Desiree in that long-ago "A Little Night Music" my parents attended in Chicago, has died.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Coming Holiday Weekend

This coming holiday weekend, Joshua and I will drive down to New York in order to spend Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We’ll return to Boston Sunday night. Even though Monday is a federal holiday, there is no point in our spending Monday in New York, too, because on Monday nothing will be on.

We plan to attend four performances during our stay. We plan to catch the current Broadway productions of “A Little Night Music”, “Present Laughter” and “A View From The Bridge” (the latter two in previews), and we plan to see Peter Martins’s production of the full-length “Romeo And Juliet” at New York City Ballet.

We contemplated buying tickets for concerts by the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, in residence at Carnegie Hall, but we elected to avoid the concert hall for the weekend, especially since Thursday night we will hear the Boston Symphony play Mozart and Elgar under Colin Davis at Symphony Hall.

Josh and I invited Josh’s sister to join us for the weekend, as Josh’s sister has never visited New York. We even offered to pay for her airfare from Nashville and back, but Josh’s parents, once they got wind of our invitation, would not hear of it. Their final verdict: “Perhaps next year”.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Magic Of Travel

When we travel, we look for the great seats of culture and history. A museum places you within the culture that you are visiting, even if the works are not from that culture. Every museum, every country and every city has a different approach to presenting things. Works of art are all different; they all have their own individuality and personality.

Seeking out culture is part of the magic of travel. You may live in a city and rarely visit its museums and sights. I know a great many Parisians who have never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower; that is human nature. But there is something about travel that takes us on to a different level, that opens us up to culture.

Philippe De Montebello

Monday, January 11, 2010

Margaret Thatcher's "The Path To Power"

I have now completed reading “The Path To Power”, Volume II of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs.

Thatcher’s memoirs are not chronological—“The Downing Street Years” constitutes Volume I and is intended to be read first—but I decided to read the memoirs out-of-sequence in order to follow in chronological terms Thatcher’s account of her own life.

My father told me I was making a mistake in beginning with “The Path To Power” instead of “The Downing Street Years”, but I am not yet prepared to admit error. Volume II, on its own terms, was a very happy beginning for me—but I admit it is possible that I may experience a change of heart after I read Volume I.

Much of the ground Thatcher covers in “The Path To Power” is exceedingly well-known, yet Thatcher’s own personal twist on people and events is essential if historians are to acquire a deep understanding of her years in power and her influence not only upon her own nation but upon international affairs.

In “The Path To Power”, Thatcher addresses practically everything of note that happened to her between 1925, the year of her birth, and 1979, the year she became Prime Minister.

Much of what she writes about her life is not inherently interesting. Thatcher lived a largely unremarkable existence until 1970, the year in which the Edward Heath government assumed power and she was given a Cabinet post. Thatcher’s discussion of the years 1925 to 1970 provides anything but gripping reading. Simply put, Thatcher was not cut out for domestic life, and her account of her first forty-five years is dutiful and no more, as if the author could not wait to move on to more important matters.

From 1970 through 1979, however, Thatcher’s life was one great drama, a prelude of sorts to the even greater dramas to come during her years in 10 Downing Street. Thatcher covers those nine eventful years with great skill—she was an excellent assessor of the people around her (both those for and those against her), a theoretician of some talent, a master tactician in the realm of party and parliamentary politics, and a woman whose talents all moved into high gear during the 1970’s, the decade in which she advanced from Member Of Parliament to Cabinet Minister to Party Leader to Prime Minister. It was during the decade of the 1970’s that Thatcher became “formidable”—as well as acquired the “Iron Lady” moniker that was to carry her around the world (an intended insult that first appeared in the Soviet press, “Iron Lady” became not a term of disparagement, as the Soviets had hoped, but an instant badge of honor).

The Heath years were not happy ones for Thatcher. The Heath government’s policies, in as much disarray as Britain itself, were a mishmash of Conservative and Labour positions, often espousing conservative principles in theory while advocating statist policies in practice. This was no solid foundation for a long-lasting government—it was a recipe for disaster (as well as bitter internal strife among Tories). The Heath government did about-face after about-face (“U-turns” in the parlance of the day) until no one had a clue what the Heath government stood for. In 1974, the Heath government was turned out in favor of Labour, even though the British public at the time had no more confidence in Labour than in the Tories.

Eight months after forming a government, Labour called a surprise election in order to solidify its power. The gambit worked: Labour achieved a majority.

The surprise election spelled the end of Heath’s political career. He had lost three of four national elections while head of the Conservative Party, and dissatisfaction with his performance had reached critical mass within the backbench of his own party.

Heath was too obtuse to realize that he had lost the support of the rank-and-file. He was taken by surprise when a challenge arose to contest his party leadership—and he was equally surprised to learn that his challenger, through a series of backroom maneuvers mostly involving other prospective candidates dropping out of the race, was none other than Margaret Thatcher.

Heath expected to defeat his challenger with ease, but the joke was on him: Thatcher emerged from the contest with an easy victory on the first ballot. Heath was forced to step down from the Conservative leadership the following day.

Thatcher’s support had come not from the aristocratic wing of the Conservative Party but from the middle-class wing of the Tories. The old-line aristocrats had lined up behind Heath, but they had been outnumbered—and outmaneuvered—by dozens upon dozens of backbenchers who believed that the Party’s denizens were no longer serving the nation’s interests and needed to be replaced. Thus was set into motion not only the modern Conservative Party but also an anti-Thatcher faction within her own party, a group of old-line traditionalists that could never accommodate itself to the notion that a woman, let alone “a grocer’s daughter”, had ended its monopoly on power. The aristocratic wing of the Tories was never to grant Thatcher its full support—and, years later, would prove to possess one of the seeds of her demise and subsequent fall from power.

By such events had Thatcher become, in February 1975, the first woman to lead one of Britain’s major parties. Having won the position as an outsider, Thatcher had no choice but to appoint Heath’s closest associates to her Shadow Cabinet. In consequence, during her early years as Party Leader, Thatcher was exceedingly cautious while she moved her party inch-by-inch to the Right.

Fundamental to her success in convincing her fellow Conservatives that they must represent something other than “Labour Lite” was a plethora of position papers supplied to the Conservative Party by various think tanks in Britain and the U.S., such papers advocating an abandonment of Keynesian economics as the key to Britain rising from its decades-long economic quagmire.

The Conservative Party had four years in opposition to study these papers and to become convinced that such a course of action needed to be installed. Had not Conservatives enjoyed that four-year window out of power—four years in which to create and solidify an intra-party consensus about the need for economic and monetary reform—there would never have been a Thatcher Revolution.

As leader of the Opposition, Thatcher bided her time in public while working behind-the-scenes to gather support within her own party for the advancement of free-market reforms. While Thatcher shored up support for a radical rethinking of her nation’s policies, Labour dithered. The country went from crisis to crisis while Labour, holding a razor-thin majority in The House Of Commons, was content to serve as caretaker government. In a state of hubris, Labour watched Britain continue to deteriorate, seeing its role as nothing more than manager of national decline.

The winter of 1978-1979 saw a critical turn in the nation’s fortunes. That winter was marked by coal shortages, electricity outages, wildcat strikes and garbage piled high on the streets of London. That winter became known as the “Winter Of Discontent”.

Public dissatisfaction with Labour reached a peak in February 1979. Thatcher seized the moment: she introduced a Motion Of No Confidence in The House.

By a vote of 311-310, the Motion passed. Labour had to dissolve Parliament and call elections. Thatcher’s had been the first successful “No Confidence” Motion since 1924.

In an election campaign defined by the Conservative slogan, “Labour Isn’t Working”, the Tories amassed a majority of 44, the first Conservative absolute majority in The House Of Commons since the early 1960’s.

“The Path To Power” ends, suitably, with Thatcher’s great 1979 electoral victory.

Thatcher tells this story well, but she airbrushes a few items along the way. Of greatest significance, she fails to offer worthy accounts of her associations with Keith Joseph and former Prime Minister Heath.

Keith Joseph was one of the most important figures in the Conservative Party. He might have challenged Heath himself in 1975, but Joseph was under mounting criticism for a speech he gave in Birmingham, a speech that had called for a thorough review of government policies that provided public support for unmarried lower-class mothers. (Joseph’s speech was little different than Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s contemporaneous writings in the United States advocating a policy of “benign neglect”.) Effectively shoved out of the race, Joseph threw his support behind Thatcher. He was to serve as a key advisor to Thatcher for the next several years, first in the Opposition and later in the Government.

Thatcher mentions Joseph many times, but she fails to accord him the key role in the Thatcher Revolution to which he is entitled. He was the most analytical and most brilliant of the Tory leaders, instrumental in obtaining grass-root support for free-market reforms in and out of The House Of Commons. Thatcher nonetheless fails to acknowledge fully the vital importance of his work and dedication over the course of many years. Aside from Thatcher herself, Joseph may have been the most important figure in British politics during the latter half of the seventies and first half of the eighties.

Heath is an altogether different matter. Thatcher does not attempt to ignore Heath, which would have been impossible, but she entirely sugar-coats him, failing to point out—unlike so many others, who have provided truer accounts of Heath’s fall from power and the resultant bitterness he carried within himself until his dying day—that Heath acted badly after he lost his party leadership and did everything possible to undercut Thatcher for the rest of his life. Thatcher takes an unaccountably high road in her discussions of Heath, and this excessive nobility rings false—anyone willing to plow through the Thatcher memoirs already knows legions of stories about Heath’s public and private attempts to bring down the Thatcher government. Thatcher should, I believe, have swung her purse at Heath, and offered a truer account of Heath’s shenanigans.

At volume’s end, the reader is left with the impression that the private Thatcher is very much like the public Thatcher. A woman of no nonsense, firm in her principles and firm in her opinions, Thatcher was the woman to be called upon when a difficult job was at hand—and, when her country called for her, Thatcher was ready. She told the public what Britain needed, she did what she said she would do, and she told the public what she had done: THAT’S leadership, and she supplied it in massive doses.

History’s final judgment of Thatcher will come from the U.S.

Germans and Frenchmen cannot judge Thatcher soundly because Germans and Frenchmen do not understand the Anglosphere and because Germans and Frenchmen carry pro-statist instincts entirely at odds with the English-speaking world and its tradition of skepticism toward government dating back to the Magna Carta.

The British themselves cannot judge Thatcher soundly because the British Left is still caught up in virulent anti-Thatcher hatred while the British Right still has not decided what to make of the great lady, afraid to embrace the legacy but also afraid to cut the cords.

As a result, American historians will be called upon to render the final verdict. That verdict appears to be an easy one to make.

One of the guides in judging great leaders is first the realization and later the acknowledgement that their successors, for several generations, are always unable to measure up.

The task of judging Thatcher will be made considerably easier by the circumstance that she indeed has been followed, in comparison to herself, by a succession of nonentities.

Like Ronald Reagan, Thatcher stands astride the pygmies that followed in her wake.

I look forward to “The Downing Street Years”.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Couperin, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky And Prokofiev

Over the holidays, we listened to music much of the time we were home.

We kept six discs in the player. The discs did not contain Christmas music, but the music was deeply spiritual, particularly festive or somehow appropriate for the cold of a Minnesota winter. In addition, the music we chose was—deliberately—of wide appeal, as other family members would be coming and going throughout the holidays. There was no point in chasing them away with a strict aural diet of Milton Babbitt.

The discs were:

Couperin’s Lecons De Tenebres, performed by Sophie Daneman, Patricia Petibon and Les Arts Florissants under William Christie, on the Erato label

Haydn Piano Sonatas, performed by Leif Ove Andsnes, on the EMI label

Beethoven’s Septet and Mendelssohn’s Octet, performed by the Vienna Octet, on the Decca label

Tchaikovsky’s complete incidental music to “The Snow Maiden”, performed by Irina Mishura-Lekhtman, Vladimir Grishko, the University Musical Society Choral Union (affiliated with the University Of Michigan at Ann Arbor) and the Detroit Symphony under Neeme Jarvi, on the Chandos label

Stravinsky’s complete ballet, “The Firebird”, performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Colin Davis, on the Philips label

Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” Cantata and “Lieutenant Kije” Suite, performed by Christine Cairns, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Andre Previn, on the Telarc label


Couperin’s Lecons De Tenebres Pour Le Mercredi Saint (“Lessons Of Darkness For Holy Wednesday”), using Lamentations Of Jeremiah as text, are among Couperin’s most profound compositions. Only three Couperin Lessons survive (the composer wrote nine). They are equal, if not superior, to Charpentier’s Lessons.

Couperin wrote Lecons in 1714 for Holy Week Services at Longchamp Abbey, a Franciscan outpost established in 1256. The abbey thrived for more than five hundred years until closed during The French Revolution and demolished in the 19th Century. The abbey’s grounds were to become part of today’s Bois De Boulogne.

Couperin’s Lecons are among the most immediately-appealing of all Baroque works, sacred or secular, instrumental or choral. Of grave beauty and dignity, the Lecons are inspired in their melding of text and music and profound in their depth of emotion. The Lecons invite comparisons to Bach’s religious music at its finest.

Composed for two high voices and continuo players, Lecons are today performed both by sopranos and countertenors. Christie’s recording uses sopranos. Daneman and Petibon are very expressive in their handling of the vocal lines, their voices beautifully blended.

Christie’s continuo group is small, but not as small as the continuo groups on rival recordings. I found Christie’s instrumentals to be more apt—and more interesting—than the instrumentals on rival recordings by Christopher Hogwood, Rene Jacobs and Robert King.

In my experience, all who encounter Couperin’s Lecons are positively captivated by them. I am surprised they are not more widely known and appreciated.

My brother, not a particular fan of Baroque vocal music, listened to Lecons in rapture over and over—and took the disc home with him at the end of the holidays so that he might continue listening.

The Erato disc—recorded in 1996, published in 1997 and now out-of-print, although widely available from online vendors—also includes performances of four brief Couperin motets composed for Louis XIV.


The Andsnes disc contains five Haydn keyboard sonatas composed between 1773 and 1789.

The disc identifies the sonatas according to the numbering scheme of the old Feder Edition, an irritating practice, since Feder has long been superseded by the Wiener Urtext Edition, which uses a different numbering system.

Using Hoboken, the sonatas recorded by Andsnes are: (1) Sonata In B Minor, Hob. 16/26; (2) Sonata In D Major, Hob. 16/32; (3) Sonata In A Major, Hob. 16/36; (4) Sonata In C Sharp Minor, Hob. 16/37; and Sonata In E Flat Major, Hob. 16/49.

Haydn expanded the scope and emotional range of his keyboard sonatas considerably during the sixteen years covered by Andsnes’s selections. The 1773 effort is an elegant trifle compared to the depth, variety and grandeur of the 1789 composition, which is more than twice as long—and more than four times as interesting—as the sonata from 1773.

I have always admired Haydn’s piano music. To me, Haydn’s compositions for piano are entitled to the same exalted status as the composer’s symphonies and string quartets. I have never heard a Haydn piano sonata in which the composer’s imagination failed him.

Andsnes is an “objective” pianist, and his Haydn recording offers “objective” playing. Andsnes brought to the project much energy and a beautiful touch at the keyboard, but Andsnes had nothing special or probing to offer in this repertory in the years this disc was recorded (1997 and 1998, when Andsnes was in his late twenties). The performances are entirely pleasant, but also lacking personality and unique insights.

Andsnes displayed one irritating habit on this disc: he tapered phrase endings to extreme, adding rubato and alterations of timbre at the ends of phrases to signal that a musical “thought” was coming to its conclusion. On first hearing, this habit struck me as no more than precious—but, on subsequent hearings, the habit struck me as an unwelcome display of coyness, severely out of place in Haydn’s writing.


The Vienna Octet recording of Beethoven’s Opus 20 and Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 is a 1988 digital remastering of recordings made in the 1950’s. The sound is excellent; few allowances need be made.

Beethoven’s Septet, from 1799, was his first genuinely popular piece. More than any other Beethoven work, the Septet made the composer’s name known throughout Central Europe.

Scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and contrabass, the Septet has six movements. It bears many similarities with the serenades of Mozart, not least of which is its immediate appeal. It is easy to understand why musicians like to play the Septet and music-lovers like to hear it.

Mendelssohn’s Octet, composed for double string quartet, is a product of Mendelssohn’s sixteenth year. A masterpiece of the highest order, it has been one of the most popular pieces in the chamber repertory for almost two centuries.

The performances of the Vienna Octet are very Viennese. The timbres of the clarinet, horn and bassoon—dark, mellow colorations, with very little vibrato used—are known to listeners familiar with post-war recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic. The strings, too, are very mellow, contouring their phrases in an echt-Viennese style that today has largely disappeared.

In the Vienna of the 1950’s, attacks were very soft (although certainly uniform). Tempi were leisurely. A conversational ebb-and-flow characterized the music-making. The playing was deeply musical yet understated—and, as a result, musical climaxes did not always register with full impact.

I cherish these old performances, even though they are far from perfect (I do not like violinist Willi Boskovsky’s tone; scherzo movements are under-characterized and not very scherzo-like; at times I find the playing lacking in intensity).

These classic performances are at present out-of-print.


Tchaikovsky’s incidental music to “The Snow Maiden” premiered in 1873, eight years before the Rimsky-Korsakov opera of the same name and based upon the same material. “The Snow Maiden” was Tchaikovsky’s personal favorite among his early works, just as Rimsky-Korsakov prized his own “Snow Maiden” above all his other operas.

There are twenty numbers in Tchaikovsky’s score, beginning with an Introduction and ending with a Finale, between which are a succession of dances, choruses, songs, entr’actes, and melodramas. A varied and tuneful score, “The Snow Maiden” requires 80 minutes to perform complete.

The Jarvi/Detroit recording, issued in 1994, is a good one. The orchestra plays well, sometimes brilliantly, and the vocal soloists, both of Russian origin, have probably known this music since their youth. The chorus, not a professional one, displays more eagerness than finesse, but such considerations do not matter—this is an irresistible score that should be heard more often in the concert hall. The composer was right in valuing this score highly until the day of his death.

The Chandos recording is very bright, yet the bright sound picture is apt for such a brilliant work.

The recording remains in print, quite rare for Jarvi’s Detroit recordings, most of which have long ago—and very deservedly—departed the active catalog. Jarvi, legendary for his facile music-making, skimmed over the surface of countless scores in recording studios everywhere in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, leaving behind a giant trail of undistinguished if not mediocre product. Little of Jarvi’s massive discography will ever be reissued, and this is as it should be: his was not a legacy worth preserving.


The Philips recording of the complete “Firebird” was made in 1978. Since the day it was released, this recording has been recognized as one of the finest “Firebird” recordings ever issued.

The chief attractions of the disc are the wonderful playing of the Concertgebouw and Davis’s very expressive handling of the score.

The Concertgebouw was a magnificent instrument in 1978. Its winds and brass were stunning—far more stunning in 1978 than in recent years—and its strings had yet to acquire the wiriness that afflicts the Concertgebouw strings of today. As a pure example of sophisticated orchestral sound, this Concertgebouw “Firebird” is hard to match.

Davis treats the score as a romantic vehicle, and his approach works beautifully. His is not the diamond-bright, hard-edged Stravinsky to which American listeners are accustomed. Davis’s Stravinsky emphasizes expression, characterization and storytelling. The result is an opulent and seductive “Firebird”.

This “Firebird” recording is no longer available. It is now part of a two-disc set featuring three other Stravinsky ballets—and none of the couplings is at the high level of this “Firebird”.


The Previn/Los Angeles pairing of Prokofiev’s concert arrangements of his two most popular film scores of the 1930’s should be a standard-setter.

The recording quality is outstanding—it has richness, clarity and plenty of detail—and the performances are very fine, obviously having been meticulously rehearsed and shaped. I have never heard a Los Angeles Philharmonic recording in which the orchestra sounds as impressive as it does on this Telarc disc.

The ultimate effect of the Previn recording, however, is one of blandness—and “Alexander Nevsky” is anything but bland. There is too little energy, too little excitement, and too little impact in this performance, surely a case of Previn having an off day in the recording studio (the recording was made in UCLA’s Royce Hall in a single day in November 1986).

The recording gives ample pleasure because of the glorious sound and excellent playing—but, as an experience of Prokofiev’s genius, the recording is a disappointment. One’s attention is not seized, one’s pulse does not quicken. There is no mounting excitement as there must be in a “Nevsky” performance.

The “Kije” coupling is pleasant, but not as witty as it should be.