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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Traveling Critic: Boston's Back Bay

I was up in Boston last week on non-blog business last weekend, and wanted to take a moment to write about the state of music shopping along Newbury Street and Mass. Ave.

Bostonian music aficionadoes well remember the Tower Records that used to stand on this corner at the west end of the Back Bay. Occupying three full floors of a hi-rise condominium, this Tower had the best classical music department in the city. It served as a music library for me when I was a young graduate student. It was open 'til midnight. They played great music all the time. The staff was generally friendly and helpful, especially a clerk (and lute player) named Steve Bielski who I became good friends with over my two years in Boston.

There were also two good HMVs (one in Harvard Square, one downtown around the corner from Locke-Ober's) and another Tower in Harvard Square. All these stores are gone now, even the Virgin Megastore that moved in to replace the Tower Records in the Back Bay. It's now a Best Buy, the lowest of the low when it comes to music stores.

However, just when all hope seemed lost for those of us who still prefer CDs to MP3s, it springs forth anew. It turns out Newbury Comics, a store which specializes in comics, rock'n'roll, and DVDs (kind of like Kim's Video Underground crossed with Forbidden Planet, for you New Yorkers) has expanded and opened a big classical music department. Right in the back of the store, where the comic books used to be. So there's still a place in the Back Bay to find good quality new CDs. But now, like all the good things in Boston, you have to know where it is.

Now you know, too.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dusting off the Haitink Ring

Signed Photo of Eva Marton as Brunnhilde.
Photo owned by Andrew Howe.
There's been a lot of Wagner and Strauss-related content in the blog lately. These two great German composers number among my favorites, whether for the power of Wagner's mighty orchestral developments or the shimmering diversity of voices that Strauss wrung from the orchestra.

In the interest of continuing our summer program along the same vein, here's a look at Bernard Hairink's underrated version of Wagner's mega-mythological cycle.

When the Haitink Ring hit the market, it faced a lot of stiff competition. Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan had made classic cycles (in the '60s and '70s, respectfully). James Levine had unleashed his Metropolitan Opera forces on a set of audio and video readings of the four operas. And live recordings from Fürtwangler, Böhm, and Boulez peppered the already-overstocked shelves of the big classical music stores--Tower, HMV and (later) the Virgin Megastore.

All of those are now gone, and the classical music industry has reduced its output to a trickle of CDs and a flood of reissues. So it's time to re-assess Bernard Haitink's durable version of the Ring. Assets of the recording include a fine Siegfried sung by ex-bassoonist Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor-that-never-was Reiner Goldberg as his daddy Siegmund, and Matti Salminen as an impressive Hunding.

Theo Adam, who recorded Wotan for Karl Böhm, here shifts to Alberich. He was much older when this recording was made, but his snarls suit the dwarf. Waltraud Meier is an excellent, bitchy Fricka (only in Walküre) Marjana Lipovsek sings the role in Das Rheingold opposite the Wotan of James Morris. Morris, in turn sounds better on this set than on the Levine cycle. Finally, Götterdämmerung features a superb trio of Gibichungs. Thomas Hampson is an heroic, yet appropriately wimpy Gunther, Cheryl Studer as Gutrune, and John Tomlinson, is in fine, gruff voice as the treacherous Hagen.

Unfortunately, there is one big negative in this set, the stentorian Brunnhilde of Eva Marton. She sings most of the role without inflection, keeping her big, laser-like soprano on full blast even in the most lyrical passages. The decision to have her sing all three phrases of "Heil dir Sonne" (from Siegfried) at full fortissimo destroys Wagner's intentions and robs the Awakening scene of its beauty. However, she gets better in the later pages of Götterdämmerung, particularly the confrontation in Act II and the radiant finale. She is aided by the underrated Munich orchestra, in superb, shimmering form, led by a conductor who appreciates textures and nuances found in the more obscure corners of the score.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats