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Positive Feedback ISSUE 44
july/august 2009


Notes of an Amateur - July 7 2009, Part 1
by Bob Neill 



The Juniper Tree (Grimm's Brothers); an opera. Philip Glass and Robert Moran. Libretto by Arthur Yorinks. Orange Mountain Music 0057.

Modern opera, perhaps because so much of it sets contemporary modern life into modernist musical style, has always been a challenge for me, even the alleged great ones like Lulu and Wozzak. Opera has traditionally been built on romantic, mythic, symbolic, or sentimental material and, at least for me, been the better for it. It is arguably our least realistic genre to begin with and so can't tolerate realistic subject matter very well. Among moderns, Benjamin Britten seemed to understand this best, and by focusing on old tales, ghost stories, Shakespeare, and finally Thomas Mann's heavily atmospheric novella, Death in Venice, is powerfully effective. But he's in the minority for me. There have been some second generation modernist operas with contemporary matter which strike me as successful. John Adams' Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, perhaps because they use the somewhat surreal minimalist musical style to surprisingly good effect. I'm not sure how well those two operas will stand up, but they make a powerful first impression.

There are some other kinds of contemporary opera which take the hint from Britten, but they are hard to find. A few years ago I stumbled onto a CD with excerpts from Desert of Roses, a contemporary work by (mainly) neo-romantic Robert Moran, which draws on the beauty and the beast fairy tale. That music tore into me like a teenage love affair. It has slight hints of minimalism but mainly a sort of Copland-like romanticism that brought back my latent affection for opera. (Copland's own opera, The Tender Land, is an interesting case, which I'll get to some other time. It serves almost as a bridge between opera and Broadway musicals.)

And now I have in my house a 1985 chamber opera just released for the first time, which also involves Robert Moran: The Juniper Tree, a collaboration by Moran and minimalist Philip Glass. And it's a killer, even after several hearings over a week and a half intended to test my infatuation more rigorously!

Based on the famous Grimm's tale, it draws on a brilliant blending of these two musical styles—Glass and Moran write scenes individually—which is successful not only because the contrast of the two styles produces extraordinary dramatic musical power, vigorous minimalism for the tale's darker moments, romanticism for its lyric ones, but also because Moran incorporates some of Glass's themes and style into his sections. The result of this blending is that we can feel the two styles (and views of the world) working with and against each other at close quarters. For example, Glass writes a haunting song and Moran works with it in succeeding scenes, eventually making it the center of the opera's denouement. Glass is always relentless and driving Glass in his scenes, Moran bitter-sweet romantic Moran in his; but the blended sections are critical, generating the drama that story-telling demands. Glass and Moran prove that while Adams' (and Glass's—he has written other operas on his own) minimalism may be a successful vehicle for modern opera, it may need to draw on opera's romantic core to truly knock us out. Opera should knock you out.

Also key to the brilliance of this enterprise is Arthur Yorinks's libretto, which expands the spare symbolic tale by opening up the 'wicked stepmother' at its heart. By making her self-aware of her literally murderous jealousy without taking away her metaphysical evil, he makes the tale and opera more explicitly human, more a (dramatic) opera say, less a purely musical oratorio. 

This opera works as modern opera—and is full of wonderful music. Take a flyer on it.



Haydn, Complete Quartets, Volume 4. Opus 33 and Opus 42. Festetics Quartet. Arcana A 414.

When major French recording producer Michel Bernstein died in 2006 with one of his masterwork series, a complete edition of Haydn's string quartets performed by the Festetics Quartet, one album short of the finish line, anxiety spread among fans. I remember reaching French recording engineer Anne Decoville a year or so after Bernstein's death and being told by her that the last album was “in the can,” but that since Bernstein's label, Arcana, had essentially died with him, release of the final recordings was problematic.

But now, here they are! An Italian company, 551 Media Srl, bought Arcana's list—or at least the Haydn recordings; and now all are available again, including this last set. Some stories end well.

The Festetics have a fine reputation among 'period instrument' groups, but they are even better than their repute. They are what the Early Music movement was supposed to be all about. Here are the clarity, litheness, airiness, and bitter-sweetness of eighteenth century instruments that their successor instruments, for all of their increased dynamics and power and scale simply can't capture. Of course it helps if your audio system isn't excessively lean and analytic!

This their last set, the justly famous Opus 33 (with a stray single quartet, Opus 42) strikes me as sonically the best of the series, though its immediate predecessor featuring Opus 32 comes close. There is a natural warmth, presence, and immediacy to these recorded performances that is captivating. Since Anne Decoville is the engineer for both of these sets and none of the earlier ones, perhaps she is the answer.

The Festetics take a traditional European view of the music: no eccentric tempos keep Haydn's poised classical view of the world from coming through in all its affirming grace, clarity, even-handedness, charm, and wit. This is both a superb introduction and a brilliant conclusion to the complete series. 

System used for this audition: Audio Note CDT3 transport and Dac 4.1 Balanced Signature. Blue Circle FtTH hybrid integrated amplifier. Jean Marie Reynaud Emeraude loudspeakers. With Blue Circle BC6000 line conditioner. Audio Note Pallas and Sootto interconnects; Audio Note Lexus speaker cables.

Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive- Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, and JM Reynaud, among others.