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Sudden Shock 

Wednesday, May 31 2006
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Wanderings

Claude Vivier was born in Montreal in 1948 to anonymous parents, raised in an orphanage and then by foster parents named Vivier. Honored eventually as a brilliant if disturbing composer, he ended up in Paris, where, at 34, he was stabbed to death in his apartment by a young man he had picked up in a bar. On his worktable there was found a completed manuscript, a cantata for voices and orchestra whose narrator tells of cruising a young man who then stabs him to death; the piece ends with the same sudden shock, and then silence, that took place in Vivier’s room. In the hourlong documentary that is part of Dreams of a Marco Polo, a new two-disc DVD produced by Opus Arte and distributed here by Naxos, a Canadian friend of Vivier’s reads some of the composer’s last letters, which talk of suicide in the most haunting way; there are also hints that another project, which he never began, was to be a dramatic work in which the despairing Tchaikovsky, naked and in full acceptance of his homosexuality, confronts the ways of taking his own life. The DVD set — discs and cover alike — is all in black, as it should be.

In 1971, at 23, Vivier had attracted good notices in Canada, and was sent to Europe on a stipend. There he joined the circle around Karlheinz Stockhausen (who, the story goes, was repelled by the stink of his ancient sheepskin jacket — see photo) and developed his own powerful insights into music as ritual, music as a function of color, music saturated with the scents and the sense of the East. By the time of his death, his praise had been sung by György Ligeti and by the enterprising leadership of the Netherlands Opera. The 150 minutes of Vivier’s music that fills out this extraordinary DVD set has been pieced together by the Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw (who brought us Louis Andriessen’s music during the Minimalist Jukebox, and who becomes a compelling, wise presence as video host) and the Netherlands Opera’s Pierre Audi. Powerful, insinuating, drenched in a restless passion, it is by some distance the strongest music by a Canadian composer I have ever heard, the first I have heard that stands absolutely free from the shadow of that country’s southern neighbor.

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Overall, the sequence has been given the name Dreams of a Marco Polo, assuming Vivier himself as the self-proclaimed restless wanderer through many worlds. It begins with his short opera Kopernikus, subtitled “a ritual opera of death,” which involves not so much the medieval scientist as it does real and mythical figures (Lewis Carroll, Merlin, Tristan . . .) around whom dazzling, blinding light images take shape. Into a “Marco Polo” collage several of Vivier’s shorter works have been blended, including Lonely Child, achingly sad evocations of a neglected childhood, set for soprano and ethereal strings. The sense of suffering builds; the final work is the piece on the table in the fateful room. “Do you believe,” the chorus intones, “in the immortality of the soul,” with that “immortality” in German — “unSTERBlichkeit” — itself like a dagger’s thrust. I find a comparable shock, actually, in the impact of this whole astonishing program.

Maestro, by the Pound

On the matter of astonishment, perhaps of shock, this would be a good time to tell you about Maestro. Let me start with the asking price: $4,975 — five grand, minus carfare. This is what you get. Maestro itself is a device for playing music, quite a lot of music in fact, which has been loaded into it in the form of the Cornerstone Collection. (Like your computer full of iTunes, in other words, except that the Cornerstone Collection is very, very big and you get it all at once.) If you’ve never had a smidge of classical music in your house, or anything more recent than a wind-up Victrola, this might be the way to establish yourself suddenly as a highly cultured individual for the whole world to admire.

Except: Just possibly, you might derive some discomfort from the fact that some of the outlay of exquisite discretion and taste that normally goes into the process of collecting — of music or art objects or fine racing horses — has already been done for you by the “classical-music experts” behind the scenes at Maestro headquarters in exotic San Diego. All the music that has been processed and iTuned is from one label — Naxos. Most of it, in fact, is from Naxos’ early years of high-quantity, low-quality catalog building from cheapo Eastern European sources, long discontinued. There’s no choosing your Beethoven symphonies from, say, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic or Giulini and the home team; it’s the Esterházy Sinfonia for you; no Brendel or Barenboim on the Beethoven Sonatas, only Jenö Jandó; and are you willing to entrust your Mahler experience to the Polish Radio Symphony?

True, there are roadways around the dilemma, but they aren’t simple and they are not well-paved. If you happen to have discs in your own collection that you’d rather have processed to play on Maestro than, say, the Mozart of Barry Wordsworth’s Capella Istropolitana, you can bundle up your own discs, ship them off to Maestro; they’ll process them into their own Web site, return the now-obsolete silvery corpses (which you’re free to use as cocktail coasters) and pipe their content into your gleaming new Maestro player (available in silver or black). That process, by the way, is not cheap; you subscribe to the transfer service at 10 bucks per month, which entitles you to five discs. Oh, and by the way, the service also includes digital copies of the booklets — even librettos! — that you can read on your computer screen as the Maestro chugs along.

Am I the only one who finds this whole business distasteful to the point of upchuck? who’s finding in this whole Maestro presentation a disdain for anyone so minimally sophisticated as to care about the identity of the listening experience? the difference between slovenly performance values and care and pride in the presentation of music? Why have I been doing this for the last 60 or so years? or Ernest Fleischmann? or Esa-Pekka? or the man up the block who makes fine violins? or his wife, who plays chamber music? or the next generation now at work at the Crossroads School or Colburn? Surely not to produce the kibble or the wallpaper that these Maestro people represent, with their absurd promotional jargon — “the most-loved, important, influential music” — and their outrageous prices and their Esterházy Sinfonia. Stop me, somebody; this stuff, and the attitude behind it, has me really angry.

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