THANKS TO MR. TURNER’S GOOD OFFICES, Deception dropped into my satellite dish a few weeks ago, reminding me once again of the current glum treatment visited by moviemakers upon the noble art I so valiantly struggle to serve. You can have your Australian nut cases driven mad by the Rach 3; you can have your romantic egomaniacs performing simultaneously on nubile wenches and a discolored violin. Just leave me Bette Davis, taking deadly aim at the World’s Greatest Composer on the staircase of his jillion-dollar Manhattan apartment while, a few blocks away, the true love of her life fills worldwide ears with that composer’s new cello concerto — which he had contrived only to blackmail her into fessing up to the cellist that she and the composer . . . oh, never mind.
Delicious nonsense, this; without half trying — and without the almighty carry-on (I steal Pauline Kael’s immortal phrase) of such latter-day fabrications as Amadeus, Shine and, lately, The Red Violin — director Irving Rapper’s 1946 class-act soap opera digs deep into the unreality that besets classical music and makes life worth living for its innumerable slaves. I love the opening sequence: Cellist Paul Henreid, managing his bow as if trying to swat flies, saws his way through the finale of Haydn’s D-major Concerto, then meets his admirers backstage. The local critic (from The Daily Bugle, yet!), complete with horn-rims and pipe, filled to flood stage with his own knowledge, blasts through the crowd to make his presence known. “From now on, Mr. Novak,” he declares, in tones normally reserved for the Sermon on the Mount, “you’re my cellist.” Can’t you just hear me (or Mark Swed, for that matter) backstage at the Music Center? “From now on, Esa-Pekka, you’re my conductor.”
Claude Rains plays the composer in question: Alexander Hollenius, “who combines the melody of the past with the rhythm of today” and whose fees have vouchsafed him an abode for which a Rockefeller mansion might serve as guest cottage — plus another venue nearly as grand, where paramour Bette can practice on a piano as large as some counties (and explain to suspicious true love Paul that she bought it with Green Stamps or some such). With Erich Korngold guiding the pen, he turns out three or so minutes of a competent enough cello concerto, full of the swoops and sweeps that apparently passed as Hollywood’s notion of new music in 1946 — and, alas, still does. (Korngold’s concerto was completed and recorded, if you care: no worse a hackwork than the “Spellbound” or “Warsaw” concertos of similar provenance.)
Old movies about music and musicians come clothed in a pretension unashamed and joyous. Claude Rains’ Hollenius is an ogre beyond conceivable proportion. So is the Beethoven of Abel Gance’s colossal 1936 prevarication, beside whom the twit of Immortal Beloved is a zoo animal not worth feeding. The acclaim compiled by the dreadful Amadeus seems to have become license to pass off the old-fashioned lies about music as immortal truths. The Red Violin‘s acrobatic fornications are no more fun (and no less) than the threesomes in Farinelli. The lie-telling in both films strikes me as insulting both to music and to an intelligent moviegoer — or is that, these days, a contradiction in terms?
There is a musical quotient in Violin that is being passed off by the PR folk as worth serious attention: Joshua Bell’s solos over Esa-Pekka’s leadership of a John Corigliano score. Did I miss something? I hear a Main Theme ripped off from the old standard “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” laid onto a bland orchestral throbbing, with the solos nicely intoned — but so what? In E. Annie Proulx’s wonderful new novel, Accordion Crimes, a green accordion gets handed across generations and around the world, in a story shapely and elegantly told; The Red Violin traces a similar journey with nothing mistakable for shape or elegance. Besides, a local instrument maker tells me that the violin’s “secret” reddening ingredient would have turned black within days.
BETTER PLAYING OF THE VIOLIN — STUpendous, in fact — took place at the Hollywood Bowl last week: Vadim Repin’s account of the first of Shostakovich’s two violin concertos, with the Philharmonic handily managed by Eri Klas. Composed in 1948 for David Oistrakh, and kept under wraps until 1955 with Stalin safely out of earshot, this is powerful, intense music from a composer whose stature looms ever taller. The humor bites viciously; quiet passages disturb rather than calm. The work is, by some distance, the most farseeing music yet heard at the Bowl this summer; only the Salonen concert upcoming on August 24 offers any significant challenge. Repin, who has delivered dazzling performances here of repertory concertos (Brahms and Tchaikovsky) — and a fair number of discs, mostly on Erato, including some remarkably convincing excursions into the junk repertory — soared even higher to the challenging crags of this extraordinary work.
Conductors are expected to possess particular insights into the music of their native lands, but that is often easily disproved. Adam Fischer’s Kodály at the Bowl’s opening classical concert disproved the thesis quite adequately. So did Klas’ dreary slog through the Second Symphony by his almost-countryman Sibelius — Estonia being a mere stone’s throw across the water from Finland. I have to admit: I’ve never understood the peculiar power this horrendously overstuffed music has on minds both young and old. I hear it as disconnected wisps of drab melodic shapes pushing through a dense, ponderously gray orchestral buzz-buzz; of lurching to sudden stops as the inspiration simply sputters (a device possibly cribbed from Bruckner); of an oratorical tune in the finale that wears thin on repetitions. Even so, I have been reached by the brute force of some performances; I did, after all, grow up in Serge Koussevitzky’s Boston. The performance under Klas was, I am told, more respectful of the composer’s markings, an element that Koussie was famous for ignoring. As with all those movies, respect for truth doesn’t always make for the best entertainment.