Singer Ian Bostridge was misidentified in a record review in the Nov. 10 Arts section. He is a tenor. (Published 11/14/02)
When did the term "crossover music" turn into a put-down? After all, Mozart was delighted to hear his melodies cranked out on barrel organs in the streets of Prague; legendary violinists such as Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler usually played a few "light" numbers to conclude their concerts; and the incomparable lyric tenor John McCormack sang Irish folk ditties with the same fastidious concentration he brought to Handel arias. Enrico Caruso even went so far as to record George M. Cohan's "Over There" as part of a general effort to stoke American enthusiasm for World War I; it became one of his most famous discs and reached thousands of listeners who wouldn't have dreamed of purchasing a ticket to the opera.
Still, for at least half a century, critics from the left and the right have found common cause in decrying any breakdown of the divisions between musical genres. The Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno thought that the composer Kurt Weill had betrayed his talent when he began writing for Broadway and Hollywood (as if "September Song," that haunting meditation on mortality, were one iota less "serious" than "Mack the Knife"!). Meanwhile, the late Samuel Lipman, the founding publisher of the New Criterion, had harsh words for any definition of music theater that could encompass both Beethoven's "Fidelio" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"
Fair enough: "Fidelio" beats "Oklahoma!" (although it might be argued that the latter makes for a livelier evening, as Beethoven's genius was not primarily a dramatic one). Still, our opera houses hardly present a steady diet of "Fidelio": You are at least as likely to hear such tawdry shockers as Ponchielli's "La Gioconda," Giordano's "Andrea Chenier" or Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur." And I'll trade you the last three for Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," which seems to me more sophisticated, more demanding and altogether more accomplished than much of the operatic repertory, even if it did begin life as a humble "Broadway musical."
Matters become complicated when a "star" in one repertory decides to take on different material. Few would credit the Three Tenors -- great artists though they are -- with any special insight into the show tunes that they trot out as crowd-pleasers. And Barbra Streisand's long-ago disc of "Classical Barbra" -- music by composers ranging from Handel to Carl Orff -- was widely panned (although it found one eloquent defender in the late Glenn Gould, in a famous article for High Fidelity). Even soprano Anne Sofie von Otter's 2001 collaboration with Elvis Costello, "For the Stars," while recognized as an earnest and ambitious endeavor, hardly ranked with the best work from either artist.
Now the baritone Ian Bostridge, whose elaborately nuanced albums of Schubert lieder have been rightly admired, has taken it upon himself to record "The Noel Coward Songbook" (EMI Classics), complete with such familiar songs as "Poor Little Rich Girl," "A Room With a View," "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "I Travel Alone." "Here is melodic invention but also melodic, and implicitly, harmonic subtlety," Bostridge observes in his liner notes. "The tunes are catchy but their precise twists and turns are nevertheless difficult to get quite right." He goes on to cite Coward's "post-Great-War grittiness, which reminded me of one of my favorite German composers, Kurt Weill." As if to prove the point, Bostridge has chosen to sing tart, jagged and sometimes astringently dissonant arrangements of Coward songs by Corin Buckeridge, played by Jeffrey Tate.
The results evoke Weimar Berlin rather than Mayfair London -- a profound misreading. While there is indeed unsettling darkness in a song such as "Parisian Pierrot," it also maintains a chipper, self-deprecating humor that is pretty much a British invention. Moreover, in sharp contrast to Weill (and his lyricist-of-choice, Bertolt Brecht), Coward was never didactic and, throughout this album, Bostridge always seems to be making a point; he does not sing the songs so much as declaim them. Yes, Coward has depths, but his brightly baubled surfaces are equally important, and they are distorted in this overly solemn program. Stick to the Master's own recordings -- especially the early ones, with Carroll Gibbons on piano, playing the music as it was written.
Another pop master, Brian Wilson, has lately chosen to revisit his own 1966 song cycle, "Pet Sounds," reaching for classical grandeur with a live orchestra. A new disc on the BriMel label, "Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds Live" captures a performance in London earlier this year, backed by the Los Angeles band the Wondermints. My initial response to the release was glib: The idea sounded about as appetizing as a new version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," re-created entirely by Paul McCartney. But the comparison is not germane: Wilson really was the sole mastermind behind most of the Beach Boys' early recordings and, by all accounts, he had considerable difficulty prevailing over those members of the group who simply wanted to make hits and money.
Still, despite deft accompaniment from the Wondermints and solid, if rather Vegas-y, singing from Wilson himself, "Pet Sounds Live" is a superfluous record. Not a single track from the original album is here bettered (this despite a burbling, lively jam on the title cut), and the applause and stage patter in between melodies are disruptive in the extreme. The original "Pet Sounds" has been called the first "concept album," and while it was hardly that (Frank Sinatra had recorded "Close to You" almost a decade before), it remains a fresh, unified and sweetly innocent creation -- the work of an untested 24-year-old man. "Pet Sounds Live" is merely expedient, high-quality product from a pro; if Wilson had anything new or urgent to add to his masterpiece at the age of 59, he kept it to himself.
The best crossover record that has come my way in recent days is "Anne Sofie von Otter Sings Offenbach" (Deutsche Grammophon). Offenbach, best known now for his grand opera "Tales of Hoffmann" and the delicious potpourri of tunes that Manuel Rosenthal combined into the balletic confection known as "Gaite Parisienne," wrote dozens of operettas, stage pieces, songs -- indeed, about 600 different works. His music is witty, melodious and unfailingly well-crafted; von Otter gives us generous selections from "La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein," "La Belle Helene," "La Vie Parisienne" and "La Fille du Tambour-Major," as well as the celebrated "Barcarolle," accompanied by the Musiciens du Louvre, under the direction of Mark Minkowski.
Why do I call this a "crossover" record? Because it is imbued throughout with a grace, lightness and sense of play that have too often been extracted from so-called high art. Offenbach wrote to entertain, and entertain he does: Whatever one's chosen musical genre, anybody who enjoys a good song, sung stylishly, ought to investigate this insouciant and delightful album.