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The Big Five Posted - Aug 18, 2019
From the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, they were known as "The Big Five." Who were they? They were the world's five best conductors of classical music. They made their reputation first in opera and then in the Central European repertoire (the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schumann and Schubert). Their legacy extends down to our time in the scores of recordings they made, many of which have been remastered and are available today on compact disc.

Two were German jews (Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer) who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and found refuge in America. One was an Italian (Arturo Toscanini) who, after seeing the persecution of jewish musicians in Germany and in his home country, emigrated in protest to the U.S. One was Austrian (Erich Kleiber), who, as Hitler spread his poison across Europe, moved first to South America, then to the U.S. The fifth was Wilhelm Furtwangler, who was born in Berlin and remained in Germany during World War II. In doing so, he intervened on behalf of several Jewish musicians in Germany and in Austria who otherwise might have been arrested and perished in Nazi death camps.

Having achieved world-wide fame, they recorded for the top record labels of their time: in Europe with EMI, and with what would become Deutsche Grammophon; and in the U.S: with Columbia (now Sony), RCA (now BMG), and with Decca (now Decca-London).

Three achieved such distinction that their record companies created special orchestras for their exclusive use: Bruno Walter, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra; and Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Erich Kleiber, with Decca Records, recorded almost exclusively with the famed Concertgebow Orchestra in the Netherlands, while Wilhelm Furtwangler made records with Europe's two top orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.

All five specialized in recording the symphonies of Ludwig Beethoven; that remains their legacy.

Below is a list of their most noted recordings. Some are rated as "classics of the gramophone", definitive recordings that have never been surpassed. Many are in mono, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Given these recordings were made with the most advanced recording equipment of the day, and remastered in the digital era, they sound very good indeed. Sonically, nothing is lost in mono. Think black-and-white movies, and how good they look when restored with today's technology.

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957)

Toscanini first gained attention as a conductor of opera. In 1896, he conducted the premier of Puccini's "La Boheme." Having said that, he built his reputation conducting the nine symphonies of Ludwig Beethoven. He recorded all nine not once but twice. His earlier account, recorded live in Carnegie Hall, in the late 1930s, is considered by most critics to be superior. However, the latter account, recorded in the early 1950s, and remastered in the 1990s, has superior sonics and is by far his most popular work. It's available today as a boxed set (nine symphonies on five compact discs, plus an informative booklet); a real bargain at about $20. From BMG Classics (#82876-55702-2).

Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886-1954)

When it came to interpretation, Furtwangler was Arturo Toscanini's polar opposite. Where the Italian held fast to the score and was all about maintaining a strict consistent tempo. Furtwangler, on the other hand, looked past the score and was forever probing for nuance; as a result his tempos are often as lax as pulled taffy. His greatest interpretations are highly individual and, some would say, idiosyncratic. With Beethoven, three of his recorded symphonies stand out–nos. 3 ("The Eroica"), 5 and 9. His account of Beethoven's Third, recorded live in 1944 with the Vienna Philharmonic is legendary (available from Music & Arts #17685 08142 2).

There's no middle ground with Furtwangler; you either think he's the greatest conductor of all time or you think he's bombastic and over-rated. His 1954 account of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic (EMI CDH 69803-2) is a case in point. It's a riveting performance, but is it the best ever recorded? Ted Libby, music critic with National Public Radio, thinks so. He writes: "Here the conductor is caught in the act of creation, at the height of his powers, in a performance that develops from measure to measure. . . . No one has ever said more with the four notes of the first movement's motto theme, found greater nobility of sentiment in the Andante, made the transition from the scherzo to the final movement more suspenseful, or communicated the triumphant C major symphony more overwhelmingly." Personally, I prefer Toscanini's by-the-book no frills account from 1953.

Erich Kleiber (1890-1956)

Somewhere between Toscanini and Furtwangler is Erich Kleiber. His faithful, mainstream accounts of Beethoven's symphonies are exceptional. Unfortunately, he didn't live long enough to record all nine in the post-war years; what he did record is highly regarded: Symphony Nos. 3 ("The Eroica"), 5 and 6 ("The Pastoral"), all with Amsterdam's Concertgebow Orchestra. The three possess a lyricism that beguiles the ear. Symphonies 5 and 6 come coupled on one disc, which I reviewed for in 2012. My review: "Kleiber's approach to the sixth is firm but gentle, loving without being sentimental, illuminating the details without letting the tempo sag. Despite mono sound, this is a performance that glows. Originally, I purchased Walter's fine version and enjoyed it very much. I then tried Klemperer's version which is finer still. Then I listened to Kleiber's account and found it to be the finest of the three. I have since purchased accounts by Karajan, Toscanini, Furtwangler (surprisingly uninspired), Dohnyanyi (ditto), and Gunter Wand, as well as Karl Bohm's highly praised account. None can match Erich Kleiber's perfect execution. The coupling with Beethoven's Fifth, makes an unbeatable combination." (Decca-London #417 637-2)

Bruno Walter (1876-1962)

As with Erich Kleiber, Walter's warm interpretations tend to be mainstream. He lived well into his 80s; as with Toscanini, he recorded Beethoven's Nine symphonies twice; once in mono and once in stereo. His most popular accounts are in stereo, two of which come packaged together: Symphony nos. 4 and 6 ("The Pastoral") (Sony #74646-44622-5). This release is as fine an example of Walter's art as you'll find.

Otto Klemperer (1865-1973)

As with Bruno Walter and Erich Kleiber, Klemperer's interpretations are warmly lyrical and tend to be mainstream. Like Walter, he recorded Beethoven's Nine Symphonies in both mono and in stereo. His two most famous recording are Symphony Nos. 3 (“The Eroica”) and No. 6 (“The Pastoral”). It's a question of taste as to which Third Symphony is his best–the one in mono (EMI #5 67741-2), which is gripping, or the one in stereo, which is more lyrical (EMI #404275-2). With the Sixth, there is really only one choice–the one in stereo (EMI #747188-2).

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Daniel Brühl – an appreciation
Posted - Aug 10, 2019
How many international actors has Austria produced? As far as I know, only one–Daniel Brühl. There's a playfulness to Brühl's acting that I find absolutely irresistible. It's evident in two recent movies in which he is given co-star billing: Ron Howard's F1 masterpiece, "Rush," and in the compelling drama of art restitution,"Woman in Gold."

In "Rush" Brühl portrays Ferrari's number-one driver Nikki Lauda, a humorless and deadly-series competitor who shunned friendship and, before retiring, won three world championships. Yet, in Brühl's compelling portrayal, Lauda comes off as not merely three-dimensional, but as likably human. We care about him, and root for him, even more so than we do for the star, heartthrob Chris Hemsworth, as the charismatic and flamboyant British driver James Hunt. Midway through the movie, when Lauda is badly hurt in a fiery crash, we feel his pain as he undergoes gruesome medical treatment. When he returns to the cockpit while still not fully recovered, we wonder at his courage, and are relieved when he pulls out of the final race of the season, due to heavy rainfall that has made the circuit unsafe, thus forfeiting his chance of winning yet another championship (with Lauda on the sidelines, Hunt won the 1976 title by a single point).

In "Woman in Gold", Brühl plays Viennese investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin. It's a small but critical role that Brühl manages to breathe life into, with his acting honesty and the slightest touch of self-deprecating humor. He's proud of his native Vienna despite his government's stubborn refusal to render justice by failing to return the "Woman in Gold" portrait to its rightful owner, Maria Altmann. "The government will never return the portrait to you," he tells Ms. Altmann's attorney, Randy Schoenberg. "She is 'The Mona Lisa of Austria'. Do you think they will just let her go?"

Near the end of the movie, while awaiting an arbitration hearing in Vienna, Randy Schoenberg invites Brühl (as Hubertus Czernin) to attend a concert featuring the chamber music of his famous grandfather, composer Arnold Schoenberg. The tickets seller notes the similarities of both Randy's and the composer's last name. "What a coincidence," says Brühl dryly, with the slightest touch of a smile. Later, after the mediation board orders the Belvedere Gallery to return the "Woman in Gold" to its rightful owner, Randy Schoenberg says to Czernin, "Did I mention I couldn't do it without you?" Deadpan, Brühl shrugs and answers, "No." Then smiles ever so slyly.

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The Mona Lisa of Austria
Posted - Jul 01, 2019
In college I learned about the Nazi treatment of the European Jews. It's a harrowing and shameful story of racial prejudice run amuck. The movie "Woman in Gold" illustrates the effect it had on one Viennese family after the so-called Anschluss, the brutal adoption of Austria into the German state.

Since taking power in Germany in 1933, Hitler's discrimination of the Jews had been gradual. The arrests and confiscation of property didn't begin immediately, but over time. By 1938, the year of the Anschluss, Jewish discrimination had been institutionalized and for Austrian Jews the impact was felt immediately. The arrests and stealing of property took place within the first 24 hours of the German war machine parading triumphantly around Vienna's grand boulevard, the Ringstrasse. High on their list were wealthy Jewish families and the jewels and art objects they possessed, which the Nazi thugs looted gleefully. In this movie the family is the Bloch-Bauers, and the art object in question is the gilt-laden "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer", by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. At some point, the portrait moved to the Belvedere Art Gallery in Vienna and was renamed "Woman in Gold." By 1998, the time the movie begins, the "Woman in Gold" had become so much a part of the Viennese consciousness that it was considered to be the "Mona Lisa of Austria." In other words, stolen or not, the Austrian Republic wasn't about to part with it.

The movie is based on the life of Maria Altmann, who to avoid being arrested by the Nazis escaped with her husband to America in 1938. As the movie begins Ms. Altmann is widowed and living in Los Angeles. After the death of her older sister (and having found a photograph of Klimt's painting among her possessions), she decides she wants the portrait back. She enlists a young lawyer named Randy Schoenberg (the grandson of another Jewish immigrant, the world-famous composer Arnold Schoenberg). Together they fight the government of Austria for almost a decade to reclaim the "Woman in Gold". While the legal battle takes place in various courtrooms, the fight is personal; to Ms. Altmann the "Lady in Gold" is more than a famous work of art; it's a portrait of her aunt whom she remembers fondly, a family keepsake that once hung in the living room of her family's Vienna apartment.

Altman and Schoenberg begin their quest by traveling to Austria, hoping the management of the Belvedere Art Gallery will be sympathetic to her cause and return the painting. This turns out not to be the case. So they turn to the courts for redress, which ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal. Altmann wins, but the victory does not get her the beloved portrait back. Ultimately, her attorney decides to pursue the matter through arbitration in Vienna. Against the odds, they win, and Aunt Adele, who died in 1925 (and whose image remains forever immortalized in the gilt-laden portrait), can now cross the Atlantic with Maria Altmann.

Back in America, Ms Altmann accepts an offer of a whopping $135 million for the portrait, by Ronald Lauder, son of famed cosmetics entrepreneur Estee Lauder. Her only condition is that the "Lady in Gold" be on permanent display. You can see it today in New York's Neue Gallerie.

Maria Altmann died in 2011, age 94, having donated most of her money from sale of the painting to charity, and to a holocaust museum in Los Angeles.

The movie features a series of disturbing flashbacks in which Ms Altmann recalls the Nazi rape of Vienna. What did the Austrian Jews do to deserve such treatment? "For the crime of being Jewish," says Ms Altmann tartly. Maria's Uncle (Ferdinand) saw it coming and immediately fled to the West. By the time her family realized the gravity of the threat it was nearly too late. Indeed, her mother and father never did escape Austria and like many unfortunate Jews perished in a Nazi death camp. Still haunted by the memories of her mother and father and their tender final parting, the film also chronicles Maria's escape (with her husband) to Cologne, which eventually led them to America and to freedom.

The film stars Helen Mirren as feisty Maria Altmann, Ryan Reynolds as her quick- witted attorney Randy Schoenberg, and Daniel Brühl as the likable Viennese investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin, who befriends and assists them with the recovery of the "Lady in Gold" portrait.

In one scene, while awaiting the decision of the arbitration board, Altmann, Schoenberg and Czernin wait on a park bench; in the backdrop is the world’s tallest ferris wheel, the iconic Riesenrad, which, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Big Ben in London, has come to symbolize a great city–Vienna. If you've seen "The Third Man" which was shot amid the ruins of post-World War Two Vienna, you'll recognize the Riesenrad, which was featured in one of that movie's key scenes.

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Presidents of War
Posted - Jun 23, 2019
War is a messy business, that once started is difficult to stop. The price is high not just for combatants but for presidents who involve the nation in armed conflict. Most war presidents aged significantly in office and suffered serious health problems; several died prematurely (James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson). That's pretty much the message of "Presidents of War," by Michael Beschloss.

At 586 pages, Mr. Beschloss's book is long, and seems long due to the nature of the subject: U.S. involvement in nine wars over a period covering most of our nation's history: from the War of 1812 up to the two wars in Iraq. Indeed, the author spent 10 years researching and writing his book. I spent the better part of a week reading it. I did not enjoy it, as the subject is depressing, particularly the war that involved my generation, Vietnam (which consumes 88 pages, more than any war in the book).

It seems our country has been ever at war, and the author reveals a thread–however fine–that connects them all: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two wars in Iraq (and the one still ongoing in Afghanistan).

For the most part the wars did not end well. The exception is World War II (the last "good war"). What's disturbing is the questionable justification presidents conjure up in entering the nation in armed conflict, which the author explores in detail. To be fair, presidents have been abetted by hyperactive newspapers across the land, and by ambitious politicians looking to embarrass the sitting chief executive. The Founding Fathers were aware this might happen and created a government where the decision was not one man's alone, but rather included the branch that holds the purse strings: Congress; or so they had hoped. Some presidents, such as Truman (with Korea) and Johnson (with Vietnam), withheld information from Congress to get funding, information that might have sparred lives and kept the nation out of war. Or, as with George W. Bush (Bush 43), presented information that later proved to be false. In each case, the biggest problem is everyone (including Congressmen) seem to catch war fever and forget that war is a messy and dangerous business–easy to start and difficult to stop–where the first casualty is truth.

By limiting the spending powers to Congress, the Founders hoped to keep their shiny new Republic "from indulging in the Old World monarch's habit of manufacturing false pretexts for wars that they sought for other, more secret reasons." Unfortunately, as the author makes clear, wars continue to be engaged in under just such false pretexts. William Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the politics of war. In HENRY IV Part 2, he has Henry IV advise his son, who will succeed him as King, "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with Foreign quarrels. . . ." As king in HENRY V the son does just that by embarking on war with France under the guise of reclaiming England's hereditary rights thereto.

The first threat of war came early in our nation's history, in 1807, under President Thomas Jefferson. The author gives credit to our third president for not stirring up the passions, and keeping the nation out of war. Jefferson hated war. He believed war led to increased federal spending, centralized political power, and strengthened the "monied classes," all prospects that he abhorred. "Never since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present," wrote Jefferson when faced with the prospect of yet another war with England. He clung to his conviction that the resumption of conflict that had been won through something of a miracle only 24 years earlier would be a disaster for the fragile republic, especially after he had halved the military budget and decommissioned most of the U.S. Navy frigates.

The same can't be said for his successor James Madison, who got the nation involved in a second war with England–the War of 1812. As a result, most of Washington D.C. (including the White House) was burned to the ground by the invading English Army. To win, Madison was forced to do what Jefferson had avoided doing: by borrowing from the U.S. Bank to finance a well-equipped Army and Navy. Having sufficiently rearmed, the U.S. went on to win the War of 1812.

The book is more about how wars are started than about war itself. For example President James K. Polk started war with Mexico for no other reason than to expand the boundaries of the U.S. He did this by sending a patrol on a mission to the Rio Grande that he knew would ignite Mexican resistance. The war that resulted led to a peace treaty that increased U.S. territory by about a million square miles (and, in turn, created the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California).

The Spanish-American War began when the U.S. Maine blew up while harbored in Havana, Cuba–for reasons that were unclear at the time; it's likely the explosion was caused by a faulty boiler rather than by sabotage, as was suspected at the time.

Then there are two wars that probably could NOT have been avoided–the American Civil War and World War II. What Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt did particularly well was to explain to the nation–and more importantly to the soldiers under their command–why the fighting was necessary and important. This is among the principle failures of three other wartime presidents: Woodrow Wilson (with World War I), Harry Truman (with the Korean War), and Lyndon Johnson (with the Vietnam War). Indeed, Johnson was never fully a believer in the Vietnam War to begin with; still, he wouldn't allow a dissenting voice within his administration. He may have been speaking of himself, when he said ruefully, "The nation doesn't understand the Vietnam War."

President Richard Nixon, wishing to avoid becoming the first U.S. president to lose a war, continued the Vietnam War until he achieved what he called "Peace with Honor." The cost was incredibly high: the lives of an additional 21,000 American soldiers, plus an estimated one million Vietnamese civilians, as well as the destabilization and collapse of neighboring Cambodia.

The book ends with a brief discussion of the two Iraqi wars and the one in Afghanistan which continues to this day. As I said at the outset, war is a messy business that once started is difficult to stop. The fact they are entered into so casually and often without a lot of forethought is incomprehensible. Perhaps Mr. Beschloss's book will serve as a reminder to future presidents that they should think first before committing the lives of young Americans–and our national treasury–to yet another war. We can only hope so.

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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