Monday, November 30, 2009

~ Foiled Again ~

...and another lovely evening at Seasonal Restaurant in W58 St...

I shall just say here at the outset that Seasonal is a delightful restaurant, one of my favourites—but also a good customer of mine, and even though this weblog is several stages removed from any official journalistic responsibility, I shall infer that such accountability does in fact exist, and state the fact at the outset that I do sell them a number of items: liquid, containing alcohol, coming from Burgenland and Niederösterreich...

chefs Wolfgang Ban and Eduard Frauneder—from Donnerskirchen in Burgenland and Vienna, respectively, have created a little oasis of civility and sophisticated flavour around the corner from Carnegie Hall—importing to NYC what strikes me when I'm over there as best about contemporary Austrian cuisine: it can become rather adventurous at times, without every losing sight of its national heritage—

and you would never know from the intro, but this is actually heading toward a couple tasting notes...

I showed up for dinner with three Austrian wine professionals, and two bottles clad in tin-foil.

...and after fifteen minutes of the wines loosening themselves up in the glasses, the Austrian wine pros were actually ready to believe me when I told them that the first of the two heady reds came from California, and the second from Bordeaux. What a scoundrel ~!

— it was a pair of ten-year-olds from south of Vienna in Burgenland that I had hauled out of my cellar and concealed in Stanniol...

1999 Paul Achs ‘Ungerberg’
1999 Kollwentz ‘Steinzeiler’

These are both examples of the potentially excellent indigenous variety Blaufränkisch—the Achs, from Neusiedlersee, having been blended with Syrah & Merlot, and the Kollwentz—other side of the lake, Neusiedlersee-Hügelland—with Zweigelt and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The two bottles were both in perfect shape, and had done diligent duty during their days and nights of aging in my basement.

Achs showed aromatic notes of dried fruit, cocoa, raspberries and blackberries—had soaked up any oak, and made quite a satisfyingly rounded impression, beautifully layered with ripe tannins and full body. Excellent with a hunk of beef.

Kollwentz, in comparison, seemed a bit younger, a bit of black cherry and less blackberryish—and truly bordelaise in style. It hadn’t lost all of its edges, showed a magnificently complex bouquet, great depth of aromatics, a little more demanding on the palate, but very fine, and likely to live a little longer—

—although given the proclivities of the Austrians to drink their wines young, one might have a hard time finding any supplies of either wine in Austria now.

I laughed neither long nor loud, and so the colleagues were all good sports about being victimised by my little joke—or as one says in Austrian,“led behind the light...”

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Leoš Janáček——Z mertvého domu ~

How is it I’ve been going to the opera since 1972—and eagerly attending Jenufa, Katja Kabanova, Füchslein and Makropolous at every opportunity since ’76—and only day before yesterday stumble into the House of the Dead?

and is there another composer who sounds quite like Janáček? Is he like a hard night in a halfway house on the road to ruin from Moussourgsky to Bartok, perhaps? His music lacks neither root nor branch, but remains unique and satisfying. Even that old warhorse Sinfonietta sounds forever fresh, and his Glagolitic Mass is a sinful feast for the ears—although I couldn’t bring myself to hear it done with electric organ at beloved Carnegie Hall when it was recently performed there…

Introverted barbarity and extraverted barbarity—they find their way to unholy union in Janáček’s operatic setting of Dostoyevsky’s novel From the House of the Dead. This is quite a remarkable work, convincingly demonstrating among other things that the Romantic idiom had not been totally exhausted by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, and still had some wind left in the late 1920s. The introverted Dostoyevsky and the extraverted composer leave nearly no variety of anguish in the garderobe as they command the stage for some ninety minutes with a work where very little action takes place—apart from a couple very appealing pantomimes, beautifully rendered in this production.

Like most any opera that wasn’t written by DaPonte and Mozart, dramatic motion is a problem in LJ’s works. Whatever the faults of Patrice Chéreau’s centennial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle—and they were legion, although that production was much more effective as a television show than it was as live theatre in the cramped and moody Haus up on the hill in Bayreuth; only the magical hand of Maestro Boulez saved him from utter embarrassment at the time—he does an excellent job with this opera. His vision of prison life is very animated and expressive, didn’t leave out the buggery or the tenderness. Took a dramatic opportunity to drop a ton of rubbish onto the stage to punctuate the first act, then put the players to work picking it all up to begin the second. I’ve noticed this trend for the past ten years in European opera houses, directors putting some sort of motion on stage in order for it to seem like something is actually happening in an opera—notably street-theater jongleurs and acrobats in Die Tote Stadt at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, and a Daniel Barenboim reading of Die Meistersinger with rollerblades at Staatsoper Unter den Linden.

Wonderful job by Essa-Pekka Salonen, managing myriad conflicting bursts of momentum, allowing the ecstatic orgiastic orchestral couplings to erupt in wave upon wave without ever badgering the singers. William White tragic and stentorian as Gorianchikov, while Peter Mattei held attention quite well as Shishkov—all in all an excellent vocal crew, the one female voice a bit of a shock...

Almost frenetic and kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of instrumental figuration, wholetone and bitonal moments contrasted against ineluctible modality, sonorities falling out of a yawning gap between twittering flutes and a sustained note on the contrabassoon... Agitated broken rhythms, patterns and reiteration—lots of noise out of the kitchen—chains and hammers; layered instruments combined in choirs commenting one upon the other... and then there was the choral writing, haunting and menacing. Instrumental melodies grounded in oblique unanticipated intervals, and LJ’s characterismic vocal melodies closer to the Moravian speech. The connexion between language and melody was a special theme for Janáček, and I felt scandalised back in March when the Staatsoper in Vienna felt obliged to sing Jenufa in Max Brod’s contemporaneous German translation, instead of the original Czech.

The Metropolitan Opera orchestra has to be one of the very best. Here, there, anywhere—in the pit or on stage. In the past year I’ve heard them play under Levine, Ozawa, Barenboim and now Salonen— although I would rather hear Levine conducting Boston in a concert hall, it’s truly remarkable how they can play so convincingly well being led in so many different directions. In fact I believe Pierre Boulez gets his paws on them later this season at Carnegie Hall, and that is sure to be a treat.

I am beginning to have a better opinion in general of the Met than the one I have held for the last decade or so. And I shall try to see this again before it closes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Facing the Facts on Furmint

A trip on the track of the old grape variety Furmint can really wear out the wikipedias these days—where once upon a time various libraries would be consulted, dusty tomes wiped sneezily off, and faxes fired away in the directions of Klosterneuburg and Geisenheim and Montpellier and Davis, beseeching council and elucidation, one now just employs search engines in any familiar language to be rewarded with a dazzling array of conflicting information, along with attractive images that are (we hope) in the Public Domain.

This much we suspect: it could derive the name from its wheaten color—the French word froment offers an alternative to blé. Or perhaps the name comes from the Italian city Formia, or might have been blessed by the Venetian princess Formentini in the 17th century. Or perhaps the great poet Goethe is correct, and Furmint originated in Croatia.
Two known facts are:
1. Acidity
2. Alcohol
—facts that become factors facing the intrepid vintner who wishes to tame this tiger into something fit for other than long-living and multifaceted desserts.

Mr F is not too choosy so far as the dirt in which he stands, and bears abundant fruit, although not with any regular pattern. He rises early, but shines only late—for example, in Hungary most frequently picked at the end of October—a well-bred resistance to gray rot makes this possible, though he is occasionally irritated by oïdium...
Furmint has provided the backbone of the great Tokaji Aszu of Hungary since time immemorial, blended with the Hárslevelű and a number of other only slightly more pronouncable possibilities.

Since 1987, Furmint’s cultivation for dry wine has been permitted in Rust, but the name doesn’t currently appear on Wein Burgenland’s page of white varieties.

As a dry wine, we find that Furmint offers distinct varieties of expression: two recent visits to the newly anointed Michelin One-StarSeäsonal in W. 58th St. spelled the end for bottles of Heidi Schröck’s very tasty and tightly focused 07er Furmint—once where it served as an attractive companion to several successive courses, and the second visit when it prepared the palates of Winemongers James and Stephan for delights to follow, along with those of friendly competitor Carlo Huber and ÖWM-boss Willi Klinger.

But it still remains somewhat of a specialty: in addition to the aforementioned Heidi and fellow Ruster Michael Wenzel, a recent quick read through the Falstaff Weinguide turned up only two more rating-worthy Furmints out of 48 growers in Neusiedlersee Hügelland.

Wenzel, in particular, seems to explore the aromatic possibilities of the variety to the utmost, while keeping alcohol in check and balancing acid with texture rather handily.

And then there are the sweet expressions of Furmint—one in particular needs little introduction, or does it? The Ausbruch of the Free City of Rust: it's not about varietal character, but rather the blessing of the botrytis mold which affects the grapes with nearly yearly regularity. There are many inventive cuvées made, but one of the most traditional combines Furmint with the Gelber Muskateller.

And herewith, a catalog of Furmint's many aliases—not every one merits its own picture on the post-office wall, but some will be known to you ~:~

Allgemeiner, Alte Sestrebe, Arany Furmint, Beregi Furmint, Bieli Moslavac, Biharboros, Bihari Boros, Bihari Boros, Budai Goher, Cimigera, Csapfner, Csillagviraga Furmint, Damzemy, Demjen, Domjen, Edelweißer Tokayer, Edler weißer Furmint, Féher Furmint, Formint, Formont, Fourminte, Furmint bianco, Furmint de Minis, Furmint Féher, Furmint Szagos, Furmint Valtozo, Gelber Moster, Gemeiner, Görgeny, Görin, Goher Féher, Gorin, Grasa de Kotnar, Holyagos Furmint, Jardanszki Furmint, Keknyelü, Keresztesevelu Furmint, Kiraly Furmint, Krhkopetec, Ligetes Furmint, Luttenberger, Madarkas Furmint, Mainak, Maljak, Malmsey, Malnik, Malvasia verde, Malvoisie verte, malzak, Mehlweiss, Moscavac bijeli, Moslavac, Moslavac bijeli, Moslavac zuti, Moslavina, Mosler, Mosler gelb, Mosler gelber, Moslertraube, Moslovac, Moslovez, Nemes Furmint, Poam Grasa, Poma Grasa, Poshipon, Pošip, Pošipbijeli, Pošipveliki, Pošip Vrgonski, Posipel, Posipon, Pospisel, Rongyos Furmint, Salver, Sari Furmint, Sauvignon Vert, Schimiger, Schmiger, Seestock, Seeweinrebe, Shipo, Shipon, Shiponski, Sipelj, Šipon , Som, Som shipo, Somszölö, Szala, Szalai, Szalai janos, Szalay Göreny, Szegszolo, Szegzölö, Szigethy Szöllö, Szigeti, Toca, Toca Tokai, Tokai Krupnyi, Tokaiskii, Tokaisky, Tokaijer, Tokay, Tokayer, Ungarische, Weisslabler, Weisslauber, Zapfete, Zapfner and Zilavka