Friday, December 24, 2010

Sibelius - Symphonies 5 & 7

There's this idea that composers reflect the environments that surround them. Zemlinsky reflects the queasy, whipped cream-rich sickness of fin de siècle Vienna, Falla reflects the bright colours of the Mediterranean, and Sibelius reflects the cool purity of the snowy north.

Perhaps there's something in this, and perhaps it's just reductive, but it's been snowing here lately, and when I go out what I notice more than anything is the quiet. This must be partly because heavy snow is uncommon here and so when it does come things simply stop - roads, trains, industry, all fall silent (peculiarly, this break from life's monotony is usually portrayed as a bad thing). But the nights, too, are quieter than they were. Where before speech bounced off the pavement and scattered, now it hangs in front of your face, you hear it clear and close. Thoughts, too, stay with you, are undispersed. Missed chances, regrets, hope. Awful, it is, and beautiful.

And this has drawn me even closer to Sibelius' seventh symphony, a piece I was already virtually obsessed with. It begins with the simplest of gestures: a tap on the timpani and a scale, the notes of C major, one leading necessarily to the next, forward motion, overlapping figures as woodwinds slide over strings sliding over brass (everything overlaps here, including the tempi, four movements merging into one). It's all about the creation and release of tension - perhaps this is true of all fancy music to some extent, but here you really feel it moment-to-moment. That opening scale is interrupted by an unexpected chord which slowly, slowly resolves back towards C major, before taking another turn away from it... and so the piece goes on. One constant is a slow fanfare-like call (first heard on the trombone at 5:25 into the first track of the symphony on this recording) which recurs several times, always in C major.

Ultimately, it ends loudly, with slowly overlapping appoggiaturas - tension and release reduced to its simplest, and a satisfying reminder of that scale at the symphony's very beginning. But the most striking moment comes a few minutes earlier (at the beginning of the final track in this recording), when the strings are abandoned and left to swerve around each other and reconfigure space to make room for that horn call one last time. To me, this moment of coalescence is the climax of the piece, and the dynamic marking is mezzo forte. I don't know of another symphony where this is true. Pieces which fool you with false climaxes are common enough - the tension is increased again and again until the final outburst. But when the real high-point comes, it is almost always the loudest of all; here the real climax is not bigger, but stiller. All the tensions, the worry, the work, resolved for one moment of transcendent moderation.

As well as the seventh, this disc contains what is perhaps my favourite recording of the fifth symphony. Enough talk. Listen.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

faure | piano quartets

might as well get it out of the way and mention that this release got several assloads of acclaim when it dropped back in 86: praise was lavished, rosettes were pinned, prestigious awards were won, etc. so you know — it's kind of a big deal.

but unlike lots of other big deals, this one's a big deal not because the performers give butt-quakingly passionate and technically virtuosic readings of compositions that one might reasonably put forward as references for their genre. it's a big deal because, um...

or... no, i'm sorry — that's precisely why it's a big deal. my mistake.

okay, so, starting over. here we have gabriel faure's two piano quartets. what keeps drawing me into these pieces is their continuity — though you might even say relentlessness — of melodic statement. tight-knit is one way of putting it. unremittingly inventive would be another. like some nut-job called out during a sneak preview performance of brahms's fourth symphony, one might get the feeling during these quartets of being beaten by an incredibly intelligent person. in the case of faure, it's all the more remarkable feeling like you've got to throw up your hands in surrender, since the deluge of sounds teeming down on your head are just inconceivably delicious.

meanwhile, i wouldn't want to give the impression that these quartets can't be listened to without maximal mental exertion. just saying, i once made the mistake of putting this album on when i was already completely exhausted, thinking i was in for a deeply relaxing experience, only to find my feeble intellect in a condition similar to a skater who's broken through the ice on a fast-moving river, swept under and away in the current. i know it seems like cuddly music, but i implore you, take caution!

to say something of domus and susan tomes, they deserve every bit of praise they've gotten for this recording. trying to imagine the concentration it must take to work through these pieces with such loving attention to detail just baffles me. i'd almost feel bad for them if they didn't do it with such an appreciable sense of adventure.

sibelius | string quartets

the string quartet in E major is very early work, very old-fashioned, and — as you'd expect during this period of the composer's artistic maturation — pretty jejune. still, it contains a number of moments when the counterpoint points to the sort of breathless, rhythmically mind-spinning style sibelius would develop in his symphonic works... mostly during the allegro 1st movement. then, 4 years later (1889) we get the A minor quartet, which shows sibelius moving out of the mid-18th century and into the... late 18th century. here, sibelius studies the romantic forms he would later manipulate to such marvelous effect. it made an impression on busoni, apparently: "we realized that we were in the presence of something far beyond the ordinary pupil".

it's on the second disc, in the B flat quartet (written only a year after the A minor), that sibelius advances well into the... early 19th century. and more into his own, to be fair. the third movement presto is actually quite lovely, bearing some of sibelius's genius for cultivating wild euphoria out of seemingly banal sentimental tensions.

the D minor quartet, written another 20 years later between the (by now internationally famous) composer's 3rd and 4th symphonies, seems to fall from the sky onto this collection — so little it bears in common with its disc-mates; as in, there's not much chance of mistaking whose hand was at work this time. the haunting, stark lines form with confidence out of what's become sibelius's hallmark post-romantic conception, casting their enchantment at fucking 30 degrees below zero. (i think fans of morton feldman who've up to now found it hard to detect in his music any overt strain of sibelius will probably be struck by the harmonic/temporal character of the adagio di molto). it's really a goddamn shame sibelius didn't write more chamber works during his mature period, as he'd intended to; this one's quickly working its way into my innermost circle of cherished quartets. the way the lines can be so articulate and yet so massively gestural at the same time — who doesn't love that? isn't it the very essence of how we want to be (mis)understood?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

guillaume dufay / o gemma lux

I'm still rather new to Dufay and just about any pre-Baroque composer, yet I can't help but feel compelled to share these fancies. Harmonia Mundi herein culls together thirteen compositions from the beginning of Dufay's career, toward the end of the Medieval period. These polyphonic pieces are the perfect Sunday morning comedown; as the sun peaks through the blinds, I can't think of a better compilation to wake me, cleansing me of weekend night sins (yeah, I attend church at my own apartment--suck it latter-day saints).

More than just a documentation of Guillaume Dufay's early period, these compositions are all of the isorhythmic motet style--some of the last, famous Medieval (early Renaissance) iteration of this form. The style is traditionally viewed as a very rigid one for its period, almost scientific. In the isorhythmic setting, a single parameter is chosen and is developed almost arithmetically. A single voice, denoted as the tenor, carries this progression, with the other voices following--in these thirteen compositions, the tenor is the instrumentation. Although that sounds emotionless, more akin to the construction of a mathematical sequence, the Huelgas Ensemble and Paul Van Nevel avoid miring in this technicality, providing spiritual, affirmative renditions. (

Thursday, August 19, 2010

j.s. bach | brandenburg concertos

well, we've been gathering cobwebs here in the dept of fancy people music writing, but i tell you it's time once again to buckle into our high-heeled loafers, fuss with our ruffly neck accoutrement, puff out our chests like dandified apes, and eschew any such pretense that essays to mitigate the pretense of fanciness.

and so, it is with great pleasure that i invite you to join me in appreciation of herr bach's brandenburg concertos. two recordings of them, in fact. why not. the first i came to was the pinnock / english concert recording from archiv, which immediately satisfied my desire for a brandenburg that was just totally infatuated with the music's ample provisions for lushness and virtuosity. if you want BIG FUCKING bach, yes, it's here, and it's big fucking wonderful. in the second, by martin pearlman & boston baroque, i found the spirit of the music — once unencumbered by such concerns — could be pretty freewheeling. i don't think i have a preference; just depends on the circumstances, i suppose. they're both period performances, incidentally, although for whatever reason the pearlman sounds a bit more periody to my ears... more idiosyncratic anyway (and probably more fun, too, for that matter... but, then again, what cares we for fun)

the music itself doesn't really need much introduction. pretty much anyone who's ever turned on the radio in the U.S. has at least heard part of the 6th concerto (lead-in music for american public media programs (thanks wikipedia, for reminding me where i was hearing that)). so, they're all like that — fruity and grandiloquent in the most delightful ways: fancy dances for to strut your high stockings, yes, and some of the most dazzling organizations of sound yet given forth from the human race.

Monday, May 10, 2010

franz schubert / quintet in c

for the past few months i've wanted to do nothing but listen to late-classical chamber works. i've fought this urge, since i fear of over doing it, but it is all too rewarding to immerse myself into this genre. and nothing, as of late, sates my ears quite like schubert's lone string quintet in c. even amidst its internal conflicts, these four movements (for two cellos, two violins, one viola) soothe my busy mind and slow down the inexplicable and rapid world around me. i believe the peculiar instrumentation has a bit to do with my reactions and attachment -- two cellos, as opposed to two violas, creates a robust lower register, generating a richer, fuller tonal language than i could find in quartets or traditional (ie mozart-esque) quintets. sometimes it is affecting enough to make me want to bathe naked in the sun whilst humming the first fact, i may just go do that now... (here)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beethoven - Symphony No. 9

I am not in love with Beethoven's ninth symphony. I find it very difficult to hold it all in my head at once and the last movement baffles me. The first three movements are of such scale and scope that Beethoven's decision to bring a choir into the finale is understandable - it adds weight and grandeur, helps to balance the piece. But once you've got that choir, it's hard to write a conventional rondo finale, so Beethoven repeats the solution of his third symphony and pens a loose set of variations. And of course this is Beethoven, so they are worked into a miniature four-movement symphony in their own right, with an expository allegro, a scherzo with jangling Janissary band, a slow movement, and a frantic finale. The ambition is great, but the strain seems to show, it can seem a little messy (the Grosse Fuge is messy, too, but there it's easier to accept the messiness as part of a deliberate scheme, especially when heard after the rest of the Op. 130 quartet; in the more formal shape of a symphony it looks odd). It's a popular piece, the fault is probably my own, but I end up experiencing it moment-by-moment, or at best movement-by-movement. Okay, this is how music goes, but it's nice to be able to stand back and see things in their entirety.

Perhaps all that just means that for me to like this symphony, it takes a special kind of performance. Here are two, each completely different in approach and effect. Furtwängler's recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is searing. It doesn't help me to see the big picture, but I'm not bothered about that when I'm busy dodging the lumps of molten iron its hurling at me in every bar - when you're running away from a lion you don't stop to admire the beauty of the savannah. Commentators turn to elemental or geological terms to describe it: it is seismic, it has the force of a tidal wave, it is volcanic. It was recorded live in Berlin in 1942 - this is troubling even if you take a charitable view of Furtwängler's much-discussed involvement with the Nazi Party. Some try to argue that the performance is somehow inherently anti-Nazi; the piece is a cry for freedom and universal brotherhood, and the performance has such a desperate urgency that such a reading may not be as fanciful as it seems. Anyway, the music is great.

Klemperer's live 1957 performance is at the opposite end of most scales. If the critical cliché for Furtwängler's performance is "volcanic", then for this it is "granitic". Here we're in more peaceful times, the lava has cooled. It isn't so furiously exciting, but it will last. The danger that Furtwängler feels in every bar is not so present here, but there is that wider view, standing back and looking at the hills, the trees, the smoke.

So here is Furtwängler (in pretty rough sound) and here is Klemperer (in very good sound). Never mind the piece, I love the recordings.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

teodoro anzellotti | works by janacek, satie, scarlatti

with a bit more than a month since posting janacek's piano works behind us, and the dregs of late winter before us, this may be as opportune a moment as any to put forward the recordings of master accordionist teodoro anzellotti. for whereas rudolf firkusny's outings might sound better toward the end of august, when perhaps you've just put a few more overgrown paths behind you, anzellotti's sound perfectly grips the over-incubated madness for lost moments in the sun that those of us who live in places like... maine... live for... right about now. in his hands, the overgrown path suite loses some of its tragic edge, taking on a more optimistic tone in places (for instance, on "a blown away leaf", and most surprisingly, on "unutterable anguish"... on the spectrum of emotions, it seems the accordion bottoms out at 'glum'.) this is not to say, however, that these aren't stunning, poetic readings — for that they are. following these, anzellotti treats us to janacek's "three moravian dances" which sound completely at home on the instrument, showing off janacek's fluency with folk forms, and possibly inducing you to do a modest jig around your living room.

as for his work with satie's piano pieces, much the same can be said again. more though, this one can be praised for anzellotti's success in preserving and occasionally enriching the spirit of the works. yes, of course, when the notes come fast and loud, the sound can get a bit ruddy — such is the nature of the tool — but for the most part it stays lean, graceful. actually, on certain pieces, such as the "petite ouverture a danser", you have to wonder whether satie might've secretly had the accordion in mind when writing them. the gnossiennes aren't quite as penetrating as on their best piano performances, but as anzellotti handles each line with the requisite spine-chilling rubato, and as the space lost in his wide tones finds us in a more confined area with satie's music, the effect is nevertheless gripping.

lastly, my recent favorite of the batch, we have anzellotti plying his impressive chops against a selection of domenico scarlatti keyboard sonatas. these works surely never sounded so alive as in the hands of our hero of the day. he brands their austerity with humanity, melting their stone-faced rigidity with golden ebullience, and this joyfulness getting to frolic where it had been prohibited erstwhile is of a kind i find wildly seductive. the celebratory demeanor of these performances can't be an accident.

for the janacek, hear
for the satie, hear
for the scarlatti, hear

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

wolfgang amadeus mozart | piano concertos 20 & 27

when i wrote in an earlier post about how mozart's late symphonies highlighted aspects of the composer which might stand at odds with his myth (especially the rot proffered by the movie Amadeus), i mistakenly extrapolated that due to his alignment with various enlightenment era ideals, emotionality and sensuality would only ever be secondary characteristics of his music. you see, i had not heard these marvelous piano concertos, and it's the D minor concerto, no. 20, in particular that makes a very convincing argument for the abandonment of that conclusion. for it's with this work that mozart anticipated the struggles of his stylistic descendants to express their own messy humanity through their highly formalistic medium. in other words, mozart granted Doubt its viability in fancy people music. and it worked. the value of having to wait for the moment affirmation wasn't lost on audiences of the time. nor was it lost on beethoven, who would play the concerto years later and write his own cadenzas for it, and who would extend the emotional reach of sonata form piano music to the most intimate of concerns — for what is intimacy but the ultimate confrontation between doubt and affirmation? eh? something else entirely? and by the way, if i'm not mistaken, it's beethoven's cadenzas that perahia plays here. the B-flat major concerto which follows on this disc is not quite so radical, but still holds its ground against my earlier stab at supposing mozart's expressive agenda. and it's every bit as much a treat to hear murray perahia tickling the ivories here as on the D minor. his playing is as spotless as it is thoughtful as it is unaffected, and its integration with the english chamber orchestra is utterly seamless. the recording quality on these cbs recordings (which, if anyone's interested, can be purchased either in ultra-cheap single discs or in one big box set) adds a thin layer of gossamer to the performances, and it's actually pretty becoming of the mood of each concerto. so, great shit all around. hear.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

franz schubert | death and the maiden

schubert's 14th and (edit: not) final string quartet, written in 1824 and titled 'death and the maiden,' was, as you might expect, greatly influenced by the composer's deteriorating health, which finally struck franz down four years later. although this quartet never quite reaches the somber depth of shostakovich's 8th -- it seems as though friends often want to converse about the morbid aspects of life --, schubert achingly works through foreboding themes.

the allegro briskly battles between lush, happier motifs and a fortissimo pseudo-leitmotif, disjointly straddling life and death. for as long as possible the quartet fights off the inevitable until one final attack, followed by a sigh and a faded stumble into the next movement. the adante, for which the quartet is named, is a resigned affair, and even in its faster moments the strings are noticeably burdened. the brief scherzo offers reprise, a hopeful doubt, per chance? but this glimmer is swiftly quashed with the final movement. the presto is maddeningly irreverent, signaling not only schubert's embrace of his death but also some sort of rejuvenation.

this fourth movement may offer some insight into explaining the content of schubert's late works: in spite of disastrous health and constant critical rejection, franz was still able produce breathtakingly beautiful compositions; maybe acceptance of death somehow inspired both his genius and to be so daring?

the takács quartet expand on these themes perfectly, breathing emotion into this piece in all of the right ways. just as stilton mentioned below me, the takács too disorient one's sense of time, allowing the listener to engross him/herself in the feelings schubert sought to evoke. paired along here with the 14th is schubert's 13th -- a worthwhile listen, certainly; however, it seems a bit inappropriate to listen to it immediately after his 14th. i highly suggest separate sittings for each. hear

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Schubert - Piano Sonatas D. 894, 575, 840

Schubert's late works can seem to challenge normal ideas of how music exists within time. They do it both on the small scale (the endless chords that open the string quintet, the long notes and silences at the start of the G major quartet) and on the large (the ninth symphony goes on forever, the second half of the Trout quintet's last movement is a literal repetition of the first, only in a different key: "What, again?!").

The first movement of the piano sonata D. 894 is similar, especially when Sviatoslav Richter plays it. It is marked "molto moderato", which leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and Richter uses it all (for an idea of just how unusual his reading is,
compare it to Wilhelm Kempff's recording). At this speed, the rapid figure introduced early on doesn't disturb anyone's peace, yet the whole is far from stuck on one level: in fact, the changes of dynamic and tonal area sthat Schubert throws at us seem all the more sudden for arriving more slowly. The problem of over-repetition is dodged by slowing things to a pace where you think on the level of the note, not the phrase; phrases can't be repeated if they do not exist to begin with. And though the music is rhythmically regular, the idea of a
beat is destroyed; there is just one note following another at a pace without reference to anything but itself. Schubert emerges, in fact, as an unlikely ancestor to Morton Feldman - better-dressed, with cleaner fingernails, fancier, but just as ready to surprise you with a sudden shout, and just as unconcerned by the passage of time.

The other movements are, I suppose, not so shocking, but great in their way, and then it's onto the sonatas D. 575 and D. 840. The final two movements of the latter are incomplete. Most pianists ignore them, a few use a completed edition. Richter, though, goes his own way, which is in a sense is also Schubert's: he plays what the composer wrote, and when the notes suddenly stop, he does too. So the tonally uncertain minuet ends uncertainly, and the rondo spins off into nothingness. The normal course of time is again challenged - by erecting a wall in its path.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

antonin dvorak | symphonies nos. 8 & 9

so speaks our friend in fanciness, docperkins:

Find hereby majestic renditions, in line with the grandiloquence of two representative pieces of the romantic repertoire. Grandiloquent implying positive and negative features that grandiloquence impinges upon art-forms, to which music is no exception. The orchestra is superb and Kubelik up to the crew skills. Along the same fruition highway (or you dared to imagine Dvorak would drop the highway concept on behalf of a ‘hand-made lane’?), our attention to conceptual detail is kindly invited out, on behalf of the quick-relief enjoyment provided by aptly crafted panache. The latter pays a heavy ransom to simplicity, but the latter is most of the times concealed, and when it turns up is always wearing a tux. (Nothing against musical simplicity and quick-relief trends in themselves, by the way.)

Antonín Dvorák, who went to USA in 1892 to teach at the National Conservatory, became a huge fan of so-called African-American spirituals, and nurtured the strongly appealing -- and impossible not to sympathise with -- agenda of sonic miscegenation. Professor Dvorak firmly believed that American music would only acquire a physiognomy of its own, and due relevance, if and when succeeded to methodically (as opposed to spontaneously, which is something to cheer for, given that ‘spontaneity’ in classical music leads to kitsch of the uninteresting type) infuse African-American material into European musical epistemes. Besides of the fact that at the end of the day the opposite occurred, as African-American composers assimilated European epistemes into blues and jazz, Professor Dvorák lack in form what he exceeded in potentially creative ideological content.

Furthermore, his “From The New World” largely shows that the non-western segments Dvorák, with utmost good intentions, correct intuition, and unintended patronising attitude, managed to insert into the symphony did not become organically articulated as components of the piece. At the most they were aural quotations, maybe ornaments transvestited of cultural sonic signposts. In this sense, one could excise these quotations and ornaments while the symphony would still exist and be on its feet after a couple of minor, minute cosmetic surgeries. This would never be conceivable in pieces where the real melting down of Western and non-Western sonic epistemes occur at the very structural level as an issue of form, and to unbelievable effect, as displayed in some of the works by, e.g., Feldman, Scelsi, Xenakis and Bartók.

Meanwhile, it appears that Dvorák’s Ninth, “From The New World”, will continue competing with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” as most played ‘classical tune’ (whatever this means) in supermarkets, department stores, waiting rooms, and also in my study, where this fantastic floppish cultural agenda turned into ‘fancy music’ amuses me and makes me wonder how nice it would be if all failed pompous modern cultural projects were all destined to become unmissable, classy blockbusters. hear

Friday, February 19, 2010

leos janacek | piano works

right up through the concertino for piano and small orchestra, this collection asserts the greener side of janacek's work — the folk influences present though rather muted within the romantic conceptions of elegiac tunefulness. much of the "on an overgrown path" suite, with its gorgeously uncertain melodies that ache to find graceful cadence through all manner of unpredictably shifting rhythms, feels like it could sound at home on a rinky dink music box. something you might pick up in a musty roadside antique store out of curiosity, only to have to put it back down out of your own sense of impudence at disturbing such long lost sorrows. the delicacy of the harmonies makes constant the illusion that the forms are on the verge of disintegration; that the same unhurried hand that formed the lines may lose its muse in the fog of forgetfulness at any moment. but rather than just letting those lines drift further and further away from their source, janacek forces the pianist to take them through awful lunges at it; lunges that never actually bring them any closer to that which they seek. written in the wake of his daughter's death, this may be an entirely apt musical allegory for the composer's grieving process. the other excellent solo piano pieces contained on this double disc seem to follow a similar emotional/dynamic course.

then, once we reach the concertino, the pastoral becomes less a stage for the interpersonal and more of an alien spaciousness for the single mind to wander unsearchingly. in the piu mosso second movement, there are small delights to be found here and there, but they seem to emanate from the feeling of indifference to one's disorientation established in the first movement. the third movement—which begins with panicky puffs of brass and an agitated dance-like melody on the piano, shortly resolves into a delirious serenity expressed through sparkling piano and strings and circular melodies from the clarinet, and then starts to slide back toward the initial state of alarm—may suggest the experience one often has when out in the wilderness: first tremulousness, then elation, then the apprehension that one cannot exist exclusively in either one for very long before reality sets in. fittingly, the fourth movement combines all these various states into an unstable mass of conflicting impulses. i'm ever grateful for janacek's grasp of modernity, the progressiveness of his geometry never forsaking the humane.

last on the menu, the oddity that is janacek's cappricio. to solve the problem of writing for a one-/left-handed pianist, the composer arranged that player's part against a small brass ensemble + a flute. the resulting four movements are fascinating at every turn, although they don't seem very substantial taken as wholes. nonetheless, at the end of this almost two hour set, the cappricio somehow seems like a long-awaited exhalation and a return to the comforting terrain of emotional (but never psychological) equanimity. hear.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

richard strauss | don quixote; horn concerto no. 2

composed in 1942, strauss' second horn concerto is the most "modern" composition to inhabit this blog, but it sure doesn't sound it! sure, strauss has always been firmly rooted in the post-wagnerian romantic tradition, never quite letting the dissonances of a piece, like say salome, take him too far afield. so then why is the date of note? well, the obvious: tonality was supposedly dead in eastern europe for almost twenty years, with the serial arms race underway. but even so, the concerto doesn't reek of neoclassicalism (is it because strauss never had an episteme to hark back to?). the (real) obvious, vis-a-vis the date: strauss was smack dab in the middle of total war, having recently disassociated himself from the nazi party; possibly in fear of antisemitic attacks on friends and family. truly a terrifying time for any human, but maybe, relative to the representative 1942 gentile eastern european, richard was in a heightened state of fear. that's the peculiar thing about this horn concerto: it is regal (mein...könig?) and stately, but not a (superficial) expression of a man surrounded by death. so then is it an act of dissidence? not quite, i claim. strauss did produce the pacifist opus friedenstag during this period; and moreover, if this piece were, is he pining for order? -- i presume not. hence i -- who knows about strauss? -- view this composition as a flight to serenity amidst chaos; a fancy night at the orchestra, all the while ignoring the corpses littering the streets. and ohhhh, the french horn.

right, don quixote. well, i won't say much except "how about those soloists (fournier on cello, cappone on viola)?" that, and, its pairing with the horn concerto is interesting (beyond the virtuoso emphasis) and highly affecting.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

alban berg | wozzeck

i've been fascinated by alban berg for the past month, both his music and what i have read about his personality. the latter: his crippling empathy and fragile relationship with success and his mentor. frighteningly, i see part of myself in his faults. moreover, and somewhat bleeding into the former, his tenuous relationship with romanticism and l'avant: clinging onto those with which you hold dear but contradictorily flinging oneself into the unknown. that is, the intertwining of mahler with newfangled atonality. everything about him seems so confused, so unsure of himself, even after achieving near universal praise. berg is both the social elite and the man with whom i can relate. i want his genius, his ability to make the academic and the immediate one, but share his doubts and self-imposed mental hurdles. he is the fancy man i could see myself being in my wildest of dreams. nothing is better at summing up his talent and twisted mind than wozzeck, nor was anything fancier in the 1920's than this opera. be sure to keep your pinkies out whilst reading either the libretto or a synopsis; the social context of berg's masterpiece cannot be overstated. much of these three acts are ugly permutations of operatic past and distorted, discarded tonality; nothing to me better depicts between-war fanciness. entendre.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

johann sebastian bach | cello suites

performers of bach's cello suites have found interpretive possibilities in them so widely differing from each other that to discuss them together may chance upon the arbitrary. keeping this in mind, i'll introduce these three vitally unique readings, and try to keep contact between them at the bare minimum necessary for me to keep this shit together. so, on one end of a spectrum, i would place pierre fournier, his solemnly slow tempi, and those phrasings of his that so thoroughly excise all the "danciness" from the works without mutating them into shapeless messes. some would say this renders his interpretation invalid, that it's that very danciness that constitutes the soul of the works; others, such as myself, would say "wow, who knew they didn't need to be so dancy? this is great!!". and really, fournier's rendering, if somewhat irrelevant to the original cultural derivations of the forms, surely can't be accused of irreverence; no other performance that i've heard shows a greater affinity for the tragic undercurrent of this music. okay, then somewhere toward the middle of this spectrum goes rostropovich: his even-paced, timbrally balanced, and wholly perspicacious performances—seemingly given to no stylistic excess (for in such an intimate account, there is nothing to embellish); these are many folks' first and still-favorite recordings of the cello suites and it's not without good reason! these have 'definitive' written all over them. finally, on the other end of this spectrum, my favorite (i almost wrote "my boyfriend" without thinking...), heinrich schiff, whose paradox here is this: he plays the suites really fast, yes, but rather than making them feel condensed or claustrophobic, they feel as spiritually light and open as anything that survives by the light of the sun. and it's not all levity either—schiff's sarabandes are deeply searching and he's certainly not afraid to lean into a chunky double-stop (i.e. "get his hands dirty") here and there. the emi recordings of schiff are also noteworthy for the truly lifelike character they preserve in the cello: the degree of detail is such that one may feel induced to fixate impossibly on every last pore in each sound issued from the great instrument. anyway, i don't think you can go wrong grabbing any one of these double discs, and you most assuredly can't go wrong grabbing all three : ) for fournier, hear. for rostropovich, hear. for schiff, hear.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ludwig van Beethoven - String Quartet Op. 130

Where to start with my first fancy post? Well, why not here, with the greatest string quartet ever written? Too great a claim, I know - as soon as it's made half a dozen other candidates come to mind (and why make such useless distinctions anyway?) - but Beethoven's Op. 130 is special. Right from the start, it's searching for a place to settle: those opening chords grope around for a home key, and shortly after they develop into song they're interrupted by a rapid darting figure - there's an uncertainty over not just the key, but also the thematic material. "What should I write?" seems to be the question, and, for a composer, that's as big as it gets. As the movement goes on, ideas tumble over each other, keys and motifs pile up, dynamics lurch all over the map, and there are extraordinary moments: the throbbing that appears around the ten minute mark leaves everything but my ears seeming irrelevant, yet even this isn't allowed to stay for long.

What follows are not the usual three further movements, but five, as if the normal form had to expand to accommodate all the composer's ideas. First, three with something of the dance to them, all pleasant, but perhaps just a way to take our minds off the questions of the first movement. The fifth movement Cavatina is something else, eight minutes of intense hush which, like the first movement, includes a heart-freezing throbbing around the 5:20 mark. And then the finale, the Grosse Fuge, a massive double fugue with always-changing tempi and dynamics, rhthyms fighting against each other, enormous leaps in horizontal lines, always restless, a movement that could have been written a hundred years later and not be thought conservative. It's the probing of the first movement made more urgent. If there are going to be answers, this is where they'll come. I'm not sure if they do, but the search is thrilling enough.

As a seventh track, the disc includes the alternative finale that Beethoven wrote after complaints that the Grosse Fuge was too Grosse. It's a pleasant ten minutes of music, and would have served as a fine end to one of the Rasumovsky quartets that Beethoven had written twenty years earlier, but it lacks the intensity, and perhaps the touch of insanity, that the music before it demands. I'd suggest treating the first six tracks as a whole and the seventh as an appendix. The Lindsays' performance of all this isn't technically perfect, but it's full of feeling, and somehow seems to acknowledge that this piece is far beyond another Classical string quartet: it is a world. Listen.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

johannes brahms | violin sonatas

of all the genres in classical music that i've waded out into, it was the sonata for violin and piano that took the most getting used to. the two instruments seemed always to be in need of some timbral mediation; and actually, i still get uncomfortable at times trying to reconcile their two voices into cohesive ideas. i know it's ridiculous. as though voice and guitar, for example, are any different in this respect. and double-actually, it was this thought of guitar and voice that bade me to reconsider my stance on the violin sonata. and, well, that's pretty much the end of that story: i listen to violin sonatas kinda like wordless songs. and once i get that ball rolling (mentally bullshitting myself, i mean), it's easy enough to appreciate the work as being more of one mind. and brahms' violin sonatas, each one a thing of exquisitely lyrical beauty, make it even easier. the gently lilting line of violin and the subsequent unfolding of chords on the piano which open the first of these give the impression of forbearance on the threshold of great things. and indeed, throughout these pieces brahms employs but a modicum of theatricality, though at no cost to the scope of his expression. again, the composer seems to access the phenomenal by way of an unsuspecting alliance with the everyday — he's a poet like that! ashkenazy and perlman play together very well (only once or twice giving my "one mind" foolishness any cause for slipping back into awareness of itself) and the production provides their warm interpretation with a nice warm stage. hear.

Friday, January 22, 2010

joseph haydn | string quartets op. 76

more than any other post made thus far, this one makes good on the title of the blog. by which i mean this shit is fancy. like early morning light slanting through dust levitating in parlor rooms antiquating, striking all that is fancy at just the right angle as to bring out every shade of its self-contentedness. and what self-contentedness it is! but when resolution comes pre-guaranteed, what's wagered isn't the individual themes or ideas, but the entire stylistic proposition: can music which insists on fulfilling its every prophesy carry any redemptive value outside of itself? or does it relegate itself to the ornamental? lacking any formal understanding of the music or its history, it's a conflict i'm not really qualified to take on here. however, as i'm pretty convinced that it's how one resolves this conflict that ultimately determines how one reacts to the music, i may as well attempt to explain my own interest in it... mmm, actually, after trying for about an hour and deleting several utterly worthless paragraphs in the process, i don't think i will. guess i'm not up to it tonight, if i ever will be. hear.

george enescu | octet, quintet

with a multitude of unique themes set in motion right from the outset, enescu kaleidoscopically propels each moment of his octet—as one series of contrapuntal inter-relations contracts, another dilates. as you'd imagine, this makes for a multi-dimensionally dense sound field, and kremer and company compliments this with a suitable sort of chesty, breathless bearing-downness; combined with nonesuch's highly detailed production, i find this all deliciously nerve-racking. it reminds me of a good story where the desirable is constantly on the verge of elusion, and the undesirable is constantly on the brink of becoming; jacking your threshold for dramatic instability. once you make it through that ravishing piece, you'll step out into the sparse, uneasy terrain of the piano quintet, where the scope is drawn in and the thrust is less resolute... yeahhhh, it's a bit of a coming down after the octet. but staying with it, my brain tingles with the notion that maybe it's actually spelunking the substrata of the same conflicts that were introduced in the first piece. at least in the andante. then into the vivace and enescu's seas start to rise again somewhat. (forget "red meat faure", this is more like "bad trip faure" (but in a good way)). hear.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

antonin dvorak | symphonic poems

in these marvelous works, dvorak takes the symphonic form up over the turrets and spires of a very curious side of the classical-romantic ideal — its monster mania! ha, yes, this may be the pinnacle of the monsterly in classical music. all written in 1896, toward the end of the composer's career, the symphonic poems take off from the poetry of karl jaromir erben, dvorak's elder countryman. the stories told in them are nasty, twisted things, the kinds of creepshows first popularized back in ancient times... when humans had only each other to fear! okay, maybe there was a lot of other stuff to be afraid of — crop failure, pestilence, bears, etc — but perhaps the point is that the fears were more strictly reserved to the organic. anyway if you want to know the stories, allmusic sums each one up rather briefly, and the cd liner notes offer a bit more detail as well. but suffice it to say here that the stories are all gruesome, shocking, and that they play on wide range of deep fears, from the homo erectus type to the homo sapiens sapiens type. BUT! the most shocking thing of all is that each tone poem is absolutely delightful, even during the scenes of kidnapping and murder. these stories, they don't really matter in themselves. they're mere vehicles for this ideal of the monstrous. the origin of this ideal? well, to my very limited knowledge on the subject, this may be the first such self-stated examination of the monsterly in the symphonic form, but beethoven most certainly put the concept into germination, whether he meant to or not, with his symphonic works. departing from mozart's palatial symphonies, beethoven's works in the genre gestured toward the untamed expanses beyond human dominion. in their scope, the solitary human is just a mote of dust; though he always gets his happy endings (not afforded to the characters in these tone poems), these are often arrived at through "jacob and the angel" kinds of feats in the night; the mote of dust must transcend all. on through the 19th century and the adversaries grow more demonic, their affronts more heinous, until hey look, it's dvorak's symphonic poems and there's a goblin beheading a rape-baby. harnoncourt and the concertgebouw orchestra kick ass all over this one; so if you like your classical vaguely ethnic and full of cymbal-crashing climaxes and you can stomach the old-timey nightmares, i think you'll find something really special here. fun fact: among the conductors who gave premieres of these works were janacek and mahler! hear (and hear).

note: for corrupted water goblin files (haha), hear

wolfgang amadeus mozart | symphonies 35-41

ah yes, that prancing king of the fancies — it was only a matter of time before he showed up here — mozart! on this dg double disc, his somewhat mysterious final symphonies are handled with apt primness by karl "mr. prim" bohm aprow the supremely capable BPO. you can just picture everyone in the orchestra pursing their lips and buttholes, taking every pain not to harm even one silky strand of hair on mozart's sweet cherubish head. does it need to be this way? that is, does this bizarre kind of conservatism (which adjusts the composition to emphasize its sense of solidity) truly behoove the material potential of the composition? i think in mozart's instance, perhaps so. you may say i'm wrong in the head (or just wrong), but my feeling is that bohm is taking mozart on his own terms. discussants of mozart's style regularly make use of the same cliches regarding his personality (i.e. his playfulness, his sensuality, his penchant for ribaldries) but for god's sake, if this isn't asexually chaste music, what the fuck is? am i not making it sound good? well allow me to try and turn this around here. like i said, i think this is a heightened mozart; a mozart of improved mozartianness. sure, i mean, what the fuck? mozart was an enlightenment man; his late symphonies are aesthetic machines of that philosophical movement. their passion is for the whirring of reason, not the pumping of blood — consider that they were most likely written for the enjoyment of free masons. enjoying them, for me, means (initially) disabling a lot of my regular listening apparatus — basically, the desires to internalize, to find the places in myself where each phrase registers best, and to savor — and respecting the music as more of an external process. then, in that regard, i can start to appreciate the poetics of mozart's tonal politics and thereby engage the above-mentioned apparatus on a secondary level. a not entirely uncondescending way of appreciating the man's music, perhaps, but question not whether such an appreciation voids solidarity with his sounds. and here i'd make a special note: if i refuse to give mozart too much credit for broadening the emotional range of classical music, i have no problem crediting him for giving it a greater capacity for individualism. of course, i'm sure bohm had wildly different intentions, but to me it sounds like he got all of that. hear (and hear).

note: for corrupted symphony 41, III files, hear

gabriel faure | 13 nocturnes

in the culture of classical recordings, one often senses the presence of a hyper-anal compulsion about not letting anything in between the sheets, so to speak, except the virtuoso interpreter and the masterpiece. but on hearing thyssens-valentin's testament recording of faure's nocturnes, one may start to feel that the interpretation rests as much on the pianist's keenly dreamy intuition as upon the soft grey sound matter which beds each played note to sensational effect. yes, it's a bit fuzzy, but in the highest sense of the word: Fuzzy. is this stating anything new? no, of course not. everyone knows timbre plays an integral part in articulation, and what is production ambience if not the outerwear of timbre? why else would one feel "snuggled in" by so-called lo-fi recordings? the point the point the point is that nothing here is concealed by such opacity, but is rather suitably shown off. dating from 1875 to 1921, the nocturnes span most of faure's life, as well as a significant portion of western musical history, in which faure played no small part. listening to these pieces in order, one finds faure rapidly developing a lucidity within his artworld: the first nocturne starts as pretty as can be, and when it gets serious (that is, when it starts cranking out some bass runs in that E flat minor), i don't really feel as though we're leaving the original guise behind -- nothing's really heavified. on the later nocturnes, though, the composer cuts more daring paths; revelatory moments seem to come in syncopated rhythms, giving the impression of being repeatedly blindsided with emotional truths; the rests become more substantial -- thyssens-valentin pays these ample attention; and the melodic line winds ever inward with arresting purposefulness. still, if one were to put faure's name among four or five others from france from that timeframe (say, satie, ravel, debussy, poulenc), take a random sample of 21st century fancy people, and ask them to... well, you can tell i'd like to play the "he had a big influence on everybody" card as well as the "boo hoo hoo for faure's unappreciated legacy" card... but know what? i'm just gonna play the "check this shit out" card *a.k.a. the cool card. yeah yeah yeah. hear.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

leos janacek | string quartets nos. 1 & 2

speaking of not-unfancied folksy first and second string quartets... (err...), here we find the melos quartet in fine form sawing out a couple from leos janacek, one of the last century's great interlocutors in the classical-finds-folk discourse. in the "kreutzer sonata" (quartet no. 1), janacek works wonders with distension: pushing harmonic relationhips at the end of an amplitudinally funnel-shaped line --> impregnating antique drama with a sense of new mystery, creating a richly textured depth of character. in the second quartet, janacek seems to approach the frailty of nostalgia as on earlier works, such as "on an overgrown path"; coming to it not wanting to disturb its watery temperment, only to find in it a pool of endless vexation (unquenchable fascination!). could also be a compelling statement on the predicament of janacek's beloved slavic & moravian folk cultures. either way. or other ways. another important thing to speculate on here, janacek's quartets — like those of ravel, debussy, prokofiev — contain a certain "magical" element. what's interesting to me is that the descriptor seems to be embedded in tacky cinema culture's exploitation of such an element, but surely they used it because it was magical, and not because it's become "magical". or what. hear.

sergei prokofiev | string quartets 1 & 2

in western classical music, the word "pastoral" can be problematic.... generally speaking, classical music is fancy and nature ain't. beethoven's pastorale, for instance: that's a lot of magnificence for some trees and a field to live up to. though certainly some trees + field can be supremely grand, i don't think beethoven provides the right fit to their kind of grandeur very often. fool's territory, i know, categorizing grandeurs, as though there's this just-so nature-compatible musical grandeur that i'm about to lay my finger on, whereupon everyone'll be like "oh, yeah, that grandeur" and i'll be like "yeah and that's what prokofiev hits on with these string quartets". but hey, i've never been one to retreat on fool's territory, so i'll continue, wearing my paper mache tree suit and all. so, did prokofiev have to unfancy the string quartet in order to approach the more earthly appeal of tree + field? no. one might've thought, but... no. so this IS fancy? yes. but what about... no. this is fancy and folky and free-spirited. but dignified though they are, these are two string quartets that wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen with you eating corn on the cob on the porch in september. string quartets that might even chop a little goddamn wood once in a while, know what i'm saying? they're the kind of pastoral that might make you actually want to go outside. and once you're out at that field + trees with this music playing in your heart, it's an experience truly loving of all parties involved. hear.

johannes brahms | string quintets

hard to imagine brahms writing these quintets in the late 19th century, his nostrils surely in a perpetual flair over the pungent waft of wagner floating from the works so many of the new composers, his romanticized classical ideal more and more an anachronism. on the other hand, there couldn't have been anything to convince brahms that revolutionary change was in order, for his work continued to find worlds within worlds within forms which some would have assumed long-since infertile.... some wished to humanize classical music by extending its harmonic possibilities; brahms's humanization was more subtle, if less direct: he composed to the high ideal via the personal, rather than vice versa. that is to say, he trusted the human emotional experience to do justice to the moral, the divine, the whatever. accordingly, the music feels vulnerable, even in its stately composure. the string quintets, as much as any bit of brahms, exemplify this character in his work, and the performance by the raphael ensemble more than gets the drift. the performance is so fresh it feels like some fresh fucking fruits and vegetables. as noted by other reviewers, the sound on the album is quite "present", which means it's probably a good idea to play this one over speakers if you can (that way you can enjoy it as "brightness" rather than "pokiness"). hear.