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.