One of the most popular — but meaningless — excrescences in current culture is the explosion of Top 10 and Top 5 lists. They are everywhere, on the internet, in magazines and newspapers, and on TV.
When I took an early buyout from my newspaper a decade ago, it was largely because, as a feature writer, I was increasingly asked to provide what are artlessly called “listicles,” that is, newspaper articles in the form of lists: “Five things to do in Sedona,” “Five best pancake toppings,” “Top five wines from Indiana.”
The direction the newspaper was going was to avoid any actual writing of prose and substitute a quick list — easy to put together, popular with readers, and completely and utterly devoid of substance. I could see the handwriting on the wall, and decided it must be time to leave the profession.
Of course, I am guilty of making such lists, too. We all are. For this blog I have written several lists, including the ultimate lists of the 50 greatest lists of all times (link here). My list of the Top 10 films of all time has at least 40 movies on it. Heck, my list of best foreign films counts 100 of them (link here). But I am now doing penance for my sins.
Top 10 lists, such as the year-end lists by movie critics, are only just a record of the taste and opportunity of the critic in question: No critic has actually seen all the movies released in a given year, and the final choices depend entirely on the likes and dislikes of the reviewer. There is usually some overlap, but no two critics will offer quite the same list. Such lists are fun to read, and may be a vague guide to what films might be worth seeing, but as an ultimate judgment of quality and ranking, the lists are just smoke to blow away with time.
There is no actual, objective, outside omniscient and divine judge to parse differences between, say The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Above a certain level, it is all cream.
Many of the artists who show up on such lists, whether actors or directors or costume designers, know full well that art is not a competition, and that comparing a great tragedy and a great comedy is worse than apples and oranges. Hilary Swank was voted best actress in 2000 for her role in Boys Don’t Cry, and it was a powerful and moving performance, no doubt. But was she quantifiably better than Annette Bening, Janet McTeer, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep? They were all good — as were a passel of actors who had films out that year who weren’t even nominated. Should Moore consider herself a failure because Swank came out on top? Silly, of course.
People working at that high a level of accomplishment are all beyond mere ranking.
This came flooding back on me because lately, I’ve been immersing myself in recordings of Beethoven symphonies. When I first began listening to them, more than 50 years ago, I had the Toscanini set on LP, which I played on one of those ancient drop-front Sears Silvertone record players, and as a mere youth, thought Toscanini was the greatest conductor ever in the history of the universe anywhere. When you are young, you are prone to rash and categorical judgments. (I have always owned a set of Toscaninis, in its various release permutations and remasterings. I’m not ready to toss him overboard just because I have found others who also do well.)
Since then, I have heard the music uncounted times in concert and even more often on recordings. For many years, in the middle of my time on earth, I foreswore them, having — as I believed — worn out my ability to hear them as anything but background music. I knew them too well; they were too often programmed at concerts. Another Beethoven Fifth? God help us.
But after taking a 30-year break (outside of the concerts I attended or reviewed), I have come back to them and can hear them all again with fresh ears. And they are a marvel. There is always something fresh to hear.
I currently possess 26 full sets of the Beethoven symphonies, ranging from the historical (Mengelberg) to the historically informed (Gardiner) and when I listen to them, yes, I have my favorites, and could (if paid) produce a list ranking the top 10. But they would merely be the ones I, personally, like the best. If I am fair, I have to say that pretty much all of them deliver the goods.
(The only two exceptions are a set I no longer own — the Roger Norrington set — which is pure ordure in a garden of blooms. I threw it away; and the recordings of Sergiu Celibidache, which are perverse, and which I keep, mostly as a party record, to play for friends as a joke).
But I can put on a Pastoral by Josef Krips, or an Eroica by George Szell, and I am hearing Beethoven. The wayward rubatos of Furtwangler or the strict disco beat of John Eliot Gardiner both bring me worthy Beethovens.
The fact is, while you may absolutely detest the oozy legato strings of Herbert von Karajan, or the granitic tempos of Otto Klemperer, they are all excellent performances, and if you only owned one set (heaven forfend) you could be completely satisfied. Monteux, Chailly, Zinman, Bernstein, Leinsdorf, MTT, Harnoncourt — any of them — all give excellent, if different performances of the symphonies. You can have your favorite, but you have to admit, none of them is negligible, and all have something to say.
It is like having to choose between Rembrandt and Vermeer. Is one of the better? Stupid question. Is Titian a better painter than Monet? What is the greatest novel? War and Peace? Don Quixote? Madame Bovary? Ulysses? Á la recherche du temps perdu? C’mon, man, rankings are idiotic.
As an art critic for 25 years, I got to visit hundreds of art shows, from major international exhibits in New York, Chicago or LA, down to children’s art in grade school, and it is not that I am saying it was all wonderful — some art is certainly more accomplished than other art — but that universal approbation is no indicator of value.
Yes, Jeff Koons or Kara Walker may be the names on trendy lips, and we may think of them as among the leading artists of our times, but I saw work by local artists that, given the right breaks, could be just as famous and lauded. There are tons of artists — painters, actors, musicians — just as good as some of our most praised, but who either lacked the vaulting ambition for publicity, or never had the dumb luck to have been discovered by some influential critic.
Is there any reason that David Hockney is ubiquitous and that Jim Waid is not? Waid is clearly as good a painter, and his canvases as original and distinctive, yet Hockney jet sets, and Waid paints in his studio in Tucson, Ariz. (I don’t mean to imply that Waid has no reputation — he does nationally — but nothing like the magazine-cover familiarity of Hockney). And I could find a dozen artists from any of the United States whose work would be as worthy.
Sports may seem easier to listify, as we can always quantify the ten highest batting averages for any season or for career, although any real baseball fan knows that batting average doesn’t tell the whole story. And while we might compile a list of the greatest pitchers of all time, and there might be some agreement on the names, ranking them from the best on down will depend on one’s team allegiance or the era in which you most closely watched the game. Walter Johnson on top? Nolan Ryan? Bob Gibson? Sandy Koufax? Mad Dog Greg Maddux? Again, at that level, it’s all just opinion.
Top 10 presidents? Again, there is cream at the top, and some sludge sinking to the bottom — and a fair consensus for top and bottom, even if the vast middle ground is murky, but how do we rank them all? Was Polk a better president than Hayes? Does Grover Cleveland get two spots on the list? Or just one, combined?
List making is addicting, perhaps, but it is also empty calories. When I go scrounging through YouTube offerings, I am besieged by lists. They are click-bait and I have long ago learned to ignore them. Who was the worst mass-murdering tyrant in history? Who was the best defensive player in basketball? What are the Harry Potter books listed from best to worst? I don’t care. If you have something substantive to say about Hitler or Genghis Khan, about Bill Russell, or about the philosopher’s stone, then write something meaningful. Lists are an easy way to avoid engaging with actual thought.
Yesterday, I accidentally came across a YouTube video of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the finale of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, which is one of the composer’s bounciest, most ebullient movements, and therefore one of the bounciest, most ebullient in all music. And I was transfixed: After a tiny initial tempo beat with the baton, the conductor dropped his arms and stood there, letting the orchestra play the entire movement, indicating directions entirely with facial expressions. (Link here).
He was conducting with his face. It was brilliant. Every fleeting emotion played across his face, as if he were the music. And each expression came a half-second before the orchestra reacted, so Bernstein wasn’t following the music, but leading it. Extraordinary. It was one of the best performances of that finale I’ve ever heard, with a naturalness and clarity, but more important, a joy and spontaneity.
I go back a long way with Lenny. When I was a mere bairn, I watched him on the Young People’s Concerts and I remember his explanation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Omnibus TV show. I was just six years old in 1954, so I don’t remember much of what he said, but I remember the set, with the score of the symphony on the floor, so he could position his players on their staffs to show what they were doing. I was fascinated.
Since then, Lenny has been a part of my life. Sometimes a small part, in the background, sometimes I spent extra money to buy one of his recordings over a cheaper Turnabout or Vox recording, with the trust that I would be rewarded by something special. I usually was.
I heard Lenny conduct at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher Hall, now David Geffen Hall — it changes as much as the names on ballparks). I remember a rousing version of Debussy’s La Mer with the New York Phil. But mostly, I heard Lenny via recordings, first LP and then CD. There were also videos and TV presentations.
I don’t deny that Lenny talking could be hard to take, with that resonant basso voice that he seemed to be in love with, and sometimes a ham actor’s thesbianicity. But if you can get past that surface, what he says is almost always revelatory, precise, and true. I listen to his Harvard lectures over and over, and despite some tedious Chomskian linguistic folderol, really insightful. (He drops the Chomsky in the latter lectures, thank god).
But it is the music that really counts. For many, Bernstein was the great podium presence of the second half of the 20th century. The singer Christa Ludwig, who performed with Lenny often, once said she worked with three truly great conductors: Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Bernstein, but the difference was, she said, “Bernstein was a genius.”
Others have commented that when he conducted, he “became” the music. A member of the Vienna Philharmonic told my old friend, the late music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky, “Name one other conductor who, just by standing in front of the orchestra, could make them play better than they thought they could.” Bernstein seemed to have a special relationship with the Vienna Phil, and many of his later recordings were with them.
Lenny had his detractors, who thought he was showing off in front of the audience and orchestra, or that he exaggerated details, or — especially later in his career — dragged tempos. But, as critic David Hurwitz has said many times, “Every time I think Bernstein has distorted something, I look in the score and see that it is exactly what the composer had notated. He was truer to the score than almost any other conductor I know.”
It is true that for Lenny, as for Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.” But the best recordings have something to give that few others can match: commitment, power, emotion, persuasiveness.
I have chosen 10 of Lenny’s recordings that for me summarize his best. There are many others. He was especially great with Haydn, with Beethoven, with Mahler, with Stravinsky, with Shostakovich. And Modern music — if it was tonal or polytonal, like Milhaud — he made it all just bounce.
We’ll start with Haydn’s Paris Symphonies, that is symphonies Nos. 82-87, including “The Hen” and “The Bear.” It is pretty well consensus that Bernstein’s Paris Symphonies are the reference recordings. Sprightly, bright, witty, energetic and beautifully played. Bernstein was always good in Haydn, and I would have listed his Creation here, or his Nelson Mass or Tempore Belli Mass. You can’t go wrong with Bernstein and Haydn. In comparison, almost everyone else just feels soggy.
In roughly chronological order, we come to one of his most controversial recordings ever: the live recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein substituted the word “Freiheit” (“freedom”) for Schiller’s “Freude” (“joy”) in the finale, caught up in the moment’s exhilaration over the fall of East Berlin and Communism. Actually, he only does it once, and later reverts back to the original. But it is jarring when you hear the baritone intone it at the start of the finale. Yet, I am listening to it now as I write this and it is an absolutely thrilling version of the Beethoven’s greatest symphony. Members of six different orchestras came together and meld perfectly under Lenny’s baton. It is my go-to version of the symphony. It is a symphony played so often (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard it live) that it has lost some of its magic as occasion, but here, it magnifies that sense of occasion. Despite the mutilation of the “Freiheit,” but because of the intensity and emotional engagement of the 20-minute Adagio — more like a prayer than anything else. (Roger Norrington takes it in 10 minutes of throw-away carelessness.)
Then, there’s Berlioz’s Grande Messe de Morts, or Requiem. There are few decent recordings, and most fail for exactly the same reason: They attempt to make sense of the thing, toning it down into something “normal.” That is the issue with Colin Davis’ version. But Lenny lets it all hang out. What is fevered and hysterical, comes across as fevered and hysterical, just as Berlioz wrote it.
If there is any symphony from the 19th century more Haydnesque than Bizet’s Symphony in C, I have yet to discover it. It is fresh, bright, tuneful and unendingly happy. The composer wrote it in 1855, when he was 17, and it remained unplayed until 1935 and I feel pity for all those audiences who, for 80 years could have been enjoying it, but never had the chance. Lenny was the perfect conductor for its joie de vivre and rhythmic snap. It is as if Bizet wrote it with Bernstein in mind.
Lenny recorded Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony at least twice, once with the New York Philharmonic, in 1964 for Columbia, and then again in 1987 for Deutsche Grammophon, with the same orchestra. What a difference. The first — an excellent version — takes about the usual 45 minutes. The second comes in at just a chip under an hour. Most of that extra time comes in the finale, which in the second recording is wrenching and heartbreaking. One critic wrote that it “devastates the emotions. … At the end of the last movement, the despair is complete.” Of course, the performance has its detractors, with some finding it distended and, as one always hears the complaint against Lenny, “is more about the conductor than the composer.” Poppycock. This is Tchaikovsky titrated and distilled into pure essence.
Lenny recorded Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring many times, also, but there is no quibbling about the one to go to. It is his first, from 1958 with the New York Phil. When the composer first heard the recording, his only response was “Wow!” Lots of conductors have the measure of the Rite, but there is a rhythmic vitality, a violence and explosiveness to the 1958 recording that has never been matched, even by Lenny.
Just seven years after Stravinsky’s blast, came Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit (“The Bull on the Roof”), which he says he wrote as “fifteen minutes of music, rapid and gay, as a background to any Charlie Chaplin silent movie.” It is a piling up of Brazilian tunes, in several keys at once, and is as bright and toe-tappy as anything. Indeed, it becomes an ear-worm and you will be hearing its tunes over and over in your head for the rest of the day. The Bernstein recording also features La Création du Monde from 1923, which is a fully realized jazz composition for a ballet about an African creation story. This is Lenny in his element. You can just see him dancing on the podium with happiness and joy.
Then, there is another highly controversial recording — his DG performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Lenny, playing the piano part himself, plays it not as a jazz riff, but as if it were, from bottom-to-top, a classical piano concerto, rather like Ravel’s Concerto in G. Critics miss the easy jazzy element of famous performances by Earl Wilde or Oscar Levant, but Bernstein’s version seems to those who adore it (as I do) as a perfectly genuine alternate view. And it is gorgeous. Did I mention that? Absolutely gorgeous.
Dimitri Shostakovich wrote his massive Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” during the German siege of that city in 1942. It is a piece that defeats many orchestras and conductors; it is very difficult to keep it from diffusing into long, undigested sections. Lenny keeps it going as a single directional line from beginning to glorious end, and the Chicago Symphony has the cojones to perform what is asked of them. Almost everyone agrees, this is the Leningrad Symphony to hear.
Finally, I’ve kept last (and out of order), Mahler, which sometimes seems like Bernstein’s personal property. It isn’t, of course, but he brings something special to his Mahler performances, and none more so than with the Ninth, which he recorded at least six times (1965 NY Phil; 1971 Vienna Phil; 1979 Berlin Phil; 1979 Boston Symphony; 1985 Concertgebouw; 1985 Israel Phil). It is perhaps the Mahler symphony Bernstein felt closest to. Only four of these are genuine releases, not bootlegs, and among them it is hard to choose, but I suppose I migrate to the late Concertgebouw recording. Berlin has the intensity, but there is a major cock-up in the finale when the trombone section failed to play in the climax (apparently an audience member had died of a heart attack directly behind the brass section and there was some commotion that distracted the players). But listening to any one of them seems as if the music becomes more than music; it is a direct communication from one soul or heart to another. There are other great performances of the Ninth — it seems to draw out the best in most conductors — but there is something extra in the Bernstein versions, something more immediate, more direct.
That is a list of 10 (or more), but I feel I’ve left out so much. There’s his Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste; there’s two complete surveys of Beethoven symphonies; there’s his Copland, his Ives, his Schumann, his Sibelius. And so much more. But I believe the 10 I’ve chosen are not just great, but peculiar to Lenny — and I choose the word carefully. He was an idiosyncratic conductor, but all the personality that went in to his performances meant they are often memorable in a way more straightforward ones are not.
Many moons ago, when I was a snotty college kid, I went through a period of disdaining Lenny. I bought the canard that he was shallow, heart-on-sleeve and bombastic. I wuz a idjit. One should never let the opinions of others block your ears. There is a world of difference between words and sounds, and the sounds are always more meaningful. I am older now, have experienced a great deal more of living, discovered depths in myself I hadn’t understood, and now Lenny’s insistence on finding the marrow is what I value. My ears are opened to what is gifted to me.
When piano sonatas first became popular, in the 18th century, they were primarily written for home use, for talented amateurs to play for evenings with the family. Some sonatas were obviously more difficult than others, and a few by Haydn or Mozart, required a professional level of ability, and indeed, were written for the composers themselves to show off their performing abilities. But most were written to be sold as sheet music, and that’s how their composers made their livings.
At the time, there were no public piano recitals to attend. There were private performances given for the aristocracy. Public concerts tended to feature concertos and concert arias, with maybe a little symphony or two thrown in. But no one bought tickets to hear a piano sonata — why? when you could play them yourself at home after dinner.
Then came Beethoven.
Piano sonatas also used to run from perhaps 10 minutes to 15 or 20 minutes. Mozart’s C-major sonata (K. 545) comes in three movements. The first runs a tad over two minutes; the second just under four minutes; and the finale about a minute and a half. The bigger sonatas, such as his Sonata in A (K. 331) with the famous Ronda a la Turca, comes in at about 14 minutes, as played by pianist Mikhail Pletnev.
Then came Beethoven, the revolutionary pounder of the keyboard, who shocked his contemporary listeners with the power, difficulty and length of his piano sonatas. The Appassionata Sonata of 1805 is devilishly difficult and a bit over 21 minutes.
Then there’s the Hammerklavier Sonata of 1818, which is twice as long (Barenboim’s most recent recording takes 50 minutes) and 10 times more difficult, ending with a giant double fugue that confused his first listeners. What the heck is going on? It’s the original knucklebuster. Just look at that pile of notes:
Things changed after Beethoven. The 19th century saw fewer piano sonatas, but much bigger and more difficult specimens. You could say that Beethoven seems to have presented a challenge to all those who came after him: how to live up to his example.
And the example he gave was for a longer, more complicated sonata — a kind not to be played by prosperous daughters of the middle class after dinner, but by traveling virtuosi giving piano recitals to a paying public. Franz Liszt began the practice, but the long, knucklebusting piano sonata was established.
There were less ambitious works written, and the standard for most of the 19th century was the character piece, not the sonata. These were short catchy pieces sometimes singly and sometimes strung together in a suite, such as Schumann’s Carnivale or Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons.
This was the heyday of Chopin’s waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises, of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, of Brahms’ intermezzi and capriccios.
And when there were sonatas, they went big. They became symphonies for the keyboard.
I’ve chosen six of these knucklebusters as exemplars. There were more, but they haven’t joined the repertoire of regular performances. But these six as regulars of the recital hall.
I’ve also appended a list of my favorite recordings of these sonatas. Notice, I did not say “best.” There are too many CDs out there and I haven’t listened to them all (although I have come close with the Hammerklavier — I once owned 21 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas and another five sets of the late sonatas by themselves, so I’ve heard quite a few). I’ve only listed recordings I have listened to.
Beethoven Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, opus 106, “Hammerklavier”
Beethoven was at the height of his fame after the premiere of his Seventh Symphony, but the years that followed were thin ones for the composer. He was tied up in endless legal difficulties over his nephew, Karl, and was suffering from endless bouts of gastritis. He produced little between 1813 and 1818. But then came the final flourishing of late quartets, late piano sonatas and, of course, the Ninth.
The first big explosion was the “Hammerklavier” sonata, that giant monstrosity of pianistic torture. It begins with a grand military fanfare, makes fun of the same in the teensy second movement, reaches the heart of things in a 20-minute adagio and concludes with a monumental fugue which demonstrates every trick in the book of fugue writing —- play the tune upside down, play it backwards, slow it down, speed it up, slow it down upside down, speed it up backwards and end it all with an explosion of hiccups and trills.
It was the longest piano sonata written to that point and still one of the most challenging.
It is the adagio that holds the key and the emotional power of the sonata. It has been called a “mausoleum of collective sorrow,” and “the apotheosis of pain, of that deep sorrow for which there is no remedy, and which finds expression not in passionate outpourings, but in the immeasurable stillness of utter woe.” It is that rare sort of music that you inhabit rather than simply listen to.
My favorite recording, since I first heard it 50 years ago is also the first recording made, in 1935, by Artur Schnabel. It has been in print since it was first made and despite being in rusty sonics, comes across clearly as music of the most profound sort.
If you want more modern sound, I recommend the 1970 recording by Rudolf Serkin. In completely modern sound, I love — especially the adagio — by Daniel Barenboim in his 2012 release of the complete sonatas.
Schubert Sonata No. 21 in B-flat, op. posthumus, D. 960
When Franz Schubert reached the age when Mozart had died, he’d been dead for four years already. Mozart died at age 35 and mourned as a genius who died too soon. Schubert died at 31 and we can only mourn the lost of what he could have written in those missing four years, to say nothing of what we could have had if he had lived a normal life span.
As it was, in the last year or so of Schubert’s life — when he knew he was dying — he produced a stunning series of works of such profound depth and beauty, it can only be called a miracle. There were the final three string quartets, the C-major Quintet, and the final three piano sonatas. If all we had from Schubert were these works, he would be given a first-class ticket at the front of the bus with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.
The final sonata, in B-flat, is one of the longest written by that time, rivaling Ludwig’s “Hammerklavier.” It, too, has a central slow movement of intense emotion. Arthur Rubinstein, who played the sonata as well as anyone ever has, said of the adagio, “This movement is like death. There is nothing else as close as this music that shows us what death feels like.”
Rubinstein recorded it twice, only a few years apart, but it is his first, from 1965, that I think is the best ever. There is a gracefulness and a humanity in the playing that is uniquely Rubinstein’s.
There are tons of other performances, from everyone from Horowitz (a bit clangy) to Alfred Brendel (a bit stodgy). But I also recommend the versions by Radu Lupu and by Mitsuko Uchida.
Liszt Sonata in B-minor
Franz Liszt is the guy who invented the piano recital: people paying good money to hear a pianist on stage all by himself, amazing them with his showmanship and technical brilliance. Liszt was the equivalent of a rock star in his day. Oh the women! Oh the humanity!
A lot of what Liszt wrote is surely just showboating — “Look what I can do!” But he wanted to establish his bona fides, also, as a great composer, and among those things he wrote of more serious intent is his gigantic Piano Sonata in B-minor.
Written in 1853, it divided the listening audience in two, half hating, half loving it. Brahms fell asleep while hearing it. The critic Eduard Hanslick said “Anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help.” Another German critic, Otto Gumprecht, referred to it as “an invitation to hissing and stomping.”
Liszt sent Clara Schumann a copy of the sonata. In her diary she described the sonata as “a blind noise … and yet I must thank him for it. … It really is too awful.”
Yet, the more avant-garde audiences found it thrilling, adventurous and exciting. Richard Wagner loved it. And today, it is a staple of the concert repertoire. I have heard two great live performances of it, first by Emil Gilels and more recently by Andre Watts — both overwhelming experiences.
My favorite performance is by Ukranian pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Too many upstanding and earnest pianists have attempted to overcome the showmanship and flash in Liszt to, supposedly, “find the music.” But Liszt without the dash and flash isn’t really Liszt. The exhibitionism is built into the score, and Lisitsa’s Liszt (not just in the sonata) is the perfect presentation of what Liszt is supposed to be. It’s louder, faster, more dazzling. (Hence, Lisitsa is sometimes pooh-poohed by the snobbier critics).
If you don’t mind a slightly older audio sound, you also can’t go wrong with Vladimir Horowitz, who also knows what this music is about. Finally, I treasure the CD of Watts playing the sonata, with panache and taste, which reminds me of hearing him do it live.
Brahms Sonata No. 3 in F#-minor, op. 5
We think of Brahms as the old man with the beard spattered with cigar ash, but he was young once, full of piss and vinegar, and at the start of his career he wrote three monumental piano sonatas, opuses 1, 2, and 5. Each busting knuckles with the best of them. They are big, even by the standards of the time.
The third is the one that caught on. He wrote it in 1853, the same years as Liszt wrote his sonata, and when he was just 20. It is vast, passionate, and gawky. It’s aggressive opening uses the whole length of the keyboard from booming bass to tintinnabulating treble. The second movement is tender andante inspired by a poem about pale moonlight and love. A rumbling scherzo follows and then an extra movement thrown in — a “recollection” or “remembrance” (“Rückblick”) that recalls the sweet andante with sweet nostalgia. (Did I mention that through all five movements, there is also a subtle recollection of the Dah-dah-dah-Dum of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — a ghost in the mechanism). Finally, an agitated rondo finale. The contrast between the more assertive segments and the more quiet, thoughtful parts give this sonata a sense of encompassing the range of human thought and emotion.
No one plays Brahms better than Arthur Rubinstein. Period. Brahms is his mother tongue and compared with him, every other pianist, no matter how good, is speaking a second language in Brahms idiosyncratic keyboard style — the opposite of the natural pianism of, say, Chopin. But Rubinstein makes it flow and sing.
He recorded it twice. The more recent, from 1959, is in better sound, so it is my first choice, but I have to put the 1949 version in as my second choice. There are many other good recordings of the sonata, but the only one which comes close to Rubinstein (that I have heard) is by Helene Grimaud.
Ives Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass. 1840-1860”
England has a centuries-long tradition of eccentrics, but America, in contrast, has its crackpots. Charles Ives was one of them.
He began writing his second piano sonata in 1904, but didn’t finish it until 1915. I use the word “finished” provisionally, because after it was published, in 1920, Ives continued fiddling with it, rewriting it and republishing it in 1947. It was not performed, in full, before a paying public until 1939. And each performance after was slightly different, partly because there are ad lib sections of the score, and partly because Ives kept jiggering with it. He said it was never meant to be finished, but always to be a work in progress.
Oh, and it comes with a 120-page preface, called Essays Before a Sonata, in which he discusses not just the music, but the whole of the Transcendentalist movement in New England in the 19th century.
Ives wrote the work was his “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.”
The first movement, “Emerson,” is quite craggy, but there is humor in the following “Hawthorne,” and quotes from Beethoven’s Fifth, played after dinner on a parlor piano, in “Alcotts,” and finally a quiet, moody reflection of Nature, with a capital “N” in “Thoreau.”
I got to hear Jeremy Denk play the Concord Sonata at Zankel Hall in New York, in a program that also included the “Hammerklavier.” Back to back in the same recital was more than impressive: It was like watching someone run a marathon in the morning and after lunch complete an iron man competition. It was exhausting. For a recording of the sonata, Denk is my man.
But I also have a soft spot for a recording I have cherished for almost 50 years, first on vinyl and now on CD — Nina Deutsch in a Vox Box with a host of other Ives piano music. She brings a slightly softer edge to the Ives. And there is the original recording, made in 1949 by John Kirkpatrick, who first championed the piece.
Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 in B-flat, op. 83
Schubert had his final three sonatas; Brahms had his first three. Knucklebusters seem to like coming in threes. Serge Prokofiev wrote his group of three during World War II, and are hence often grouped as his “War Sonatas.” Each is a job-and-a-half to tackle, and any of them could be chosen to represent Prokofiev as a knucklebuster. But the one that has become popular is the Seventh, in the middle of the trio.
The sonata is usually seen as a reflection on the war, but, like so much Soviet music of the time, it holds an unspoken reference to the terror under Stalin. Prokofiev was friends and working colleague with theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was arrested, tortured and murdered by the NKVD in 1939. Meyerhold’s wife, the actress Zinaida Reich, was stabbed 27 times in her apartment after Meyerhold’s arrest, also by the NKVD. Prokofiev (like Shostakovich) constantly feared they might come for him, also. He wrote a panegyric cantata “To the Glory of Stalin” for the dictator’s 60th birthday, in hopes to be left alone, but also wrote this piano sonata, in a more personal style, to maintain his self-respect.
The first movement is a rough and tumble Allegro Inquieto. The second movement, Andante Caloroso, quotes a song by Robert Schumann, with lyrics that read, “I can sometimes sing as if I were glad, yet secretly tears well … everyone delights, yet no one feels the pain, the deep sorrow in the song.” It is one of the most beautiful moments Prokofiev ever wrote.
That is all followed by the toccata-like finale, Precipitato, which explodes and doesn’t relent until the final pounding chords. It is an angry, propulsive moto perpetuo, with an obsessive repetition in the left hand of a figure in the odd time signature of ⅞. It beats and crashes over and over till audience and pianist are exhausted.
I heard Maurizio Pollini play the Prokofiev Seventh in Los Angeles many years ago in another monumental program (which also included all the Chopin Preludes and ended with Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka). Pollini was great.
But my first choice remains a dark horse: Barbara Nissman, on a disc with all three of the War Sonatas. Nissman makes the music less brutal, more musical, and I have loved this disc since I first got it in 1989. Nissman was the first pianist to record all the Prokofiev sonatas on CD. The first recording of the Seventh Sonata, by itself, was by Vladimir Horowitz, and it is still a show-off piece. And there is also a great recording by Pollini.
Not on the list
These six pieces hardly exhaust the 19th century’s love of the big and difficult piano piece. I stuck with sonatas. I could have included Schumann’s Fantasie, op. 17, which could be considered a sonata. I could have included Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Choral et Fugue, which could also pass as a sonata incognito. Or either of Serge Rachmaninoff’s piano sonatas, which are clearly knucklebusters — but not so firmly established in the repertoire as the pieces I have chosen. Some will complain I didn’t include Alkan, but his music will probably never be generally popular.
You may have your own candidates, either for compositions or performances. These are mine.
Buddhism has its Noble Eightfold Path, and I have my list of Seven Noble Violin Concertos.
There are two basic varieties of concerto in the Western tradition. In one, the purpose is to be pleasing, either through beautiful and graceful melody or by entertaining the audience with the soloist’s virtuosity.
But the other path — what I’m calling the “noble concerto” is more symphonic in conception, where an estimable composer uses the concerto form to express some deep or profound feelings and the solo instrument is just a means to do so.
This is not to disparage the first type of concerto. Two of the greatest and most popular violin concertos fall into this group: the Mendelssohn concerto (certainly one of the most beautiful ever and perhaps the only one that could be called “perfect.”) and the Tchaikovsky, which, although it is difficult for the performer, cannot be said to plumb the emotional depths. Doesn’t mean it isn’t a great concerto, but its emotional qualities tend to be melodramatic rather than profound.
The concertos of Paganini are tuneful, also, but mainly exist to show off his digital gymnastics. The concertos of Vieuxtemps, Viotti, and Wieniawski are all adequate but shallow works. Don’t get me started on Ludwig Spohr. Even Mozart’s concertos for violin are more pleasing than profound. It’s all they were ever meant to be, and we shouldn’t ask for them to be more.
Some of these concertos are among my favorites. Beyond the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, I adore the Korngold, the Barber, both Prokofievs and the Stravinsky. I even love both Philip Glass goes at the genre (has he written a third while I wasn’t looking?) I listen to all of them over and over, with great pleasure and satisfaction. So I am not writing them off simply because they don’t make my list of noble concertos.
The noble concerto doesn’t seek to ingratiate itself. It is not written with the audience in mind, but rather to express the thoughts and emotions common to humanity. They bear a seriousness of purpose. They may seem more austere, less immediately appealing, but in the long run, they reward a lifetime of listening, and in multiple interpretations. You learn about yourself by listening to them.
I am not including concertos earlier than Beethoven, which means, no Bach, no Vivaldi, Tartini, Locatelli or Corelli. In their day, “noble” simply meant a spot in the social hierarchy, a position of privilege unearned but born into. Beethoven changed that, claiming a place for an earned nobility of purpose and ability.
“Prince,” he told his patron, Prince Lichnowsky, “what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labor. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.” Which would sound like boasting, if he didn’t have the walk to back up the talk.
Nobility of the kind Beethoven meant was defined in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary as, “a scorn of meanness,” or low intention and an embrace of moral and ethical excellence and personal integrity.
I call these seven concertos “noble,” but that is a word well out of fashion these days, when anything elevated, whether nobility or heroism or honor, is suspect. The facile use of such words by fascists and totalitarians have made them stink to the mind. Yet, the truths of them are still there, and can be found in words, actions, art and literature. And in these seven concertos.
It’s not that I want to listen to these seven to the exclusion of the others. They each have their place, their purpose and their virtues. But these seven are just more, what — serious. They make more demands on the listener, and provide greater rewards for the effort. A seriousness of purpose.
—Let’s take them in historical order, beginning with the obvious first choice, the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D, op. 61, from 1806.
At one time, I owned more than 40 recordings of the Beethoven concerto, which I listened to and studied with the score, and so, I am quite familiar with most of these CDs. I got rid of almost all of them when I moved from Arizona to North Carolina, along with three-quarters of all my classical music collection (now, I’m reduced to little more than 2500 CDs. Weep for me.)
There have been more than a hundred notable recordings of the Beethoven concerto, from the time of acoustic recording to our streaming present.
I count five distinct ages of recorded music. The first from the era of the 78 rpm record, where concertos and symphonies had to be spread out onto many discs, with odd breaks in between. This was an age of giants, of Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman, of Bronislaw Huberman, Albert Sammons, Efrem Zimbalist, Adolf Busch, and, crossing over eras, Jascha Heifetz.
The second era was that of the LP, both mono and stereo. This was the golden age of classical music recordings, where established stars of an earlier age got to show off their stuff in hi-fidelity, and newer star performers made their names.
This was followed by the digital era, beginning in the 1980s, with the introduction of CDs. A few conductors and orchestras dominated the market — Herbert von Karajan re-recorded everything he had previously done in 78s and on LPs, and not always to the better.
The new century has been marked by an entire new generation of soloists, better trained and technically more perfectly accomplished than most of the great old names, and they have made some astonishing recordings. What I sometimes suspect is that they lack the understanding and commitment to what the music means, intellectually. Facile and beautiful and technically perfect, but not always as deep.
And now, we live in an age that overlaps that, of historically informed performance, in which everything is played lighter, faster and punchier — and all the nobility is squeezed out as suspect and as fogeyism.
From the first era, we have two recordings by Kreisler, from 1926 with Leo Blech conducting and a second from 1936 under the baton of John Barbirolli. You might think the later recording was in better sound, but they are pretty equal in that way. Clearly they are old scratchy recordings, but the brilliance of Kreisler shines through anyway. In many ways, these are my favorite recordings of all. Kreisler has a warmth, a beauty of phrasing and a nobility that is exceptional.
There is also the Bronislaw Huberman with George Szell from 1934 in surprisingly good sound, and by Jascha Heifetz with Arturo Toscanini from 1940 that some prefer over his later LP one with Charles Munch.
From the second era, there were many great performances. Four I would never do without are my favorite in good sound, Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Furtwangler from 1953; the second Heifetz recording, from 1955 with Munch; the one that is a consensus reference recording, Wolfgang Schneiderhan with Eugen Jochum, from 1962; and for utter beauty of tone, Zino Francescatti with Bruno Walter, from 1961.
Also, later in the LP era, some big names with some big sounds: Isaac Stern with Leonard Bernstein (1959); Itzhak Perlman with Carlo Maria Giulini (1981); Pinchas Zuckerman with Daniel Barenboim (1977); and Anne-Sophie Mutter with Karajan in her first recording of the work (1979). Any of these is a first rank performance in good sound, and define what the Beethoven Violin Concerto should be.
Among the younger violinists, there is plenty of good playing, but fewer deep dives. You still find the old grandeur with Hilary Hahn and David Zinman; and clean musicianship with Vadim Repin and Riccardo Muti; and Kyung Wha Chung and Simon Rattle; and Leonidas Kavakos conducting and playing.
All the famous fiddlers of the golden age made multiple recordings of the concerto, the Oistrakhs, the Milsteins, the Sterns, the Perlmans and Grumiauxs and Szeryngs. And mostly, they were consistent across performances, with different orchestras and conductors. But Anne-Sophie Mutter re-recorded the concerto with very different results. In 2002, she played it with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic and gave us a complete re-interpretation of the concerto. Some loved it; some hated it; few were indifferent. I love it.
It is one of several outliers among interpretations. You can always count on Niklaus Harnoncourt (aka “the Wild Man of Borneo”) to be wayward, and his recording with Gidon Kremer is peculiar by including a piano in the first-movement cadenza. Why? Beethoven didn’t write a cadenza for his violin concerto, but he did write one for his piano transcription of the work, and Kremer used the piano version to reverse-engineer a version for violin, but left in a supporting piano (and tympani part). That still doesn’t answer a “why.”
Christian Tezlaff recorded a version with Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich that, while on modern instruments, comes highly inflected by the original instrument ethos. It is beautiful in its way, but it is fast and zippy.
I also include a personal favorite with little circulation: A budget-label recording by the Hungarian violinist Miklos Szenthelyi. I saw him live and I’ve never seen anyone with such perfect posture or so fine a tone. I can’t recommend it for everyone (and it probably isn’t available anymore, anyway), but I have a soft spot in my heart for it.
—The next big concerto comes some seven decades later with Brahms Violin Concerto in D, op. 77 from 1878. Brahms was clearly modeling his concerto and its mood on Beethoven’s. He wrote it for his friend, Joseph Joachim, who was also the violinist who popularized Beethoven’s concerto after years of neglect.
The Brahms concerto is more genial and has always been popular with audiences. There are as many recordings of it as there are of its predecessor, including a version by Fritz Kreisler that is still worth listening to, through the scratches and clicks of a recording made in 1936.
Of all of them, these are my favorites, that I listen to over and over, and from all the different eras of recording.
The Heifetz is quick, dead-on, energetic and exciting. He is sometimes thought of as cool and unemotional, but I think instead that it is white-hot. The Szeryng recording is the one I’ve had the longest and listen to the most — it’s my go-to recording, but that may just be that I’m so used to it, it has imprinted on my mind. The polar opposite of Heifetz is Oistrakh, which is rich and warm, with Szell providing the secure setting for the jewel violin. Of more recent recordings, Hilary Hahn is utterly gorgeous. It gives lie to the myth that only “historical” recordings are great.
—Chronologically, the next in line is Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D-minor, op. 47 from 1905. If ever music required the ice of Heifetz, it is Sibelius’ concerto, which sounds like a blast from the Arctic. His recording, from 1959 is riveting. But so is the warmer version with Isaac Stern and Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1969. We may forget what a stunning and brilliant violinist Stern was, if we only knew him from his later years, when his intonation went south. In Sibelius, he is one of the great ones.
Of the modern era, Perlman with Andre Previn, from 1979, has all of Perlman’s grand personality and character, with technical perfection. But the one I listen to most, and with total love, is by Anne-Sophie Mutter, also with Previn, from 1995.
I need to note, somewhere in this rundown, that the list of dependable fiddle stars are just that — dependable. If Mutter is my favorite here, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t getting the goods from Oistrakh, Vengerov, Hahn, Mullova, Bell, Chang, or Zuckerman. Whether it is Beethoven or Bartok, you will not likely be disappointed. I am here listing just my own favorites. My own taste.
—And my own taste runs strongly to the Elgar Violin Concerto in B-minor, op. 61 from 1910. This is a testament to my own growth and change. There was a time when I wouldn’t touch Elgar with a 10-foot phonograph stylus. I found him stuffy and boring. But that was because I hadn’t really heard much of his music. Then, I heard Steven Moeckel play it with the Phoenix Symphony and was swept away. I discussed the concerto with Moeckel and he advocated for it with devotion — indeed, it was his insistence that the the Phoenix Symphony tackle it that made the performance happen. (Moeckel also has a CD out with the Elgar violin sonata that makes a case for it, too.)
This is the longest concerto on my list, but also one that I have to listen to with complete attention from beginning to end. It speaks to me with a directness that I recognize. It is rich to overflowing and absolutely tears my heart out.
My go-to recording is also the oldest, by English violinist Alfred Sammons, made in 1929 with Henry Wood conducting. It has the greatest breadth and depth of any I have heard, in sound that is not as bad as its birth year would imply. A famous early recording was made with Yehudi Menuhin under the baton of the composer, that should show us how the composer meant it to go — if only Elgar were a better conductor.
The concerto kind of disappeared after that, until the young fiddler Kennedy (he went by only one name back then) came out with a best-selling version in 1984 with Vernon Handley and the London Phil. It is still Kennedy’s best recording (he went pop soon after).
But my favorite remains Hilary Hahn and the London Symphony with Colin Davis. Rich, warm, and in truly modern sound, it breaks my heart every time.
—Speaking of broken hearts, there is no more personal utterance than Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto from 1935. Subtitled, “To the memory of an angel,” it commemorates the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. It is also the most listener-friendly piece of 12-tone music ever written, as Berg managed to cross atonality with tonal music in a way so clever that doctoral dissertations are still being written about it.
In two movements, it is blood-curdling in parts, and soul-soothing in others. Every emotion in it seems authentic, and not conventional. It is one of those piece of music you cannot ever just put on in the background — you have to listen and you have to invest yourself in it completely.
It was commissioned by violinist Louis Krasner and we have a performance by him conducted by Berg’s colleague Anton Webern, from 1936, which should demonstrate the most bona fides, despite the poor sound quality.
I first learned the piece listening to Arthur Grumiaux and it is still one of my favorites. Yehudi Menuhin played it with Pierre Boulez, who brings his own authority to Second Vienna School music.
But the one I listen to now, over and over, is Mutter, with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony. This is serious music for the serious listener.
—At roughly the same time, Bela Bartok wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2, from 1938. In three movements, it was commissioned by Zoltan Szekely and first recorded by him with Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It is a recording of the world premiere and has authority for that reason alone, other than that it’s a great performance, although hampered by horrible sound.
Much better sounding, and one of the great recordings, is by Menuhin and Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Philharmonia, from 1954. It has always been my reference recording. Good sound for the era and great performance.
Isaac Stern is also great, with Bernstein, and his performance is usually paired with Bartok’s lesser-known and seldom-performed first concerto, which is youthful and unashamedly beautiful.
And I wouldn’t be without Mutter’s version, with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony.
—It would be hard to choose which is Dimitri Shostakovich’s best work, but my vote goes for his Violin Concerto No. 1, in A-minor, op. 99 from 1948, coincidentally, the year I was born. As personal as the Berg concerto, but with a powerful overlay of the political, and written under the oppression of Stalin, this is the most monumental violin concerto, probably, since Beethoven. When well-played (and it is difficult), it drains you of all the psychic energy you can muster.
It is the bottom line on all seven of these concertos that we are meant to listen to them with the same beginning-to-end concentration that we would spend on poetry or defusing a bomb. They are not “put it on while I do the dishes” music, but life-and-death music.
And that is what you get with David Oistrakh, who was the originator of the concerto and a friend of Shostakovich. He recorded it multiple times, but the first, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Phil, from 1956 is still the greatest one, the most committed. It is the one I listen to when I want to really dive deeply into what the music means, and come away shattered with the realization of all the horror of the 20th century.
Performances by Lydia Mordkovitch and Dmitry Sitkovetsky are in modern sound and also brilliant. Hahn is especially well-recorded, with Marek Janowski and the Oslo Philharmonic.
But the Oistrakh. If the concerto was personal to the composer, it was to the violinist, too. They both had known it all, seen it all, suffered it all.
And so, these seven concertos — seven sisters — seem a notch above the rest, in terms of seriousness and execution. You should have all of them in performances that express all the humanity that is packed into them. These are my suggestions; you may have your own.
Where I sit at my desk, typing this piece, I am surrounded by shelves filled with CDs. There are thousands of them. Eleven complete Mahler cycles (and I just ordered another). I don’t know how many boxes of Beethoven symphonies I have. I have literally lost count. Some are filed with Beethoven, some under the name of the conductor, some in my historical bin. Too much. Too much.
Henry David Thoreau famously advised “Simplify. Simplify.” And so, I’ve been cogitating, Marie Kondo style, how to reduce this agglomeration into a fine sauce, into the absolute essentials.
And so, I decided I would pick a single composition and recording from each of the major composers and stack them up in a neat, tiny pile, figuring they would do me for the remaining years of my declining life.
I realized, too, that I had to limit my list. There are simply too many composers out there. Do I really need Hans Pfitzner? Can I do without Louis Spohr, Max Reger, David Diamond? Surely, there is a short list of the pillars of Western art music. If not, I would make one.
If you don’t find Palestrina on this list, or Josquin de Prez, it is not because I don’t value their work. I don’t even include Antonio Vivaldi, although I love his music and probably should include at least the Four Seasons. But I have chosen to start with Bach. He really is the fountainhead of the 250-year project we now call “classical music.” At least, those composers who followed him considered him so.
Each of these winnowed-down composers can enter only a single work on my list, and I have chosen for each of these, a single performance to put in my “keepers” pile.
Here are my suggestions, in roughly chronological order.
Johann Sebastian Bach — Since I want as much of him as possible on my pile, I will add the St. Matthew Passion, one of the greatest works of art ever assembled. It goes on for as much as three hours, depending on whether you’re listening to Otto Klemperer or Riccardo Chailly, who can squeeze the whole thing onto two discs.
For my pile, I’m going with Klemperer, who brings a majesty and awe that few can match. In fact, if I had to have only a single recording on my pile, it would be Klemperer’s Matthew Passion.
(If you find the passion too dour and downbeat, you can substitute the Mass in B-minor. I won’t complain. Klemp is good in that, too.)
George Frederic Handel — If I can have three discs of Bach, I can do the same with Handel. I love the 12 concertos of Op. 6. They come in two forms: currently, the historically informed performance practice, bouncy, quick, staccato versions that dominate the market; and the old-fashioned warm Mitteleuropean version. No one does that anymore.
I grew up hearing violinist Alexander Schneider in New York, and his brand of committed music making. And I have a set of his Op. 6 recordings, with a pick-up ensemble, that it horribly out of date, but glorious. Into the pile.
Domenico Scarlatti — On the shelves are all 555 sonatas, played on harpsichord by Scott Ross. But I hate the clangy, monotonous sound of the harpsichord and prefer my Scarlatti translated to piano. Most pianists now attempt to imitate the harpsichord by using no pedal and dry staccato. I want someone not afraid of using what the piano offers. My favorite used to be Vladimir Horowitz. He is still great. But I have since discovered an even richer performer in Mikhail Pletnev. This is magnificent piano playing.
Joseph Haydn — Papa is hard to narrow down for me. He is one of my absolute dearest composers. But how do you choose a symphony over a quartet? Or a single symphony or quartet over all the others. Haydn’s work is so consistently excellent, it makes it hard to pick one as more essential than another. But there is The Creation. It is unlike anything else, and has the greatest sonic description of chaos ever devised. In his lifetime, The Creation was recognized as his crowning achievement.
I have something like half a dozen recordings of it, including two by Leonard Bernstein, who had a magic sympathy with Haydn always. I will choose his second recording, with Deutsche Grammophon although I think the earlier with the New York Philharmonic is just as good.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — The problem with Wolfie is similar to that with Haydn: consistency. But Mozart is best in opera. I would have chosen The Marriage of Figaro — his most nearly perfect work and the world’s most perfect opera — but instead I pick Don Giovanni, which, although it sags a bit in the second act, has more emotional power and heft.
There are many great performances, and lots by the newer, faster, punchier conductors who follow historically informed performance practice (pardon me while I spit at their feet). And my choice is the recording with Cesare Siepi as the Don, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. What a supporting cast!
Ludwig von Beethoven — I hate to be caught out as predictable, but after considering one of the late quartets, or the Hammerklavier sonata, I realized that there is only one possible choice. I am sorry for it, but I have to pick the Ninth. If I had been really snobbish, I would have suggested the Missa Solemnis, but I don’t know anyone who really enjoys that music. Respects it, yes. Reveres it, even. But enjoys? No. But the Ninth. It was the sign over the door to the Nineteenth Century. Enter who dare. It cast a shade over the next hundred years. You wrote in emulation or reaction against.
I’ve got to fess up to liking the first and third movements more than the second and fourth. The scherzo seems a little thin melodically speaking, and I always have to get through the first half of the finale before hitting the solid core of gold, which starts with the fugue after the Hogan’s Heroes’ march. The Adagio, though, is as sublime as music gets, and when it is done right, the first movement is a vision from Dante: If the conductor lets the tympani roar properly, the recapitulation can rouse the fight-or-flight in you. Too many conductors smooth that bit out, letting the kettle drums murmur underneath the themes. In 1942, Furtwangler unleashed his tympani in a recording that is both the greatest performance and one of the sloppiest and poorly recorded in history. You have to put up with a lot in that historical document (including knowing that Hitler was in the audience), but it is the version I put on my pile.
Franz Schubert — The riches are there: the Unfinished Symphony, the Trout Quintet, the B-flat Sonata, the Death and the Maiden quartet. Heck, the F-minor Fantasie for Two Pianos, the two piano trios, to say nothing of the songs, especially Winterreisse. But the most moving of all, deeply emotional and profound is the String Quintet in C, sometimes considered the greatest piece of chamber music ever — even topping Beethoven’s late quartets. That’s saying something.
Lots of great performances, but my favorite and the one on my pile is by musicians from the Marlboro Festival. Some find it a bit over the top; I find the top cannot be gone over in this music. The disc also gives us The Shepherd on the Rock, sung by Benita Valente and so we have one of the songs, also.
Robert Schumann — Bobbie doesn’t get a lot of props these days, and he can get repetitious. And as he aged, he became outright boring. But in his hot youth, he wrote a lot of the world’s most memorable tunes. For me, what goes on the pile is Carnaval, a series of sort-of variations, a necklace of character pieces for piano.
There are two essential recordings of it: Artur Rubinstein and Sergei Rachmaninoff. When push comes to shove, I’m taking Rach with me.
Felix Mendelssohn — My absolute favorite Mendelssohn is his Hebrides Overture, but it is too short for my pile, and so I pass by his symphonies and, god help us, his tedious oratorios, and pick the most elegant and refined of all the great violin concertos.
I am in luck, though, because Pinchas Zukerman plays the bejeezus out of the concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Phil and pairs it with the Hebrides and as a bonus, a rousing performance of the “Italian” Symphony. That’s hard to beat.
Hector Berlioz — This will probably be a controversial choice. How can you not choose the Symphonie Fantastique? It is his signature piece, and under the baton of Charles Munch, it can’t be beat. But my heart belongs to the Requiem. I love it without regard for its faults. It is ingenious, tuneful, and loud. (My college roommate’s brother used to love what he called “the loud classics,” by which he meant things like the 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Fifth, but you can’t get much louder than the Dies Irae in the Berlioz “Wreck.”
And there is one recording above all: Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Too many other conductors (I’m looking at you, Colin Davis) attempt to make sense of this irrational music, to tame it and have it make sense. But Ormandy lets it all hang out, and his tenor, Cesare Valletti, is just cheesy enough.
Frederic Chopin — This is a toughie. Chopin wrote mainly short pieces, and so picking just one would be giving him short shrift. I don’t particularly like his piano concertos, and his sonatas are fine, but what he really calls for is a program of mazurkas, scherzos, ballades, waltzes and the bunch.
There are two contenders, almost opposite poles apart, interpretively, but they are the best at getting the spirit of Chopin. Most modern pianists are too dry and all seem to hate the pedal. The older Chopin tradition is closer to what the composer wanted. One could choose the 10-CD box of Artur Rubinstein Plays Chopin, which is a delight. But it is made of his later, stereo recordings, and his older mono ones were more idiosyncratic. Still, it is a great box. But on my pile goes Vladimir Horowitz: The Chopin Collection, with seven CDs. Volodya has all the snap and jump that sit in the music waiting to spring out. It’s a close call. The Rubinstein is more complete, but Horowitz is the only pianist who has ever taken the measure properly of the Polonaise-Fantasie, and so, I’m going with Horowitz.
Franz Liszt — Like Chopin, Liszt is best in the shorter to medium size pieces. I’d want a compilation.
The best Liszt pianist going is Valentina Lesitsa, who understands that Liszt without the theatrics is not really Liszt. Those pianists who try to extract the “music” from the glitz only destroy the essence. The problem is that Lisitsa has not released a really good single Liszt disc; the best is spread out on several. No one does the second Hungarian Rhapsody with as much schmaltz as she does. She is great. But, I have to choose, and so, I’m going with a great 2-disc compilation on DG called Liszt: Wild and Crazy, with the works spread out among more than a dozen great pianists.
Richard Wagner — Oy, Wagner. This is a kind of classical music Everest, not just because the music is great, but because it takes a mountain-climber’s stamina. To a true Wagnerite, the music is transcendental, mythic, epic. To the not-so-convinced, it can seem bombastic, never-ending, and pretentious. I’m with the first group. I’ve attended two full Ring Cycles live, and own six cycles on disc. So sue me.
But I’m not going to take all that with me, and so, Kondo-style, I will divest and choose a single disc. Each of Wagner’s operas contain longueurs, segments of what can seem like filler, as the story is rehashed once again. But the first act of Walküre is a perfectly enclosed whole, musically. Arturo Toscanini recorded Act 1, scene 3 with Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior that is, for me, the perfect Wagner recording. The disc also includes the Siegfried Idyll and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
Anton Bruckner — Sometimes, it is hard to tell one Bruckner symphony from another. He had one tone, one message, one purpose in all his music. Symphonies Four and Seven are the easiest to love; Eight is the longest and most sublime; the unfinished Nine is profound. But if I choose just one, it will be Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. It has that fugal finale, and a first-movement ear-worm that you will carry with you for life.
And my recording of choice is with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. No one gets Bruckner quite like the quirky Kna. The disc also gives us Wagner’s Dawn and Rhine Journey, and so we get to cheat a little on our Wagner.
Johannes Brahms — OK, this is painful. Old beard-face is very close to my heart. I’m going to want to add to my pile the DG box of “Complete Works,” but that would be cheating. Brahms is the greatest composer of chamber music since Beethoven and Schubert, and no one has equalled him since. His symphonies and concertos are top tier. But the music that moves me the most, that I could not live without, for it provides me with the deepest consolation is his German Requiem. “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.” It is the most human, compassionate, loving music I have ever heard. I weep just remembering it.
The greatest performance ever recorded, by general acclamation, is that of Otto Klemperer, with the Philharmonia and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Ralph Downes. I’m putting on top of my pile, so I can reach for it first.
Giuseppe Verdi — I’m afraid am giving opera the short stick in this selection. I shouldn’t. And Joe Green is going to take a beating here. Because, although I would love to add Otello or La Traviata to my pile, I’m going to choose instead his Requiem. It is operatic, after all.
Into the pile goes my Barenboim version, with the La Scala orchestra and chorus and Anja Hareros, Elīna Garanča, Jonas Kaufmann and Rene Pape. It is stunning.
Antonin Dvorák — After Haydn, no composer has been more mentally and emotionally sound and hale than Dvorak. And that has translated, as with Haydn, into a remarkable consistency of quality across genres. You pretty much can’t go wrong with him. I’m going to go against the grain, here, though, and not choose the cello concerto or the New World Symphony, but an old Columbia box of the two piano quartets, the piano quintet and the lovely bagatelles for two violins and harmonium with the Juilliard Quartet and pianist Rudolf Firkusny. This recording is a delight.
Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky — When I was younger, there was a prejudice against Tchaikovsky. My generation preferred irony and detachment. Tchike was all heart-on-sleeve. And besides, he wasn’t German, which meant he didn’t build his symphonies out of tiny germs of thematic material, like Brahms. We were too sophisticated for Tchaikovsky. We were, of course, stupid. Tchaikovsky was a great composer, a brilliant orchestrator, and put more of himself into his best music than almost anyone. For my pile, I’m going to pick his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathetique.” Everything about it is brilliant, emotionally deep and how can you not love the five-beat “waltz?”
The performance I choose is Bernstein’s from 1987, with the New York Philharmonic, on DG. It is nearly an hour long (most performances run 40-45 minutes), and with anyone else, that slowness would dissipate all the forward motion of the music, but Lenny manages, even at the crawl, to keep the drive going, and the emotion he wrings from the performance is sui generis. Not to everyone’s taste, but it makes the music an experience, not just a pleasant listen.
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov — I can’t live without Scheherazade. It is Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest bit of tune-making and orchestrating. It is lush and washes over your ears like gentle surf.
There are some great performances, including Beecham and Stokowski (I have both), but the one I’m gonna keep is Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, not only because it is a delicious recording, but it also includes the most joyous Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture, making it a Rimsky trifecta.
This takes us up to the end of the 19th Century. In the next piece, I’ll clean out my 20th and 21st century clutter.
I woke up this February morning to a gray, cloudy, cold day, with reaches of fog climbing up the sides of the mountains, giving them all the look of a Chinese painting. Brouillard in French. Nebel in German.
And that set me to thinking about Long John Nebel, a radio personality from WOR-AM in New York, who had an all-night talk show when I was a kid, interviewing people who claimed they had been in flying saucers, or explained there was a civilization that lived in the center of the earth, or that could bend spoons with their minds. It is where I first heard of Charles Fort, Edgar Cayce and astral projection.
Long John’s theme song was originally written for the movie The Forbidden Planet by David Rose, but was never used there. It was distinct and spooky, just like most of Long John’s guests.
Remembering Long John reminded me also of Jean Shepherd, whose program ran on the station just before Long John. For 45 minutes each night, Shep told stories of his childhood or army life, ranted about modern culture, played the Jew’s harp or kazoo along with The Sheik of Araby, and drove his engineers and management nuts. His theme music was Eduard Strauss’s polka Bahn Frei, in a Boston Pops arrangement by Peter Bodge. Eduard was the lesser known younger brother of Johann Strauss II and you could call him the Eric of the Strauss family. I listened to Shepherd night after night and heard the polka so many times — thousands — that as soon as I think of it, it becomes an ear worm and for the next couple of days, it plays in my head endlessly.
And so, I’m sitting there this morning, enjoying the nasty weather outside and my mind wanders to TV show theme music. There’s the William Tell Overture and The Lone Ranger; Love in Bloom for Jack Benny; Love Nest for Burns and Allen.
Burns and Allen was a show we watched regularly in the 1950s, and in retrospect, I can see it as the first Postmodern series, as George would retreat to his study above the garage and watch the same show we were watching, on his TV and commenting on the plot as it played out. This level of knowingness became common later with such shows as It’s Like, You Know… Everyone’s doing it now.
These connections, from fog on the mountain to Postmodernism, are the way the human mind works. One damn thing leads to another. We might all like to think we are rational beings and think logically, but no, it’s a slow bumping from one thing to another, and sometimes we make them fit together like the Tab A and Slot B of a puzzle.
It’s a version of the Kevin Bacon game. How many steps to get from this to that. For instance, I can get to Vladimir Putin in only three steps. When I was music critic in Phoenix, I was friends with the director of the Arizona Opera, the late Joel Revzen (an unfortunate Covid victim late last year; I will miss him). After he left Arizona, Revzen worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and became the designated repetiteur for Valery Gergiev (Revzen would rehearse the orchestra and singers for weeks to get them ready for the jet-set conductor who would swoop in the last week and put the finishing touches on the performance). Gergiev also invited Revzen to conduct his orchestra in Moscow, the Mariinsky Orchestra. Gergiev, in turn, is pals with Putin. Three jumps and bingo.
I can connect with Albert Einstein in two steps: My friend and predecessor as music critic in Arizona was Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was born in Berlin. Dimitri’s father was a noted violinist, and when Dimitri was a young boy, the family played string quartets at home, and occasionally, Einstein — an amateur fiddler — would sit in. A quick two-step.
Dimitri knew many of the most famous musicians of the 20th century, and through them, I could trace connections to Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, Rubinstein, even George Gershwin. And through Gershwin to Arnold Schoenberg, and through him to Gustav Mahler. Short trips and many connections.
Let’s see how many connections I need to make it to Johann Sebastian Bach.
—I knew Dimitri; who knew cellist Gregor Piatagorsky; who recorded Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 with Artur Schnabel; who studied piano with Theodor Leschetizky; who learned piano from Carl Czerny; who was a pupil of Ludwig von Beethoven; who met Wolfgang Mozart; who knew Johann Christian Bach; whose father was Johann Sebastian. Nine steps over 271 years, an average of 30 years per step.
That’s a bit over the standard Kevin Bacon line, but I can still claim only six degrees from Beethoven. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, etc., who knew Beethoven. Finding connections, whether of acquaintance or through association of ideas, everything is connected to everything else. When we isolate anything, we rip it from its context, and its context extends, however tenuously, to the edges of the universe.
And I cannot think of 271 years as being all that long ago. I have lived for nearly three-quarters of a century; my father was born 102 years ago. That’s the year of the Versailles Treaty and the year Pierre-Auguste Renoir died. So, that’s a century, a father-son century. Only 10 of those father-son centuries and we are in the reign of King Canute of England. The Middle Ages. A millennium. And only 10 of those brings us to the very beginnings of agriculture and civilization itself, growing along the Fertile Crescent, the Indus River Valley and in China. That’s just the father-son century times 10 times 10. All of civilization, there between your thumb and forefinger.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that everyone with even a drop of European in their DNA can count Charlemagne in their family tree. We are all related. Further back, we seem all to have the bones of Lucy as our great-great-great, etc. grandma.
And anyone who saw the 1978 James Burke television series, Connections, knows that the world doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, but by accretion. It takes a handful of previous inventions to permit the breakthrough we all know. It’s a web, not a line.
Even today’s weather in Asheville is dependent on yesterday’s rain in Tennessee and last month’s disturbance over the Pacific Ocean.
In my own life, I realize I could have had a Ph.D. in some specialty, maybe a sinecure in a college or university. It was actually what my life-arc seemed to predict. But I could never narrow down my interests. I wanted to learn everything. An impossibility, of course. But I have spent my seven decades looking for the way all things are related, for the bigger picture. The beaker into which it all mixes. The mind casts a wide net, wide enough to move from a gray day through a radio talk show to Charlemagne and even to Gobekli Tepe in Turkey.
We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out.
But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale.
No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot?
So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners.
Desert Island book
The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul.
My nominees for Desert Island Book are:
—War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book.
—Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again.
—Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me.
—À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty.
—Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship.
And the award goes to:
Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry.
Desert Island Music
This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture.
My nominees for Desert Island Music are:
—Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into.
—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.”
—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle.
—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out.
—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time.
And the winner is:
St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!
Desert Island Film
Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.
My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are:
—Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.
—La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”
—Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen. I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love.
—Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you.
—Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon.
And my choice is:
Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life.
I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play.
An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite:
Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino…
There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year:
The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad.
What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember?
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules.
And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.
We could name the musicians that rise to the top of the list in Western art music, and it’s an impressive list: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Debussy … But then, there’s Schubert, a name we tag onto the end as almost an afterthought. Oh, yes, then there’s Schubert. Little Franz, the “Schwammerl” — little mushroom.
I don’t know why he is so often forgotten, or left at the remainders pile. In almost any terms you want to define quality or greatness, he is right there, a shiny, bright face, almost a puppy dog demanding our attention.
Oh, he gets his kudos. No one can talk about lieder, or art song, without putting Schubert’s name at the top of the menu. But, he belongs there with his piano music, his chamber music, his choral music, too. And three of his symphonies have never left heavy rotation in the repertoire.
Each time I have overlooked his music and hear one of the three late piano sonatas, or the final quartets, I think: There is nothing better than this, not in Beethoven or even in Bach. It is emotionally powerful, harmonically rich and melodically persuasive. And then I find myself in a Schubert-orgy for the next week or so, realizing over again how deeply profound and psychologically acute is his music.
So why is he so often relegated to the also-rans? It was that way from the beginning, when little Franz lived in Vienna under the dark shadow of Beethoven. Schubert wrote thousands of compositions during his sadly short lifespan, but very little was published or performed during his life. Mostly his music was shared with friends at dinner parties — or “Schubertiades” — where he and his musician buddies would gather to play music, hoist a few, and sing along.
He was little over five feet tall and pudgy, with a double chin and a button nose that held up tiny spectacles. He had a hard time finding his place in society, trying at times to be a school teacher and at other times to earn a living as a music tutor. None of it clicked.
But from the earliest age, he could write really good music. He wrote his first symphony (now only a fragment) when he was just 14. The official Symphony No. 1 came just two years later and was written for his family to play — everyone in the house played an instrument.
He was one of the great musical prodigies. We think of Mozart or Mendelssohn — who wrote his famous Octet when he was just 16 — but Schubert composed his first genuine masterpiece, “Erlkönig,” when he was 17.He wrote well over a thousand pieces of music before he died at the age of 31 in 1828, just a year after Beethoven. Mozart, in contrast, lived to the ripe old age of 35.
Perhaps Schubert lags in popular estimation because he was such a slipshod worker. He left more unfinished pieces than any other great composer, sheaves of piano sonatas left as torsos, a movement here or there, and other bits left in fragment. His most famous symphony, after all, is the “Unfinished Symphony.”
And perhaps he lags because his melodies are so memorable, they may be mistaken as facile. Beethoven, after all, hardly ever wrote something you could hum distractedly as you polish the silverware. Da-Da-Da-Dumm is hardly a tune. Schubert is endless song.
And because we think of melodies as lightweight compared with, say Wagner or Brahms, we may think of Schubert as emotionally trifling. “Wer hat das schöne Liedlein erdacht?” “Who wrote this pretty little ditty?” Couldn’t be more wrong.
Schubert has perhaps the widest range, emotionally, of any other composer. On one hand, he wrote what has to be the happiest, bounciest, most joyful music ever, the “Trout” Quintet, and the single bleakest, most desolate music ever, the C-major String Quintet. (I’ve written about the “Trout” before.)
The String Quintet is another beast. Written for two violins, two violas and two cellos, it is most often named, when such lists are drawn up, as the greatest piece of chamber music ever written. My late friend, Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was a longtime music critic at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, when he died at the age of 90, had requested the quintet be played at his funeral. The slow movement, in particular, is about the deepest and most profound that music can reach — which is rather deeper and more profound than any words can reach.
Schubert had an intimate relationship with death. He learned several years before his own death that he was suffering from what has been subsequently diagnosed as mercury poisoning (which likely also killed Beethoven), typhoid fever, or tertiary syphilis (mercury was a common treatment for syphilis). He wrote his final works — the final three piano sonatas, the final three string quartets, and the String Quintet, with the full knowledge of his looming extinction. These works, along with his final two symphonies and song cycles, are the height of his achievement. At the same age, Beethoven was just writing his first symphony. One can only imagine what Schubert might have written if he had lived even to Beethoven’s young 56 years old.
It is a miracle that someone who barely left Vienna during his life, and who had only lived three short decades, could write with such expressiveness about such dark matter.
Take his final and greatest piano sonata, in B-flat. It opens with a jaunty and optimistic tune that is almost immediately interrupted by a low trill on a G-flat — a note not in the key of B-flat major, but injected from its minor. It is a discordant lowered sixth that resolves to the dominant and leaves an uneasy feeling, as if happiness was being threatened by a baleful presence. That sense of immanent evil or impending doom keeps returning, even as the first movement comes to a seemingly positive conclusion — and then, there’s that threat, that bottom-feeding trill, again. No good will come of that.
I listen again to a performance of that sonata by Artur Rubinstein, made in 1965, and start sorting through my CDs — I suppose I am about to begin another weeklong Schubert marathon. I’ll certainly go through the quartets and sonatas, even the symphonies. But mostly, I will dive deep into the two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise.
The last is a 24-song cycle setting poems by Wilhelm Müller that tells the tragic story of a man betrayed by his lover; he wanders through town and country dropping deeper and deeper into madness and depression. It would be hard to find a more trenchant exposition of German Romanticism that this song cycle.
My late wife, Carole, loved to make music with others and often did so. I have no meaningful ability on any instrument, but was once persuaded to join her in singing “Gute Nacht,” the first song of the Winterreise cycle. It is tuneful and although it is strophic, the last go-round switches from minor key to major, with a stroke like lightning. The effect it had on me, in my pathetic attempt to sing to her piano accompaniment led me to attempt to translate Müller’s poems into English.
The odd thing was that the further I went along, the more I found myself not so much translating as re-imagining. “Gute Nacht” turned out to be a more or less literal translation, beginning with the first stanza:
But by the time I got to the end, the devastating and desolate “Der Leiermann,” in which our protagonist finds himself back in the village listening to a hurdy-gurdy man and imagines his tragedy sung to the accompaniment of the pathetic little squeeze-box, I had left the original behind altogether. Schubert’s music for the entire song never leaves a single A-minor chord played as a slow pulse to the lament. The effect is a complete collapse of our hero’s personality.
My version of Müller’s poem also left 19th century Germany and shifted to what I thought was the parallel situation in our own time. The whole series of my translations was in itself a metamorphosis from the original style of Müller to my own voice — in other words, I took the poetry seriously and personally, which is what the best art always gives us.
There are many great recordings of Winterreise available. Among the best are four different versions by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, made with Gerald Moore, Jörg Demus, Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim in turn at the piano. They are all near perfect, but I have always favored the first, with Moore. But my favorite is even older than that one: Hans Hotter with Moore, recorded in 1954. Hotter’s voice is more bass than baritone and gives added heft to the work.
Other Suggested Recordings
It’s hard to suggest a CD of the “Trout” Quintet: I have never heard a bad one, although the one I love most is by Alexander Schneider with Peter Serkin, David Soyer, Michael Tree and Julius Levine. You can never go wrong with Schneider.
The three final quartets, including the “Death and the Maiden” and with the String Quintet, are all in a box with the Emerson Quartet and Mstislav Rostropovich on the second cello. Not a shabby addition.
There is an 8-disc box of piano sonatas by Mitsuko Uchida that is a great performance and a bargain to boot.
For the symphonies, you can hardly do better than a set by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic, which is currently selling for under $15. But you should also check out two very different ideas of the “Great” C-major symphony (usually listed as No. 9) by Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini. I should have said “Furtwangler vs. Toscanini.”
There is much music that is meant only to please the ear, and Schubert wrote his share of that, too. But music can plumb the depths of human psychology, and provide a sonic metaphor for the most profound emotions and thoughts — at a depth where thought and emotion cannot be told apart. The best of Schubert’s music takes us there.
In the world of classical music, someone who tickles the ivories tends to be considered either a pianist or a musician. Musicians tend to play Bach and Beethoven; pianists rather favor Chopin and Liszt.
Of course, this is not a simple dichotomy; it is a spectrum. But it helps to understand the difference between, say Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Brendel.
The Brendel side sees the “text” as sacred and attempts to provide a sort of Platonic or idealized performance of the music. The Horowitz camp, instead, sees the music as a canvas on which to display the joys of piano playing and the possibilities afforded by the 88-key machine.
The one sounds studied, the other sounds spontaneous.
Perhaps my bias shows. I tend to downplay the very laudable talents of a Brendel, because I see it as a kind of embalming, or a making of a museum exhibit. I have always been more taken with pianists who bring themselves to the score, to see the score not as an end, but as a beginning, as if it were a photographer’s negative that can be printed in many contrasts and tones. Not ideal forms, but Heraclitan flow.
The latter parts of the 19th century and the beginning of the next were the heyday of the pianist as star. It was the time of Paderewski and de Pachmann, who gave very personal performances of their programs.
But somewhere between the world wars, there emerged praise of piano players who were notable “as musicians” rather than as pianists. It was praise heaped on such notables as Josef Hofmann and Artur Schnabel. The parallel might be thought of as journalism, where the actual reporter disappears from his story and only the facts remain.
(James Joyce famously once said that an artist should remain “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”)
And so, for Brendel (sorry for picking on so august a man), the score is something to be studied, balanced and weighed, finding tempo ratios to emphasize the unity of the piece in question, to make sure it all coheres as a whole, from initial downbeat to final chord. To make such a case often requires the pianist to avoid making too much of details here or there, to subsume all into the integrity of the whole.
While for the pianist, as a class, the details are what make the pieces interesting. If you have to lose something of a long view, you gain immeasurably in the emotional communication of the piece.
(The distinction between emphasizing the whole against emphasizing the detail was described by famous art history Heinrich Wölfflin as one of the defining distinctions between what he called “classical” art and the “Baroque,” or, more popularly, romanticism.)
Pendulums swing back and forth, and the age of keyboard musicians such as Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Olga Kern, Marc-Andre Hamelin, András Schiff and Nelson Freire is giving way to a new, more overtly expressive group of pianists as ivory ticklers, less concerned with hitting their marks than with connecting with their audiences on a primal level.
I have brought up all this backstory to express my love for the music of four younger pianists — “younger” being a relative term: These are each in their 40s or 50s. But pianists tend to reach their expressive prime not in their salad days but in their riper age. A few, such as Arthur Rubinstein or Mieczysław Horszowski kept getting better into their 90s.
The impetus for this is a new series of YouTube videos by Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, now 46, in which she has begun recording all 32 Beethoven sonatas. She posts new videos one at a time as she goes through the canon chronologically.
Her playing is brilliant but utterly untraditional. Fast movements are faster than a speeding bullet; slow movements can be dirge-tempo. Always her tempi are shifting, speeding up and slowing down, pauses added to phrases and dynamics ratcheting up and down, even within a two-note phrase. This is playing not about unity but about contrast and diversity. This is a Beethoven that is alive and having a grand time.
Lisitsa is a peculiar case in the history of virtuosi. She did not come up through the piano-competition mill, but by posting performances on YouTube and gaining a loyal fan base.
This put off some fogey critics — especially those who rather preferred a piano playing wearing tails and white tie — but excited a generation of real fans.
On an upright
Her first recordings were mostly of the music of Franz Liszt and Rachmaninoff — big Romantic pieces in which she could show off her blazing technique. But, unlike some other note-grinders, she didn’t simply hit the right notes in the right order, but instead made exciting music.
Liszt himself knew how to make drama of his concerts, with his long hair and dashing attitude. Lisitsa gave us Liszt as theater. We have perhaps too often forgotten that a concert is an entertainment, that it has an audience. (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2)
You watch Lisitsa’s face as she plays and it is clear she is having fun; the music gives her — and us — genuine pleasure. (La Campanella) She is not giving us a pianistic lecture in music history, but giving us a reason to enjoy life.
Which is why her new Beethoven series is so exciting. (Rondo from the Waldstein sonata) This is Beethoven as intoxicating. As I write this, her series has reached the first six sonatas. They sizzle as she plays. There is ample pedal — something recent pianists have considered to be rather a deplorable sin, as if they were musical Puritans.
But Lisitsa isn’t the only great pianist bringing new fire to classical music. Hélène Grimaud is just as astonishing. D.T. Max in The New Yorker wrote, “Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: She is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances.”
Her performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of theBach Chaconneis furious and exciting. Purists complain that Busoni is “kein Bach,” but it is great music.
It is the taking of chances, of seeing familiar ground in new ways that make my favorite pianists so moving. For them, classical music is not old, it is as present as today’s performance.
These pianists are virtuosi, but more than that. They find the meaning in the music, what the music is really about, and how it says that music to its audience.
My third nominee is the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev. He also makes the music his own. He has technique to burn — listen to the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube — but he can also turn out a Scarlatti sonata better than anyone since Horowitz, although, like the older pianist, he can sometimes rewrite the music, adding octaves or, in one case, his own coda.
His recordings of the five Beethoven concertos is a revelation.
And finally, I have heard Jeremy Denk many times live, none more overwhelming than his program at the Zankel Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 2008, when he played, back-to-back, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata — the two thorniest and most monumental pieces in the repertoire, each 45-minutes long. Then, for encore, he reprised the “Hawthorne” movement from the Ives. It was a memorable night of knuckle-busting. (Alcotts movement from the Concord Sonata).
Denk has a sense of humor, which shows up in his blog, “Think Denk,” but also in his recitals. I heard him perform Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations, which he explained as, at least partly, comic, and his performance was both beautiful and witty.
He also performs the piano music of György Ligeti, which he plays as fluently as if it were Mozart and makes a persuasive case for it. (Etude: “Disorder.”)
“There’s something I like about music that’s on the edge of destroying itself,” he has said.
There are others in the younger generation that have also taken up the cause for more fluid, flexible and exciting performance. But these four are the ones I know best and admire the most. Seek them out.
Before the pot boils, it simmers. Between the conception and the creation falls the shadow. The cusp of something about to be born. A rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. It is the ambiguous time between the discrete textbook ages of history that we name that is most interesting.
We generally name Romanticism in art as something that thrived in the first half of the 19th century. If it has a birth date, it is usually given as 1798, when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published their Lyrical Ballads, a book of poems that seemed to be a clean break with the past.
Certainly there are other dates we could choose. In music, we often give 1805 and the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. In politics, it might be 1789 and the fall of the Bastille in Paris. Or Goya’s Caprichos, published in 1799. Picking a single date is absurd, because Romanticism wasn’t born like Athena, burst instantly from the head of Zeus. It wasn’t born at all; rather, it accumulated.
And in the 50 or so years before we gave the movement a name, it kept popping its head up above the surface in odd moments, letting us know it was coming.
Before Beethoven, there were the Sturm und Drang symphonies of Joseph Haydn, beginning with his Symphony No. 39 in G-minor of 1765. There was Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, that set all of Europe to sympathetic weeping and toward a penchant for suicide. In English, there was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, from 1764 that began a craze for Gothic novels, with their attendant gloom, rattling chains and ghosts in dungeons. There were the faux Celtic sagas that James McPherson published in 1765 as The Works of Ossian. All these, and many more came as a sort of antidote to the rationality of the Enlightenment.
And, there are the prisons of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. These 16 etchings are sui generis in Piranesi’s vast output, and a fierce eruption rising to the surface of the simmering pot.
Piranesi (1729-1778) was an architect, archeologist and printmaker who was fascinated by the ruins of Ancient Rome. While his architectural work consisted of a single building, and his archeology was more of a sideline, it is as an etcher and engraver that he became famous. One of the best printmakers of his time, his intricate detail and exacting craftsmanship were exceptional.
Half his work functioned as a record of archeological evidence, cataloguing ancient architectural detail; the other half was as a profitable creator of souvenirs for European aristocracy, mainly British, who were taking the “Grand Tour” of Europe to flesh out their educations.
These prints, known as Vedute, or “Views,” were in the Picturesque tradition — ruins covered in vines and under the arches of which lived peasants. It was a rich tradition in the second half of the 18th Century, and a bankable genre for artists wishing to make a good living.
During this time, the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum prompted an interest in the past, including Ancient Greece, Egypt and the Gothic.Johann Joachim Winckelmann was writing ecstatically about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Piranesi rode this rising tide and published hundreds of vedute engravings.
Many of these transcended the reality of the ruins left in Rome and the Campagna and were pure fantasies of what might have been. The more extravagant the fantasy, the better.
In the midst of these popular prints, in the late 1740s, Piranesi began making a series of fantasy prints of imaginary prisons, or carceri, built of immense dank spaces and torture devices. Each of the original 14 prints was roughly the size of a 16-by-20 photograph, large by most etching standards. But they were an anomaly, and didn’t sell well. Surely, they came a decade too early.
For, in 1761, Piranesi reworked the original plates, adding two new ones, and republished them as Carceri d’invenzione, or “imaginary prisons.” According to Belgian writer, Marguerite Yourcenar, they represent “negation of time, incoherence of space, suggested levitation, intoxication of the impossible reconciled or transcended.” And can best be understood as externalizations of internal mental and emotional states. Nightmares, even.
Plate I Title; Plate II Man on the rack
Plate III The round tower; Plate IV The piazza
Plate V The lion bas-reliefs; Plate VI The smoking fire
Plate VII The drawbridge; Plate VIII The staircase with trophies
Plate IX The giant wheel
Plate X Prisoners on the projecting platform
Plate XI Arch with a shell ornament
Plate XII The sawhorse
Plate XIII The well
Plate XIV The Gothic arch
Plate XV Pier with a lamp
Plate XVI Pier with chains
Comparing the first and second states of the series, one sees them change from rather sketchy drawings to richly inked, dark and menacing spaces, with architecture and geometry that are often physically impossible — almost Escher like.
The 1761 version of the plates were enormously popular and were reprinted many times. They leave behind the comfort and orderliness of the 18th Century and look ahead to the Byronic, irrational and psychologically disturbing Zeitgeist of the early 19th Century. They are a harbinger, a precursor, a herald.
They are a manifestation of the sublime — a concept fresh in the culture, with a translation, in French, by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux of the Perihypsos (“On the Sublime”) of the Roman author Longinus, and a book-length essay on the subject by English writer and politician Edmund Burke.
The sublime is the profound psychological awareness of the immensity of the cosmos and vastness of nature compared with the puny insignificance of humans, but seen not simply as depressing or frightening, but as unbearably beautiful. Joseph Addison called it “an agreeable kind of horror.” It is awe, in the sense the word had before it became cant among American teenagers for whom a peanut-butter sandwich might casually be called “awesome.”
In Longinus, we read: “We are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, of the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. A little fire which we have lit may keep pits flame pure and constant, but it does not awe us more than the fires of heaven, through these may often be obscured; nor do we consider our little fire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and mighty boulders or at times pour fourth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth. We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”
And so, the Carceri cannot be made coherent and understandable. The prisons expand outward into unseen spaces that open again into other unseen spaces. There are stairs to nowhere, torture devices in the shadows, catwalks over bottomless pits, stones overgrown with moss — and many tiny, nearly unseeable figures, caught in this Kafka-esque labyrinth.
—You can find a wonderful animated tour through Piranesi’s prison on YouTube (link here).
And you can get some of the effect in reality in the actual Medieval prison, the Conciergerie, in Paris, where Marie Antoinette was held before her beheading.
Mt. St. Michel
Or the rambling stairs and arches of Mont St. Michel at the border of Normandy and Brittany.
The Carceri are not anomalous for their subject alone: Unlike Piranesi’s usual draftsmanlike exactitude in his drawings, the prisons are nearly scribbled onto the etching plate. They imply a kind of fury in their creation, as if Piranesi were trying to get his vision down into line before they evaporated from his boiling imagination. Shelley once described the moment of creation as an ember rapidly cooling that needs be indited before the glow darkens. You can see Piranesi frantic not to lose the hallucination.
The change from Classicism to Romanticism — like the change from the Renaissance to the Baroque — is not simply one of rationalism curdled to emotionalism, but of clarity as a virtue lost into a fog of ambiguity and incoherence. It is Racine metamorphosed to Rousseau.
The subject matter had enormous influence as the 19th Century was born. It is the Venetian prison and escape described by Giocomo Casanova in his 1787 Story of My Flight and later in his memoirs. Prisons and dungeons are everywhere to be found in literature, art and music. It is the prison where Florestan is rescued by Leonora in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. It is the dungeon where François Bonivard meditated in Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon. It is the prison that Alexandre Dumas, père, put The Man in the Iron Mask. It is the torture site of the Inquisition in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Not the least, it is, historically, the Bastille in Paris and its siege and fall that set off the French Revolution.
It is a trope that continues into the 20th and 21st centuries. It is Carfax Abbey in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula.
The very gantry ways and bridges make their way into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Now, that same spacious gothic sublime turns up in fantasy films, such as Lord of the Rings, on TV in Game of Thrones and in nerd games, like Dungeons and Dragons.