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In 2003, idiosyncratic filmmaker Guy Maddin released his most popular film (these things are relative), starring Isabella Rossellini and titled The Saddest Music in the World, about a contest held in Winnipeg, Canada, to find the most depressing music in the world. Each country sent its representative to win the $25,000 prize put up by beer baroness Helen Port-Huntley (played by Rossellini with artificial glass legs filled with beer). The middle portion of the film features performances by many of the contestants. But the film misses the serious winner in its hijinx of weirdness. 

Because the truly saddest music in the world is, hands down, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, music that can only rip your heart out and leave you prostrate with Weltschmerz. For it is not simple personal grief that Elgar wrote into the music, but the sense of the core sadness of life and the failure, of the world he knew, to survive the First World War.

Elgar was born in 1857, a decade before the deaths of Rossini and Berlioz, and became widely regarded as the first great English composer since Henry Purcell (1659-1695). He lived to see the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany — a long life full of incident and occasion. 

But until the age of about 40, he was primarily a choral composer and a maker of musical trifles — salon music such as the ever-popular Salut d’Amour that is still an occasional encore piece. Still, that music gave him the reputation as the most important composer in England, second only to  Sir Arthur Sullivan. He became an itinerant musician, sometimes teacher, and, at 29, married his student, Caroline Alice Roberts, whom he remained married to for 31 years. Because Elgar was Roman Catholic and from a working-class background, Alice’s upper-class parents disapproved and disinherited her. But their marriage was successful and productive. After her death in 1920, Elgar wrote no more music of significance. He died in 1934. (Despite his Catholicism, he told his doctor at the end that he had no belief in an afterlife. “I believe there is nothing but complete oblivion.”) 

Elgar always wanted to write more significant music and then, in 1899, at the age of 42, he made his bid for musical importance with a set of variations for orchestra. The “Enigma” Variations remain his most popular and most performed composition, a brilliant set of 14 variations, each of which was meant as a portrait of one of his friends. 

The following year, he premiered his masterpiece oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius, setting the poetry of Alfred Cardinal Newman, in a rich, late-Romantic orchestration rivaling the style of Richard Strauss. Its Catholic doctrine (a soul’s journey to Purgatory) may have prevented it becoming as popular as it might, but it is lush and gorgeous. 

In the years up to the First World War, Elgar wrote the bulk of what he is now famous for. His Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and Orchestra (1904); First Symphony (1908); Violin Concerto (1910); Second Symphony (1911); Falstaff (1913). He was knighted in 1904 and a shower of awards and honors fell upon him after that. 

He is usually thought of as an Edwardian composer, and identified with those years of English jingoism and colonialism. And it is hard to shake that notion when you hear, once again, his Pomp and Circumstance marches. But he really was no Colonel Blimp. And the Great War defeated him, knocked him down and left him deflated. The world order he grew up in was ripped apart and left in tatters. As British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked in 1914, “The lamps are going out all over Europe and I do not think we will see them lit again in our lifetime.” 

All the optimism and faith in progress that marked late Victorianism and the early years of the century were gone. It can be hard for us to imagine now, after the even-worse cataclysm of WWII and gulags and the Cultural Revolution, just how monumental and devastating the Great War was. It was to those who lived through it, as if the world were ending. Twenty million deaths, the overturning of governments, the shift of world power from the Old World to the New. 

All this, Elgar felt. The concerto was composed during the summer of 1919 at Elgar’s cottage in Sussex, where during previous years he had heard the sound of the artillery at night rumbling across the Channel from France. And at the end of the war, he summed up his despair in the Cello Concerto in E-minor, his last great orchestral work. After it, he could never work up the enthusiasm to write more. 

The work is intensely beautiful, but also profoundly sad. All the sense of loss is bound up in it. And while Elgar’s music had been regularly applauded wildly on premiere, sometimes encored twice. The Cello Concerto was a failure when it was first played at Queen’s Hall, London, in 1919, partly to being under-rehearsed and badly played, but, mostly because of its somber tone. 

In fact, it languished, rarely programed until a 1965 recording by 20-year-old Jacqueline du Pré with John Barbirolli and the London Symphony — a recording that has never been out of print since its first release. Du Pré’s performance was so emotionally present and direct, so attuned to the music, that it has been the benchmark performance ever since. And it reawakened interest in the concerto, so that now almost any cellist worth his or her salt, has it in their repertoire. 

After the concerto, Elgar wrote three great pieces of chamber music: his Violin Sonata, a string quartet and a piano quintet, all written by 1920. After that, only trifles — reworkings of old music and orchestrations of the music of other composers. He found an interest in the new technology of recording and made a groundbreaking series of discs of his own music, recordings still available, now on CD. 

But the war and Alice’s death seem to have taken the drive out of him. Elgar died Feb. 23, 1934 at the age of 76 and was buried next to his wife at St Wulstan’s Roman Catholic Church in Little Malvern, in the English Midlands.

Elgar was without doubt a great composer, but, as critic David Hurwitz has said, “a great composer but not a necessary one.” Elgar himself knew he was a bit of an anachronism, a late-Romantic composer in a century headed toward Modernism. By the time of his Cello Concerto, Stravinsky had already written his Sacre du Printemps and Schoenberg his Pierrot Lunaire. Some of the loss and longing of Elgar’s concerto is surely his sense of being adrift in the Luft von anderem Planeten — the air from another planet, that Schoenberg announced. 

The history of music would not have been any different if Elgar had never written — something that cannot be said of Stravinsky or Schoenberg. Yet, you cannot listen to Elgar’s best music — the two concertos, Gerontius or the “Enigma” Variations — and not sense in him a power and emotional sweep that lifts him to the first rank. In that sense, his music is indeed necessary. 

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“There is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.”

—Edward Elgar, 1896

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There are certain pieces of music that everyone knows, whether they know it or not. They are simply in the air. They are heard not just in concert halls, but in film, TV commercials, pop songs — and at every high school graduation ceremony in the English-speaking world. Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 is the graduation music — or at least the “trio” portion of it. 

It is the portion of the march that was re-written, by Elgar himself, as the popular British patriotic song, Land of Hope and Glory, now sung by the home crowd with soccer victories, and as the audience stands and sings along at the final Proms concert of the season in London. And as the new high school graduates line up to receive their diplomas in school auditoriums everywhere. 

The practice began at Yale University in 1905 when Elgar was awarded an honorary degree for which the composer traveled to the U.S. It was decided to surprise him by playing his own music for the event, and they played Pomp and Circumstance. The practice caught on elsewhere, and is now ubiquitous as “The Graduation March.” 

And so, generations of Americans know the music well, without knowing, necessarily, what the music is they are hearing. It’s just “the Graduation March” of unknown provenance, as if it had just always existed. 

There are other such tunes, well known but genericized. There is Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin — “Here comes the bride, all dressed in white…” — probably not recognized as from an opera. Or Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mendelssohn has ceased to own it: It is truly public domain. 

For many Americans, our first exposure to classical music came from Warner Brothers cartoons, and Bugs Bunny conducting Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in a parody of Leopold Stokowski. Or Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Wabbit. Kill the Wabbit” to the tune of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries

That Hungarian Rhapsody got heavy use from animated films. Not only Bugs conducting, but Bugs playing the piano, and others, from Tom and Jerry to Woody the Woodpecker also took their turns with Liszt. 

Or maybe watching the Lone Ranger on TV and hearing the William Tell Overture. Or television reruns of the old Buster Crabbe serials of Flash Gordon, with Liszt’s Les Preludes as its persistent soundtrack. 

Some scores have been used scores of times in movies. Samuel Barber’s heartbreaking Adagio for Strings has shown up in at least 32 films and TV shows, including: The Elephant Man (1980); El Norte (1983); Platoon (1986); Lorenzo’s Oil (1991); The Scarlet Letter (1995); Amelie (2001); S1mOne (2002); and three episodes of The Simpsons

Popular songs have stolen classical tunes. The Minuet in G from Bach’s “Anna Magdelena Bach Notebook” became The Lover’s Concerto, recorded in 1965 by the Detroit girl group, The Toys. The Big Tune from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto became Full Moon and Empty Arms, sung by Frank Sinatra in 1945. Tony Martin turned Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto into Tonight We Love. I’m Always Chasing Rainbows was originally Chopin. The Negro Spiritual Goin’ Home was actually taken from Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. Stranger in Paradise is one of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances, and so is Baubles, Bangles and Beads

The list goes on: Tin Pan Alley was full of burglars. Hot Diggity, Dog Ziggity was based on Chabrier’s España; Catch a Falling Star (and Put it in Your Pocket) was the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms; Love of My Life, by Dave Matthews and Carlos Santana is from Brahms’ Third Symphony. You can find hundreds of these “steals” on Wikipedia.  

I asked my brother, Craig, for any examples he might think of, and he sent back this barrage:

“So, what’s Classical? It’s probably a close cousin to porn — I know it when I hear it.

“There are Classical music quotes all over TV and movies, and my Classical education was jump-started by Bugs Bunny and his friends, and a little later by Fantasia and Silly Symphonies. A really surprising amount of music got introduced to me in cartoons.

“But that is a different thing from pieces of music being a part of our lives, like ‘Here comes the bride,’ and ‘Pomp and circumcision’ at every graduation ever. WW2’s theme song was Beethoven’s 5th. The military loves them some Sousa marches. Everybody knows the more popular Ave Maria. Everyone knows some snippet of Figaro. In fact there are a ton of little pieces of operas than we are all a little familiar with, even if we can’t name the opera or composer. If we played “Name that Carmen” most people would say, oh, yeah, I know that, but couldn’t name the source. There are a whole poop load of snippets we’ve all heard without knowing where the came from. (Thanks, Bugs.)

“Toccata and Fugue, a passel of Puccini, Bolero, (Thanks, Bo Derek), The Blue Danube, the Saber Dance (Thanks Bugs?), the Ritual Fire Dance (Thanks Ed Sullivan and the plate spinners), Für Elise, Chopsticks (Thanks, Tom Hanks), the Ode to Joy, the thoroughly quotable Swan Lake, Ride of the Valkyries (Thanks Robert Duvall), Voices of Spring, O Fortuna from Carmina Burana (Thanks Madison Avenue), Funeral March of the Marionettes, (Thanks, Hitch), Adagio for Strings, The Skater’s Waltz, Minuet in G, the Olympics theme, “Moonlight” Sonata, anything from the Nutcracker, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Thanks, Uncle Walt). 

“This is a pretty pointless list, because it is kind of endless. And I might well be making a baseless assumption about American’s familiarity with these things, just like I am thinking that American’s familiarity with these pieces of music is inversely proportional with the number of guns they own.

“Pachelbel’s Canon in D (which is much more memorable than his Canons A through C), Flight of the Bumblebee (the theme music for The Green Hornet, which is I’m sure too obscure a reference to be very useful), the 1812 Overture (Thanks, Boston Pops and Quaker Puffed Rice), A Clockwork Orange made the point pretty directly about Classical music being embedded in the culture, with street thug Alex loving Beethoven deeply.  Strauss’ Zarathustra in 2001 (Thanks, Stanley), Flash Gordon used Liszt’s Les Preludes (which I have had playing nonstop in my head since I thought of it). Lugosi’s Dracula used Swan Lake (which always strikes me as a real cheapskate move to do).

The Lone Ranger music isn’t even a decent trivia question anymore because everyone knows the musical source.

“So I’m just throwing up blunderbuss answers to ‘what’s embedded in our culture.’ So I’m gonna stop here. I hope there’s something you can use.”

And I’m sure, you, dear reader, can think of many more.

Everyone has at least one minority taste — a love of some obscure discipline that the vast majority of the public find uninteresting or unimportant. It could be stamp collecting or motocross racing. The majority watch popular shows on TV, listen to Top-40 music and read best-sellers. But pick any individual from such an audience, and you’ll find at least one out-of-the-way obsession. Surfing, perhaps, or Civil War re-enacting. 

For those lucky or persistent enough, this may turn out to be a vocation: Universities are full of those who have turned their love of Medieval linguistics or non-Newtonian physics into a meal ticket. In fact, this is where we expect to find these eccentrics. It is their niche. 

But there are a few of us, a benighted few, whose lives are made up entirely out of the odder corners of life, who have almost no popular tastes and have not turned our weird fascinations into a job. We are the outcasts who love all those things that normal people find irrelevant, and we bury ourselves in the obscure, arcane, esoteric, hermetic or recondite. 

I cannot speak for others of our brotherhood (and sisterhood), but I’m afraid I was born that way. It was not a reaction to anything — no childhood traumas drove me away from things popular; no deprivations led me to seek fulfillment in those oddments of culture I find so absorbing. 

From as long back as I  can remember, my interests were not those of my peers. I heard classmates complain about school, having to learn things they didn’t feel they would ever need to know in life. And I admit, it is very seldom I have ever needed to calculate the area of a circle. But I loved school from first grade on. 

In the early grades, I adored diagraming sentences. I spent free moments between classes in the school library. I never found sports persuasive. I was in dire peril of losing myself in something as abstruse as lepidoptery or studying the history of bottle making. In third grade, I could tell you anything you wished to know about the Mesozoic Era — rather more than you would wish to know, really. 

I grew up just outside New York City, and spent many fine hours at the American Museum of Natural History, in its darker recesses, and at the Hayden Planetarium. 

As a teenager, when everyone else was listening to Paul Anka or Chubby Checker. I was listening to Leonard Bernstein. My Four Seasons was Antonio Vivaldi, not Frankie Valli. My make-out music was Stravinsky.  Honestly; I’m not making that up. 

I am not claiming special merit for my tastes. There is great value in the best pop music, and some of our classic authors were best-sellers in their own time. So I’m not making a case for being high-brow, but rather confessing my own weirdness, my own unfitness for human society. 

Not all my minority tastes are so high-falutin’ as Orlando di Lassus. I have in my bones more specialized knowledge of 1930s B Westerns than should block up any segment of a person’s long-term memory bank. Do you know the difference between Ken Maynard and his brother, Kermit? Can you name even one of the cast line-up of the ever-changing Three Mesquiteers? I can. The same for science-fiction movies from the 1950s. They are all there, clogging my brain-case. 

As I take inventory of what is boxed up in my brain-attic, I find any number of things most people don’t care about. In fact, what most people don’t care about pretty well defines who I am. 

When visiting France, I never went to the Eiffel Tower, but did drive through all of the north, visiting Gothic cathedrals. I’ve been to Chartres three times, and in Paris, Notre Dame was practically a second home. I cannot remember how many visits to it. So, yes, my tastes are not the normal tastes. 

On weekends, I watch C-Span’s “Book TV.” I search YouTube for college lectures. I have a huge collection of Great Courses DVDs. 

When it comes to movies, I love them slow and arty, preferably with subtitles. I have all of Tarkovsky on DVD, all of Almodovar, and all that are available of Robert Bresson, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. And tons of Bergman and Herzog and Renoir. I would have a bunch of Marcel Pagnol, but there isn’t a bunch. Nor is there much of Guy Maddin available, but if you ever needed bona fides as a weirdo, a confessed love of Maddin’s films is proof. 

Then, there’s classical music. If I had to lose a sense, I would ask for sight to go before hearing. I need music. Nothing else so precisely both describes and evokes the most profound human emotions. My insides swell up when I listen to the greatest music. Pop music does an excellent  job of pumping up energy and cheerleading for the happiest emotions. But classical music is needed to speak for grief, transcendence, fear, anxiety, love, power — and even more, the interplay between all these feelings. The virtue of popular music is its simplicity and directness; that of classical music is its complexity and depth. 

But even amidst the classical repertoire, I find myself drawn to the outskirts. Yes, I love my Beethoven and Brahms, but I also love my Schoenberg, my Morton Subotnick, my Colin McPhee. And even when dealing with Beethoven, I’m more likely to pull up the Grosse Fuge than the Appassionata. 

Then, there’s my reading. The authors I most often re-read are Homer and Ovid. I collect Loeb Library editions. I have seven translations of the Iliad on my shelves behind my writing desk. Five Odysseys. 

And not just Greek or Roman lit. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been over Beowulf. There’s the poetry of Rumi and Basho. I’ve read two different translations of the Indian Mahabharata. I am currently reading two very different translations of Gilgamesh, one is a line-by-line literal translation of the extant fragments, the other is a re-telling from all the varied bits of the epic that have survived, into a single version. Comparing the two gives me a better handle on Mesopotamian thought and literature. These current two now join the two earlier translations that I had previously read. 

I have often wondered why I am so out of step with my fellow beings. Any one of them might well enjoy any one of the things I’ve mentioned, but the concatenation of them defines me. You can see the wide range of things I write about in this blog. 

My late wife used to say I’m “the man who can’t have fun,” and laugh at me because I cannot bear musical theater, don’t dance, don’t listen to pop music, don’t read popular novels, and lord save me from theme parks. I shudder. But I respond that I have lots of fun with my oddments. I get tremendous pleasure from string quartets or visiting art galleries or reading multiple translations of German poetry. 

If we are what we eat, we are also what we read, see and listen to. It all goes into us and feeds us, body and soul, and fashions who we have become. For better or worse.

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. 

Click on any image to enlarge

I want to correct an injustice. Fifty years ago, back when I knew everything (as most of us do in our 20s), I dismissed symphony conductor Eugene Ormandy as a lightweight. He wasn’t one of the “big boys.” Like many others back then, an assumption was made that if you didn’t wow us with some personal vision of a work, it was just bland candy. All those recordings with the Mormon Pumpernickel Choir didn’t help. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Ormandy, was rich and round, with silky string tones and blended winds. But unlike, say, Leonard Bernstein, who led the technically scruffier New York Philharmonic, there didn’t seem to be any distinct personality behind their music making. 

I was hardly alone back then. In 1967, Harold Schonberg wrote, “There was a singular reluctance in musical circles to admit him into the ranks of great conductors.” He was thought superficial; Toscanini dismissed him as “an ideal conductor of Johann Strauss.” In an era of strong podium personalities, Ormandy seemed merely worksmanlike. 

Time has taught some of us otherwise. 

Orchestra conducting has gone through several major fashion changes over the past century or so. After the First World War, the field was dominated by dominating baton wielders. The Furtwanglers, Mengelbergs, Weingartners and, of course, Toscanini. Each had a personal style, and that style was instantly recognizable: Furtwangler’s waywardness, Mengelberg’s rubato, Toscanini’s rhythmic incisiveness. Oh, and there was Stokowski — glamor on the podium personified, married to Gloria Vanderbilt and originator of the famous “Philadelphia sound.” 

After the Second World War, there arose another generation of superstar conductors but with the advantage of high-fidelity recording. This time, it was Bernstein, Karajan and Mravinsky. Bernstein brought passion; Karajan brought a smoothness, almost like pouring Karo syrup over everything. Mravinsky had his own special intensity. Someone once said of Mravinsky that he would be the perfect man to conduct “the end of the world.” 

There were many others, of course. George Szell made perfection a fetish; Fritz Reiner drove his musicians hard and put them up wet; Erich Leinsdorf kept Boston neat and clean. Several pre-war conductors hit their stride in recordings after the war: Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Fans bought their recordings based on the names of the bandleaders. 

And there was Ormandy, inheritor of the Philadelphia Sound from Stokie, and, it seemed to us then, a caretaker baton overseeing a first-rate orchestra. Yet, he kept it a first-rate orchestra for all of his 44 years at the helm. That didn’t happen because Ormandy was a second-rate conductor. 

And orchestra fashions continued to change. The increasing power of musicians’ unions made it impossible for a conductor to command the orchestra like a dictator. There was negotiation instead of fiat. The next generation of conductors featured a high proportion of time-beaters, who could keep the music moving along, but without much in the way of anything new to say. These were the Kapellmeisters

Christian Thielemann has define this: ”a Kapellmeister now describes a pale, meek figure beating time. A policeman on duty at the podium directing the musical traffic, no more.”

To be fair, this has always described the vast majority of orchestra leaders, in provincial  and civic orchestras and opera houses. But some high-profile conductors have won praise for their supposedly “non-interventionist” approach to music-making. Just the notes, ma’am. 

More recently, something more sinister has crept in. Under the heading of “historically informed performance practice,” many conductors now use theory to guide their musicmaking, rather than their ears. Among the HIPP conductors, what is important is the “conception” of the music. Fast tempi, barline-beats, clipped phrasing, vibratoless strings, motoric rhythms. They profess to be following the composers’ intentions, so we might hear “how it sounded when the composer first heard it.” All well and good, if you are interested in a museum exhibit rather than music. In fact, we cannot know what it sounded like 200 years ago and the reconstruction seems to have more to do with a generation of conductors who grew up with rock and roll. 

And that esthetic has infected even mainstream conductors, who now play with smaller orchestras in quicker tempi and leaner sound. The vaunted “Philadelphia Sound” now seems a lumbering dinosaur. 

Yet, if you listen without prejudice, Philadelphia under Ormandy is not only beautiful to the ear, it feels as if they all understand the music without having to justify it in manifestos. They understood what the music was saying. 

This is something that divides most current musicians from their forebears. The older conductors and their orchestras knew the music was about something, that it was meant to express something — tell a story, make a metaphor for existence, elevate our spirits. But Igor Stravinsky claimed “Music can express nothing.” And for Toscanini, Beethoven’s Eroica was not about heroism. “For me it is just Allegro con brio.” An arrangement of notes. 

But for the composers, especially of the 19th century, music was meant to express something. And it was assumed to be the conductor’s job to shape the music in such a way as to make the meaning clear. 

Certainly, some conductors made their own intensions clearer than the composer’s. The virtue I now recognize in Ormandy is that he absorbed the meaning of the music and got his musicians to express it. Not to glorify Ormandy and not to play a mere arrangement of notes. 

It first conked me side the head when I came across his Sony recording of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies, the big ones. They were emotional and direct without being wrought or exaggerated. They flowed with a naturalness that made everything seem inevitable. It was neither metronomic nor taffy-pulled. It breathed. 

If you believe Tchaikovsky’s music has something to say to us (rather than merely entertain us), then coming to Ormandy’s Tchaikovsky again after 50 years will be a revelation. Its directness and naturalness are not the result of Ormandy’s mediocrity, but of a mastery that doesn’t flaunt itself. 

I have since listened to piles of old Ormandy recordings. Many of them are now reissued in cheap box sets. And one comes to recognize that his Shostakovich Fourth Symphony is a reference recording, never been done better. His Sibelius Seventh is one of the best ever. Ormandy and Philadelphia made the world-premiere recording of the Deryck Cooke completion of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. 

One recording alone should prove Ormandy’s virtues. The Rimsky-Korsakoff Capriccio Espagnol has the idiom perfect and the virtuoso soloists give it a fizz and panache that make you stand up and hoot. It has never been done better. 

No, he didn’t do everything equally well. His specialty was the 19th and early 20th centuries. His Bach is vestigial and his Handel is pretty well confined to a holiday performance of Messiah with the gargantuan Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But when you want Rachmaninoff done the way he’s supposed to go, or Tchaikovsky, or Sibelius, or Debussy, Ormandy is my go-to guy. 

Rediscovering him in my old age has been a joy. 

“Manfred on the Jungfrau” John Martin, 1837

From the last half of the Eighteenth Century through the last quarter of the Nineteenth, an idea permeated popular and intellectual culture and showed itself in literature, art and music, although no one could quite agree on its definition. Like wit in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which also defied simple definition, the sublime was something no one couldn’t quite pin down, but like Justice Potter Stewart said, you knew it when you saw it. 

The Sublime features representations of vast spaces, horrifying disasters and universal chaos. Anything dark, scary, awe inspiring or supernatural. 

“Alpine Avalanche,” Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1803

Of course, the idea isn’t limited to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. It has been around as long as there has been art and literature. There is The Sublime in the epic of Gilgamesh and it is all over the Bible. 

There had always been a subspecies of The Sublime in art. It is in Shakespeare, in Titian, in Rubens. It runs throughout John Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially in those parts describing Satan and his acts. 

But The Sublime steps into the spotlight with the advent of Romanticism. It is in the poetry of Byron, the novels of Victor Hugo, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It is behind the fad for Gothic novels and the nature poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. 

The first clear enunciation of The Sublime in literature was set down in the First Century by an anonymous author, usually called Longinus. His treatise, usually called On the Sublime, is primarily a guidebook to rhetoric, with all the usual tropes, but he also discusses how great writing — as opposed to the merely good — overwhelms us, and it is great subjects that lend themselves to great writing. 

In the climactic 35th chapter, he writes: “What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean.  … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.

“Vesuvius Erupting,” Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1877

“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

What happened between the century of Voltaire and that of Shelley is the cultural shift from Neo-classicism to Romanticism. It is a shift from a concern for society and relations of humans to humans to a different frame of reference — to the relation of the individual to the cosmos. 

Relations between people are between roughly equal, similar size entities; relations with the cosmos pit the infinitesimal human being against the infinite. There is no satisfactory reaction but awe, terror, and admiration: That is The Sublime. 

 

“The Deluge” William Westall, 1848

Coleridge describes a Sublime experience in his 1818 lecture on “European Literature” by recalling: “My whole being expands into the infinite; earth and air, nature and art, all swell up into eternity, and the only sensible expression left is, ‘that I am nothing!’ which concludes that his ultimate realization of The Sublime was of his own human insignificance.” 

In 1757, a young Edmund Burke wrote an influential treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He wrote: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

He sorted The Sublime into seven constituents: darkness; obscurity; deprivation; vastness; magnificence; loudness; and suddenness. When used in art or literature, The Sublime reminds us of things we find frightening in the world, but by being framed in art, lets us contemplate it in safety, and thus we find pleasure in it. 

“Chamounix, Mont Blanc and the Arve Valley” JMW Turner 1803

The next generation sought out The Sublime in reality as well as in literature. When Mary and Percy Shelley visited the valley of the Arve River in the Alps, they noted in their History of a Six Weeks Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: “Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with cloud; its base, furrowed with dreadful gaps, was seen above. Pinnacles of snow intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc, shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew — I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aerial summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of ecstatic wonder, not unallied to madness.”

Shelley transformed this into his poem, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni:

In her 1794 gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe has her heroine face the Alps: 

“They quitted their carriages and began to ascend the Alps. And here such scenes of Sublimity opened upon them as no colors of language must dare to paint … Emily seemed to have arisen in another world, and to have left every trifling thought, every trifling sentiment, in that below: those only of grandeur and sublimity now dilated her mind and elevated the affections of her heart.”

“Hannibal Crossing the Alps in Snowstorm” JMW Turner 1812

And Byron is nothing without The Sublime. He takes his doomed hero to the Jungfrau in Manfred and used it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage over and over, as in the lines, “Roll on thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!”

In Canto 3 of Childe Harold, he takes his hero to the Alps: 

Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (1798) is all about The Sublime and its terror — and ultimately, its beauty. 

Its hero, aboard a death ship is surrounded by a sea of monsters: “The very deep did rot: O Christ!/ That ever this should be!/ Yea slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon a slimy sea.” But our mariner has a transformation of heart:

 Certain artists and painters became transfixed by The Sublime. First comes Joseph Wright of Derby (he is always referred to this way, apparently to distinguish him from other Joseph Wrights, including an American artist of the same time, who designed the Liberty Hat penny). 

In many of the English Wright’s paintings, a bright light glows in the darkness. He painted multiple canvasses of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the 1770s. 

“Vesuvius in Eruption, With a View of the Bay of Naples,” Joseph Wright of Derby, 1776

Although he didn’t have to travel that far. Many of his landscapes feature brooding moonlight scenes, or images of fire in the darkness, such as

“Cottage on Fire,” Joseph Wright of Derby 1786

This fascination with The Sublime is primarily a northern European thing. You find it in British art, in German art and Scandinavian art, but less so in Italian or Spanish (Goya excepted). 

Germany produced Caspar David Friedrich, who specialized in images of the contemplation of vast nature.

The arctic inspired a good deal of Sublime art, as in Friederich’s Sea of Ice, with its barely noticeable shipwreck.

“Das Eismeer” Caspar David Friedrich, 1823

The ice of the arctic is where Mary Shelley had her Frankenstein creature float away on an ice raft to his death.

“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed in their conflict. The cold is excessive, and many of my unfortunate comrades have already found a grave amidst this scene of desolation.”

And the final words of the novel:

“He sprang from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”

Later in the century, American painter Frederick Edwin Church painted a dozen or so studies of icebergs. 

“Floating Iceberg,” Frederick Edwin Church 1859

Church also painted volcanoes, such as Cotopaxi in Ecuador.

“Cotopaxi,” Frederick Edwin Church 1862

Church’s most famous painting, now at the National Gallery in Washington DC, is his Niagara, a nearly 8-foot across panorama of the falls. It was shown in New York in 1857, where visitors could pay 25 cents to view the painting in a darkened art gallery (for best effect). The painting went on a cross-Atlantic tour, shown the same way. 

“Niagara,” Frederick Edwin Church 1857

Its effect was stunning for the time. Even a century later, writer David Harrington could say “Niagara is the American’s mythical Deluge which washes away the memory of an Old World so that man may live at home in a New World. The painting is an icon of psychic natural purgation and rebirth. Poetically a New World emerges as the waters of a flood subside. The rainbow, sign of the ‘God of Nature’s’ covenant with man, transfixes the beholder. … Niagara is a revelation of the cosmos to each and every man.”

The biblical reference is apposite. Much of the imagery of The Sublime in the 19th Century comes from the Bible. Painters loved to depict certain scenes from the Old Testament: the Deluge; the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Balshazzar’s Feast; Samson destroying the temple of the Philistines; the Plagues of Egypt — anything that would have delighted Cecil B. Demille.

In such paintings, you can see the difference between earlier ages and the rise of The Sublime. In Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the action centers on the people involved. Landscape is mere backdrop. But in the century and a half I’m writing about, the people shrink to insignificance and the landscape takes over, full of rocky climes, lightning bolts, hurtling boulders, spewing volcanoes and roiling stormclouds. You can almost make a stop-action movie, like watching a flower unfold in a nature film, showing the people getting smaller and smaller and the landscape becoming ever more menacing. 

 

“Gordale Scar, Yorkshire,” James Ward 1812

It is clear that as you go later into the 19th Century, The Sublime verges all too often at the edge of kitsch. The sense of cosmic overload funnels into a kind of religious sentimentality. Where you draw the line, personally, depends very much on your willingness to accept the underlying metaphor of the vastness and impenetrability of the universe. 

There are two British artists who straddle that line. John Martin and Joseph Mallord William Turner. Martin was very popular in the early years of the century, but is largely forgotten now. Turner was popular then and even more so today. Still, I have to admit a soft spot in my head for John Martin and his extravagance. 

“Pandemonium,” John Martin 1841

I first learned of him and his large painting (now in the St. Louis Art Museum) called Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion. First painted in 1812, it exists in several forms, both in paint and as print. In it, the Persian prince, Sadak, must fulfill a quest for the legendary Waters of Oblivion, in order to save his kidnapped wife. It is based on one of the Tales of the Genii, by English author James Ridley and was a huge success when first exhibited. 

Martin turned to printmaking to make his work available to a wider audience and published, in 1824, an enormously popular series of illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. (These were, in part, the inspiration for the later Gustave Dore to make his own series for the epic poem). 

“The Bridge Over Chaos” from “Paradise Lost,” John Martin 1826

Biblical subjects became Martin’s bread and butter. The more grandiose the image, the more popular became his prints. They include The Fall of Babylon

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

The Seventh Plague of Egypt:

And Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon:

And my favorite — The Great Day of His Wrath:

He ventured out of his biblical Fach for the historical:

“The Destruction of Pompeii,” John Martin 1822

And even the prehistorical — on of my favorite for its goofiness. It was the frontispiece illustration for Gideon Mantell’s book, The Wonders of Geology:

“The Country of the Iguanodon,” John Martin 1837

Martin’s appeal was to vastness and number. His Balshazzar’s Feast prompted Charles Lamb to deem it “vulgar and bombastic.” 

“Balshazzar’s Feast,” John Martin 1821

In contrast, JMW Turner also painted one of the plagues of Egypt, and it has its share of grandiosity, but Turner’s shtick was mist and fog, indistinct outlines — and uncertain scholarship (It is titled the Fifth Plague, but actually illustrates the biblical Seventh Plague). 

 “The Fifth Plague of Egypt,” JMW Turner 1800

In 1840, Turner exhibited a painting called Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming On. It depicts an event from 1781 when the captain of the slave ship Zong threw overboard 132 of his captives when drinking water was running low. Since insurance would not cover the cost of slaves dying of natural causes, he drowned them instead, so he could collect. Turner seems to have added the typhoon for effect.  

“Slave Ship,” JMW Turner 1840

The storm, the swirling air and sea, the lurid color and the loose brushwork all contribute to the sense of disaster. While the painting had an abolitionist intent, it is its forward-looking esthetics that appealed to critic John Ruskin. Turner is often seen as a precursor to the Impressionists. But while they tended to paint everyday scenes, Turner favored turmoil and disaster. 

“Disaster at Sea,” JMW Turner 1835

The circular swirl was a trademark of the later Turner. In 1842, he had himself lashed to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm in order to paint Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the “Ariel” left Harwich. Yes, that was its full title when first exhibited. 

“Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” JMW Turner 1842

He also did a snow storm in the Alps. 

“Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm,” JMW Turner 1836

In the United States, The Sublime was a natural. The American West lent itself to large paintings of vast landscape, often in mist or early sunrise. An entire school of artists, usually called the Hudson River School, latched onto The Sublime, beginning with Thomas Cole.

“The Expulsion from Eden,” Thomas Cole 1828

Cole’s most famous protege was Frederic Edwin Church, whose paintings of South America brought the exotic landscape to the U.S.

“Rainy Season in the Tropics,” Frederic Edwin Church 1866

And Martin Johnson Heade verged on the surreal in many of his paintings.

“Approaching Storm — Beach Near Newport,” Martin Johnson Heade 1859

But it was the West that threw open the gates of heaven, with any number of painters, first among them, German-born Albert Bierstadt. 

“Among the Sierra Nevada, California,” Albert Bierstadt 1858

Latterly among them was Thomas Moran, whose huge and colorful canvases persuaded Congress to create our first national parks. 

“Shoshone Falls,” Thomas Moran 1900

These painters are the clear progenitors of the landscape photographs of Ansel Adams. 

“Clearing Storm, Yosemite,” Ansel Adams 1944

But The Sublime had pretty well worked itself out by the end of the 19th Century. It was harder to believe in the awesome beauty of Providence after the First World War, to say nothing of the horrors that followed. Post-Traumatic Stress wasn’t quite the same thing. Still, The Sublime hung on in the paintings of Jackson Pollock, and especially Mark Rothko, whose mysterious canvases of hovering colors evoke the same sort of awe among those willing to be seduced by them. 

“Black on Maroon,” Mark Rothko 1958

I’ve covered literature and painting, but The Sublime appears in music, also. The first sound depiction of it occurred when Franz Joseph Haydn depicted biblical Chaos as the prelude to his oratorio The Creation, which premiered in 1803. 

Hector Berlioz assayed The Sublime in several of his works, but none more grippingly than in the Tuba Mirum section of the Dies Irae of his Requiem Mass of 1837, which requires, in addition to a huge orchestra and chorus, four extra brass bands, set into the four corners of the concert hall, and 20 tympani, which roll doom out in the Dies Irae. 

Another Dies Irae with the power to blow you away is Giuseppe Verdi’s, from his Requiem Mass, which whacks the bass drum in alternation of staccato blasts from the strings and brass. 

Perhaps the cake is taken by Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand — his Symphony No. 8, which in an ideal performance has an orchestra of about 200 and a chorus of 800. It is gargantuan, and the opening Veni Creator Spiritus is as close to manic insanity as music can probably sustain. 

There are moments in Wagner, in Liszt, Bruckner and many in Mahler’s other symphonies. 

Then, there’s The Ninth. I don’t need to mention whose. The Sublime makes itself present in each of the four movements, but rises to a climax in the choral finale, where voices and instruments poise at the limits of their abilities and hold those notes as they sing, “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” — “Be embraced, you millions” and then “Ahnest du den Schopfer… — hold it, and then belt out — “Welt?” There follows a coda of ecstasy bringing home the central message of the symphony: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” — “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.” 

But perhaps the greatest moment of The Sublime, as terror and grandeur, comes with the recapitulation section of the first movement. The theme that began the symphony in uncertainty and mist — we don’t even know originally what key it is in — comes back forte underlined by two solid minutes of rolling tympani thunder. Some conductors downplay this moment, letting the tympani merely enforce the bass line, but done right, the drums are an earthquake of apocalyptic rumble. 

Perhaps I have been fascinated by The Sublime in art and poetry so much because I have experienced in life — probably a dozen times or so, maybe a score if I catalogued them — a moment when you don’t merely feel the joy of beauty found in nature, but experience a cosmic tingle, a sense of life magnified, intensified, made mythic. A body-sense of the vastness of existence and my minuscule place in it. 

It tends to come, as it does in art, in mountains or deserts or at sea. I recall the sense while crossing the Atlantic on a ship and walking the deck after midnight and seeing in the vast emptiness of the ocean a twinkle of a light on a ship many miles off, heading in the opposite direction. The sea swells were rocking the boat and I could make out the shifting facets of waves in the dark, where some starlight was caught in the reflection of the water.  

Or the Grand Canyon at five in the morning just before the sun broke the horizon. 

Once, driving east in North Carolina on my way to Cape Hatteras, it was near sunset and in front of me in the windshield was a sooty-dark thunderhead and rain on the road perhaps a mile in front of me, obscuring the road and any horizon. It was a canyon of charcoal cloud climbing up to the stratosphere, with spikes of lightning, while in the rear window, the sun was brilliant and red in a clear sky. It was the definition of The Sublime. 

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As I continue to contemplate the possibility of perhaps, maybe, decluttering my trove of Classical music CDs, I come to the 20th century. I have to admit, that I listen to music from that period more than any other. It was my century. And so, I have a ton of discs from composers who wrote, beginning in the 19th, but extending their careers into the 20th, and now, music from the 21st century. 

Sometimes, we forget that such lush music as that of Rachmaninoff or Richard Strauss continued to be written: Strauss’ Four Last Songs, perhaps the most high-calorie confection ever put to paper, was premiered in 1949, four years after the end of World War II, and 36 years after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. “There’s still plenty of good music to be written in C-major,” said Arnold Schoenberg.

So now, as I did last time, I am going to sort through the violent century and salvage what I think needs to be saved, making a pile of recordings and regretfully saying goodbye to too much great music, but, you know — I’m 73 years old and I’m not going to be able to listen to all of the thousands of CDs that currently clog my shelves. 

I’ve set the goal of picking a single work (or set of works) by significant composers to throw on the pile. I’m going by chronological order, according to birth dates. And we start by remembering that Edward Elgar was a 20th century composer. Yes. He was. 

Edward Elgar 1857-1934 — Initially I thought the work I could not do without was the doleful Cello Concerto, from 1919. The First World War speaks directly through that music. But, no, I have to go with the Violin Concerto of 1910, which is one of the few noble concertos that can stand with those of Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Berg and Shostakovich — not merely tuneful, but an expression of the highest thoughts and emotions that humans are capable of. 

But, I’m in luck. Because I can save the Violin Concerto, played by Pinchas Zukerman on a disc package that includes the Cello Concerto, played by Jacqueline Du Pre, with the Enigma Variations thrown in.  A perfect summing up of the best of Elgar.

Gustav Mahler 1860-1911 — Choosing is too hard. I have double-decker shelves devoted to Mahler, the composer who moves me above all others. How can I clear it out? How can I consider any of it as “clutter?” I thought originally I would have to save Das Lied von der Erde, and I don’t know how I can say goodbye to it. But Mahler said famously, the symphony must contain the world, and the piece that does that more than any other is the Third Symphony, and so, I’m putting that on the pile.

I just counted, and I currently have 14 recordings of the Third (with another on the way from Amazon). The one I keep is Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Not only is it a great performance, but the 2-discs are magnificently engineered. The sound is stunning.

Claude Debussy 1862-1918 — While I love Debussy’s piano music (especially played by Paul Jacobs), the keeper is La Mer. I have not counted the versions on my shelf, but there are not a few. 

Pierre Boulez recorded it twice. The second is OK, but nothing special, but his first go-round, on Sony, is cut by diamond and the most exciting one I know. It may not be a sea-spray evocative as some, but it makes a compelling case for it as belonging to the 20th century. It comes in a package with a pile of other Debussy.

Richard Strauss 1864-1949 — Strauss can sometimes seem a bit reptilian. How much is show-biz with his show-off orchestration. But there is no doubt to the sincerity of his Four Last Songs. They are the most profoundly moving orchestral songs I know, outside Mahler’s Der Abschied

I wanted to save Jessye Norman’s version, with Kurt Masur, but I have to admit, my heart has always belonged to Leontyne Price in these songs, accompanied by Erich Leinsdorf. Both versions are gorgeous, but Price is now packaged with Fritz Reiner’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. On the pile. 

Jean Sibelius 1865-1957 — As tightly argued as Mahler is spacious, Sibelius packs a great deal into a well-cinched frame. Of his seven symphonies, the one that speaks to me loudest is the final one, which makes me feel in my bones the vast icy spaces of Scandanavia. 

Leonard Bernstein recorded it twice, once for Columbia (now Sony) and later for Deutsche Grammophon. The first is tighter, but the second comes with the Fifth Symphony, giving me the chance to save two symphonies for the price of one. Bernstein slowed his tempos as he got older, and some people don’t like the broadened Fifth, but I have no problem with it. And the Seventh takes me to other places. 

Serge Rachmaninoff 1873-1943 — My dearest friend, Alexander, refuses to listen to Rachmaninoff, saying he is too gooey and Romantic. But I have been trying to get him to recognize that his music — especially his later music — is oozing with Modernist irony. What is more sly than the Paganini Rhapsody? Yes, there’s the “big tune,” but even that is undermined by what surrounds it. But if I have to save just one piece, that would be the Symphonic Dances. I love them to death. 

But, like so many other things in this list, I can have cake and eat it at the same time, with the recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, bundled with the gooey, Romantic Second Symphony under Mariss Jansons, and the tornado of the Third Piano Concerto, played by Leif Ove Andsness. 

Arnold Schoenberg 1874-1951 — Now we’re entering territory fully recognizable as Modernist. I wish I could save Pierrot Lunaire, but I have only one slot available, and it has to go to Verklaerte Nacht. While I admire Pierrot, I love Transfigured Night

Of the versions I have, both in its orchestral form and its original sextet form, I am surprised at how good the version is that was recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. It goes onto the pile, and gives me the bonus of the Orchestral Variations

Charles Ives 1874-1954 — I have three or four versions of the Concord Sonata, and heard it live played by Jeremy Denk. It should be saved. But I am going, instead, with the Fourth Symphony, which is pure Ives, with all his usual tricks. Friends think I’m joshing when I claim that Ives’ music is beautiful. But it is. You just have to get used to the idiom. 

The best version (I have four of these, too) is the first recording, led by Leopold Stokowski. One word for it: Transcendental. 

Maurice Ravel 1875-1937 — Stravinsky dismissed him as a “Swiss watchmaker,” but I think that was only professional jealousy. Yes, we’re all tired of Bolero. But I want to save the Concerto for Left Hand, which is jazzy in parts, terrifying in parts, and always makes you wonder that anyone can play two-hand piano with only one hand. 

But there is also that ethereal slow movement of the G-major Piano Concerto. The disc with Martha Argerich playing the G-major and Michel Beroff playing the Left-Hander, with Claudio Abbado and the LSO, also gives us the orchestral version of Le Tombeau de Couperin. What a luscious disc. 

Bela Bartok 1881-1945 — There’s a lot to save with Bartok, also. But I can’t have the Contrasts, the piano concertos, the six quartets and the Concerto for Orchestra. No. One disc. And the piece I want to keep most is the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

Luckily, one of the greatest performances of that music, by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, also features one of the greatest performances of the Concerto for Orchestra. It is essential listening for any music lover.

Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971 — Much music, many styles. Part of me wants to save the Requiem Canticles and the Movements for Piano and Orchestra, just to tweak those who hate 12-tone music. But since the entire 20th century seems launched by The Rite of Spring, just as the 19th was launched by the Eroica, I have to save it.

There are lots of great performances, but none as feral and primal as the first of them recorded by Leonard Bernstein and the NY Phil. Even Stravinsky, who hated “interpretation” in performance agreed that it was like no other. The disc also includes Petrushka, so, what’s not to love?

Anton Webern 1883-1945 — Do we have to? I’m afraid so. Luckily, there isn’t much of it. No one can make blips and blurps like Webern. He was the godfather of all subsequent serial music, disconnected, alienated and difficult. Yet, he makes such interesting sounds. And few pieces last more than a few minutes, even seconds. Take at least one bit of the broccoli: Try a little Webern. 

Karajan put out a tight, condensed disc with the Passacaglia, the 5 Movements for String Orchestra, Op. 5, the 6 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, and the Symphony, Op. 21. This is a fair sampling, really well played. And the entire symphony lasts only 10 minutes. 

Alban Berg 1885-1935 — The third wheel of the Second Vienna School is the easiest to love and enjoy. He is the most emotional, and found a way to cheat on his 12-tones, to suggest key areas. His Violin Concerto is the most powerful fiddle concerto of the whole century, the most personal, the most emotional, and the most beautiful. 

No one plays it who doesn’t give it his or her most serious efforts. It cannot be just tossed off. My favorite is by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Chicago Symphony and James Levine. It also includes Wolfgang Rihm’s Time Chant, which, I’m afraid, I find utterly forgettable. I’m saving the disc, anyway, for Mutter and Berg and all the pain of loss in the world condensed to music. 

Serge Prokofiev 1891-1953 — Shouldn’t I save the Seventh Piano Sonata? Or the Third Piano Concerto? Or the Fifth or First symphonies? Yes, I should, but I’m going to save the full ballet score of Romeo and Juliet, which, I believe, is the greatest ballet score of all time. The whole thing, not just the suite. I might be swayed by having seen it danced many times, in some of the best productions ever. But the music stands on its own. 

There are three possibilities: Previn, Maazel and Gergiev. I’m going with Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra. It just noses out the others. 

Paul Hindemith 1895-1963 — Hindemith used to be the third part of the triad of Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith as the top Modernists in music. But he has fallen on hard times. Stravinsky and Bartok have better tunes. But when Hindemith borrows tunes from Carl Maria von Weber, he is as good as any. I love a lot of Hindemith, but I admit, he is not overtly lovable. But the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber is jaunty, catchy and a ton of fun. 

A really good performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch also gives us two of Hindemith’s best other scores, the Mathis der Maler symphony and Nobilissima Visione. This is Hindemith you could actually learn to love. 

Duke Ellington 1899-1974 — Yes, in my book, this is classical music. Ellington does for his group of instruments nothing less than what Ravel can do for the standard symphony orchestra, with all the colors and surprises. And harmonically, Ellington is ages ahead of many more traditional composers. I have about 50 discs of Ellington’s music, and I love him in each of his decades. But the height of his creativity and originality was with the band he had in the 1941-42, the so-called Blanton-Webster band, named for bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor sax, Ben Webster. It’s a misnomer, because you can’t forget all the other luminaries in the band, from Harry Carney to Cootie Williams to Johnny Hodges. 

There is a three-disc release that has most of the work the band did in those two years, including Ko-Ko, Cotton Tail, Harlem Air Shaft, Take the A Train, Blue Serge, Sophisticated Lady, Perdido and the C-Jam Blues. Each a miniature tone-poem. This is music to take seriously. Seriously. 

Aaron Copland 1900-1990 — There are two Coplands, the earlier, knottier Modernist of the Piano Variations, and the later, popular composer of Rodeo, El Salon Mexico and Billy the Kid. But to my mind, his very best is Appalachian Spring, a ballet score he wrote for Martha Graham. It is usually heard as a truncated suite and enlarged for full orchestra.

But the version I love best, and the one going on my pile, is the original full-length chamber version. Copland recorded it himself, along with the suite from Billy the Kid. Unfortunately, you have to put up with the tedious and tendentious Lincoln Portrait, here narrated by Henry Fonda. 

Harry Partch 1901-1974 — England has its eccentrics, but America has its crackpots, and Partch is Exhibit A. Having decided that the tempered musical scale is a “mutilation” of true music, he invented and built a whole orchestra of new instruments, such as the chromelodion, the quadrangularis reversum, the zymo-xyl, the gourd tree and cloud-chamber bowls, in order to play music in his 43-note octave. I saw an exhibit of them at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1960s. They were stunningly beautiful to look at. Hearing them, is something different. 

Partch wrote a lot of music for his instruments, some enchanting, like his songs on Hobo graffiti, Barstow. I am saving his full-length Delusions of the Fury, which is based on a Japanese Noh play and an African legend and a codification of Partch’s own delusions. Hooray for him. 

Dimitri Shostakovich 1906-1975 — Surely the major composer of the middle of the 20th century, Shostakovich labored hard under the yoke of Stalinism, and his music expresses his deep humanity (except when he is buckling under the pressure of the commissars and pumping out party-hack material; but we can ignore all that). His symphonies 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14 and 15 are among the greatest works of the century. But I’m saving his first Violin Concerto. It is, I believe, his ultimate masterwork. 

Its dedicatee, David Oistrakh, recorded it with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the the New York Philharmonic and anyone who cares about classical music should know this performance. It is coupled with Rostropovich playing the first Cello Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia. Together this is a powerful pair. 

Olivier Messiaen 1908-1992 — Harry Partch wasn’t alone. French composer Olivier Messiaen had his own ideas about harmony and rhythm, and created an idiosyncratic body of music that is built on bird song and Eastern mysticism, combined with fervent Christianity. 

He wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi prisoner camp and played it for the first time for its inmates and guards. His most popular work (if you can call anything so peculiar “popular”) must be the Turangalila Symphony, a rich, spicy, aromatic blend of orchestral colors, and you can get both works together in a set with conductor Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestre de l’Opera Bastille. 

Henryk Gorecki 1933-2010 — Gorecki had the misfortune to have become popular. His Third Symphony topped the pop charts in England in 1992 and sold a million copies world-wide. Officially titled the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it speaks of war, love and loss. It is a slow piece, moving only by tiny steps from first to last. Its popularity has led some critics to pooh-pooh its depth and beauty, believing nothing that popular could be any good. They should listen more carefully. 

The version that sold so well was the premiere recording with Dawn Upshaw and David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta. I have several versions on my shelves, but this first one is still the best. Onto the pile. 

Morton Subotnick 1933- — The California-born composer of electronica had a brief moment of fame in the late 1960s when Nonesuch Records released his Silver Apples of the Moon, and followed it up with The Wild Bull. The first, with its synthesizer squeaks and blips was bright and energetic, the second with its groans and wheezes, was much darker. 

Both deserve to be remembered. They may be a relic of their times, but they really are worth listening to. And they are now both on a single Wergo CD. 

Arvo Pärt 1935- — The Estonian composer’s meditative music is what he calls “tintinnabuli,” and in 2018, Part was the most performed living composer in the world. His music appeals not only to the classical audience, but to the New Age one as well. It is spiritually-aimed music and is both beautiful, well-constructed, and easy to listen to. You can wash in it like a warm bath, or you can listen as intently as you might to Bach or Bartok. 

He has arranged his most popular piece, Fratres, for any number of instruments and combinations (there is even an entire CD of nothing but variations of the piece), and I could save pretty much any one of his discs. But I am going to put Te Deum on the pile, primarily for the Berlin Mass that is on the disc. 

Philip Glass 1937- — Glass is unavoidable, even in popular culture. He must be the most prolific composer since Vivaldi. He began as a strict Minimalist, but loosened up that style to become what can only be called a “Glassian.” At his best, he is hypnotic and powerful. At his worst, he can become tedious. His Einstein on the Beach was epochal and groundbreaking. I have an entire shelf devoted to his releases. His trilogy of movie scores for the Godfrey Reggio abstract-narrative films in the quatsi series are a perfect introduction to Glass. Koyaanisqatsi was the first and best known.

But I am going to save the third, Naqoyqatsi, mainly because it can be heard as an extended cello concerto played by Yo-Yo Ma. 

John Adams 1945- — Almost neck-and-neck with Glass is John Adams, another lapsed Minimalist who has created his own distinct voice. His opera, Nixon in China, is pretty well the only contemporary opera to join the mainstream repertoire. I’ve seen it live, and I’ve seen Adams’ Doctor Atomic live. They are both thrilling as Verdi or Puccini. 

But I’m going to save a particular favorite orchestral work, Harmonielehre, or “Harmony Lesson.” Its opening chords are even more startling than the two E-flat bangs at the start of Beethoven’s Eroica. And the disc I’m saving includes two of Adam’s most popular and gripping overture pieces, The Chairman Dances and A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Osvaldo Golijov 1960- — The youngest composer on my pile is now 60. I first heard his music in a live performance of Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw singing the lead. It blew me away. And I was going to put my recording on my pile, but then I heard his Passion of Saint Mark or La Pasión Según San Marco, and fell in love with it. 

It combines Latin and African rhythms and folk music with a huge percussion section and more than 50 singers. When it was premiered, it got a 15-minute standing ovation. It deserves its place on my pile. 

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And so, my fantasy ends. I have now an imaginary pile of music to listen to, to the exclusion of a thousand other CDs. But it is just a fantasy; I could never actually declutter my shelves. I have, in the past, culled recordings to make space for new, but now those I culled are just stuffed into old dressers, cluttering up the drawers in both of them, hidden from view as if I had actually gotten rid of them. But I can’t. And with new recordings coming my way from Amazon, I may have to cull once more, just to make space. And I may need another old dresser in the storage room just to take care of my rejects. Marie Kondo can go jump in a lake. 

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.

Gustav Flaubert was said to have expressed “contempt for the bourgeoisie.” It is a sentiment I shared when growing up, as a bookish kid in a bookless family. Flaubert was himself a member of the middle class, and, alas, so am I. As much as I despised the suburban, middle-class New Jersey milieu in which I grew up, as I have aged, I have come to realize that it is this same middle class that allowed me to pursue my own interests. There was a bland tolerance inherent in mid-century suburbia that, while it watched Donna Reed and Bonanza, thought that college might be a good idea for its offspring — not knowing just what a subversive venture that education would turn out to be. 

As for me, even when I was in seven years old, I couldn’t wait to leave New Jersey and head off to college. As I entered second grade, I am famously (in the family) reputed to have asked, “does that mean I can go to college next year?”

My brother and I often ponder where we came from. Craig is an artist and I am a writer. Nobody else in our extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, in-laws or anyone else, had the slightest interest in art, literature of other intellectual things. The closest my mother came was daubing a few paint-by-numbers canvases. The primary reading matter in the house was the Reader’s Digest nested on top of the toilet tank. When I mentioned classical music, my uncle asked if I meant, “like Montovani?” When my high-school buddies were listening to Chubby Checker and Bobby Vinton, I was listening to Stravinsky and Bach. Where this taste for the high-brow came from remains a mystery, but it is deeply buried. 

There was early on a hunger for things that seemed deeper, truer, more complex than what I saw on TV or heard on AM radio. And I found that hunger fed by art and literature. In eighth grade, we had been required to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and to memorize a few lines (“you blocks, you stone, you worse than senseless things. Knew ye not Pompey? Many a time and oft…” etc.) But the mere reading seemed archaic and incomprehensible. But late in the year, 1962, we took a class trip to Princeton, N.J. to the McCarter Theatre, where we watched a performance of the play, and it all then made sense. I loved it. 

But Julius Caesar is, after all, a fairly easy play to get through. Even the less inclined in class found it entertaining. 

The next season, though, on another class trip to the McCarter, we watched Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a rather tougher nut to crack. And I felt I had found a home. Eugene O’Neill was the kind of thing that spoke to me: To a green teen, it felt grown up, like the real thing I longed for. 

Looking back, I can see I was just a kid and had a somewhat limited understanding of what it actually meant to be grown up. By high school, I had subscriptions to the Evergreen Review and Paul Krassner’s The Realist. I read Kerouac and Ginsberg, and was a member of the Literary Guild — an off-brand Book of the Month Club — where I bought and read things like Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography, The Words

I look back now and remember Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, and boy oh boy, what I misunderstood as a pimply-faced adolescent. I reread Saul Bellow’s Herzog again last year and was surprised to discover how funny the book is. When I read it in high school, I only knew it was a book that adults read, and so I dove in. That it was a comedy complete passed me by.

Art, music and literature: I knew — or felt in my bones — that this was the real stuff. All the quotidian was mere distraction. I was truly lucky: I lived only a short bus ride from Manhattan and could easily get into the city to visit museums, bookstores and concert halls. New York was real; New Jersey was boring. And what I found in the city turned my life.

In 1966, I heard Russian pianist Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He played, among other things, the Liszt B-minor sonata. It is the first of many concerts and recitals that made in imprint on my life. I was there with my high-school girlfriend, who later became a professional bassoonist (played with both Philip Glass and PDQ Bach). We went to dozens of concerts, mostly in New York, and in Carnegie Hall. 

Speaking of Peter Schickele, my girlfriend and I were at the first PDQ Bach concert in Carnegie Hall, and after that, I was practically a PDQ groupie and managed to get to one of his concerts annually for at least 25 years, either in New York or when he took his circus on the road. 

I also had the Museum of Modern Art to go to, and the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Frick Collection, and what was then the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle. 

The permanent collections in all these institutions became my dear friends. But there were changing exhibitions, too. The first serious art show I went to that altered the course of my life was also in 1966, at MoMA.   

It was a curated show, intended to make a case. It wasn’t just a collection of paintings, but a curatorial argument, intended to persuade and make us think of something in a new way. It attempted to prove that English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner was a precursor to the French Impressionists and Modernism, that his soft-focus paintings and, especially, his washy watercolor sketches, were somehow a step forward in the history of art, and led to the breakthrough we all know and love with Monet, Renoir and Pissarro. (It was an age that still believed in art history as a grand and natural procession from then to us, the enlightened). 

It was called “Turner: Imagination and Reality” and ran from March through May of that year. It made the claim that “During the last 20 years of his life, Turner developed a style of extraordinary originality. He evolved a new order of art, which was virtually unparalleled until the 20th century.” According to the curators, Turner was a harbinger of American Abstract Expressionists. Several of the images on view were so inchoate as to be purely abstract, like his Pink Sky, which might well be an early experiment by Mark Rothko, nothing more than strata of color spilled across the paper. 

In the catalog to the show, art historian and curator Lawrence Gowing wrote, “These pictures from the last 20 years of Turner’s life, reveal potentialities in painting that did not reappear until our time. They tell us something about the inner nature of a whole pictorial tradition, of which recent American painting is an integral part. Turner not only saw the world as light and color; he isolated an intrinsic quality of painting and revealed that it could be self-sufficient, an independent imaginative function.”

I was transfixed and went back to the exhibit a second time, convinced I was privy to a secret about art that few others knew; only those who had seen this show really understood what a revolutionary Turner had been. Please remember, again, I was a teenager at the time. 

In tandem with the Turner show was a smaller exhibit of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” a set of 34 drawings and ink transfers, one drawing per canto in Dante’s poem. It is difficult to recover the sense of elation and immersion a teenager in love with art could feel in the presence of something so new and so exciting. 

When I did get to leave New Jersey and go to Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., I was in a candy shop: I signed up for Greek, Shakespeare, esthetics, astronomy — I wanted it all. 

There was also a film series, carefully programmed to expose us to the best in cinema. We saw La Strada, Seven Samurai, Seventh Seal, Jules and Jim, Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Andalusian Dog, and even Birth of a Nation, although the student projectionist ran it without the sound on, calculating that it was a “silent film,” and not considering their was a musical soundtrack to accompany it. The racism was hard to swallow, but it was even worse — with no music, it seemed to last forever. 

With my new college girlfriend, we went to the downtown theater to see Antonioni’s Blow Up. That sense of being on the edge of art made being young  

All those films, added on to the reading material, and the concerts we had in the college auditorium, felt like what I had waited my whole life to gain access to. I fell in love with Chaucer; I read tons of Shelley — even stuff no one but a doctoral candidate bothers with. There was Classical literature in translation. There were three semesters of Comparative Arts. I minored in music composition (although, our stodgy professor der musik, Carl Baumbach, really only taught us figured bass and to harmonize chorales — and avoid parallel fifths. He could barely get himself to listen to anything as modern as Debussy.) 

I was a well, down which you could toss everything and never fill it up.

After graduation, I continued with it all, without the need to worry about grades or term papers. Every summer, there was the Eastern Music Festival, for which I acted as unofficial photographer. I sat in on master classes, went to concerts. A few were so memorable, I still keep them in my psychic storehouse: Walter Trampler giving a master class; Miklos Szenthelyi playing the Bartok First Violin Concerto — which seemed at the time the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. Szenthelyi was a young Hungarian, virtually the same age as me, and his posture on stage was almost Prussian, his tone penetrating and perfect. (I still own several of his recordings. He is now a white-haired Old Master in Budapest. A half century has intervened.)

I also first heard Yo-Yo Ma. He must still have been a teenager. He performed both Haydn cello concertos in High Point, N.C., one before intermission and one just after. Yo-Yo has been as much a constant in my life as Peter Schickele. What a pair.

I also photographed the Greensboro Civic Ballet. I wish I had paid more attention to the dance in the 1970s, but my plate was otherwise full. Many years later, I came to love dance more than any other artform. (After my late wife and I traveled to Alaska, she asked if I might want to live there. Without trying to be funny, I said reflexively, “No. Not enough dance.” It was the natural answer.)

There have been hundreds of concerts and recitals, scores of theater and dance performances, bookshelves still filled with thousands of books and CDs, and more museum and gallery shows than I can count. 

I want to write about a few of them next time. 

It is plopped down in front of you and you poke it and prod it and try to figure out what it is. If it is something very new or very different, it may take more poking than usual, and you may very well come up with the wrong answer. 

This is what it is to be a critic — a real critic, I mean, not one of those Yelp scribblers, or self-certain mandarins with nothing more to offer but thumbs turned skyward or hell-ward. 

I was a critic for 25 years for a major daily newspaper (The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz.), and I always thought of my job as being a first reader, or first seer, or first listener — a pioneer trying to make sense of something before any sort of consensus has been reached. It is a risky thing to do — to proffer an opinion before you have anyone watching your back. 

When conductor Pierre Boulez first came out with his version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1976, he played as if it were chamber music, it was such a different conception of the music that many critics first assumed it was a failed attempt to make the grand, Romantic mytho-philosophical monster it had always been taken to be. The BBC criticized the conductor’s “ruthless tempi” and “lack of expressiveness.” 

Consensus has now realized it was a brilliant re-thinking of the way the music could make sense. The clarity he brought to the muck (beautiful muck), was transcendent in its own way. Later criticism decided instead that “Wagner’s music doesn’t have to be murky to be metaphysical or massive to be overwhelmingly moving and Boulez gets playing from the too-often turgid Bayreuth Festival Orchestra that makes the music crackle and blaze with musical and dramatic meaning.”

Being a first listener is always risky. You may think something a failure because it doesn’t do what it has done before, failing to hear that it is doing something new brilliantly. 

When the Boulez Ring was new, the critics poked and prodded to see if it was alive. Now, we know not only that it was alive, but that it was a harbinger of a new way of playing classical music that has taken over the business. Out with the Furtwängler, in with the John Eliot Gardiner. Lean and mean drove out lush and weighty. 

I am reminded of this because I have just been confronted by a new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations under the fingers of Chinese Wunderklaviermeister Lang Lang. Critical reaction has been all over the place, from deciding it was “the greatest version since Glenn Gould” to complaining that it sounded like a talented conservatory student sight reading. 

And I see what each reaction means: They parallel my own thoughts. Is this a brilliant rethinking, or is this a flaming dumpster fire? 

Mr. Lang, or if I may be so familiar as to call him by his first name, Lang, has always split opinions. Sometimes it is hard to bust through his relentless self-promotion — the kind of commercial huckstering usually identified with charlatans and snake oil salesmen — and then there are his stage antics, eyes closed in thesbian rapture, rolling his head back and forth in a way to make Leonard Bernstein seem like a mechanical clock. How can you take him seriously? 

And yet, there is often magic in his playing. I have heard him live several times, and his performances varied widely, from glib to dazzling to absolutely empty. Yet, at other times, it was profoundly moving. When I heard him play the Chopin E-minor concerto, the way he played the slow movement made time stand absolutely still. It is one of the most soul-satisfying performances I have heard in a half-century of concertgoing. It probably helped that I normally close my eyes when listening to music and therefore was spared his facial contortions. God, was that moment beautiful. 

His recordings are equally all-over-the-place, with some dead-on and concentrated and others distracted and hollow. Lang is capable of so much, but only delivers intermittently. 

So I am now confronted by a Goldberg Variations unlike any I’ve heard before. Is it brilliant or dunderheaded? Is it an aberration or is it a signal that classical music culture is shifting once again? 

I’ve heard a lot of Goldbergs in my time. They were little known or played before 1955, when Glenn Gould launched them on an unsuspecting public, with a blazing performance that redefined Bach playing, clarifying the polyphonic strands and cutting down the pedal, almost mimicking the sound of a harpsichord. Since then, in the same way that no self-respecting art photographer can fail to make a photograph of a green pepper after being shown the way by Edward Weston, so no decent pianist can avoid recording a set of Goldbergs. Most of them are perfectly decent, if anonymous. 

In recent years, a few with real personality have been released. Simone Dinnerstein has her set and more recently Jeremy Denk. Some may remember the brief surfacing of a recording by João Carlos Martins that was almost as idiosyncratic as Gould, although Martins’ piano never seemed to be quite in tune. 

The work has also been transcribed for accordion, marimba, harp, hammer dulcimer, guitar, saxophone quartet, string trio, string orchestra, synthesizer, and brass quintet. I have a recording of parts of them on Japanese koto, and Yo-yo Ma recorded the Aria on his cello. Avant-gardist Uri Caine made his version updating each variations individually for a heterogeneous mixture of voices, instruments and recorded noises. I once put together a CD mixing many of these oddball transcriptions into something I called the “Goldberg Variorum” — each variation played by a different instrument or group. 

Gould recorded the Goldbergs at least four times — with untold bootlegs out there. The initial set has been reissued so many times in different albums, that it is impossible to keep count. Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva recorded them five times and Rosalyn Tureck did it seven times. 

The earliest version I could find was on Welte piano rolls (a kind of player piano) from 1928, by Rudolf Serkin. (His son, Peter, left us three versions). Since then, there have been close to 250 recordings. About 50 of those are on harpsichord. A few are the transcriptions, but almost all are on piano. 

But since Gould, most pianists have hewn to the stricture that, since they were composed for the harpsichord, they should be performed as drily as possible, and with little or — preferably — no pedal. And since the arrival of “historically informed performance practice” (fie on the miscreants, I say, fie) boatloads of pianists have done their best to erase any notion that a performer should “interpret” the score. Just the notes, ma’am. 

This has led to quite able, but faceless performances by such as Angela Hewitt, András Schiff and Murray Parahia. I don’t mean to poo-poo these recordings, They are all excellent of their kind, but they are chaste. 

And so, we come to Lang Lang’s two-disc set, taken at a rather leisurely pace, but with lots of spark and crackle in the details. He likes to thump hard on stray notes and he adds many ornaments, especially in the repeats — and not all the trills and mordents are stylistically appropriate. Extra passing tones and tons of rubato. Worse: Pedal. In modern terms, this is Bach done in “bad taste.” 

In the old days (pre-HIPP), pianists tended to play Bach on piano as if he had written for piano. They brought out tunes and backed them with accompaniment. Now, we revel in the polyphonic strands, each brought out cleanly. If you listen to pre-World War II recordings of Bach, you will hear pianists such as Edward Fischer or Wilhelm Kempff play their Bach as if he were the godfather of Chopin. 

You can hear the echoes of this Bach in the Well-Tempered Clavier of Daniel Barenboim. They are magnificently played, but purists cover their ears and bray “Nyah-nyah” to block out the sound. Yet, there is a long tradition, now largely buried, of approaching Bach’s music as a pretext for piano playing, showing off the performer’s skills and sensibilities. After all, do you go to La Boheme for the story, or to hear Pavarotti? The present orthodoxy considers this a kind of blasphemy. 

Yet, the music no longer belongs to Bach; it is ours and we can express our ownership of it any way we wish (as someone once said about modernized performances of Shakespeare, set on the moon or done with an all-female cast, “It’s OK. They haven’t destroyed the text. It is still there, unharmed.”) And no matter what you may think of Lang Lang’s performance, the text is still there. It belongs to you, too. But Bach himself is no longer here; he has no say in the matter and we are presumptuous if we claim to speak for him. 

So, maybe, after 40 years of increasing musical priggishness and the cult of “composer’s intentions” we are beginning to loosen up. After all, it is Postmodern doctrine that it is all just “text” to be worked on by each of us. 

The audience that actually cares about classical music seems divided into two unequal groups. The larger posits a Platonic ideal performance and judges each concert by how close to this ideal it reaches. Of course, each listener has his own vote for what that ideal is. But the goal is always the “perfect” realization of the score. 

But the other group seeks constantly to be surprised, to see the notes through a newer lens and have the music refreshed. “To hear it again for the first time.” They expect each concert to give them a different version even of old chestnuts. The standard issue performance bores them. 

I can give a great demonstration of the difference. When Anne-Sophie Mutter first recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan, she gave what must be the closest to the perfect ideal. Nothing out of place, everything beautiful and expressive. As if played by angels, not humans. It has remained in print since it was released in 1979. She recorded it again in 2002 with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, in a performance much more personalized, with very different phrasings and dynamics. No longer a Platonic ideal, but much more a here-and-now. You would never confuse it with any other performance or violinist. I love it; many fans hated it. Hate, hate, hated it. 

The problem with the Platonic performance is that the ideal changes over time. Once, the perfect Beethoven was Furtwängler, then it became Szell, and after that, it became John Eliot Gardiner. Tastes change over time. 

We seem to be in another shift, giving up the impersonal historically strait-jacketed version for a reintroduction of the more individuated performance. We hear it in the recordings not just of Lang Lang, but of Mikhail Pletnev, Valery Gergiev or the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt (operating under the deceitful guise as an “original instrument” guy — but really just sui generis.)

Really, the Platonic template has been in place mostly from World War II on. Before that, performance idiosyncrasy was the norm, from Vladimir de Pachman to Willem Mengelberg. Leopold Stokowski was famous for tinkering with scores and glamming up what he was conducting. Now, having gone through that, into the Post-war standardization and then the HIPP diminution, we seem to be re-entering an era of increased personal interpretation. 

And that brings us back to Lang’s Goldbergs. If we are in the cusp of a change, we cannot really be sure where the gamepiece comes down. This new recording may indicate a reshaping of the way we play Bach, the way Gould reshaped it from 1955. Or maybe it’s just a garish one-off. 

I poke it; I prod it. I place my bet. So many of the hundreds of recordings of the Goldberg Variations are magnificently well-played and satisfying in their own way, but how many are memorable? You could replace one with another and be equally pleased, indeed not even to notice the difference. Gould was memorable: You can spot it in a crowd of hundreds. Lang Lang’s recording is the most memorable I’ve heard since then, and I’ve heard a boxload of them. It is memorable, but is it good? Will its novelty wear thin, or become the new norm? 

I am going back for a fourth dive into the new recording. Then, maybe, a fifth. Perhaps after that, I’ll have an answer. 

Chamber music is naked music.

Unlike the big orchestral showpieces, dressed out in brass and percussion, with a hundred musicians tickling your ears, the small combos playing string quartets or piano trios have only their unadorned music to seduce you with. No tam-tam, no shimmer, no tuttis and tooting trumpets.

Symphonies are public; they are oratory. They are campaign speeches for C-major or B-flat-minor. Quartets are personal; they whisper in your ear. They are composers thinking before they speak.

When you listen to Beethoven’s late quartets, you come to that point where the deepest emotions and the most profound thoughts can no longer be separated. They are the same thing.

At its simplest, chamber music is a variety of classical music in which a small number of musicians play together, one to a part, with no conductor. Chamber music is a matter of numbers. Primarily, the number 1.

With an orchestra, you can have 20 violins playing together, or six horns in unison. In chamber music, you normally have one musician to a part. Each plays a separate line of music.

But it’s much more than that.

It is, for most serious lovers of classical music, the purest form of their love; it is music divested of all the frivolous froufrou — the orchestral effects, the grand textures and timbrel mixtures that are the sleight-of-hand of such composers as Berlioz or Strauss.

As cellist Ellen Bial used to say, “The less noise, the more music.”

2

In chamber music, there is nothing but the notes, spread across some few instruments, like the outlines of the music, before it is colored over by paint. No yelling, just a word in your ear.

Arnold Steinhardt of the former Guarneri Quartet once called chamber music a “heart-to-heart talk we just had with an audience of strangers.”

It is, perhaps this sense of music as a conversation that is at the heart of chamber music. The sharing is not only between musician and audience, but among the musicians themselves.

“When you play a trio together, or a quartet, you are bonding with your fellow musicians on a very intense level, you are literally breathing together for 30 minutes, trying to be in tune with each other on a millisecond level,” violinist Gil Shaham says. “There is something very intimate about it.”

Intimate and naked: With little variety in sonority or texture, listeners are forced to concentrate on the musical lines. When you listen to an orchestra playing Pictures at an Exhibition, you can float back in the warm sudsy water of a saxophone pretending to be an old castle or trombones and tubas pretending to be an oxcart.

But when listening to a string quartet, you pay attention not to the sound of the music, but to its line. A symphony is a painting; a quartet is a drawing.

You follow a tune in the first violin and hear it repeated and varied in the cello, bounced back and forth between the players. The viola comments and the second violin chatters away.

The four lines of a quartet are racing along, and the fiddlers toss the tunes back and forth, like rugby players running to the goal.

You could draw the musical lines on paper, seeing where the lines intersect and where they stand alone. Theoretically, no one player is more important than another.

I so love chamber music, that I want to share it with everyone — no, not share, proselytize. This is real music for the real music lover — the kind of person who cannot live without music. 

3 

Chamber music was originally music performed in a small room (chambre in French), or with no audience at all, but for the sheer pleasure of the musicians.

In the 18th century, when most of the forms of chamber music we know were developed, its audience was almost always aristocratic and educated. Often, the noblemen played music themselves. Joseph Haydn wrote 175 works for baryton, an obscure instrument, half cello, half sitar, that happened to be played by his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy.

Suffice it to say, in an era when music served as the prime entertainment form, audiences were as well-versed in the quartet as young people today are in the intricacies of Guitar Hero. They looked for the best in their quartets and trios.

And many amateurs played instruments themselves. Composers made their living supplying the music that was published for people to play in their homes, where Papa might play the violin, Mama the cello and son and daughter second violin and viola.

In the 19th century, many homes had a piano, and bourgeois daughters played four-hand piano reductions of Beethoven symphonies or the latest ballet score. Publishers had to keep up with the demand for sheet music, the way iTunes keeps up today with new MP3s.

Luigi Boccherini wrote 91 string quartets and 110 cello quintets. Giuseppe Maria Cambini wrote 149 quartets. The demand was inexhaustible.

Even today, chamber music is essential for amateur musicians.

Maryellen Gleason was president of the Phoenix Symphony, but she also is an amateur viola player. Each summer she spends a week in Blue Hill, Maine, at the Adult Chamber Music Institute at Kneisel Hall, where she gets to play her viola in quartets of other amateurs.

“It’s something to balance my life,” she says. “I get to play music of composers that I love, and I learn more about the composers that I didn’t know, and I’m just swept up by the vastness of the chamber-music repertory.

“The biggest lesson I learn there is just how difficult it is to be a musician. It’s a very humbling experience.”

Even among professional musicians, the music often was played for their own enjoyment without any audience.

Symphony musicians play it to recapture their love of music, which, for some of them, has turned from their passion into their job.

And, instead of having a single leader governing how to play the music, you haggle it out with the other members of the group in rehearsal, coming to a consensus about tempo, balance, tone.

“It’s a democracy that actually works,” violinist Ida Kavafian said. “For the most part.”

The Guarneri is famous for its discussions — read “fights” — about the music. You can see this in the 1989 film that was made about the group, High Fidelity, directed by Allan Miller. One wants more vibrato and a romantic phrasing, but another objects, demanding a drier phrasing. Eventually, they come to an understanding, but the tension continues into performance, where they pick up on little things the others do.

“There is a constant give and take,” says violist Nancy Buck, who teaches at Arizona State University and plays with the Phoenix Piano Quartet.

“Being able to pick up on the cues the others give — it could be the way someone breathes, the gesture — these are intimate cues, like looking at body language or eyes when you’re talking to someone.”

It is music as intelligent, engaging conversation.

“When I was in college,” says pianist Walter Cosand, “they told us, ‘You might have to starve to be a musician, but you’ll have a lot of fun playing chamber music.’ “

 

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There is an arithmetic of chamber music, almost a numerology.

Four is best, three almost as good. Above nine, things get crowded.

Chamber music comes in many combinations of instruments. The biggest divider is music with piano and music without. Add a piano to a string quartet and you have a piano quintet. Here’s a list of some of the most familiar, and some famous compositions you might consider to enjoy the ensembles.

Solo — Unless he or she’s playing a piano, you don’t find too many cases of a lone performer onstage. It can be tough to hold an audience for an hour if all you have is a cello, unless, of course, you are Yo-Yo Ma. But there are exceptions. Composers have written works for flute, clarinet, even bassoon. But the acme of all such are Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, the ne plus ultra of serious music. As an old teacher of mine once said, “They seem to me to be the only truly serious music ever written.” You can lose yourself in that vibrating string, for instance, the opening allemande from the Partita in d minor.

Or consider Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute.

Duo — Things open up when you have two people to engage in conversation. Most often, this will be a piano accompanying a solo instrument. There are hundreds of such sonatas, for violin, for flute, for tuba. By far, the largest number of such sonatas are for violin and piano, and were written by composers from Bach to Philip Glass. 

Beethoven wrote his “Spring” sonata in 1801. The opening movement is tuneful and vernal. Prokofiev wrote his Sonata No. 2 in 1943. The finale is a blast. 

Trio — The piano trio is second only to the string quartet in frequency in the chamber-music repertoire. Piano, violin and cello is the normal lineup, although there are trios with clarinet or horn instead (Brahms wrote one of each of those). One of the most moving is Dimitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-minor, op. 67. The fourth movement features a Jewish-inflected “Dance of Death. More graceful is the fourth movement of Dvorak’s “Dumky” trio; watch on the YouTube video as the musicians watch each other and pay attention. 

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The string quartet needs a section all its own. 

The quartet is the quintessence of chamber music: Four voices ranged as the human voice — soprano, alto, tenor and bass. First violin, second violin, viola and cello.

Or as the old joke has it: A guy who plays the violin really well; a guy who plays the violin less well; a guy who used to play the violin; and a guy who hates the violin.

The fiddle family is flexible, capable of the same microtonal inflections the voice has, and can be just as expressive. Put four of them together in four-part harmony and you have the rock-solid core of the repertoire, from Joseph Haydn to Philip Glass.

“It combines the highest aspect of performance skills, the soloistic qualities you need but also the ensemble skills, knowing how to blend,” violist and quartet-member Nancy Buck says.

It’s that counterpoise that defines a successful quartet: the individual blending with the group. Always maintaining separateness but making a beautiful sound together.

But it isn’t just the instruments: The quartet literature is the highest and best thoughts of the greatest composers. Many, including Beethoven, Shostakovich and Bartok, used the medium for their most personal music. Their symphonies spoke their public thoughts; their quartets, their private musings.

Often very private: Beethoven asked the question, “Must it be?” — he even wrote it in the score — for the last movement of his final quartet, and answers “It must be;” Bedrich Smetana had the first violin in his First Quartet play a high harmonic “E” midway through the finale that mimicked the whine of the tinnitus that plagued him as he slid into deafness; Alban Berg hid the name of his adulterous lover in the Allegro Misterioso of his Lyric Suite; and Dimitri Shostakovich put his own name into the notes of his Eighth Quartet, an almost nihilistic introspection on the devastation of World War II. This is the second movement. 

These are all just movements in larger works. Here are two of the monuments of the quartet literature complete. Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 in A-minor, op. 132 and Bela Bartok’s Fifth Quartet. 

A quartet doesn’t have to be all strings. There are many written for piano, violin, viola and cello. Mozart did it, Schumann did it. But the best are the three by Johannes Brahms. Try his Piano Quartet No. 2 in A, op. 26. Here is the finale. 

The practice of quartet writing continues. Here is the finale of Philip Glass’ Quartet No. 3, which served as the score for Paul Schrader’s film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. 

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Taking up the arithmetic again: 

Quintet — Take a string quartet and add a cello and you have a cello quintet. Add a viola and you have a viola quintet. Mozart wrote six of them. But add Franz Schubert and you have the “Trout” Quintet, the single most perfect, bubbly, tuneful work in the whole chamber-music repertoire. 

On the opposite expressive end, sometimes considered the greatest piece of chamber music in the whole repertoire, if you let Schubert add a second cello, you get the profound Quintet in C. You can hardly get more innigkeit than the second movement adagio

Sextet — The more instruments you add, the further you get from the basic quartet. And with great sextets by Brahms and Dvorak, we’re still recommending Arnold Schoenberg’s powerfully rich and romantic Transfigured Night.

There is also Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34, written for clarinet, string quartet and piano.

Septet — Believe it or not, during Beethoven’s life his most popular composition was not his great Ninth Symphony or his Emperor Concerto, but rather his more modest Septet, for the eclectic group of clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, cello and double bass. It’s still fun.

The Septet in E-flat major, Op. 65, for trumpet, piano, string quartet and double bass by Camille Saint-Saens — often considered the most major of all the minor composers — is one of his greatest pieces.

Octet — Put two string quartets together and you have an octet. The one Felix Mendelssohn wrote when he was just 16 has never been beat. It is chamber music of the highest order. No greater music was ever written by someone as young. And there is little music less effervescent than its scherzo

But for sheer cleverness, consider Darius Milhaud’s Octet, Op. 291, which isn’t just an octet. It is his quartets number 14 and 15 performed at the same time. Neat trick. 

Igor Stravinsky said (he is notably unreliable) that the idea for his Wind Octet came to him in a dream.

Nonet — Getting to the high end of chamber music — any more and you start to look for a conductor. One of the only nonets to make it into the standard repertoire is the one by Louis Spohr, a contemporary of Beethoven. There aren’t very many nonets, but Ludwig Spohr’s is the most frequently performed, as long as you don’t count PDQ Bach’s No-No, Nonette for assorted winds and toys.

7 The high end

10 — Georges Enescu wrote his Decet for Winds in D, Op. 14, in 1906 for double wind quintet, with two flutes, oboes, horns, clarinets and bassoons; one oboist doubled on English horn.

11 — In 1918, Igor Stravinsky wrote a Ragtime for 11 Instruments, a prime example of “Uncle Igor’s Asymmetry Machine.”

12 — Milton Babbitt wrote 12-tone music, so it is hardly surprising that he wrote one of those ear-busting pieces, 1948’s Composition for 12 Instruments, a duodecet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, celesta, violin, viola, cello and double bass.

13 — One of Mozart’s greatest masterworks is his Serenade No. 10 for 12 Winds and Double Bass, in B-flat major, K. 361, also called the “Gran Partita.” This is one you shouldn’t miss. The third movement adagio is beautifully appreciated by Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus:

“On the page it looked nothing! The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons, basset horns — like a rusty squeezebox. And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”

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And beyond — As we climb up the number ladder, the works become more and more orchestral sounding, even if there is one player per part.

Where can it end?

Richard Strauss wrote his Metamorphosen for 23 solo string instruments, but it is as lush as any Strauss orchestral piece.

Clearly, we’re out of the range of chamber music, but still in the “one voice per part” mode. In 1540, Thomas Tallis wrote his famous Spem in Alium (“Hope in any other”), a religious motet for eight choirs of five voices each, for a total of 40 individual solo lines. That may hold the record.