Archive

Tag Archives: mengelberg

gould goldbergs

Periodically the publishing world throws out a book put together by a critic or writer listing the “best of” or “greatest” and then lists books, recordings, movies, DVDs, TV shows or places to visit. The lists are always a great way to start off a conversation, even if they are always flawed, biased and at best partial.

So it is with Tom Moon’s book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (Workman, $19.95).bookpix

I can’t comment on most of his selections, although it would be hard to quarrel with the idea that you should be familiar with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew  or Jimi Hendrix’s  Are You Experienced.  To say nothing of Duke Ellington’s  Blanton-Webster Band  or Ray Charles’  Modern Sounds in Country and Western.

These are all recordings that anyone with a musical curiosity should know, and probably love. And Moon has a thousand of ’em.

But Moon chooses to include classical music in his selections, too, and there he really seems to miss the boat. It is clear that he is a part-timer when it comes to Bach, Bartok  and Boccherini.

It isn’t that the music he chooses is wrong: You can’t really argue that anyone who loves music should have listened to Beethoven’s symphonies or Bach’s keyboard music. But while his popular and jazz albums recognize truly great performances, his choices for the classical selections are      invariably bland and middle-of-the-road. Safe. Boring, even.

The title of the books is “recordings to hear before you die,” and should be recordings that you grab someone by the lapels over and say, with scary enthusiasm in your eyes, “You gotta hear this!”

That won’t always be the best performance, in classical music, but rather the most grabbing, the one that says something new or different, that makes you rethink the music, or just sit up and take notice.

And the classical catalog is full of such recordings: Not just for classical music snobs, but for anyone who cares deeply about music in general, whether their favorite is Led Zeppelin  or Public Enemy.  These are performances that have appeal outside their narrow intended audiences.

So here are 25 classical recordings you have to hear before you die.

 

gould1. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould, piano  – The 1955 performance by the strange Canadian pianist turned classical music world on its head, with playing faster and slower than anyone else, and with an extraterrestrial energy and clarity that has never been matched, even by Gould’s second recording, from 1981.

 

2. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique,” New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.  – The hyper-emotional Pathetique normally takes 45 minutes to play. Bernstein’s later recording (on DG) takes an hour and wrings from the music the deepest tragedy, perfect accompaniment for a suicide.

 

3. Mozart, Piano Sonatas, Mikhail Pletnev, pianist – Wolfgang’s piano sonatas are normally thought of as his “B” material; not under the hands of crazy Russian genius Mikhail Pletnev. He plays them like his life depends on them – the greatest recording of these works ever.

 

celi4. Bruckner, Symphony No. 4, Munich Philharmonic, Sergiu Celibidache, cond. –  Playing something slowly doesn’t always add weight, but here Bruckner’s most accessible symphony is played with the slow, careful intensity you might expect from someone defusing a bomb.

 

5. Mahler, Symphony No. 4, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Willem Mengelberg, cond. – Mahler was always over the top, even though many modern conductors rein him in. Mengelberg knew Mahler, heard him conduct, and gives us echt-Mahler, full of its requisite retardandos and portamentos. This is how Mahler is supposed to be played.

 

6. Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Philharmonia Orchestra and soloists, Wilhelm Furtwangler, cond.  – Don’t be afraid of Wagner. If you like Lord of the Rings,  Wagner is just the same thing with tunes. With Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus,  this is the Tristan for the ages.

 

casals7. Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Marlboro Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, cond.  – Politically incorrect performances of Bach’s essential concertos, meaty, expressive, lush, vibrant – and a slap in the face to those who believe there is only one right way to perform Bach.

 

8. Bach, Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, Pablo Casals, cello  – Casals singlehandedly resurrected these profound works, where Bach made the single instrument as rich and varied as a full orchestra. He plays them as if he were alone in the universe. Only Casals could do that.

 

9. Beethoven, Diabelli Variations, Uri Caine, piano, with Concerto Koln  – Postmodern Beethoven, with the 33 variations Beethoven wrote turned into marches, show tunes and fireworks. Not for the faint of heart, but explains to a new generation why Beethoven is worth knowing about.

 

10. Schulz-Evler, Arabesques on Johann Strauss II’s “Blue Danube Waltz,” Josef Lhevinne, piano  – The great show-off piece played as no one else has ever managed: You swear on your grandmother’s babushka that there are at least two pianists working up a sweat, maybe three. This is what a virtuoso is.

 

shostie11. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7, Chicago Symphony, Leonard Bernstein, cond.  – Lenny finds the core of this long, often-derided masterpiece, that can turn into shlock in lesser hands. This is one of the most glorious orchestral recordings ever made, blazing with brass and passion.

 

12. Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Concentus Musicus Wien, Alice Harnoncourt, violin, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond.  – Unconventional approach to familiar music turns these little concertos into tone pictures: Vivaldi meant them to create sound images, and here, you hear the dogs barking and the rain falling.

 

13. Barber, Adagio for Strings, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.  – There are people who cannot listen to Samuel Barber’s mournful, tragic piece without breaking into uncontrollable sobs, and Bernstein seemed to feel a special connection to the music, which he plays for all he is worth.

 

kissin14. Chopin, Piano Concertos, Evgeny Kissin, piano, Moscow Philharmonic, Dmitri Katayenko, cond.  – Wunderkind Kissin was only 12  when he recorded these, but it would be hard to find anyone who has better captured the verve and spirit of these Chopin concertos. This is magic.

 

15. Chopin, Nocturnes, Maurizio Pollini, piano  – Pollini finds more pith and mettle in these nocturnes, usually played to bring out their dreaminess. For Pollini, one of the superstars of the piano, they have more shadow and threat, things lurking behind corners, and military bands playing in the distance.

 

gabrieli16. Gabrielli, The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli, various performers  – The assembled brass sections of the Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras play the glorious music of the Gabrielis the way it must sound in Heaven. This is virtuoso brass playing from a legendary album. You gotta hear this!

 

17. Brahms, piano music, selections, Glenn Gould, piano  – Thought he could only play Bach? Gould was at heart a romantic, and his Brahms is subtler, more nuanced, more beautiful than anyone else’s. This playing comes as a complete surprise, and utter joy.

 

rachmaninoff18. Rachmaninoff, A Window in Time, piano music, selections, Serge Rachmaninoff, piano  – The dour Russian was one of the greatest pianists of the century, but his electric recordings are dulled by scratches and boom. These are digitally enhanced Duo-Art  piano rolls, played on a Yamaha Synclavier,  that brings back the luster to his piano.

 

19. Chopin, Sonata No.2 “Funeral March,” Serge Rachmaninoff, piano  – Or you could try the thing itself, un-reconstructed. Rachmaninoff’s take on the familiar sonata is so fresh, powerful and driven, you’ll be shocked to hear it again as if it were for the first time.

 

valentina20. Liszt, Virtuosa Valentina, piano selections, Valentina Lesitsa, piano – Franz Liszt  was a showman, who brought to piano the same sense of spectacle that Spielberg brings to the seashore; Valentina Lesitsa plays them that way, all out, thunder and cannon-shot, fireworks and passion.

 

21. Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev, cond.  – Pletnev plays the Eroica like it means something, and replaces tunes and rhythms with the kind of persuasive rhetoric that starts nations marching.

 

22. Wagner, Liebestod, Vladimir Horowitz, piano  – Real virtuosity isn’t just lots of notes real fast, but rather total control of the piano and expression. In Horowitz’s final CD, The Last Recording,  made when the was 86,  the ol’ magician wrings thunder and tears out of the death of Isolde. It becomes our death, too.

 

tureck23. Bach, The Great Solo Works, Rosalyn Tureck, piano  – Too often we think of Bach as mathematical, but he was really a crazy Baroque composer, layering hysterical detail on detail. Tureck plays him that way with the Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother,  and the Italian Variations,  with notes sweeping in like a tidal surge.

 

24. Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, piano and cond.  – Bernstein plays Gershwin’s familiar symphonic jazz almost as if it were Brahms, big, romantic, serious. This is not everyone’s cup of Gershwin, but you simply have to hear it.

 

25. Grieg, Peer Gynt Suite, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Beecham, cond.  – Peer Gynt? Seriously? Hall of the Mountain KingAnitra’s Dance? Beecham plays the music with such suave joy, and with not a single mote of condescension, and revivifies the old chestnut. You’ll tap your toes and sing in the shower.

Mahler 9 ending

I am at this moment listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and my face is covered with my own tears and my insides are torn up by the force of the music.

It is the morendo of the final movement. Ersterbend, is what Mahler asks for. And he means “dying.” Not the dramatic or theatrical dying a sensitive teenager imagines, but a slow extinguishing ad nihil: a kind of evaporation of the last molecules of life. I can hardly tell when the last note actually ends, it is so quiet.

The great music critic, Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who died last year at 90, (and who attended the Ring cycle at Bayreuth 17 times, and before he retired, managed to go to two different Mahler festivals, one in Amsterdam in 1995 and the other in Berlin 10 years later) said the highest experience he ever had in a concert hall was the Mahler Ninth conducted by Abbado in Amsterdam. As that last note hung in the ether and finally could be heard only in the mind’s ear, Dimitri said he was afraid the mood would be destroyed by the expected applause, but it didn’t: “No one applauded for a full five minutes,” he said. And I’ve read the same thing in other accounts of that concert. If he was exaggerating, it is only by a little.

Applause would have been the inappropriate response to the music; this was hardly a case of hearing pleasant tunes and enjoying them. The music, rather, spoke to its listeners on some deep, disturbing and emotional level.

The profound emotions drawn out of us by Mahler, or the late Beethoven quartets, or the Bach unaccompanieds (take your pick, fiddle or violoncello), have long ago persuaded me that music is not abstract, as the current prejudice would have it, but rather, it was meant by its composer to be “about something.” That is, the music is deeply metaphorical.

When we listen to Shostakovich’s Seventh or his Eighth quartet, or to Beethoven’s Eroica or Mahler’s Third, we are hearing the composers thoughts about extra-musical issues. Yes, they are all elaborate, complex and interesting arrangements of notes, but they are also about war, heroism, nobility, longing, death, love and idealism, among many other things. To ignore those things in the music is to misunderstand the music. Worse, it is to trivialize it.

I am not making the argument that all music, or all classical music is meant to be understood philosophically, but that a certain level of music by a certain class of composer was intended to intersect the larger issues of being alive. A brilliant Mozart divertimento may not be more than an especially graceful and intelligent divertissement, and our main concern may be the clever things he does with D-major, but you cannot hear “Viva la libertad” from Don Giovanni and not weep for its extra-musical import and what it meant at that instant of human history.

Neither am I making an argument for what used to be called “program music.” I don’t mean that the composer meant to tell a story simply by substituting notes for words. Yes, many 19th century composers published or announced “programs” for their works, but many of them also privately or later publicly disavowed those programs. And there are many cases of music writers proposing programs that are prima facie ridiculous. We now use those excesses to bludgeon the entire century of musical purpose.

But I am saying that the music we take most seriously, and hold to the longest in our lives, speaks to us of more than musical ingredients. We should not be embarrassed to be brought to tears or to elation by the Beethoven Ninth or the Verdi Requiem. That’s what those composers intended to happen. They weren’t entertaining us, they were speaking to us.

There are two aspects to this problem that I worry the most about.

The first is the assertion by some (including all those tedious French Post-Structuralists) that thoughts and words are identical. There is a good deal of thinking — perhaps the overwhelming majority — that is not verbal. We can think spatially, we can think mathematically, we can think emotionally, we can think visually. When we do something as simple as pass a car while driving, we don’t think in words about the speed of our car, the speed of the car in front of us, the speed of the car coming at us in the other lane and how far off it is. We think in temporal-spatial terms, completely without words, knowing whether there is opportunity to overtake the bumpkin in the pickup truck in front of us who is going 25 in a 45 mph zone. No words, but thought nonetheless.

And when Richard Strauss takes on the afflatus of idealistic aspiration in his Don Juan, we recognize the affliction in our own body-reaction — the heightened pulse or the rise of gorge in our goozle. I don’t have to put in words to know it. It is the perfect musical metaphor for the non-musical experience.

If one objects that the music can never be as precise, or that it is always ambiguous, I can only respond that words themselves are always ambiguous and imprecise. Their supposed precision is an optical illusion. (It is why we have lawyers). To contain largeness requires ambiguity: The more precise a word is, the less it defines, until the ultimate precise word has no more meaning than the name of a dog. Here, Spot.

(I mean, for instance, that genus is more narrow than phylum, species more precise than genus, breed yet more precise than species, and when you slice it down to an individual dog by name, you have narrowed the scope so much that whatever observation you make no longer has any wide application.)

If we think about this issue of precision, it is obvious: What is the white whale in Moby Dick? The very ambiguity is essential to its power. So, this can be no argument against metaphor in music.

And secondly, if you say music is not “universal” and is culturally inflected — as so many intellectuals do these days — then I scratch my head. Is not language culturally inflected? Do you not have to learn English to understand Steinbeck? So how is it different having to learn the tradition of European classical music to understand Mahler? Mahler is (albeit idiosyncratic) something to learn, just as you have to learn by reading Faulkner or Joyce to get past the parts that at first don’t make sense.

The Mahler Third arguably makes no sense understood merely musically. It took me years to begin to fathom what was going on in that vast ocean of music and orchestration, but now that I understand it metaphorically, it is the greatest of Mahler’s symphonies (or maybe shares that with the Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde — “Ewig, Ewig.”

The other big problem I have is the prejudice of Modernism.

I have lived through the century of Modernism, and was infected with it from my earliest years. I am only recently cured. I grew up loving abstract art and stream-of-consciousness novels. The party trick that is Modernism is to understand the means of expression as the subject of the art itself: color, form, shape, contrast: These carry meaning in themselves.

(I know Modernism has other aims as well, but this part of it is what ruins classical music for me.)

And you can see the effect of Modernism in the history of classical music recordings. The old style of performance, exemplified by Furtwangler, Mengelberg, Casals and Walter, by mid-century, gives way to Toscanini, Weingartner and eventually Szell, Solti and now, John Eliot Gardner. These are the “just-the-facts-ma’am” conductors, following Toscanini’s dictum: “To some, the Eroica may be about heroism and nobility, but to me it is just Allegro con brio.”

A century of musicians have disparaged the very idea that music can be about anything but music. “Music can express nothing,” said Stravinsky, whose music is profoundly expressive despite himself.

What is lost when this Modernist esthetic is applied to music — and 19th century music in particular — is the core of what the music is about. If a Leonard Slatkin doesn’t believe that the first movement of the Eroica strives for something and achieves it in the coda, then he is only making noise. I read reviews over and over where the critic complains that the conductor is “interpreting” the music instead of just letting it speak for itself, and what he means, of course, is that he wants the music to shut up about life, death, the universe and everything, and just scratch the familiar tickles and amuse me. As if you could play Hamlet and just speak the words clearly without all that “acting.”

The century of Modernism is over, although the effects linger on. And what we call Postmodernism isn’t all that much better (it being merely a kind of Mannerism to the Renaissance of Modernism), but you can find a number of musicians and conductors seeking to find other ways of dealing with the real issues of the music. Yes, there are the Roger Norringtons out there, mucking things up with their idiocy, but there are also the Mikhail Pletnevs and Daniel Barenboims, seeking to understand why there should be a ritardando here, or a sforzato there, even when not called for in the score. The same as a Gielgud applies a pause in “To be or not to be,” to maximize the rhetorical understanding of the content. Shakespeare did not indicate such in his text, but an intelligent actor knows where they work and why.

I also have to laugh at the way Modernism once thought of itself as the natural conclusion of a historical process, having finally gotten to the point of esthetic “purity” that all art previously only aspired to. Got a giggle out of that.

Along with Pablo Neruda, I am in favor of the impure in art.

And in favor, not of a simple-minded return to an elusive “golden age” of the past — such an age never existed, and the old recordings prove that musicians now play in better tune and with better intonation than they ever played for Mengelberg — but for some new way to explore the metaphor inherent in the music, and not to ignore the music’s meaning for the sake of keeping alive a dying flame of Modernism.