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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. 

There is Mahler before Bernstein, and Mahler after him. This is not to say that Lenny is the summum bonum of these nine-plus symphonies, but that before his 1960’s advocacy, Mahler was one of those niche composers that a few people knew about and appreciated, and afterwards, no right-thinking conductor could fail to offer a complete cycle — Mahler joined Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky and one of those whose works would be recorded by the yard. A Mahler program now draws a paying audience like almost no other. 

But there is Mahler and there is Mahler. When everyone gets into the act, the quality level evens out — It’s hard to find a really bad recording anymore, and it is also hard to stand out with something exceptional. Yet, both ends do still exist. 

I have not heard every release; no one could, not even David Hurwitz, who is as close to nuts as anyone I know of. But I have experienced a whole raft of Mahler recordings and I have my favorites, and a few excrescences that I have to keep as “party records” to share with commiserating friends. 

My bona fides include more than a half-century of listening to classical music, reading scores, and being a retired classical music critic on a major daily newspaper. I have owned at least 15 complete Mahler cycles and uncounted individual CDs and LPs — going back to the 1960s. I did disgorge about two-thirds of my collection of CDs when I retired eight years ago, but even since, I have added more Mahler (among others) and currently sit with 10 full sets and two shelves of individual recordings. Am I as nuts as Hurwitz? I leave that to the jury. (It isn’t only Mahler: I once owned 25 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas and 45 recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto). 

Yes, I listen to a boatload of music. I cannot imagine my life without music. 

And I have my Top 10 list of Mahler recordings. Really, a Top 11 — one for each of the nine completed symphonies, and add-ons for the incomplete 10th, for Das Lied von der Erde, and the song cycles, so it’s really like a Top 15 or so. And there are a few bombs I want to include, just for fun. Let’s take them in order. 

Symphony No. 1 in D

The symphony begins with an ethereal A, barely audible and transforms into a cuckoo call, evincing nature, the woods and eternity, but then opens up into the fields and streams borrowed from Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld in his song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.  The first four Mahler symphonies all borrow from his songs. The third movement is a grotesquerie built from a minor-key version of Frere Jacques played first by a solo double bass; it is an ironic funeral march, interrupted by klezmer music and a bit of gypsy wedding. It is one of the most peculiar movement from anyone’s symphonies.

Then it all burst out in a tormented and blazing fourth movement with horns wailing out over all, and comes to an abrupt conclusion with an orchestral hiccup. 

The symphony is qualitatively different from the ones that follow, but it is easier for most first-time listeners to comprehend. It is a great place to start a Mahler journey. 

The greatest version I ever heard live was Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; it blew me away. There is a live recording, from the young maestro’s debut concert in LA. It is hard to get the same effect from a recording, but this is my sentimental favorite. But there are some other great ones. 

The consensus (but not universal) favorite is Raphael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1968. It includes the Lieder eines fahrended Gesellen and Dietrich Fischer-Deiskau. 

The version I first learned from, a billion years ago in another galaxy, and on vinyl, was Bruno Walter’s with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Walter knew Mahler and premiered his Ninth Symphony. The sonics are not always great, but there is tremendous authority in Walter’s Mahler. 

Symphony No. 2 in C-minor (“Resurrection”)

Many people hold the “Resurrection Symphony” as their nearest and dearest, with its uplifting finale of rebirth and optimism. But I have always found the end a touch forced and insincere, as if Mahler really, really wanted to believe in a renewed life after death, but couldn’t, and could only mouth the words. “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” 

Yet, its music is still magnificent, especially the first movement funeral march, which comes to a climax so disturbing and dissonant, he never matched it until the orphan adagio of his 10th symphony. The inner movements are some of the most beautiful he ever wrote and the alto solo, Urlicht, is transcendental. 

Everyone, it seems, has taken a crack at the “Resurrection”, including businessman Gilbert Kaplan, who learned to conduct only to lead this symphony and never conducted anything else. (OK, he did make a stab at the Adagietto from the Mahler Fifth, but that hardly counts.)

My favorite is Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. Klemperer always makes the music feel as important as it needs to be; he seems to believe in what it says, not merely to play the notes.

Symphony No. 3 in D-minor

There are some music you cannot listen to very often. Beethoven’s Ninth, for instance, or the Bach Matthew Passion. They are too big, too meaningful, too overwhelming, that to maintain the sense of occasion, you can only pull them out at special moments. You have to be ready to accept what they have to offer. It is almost a religious experience. 

The Mahler Third last an hour and a half. It is almost an opera without words, except there are singers. It is a full evening by itself. But if you are not in the right frame of mind, it can just seem endless. The first movement alone lasts longer than any Haydn symphony.

Mahler explained his ideas for the symphony, though he later recanted. The words are not what the symphony says, but they give an approximation. The first movement is “Pan awakes; summer marches in,” and pits a relentless and ruthless nature, “red in tooth and claw,” against the riotous optimism of the season of growth, in an overwhelming march of joy and hedonism. 

The second movement is “What the flowers of the meadow tell me.” The third is “What the animals of the forest tell me.” In the fourth, an alto sings “What man tells me,” in a doleful lament that “Die Welt ist tief,” “The world is deep.” Following that comes “What the angels tell me,” with a choir and bells telling of “himmlische Freude” — heavenly joy. 

But all of this, for an hour, is really prolog to the final movement Adagio, “What love tells me.” It is built on a theme taken from Beethoven’s final quartet and its “Muss es sein? Es muss sein.” (“Must it be; it must be”).  It is a 22-minute-long meditation, rising to ecstasy. 

When the premiere was given in 1902, Swiss critic William Ritter wrote this finale was “Perhaps the greatest adagio written since Beethoven.” If you can come away without collapsing into a puddle of weeping, you’re a better person than I am. 

The recording that overwhelms me more than any other, not only because of the performance, but because of its engineering and immediacy of sound quality is Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw. 

A nearly equal second, in slightly less perfect sound, is Leonard Bernstein’s 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic. It is the gold standard for the finale. 

Symphony No. 4 in G

On the opposite end of the emotional scale — and what a relief — comes the Fourth Symphony, with its sleigh bells and Kinderhimmel. It is, without doubt, Mahler’s happiest symphony. It is also his shortest. Coincidence? 

But I’ve got a problem picking a best, because there are three performances I cannot do without, each highlighting a different aspect of the work. 

First, there is Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw  Orchestra, recorded in November, 1939. Mengelberg knew Mahler, and we have evidence that Mahler endorsed Mengelberg’s interpretation of the symphony, although that endorsement came for earlier performances. Mahler died in 1912 and this recording is from 27 years later. Still, it is the best evidence we have for the way Mahler probably intended his work to sound. And, compared to the way it is played nowadays, it is ripe with violent tempo changes and swooping portamentos. 

Second, there is Benjamin Zander, with the Philharmonia. In the hour-long discussion disc packaged with the performance, Zander makes the case that Mahler wanted the violin soloist in the second movement to play like a country fiddler, not a trained violinist. A “Geige,” not a “Violine.” He has the violinist retune his fiddle a full tone sharp to play the Totentanz — he is to be Freund Hein, or “Friend Hank,” a nickname for the Grim Reaper. Zander is the only conductor to really take the composer at his word; most recordings, the soloist can’t bring himself to make the ugly sounds Mahler wanted, and smooths the part’s rough edges. It should sound like the Devil’s fiddle in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, with that edge. 

In all his Mahler recordings, Zander is scrupulous in following the anal retentive storm of written instructions Mahler included in his scores. If this means the long-haul structure of the work is sometimes disrupted for the spotlit detail, well, that’s the nature of Romanticism over Classicism. Those details were put there for a reason; we should hear them. 

The third recording is Bernstein’s first version, with the New York Philharmonic and soprano Reri Grist. Bernstein’s Mahler is always good, but sometimes, it is the best, and this is one of those times. Grist has a fresh voice that is perfect for the innocent text of the finale, which is a child’s vision of what heaven will be like (“Good apples, good pears, good grapes … St. Martha must be the cook.”) 

Symphony No. 5

Wagner has his “bleeding chunks,” and Mahler has his Adagietto. Everyone knows the Adagietto, from movies and TV commercials. But the whole symphony, the first one since the First Symphony not to have voices, is a great rumbustious tussle, from its funeral march start to its manic contrapuntal finale, where he takes five melodic fragments, stated at the outset, and combines and recombines them like a Braumeister. 

The Adagietto fourth movement was, per Mahler, intended as a love letter to his wife, Alma, but is so elegiac that it has become the aural metaphor for loss and grief. Considering Alma’s serial infidelities, perhaps it is only fitting that the movement has morphed in its cultural meaning. (One critic calls Mahler “a composer with a dodgy heart who married a trollop.” “Alma, tell us: All modern women are jealous. You should have a statue in bronze, for bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.”)

The recording to have is Bernstein’s second recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic. It has beautiful playing from one of the world’s best orchestras, and all the energy and commitment that emanates from Lenny’s spiritual leadership. 

Another legendary performance is John Barbirolli’s with the New Philharmonia. If you think Bernstein’s fever is suspect, then reach for a cold bottle of Sir John.

Symphony No. 6 (“Tragic”)

Labeling any of Mahler’s symphonies as “Tragic” may seem redundant, but this is clearly his gloomiest, opening with a relentless stomp, stomp, stomp of a marche fatale and leading to the crushing hammer blows of destiny in the finale. 

Nevertheless, it has what I think is an even more persuasive love letter to Alma in the slow movement, which has to be one of the most tender and lovely in all of the canon. 

But Mahler never quite figured out if it should be the second or third movement, so nowadays, you find it both ways in performance, and find angry and assertive essays by critics proving once and for all it simply has to be the way they see it. Me, I like the adagio second to separate the angry first movement from the angry scherzo, which shares its rhythm with the first. Play them back to back before the adagio and it can seem like too much of the same thing. But then, that’s my opinion; you are free to have yours. 

Then, in the finale, Mahler never quite resolved whether there should be three hammer blows or only two. He was a seriously superstitious man and feared that a third hammer blow might prefigure his own death, and took it out of the score. But hammer blows come in threes in life — at least in Mahler’s — and I prefer all three to be there. Nor did he ever quite specify what he meant by hammer blows; they are written into the score, but how should they be produced? Each orchestra is left to come up with its own solution. Some have used hammer and anvil, others have built large resonant wooden boxes hit with great wooden mallets. There’s a lot of room for interpretation. 

Ben Zander comes to the rescue: His recording includes both the duple and triple hammer blows. You get to choose which finale you want to hear. As usual, Zander is perfect for following Mahler’s precise instructions in the score: a sforzando here, a ritardando there, a subito piano or a purposeful mix-mash of rhythms there. Now make the clarinet sound like a dying cat, now let the violins swoop with a portamento. Zander obeys where most other conductors smooth it all out to make pretty. This should not be a pretty symphony. 

Symphony No. 7

Guess what? Whether two or three hammer blows, Mahler didn’t die after the Sixth Symphony, which may explain why the Seventh is so giddy. All the other symphonies are programmatic in some way, with funeral marches, or heroic deaths, but the Seventh is just music. Mahlerian music, which means fantastic orchestrations and effects. But no overt meaning. 

It has five movements. The inner three are a scherzo sandwiched between two nostalgic sweetnesses he called “Nachtmusik,” or “night music.” In them, he uses rustic cowbells to symbolize — cowbells — and adds a mandolin and guitar. They couldn’t be lovelier. Between them is a vicious scherzo. 

But then, there’s the finale, which really makes no sense at all. It’s a complete hodge-podge, starting with a manic tympani solo and rushing off like a Turkish Pasha into what sounds like Ottoman grandiosity. But you have to remember the advice of the Talking Heads: “Stop Making Sense.” Just enjoy the effervescent joy of it all, up to the penultimate C-augmented horn chord before the final tonic C. One of the oddest endings before Sibelius’s Fifth. 

 The Third and the Ninth are certainly deeper and more profoundly moving, but the Seventh is my favorite for when I just want to hear Mahler without having to weep and sob and contemplate the Weltschmerz of it all. 

My go-to recording is a sleeper. Daniel Barenboim is not known as a great Mahler conductor, but his recent Mahler Seventh, with Staatskapelle Berlin on Warner Classics is brilliant and one of the best engineered recordings I’ve heard, so you get not only a perfect performance, but a recording that sounds more like an orchestra playing live in your room than any other. He hits the crazed finale with the perfect get-on-the-roller-coaster attitude. 

I’ve been choosing great performances to recommend, but really bad ones can be fun, too. There is a Mahler Seven that is so unbelievably bad, you just have to hear it. Otto Klemperer is — let’s be honest — a really great Mahler conductor. Many of his recordings rank at the top of the list. But his Seventh is a real dog. What was he thinking? Barenboim comes in at 74 minutes. Klemp’s Seventh goes on for an hour and 40 minutes. Cheez Louise. It’s like Glenn Gould’s Appassionata, playing it like they were sight-reading it for the first time. 

Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”)

I’m afraid I have never warmed up to the Eight Symphony. Its first movement is outright hysterical — I don’t mean it’s funny, but rather the manic half of a bipolar cycle; and its second movement is an opera manque built on Goethe’s Faust that just seems to wander without getting anywhere. Maybe I just need to listen to it another 20 times or so to get it into my head. It was Mahler’s biggest popular success during his life, but it has not worn well with me. 

It is a choral symphony with an alleged 1000 performers taking part, including eight solo voices, two different choruses and an organ, which blares at the beginning when it all explodes open in a “Veni creator spiritus” — “Come, Creator Spirit” — like one of those tweets typed in all caps. 

It has its fans. I am happy for them. George Solti and the Chicago Symphony is a consensus recommendation and zips through it all in under 80 minutes, which is shorter than almost all other performances, and therefore qualifies it as the greatest.

Symphony No. 9

Mahler had a congenital heart defect and he put its irregular rhythm into the beginning of his Ninth Symphony, an off-kilter beat that is the first thing we hear as the orchestra begins. Over that we hear the harp and muted trumpet. Added to that comes a little shiver in the strings followed by a two-note descending theme. These layers form the basis of the entire symphony, the way dot-dot-dot-dash forms the genesis of Beethoven’s Fifth. 

There follows an earthy Ländler as a second movement and a scurrilous Rondo Burlesque for the third. The final adagio is a kind of culmination of Mahler’s death music. Instead of a funeral march or a heroic death, the music dwindles to a quiet and inevitable cessation of its heartbeat. It trails off in a morendo so still and hushed that in a good performance, you can never quite tell when the orchestra stops playing. It just dies away. The effect can be overwhelming. In some famous performances, the audience refrains from applauding for as long as five whole minutes before exhaling in bravos and cheers. It is music that strikes deep. 

Bernstein made a meal of this symphony and recorded it four times, not counting a few live performances caught on tape outside the Bernstein canon. In the only time he ever performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, he recorded the Mahler Ninth. It is held in reverence by many, despite a glaring lapse by the trombone section in the finale (reputedly, an audience member sitting behind the section had a heart attack and died and the trombonists were understandably distracted). Even so, it is a powerfully emotional recording. But then, all of Lenny’s Ninths carry that wallop. 

If you wish to escape the Bernstein reality distortion field, there are other tremendous Ninths. Barbirolli’s with the Berlin Philharmonic, from 1964, is a clear and unsentimental, but still emotional performance. Bruno Walter premiered the work in 1912, a year after Mahler’s death, with the Vienna Philharmonic. He made a stereo recording with the Columbia Symphony exactly 50 years later; that recording is a benchmark for many. 

It has been recorded by almost every conductor out there, up to Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw just last year. 

The version I learned on was a surprisingly good version by Leopold Ludwig and the London Symphony, from 1960, on the old Everest label. I still enjoy his Ländler above most.   

Symphony No. 10

Mahler never finished his Tenth Symphony, but left it in tantalizing form as piano short score. He did orchestrate the opening adagio, and until recently, the adagio was performed as a stand-alone. That piano sketch has been orchestrated since, essentially by committee, and there are now many full recordings out there. 

I have never been convinced by the attempted realizations of the whole, but the adagio is absolutely scarifying. It slowly builds up to a climax that is so frightening that in a good performance, your fight-or-flight hormones should get nightmares, the hair on the back of your neck should prickle and you should feel as if the gates of hell have opened and disgorged its contents. It is a scream of pain, an Edvard Munch level scream: “Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur” (“I felt the great scream in nature.”)

Mahler had found out about Alma’s infidelity and he scribbled in his score several pained comments about it. He was devastated and the music shows it. At one point, nearly all twelve chromatic notes are played in a single harrowing dissonance, distributed across the orchestra in a way to make a musical chord rather than simply noise, and then a screaming trumpet breaks through the din to make things even more unbearable. After that moment, things go quiet and the movement continues to its distressed end. 

If you want to hear all five movements, there are many good performances, including Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic. But I will cling to the adagio alone and the first version I knew — Bernstein’s first with the New York Philharmonic. Any time the emotion is more to the point than the music, Bernstein conducts the emotion. This is Mahler at his most Mahlerian, and Lenny at his most Bernsteinian. 

Das Lied von der Erde

After all that, if I were forced to accept having only a single work of Gustav Mahler, it would be Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), a six-song cycle-symphony. Mahler had planned to publish it as his ninth symphony, but, superstitious about ninth symphonies (the final symphonies of so many composers), he refused to give it the title. When he then came to publish his next, he could name it the Ninth, knowing that fate would understand it was really his tenth.

But aside from that biographical titbit, Das Lied is an overwhelming and emotional work, even among an oeuvre that practically set the parameters for overwhelming and emotional. 

Mahler’s output falls into three large groups. The first four symphonies are called his “Wunderhorn” symphonies, because they make use of his settings of songs from a book of poetry called Des knaben Wunderhorn (“A Boy’s Magic Horn”). The second group are his purely orchestral symphonies, numbers 4 through 7. The Eighth is sui generis and doesn’t count (see above). But the final three works, the Ninth Symphony, the trunk of the Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde are profoundly inward. You get the feeling that Mahler didn’t write them so much for audiences, but as a way to question his own existence. 

The songs of this symphony are taken from a book of Chinese poetry, translated into German (or invented) called “The Chinese Flute.” The texts investigate beauty, isolation, nature and death, and where all these intersect. “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.” 

The sixth and final song — Der Abschied (“The Farewell”) — lasts as long as the first five and features some of the most ethereal orchestral writing Mahler ever penned, and a text that Mahler supplemented with several lines of his own. 

“I seek peace for my lonely heart,” the contralto sings. And ends, “The dear Earth everywhere/ blooms in spring and grows green anew./ Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon./ Forever … Forever.” 

That last word — “ewig” in German — repeats and repeats ever more silent, until it completely evaporates. It is impossible to hear it without sobbing. 

The symphony was premiered by Bruno Walter in 1911, six months after Mahler’s death, and Walter recorded it at least three times, in 1936, 1952 and 1960, the last in stereo. Either of the last two can be considered the one to have: Each has its champions and both are magnificent and echt Mahler. 

But the one you cannot do without is by Otto Klemperer, released in 1967, with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig. It has better sound than any of the Walters and magnificent singing. This is music right in Klemp’s wheelhouse. 

Complete sets

Warning at the outset: No single set of complete recordings is great in all of the symphonies. But having a complete set gives you a consistent vision of what the work is all about. 

Bernstein recorded them all three times. The first for Columbia (now Sony), mostly with the New York Philharmonic. The second for Deutsche Grammophon, mostly with the Vienna Philharmonic. And finally, a video set, on DVD, for Unitel, mostly with the Vienna Phil. The first two are canonic, and while each cycle has its proponents, you really should have both. 

Pierre Boulez is kind of the anti-Bernstein, cool and analytical, precise and controlled. For Boulez, Mahler is a 20th century composer — or at least a prefiguring, and the source of the Second Viennese School. You can hear every instrument with clarity

But is Mahler Mahler without going over the top emotionally? Klaus Tennstedt has many devotees, and falls more into the Bernsteinian camp. He recorded them with the London Philharmonic. It is a great set. I gave mine away, not because I didn’t like them, but because I gave them to my best friend; he deserved them. 

A sleeper among sets is David Zinman with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. It is the best engineered set I have heard and with beautiful playing by the orchestra. 

There have been sets that mixed and matched conductors and orchestras. Both DG and Warners have great sets. Another, called the “People’s Edition” had a promotional vote to choose which recordings to include. The fact that each set chooses from their proprietary recordings means that there is no agreement on what are the best recordings. Everyone, after all, has their opinion. In Mahler-World, opinions are strong. 

Other conductors have less-than-complete boxes out there. Klemperer only recorded Symphonies 2, 4, 7, 9 and Das Lied von der Erde. His No. 2 and Das Lied are consensus choices for best ever. The Seventh is just awful, but you should hear it anyway. 

Hermann Scherchen has a box with all but the Fourth and no Das Lied. He recorded with second-rate orchestras, for the most part, and is often so wayward his interpretations have been called “Variations on Themes by Mahler.” The sound engineering is highly variable. This one is for specialists only. 

In the BB list (“Before Bernstein”), you get to hear all nine symphonies with Ernest Ansermet and the Utah Symphony and hear what they sound like before the current Mahler Tradition was assembled (largely by Lenny). They are surprisingly good, and you get a different slant on the music (less peculiar than Scherchen’s). 

Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia has not yet recorded the Seventh or Eighth, but the rest are among my favorites and I listen to them often. More than any other conductor, Zander follows Mahler printed directions accurately, and brings out expressive details glossed over in other recordings. There are those who disparage Zander for this detail orientation, but for me, it is the heart of a Romantic interpretation. This is the way they were played under Mahler, I am convinced. I love them all. And each comes with an hour-long lecture, explaining many of the details. He is a great speaker as well as conductor. 

There are others: Chailly, Bertini, Gielen, Sinopoli, Rattle. And all have their merits. 

The sets just keep coming. Everyone gets into the act. I have not been anywhere near complete. 

But these are the ones I have come to love. And, of course, there are many individual recordings, not part of sets. And many of these are among the greatest. 

And I have not even mentioned the other song cycles. Maybe another time.

And then, there’s Schubert.

We could name the musicians that rise to the top of the list in Western art music, and it’s an impressive list: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Debussy … But then, there’s Schubert, a name we tag onto the end as almost an afterthought. Oh, yes, then there’s Schubert. Little Franz, the “Schwammerl” — little mushroom. 

I don’t know why he is so often forgotten, or left at the remainders pile. In almost any terms you want to define quality or greatness, he is right there, a shiny, bright face, almost a puppy dog demanding our attention.

Oh, he gets his kudos. No one can talk about lieder, or art song, without putting Schubert’s name at the top of the menu. But, he belongs there with his piano music, his chamber music, his choral music, too. And three of his symphonies have never left heavy rotation in the repertoire. 

Each time I have overlooked his music and hear one of the three late piano sonatas, or the final quartets, I think: There is nothing better than this, not in Beethoven or even in Bach. It is emotionally powerful, harmonically rich and melodically persuasive. And then I find myself in a Schubert-orgy for the next week or so, realizing over again how deeply profound and psychologically acute is his music.

So why is he so often relegated to the also-rans? It was that way from the beginning, when little Franz lived in Vienna under the dark shadow of Beethoven. Schubert wrote thousands of compositions during his sadly short lifespan, but very little was published or performed during his life. Mostly his music was shared with friends at dinner parties — or “Schubertiades” — where he and his musician buddies would gather to play music, hoist a few, and sing along. 

He was little over five feet tall and pudgy, with a double chin and a button nose that held up tiny spectacles. He had a hard time finding his place in society, trying at times to be a school teacher and at other times to earn a living as a music tutor. None of it clicked. 

But from the earliest age, he could write really good music. He wrote his first symphony (now only a fragment) when he was just 14. The official Symphony No. 1 came just two years later and was written for his family to play — everyone in the house played an instrument. 

He was one of the great musical prodigies. We think of Mozart or Mendelssohn — who wrote his famous Octet when he was just 16 — but Schubert composed his first genuine masterpiece, “Erlkönig,” when he was 17.  He wrote well over a thousand pieces of music before he died at the age of 31 in 1828, just a year after Beethoven. Mozart, in contrast, lived to the ripe old age of 35. 

Perhaps Schubert lags in popular estimation because he was such a slipshod worker. He left more unfinished pieces than any other great composer, sheaves of piano sonatas left as torsos, a movement here or there, and other bits left in fragment. His most famous symphony, after all, is the “Unfinished Symphony.” 

And perhaps he lags because his melodies are so memorable, they may be mistaken as facile. Beethoven, after all, hardly ever wrote something you could hum distractedly as you polish the silverware. Da-Da-Da-Dumm is hardly a tune. Schubert is endless song. 

And because we think of melodies as lightweight compared with, say Wagner or Brahms, we may think of Schubert as emotionally trifling. “Wer hat das schöne Liedlein erdacht?” “Who wrote this pretty little ditty?” Couldn’t be more wrong. 

Schubert has perhaps the widest range, emotionally, of any other composer. On one hand, he wrote what has to be the happiest, bounciest, most joyful music ever, the “Trout” Quintet, and the single bleakest, most desolate music ever, the C-major String Quintet. (I’ve written about the “Trout” before.) 

The String Quintet is another beast. Written for two violins, two violas and two cellos, it is most often named, when such lists are drawn up, as the greatest piece of chamber music ever written. My late friend, Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was a longtime music critic at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, when he died at the age of 90, had requested the quintet be played at his funeral. The slow movement, in particular, is about the deepest and most profound that music can reach — which is rather deeper and more profound than any words can reach.

Schubert had an intimate relationship with death. He learned several years before his own death that he was suffering from what has been subsequently diagnosed as mercury poisoning (which likely also killed Beethoven), typhoid fever, or tertiary syphilis (mercury was a common treatment for syphilis). He wrote his final works — the final three piano sonatas, the final three string quartets, and the String Quintet, with the full knowledge of his looming extinction. These works, along with his final two symphonies and song cycles, are the height of his achievement. At the same age, Beethoven was just writing his first symphony. One can only imagine what Schubert might have written if he had lived even to Beethoven’s young 56 years old. 

It is a miracle that someone who barely left Vienna during his life, and who had only lived three short decades, could write with such expressiveness about such dark matter. 

Take his final and greatest piano sonata, in B-flat. It opens with a jaunty and optimistic tune that is almost immediately interrupted by a low trill on a G-flat — a note not in the key of B-flat major, but injected from its minor. It is a discordant lowered sixth that resolves to the dominant and leaves an uneasy feeling, as if happiness was being threatened by a baleful presence. That sense of immanent evil or impending doom keeps returning, even as the first movement comes to a seemingly positive conclusion — and then, there’s that threat, that bottom-feeding trill, again. No good will come of that. 

I listen again to a performance of that sonata by Artur Rubinstein, made in 1965, and start sorting through my CDs — I suppose I am about to begin another weeklong Schubert marathon. I’ll certainly go through the quartets and sonatas, even the symphonies. But mostly, I will dive deep into the two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. 

The last is a 24-song cycle setting poems by Wilhelm Müller that tells the tragic story of a man betrayed by his lover; he wanders through town and country dropping deeper and deeper into madness and depression. It would be hard to find a more trenchant exposition of German Romanticism that this song cycle. 

My late wife, Carole, loved to make music with others and often did so. I have no meaningful ability on any instrument, but was once persuaded to join her in singing “Gute Nacht,” the first song of the Winterreise cycle. It is tuneful and although it is strophic, the last go-round switches from minor key to major, with a stroke like lightning. The effect it had on me, in my pathetic attempt to sing to her piano accompaniment led me to attempt to translate Müller’s poems into English. 

The odd thing was that the further I went along, the more I found myself not so much translating as re-imagining. “Gute Nacht” turned out to be a more or less literal translation, beginning with the first stanza:

But by the time I got to the end, the devastating and desolate “Der Leiermann,” in which our protagonist finds himself back in the village listening to a hurdy-gurdy man and imagines his tragedy sung to the accompaniment of the pathetic little squeeze-box, I had left the original behind altogether. Schubert’s music for the entire song never leaves a single A-minor chord played as a slow pulse to the lament. The effect is a complete collapse of our hero’s personality. 

My version of Müller’s poem also left 19th century Germany and shifted to what I thought was the parallel situation in our own time. The whole series of my translations was in itself a metamorphosis from the original style of Müller to my own voice — in other words, I took the poetry seriously and personally, which is what the best art always gives us. 

There are many great recordings of Winterreise available. Among the best are four different versions by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, made with Gerald Moore, Jörg Demus, Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim in turn at the piano. They are all near perfect, but I have always favored the first, with Moore. But my favorite is even older than that one: Hans Hotter with Moore, recorded in 1954. Hotter’s voice is more bass than baritone and gives added heft to the work. 

Other Suggested Recordings

It’s hard to suggest a CD of the “Trout” Quintet: I have never heard a bad one, although the one I love most is by Alexander Schneider with Peter Serkin, David Soyer, Michael Tree and Julius Levine. You can never go wrong with Schneider. 

The three final quartets, including the “Death and the Maiden” and with the String Quintet, are all in a box with the Emerson Quartet and Mstislav Rostropovich on the second cello. Not a shabby addition. 

There is an 8-disc box of piano sonatas by Mitsuko Uchida that is a great performance and a bargain to boot. 

For the symphonies, you can hardly do better than a set by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic, which is currently selling for under $15. But you should also check out two very different ideas of the “Great” C-major symphony (usually listed as No. 9) by Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini. I should have said “Furtwangler vs. Toscanini.” 

But in this short overview, I have not had room for so many masterpieces. I have not mentioned the Arpeggione Sonata, the Fantasie in F-minor for Two Pianos, the Moments Musicaux, the “Wanderer” Fantasy, the Impromptus, or the simply titled, “Three Pieces,” which rank up there with the sonatas. Or the hundreds of other lieder that he wrote, to say nothing of the masses and the choral works. And there are operas, too, with beautiful music, if silly plots that make them almost unperformed anymore. 

There is much music that is meant only to please the ear, and Schubert wrote his share of that, too. But music can plumb the depths of human psychology, and provide a sonic metaphor for the most profound emotions and thoughts — at a depth where thought and emotion cannot be told apart. The best of Schubert’s music takes us there. 

I’ve spent my whole life soaking up Western culture, with a good dose from the East as well, and now that I am 72, I am wondering if it was all worth it. 

To what end all this reading, all this music and art, all this delving into history, psychology, science — this collection I have amassed of Ovid, Livy, Homer, Hesiod and the rest, the reading of modern novels I began in high school, the vast commonplace book of my brain, the syncretization of all national arts and philosophies? I have only a decreasing fraction of my time on the planet remaining to me, and when it is reduced to zero, all this accumulation of cultural clutter will evaporate. Poof. Gone. 

I see my granddaughters at the beginning of their accumulations, making all the same mistakes I made (well, not all of them, and some that are entirely original to them), and I know that if I have acquired any knowledge — I hesitate to call it wisdom, for really, it is only the giant ball of string I have collected through living — it can not save them an ounce or tittle of the troubles they will have to pass through. 

There are people who I admire with infinite appreciation who have avoided all this “high culture” and have contributed meaningfully to our lives. The teachers, nurses, chaplains — to say nothing of the mothers and the uncles and aunts — who have, through compassion and the service they have given to the benefit of others, are so much more directly worthy of praise. Even so simple a job as waiter seems to me now a more meaningful metier than my own life of page-turning and thought-gathering. 

William Yeats, in his A Vision, postulates two conflicting sensibilities for humans, which he names the “primary” and “antithetical.” All of us, he says, are composed of bits of each, in different ratios. The Primary sensibility understands the here and now, the useful, the social; the Antithetical comprehends the mythic, poetic, the psychological, the parts of our psyche that might be called the “hard wiring.” The ur-profession of the Primary is nurse; that of the Antithetical is the poet. 

Yeats measures the ratios of these two urges in the symbol of the phases of the moon and counts 28 tinctures — and that’s the word he uses — with a growing proportion of Antithetical as the moon waxes, and a decreasing proportion with the waning. No one, he says, is either all Antithetical or all Primary, but always an intermixture. 

 He goes on to apply this metaphor not only to psychology, but to history and I’m afraid he has lost me there. Yeats can get a little wacky at times. But I am looking for a purpose to my own Antithetical inclinations. Can this lifetime of lucubration have any wider value? Can I justify the ways of me to humankind? 

I am reading George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” in which he very thoughtfully takes to task Henry Miller, not for his obscenity or for his ability as a writer, which he admires, but for his quietism, Miller’s refusal to consider the political consequences of the times. Orwell, of course, was famously committed, having gone so far as to fight in the front lines of the Spanish civil war, and been shot in the throat for his efforts. 

Miller, on the other hand, is, in Orwell’s words, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” He is, in another passage, a Nero fiddling while Rome burns, although unlike other such fiddlers, Miller does so while facing the flames, not denying them. Miller’s ultimate stance is “a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is.” 

Orwell was writing in 1940, when “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putches, purges, slogans, Badaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things of course, but those things among others.”

Miller, he says, would hardly disagree with him. 

And, while I do not share Miller’s anarchism, I, too, have come to feel the individual has almost no effect on the historical machinations of his age, and that the recognition that little can be done means that the best approach is to let the universe move on its way and to accept whatever is dished out, including the annihilation of the self, which is death. Not so much that whatever is is good, but rather, that whatever is, is. What Joseph Campbell calls “the willing participation in the sorrows of the world.”

It is what Krishna counsels Arjuna to do in the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata, before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is to signal the beginning of the fighting, but stops short, considering the bloodshed and the misery that will ensue, including the slaughter of his own relatives. Krishna, disguised as his charioteer then more or less stops time, like Joshua halting the sun, in order to give the warrior a lesson in Dharma. You must do what you must do, he says in essence; the world will continue anyway. 

And so, I value those who with practical efficiency ameliorate the suffering. Surely, they are willingly participating in the sorrows of the world, and doing their best to lessen that suffering. 

But there are those of us who have other functions in the world. Scientists, for instance, aim to understand the world. Their work may be useful latterly, but their primary aim is understanding what is not known. Pure science precedes applied science. We value the work of pure science for what it tells us about the universe; the knowledge gained may — or may not — lead to practical application. 

There are, however, other paths of study that further the human endeavor, and these, too, may or may not ultimately be helpful. 

Science is the test we give to the objective world; art is the test we give to everything else. If we want to understand what happens inside another’s brain, we look to a neuroscientist; if we want to understand what happens in another’s mind, we read a novel. 

Each of us has a world inside us, TARDIS-like, bigger inside than outside, and that teeming interior world governs what we feel about the outer world, how we act in it, what we believe is true. It is in the arts, literary, visual, musical, physical such as dance, that we explore that interior and attempt to plumb its depths. 

And, as a pure scientist’s work can lead to an applied use, so the work of an artist, philosopher, historian, can lead not only to a better understanding of our humanity, it can have practical effects in the world. One has only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe or so simple or ephemeral thing as the way Jean-Claude Belmondo hangs a cigarette off his lip in Breathless. 

The effects are normally less world-shaking than the shift in attitude toward race-slavery, but those effects are measured in each individual life, and how much a psyche is opened and bloomed in the world. 

Delving into that interior, one finds its mirror in the books one reads. One studies them to study the self. Such is a lifelong process of discovery and whether it has real-world uses or not, must be attempted, just as pure science must be continued. 

I began my adult career as a teacher, and after that, as a writer; but in either job, the goal was the same, to spread knowledge. I fervently hope that my efforts have been, in at least some tiny smidgeon of a way, a benefit to humanity. 

As I write this, I am conscious that all this may very well be pure rationalization, making for myself an excuse for my life. But I will offer this apologia. When I was young, I was so much more self-absorbed — as young people tend to be — but a life of reading, listening, and looking have opened my emotions to much that was little more than words, words, words when I was beginning. I have been cracked open. I have become infinitely more compassionate and more sympathetic to others than I was. I see peoples’ emotions on their faces in ways that were invisible before. The pains and joys of others have become my own. Perhaps not to any great extent, but enough to make me aware of how others must navigate their lives. 

And when my wife became ill, I became her caregiver until the end, and doing so was, with not a shred of doubt, the most meaningful thing I have done in my life. I believe I would not have been capable of such empathy, such caring and devotion, if it had not been for a life opened to all that was outside of myself, and opened by art, literature, music, dance, reading of history, philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and all else that would otherwise have been blank to me. 

As I watched her decline, I saw all of suffering humankind in her, and all of aspirational humankind in myself, and they were the same thing. And so, when she died, I did, too, with the exception that I am still here. But then, so is she. 

There is the echo of this in all of the books that I have ingested, all the music, with its sonic analog of emotion, all of the perennial philosophy. “Alle menschen werden brüder.” 

For most scholars, as with most scientists, a career is built specializing, knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller angle of the whole. They become tenured professors and further the knowledge of the world in meaningful particulars. I have, in contrast, attempted to know more about a wider range of things, in effect seeking a unified field theory of the humanities. The endeavor has been so far as fruitless as that of physicists, but it has been why I read Dante and Saul Bellow, study Raphael and Francis Bacon, listen to Bach and Glass, feel in my own muscles Petipa and Pina Bausch. 

Someone has to put it all together. Our outer lives are vital; we need to aid the suffering, feed the hungry, still the wars, cool the fevers. But we also have inner lives, and they need attending, also. Human beings “shall not live by bread alone.” 

If all I have said here is nothing but rationalization, a kind of weaseling out of my responsibilities in the practical world, that does negate the truth. Motives are one thing; truth is another. 

And finally, if none of this counts, if none of this weighs on the good side of the scales, I can only say: It is my nature. Learning ever more is the satisfaction of an insatiable hunger. May those I love and those who love me forgive what I have made of it. 

In the world of classical music, someone who tickles the ivories tends to be considered either a pianist or a musician. Musicians tend to play Bach and Beethoven; pianists rather favor Chopin and Liszt. 

Brendel

Of course, this is not a simple dichotomy; it is a spectrum. But it helps to understand the difference between, say Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Brendel. 

The Brendel side sees the “text” as sacred and attempts to provide a sort of Platonic or idealized performance of the music. The Horowitz camp, instead, sees the music as a canvas on which to display the joys of piano playing and the possibilities afforded by the 88-key machine. 

The one sounds studied, the other sounds spontaneous.

Perhaps my bias shows. I tend to downplay the very laudable talents of a Brendel, because I see it as a kind of embalming, or a making of a museum exhibit. I have always been more taken with pianists who bring themselves to the score, to see the score not as an end, but as a beginning, as if it were a photographer’s negative that can be printed in many contrasts and tones. Not ideal forms, but Heraclitan flow.

Paderewski

The latter parts of the 19th century and the beginning of the next were the heyday of the pianist as star. It was the time of Paderewski and de Pachmann, who gave very personal performances of their programs. 

But somewhere between the world wars, there emerged praise of piano players who were notable “as musicians” rather than as pianists. It was praise heaped on such notables as Josef Hofmann and Artur Schnabel. The parallel might be thought of as journalism, where the actual reporter disappears from his story and only the facts remain. 

(James Joyce famously once said that an artist should remain “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”)

And so, for Brendel (sorry for picking on so august a man), the score is something to be studied, balanced and weighed, finding tempo ratios to emphasize the unity of the piece in question, to make sure it all coheres as a whole, from initial downbeat to final chord. To make such a case often requires the pianist to avoid making too much of details here or there, to subsume all into the integrity of the whole.

de Pachmann

While for the pianist, as a class, the details are what make the pieces interesting. If you have to lose something of a long view, you gain immeasurably in the emotional communication of the piece. 

(The distinction between emphasizing the whole against emphasizing the detail was described by famous art history Heinrich Wölfflin as one of the defining distinctions between what he called “classical” art and the “Baroque,” or, more popularly, romanticism.)

 Pendulums swing back and forth, and the age of keyboard musicians such as Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Olga Kern, Marc-Andre Hamelin, András Schiff and Nelson Freire is giving way to a new, more overtly expressive group of pianists as ivory ticklers, less concerned with hitting their marks than with connecting with their audiences on a primal level. 

I have brought up all this backstory to express my love for the music of four younger pianists — “younger” being a relative term: These are each in their 40s or 50s. But pianists tend to reach their expressive prime not in their salad days but in their riper age. A few, such as Arthur Rubinstein or Mieczysław Horszowski kept getting better into their 90s. 

Lisitsa/Beethoven

Valentina Lisitsa

The impetus for this is a new series of YouTube videos by Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, now 46, in which she has begun recording all 32 Beethoven sonatas. She posts new videos one at a time as she goes through the canon chronologically. 

Her playing is brilliant but utterly untraditional. Fast movements are faster than a speeding bullet; slow movements can be dirge-tempo. Always her tempi are shifting, speeding up and slowing down, pauses added to phrases and dynamics ratcheting up and down, even within a two-note phrase. This is playing not about unity but about contrast and diversity. This is a Beethoven that is alive and having a grand time.

Lisitsa is a peculiar case in the history of virtuosi. She did not come up through the piano-competition mill, but by posting performances on YouTube and gaining a loyal fan base. 

This put off some fogey critics — especially those who rather preferred a piano playing wearing tails and white tie — but excited a generation of real fans. 

On an upright

Her first recordings were mostly of the music of Franz Liszt and Rachmaninoff — big Romantic pieces in which she could show off her blazing technique. But, unlike some other note-grinders, she didn’t simply hit the right notes in the right order, but instead made exciting music. 

Liszt himself knew how to make drama of his concerts, with his long hair and dashing attitude. Lisitsa gave us Liszt as theater. We have perhaps too often forgotten that a concert is an entertainment, that it has an audience. (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2)

You watch Lisitsa’s face as she plays and it is clear she is having fun; the music gives her — and us — genuine pleasure. (La Campanella) She is not giving us a pianistic lecture in music history, but giving us a reason to enjoy life. 

Which is why her new Beethoven series is so exciting. (Rondo from the Waldstein sonata) This is Beethoven as intoxicating. As I write this, her series has reached the first six sonatas. They sizzle as she plays. There is ample pedal — something recent pianists have considered to be rather a deplorable sin, as if they were musical Puritans.

You can find scores of her performances on YouTube, including a barn-burning version of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 2 No. 3. 

Grimaud

But Lisitsa isn’t the only great pianist bringing new fire to classical music. Hélène Grimaud is just as astonishing. D.T. Max in The New Yorker wrote, “Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: She is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances.”  

Her performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne is furious and exciting. Purists complain that Busoni is “kein Bach,” but it is great music. 

It is the taking of chances, of seeing familiar ground in new ways that make my favorite pianists so moving. For them, classical music is not old, it is as present as today’s performance. 

These pianists are virtuosi, but more than that. They find the meaning in the music, what the music is really about, and how it says that music to its audience. 

My third nominee is the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev. He also makes the music his own. He has technique to burn — listen to the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube — but he can also turn out a Scarlatti sonata better than anyone since Horowitz, although, like the older pianist, he can sometimes rewrite the music, adding octaves or, in one case, his own coda. 

His recordings of the five Beethoven concertos is a revelation. 

Denk

And finally, I have heard Jeremy Denk many times live, none more overwhelming than his program at the Zankel Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 2008, when he played, back-to-back, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata — the two thorniest and most monumental pieces in the repertoire, each 45-minutes long. Then, for encore, he reprised the “Hawthorne” movement from the Ives. It was a memorable night of knuckle-busting. (Alcotts movement from the Concord Sonata). 

Denk has a sense of humor, which shows up in his blog, “Think Denk,” but also in his recitals. I heard him perform Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations, which he explained as, at least partly, comic, and his performance was both beautiful and witty.

He also performs the piano music of György Ligeti, which he plays as fluently as if it were Mozart and makes a persuasive case for it. (Etude: “Disorder.”)

“There’s something I like about music that’s on the edge of destroying itself,” he has said. 

There are others in the younger generation that have also taken up the cause for more fluid, flexible and exciting performance. But these four are the ones I know best and admire the most. Seek them out.

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. 

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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.’ “

 

4

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. 

5

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.

I grew up with H.W. Janson’s History of Art, first in art history class in college, and later, when I used it as a text when I taught art history. When I first owned a copy, it had only a few color plates, and later editions turned all-color, also adding some female artists and a bit of non-Western art in response to complaints it was too white-male-ish. It was. 

But that is not my point here. Rather it is that so many of us, including me, both as student and as teacher, know art primarily through reproduction. Either pictures in a book or slides projected in class — and now as digital images on computer screens. 

So, although I know Las Meninas, Rembrandt’s Danaë, or Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, I’ve never actually seen them. Not in person. 

(Judging from this photo, it’s possible even to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and still not see Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. How many times have you seen museum visitors staring at the blue light of their cellphone instead of at the work on the walls?)

As a result, we are so much more art literate — or at least image literate — than was possible a hundred years ago, or two hundred years  when privileged young men would take the Grand Tour through Italy and the Continent to study the great masterpieces in museums and churches, and come home and write encomia on the glories they had seen. 

But we are also fooled into believing that we have seen these famous paintings by encountering them on a page. Learning their titles to recognize them on a test makes your Janson into a high-culture Peterson Guide. Name the birds, name the paintings. 

The real thing is quite a different experience. 

Take for a single example Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, with its careful triangular composition of decomposing bodies and starving survivors. In class, we study the iconography of the painting, but can have little concept of the impact of seeing the original, which is frankly, the size of a barn. 

It hangs in the Louvre and it isn’t just the immensity of the thing that cannot be felt in a picture book, but the shear weight of canvas and paint which sags ever so slightly under its own mass. It isn’t a perfectly flat canvas: You have to accept it as an object in its own right, not merely an image. 

Quite the opposite confronts anyone who can make it to the front of the throng perpetually standing in front of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, like groupies vying for the front row at a rock concert. “It’s so much smaller than I thought,” is the most frequent response. 

And it isn’t just size that matters. How many have seen Vincent Van Gogh’s Crows in a Wheatfield either in an art book or as the dramatic climax of the Kirk Douglas film Lust for Life? How many have seen the actual painting? 

If you have been so lucky, you will know not only the size of the canvas, but also the almost sculptural surface of it, daubed with palette knife and oils. Van Gogh’s paintings are again, not merely images, but objects in their own right. 

In addition, the colors of printer’s inks are not the colors of the oil paint. You can never get quite the arsenic green that makes up the background of one of his self-portraits. Not in ink, and not in pixels. Just Google one of the paintings and look at the multiple versions posted online and notice how much color and contrast vary. 

What you are left with is the iconography. A real appreciation of the art is always more than iconography. Iconography is intellectual — you can describe it in words. This is the Virgin Mary, or that is the Battle of Waterloo. But identifying the subject is not seeing the painting. A painting is also a sense experience and looking at an actual painting, in museum or gallery, gives you so much more than its content. 

The same is true of the other arts. I have (I blush when I say it) thousands of CDs of music and can identify compositions — as if it were a contest — in a few notes, a classical music Name That Tune. (I remember astonishing my brother-in-law by spotting the Bartok Fifth Quartet in three notes — and they are all the same note. But boy, are they distinctive.) 

Denk and Brahms

But knowing the tunes is not the same experience as hearing the music played by Yo-Yo Ma live, or the Guarneri Quartet, or Jeremy Denk. This was brought home to me fundamentally (i.e., through my fundament) when I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play Strauss’s Don Juan and the famous horn call was broadcast to the hall by eight French horns in unison. The effect cannot be captured by the best recording and the most audiophile equipment. You have to hear it live. The hall is live with the music. 

Certainly not every performance is so transcendent. Often you really do only get the tunes, and sometimes, that is enough for a pleasant evening. But I can honestly say that in a lifetime of concert-going, I have heard scores, maybe a hundred concerts where the music became a living thing on the stage and transported me to places no other art form can take me. 

The same for ballet and dance. I have never seen on film or video a dance performance that didn’t seem a pale reflection of what I see live on stage. Even the great Balanchine, when asked to record some of his most famous choreographies, had to redo them slightly to make them camera-friendly. Even then, they don’t come close to seeing Apollo live, or The Prodigal Son, or Rubies. Dance has to be seen live, in three dimensions, palpable and present. 

And I have seen stage plays recorded for TV. Stage acting seems so artificial when replayed on tape. Stage acting is not naturalistic acting: It is projecting the meaning to the back rows. Seen a stage production on the screen makes you long for a cinematic version. But a great performance of a great play seen live will disabuse you of any notion that live theater is lesser than film. 

I have seen Tony Kushner’s Angels in America four times complete, first in the original Broadway production, then in the roadshow version, then is a locally produced performance by the late lamented Actors Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz., and finally in the filmed version with Al Pacino. As good as that last was — and it is worth seeing if you haven’t seen it on stage yet — it pales in comparison with the original. Indeed, the original is what finally persuaded me that live theater offers something nothing else can. It is live. You can sometimes feel the pulse of the actors on stage, their sweat, their muscles flexing like dancers’. 

I pity anyone who has only seen dinner theater or a mediocre student performance, thinking that is what theater is about. Seeing a great production is life changing. 

Yet, so much of our lives now is virtual, and we hardly mind the difference. We even watch movies on our cell phones, which only puts me in mind of when I was a boy, watching great movies on a 12-inch TV, in black and white, all fuzzy in picture and tinny in sound, and thinking I was “seeing” the film. In those pre-HD days, we used to say television was radio with pictures. You could take in a program while doing chores, as long as you could hear the dialog, you could follow the plot. Movies are meant to be seen, the visual details are meant to contribute the the experience. They cannot on a cellphone. We are back to square one. 


I remember visiting the Virginia Beach Marine Science Center aquarium and enjoying the otters playing behind a great picture window. A slew of schoolkids came in on a bus tour and they immediately swarmed — not to the window to watch the otters — but to the video display showing live footage from the very tank they could look at in front of them. They chose, to a child, to look at the video instead. It was seriously depressing. 

And it is what I think of when I reopen my worn copy of Janson and look at the reproduction of the Disembarkation of Marie De Medici at Marseilles by Peter Paul Rubens, tiny on the page, and think of the room in which it sits at the Louvre. The painting is more than 12 feet tall and surrounded by 23 other giant paintings in a room dedicated to the series. The effect is quite overwhelming. On the page, it is a confused clump of busy mythology; on the wall, it will blow you away. 

I feel sorry of any poor student taking an art history class who thinks they have encountered the world’s great art, when all they have seen is ghosts of the living beings. 

Click on any image to enlarge

 

This comes more than 50 years late, but I need to thank Lauren Goldstein. Laurie was my high school girlfriend and she gave me one of the most important gifts of my life.


Sometimes it takes a while for a gift to become clear. Even to know that it was a gift. Its impact can accumulate over an entire life. I am now 71 and for the past 50 years music has been central to my existence. As Nietzsche once said, “Life without music would be a mistake.” And Laurie gave me the music and my life has not been a mistake. 

There was almost no music in my house when I was growing up. The most we heard was probably watching the Perry Como show on TV. For most of my childhood, there was no phonograph, no guitar, no sheet music. Eventually, there was a Lowery organ and my mother would sometimes play by ear. She was quite talented, but only sat down at the keyboard maybe once a year, maybe once every two years. 

My brother and I took lessons briefly, but we didn’t practice and, frankly, it seemed like homework. The major cultural influence in our house was television. It was that bleak. 

But Laurie changed all that. She was a musician. And not just a girl playing glockenspiel in the marching band: She was a bassoonist taking lessons from one of the world’s great bassoonists. She also played piano with grace and style. 

I, of course, was just a pimply-faced kid, a high school junior when we started dating. For the next year and a half, until we grew apart as we went off to different colleges, it was a graduate course in music for me. 

Loren Glickman

Laurie was studying with Loren Glickman, the bassoonist who plays the high-pitched, incredibly difficult solo on the famous recording of The Rite of Spring conducted by Stravinsky himself. He also plays the beautiful bassoon part in Stravinsky’s recording of his Octet for Winds. Laurie and I went to several concerts to hear him perform. I still remember his Mozart concerto distinctly — he played with more rubato and freedom than is usual. It was a delight. It wasn’t just a collection of tunes, but rather, it had meaning. 

But it wasn’t only Glickman. We went to many concerts together, especially the New School concerts given by violinist Alexander Schneider and his pick-up ensemble. I can still name many of those tremendous musicians who played with him: Leonard Arner, Charlie Russo, Robert Nagel. They all went on to become the core of New York’s Mostly Mozart series. Those New School concert tickets were $3. We could afford them. And on Christmas Eve, we went to Carnegie Hall for Schneider’s annual concert. It was a rich education for the ear. Family complained I wasn’t spending that time with relatives, but I certainly felt closer to the music than I did to the clan. 

Alexander Schneider

Schneider was an especially intense musician, he would sit in his concertmaster’s chair to lead the orchestra and wrap his right leg around the chair leg like a snake on a caduceus, as if to anchor himself as he leaned forcefully into the music. As the twig is bent, they say, so inclines the tree, and this early exposure to the Schneider brand of music has informed my entire subsequent life in listening. There was a take-no-prisoners attitude to Schneider’s playing that told me music was not merely entertainment, but truly serious business. 

He was most famous as a member of the Budapest String Quartet, but I knew him in New York leading concerts and playing his fiddle. He made precious few recordings that are still available, but the best is a series he made with his own group, the Schneider Quartet, of the Haydn quartets. It was supposed to be all of them, but money ran out and they managed to record 53 of the more than 80 quartets Haydn wrote. The set is still a monument, not only to Haydn, but to quartet playing. I would not be without this set, which is still available, nearly 70 years after they were recorded, now on CD. 

Laurie and I would sit on her couch at home and make out, high-school style in that gentler age, with Stravinsky playing on the phonograph, or La Mer or Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata. Once, her uncle Bucky came over and Laurie accompanied him on piano as he played a Beethoven violin sonata on his Geige — admittedly a squeaky and sour version as only a heedlessly self-confident amateur could manage. 

As I thank Laurie for this gift of music, I need to express my gratitude also to her mother, Esther, who nurtured my nascent interest. She seemed to see something in me that no one else did and encouraged me to follow art and culture. She also gave me a huge pile of old 78 rpm records from her own youth. The day of the 78 was quite past, but all record players still had a setting to play them. 

Among those recordings are some that are still the ur-performances for me: Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto with the Chicago Symphony and Frederick Stock; William Kincaid and the Philadelphia Orchestra playing the Telemann Suite in A-minor for flute and orchestra; Alice Ehlers on harpsichord playing Bach; Rafael Puyana playing the De Falla Harpsichord Concerto. Leo Slezak singing Schubert’s Erlkönig, Ungeduld and Heidenröslein. I played them over and over. There must have been 50 discs. Among them, I first heard Brahms’ Second, Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth (the latter with Stokowski and Philadelphia), Bach’s Brandenburgs, and Weinberger’s Schwanda: Polka and Fugue. It was an eclectic mix. 

It was a revelation to see an entire family for whom art, music, literature were not only central, but a vivifying force in life. For whom culture created meaning. 

So, when I went off to college, I may have majored in English, but I minored in music, learned to read scores and harmonically analyze them, studied (rather pathetically) piano and listened to every recording I could get my hands on, spending all my spare cash on Nonesuch, Turnabout, Vox, Seraphim and Crossroads LPs — they were the cheap labels. 

Later in life, many of the concerts I went to were among the most signal events for me, deepening my psyche and opening new worlds of emotional response. Along with that came opera and ballet, theater and film, these were the “lively arts,” and gave me a living. I eventually became a classical music critic for a big-city daily newspaper. 

Laurie Goldstein and me, prom 1965

As for Laurie, when she graduated high school, she went on to study with Bernard Garfield, the long-time first-chair bassoonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She became a respected professional and played for and recorded with composers as widely different as PDQ Bach and Philip Glass. 

If it had not been for Laurie, I don’t know if I would have been introduced to classical music. I’m sure I was bound to enter a life of art and intellect somehow, but for me, music is the heart of it all. I love visual art and literature, but if I had to lose a sense, my hearing would be my last choice. I cannot imagine life without the Beethoven quartets, the symphonies of Haydn, the operas of Mozart. Or the music of Schoenberg, Bartok, Shostakovich or Barber or Glass. Or Ellington or Coltrane, or the Beatles. Music fills my insides and makes me more human. 

Thank you, Laurie. Thank you. 

Yo-Yo Ma is god. I don’t know anyone with an informed opinion who would disagree with the assessment, even atheists. There are some excellent cellists out there today, and who I would give good money to hear, but Yo-Yo is in a class by himself.

But even a god has his gods, and Yo-Yo Ma has now recorded the words of his own god three times; the first in 1983, when he was 28, and said himself at the time that he was too young; the second in 1998, when he was 43; and finally (he says) in a new version released this week, when he is 63. That music is Johann Sebastian Bach’s, six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, which are the words god might speak to you in a still small voice inside your soul. 

I have spent the past four days listening to his performances, and have gone through the newest set three times, and individual pieces more than that. No current cellist has such a personal take on the music as Yo-Yo Ma.

(I’m going to continue with his full name. The Associated Press stylebook says that on second reference, I should just call him “Ma,” but that seems too perfunctory; “Mr. Ma,” as The New York Times would use it, sounds too much like a Bond villain, and “Yo-Yo” is out of the question, being too familiar — would a Christian call Jehovah “Joe?”)

There is something that sometimes happens with a master artist, who has so mastered his craft, that he feels free to take his work into new and personal spaces. Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto in 1980 with the Berlin Phil and Herbert von Karajan, when she was 17; and again in 2002 with the New York Phil and Kurt Masur, when she was nearly 40. The first is a nearly pitch-perfect mainstream performance — the standard recording for anyone — and has seldom been done as well, not to say bettered. The second is so idiosyncratic that it almost seems like a different concerto. The second is deeply personal.

So, when Yo-Yo Ma made his first attempt at the Bach Unaccompanieds (I don’t mind using the nickname for the music) he seemed to want to make sure he dotted all the eyes and crossed all the tees. It is a note-perfect recording that would be a fine set for anyone who only wanted or needed one, but to me, it is oddly unsatisfying. It lacks personality. What can I say? He was young. 

I have heard Yo-Yo Ma play all six live in concert twice, and both times, the concert is deeply remembered as one of the pinnacles of my concert-going career. Live, Yo-Yo Ma earns his godhead. No one I have ever heard has come close to the depth and interiority of his interpretations. The audience sat rapt for two-and-a-half hours hearing the music, not as entertainment, but as their very personal insides brought out to see and hear. 

I have heard him live on other occasions where he would play one of the Bach Suites as an encore. Each time, they brought the house to a reverent stand-still.

Alex Ross — former music critic for The New Yorker — wrote this about a 2017 performance by Yo-Yo Ma of all six Suites at the Hollywood Bowl — a venue not known for the attention spans of its patrons: “Almost no one made a sound. Almost no one moved. When a large audience is listening intently, it creates an atmosphere that cannot be measured or recorded, only remembered. Here, it was as if music had stilled the world … he was following his natural musical rhythms, to the point that it felt less like a performance than like an interior monologue … [The audience] was under the spell of a solitary searcher in the dark.”

That is the Yo-Yo Ma I know from hearing him in person. 

(An aside: Yo-Yo Ma in person and on recording are very different. This happens sometimes. In the studio, he seems to want to be note-perfect and thought-out. His studio recordings are models of propriety and elegance, but they lack the electric presence and risk-taking of his live performances. I remember hearing him play the Dvorak concerto in Phoenix in the 1990s, and the performance nearly destroyed me, it was so deeply emotional. His studio recording is tremendous, but cannot bring me to the same tears. Yo-Yo Ma is not alone in this. For years I thought of conductor Bernard Haitink as a mere Kappelmeister, plodding along competently. I had only heard recordings. But when I heard him do the Eroica with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, he blew me away with the most powerful Eroica I ever heard live. And Kurt Masur had something of the same reputation. On CD, his performances can be competent but routine. But I heard him live with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in the Verklaerte Nacht and Beethoven’s Eighth that were soul-searing. Sometimes the recording is a miserable liar.)

But what about this new recording. It is not the one for a beginner: It is too idiosyncratic. But for anyone familiar with the music, the latest version provides almost constant new insight into the music — and not only into the music, but into human existence; into the cosmos. 

One aspect of the recording merits special mention: its engineering. One reviewer said it sounds as if we are hearing the music from inside the cello. There is a presence to the sound that is closer to having the performance in the room, live with you, than any recording I have come across before. You can feel the buzz of the low notes in your very sternum. It is body-feel as well as ear-sound. 

There are details to mention. In the Prelude of the first suite, about two-thirds of the way through, the music climbs the scale up to a fermata — a held note — which is usually played as the top of a crescendo. It is the climax of the movement. Here, Yo-Yo Ma gives us instead a diminuendo, so the final held note is a hush. In the Courente of the second suite, he takes off like a house on fire, twice the speed I’m used to. He brings a sense of spontaneity to his performance that can only come from having played the music since he was four years old (yes, he began, taught by his father, from before he even began school). 

No music I know is more interior than these suites, and the older Yo-Yo Ma gets, the more Innigkeit his performance. 

His second two sets each has a gimmick. In 1989, it was a series of six short videos made in collaboration with six different film directors and various other collaborators. In some, the suites are not even heard in their entirety. (The CD release is complete, however). 

In this new set, Yo-Yo Ma makes the case for understanding the six suites as a single artistic entity, a kind of through-composed drama, over two-and-a-half hours. There’s playfulness in the first suite, grief in the second, celebration in the third, contemplation in the fourth, the weight of the world in the fifth, and in the sixth, written in a higher tessitura (originally for a smaller, five-string instrument) what can only be called transcendence. Over those two-and-a-half hours, we are given not a potpourri or melange, but a psychic and emotional journey. 

The crux of this journey is the Sarabande of the fifth suite. Only 20 bars long, it is the bearer of all the weight, the moment the tenor of the music changes. Cellist Paul Tortelier called it “an extension of silence.” Yo-Yo Ma played this movement on September 11, 2002 at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack. 

After its depths, everything to come is a dawning of light. That Sarabande is a single line of melody, arpeggiated  and coming to rest after every phrase in a note dropped deep into a well of sadness. It is a movement that requires the uttermost from a musician. It is so simple that underplaying it will let all the power out of it, but overplaying it can sound mawkish. Yo-Yo Ma invests it with such mournful simplicity, varying his tempo by minute amounts, hardly measurable, but carrying all the expressivity. I dare you to hear this movement without weighing your life in the balance and weeping. 

His only competition for this is the man who resurrected the suites after finding a copy in a junk shop in Barcelona in 1890. Pablo Casals made the suites the core of cello repertoire; they had been before that considered mere practice etudes. Casals recorded all six between 1936 and 1939 and set the mark rather high, expressively. For me, they have never been bested, not even by Yo-Yo Ma. They are old, scratchy recordings and allowances have to be made, not only for the engineering shortcomings, but also for Casals’ technique; it was the best, even brilliant for its time, but decades of cellists working out fingerings and bowings have made later performances more natural under the fingers. But for profundity and emotion, Casals has never been bested.

Yo-Yo Ma, live, plays them in such a way that they break any separation between musician and audience. The thoughts expressed in the music are the not so much conveyed to the listener as momently co-experienced by performer and audience. It is something they discover deep in themselves, and for the moment, there is no difference between audience, cellist and Bach himself. They are at one.

When Casals plays, however, it is as if he is playing for God alone. He is alone in the room with the paraclete, discussing the Cosmos. 

Surely no real music lover can live with only one set of performances. I have Casals, all three Yo-Yo Mas, Pierre Fournier, Anner Bylsma, Janos Starker, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Jaap ter Linden. There are also many performances on YouTube, including a video of Yo-Yo Ma playing all six at the Proms in London in 2015 (link here). 

For those for whom one version is sufficient, I recommend Yo-Yo Ma’s second set. They are deep but not idiosyncratic. If you want to dive deeper, get Casals (remastered by Ward Marston on Naxos) and Yo-Yo Ma’s newest set. You cannot go wrong with Fournier or Rostropovich. There are almost no bad recordings. 

But excuse me now, I’m going back into my fourth listening to the new set. I don’t think it is possible to get tired of this music. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, to do so would be to tire of life. 

My brother-in-law likes to listen to something he calls “ugly music.”

This is music with angles, asymmetries and dissonance. I first established my bona fides with him by recognizing a piece of music by its very first note, although it took at least a full second — maybe a second and a half — for the name to gather on my vocal chords and make the passage out past my teeth: “Bartok’s fifth quartet.” I think I shocked him.

Of course, I knew the piece well. For I, too, listen to and enjoy ugly music. And I own and read the score to the Bartok Fifth. Also to many other pieces of music that might be considered by fans of more consonant sounds as “ugly.”

But, I am a firm believer in the observation made by Tom Robbins in his novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, that “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.”

The “pretty” is conventional; it is bland. It requires no thought or consideration: It just lies there, accepted with lip service paid, but with little active engagement. It is a postcard sunset, a Montovani recording, a symmetrical-faced actress indistinguishable from other symmetrical-faced actresses.

But beauty is an active engagement. You have to actually look or hear. You have to notice. It takes effort on your part. Pretty soothes you into complaisance, beauty wakes you up.

There is a French concept, the jolie-laide, or beautiful ugly. It is most often applied to women whose features are not traditionally good looking, but in concert add up to striking beauty and attractiveness. Think of Cate Blanchett, with that slash of a mouth, squinty eyes and broad nose. Each odd by itself. Blanchett is no cornfed cheerleader. But together the features make up a stunning beauty.

The French have almost a corner on the jolie-laide. Consider Jeanne Moreau. Or Isabelle Huppert. Or Charlotte Gainsbourg. It was her father, Serge Gainsbourg (say “gaze-boor”) who wrote a song about the “Laide jolie laide.” He was no icon of handsomeness himself, although I think many found him irresistibly attractive.

But, I’m not talking simply about feminine pulchritude or masculine formonsutude, but about esthetic beauty, about art.

Consider one of the ugliest paintings ever made, and how unbearably beautiful it is. I’m talking of Matthias Grunewald’s crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France. The Christ is writhing in pain; his skin is brown and gray, covered in sores; his hands are twisted, his head hung low and grimacing, his ribcage pulled up from his sagging gut, stretching him out, racked; his feet twisted and distorted. Even the cross bows downward from the weight, not just of the body, but of the suffering.

Around him are the mourners, also pulled and distorted, all crying and gnashing their teeth. The landscape behind is dark and barren. There is not a single note of grace in the frame, not a single square centimeter of prettiness. Yet, the painting is unutterably moving. You can hardly bear looking at it, yet, seeing it makes you recognize your own humanity in a profoundly deeper way.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that only ugliness can be beautiful, but rather, making the case that it can be.

Like that ugly music. Brother-in-law listens to Schoenberg with pleasure. One of the first pieces that turned him on to classical music was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge — surely one of the hardest pieces to listen to in all the repertoire, but also one of the most sublime.

And it’s not just classical music. He listens to jazz, also, with an ear for the more abstruse and difficult bop. Or free jazz. Let’s face it, Cecil Taylor is not a cocktail lounge pianist. Or Thelonius Monk. That is music proud of its own awkwardness, and uses it for expressive purpose.

One might compare Son House with Montovani. The one is pretty, the other is raw, ugly, powerful. House gets to the gut with the sharpness of a surgeon’s blade. Montovani, no matter how glossy and smooth, is a soporific.

Other ugly music: Tom Waits, grating in voice and peculiar in instrumentation, yet, more satisfying than, say, John Denver. I know, that’s not fair. Sorry. But you know what I mean.

I have a long history with ugly music of all kinds. Appalachia is weighted with ugly music that is beautiful. Consider those mountain Baptist family choirs, singing vibrato-less and consistently just a hair flat, making the most mournful keening. Or the scratchy mountain fiddling of Emmett Lundy. I treasure his few recordings.

Many years ago, I had an LP of field recordings of amateur Spanish brass bands playing for religious festivals, marching down village streets. Sour, scratchy, blaring, they were so intensely beautiful in their ugly way, I came to love them. Alas, the LP is long gone and I’ve never found a digital replacement.

When I was a teacher of photography, one assignment I gave my students was to make a bad photograph. I required that it not be a technical botch, but a bad photograph from conception in the viewfinder. What my students — or at least my good students — discovered, and I already knew, was that if you are paying attention to what you are doing, it is very, very difficult to make a bad photo, because the fact of your attention rules out anything not paid attention to — i.e., the ugly.

It is often said that beauty lies in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder, but I think this saying is basically misunderstood. It is taken to mean something like “To each his own,” or “de gustibus non desputandum est,” but I take it to mean quite differently, and more to the point, that beauty is found in the engagement of mind and senses with the object of perception. In other words, when you pay attention with the focus of someone defusing a bomb, you discover layers of depth and meaning — and therefore beauty — that you might not have suspected. And so, the stains on a concrete sidewalk, layered with fallen leaves and maybe a gum wrapper, will, when observed attentively and with the full engagement of your sensibility, may very well strike you as heartbreakingly beautiful.

This is not just something for pointy-headed esthetes. I have known a farmer who can squeeze a handful of spring soil in his hand and find its loamy odor beautiful enough to bring tears to his eyes. For most of us, it’s just dirt. But to someone who attends to it, it is the essence of existence.

It is the engagement that creates beauty, not the beauty that creates engagement.

And so, when you listen to the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with this sort of eager absorption, you discover a beauty in it that those listening passively, perhaps with the radio on while doing their taxes, can never enjoy, hearing instead only a jumble of disconnected noise. It is not disconnected; it is not noise. It is a carefully created esthetic whole and a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

When I was in high school in New Jersey, I spent as much time as I could in Manhattan, visiting galleries, museums, bookstores and concert halls. And I came to love the Museum of Modern Art. I’d get out of the elevator on the gallery floor and to my right would be Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Pavel Tchelitchew’s Hide and Seek (a painting that primarily appeals to an adolescent, which I was at the time), and beyond those, the the farthest gallery was Picasso’s Guernica, 25-feet wide and 11-feet high.

It is a painting of utter ugliness, not only in subject matter (the Nazi bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in 1937) but also in the angular, distorted and abstracted shapes that make up its design. If one has a shred of humanity, the painting cannot be seen without a welling up in your gorge. It is the prime example in the 20th century of a political painting that is actually an esthetic success. It is Picasso’s shay-doov, and the one piece of art, if we had to choose a single one to represent that century, would be the consensus choice.

It is also profoundly beautiful. While I am pleased that the painting has finally been returned to a democratic Spain, I mourn its absence from New York, from my life. I treasured its palpable presence and its emotional power.

The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty, never.