I want to correct an injustice. Fifty years ago, back when I knew everything (as most of us do in our 20s), I dismissed symphony conductor Eugene Ormandy as a lightweight. He wasn’t one of the “big boys.” Like many others back then, an assumption was made that if you didn’t wow us with some personal vision of a work, it was just bland candy. All those recordings with the Mormon Pumpernickel Choir didn’t help.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Ormandy, was rich and round, with silky string tones and blended winds. But unlike, say, Leonard Bernstein, who led the technically scruffier New York Philharmonic, there didn’t seem to be any distinct personality behind their music making.
I was hardly alone back then. In 1967, Harold Schonberg wrote, “There was a singular reluctance in musical circles to admit him into the ranks of great conductors.” He was thought superficial; Toscanini dismissed him as “an ideal conductor of Johann Strauss.” In an era of strong podium personalities, Ormandy seemed merely worksmanlike.
Time has taught some of us otherwise.
Orchestra conducting has gone through several major fashion changes over the past century or so. After the First World War, the field was dominated by dominating baton wielders. The Furtwanglers, Mengelbergs, Weingartners and, of course, Toscanini. Each had a personal style, and that style was instantly recognizable: Furtwangler’s waywardness, Mengelberg’s rubato, Toscanini’s rhythmic incisiveness. Oh, and there was Stokowski — glamor on the podium personified, married to Gloria Vanderbilt and originator of the famous “Philadelphia sound.”
After the Second World War, there arose another generation of superstar conductors but with the advantage of high-fidelity recording. This time, it was Bernstein, Karajan and Mravinsky. Bernstein brought passion; Karajan brought a smoothness, almost like pouring Karo syrup over everything. Mravinsky had his own special intensity. Someone once said of Mravinsky that he would be the perfect man to conduct “the end of the world.”
There were many others, of course. George Szell made perfection a fetish; Fritz Reiner drove his musicians hard and put them up wet; Erich Leinsdorf kept Boston neat and clean. Several pre-war conductors hit their stride in recordings after the war: Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Fans bought their recordings based on the names of the bandleaders.
And there was Ormandy, inheritor of the Philadelphia Sound from Stokie, and, it seemed to us then, a caretaker baton overseeing a first-rate orchestra. Yet, he kept it a first-rate orchestra for all of his 44 years at the helm. That didn’t happen because Ormandy was a second-rate conductor.
And orchestra fashions continued to change. The increasing power of musicians’ unions made it impossible for a conductor to command the orchestra like a dictator. There was negotiation instead of fiat. The next generation of conductors featured a high proportion of time-beaters, who could keep the music moving along, but without much in the way of anything new to say. These were the Kapellmeisters.
Christian Thielemann has define this: ”a Kapellmeister now describes a pale, meek figure beating time. A policeman on duty at the podium directing the musical traffic, no more.”
To be fair, this has always described the vast majority of orchestra leaders, in provincial and civic orchestras and opera houses. But some high-profile conductors have won praise for their supposedly “non-interventionist” approach to music-making. Just the notes, ma’am.
More recently, something more sinister has crept in. Under the heading of “historically informed performance practice,” many conductors now use theory to guide their musicmaking, rather than their ears. Among the HIPP conductors, what is important is the “conception” of the music. Fast tempi, barline-beats, clipped phrasing, vibratoless strings, motoric rhythms. They profess to be following the composers’ intentions, so we might hear “how it sounded when the composer first heard it.” All well and good, if you are interested in a museum exhibit rather than music. In fact, we cannot know what it sounded like 200 years ago and the reconstruction seems to have more to do with a generation of conductors who grew up with rock and roll.
And that esthetic has infected even mainstream conductors, who now play with smaller orchestras in quicker tempi and leaner sound. The vaunted “Philadelphia Sound” now seems a lumbering dinosaur.
Yet, if you listen without prejudice, Philadelphia under Ormandy is not only beautiful to the ear, it feels as if they all understand the music without having to justify it in manifestos. They understood what the music was saying.
This is something that divides most current musicians from their forebears. The older conductors and their orchestras knew the music was about something, that it was meant to express something — tell a story, make a metaphor for existence, elevate our spirits. But Igor Stravinsky claimed “Music can express nothing.” And for Toscanini, Beethoven’s Eroica was not about heroism. “For me it is just Allegro con brio.” An arrangement of notes.
But for the composers, especially of the 19th century, music was meant to express something. And it was assumed to be the conductor’s job to shape the music in such a way as to make the meaning clear.
Certainly, some conductors made their own intensions clearer than the composer’s. The virtue I now recognize in Ormandy is that he absorbed the meaning of the music and got his musicians to express it. Not to glorify Ormandy and not to play a mere arrangement of notes.
It first conked me side the head when I came across his Sony recording of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies, the big ones. They were emotional and direct without being wrought or exaggerated. They flowed with a naturalness that made everything seem inevitable. It was neither metronomic nor taffy-pulled. It breathed.
If you believe Tchaikovsky’s music has something to say to us (rather than merely entertain us), then coming to Ormandy’s Tchaikovsky again after 50 years will be a revelation. Its directness and naturalness are not the result of Ormandy’s mediocrity, but of a mastery that doesn’t flaunt itself.
I have since listened to piles of old Ormandy recordings. Many of them are now reissued in cheap box sets. And one comes to recognize that his Shostakovich Fourth Symphony is a reference recording, never been done better. His Sibelius Seventh is one of the best ever. Ormandy and Philadelphia made the world-premiere recording of the Deryck Cooke completion of Mahler’s 10th Symphony.
One recording alone should prove Ormandy’s virtues. The Rimsky-Korsakoff Capriccio Espagnol has the idiom perfect and the virtuoso soloists give it a fizz and panache that make you stand up and hoot. It has never been done better.
No, he didn’t do everything equally well. His specialty was the 19th and early 20th centuries. His Bach is vestigial and his Handel is pretty well confined to a holiday performance of Messiah with the gargantuan Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But when you want Rachmaninoff done the way he’s supposed to go, or Tchaikovsky, or Sibelius, or Debussy, Ormandy is my go-to guy.
I started to write about philosophy, but realized I really wanted to talk about pears. Crisp, delicious succulent pears, the kind with small brown spots on the skin and a roly-poly bottom. Given a choice between reading Hegel (insert dry cough here) and slicing wedges off a Bartlett pear, the fruit wins hands down every time.
I have been thinking about this because of philosophy. The intellectual world seems divided irrevocably between art and philosophy — image and word. One side deals with categories of thought, the other side deals with hubcaps, clouds, tight shoes and the sound of twigs snapping underfoot, to say nothing of pastrami sandwiches and corduroy trousers.
I’m sorry if I value the one vastly over the other. I am a Dichter not a Denker. I have — this is my ideological burden — a congenital mistrust of language, particularly abstract language and language of categories. The world is too multifarious, indeed, infinite, and language by nature and requirement, simplifies and schematizes, ultimately to the point that language and reality split paths and go in separate directions. When one relies too much on language, one misses the reality.
The tragedy is, that language is all we have. We are stuck with it. We can try to write better, more clearly, use evocative metaphor when declarative words fail, use imagery rather than abstractions, and do our best — our absolute best — to avoid thinking categorically, and attempt to see freshly, with eye and mind unsullied by the words that have preceded us. It’s hard, but it is essential. To begin with the categories, and to attempt to wedge our experience into them, is to mangle and to mutilate the reality.
The matter is only made worse by the impenetrable fustian written by so many philosophers — and especially the recent crop of Postmodern and Poststructuralist explainers.
Take Hegel — please. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1839) is just the kind of philosopher who thinks thoughtful thoughts and writes incomprehensible prose.
“Knowledge of the Idea of the absolute ethical order depends entirely on the establishment of perfect adequacy between intuition and concept, because the Idea itself is nothing other than the identity of the two. But if this identity is to be actually known, it must be thought as a made adequacy.”
“A made adequacy?” That’s from his System of Ethical Life (1803-4). I’m sure if you spent an hour or two going over it again and again, you might be able to parse something out of it. But, jeez. It’s the kind of prose you get from academia all over the place:
“As histories of excluded bodies, the bodies that made national Englishness possible, this counterpastoral challenged the politics of visibility that made the very modern English models of nature, society, and the individual visible through the invisibility of bodies that did not matter.”
That’s from Kathleen Biddick’s The Shock of Medievalism (1998). She is also the author of The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History.
In such writing, individual abstract words are made to stand in as shorthand for long complex ideas, not always adequately explained. And the words are then categories, and the categories allow blanket statements that cover the world like Sherwin-Williams paint.
The basic problem is that words are always about words. When Plato talks about “the Good,” he is talking about how we define the word, “good.” Plato is about language. The linguistic grammar and language has its own rules, its own logic, and they soon supersede what the philosophers call “the case.”
There is a book out there now titled Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller. And taxonomists now largely agree that what we used to call the class of animals Pisces (fish), are really a bunch of increasingly unrelated classes or clades, in fact at least 12 of them, not counting subclasses. For example, a salmon is more closely related to a camel than to a hagfish.
But, back in the 18th century, both whales and sea urchins were also classified as “fish.” That we distinguish them separately now has made no difference to either whales or urchins, but only to dictionaries. That a whale is not a fish but a mammal is a shift in language, not biology. Fish still swim in the sea, even if we hesitate to call them fish.
And in the same way, the parsing of philosophers is mostly a shift of wordplay. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made this the central issue of his later work.
Meanwhile, as the philosophers mince language in their mental blenders, Gloucester fishermen keep pulling fish out of the oceans. When it comes to trust, I take the fishermen over the philosophers. The world is filled with sensible, seeable, feelable, hearable things. Things that give us pleasure and made the world we find ourselves cast into, like poached salmon.
Our lives are filled with the things of this world and their shapes, colors, sounds, textures, smells and tastes. And so is our art, which makes images, poems, dances, music and theater from those shapes, colors, sounds, etc., is a direct connection with the things of this world — the “case” as it were.
And I think of pears in art — those buttery layers of paint by Paul Cezanne — and the other still life art that singles out this bit or that of the physical presences of the world and shows them to us so we may notice them and appreciate them.
Most of our art tends to be divided between people and things — “things” being mostly landscapes and still life. In our art, we privilege people over things and that is only fitting. I’m sure squirrels are most interested in other squirrels, too.
But the non-human and non-living things things are so much a part of our lives, and a certain percentage of our art has been made about things. Like pears.
I step outside into the sun and I hear distant traffic, the breeze hissing in the tree leaves, and, from several blocks away, the intermittent rattle of a chainsaw. In the morning, there are birds — mockingbirds and chickadees. There is the feel of the air and the sun on my skin. There is the smell of the grass, new mown, or maybe the oily resonance of diesel fumes. I stand and feel the temperature. I live in the welter of the world.
And so, I am in love with the things of this world. I am mad for them to be in contact with me, to absorb them, to notice and appreciate them. To pay attention. To be alive.
And I slice a pear. The insides are both pulpy and wet; the skin keeps the flesh from drying out. The stem at the top curves off. The nub at the bottom shows where the white flower had been.
I take pears instead of apples here, because apples have too many words stuck to them, making them gummy with ideas, from Eve’s fruit of temptation to the computer on which I am writing these words.
But a pear can be seen with less baggage. It bruises more easily than an apple, yet its pulp is firmer, stiffer, unless overripe, when it can go mushy. Nor is it as sweet as an apple, although we must point out that there are hundreds of different varieties of apple and that a red delicious is sweeter than a granny smith. (Yet the granny smith makes a better pie).
There are varieties of pear, also, and they are perhaps more distinct than the apples. The lanky brown Bosc, the squat green Anjou, the nearly round Le Conte, the very sweet Seckel. In Japan, there is the ruddy, round Kosui, or russet apple pear. The Comice is great with ripe cheese. Yellow Huffcap for making perry — a cider made from pears.
I believe the central fact of existence is variety, in infinite forms, which in contrast makes the categories of philosophers seem puerile and simplistic. And dry. Pears have juice. Derrida, none.
These are smart people. I don’t begrudge them that. And perhaps we need people thinking such thoughts. But if we leave these words to the philosophers, I will have more time for myself with all the plants, rocks, fruit, animals, clouds, stars, cheeses and oceans.
Ultimately, to experience things is more important — more rewarding — than explaining them.
When it comes time to leave this planet and join oblivion, in those last moments left to my life, mostly, I will be thinking about the people I have loved and who have loved me. But beyond that, will I be thinking about Hegel or will I be remembering pears? My money is on the palpable. There is love there, too.
From the last half of the Eighteenth Century through the last quarter of the Nineteenth, an idea permeated popular and intellectual culture and showed itself in literature, art and music, although no one could quite agree on its definition. Like wit in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which also defied simple definition, the sublime was something no one couldn’t quite pin down, but like Justice Potter Stewart said, you knew it when you saw it.
The Sublime features representations of vast spaces, horrifying disasters and universal chaos. Anything dark, scary, awe inspiring or supernatural.
“Alpine Avalanche,” Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1803
Of course, the idea isn’t limited to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. It has been around as long as there has been art and literature. There is The Sublime in the epic of Gilgamesh and it is all over the Bible.
There had always been a subspecies of The Sublime in art. It is in Shakespeare, in Titian, in Rubens. It runs throughout John Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially in those parts describing Satan and his acts.
But The Sublime steps into the spotlight with the advent of Romanticism. It is in the poetry of Byron, the novels of Victor Hugo, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It is behind the fad for Gothic novels and the nature poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
The first clear enunciation of The Sublime in literature was set down in the First Century by an anonymous author, usually called Longinus. His treatise, usually called On the Sublime, is primarily a guidebook to rhetoric, with all the usual tropes, but he also discusses how great writing — as opposed to the merely good — overwhelms us, and it is great subjects that lend themselves to great writing.
In the climactic 35th chapter, he writes: “What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.
“Vesuvius Erupting,” Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1877
“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”
What happened between the century of Voltaire and that of Shelley is the cultural shift from Neo-classicism to Romanticism. It is a shift from a concern for society and relations of humans to humans to a different frame of reference — to the relation of the individual to the cosmos.
Relations between people are between roughly equal, similar size entities; relations with the cosmos pit the infinitesimal human being against the infinite. There is no satisfactory reaction but awe, terror, and admiration: That is The Sublime.
“The Deluge” William Westall, 1848
Coleridge describes a Sublime experience in his 1818 lecture on “European Literature” by recalling: “My whole being expands into the infinite; earth and air, nature and art, all swell up into eternity, and the only sensible expression left is, ‘that I am nothing!’ which concludes that his ultimate realization of The Sublime was of his own human insignificance.”
In 1757, a young Edmund Burke wrote an influential treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He wrote: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
He sorted The Sublime into seven constituents: darkness; obscurity; deprivation; vastness; magnificence; loudness; and suddenness. When used in art or literature, The Sublime reminds us of things we find frightening in the world, but by being framed in art, lets us contemplate it in safety, and thus we find pleasure in it.
“Chamounix, Mont Blanc and the Arve Valley” JMW Turner 1803
The next generation sought out The Sublime in reality as well as in literature. When Mary and Percy Shelley visited the valley of the Arve River in the Alps, they noted in their History of a Six Weeks Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: “Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with cloud; its base, furrowed with dreadful gaps, was seen above. Pinnacles of snow intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc, shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew — I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aerial summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of ecstatic wonder, not unallied to madness.”
Shelley transformed this into his poem, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni:
In her 1794 gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe has her heroine face the Alps:
“They quitted their carriages and began to ascend the Alps. And here such scenes of Sublimity opened upon them as no colors of language must dare to paint … Emily seemed to have arisen in another world, and to have left every trifling thought, every trifling sentiment, in that below: those only of grandeur and sublimity now dilated her mind and elevated the affections of her heart.”
“Hannibal Crossing the Alps in Snowstorm” JMW Turner 1812
And Byron is nothing without The Sublime. He takes his doomed hero to the Jungfrau in Manfred and used it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage over and over, as in the lines, “Roll on thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!”
In Canto 3 of Childe Harold, he takes his hero to the Alps:
Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (1798) is all about The Sublime and its terror — and ultimately, its beauty.
Its hero, aboard a death ship is surrounded by a sea of monsters: “The very deep did rot: O Christ!/ That ever this should be!/ Yea slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon a slimy sea.” But our mariner has a transformation of heart:
Certain artists and painters became transfixed by The Sublime. First comes Joseph Wright of Derby (he is always referred to this way, apparently to distinguish him from other Joseph Wrights, including an American artist of the same time, who designed the Liberty Hat penny).
In many of the English Wright’s paintings, a bright light glows in the darkness. He painted multiple canvasses of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the 1770s.
“Vesuvius in Eruption, With a View of the Bay of Naples,” Joseph Wright of Derby, 1776
Although he didn’t have to travel that far. Many of his landscapes feature brooding moonlight scenes, or images of fire in the darkness, such as
“Cottage on Fire,” Joseph Wright of Derby 1786
This fascination with The Sublime is primarily a northern European thing. You find it in British art, in German art and Scandinavian art, but less so in Italian or Spanish (Goya excepted).
Germany produced Caspar David Friedrich, who specialized in images of the contemplation of vast nature.
The arctic inspired a good deal of Sublime art, as in Friederich’s Sea of Ice, with its barely noticeable shipwreck.
“Das Eismeer” Caspar David Friedrich, 1823
The ice of the arctic is where Mary Shelley had her Frankenstein creature float away on an ice raft to his death.
“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed in their conflict. The cold is excessive, and many of my unfortunate comrades have already found a grave amidst this scene of desolation.”
And the final words of the novel:
“He sprang from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”
Later in the century, American painter Frederick Edwin Church painted a dozen or so studies of icebergs.
“Floating Iceberg,” Frederick Edwin Church 1859
Church also painted volcanoes, such as Cotopaxi in Ecuador.
“Cotopaxi,” Frederick Edwin Church 1862
Church’s most famous painting, now at the National Gallery in Washington DC, is his Niagara, a nearly 8-foot across panorama of the falls. It was shown in New York in 1857, where visitors could pay 25 cents to view the painting in a darkened art gallery (for best effect). The painting went on a cross-Atlantic tour, shown the same way.
“Niagara,” Frederick Edwin Church 1857
Its effect was stunning for the time. Even a century later, writer David Harrington could say “Niagara is the American’s mythical Deluge which washes away the memory of an Old World so that man may live at home in a New World. The painting is an icon of psychic natural purgation and rebirth. Poetically a New World emerges as the waters of a flood subside. The rainbow, sign of the ‘God of Nature’s’ covenant with man, transfixes the beholder. … Niagara is a revelation of the cosmos to each and every man.”
The biblical reference is apposite. Much of the imagery of The Sublime in the 19th Century comes from the Bible. Painters loved to depict certain scenes from the Old Testament: the Deluge; the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Balshazzar’s Feast; Samson destroying the temple of the Philistines; the Plagues of Egypt — anything that would have delighted Cecil B. Demille.
In such paintings, you can see the difference between earlier ages and the rise of The Sublime. In Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the action centers on the people involved. Landscape is mere backdrop. But in the century and a half I’m writing about, the people shrink to insignificance and the landscape takes over, full of rocky climes, lightning bolts, hurtling boulders, spewing volcanoes and roiling stormclouds. You can almost make a stop-action movie, like watching a flower unfold in a nature film, showing the people getting smaller and smaller and the landscape becoming ever more menacing.
“Gordale Scar, Yorkshire,” James Ward 1812
It is clear that as you go later into the 19th Century, The Sublime verges all too often at the edge of kitsch. The sense of cosmic overload funnels into a kind of religious sentimentality. Where you draw the line, personally, depends very much on your willingness to accept the underlying metaphor of the vastness and impenetrability of the universe.
There are two British artists who straddle that line. John Martin and Joseph Mallord William Turner. Martin was very popular in the early years of the century, but is largely forgotten now. Turner was popular then and even more so today. Still, I have to admit a soft spot in my head for John Martin and his extravagance.
“Pandemonium,” John Martin 1841
I first learned of him and his large painting (now in the St. Louis Art Museum) called Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion. First painted in 1812, it exists in several forms, both in paint and as print. In it, the Persian prince, Sadak, must fulfill a quest for the legendary Waters of Oblivion, in order to save his kidnapped wife. It is based on one of the Tales of the Genii, by English author James Ridley and was a huge success when first exhibited.
Martin turned to printmaking to make his work available to a wider audience and published, in 1824, an enormously popular series of illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. (These were, in part, the inspiration for the later Gustave Dore to make his own series for the epic poem).
“The Bridge Over Chaos” from “Paradise Lost,” John Martin 1826
Biblical subjects became Martin’s bread and butter. The more grandiose the image, the more popular became his prints. They include The Fall of Babylon:
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
The Seventh Plague of Egypt:
And Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon:
And my favorite — The Great Day of His Wrath:
He ventured out of his biblical Fach for the historical:
“The Destruction of Pompeii,” John Martin 1822
And even the prehistorical — on of my favorite for its goofiness. It was the frontispiece illustration for Gideon Mantell’s book, The Wonders of Geology:
“The Country of the Iguanodon,” John Martin 1837
Martin’s appeal was to vastness and number. His Balshazzar’s Feast prompted Charles Lamb to deem it “vulgar and bombastic.”
“Balshazzar’s Feast,” John Martin 1821
In contrast, JMW Turner also painted one of the plagues of Egypt, and it has its share of grandiosity, but Turner’s shtick was mist and fog, indistinct outlines — and uncertain scholarship (It is titled the Fifth Plague, but actually illustrates the biblical Seventh Plague).
“The Fifth Plague of Egypt,” JMW Turner 1800
In 1840, Turner exhibited a painting called Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming On. It depicts an event from 1781 when the captain of the slave ship Zong threw overboard 132 of his captives when drinking water was running low. Since insurance would not cover the cost of slaves dying of natural causes, he drowned them instead, so he could collect. Turner seems to have added the typhoon for effect.
“Slave Ship,” JMW Turner 1840
The storm, the swirling air and sea, the lurid color and the loose brushwork all contribute to the sense of disaster. While the painting had an abolitionist intent, it is its forward-looking esthetics that appealed to critic John Ruskin. Turner is often seen as a precursor to the Impressionists. But while they tended to paint everyday scenes, Turner favored turmoil and disaster.
“Disaster at Sea,” JMW Turner 1835
The circular swirl was a trademark of the later Turner. In 1842, he had himself lashed to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm in order to paint Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the “Ariel” left Harwich. Yes, that was its full title when first exhibited.
“Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” JMW Turner 1842
He also did a snow storm in the Alps.
“Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm,” JMW Turner 1836
In the United States, The Sublime was a natural. The American West lent itself to large paintings of vast landscape, often in mist or early sunrise. An entire school of artists, usually called the Hudson River School, latched onto The Sublime, beginning with Thomas Cole.
“The Expulsion from Eden,” Thomas Cole 1828
Cole’s most famous protege was Frederic Edwin Church, whose paintings of South America brought the exotic landscape to the U.S.
“Rainy Season in the Tropics,” Frederic Edwin Church 1866
And Martin Johnson Heade verged on the surreal in many of his paintings.
“Approaching Storm — Beach Near Newport,” Martin Johnson Heade 1859
But it was the West that threw open the gates of heaven, with any number of painters, first among them, German-born Albert Bierstadt.
“Among the Sierra Nevada, California,” Albert Bierstadt 1858
Latterly among them was Thomas Moran, whose huge and colorful canvases persuaded Congress to create our first national parks.
“Shoshone Falls,” Thomas Moran 1900
These painters are the clear progenitors of the landscape photographs of Ansel Adams.
“Clearing Storm, Yosemite,” Ansel Adams 1944
But The Sublime had pretty well worked itself out by the end of the 19th Century. It was harder to believe in the awesome beauty of Providence after the First World War, to say nothing of the horrors that followed. Post-Traumatic Stress wasn’t quite the same thing. Still, The Sublime hung on in the paintings of Jackson Pollock, and especially Mark Rothko, whose mysterious canvases of hovering colors evoke the same sort of awe among those willing to be seduced by them.
“Black on Maroon,” Mark Rothko 1958
I’ve covered literature and painting, but The Sublime appears in music, also. The first sound depiction of it occurred when Franz Joseph Haydn depicted biblical Chaosas the prelude to his oratorio The Creation, which premiered in 1803.
Hector Berlioz assayed The Sublime in several of his works, but none more grippingly than in the Tuba Mirum section of the Dies Irae of his Requiem Mass of 1837, which requires, in addition to a huge orchestra and chorus, four extra brass bands, set into the four corners of the concert hall, and 20 tympani, which roll doom out in the Dies Irae.
Another Dies Irae with the power to blow you away is Giuseppe Verdi’s, from his Requiem Mass, which whacks the bass drum in alternation of staccato blasts from the strings and brass.
Perhaps the cake is taken by Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand — his Symphony No. 8, which in an ideal performance has an orchestra of about 200 and a chorus of 800. It is gargantuan, and the opening Veni Creator Spiritus is as close to manic insanity as music can probably sustain.
There are moments in Wagner, in Liszt, Bruckner and many in Mahler’s other symphonies.
Then, there’s The Ninth. I don’t need to mention whose. The Sublime makes itself present in each of the four movements, but rises to a climax in the choral finale, where voices and instruments poise at the limits of their abilities and hold those notes as they sing, “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” — “Be embraced, you millions” and then “Ahnest du den Schopfer… — hold it, and then belt out — “Welt?” There follows a coda of ecstasy bringing home the central message of the symphony: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” — “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.”
But perhaps the greatest moment of The Sublime, as terror and grandeur, comes with the recapitulation section of the first movement. The theme that began the symphony in uncertainty and mist — we don’t even know originally what key it is in — comes back forte underlined by two solid minutes of rolling tympani thunder. Some conductors downplay this moment, letting the tympani merely enforce the bass line, but done right, the drums are an earthquake of apocalyptic rumble.
Perhaps I have been fascinated by The Sublime in art and poetry so much because I have experienced in life — probably a dozen times or so, maybe a score if I catalogued them — a moment when you don’t merely feel the joy of beauty found in nature, but experience a cosmic tingle, a sense of life magnified, intensified, made mythic. A body-sense of the vastness of existence and my minuscule place in it.
It tends to come, as it does in art, in mountains or deserts or at sea. I recall the sense while crossing the Atlantic on a ship and walking the deck after midnight and seeing in the vast emptiness of the ocean a twinkle of a light on a ship many miles off, heading in the opposite direction. The sea swells were rocking the boat and I could make out the shifting facets of waves in the dark, where some starlight was caught in the reflection of the water.
Or the Grand Canyon at five in the morning just before the sun broke the horizon.
Once, driving east in North Carolina on my way to Cape Hatteras, it was near sunset and in front of me in the windshield was a sooty-dark thunderhead and rain on the road perhaps a mile in front of me, obscuring the road and any horizon. It was a canyon of charcoal cloud climbing up to the stratosphere, with spikes of lightning, while in the rear window, the sun was brilliant and red in a clear sky. It was the definition of The Sublime.
As I continue to contemplate the possibility of perhaps, maybe, decluttering my trove of Classical music CDs, I come to the 20th century. I have to admit, that I listen to music from that period more than any other. It was my century. And so, I have a ton of discs from composers who wrote, beginning in the 19th, but extending their careers into the 20th, and now, music from the 21st century.
Sometimes, we forget that such lush music as that of Rachmaninoff or Richard Strauss continued to be written: Strauss’ Four Last Songs, perhaps the most high-calorie confection ever put to paper, was premiered in 1949, four years after the end of World War II, and 36 years after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. “There’s still plenty of good music to be written in C-major,” said Arnold Schoenberg.
So now, as I did last time, I am going to sort through the violent century and salvage what I think needs to be saved, making a pile of recordings and regretfully saying goodbye to too much great music, but, you know — I’m 73 years old and I’m not going to be able to listen to all of the thousands of CDs that currently clog my shelves.
I’ve set the goal of picking a single work (or set of works) by significant composers to throw on the pile. I’m going by chronological order, according to birth dates. And we start by remembering that Edward Elgar was a 20th century composer. Yes. He was.
Edward Elgar 1857-1934 — Initially I thought the work I could not do without was the doleful Cello Concerto, from 1919. The First World War speaks directly through that music. But, no, I have to go with the Violin Concerto of 1910, which is one of the few noble concertos that can stand with those of Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Berg and Shostakovich — not merely tuneful, but an expression of the highest thoughts and emotions that humans are capable of.
But, I’m in luck. Because I can save the Violin Concerto, played by Pinchas Zukerman on a disc package that includes the Cello Concerto, played by Jacqueline Du Pre, with the Enigma Variations thrown in. A perfect summing up of the best of Elgar.
Gustav Mahler 1860-1911 — Choosing is too hard. I have double-decker shelves devoted to Mahler, the composer who moves me above all others. How can I clear it out? How can I consider any of it as “clutter?” I thought originally I would have to save Das Lied von der Erde, and I don’t know how I can say goodbye to it. But Mahler said famously, the symphony must contain the world, and the piece that does that more than any other is the Third Symphony, and so, I’m putting that on the pile.
I just counted, and I currently have 14 recordings of the Third (with another on the way from Amazon). The one I keep is Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Not only is it a great performance, but the 2-discs are magnificently engineered. The sound is stunning.
Claude Debussy 1862-1918 — While I love Debussy’s piano music (especially played by Paul Jacobs), the keeper is La Mer. I have not counted the versions on my shelf, but there are not a few.
Pierre Boulez recorded it twice. The second is OK, but nothing special, but his first go-round, on Sony, is cut by diamond and the most exciting one I know. It may not be a sea-spray evocative as some, but it makes a compelling case for it as belonging to the 20th century. It comes in a package with a pile of other Debussy.
Richard Strauss 1864-1949 — Strauss can sometimes seem a bit reptilian. How much is show-biz with his show-off orchestration. But there is no doubt to the sincerity of his Four Last Songs. They are the most profoundly moving orchestral songs I know, outside Mahler’s Der Abschied.
I wanted to save Jessye Norman’s version, with Kurt Masur, but I have to admit, my heart has always belonged to Leontyne Price in these songs, accompanied by Erich Leinsdorf. Both versions are gorgeous, but Price is now packaged with Fritz Reiner’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. On the pile.
Jean Sibelius 1865-1957 — As tightly argued as Mahler is spacious, Sibelius packs a great deal into a well-cinched frame. Of his seven symphonies, the one that speaks to me loudest is the final one, which makes me feel in my bones the vast icy spaces of Scandanavia.
Leonard Bernstein recorded it twice, once for Columbia (now Sony) and later for Deutsche Grammophon. The first is tighter, but the second comes with the Fifth Symphony, giving me the chance to save two symphonies for the price of one. Bernstein slowed his tempos as he got older, and some people don’t like the broadened Fifth, but I have no problem with it. And the Seventh takes me to other places.
Serge Rachmaninoff 1873-1943 — My dearest friend, Alexander, refuses to listen to Rachmaninoff, saying he is too gooey and Romantic. But I have been trying to get him to recognize that his music — especially his later music — is oozing with Modernist irony. What is more sly than the Paganini Rhapsody? Yes, there’s the “big tune,” but even that is undermined by what surrounds it. But if I have to save just one piece, that would be the Symphonic Dances. I love them to death.
But, like so many other things in this list, I can have cake and eat it at the same time, with the recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, bundled with the gooey, Romantic Second Symphony under Mariss Jansons, and the tornado of the Third Piano Concerto, played by Leif Ove Andsness.
Arnold Schoenberg 1874-1951 — Now we’re entering territory fully recognizable as Modernist. I wish I could save Pierrot Lunaire, but I have only one slot available, and it has to go to Verklaerte Nacht. While I admire Pierrot, I love Transfigured Night.
Of the versions I have, both in its orchestral form and its original sextet form, I am surprised at how good the version is that was recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. It goes onto the pile, and gives me the bonus of the Orchestral Variations.
Charles Ives 1874-1954 — I have three or four versions of the Concord Sonata, and heard it live played by Jeremy Denk. It should be saved. But I am going, instead, with the Fourth Symphony, which is pure Ives, with all his usual tricks. Friends think I’m joshing when I claim that Ives’ music is beautiful. But it is. You just have to get used to the idiom.
The best version (I have four of these, too) is the first recording, led by Leopold Stokowski. One word for it: Transcendental.
Maurice Ravel 1875-1937 — Stravinsky dismissed him as a “Swiss watchmaker,” but I think that was only professional jealousy. Yes, we’re all tired of Bolero. But I want to save the Concerto for Left Hand, which is jazzy in parts, terrifying in parts, and always makes you wonder that anyone can play two-hand piano with only one hand.
But there is also that ethereal slow movement of the G-major Piano Concerto. The disc with Martha Argerich playing the G-major and Michel Beroff playing the Left-Hander, with Claudio Abbado and the LSO, also gives us the orchestral version of Le Tombeau de Couperin. What a luscious disc.
Bela Bartok 1881-1945 — There’s a lot to save with Bartok, also. But I can’t have the Contrasts, the piano concertos, the six quartets and the Concerto for Orchestra. No. One disc. And the piece I want to keep most is the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
Luckily, one of the greatest performances of that music, by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, also features one of the greatest performances of the Concerto for Orchestra. It is essential listening for any music lover.
Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971 — Much music, many styles. Part of me wants to save the Requiem Canticles and the Movements for Piano and Orchestra, just to tweak those who hate 12-tone music. But since the entire 20th century seems launched by The Rite of Spring, just as the 19th was launched by the Eroica, I have to save it.
There are lots of great performances, but none as feral and primal as the first of them recorded by Leonard Bernstein and the NY Phil. Even Stravinsky, who hated “interpretation” in performance agreed that it was like no other. The disc also includes Petrushka, so, what’s not to love?
Anton Webern 1883-1945 — Do we have to? I’m afraid so. Luckily, there isn’t much of it. No one can make blips and blurps like Webern. He was the godfather of all subsequent serial music, disconnected, alienated and difficult. Yet, he makes such interesting sounds. And few pieces last more than a few minutes, even seconds. Take at least one bit of the broccoli: Try a little Webern.
Karajan put out a tight, condensed disc with the Passacaglia, the 5 Movements for String Orchestra, Op. 5, the 6 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, and the Symphony, Op. 21. This is a fair sampling, really well played. And the entire symphony lasts only 10 minutes.
Alban Berg 1885-1935 — The third wheel of the Second Vienna School is the easiest to love and enjoy. He is the most emotional, and found a way to cheat on his 12-tones, to suggest key areas. His Violin Concerto is the most powerful fiddle concerto of the whole century, the most personal, the most emotional, and the most beautiful.
No one plays it who doesn’t give it his or her most serious efforts. It cannot be just tossed off. My favorite is by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Chicago Symphony and James Levine. It also includes Wolfgang Rihm’s Time Chant, which, I’m afraid, I find utterly forgettable. I’m saving the disc, anyway, for Mutter and Berg and all the pain of loss in the world condensed to music.
Serge Prokofiev 1891-1953 — Shouldn’t I save the Seventh Piano Sonata? Or the Third Piano Concerto? Or the Fifth or First symphonies? Yes, I should, but I’m going to save the full ballet score of Romeo and Juliet, which, I believe, is the greatest ballet score of all time. The whole thing, not just the suite. I might be swayed by having seen it danced many times, in some of the best productions ever. But the music stands on its own.
There are three possibilities: Previn, Maazel and Gergiev. I’m going with Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra. It just noses out the others.
Paul Hindemith 1895-1963 — Hindemith used to be the third part of the triad of Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith as the top Modernists in music. But he has fallen on hard times. Stravinsky and Bartok have better tunes. But when Hindemith borrows tunes from Carl Maria von Weber, he is as good as any. I love a lot of Hindemith, but I admit, he is not overtly lovable. But the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber is jaunty, catchy and a ton of fun.
A really good performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch also gives us two of Hindemith’s best other scores, the Mathis der Maler symphony and Nobilissima Visione. This is Hindemith you could actually learn to love.
Duke Ellington 1899-1974 — Yes, in my book, this is classical music. Ellington does for his group of instruments nothing less than what Ravel can do for the standard symphony orchestra, with all the colors and surprises. And harmonically, Ellington is ages ahead of many more traditional composers. I have about 50 discs of Ellington’s music, and I love him in each of his decades. But the height of his creativity and originality was with the band he had in the 1941-42, the so-called Blanton-Webster band, named for bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor sax, Ben Webster. It’s a misnomer, because you can’t forget all the other luminaries in the band, from Harry Carney to Cootie Williams to Johnny Hodges.
There is a three-disc release that has most of the work the band did in those two years, including Ko-Ko, Cotton Tail, Harlem Air Shaft, Take the A Train, Blue Serge, Sophisticated Lady, Perdido and the C-Jam Blues. Each a miniature tone-poem. This is music to take seriously. Seriously.
Aaron Copland 1900-1990 — There are two Coplands, the earlier, knottier Modernist of the Piano Variations, and the later, popular composer of Rodeo, El Salon Mexico and Billy the Kid. But to my mind, his very best is Appalachian Spring, a ballet score he wrote for Martha Graham. It is usually heard as a truncated suite and enlarged for full orchestra.
But the version I love best, and the one going on my pile, is the original full-length chamber version. Copland recorded it himself, along with the suite from Billy the Kid. Unfortunately, you have to put up with the tedious and tendentious Lincoln Portrait, here narrated by Henry Fonda.
Harry Partch 1901-1974 — England has its eccentrics, but America has its crackpots, and Partch is Exhibit A. Having decided that the tempered musical scale is a “mutilation” of true music, he invented and built a whole orchestra of new instruments, such as the chromelodion, the quadrangularis reversum, the zymo-xyl, the gourd tree and cloud-chamber bowls, in order to play music in his 43-note octave. I saw an exhibit of them at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1960s. They were stunningly beautiful to look at. Hearing them, is something different.
Partch wrote a lot of music for his instruments, some enchanting, like his songs on Hobo graffiti, Barstow. I am saving his full-length Delusions of the Fury, which is based on a Japanese Noh play and an African legend and a codification of Partch’s own delusions. Hooray for him.
Dimitri Shostakovich 1906-1975 — Surely the major composer of the middle of the 20th century, Shostakovich labored hard under the yoke of Stalinism, and his music expresses his deep humanity (except when he is buckling under the pressure of the commissars and pumping out party-hack material; but we can ignore all that). His symphonies 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14 and 15 are among the greatest works of the century. But I’m saving his first Violin Concerto. It is, I believe, his ultimate masterwork.
Its dedicatee, David Oistrakh, recorded it with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the the New York Philharmonic and anyone who cares about classical music should know this performance. It is coupled with Rostropovich playing the first Cello Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia. Together this is a powerful pair.
Olivier Messiaen 1908-1992 — Harry Partch wasn’t alone. French composer Olivier Messiaen had his own ideas about harmony and rhythm, and created an idiosyncratic body of music that is built on bird song and Eastern mysticism, combined with fervent Christianity.
He wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi prisoner camp and played it for the first time for its inmates and guards. His most popular work (if you can call anything so peculiar “popular”) must be the Turangalila Symphony, a rich, spicy, aromatic blend of orchestral colors, and you can get both works together in a set with conductor Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestre de l’Opera Bastille.
Henryk Gorecki 1933-2010 — Gorecki had the misfortune to have become popular. His Third Symphony topped the pop charts in England in 1992 and sold a million copies world-wide. Officially titled the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it speaks of war, love and loss. It is a slow piece, moving only by tiny steps from first to last. Its popularity has led some critics to pooh-pooh its depth and beauty, believing nothing that popular could be any good. They should listen more carefully.
The version that sold so well was the premiere recording with Dawn Upshaw and David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta. I have several versions on my shelves, but this first one is still the best. Onto the pile.
Morton Subotnick 1933- — The California-born composer of electronica had a brief moment of fame in the late 1960s when Nonesuch Records released his Silver Apples of the Moon, and followed it up with The Wild Bull. The first, with its synthesizer squeaks and blips was bright and energetic, the second with its groans and wheezes, was much darker.
Both deserve to be remembered. They may be a relic of their times, but they really are worth listening to. And they are now both on a single Wergo CD.
Arvo Pärt 1935- — The Estonian composer’s meditative music is what he calls “tintinnabuli,” and in 2018, Part was the most performed living composer in the world. His music appeals not only to the classical audience, but to the New Age one as well. It is spiritually-aimed music and is both beautiful, well-constructed, and easy to listen to. You can wash in it like a warm bath, or you can listen as intently as you might to Bach or Bartok.
He has arranged his most popular piece, Fratres, for any number of instruments and combinations (there is even an entire CD of nothing but variations of the piece), and I could save pretty much any one of his discs. But I am going to put Te Deum on the pile, primarily for the Berlin Mass that is on the disc.
Philip Glass 1937- — Glass is unavoidable, even in popular culture. He must be the most prolific composer since Vivaldi. He began as a strict Minimalist, but loosened up that style to become what can only be called a “Glassian.” At his best, he is hypnotic and powerful. At his worst, he can become tedious. His Einstein on the Beach was epochal and groundbreaking. I have an entire shelf devoted to his releases. His trilogy of movie scores for the Godfrey Reggio abstract-narrative films in the quatsi series are a perfect introduction to Glass. Koyaanisqatsi was the first and best known.
But I am going to save the third, Naqoyqatsi, mainly because it can be heard as an extended cello concerto played by Yo-Yo Ma.
John Adams 1945- — Almost neck-and-neck with Glass is John Adams, another lapsed Minimalist who has created his own distinct voice. His opera, Nixon in China, is pretty well the only contemporary opera to join the mainstream repertoire. I’ve seen it live, and I’ve seen Adams’ Doctor Atomic live. They are both thrilling as Verdi or Puccini.
But I’m going to save a particular favorite orchestral work, Harmonielehre, or “Harmony Lesson.” Its opening chords are even more startling than the two E-flat bangs at the start of Beethoven’s Eroica. And the disc I’m saving includes two of Adam’s most popular and gripping overture pieces, The Chairman Dances and A Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
Osvaldo Golijov 1960- — The youngest composer on my pile is now 60. I first heard his music in a live performance of Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw singing the lead. It blew me away. And I was going to put my recording on my pile, but then I heard his Passion of Saint Mark or La Pasión Según San Marco, and fell in love with it.
It combines Latin and African rhythms and folk music with a huge percussion section and more than 50 singers. When it was premiered, it got a 15-minute standing ovation. It deserves its place on my pile.
And so, my fantasy ends. I have now an imaginary pile of music to listen to, to the exclusion of a thousand other CDs. But it is just a fantasy; I could never actually declutter my shelves. I have, in the past, culled recordings to make space for new, but now those I culled are just stuffed into old dressers, cluttering up the drawers in both of them, hidden from view as if I had actually gotten rid of them. But I can’t. And with new recordings coming my way from Amazon, I may have to cull once more, just to make space. And I may need another old dresser in the storage room just to take care of my rejects. Marie Kondo can go jump in a lake.
Where I sit at my desk, typing this piece, I am surrounded by shelves filled with CDs. There are thousands of them. Eleven complete Mahler cycles (and I just ordered another). I don’t know how many boxes of Beethoven symphonies I have. I have literally lost count. Some are filed with Beethoven, some under the name of the conductor, some in my historical bin. Too much. Too much.
Henry David Thoreau famously advised “Simplify. Simplify.” And so, I’ve been cogitating, Marie Kondo style, how to reduce this agglomeration into a fine sauce, into the absolute essentials.
And so, I decided I would pick a single composition and recording from each of the major composers and stack them up in a neat, tiny pile, figuring they would do me for the remaining years of my declining life.
I realized, too, that I had to limit my list. There are simply too many composers out there. Do I really need Hans Pfitzner? Can I do without Louis Spohr, Max Reger, David Diamond? Surely, there is a short list of the pillars of Western art music. If not, I would make one.
If you don’t find Palestrina on this list, or Josquin de Prez, it is not because I don’t value their work. I don’t even include Antonio Vivaldi, although I love his music and probably should include at least the Four Seasons. But I have chosen to start with Bach. He really is the fountainhead of the 250-year project we now call “classical music.” At least, those composers who followed him considered him so.
Each of these winnowed-down composers can enter only a single work on my list, and I have chosen for each of these, a single performance to put in my “keepers” pile.
Here are my suggestions, in roughly chronological order.
Johann Sebastian Bach — Since I want as much of him as possible on my pile, I will add the St. Matthew Passion, one of the greatest works of art ever assembled. It goes on for as much as three hours, depending on whether you’re listening to Otto Klemperer or Riccardo Chailly, who can squeeze the whole thing onto two discs.
For my pile, I’m going with Klemperer, who brings a majesty and awe that few can match. In fact, if I had to have only a single recording on my pile, it would be Klemperer’s Matthew Passion.
(If you find the passion too dour and downbeat, you can substitute the Mass in B-minor. I won’t complain. Klemp is good in that, too.)
George Frederic Handel — If I can have three discs of Bach, I can do the same with Handel. I love the 12 concertos of Op. 6. They come in two forms: currently, the historically informed performance practice, bouncy, quick, staccato versions that dominate the market; and the old-fashioned warm Mitteleuropean version. No one does that anymore.
I grew up hearing violinist Alexander Schneider in New York, and his brand of committed music making. And I have a set of his Op. 6 recordings, with a pick-up ensemble, that it horribly out of date, but glorious. Into the pile.
Domenico Scarlatti — On the shelves are all 555 sonatas, played on harpsichord by Scott Ross. But I hate the clangy, monotonous sound of the harpsichord and prefer my Scarlatti translated to piano. Most pianists now attempt to imitate the harpsichord by using no pedal and dry staccato. I want someone not afraid of using what the piano offers. My favorite used to be Vladimir Horowitz. He is still great. But I have since discovered an even richer performer in Mikhail Pletnev. This is magnificent piano playing.
Joseph Haydn — Papa is hard to narrow down for me. He is one of my absolute dearest composers. But how do you choose a symphony over a quartet? Or a single symphony or quartet over all the others. Haydn’s work is so consistently excellent, it makes it hard to pick one as more essential than another. But there is The Creation. It is unlike anything else, and has the greatest sonic description of chaos ever devised. In his lifetime, The Creation was recognized as his crowning achievement.
I have something like half a dozen recordings of it, including two by Leonard Bernstein, who had a magic sympathy with Haydn always. I will choose his second recording, with Deutsche Grammophon although I think the earlier with the New York Philharmonic is just as good.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — The problem with Wolfie is similar to that with Haydn: consistency. But Mozart is best in opera. I would have chosen The Marriage of Figaro — his most nearly perfect work and the world’s most perfect opera — but instead I pick Don Giovanni, which, although it sags a bit in the second act, has more emotional power and heft.
There are many great performances, and lots by the newer, faster, punchier conductors who follow historically informed performance practice (pardon me while I spit at their feet). And my choice is the recording with Cesare Siepi as the Don, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. What a supporting cast!
Ludwig von Beethoven — I hate to be caught out as predictable, but after considering one of the late quartets, or the Hammerklavier sonata, I realized that there is only one possible choice. I am sorry for it, but I have to pick the Ninth. If I had been really snobbish, I would have suggested the Missa Solemnis, but I don’t know anyone who really enjoys that music. Respects it, yes. Reveres it, even. But enjoys? No. But the Ninth. It was the sign over the door to the Nineteenth Century. Enter who dare. It cast a shade over the next hundred years. You wrote in emulation or reaction against.
I’ve got to fess up to liking the first and third movements more than the second and fourth. The scherzo seems a little thin melodically speaking, and I always have to get through the first half of the finale before hitting the solid core of gold, which starts with the fugue after the Hogan’s Heroes’ march. The Adagio, though, is as sublime as music gets, and when it is done right, the first movement is a vision from Dante: If the conductor lets the tympani roar properly, the recapitulation can rouse the fight-or-flight in you. Too many conductors smooth that bit out, letting the kettle drums murmur underneath the themes. In 1942, Furtwangler unleashed his tympani in a recording that is both the greatest performance and one of the sloppiest and poorly recorded in history. You have to put up with a lot in that historical document (including knowing that Hitler was in the audience), but it is the version I put on my pile.
Franz Schubert — The riches are there: the Unfinished Symphony, the Trout Quintet, the B-flat Sonata, the Death and the Maiden quartet. Heck, the F-minor Fantasie for Two Pianos, the two piano trios, to say nothing of the songs, especially Winterreisse. But the most moving of all, deeply emotional and profound is the String Quintet in C, sometimes considered the greatest piece of chamber music ever — even topping Beethoven’s late quartets. That’s saying something.
Lots of great performances, but my favorite and the one on my pile is by musicians from the Marlboro Festival. Some find it a bit over the top; I find the top cannot be gone over in this music. The disc also gives us The Shepherd on the Rock, sung by Benita Valente and so we have one of the songs, also.
Robert Schumann — Bobbie doesn’t get a lot of props these days, and he can get repetitious. And as he aged, he became outright boring. But in his hot youth, he wrote a lot of the world’s most memorable tunes. For me, what goes on the pile is Carnaval, a series of sort-of variations, a necklace of character pieces for piano.
There are two essential recordings of it: Artur Rubinstein and Sergei Rachmaninoff. When push comes to shove, I’m taking Rach with me.
Felix Mendelssohn — My absolute favorite Mendelssohn is his Hebrides Overture, but it is too short for my pile, and so I pass by his symphonies and, god help us, his tedious oratorios, and pick the most elegant and refined of all the great violin concertos.
I am in luck, though, because Pinchas Zukerman plays the bejeezus out of the concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Phil and pairs it with the Hebrides and as a bonus, a rousing performance of the “Italian” Symphony. That’s hard to beat.
Hector Berlioz — This will probably be a controversial choice. How can you not choose the Symphonie Fantastique? It is his signature piece, and under the baton of Charles Munch, it can’t be beat. But my heart belongs to the Requiem. I love it without regard for its faults. It is ingenious, tuneful, and loud. (My college roommate’s brother used to love what he called “the loud classics,” by which he meant things like the 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Fifth, but you can’t get much louder than the Dies Irae in the Berlioz “Wreck.”
And there is one recording above all: Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Too many other conductors (I’m looking at you, Colin Davis) attempt to make sense of this irrational music, to tame it and have it make sense. But Ormandy lets it all hang out, and his tenor, Cesare Valletti, is just cheesy enough.
Frederic Chopin — This is a toughie. Chopin wrote mainly short pieces, and so picking just one would be giving him short shrift. I don’t particularly like his piano concertos, and his sonatas are fine, but what he really calls for is a program of mazurkas, scherzos, ballades, waltzes and the bunch.
There are two contenders, almost opposite poles apart, interpretively, but they are the best at getting the spirit of Chopin. Most modern pianists are too dry and all seem to hate the pedal. The older Chopin tradition is closer to what the composer wanted. One could choose the 10-CD box of Artur Rubinstein Plays Chopin, which is a delight. But it is made of his later, stereo recordings, and his older mono ones were more idiosyncratic. Still, it is a great box. But on my pile goes Vladimir Horowitz: The Chopin Collection, with seven CDs. Volodya has all the snap and jump that sit in the music waiting to spring out. It’s a close call. The Rubinstein is more complete, but Horowitz is the only pianist who has ever taken the measure properly of the Polonaise-Fantasie, and so, I’m going with Horowitz.
Franz Liszt — Like Chopin, Liszt is best in the shorter to medium size pieces. I’d want a compilation.
The best Liszt pianist going is Valentina Lesitsa, who understands that Liszt without the theatrics is not really Liszt. Those pianists who try to extract the “music” from the glitz only destroy the essence. The problem is that Lisitsa has not released a really good single Liszt disc; the best is spread out on several. No one does the second Hungarian Rhapsody with as much schmaltz as she does. She is great. But, I have to choose, and so, I’m going with a great 2-disc compilation on DG called Liszt: Wild and Crazy, with the works spread out among more than a dozen great pianists.
Richard Wagner — Oy, Wagner. This is a kind of classical music Everest, not just because the music is great, but because it takes a mountain-climber’s stamina. To a true Wagnerite, the music is transcendental, mythic, epic. To the not-so-convinced, it can seem bombastic, never-ending, and pretentious. I’m with the first group. I’ve attended two full Ring Cycles live, and own six cycles on disc. So sue me.
But I’m not going to take all that with me, and so, Kondo-style, I will divest and choose a single disc. Each of Wagner’s operas contain longueurs, segments of what can seem like filler, as the story is rehashed once again. But the first act of Walküre is a perfectly enclosed whole, musically. Arturo Toscanini recorded Act 1, scene 3 with Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior that is, for me, the perfect Wagner recording. The disc also includes the Siegfried Idyll and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
Anton Bruckner — Sometimes, it is hard to tell one Bruckner symphony from another. He had one tone, one message, one purpose in all his music. Symphonies Four and Seven are the easiest to love; Eight is the longest and most sublime; the unfinished Nine is profound. But if I choose just one, it will be Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. It has that fugal finale, and a first-movement ear-worm that you will carry with you for life.
And my recording of choice is with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. No one gets Bruckner quite like the quirky Kna. The disc also gives us Wagner’s Dawn and Rhine Journey, and so we get to cheat a little on our Wagner.
Johannes Brahms — OK, this is painful. Old beard-face is very close to my heart. I’m going to want to add to my pile the DG box of “Complete Works,” but that would be cheating. Brahms is the greatest composer of chamber music since Beethoven and Schubert, and no one has equalled him since. His symphonies and concertos are top tier. But the music that moves me the most, that I could not live without, for it provides me with the deepest consolation is his German Requiem. “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.” It is the most human, compassionate, loving music I have ever heard. I weep just remembering it.
The greatest performance ever recorded, by general acclamation, is that of Otto Klemperer, with the Philharmonia and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Ralph Downes. I’m putting on top of my pile, so I can reach for it first.
Giuseppe Verdi — I’m afraid am giving opera the short stick in this selection. I shouldn’t. And Joe Green is going to take a beating here. Because, although I would love to add Otello or La Traviata to my pile, I’m going to choose instead his Requiem. It is operatic, after all.
Into the pile goes my Barenboim version, with the La Scala orchestra and chorus and Anja Hareros, Elīna Garanča, Jonas Kaufmann and Rene Pape. It is stunning.
Antonin Dvorák — After Haydn, no composer has been more mentally and emotionally sound and hale than Dvorak. And that has translated, as with Haydn, into a remarkable consistency of quality across genres. You pretty much can’t go wrong with him. I’m going to go against the grain, here, though, and not choose the cello concerto or the New World Symphony, but an old Columbia box of the two piano quartets, the piano quintet and the lovely bagatelles for two violins and harmonium with the Juilliard Quartet and pianist Rudolf Firkusny. This recording is a delight.
Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky — When I was younger, there was a prejudice against Tchaikovsky. My generation preferred irony and detachment. Tchike was all heart-on-sleeve. And besides, he wasn’t German, which meant he didn’t build his symphonies out of tiny germs of thematic material, like Brahms. We were too sophisticated for Tchaikovsky. We were, of course, stupid. Tchaikovsky was a great composer, a brilliant orchestrator, and put more of himself into his best music than almost anyone. For my pile, I’m going to pick his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathetique.” Everything about it is brilliant, emotionally deep and how can you not love the five-beat “waltz?”
The performance I choose is Bernstein’s from 1987, with the New York Philharmonic, on DG. It is nearly an hour long (most performances run 40-45 minutes), and with anyone else, that slowness would dissipate all the forward motion of the music, but Lenny manages, even at the crawl, to keep the drive going, and the emotion he wrings from the performance is sui generis. Not to everyone’s taste, but it makes the music an experience, not just a pleasant listen.
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov — I can’t live without Scheherazade. It is Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest bit of tune-making and orchestrating. It is lush and washes over your ears like gentle surf.
There are some great performances, including Beecham and Stokowski (I have both), but the one I’m gonna keep is Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, not only because it is a delicious recording, but it also includes the most joyous Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture, making it a Rimsky trifecta.
This takes us up to the end of the 19th Century. In the next piece, I’ll clean out my 20th and 21st century clutter.
In my seven decades — half of them spent as an art critic — I have been to too many art galleries and museums to be able to count the shows I have seen. Nor can I count the concerts, recitals, theater productions I’ve seen or books I’ve read. Most of them I’ve enjoyed, but few were so memorable that I still have in my nostrils the aroma they gave off.
This is not to disparage most of the others. I’ve eaten too many restaurant meals to count. Most of them I enjoyed. They did what was asked of them. But can I recount a ribeye I once had in Bakersfield? No. That would be silly.
But there are meals and concerts that stick, art exhibits that did more than give an hour’s pleasure, concerts that changed my way of thinking about the world.
And let’s be honest, one is willing to pay the ticket price for a lot of minor pleasure in the expectant hope that this next one will be a world-changer. The odds are against it, but we persist. Every once in a while, we are gobsmacked, and know why it has been worthwhile to sit through a hundred Beethoven Fifths to get to this one that goes beyond mere pleasure to transcendence.
We live for those moments; they make life worth living.
In a recent blog, I recounted my earliest such encounters, with Eugene O’Neill at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., when I was in high school. With J.M.W. Turner at the Museum of Modern Art in New York a few years later. With Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the same year. These all set my life on a course to spend it with art and music. These all proved to my adolescent heart and mind that there was something more real, more important, than the suburban life I was being brought up in.
But the immersion didn’t end there. In subsequent years, there were many exhibits and concerts that stand out. That became such an engrained part of my life and world view, that it is as if I was still standing in front of those paintings, or sitting in the concert hall, hearing those notes.
Let’s just take three piano recitals as examples. In 1991, I heard Maurizio Pollini at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. In the first half of the recital, he played all of Chopin’s Preludes. In the second half, he played the Berg sonata and Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces, Op. 19. All that was great. But he finished with the Stravinsky Three Scenes from Petrushka, one of the most difficult bravura piano pieces ever written. Pollini tore through it like a demon, but made every note musical. It blew me away. (The recital was notable for its intermission, too. The doors to the hall were locked and for nearly an hour, we could hear the piano being re-tuned behind those doors. Apparently Maestro Pollini was not satisfied with the instrument. We were kept waiting in the lobby until he gave his approval to the tuning).
In 2008, I heard Jeremy Denk at Zankel Hall in New York, the recital hall that is part of Carnegie Hall, play the single most daunting program I could imagine, with Charles Ives knucklebusting Concord Sonata in the first half, and Beethoven’s mind-busting Hammerklavier Sonata in the second. I could only think of John Lennon’s immortal line “I got blisters on me fingers.” For an encore, he reprised the Hawthorne movement of the Concord. Very like running a 200-meter directly after running a marathon.
I’ve heard Denk several times since then, and each time, his playing was, if not so Olympian, certainly significantly memorable. He proved to me, for instance, that the etudes of Gyorgy Ligeti are great music. And that Beethoven’s Eroica Variations are actually comic.
Then, in 2011, I heard Andre Watts play the Liszt B-minor sonata in Scottsdale, Ariz., on an all-Liszt program. I had the perfect seat to see his fingers spin over the keys, and learned a great deal about the disposition of Liszt’s voicings by being able to see Watt’s fingers. His playing was ethereal. Liszt was a Watts specialty.
But it wasn’t only music. After my initial infatuation with O’Neill in high school, I had seen too many mediocre live theater productions, and had come greatly to prefer movies. Theater seemed too artificial, too, well, “theatrical” for my tastes. But then, in 1993, I saw the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America — both parts on successive days — and saw what live theater can do that nothing else can. It was one of the seminal experiences of my life.
(It was also ruined for me most other theater, because so seldom is it ever this overwhelmingly powerful. But I have seen other great theater since then. Angels is not sui generis. I have seen Angels three more times, once in its road production —not all that good — once in a production by Actors Theatre in Phoenix, which was nearly as good as the New York production, and finally, in its Mike Nichols filmed version, which is very different from the stage version. It is a movie, not theater. Very good, but still, not the live experience on stage. The same difference between seeing the movie Amadeus and the stage version. Movie is good; live is great.)
I got to travel for my newspaper, and was able to review many major art shows around the country. They have been some of the most eye-opening and mind-expanding things I’ve done.
In 1994, I saw John James Audubon: The Birds of America at the Art Institute in Chicago. It featured 90 of the original paintings used for the engravings published in his books. The originals persuaded me that Audubon might be considered America’s greatest artist. (You can read a version of my newspaper review here.)
In 1996, I visited Philadelphia for the big Cezanne show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One hundred oil paintings, 35 watercolors and 35 drawings from public and private collections. It was an overwhelming experience. I never knew there were this many distinct greens, blues, blue-greens, and greenish blues. And when you swipe a bit of vermilion against them, the whole thing glows like neon. Seeing Cezannes live is a very different thing from seeing them reproduced in books.
In 1999, I got to see the great Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which gave me the rare chance to see his Blue Poles, which is normally hidden away in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
That same year, there was a great Van Gogh show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Like having the chance to see Pollock’s Blue Poles, I got to see Vincent’s iconic Wheatfield with Crows. The show as a whole was the best introduction to the artist’s growth from a clumsy, almost talentless neophyte to one of the world’s greatest painters. He wasn’t always Van Gogh, but when he became himself — the very definition of transcendence.
I’ve been to Chartres Cathedral four times, and each time was overwhelming. I’ve now been to most of the great churches of northern France. The single most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen is the north rose window at Chartres. I have sat transfixed in the south part of the crossing, staring back to the north, in total, for hours. It is a meditation or very like a prayer, if such can be said for a complete atheist.
Overall, it is music that has most provided me with this feeling: Of taking me out of myself and letting my mind expand to a size larger than mere me-ness. Of course, most of the hundreds of concerts I have attended have only provided pleasure and entertainment. But there are those that do more. I thirst for those.
In 1994, I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play the Strauss Don Juan and I felt music not just through my ears, but through my whole body and being.
I’ve heard Gustavo Dudamel twice live. Once playing the Mahler First with the LA Phil, shortly after his appointment as music director. But before that, in New York with the Israel Philharmonic, playing the Tchaikovsky Fourth. That was in 2008; the Israel Phil was then an orchestra made up of older, formerly Eastern European men — bald-headed old pros who could give a polished performance under any conductor. But they played with the enthusiasm of little boys, even smiling at this bit or that as they produced the sound. After the performance, Dudamel, instead of turning and bowing to absorb the adulation of the audience, immediately danced up into the orchestra and jumped up and down with the musicians, shaking hands and pointing out soloists. I’ve never seen such a powerful effect a conductor has had on a group of musicians. They seemed to love him back.
There have been other concerts: In 2008, there was Ozvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw; in the same year, there was Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 2009, there was Nixon in China with Robert Orth in the title role. In 2010, Steven Moeckel played the Beethoven violin concerto with the Phoenix Symphony at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. I have never heard a better, more moving and detailed performance of the concerto. At least not live.
Sometimes, it is only a single work on a program. I’ve heard Itzhak Perlman I don’t know how many times. He’s a miracle; but he isn’t always completely engaged. He can give a creditable performance even half asleep — and he has been known to. But then he will redeem himself. In 2008, he gave a performance in Scottsdale. He ended the recital with his usual encore pieces and tired jokes. The same jokes over and over each concert. Perlman can be quite tiresome. And he opened with a Bach sonata, well played but nothing special. Then, as I wrote in my review:
“But then, with the Richard Strauss violin sonata, the sun shone through and the angels sang. It’s not for nothing that Perlman is a superstar. He gave us a version of the music no one else could give. Rich as butter, emotionally complex and powerful, he persuaded us that the Strauss sonata is a major piece of music, rather than B-list work by an A-list composer, which is how it’s usually ranked.
“From the opening notes the music dripped with personality, as Perlman pushed or dragged the notes just enough to create the kind of perfect phrasing that makes the music speak directly to your innards.”
It is for moments like that for which we will put up with so much less for so long.
There are two other moments I would like to mention.
The first is a concert with pianist Lang Lang. He has a bad reputation with some critics for histrionics on stage — rocking and eye-rolling — and he has on occasions played loud and fast, but without much impact, for which he has gotten the nickname “Bang Bang.” But he can also play the way he did in the slow movement of the Chopin concerto, on Oct. 24, 2008 (2008 was a very good year for me). As I wrote in the review:
“At the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, his aging hero looks out on the world with a note of satisfaction. ‘I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.’
“That is exactly how pianist Lang Lang played the slow movement of the Chopin E-minor piano concerto Sunday with the Phoenix Symphony. He lingered over it, stretching its already vague rhythmic drive down to a near halt, and stopping the audience’s breath with it.
“Each phrase seemed to pour forth spontaneously from the pianist’s fingers, followed by another seemingly thought of on the spot. No two phrases were played at the same tempo, and each tempo seemed perfectly expressive.
“It is a rare performer who can risk such an arrhythmia, and who can use it to make the music express poetry and longing, dreaming and anticipation. It was one of the best performances ever given by a soloist at Symphony Hall.”
My best moments in the concert hall has been when time completely stops and I get a glimpse of eternity — not eternity as an infinite number of moments end-to-end, but a eternity as utter timelessness. Time ceases to exist.
That has happened each time I’ve heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach cello suites. I’ve heard him several times, including doing all six in a single concert.
“Ma concluded with the sixth suite, as intense as an Aeschylan tragedy, with climaxes at the slow allemande and the even slower, deeper, more intense sarabande. Blood almost ceased moving in my veins and only started pulsing once more with the gavotte that followed, as the relief from tragedy, and a reawakening to the life of the body.
“This kind of music is why we listen to classical music: It isn’t enjoyment we are after but solace, reflection, a reconnection with the more important parts of ourselves. It brings us to the place where the deepest thought and the most profound emotion cannot be told apart; they are the same thing. It is proof that art is not merely entertainment, but food for our deepest hunger.”
There are many more such moments over the years, but I can’t mention them all. This is already too long. But, my life has been nurtured by such moments and experiences. They have made me who I am.
Gustav Flaubert was said to have expressed “contempt for the bourgeoisie.” It is a sentiment I shared when growing up, as a bookish kid in a bookless family. Flaubert was himself a member of the middle class, and, alas, so am I. As much as I despised the suburban, middle-class New Jersey milieu in which I grew up, as I have aged, I have come to realize that it is this same middle class that allowed me to pursue my own interests. There was a bland tolerance inherent in mid-century suburbia that, while it watched Donna Reed and Bonanza, thought that college might be a good idea for its offspring — not knowing just what a subversive venture that education would turn out to be.
As for me, even when I was in seven years old, I couldn’t wait to leave New Jersey and head off to college. As I entered second grade, I am famously (in the family) reputed to have asked, “does that mean I can go to college next year?”
My brother and I often ponder where we came from. Craig is an artist and I am a writer. Nobody else in our extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, in-laws or anyone else, had the slightest interest in art, literature of other intellectual things. The closest my mother came was daubing a few paint-by-numbers canvases. The primary reading matter in the house was the Reader’s Digest nested on top of the toilet tank. When I mentioned classical music, my uncle asked if I meant, “like Montovani?” When my high-school buddies were listening to Chubby Checker and Bobby Vinton, I was listening to Stravinsky and Bach. Where this taste for the high-brow came from remains a mystery, but it is deeply buried.
There was early on a hunger for things that seemed deeper, truer, more complex than what I saw on TV or heard on AM radio. And I found that hunger fed by art and literature. In eighth grade, we had been required to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and to memorize a few lines (“you blocks, you stone, you worse than senseless things. Knew ye not Pompey? Many a time and oft…” etc.) But the mere reading seemed archaic and incomprehensible. But late in the year, 1962, we took a class trip to Princeton, N.J. to the McCarter Theatre, where we watched a performance of the play, and it all then made sense. I loved it.
But Julius Caesar is, after all, a fairly easy play to get through. Even the less inclined in class found it entertaining.
The next season, though, on another class trip to the McCarter, we watched Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a rather tougher nut to crack. And I felt I had found a home. Eugene O’Neill was the kind of thing that spoke to me: To a green teen, it felt grown up, like the real thing I longed for.
Looking back, I can see I was just a kid and had a somewhat limited understanding of what it actually meant to be grown up. By high school, I had subscriptions to the Evergreen Review and Paul Krassner’s The Realist. I read Kerouac and Ginsberg, and was a member of the Literary Guild — an off-brand Book of the Month Club — where I bought and read things like Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography, The Words.
I look back now and remember Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, and boy oh boy, what I misunderstood as a pimply-faced adolescent. I reread Saul Bellow’s Herzog again last year and was surprised to discover how funny the book is. When I read it in high school, I only knew it was a book that adults read, and so I dove in. That it was a comedy complete passed me by.
Art, music and literature: I knew — or felt in my bones — that this was the real stuff. All the quotidian was mere distraction. I was truly lucky: I lived only a short bus ride from Manhattan and could easily get into the city to visit museums, bookstores and concert halls. New York was real; New Jersey was boring. And what I found in the city turned my life.
In 1966, I heard Russian pianist Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He played, among other things, the Liszt B-minor sonata. It is the first of many concerts and recitals that made in imprint on my life. I was there with my high-school girlfriend, who later became a professional bassoonist (played with both Philip Glass and PDQ Bach). We went to dozens of concerts, mostly in New York, and in Carnegie Hall.
Speaking of Peter Schickele, my girlfriend and I were at the first PDQ Bach concert in Carnegie Hall, and after that, I was practically a PDQ groupie and managed to get to one of his concerts annually for at least 25 years, either in New York or when he took his circus on the road.
I also had the Museum of Modern Art to go to, and the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Frick Collection, and what was then the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle.
The permanent collections in all these institutions became my dear friends. But there were changing exhibitions, too. The first serious art show I went to that altered the course of my life was also in 1966, at MoMA.
It was a curated show, intended to make a case. It wasn’t just a collection of paintings, but a curatorial argument, intended to persuade and make us think of something in a new way. It attempted to prove that English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner was a precursor to the French Impressionists and Modernism, that his soft-focus paintings and, especially, his washy watercolor sketches, were somehow a step forward in the history of art, and led to the breakthrough we all know and love with Monet, Renoir and Pissarro. (It was an age that still believed in art history as a grand and natural procession from then to us, the enlightened).
It was called “Turner: Imagination and Reality” and ran from March through May of that year. It made the claim that “During the last 20 years of his life, Turner developed a style of extraordinary originality. He evolved a new order of art, which was virtually unparalleled until the 20th century.” According to the curators, Turner was a harbinger of American Abstract Expressionists. Several of the images on view were so inchoate as to be purely abstract, like his Pink Sky, which might well be an early experiment by Mark Rothko, nothing more than strata of color spilled across the paper.
In the catalog to the show, art historian and curator Lawrence Gowing wrote, “These pictures from the last 20 years of Turner’s life, reveal potentialities in painting that did not reappear until our time. They tell us something about the inner nature of a whole pictorial tradition, of which recent American painting is an integral part. Turner not only saw the world as light and color; he isolated an intrinsic quality of painting and revealed that it could be self-sufficient, an independent imaginative function.”
I was transfixed and went back to the exhibit a second time, convinced I was privy to a secret about art that few others knew; only those who had seen this show really understood what a revolutionary Turner had been. Please remember, again, I was a teenager at the time.
In tandem with the Turner show was a smaller exhibit of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” a set of 34 drawings and ink transfers, one drawing per canto in Dante’s poem. It is difficult to recover the sense of elation and immersion a teenager in love with art could feel in the presence of something so new and so exciting.
When I did get to leave New Jersey and go to Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., I was in a candy shop: I signed up for Greek, Shakespeare, esthetics, astronomy — I wanted it all.
There was also a film series, carefully programmed to expose us to the best in cinema. We saw La Strada, Seven Samurai, Seventh Seal, Jules and Jim, Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Andalusian Dog, and even Birth of a Nation, although the student projectionist ran it without the sound on, calculating that it was a “silent film,” and not considering their was a musical soundtrack to accompany it. The racism was hard to swallow, but it was even worse — with no music, it seemed to last forever.
With my new college girlfriend, we went to the downtown theater to see Antonioni’s Blow Up. That sense of being on the edge of art made being young
All those films, added on to the reading material, and the concerts we had in the college auditorium, felt like what I had waited my whole life to gain access to. I fell in love with Chaucer; I read tons of Shelley — even stuff no one but a doctoral candidate bothers with. There was Classical literature in translation. There were three semesters of Comparative Arts. I minored in music composition (although, our stodgy professor der musik, Carl Baumbach, really only taught us figured bass and to harmonize chorales — and avoid parallel fifths. He could barely get himself to listen to anything as modern as Debussy.)
I was a well, down which you could toss everything and never fill it up.
After graduation, I continued with it all, without the need to worry about grades or term papers. Every summer, there was the Eastern Music Festival, for which I acted as unofficial photographer. I sat in on master classes, went to concerts. A few were so memorable, I still keep them in my psychic storehouse: Walter Trampler giving a master class; Miklos Szenthelyi playing the Bartok First Violin Concerto — which seemed at the time the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. Szenthelyi was a young Hungarian, virtually the same age as me, and his posture on stage was almost Prussian, his tone penetrating and perfect. (I still own several of his recordings. He is now a white-haired Old Master in Budapest. A half century has intervened.)
I also first heard Yo-Yo Ma. He must still have been a teenager. He performed both Haydn cello concertos in High Point, N.C., one before intermission and one just after. Yo-Yo has been as much a constant in my life as Peter Schickele. What a pair.
I also photographed the Greensboro Civic Ballet. I wish I had paid more attention to the dance in the 1970s, but my plate was otherwise full. Many years later, I came to love dance more than any other artform. (After my late wife and I traveled to Alaska, she asked if I might want to live there. Without trying to be funny, I said reflexively, “No. Not enough dance.” It was the natural answer.)
There have been hundreds of concerts and recitals, scores of theater and dance performances, bookshelves still filled with thousands of books and CDs, and more museum and gallery shows than I can count.
We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out.
But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale.
No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot?
So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners.
Desert Island book
The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul.
My nominees for Desert Island Book are:
—War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book.
—Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again.
—Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me.
—À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty.
—Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship.
And the award goes to:
Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry.
Desert Island Music
This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture.
My nominees for Desert Island Music are:
—Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into.
—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.”
—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle.
—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out.
—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time.
And the winner is:
St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!
Desert Island Film
Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.
My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are:
—Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.
—La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”
—Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen. I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love.
—Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you.
—Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon.
And my choice is:
Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life.
I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play.
An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite:
Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino…
There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year:
The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad.
What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember?
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules.
And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.
A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. That third order gives not just pleasure, but transcendence. Below is the second of three parts.
At the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, his aging hero looks out on the world with a note of satisfaction. “I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.”
That is exactly how pianist Lang Lang played the slow movement of the Chopin E-minor piano concerto with the Phoenix Symphony when I heard him in the fall of 2008. He lingered over the larghetto, stretching its already vague rhythmic drive down to a near halt, and stopping the audience’s breath with it.
Each phrase seemed to pour forth spontaneously from the pianist’s fingers, followed by another seemingly thought of on the spot. No two phrases were played at the same tempo, and each tempo seemed perfectly expressive.
It is a rare performer who can risk such an arrhythmia, and who can use it to make the music express poetry and longing, dreaming and anticipation. It was one of the best performances ever given by a soloist at Symphony Hall.
That the pianist felt so expressively free comes as a surprise: His recording of the same concerto is rather dull and literal-minded. His Phoenix performance was a poetic night to his recording’s washed-out noonday glare.
Even Lang’s stage demeanor was less like the reputation that preceded him: While he certainly emoted while playing, there was less of the rocking and eye-rolling that he has engaged in in the past. His most obvious physical “dance” came during that slow-movement, when he leaned back as if he were in a recliner, with his arms stretched out straight in front of him barely reaching the keyboard, and his head aimed straight at the ceiling, where he seemed to find the notes he was playing. He found the right ones and time stopped for the duration.
That sense of time standing still is, for me, the practical definition of “transcendence,” the sense of being pulled out of conventional reality and given a glimpse of something even more real.
One goes through a lot of perfectly decent if unexceptional concerts waiting, hoping each time for such a performance — one that makes time stand still and matches the notes of the music to the interior needs of the listener — the music and the hearer become a single event and you feel to yourself, “This is me, this is the mirror of my soul.”
Of course, when you have an experience like that concert, the cause is not simply the performance or the music. The listener must be receptive. It is a two-part event: the message and the addressee. Perhaps others in the audience did not dissolve in rapture; and I’m sure there have been concerts I sat through inert during which other audience members wept. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
But not the way it is usually meant: For most, the cliche simply means de gustibus non est desputandum — all a matter of taste. But that is not it, at all. Beauty of the kind I’m writing of is not something solid and unchanging in the music or the artwork or poem — or in the green forest or towering thunderhead. Beauty is an event, not a thing. A verb, not a noun.
Beauty is your active participation in the perception of the things of this world. The music is capable of being felt as beautiful and we are capable of perceiving that as beauty. But the two things are one and come together in the eye — or ear — of the beholder. Unless they arrive at the same moment, there is no beauty. To become part of the event, you must be awake, aware, alive. You must see or hear of feel more intensely than you do in the ordinary world of driving your car or tying your shoelaces. In such moments, the world becomes transfigured.
I can picture the north rose window at Chartres cathedral in France. There are three such windows, but the one at the north corner of the building is the one that rivets my attention each time I visit.
It is the north window that moves me, in part because it moves, itself. This is an illusion, of course, but its designer was one of the geniuses of his age, able to create that illusion with static stone and glass. Each of these roses are built of circles of circles, building from a central core, and radiating out, like choirs of angels surrounding Providence. But in the north window, the panels dance.
It may be hard to see this in a reproduction, like the one here, but there is a ring of squares and diamond-shapes that form one of the rings, and it is nearly impossible to see these alternating squares and diamonds as anything but tumbling shapes, dancing around the center.
The north rose window of Chartres cathedral is — I have said many times — the single most beautiful human-created entity I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a gob-lot of iconic art works. It brings me to tears each time I am in its presence, and I feel the need to return to it, a feeling very kin to love.
I know a lot of hoo-haw gets ascribed to art. People make great claims for art, only some of which can be supported. But I believe, from my own experience, that art can make you more sensitive to the world around you, to prompt you to see again those things you have become inured to through over-exposure and turned to the ash of everyday-ness. As I have also said, every bush is the burning bush, we just can no longer see it. Seeing it is the epiphany, the moment the world shifts and you see the periphery become the center. When you open those gates in your chest, and let the world in, it becomes intensely beautiful and makes you understand, as William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Each time I visit Chartres, I sit on the church chair in the south transept and look back at the north, for 20 minutes at a time, maybe a half-hour, staring, with tears streaming down my cheeks. This is visionary art, and you don’t have to believe in the dogma to understand the metaphor: This is the Great Mystery. The magnum misterium. You could be looking at photographs from the Hubble telescope. You could be looking at the visions of a peyote dream. You could be looking at the eye of god.
It is not only in art that these things happen. In 1974, my second unofficial wife and I took a trip to Port Jervis, N.Y., where my aunt had a trailer on the Delaware River. We vacationed and lounged. There, I had one of those epiphanies — reached a state of grace, an esthetic perfection that has never left me.
In its northern parts, the Delaware is not much of a river; it is just a broad shallow stony-bottomed stream with a sandy bluff on one shore or the other, depending which way the riverbed turns. But along the roadsides, and in every abandoned field, the bobbing orange heads of black-eyed Susans mixed with the midnight blue of ironweed. Spikes of mullein drove upward and stands of Joe Pye weed grew to four feet high.
There is something different about the fall wildflowers, something weedier, something more insistent. Their vegetable smells and sticky white sap are less immediately pretty, but they have more character: They are grownup. Perhaps, too, it is the drier air of autumn, the mixed stands of plants, blending goldenrod with Queen Anne’s lace, bull thistle and hawkweed in a Pointillist stew of color.
Anyway, that’s how it seemed as we drove by the railroad yard in Port Jervis, at the point New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania all meet. The old yard, anchored by an abandoned turntable and roundhouse, was completely grown over in asters. There were millions of them in the open acres of the yard, each with its yellow disk surrounded by blue ray flowers. Intermixed were all the other fall flowers: the yarrow, boneset, coneflowers and the chicory left over from midsummer.
And in the weedy field, even the spring flowers were represented, not by their blossoms, but by their fruits: the burrs; seedpods; milkweed down; and nightshade berries. For me, it was one of those moments when clocks stopped and the impression burned into my mind as if by aqua fortis on a copper etching plate. That eternal moment has never left me. At times when the day has been roiled and I have trouble getting to sleep, I can recall that scene and let the rancor drain away.
Beauty of the third sort, of the kind I mean, is visionary. It penetrates like the angel’s arrow into Saint Teresa. It is not a matter of appreciation, as in “I like this painting,” but rather, of turning your mental innards inside-out. You see a vastness inside yourself that is the image of the vastness outside — the two become indistinguishable: the event and its image in the mirror.
It doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen to everyone. Those bound up in the bustle of the everyday, of the making of fortune, the vying for position, or those in fear of genocide or famine who cannot waste the time on such things, it is possible they are unable to open their chests up to the incoming. But even they, at times, will be dumbstruck by a bolt they didn’t expect and recognize the transcendent.
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.