Archive

Tag Archives: tureck

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. 

gould goldbergs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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