Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ten Things I've Learned From Starting a Classical Music Blog

101 Classical Music CDs is now one year old, and if you'll permit me a brief fit of gratitude, I'd like to list ten things I've learned and discovered from my first year of finally listening to my collection of classical music.

1) I learned how much I loved Mozart. I spent years hating Mozart's music as a high school trumpet player--as far as I was concerned, it was all oom-pah parts and rest-counting. It wasn't until I started this blog (and had high school recede 20 years into my past) that I could at last hear him through fresh ears.

2) I learned even more how much I loved Haydn (yep, trumpet playing again), and it taught me never to take great composers like these for granted.

3) I became much more familiar with each and every one of Beethoven's symphonies, by itself a worthwhile exercise if there ever was one.

4) It taught me about less-well known composers like Sibelius, who were sitting on my CD shelf, collecting just as much dust as my Bach, Brahms and Beethoven recordings.

5) It taught me how wonderful it is to compare, closely, different recordings of the same classical music work.

6) It taught me much greater appreciation for classical music outside of the typical symphonic repertory. In particular, it taught me a profound appreciation for the great chamber music works of both Brahms and Beethoven.

7) It taught me that there's a whole world of classical music blogs out there, written by a great group of musicians and thinkers.

8) It taught me all sorts of historical and personal details on each of the composers I wrote about.

9) It taught me never to be ashamed of loving Bruckner.

10) It has started to teach me to stop being so hard on myself. Brahms was hard on himself and it didn't help him one damn bit.

Thank you for reading!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Vaughn Williams: Orchestral Works

I'm listening to Vaughan Williams for the very first time today.

Today will also likely be the last time I'll listen to Vaughan Williams.
Barry Wordsworth and the New Queen's Hall Orchestra
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Orchestral Works: Fantasia on Greensleeves; Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1; In the Fen Country
Argo/Decca, 1994

Among England's best known and best regarded composers, Vaughan Williams follows a long line of European classical music composers (Brahms, Liszt, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Borodin) who were inspired and influenced by folk music from their native countries.

However, here is the challenge for me with Vaughan Williams' music: it is simply too rich. Too rich with emotion, too rich in orchestration, too rich in sickly-sweet major keys, too rich in swelling chords and too rich with melodrama.

If you are a music composer and you want your listeners to experience strong emotions from your music, at least gradually build things up. Vaughan Williams, however, starts all of his works in a state of high drama--and then keeps them pegged there--the entire time.

But once you start with melodrama, where do you go from there?

Here's an analogy: In film, can you make your moviegoers start crying the instant the movie starts? In literature, will your readers feel connected to your main characters if you kill them off with some plot device in the first chapter? Even if you tried to extract that much of an emotional connection with your audience that quickly, your audience will likely resent you, thinking they're being cheaply played. You have to let things build gradually, work up to things a bit. Hold off on the bathos for a little while.

Listener notes for Vaughan Williams: Orchestral Works:

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:

1) The melodrama starts as early as the 1:20 mark in this track. And if you want to hear a textbook series of maudlin, swelling, shimmering, string chords, there's an excellent example at 2:20, and then a particularly good (and long, and overwrought) example from 9:40-11:50.

Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1:

2) This work is based on three fisherman's folk tunes: The Captain's Apprentice, A Bold Young Sailor, and On Board a Ninety-Eight.
3) Talk about horribly boring trumpet parts: they get to play "bah bah bah bahhhh" at 3:25 and again at 5:12, and then it's counting rests most of the rest of the way. Only in the seventh and ninth minute of this 11-minute work do they finally get an all-too-brief, somewhat interesting part to play. I wouldn't want to have to play this work too many times in a classical music season.

The Lark Ascending:

4) A question for the string players: Are these works considered fun for you to play? I have no context, but it does sound like the violin solo in The Lark Ascending might be both challenging and interesting to play.

Fantasia on Greensleeves:
5) This theme, instantly recognizable, gets wrapped up in a big cloak of melodrama, replete with plenty of harp parts, layers and layers of string chords and enough violin tremolo parts to send the musicians into physical therapy.

Five Variants of "Dives and Lazarus":
6) Oh the melodrama! It starts right away in this work and never lets up. Sometimes I feel like I'm listening to an Enya CD. But just to prove that opinions differ, the liner notes accompanying this CD describe this piece as "sensuous."

In the Fen Country:
7) This work was one of Vaughan Williams' earliest efforts to compose music around traditional folk melodies, setting him off in a creative direction that he followed for the remainder of his life: in my Essential Canon of Classical Music, author David Dubal writes that Vaughan Williams' "creative world was born: he would become a sophisticated and complex composer, but the nourishment he received from the simplicity and sincerity of folk sources would always remain a spiritual necessity."
8) Nice to hear the deceptively-named English horn get a little bit of a chance to shine at the beginning in this work.
9) There are some intonation problems in the orchestra in this track, notably among the trumpets in the rare instances that they play. I'll admit, though, that the music on this CD is otherwise exceptionally well performed. There is hardly a single missed note, and very few off-key notes, on the entire disc.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #8

Many classical music writers seem to want to group Beethoven's Eighth symphony together with his Sixth (the "Pastoral") and his Seventh symphonies. Perhaps it's because there are some musical traits common to all three works (peasant dance themes, for example), or perhaps it's because he wrote the Seventh and Eighth symphonies at the same time and the Sixth just a few years before that.

Or maybe it's just that these symphonies are afterthoughts, grouped together arbitrarily by virtue of the fact that they are bracketed by the Fifth and the Ninth symphonies, works that are of such importance in the world of classical music that they dwarf nearly everything else Beethoven wrote.

Let's never make the mistake of overlooking Beethoven's "overlooked" symphonies.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 8 / Fidelio Overture
Deutsche Grammophon, 1977

Listener notes for Beethoven's Eighth Symphony:
1) Note how brief this symphony is: just 24 minutes for the entire thing. And people say they don't have time to listen to classical music.

2) This symphony opens with a real attention-grabbing bang. It's reminiscent of the Third Symphony. Also, at several points throughout this symphony, you can hear hints of the overwhelming force that would explode out of Beethoven in his final symphony, the Ninth.

3) Listen very closely at 1:14 in the first movement and you'll hear the flute let out a really bad note. You can barely hear it, fortunately.

4) It's funny, but this recording seems a lot more "full" and more dramatically played than the staid and weakly played performance of the Fifth that I was complaining about in my last post. This is the same darn symphony, and they may have even recorded these two symphonies on the same day. Yet for some reason the lower brass just don't show up during the Fifth.

5) The ending of the first movement sounds almost tongue-in-cheek, as does most of the second movement. It sounds almost like a throwback to classical era symphonies by Haydn or Mozart, doesn't it? The entire second movement, at a very brief 4:37, also shares the typical length of a Haydn symphony movement. What a far cry from some of the Bruckner or Mahler symphonies I've written about this year, which have "short movements" lasting three to four times as long.

6) Bad intonation alert: at 2:20-2:23 in the third movement, the clarinet veers wildly out of tune during a duet with the bassoon. Ouch. I'd give anything to not notice these things.

7) Our man on the clarinet has another solo at 3:54 in the third movement which ends in a really high note at the extreme upper register of the instrument. This is a classic time where a bad mistake could happen, especially in a live performance. This guy gets out of it okay, although who knows if they had to re-record this portion of the symphony a couple of extra times to get it right? If you ever get the chance to hear this symphony performed live, sit up and listen closely at this point and see if you hear an inadvertent "FREEEP!" come out of the clarinetist. This sounds like a tough note to play.

8) One thing particularly interesting about the fourth movement of this symphony, and about many of Beethoven's works in general, is how he cycles a motif or a musical theme through different keys. Listen to an example of this at 4:34 where he plays one of the central fourth movement themes in one key, then at 4:46 where he changes the key, then at 4:53 where he changes the key again, and then yet again at 5:01. Listen to this portion of the fourth movement a few times and see what you think.

9) A final comment on the last track on this CD, the Overture to Fidelio: because of the mediocre intonation and generally uninspired performance of the orchestra here, it would have been better if the Deutsche Grammophon people had just left this work off the CD.

10) A final note about collecting a full set of Beethoven symphonies:
One of the annoying things about the classical music recording industry is how difficult it can be to gradually acquire a complete collection of symphonies by a given composer. The only reason I have two copies of Beethoven's Fifth is because I needed a copy of his Eighth Symphony to complete my collection--of course, the only recording of the Eighth I could find had the Fifth on the same CD.

My advice to new collectors is this: if you find a symphony that you particularly like and you decide you want to hear more symphonies by this composer, just buy a complete set and get it over with. It will save you the trouble of playing "symphony jigsaw puzzle" later on. This collection would be an excellent to buy to get all of Beethoven's nine symphonies in one shot.

Finally, today's CD is bit of a milestone of sorts: it leaves us with only one more Beethoven symphony left: his massive, earth-shattering Ninth. I can't wait to get to that one!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Off-Topic, But Still Having to do with the Holidays

I know that the readers of this blog don't often mingle with the readers of my food blog, but I thought I would just put in a brief mention here of a post on how to avoid holiday overeating that I've written over at Casual Kitchen.

15 Creative Tips to Avoid Holiday Overeating

Enjoy--and happy holidays!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #5 and a "Temporal Comparison" of the Berlin Phil

"Beethoven brought three startling innovations to music: first, he altered our very conception of the art by emphasizing the psychological element implicit in the language of sounds. Secondly, his own stormy and explosive temperament was, in part, responsible for a dramatization of the whole art of music....

Both of these elements--the psychological orientation and the instinct for drama--are inextricably linked in my mind with his third and possibly most original achievement: the creation of musical forms dynamically conceived on a scale never before attempted and of an inevitability that is irresistible."

--Aaron Copeland, from David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music

We return to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to give a close listen to an alternate performance of this exceptional classical music.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 8 / Fidelio Overture
Deutsche Grammophon, 1977

And this recording, done by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1977, is a good one, although not perfect. Already in the first minute and a half of the first movement you can hear intonation problems in the woodwind section, and from the clarinet in particular. And the Berlin Philharmonic isn't in a tight unison when they play many of this symphony's syncopated parts. Even some of the "dut dut dut dahhs" in the early in the first movement sound muddy.

But these are relatively minor criticisms. I've argued before that if you are starting to collect some works of classical music and you are concerned that you might inadvertently buy a bad recording of something, don't worry. As long as you choose a recording done by a major symphony (e.g.: US cities big enough to have a major pro sports team, or any major European city), you will be happy with your purchase.

Listener notes for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony:
Just one lengthy listener note today, where I'll compare today's recording of the Fifth to another recording of the Fifth that I wrote about earlier this year.

We've discussed before in this blog what a great pleasure it is to compare different recordings of a favorite symphony. Usually the comparison will be between two different orchestras playing the same work, for example when we compared the acceptable but imperfect Philadelphia Orchestra's performance of Brahms' Symphony #2 to a cleaner and more consistent performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

But today, I get to compare this 1977 CD to an alternate recording of the Fifth made eight years later by the same orchestra, and directed by the same conductor. And what's most surprising is that the two versions are surprisingly, even shockingly, different.

The 1977 recording seems staid, orderly, restrained and seriously underpowered. Conductor Herbert Karajan hardly deviates from any of the set tempos. The brass section, and indeed the entire orchestra, seems to lack a foundation, as the lower brass simply don't have a big enough sound to support the rest of the ensemble.

Nothing makes a symphony sound more powerful than having monster trombone and tuba players on your payroll--unfortunately, the Berlin Philharmonic (at least in 1977) clearly didn't have that advantage. In fact, after I finished listening to this symphony, I wanted to go out and buy a copy of Beethoven's Fifth done by the Chicago Symphony so I could hear how an orchestra with a real brass section would perform this work.

The 1984 recording is a stark contrast from the 1977 version. Karajan takes many more liberties with both tempo and with the dynamic range (the loudness and softness) of the performance. He brings out the "big" parts much more. It's almost as if over the eight years since the 1977 recording Karajan took some Leonard Bernstein pills and became a much more theatrical composer.

And, for whatever reason, the lower brass have far more power in the 1984 recording, despite the fact that it's likely that the musicians playing on this recording are likely the same people that played in the orchestra in 1977. Perhaps the recording engineers did a better job with microphone placement for the 1984 taping. Or perhaps the low brass sounded muffled in the 1977 recording because the source tape is analog (the 1984 recording is all digital). Or, perhaps they got rid of the wimps from the 1977 orchestra and replaced them with real men with real lungs. It's anyone's guess.

All of these differences combine to make the 1984 version the more suspenseful and emotionally charged rendering of Beethoven's Fifth. And if you read the quote from Aaron Copeland at the beginning of this post, you can see that suspense, drama and powerful emotion is precisely what Beethoven offers us in his symphonies. I never want to hear this symphony played in a suppressed or repressed manner. I'd rather hear it played to the hilt.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Midori Plays Paganini's 24 Caprices

"Paganini's music is virtuosic for the sake of virtuosity," a relative of mine, a professional viola player, once said, "and it has no musical substance whatsoever."

We return to Paganini's 24 Caprices to hear the renowned violin prodigy Midori try to tackle these preposterously difficult works.
Midori, violin (b: 1971)
Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840)
Paganini: 24 Caprices
Sony Classical, 1989
When I listened a month ago to Michael Rabin trying his best to play the Caprices, it was immediately obvious, even to me as a non-violinist, that these works are so technically challenging that even world-class musicians cannot play them cleanly.

Midori, however, with her ferocious technical prowess, attacks these works with more success and better results than Michael Rabin. She may not sound entirely effortless, but she gets these notoriously difficult exercises done with a relatively minimal number of stray and off-key notes, and, quite frankly, she makes Rabin sound average by comparison. And note that Midori was only 17 when she recorded her CD of the 24 Caprices, while Rabin was a comparatively ancient 21 years old when he recorded his Paganini.

And in case you think I'm being overly harsh in my judgment of either violinists' performances, note that both of these CDs are studio recordings--both Rabin and Midori had the opportunity to do take after take of any or all of these caprices until they got them as close to perfect as they possibly could. The fact that almost every caprice on both CDs has stray or off-key notes just proves how impossibly hard this music is to play.

Moreover, it brings into question, arguably, the artistic merit of these compositions. Even after hearing these works played by a much better violinist, I still can't help but continue to call this stuff "boop bleep" music--my personal term for musically bankrupt, ego-crushing etudes designed to torture students until they learn finesse and technical skills on their instruments.

Two more quick points:
1) One of the more amusing reviews of this Midori CD on Amazon mocked Henry Roth in his book Violin Virtuosos for using the word "impeccable" to describe the Michael Rabin performance of the Caprices, suggesting that Roth redefined "impeccable" to mean "being able to play 90-95% of the notes in tune." If two of the modern era's best violin prodigies can't make the Caprices sound effortless or even graceful, then no human can. Ergo, Paganini cannot be human.

2) A final note on comparing these two recordings: it's easy to argue that the Midori performance of Paganini's 24 Caprices is far, far better then Michael Rabin's. In fact, it's even a bit painful to go back to the Rabin CD after hearing Midori's much higher quality work. I had originally thought that Paganini's Caprices were so difficult that Rabin's recording was as good as a human (even a prodigy) could do. Apparently, not all prodigies are created equal.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bruckner: Symphony #8

The Eighth Symphony was the last symphony Bruckner completed, and it will be the final Bruckner symphony covered in this blog. We've already written about his First, Fourth and Seventh Symphonies.
Herbert Von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1824-1896)
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No.8

Deutsche Grammophon, 1989
Bruckner was 59 when he began work on this symphony, but rather than being at the height of his powers at this stage of his life, he was in many ways at the height of his personal insecurity.

Unsure of himself, he was prone to accept the suggestions of his fellow musicians, some of them made in less than admiring spirit, some well-intentioned but not always perceptive... which a more self-confident man might have rejected.
--John Warrack, in an unusually well-written CD liner note.

In 1887, Bruckner thought he had finished this symphony after roughly three years of work, but when he sent the score to the conductor Hermann Levi, the reaction from the famous German conductor was decidedly negative.

The criticism was unexpected to say the least. Levi had considered Bruckner's prior symphony, his Seventh, to be on the level of Schubert or even Beethoven, and thus his opinion of the Eighth Symphony nearly destroyed Bruckner, who suffered a near-nervous breakdown. It took him three years, but over that time he recovered enough to rewrite a new version of the symphony, completed in 1890. Bruckner then completed a third rewrite of the symphony in 1892.

Needless to say, this leaves some confusion as to which version of this symphony is the "real" one, although most classical music experts have settled on the 1890 version--the second one--as the primary text.

I've said this before: it's hard to believe that a composer as gifted as this could be more insecure and self-conscious on his best day than the rest of us are on our worst day. But what's even harder to believe is how often Bruckner's works were mocked, vilified or (worst of all) ignored by audiences at the time:

Once, when [Bruckner] was conducting, nearly the entire audience left in the middle of the piece. Bruckner, rapt in his music, heard neither the footsteps nor the snickering. When he turned to the audience at the conclusion to receive his due applause, he found fewer than ten people remaining. Bruckner left the hall alone and in tears.
--David Dubal, The Essential Canon of Classical Music

Listener notes for Bruckner's Eighth Symphony:
1) One thing I always love about Bruckner is his ability to build suspense and tension very early on in his symphonies. It really makes you want to stick around and find out what's going to happen.

2) The trumpets get a little bit out of control in the unison notes they play at around 15:30 in the first movement. An "E" for enthusiasm though.

3) The second movement consists of three parts--the key theme at the beginning, then a second part that begins after a pause at the 6:04 mark, and then at 10:20 another pause and a return to the original theme. It's somewhat strange to hear a movement with a seemingly unrelated interlude.

4) Many classical music critics consider the third movement of this symphony, the Adagio, to be Bruckner's most beautiful composition. Even Bruckner considered it his single greatest work. In my view, however, the first movement of Bruckner's Fourth is at least equally beautiful. But after listening to the beautiful sweeping and swelling chords from 2:10 to 2:40 and from 4:00 to 4:20, it's clear why this movement is so loved.

5) And then we launch right into the suspense and thrills of the final movement. The introductory few measures remind me of Mars from Gustav Holst's The Planets.

6) And--true to form!--Bruckner's brass parts are, quite literally, a blast to play: they sound showy, yet they aren't at all technically difficult, and the musicians get to play them really loudly. How can you be a brass player and not be a Bruckner fan?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bartok: Violin Concerto #2

We will take a few more tentative steps into modern classical music today as we listen to Béla Bartók's Second Violin Concerto.

This is the first time I've listened to Bartok here at 101 Classical Music CDs, and despite the fact that I've been listening to classical music for some 30 years, it took me a surprisingly long time to acclimate to this work. This extremely complex concerto only started to make sense to me after three very close listens.
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto #2
Deutsche Grammophon, 1991

And this is why, if you are still new to classical music and are just starting up your collection of recordings, I would suggest you do not buy this CD until you've first become familiar with key works from earlier classical music eras. For some additional thoughts on the various challenges and rewards of listening to modern classical music, see listener note #6 below.

One other housekeeping item before we get into the listener notes: the CD I own isn't currently available at Amazon as a standalone disc, but it is available as part of an excellent 3-CD compilation of performances by Anne-Sophie Mutter (see also the graphical link to Amazon below). If you are interested in a good survey of the work of this amazingly talented violinist--and you'd also like to leave me a tip in my tip jar--feel free to click on these links to visit Amazon.

Listener Notes for Bartok's Violin Concerto #2:
1) It is interesting to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter's playing style after having just spent time with a violin playing prodigy from a few decades earlier, Michael Rabin. While listening to Mutter really dig her bow into the strings, I can't help but notice how much more florid, powerful and masculine Mutter's playing style is compared to Rabin's (how politically incorrect does that sound?). Of course, as a former trumpet player, I'm stating these opinions with absolutely no context on how to play the violin.

2) It's worth listening a couple of times to Mutter's cadenza in the first movement (from 12:40 to 14:33). If you are like me and your exposure to cadenzas is limited to the works of classical-era composers (Haydn, Mozart, etc), you'll find this to be an extraordinary-sounding solo.

3) Listen at 15:43 in the first movement to how Mutter picks off that ultra high note.

4) There are two notably beautiful passages in the second movement of this concerto: at the very beginning (0:00-4:35), and at the very end (9:09-9:55). But here's a caveat for those of you new to classical music: most modern classical music isn't really all that beautiful, at least not in the sense that, say, a Mozart concerto is beautiful. In many cases I'd argue that it's more accurate to describe the "beautiful" portions of many 20th century classical music works by using made-up compound words like creepy-beautiful, or eerie-beautiful, or weird-beautiful. Or perhaps "you'll-get-used-to-it-beautiful."

5) Listen to the cellos and violas whapping at their strings with their bows in the second movements (at 7:37, 7:42 and 7:59). An interesting sound effect.

6) Let me close this post by discussing a typical conundrum of modern classical music. Listen to the first 14 seconds of the third movement a few times in a row (this is where the string section and then the violin soloist state the initial themes of the movement).

Is this passage distinctive? Yes, certainly. Is it extremely complex? Yes, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Do you have to listen to it several times to "get it"? Yes, and that's also not necessarily a bad thing--music that's "too easy" won't hold your attention for long, but truly challenging music can hold your interest for years, as it will reward you with new nuances each time you listen to it.

But can you hum or sing this melody? Will it stick in your mind when you're walking home from the symphony hall?

Ah. Now, we face head-on a key problem with 20th century music. There is often so much nuance and complexity baked into music from this era that--for lack of a better term--there's no tune. When you think of the greatest works of the so-called "golden era" of classical music (arguably the classical and romantic periods), these works were often highly complex and nuanced, but the listener didn't have to work so hard to get at the fundamental essence of the music. To me, many modern classical compositions overwhelm the listener with too much complexity. And more often than not, this excess complexity only obscures the beauty and musicality of the work itself.

I hope to discuss more of the challenges of listening to modern classical music in future posts.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dvorak: Symphony #6

We return to Dvorak after an extremely long hiatus to listen to his Sixth Symphony, performed on a CD recorded live by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Colin Davis.
Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

Dvorák: Symphony No. 6
LSO Live, 2004

If you're in the early stages of building a classical music collection and are wondering whether you should include this work, let me be brief: don't bother. Dvorak has more impressive symphonies. If you want his best-known work, get this excellent recording of his Ninth; if you want to impress your friends with your originality by owning one of Dvorak's less-well-known work, then get the Seventh or Eighth Symphony (or both--they can be found on one CD here).

This symphony was beautiful and well-played, don't get me wrong. But I failed to connect with it on an emotional level, and the four movements just didn't seem to go together. The symphony didn't sound like a coherent whole to me.

Listener notes for Dvorak's Sixth Symphony:
1) The primary melody of the first movement is simple and kind of catchy.

2) Mumbling conductor alert: if you listen very closely at 4:30 in the first movement, you can hear the microphones pick up Sir Colin mumbling the melody along with the strings. You'll hear him off and on throughout the entire symphony. Somebody put a mike just a bit close to the podium, eh?

3) The tension that Dvorak puts into the first movement seems to me to be a bit artificial. I can hear that he's trying to create tension, yet I don't actually feel the tension. Do any readers out there who are familiar with this symphony agree with me?

4) Off-key clarinet alert! In the second movement from 0:19 to 0:24. Contrast this with two parts later in the movement, from 2:46 to 3:00 and 3:48 to 4:15, where he does a much better job of nailing the part.

5) I consider the second movement to be the most beautiful movement of the symphony, but don't you agree that it doesn't really go with the first movement? An example of this work's lack of coherence.

6) The third movement is classic Dvorak: pure, toe-tapping, Eastern European folk melodies. I love it!

7) Listen to the fourth movement from 2:35 to 2:38 for the offsetting eighth notes played by the strings. I'm sure this part gets screwed up more often than not in live performances. The LSO sounds great here.

8) The last two minutes of the fourth movement, particularly the passage from 8:35 to 9:00, are really rollicking, aren't they?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chopin: Four Scherzi, Berceuse and Barcarolle

After last week's derisive post on Paganini, I thought I'd shift to a composer who writes difficult-to-play music that doesn't threaten the very health of the musicians who play his works.

Chopin. The poet of the piano. Today's Four Scherzi are masterpieces, full of emotion, tension, lyricism and complexity. They were among Chopin's last publications before his untimely death from consumption at age 39.
Maurizio Pollini, piano
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
Chopin: 4 Scherzi, Berceuse, Barcarolle
Deutsche Grammophon, 1991
What is a scherzo, exactly? Usually the word refers to one of the middle movements of a traditional symphony; typically it will be a lively dance-like piece in 3/4 time.

Unfortunately, the word scherzo also means "joke" in Italian, leaving us to wonder if Chopin was being ironic or serious in using this name for these deeply emotional one-movement works for solo piano:

How are seriousness and gravity to be clothed if jest is to go about in such dark-colored garments?"
--Robert Schumann, referring to Chopin's Scherzo #1 in B minor

Listener notes for Chopin's Four Scherzi, Berceuse and Barcarolle:
Scherzo #1:
1) This has the angst and loaded emotional content of a Beethoven piano sonata, doesn't it? I don't really know what to call a work like this (a sonata in miniature?), but it is certainly not a joke. Not in any way.

Scherzo #2:
2) Listen to the passage from 2:20 to 3:09. Doesn't it sounds like four hands playing, not two?

Scherzo #3:
3) This is another particularly beautiful work. The more I think about this CD and the arresting music on it, the more I think this might be my all-time favorite classical music CD!

4) Another arresting composition, flawlessly performed by Mr. Pollini. This work is quiet, relaxing and beautiful; it also sounds almost improvisational in nature. Particularly interesting to me is the increasingly complex melodic line played by the right hand over a simple repeating left hand phrase.

A completely unrelated side note: After listening to music that is so incomparably beautiful, I can't help wondering: what have I done (or what will I do) that will ever be worth remembering?

At times it can be extremely difficult for me to listen to great music like this because its greatness almost definitionally proves the basic fact of my own insignificance. Do you find this to be the case when you listen to great music too?

Music is a highly emotional medium to begin with; when it also reminds you of how insignificant you are, it can be psychologically devastating to listen to it. Of course, this entire avenue of thought is fundamentally unhealthy--and more importantly, it is not at all the point of listening to classical music. But nevertheless, I can't help but recognize, from time to time, the simple and highly likely fact that most likely I will do little worth remembering at all. In fact, it's quite possible that I--and you, and most everyone we know--will over the course of an entire life do absolutely nothing that will be remembered.

That's pretty discouraging isn't it? Unless of course you join the struggle to write, create, produce, or offer up something of value that remains after you leave this life. Otherwise, yes, it is the basic nature of things that we will all likely be forgotten.

Wouldn't it be easier to just stop listening to Chopin if it makes me dwell on this? Perhaps.

But should I? No. Why give up something so beautiful? In any event, it would only be treating the symptom. One must either accept one's place in the collective memory of the world, or one must engage in a fierce, daily struggle to change that place. I think this is why I write.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Paganini: 24 Caprices Performed by Michael Rabin

Today's post is about not one, but two of history's greatest violin prodigies, and one of the most challenging collections of classical music ever written for the violin.

Nicolo Paganini, our first prodigy, was not only the greatest violinist who ever lived, he can also be thought of as classical music's first rock star, with worldwide fame, groupies, mistresses, and stupefied audiences of weeping and crying fans, some of whom were convinced that Paganini was under the control of Satan himself. I like to think of him as a 19th century version of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
Michael Rabin, violin (1936-1972)
Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840)
24 Caprices For Solo Violin
EMI Classics, 1958/1993
On the other hand, our second prodigy, Michael Rabin, never made it to his 36th birthday. Widely seen as one of the 20th century's most gifted violinists, he died in a freak accident in his New York City apartment--he slipped on the floor and hit his head on a chair. Fortunately, Rabin left for posterity this highly-regarded recording of Paganini's most difficult violin works.

Perhaps to use the word "difficult" to describe these compositions is a grievous understatement. Paganini's 24 Caprices are so physically and technically demanding to play that professional violinists have to take particular care when practicing them to avoid injury. It's even been speculated that Paganini had hyper-extensible joints, or may have even had Marfan's syndrome, otherwise he would not have had large enough and flexible enough hands to perform these works.

And herein lies the problem. Much of this is CD is what I consider "boop bleep" music, a technical term dating from my days playing from my Arban's Method for Trumpet practice book. The Arban, the bane of teenage trumpet players everywhere, contains countless etudes and musical works designed to help the musician learn control and finesse by playing technically, often preposterously, demanding exercises.

Think of the 24 Caprices as an Arban composed for gods. Even a musician completely ignorant of the subtleties of the violin will be able to tell that this music is preposterously difficult. You could argue that these caprices are so far beyond the normal capabilities of the violin that even a world-class musician like Michael Rabin sounds strained, off-key, and at times just plain bad, playing them.

This music is challenging, yes; but it doesn't sound like it's any fun to play, and it is decidedly not beautiful. Contrast the Caprices to the unstrained and beautiful music by Chopin or Schumann, both of whom wrote music that was not only beautiful and emotionally compelling, but also designed perfectly for the capabilities of the piano.

I understand and appreciate why impossible-to-play music like this exists, but it should be relegated to practice rooms, not concert halls. The violin is difficult enough to play as it is.

Are there Paganini fans out there who differ in their views? I'd love to hear a compelling argument for why this is great music.

A brief final note: In addition to a link to today's CD, I've also included a link to a boxed set of violinist Michael Rabin's collected works for those readers interested in learning more about this brilliant prodigy who died all too early.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mendelssohn: Symphony #2

Today's post will cover Felix Mendelssohn's Second Symphony, from disc 2 of our 3-CD set of his five symphonies.

Admittedly, the Second is a bit of a marathon. It starts off innocently enough like any other symphony, with three instrumental movements. But instead of finishing things up with a predictable fourth movement, Mendelssohn takes us into a nine-movement choral work. Collectively, the entire work is as long as two "normal" Mendelssohn symphonies.

Mendelssohn dedicated his Second Symphony to the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing, which he believed to be one of the most important events in history.
Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Five Symphonies

Deutsche Grammophon, 1973
Listener Notes for Mendelssohn's Second Symphony:
1) I'll say this for Mendelssohn: in this symphony he finally puts the brass section to work.

2) I don't see what's so aesthetically disappointing to music critics about this symphony. It has a wonderful, simply stated 10 note introductory theme, a pleasant fast waltz second movement, and a very moving third movement. Granted, I may not be contemplating life's greatest questions or overcome by emotion as I listen to this work, but other than that, this is really quite a nice work of music.

3) The third movement, in fact, is as beautiful as any slow movement I've heard recently for this blog. Perhaps it doesn't quite measure up to the second movement of Liszt's Faust Symphony, but it certainly holds its own against any of Beethoven's early symphonies or any of the works by Haydn I've listened to lately.

4) Woodwind intonation alert: It's highly disappointing to hear quite a few off-key woodwind notes in the third movement. The clarinets are the primary guilty party here. Imagine if this third movement were played perfectly? The hair on the back of my neck would be standing up.

5) At the 6:25 mark in the third movement, hear the oboe (barely) pick off a really difficult high note in a solo. Then hear him hit it with a lot more confidence on the second try at 6:45.

6) Listen to these Germans sing! Feisty, aren't they?

7) Classical music newcomers will likely find the unintelligible German singing a bit disconcerting. My advice is don't worry so much about what they're saying; just let the music wash over you. In a nutshell, the singers are praising the lord, worrying if the night will pass, and once the night does pass, thanking God and praising him some more. If you don't understand the words, you aren't missing all that much.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Mendelssohn: Symphony #5

We return to classical music's second best-known prodigy, Felix Mendelssohn. Today I'll be writing about his Fifth Symphony.
Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Five Symphonies

Deutsche Grammophon, 1973
It's been a long while since I returned to this three-CD set of Mendelssohn's five symphonies. I covered Symphony #1 way back in March 2008, and somehow eight months passed by before I came back to this collection (a side note: a commenter left a link on that post to a weirdly mesmerizing performance of Louis Farrakhan--yep, that Louis Farrakhan--playing a Mendelssohn violin concerto. You just never know who might be out there in cyberspace reading your blogs).

In any event, what is taking me so long to finish off this CD? It's certainly not because the music isn't wonderful. But I will say that on some level, Mendelssohn's symphonies lack the powerful feeling of some of the other Romantic composers we've been listening to lately. It's been such a pleasure exploring more intense works of that era that I guess I just haven't been drawn back to Mendelssohn until now.

Forgive me for borrowing a couple of exhausted terms from the political arena, but Mendelssohn was the "conservative" of the Romantic era. His music evoked the greats of the past like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and, to borrow a quote from The Essential Canon of Classical Music, he "repressed some of the more violent aspects of Romanticism"--meaning in part that his music neither challenged Classical era rules nor burst with the intense emotion of less repressed Romantic composers like Liszt, Chopin and Schumann.

Thus Liszt, Chopin and Schumann were the "progressives" of the Romantic era. These men, variously alienated or at odds with conventional society, wrote music that shattered the rigid structures of Classical-era music and had a level of emotional content (and in the case of Schumann, a level of madness) that shocked audiences at the time.

It's understandable, then, that Mendelssohn's music was seen as more comfortable and approachable by music fans of the day, although in my opinion the "progressives" ultimately won out--their music simply sounds more compelling today than Mendelssohn's pleasurable and innocuous symphonies.

Listener Notes for Mendelssohn's Symphony #5:
1) Why on earth would you release a CD that plays Mendelssohn's symphonies in this order?:

Disc 1: Symphony #1 and #5
Disc 2: Symphony #2
Disc 3: Symphony #3 and #4

Ironically, these symphonies are exactly in order, if you ignore their deceptive numbering and list them in the order in which they were written. Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony was actually his second, his Second was actually his third, and so on. Make sense? I didn't think so.

2) The Allegro section of the first movement sounds Bach-like in structure, but in temperament, it sounds like Mendelssohn trying to imitate Beethoven.

3) Recognize the theme of the second movement? It's the hymn "Away in a Manger."

4) I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the short but sweet third movement. It's a pleasure to listen to the tightly restrained emotion of the string section.

5) Yet another familiar music alert: do you recognize the key theme of the final movement? It's the well-known hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" which should be familiar to most Protestants.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Liszt: Eine Faust Symphonie

Prior to today, I can't remember ever listening to a single work by Liszt in my life. What a spectacular oversight!
Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Faust Symphonie
Deutsche Grammophon, 1977

In his day, Liszt was better known for his piano playing than his composing. His prowess at the keyboard was legendary, and he may have been the greatest pianist who ever lived. Just two quotes from my Essential Canon of Classical Musicwill suffice to illustrate how even the great composers of his era held him in awe:

I should like to steal from him the way to play my own etudes.

I've just witnessed a miracle! I was with Liszt at Erard's [a piano maker], and I showed him the manuscript of my concerto. He played it at sight--it's hardly legible--and with the utmost perfection. It simply can't be played any better than he played it. It was miraculous.
--Felix Mendelssohn

Of course, today, Liszt's reputation is based more on his compositions. Today's CD, a recording of Liszt's A Faust Symphony, is a three movement rendering of the legend of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for youth, success and love on Earth. The first movement represents Faust, the second represents Gretchen (Faust's love interest) and the third, Mephistopheles.

This symphony is musically complex and challenging. It doesn't have the more obvious tonality and musicality of the music I've been listening to lately, mostly works by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Thus it took me a couple of thorough passes through this CD before I really had my arms around the key musical themes. But I felt like I was richly rewarded for my patience.

If you listen to this other works by Liszt and don't "get it" at first, don't be discouraged--in many ways his compositions were a hundred years ahead of their time. Try to listen attentively to the work a few of times over a few days, and see what you think of it after that. He just might grow into one of your favorite composers.

Also, if you're interested in pursuing the music of Franz Liszt further, I've included a list of some of his key works below, as well as links to Amazon to two high-quality box sets of his complete piano works and orchestral works.

Listener Notes for A Faust Symphony:
1) Be prepared to be challenged by this symphony if you are new to classical music. This work has long movements (the first movement alone is longer than two entire Haydn symphonies stacked end to end) and you'll likely find the music somewhat difficult to follow. There are other works that would be much better to start with if you're a classical music novice.

2) Doesn't the tuba entrance at 3:39 in the first movement shake the ground? I love it.

3) You can hear just the slightest mumbling from a transported Leonard Bernstein at 6:08 in the first movement.

4) Listen for the principal trumpet's nervous and unsteady entrance to his solo at 23:46 in the first movement. When I hear high-school caliber playing like this done by a supposed professional, it makes me question my decision to not go pro as a trumpet player. Come on man! This is a solo! You're stating the key theme of the entire symphony, and it's supposed to be beautiful! Sheesh.

5) One comment on the second movement, which is one of the most beautiful musical works I've ever heard. Listen carefully at 7:02 and 7:12. The strings are collectively taking a big breath before they play each phrase! Who do they think they are pretending that they're playing wind instruments?

Actually, I've performed under conductors who have encouraged string players to do this very thing, because it gets them to think like wind instruments with regard to the length and arc of their phrasing. The audible breaths also have the effect of adding an layer of eerie mournfulness to this performance. I like it.

6) The third movement sounds like something Debussy might write (it has some of the auditory techniques we heard in La Mer). The only thing is, Liszt wrote this fifty years earlier--a testament to how he was far ahead of his time. In fact, this entire symphony sounds more like 20th century music than a work completed in 1854.

7) Here's a translation of the German chorus at the end of the third movement:

All things transitory are but parable;
Here insufficiency becomes fulfillment,
Here the indescribable is accomplished;
The ever-womanly draws us heavenward.

8) Notice the full cathedral-style organ playing underneath the orchestra in the last few minutes of the third movement.

Key Recommended Works by Liszt:
These are some of Liszt's most exemplary works. See also the links below for two high quality box sets of Liszt's compositions.

Hungarian Rhapsodies for Piano
Hungarian Rhapsodies for Orchestra
The Transcendental Etudes
Sonata in B Minor for Piano
Preludes for Orchestra
Concerto #1 in E flat Major for Piano and Orchestra

Friday, October 24, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #2

Today's post will cover Beethoven's Second Symphony, the other symphony on my 1985 CD of the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Herbert von Karajan.

Like the First, this symphony is part of Beethoven's "backward looking" period. Most of what we hear in this symphony bears striking resemblance to what you'd hear from Mozart, Haydn or other composers of the Classical era.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Deutsche Grammophon, 1985

And yet, while the structure and many of the melodic and harmonic elements sound "Classical" you can also hear, at times, a level of stress and emotional content unheard of in a typical Classical-era symphony.

Part of the increased emotional content of this symphony was doubtless a function of Beethoven's personal struggles. It was at this time he was beginning to suffer from the deafness that would ultimately rob him completely of his hearing:

"But what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing! Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair; but little more and I would have put an end to my life; only my art held me back. It seemed impossible to leave the world before I created all that I felt myself called upon to accomplish and so I endured this wretched existence."
--Beethoven, ca. 1802 (about the time when he completed his Second Symphony)

As I spend more time repeatedly listening to Beethoven's early symphonies and thinking about them in the context of Beethoven's personal history, I'm finding these works more fascinating than I ever imagined. And they take on even more significance and gravity when you think of these works as precursors to the next seven symphonies Beethoven would write, which include two or perhaps three of the greatest symphonies in the entire history of classical music.

One brief point of order before we get to the listener notes. Let me clear up what might be a source of terminological confusion for classical music newbies: the term "Classical" with a capital C refers specifically to the Classical era of classical music (usually considered the period from the early 1700s to the early 1800s). When I use the term "classical" with a lower case C, I'm referring more broadly to classical music of all eras. Hopefully that clears things up a bit!

Listener Notes for Beethoven's Second Symphony:
1) The opening chord is quite a contrast from the First Symphony, isn't it?

2) I particularly like how the meter changes from eighth notes to triplets early in the first movement (occurs at about 1:27 in track 5 on this CD).

3) Listen at the 2:52 mark in the first movement: That's when the "Mozartian" portion of this symphony begins, and it lasts essentially until the end of the movement. It almost makes you want to say "Too many notes!"

4) If you have good set of headphones, turn up the volume from 5:08 to 5:16 in the first movement (during the brief flute solo). You can hear the musicians frantically turning the pages of their music.

5) Am I the only person who thinks of the opening notes from Home, Home on the Range when I hear the key theme of the second movement? I'm probably going to go straight to classical music hell for saying that. I don't mean to make fun.

6) I struggle for a word to describe the third movement because it's just not a word you'd use to describe Beethoven's music. But for better or worse, that word is "fun." This brief, four minute long movement is genuinely fun music.

7) Have you ever heard Beethoven give a bassoonist the kind of action he doles out in the fourth movement? I wonder if bassoon players out there enjoy playing this work.

8) At 2:58 in the fourth movement (track 8) you can hear more frantic page turning, and at 3:30-3:33 you can hear the french horn miss an entrance. And for the next 20 to 30 seconds the entire woodwind section loses its footing. The clarinet comes in slightly off-key, the bassoon flubs an entrance and then the oboe flubs an entrance. Only the flutes hang tough here. But everyone quickly gets back on their feet to finish off the movement.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #1

Today we will cover Beethoven's First Symphony, from a 1985 CD of the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Herbert von Karajan.

I can see why music critics and historians consider Beethoven's First Symphony to be backward looking. There are times when you can hear Beethoven's stormy temper lurking in the First, but otherwise this symphony work sounds stylistically and structurally quite a bit like the music of Haydn or Mozart, key composers of the Classical era.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Deutsche Grammophon, 1985

Most music historians group Beethoven with Classical-era composers. But he wasn't really of the Classical era, nor was he truly of the Romantic era. He straddled both.

His work evolved from Classical in style into forerunner works of the Romantic era (the Third Symphony is arguably a proto-Romantic work), and then evolved into true Romantic works (the Fifth and the symphonies that followed). And of course his later works (e.g., the Late String Quartets) went far beyond the Romantic era, which were a hundred years ahead of their time in their experimention with atonality.

Listener Notes for Beethoven's First Symphony:
1) The gentle soft opening chords of this symphony is a shocking contrast to the familiar "dut-dut-dut dahhhhh" sledgehammer opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, isn't it?

2) The rapid eighth notes that begin at about 1:58 in the first movement sound like they could be the backdrop of any of Mozart's symphonies. But then Beethoven throws a wrench into our perceptions at the 5:52 mark of this movement, and he shows how this symphony differs from Classical era works. Mozart or Haydn would probably be about ready to wrap up the first movement at this point. But Beethoven? No way. He's just getting going. He modulates the key up a step, goes on to compose and extended bridge, and then returns to the main theme at the 7:20 mark.

3) Crappy trumpet part alert: After playing a few chords in the second minute of the first movement, and some desultory chords here and there (but mostly counting rests), the trumpets finally get to come in for real for a few arpeggios at the very end. Bor-ing! Not the kind of of symphony I would have liked to play as a teenage kid, that's for sure.

4) The entire second movement sounds exactly like something Haydn might write, particularly considering its brevity.

5) The fourth movement opens up with a really neat feature: the strings softly hint at the main theme, playing portions of an ascending scale, adding notes to them each time, and then letting loose with the main theme. What an interesting way to gently build tension! And Beethoven uses this effect a few more times in the movement to build tension elsewhere. Really creative.

6) Note at 5:38 in the fourth movement (right near the end), when the trumpets play a unison high note with the violins. Can you hear how the trumpets are quite a bit flat, and out of tune with the violins? It's always a bit annoying to hear a bad intonation mistake at the climax of a symphony--it kind of kills the moment.

In our next post, we'll cover the other work on this CD, Beethoven's Second Symphony.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Haydn: Symphony #40, #50

Today we will cover listener notes to Haydn's Symphony #40 and Symphony #50, the final two works on this exceptional CD of four Haydn symphonies.

Haydn was a giant of the classical era of classical music, and if you're interested in getting a representative sample of his music, you should seriously consider buying today's recording, as well as a recording of either his "London" Symphonies, or his "Paris" Symphonies.

Let me just repeat for emphasis from last post that the four symphonies on this CD are performed brilliantly, and nearly flawlessly, by the Heidelberger Sinfoniker.
Thomas Fey and the Heidelberger Sinfoniker
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 39, 34, 40, 50
Hanssler Classic, 2001/2003

Listener Notes for Haydn's Symphony Nos. #40 and #50:

Symphony #40:

1) 30 seconds into the first movement of #40 (and it happens again at 1:38 when the initial theme is repeated) there's a an interesting musical feature Haydn puts in here: while the oboe and the first violins are playing long high notes, the second violins and violas play a repeated pattern of three eighth notes beneath them. It sounds almost like a needle skipping on a record--except that's impossible with a CD. That's another thing I love about Haydn: music in his era was supposed to be highly structured, and on casual listen, Haydn's music sounds like it plays by the rules. Yet if you listen closely, you can't help but notice all the little subversive musical things he sneaks into his works.

2) Do the four movements of Symphony #40 sound like they belong together? They don't to me at all, particularly the second movement. In fact, I'd argue you could substitute the slow movement from any other Haydn symphony in here and only a few classical music geeks would ever know the difference.

3) The fourth movement is a fugue! That's a first for me: I've never heard Haydn trying his hand at composing a fugue before. It's beautiful. And just like Bach, only happier.

Symphony #50:
1) For the first movement of this symphony, Haydn recycled music he had written for a one act opera called Philemon und Baucis. I can see why he did it: not only was it a great way to save time (how else was he going to write 104 symphonies?), but this movement is excellent--a truly triumphant piece of music.

2) Triumphant or not, though, the strings and woodwinds get all the good parts here. The brass are stuck counting rests and playing oom-pah parts.

3) The second movement has an interesting feature: the violas play the same melody along with the violins, except the violas play it one octave lower. It gives the string section an added dimension of depth and body.

4) Tell me you can listen to the fourth movement of this symphony and not get an ear-to-ear grin on your face. This movement was so captivating on the first listen that I had to listen to it again right away. And it's one of the key reasons this symphony is my runaway favorite of the four works on this CD.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Haydn: Symphony #39, #34

I've mentioned before how I had never really appreciated Haydn before starting this blog. I had always thought of his music as rigid, highly structured and filled with more ornamentation than emotion.
Thomas Fey and the Heidelberger Sinfoniker
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 39, 34, 40, 50
Hanssler Classic, 2001/2003

This batch of four Haydn symphonies puts the lie to those assumptions just like all my other Haydn CDs. Haydn did amazing, facetious, challenging and even shocking things with the symphony. He was every bit the flexible risk taker that Mozart was, despite that era's relatively strict sense what the structure and format of a symphony should be.

And this CD of the Heidelberger Sinfoniker, under the direction of Thomas Fey, is an exceptional performance across the board. There is hardly a mistake or off-key note in the entire CD, a particularly significant achievement as this recording was done with period instruments. For pathological listeners like me, it's a treat simply to enjoy the music rather than be distracted by playing errors.

But let me share one complaint: Why would you record Haydn's 39th, 34th, 40th and 50th symphonies not only out of sequence, but also out of order? Not only does this make categorizing your music more difficult, it makes it nearly impossible to be systematic about acquiring Haydn symphonies.

We saw this phenomenon with my Haydn London Symphony CDs, which contained a total of six of the composer's 12 London symphonies. Don't get me wrong, it was a (mostly) exceptional recording, and listening to and writing about these symphonies was a great joy.

But guess how these symphonies were sequenced on the CD? #94, #100, #101, #96, #103, #104. How is this logical?

Let's say I wanted to have a complete collection of all twelve of Haydn's London Symphonies. If all I could find were randomly (or idiosyncratically) sequenced partial collections, I'd most likely end up having to buy half a dozen separate recordings to approach a complete collection. Worse, this hypothetical six CD mini-collection would probably have six versions of the "Drum Roll" Symphony and no versions of Symphony #102.

If anyone can articulate a legitimate artistic reason for recording symphonies both out of sequence and out of order, please share it with me. I'd love to hear it.

And until I hear a real reason, I'll just assume that this is just a scheme to force consumers to buy extra music. It certainly must help drive sales of boxed sets.

Listener Notes for Haydn's Symphony Nos. #39, #34, #40 and #50:
Indulge me while I rearrange these symphonies into an order that doesn't hurt my eyes so much:

Symphony #34:
1) The long (at least for Haydn) opening movement of the 34th Symphony is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard by the man.

2) Haydn's music is often a study of contrasts, and the 34th Symphony is no exception. After being lulled by the first movement, he makes you jump out of your seat with the Allegro of second movement. Better still is how Haydn flaunts symphonic convention. After all, the first movement is supposed to be aggressive and fast, and second movement is supposed to be slow and quiet. Not the other way around.

3) I particularly love the grace-note-inflected triplets played by the strings in the beginning of the fourth movement of #34.

4) Yet another symphony that's over too soon. After the beautiful nine-minute first movement and the speedy five-minute second movement, the next two movements are barely six minutes long together. All of a sudden this symphony is over before it starts, and we're off to yet another wonderful (and arbitrarily sequenced) symphony!

Symphony #39:
1) I know I recently called Haydn's symphonies the auditory equivalent of an amuse-bouche (although I never meant this statement to sound so condescending). But after being overwhelmed by Beethoven the other day, the contrast between Beethoven's gravitas and Haydn's light-hearted fun seems extreme. Perhaps I should listen to my own advice and avoid listening to classical music composers out of order.

2) Haydn puts a catchy and amusing "hook" at the very beginning of Symphony #39. It's an introduction of the theme of the first movement, but at the same time it's a bit of a headfake. We hear 8 measures of introduction, a fade into a few uncomfortable seconds of silence, and then the symphony starts for real.

3) The tension of the opening few moments of the fourth movement of #39 is real shock. Maybe this symphony isn't quite such an amuse-bouche after all...

I'll be back in a few days with listener notes to the two remaining symphonies on this CD, Symphony #40 and Symphony #50!