Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #4

I challenge anyone to sit quietly and attentively through a Beethoven symphony--any Beethoven symphony--and not get both engrossed and emotional.

George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony #4
Symphony #7

Sony Classical, 1992
Today we'll talk about Beethoven's 4th Symphony, and how the 4th seems to get overlooked--even forgotten--in the context of Beethoven's best known works.

Granted, everything is relative in life, and it's hard to compare favorably to titanic works like Beethoven's 1st, 5th and 9th Symphonies (we'll eventually get to all of them in this blog). It's like being the youngest kid in a family, getting straight A's and going on to a great career as a doctor or lawyer or whatever, but because your older brothers are Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill and Michael Jordan, nobody notices you. Even Beethoven, by definition, has a least successful symphony.

But it's also true that Beethoven's "worst" symphony is still better than almost any other composer's best.

While I'm on this theme of overlooked great symphonies, let me also talk about overlooked orchestras.

Everybody always seems to focus on the "big-city" symphonies as if they're so superior. You don't hear about the Cleveland Symphony that often; it seems to get overlooked much like Beethoven's lesser symphonies. But in the few recordings I have of Cleveland, such as today's work, the orchestera sounds tight and clean--in contrast to many of my other recordings of better-known orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the (unfortunately named) Wiener Philharmoniker, or the London Symphony, where I'm often wincing at missed notes or off-key woodwinds, or brass sections that sound underfed.

And I've been disappointed on occasion with the performances of the NY Phil I've seen over the past several years. Of course it's not fair to compare a studio recording to a live performance (the coughing from the audience is distracting enough), but you just shouldn't hear more than a handful of mistakes per performance from such a vaunted city's orchestra.

But just like it's a pleasant surprise to discover an overlooked or unappreciated classical work from a great composer, it's also a truly pleasant surprise to hear an overlooked or underappreciated orchestra really nail a symphony. We had just such an experience last year when we decided for once to skip crossing the river into Manhattan, and instead went to an excellent performance of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

Why pay up for the so-called top-of-the-line orchestra and have your ultra-high expectations go unmet when there's a great classical music experience waiting for you locally? And why limit yourself to the so-called top-of-the-line classical music canon, and only listen to Beethoven's 5th and 9th Symponies, when there are amazing works like his 4th Symphony just sitting there waiting to bowl you over?

Related Links:
The Cleveland Symphony
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos

I considered holding off on Bach for a little bit because I feel he's almost too difficult to listen to, especially for classical music beginners.

But because Bach holds such an important place in music history, and because his music will be the cornerstone of any basic classical music collection, we're going to tackle one of his more accessible works early on in this blog.

Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Brandengurg Concertos
Orchestral Suites No. 2 &3
Deutsche Grammophon, 1965

The Brandenberg Concertos (there are six of them) are deeply complicated works, but don't let that scare you off. These works are accessible to a novice listener. And I'd suggest if you are starting your own classical music collection, get a copy of the Brandenberg Concertos early on. The particular recording I have (listed above) is performed in a relatively slow tempo on modern instruments, and I prefer it that way. But you should also consider getting one or two other recordings of these concertos in order to hear how other performers and conductors treat the music.

And pay particular attention to Brandenberg Concerto #5 and the stunning harpsichord solos that it features.

What I've always loved about Bach was that he labored so hard in a state of total obscurity. Nobody really cared about his music while he lived, and his music remained forgotten and obscure for a century after he died. Yet clearly the guy systematically worked his ass off his entire life, as he created an enormous body of work that towers over classical music. He was a deeply religious man, so perhaps he felt God was watching him, so it mattered not that his fellow man was indifferent to his work.

I think the two best words to describe Bach's music are "cerebral" and "complex." Bach's music is so complex it can be hard to appreciate for classical music beginners. Have you ever attempted to, say, hum a few bars from one of Bach's compositions?

You see what I mean. And yet, they were playing Brandenberg Concerto #5 in the Port Authority Bus Terminal the other day. It almost made it a tolerable experience for me to stand in line for a commuter bus.

We'll get into more Bach compositions as we work through my 100+ CDs, including his Cello Suites, some of his violin concertos and portions of The Well Tempered Clavier. And hopefully we'll also cover some of the interpretive debates on Bach's work (slow or fast? original instruments or modern instruments? etc, etc).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Anton Bruckner: Symphony #4 "Romantic"

Part of me is almost sheepish about promoting Anton Bruckner. I suppose I consider him one of my guilty pleasures.

Claudio Abbado and the Weiner Philharmoniker
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony #4 "Romantic" (ca. 1874)
Deutsche Grammophon, 1991

I had a friend back in high school who really insulted me once when I told her that I liked Bruckner:

Bruckner? Come on. He's the John Williams of .... no, he's the Andrew Lloyd Webber of classical music!

If you were a music student in the 1980s, and if you thought of yourself as culturally superior in an era of overwrought musicals like Phantom and Cats and cheesy movie scores for movies like E.T. and Star Wars, then you'd understand how profoundly condescending this statement was to me. All I could do was weakly claim that she'd "get" Bruckner if she played a brass instrument instead of a clarinet.

I rarely find anybody who finds this story funny when I tell it, but trust me, to the right people, it is funny.

But if you spend five minutes reading about this man--deeply miserable, alone, a misfit in the world in which he lived, scathingly criticized and mocked by critics and audiences alike--and then spend one hour listening to the beautiful 4th Symphony, I'll bet you'll turn into a Bruckner fan too.

Finally, there is one particular passage in the first movement (it runs from about the 9:30 minute mark to the 11:00 minute mark in the recording I have) that I consider one the most emotionally moving pieces of symphonic music in existence. I don't care if it's schmaltzy or overwrought in some peoples' eyes.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Why Classical Music Writing is So Difficult to Read

Have you ever read the liner notes of a classical music CD and scratched your head wondering what the heck the writer was trying to say? Or attempted to read a classical music concert review in your newspaper and felt totally illiterate?

One of the things that frustrates many people about classical music is its perceived elitism. It's unfortunate, but most of what gets written about classical music only worsens that perception.

Most of the classical music writing I see out there--either in symphony concert program books, in concert reviews in major papers like the New York Times, or worst of all in the little essays in the booklets accompanying most classical music CDs--is quite simply terrible. Often, it is pretentiously written, it is full of industry jargon (yes, even the classical music industry has its own jargon), and it reads like an intellectually insecure liberal arts student's PhD thesis.

There are a few reasons for this. First, there's the fundamental difficulty of taking the elemental and often indescribable emotions in classical music and rendering them in precise language. It is never easy describing something experienced in one discipline (music) in a totally unrelated discipline (writing). How do you talk to somebody about an apple pie when it's so much easier to have them taste it? How do you explain the concept of "blue" to a blind person? We usually respond to great music at a very basic level, either emotionally or by dancing or by singing along, but rarely do we respond verbally or conversationally.

But just because something is difficult to do doesn't mean it can't be done.

The second reason stems from what I would call the "expert problem." People who consider themselves established in any discipline often can't help themselves from using the jargon and code words of their profession. By lacing their language with obscure terms and expressions, they (supposedly) demonstrate that they know more about their profession than the unwashed novices. And certain professions--classical music, art history and oenology spring to my mind--tend to be the worst offenders.

Third, CD liner notes and concert program notes are often translated from another language, and this layers on yet another opportunity to use confusing expressions and word choices.

When you combine the expert problem with translation problems, and then combine that with a medium that quite frankly is difficult to discuss verbally in the first place, you get jargon-laden and informationally useless sentences like these in your CD liner notes...

"The connecting passage in which this feat is accomplished bespeaks a degree of intensity whose elemental force is surely unsurpassable." --(from a 1992 Sony Classical CD of Beethoven's 4th and 7th Symphonies)


"The shape of the first movement is by no means unconventional, but it is a perfect realisation of the later 19th century's reinterpretation of classical principles." --(from a 2003 London Symphony Orchestra recording of Dvorak's 7th Symphony)

...and these two samples come from just the few CDs I've tackled so far for this blog! In other words, I didn't have to go hunting at all to find two really embarrassing examples of babble.

I guess the fundamental truth is that you have to shut up and listen to classical music to really learn it and understand it. And if I ever devolve into jargon or babble in this blog, please call me on it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #6

I've wondered, after composing something as flawless and structurally perfect as the 5th Symphony, what can a man, even a giant like this man, possibly do for an encore? That's what draws me to Beethoven's 6th Symphony.

Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic

Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony #5
Symphony #6, "Pastoral"
Deutsche Grammophon, 1984
The 6th Symphony, which I'll focus on today, may not have the gravitas of the 5th, but it is still stunningly beautiful and inspiring. It is lilting (as much as Beethoven can lilt), yet still quite formal.

Beethoven was probably the cockiest composer in the history of classical music, but if you just spend a little time listening closely to any of his music, you can see that he deserved to be cocky. I have always loved the story about his response to people who were bewildered by the dissonance and complexity of his so-called "late" string quartets. He said, "Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age." Of course he was right.

I'll be returning to Beethoven repeatedly this year, as I have all of his symphonies, as well as his complete string quartets and several of his piano sonatas. And his life, and all of the adversity he overcame, makes his music that much more compelling.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #5

If you are interested in starting up a collection of solid classical music, you probably should start by buying all of Beethoven's symphonies, and the first one I suggest you spend time on is his 5th.

Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic

Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony #5
Symphony #6, "Pastoral"
Deutsche Grammophon, 1984
It is the most accessible of his symphonies to anyone new to classical music. Everyone recognizes the four-note opening theme. Beethoven's 5th is a textbook example of the symphonic form (some would say it represents the utter perfection of the symphonic form). And, at about 25 minutes in running time, it won't strain your attention span.

I've probably listened to this symphony at least 200 times, and I've performed it as well. And I still get emotional listening to it. Listen for the triumphal sections about one minute into the second movement, as well as the soft woodwind and strings sections towards the very end of the second movement. And listen for the overwhelming french horn parts early on in the third movement where they restate the opening theme of the first movement. And of course listen for the third movement to fade softly away--and then suddenly blast off into the fourth movement in one of the most gripping and triumphant passages in all of classical music.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet and Symphony #4

Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra
Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Romeo & Juliet
Symphony #4 in F minor
Telarc, 1993

Today's post brings back memories. Terrible memories.

Romeo and Juliet was a piece our high school symphonic band played, and in the arrangement for concert band, inexplicably, the trumpets had to play a lot of the technically demanding runs that would have been assigned to the strings in the orchestral/original version.

Now, anybody who knows high school music programs knows that high school trumpet players, mostly boys, don't practice like the predominantly flute- or clarinet-playing girls.

So our band director, Mr. I, growing increasingly frustrated with our muddy sound, went "down the line." Meaning, he made each individual trumpet player play the run by himself. In front of the rest of the band. Which included all the girls in the clarinet and flute section in front of us who turned around to look and watch us screw up.

I was a freshman in high school at this point and was in over my head musically at this stage of my music career. I was a 14 year old kid who wasn't even sure he belonged in the "good band" in high school. This was the most terrifying moment in my music career up to that point.

And of course I screwed up the run when it was my turn. I wanted to crawl under my chair and die right there.

Funny though, that was a catalyst for me. I vowed never to embarrass myself again like that. And I'm not sure if it was because of this specific event or not, but I had improved enough by the following year that very little of the music we played in high school after that point challenged me.

Amateur listeners like me will of course recognize the famous melody in Romeo and Juliet that's parodied by Hollywood love scenes in zillions of movies. But the piece has some fascinating fugue-like sections, a surprising amount of complexity, and it is quite emotionally stirring to listen to all the way through.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Dvorak: Symphony #7

I'm going to start with the Czech composer Dvorak (1841-1904) and his 7th Symphony, written in 1885.

Of course, everybody who even slightly knows any classical music will know Dvorak's 9th Symphony, or at least recognize the famous melody in the second movement.

But I already know that one. So I'm starting with the somewhat more obscure 7th.

I actually have two recordings of Dvorak's 7th: one is by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch in a 1990 CD of Dvorak's Symphony #7 and Symphony #8; the other is the London Symphony Orchesta in a 2001 CD, conducted by Sir Colin Davis in a live recording.

The Philly Orchestra recording is considerably better. It sounds cleaner and fuller. And something about the London Symphony's trumpet players bugs me--they feel underfed and they play off key at times. But those are minor criticisms.

There's actually a New York connection with Dvorak, as he was the director the New York Conservatory of Music from 1892-1895. It was during this period that Dvorak wrote his famous 9th Symphony, "From the New World."

A couple of other interesting tidbits about Dvorak: Brahms (one of my favorite composers--we'll be spending quite a bit of time with him this year) helped him out quite a bit early in his career. Also, Dvorak also had nine, count 'em, nine children.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


This blog represents the documentation of my efforts to quit buying new classical music and actually listen to all the music that I already own.

Each week I'll share my (hopefully brief) thoughts and impressions as I work through a 100+ classical music CD collection. My goal at the end of this year is to be much more familiar with all of the great music that's just sitting here in my home.

If you're new to classical music and are interested in learning more, or if you are interested in building your own library of classical classics and you want some suggestions to get started, or if you are an experienced listener or musician willing to share your views, please join me!