Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Telemann: Concerto in D and Two Overtures

"For some listeners today, Telemann represents all that is boring in Baroque music: a constant patter of mindless musical patterns, churned out ad nauseum.... Classical music stations constantly program Telemann as a pleasantry, or palliative, before or after more demanding fare."*

Ouch. I don't think I'd go quite so far.

Telemann belongs to a group of (sometimes indistinguishable) Baroque-era composers such as Vivaldi, Rameau, Albinoni, Scarlatti and Corelli, Couperin and Purcell. And, certainly, classical music stations love to play this music because the pieces tend to be brief (it's hard to run ads on a radio station if you only play hour-long Mahler symphonies), pleasing to the ear, and yes, even palliative.

Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Concerto in D Major
Overture-Suite in G Minor
Overture-Suite in D Major
Deutsche Grammophon, 1994
But you have to consider classical music in the context of its genre.

Sure, this music is bright and cheery. Yes, it's palliative. It certainly lacks the seriousness and gravitas of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony. But the music is also quite complex and worth several listens just to study out all the complex melodic lines that weave in and out of each composition.

Furthermore, would you ever play a Beethoven symphony for background music in your home? Uh, no. For one thing, you'll find yourself contantly running over to the stereo to turn the volume down or up--there are too many volume changes and climaxes in this kind of a symphonic work for it to serve as background music. In contrast, this Telemann disc plays at an almost constant volume.

Also, it's okay to give your ears a little bit of what I'd call "classical music candy" once in a while. You don't always have to be moved to tears when listening to a CD.

* from The Essential Canon of Classical Music" by David Dubal.

Note: I recommend this book highly, it's an excellent and easy to read reference guide for classical music.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

About This Blog

This blog is the result of a New Year's resolution. I have a good-sized collection of classical music at home that has been collecting dust for years, and I wanted to make 2008 the year that I actually made an effort to listen to it. All of it.

I have a reasonably thorough musical education, having played trumpet throughout elementary, middle and high school. I was also principal trumpet in my university wind ensemble for two years before I gave up playing. I also have some basic grounding in music theory and composition, although it's gone quite stale through years of disuse.

However, there is much that I don't know about classical music, and one of the purposes of this blog is to force me, in a public forum no less, to learn and share thoughts about the discs in my collection as I listen to them. I'll also link to music selections on Amazon.com that are applicable to the composer or composition I'm featuring. Occasionally I'll write posts that hopefully will assist others who may share the goal of listening and experiencing more classical music--it's truly an amazing and diverse art form that is underappreciated in the era of three-minute-long popular music downloads.

The posting rate for this blog should be about 2 posts per week. Over the course of 2008, then, I should be able to listen to 101 CDs--my entire classical music collection!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Haydn: Symphonies 82-87, The Paris Symphonies

Beginning classical music enthusiasts might look at this post and wonder, "Symphony #87? How the heck could this guy have written 87 symphonies? Beethoven only wrote nine!"
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Haydn (1732-1809)
Haydn: 6 "Paris" Symphonies, #82-87
Deutsche Grammophon, 1981
Actually, Haydn wrote 104 symphonies. But the symphony of Haydn's era was quite a different animal from the more serious and extended symphony of the Beethoven era. And in many ways Beethoven ruined things for everybody that came after him.

After Beethoven, the entire notion of a symphony took on such a seriousness and a gravity that many great composers following Beethoven labored under his shadow. Brahms lacked the confidence even to attempt composing a symphony until late in his life. Beethoven had said all that needed to be said, and even the world's best composers lacked the audacity to say anything after him.

And of course I'm not in any way saying Haydn's symphonies lack artistic merit--the collective significance of Haydn's compositions amount to a monumental achievement for a composer's life's work, believe me. It's just a fact that Haydn's symphonies have somewhat less gravity and seriousness when compared to Beethoven's. But they are beautiful all the same and are a sheer pleasure to listen to. If you are looking to add Haydn to your classical music collection, I'd start with his Paris Symphonies. The recording I own (and have linked to below) is of very high quality.

I think Haydn had the good fortune to have composed most of his works long before Beethoven came upon the scene. Unlike Brahms, Haydn didn't have to go around thinking he sucked just because he came around after Beethoven.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Brahms: Symphony #1

Brahms is often referred to as "the third B" (following Bach and Beethoven) of the giants of classical music. But what's so compelling to me about Brahms was his self-critical nature and the ridiculously high-standards he set for himself. He constantly denigrated his compositions, even destroying much of his own work that was in his opinion substandard.

If this guy thought his work was substandard, where does that leave the rest of us?

To me the lesson here is that a creator can be the worst judge of his own work, and you should never let self-criticism interfere with your creative output.

Now if I could just do that myself...

Leonard Bernstein and the Weiner Philharmoniker
Johannes Brahms
Symphony #1
Academic Festival Overture
Deutsche Grammophon, 1983
If you want to look for particularly gripping passages of Brahms' First Symphony, you can start by listening closely to the first few minutes of the second movement, which opens with a moving string passage and flows into a beautiful solo by the oboe.

This symphony is so beautiful and so powerful (when performed well) that I consider it a critical early building block of any classical musical collection. However, I have two quibbles with the specific recording that I have, so I do not recommend you buying the actual Deutsche Grammophon CD from my collection that I list above. Just get a different recording--you can start by taking a look at the link below in this post.

In any case, on to the quibbles, which I include here more for humor value than anything else:

One problem is a few pretty bad out-of-tune moments in the fourth movement. The worst is in the passage that begins at about the 4:27 mark in the fourth movement, when the trombones softly play the key theme, and somebody in the trombone section really lets out a couple of bad off-key notes there. This is for me the emotional climax of the symphony, and I just can't bear to hear this passage with that guy in there muffing it up for everybody else.

The other quibble I have is more surreal: at the 2:57 to 3:03 mark in the second movement you can actually hear Leonard Bernstein mumbling the melody to himself along with the orchestra. You'll need good headphones and a decent ear to hear this but it's definitely there. It's such a bizarre thing to hear in a professionally-recorded symphony that I could hardly believe my own ears. But then it happens again in the second movement, at the 9:36 to 9:38 mark and then again at one or two other places in the recording! Weird. Granted, it's a live recording and I guess he was really getting into it, so good for him.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sibelius: Symphony #2, Finlandia

Sibelius isn't just an overlooked composer in my music collection, he's also overlooked by many classical music fans. Today we'll cover a disc that includes his Symphony #2 and the patriotic, shorter work Finlandia.

I'll start with Finlandia, which, at just over seven minutes in length, is a great piece for a Sibelius beginner to start with. It was written during a period of particularly heavy-handed control of Finland by Czarist Russia, and the piece is overtly patriotic and nationalistic. Finns consider this work a critical part of their cultural heritage.

Let's move on to Sibelius' Symphony #2. My favorite anecdote about this work has to do with the circumstances under which it was written. It was 1901, and Sibelius had just left Finland for Italy:

"The composer installed his wife and children in a boarding-house, and rented for himself a small hilltop villa above the town of Rapallo, in order to be able to work in peace... At one point during their stay Sibelius became tired of his role as father of the family and escaped to Rome, much to the displeasure of his wife Aino."*

Nice work if you can get it.

Paavo Berglund and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony #2
The Oceanides
EMI, 1988
I hear some musical similarities between Jean Sibelius and the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. I was surprised to find the two men were contemporaries, born seven years apart and dying only one year apart.

We'll come back to Sibelius two more times to cover the two other CDs I have: one disc of his Third and Fifth symphonies, and another disc of his Fifth and Seventh symphonies. From what I've absorbed from the textbooks on Sibelius, there's a significant stylistic difference between his more popular first two symphonies and his Third through Seventh symphonies, which are much less popular among listeners. I'm curious if I'll end up agreeing with the consensus on this.

* Quote above comes from the CD liner notes, written by Hannu-Ilari Lampila and translated by William Moore.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mozart: Symphony #29 and Symphony #34

I'll tell you a little secret.

I resent Mozart.

No, I'm not some sort of modern-day Salieri. It's because I used to play the trumpet.

James Levine and the Weiner Philharmoniker
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony #29
Symphony #34

Deutsche Grammophon, 1986

No trumpet player likes Mozart and Mozart didn't like trumpet players. And the parts that trumpet players have to play in Mozart symphonies heartily show this dislike.

Supposedly Mozart's baggage with the trumpet had more to do with the fact that the instruments of that day were valveless and didn't allow for the pitch control or the technical capabilities that his music typically required from other instruments.

So he wrote his music they way he did, thank goodness for that. But he always gave the trumpets what we used to condescendingly call "oom-pah parts" (think John Sousa marches and what the french horns have to suffer through in those).

And what is always the worst for a musician (especially a high school- or college-age male musician who was more interested in checking out the pretty girls in the woodwind section in front of us) playing oom-pah parts in a Mozart symphony means having to count rests. In other words, not only do you hate the part you have to play, you have to pay close attention the whole time, counting bars, so you come in at the right time. Otherwise you get into trouble and the conductor starts it all over again. Thus causing you to have to play the hated part again.

I spent years avoiding Mozart during and after I was performing as a musician because I thought all his trumpet parts sucked. Talk about not thinking (or listening) outside the box.

But it was several years ago that I bought a couple of Mozart symphonies and I guess enough years had gone by since I was last playing the trumpet that I could really listen to the works as a whole. I fell in love with them.

So why then do I resent Mozart? Because after all of those years of rest-counting and oom-pah part playing, I thought I hated Mozart. And I missed out on several years of utter classical music joy.

I gotta blame somebody.

I'll have much more to say and to celebrate of Mozart's (all too brief) life and the genius of his works in the coming months.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

How to Listen to Classical Music When You Don't Have a Lot of Time

Let me share a few words of encouragement for those of you who might be a bit intimidated by the potential time commitment involved in learning the great classical musical works.

Most of us are accustomed to hearing our music in 3-4 minute songs, so it can seem like an enormous investment in time to get to know entire symphonies that can range from 30 minutes to more than an hour.

Beethoven's famous Fifth Symphony clocks in at a relatively brief 25 minutes, but even that can represent a significant time commitment if you want to listen closely to various sections of the symphony, or repeat a favorite movement a couple of times. Of course, symphonies by composers like Bruckner or Shostakovich can run an hour or more long. And we'll see even more extreme examples of length when we tackle Mahler in future posts.

If you have a job, a family and a typically busy life, you won't often be able to drop everything and invest a non-trivial amount of time in listening closely to a symphony. So I suggest you consider breaking symphonies into bite-sized pieces of one movement at a time.

In almost all symphonies, an individual movement can be heard as its own holistic work. It doesn't necessarily need the rest of the symphony surrounding it to be a beautiful piece in its own right. Sure, it's important to experience an entire symphony from beginning to end, but you can just as easily learn a symphony piecemeal and still become intimately familiar with it. Think of it like tackling a favorite book one chapter at a time.

Great classical music is so beautiful and so profound that it would be a shame to miss out on learning about it because you think you don't have the time. If you have a busy schedule, using the "one movement at a time" technique with just a little bit of daily discipline might mean the difference between listening to classical music regularly and not listening to it at all.