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?