Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I don't understand Classical Radio

This is not the first time I've ranted about classical radio.  I have been fortunate to live in some places with really good classical radio stations (I grew up with KUSC in Los Angeles, where I heard many great pieces and performers for the first time, and, here in Boston, WGBH is one of the best).  However, I am often perplexed at the programming choices, and I wonder if anyone else feels as I do.

What confuses me is the amount of second-rate music being programmed.  I understand that there would be *some* interest in hearing lesser-known music.  But today in the car - during morning "drive time," when I assume competition for radio listeners is particularly keen - we had, in succession, works by: Antonio Salieri; Lennox Berkeley (who?); Jean-Louis Tulou (again, who?); Ottorino Respighi (a known composer, though not of the first rank); and Bernhard Henrik Crusell (who??).  I know a lot about classical music and had never heard of these composers.  And trust me, there was not a single piece among these that I need or want to hear a second time.

Who, among the listeners of classical radio, would rather hear that much garbage without being interrupted by SOMETHING by a great composer?  Today's experience was not an isolated one - I have noticed this time and time again during the morning when driving to Boston Conservatory, when I am made to wonder, "Is Classical Music really this boring?" only to realize that there have existed, throughout history, mediocre, uninspired composers, and fortunately I usually don't bother to listen to their music.

Now I understand that people are excited to discover something "new," though the Spohr Violin Concerto I managed to miss hearing this morning (thankfully) was written 200 years ago - we've had plenty of time to figure out that this is not important music.  

On this very same radio station in the afternoon, the programming was MUCH better - a Brahms Symphony, a Beethoven Quartet, and yes, the occasional novelty, but one that had been carefully selected as a neglected but worthwhile piece (say, the Poulenc Flute Sonata, or a less-played Tchaikovsky orchestral piece).  Am I the only one who doesn't like having my time wasted?  And was the programming better in the afternoon as a response to different kinds of listeners?  Are the afternoon listeners more discriminating, or less forgiving of banality?

I think the reason I am so worked up about this is that some people in the world - most, probably - see classical music as dull, sleepy, a relic of bygone eras.  I KNOW that it isn't this way - and when radio stations play @#)$(* like I heard this morning, they are losing the opportunity to open people's eyes to the Beethoven "Appassionata" Sonata or Schubert's "Winterreise."  It is only confirming those listeners' impression that classical music is irrelevant, when they hear the Tulou Nocturne for harp and flute.  Little do they know what they are missing when they don't know the Shostakovich 10th Symphony, or the Bach Chaconne.  

By the way, I should clarify that I don't mean music always has to be serious.  I don't mean to suggest we should only be dining on steak, but there is such a thing as a great dessert.  I do NOT usually enjoy Saint-Saens (that's like ordering a steak at Denny's) but I certainly enjoy the music of Fritz Kreisler, for example.

Friday, April 20, 2012

An invitation to list your desert island repertoire

I have to admit I love reading lists like "The Top 50 Movies of All Time," or "The 10 Most Important Inventions of the 20th Century."  It doesn't matter if I agree or disagree with the choices - it is fun to compare my choices with someone else's.  So I thought I'd make my own list (and invite you to submit your own) of the following: if I could listen to only one piece by each of the great composers for the rest of my life, which one piece would I choose?  I might have a different answer to this question next year, or maybe even tomorrow.  One observation about this list: there is very little piano music!  I should point out this is not a list of what I would PLAY if I could only play one piece, but what I would listen to, and I honestly find it hard to listen to piano music strictly for pleasure.

So here it is, in something approaching chronological order:

Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos (don't make me choose one!)
Mozart: Don Giovanni (OK, maybe choosing an entire opera is cheating)
Beethoven: Symphony #7
Schubert: Quintet in C major
Chopin: Polonaise-Fantasy (if I learn it I probably won't want to listen anymore)
Schumann: Dichterliebe
Wagner: The Ring Cycle (I know, I know, it's 4 whole operas - guess I'd take Gotterdammerung if I had to)
Brahms: Symphony #4
Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6
Dvorak: Cello Concerto
Mahler: Symphony #4
R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
Debussy: String Quartet
Ravel: La Valse (by a hair, over Daphnis and Chloe)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto #3 (again, a piece I haven't actually played)
Stravinsky: Firebird
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto #1
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
Schoenberg: Verklaerte Nacht

Please feel free to post your own list in the comments!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bach's "Ich ruf zu Dir"

Throughout my life, I have always loved Bach, but over the past few years haven't focused as much of my time or energy on playing or teaching his music. I think this is because it is less "practical" in the sense that it is less helpful in winning a competition, passing an audition, etc. than, say, the Chopin 2nd Sonata, or Beethoven op. 57. Lately I have been happily reminded of the fact that Bach is, as one of my students recently remarked, food for the soul. He is not only the great mathematician / architect / problem-solver portrayed in "Godel/Escher/Bach" but also the deeply emotional and expressive and human man brought to life in "Night in the Palace of Reason."

Since childhood I have found that Bach is the best therapy, at least for me. When I was growing up, if I was sick and home from school, I would listen to Bach because it made me feel better, even physically. This evening, I was feeling a bit down and happened upon a piece by Bach I didn't know: "Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ," which is originally (I think) for organ. I heard it first in a transcription for solo piano by Busoni, but discovered that there are also versions for cello and piano and a slightly different piano arrangement by Wilhelm Kempff.

As a pianist, I tend to ask my students to try NOT to sound like the piano, but in the end I have to admit I like the piano version better than the organ. But the cello and piano version may be the best of all. Here are a few for you to compare:

Grigory Sokolov - what an amazing sound!

Vladimir Horowitz - would have loved to hear this extraordinary singing sound live.

Tatiana Nikolayeva - very slow! But her laser beam of sound makes it possible to sustain the line even at this tempo. You may note that this is the third Russian in a row here. It seems that playing Bach transcriptions is and has been more fashionable in Russia than here in the US, where I only recently played a Bach transcription for the first time (Myra Hess's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring").

Murray Perahia - as if to disprove my assertion that Americans don't play these Bach arrangements, here is always poetic Perahia. He doesn't have that same bold sound that the three Russians do (perhaps by choice), but also shows greater care for phrasing, and more interest in the accompaniment.

Wilhelm Kempff - playing his arrangement, which to my ear is hardly different at all from Busoni's. He has some of the same singing sound that you hear from Sokolov, along with a nice way of shaping the accompaniment.

Anne Queffelec - a beautiful performance in every respect, and it's nice to see this live. It reminds me that as much as I enjoy recordings, there is something more engaging about seeing a live human being actually making the sound we hear.

On the organ now, by Ton Koopman. He can (and does) take this quite slowly, as the organ is capable of sustaining notes indefinitely, unlike the piano where the sound will, eventually, decay and die away, making too slow a tempo somewhat inadvisable. Note also that the pitch sounds a half-step lower (all the pianists sound like they are playing in F-minor, while this sounds like E-minor). I assume that this organ is tuned to a lower pitch than what we use today. I admit that I am not an organ aficionado, but I have to say the relentlessly sustained quality of the organ is almost hard to take for me in this piece.

And finally for two on the cello: first Pierre Fournier, whose playing is beautiful, even if I find the slides to be overly-Romantic (you might expect to hear something similar in Stokowski's orchestral arrangements of Bach):

Maurice Gendron's playing of a slightly different arrangement: his cello playing is wonderfully elegant and refined, and I like it better in this octave (Fournier starts the piece an octave higher than this, i.e. in the same octave as in the piano and organ versions). Somehow, being more in the "comfort zone" of the cello seems to suit the character of this piece better.

What do you think? Do you know of another recording that you prefer? I didn't know this piece at all before this evening, and now have listened to it about a dozen times - and I feel better than I did before I listened to it.