INTRODUCTION TO MUSICAL LISTENING, Parts I-II
Posted 10 September 2006 - 01:22 AM
Posted 10 September 2006 - 02:29 AM
Posted 10 September 2006 - 08:54 AM
Posted 10 September 2006 - 07:05 PM
I'm looking forward to seeing them again.
Posted 10 September 2006 - 07:50 PM
By the way, also published in the 1970s in Books for Libertarians was a series by jazz critic and historian Neil McCaffrey (have I spelled his name correctly?) on the Golden Age of Jazz (or swing?). I am going to try to get permission from (?) Andrea Millen Rich to post that series here, too. It was really good stuff.
Posted 13 September 2006 - 11:47 AM
INTRODUCTION TO MUSICAL LISTENING:
A GUIDE TO RECORDED CLASSICAL MUSIC
A. Chamber Music
By John Hospers
[Notes to the reader:
1. I have decided to post Dr. Hospers' guide to recorded classical music in four segments: (1) chamber music, (2) orchestral music, (3) songs and opera, and (4) choral music. This post contains Dr. Hospers' two installments on chamber music. Segment two on orchestral music will be posted soon.
2. Here is the announcement that accompanied installment #1 of the series in Books for Libertarians, Vol. III, No. 7, July 1974:
This month BFL is pleased to inaugurate a special six-part classical music review-series, by Dr. John Hospers. The first two installments will deal with chamber music, the next two with orchestral music, and the last two with vocal and choral music. Dr. Hospers will recommend those recordings which he regards as the best available of the works he discusses. Unfortunately, the number of recommended recordings is so great the BFL cannot carry them all. However, with Dr. Hospers’ advice, we will make available to you a “cream-of-the-crop” selection. In addition, we are now carrying three excellent music appreciation books: you will find these reviewed on page 4 of this issue. BFL hopes this series and the wonderful recordings we will offer over the next few months will give you many hours of reading and listening pleasure.
3. The three above-mentioned music appreciation books, reviewed by Dr. Hospers, are Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music, Paul Henry Lang’s Music in Western Civilization, and Joseph Machlis’s The Enjoyment of Music. This review essay will be posted separately here on Objectivist Living.
4. Dr. Hospers has indicated to me that some of his recommendations have been superceded by better recordings, while others are not available on compact disc format, and that some compositions now available in recorded form were not available 30 years ago. He will share his notes on these points, as well as a list of special "gems," at some point in the near future. It's also worth noting that the prices for those recommended recordings which are still available are in some cases considerably higher than they were 30 years ago. Connoisseurs are invited to share with us the results of their shopping adventures!…reb]
PART I: CHAMBER MUSIC TO THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
(first published in Books for Libertarians, Volume III, Number 7, July 1974)
My main purpose in writing this series is to share with you those works of music which I have found especially rewarding, having listened to recorded music every day during most of my life, and played some of it as well. In this way you may discover—as many of my students have discovered—vast musical treasures that you did not previously know existed.
It is much easier to hear musical sounds than to listen to them. Hearing, like seeing, is passive: listening, like looking, is active. To listen requires the full use of one’s attentive faculties. When you listen to good music, it should not be as background to other activities: it requires your full attention, particularly when you are listening to it the first few times. “Full attention or silence” is a good rule to observe, one which pays large dividends in future enjoyment.
Most people who listen to classical music at all seem to pay attention only to music written for large orchestras, as if the greater the volume of sound the better the music must be. Santayana once ironically defined music as “a drowsy reverie interrupted by nervous thrills.” And the nineteenth-century Viennese music critic Edouard Hanslick said in his excellent The Beautiful in Music that “most hearers are content simply to be inundated by the sheer flow of sound.” In so doing, they are unlikely to pay much attention to the various elements of which the total flow is composed. And thus they miss much more than they know of the fascinating things that are constantly going on in a musical composition.
In chamber music one cannot do this: here the form stands naked. That is why chamber music really provides the best mode of introduction to music: the interplay of parts assigned the various instruments is immediately evident, and one soon learns, especially when the melodies being intertwined are tuneful or “catchy,” to follow them as they progress and interact with each other.
In chamber music, there is only one instrument carrying a melodic line, rather than a group of them—for example, one violin instead of an entire group of violins playing the same notes as in an orchestra. Chamber music will at first strike a listener accustomed to a barrage of sound as rather thin, but he will very quickly get over this impression and bet rewarded by the interplay of tones which stand out so clearly.
Chamber music is so called because it was quite literally played in a chamber—living room or drawing room—after dinner by a single instrument or a small ensemble. Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos,” at least as played today, do not count as chamber music because they are played by an entire orchestra. But solo compositions for piano, harpsichord, organ, violin, or any other instrument do count as chamber music; violin-and-piano sonatas and other duo combinations are also chamber music; so are trios (usually for violin, cello, and piano), string quartets (two violins, viola, cello), String quintets (the above plus an added cello), piano quartets (three strings plus piano), piano quintets (string quartet plus piano), and so on. Octets are about as large an instrumental ensemble as one gets in chamber music.
Let us begin with the string quartet. The German composer Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) was not the founder of the string quartet, but he developed it into a major musical form almost single-handedly. Haydn wrote 82 string quartets, as well as numerous trios and piano sonatas—an output of staggering quantity and inexhaustible variety. A few weeks of listening would be well spent on Haydn quartets before moving on to the next step.
These quartets convey a variety of moods: sometimes pensive, sometimes playful, by turns lilting and humorous and melancholy, most often energetic and vigorous, but always tuneful, and always full of the sense of delight of the four instrumentalists playing together. There is a dazzling series of quartets which constitute Opus 10; another beautiful set in the Opus 33 series; the Opus 54 series are pure inspiration, with more of the same in Op. 64, Op. 76, and Op. 77. I suggest beginning with the third (slow) movement of the last one, Op. 77 no. 2. The tune is stately with a touch of melancholy; see how it is stated then repeated, then repeated again with a difference; then note the transition to the next musical theme, how it interacts with the first, and what fascinating variations are played upon it to keep the attention constantly alert in the midst of the returning original theme.
After you have sated yourself with this movement, I suggest that you listen to the entire quartet Op. 76 no. 5; every movement has its own marvelous melodic lines, shifting, turning, returning, intertwining with others, sometimes waxing incandescent with verve and enthusiasm. Listen to it all the way though several times, until you feel like whistling some of the main tunes, and by that time I think you will be hooked on either Haydn or string quartets, or both.
But the best is yet to come. I have not yet mentioned the quartets which take you to the most ecstatic heights which Haydn has provided in this medium: Op. 20, nos. 4 and 5; Op. 33 no. 3, Op. 54 nos. 1 and 2; Op. 64 nos. 3 and 4, and Op. 74 no. 2. Each listener will have his own favorite melodies and movements from this collection quartet masterpieces. But I suggest that when you listen to one, you do so several times before turning to another.
Since the Quartetto Italiano has by far the best Haydn performances available, I suggest that you get what you can of these. They are on Philips records, but unfortunately, they have recently been discontinued, although many of them are still available in record stores. (You can tell which records are currently available at any given time by consulting the monthly Schwann catalog, available at any record dealer.)
We now turn to Wolfgang A. Mozart (1756-1791), that tremendous musical genius who, when he died at the age of 35, left us a vast legacy of great chamber music, concertos, symphonies, masses, and operas. Continuing the great tradition established by Haydn, but proceeding always further toward the romanticism that sprang into full flower in the nineteenth century, we have the six great “Haydn quartets” (dedicated to Haydn), which are probably Mozart’s greatest works in this genre, particularly the no. 17 in B-flat (K. 458, “The Hunt”), no. 19 (K. 465, “dissonant”), no. 20 in D (K.499), and no. 21 in D (K. 575). (Whenever possible, get the Quartetto Italiano recordings on the Philips label.)
From these, I suggest going on to the two great piano quartets (piano plus three strings), the no. 1 in G-minor (K. 478)—one of the most joyous pieces of music in the entire literature, and one of my two favorites among Mozart’s chamber pieces—and the no. 2 in E-flat (I. 493). Also worthwhile is the lovely Quintet in A for clarinet and strings (I. 581), and the K. 407 quintet for horn and strings. (The K. 478 quartet is among those in the set of three records, RCA Victor LSC-6184, which I strongly recommend for purchase as an introduction to chamber music.)
Having heard these, you will now be ready for the great string quintets, K. 515 in C, K. 516 in G-minor, K. 593 in D, and K. 614 in E-flat. My own favorite among all of Mozart’s chamber works is the K. 516, whose two great slow movements have reduced many a listener to tears—and even those who do not respond that overtly to music find it the epitome of quiet serenity and tender nostalgic melancholy, with a serene beauty that can carry one through many otherwise troubled hours. Excellent renditions of these quintets are available on the three-record set, “The Complete String Quintets of Mozart” (Seraphim S-6028).
The next major figure in historical order is Beethoven, but I suggest waiting just a bit for his chamber music and turning to the next “great” of chamber music, Franz Schubert (1797-1828), because his music is so melodic and so instantly accessible even to the untrained listener. (In fact, if Mozart and Haydn do not grab you at once, you might do well to start your journey into chamber music with Schubert.) In Schubert’s 30 years of life he wrote such a profusion of memorable works, mostly chamber works, that it is hard to believe that one person could have achieved so much at such a consistently high level in so short a time.
Of the many great chamber works by Schubert, I recommend beginning with the work that one of his contemporaries called “the ne plus ultra of energy and passion, the great Trio no. 1 in B-flat for piano, violin, and cello (Op. 99, D. 898). The great fun of playing (and hearing) chamber music is nowhere more evident than in this marvelous work. It is well played on the three-record introduction to trio music, Columbia D3S-799, “Four Favorite Trios.”
Then turn to his tender and romantic String Quartet no. 14 (D. 810), “Death and the Maiden”; I recommend the recording on Philips 900139. You will find the Quartet no. 13 (Op 29, D. 804) to be equally worth listening to. Then turn to his “nobly profound” chamber work, the great String Quintet in C (Op. 163, D. 956) on RCA Victor LSC-2737, which many consider to be the capstone of Schubert’s work in this genre. Equally tuneful and much lighter in tone is the famous “Trout” quintet for piano and strings (Op. 114, D. 667). (I recommend Deutsche Grammofon 136488.) There are many other excellent Schubert chamber works available, but these I consider the cream of the crop.
Another aspect of Schubert’s genius in chamber music is evident in his numerous piano sonatas. Of these, the very greatest, in my opinion, are the three posthumously published ones (Op. Posth.): the C-minor, the A-major, and the B-flat major. To say that these are deeply moving is to understate the fact. If you have to pick only one of these, listen to the monumental Sonata ion B-flat major (D. 960). Get the Brendel recording on Philips 6500285, or, better still—if you can find them—any of the Artur Schnabel performances on the Victor label.
There was, of course, a tremendous quantity of chamber music written prior to Haydn, but most of it is played today for small orchestra (chamber orchestra). Moreover, the greater part of this early music is for the human voice (either a cappella or with instrumental accompaniment). These forms will be discussed later in this series.
However, to select just a few of the highlights of chamber music prior to Haydn, I would suggest the following as very rewarding listening.1. Hear the simple but moving melodies of early composers in the album “Instrumental Music of the Year 1600 of France, England, Italy, and Germany” (Bach Guild 626)—or any of a number of similar collections on records put out by Bach Guild, Turnabout, and Nonesuch records. At once you will be in a different world, both in musical idiom and instrumentation. But it is a very listenable world, and once you unlock the doors of this early music, you will find it just as rewarding as any of later period.
2. Then listen to the superb chamber works of the great English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695), especially the sonata for trumpet and strings, on Nonesuch 71027, the Chacony in G-minor, on Oiseau-Lyre 60002, and the trio sonatas on Oiseau-Lyre S-319.
3. Much of the solo harpsichord music of this period is exquisite. Try some of these collections of the early harpsichord solo music: Turnabout 34243, Columbia MS-7326, Mercury 90411, Nonesuch 71265 and 71229, and the fine performances by Kipnis on the three-record set, Columbia M3X-31521. And do not ignore the “Masters of Baroque” harpsichord record, Mace 9010.
4. Then listen to some chamber music by two or more instruments including harpsichord. A marvelous gem by the totally neglected Spanish composer Antonio Soler (1719-1783) is on Bach Guild 5069--some compositions for two harpsichords, some for harpsichord and organ. You will also enjoy Rameau’s trios for flute, cello, and harpsichord on Westminster WGS-8155, and his “Pieces de clavecin en concert” on Nonesuch 71063 and Telefunken S-9578, as well as Couperin’s “La Parnasse” on DG-2533067, and violin-and-continuo sonatas by Archangelo Corelli (1653-1713) on two DG disks, ARC-2533132/3. An excellent introduction to this music is the three-record set, “Baroque Masters of Venice, Naples, and Tuscany” (Nonesuch HC-73008). The world of these works is of such consummate purity and clarity that you may come to prefer it to anything else.
5. Johann Sebastian Bach (1684-1750) wrote extensively for solo harpsichord; for example, “The Well-Tempered Clavier” (S. 846-93), the “English Suites” for harpsichord (S. 806-11), the fantasias for harpsichord, the six “French Suites” for harpsichord (S. 812-17), the “Italian Concerto,” and the “Goldberg Variations” (S. 988). Be sure in every case that you get a harpsichord performance, not a piano transcription. Try also his sonatas for unaccompanied violin and his suites for unaccompanied cello.
6. And then there are thousands of fine compositions for solo organ—virtually a lost art since the eighteenth century. I suggest beginning with works by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) on Telefunken S-9436 and TK-11521. Then turn to the works of the undisputed master of organ composition, Bach. Any of the famous ones will do: the tremendous Passacaglia and Fugue for Organ (S. 582), the Toccata and Fugue in D-minor (S. 565), the Choral Preludes for organ, the Fantasia and Fugue for organ (S. 542), and the Toccatas and Fugues in D-minor and F-major. (This does not even begin to exhaust Bach’s tremendous output of organ compositions!) As you listen to these compositions, remember that, great as they are, the very greatest of Bach’s works, and certainly those with the most overwhelming emotional impact, are yet to come. But by listening to these smaller-scale compositions now, you will be building a solid base for the proper appreciation of his larger masterworks.
In closing, I would like to recommend, as the best recorded introduction to early chamber music, “Music for Lute, Guitar, Mandolin,” Turnabout TV-34195-99, a five record set containing uniformly delightful music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (with a couple of selections from the nineteenth century thrown in). It features various chamber-music combinations, such as harpsichord, lute, guitar, mandolin, flute, and violin, and is available from BFL for only $9.95 (list price is $17.50). (Next month: Chamber Music of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.)
PART II: CHAMBER MUSIC OF THE NINETEENTH
AND TWENTIETH CENTURIES
(first published in Books for Libertarians, Volume III, Number 8, August 1974)
Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms were all first and foremost composers of chamber music. Not only did they compose more chamber music than any other kind, but the majority of their most memorable works, in the opinion of most critics and musicologists, was done in this medium—although in the popular mind all are best known for their orchestral works, especially their symphonies.
Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote 16 string quartets, in three distinct periods. The early period is represented by the Opus 18 quartets, which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from late Mozart. They all exhibit a fully achieved mastery of the medium, and Op. 18 no. 5, especially, is pure delight. But it is in the great middle-period quartets that we find qualities of feeling emerging which are unique to Beethoven: “classical in form, romantic in content” is one cliché which might be used to describe them. The Quartet no. 7 (Op. 59 no. 1), with the vigorous thrust of its opening movement, is one of the most cherished quartets in musical literature and a “must” for every record library. Great in a quite different way are the no. 8 (Op. 59 no. 2) and the lyrical and pensive no. 9 (op. 59 no. 3) with its famous passage for plucked cello. The no. 10 (Op. 74, “Harp”) has a haunting ethereal beauty in every one of its four movements. And then there is the shorter and more acerbic no. 11 (Op. 95), the transitional piece to the late quartets. Each of these works is so distinctively unique, that one is reminded that if one great work of art were to be lost, not all the other works of art in the world would adequately substitute for it.
Finally we come to the quartets of Beethoven’s late period—the last works he ever wrote—his farewell to the world, transcending by far in depth and profundity any of his symphonies or concertos. Far from being “the ravings of a deaf man” (he had become totally deaf before creating them), they have a mysterious otherworldly quality, which to some listeners is merely strange and eerie, but to others is the ultimate in sublimity and exaltation. Following upon the no. 12 (Op. 127), there is the haunting and unfathomable no. 13 (Op. 130), containing one of the most unforgettable movements in music, the mysterious “Kavatina,” which figures prominently in the last chapter of Aldous Huxley’s novel Point Counter Point. The “Grosse Fugue,” which Beethoven composed as the final movement to the no. 13, should be played as such rather than the one which he later substituted because of the difficult of playing the “Grosse Fugue.” One some recordings of the no. 13, the “Grosse Fugue” is happily included.
Next, listen to the no. 15 (Op. 132), haunting, bitter, mad, and ethereal) by turns. All of the above quartets are more immediately intelligible to the listener, at least after the first few times, than the profoundly disturbing no. 14 (Op. 131), which many consider Beethoven’s greatest contribution to quartet literature. Finally, listen to the last work Beethoven wrote, the no. 16 (Op. 135), with its stunning slow movement—“sadness too deep for tears.”
The playing of Beethoven’s quartets involves very special requirements, particularly an attunement to the deeply philosophical character of those of the late period which not every ensemble is up to. Of the many recordings available, the one to get on the middle-period quartets is a four record set by the fine Guarneri Quartet, “Beethoven: The Middle Quartets” (available from BFL). But on the profound late quartets, get either the Quartetto Italiano on Philips records or the Yale Quartet on Vanguard. For the Op. 127, I suggest the Yale Quartet on Vanguard 10054; for Op. 130, the Quartetto Italiano on Philips 839795; for Op. 131, the Yale Quartet on Vanguard 10062; for Op. 132, the Yale Quartet on Vanguard 10005; and for Op. 13, the Quartetto Italiano on Philips 83975.
Almost as great as Beethoven’s legacy of string quartets is that of his 32 piano sonatas. The most famous one, no. 14 (“Moonlight”), is at the moment available on over 30 recordings. I suggest that you skip this in favor of some of the great sonatas of his middle period. The marvelous no. 21 (“Waldstein”) and no. 23 (“Appassionata”) both are excellently performed by Horowitz on Columbia M-31371. Cliburn also is especially good on these, as he is on the Op. 31a (“Les Adieux”), available on RCA LSC-4013 and 2931.
It is only after hearing Beethoven’s middle-period sonatas that one is in a position to appreciate the grandeur of the late ones. The immense “Hammerklavier Sonata” (Op. 106, and best played by Askenazy on London 6563) far transcends the piano medium. Much more accessible to the listener, and easier on the ear, are the three consecutive last sonatas, Op. 109, 110, and 111. The second of the two movements of the Op. 111 (Sonata no. 32) is in my opinion the finest movement in the whole of piano literature. It moves step by step to such a height of serene exaltation that the listener feels himself levitated, remaining on the heights long after the performance has been concluded. Now that the most “spiritual” of the performances (by Artur Schnabel) is no longer available, I suggest the performance by Brendel on Turnabout 34391, where it is coupled with the Op. 110 Sonata.
Beethoven wrote many other masterpieces of chamber music. But the finest of them all, and among all of Beethoven’s chamber works the one which the listener will probably want to return to most often, is the magnificent “Archduke Trio” (Op. 97); it has not only the energy and nobility of Beethoven’s middle and late work, but it is very tuneful and easily accessible to the beginning listener. I would invite the reader to begin his exposure to Beethoven’s chamber music with this work. It should certainly be heard several times before turning to the late quartets and sonatas. It is contained in the excellent three-record chamber-music sampler, “Four Favorite Trios.” [Ed. Note: Reviewed last month and available from BFL.]
I discussed Schubert’s chamber music last month. Of Mendelssohn I would recommend only the Octet (Op. 20). Almost all the great music of Schumann and Chopin is for the piano—the solo piano, not the piano concertos or other orchestral works. These have already been discussed by other BFL reviewers, so I shall stop only long enough to recommend the recording of Schumann piano works on Turnabout 34438. An undeservedly neglected composer in the same vein is the Irishman, John Field (1782-1837). Hear his Nocturnes on Nonesuch 71195.
Brahms (1833-1897), too, was primarily a composer of chamber works. He is much less direct, more involuted, than Schubert, yet as anyone who has heard his symphonies already knows, there is a quality of high drama and tension that is unique to Brahms. Many of his chamber works are too “cerebral” (ingenious but not moving) for most tastes. Accordingly, I recommend the following as the most accessible and also among the finest of his chamber music: (1) the marvelous Trio for Piano, Violin, and Horn, Op. 40 (Boston Symphony Chamber players on RCA LSC-6184); (2) the early piano quartet (piano plus here strings), Op. 25; (3) the famous Quintet for Piano and String Quartet, Op. 115, with the long lingering “October Melancholy” of the slow movement; (4) and the solo piano music which was Brahms’ last work, Op. 448 (Rubenstein on RCA LSC 2450). Op. 40 and Op. 115, together with the Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano (Op. 114) are available from BFL on a three-record set, “Brahms’ Chamber Music for Winds,” for only $7.50 (list price is $9.95).
Another great composer of chamber music who is apt to be overlooked because he wrote fewer orchestral compositions (which seems to be what makes composers famous with the general public) is the French master, Gabriel Faure (1845-1924). I recommend particularly his tuneful Piano Quartet no. 1 in C-minor. If you can get hold of the recording on Capitol SP-8558, I recommend doing so; otherwise get it on Oiseau S-289, where it is coupled with Faure’s fine piano trio.
Less of a creative genius than Faure, but more famous because of his symphonic work, is Caesar Franck (1822-1890). His Sonata in A for Violin and Piano is his most famous chamber work, and it is one of the most resplendent violin-and-piano sonatas in the entire literature. There are several excellent recordings of it currently available Almost as memorable is the String Quartet in D, available in a three-record set of French quartets (Faure, Franck, Debussy, Ravel, Soussel) on Vox SVBX-570. And not to be forgotten is his great piano work, the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue (coupled with Debussy piano preludes on Seraphim S-60103).
The highly original founder of impressionistic music, Erik Satie (1866-1925), was influential far out of proportion to his small output. His work for solo piano is his best, including the famous “Trois Gymnopedies,” which I recommend as performed by Ciccolini on Angel 25442.
The most famous musical impressionist, Claude Debussy (1862-1918), wrote many chamber works, of which the most memorable are for solo piano. Get Columbia MS-6567, containing Entremont’s performances of both books of “Images,” “Pour le Piano,” and the “Children’s Corner Suite.” The one other great chamber work by Debussy is the justly famous Quartet, Op. 10, haunting in its interweaving melodies and radiant subtle harmonies.
Debussy wrote one string quartet, as did Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and although I think Debussy’s is far superior, both are well worth having, and they are almost invariably paired on a single record. At the moment there are nine performances of them available. But amidst the plethora of orchestral and chamber works that Ravel wrote, I recommend most highly a real gem, the “Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet,” of which there are many good performances available.
The greatest genius of Russian music, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), was a first-rate composer of piano music, particularly the famous “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Almost everyone knows this in the orchestral transcription by Mussorgsky’s disciple, Rimsky-Korsakov. But it was written for piano, where its clarity, precision, and power distinctly emerge. You can compare the piano version (played by Richter) and the orchestral transcription (done by Szell) for yourself on Odyssey Y-32223, which has both of them together.
Turning from Russia to what is now Czechoslovakia, we have one of the greatest chamber works in the entire repertoire, written by the greatest of Czech composers, Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884): the Quartet no. 1 (Op. 10), “From My Life.” It is a totally unique work, clearly nineteenth century and yet different from anything else written in that century. It is a powerfully integrated work of tremendous emotional intensity, from the forced gaiety of the scherzo movement to the desolating sadness of the adagio. By the time we get to the resume of all the earlier themes at the end of the final movement (and of his life?), in which the tension becomes almost unbearable and the loneliness too much to be borne, we have something analogous to, and not a whit inferior to, the great quartets of Beethoven. Once you have heard this work a few times, it will be a lifetime companion. Try it for yourself in the fine performance by the Juilliard Quartet available from BFL.
Smetana’s fellow Bohemian, Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), wrote a considerable number of chamber works, some of which are quite worth hearing repeatedly, particularly the Quartet in E-flat (Op. 51) and the “American Quartet” (Op. 96), which is usually paired on the same record with the Smetana quartet (as it is on the Juilliard Quartet recording recommended above). Dvorak’s chamber works are highly melodic and lyrical, but they are water unto wine compared with the one work by Smetana.
One would never imagine that Richard Strauss (1864-1949), the composer of famous operas and tone-poems, would go in for chamber music; but one of his youthful works, the Sonata for Violin and Piano (Op. 18), is one of the most exquisite works of chamber music in existence. Perhaps nowhere is the contrast and dialog between the mellifluous violin and the more staccato piano better illustrated. It is always full of driving energy. Sometimes it is pensive and even sad, sometimes happy and even positively ecstatic, but everywhere its melodies, and the marvelous interplay of the two instruments, are irresistible to anyone who was acclimated himself at all to chamber music. It is available on Nonesuch 71205.
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is a prominent twentieth-century composer whose works are already (unfortunately) going out of fashion. He wrote many good chamber works, but there is one special gem that deserves special mention: the Quintet for Piano and String Quartet (1923), on Concert Disc 252. It is surely one of the finest chamber works of this century.
Finally, among the moderns, Bela Bartok (1881-1945) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) are among the most famous composers of chamber music. Each of them is richly inventive, highly ingenious, undeniably imaginative. But their chamber works represent, like very sharp cheeses, an acquired taste, and a taste in some cases never acquired even in the face of valiant efforts: they are simply too “astringent.” But if you want to try a bit of Stravinsky’s chamber work, get the Octet for Wind Instruments on Columbia M-30579 (which includes other interesting Stravinsky chamber works). As for Bartok, his six string quartets have been compared with Beethoven’s. I do not think they deserve this appellation, but if you want to delve into music that becomes progressively more atonal (or tonal in strange ways), but at the same time increasingly profound, stirring strange and untapped depths within the soul, listen to his string quartets in order, from no. 1 to no. 6. You will be either bored, bothered, and bewildered, or moved to the depths. I cannot claim to have risen to this last stage, but the strata of feeling Bartok taps are sufficiently analogous to those of the late Beethoven quartets to keep me at it—and, every once in a while, in the quiet of the wee hours of the morning, deeply moved without knowing exactly why. (Next month: Orchestra Music Through the Eighteenth Century.)
Posted 13 September 2006 - 03:14 PM
While there is of course nothing wrong in chosing the harpsichord performance this does not mean that you should ignore piano performances of these works! There exist many excellent piano performances of the WTC I + II, the partitas, English suites, Italian Concerto and many other works. Of course one of the names that comes to mind is Glenn Gould, but personally I don't like his interpretations. There are many other excellent interpretations however, and I think that the piano versions of Bach's music may be more accessible to beginning listeners of Bach's music.
5. Johann Sebastian Bach (1684-1750) wrote extensively for solo harpsichord; for example, “The Well-Tempered Clavier” (S. 846-93), the “English Suites” for harpsichord (S. 806-11), the fantasias for harpsichord, the six “French Suites” for harpsichord (S. 812-17), the “Italian Concerto,” and the “Goldberg Variations” (S. 988). Be sure ion every case that you get a harpsichord performance, not a piano transcription.
I agree! These are maginificent works. Especially the chaconne from the 2nd Partita for solo violin. Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann:
Try also his sonatas for unaccompanied violin and his suites for unaccompanied cello.
Die Chaconne ist mir eines der wunderbarsten, unbegreiflichsten Musikstücke. Auf ein System, für ein kleines Instrument schreibt der Mann eine ganze Welt von tiefsten Gedanken und gewaltigsten Empfindungen. Hätte ich das Stück machen, empfangen können, ich weiß sicher, die übergroße Aufregung und Erschütterung hätten mich verrückt gemacht.
Here I emphatically disagree! Brahms' chamber music belongs to the most moving chamber music that has been written. Take for example his violin sonatas, for me the pinnacle of the Romantic violin repertoire. Just listen to the beginning of the first Violin Sonata, it's heartbreakingly beautiful! The CD with Ashkenazy and Perlman is a must for the lover of chamber music! Or take the string quartets, nothing "cerebral" about them either! Here I recommend the Alban Berg Quartet (btw. the ABQ + Leonskaja is also my absolute favorite for the piano quintet, another great work!). I discovered that there exists also a version (by Brahms himself) for piano duet of Brahms' string quartets, so I could study these quartets with my piano partner, and they sound surprisingly good in that version - so far I've not found any official recording of this version. For that matter, Brahms wrote more versions for piano duet or for two pianos of his works for orchestra (symphonies, Haydn variations) or his chamber music (the Piano Quintet, which I've played in the version for two pianos which is also great, but seldom heard). At all costs avoid Argerich and Rabinovitch in this repertoire! I've heard them playing the Haydn Variations (BTW, the orchestral version is an excellent introduction for beginners to Brahms' orchestral work, together with the Akademische Festouverture) and it was horrible! They have absolutely no affinity with Brahms, with all their rushes and racing they murder his music.
Brahms (1833-1897), too, was primarily a composer of chamber works. He is much less direct, more involuted, than Schubert, yet as anyone who has heard his symphonies already knows, there is a quality of high drama and tension that is unique to Brahms. Many of his chamber works are too “cerebral” (ingenious but not moving) for most tastes.
I think I should mention here also a few of Chopin's chamber music works (apart from his repertoire for piano solo): the Introduction and Polonaise for cello and piano (an early work) and the great Sonata for Cello and Piano (one of his last works). In general I'm not a fan of Argerich (nearly always too fast and rushing in the virtuoso passages), but in this case THE best version is by Argerich and Rostropovitch. If you listen to that CD you might get the impression that your upstairs neighbor is stamping his foot while you make too much noise, but that's an illusion, it comes from the CD! Probably it's the enthusiastic Rostropovitch stamping his feet...
Where I've recommended specific interpretations, you can buy the CD's blindly, they are absolutely the top, and you won't regret it!
Edited by Dragonfly, 13 September 2006 - 03:16 PM.
Posted 13 September 2006 - 09:19 PM
And Dragonfly, thanks for the Chopin recommendations.
Posted 13 September 2006 - 11:03 PM
There is plenty more to come, including the three other segments of Dr. Hospers' series and his review of music appreciation books. But here are some of the other goodies coming our way soon, thanks for Andrea Millen Rich, the caretaker of the intellectual properties in Books for Libertarians and Libertarian Review:
1. Andrea has given permission for publishing all of Roy A. Childs' reviews of classical music. These alone would constitute a good portion of a book of music reviews.
2. Andrea contacted Neil McCaffrey's widow and got her permission for us to publish his series on early jazz music.
There are a few additional music reviews and book reviews that would be worthy companion material to the above, but I will wait a while before asking for permission to post them here on OL. I am trying to be judicious in my greediness. <g>
Best to everyone,
Posted 16 September 2006 - 12:47 PM
Posted 03 October 2006 - 08:47 PM
I will stand by my judgment that Mussorgsky is the greatest genius of Russian music—at least before Prokofief, whose musical idiom owes a great deal to Mussorgsky. Without counting noses, I believe that most music historians and critics agree with me in this judgment.
No, I was not confusing “Pictures at an Exhibition” with “Night on Bald Mountain.” To the best of my knowledge there are four orchestral transcriptions of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”: by Rimsky-Korsakov, by Cailliet, by Ravel, and, more recently, by Stokowski. Of these, Ravel’s is deservedly the most famous. Mr. Formaini is correct about Rimsky-Korsakov going against the expressed wish of Mussorgsky in many respects. (This comes up in a later installment of my “Introduction to Musical Listening,” in which I discuss Mussorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov.”) The Odyssey record contains the orchestral transcription by Ravel, and I don’t disagree with Mr. Formaini about the excellence of the Reiner performance, but I recommended the Odyssey record because (a) it is cheaper and (b ) it has the excellent Richter performance of Mussorgsky’s original piano version on the other side.
I could have made similar explanations in the case of many other recommended records, but space simply did not permit this. When this happens it is sometimes reasonable to assume that the reviewer had his reasons for giving the judgment that he did, even though he lacked the space to justify it in detail.
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