“Few, though, will have heard this nonet version of the Serenade, reconstructed by Alan Boustead in the 1980s, for strings, flute, two clarinets, bassoon and horn. In this live recording a slightly chubby ugly duckling in its orchestral format suddenly achieves lightness and clarity. Thanks to this aptly named Stratford-based ensemble, it has turned into a swan.”
The music world has seen many well-deserved tributes over the last several weeks for the author, musicologist, composer and critic Malcolm MacDonald, who passed away recently after a long battle with cancer.
Critic and author, Malcolm MacDonald
I never had the good fortune to meet Malcolm (although we did exchange a small number of friendly social media greetings) but I rated him incredibly highly as a person of the greatest musical discernment. His epic book on Brahms is a rare success in the fraught world of musical biography. It’s rarer than rare to find in a single author someone who combines the patience and attention to detail to needed do the research and fact-finding needed to produce an accurate and vivid biographical portrait of a historical person, with the depth of perception and musicianship to say anything really informative and insightful about their music. My studio shelves are littered with books on Schumann, Mahler, Shostakovich, Brahms and Beethoven that are full of the most appallingly shallow and wrong-headed judgements on selected works of the composers these authors have spent so many years studying. How can a supposed Shostakovich expert not “get” the Seventh or Eighth Symphonies? How does a Mahlerian misunderstand a work like his Seventh? Why do so few Beethovenians fully appreciate the staggering genius of his early works, which are every bit as great as the music of his Middle and Late periods, only different in style. How can a Schumann scholar not recognize the power and originality of the Violin Concerto or the Second Symphony? Mr MacDonald seems to not only understand the greatness of pretty much every work of Brahms he discusses, his succinct summaries of major works throughout the book are full of genuine insights of value to both casual listeners and professional musicians.
Malcolm MacDonald was also a highly respected critic, whose reviews shared the same qualities of insight one finds in his books. I’ve thought for a long time that the word “critic” is one the profession could largely do without, as our modern-day usage of the word has become almost completely entangled with the practice of fault-finding.
I would suggest that the most useful critics would be better thought of as “recognizers-” people who are expert in recognizing what they’re hearing and being able to articulate what is important about it. Finding obvious fault takes no great skill and does no great good. Anyone who is paying attention can tell when a pianist has played a wrong chord or a horn player has split a note, just as any restaurant goer can tell when their toast is burnt. On the other hand, as anyone who has ever watched Masterchef or Hell’s Kitchen can testify, there are precious few aspiring cooks who can tell a carrot from a parsnip with a blindfold on. Some struggle to know chicken from fish, or grapes from cherries. A really great foodie, a truly enlightened restaurant critic or a real master chef is one who cannot only tell you what’s wrong with a dish, but what’s right. They can recognize the ingredients. They can recognize the cooking processes. Given them a raw ingredient they’ve never worked with before, they can taste it and recognize the potential it has- how it would best be cooked, served and presented.
The music industry seems to be in the midst of a recognizer shortage. Not so much within the critical establishment (they actually seem to be doing remarkably well these days at speaking out in support of new voices, especially as the blogging revolution has brought a new generation of writers into the field), but especially within the industry itself- among our decision-makers, funders and marketers. A critic is in the position to tell us “I think this music has something of real value to say, and I think it’s great we can hear it.” They can only tell us that if someone in the performing world has the guts to say “I think this music has something of real value to say and I think we should play it.”
We all need recognizers, and I find I, for one, benefit from listening to them. I do not yet completely “get” the music of Havergral Brian, but I continue to engage with it largely because people like Maclom MadDonald recognize something special in it. I figure anyone who understands Brahms so well is unlikely to wrong about Brian, so I stick with it, I keep listening, I keep investing time and energy in trying to “get” the music.
The music of Hans Gál has been very good to me artistically and professionally. Since we started recording it about five years ago, it’s found a very sympathetic reception with listeners and critics (including Mr MacDonald, who wrote favourably, and extremely perceptively, about our first couple of efforts in the Bobby and Hans series here and here). Why did nobody before us recognize the potential of this music? It was probably an unfortunate combination of small number of recognizers with the ability to look at the score of a Gál symphony and recognize what makes it a compelling work rather than to simply identify the ways in which differs from a work by Mahler or Berg, and, more tellingly, an even smaller number of that group in a position to make a performance of a Gál symphony possible with the courage to put their hand in the air and say “I think this music has something of real value to say and I think we should play it.”
My own skills (or luck) and nerve as a recognizer, however limited, have proven to be one of my greatest professional assets. There are a lot of good conductors and cellists out there- if one can find new repertoire of real substance that has the potential of finding a sympathetic audience, it can only help your professional cause as a performer.
You would think that the offices of the world’s great orchestras and festivals would be chock-a-block with visionary recognizers. Talk for a while to anyone in artistic planning, and you’ll be astounded at how knowledgeable they are about a huge range of repertoire. But, in my experience, the industry seems to have been built to prevent critical recognition of important music from having any role in determining in what music gets played. We all know the plight of the poor composer who sends scores and CDs of work after work to orchestra after orchestra. Why does this never seem to work? Because the chances of your CD and score ending up in front of a recognizer with the guts to put his hand in the air and say “I think we should play it” are statistically impossible to differentiate from zero. The person you sent that CD isn’t hired to listen to it with a view to recognizing musical greatness, he/she’s trained to look at the name on the cover to see if he/she recognizes the brand he/she’s dealing with.
People in the classical world have built huge systems of committees, agents, artistic administration (isn’t that an oxymoron? :)) and oversight to make sure that nobody in a major arts organization is really in a position to do anoint themselves as real “recognizers,” even if they had the courage to try to. Let’s face it- it’s not really about protecting our audiences from lousy music. We would far rather present a terrible work by an awful composer who is known and established, than take a chance on a masterpiece by a composer whose name is unknown to the public. Many folks would rather have one of the world’s greatest orchestras “conducted” by a washed-up famous soloist who knows nothing about conducting and almost nothing about score study and rehearsal management than take a chance on an unknown conductor who has learned their craft outside the spotlight. Why- because we recognize the name rather than any particular ability to conduct.
Think again of Hans Gál- the first professional recording of any of his symphonies only took place 120 years after his birth. 120 years. And the thing about Gál was this- he was no outsider, no crank, no recluse, no socially impaired nutjob. His music was promoted by major publishers, he helped found the Edinburgh Festival, he grew up in the centre of Viennese musical life, he taught at a great university, he was a respected scholar and writer. He was a fairly well-known, well-connected musical figure. And for most of his professional life, orchestras, opera houses and record companies and their affiliated conductors, artistic planners and producers completely and utterly failed to recognize the significance of his music.
What to do? How is a composer supposed to make their music heard? Well, if I were you, I’d start hunting recognizers. Lets face it, looking for people empowered to stick their necks out in support of the unknown at major arts organizations is like looking for tobacco company lawyers in Heaven.
But there may be some among your friends, your schoolmates, your local music makers. If you start small, in an arena where you can build personal connections with performers and decision makers, you can start to make things happen.
Promoting your music, however, is probably a dead end, because you need to become a brand that is recognized. If you are not blessed with a name people will greet with curiosity and interest, try a new name. If I were trying to build a composition career, I’d change my name to Shostakovich, Bartók or Stravinsky and concoct a fictitious blood-relationship with my namesake if I were you. Conductors: the time is ripe for another Karajan- you could be his illegitimate 3rd cousin twice removed, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you are subsequently busted- the scandal will only enhance your fame, your name recognition. Is there anything else you can do to become famous? Can you join a rock band or become a talking head (or do both and join the Talking Heads?)? Maybe you can build an international reputation for running a festival (don’t try to pull any of those “recognizing” tricks on your day job, though- keep your opinions to yourself and learn what everyone else thinks is important in the industry), then reveal your compositional genius to the world once your name is known?
And for goodness sake, get your ass on Masterchef. It doesn’t matter how little you know about food, because one day, the programme manager of the Philharmonia Metropolitana will get your CD and score and say “Ah yes, Cameron Stravinsky! He was the guy on Masterchef who mistook passatta for grapefruit juice. My god- 2 million people must have seen that show. Get him on the phone! Let’s commission a symphony from him. And while you’re at it, see if he can transcribe us a Miley Cyrus song for orchestra!”
It’s great to see the positive response to this post! Thanks for reading, everyone
With hindsight I want to make one distinction hinted at above extra clear- being a “recognizer” is not the same thing as being super opinionated. To go back to the cooking show metaphor- liking this or that kind of food or hating some other dish or ingredient doesn’t mean you can actually distinguish one from the other in a blind taste test. This post is not a call for more people to be more stubborn and forceful about what they like- almost the opposite.
I think the best recognizers are those who can set aside their taste and engage with music on its own terms, rather than looking to music for a validation of their own superiority of taste and intellect. We hear best and wisest when we’re ready to be surprised and challenged by music. We grow the most as artists and listeners when we learn to recognize an idiom we’ve never been able to fully understand. Too many of us listen like too many children eat- we’re too sure of what we’re going to like before we try it.
In part 2 of my look back at the work of the still-controversial Herbert von Karajan, who died 25 years ago this week, I share an essay from Warner Classic’s new box set of music by Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, J and R Strauss and Wagner recorded for EMI. A fascinating collection- some surprises, one complete disaster (guess which one!) and some stunning performances.
It’s not unusual to hear the emergence of the Historically Informed Performance movement described as a direct reaction against the “excesses” of Karajan, and his generation’s, interpretations of the Classical and early Romantic repertoire. To be sure, the sound world of Karajan’s Philharmonia and Berlin Philharmonic is relatively far-removed from the leaner textures and tangier timbres of a fine period instrument ensemble, but in many ways, especially in his early career, Karajan’s approach to Mozart, his contemporaries and successors, was not as old-fashioned and heavy-handed as many listeners to these recordings may expect. In these fairly early performances of several Mozart’s 35th and 39th symphonies, made between 1952 and 1960, Karajan’s tempi in most of Mozart’s fast movements are surprisingly sprightly and the Philharmonia strings play with admirable clarity of articulation and lightness. Although the slow introductions are played quite broadly, the slow movements of both symphonies are played quite flowingly, with and elegant rhythmic lilt.
If Karajan’s Mozart symphonies are surprisingly modern in their approach, his way with the Divertimento K287 and Eine kleine Nachtmusic is decidedly pre-HIP, particularly the opening movement of Eine kleine Nachtmusic, in which every bow stroke seems to have been smoothed and polished as much as acoustically possible. In moments like this, Karajan seems driven to import his gift for seamless legato into music that is clearly written staccato.
Karajan’s approach to early Schubert has much in common with the best of his Mozart symphonies, with this 1958 Berlin Philharmonic performance of the Fifth Symphony is played with remarkable lightness of touch and elegance- qualities not always associated with the Karajan/BPO collaboration. Love it or loathe it, Karajan and the BPO’s performance of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony is much more what we expect from this most famous coupling of conductor and orchestra—the slow music is played extremely slowly with an enormous amount of tension, the string sound is weighty and the textures in the louder music are generally massive. Although Karajan’s BPO was about twice the size of Schumann’s orchestra in Dusseldorf, Karajan insisted that no orchestral retouching (other than the occasional doubling of woodwind parts) was necessary in Schumann’s music, and in spite of the Berliner’s massive string section, the wind writing generally comes across with admirable clarity.
Karajan recorded both the Brahms and Beethoven cycles so frequently that it sometimes seemed that as soon one beautifully produced box set of LPs was released, he and the orchestra would already be hard at work on a remake. In the case of the Brahms symphonies, these early recordings, made with the Philharmonia in the 1950’s, are prized by many collectors, often above the later remakes. The extent to which one prefers these or Karajan’s later versions with the Berlin Philharmonic depends to a large extent on how simpatico the listener is with Karajan’s very distinctive approach to sound and articulation. There’s no question but that each remake came closer to Karajan’s ideal of orchestral tone, distinguished by extraordinary depth of string sound and fantastic smoothness of legato playing. However, Karajan’s producer at EMI, Walter Legge, was possibly the only producer Karajan worked with who was possessed of an equally iron will. What sets these early Philharmonia performances of the Brahms symphonies slightly apart from the later BPO ones is a much greater attention to precision of ensemble- something which Karajan was generally willing to sacrifice later in his career in his quest for the perfect sound. For many listeners, these early performances integrate many of Karajan’s best qualities as a Brahms interpreter (albeit without the magisterial sound of the BPO to work with) into performances which maintain a greater degree of rhythmic life and clarity of texture than his later remakes.
Karajan’ approach to Bruckner was in many ways distinctly different to that of his contemporary, Eugen Jochum. Jochum’s research led him to believe that Bruckner intended for the performers to use the modification of tempo to underline the structure of the music- hence his tendency to gradually speed up in long developmental passages or dynamic build ups. Karajan’s approach was, right or wrong, more literalistic, tending to keep tempi within a section as solid as granite. His approach is often described as both austere and monumental, and could be incredibly effective- especially when the huge sound of the Karajan-era BPO was deployed on Bruckner’s later works
Karajan’s lifelong fascination with Wagner reached its culmination in the founding of the Salzburg Easter Festival. Karajan’s stagings of the complete Wagner operas were often controversial- many critics objected to his productions, which were often directed by Karajan himself, while others objected to his preference for more lyrical voices over the more traditional massive Wagnerian voices. In the pit, Karajan insisted the orchestra play like a large-scale chamber ensemble, demanding extreme clarity of texture and lightness of touch when accompanying the singers. However, Karajan was always more than willing to unleash the full weight and power of the BPO’s sound when Wagner’s music calls for it, as in these 1957-1960 recordings of Wagner’s most popular orchestral numbers, with the Berlin Philharmonic produced by Walter Legge.
If Karajan’s Wagner was often controversial, few commentators ever doubted his way with the music of Richard Strauss. As with Brahms, Karajan’s earlier recordings of Strauss with the Philharmonia under the watchful eye of Walter Legge may lack the depth of sound and sheen of legato that his later Berlin Philharmonic performances achieve, but they generally evince a higher level or precision of ensemble and clarity of rhythm. Karajan was never known as a great musical humourist, and his performance of Till Eulenspiegel begins in rather solemn fashion, but what the performance lacks in wit, it makes up for in sheer virtuosity, especially in the later part of the work when the tempi really take flight. Death and Transfiguration, however, was always a work that suited Karajan’s temperament and intensity.
Karajan’s recordings of highlights from the mainstays of Vienese operetta, made with the Philharmonia in the mid-1950’s have never been out of print, and it remained music he conducted with great affection and great attention to detail throughout his long career. This collection offers the listeners the chance to compare the classic 1955 performances of Suppé’s Light Calvary Overture, Johnann Strauss II’s Titsch-Tratsch Polka and Johan Strauss I’s Radetzky March with those made in 1960 in decidedly more opulent modern sound. A quick check of track timings will show that Karajan’s tempi had all slowed slightly over in the intervening years, but that the orchestra had gained in sonic opulence. So it usually was with this most sound-obsessed of conductors.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Herbert von Karajan- one of the most influential, accomplished, controversial and contradictory musicians who ever lived.
Not too long ago, I was asked to provide introductory essays for two volumes the Warner’s news collection of EMI-era Karajan recordings. It was a fascinating challenge, but one I seriously considered not taking on simply because Karajan remains such a divisive figure, both as a person and a musician.
In the end, I took the gig. The two sets comprise an enormous amount of very diverse repertoire- it made for fascinating, if exhausting listening. Karajan’s sound concept was famously strong and consistent, but as a performer, I find him more of a risk-taker than most people think. Some things he does really take flight, others crash and burn- not only interpretively, but occasionally technically. In any case, it’s a unique body of work, and one I’ve learned a lot from over the years. He was often surprisingly good in non-Germanic repertoire, as can be seen in many of the performances included in this set.
Few of the major mid 20th. C. Austro-German conductors such as Eugen Jochum, Karl Bohm and Otto Klemperer explored much of the repertoire outside the Austro-German tradition. In this respect, Herbert von Karajan was both more international and a more modern figure than many of his contemporary colleagues. In many cases, studying Karajan’s forays into French, Russian and Eastern European repertoire can be highly illuminating in illustrating the characteristics of his approach to interpretation and orchestral training..
Debussy’s La Mer was a long-time Karajan favorourite, which he first conducted with his orchestra at Aachen in 1935. His next performances of the work took place in the more glamorous environs of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1939, programmed, as in 1935, alongside another non-Germanic Karajan staple, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. Performances in France followed in 1944, and the work remained in Karajan’s repertoire through one of his last European tours in 1985. This performance from 1977 in many ways captures the best qualities Karajan brings to French music- a flair for sonic sensuality, an ability to find fluidity in moderate tempi and a visceral delight in sheer orchestral virtuosity.
If Debussy’s greatest orchestral masterwork, La Mer, was a lifelong Karajan favourite, Ravel’s La Valse, probably that composer’s finest piece of orchestral concert music, was a work Karajan had a more complex relationship with. The Karajan archive shows early concert performances of it with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1934, in Aachen in 1936 and in Stockholm in 1938, but after this point, he seems to have not returned to the work in concert. With that in mind, Karajan’s lone recording of the work with the Orchestre de Paris in 1971 is a rather precious document, and a compelling one- again there is ample evidence Karajan’s ability to conjure impressively seductive and decadent colours from the orchestra and the work’s final plunge into oblivion is played with trademark Karajan intensity. Where Karajan is possibly less convincing in French music is in capturing a truly idiomatic sense of elegance and classicism. His recording of Le Tombeau de Couperin takes on a distinctly Germanic weight in the Menuet, but the Prelude thrives on Karajan’s obsession with legato playing. Ravel’s Spanish-infected music was quite central to Karajan’s repertoire, and he conducted the Rhapsodie espagnole often, especially in the heart of his career from the 1950’s through the 70’s. Bolero, however, was a true Karajan party piece which he performed countless times, recorded in Berlin for DG and filmed for Sony in 1985. This performance comes from near the end of his tenure as “music advisor” of the Orchestre de Paris in 1971.
Karajan’s affection for music with a Spanish flavour also comes through in his sparkling rendition of Chabrier’s beloved orchestral bonbon, Espana. Karajan had developed something of a reputation as a master of the short, light orchestral showpiece in recordings with the Philharmonia from the 1950’s, but his latter career saw him cultivating an ever more serious persona, and lighter repertoire like Espana appeared only rarely on concerts like the Berlin Philharmonic New Year’s Concert in 1979, when he conducted the work for the last time, alongside his final performance of Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite. These recorded performances come from sessions in preparation for that concert, and show Karjan and the BPO unleashing on Bizet’s modest suite a surely-unprecedented degree of sheer orchestral power.
Karajan was not by nature a completist, especially in repertoire outside the German canon, and his enthusiasm for the music of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky tended to be narrowly focused on these composers’ most famous symphonic works. The Berlin Philharmonic’s most famous and important contribution to the recorded legacy of Antonin Dvorak is the set of the complete symphonies recorded with Raphael Kubelik between 1966 and 1973. These recordings of the last two Dvorak symphonies were made by Karajan and BPO in 1977 and 1979 and are vastly different in tone and style from Kubelik’s. Karajan’s sound world is darker, the string playing more sustained and cushioned, and there is an emphasis on intensely expressive crescendi that can only be achieved at the expense of some of the remarkable sense of forward motion, rhythmic bite and clarity of articulation Kubelik had achieved only a few years earlier. Karajan’s Dvorak seems to be at its best in the moments of high tragedy and dramatic portent, notably in the Introduction to the New World and the anguished final pages of that work’s Finale, which successfully remind the listener that, for all it’s tunefulness and enduring popularity, Dvorak’s final symphony is a deeply tragic work.
If Karajan was subjective in programming the music of 19th c. Eastern European masters, he was even more selective in programming the music of his own lifetime. However, he could be an effective advocate for those works he took into his repertoire, not least because of the sheer marketing power and prestige of his associations with the BPO and his various recording partners. Karajan first conducted Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in 1953 and showed a real affinity for the piece- the mixed meters of the first movement roll forward naturally, and the second movement avoids bogging down as so many performances did before Sir Georg Solti discovered Bartók’s correct metronome marking in the 1980’s. Bartók’s super-virtuosic Finale certainly holds no terror’s for this most super-virtuosic of orchestras, but what comes across most consistently in this recording is Karajan’s consistent respect for the letter of the score (notably Bartók’s metronome markings), and the result is a performance that is remarkably idiomatic.
Karajan’s affinity for the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies was life-long. He first conducted the Fifth Symphony with Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra in 1929 at the age of twenty-one. The Pathetique came into his repertoire during his time as conductor of the very modest orchestra at Ulm in 1933, and he first conducted the Fourth, probably the most technically demanding of the three for the conductor, while Music Director in Aachen in 1937. Karajan unleashes a tremendous brass onslaught in the “Fate” fanfare which opens the Fourth- perhaps not surprising from a conductor who was known to double and even triple the trumpets in his orchestra. However, if the opening leaves one expecting a reading of extrovert virtuosity, Karajan’s approach in the main body of the first movement is surprisingly lyrical, even in the fortissimos, and in many ways, rather classical- largely eschewing extremes of tempo and rubato. This somewhat classical approach to Tchaikovsky’s dramatic language is not actually all that far away from that of Evgeny Mravinsky, one of the few conductors Karajan considered a true equal (perhaps not least because Mravinsky was one of the few conductors capable of being every bit as autocratic as Karajan is often reported to have been). If the Karajan’s reading of the symphony hints at the Fourth’s capacity to serve as a vehicle for pure orchestral display, his reading of the Finale goes more completely down that path. Karajan’s perhaps-uneasy balance of textual fidelity, classicism and orchestral virtuosity can be heard equally well in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies which complete this collection.
A new review of the recent Somm CD of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht and Brahms’s Serenade in D major from critic Gavin Dixon at Classical CD Reviews
“. But this group, the string trio Ensemble Epomeo with three extra players, instead strives for, and achieves, clarity of line and texture. The textures are appropriately bass heavy, and the two cellos dominate, but every line comes through with exceptional clarity. This gives the piece a new profile, with the complex but now clear counterpoint driving the music and leading the ear through the harmonic web. There is atmosphere here too, and much warmth in the ensemble’s sound, but that is never at the expense of the individual lines…The chamber version of the Serenade is similarly open in its textures and is presented with equal clarity and precision. This time round, though, there is less need for such an analytical approach. Even in its larger version, this work is all about clarity and directness of expression. Woods, who now moves from the cello desk to the podium, gives an appropriately bright and carefree account. The players interact well, and there is a clear unity of intent within the ensemble. “
[Click here to Explore the Score of the companion work on this CD- Brahms’s Serenade No. 1 in D major, Original Version for Nonet)
The Brahms-Wagner rivalry was largely an affair of the press, whipped up by critics like the Brahmsian Eduard Hanslick and his pro-Wagnerian rivals. Brahms actually professed great admiration for Wagner’s music on many occasions. Nonetheless, there was a time when the two men were perceived as embodying irreconcilable aesthetic approaches. In the end, it was Arnold Schönberg who succeeded in Verklärte Nacht and the works which followed it, in marrying the joint influences of Wagner and Brahms as no one had before.
Brahms’s music- its density, richness and rigour- had a profound influence on Arnold Schönberg’s development, and his engagement with Brahms’s music continued throughout his career. Schönberg’s writings about the music of Brahms, particularly his essay “Brahms the Progressive,” are among the most illuminating analyses of the older composer’s work, and his arrangement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor for full orchestra has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire. From Brahms, Schönberg learned the creative possibilities of the perpetual manipulation and development of tiny motivic cells, an approach that would eventually form the underpinning of the 12-tone technique. This kind of rigorously detailed approach to composition is already fully developed in Verklärte Nacht. Brahms’s favourite technique of “developing variation” (a term coined by Schönberg which refers to the constant development of small musical ideas throughout a piece) is also essential in Schönberg’s music. Brahms’s approach to most classical forms differs from that of his forerunners in that Brahms’s music is almost never simply expository nor recapitulatory: the musical material starts to develop and evolve almost as soon as the piece starts, and the process of constant change carries right through to the end.
Originally written as a string sextet (for two violins, two violas and two cellos) over just three weeks in 1899, and arranged by the composer in 1917 for large string orchestra, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) takes its title from a poem by Richard Dehmel, published in the collection Weib und Welt (Woman and World) in 1896. Modern readers might be amused to read that Dehmel was tried for obscenity and blasphemy when Weib und Welt was published. While the acknowledgment and exploration of female sexuality in Verklärte Nacht and some of Dehmel’s other poems might have raised eyebrows, the worldview expressed in them, and the association of female sexuality with shame and guilt, now seems rather conservative and paternalistic. Modern readers may find the poem’s apotheosis, in which “the man” forgives and accepts “the woman” in spite of her sexual transgressions both deeply touching and hugely condescending. Nonetheless, Schönberg’s inspired reaction to Dehmel’s poetry works its own transfiguration on its literary model, elevating and intensifying the meaning and symbolism of the original. It is hard to overstate Dehmel’s influence on Schönberg’s evolution in the late 1890’s. Schönberg had set several poems by Dehmel in 1897, and 1899 is sometimes called his “Dehmeljahr,” (“year of Dehmel”) in which he spent almost the entire year setting poems from Weib und Welt, culminating in the breakthrough that was Verklärte Nacht. Musicologist Walter Frisch says that Schönberg’s “remarkable development that year …grew directly out his search for a musical language approapriate to the poetry of Weib und welt,” inspired by Dehmel’s success in combining erotic sensuality and intensity of expression with clear formal structure.
A work like Verklärte Nacht might seem to be a huge departure from the classical forms preferred by Brahms- Webern even described it as a “free fantasia.” However, although the work is programmatic, with obvious influences of Wagner and Liszt, it is hardly free. Schönberg found in Dehmel’s poem a way to combine elements of two traditional, strict, even Brahmsian, musical forms: the fundamental structure is that of a Rondo (or A-B-A-C-A), incorporating elements of Sonata-Allegro form . The “A” sections set the tone and lay out the narrative of the work (Schönberg described them as “epic” in character), while the “B” section represents the woman’s confession of her illegitimate pregnancy and the “C” section depicts the man’s tender forgiveness and acceptance of her. It’s not only that lucid form in which Brahms’s influence can be felt, but in the way that Schönberg begins the development and transformation of his material in the work’s opening bars and continues the process throughout. The “transfiguration” of the work’s title is manifest in the way in which the “A” section changes character each time it occurs- beginning with mystery and dread, returning in anguish and desperation and completing its journey in radiant joy. The piece is tonal—beginning in D minor and ending in D major—but also shows Schönberg exploring completely new harmonic territory. In fact, the piece was originally considered unfit for performance because of Schönberg’s use of an unresolved “ninth” chord. Early listeners may also have been shocked by the intensity and density of Schönberg’s counterpoint- passionate and sensuous as the piece is, there is already a strong element of Schönberg-ian “difficulty” present in the music. What sets Verklärte Nacht apart from the works which precede it is the extent to which, as successfully as it marries Wagnerian chromaticism and narrative to Brahmsian rigour, the compositional voice is clearly the fully-formed and completely original one belonging to Arnold Schönberg.
Pianist Howard Karp (photo by Katrin Talbot)
For the last few weeks, I’ve been meaning to write a blog post titled “If you buy only one recording this year, make it this one.”
The recording in question is a new six-disc collection of live performances by the American pianist Howard Karp, released in May by Albany Records. Howard Karp died on Monday, June 30, 2014 at the age of 84 after suffering a cardiac arrest. He was surrounded by his wife Frances and his two sons Parry and Christopher. Although the set was only released last month, I’ve been listening to and thinking about it for nearly a year, ever since the Karp family paid me the enormous compliment of asking me to write the program notes for it.
It is sad that that blog post will never quite exist in the form it should have- none of us guessed we could lose him so soon. Although Howard was 84, he seemed anything but old. He had spent the last few months learning Leon Kirchner’s last two Piano Sonatas and working up some works by Liszt that he had never played. In the week of his passing he was to have played the Brahms A major Violin Sonata in a recital at the Rocky Ridge festival with his son (my teacher and dear friend), cellist Parry Karp. Together, they’ve recently recorded Parry’s transcriptions of all the Brahms violin and piano music.
Ever since Parry wrote me with the sad news of Howard’s passing, I’ve wondered what, if anything, I should say about Howard here. It’s not for me to attempt an obituary or a summing up of Howard’s legacy, so instead, let me say the following:
If you buy only one new recording this year, make it this one. Not only will these CDs give you a better sense of Howard’s artistry than anything I could write here, there’s so much one can learn from them.
It’s not just that the performances are mind-blowingly sensational. It’s what they have to teach us about the kind of musician Howard was- the kind we all ought to aspire to be.
Taken from unedited recital recordings made across Karp’s 50+year career, this collection is a wonderful overview of his gifts as a pianist and a musician. The performances are astounding even to those who knew his playing best. His wife and duo partner, pianist Frances Karp wrote to me on receiving the set from the record company “Even though I lived through the preparation of all the repertoire, I am stunned to hear the finished performances: beautiful, strong, intelligent, fantastically moving.” No amount of familiarity could make one take his artistry for granted.
Howard was a conspicuously kind, wise, caring and sensitive human being, with a distinctively soft-edged and warm speaking voice. Something of that warmth of spirit came through in everything I ever heard Howard play across 25-plus years, particularly in his unique sound. He had one of the great piano sounds- deep, multi-layered, warm, resonant and cultured. You can hear this aspect of his artistry in Howard’s extraordinary performances of late Schubert in this set. He was a great exponent of what one might call the “poetic” piano tradition.
But there was more to Howard’s art than wisdom, sensitivity and culture. Howard was also capable of embracing and unleashing the demonic and Dyonisian forces within music like few musicians I can think of. There are moments in Howard’s performances of works like the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Schumann Concerto without Orchestra, or his earlier live recording of the Liszt B Minor Sonata that teeter, in the very best sense of the expression, right on the edge of divine madness. Howard could set such challenges for himself not only in terms of sheer tempo, but in intensity of expression, that the listener can’t helped but be gripped by a genuine sense of pure risk. Howard was one of the few pianists who ever lived with the technical tools to cope with the challenges he set himself in performances like these- again and again, he comes through performances of inspired danger completely unscathed, but one senses that even Howard never spared himself from taking big chances on stage. Success was never certain, but it was almost always the outcome.
This incredible balance of abandon and control, fire and refinement caught the ear of many critics, though he never sought their approval to the best of my knowledge. On the occasion of his Berlin debut, the notoriously tough local critic said “the American pianist Howard Karp combines the finest qualities of Rubinstein and Horowitz in a single artist.” Many artists would have broadcast such a quote to the heavens- Howard seemed to lack any instinct for self-promotion. He could hardly be persuaded to talk about himself even in the preparation of the liner notes for this set of CDs.
So, here in these six discs is evidence of one of the great pianists of his generation, captured completely live at the height of his powers. It’s a collection that should secure his place in the piano pantheon forever. In the end, however, what I find impressive about these CDs is what they don’t tell us about Howard Karp, what they can’t tell us. That’s part of why one should get to know them- to be begin to understand what of Howard lay beyond them.
These discs can’t, by themselves, tell us how he balanced his commitment to playing at the very, very highest level with his dedication to teaching. They only hint at the breadth of his repertoire. If Howard felt he had played a piece as well as he could, he moved on to other works (some of the most extraordinary performances in the set are of works he only played once or twice), and he literally never stopped learning new repertoire. And they can’t begin to do justice to his astounding work ethic- family members will tell you: nobody ever practiced the piano with more intensity or devotion than Howard Karp.
Embedded in these remarkable performances is an inspiring example for all musicians. Howard never sought the trappings of fame or the validation of the press. He chose, instead, a quieter path, developing life-long collaborations with friends and family, building an incredible legacy as a teacher and mentor and following his own curiosity in his exploration of the repertoire. Those of us lucky enough to hear him in Madison in his solo recitals, duo concerts with his wife Frances, sonata performances with his son Parry and the annual Karp Family concert in September all knew we were in the presence of something very special every time he took the stage. Even these remarkable CDs can’t capture every facet of that remarkable sound.
Howard Karp in Colorado with his two closest musical collaborators, wife, Frances and son, Parry. (photo by Katrin Talbot)
I hope you’ll spend some time listening to these performances because they’re as good testament as we have to a great artist who managed to do all the right things as a performer and teacher at the right level for the right reasons. It’s a deeply inspiring legacy.
More on Howard Karp from the Isthmus newspaper in Madison here.
Thoughts from Jake Stockinger at the Well Temprered Ear, here.
A tribute from the UW-Madison School of Music with commentary from Karp’s friend and student, Bill Lutes, here
Anthony Tomasini offers an extensive assessment of Howard’s performances in these recordings here. A sample
“Karp clearly thrived in concerts, because the performances in this collection are palpably assured. In six pieces from Liszt’s daunting, visionary suites “Années de Pélerinage” (“Years of Pilgrimage”), recorded at various universities mostly during the ’70s, Karp’s playing is technically brilliant and profoundly musical. How is it possible that a pianist who could play Liszt like this was not signed up and sent on tour by a major manager? From what I knew of him, though, Karp would not have been interested….The highlights of the set are performances of two major Schumann works: the Sonata No. 3 in F minor, in 1967, and the Fantasy, in 1972, both recorded at the University of Illinois. Schumann’s Fantasy blends Beethovenian structure with, appropriate to its title, fantastical wildness. Karp uncannily conveys both qualities at once. His account of the Sonata in F minor, subtitled Concerto Without Orchestra, is revelatory. Though this epic work has arresting qualities, it is at its core baffling, ungainly and complex music. While playing with consummate pianism, Karp conveys the strangeness in the piece, as in the seemingly chaotic stretches of development in the first movement.
An extensive review from Colin Anderson at Classical Source
“Yet, from nowhere (for me at any rate), here is Karp giving readings of these masterworks that are of the first rank, at once seriously good renditions of the chosen pieces and also acting as a ladder of enlightenment as to the interpretative and technical skills (the latter serving the former) of the now-late musician. Inevitably, given that these are recordings made at concerts and over a 45-year period (nevertheless the set is branded DDD!), the sound-quality is variable, so too the instruments that Karp had at his disposal. And while one may have some reservations about both, the authority of Karp’s playing is such that doubts are banished by his excellence.
“Rather than write in detail on the performances here, it would be more pertinent to simply say that, especially if you are new to Karp’s musicianship, for anyone who cares about the great art of playing the piano, and also about penetrating musicianship – and allying the two – then you need to hear these performances; there is much that is illuminating and rewarding, and such revelations are complemented by conductor Kenneth Woods’s extensive essay for the booklet.”
A four-star review in the June issue of BBC Music Magazine from critic Erica Jeal.
“…weaves together beautifully played solos culminating in a transcendent coda in which this orchestra seems to breathe together.”
A new, five-star review from editor-in-chief Andrew Achenbach for Bobby and Hans vol. 4 from the really wonderful classical app “Classical Ear.” Well worth subscribing too!
Gál: Symphony No 1 in D major, Op 30; Schumann: Symphony No 1 in B flat major, Op 38 (Spring)
Orchestra of the Swan / Kenneth Woods
Avie AV2233 *****
The First of Hans Gál’s four symphonies was completed in November 1927 and premiered in Düsseldorf 13 months later. It is a compact, skillfully wrought and immensely personable creation, scored with a marvelously deft touch, full of first-rate ideas and boasting a highly affecting slow movement (‘Elegie’) – small wonder it was performed frequently in Germany prior to Hitler’s rise to power (after which Gál, a Viennese-born Jew, was summarily dismissed from his post at the Mainz Conservatory and his music banned). Hats off to the indefatigable Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan for rounding off their revelatory Gál symphony cycle for Avie in such commensurate, urgently communicative fashion and bringing to Schumann’s comparably sparkling and life-enhancing ‘Spring’ Symphony such boundless vitality, scrupulous fidelity to the printed score, delicious wit and (above all) entrancing freshness of new discovery. This stylish and consistently invigorating coupling represents both an exemplary rescue act and genuine tonic to boot. Investigate without delay!
–Andrew Achenbach (Classical Ear)
Sometimes I think the classical industry is a bit like a chap standing on deck of the Titanic, moaning loudly about how his feet are getting cold because they’re a little wet. Sure we have problems, but look at the world around us- when the ship is already sinking, the man with the cold feet is doing pretty well, and talking about whether now is the time to buy waterproof boots is probably beside the point. Music is one of the great tools for the righting of sinking metaphorical ships, be they nations or individual lives. Nations, of course, are ultimately collections of individuals. If you want to save a nation, save a person. If we want to warm our feet, let’s right the ship.
Look around America today, with the virulent spread of gun violence, or take a hard look at the UK and Europe, where fascism is on the rise. Racism and sexism are making a huge comeback, and politicians and pundits now seem to think it is okay to condone rape and the stoning of gay people.
The most commonly diagnosed cause of all this rage and dis-function is the lack of economic opportunity and hope since the 2007-8 economic collapse. The persistence of economic hopelessness extracts a terrible toll on any society. Hans Gál called unemployment the worst catastrophe that can happen to any society. He was speaking of inter-war Germany and Austria, and we all know how that turned out.
One of the many tragedies of our difficult age is the way in which so many individuals act against not only against the interests of their fellow human beings, but against their own. People vote for politicians whose policies will impoverish and imperil them. People embrace ideologies, such as the mass-scale rejection of basic scientific knowledge, which will ultimate damage their health and make their environment unsafe to live in. People support a gun culture that puts them and their children in mortal danger for no reason. Even at the most extreme, the jihadist who bombs a plane or the mass shooter who attacks a school are both acting in ways that harm themselves.
I strongly believe that these kinds of widespread and frightening self-destructive behaviours are indicative of not only a lack of economic health and opportunity (although the corrosive impact of economic hopelessness is hard to overstate), but of a general feeling of defeat and despondency that comes from being unable to understand and engage with the challenges facing the world.
I think some (huge) portion of the responsibility for this depth of despair and hopelessness must lie with our media and entertainment culture. Just as junk food fills the stomach but doesn’t nourish the body but instead gradually destroys it, junk culture fills the eyes and ears, but gradually rots the brain and soul. Our media culture is, overall, far more toxic than the Big Mac. News has become more of a game (a bloodsport, at that) than a public service, as broadcasters and publishers work primarily towards three goals: ratings (or distribution), profit and advancing the political and financial cause of their stakeholders. What is deeply troubling in our time is the extent to which nobody questions the validity of these three aims. Quite the opposite- public service broadcasters and publishers are under enormous pressure to show that they can measure outcomes according to the same metrics used in the for-profit sector. The notion that the success of a newspaper is measured in the truthfulness and relevance of its reporting seems pretty quaint these days.
Similarly, just as fast food is carefully engineered to manipulate the dopamine responses of those who eat it in much the same way that hard drugs do, most mass entertainment is aimed at doing two things- keeping you watching, and convincing you there is something wrong with you that can be fixed by purchasing whatever the show’s sponsors are selling. The first rule of advertising is to make the target feel like a failure so they’ll buy your product. I remember learning about advertising works when I was in seventh grade- it was pretty horrifying, but my eyes were well and truly opened. I was only twelve, but being taught about how advertising manipulates us, and how content (whether print, tv or radio) exists largely to prepare you to receive an advertiser’s message gave me a level of critical awareness with which to partially inoculate me against the soul-rotting poison TV and other media throw at us every day. These days, few schools still teach children about advertising- quite the opposite. They show commercial television in school, they welcome ads from massive corporations- they feed children the very toxic ideas they should be teaching them to protect themselves from (the school food isn’t too healthy, either), all because they’ve been forced to embrace the same goals as the junk culture- ratings or distribution (both as expressed by enrolment numbers and test scores), profit (in terms of both core funding and external support) and advancing the political cause of their stakeholders (school boards and councils in the USA and UK are among the most polarized and politicized organizations on Earth ever since a generation of religious zealots in both countries decided to take them over and shape the curriculum to suit their world view, facts be damned). Religious education, which is spreading like wildfire as a paradigm, often works using the same techniques of degradation, manipulation and reward as advertising- make people feel bad about themselves, tell them you have an answer (whether it be a bigger car, a political catchphrase, or God), then trigger their dopamine system with something. Advertisers usually offer a bit of sexual titillation, religious educators use the promise of salvation- of a solution to all our worries.
Junk food is designed to make you want, even need, to eat more junk food. Junk culture works in the same way- it’s designed to keep you consuming. I’d go so far as to say the values of junk culture have now expanded to junk education and junk religion. Epidemics of obesity, type- two diabetes and heart disease are just one manifestation of the damage done to our bodies by junk food. School shootings, fascist political movements, dangerous, wide-spread rejection of fundamental scientific facts- these are the type-two diabetes of the soul that are a manifestation of the damage to our selves by junk culture, junk education and junk religion.
That, to me, is the Titanic that the classical industry is standing on, worrying about our damp socks. Comparatively speaking, the rot of junk culture is just starting to infect our industry- we’re still, overall, a center of excellence and a powerful force for social good. Worryingly, however, many within and outside our industry are advocating that what really need to do is adopt more of the paradigm of junk culture- more manipulation, more titillation, and ultimately, more craven service to the political and financial advancement of our fiscal stakeholders. A generation ago, one could make the argument with a straight face that journalism was about the quest for the truth. With notable exceptions, the last fifteen years have made that notion look laughably quaint. Likewise, one would like to think that being a musician, or running an orchestra ought to be about making the most soul-touching, life-changing music, but fewer and fewer in and around the industry are willing to measure our success according to that metric. To many of our colleagues, it’s all about sponsors, sales and selling.
Orchestras and artists are governed as non-profits or charities for a reason. We’re not supposed to be putting money first, we’re supposed to be putting music first. But how do we stay in business? We look to the world of public-service broadcasting, and we see a gradual creep towards the values and practices of the for-profit sector. Just as the BBC and PBS feel they have to measure more and more of their outcomes in terms of money, ratings and relationships with funders, classical music presenters are trying harder and harder to emulate the business and marketing practices of the pop culture and corporate worlds. We sell concerts the way companies sell toothpaste, and build classical careers in the same way pop stars’ careers are developed- it’s about selling an image and a personality, not about developing a unique talent, building a body of work and growing an engaged audience for it.
So, how to avoid becoming part of the junk culture movement? Well, the food world has seen a massive, if incomplete, counter-movement to shake off the power of the junk food industry. It may seem odd, but when I was young, processed food was considered an emblem of progress. Practically nobody was interested in fresh produce or local sourcing. This mind-set permeated both home-cooking and the restaurant industry. It went beyond food- coffee was something that was mass-produced and came in a can from a factory. Beer was made in one of three or four giant breweries in Milwaukee or St Louis, and was uniformly horrible. The future of wine was considered to be the box-o-wine.
Now we have a large number of restaurants making a point of serving fresh, locally sourced produce. Green grocers are in, cans are out. You can buy fresh coffee beans even in remote small towns, and the micro-brew revolution has changed America from the land with the worst beer in the universe to the home of the very best. Boutique wineries have sprung up all over the country, with hardly a box-o-wine to be found among them.
Of course, the junk food industry continues to be a force, and a powerful and destructive one at that, but the new wave of food, brewing and cooking has created a viable, and highly successful alternate paradigm. One in which success is measured in terms of food’s ability to bring health and happiness- profit flows from success in those terms. To a large extent, this revolution occurred because people in the food world were prepared to set aside scale as a measure of success. In 1980, a beer company could only be considered successful if it was big enough to advertise on TV. By 1990, a local brewer could set up a successful business on a much smaller scale selling a higher quality product.
So, perhaps one of the reasons public service broadcasting and classical music have been tiptoeing (if not, in places, racing headlong) towards the business practices and mindsets of junk culture is that scale seems like an important part of what we do. An orchestra is, by nature, a large-scale institution. So is a TV station, let alone a network. There’s lots we can do more efficiently and at a smaller scale (the two most interesting concerts I did this year were for audiences of under 80 people), but I believe art needs to provide a counterbalance to junk culture. That means we need a certain amount of scale. We just need to achieve scale using a different paradigm- one in which we measure success in terms of the quality of our artistic work. The food industry can show us many examples of “new wave” business that started small but were able to upscale to a national impact while maintaining their core values (I had a very nice Lagunitas IPA last night here in Texas- they started as a micro-brewery in California). When we have a balance of scale, values and quality, I think we’ll be in a strong position to offer a more relevant alternative to junk culture, and can start giving individual listeners the kind of spiritual nutrition they need to survive in today’s difficult environment.
I’d like to encourage readers who want to see a future for music to think about how we can get away from the junk culture’s measures of success, and avoid their toxic ways of manipulating and exploiting their customers. When we chase ratings, we forget the importance of the impact we can and should have on individual listeners. Junk culture would rather reach 10 million viewers on a superficial or even toxic level than affect even 100,000 in a profoundly positive way. If art doesn’t make a profound difference in some of our audience’s lives, we’ve failed, even if a billion people see us on YouTube. Our entanglements with our funders also tend to mean that our programming is excessively cautious and we avoid directly engaging with the key social, moral and political issues of our day lest we offend the trustee of some foundation or a member of the local city council. In America, the prime accepted measure of an orchestra’s quality is its budget. I’m not sure that’s healthy. I’m totally sure it’s not true.
The values of junk culture feed on complacency. If you think you’re an unassailable center of excellence, you’re more likely to think you can flirt with the values of junk culture without believing you are doing yourself too much harm. Recent history would seem to confirm this- the New York Times (which I’ve read every day for over 20 years) compiled a truly appalling record of journalistic failings in the run up to the Iraq War. In pursuit of circulation, money and appeasement of those in power, it ran countless false stories, suppressed true ones, and utterly failed in its duty to hold power to account. In spite of that, it’s still the most important and probably the best paper in America and possibly the world. That’s why they haven’t learned any big lessons or made any profound changes since then. However, as the situation in Iraq worsens, the magnitude of that capitulation to power and profit looks more and more unforgivable. The real costs of those mistakes and falsifications will mount for many years. I’m sure their thinking was that, in a difficult and fast-changing world of publishing, they had to put profit and power first, or risk losing scale. They’ve lost scale in the ensuing ten years. In spite of their junk journalism calculations? Or because of them? Maybe, in the long run, more truth would have sold more papers? Or at least made a better world in which to sell them? Just because the New York Times is still the best paper in the country, it doesn’t automatically follow that they’re actually doing great work when it counts most.
Could the same be true in classical music? Maybe our problem is not with aging audiences, shinking donor bases or changing demographics. What if too many of our concerts are just not that great?
Today’s performers are amazing at avoiding making audible mistakes, but is that the same thing as giving a great concert? I don’t remember many typos or grammatical errors in those pro-Iraq War NYT articles. The only thing they lacked was the truth. What is our truth? Are we speaking it? Are our concerts really exciting enough, brave enough, moving enough? Do we encourage each other to take risks, to go right to the edge of the possible? To make old music sound new, and new music essential? Or do we reward conductors who facilitate mass reproducible, comfortable and familiar received renditions of classical works? I think to some extent, we do. One reason the Big Mac is so popular is because those who eat it (I confess, I’m one, but only occasionally) know exactly how its going to taste. Many conductors have had the experience of getting down to work on a standard repertoire piece with a fine orchestra only to find their colleagues’ ideas about the piece are already set in stone (see this blog post for a description of the phenomenon). Beethoven 7 to many is like the Big Mac of symphonies- everyone knows what it’s supposed to taste like. “We hired you to make Big Mac’s, maestro- not to deconstruct them!” one sometimes feels you are being told. Conductors who want a big career learn early on to become proficient at reproducing a nicely standardized performance with no horn splits or ensemble problems. Today’s conventional wisdom dictates that it’s better to adopt a fresh approach to personal grooming and styling (the age of the hipster conductor is on us, and that of the sex-symbol conductor is coming) than to try to push the artistic envelope too far. Too often, we learn to perform standard repertoire works in a safe and familiar way, and to programme only contemporary works that conform to broadly accepted norms of taste among those “in the know,” without in any way challenging the worldviews or power-bases of our funders and stakeholders.
The food world has shown us it’s possible to pursue a different paradigm and be successful. They’ve proven that one doesn’t have to be in the junk business to be in business. I think it’s important we learn from them- after all, music is way more important than food, just as the soul or the self is way more important than the body. Humanity is in desperate, desperate need of a viable alternative to junk culture. We’re the ones who can deliver it- but only if we make it our primary goal to do so.
It’s been exciting to see the strong response for this post. Thank you for reading and sharing.
One thing I don’t feel I made clear enough above is that I think one of the really horrible things about the impact of junk culture is that the people who are affected by it understand that they’re being manipulated, understand that it’s a toxic brew, but feel unable to free themselves from its influence. There’s a sense of rage at being trapped in a cynical world, and a sense of self-loathing at being unable to escape the junk culture.
"Maintenance is a breeze. I am so happy that we chose InstantEncore!"