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If you will insist that, as a matter of fact, Hitler did not like 12-tone music, you are an over-educated imbecile who clings to a hopelessly outdated notion of truth as somehow rooted in facts.  I suggest you wake up and get acquainted with the modern, de-factualized notion of truth long championed by the sanctimonious and perpetually self-congratulating New York Times - not only in its political coverage (going as far back as its Pulitzer-earning reports of cheerful and happy life in the USSR during Stalin's purges) but also in its music criticism (a, b, c).
     A good example of the latter is Vivien Schweitzer's review of recent concerts of contemporary music at the Tanglewood Festival.  In describing compositional preferences of the featured composers, she had this to say about Elliott Carter:

Some of the featured composers, like Mr. Carter, were partial to the 12-tone method — a system for atonal music invented by Schoenberg in the 1920s involving all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. [1]

As a matter of fact, although Carter appreciated the 12-tone music of the Second Viennese School, he himself did not use the 12-tone method and had expressed a rather dismissive view of the method's aesthetic significance with respect to his own creative goals:

I have found that [the 12-tone method] is apparently inapplicable to what I am trying to do, and is more of a hindrance than a help. [2]

 Of course I do not suggest that Ms Schweitzer was deliberately lying in her review.  With no formal musical training and with only a superficial understanding of musical composition she is simply unqualified to write about serious music, let alone the complex post-War avant-garde music of Carter, Boulez, and Wuorinen.  Which, I would guess, is precisely what makes her such a valuable long-term asset to the New York Times - a sinking outfit desperate to plug its financial leaks by replacing highly competent but costly critics with cheap but incompetent freelancers.
[1]  "Tanglewood's Contemporary Music Fest Milks Many Sources", New York Times, July 26, 2015.
[2]  Elliott Carter, "Shop Talk by an American Composer", in Elliott Carter: Collected Essays and Lectures, J.W. Bernard (ed.), U. of Rochester Press, 1997, p.220.
6 months ago | |
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Here is an excerpt from an Op-Ed piece in the last April issue of Columbia University's daily newpaper:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation.
     [The Multicultural Affairs Board] proposed that the [University] issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students. ...that there should be a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors. Finally, the [University] should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.

This expression of Fascist Infantilism, typical of today's American universities, made me wonder how long it will take before Mozart's Don Giovanni is dropped from Music Appreciation courses.  Why would music professors want to jeopardize their jobs by "triggering" survivors of domestic violence with Zerlina's famous aria "Batti, batti":

Beat me, beat me, dear Masetto,
beat your poor Zerlina!
I’ll stand here like a little lamb,
to await your blows.
You can pull out my hair.
Pull out my eyes,
and I’ll still gladly kiss
your dear hands.

Come to think of it, the so-called trigger warnings will have to be slapped on just about every opera in the standard repertoire, which obviously makes this emotionally harmful art form unsuitable for today's college students.

I suspect that many of the same students, who run to the Dean's Office in tears as soon as they encounter the word 'nigger' in a Mark Twain novel or a slight of womanhood in a Renaissance painting, will enthusiastically shake their bodies later in the day to Rihanna's  glorification of kidnapping, torture, and sexual degradation in her new song Bitch better have my money.  Which, of course, is as it should be.  After all, Rihanna is hot (hey, the camera zooms in on her crotch every five seconds!), while Ovid, Caravaggio, and Mozart are boring, stuffy, and offensive relics of the oppressive, patriarchal, white male hegemony.
7 months ago | |
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In the last three decades or so music critics have frequently complained (or at least noted) that the arrival of the jet age and the fall of the Iron Curtain have pretty much erased the distinctly national characteristics of music making.  Musicians and ensembles around the world, we are told, tend to make music in much the same "international" way regardless of whether  they hail from Moscow, Prague, Paris, or New York.

To me the empirical basis of such claims remains elusive.  Recordings of orchestral music from an earlier era suggest that styles of music making depend almost entirely on conductors.  Conductors who were trained within the same geographical borders (e.g., Klemperer, Walter, Furtwangler, Strauss, Karajan) and worked with the same orchestras (e.g., the Vienna or the Berlin Philharmonic) interpreted the same compositions in ways which differed from one another so much as to make the idea of a 'national style of music making' vacuous at best.   And when some of these conductors moved to other countries (e.g., Klemperer to London, Walter to New York) their ways of music making crossed the borders along with them.  The only empirically meaningful difference between performances of, say, a Mozart symphony conducted by Bruno Walter in New York, Vienna, and Paris in the 1950s is that the standards of execution maintained by the French orchestra were abominably low, those of the Vienna orchestra barely adequate, and those of the New York orchestra were at the highest level.

If I'm right, then what is likely to have taken place over the last half century is not the disappearance of the so-called national styles of music making, but simply the world-wide acceptance of uniformly high American standards of execution and instrumental craft - the standards set by such tyrannical conductors as Szell, Reiner, Stokowski, and Toscanini, and by superstar instrumentalists like Heifetz, and Horowitz.  Once these standards had spread around the world via recordings, broadcasts, and tours, it became next to impossible to sell vague metaphysical or poetic justifications for the sloppy ensemble and poor intonation routinely produced by European orchestras under Furtwangler or Knappertsbusch, or for the torrents of wrong notes heard from such old-timers as Schnabel, Cortot and Rubinstein.

But then I might be wrong.  Recently I came across three superbly engineered and impeccably played live broadcast recordings of Mozart's beloved "Dissonance" string quartet (K.465), performed by well-established string quartets from England, France, and Germany.  All three performances took place in the same concert hall within the last four years.  The performances were so strikingly different from one another that I sent these recordings, without any data identifying the performers, to a friend who listens to a lot of chamber music.  I asked her if she could identify the national origins of any of the three quartets (I did tell her which countries were involved) and she nailed the French quartet right away!  I suspect she also could make a good guess about the remaining two quartets, but she refused to stick her neck out on the basis of (what she thinks is) less than compelling evidence.
     Still, one correct identification, made so quickly and so confidently, was enough to leave me with a nagging suspicion that my view concerning the largely illusory nature of national characteristics in music making may be wrong after all.  So I decided to offer these three recordings (with performers identified only as "A", "B", and "C") on my blog to see if the combined intuitions and musical erudition of the blog readers would either vindicate my view or prove it wrong.
7 months ago | |
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Same music (Mozart's symphony No.36, K.425).
Same orchestra (one of the world's best),
Same concert hall.
Same audio engineer.
Same superb quality of recorded sound (directly downloaded streaming source files for high-bitrate webcasts).
And given that the two concerts took place within 20 months of each other, my guess is that most of the orchestral musicians involved are the same as well.

Only the conductors are different.

What better way to kill an hour on a lazy summer day than to check out these two recordings and decide which of the two conductors makes a better case for the music.*
     Needless to say, I'll appreciate if you take a minute to let me know which of the two conductors impressed you more.  (I will reveal the identities of these conductors before my next post.)
*  Not a trivial task for conductors, by the way, since Mozart's symphonies, with two exceptions, need all the help they can get.  Not so much because they are bad (though many of them are), but because the E flat (K.543) and the G minor (K.550) symphonies set such an impossibly high standard of thematic and harmonic invention that the other thirty nine symphonies - including the overrated "Haffner", "Prague", and "Jupiter" - sound downright monotonous by comparison. 
7 months ago | |
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The syntax in this headline from USA TODAY convinced me that in  today's America the words "journalist" and "fucking retard" have become synonymous.  I wonder if such degradation of language in mainstream media is exclusively an American phenomenon...

Texas teen who cop pulled gun on at pool party speaks

7 months ago | |
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The title of this post refers to what is arguably the most rewarding, if only too rare, response to a musical performance.  In my entire life I had only two listening experiences of this kind.
     One was with Otto Klemperer's 1962 live recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  During the exposition I kept rolling my eyes, wondering how long it would take for my mind to descend into a stupor induced by the glacial tempo and heavy-footed phrasing of this geriatric performance.  By the end of the development section I was already convinced that I will never hear a more shattering interpretation of Beethoven's music.
     The other experience involved Sviatoslav Richter's 1972 live recording of Schubert's B-flat sonata D.960 from Prague.   At first I thought that watching paint dry may actually be a more attractive alternative to sitting through this catatonic performance.  By the end of the exposition repeat, however, I realized that my breathing, my heart rate, perhaps even my metabolism had slowed down to match the pulse of Richter's music making.  The accompanying vague feeling that events in the external world were unfolding at a fast-forward speed was about as close as I could ever hope to come to experiencing the relativistic time dilation effect.

Given that extant recordings of Beethoven's symphonies and Schubert's sonatas - including ancient broadcasts and amateur bootlegs - must number in the hundreds, the chance of having this kind of experience with a piece of contemporary music, whose recordings can be counted on the fingers of one hand, seems vanishingly small.  Which is why I felt lucky just to be reminded of such experiences when I recently heard my second live recording of Carter's Boston Concerto.  The performance took place in Glasgow on May 28, 2014, at one of two all-Carter concerts given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.  (Just to think of it, in the land of haggis and bagpipes a major orchestra gives back-to-back all-Carter concerts, while in New York - Carter's home town - the Philharmonic's performances of Carter's works are as rare as vacant rent-controlled apartments on the Upper West Side.)
     Conducted by the 80-year old Diego Masson, long a familiar figure in the world of contemporary music, the performance took 20 minutes, four minutes (25%) longer than Oliver Knussen's fleet and sparkling performance recorded live by the BBC in 2008.  (The latter has been available on this blog for some time.)  At such a drastically slowed-down tempo, Carter's evocation of onrushing rain in the opening bars sounded more like the serene gurgling of a decorative waterfall at some Buddhist retreat.  Yet my initial shock wore off rather quickly because Masson's slow tempo brought out layers of exquisitely interwoven instrumental lines with clarity I could not get from the Knussen's performance even after multiple hearings. 

I still can't say that I like Masson's conception of this work.  But then so what?  The thrill of being able to hear one of the most beautiful orchestral compositions of the 20th century in such radically different interpretations (not to mention the superb sound quality of BBC's 320 kbs m4a webcasts) is amply rewarding in itself.

8 months ago | |
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I take it for granted that my bottomless contempt for commercial recordings of classical music has been amply justified.  Still, it would be unfair to give the impression that there have been no exceptions, however rare, to the sonic garbage peddled by classical record companies large and small.  So I thought it is time to mention a few commercial studio recordings which strike me are shining examples of unimpeachable musical and engineering competence.
What makes such recordings special is that they create an intellectually stimulating and emotionally involving illusion of a continuous real-time performance.  If they contain edits, the edits are perfectly matched in volume/perspective.  (Usually the absence of audibly mismatched edits means that recording sessions took place over a few days at the most, so that the final product does not contain 'takes' recorded in different venues or with differently positioned microphones.)  The equalization and other sound processing applied to such recordings (if at all) is guided by respect for the tonal characteristics of acoustic instruments as heard directly by the human ear in real life (in a concert hall, or in a living room in a house) rather than by the desire to compensate for poor playback equipment and/or noisy listening environments. 
The short list of recordings below reflects the fact that  much of my music listening involves piano music.  

EMI (Switzerland)
Chopin: Twenty Four Preludes, Op.28
The Impromptus on the same disc, recorded at different sessions, are not anywhere close to the quality of the Preludes.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.29, Op.106 
The Moonlight sonata on the same disc, recorded in a different venue, is simply hideous.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op.2, Nos. 1 & 2 (recorded in 1977)
Regrettably these two sonatas are the only superlative recordings in Brendel's 1970s analog set of Beethoven sonatas. 

EMI (France)
Beethoven: Sonatas Nos. 1 - 29
The last three sonatas contain edits which are annoyingly audible, due to mismatched volume levels and/or perspective on the instrument.  The rest of the set - given its mid-1950s vintage - is absolutely superb.  Unlike that era's cavernous, metallic, and clangorous EMI recordings from Abbey Road Studio 3, this set gives a natural and realistic (if acoustically intimate) experience of Nat's powerful musical projection and intoxicating piano tone.  The latter is full and rounded, and there is a luminous cantabile quality to it.  (I have a live recording of Nat's 1953 Paris recital which allows me to vouch for the tonal and interpretative truthfulness of his studio Beethoven set.)
     Although the volume of slow (quiet) movements is too high (usually by about 35 %), this is easily correctable and certainly excusable in recordings made during mono LP era, when quiet music had to compete with surface noise and less than optimal playback equipment. (Of course there is no excuse for leaving this discrepancy in volume levels uncorrected in the CD issue.)

EMI (France)
2012 Anniversary Edition
Chopin: Twenty Four Preludes Op.28 (recorded in 1942)
As much as I love Cortot's playing, his numerous recordings made at EMI's Abbey Road Studio (whether before or after the war) are simply unlistenable.  No matter what the remastering engineers have tried to do to them (including the efforts of such competent professionals as Obert-Thorn), they still sound as if Cortot is playing a hybrid of marimba and xylophone.   The combination of metallic, clangorous, and completely colorless piano tone with cavernous acoustics in these London recordings makes my teeth hurt.
    The 1942 Paris recording of the Preludes, on the other hand, is stunningly realistic and natural by comparison.  The ambiance is much more intimate, the decay time is shorter, and Cortot's tonal shadings come trough with remarkable realism.  So much so that even the high quality professional bootleg of Cortot's live 1955 recording of the Preludes from Munich  (Arkadia CD) offers only a marginal gain in tonal naturalness and realism.
   An additional reason to praise this recording - as transferred for the 2012 Anniversary Edition - is that the volume levels of individual preludes are related to one another in a musically meaningful way, and the (gentle) surface noise of 78 rpm shellacs does not fade in and out between individual preludes.  With Cortot's fingers showing no appreciable decline in reliability since 1933 (they were already unreliable then), this 1942 recording is vastly superior to the inexplicably celebrated 1933 version, not only in terms of recorded sound, but also because the older Cortot's playing is more intimate and poetic. 
    I should also note that the 1943 Paris recording of the 14 Waltzes (also in the Anniversary Edition) is just as good in terms of balance and perspective, but the piano tone sounds noticeably (though not disastrously) metallic in the octaves above the middle C.  Still, the sound of this recording is superior to the 1934 set, and the playing is thrillingly unbuttoned.  These are the only performances of these pieces I know which sound as if played by one of the guests at a party where other guests, tipsy and euphoric, are dancing the evening away.  The somewhat dry natural sonority of a full-size Pleyel grand piano - which, as I recall reading somewhere, is what Cortot played in these recordings - certainly adds to this impression.

EMI (France)
Faure: 13 Barcarolles (recorded in the 1970s)
Compared to this glowing, perfectly balanced analog recording (which had mightily impressed the finicky and hyper-critical Vladimir Horowitz), Collard's later digital recordings - tonally harsh, claustrophobic, and full of audible splices - are a disgrace.

9 months ago | |
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Meet Philipp Nedel, the remastering engineer for the 2012 DVD issue of "Horowitz in Vienna" - the first DVD release of the recital previously available 'officially' only on a VHS stereo tape.  Since I have a copy of that VHS tape (in a pirate DVD transfer from Japan), it took me only a few minutes of listening to Mr. Nedel's work to appreciate the remarkable consistency with which major classical labels (in this case Sony) entrust restoration of historically invaluable recordings to incompetent and evil motherfuckers like Mr. Nedel and the issue producer Robert Russ.  (Unfortunately the latter's photo could not be found on the web.  Perhaps Mr. Russ suspects that the quality of his work makes it prudent for him to do what he can to remain maximally anonymous.)

In the process of 'remastering' this recording for the DVD issue, it was apparently decided that coughs, however unobtrusive, have no place in a live recording made in a concert hall filled with nearly 2000 people.  Including coughs which overlapped the sounds coming from Horowitz' piano.  In some cases (e.g., at the beginning of the Allegro of Mozart's sonata K.333) removing such coughs required splicing in some amount of music from the repeat (or perhaps from one of two other stereo recordings of this sonata by Horowitz).  But the most impressive bit of editing vandalism was done with the cough which overlapped the hammer strike of the very first note in the Andante of that Mozart sonata.  The cough was simply excised along with the hammer strike part of that note.  What was left was a disfigured 'hammerless' tail end of the note - a sound as ugly as it is painful for anyone who cares about  music, Mozart, and the art of piano playing.

Naturally I did not bother to listen to the rest of that DVD, nor to the remaining five discs in the 6-DVD set "Vladimir Horowits: The Video Collection", which I borrowed from my local public library.  But what I've heard was enough to make me think that if I were Mr. Nedel, I would seriously consider hiring a plastic surgeon to change my appearance.  Why risk being recognized on a dark and deserted street by an outraged Horowitz fan?

9 months ago | |
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I still remember mother-in-law jokes I heard as a kid growing up in Russia.  Many were predictably homicidal:

A man stands on a high floor balcony, holding an older woman just over the railing.  
The man says, "Ivan shot his mother-in-law.  Fyodor strangled his.  But I am letting you go."

A few were downright surreal:

Late at night.  A room in a communal apartment.  Mother-in-law sleeps in the corner partitioned off from the rest of the room by a curtain.   
     Son-in-law loudly whispers, "Mother!  Mother!"
     Awaken mother-in-law responds from behind the curtain: "What?  What is it, Vasili?"
     "Mother, would you like some fish?"
     "Sure, I'd love some, Vasenka."
     "Then get up and fry some."
     "But Vasenka, we don't have any."
     "Then shut the fuck up and sleep!"

No wonder I was startled when I saw the news item below.  Truly a metaphysical case of the ultimate revenge...

*   *   *

Mother-in-law's tombstone topples on Pennsylvania man, killing him

Reuters March 30, 2015 6:48pm EDTA Pennsylvania man was helping decorate his mother-in-law’s tombstone on Monday ahead of the Easter holiday when it suddenly toppled over, pinning him underneath and killing him, a cemetery caretaker said.
The 400-pound stone fatally injured Stephen Woytack, 74, of Scranton, said Edward Kubilas, caretaker of St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in the eastern Pennsylvania town of Throop, just outside of Scranton.
9 months ago | |
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I have nothing against cute boys and girls exploiting the advantages of their phenotype, be it in modeling or in soliciting sugar daddies on Craigslist.  But when it comes to serious music, I would expect a musician's success to be based on more artistically relevant factors than just 'cute puppy' looks.  Which, of course, makes me a hopeless imbecile - a depressing self-assessment, true, but amply justified by the meteoric career trajectory of the Canadian-born, still very young,  and singularly mediocre pianist Jan Lisiecki (b. 1995).

My first encounter with Lisiecki was through a live recording from the 2010 Music Mountain Festival (Connecticut, USA) where he played the chamber version of Chopin's F-minor piano concerto with the Penderecki String Quartet.  It took me about three minutes of listening to the solo part to become convinced that, as a 15-year old, Lisiecki had already mastered a thoroughly generic piano tone and a perfectly wooden way of shaping melodic lines.  This first impression made me feel quite confident that the performing future of this teenager will be pretty much limited to family gatherings, since only loving and patient relatives are likely to endure more than a few minutes of this kind of playing... 
     That same year Lisiecki was signed to a recording contract by one of the biggest and most prestigious classical record labels (Deutsche Grammophon).  Two years later the 17-year old pianist made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, playing the Schumann concerto with the  same combination of interpretative vacuity  and tonal blandness.  (This performance was streamed on the orchestra's website.)   To Lisiecki's misfortune the attending New York Times critic was not Anthony Tommasini, who always has nice things to say about pianists so long as they happen to be cute twinks or fashionably attired hunks.  Instead it was Zachary Woolfe who summed up the most salient features of Lisiecki's playing by noting that "[f]rom the work’s impetuous opening bars, Mr. Lisiecki’s sound ... remained precisely the same through the rest of the concerto, with little variety of color...  He played all the notes but suggested few of the extroverted charms of a work that jumps from nocturne to mania."
After reading that New York Times review I felt pretty sure that the time had finally come for Lisiecki to go back to playing in nursing homes and at Polish weddings in his native Canada.  Yet less than two years later the 19-year old gave an all-Chopin recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  Driven by morbid curiosity I listened to the broadcast of that Concertgebouw recital only to be impressed by the remarkable consistency of this pianist.  Even in miniatures (waltzes, nocturnes) he had absolutely nothing worthwhile to say about the music he played.  But the most resounding nothing was reserved for the sole big work on the program - the complete Preludes Op.28 - on which Lisiecki lavished all the interpretative vacuum and pianistic monotony he had nurtured and perfected since the beginning of his career as a concert pianist.

Of course, some readers may wonder if my harsh judgment of this impossibly cute blond pianist is nothing but the homoerotic rage of a frustrated Quasimodo whose romantic experiences have been limited to slovenly truck drivers in the rest stops along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  With this in mind, I thought it would be well to offer the recording of Lisiecki's Amsterdam performance of Chopin's Preludes and let the curious readers judge for themselves.
     Finally, to make things a bit more interesting for pianophiles who occasionally visit this blog, here is another live and unedited (and equally well-engineered) recording of Chopin's Preludes performed by the French pianist David Kadouch (b.1985) at the 2012 Verbier Festival.  Of all the recordings of this set that I've heard over the years - from those made in the 1920s by Robert Lortat and Alfred Cortot, to the most recent recitals by the winners of various prestigious competitions (e.g., Yulianna Avdeeva, Haochen Zhang), Kadouch's performance is the only one that forced me to hear this music as a single composition consisting of 24 movements.
10 months ago | |
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