Am I like everyone else? Could be.
I know people who get bored with music, are incessantly searching for new tunes, new interpretations, new sensations. I don’t use that B word, which strikes me as a kind of obscenity. How could one experience… no i won’t even say the word. But I will honour their statement without challenging it, given that “new” in that guise often means “new top 40” rather than a composition that’s genuinely new in the sense of a composer or choice of instrumentation that’s not following an old trend, not in fact imitating every other hit tune of the past half century. Forgive me, I recognize that everyone has their own idea of what’s new and old, familiar or edgy. I don’t really use the word “bored”, as i simply allow myself to fall asleep when i am not stimulated; or i walk out.
While I suppose I have lots of curiosity, I noticed recently I have a few compositions that I can’t avoid putting in the car, that I can’t leave home without, that I keep coming back to, over and over: not recordings, so much as pieces. I have multiple recordings of these pieces, but the remarkable thing is that any interpretation will do. When I say “will do” I am understating things, as I mean that I can find my way to something bordering on ecstasy by many pathways (but there are several ways up the mountain, right?). I recognize that much of what’s going on may seem to be reified airy-fairy nonsense, something that’s more fantasy than real.
But for now, I am going to talk about these five, which represent five of my favourite composers, each in a different guise. And because any performer will do, I will rely on youtube, that treasure-trove. These five are always in my car.
Let me add by way of a brief digression, that I also have some works that I will omit mentioning because they’re big & long, and therefore impossible to experience in a simple trip downtown (ie 30 minutes or so). Yes these are great –and big—works and indeed likely to evoke a similar sort of response from other people. When we’re speaking of profound works, there are usually several great approaches to be found. Two operas come to mind, both with the same first initial, and indeed sharing some of the same thematic materials. I have never heard a bad version of either Parsifal or Pelléas et Mélisande, even though there’s an enormous range of interpretations out there. But let me set aside obvious choices such as those two great works, because as I said, you can’t listen to them in 30 minutes, can you…? And I don’t find that the noisy secular environment in the car is very conducive to either work.
But there are these five other CDs that I rely on from time to time. I don’t listen to them every day but whenever I turn to them they take me somewhere else.
. I used to have a great deal of vinyl devoted to transcriptions, but now I prefer to play them myself rather than listen. The exception is with Bach via Busoni. I’m especially fond of the Chaconne in D minor, although the St Anne prelude & fugue also transports me. Any recording will do, although I rely especially on Maria Tipo, whose magisterial readings blow my mind every time I listen. Oh and the link may not last, so enjoy while you may.
2- Byron’s best bet
There are several wonderful instances of musical Byronism. I recall the time I told a professor that the actual Byron was a disappointment, and yes, seeing his
disappointment in me. But I think it’s a valid observation. Is L Frank Baum as good really as the 1939 movie? Sometimes adaptations surpass their source. I recall reading of Europeans of the last century who thought Shakespeare in their language surpassed him in English. While that idea once outraged me, I love it. How poetic, speaking as someone who prefers Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette to the play. Berlioz’s Roméo is a Byronic beast, splendidly alone for much of the work, because the work is really an exploration of Berlioz’s own hyper-romantic sensibility. Has there ever been anything so amazing? Wagner acknowledged his debt to Berlioz (who never returned the favour, though he likely did owe RW a debt here and there).
But yes there was something as amazing, the thing that led Paganini to commission R & J in the first place. Harolde en Italie is four remarkable movements. I need to write in more detail about each but suffice it to say that this is really where you see the Romantic movement begin. I’d like to say it’s at the opening of the last movement with a blunt and symbolic gesture. Beethoven begins the last movement of his Ninth Symphony with a medley to review the previous movements, followed by a redirection of the piece, via the blunt declaration by the soloist “oh friends, not in these tones”. In other words Beethoven shows us an abyss but consciously pulls us back to celebrate joy instead.
What does Berlioz do? He shows us the abyss too via a series of movements and a medley to open his last movement. But whereas there’s a neo-classical bass soloist ostentatiously calling us away to another purpose in Beethoven’s symphony, in Berlioz’s piece –an orgy of brigands—we slide helplessly off the edge of a cliff. It’s such a modern piece, Byron –via Berlioz—could be describing Toronto politics, the loss of honour & the impossibility of transcendence, the end of meaning itself.
On top of all this brilliance, Berlioz had the astonishing insight to put his Byron right onstage. The work is a kind of concerto, where we have a viola –that dark brooding voice—as though it were Byron, confronted with the romantic landscapes. This is not a virtuoso showing off, which is why Paganini didn’t understand it when he read through it, although he rejoiced when he saw it performed, a phenomenally original series of ideas in one densely packed symphony.
I’ve heard tons of interpretations, yet never yet encountered one that didn’t strike me as brilliant. Am I a fool or is Berlioz idiot proof? Of course it does require great players, so in that sense it truly IS idiot proof I suppose. It also makes terrific fun in the piano transcription Liszt made of the orchestral part (to be played with a violist of course), although I am not pretending I can play all of it. The inner movements are easy enough. The outer ones? that’s another story.
So let’s sample one of those magical little inner movements, namely the March of the Pilgrims. Notice the odd duet back and forth to open (and later close) the movement: as though the pilgrim walks, hearing the bells from home behind him and the bells ahead, an aural image of the destination. And then that soloist stands and plays, as though he were Byron against the whole world. That middle section of fast notes –a bit like Philip Glass only better–is truly like a long journey, wandering up and down through fascinating chord progressions that were likely the most adventurous thing anyone had heard so far in a concert hall. And by the end, are we nearing the destination? Which destination after all: the Holy Land or Paradise Itself?
There are lots of great overtures I suppose, but only one works magic on me. Mendelssohn wrote one that uses two Goethe poems, a concept that I find vivid for the way it takes me back to a time I never saw. Sir Thomas Allen recently sang the Schubert version of one of these poems –“Meerestille” or becalmed sea – that goes with a constrasting companion, namely “Gluckliche Fahrt” or fortunate voyage. We know it in English as “Calm Sea & Prosperous Voyage”.
There are really two thoughts to this tune, that hit me at a very primal level. A calm sea is really a dramatic frame for voyaging. Without wind you can’t travel. And so the first section is a dramatic meditation that could be upon the surface of the beginning of time, at a cellular level before life began. Okay maybe I exaggerate, but the construction of this overture invites my mind to wander. When the wind picks up, we begin a sonata movement that is really about the two sides of a voyage. We have an exposition departing from the tonic key, moving into other keys for the perils of the development, and then, in the recapitulation, the home-key was never so fundamental, so safe and welcoming. It’s humanized by the sense of purpose & gratitude. And the very last notes mirror the beginning, when we sense that motion has finally stopped. We’re safe at last. Gratitude. Peace. Speaking of gratitude, I suppose i should mention Mendelssohn, so eloquent in his construction of melodies & structures, giving the history of the world in ten minutes.
4- Commedia dell’Arte
Many composers have invoked the Commedia dell’Arte, that is, the improvised comedy of Italy that was exported throughout Europe in the Renaissance and later. Some wrote songs, some wrote operas. And later, the CdA became a kind of trope that –at least according to some professors—was distorted in the nostalgic images seen in the romantic period, whether in painting, onstage or in music. Yet there is phenomenal richness in these layers, as in any adaptation. I don’t worry that the “real” CdA is unlike what was signified in –for example—Fauré’s Masques et Bergamasques. I let my mind conjure up that “distorted” version without judgment, as I hear the four movements. The energetic first, the poignant second, the boisterous third, and the achingly nostalgic fourth… Their brief glimpse of a magic world is one that I wish would never end. It always makes me sad when it does, as if at the end their time is over, and they must go away. I’ll start you at the beginning, and you can decide whether to continue or not.
5- two pianos
There is an enormous wealth of music for two pianos, so the pieces I will speak of may seem an odd pair to mention. Debussy’s four movement “Petite Suite” is charming and simple. Two of them share titles with poems by symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. I shared the opening movement “En bateau” over a year ago, a piece that reminds me of the actions it seems to describe. Watch the bodies, and then think of two men rowing a boat. No the players aren’t precisely rowing, but still the body-language reminds me all the same. All four pieces are like jewels, as note-perfect as Mozart, but dare i say it, better, because they’re not necessarily symmetrical. They have an organic perfection that’s like nature itself. Golden section perhaps? or merely his insight & sensitivity.
What to listen to next?