Friday, February 14, 2014

Just Long Enough

The length of a recording used to be determined by the storage media. The vinyl LP at 33⅓ RPM was limited to 28 minutes per side. Cassette tapes could go longer, but with tradeoffs. The venerable Compact Disc could go up to 79.8 minutes.

Thus, the media has imposed limitations: how do you fit a 45-minute long movement onto a vinyl LP? They have also created expectations for both the price and quantity of music being delivered. We feel cheated by a half-filled LP or CD, and I think this has sometimes resulted in an unhealthy practice of stuffing the recording with extra content that only distracts.

With digital delivery and playback, these limits have no meaning. Why package content delivery into multiple “discs?” Why pack the selection with bonus material?

BIS just released a fascinating recording through e|classical that the accompanying booklet states:

The present recordings are currently (February 2014) available only for downloading/streaming.

For information about our physical products (CDs and Super Audio CDs), please visit www.bis.se.

Indeed, the recording has less than 35-minutes of music on it. Before one builds up a healthy outrage, note that their policy is to charge by the minute, so this recording costs just half of what a recording packed with another 35 minutes of material would cost. This is the future.

[Side note:] I blame some of the acceptance of such limits on our school education, where we were told to produce an essay of, say, 500 words. Even today I have co-workers asking me, “how long does it have to be?” My answer is always, “Just long enough, not longer, not shorter.”

The recording itself is a fascinating selection of the music of British composer Thomas Adès, a new name to me. Two works are included, his 2005 violin concerto, titled “Concentric Paths” and “Three Studies From Couperin”: two very different works.

The violin concerto is full of color, a contrast between consonance and dissonance. The composer’s own description explains:

‘This concerto has three movements, like most, [the movements are called Rings – Paths – Rounds] but it is really more of a triptych, as the middle one is the largest. It is the “slow” movement, built from two large, and very many small, independent cycles, which overlap and clash, sometimes violently, in their motion towards resolution.

The outer movements too are circular in design, the first fast, with sheets of unstable harmony in different orbits, the third playful, at ease, with stable cycles moving in harmony at different rates.’

The “Three Studies From Couperin” is a change of pace: loving arrangements of three of Couperin’s harpsichord pieces. No attempt at historical authenticity is intended or made: the chamber orchestra provides colors and textures that reveal these gems in a new light. This work isn’t going to offend anyone other than a purist, and made for a delightful contrast to the concerto.

The two works create a balanced program: not too long, not too short. I look forward to more programming along these lines: dropping the artificial limitations of the media. As for the future: I think fixed media will soon be gone, and I say good riddance!

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Old and the New: Finnish Edition

It is a mistake to refer to the Finns as “Scandinavian”: Finnish is a completely different language from the Scandinavian languages – Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic. Culturally and geographically, Finland is stuck between Sweden and Russia, both of which occupied it at different times until Finland declared independence in 1917. Beneath the occupiers was a Finnish bedrock that spoke a completely unrelated language.

An amazing nationalistic movement emerged in the late nineteenth century: the Finns embraced their heritage, forging a new identity. Nearly everyone, including the upper crust, learned Finnish, if they didn’t already speak it. Stop and consider this for just for a moment: try to imagine Americans deciding to embrace one of our native languages, say, Cherokee!

Jean Sibelius, often considered Finland’s greatest composer, grew up speaking Swedish. He had to work as hard as everyone else to learn this very foreign language. He was an important figurehead in that movement.

Sibelius holds a very high ranking in my pantheon of composers. While I have been aware of his music for much of my life, it is only in the last couple of years that I started to really pay attention. I have been reading Glenda Dawn Goss’ “Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland” with the hope that I would get better insight into Sibelius’ musical development and process. It has been unusually slowgoing for me because Goss seems much more interested in the “awakening of Finland.” As result, I have been learning more about this nationalistic movement and its key players.

Sibelius was at the start of a long list of important Finnish composers. I have been immersing myself in them far out of proportion to the population of their country of origin. I would like to mention two that could be easily overlooked: Leevi Madetoja, born 22 years after Sibelius, and Uljas Pulkkis, who is only 39 and very much alive. Both were good bets, based on my ongoing success with Finnish composers.

If you love Sibelius, it is probably a good bet that you will like Leevi Madetoja. A blind listening to one of Madetoja’s works on Ondine’s first album of his works would possibly make you think you had somehow missed some of Sibelius’ many works. But, how could one have missed such good Sibelius?

Ondine is a label with a relatively small catalog and that can be counted on for a great sound. Indeed, they appear to be the Finnish equivalent to my Norwegian favorite label 2L. But I digress.

Included in this first volume is Madetoja’s Symphony No. 2, his symphonic poem, Kullervo, and his Elegy: all of these wonderful music. An early version of the Elegy was first performed while Madetoja was still in the music conservatory, and it helped establish his reputation. It was quickly incorporated into his Symphonic Suite, Op. 4. It stands alone very nicely: a hauntingly somber and beautiful work that should be enough to ensure he was not forgotten. I would rate his Second Symphony as being on the par with the best of Sibelius. It, too, is described as being “somber,” but I don’t find it so. It has a hint of French Impressionism, and that should be the hint that suggests it is not Sibelius; the two are masters of the orchestra, similar, but not identical. I guess it was impossible to be a Finnish composer and not write music inspired by the Kalevala, the Finnish epic tale that fails to awe me. Modetoja’s tone poem Kullervo holds up just fine without the back story.

This recording should not be considered a niche selection: it is first rate-music convincingly performed with an excellent sound.

Let’s skip ahead almost a hundred years. This bypasses some of the best symphonic composers of the Twentieth Century, all Finns; I will get around to writing about Einojuhani Rautavaara and more about Kalevi Aho. e|classical offered a daily deal for a recording of music by Uljas Pulkkis. When BIS Boss RvB gives a strong recommendation for one of these specials I pay attention; he is equally honest in describing recordings that disappoint him. Pulkkis is so obscure that I had to add his name to Wikipedia’s list of Finnish Composers today.

The recording was made in the year 2007, when the composer was only 32 years old and the pieces written when he was only 25–27 years old. He is clearly very gifted, with a lot to say musically, and one who is continuing Finland’s reputation of producing the best symphonic composers today. Dare I make another comparison: if you like the music of Rautavaara and Aho, you will probably like this. (Likewise, if you don’t like the composers I mention, you probably won’t like Pulkkis, although I would encourage you to not give up so easily.) None of the included works are large scale symphonies, but rather a couple of concertos for violin and flute, and a symphonic poem, Symphonic Dalí – Three paintings for orchestra. I have found it very easy to listen to this recording repeatedly. I would like to hear how his music has since progressed.

It must be very difficult to be a composer these days. Their music will be deemed either too conservative or too modern, depending on the listener. The Finnish composers of the last century that I have referred to all write with an essentially tonal pallet, and therefore easily branded conservative. But they often compose with some hard edges, and so may be too progressive for those with more conservative tastes. The lesson I am learning is that what I refer to as “hard edges” soften with exposure, and become rather the spice in the stew.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Old and the New

One hates to have expectations dashed. It is reasonable to expect a great performance from a “big name” artist, someone who is well known and well respected. We pay top dollar to hear them. If we can’t count on them, where do we go?

If I have learned one thing over the last year, it is to expect to be surprised and delighted by the lesser knowns. I want to mention two such surprises, one very late in his career, the other suddenly appearing out of nowhere.

To suggest that Menham Pressler is an unknown would be ludicrous. He founded the Beaux Arts Trio in 1955. He is known as one of the great teachers today, a bridge to the great romantic tradition. He is now 91 and obviously very cunning: he managed to work a deal with two different labels at the same time to record very similar programs: each is built around Beethoven and Schubert. One presents Mozart, the other Chopin.

Pressler is a grandly romantic interpreter. His musical approach is serene and wise. Mature. Poetry displaces any threats of theatrics. His sound is warm and rich. Both recordings, one on the BIS label (Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin), the other on the heretofore unknown La Dolce Volta. Both were recorded in studio quality (24/96) and although the recordings were on different pianos in different locations, the sound and performance is consistent. Which is to say, absolutely divine.

These performances aren’t ground-breaking. There is no gimmickry. They are honest and straightforward.

I ran into a new name via one of the promotional specials on e|classical: titled "Paris 1884–1959,” it is performed by a young French pianist I haven’t heard of before: Florian Billot. Indeed, there are no program notes that come with the recording and essentially nothing in English about Billot on the Internet.

The program is aptly named. A selection of French piano music by César Frank, Ravel, Debussy, Dutilleux, and ending with a brief piece by Poulenc. I hope to hear more from Billot in the future. Each of the pieces is a gem. He plays Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte with consummate sincerity and serenity, a bit slower than what one generally hears. I am always impressed by musicians (especially young musicians) who aren’t afraid to let the music breathe.

The name Henri Dutilleux has previously escaped me. It seems that he ended up on Pierre Boulez’ bad list (I’m already liking him more…), and was blackballed by the French elite. The sonata performed on this recording really extrapolates the French impressionism into the twentieth century. I’m on the lookout for more of his music.

How grand it would be if Billot would record the complete solo works of Poulenc. Paul Crossley’s 1989 recording, a real favorite of mine, is old and worn out. Billot ends this first recording with Poulenc’s Hommage à Édith Piaf, played to perfection. I want more!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose

I have had extraordinary luck over the last year in picking recordings. Most of these I have really enjoyed. A couple may have been a bit on the stodgy side, but were of great interest. For example, the BIS recording of Bruckner piano works, performed by Fumiko Shiraga, demonstrates that the piano was not Bruckner’s muse; the lack of symphonic textures exposes his seventh symphony in a rather tedious light. Still, it is a recording I will return to on rare occasion because it has some perspective to present and the performance is solid.

I have known of the Canadian pianist Hélène Grimaud for a long time. I had discounted her as just another pretty face in an business that routinely exploits objectification until I read a review in the New Yorker that praised her for her artistic independence[1], comparing her to Glenn Gould. I thought I would take advantage of my next opportunity to listen to such inspiration.

Opportunity presented itself yesterday, an online special for Grimaud’s “Resonances” an intriguing program of Mozart, Berg, Liszt, and Bartok. I’m generally cautious over recordings that throw a Mozart sonata into the mix, but I thought it should be interesting. Alas, I didn’t take the time to listen to preview of the Mozart, rather jumped to the Berg. Liking what I heard, I made the purchase and downloaded the 24/96 studio quality recording. I didn’t listen to it until this morning.

My general policy has been to avoid negative reviews. I have had only a few recordings over the years for which I felt compelled to break my silence. It is my belief that if I don’t like what I hear, I am misunderstanding the intent of the artist (or sometimes, the composer). That may be the case here, but I was barely ten measures into Grimaud’s performance of Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, K310, when I sensed trouble. Absent was either clear metric pulse or articulation. I thought that perhaps it would get better. It didn’t until the Andante cantible con expressione, which revealed a beautiful tone, some heartfelt expressiveness, and some articulation. These all disappeared in the Presto, which sounded like a race to the finish line at a student competition.

Oh, dear! Did I blow it? Berg’s Piano Sonata, op. 1 fared better. Grimaud’s somewhat excessive rubato brought out the romantic nature of this music, offering respite from the austerity of Glenn Gould’s recording. However, it has none of Gould’s idiosyncratic articulation or intensity.

I am unfamiliar with Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, but this seemed to be where Grimaud had the most to say. Not enough to keep me interested, but I have yet to personally “discover” Liszt.

The program ends with Bartok’s six Romanian Folk Dances. These are crowd-pleasers: all they need is a good beat and a bit of articulation. Unfortunately, it is presented here at the interpretive level of perhaps a conservatory student. I am truly sorry. I was expecting something that would at least grab and perhaps challenge me a bit. Sure, I was hoping for a flash of the Gould magic, and that would be unfair. To refashion Lloyd Bentsen’s put-down of Dan Quayle, I know Glenn Gould, and Hélène Grimaud is no Glenn Gould.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

300


When I first created this blog eight years ago, blogging was just starting to become the next new “big thing.” Since I was in the Internet business, I figured I should be acquainted with this new medium. Blogging has persisted, as has this blog, which just passed its 300th posting.

When I created it, I named it “Midlife Music Musings,” because I was in my mid-fifties, and “middle-aged” by definition. Shortly after I began the blog, I was diagnosed with a particularly bad cancer, which I obviously survived. Now that I am in my sixties, I can no longer lay claims to “midlife,” so I have retitled it simply “Music Musings.”

It has never been my intent to serve as a critic, but rather as an evangelist. I don’t believe in “the best,” whether performer, composer, or interpretation. In a few cases I have issued a warning for an interpretation. Ultimately, I feel it is my duty to try to understand the intent of both composer and musician: “innocent until proven guilty.” If I really don’t like a piece, it is my assumption that I have yet to understand it. The meaningful question is whether it is worth my effort to persist in trying to understand, or to look elsewhere.

For many years I tended to focus on limited areas, not just “early music,” but early music for the keyboard or lute. I believe I built a modest following, some of whom must have been dismayed as I moved on to broader areas; I have learned that many pride themselves on specialization. Over the last eighteen months I have moved more aggressively into new areas, especially chamber and symphonic music. I have learned a great deal and I would like to pass on some of my core beliefs.

Music is Music.


I regret labels: they always get me into trouble. Just as they have become the bane of civil discourse in today’s political climate, they impede exploration of music. I am so dismayed when I read things along the lines of, “I categorically dislike those original instrument performances,” or “I’m not interested in that modern stuff,” or “Just what do those kids hear in today’s popular music? It’s all garbage!”

Specialization is a double-edged sword.


This is mostly a refinement of the previous point, I think. You box yourself in when you tell yourself (or others), “I don’t have time to listen to (or perform) everything, so I focus on the music I like.” The music you like is probably the music you understand. The music you understand is probably the music you listen to.

Don’t sell the unknowns short.


I have a theory that the vast masses want their tastes dictated to them: it is easier and safer. If it is Beethoven, it must be good. If Yo Yo Ma is performing it, it must be really good. Right?

There is also a tendency to “stack rank” composers: “so-and-so is better than so-and-so, who is better than…” I certainly agree that there are some masters whose oeuvre is nearly perfection. They end up the safe choice. The same thing goes for performers: I will fully agree that Yo Yo Ma is an absolutely marvelous cellist. There are plenty of others who I can count on just as much. I have more recordings by Christian Poltéra than I do of Yo Yo Ma. I don’t see one as being better than the other.

Quick: given the same pieces, would you trust the Berlin Philharmonic over the Malmö Symphony Orchestra? Any reason why? Thanks to BIS and e|classical, I have learned to trust a number of well established regional orchestras.

Don’t rely on first impressions.


It is a personal fault that I often jump to conclusions too soon. I would like to think that a redeeming quality is that I’m willing to change my mind, and I often do. Let me give a recent example. Not too long ago I whined about the Finnish symphonist Kalevi Aho. I thought, based on the little I had heard, that his music was too discordant, and that he had simply too much to digest. I have since acquired five of his fifteen symphonies, along with assorted concerti, and guess what? I have come to think of him as one of the great symphonists. Of all time. Seriously. My life is richer because of Aho.

Lighten up and have some fun!


I know that I often get too serious about music. Does every piece have to be a masterpiece, rich in insight and deep meaning? The miracle of music is that offers us great inspiration, comfort, stimulation, … and joy. These are not mutually exclusive.

On one of his many training DVDs the horse trainer John Lyons asked the question (I am paraphrasing from memory, so this isn’t a quote!), “Do you remember when we were kids and we just had fun on our horses? We goofed off, stretched out on their unsaddled backs, and just had fun?”

Let’s hope that we aren’t so serious that we can’t have fun with our music.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Quarter Norwegian

I’m only a quarter Norwegian, yet that is the national identity drilled into me in my childhood. My grandmother, who I remember as a stern matron, was I believe a second generation Norwegian-American. She ignored the fact that my grandfather was a more recent German transplant, one who spoke German as a child, insisting that we were Norwegian, although I don’t remember ever hearing a word of Norwegian spoken. Indeed, I’m really half German, but no one in my family ever made a big deal out of that.

You might even say I am the not-Norwegian: I live in a Southern California county  on the border with Mexico, and I believe with a larger population than all of today’s Norway. Norway is far north and gets snow. I have palm trees in my yard and snow is a fairytale we tell our children.

My greatest familiarity with Norway is through music, which is dominated by Edvard Grieg. My mother’s single foreign excursion was to Norway, and the highlight was a pilgrimage to Bergen and Grieg’s home. There are many other composers, but they are largely eclipsed. I find only three other names in my collection (so far): Ole Olsen, Johan Svendsen, and Eivind Groven.

Wikipedia mentions the Norwegian Choir Tradition, which evolved in the nineteenth century. This brings me to one of my recent finds. This tale begins like so many other this week: e|classical announced a new BIS recording by Det Norske Solistkor, the Norwegian Soloists Choir: RÓS–Songs of Christmas and offered a discount for an earlier recording, “White Night: Impressions of Norwegian folk music.”

The month of December is reserved for my “holiday collection,” recordings I have gathered over the years that are either directly or loosely associated with Christmas. These are such household favorites that we don’t want them to become stale through overuse, so we limit them and eagerly await December 1. It has been several years since I found a recording that I felt was worthy of this collection.

I can’t write about RÓS yet because I am saving it for that day. In my youth I was known for my lack of patience and presents had to be hidden very carefully, because it was alleged that when found I would carefully remove the wrapping and then restore it. As we say in the US, “I will plead the Fifth Amendment,” which guarantees the right not self-incriminate. I will freely admit to having achieved greater patience in my old age.

There is a fine YouTube video about RÓS that conveys the special quality of this choral group.




Fortunately, I could listen to “White Night” immediately, and it immediately took my breath away. It is of such beauty that I found myself thinking, “Well, Norwegian is only a quarter of my heritage, but it is the most important quarter.” Filled with many beautiful tracks, it opens with a “Polonaise” by Gjermund Larse that captures the kind of sweet melancholy that Norwegian folk music is imbued with. Larse is a noted folk fiddler and he provides a kind of solo commentary and embellishment on his fiddle, as he does on several other pieces. This is music that tugs at my heart, sometimes strangely so. Perhaps it is talking more directly to that quarter Norwegian in me.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Bolt Out of the Sky, Part 2

The Electrostatic Panel Use on the JansZen zA2.1
Last March I wrote about the JansZen zA2.1 speakers. That blog generated more traffic than average. I suspect that is a reflection on the marketplace and its enthusiasts; I am quite lucky that I didn’t get any “nastygrams.” There is something about audio equipment that breeds a religious righteousness that often leads to uncivil discourse. I would be an easy target of criticism: I hover on the periphery, and I am more serious about listening to music than comparing components. In other words, I am a bad audiophile. My philosophy has been to invest in good components more as an insurance policy than as a reflection of deep analysis.

Do cables matter? If I have expressed an opinion, it was out of ignorance. Vinyl versus digital? If vinyl makes you happy, I am happy. I don’t care, other than I hate handling vinyl. Can I hear the difference between amplifier-A, with 200 watts per channel and .001 THD and amplifier-B with 100 watts and .01 THD? Perhaps, if I can switch back and forth quickly to compare them. What does that buy me in the long run?

However, nothing makes an obvious difference like the speakers. That I can hear. And, I can remember what I heard. It was my good fortune that I ran into the JansZens almost by accident. Now that I have lived with them for some months I still find myself surprised at the detail I hear. I remain amazed at the degree of presence I hear with such relatively compact speakers. It seems that the evolution of speakers is going the route of the dinosaurs, in terms of size. Surely the brontosaurus of speakers is better because it is so big … right?

A recent review of the zA2.1s by Roger Gordon had few complaints. Indeed, one must have been tongue-in-cheek:

…they cannot play at concert arena sound levels; i.e. 135dB.

Indeed: for that, you will definitely want the brontosaurus brand. And, very tolerant neighbors. And, soon new ears. And, probably a bigger room.

Midnight in Leipzig

I just watched Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris again. Although I have never been a big fan of his usual Neurotic New York pseudo comedies, I first watched this on a plane returning from Europe and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is both a serenade to the wonders of Paris and a reflection on human nature that believes “the Golden Age” is past, that things were once better. The protagonist is sure that the Golden Age was Paris of the 1920s; he is magically transported to that time at midnight, and falls in love with a woman who is sure that the Golden Age was the Belle Époque of the 1890s.

So many of us have this malady with music: we are unable to appreciate the wonders of the present. How many of us have a fixation on Sebastian Bach? What wouldn’t we give to be able to go back Leipzig in the early eighteenth century, the Golden Age of music we are certain?

I am pretty certain that old Bach himself wouldn’t be very interested in our endless supply of nearly identical interpretations of his music. As possibly one of the greatest improvisors of all time, I think he would be befuddled by our complacency with the score-as-gospel. I am certainly guilty.

I bumped into a recording titled “Think Bach” by a French jazz pianist, Edourad Ferlet. It consists of thirteen tracks that I will describe as improvisations around well known pieces by Bach. If you are a Bach devotee you will either be fascinated or horrified. I was fascinated. Let me dissect the first piece, titled “Analecta (after J.S. Bach’s BWV 850).” That would be the D major prelude in the Well Tempered Clavier.

The track starts out with the piano-as-percussion:



Some might immediately walk away. Those who persist will be treated to a bass ostinato:



Okay, you wonder, where is this going?



Sounds like a jumble of notes. Crazy stuff with impossible rhythms between the voices. So what? But curiosity gets the better of you and you persist.



“Aha!” you tell yourself, “Jazz piano. Cute, but what does this have to do with Bach?”



“Oh, I see: the pianist has quoted the melody from the prelude on top of his clever (and very persistent) bass. So, is that all? Are we stuck with a one trick pony and have to listen to the rest of the prelude this way?”



“That’s right: this is a jazz pianist. Another jazz riff and then back to Bach…” This development goes on for some time. Will it ever end?



Now, wasn’t that clever? Ferlet has some serious chops and obviously could play the prelude to perfection as-written. Where is the fun in that? The improvisation ends with a flourish that is almost Bach:



If Ferlet were to give each selection the same treatment, it would grow tedious. But, he doesn’t. He demonstrates his love for Bach (and understanding) with his own inventiveness. How refreshing!