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Classical Corner Featured — 28 February 2012

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Bottom Five

When I was a teenager—which is to say, in the early ‘60s—I got most of my information about music and audio from Stereo Review. What I remember now is that the music writers usually found a way to make their content engaging without dumbing it down. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they had some great writers. Nat Hentoff was one of the jazz critics. Hans Fantel helped cover the classical side. They both must have been fairly young at the time, but it’s funny: I’ll always think of Fantel as a distinguished older guy, and I’ll always think of Nat Hentoff as young. (Hentoff is now 86, and has gotten somewhat crotchety; Fantel died in 2006.)

Anyway. One of the more surprising things those writers did was to collaborate on an article in which each of them named the classical composer whose music was their least favorite. In my fifteen-year-old opinion, that was way cool, because it demolished the notion that Classical was some sort of religion, and that if you didn’t accept all the Rules and worship all the Prophets and Teachers in that religion, you would be banished from it and rightly so, dammit.

Not that these folks encouraged Philistinism. Far from it: if I recall, each critic took pains to describe how he had tried and tried, had approached this work or that one on bended knee, repeatedly, in the best tradition of Learning to Appreciate the Masters. And he still didn’t get it. Or else he did, and then reasonably concluded it was still a waste of time.

There were rules. You couldn’t name someone so obscure that the judgment of history had already taken them out of the Great Composer Olympics; your least-favorite had to be someone widely regarded as a contender. And each writer got to name only one personal non-starter, which certainly helped them focus.

I took heart from their efforts. These fine people, experts in their field, had given me permission to exercise personal taste in music. I went on to do so, and I have enjoyed enormous amounts of music since then, in nearly every genre you could name. (Okay, maybe not emo.) At the same time, I stumbled repeatedly over a few artists—including the classical composers named below—into whose music I just could not find a way. I’m going to share some of those names, my Bottom Five, with you today. Remember, this is my personal list. I’m not issuing it as a consumer alert, some sort of warning to innocent ears (“beware, here be dragons”). All I’m saying is, you may find my general experience useful or interesting in some way. Maybe it will give you permission.

To fill up this column, I decided to pick five composers, not just one. That made it harder. Now that I’m almost fully grown, I have discovered that even the geniuses who usually sent me packing also created music I couldn’t help but love. What follows is actually a list of my favorite works by my least favorite composers.

1. Anton Bruckner.

What, Bruckner? First of the Bottom Five? Gentle, innocent Bruckner? Visionary, beatific Bruckner? I’m sorry. If I were a better human being, it’s possible this saint of Late Romanticism would occupy a spot on my Top Five instead. But I have never been able to sit through one of his interminable symphonic works without wishing desperately—at least once or twice per movement—that I was elsewhere. And it’s not hard to put a finger on why. I personally prefer symphonic music that’s restless and dynamic. I want the music to set out on a quest, to encounter obstacles, and to arrive battered but safe. Or to arrive battered but still breathing. Or at least to arrive battered. Hence my love of Mahler, and Ives, and Beethoven—bless Beethoven most of all, because he made the rest possible: perhaps he didn’t invent musical battery, but he took it to the next level, as the young people say.

By and large, Bruckner’s symphonic music doesn’t do that. From the outset, it seems secure in its faith, largely at peace with the tonal world it inhabits. Oh, it does move. Slowly. With many outright repetitions of fairly simply thematic material, and lumbering sequences that gently—and often all too predictably—take us to a secondary theme or another tonal area. And then we take in the view from that new perspective. At length. And so on.

Nothing too much ever seems to happen. There are no big crises, no catastrophes. And for me, no catharsis.

I’ll tell you what I do like about Bruckner: his short motets. These are brief Catholic devotional works for mixed choir, sometimes with skeletal instrumental accompaniment, usually not. They possess all the spiritual peace of the symphonic works, but they don’t take all night to deliver the message. Listen to the opening of Bruckner’s Ave Maria:

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That’s from a collection on Hyperion (CDA 67629) by Stephen Layton and his skillful choir, Polyphony. It includes six other motets and the lovely Mass in E Minor for double choir and winds. You should get it. After all, how often do you hear music this gorgeous? (Maybe this means Bruckner shouldn’t really hold a spot on my Bottom Five. Maybe this means that someday, someday I’ll even find a Bruckner symphony I can embrace. Like the Fourth…. Maybe.)

2. Franz Liszt

Whoa. Not Liszt. Isn’t he the favorite of music lovers everywhere? And certainly of pianists. For them, Liszt is practically a patron saint. Nevertheless I find myself at one with Clara Schumann, who left one encounter with Liszt muttering “Oh! What terrible composition! If a youngster were to write such stuff, one might forgive him, but what can one say when a full-grown man is so deluded?” The trouble was partly that he felt compelled to paint pictures, and to show off his astonishing technical skills, at the expense of working out the purely musical discourse. He also tended to “lavish excessive emotion on ideas that do not seem sufficiently important for such displays” (that from venerable historian Donald Jay Grout).

And yet. Ever since I heard Alfred Brendel play Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata in recital, I’ve had to admit I like at least one of his pieces. Mind you, this is the work that Eduard Hanslick called “a brazen concatenation of utterly disparate elements” and concluded that “anybody who has heard this thing and liked it is beyond hope.” Well, the elements are not that utterly disparate. And brazen concatenations can be a lot of fun. Brendel made a believer out of me. He has written a brief, lucid essay on the themes and form of the Sonata; it’s provided with his second recording (Philips 434 078-2) and in a collection of his writing, Alfred Brendel on Music. This helps considerably, because the Sonata contains a plethora of themes—as many as six by some reckonings. Sorting them into subgroups and even assigning them names (Faust, Gretchen, Mephistopheles), Brendel provides a very useful entrée for beginners, who may or may not buy totally into his Romantic analysis. I found that it put flesh on the bones of the music, while I was absorbing the many developments and transformations, none of which seem merely convenient or excessive!

Last year was a fine year for the Sonata; everybody and their dog recorded it (Westminster Kennel Club, take note). You can still get Brendel’s landmark recordings, also Martha Argerich’s famous take from the 60’s, now included with her “Debut Recital” on DG The Originals. Among the newer issues, I enjoyed Khatia Buniatishvili’s effort. (She is a real Lisztian in terms of self-promotion too; the packaging of her Sony CD abounds in extravagant emptiness.) But let’s sample the opening measures of Argerich’s performance, which is pretty hard to beat for sheer excitement:

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And here’s some of the same material, refigured now as a fugato, astonishing both in its “Mozartian effortlessness” (Brendel) and in Argerich’s hell-for-leather ride through it:

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Brendel is recorded better, I think, and he brings out some of the inner lines and complicated textures with more care. Once you get to know this piece, you will want his recordings and half a dozen others.

3. Arnold Schoenberg

Poor Schoenberg. He gets less and less respect these days, even though he founded an entire school of compositional thought, variously known as the 12-Tone Method, or Dodecaphonism, or Serial Technique. Having decided that the system of Western tonality, which had sustained musical expression among us for several hundred years, was hopelessly exhausted, Schoenberg invented a means of creating themes and “vertical structures” (chord-like non-chords) by treating all twelve notes of the chromatic scale as equal. He also made sure not to line up any notes that suggested a traditional melody or harmony. The result was music like this:

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In spite of the music’s unattractive surface qualities (i.e., its sound), it gained some influential adherents, especially after World War II. As American academic composers discovered ways to apply Serialism to elements other than pitch (e.g., rhythm, register, timbre), the fashion for all things Dodecaphonic grew by leaps and bounds, at least in certain quarters.

In recent years Schoenberg and his followers have fallen out of fashion. Tonality is back; many composers pride themselves on making their music more “accessible.” I am glad about that, even though some of that “accessible” product strikes me as shallow in the extreme. I’ve come to admire more of Schoenberg’s music in the past few years. Several pieces now stick out for me, but in a good way.

The first time I visited Vienna, the Staatsoper was apparently running a special on Schoenberg. I got to hear—and just as importantly, see—two operatic masterpieces, Moses und Aron and Erwartung. The first is a sprawling epic that focuses on the troubled relationship between two brothers who led the Israelites out of Egypt and into freedom. Schoenberg wrote the libretto himself, and he turned this ancient story it into a messy but compelling rumination on the nature of leadership, personality, and destiny. It also makes for stunning theatre. If you ever get the chance to see a live production, you should not hesitate—grab your hat and go. There are some good recordings too; my personal favorite is Boulez’s 1996 traversal for Deutsche Grammophon (449 174-2). On DVD, I see that Daniele Gatti’s 2006 performance of the new Staatsoper production has been received favorably, although some people do not care for the staging (Arthaus Musik 101 259).

Whereas Moses und Aron has a cast of thousands (at least in Schoenberg’s fevered imagination), Erwartung is a relatively brief monodrama: one singer, alone on stage, wrestles with demons from her past and/or present. (I think.) There is a scenario, but the libretto by Marie Pappenheim (famously one of Freud’s earliest clients) is not meant to be taken literally; it paints a psychological portrait of a woman in deep distress. Many great sopranos have performed Erwartung. I have always admired Jessye Norman’s recording with Levine and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra; it’s now available as a twofer that throws in her priceless performance as Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, for the price of a single CD (Philips 551 202). Berkshire Record Outlet also has a limited-edition DVD available; the visual element is important in this work, and the price is definitely right. Here’s a snippet from Norman’s CD.

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(A woman wanders, alone, through a dark wood.) Is this still the path? What’s that? Let go! Is [my hand] caught? … No, something’s crawling. And here, too. Who’s touching me? Get away… It was so quiet behind the garden wall … no shouting or movement … and the town in pale mist … And the sky so immensely deep above the path you always take to me …still more transparent and distant … the colors of evening.

If you’re still not convinced that Schoenberg has anything to offer, you can move backwards in time, to his earliest works. Schoenberg began as an earnest Late Romantic, a Wagnerite even, and pieces like Verklärte Nacht and the mammoth Gurrelieder reflect that. I like those works too, but lately I’ve been more drawn to transitional masterpieces like the Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9, in which Schoenberg really tried to do new things with old ingredients. Here he combined small-group intimacy with Beethovenian narrative scope. He wanted grandeur in the German tradition, but he also wanted new sounds (listen to the new chords, built on fourths, in the slow prelude) and quicksilver textural changes.

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That’s taken from Peter Eötvos’s classic recording of the Kammersymphonie with the Ensemble Modern (RCA Red Seal 090266117-2). It includes Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, another landmark work and one I’ve never really liked. But you might.

Illuminated ms. from the Roman de Fauvel (Flattery, Avarice, Villainy, "Variety," Envy, and Cowardice)

4. The entire 14th century

How can anyone nominate an entire century for their worst-ever list? That hardly seems fair. But trust me, it is. The 14th century was infamous for its combination of war, pestilence, corruption, and insipid, artificial musical craft. You had your repeated crop failures and famines, your Hundred Years’ War between France and England, your bubonic plague, your Papal Schism. Not a great time to be a human, let alone a musician.

Music theory was dominated by a set of practices that came to be known as the ars nova. They allowed for greater rhythmic flexibility, but also for organizational principles like the isorhythmic tenor, a means of parceling out the notes to a foundational chant fragment according to an abstract rhythmic formula. Doesn’t really matter—you weren’t supposed to hear the chant or the formula anyway. Here’s a sample from the Roman de Fauvel, a satirical work that apparently did the job that Jon Stewart and his crew do today, skewering various high-ranking church and state officials:

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Was there nothing more substantial than that going on? As a matter of fact, there was. The one indisputable masterpiece of the era may also have been the first of its kind: a polyphonic setting of the complete Mass Ordinary, stylistically consistent if not remarkably unified, by a single composer. This is the Messe de Nostre Dame (“Mass of Our Lady”) by Guillaume de Machaut. It set the standard for numerous generations of Mass Ordinaries to come, and even by itself is a remarkable work. Here is a portion of the Kyrie:

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Yes, it has isorhythmic tenors. Yes, the polyphony doesn’t have the regularized imitative qualities of the High Renaissance greats. Yes, it sounds weird at times; the hockets (hiccup-like interruptions of melodic lines) can disconcert newcomers to this style. Still, there’s something deeply spiritual and musical about this work when it’s done well. Several good recordings are available. Two of the best are by the Hilliard Ensemble (Hyperion CDA 66358) and Jeremy Summerly’s Oxford Camerata (Naxos 8.553833). Or you may still be able to find an exceptional recorded document by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois, originally released as Cantus 9624, that includes the Gregorian Propers for a complete celebration of the Mass.

5. Robert Schumann

This is really the diciest selection I’ve made. Some of Schumann’s works rank with the greatest music ever written in the Western art canon. His song cycle Dichterliebe is incomparably beautiful and moving. Some of the short character pieces for piano are as good as it gets in that genre. So why have I reluctantly included Schumann in my Bottom Five?

Because when he’s good, he’s very good. But when he’s bad, it’s also plain as day. Schumann can be guilty, for example, of rhythmic torpor: often he fastens on a rhythm and just runs it into the ground, repeating the figure endlessly, albeit with enormous enthusiasm. The same thing with harmonic patterns and other repeatable elements. Sometimes this comes across as Romantic ardor, and sometimes it just seems bombastic.

Schumann was also burdened with lifelong weaknesses as an orchestrator and “voicer” of instruments, which he never quite overcame. The sad stories about where and why he changed orchestral doublings in his symphonies tend to validate one’s sense that his personality, with all its humanity, quirks, and disconnects, influenced his art in ways that turned increasingly bizarre as time went on. Listen to the way the piano dominates the sound spectrum in Schumann’s celebrated Quintet for Piano and Strings, op. 44:

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Wonderful music, no? Now imagine how much better it would have been if the composer had reduced the piano’s role here and there, or had adjusted its accompanimental registration so that, whenever it plays a supporting role, with secondary figuration of some kind, your ear isn’t drawn to that figuration first, anyway. This may seem like an overly subtle objection. Believe me, as the quintet goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that it’s essentially a piano work with string quartet obbligato. The performers have to be aware of this weakness and compensate for it wherever possible. In fact, that’s kind of a general rule for Schumann interpretation. Give the score as much of your own musicality as you can, and you’ll deliver a much more rewarding performance. I don’t mean to trot out a truism about Romantic interpretation here; I mean that Schumann often needs extra extra help.

A couple of months ago I received a new recording of a Schumann work that doesn’t get many performances: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, WoO 3. That WoO means Schumann never got around to assigning an opus number to it. He never actually finished it, and it was not given a public performance until after his death. I think this piece more or less makes my point. There are a lot of great moments in it: the Scene in the Cathedral, in which Mephistopheles confronts Gretchen with her sinful thoughts and deeds (the chorus bashes out a “Dies Irae” as counterpoint); the Midnight Scene in Part II, with its ghastly flute sounds and skittering strings as Want, Guilt, Care, and Need attempt to press a moral lesson upon Faust; the transcendant final pages, in which Goethe’s immortal “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” is draped in music no less fitting than that which Mahler would employ, years later, in his Eighth Symphony.

But it comes as no surprise to discover a few places where Schumann’s lifelong habits let him down: the Overture sounds as muddy and monochromatic as many parts of his symphonies; the pastoral philosophizing of the Sunrise movement goes on too long to sustain interest.

The performance was consistently good, though. This was one of the new Naxos Blu-Rays (NBD0015), with dependably terrific Antoni Wit leading his Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra plus a boatload of fine solo singers. The two sopranos (Iwona Hossa and Christiane Libor) stood out by virtue of their full, free sounds, while the Faust (tenor Jaakko Kortekangas) and Mephistopheles (bass Andrew Gangestad) more than held up their own side with incisive characterizations. Mr. Wit paced the music well, never forcing a tempo but never dawdling. Schumann demands energy, and these folks delivered it in bucketfuls. The conductor and the Naxos engineers also helped bring out those Central European wind colors that the Polish produce with such apparent ease. Listen, for instance, to the penultimate number, in which Doctor Marianus and the other angels and sages sing rapturous apostrophes to the Queen of Heaven:

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This recording almost converted me—again—into a true Schumann fan. If I encounter too many more neglected Schumann works played this well, I may have to scrub old Robert from my Bottom Five for good. That would be a pleasure.

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About Author

Lawrence Schenbeck

Lawrence Schenbeck lives in Atlanta Georgia, is into high-end and has a doctorate in music performance and literature. "I have spent most of my grownup years either teaching, conducting, or writing about music. A lot of that writing was directed at other professionals, but some was meant for civilians. I always tried not to sound pompous (that was hard) and not to condescend to my readers. Back in the days when I gave pre-concert lectures for the Atlanta Symphony, I would invariably meet audience members whose knowledge of concert music far exceeded mine in certain respects. Whether you're casually exploring classical music or passionately committed to it, I hope this column will be useful."

(15) Readers Comments

  1. But I wonder, Mr. Schenbeck how many of the bottom five you still listen to and how often?

    • @ hahax: I teach the 14th century every year to undergraduate music majors, so I subject myself to it then. And I think I have some Anonymous Four recordings that explore some of this repertoire (they also do 13th c., etc., so I can’t be sure) — and they are always worth a listen. Years ago the British early-music pioneer David Munrow did a set of Ars Nova recordings. They’re still listenable. So, yes, I haven’t written off the century. But I am picky. Regarding Schoenberg and Liszt and Schumann, it’s clear from my column, I hope, that I’m still giving them a listen. In fact, I’m proud of the progress I’ve made with Liszt. One of my colleagues is a devoted Lisztian, and she’s always bringing in artists who play him. That leaves Bruckner. Hm.

  2. “To fill up this column, I decided to pick five composers, not just one. That made it harder.”

    Surely you do yourself an injustice Mr. Schenbeck. Certainly you can find more than five composers to detest for the unbearable torture they inflicted on countless audiences of the unwilling dragged along to concerts they didn’t want to attend, forced to endure recordings they didn’t want to hear even once. If there’s a nifty fifty there’s got to be a nasty nineteen, a filthy forty, a horrible hundred. I don’t expect everything a composer wrote to be a winner, everyone has an off day or an off decade or two. But if they wrote nothing I like then to hades with them. I’ll comment on yours and add a few of my own.

    Bruckner: Agreed

    Liszt: No way. What about all those great Hungarian Rhapsodies (would you believe I was foolish enough to try the original version of No. 2 when I was 12 years old? Got through a few pages of it too.) And what about all those great virtuoso arrangements of so many other works including Wagner. He took what little Wagner wrote of worth and turned it into something really interesting. There’s too much good music from Liszt for me to write him off. Even if Les Preludes is not your cup of tea there’s far too much of his music in the piano literature to be written off.

    Schoenberg; Agreed. The composer from hell. One unforgettable night I did a favor for a neighbor who was desperate for a ride to get to an orchestra concert she had to play in when her car broke down. As they say no good deed goes unpunished. I missed the opening Mozart. The rest of the evening was Bruckner and Schoenberg. The concert from hell.

    The entire 14 century: I think you left out a lot of centuries with their simple minded madrigals and droning Gregorian chants. It’s a good thing though you didn’t pick the one when Dies Irae was written or you’d have had half the 19th and 20th century composers down on your head. Many from Berlioz to Rachmaninoff were captivated by it.

    Schumann: I don’t agree there. The piano concerto ranks with the best of them….well at least the second tier like the Grieg anyway even if it doesn’t quite rise to Brahms. There’s also too much great piano music he wrote. Nope, I’m not with you on that one.

    Now what about a few of mine. Ives. It’s hard enough to be in one place at any given time and everyone knows that you can’t be at two places in the same time but three all at once? What a cacaphony. BTW, this brings up a point. I think it’s important to know if you don’t like something why you don’t like it. I tried to figure out why I don’t like Wagner. Finally I realized that except for a relative handful of really great melodies most of his writing has no melodies at all. They’re just progressions of chords. They’re masterfully orchestrated, many inventive changes in key, they build and build and then go nowhere. Even the Death of Isolde from Tristan which I like is barely much more than a few phrases. Strange, a few oases in a vast desert.

    We had a lot of really awful hacks in the 20th century. Most became obscure but for a time they made a splash and then were happily forgotten. Norman Dello Joio was one of them. I have no affection for Glass either. Like most so called modern art I fail to see what others find valuable in them. Don’t get me wrong, I think Stravinsky was one of the best composers of the 20th century so I’m not anti modern. But I am anti audible anarchy. What I don’t like is music I find boring.

    I am sobered and diminished by the realization that had I been born to an entirely different culture where Western music was unknown, my opinions and orientations would be very different. Sounds I find incoherent such as native American chants, Sitar music, or the sounds of an Australian aborignal didgeridoo might seem most pleasing to me. But I am what I am and they don’t.

    • @ Soundminded: Thanks for sharing! Great to know there are a few more musical misanthropes out there! I’ve been collecting scoldings for my critical yapping ever since I was in grade school. But as Alice Longworth Roosevelt once said, “If you can’t say anything nice about anyone, come sit here by me.”

      Yes, there has been a lot of miserable, boring music written in the Western art tradition. And people have supported it for reasons, ahem, other than it being good music. I hope you are already acquainted with a wonderful collection edited by Nicholas Slonimsky, “Dictionary of Musical Invective.” It’s basically a collection of quotations slamming great composers and their music, from Bach more or less to the present. Special emphasis on Beethoven and Wagner, if I remember right. I used to use it with my students so that they could hear the terrible things written about Beethoven during his lifetime. Goodness gracious, etc.

      But Slonimsky (who was a big supporter of new music in the 20th c.) had the effect of encouraging the Different Strokes school of thought. You know, “I don’t like it, but maybe you will, and maybe it’s not an intrinsic problem with the music itself.” And I pretty much subscribe to that philosophy. (I will make an exception for Schoenberg, partly because the evidence points to him being deeply disturbed as a person. Read his student Dika Newlin’s memoir of Life With The Master).

      Anyway, I really enjoyed hearing from you. Re the 20th c. hacks: yes, of course. But isn’t the reason there seems to have been so many due to their temporal proximity? History hasn’t sorted them out for us yet. If I had a Bottom Ten, then Telemann would undoubtedly be on it. And Carl Maria von Weber.

      All kidding aside (although it is great fun to dish), I am heartened by the evidence that points to this present era being a “post-classical” age, in which people are less inclined to go to the opera or whatever just because it’s socially coerced, less inclined to put up with abusive music just because the critics and intellectuals tell us it’s good, less inclined to drop composer names (and literary names, and painter names) at parties because that might impress someone. At least I hope that’s where we’re heading. (It’s worth pointing out that this kind of coercive, phony behavior is still de rigeur in certain indie-rock, alternative, post-punk circles. Glad we have other columnists at PS Tracks who are helping us sort that stuff out.)

  3. Maybe that was “Lexicon of Musical Invective.” Anyway, worth checking out. Part of the problem with 20th-c. music criticism was that, after seeing how wrong the critics were about Beethoven, nobody wanted to be the Stupid Critic Who Got It Wrong the next time. So, lots of careful if not glowing reviews of mediocre or downright abusive new music. I hope we’re past that now.

  4. Mr. Schenbeck, yes it is the Lexicon of Musical Invective and somewhere in my house it’s there but finding it today would be like finding a needle in a haystack, no kidding. I’d read through it probably around 30 or 40 years ago but not cover to cover. I also read a book by a Madison Avenue advertising expert called “I can sell you anything.” Whenever I think of the “try anything the crazier the better and get critics to praise it and you’ll get rich and famous” school of 20th century art I’m reminded of a movie where machines were used to create oil paintings by a supposedly famous modern artist.

    I think you can add Hindemith to my list of composers I don’t like. And Matti Hirvonen. In that category I’ve probably got a slew of this same kind of incoherent prattle, don’t ask how I came by it. Sometimes recordings in this house seem to mysteriously appear out of nowhere.

    Of course time is inevitably the ultimate judge as the Lexicon shows and when you look back on things in a rear view mirror they can seem very different. Telemann was king in his day eclipsing Bach but who cares today, Telemann is seen as a relative nobody, Bach as a giant. I wonder what future generations will think of some of this “stuff.” It occurred to me that the first time I heard Le Sacre when I was about 15 it seemed so strange but I was drawn to it by its wild driving rhythms among other things. I’ve heard it more times than I can count over the years but once after not having heard it for probably a decade, upon hearing it I was struck by how familiar it sounded.

    It should not be overlooked that humans can screw up practically anything. Last night I heard Itzak Perlman and the SanFrancisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas butcher the Tchaikowsky Violin Concerto at Davies Hall on PBS. What a boring performance. I knew immediately in the first bar it was too slow. Violinists have found more ways to wreck that music than I thought possible. Problem, they have to contend with Heifetz’s performance, he just set the bar too high for almost all others to reach. There’s Heifetz and then there’s everyone else. Surprising how that alone can kill music, the wrong tempo. Among my many recordings of Beethoven’s 9th on someone’s recommendation I’ve got one with Guilini conducting I think the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t like it, he seemed to do everything right. And then one day it hit me, it was just slightly too slow. That alone was enough. I don’t know if I’ve got a Toscannini recording of it, they say he conducted everything at nearly twice the tempo of Metropolis. I suppose if the composed material you start off with is of no interest no amount of artistry can rescue it. (I found out why nobody listens to the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto and to Tchaikowsky’s second and third piano concertos.) But even with the best of material to work with there’s a long way to go to get to something I find worth listening to. If that makes me uncompromising so be it. It’s in my nature to make critical judgments of things.

  5. Yeah, you’re not wrong about the tempo thing. I wish I was less sensitive to it myself. OTOH, my spouse has absolute pitch, and intonation issues drive her crazy during otherwise fine (to me) performances.

    Hey Soundminded, I just hope you’re still having a few ecstasies to balance out the agony (smile).

  6. Lawrence, there is much music I enjoy very much. Unlike many I don’t get emotional about it though. I just get varying degrees of pleasure out of listening to it when it’s something I like and I’m in the mood. For music I don’t like for whatever reason I usually find it either boring or irritating but rarely agonizing unless it’s some blaring rock music where I can’t hear myself think. When I’m working at something that requires concentration I don’t like having any distracting sounds such as background music playing. I usually don’t particularly like background music at any time, either I’m going to listen music with my full attention or I’m not.

    The tempo of a musical performance is often dictated by the acoustics of the space it’s performed in. One principle of music is tension and release. The pause between notes and phrases is often governed by the time it takes echoes to die out. Too soon or too late between notes and the desired effect is lost. Because recordings don’t contain the reverberant fields heard in concert halls this effect doesn’t exist or if it does it’s only to a very limited degree. This causes discontinuities the composer didn’t intend. Familiarity with the acoustics of space is one reason symphony orchestras usually sound best at home and not on tour.

    I think most people have perfect relative pitch. I think it’s inherited. When you do have it, musicians who sing or play flat by say an eighth tone like for example Barbara Streisand does can be very irriitating. Sharp is better than flat. One trick soloists often use playing with an orchestra, especially violinists is to tuen their instruments slightly sharp compared to the orchestra. This helps them cut through the orchestra’s sound. Some orchestras tune to 444 instead of 440. This makes their sound very slightly brighter. I knew someone with perfect absolute pitch. If you rapped your knuckles on a piece of wooden furniture she knew what note it was. I think that’s inherited too. I imagine it to be like a reference tone constantly playing in your brain.

    One composer you can add to my list of “don’t like” is Szmanowski and thereby hangs a tale I won’t relate now. And one that I do like who until recently was unfamiliar to me is Medtner.

    • Yes, Medtner! A name almost unknown to me until last week. Just got Hamish Milne’s new recording of the Medtner Arabesques, Dithyrambs, and Elegies. Really intriguing music. I understand that he recorded Medtner’s better known short piano works a couple of years ago. So I’m eager to hear those now as well. Watch for a review in this space in about two weeks. Better in small doses, however. You don’t want to hear too many Dithyrambs in a row. Delighted to meet a fellow Medtner fan. (Yes, I now count myself as a fan.) Other than the piano music, what would you recommend?

  7. Geoffrey Tozer recorded a lot of Medtner. I inherited a couple of thousand CDs and a couple of thousand phonograph records most of which I haven’t heard yet, that in addition to my own collection. Medtner was a close friend of Rachmaninoff who considered him the greatest musician in Russia. Among my favorites are Fairy Tales opus 20 #1. Although this may not be the best performance of it, it’s one I like.

  8. So beautiful. Thank you.

  9. In a recent conversation about the television comedy “The Office”, I offered the idea that it’s as good as it is because it’s characters are so closely drawn from real life. As if to prove my point, here’s Lawrence Schenbeck giving us a non-comedic Michael Scott. The fictional Scott’s always running around half-cocked, leaping to extraordinary conclusions based on some tiny scrap of information he barely understands, such as attempting to name a child “Assturd”, rather than Astrid.

    So, in the article above, Lawrence Assturd Schenbeck’s, making up his own classical music history and some weird “music religion” rule book that no one’s ever heard of [but he has!]. Right off the bat, Assturd shoots this one out: “…Classical was some sort of religion, and that if you didn’t accept all the Rules and worship all the Prophets and Teachers in that religion, you would be banished from it…”

    Huh? Hwut? Since when? Even a cursory, skippy-do-dah survey of critical analysis of classical composers reveals that pretty much each and every composer after Beethoven [and plenty before him] were savaged wholesale as incompetent, inferior, and mostly unworthy by critics. Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Puccini, Holst, [and, lately, especially Brahms and Prokofiev] on and on and on, were ripped to utter shreds by critics for most of the musically miserable second half of the 20th century, when, if you weren’t dodecaphonically correct, you were merde.

    Having made up his own alternate reality, Assturd Schenbeck plows forward to do some of his own savaging. And, first on his list’s Bruckner. I’m not surprised. A lot of folks don’t like Bruckner. But, most people are honest about it. They just tell you that they can’t warm up to the music. Fine. No problem. And, at first, Assturd’s on the right track; he finds the music “interminable”. But, Assturd being Assturd, he veers off into Bizzaro BS World right away: “I want the music to set out on a quest, to encounter obstacles, and to arrive battered but safe…By and large, Bruckner’s symphonic music doesn’t do that. From the outset, it seems secure in its faith, largely at peace with the tonal world it inhabits”.

    I don’t know; what do you say to something as flat-out wrong as that? It’s as if someone confidently asserts that water’s actually dry. Dry. Yes, Bruckner’s music is long. Duh. But, especially in the last two symphonies, the symphonic struggle’s at titanic proportions. You’d really have to be deaf, dumb [mostly dumb], or just straight-up hostile to the composer to claim the opposite, as Assturd does. Indeed, it was the extreme pitch of dynamic/tragic struggle in the Eight Symphony that elicited the specifically nasty response from one of Assturd’s ugly spiritual forbearers, Eduard Hanslick.

    But, I’m pretty sure I know how Assturd reached his goofy conclusion about Bruckner. As he’s said, “I have never been able to sit through one of his interminable symphonic works…”. Instead, he’s hopped merrily across the surface of the music, and, somewhere along the line, read Robert Simpson’s 1967 statement that says almost exactly what Assturd repeats here – mindlessly, in pure Michael Scott mode – that Bruckner’s symphonies are “secure in its faith, largely at peace…”.

    Simpson was a brilliant man [and a composer - why didn’t he make Assturd's list?] who knew more about music all of us ever will in a hundred lifetimes, but he wasn’t perfect. And, that piece of moron flotsam’s done more to damage Bruckner’s reputation than would seem possible – especially among the Michael Scotts of the world.

    For the record, the entire notion of stasis in Bruckner’s music is totally false. Anyone may listen for themselves and see. And, doing so, you’ll be able to tell how way way way way way full of merde Assturd is when he launches this ripe ball of BS: “There are no big crises, no catastrophes…”. Sure, and Rick Santorum’s a member of the ACLU.

    But, Bruckner’s Bruckner, and, as I’ve said, lot’s of folks don’t like him. Schumann? That’s another story. Schumann’s an acknowledged master. And to be fair, Assturd says so, sort of. But, we’re here to tear ‘em down, not build ‘em up. Why? Well, uh, uh…oh, yeah. Religion. That major force in the world today: Classical World Power Religion. Whoa.

    Anyway, Assturd rips Schumann because some of his music isn’t perfect, or ideal, or whatever. As if Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc., etc., turned out nothing but perfect, ideal, whatever music – all the time.

    So, let’s see what Assturd’s accomplished. Unless you’re a retard living in a single room cabin somewhere in Montana and raving about unabombs, you know that classical music’s in trouble these days. Whatever your opinion about the issue [and every A-H has one], it’s undeniable that the classical world is far from a land of riches, wealth, and more wealth. At a time when major orchestras are either declaring bankruptcy or flat-out bankrupt; when young people actively hate – not just ignore, but hate – classical music, and the audience for it shrinks virtually by the hour, Assturd’s out here acting as if it were still 1940 or 1960 and the classical world’s riding high.

    Yep. The classical world’s living in a real life Hollywood post-apocalyptic nightmare, and Assturd’s out here – doing what? Taking more shots at it. Just what – zactly hwut – does Assturd’s article teach us? What does it make us want to do? In other words, what’s the point?

    Well….hwell, let’s just take a look at the other article posted this month – Keith Copeland’s piece on Jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty. Assturd should take a cue from his Jazz and Rock colleagues. Look at how puppy-dog adoring Copeland is toward his subject, all tongue hanging and saliva dripping. Reading Copeland’s piece, I felt engaged, uplifted, informed, and motivated – MOTIVATED – to go out and hear and buy Ponty’s works. Indeed, I did a Google search right away, and I’ll be pushing forward to learn more about Ponty and his musical world.

    And, what did Assturd Schenbeck accomplish? What did he teach us? What are we left with? Pretty much one thing: HATE. H-A-T-E. Thanks, Assturd. Go work. Fine job Just what the music world, the classical music world, and heck, the world at large, needs right now. Hate.

    Yesterday was Monday, April 2. Yesterday, some anti-everything nutcase walked into a California college campus and shot up and bunch of people. Murder. Hate. We need more Lawrence Schenbecks.

  10. @ Severius: Greetings, glad you’re enjoying at least some of the writing on PS Tracks. I didn’t realize I was being such a hater, but I will try to mend my ways. It’s nice to be taken so seriously, even when I wasn’t trying to be all that serious.

  11. Severius! Supremus Invictus what a small world it is. I checked back at the Asylum and it’s been what, about ten years? How could my memory have lapsed like it never happened when at the time it was like one of those small pieces in Reader’s Digest, “My Most Unforgettable Character.” Looking in the archives at what wasn’t deleted I must say compared to what’s still there that’s quite a diatribe you just wrote. What it lacks in brevity it makes up for in length. But why hold back, why not let it all hang out and tell us what you really think of Lawrence Schenbeck?

    I won’t be so trite as to spout gibberish liberalisms like beauty is in the eye of the beholder or everyone has a right to their own opinion even if it’s the wrong opinion for the wrong reasons. That kind of blather isn’t worth the time of day. Beauty is truth, truth is beauty, that’s all there is. What do you suggest should be done about Lawrence Schenbeck? We can’t outsource him to a re-education camp in Vietnam or Red China, I think they’re all closed down now. That labor is too busy toiling away making cheap textiles and mass market electronics to be bothered about any lingering concern about someone’s political views. Boil him in oil? Burn him at the stake? Fire ants? Trashing Schumann was bad enough but Liszt? If Brahms Lullaby hath the power to soothe the savage breast, Liebestraum hath the power to soothe the savage soul. Liszt was the rock superstar of the 19th century. Women couldn’t get enough of him, at least that’s how Grieg reported it after getting an audience with him. Speaking of rock superstars, you wrote; “The Decline started AFTER Sgt. Pepper (nt)” Surely you were giving them the benefit of the doubt as you must agree the real decline likely started at the very moment when they drew their first breath. What they contributed to the human condition was final descent into total cacophony.

    Speaking of cacophony, I happen to be the President of the Bruckner Hater’s Society, USA Chapter. I hate Bruckner so much I won’t even drive on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx because just the name of the street reminds me of those interminable horrid symphonies he wrote. Struggle you say? Don’t make me laugh, he’s no Shostakovich. “But, especially in the last two symphonies, the symphonic struggle’s at titanic proportions.” IMO the struggle writing or playing it isn’t nearly the struggle sitting through a performance of it. They ought to print T-Shirts with bold letters reading “I SURVIVED BRUCKNER’S EIGHTH AND NINTH!” September is when we generally hold the Bruckner book and record burning festival but I’m afraid in this era of infinite duplication of everything there’s no ridding the earth of that scourge.

    “…survey of critical analysis of classical composers reveals that pretty much each and every composer after Beethoven [and plenty before him] were savaged wholesale as incompetent, inferior, and mostly unworthy by critics. Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Puccini, Holst,…” That’s what the Lexicon of Musical Invective was about. But bear in mind, just because practically every composer was at one time or another tarred with that same brush, in some cases it was well earned.

    “Unless you’re a retard living in a single room cabin somewhere in Montana and raving about unabombs, you know that classical music’s in trouble these days”…” and Assturd’s out here – doing what? Taking more shots at it.” Surely you give him far more credit than he could possibly deserve. Not only won’t he single handedly put a stake through the heart of classical music, he doesn’t have the power to make even a small dent in it. Far better to give credit where credit is due….to the likes of Schoenberg, Bruckner, Hindemith who sent more audiences fleeing for the exits shrieking in terror into the night than all the Schenbeck’s of the world combined.

    • Good to hear from you again, Sound.

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