Picked up the new issue of Atlanta magazine yesterday. Cover story: “Where to Eat Now: The City’s 50 Best Restaurants.” Here’s what I’ve learned so far. At Bacchanalia, rated number one by food editor Bill Addison, you can tuck into a salad of “Flat Creek Lodge’s nutty Georgia Red cheese tangled among pole beans, hazelnuts, flecks of country ham, and pickled shallots.” Or you could try the foie gras au torchon, “styled with peach, honey, and brioche.” Sounds pretty good, but Addison apparently isn’t all that excited with it. Perhaps he prefers the edgier fare at number-five Tomo, which offers an eight-course meal highlighted by “golden eye snapper sashimi with lychee salsa … cradled in a banana leaf petal.” You might want to begin with their tuna tartare, “layered with Japanese yam and dotted with pink peppercorns.”
Stop licking your lips! My point – and I do have one – is this: apparently the hip, affluent readers of Atlanta magazine are willing to seek out all sorts of dining experiences, including food of which your grandfather never dreamed. Why shouldn’t classical-music fans adopt the same attitude? After all, there are only nine Beethoven symphonies, a handful of Brahms concertos, fewer than a dozen mature Mozart operas. Meat and potatoes, folks. Over time you can wear out your favorites. It helps to keep an ear peeled for new, surprising stuff. It’s not that hard to find.
The Back Story
What do we mean when we call it “classical” music? For many music fans, the word classical implies tried and true above all. If a piece or performance has stood the test of time, it’s a classic. Thus Beethoven’s Fifth ranks right up there with the ’57 Thunderbird, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and the Mona Lisa. There are some benefits to this system. A standard of excellence has been set: when you buy the ticket or download the file, you know you’re getting something a lot of other people have enjoyed. But there are also drawbacks. The big one is that you can’t always depend on The Experts or The Fans to determine what’s right for you. Even if something makes their list of Top Ten All-Time Greatest Breakup Songs (or symphonies, sonatas, operas, etc.), it may never make yours. That’s all right. Even though I believe it can take years to understand and appreciate a work of art – you do need to approach some things on bended knee, over time – my experience also tells me that occasionally your effort may not pay off. (Someday I’m going to devote a Classical Corner to great music I hate.) Conversely, there’s wonderful music out there you’re going to love, even if nobody else seems to. Your journey will be more rewarding once you develop personal tastes that go beyond the canon. You need to get off the beaten path. But then you’re an audiophile, so you already know about maintaining an open mind and a sense of adventure. Right?
To aid you in the quest for new sounds, we’re going to revive one of Karl Haas’s best tricks, the Mystery Composer. Every once in a while Karl would devote a show to teasing the listeners with bits of information about – and music clips by – some composer who was not necessarily a household word. He would start out with fairly obscure material and gradually introduce things that made the identity of the Mystery Composer more and more obvious. The game was a lot of fun, whether you ever managed to guess the composer or not.
So here goes. I’m going to feature three lesser-known composers in this column. You’ll get bits of biography or style data, and short clips. At any point you can scroll to the bottom of the page and find each Mystery Composer’s identity, along with recommended recordings. I hope this proves to be at least mildly stimulating.
Mystery Composer No. 1 more or less invented the string quintet, an achievement for which he should get more credit. By adding another viola or cello (in this case a cello), a quintet can produce richer sound than a string quartet. Adding a second cello part also allowed this composer to make the first cello part quite difficult – he was an extremely good cellist and always sought more opportunities to show off. (His contemporary Mozart took a different tack with his six viola quintets, adding another alto voice to enhance the harmonies and colors available to him, and that worked out very well too.)
A sparkling new recording of our Mystery Composer’s string music offers not only two complete string quintets but also other attractive music. Italian by birth, the composer spent much of his career in Spain, working at the court of the Infante Don Luis, younger brother of Charles III. After 1776 Don Luis took up residence in the remote town of Arenas de San Pedro, near Ávila, apparently because his marriage to a woman of lower social rank made him unwelcome in Madrid. Our composer wrote a string quintet subtitled La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid (“Night music from the streets of Madrid”) as a sympathetic response to his patron’s homesickness. Here’s a sample, from a section called “Los Manolos: passacalle of the street singers.” (In Madrid, manolo was the term used to denote the dandyish young men who drew attention to themselves by singing and dancing in the streets.) The violins imitate the sound of these young men’s guitars:
Also on the disc is our composer’s own transcription for guitar and string quartet of selected movements from other string quintets. It ends with a blazing fandango, complete with castanets. But here is a quieter moment, from the lovely “pastorale” that opens this Guitar Quintet:
Got it yet? This guy is not that far off the beaten path. But his reputation as a lightweight – a Haydn imitator – has somewhat obscured his real contribution. He wrote lovely, uncomplicated music that’s still a treat to hear. By far his most famous piece is the little Minuet from the String Quintet No. 6 in E:
Perhaps by now you know, or have an inkling. Remember, you can scroll to the bottom of this page and find the answer, along with information about the recordings you’ve been sampling.
Let’s move on to Mystery Composer No. 2. This composer’s best music was rather more eccentric, strange in the way that Bartók can be strange, but even more so. Like Bartók, he incorporated East-European folk elements into various classical-music genres. But whereas Bartók used the tenets of modernism – clear formal designs, economy of gesture, strong rhythms – to create striking new expressions comparable to those by other modernists like Stravinsky or Copland, MC 2 did not. He was no modernist. Nor was he a Romantic in the mold of, say, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who could create music that was instantly accessible to anyone who’d ever heard Liszt or Tchaikovsky. (Or been to a movie, for that matter.)
MC 2 was a child prodigy who studied in Vienna, then Paris, whence he launched his career as both performer and composer shortly before the turn of the last century. He maintained ties with his native land, though, traveling frequently to its capital to lecture, advise, and stimulate younger musicians. With all this activity, including a hectic performance schedule, MC 2’s compositional output was meager. I think that is another reason he took so long to find his individual voice. Depending on the piece and when it was composed, what you hear in his music may echo Bach and the Baroque, Wagner, Debussy, Reger, Busoni, or even – later on – the young Schoenberg. It can get messy. It can sound overheated. Perhaps that’s why I find myself drawn to his chamber music, in which the intimacy of the medium prevents the composer from swamping us too often with Romantic hyperbole.
You might like very much some recent recordings of two works by MC 2 for violin and piano. One consists of sketches of the composer’s childhood memories, recollected in 1940. It begins with an homage to Lae Chioru, a gypsy violinist who started MC 2 on the violin when he was four:
Elsewhere in this work our composer sets down the sound of a bird in a cage,
then a cuckoo clock striking seven – bedtime – followed by other night-time sounds: his nurse’s lullaby, the wind in the chimney, a little storm in the night. And it’s morning again, arriving after the storm in a manner rather more grand than a small child might have experienced it.
MC 2’s Sonata No. 3, “dans le caractère populaire roumain,” is made of sterner stuff. Here the composer is really getting down to his folk roots. The second movement is shot through with what his biographers call “parlando rubato” (basically speechlike phrasing, freely ornamented) related to the folk laments called doina. The piano, meanwhile, takes on the character of the cimbalom, a hammer dulcimer common in Eastern Europe:
Isn’t that haunting? Why has it taken so long for this individual, one of the last century’s great violinists and a hugely original composer, to become widely admired? Like MC 1, he is known for one piece – make that two in MC 2’s case. They used to be a staple on orchestral “pops” concerts, back when concerts of actual orchestral pops repertoire were still performed. And here is our final clue, one of this composer’s trademark works:
Let’s try to squeeze in one more mystery. How about a “Russian” composer still very much alive and making his mark? I first encountered the music of Mystery Composer No. 3 some years ago on a CD of his orchestral works. They seemed terribly wistful, post-modern and resigned to a sort of nostalgic half-life. You could almost hear the composer saying to himself, “Ah. Schubert. Mahler. Those were the days, before the abyss opened up.” Here is a sample:
So I was surprised more recently to encounter some choral music MC 3 had written seemingly without a trace of the old death-and-decay. This was a piece called Diptych (or Diptychon), from a Gavin Bryars CD, On Photography. Some background: within Eastern and Russian Orthodox tradition, a diptych is a type of religious icon in which two panels are joined together by a hinge. Commonly, subjects are chosen for the panels that bear a relationship to one another, such as Saints Peter and Paul or Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary (i.e., an Annunciation scene). In MC 3’s Diptych, the first movement, “Our Father,” represents Christ, while the second movement, a setting of the poem “Testament” by Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), represents a saint or martyr. (Shevchenko, persecuted by the Tsar, is revered as a national hero in Ukraine.) Bryars said he included Diptych in his CD because it was simply “the most beautiful music I had ever heard in my life.” Listen to some of the first movement, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer:
Still stumped? You’re hardly alone, since MC 3 still doesn’t turn up very often in concert programs or new-recordings lists. This is about to change; ECM brought out a CD consisting entirely of his sacred music last year. He wrote very little vocal music for years, so the profound beauty of Diptych seems almost shocking. Like many modern composers, he initially rejected all romantic and tonal music procedures, cultivating instead various avant-garde techniques. Beginning in 1973, however, with a series of works written in “olden style,” he discovered a new sense of freedom and personal identity in the use of traditional methods, although he took care to use them, he says, in an “allegorical” sense. Don’t let that bother you. As MC 3 himself has written, “Music is song in spite of everything. Not a philosophy, not a system of beliefs, but the song of the world about itself, and at the same time a musical testament to existence.” Nicely put. Who is this guy? (See the answers below the following short video, which features none of our Mystery Composers.)
Mystery Composer No. 1: Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805).
You have been listening to selections from
Boccherini, La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid. Cuarteto Casals. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902092, 2011. Also available as a download.
Really a lovely set of performances. About as much variety and color as you’re ever going to find in a collection of Boccherini’s chamber music.
Mystery Composer No. 2: George Enescu (1881–1955).
You have been listening to selections from
Enescu: Impressions d’enfance, Sonata No. 3. (1) Leonidas Kavakos, Péter Nagy. ECM New Series 1824 B0001485-02, 2003. Includes Ravel Tzigane and Sonate posthume. (2) In the Shade of Forests: The Bohemian World of Debussy, Enescu, Ravel. Philippe Graffin, Claire Désert. Avie AV2059, 2005. Includes Debussy Sonata and song transcriptions, Ravel Tzigane and Sonate posthume, and Impressions, but not the Enescu Sonata No. 3.
I like both of these recordings a lot, in spite of the program duplications they contain. It’s possible that Graffin and Désert’s account of Impressions is just a bit more vivid, their recording just a bit more “present.” But they don’t get around to the Sonata No. 3, which is an enormously engaging work. Kavakos and Nagy do marvelous things with it.
Mystery Composer No. 3: Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937).
You have been listening to selections from
Silvestrov: Diptych. (1) On Photography (Music of Bryars, Maskats, Silvestrov). Latvian Radio Choir, Sigvards Klava, Kaspars Putnins. GB Records BCGBCD07, 2005. (2) Valentin Silvestrov Sacred Works. Kiev Chamber Choir, Mykola Hobdych. ECM New Series 2117 476 3316, 2009. I used the Latvian Radio Choir’s performance, but the Kiev Chamber Choir’s recording is also strongly recommendable.
Silvestrov: Symphony No. 5. (1) Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, David Robertson; 1996. Sony Classical SK 66 825. (2) Lahti Symphony, Jukka-Pekka Saraste. BIS CD 1703; 2010. Robertson’s recording is no longer in the catalog, but it’s worth seeking out.