November 27, 2016

A fifteen-year-long wait for the "Aha!" moment...


This is how long it seems to have taken Paul Griffiths - a very experienced music critic and a perceptive writer on modernist music in the 20th century - to change his mind about one of Helmut Lachenmann's most often performed orchestral works: 
 
Mouvement (vor der Erstarrung) for eighteen-piece ensemble is quite successful in the avoidance [of anything pleasant to listen to].  [It is] a landscape of rustlings, scrapes, electric bells and pointless percussion toccatas. (The Times, July 8, 1986)

[In] Mouvement (vor der Erstarrung) ... there are a lot of whirrings, scrapings, knocks and breathings. But not only are these noises beautifully made in themselves, they also add up to a bracing musical design. ... This omnipresence of sheer sound contributes to the poetry of Mouvement...  It comes as if from nowhere, takes you firmly by the hand and will not let go until it has shown you things you could not have suspected.  (New York Times, November 4, 2001)

For lack of better things to do, I briefly wondered about Griffiths' long delayed epiphany.[1]  After all, Lachenmann's Mouvement is neither intimidatingly complex (compared to, say, Carter's Double Concerto or Concerto for Orchestra) nor aggressively abrasive (unlike, e.g., the music of Xenakis or even Beethoven's Grosse Fuge).  For the most part Lachenmann's piece speaks quietly and delicately, and its large-scale structure is essentially that of three superimposed arcs representing gradual changes in pitch content, dynamic levels, and the density of texture.  In the manner of Hollywood screenwriters pitching an idea for a movie, one could simplistically describe Mouvement as Ravel's Bolero re-composed by Webern and performed on ingeniously adapted objects from the inventory of a hardware store.

November 2, 2016

If I were God...


Less than a week from today the American voters will decide whether their next president will be a flamboyant asshole or a corrupt sociopath.

October 26, 2016

Breakfast of penitence


Today I ate for breakfast my words about Till Fellner.  What made me change my mind about this pianist was his playing of Bach - not the hideously disembodied floating-in-vacuum studio recordings he made for the ECM label, but broadcast recordings of his recitals where he played selections from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier.  Having long given up on Glenn Gould's juvenile pranksterism and Sviatoslav Richter's Soviet-Industrial grimness, I found Fellner's calm, reflective, Apollonian approach to Bach very attractive.  I doubt I'll ever hear a more telling example of what Charles Rosen had in mind when he described Bach's keyboard music as deeply private and meditative.

Those of you who have been waiting for an opportunity to vindicate your suspicion that I can be as much of a judgmental doofus as any professional music critic now can do so with these Fellner performances from Schwarzenberg (BWV 874-877, VIII.24.2014), Rohrnbach (BWV 878-881, VI.25.2015), and Hohenems (BWV 888-893, X.7.2016).

September 25, 2016

One of those absurdly overcomposed monstrosities


i)  ... eccentric without being amusing; and laborious without effect.

ii)  ... a crass monstrosity.

iii)  ... oh, the pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music!

iv)  ... eccentric, unconnected, and incomprehensible ... wanting in aesthetical feeling and in a sense of the beautiful ... monstrous and tasteless.

Stretching to the very last year of the 19th century, these dismissive criticisms of Beethoven's symphonies[1] show that even the long-term reception of a musical work is a very poor indicator of the work's artistic significance.  Where is today the once so successful and praised music of Hasse, Hummel, or Dittersdorf?  By contrast, there isn't a major orchestra these days whose season programs do not include Mahler's symphonies - the symphonies which half a century after their premieres were still dismissed by major music critics as "cheap", "banal", "interminable platitudes".[2]

September 20, 2016

On the side of angels...


If angels indeed favor the harp among all musical instruments, they must have given a warm welcome to Elliott Carter - the composer of Trilogy for Harp and Oboe (1992) and Mosaic for Harp and Ensemble (2004) - when he arrived at the Pearly Gates of Heaven on November 5, 2012.
      Trilogy was written for Ursula and Heinz Holliger, and their affection for Carter's music can be heard in this live recording from their all-Carter concert given in Frankfurt on February 4, 2009.  The couple also performed Mosaic at the same concert, with Heinz Holliger conducting Ensemble Modern.
      For the sake of contrast, here is a live recording of Mosaic from a 2008 concert given by Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam.  And then there is this very recent American performance of Trilogy by Bridget Kibbey (harp) and James Austin Smith (oboe) recorded at the 2016 Look & Listen Festival.