March 22, 2011


What if Schumann had Prozac or lithium? Would his creativity have been helped or hampered by these modern, so-called wonder drugs? Would his autobiographical Second Symphony tell a different story? As it stands, I hear the music pulsing with Schumann's journey from abject depression to triumph and joy.
Conductor Marin Alsop, interview on National Public Radio.
... the interpreter must possess a special empathy for Schumann the man and troubled creator. ... It must never be forgotten that Schumann ... was desperately holding back the gates of madness. 
David Dubal, Art of the Piano.

Why is it that, when it comes to Schumann's music, musicians are expected to act as Schumann's self-appointed psychiatrists, and to treat performances of his music as exercises in postmortem psychiatric profiling?  Schumann's mental life wasn't pretty, true.  But then neither were those of good many other important composers:  rabid antisemites (Wagner), pedophiles (Saint-Saens), anguished closeted homosexuals (Tchaikovsky), Nazi sympathizers (Webern), Communist sympathizers (Shostakovich), or just plain mean and vindictive bastards (Britten).
       Why is it, then, that Marin Alsop does not hear Saint-Saens' "Egyptian" concerto "pulsing" with lust for prepubescent boys?  Why doesn't David Dubal insist that interpreters must possess "a special empathy" for Tchaikovsky "the man and troubled creator"?  (And troubled Tchaikovsky was, if anyone can be meaningfully called 'troubled'!)
       Why does it seem informative for Dubal to refer to Schumann's "highly personal and psychological formal shapes", as if the formal shapes in the music of Bach or Mahler are impersonal and carry no psychological imprint of the minds that created them?  (Surely Bach and Mahler were not composing with their kneecaps or livers.)
       And, most importantly, why is it that those who insist on placing Schumann's music on the psychiatrist's couch never bother to ask themselves such basic questions as:  What exactly is the perceptual difference between a sforzando marked by composers with bipolar disorder, and one marked by composers with 'healthy' minds? (Since the answer is clearly "None", such questions would be rather uncomfortable for those who indulge in the above kind of psycho-blabbering.)

I hold this wide-spread pseudo-musicological idiocy responsible for frequent maiming of Schumann's music on record and in the concert hall.  Fortunately, the young generation of pianists does not seem to see anything important (musically or otherwise) in Schumann's psychological condition.  Or so I think based on what I hear in their playing, which focuses my attention on the natural beauty of Schumann's harmonic and melodic imagination, while avoiding the hysterical dynamical and rhythmic excesses of Schumann performances from decades past.  Perhaps for young musicians, who grew up in the world where Prozac and Ritalin supplement Gerber Baby Food, a psychological case like Schumann's may be utterly ordinary.

March 20, 2011

My crocodile tears for the classical recording industry

Hans Heinsheimer - who was an executive at the music publishing company Universal Edition before WWII - emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1930s and spent the rest of his career working for American music publishing houses (Shirmer and, before that, Boosey & Hawks).  He wrote several wonderful books about the music world/business in America, among which his first - MENAGERIE IN F# - is hilarious, passionate, and, ultimately, rather sad.  In these books Hansheimer has much to say about the plight of the living composer in America, who cannot make a decent living because everyone in the classical music business - from performers to record companies - wants to make money at the composer's expense.  The details would be nightmarish if they weren't bathed in so much good humor, stoic sarcasm, and absolute, unconditional love of music as a living art.  With Heinsheimer's books in mind, here is what I think of the recent and still ongoing hand-wringing in the media about the imminent demise of the classical recording industry:

March 16, 2011

Life lessons...

Years ago my daily walks usually took me through a tiny city park called Tompkins Square, located in the slowly gentrifying but still filthy and smelly Manhattan neighborhood known as the East Village.  One time a young guy sitting on a bench asked me for a cigarette.  This he did with politeness completely unexpected from a typical Tompkins Square junkie: his hair had not been washed in months, some of his front teeth were missing, and his body was not far from reaching the state of a dessicated mummy.  I had about a quarter of a pouch of Drum tobacco with me (enough for about 5 cigarettes), so I gave it all to him since I was only a couple of blocks away from home where there was plenty more.  My "generosity" seemed to make the guy quite happy, and, perhaps as a way of showing his gratitude, he suddenly augmented his thanks with a cheerful "Lighten up, man!"

I suppose this parting bit of advice was inspired by my perfectly neutral but decidedly Eastern European facial expression, which most natives perceive as being somewhere between a frown and a scowl.  Be that as it may, the thought that kept spinning in my mind for the rest of my walk home was:

Fuck me!  I just received some life coaching from a mummified junkie with missing front teeth!

March 13, 2011

Kirill Gerstein

A Gilmore Award winner ($300,000.00 !), the Russian-born Kirill Gerstein has received much drooling critical praise. If his live recording of Bach's English Suite  BWV 807 from the 2009 Verbier Festival is representative of his musicianship and instrumental craft, the Gilmore Award jury must have been composed entirely of deaf people.  In that recording Gerstein's tone clatters like the dishes in an apartment next to the train station, his articulation is arthritic, and his melodic lines are spasmodic.  Aside from unpleasant tone, I could accept such struggling playing from the nonagenarian Horszowski, but not from a young pianist breathlessly described as an astonishing virtuoso. By the time Gersteine limped through the Sarabanda, I was simply laughing... 

Well, at least the Gilmore Foundation seems to be consistent in rewarding music making that is as memorable as a roadside motel in Kansas where you once spent a night on your way to California...

March 12, 2011

Honest lying...

I was simply curious to hear how much musical value Sony got for their $3,000,000.00 advance paid to this musical midget, so I brought the "Lang Lang live in Vienna" CD home from the library.  What I heard on this CD told me unequivocally that Sony got about as much for all that dough as (I would guess) one could get for a few hundred bucks from a Las Vegas whore: a cynical and vulgar substitute for the real thing.

March 11, 2011

BMG's special place in Hell

As part of the HOROWITZ: THE ORIGINAL JACKET EDITION, RCA (and Sony) included a CD of the pianist's 25th Anniversary Carnegie Hall Concert of Feb.25, 1953.  On the CD cover (presumably the original LP cover reduced in size) it is stated clearly and boldly, albeit in smaller print:
ACTUAL recording of the Carnegie Hall concert of February 25, 1953

As the first cursory listening of the Schubert B-flat Sonata revealed, this "ACTUAL" recording is full of post-concert edits.  The edits are not properly matched in "perceived volume".  And at least one splice - at 5:47 of the Finale -  MISSED THE LAST NOTE OF THE BAR (1/8th value)!

Any apologists for classical record companies out there, who want to explain to me why this does not constitute a clear case of consumer fraud? And if the present day re-issue "specialists" at BMG-Sony simply did not notice all the splices and botched editing before charging unsuspecting music lovers for this fraudulently titled piece of sonic garbage, their level of incompetence is truly staggering.