Sunday, June 3, 2012

800 Words: More Cultural Heresies on Composers (1700-1900)


-          By and large, Bach’s instrumental music – dominated by his unmatchable sense of form - is almost infinitely more interesting than his vocal/choral music, which can ramble as long as he likes and seems to need obscure theological interpretations to be taken seriously for analysis.

-          Bach’s keyboard music is too nuanced for the harpsichord, too linear for the piano. To be a great Bach player, you either need to play the harpsichord as though it were a piano (Landowska) or play the piano as though it were a harpsichord (Gould).

-          The greatest of Bach’s major choral works is the St. John Passion – anti-semitism or none, it’s the only one of his largest-scale works which hangs together dramatically and doesn’t feel like he inserted forty-five minutes (or more) of filler between bouts of inspiration.

-          There is no way to make the St. Matthew Passion hang together dramatically. You either have to cut it severely or accept that there will be dull points and let the spirituality of its best moments shine forth to make the lesser numbers worth listening to.

-          Nothing does Vivaldi more damage than the gentile, restrained, “English” manner of performing Baroque music. His music is a voluptuous sensory assault and can only be performed by musicians with fire in their veins.

-          No composer has suffered more dilution in quality from performers in the recorded era than Handel - truly sympathetic performers of his music are absolute rareties in the classical music world of our day. Handel requires absolute seat of the pants spontaneity, a willingness by conductors to rearrange the music for every run of a show, a willingness by performers to improvise new embellishments at every performance. Handel would have demanded no less from the performers of his own day, and without that commitment his music falls utterly flat.

-          CD’s of singers singing excerpts from Baroque operas are almost guaranteed to be more interesting than recordings of whole operas.

-          Haydn is still scandalously underrated in the canon – the true father of classical music in its dominant period – the absolute master of the classical symphony, the string quartet, and the piano trio. In order to truly surpass Haydn, Mozart had to add an instrument to each of these combinations.

-          The smooth sostenutos of the nineteenth century are a world apart from Haydn, who for all his court refinement retained the roughness of his peasant roots for his entire career.

-           If the Early Music movement has done one true service to music, it’s to put Haydn back on the map as a real composer and not a classical-era lightweight to toss off in concert before the ‘real’ music.

-          The Magic Flute, while for the most part truly amazing, is overrated in the Mozart canon. More than any other Mozart opera, we have no idea how it was meant to be presented, what allegory it was meant to represent, and the character of Tamino is a flat-out bore. On the other hand, The Abduction from the Seraglio is utterly underrated – a miracle from first bar to last.

-          Stop making corrections to the Requiem, we’re never going to do better than Sussmayr did for it, and some of Sussmayr’s added music is good enough to wonder if Mozart actually had a hand in composing it.

-          Mozart meant for the tempos of his operas, by and large, to be far slower than the tempos we standardly hear, let alone the zippiness of the period instrument crowd. He was wrong.

-          When Mozart writes ‘piano’, play it like Mozart. When Mozart writes ‘forte’, play it like Beethoven.

-          The Marriage of Figaro is the second-most perfect work of art in existence. You do not tamper with perfection: do not perform it too fast, do not make sudden lurches in tempo, do not overact, and for god’s sake DO NOT CUT BASILIO AND MARCELLINA’S ARIAS!

-          Don Giovanni on the other hand sprawls uncontrollably and cannot be performed fast enough. If you don’t feel your pulse go up by the time the Commendatore dies, it’s going to be a long night.

-          Period instruments work just as well in classical repertoire as non-period instruments, no better, no worse. The most important factor is the musician holding the instrument.

-          Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is a greater symphony than the Fifth, which is pretty damned great itself.

-          If Haydn were played correctly more often by more people, there would be no condescending to Beethoven’s lighter pieces as ‘Haydnesque.’

-          Beethoven intentionally set his metronome marks beyond the realm of playability, and even the fastest and most technically able performances can’t consistently maintain his fastest speeds. Most of the metronome markings are not meant to be followed literally. Rather, they are some of the many warnings and system-shocks in Beethoven scores designed to drag the musician out of his complacency – lest he elect to play everything at a comfortable Giulini speed.

-          Give Fidelio a break. For all its problems, it’s pretty awesome.

-          Approximating the metronome marks (or something thereabout) is crucial in the more ”Haydnesque” Beethoven symphonies (1,2,4,&8), which otherwise sound like inferior works (and are absolutely not). In the bigger symphonies, do whatever the hell you want long as it’s convincing.

-          If you’re going to go for the metronome marks, don’t try to be precise, you won’t be and you’ll only inhibit the musicians (yet another reason Herman Scherchen is awesome).
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No pianist has ever done all 32 sonatas well. No pianist can.
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          Just as the metronome mark in the first movement of the Hammerklavier sonata is ludicrous, there’s no reason to extend the slow movement well past 20 minutes. Just as there’s no reason a conductor has to play the first two movements of Beethoven’s 9th at breakneck speed, there’s no reason to slow the third movement down to complete stasis. The ideology of how great music is performed is not more important than the content of how the music’s performed, and dogma makes people do all sorts of weird things they’d otherwise never stomach.

Beethoven has all sorts of passages, particularly in his late works, that have to be played as though they were improvised. It isn't just inadvisable, in a few cases it's downright impossible to play them as written.

-          If you’re thinking about harmonic rhythm in classical-era repertoire, your priorities are misplaced. Other things matter much more, like RHYTHM(!).

-          Rossini’s not supposed to be funny, he’s supposed to be fun.

-          Schubert does not sound like Beethoven, bad performances of Schubert sound like Beethoven.

-          Schubert is a better composer when you don’t understand German (as I do on occasion…).
-          By all means over-interpret Schubert lieder, but if the poetry sucks, best not to draw attention to it.

-          In 49 pieces out of 50, Schubert’s melody is absolutely continuous, if you shift the tempo, you disrupt the melody.

-          Playing Schubert late sonatas at a super-slow tempo does not make your playing more profound. It just makes people question whether your technique sucks.

-          If you’re a conductor trying to make Berlioz into a great classicist with an amazing sense of form and balance, you’ve missed the point.

-          If you say that it’s a refreshing change to hear Berlioz done by a smaller orchestra, you’re missing the point.

-          If you play Mendelssohn with lots of rubato and a huge sound, you’ve completely missed the point.

-          Given the evidence that is Elijah, had Mendelssohn lived longer, Mendelssohn might have moved wholeheartedly into bombastic Wagner territory.

-          Schumann was a crazy person, stop playing his music like he was sane.

-          Do not take any of Schumann’s instructions seriously. For all we know, Clara Schumann wrote them all in – and she clearly had different ideas about his music than Robert.

-          All of Schumann’s most interesting orchestral music is still rarely performed.

-          Change the orchestration, don’t change it, nobody cares.

-          Within half a bar, you can tell a great Schumann pianist from a mediocre one.

-          If as a musician you don’t have the patience to play the same thing so many thousands of times that you think you understand it perfectly, you probably won’t understand Schumann.

-          Chopin is perfect, do not interpret Chopin.

-          The shorter the Chopin piece, the more amazing it is. Why spoil the perfection with another perfect Chopin piece right afterward?

-          Listening to Liszt was a lot more fun when nobody took him seriously as a composer.

-          Wagner’s anti-Semitism is not a valid reason to dislike his music. His antipathy to Jews was merely a symptom of the problem, which was his disgusting egotism.

-          Wagner’s music is bombastic in a manner completely different than the stereotype of Wagner’s bombast. His ego allowed him inflate his operas well past the length they merit, to write his own dreary librettos (text), and control his musical language to the point that he kills his own momentum to squeeze in as many leitmotivs as possible. He was very much a genius, but less talented composers were far greater artists. Occasionally seeing his operas is as close as I ever want to get to living in a totalitarian regime.

-          Wagner’s music is best performed with cuts, generally fast but with widely variable tempos, and with singers who can actually sing the music instead of bleating it.

-          Verdi and Wagner both have suffered in recent generations due to the simple fact that perhaps 10% of the singers who perform them at major opera houses can reliably sing their music properly anymore. Such is history’s way.

-          Dear conductors, if a singer tells you how to perform something in Verdi, do exactly the opposite.

-          Dear singers, if the conductor says he’s doing it this way because it’s what Verdi wrote, quit.

-          If you’re not willing to monkey around with Bruckner scores to give him the tempo changes, edition mixing, and occasional scoring changes he needs, stay away, stay far away.

-          When it’s good, Faust is so good that it’s a shame the rest is so terrible.

-          How is Ma Vlast not performed everywhere all the time?

-          There are three ways to perform Brahms: like Mendelssohn, like Wagner, and like Brahms. Only one of them is right.

-          The way we can tell that our era is in permanent decline is that Brahms is not as frequently performed as he once was.

-          If the performance of A German Requiem is over 70 minutes long, you should have left after the first ten.

-          Beethoven is fire, Mozart is wind, Schumann is water, Brahms is earth.

-          Saint-Saens should have spent his entire career writing pieces like Carnival of the Animals.

-          How great is Carmen? It’s one of the few slender works that survives fat performances: fat singers, fat orchestras, fat sets. That’s how great Carmen is.

-          There is no correct edition of Boris Godunov or any other major Mussorgsky piece, you simply play what you think sounds right.

-          Russian operas are the only 19th century operas in which you’re still guaranteed to get a first-class performance when you go to the opera.

-          Tchaikovsky never wrote a greater symphony than his first. From then on, his greatest music (with a few exceptions) is found in his operas and ballets.

-          The last three symphonies are great in their way (particularly the fourth), but it’s a little bit like listening to a drunk couple fight at the next table over.

-          If Brahms is earth, Dvorak is the flowers that grow from the earth.

-          Dvorak is a towering master who never gets enough credit because is, unfortunately, not quite a complete master of form. Who cares?

-          The most beautiful single movement of music I know is the slow(est) movement of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio.

-          Dvorak’s 8th Symphony is still greater than either the 7th or the New World symphonies.

-          I take it back, the three most extraordinary giants of the 19th century were Beethoven, Schumann, and Dvorak – there is no sentiment those three were incapable of expressing.

-          Rimsky-Korsakov should have stopped editing Mussorgsky’s music and just written more showpieces.

-          Brahms was right, Hans Rott’s Symphony is a pretty awful piece of music.

-          The greatest violin concerto ever written is by Edward Elgar.

-          Elgar was a wonderful composer in dire need of a good editor.
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-          If a Mahler conductor talks about the dangers of ‘overstating’ Mahler, he’s not a Mahler conductor worth listening to.
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Anyone who says Pelleas et Melisande is a fascinating opera is lying.

-          Debussy wrote some towering music, but could not write more than ten minutes at a time without his concentration ebbing (which is longer than Chopin could go).

-          There is a difference in Debussy between watery and water-logged.

-          Strauss tone poems are amazing pieces of music in the same way that pinball is an amazing game.

-          If you take Strauss’s music seriously, he is dead on arrival. If you play his tone-poems as the greatest showpieces ever written, he is perhaps the most fun composer to pick up a pen.

-          Salome and Elektra are dumb, Der Rosenkavalier is a jewel – Strauss spent the rest of his opera career waging a battle between these two poles.

-          The worst thing to happen to Sibelius was that he became appreciated as a composer.

-          Rachmaninov’s compositions are entirely too well-written to be great music.

-          Ravel is every bit as mechanical as Prokofiev, yet he’s everything Prokofiev is not. Ravel delights, Prokofiev burns.

-          Appreciation of Vaughan Williams is a sanity test. If you’re not moved by the fifth symphony or the Five Mystical Songs, I question your membership in the human race.

-          If one needs any proof of Schoenberg’s sometime brilliance, simply watch how many people are horrified by it a century after it was written.

-          Bartok‘s music is awesome, and oh how I wish it expressed more.

-          Bartok’s string quartets, the most fantastically aggressive pieces of music in the classical canon, are still played with kid gloves.

-          There is no sane reason to take more than 8 minutes in the first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.

-          Stravinsky’s greatest works are Petrushka and Les Noces – the only two works in which his true self is completely revealed. His music was never again quite so extraordinary.

-          Szymanowski is a great colorist often mistaken for a great composer, the accusation that is usually leveled at Debussy is true for him.

-          Webern clearly had an amazing ear for sound, but he put it in the service of the most stupidly puritanical aesthetic imaginable. This is a man who could have written like an Austrian Debussy, but instead wrote three and a half hours of music over the course of his career, music so subtle as to be non-existent.

-          Berg is the true genius of the Second Viennese School. Had he outlived Schoenberg, atonality might have integrated itself into the wider world of music instead of becoming a destructive cancer that helped to turn classical music into a cult.

-          Prokofiev’s music is for the most part shrill, mechanical, and unpleasant. If I want well-designed neo-classicism, please give me Bohuslav Martinu.

-          Why do people listen to Darius Milhaud?

-          Frank Martin is a sleeping dragon waiting to be discovered.

-          Not everything he wrote was equally great, but Arthur Honegger is arguably another giant of the 20th century. The fact that the symphonies are not performed all the time is one of the great faults of modern orchestral life.

-          In the next fifty years, all Gershwin’s musicals will move into the opera house, and he will take his deserved place at the top of the heap with Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and Strauss (hopefully Janacek and Britten will go with him, but I’m not holding my breath)

-          Poulenc’s music is beautiful, but I’m not sure it’s great.

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