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Nathan MilsteinNathan Milstein’s performances of Bach’s music for solo violin are of a special kind.  There is a rare intensity, rare focus in his playing.  You can actually hear the concentration – both in the emotive power and in the architectural design that he draws from the music.  This is as true of his 1950s recordings on EMI as it is of his 1970s versions on Deutsche Grammophon, and you can take in a wildly good 1968 television performance of the work here.

Bach was thirty-five years-old and living in Cöthen when the Chaconne was published in 1720 as part of the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin.  It was conceived as the last movement of the Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, and stands as the culmination of Bach’s chamber music output.  Structurally speaking, the Chaconne consists of 27 variations built over a simple bass figuration.  Deeper still, it is a flight full of struggle and of eventual reconciliation, a journey that everywhere pushes.  It pushes the practical limits of the violin, the technical limits of the interpreter, and the conventional limits of the musical imagination.

Milstein’s vision of the Chaconne is full of white light, of white heat.  I have other favourite performances of Bach’s music for solo violin, but I hear in Milstein’s a measured intensity that I don’t find elsewhere.  It overwhelms.  Milstein’s interpretations were the first to make me realize just how emotionally searching this music can be.  His were the recordings that made me ask: How can we begin to approach this music?

Musicians have gone about it in different ways.  Among the more notorious, it was none other than Johannes Brahms who expressed his bafflement at the scope of the work, and responded by writing a now-neglected piano transcription for the left-hand.  Italian virtuoso Feruccio Busoni’s controversial piano transcription (and rewriting!) of the Chaconne has now become an accepted  part of concert programs.  And then there’s Stokowski’s sonorous take, his transcription of the piece for full orchestra.  There are others still; and while purists may disapprove of the “liberties” taken by such creative efforts, I view them as invitations to see the Chaconne in a new light. 

As I see it, the views of purists can be stale right out of the gate.  But Bach has no best before date.

Moving deeper still: In 1994 German music professor, Helga Thoene, suggested that Bach had built the Chaconne on motifs from his choral works – and that the texts of these quoted pieces suggest that Bach conceived the Chaconne as a hidden memorial to his wife, who had died earlier in the year that it was composed.  A recent project by violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble attempts to sound out Thoene’s theory.  And while the idea that the Chaconne has a secret or esoteric meaning is a speculative one – a groping for something that might not be there – it stands, again, as a reminder that there is still so much to be found in this music.  (You can decide for yourselves here.)

Morimum: Christoph Poppen & The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series, 2001)Interpretations of this kind take risks.  And they should: because this music takes risks; it has reach.  Isn’t it best to explore it and to hear it in a spirit similar to that in which it was conceived – one of openness, invention and discovery?  Renewal is what I hear when Milstein begins the meditative middle section of the Chaconne.  It is the breaking of a new day. 

I’m reminded of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and I know that there are at least as many ways of seeing the Chaconne.  

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Recommended Recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin:

  • Nathan Milstein (Deutsche Grammophon, 1973)
  • Itzhak Perlman  (EMI, 1995)
  • Henryk Szeryng (Deutsche Grammophon, 1968)

Also Recommended:

  • Morimur: Christoph Poppen & the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series, 2001)

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Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, was born one hundred and sixty-seven years ago today.  Many people will be familiar with his works, even if unknowingly.  His incidental music for Peer Gynt has successfully permeated popular culture. 

But I am reminded of a story that gives still more colour to the day.  In 2007 Leif Ove Andsnes decided to mark the centenary of his fellow countryman’s death by having a piano helicoptered to the top of a mountain, where he performed Grieg’s Ballade for piano, with no one but mother nature (and a conveniently placed film crew) to hear.  The footage and commentary are fascinating. 

This is not Andsnes’ only, shall we say, creative attempt to give voice to the music he loves.  A 2002 disc finds him performing some of Grieg’s lyric pieces on the composer’s piano at his very own villa outside of Bergen.  (Mikhail Pletnev did something similar, wanting to pay homage to his compatriot, Rachmaninov.)  More recently, Andsnes “reframed” Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, performing the remarkable work in a multimedia setting, surrounded by video screens that displayed visuals by artist Robin Rhodes.  The details of that fascinating project have also been captured on film.  These are the attempts of a world-class musician to see if classical music is capable of transcending itself, of broadening its horizons.

Some of you will remember the story of violinist Joshua Bell busking incognito – and going virtually unnoticed – in a Washington D.C. subway station.  Stunts, experiments of this kind are small ways of sounding out the place of classical music in our day-to-day lives.  And as Bell’s experience shows, it does seem that classical music has gone underground.

Scenes such as these lead us to consider the place of classical music in popular culture.  Does classical music need the help of Disney, a Fantasia?  What of so-called “crossover” albums?  Whatever the case, musicians as thoughtful as Andsnes help to give it life. 

I don’t think that this is just a case of trees falling in the forest.  For the music – mountain-high, river-low – waits for us to hear and discover.

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Bruckner’s Motets

Anton BrucknerAnton Bruckner is often figured as a country bumpkin, a devout Roman Catholic peasant from the hills of northern Austria who found it difficult to make his way in the cosmopolitan world of 19th century Vienna.  At other times he’s spoken of as a slave to insecurity, a composer with so little confidence in his creative abilities that he would revise his music at the sight of a fly, at the rolling of an esteemed colleague’s questioning eye.  But Bruckner’s music is much more than that of an insecure urban peasant. 

Bruckner is mainly remembered as a composer of orchestral music, of symphonies so massive that they are often spoken of as “cathedrals of sound.”  Even his major choral works – the three masses of the 1860s (in D minor, E minor and F minor) and the piece which Bruckner himself held most dear, the D minor Te Deum – are symphonic by design and epic in proportion.  Yet some of his most memorable and accessible music can be found in miniature, in his short pieces for a cappella choir.

It’s unfortunate that Bruckner’s Motets have largely fallen through the cracks.  For though they’ve been overshadowed by his symphonic output, the motets glow:  You need only listen to Ave Maria or Os Justi to see that their light, while not blinding, is warm and inviting.  The motets may be smaller expressions of Bruckner’s Roman Catholic faith, but they reveal a beauty unlike that of his other music.  You can hear in them a union of the meditative modes of medieval chant and the harmonic textures of Romanticism.

Bruckner is an acknowledged master of symphonic form, a grand architect of cathedrals in sound. 

His motets show that he could also be a god of small things.

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Recommended recordings:

  • Anton Bruckner: Motets – Choir of St. Bride’s Church / Robert Jones (Naxos 8.550956)
  • Anton Bruckner: Motets  – Corydon Singers / Matthew Best (Hyperion CDA66052)

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Ike Quebec - Soul Samba (1962)Ike Quebec’s Soul Samba is a remarkable record.  Jazz and bossa nova meet in the air of these sessions, and the result is an album that I don’t hesitate to recommend to friends and music lovers who might not consider themselves fans.  It’s stuff to lose yourself to on summer nights, and a place to discover one great jazzman’s take on the sounds of Brazil.

Some context: Ike Quebec recorded this in the fall of 1962, just months before his death to lung cancer at the age of forty-five.  After running stints with a number of established jazz bands in the 1940s Quebec spent most of the next decade lost in a haze of heroine addiction.  He was silent until the summer of 1959, when he was hired on as assistant music director at Blue Note.  It was in the Englewood Cliffs studio that Quebec recorded all of his Blue Note long players, including Blue and Sentimental in ‘61 and the bossa nova’d Soul Samba in ‘62. 

One thing worth noting is just how much the sound of those two outings is affected by Quebec’s decision to substitute guitar for piano: Grant Green brings his bluesy magic to Blue and Sentimental, while Kenny Burrell’s more restrained style carries much of the day on Soul Samba.  Burrell leaves his imprint all over these sessions, and, from the start of the opening track, “Loie,” we can hear how well-suited he is for music of this kind.

This is music with swing: soulful jazz carried by the bossa nova shuffle.  And, yes, it moves: “That’s why this album came out sounding like dancing late at night,” Quebec says in the liner notes.  “We were moanin’ more than most of the others who play bossa nova.  We made it soft — and soulful.”

But the album represents more than the happy convergence of bossa nova and jazz.  Quebec even goes out of his way to bring classical music into the conversation.  On “Goin’ Home” he borrows the theme from the gorgeous Largo of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony.  And here you can listen to his bossa nova treatment of Liszt’s Liebestraum (“love dream”).  On albums such as this, music becomes a place where traditions meet.

While this is in no way an experimental jazz record, Soul Samba embraces the openness, the spirit of exploration common to so much jazz of that era.  Here, jazz becomes a meeting place for the music of Liszt, Dvorak, and Brazil. 

Sometimes, like Dvorak’s symphony of the same name, great music will dream of, and search for, a new world.

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Blue Note Records: Rudy Van Gelder Edition 0946 3 92783 2 9

Personel:

Ike Quebec, tenor sax
Kenny Burrell, guitar
Wendell Marshall, bass
Willie Bobo, drums
Garvin Masseaux, chekere

Recorded on October 5, 1962 at the Van Gelder Sudio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

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Robert Schumann

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s birth.  And I must say, he looks rather good for his age – not a day over 46, even… .

On this day, I ask: In what light is it best to remember Schumann?  Many people remember him as one player in a bizarre love triangle (with his wife Clara and the young Brahms) that was as intrigue-riddled as an episode of Gossip Girl.  The fact that he spent the last two years of his life confined to a mental asylum has further deflected the focus from his music.  These sadder, more disordered aspects of his life and personality have even led a scattered few to question the structural integrity of his works.

If nothing else, days such as this can remind us of the great musical heritage that has come before us, and of which Schumann was a pivotal part.  There has never been more music in the world than there is now, and technology gives us ready access to it.  And yet, the classical repertoire survives: Schumann and friends are off the radar to some, maybe, but the significance of their music has not been eclipsed.  It is still there to be mined, still there to be discovered and advanced.  For an example of one of my prized Schumann discs, you can listen to Maurizio Pollini’s interpretation of the Symphonic Etudes here.

But what I’d like to point to here is perhaps something more than any given Schumann composition.  It is simply the fact that Schumann was a huge lover of music, and a tireless champion of art.  In his early twenties, Schumann founded the New Journal for Music (Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik) which he used as a springboard for discussion about all things music and culture.  There he acclaimed the work of some of his contemporaries; others were burned by his fiery wit.  It was in the New Journal that Schumann famously touted the then-unknown twenty year-old Brahms as the “chosen one” of music. 

For someone who is quoted as saying that music cannot be spoken about because its language is too precise for words, Schumann did an awful lot of talking.

This is because Schumann (and I’m paraphrasing here) thought it the artist’s duty to bring light into the darkness of the human heart.  And one way of accomplishing this, beyond his own compositions, was to fight for the music of others. 

Perhaps Schumann’s greatest gift to us?  It was he who, while on a visit to Vienna, discovered the dusty score to Schubert’s eighth symphony (the great “Unfinished Symphony”).

On the 200th anniversary of his birth, I remember him in this way:

Robert Schumann: All in the name of music.

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Menuhin plays Elgar / Bruch: Violin Concertos (Naxos)Edward Elgar is slighted in some classical circles as a composer of forgettable music.  But I’m really drawn to a number of his works: among them, his late string quartet and piano quintet, his cello concerto, and the work I here want to highlight, the violin concerto in B minor, Op. 61.  Each of these pieces is well worth discovering.

I was fortunate enough to come across a 1932 recording of Elgar’s violin concerto in a used CD bin here in Toronto.  Issued as part of the Naxos Historical series, it features a sixteen year-old Yehudi Menuhin in breathtaking form, with the composer himself at the podium. 

Had Menuhin’s voice even broken by the time he recorded this? I wondered.  The performance made me forget I’d asked.  Long story short: this is one of the best available recordings of Elgar’s music.

This particular session was also released by EMI as part of its “Great Recordings of the Century” series.  EMI couples it with the composer’s Enigma variations.  On this Naxos disc, we have it coupled with Menuhin’s 1931 performance of Max Bruch’s first violin concerto.  To my ears, the Naxos issue is a better sounding disc.  The source material, admittedly, places clear limitations on the sound; but producer Mark Obert-Thorn’s audio restoration is up to his usual high standard, and I’m grateful to have this historic performance in as vivid a sound as the source material allows.

It would be unfair merely to say that that Menuhin is in fine form on this occasion.  This is musicianship of the highest caliber: a performance I would play for anyone who claims that child prodigies necessarily sacrifice artistry at the altar of showmanship.  There is no spirit of display – no pomp, no circumstance – here.    Though knee-high to a grasshopper, Menuhin is able to impart to the violin concerto a level of artistry which eclipses that of other, more seasoned musicians.  So pleased was Elgar with Menuhin’s performance that he took the young violinist out for a day at the races (one of Elgar’s great hobbies) rather than take a stab at another take in London’s Abbey Road studio! 

A historical document, certainly – but a living testament to the greatness of this music.
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Naxos Historical – Elgar / Bruch: Violin Concertos (Naxos 8.110902)
Yehudi Menuhin, Violin
London Symphony Orchestra
Edward Elgar, Conductor

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The Complete Beethoven String Quartets - by the Alban Berg Quartet

From the Dizzying Heights of Beethoven’s Genius: Die Grosse Fuge, Op. 133

Like other works from Beethoven’s late period, the Great Fugue contains some of the most searching language in all of music.  Its region, not always sweet to the ears, is one of struggle, of profound introspection.  These are soundings into uncharted depths of the artistic imagination.

I am here reminded of Einstein’s notion that “the imagination is more important than knowledge insofar as it encompasses the world.”  The sense is that we cannot begin to know the world, to know ourselves, without first imagining what is possible.  I suppose it is for this reason that we call them, in music as in science, visionaries: The great composers are able to see farther than most of us can; they allow us a glimpse of what lies beyond the horizon of accepted taste.  That is but one function of the thing we call art. 

Beethoven’s contemporaries certainly didn’t respond positively to the Great Fugue when it was first performed in the year before his death.  A noted critic of the day even called it “ugly,” an “anachronism,” an assault on the then-current principles of so-called “proper” music.  Another suggested that it was as incomprehensible as Chinese.  (It’s safe to assume that the reviewer was not from China!)  So it was that Beethoven, on the advice of his publisher, opted to remove it from the String Quartet for which it was originally conceived (No. 13 in B-Flat major, Op. 130) and to publish it separately as Opus 133.  The vision of the artist did not jive with the taste of his Viennese contemporaries, and the Great Fugue was placed under quarantine. 

Despite such initial, hand-from-the-burner response to the work, the Great Fugue has come to be regarded as a self-contained masterpiece.  Igor Stravinsky went so far as to call it the greatest piece of music ever composed, “a perfect miracle.”  Perhaps what is perfectly miraculous about the Great Fugue is that it still sounds so utterly modern.  Composed in 1825, it doesn’t sound of a time.  Its place is Utopia, which is to say no place at all.

And so the Great Fugue continues to challenge our sensibilities, to call us to refashion our accepted ideas of what can be called beautiful.  The small miracle is this: a music that is timeless precisely because it is always timely.  And while I don’t think it would be wise for the marketing team at Hallmark to include the fugue in its series of musical greeting cards, I do wish that more people could have the chance to hear it. 

Granted, it is a difficult work to enjoy on first listen.  Perhaps it is that a work of art must first hit us over the head if its beauty is to strike us.

Roll over Chad Kroeger.

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American Routes ~ Hank Williams
Hank William (senior)  I accidentally stumbled upon the online archive of American Routes radio broadcasts, and wanted to highlight this particular show on Hank Williams. 

I always like to point to the soulfulness of this music.  It breathes, it aches in ways that are lost to the contemporary country crowd.  Williams’ are often tragic songs of life (to draw on the album title from another great country act, the Louvin Brothers).  Is “I’m so Lonesome, I could Cry” maybe the most perfect country song out there?

Maybe I’m only tracing my name in the sand here, but I post this as a healthy counter to the innumerable musical masqueraders who make up the “in-crowd” of mainstream country music.  For if Hank Williams’ music has soul, then they are its exorcists.

The Innumerable Musical Masqueraders … perhaps a good name for a roots country band?  Anyone want to join?

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I’m calling this “Anger Management” — or maybe “Seeing Red.”  Any thoughts?

I had the good fortune of taking in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring last night at Roy Thompson Hall.  The young Russian, Vasily Petrenko, was guest conducting.  Anyone who’s heard his 2010 recordings of the eighth and tenth Shostakovich symphonies with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (on Naxos) will know why that fact is worth mentioning.  Petrenko is a supreme talent: passionate and full of insight – and possibly only a third of the average age of what was a largely brontosaurial crowd.  It’s a great thing to hear the conducting.  And visually, it was as though he were dancing the Rite while maestroing.

The night began with Elgar’s “In the South (Alassio),” (for me) a relatively unexciting but enjoyable concert overture.  Anyone unfamiliar with the work should take in its gorgeous serenade section, which features a noteworthy viola solo over hushed strings. The Elgar was followed by Andre Laplante performing Liszt’s first piano concerto.  Laplante was in dazzling form, having more than mastered that beast of a work.  I laughed to myself while watching his hands run over the piano keys, while a young woman (and, I assume, aspiring pianist) sitting behind me sighed, “I’m so bad.”  Liszt’s first concerto, with its imposing and unforgettable opening theme, has always struck me as an awkward piece, an untamed dance of piano and orchestra.  As for last night’s performance, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard the lighter moments of the work played with such poetry.  If only Laplante had let his white hair down: You’d have thought that Liszt himself had come back from the dead.  (A matter of intermission marginalia: It was amusing to watch a handful of begeezered aristocrats fawn over former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, and her husband, the thinker.)

The real untamed dance came with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  The TSO was on fire; under Petrenko’s baton, they played like the TSOul.

Most of you will be familiar with the story that Rite of Spring caused a real stir (read: riot!) when first performed in 1913 Paris.  In a well-known essay, “A Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rite of Spring, the Tradition of the New, and ‘The Music Itself,'” Richard Taruskin has suggested that Stravinsky himself was responsible for sparking the myth that his music was the root cause of the rioting.  Stravinsky the spin doctor.

“Spinning” is a good image in this context, for the Rite of Spring is dizzyingly restless in its sweep.  And while there’s really no replacement for hearing the work performed live – audio recordings and Youtube clips feel like mere shadows of the dance – you can take part in “The Sacrificial Dance” here. I was left feeling like the great Led Zeppelin song: Trampled Under Foot.  ‘Physical Graffiti’ may be still another way of describing the Rite: The music really leaves its mark.  Chock-full of rhythmic invention, it’s a work of serious play, and may be as close to rock and roll as classical will get.  To talk of its poly-rhythmic dimension is but a musicological way of saying that it has the hippy hippy shake.  “Stravinsky” very well may be Russian for “ass-kicking genius.”

"OMGaga" - my coinage.

I’m left wondering what music one would have to play to cause a riot in our day.  The Rite of Spring is certainly something of a spectacle, but I’m simply not convinced that people care enough about music (nor should they) to riot in the streets.  (The generally nonviolent reaction to Nickelback, the apotheosis of awful, is a case and point.***)  But I think of present-day spectacles: On the last occasion I unintentionally saw Lady Gaga perform on television, I also – perchance – saw her labia.  And there’s something odd in saying that about someone you’ve actually never seen naked.  Alas, with my train of thought thus derailed, I guess the feeling of spring must in the air.    The Rite of Spring: OMGaga.

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*** My lovely girlfriend reminds me that the reaction has not always been nonviolent.