Tag Archive: classical


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A historical document, certainly – but a living testament to the greatness of this music.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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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.