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The musical avant-garde has created a number of very long pieces of music. Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, for example, runs for around six hours; other works by the same composer last from one to four hours. La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano runs around five to six hours. John Cage’s As SLow aS Possible runs from 20 to 70 minutes, but a performance underway in St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, began in 2001 and should take about 639 years. Other long works include Erik Satie’s Vexations, which runs somewhere around 28 hours. But the latter two works are more gimmicks than anything else; Satie’s piece is merely one minute-and-a-half piece played 840 times.
Length does not equal quality, but in the area of minimalist music – this is the minimalism of sparseness, not that of repetition, such as the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass – the listener enters a sound world that moves at a different pace from the world around them. Listening to such works – Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet is an excellent example of this – forces the listener to rethink what music is and how it is heard and experienced. I like music of this type which slows me down and makes me listen differently. In many ways, November, as with many of Morton Feldman’s works, is as much like looking at a painting as it is like listening to a work for piano. It’s beautiful music that moves in slow motion.
Dennis Johnson’s November is one such piece. It was composed in 1959, and, as Kyle Gann says in the liner notes to this new recording, “was glacially calm and meditative in the extreme.” Gann obtained a cassette tape from La Monte Young; “It was one of those thin, unreliable 120- minute cassettes, and the pitch wobbled badly.” He set out to transcribe the work, and eventually obtained a copy of the manuscript from the composer. But this score was far from perfect:
The manuscript score of November is a puzzle. It contains two pages of “motifs,” numbered first with Roman numerals and then switching to Arabic ones, often out of order, with many cross- outs, alternative possibilities, and self-questionings by the composer. These are followed by three further pages on which Johnson tried, with only partial success, to analyze his improvisation and arrive at a more exact notation. Little annotations among the notes, in the same handwriting of Johnson‟s letter in An Anthology, show him cogitating on paper and rather humorously arguing with himself: “maybe replace IVb with this”; “sounds better to enter with low A#”; “maybe add low E# in first chord – NO!”
Pianist R. Andrew Lee found himself interested by the piece. “My interest was first prompted by an Everest Complex, if you will. I attended Kyle Gann and Sarah Cahill’s landmark performance in 2009, and I really enjoyed the piece. I had also heard Kyle talk about November’s importance and read his posts on the subject. I’d like to think these factors influenced my decision to try it in the first place, but, if I’m being really honest with myself, I just wanted to see if I could do it.”
This recording, just shy of five hours, takes up that gauntlet and offers to the listener a unique work of subtle music, built around recurring motifs that become familiar, similar to the work of Morton Feldman, yet with its own style.
You can listen to this work in many ways. Few are those who would sit in front of their stereos for five hours; you can listen to one disc at a time (it’s on four discs, or four files if you purchase it by download), you can listen to a half-hour or so, then move on, or you can put it on as you work, and shift from paying close attention to having it flow by in the background. I think all these options are fine, but the longer you listen to the music actively, the more it becomes a meditation.
Pianist Lee sums up his feelings about this work:
I do not play this piece because of an Everest Complex, nor do I play it even because of its incredible historical significance.
I play it because I love it.
And that’s as good a reason as any to listen to it.
Posted: 4/4/2013 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: classical music, essential music, minimalism | 1 Comment »
Among the composers whose music I’ve been following for more than 30 years, Steve Reich is at the top of the list. I own all of the recordings he has made, and most of the other recordings of his works. (Fortunately, his music is not recorded very often.)
I still remember the very first time I heard Reich’s music. I was at a friend’s house, and my friend pulled out a three-LP box set from Deutsche Grammophon, which contained several early works by Reich: Drumming, which took up four sides; Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ; and Six Pianos. We listened to Six Pianos, with its hypnotic rhythms and shifting phase effects, and when it got to the end, I was a changed person. I had been listening intently to this music, perhaps with some chemical enhancement, and little happened; but over time, the changes became apparent, bolstered by the compelling rhythm of the work, and I realized just how powerful such subtle changes could be over time. From that moment on, I was hooked on minimalist music, and Steve Reich in particular.
The Deutsche Grammophon set was released in 1974, and following that, Reich went to ECM records, where he recorded a number of albums that made him a familiar name among those interested in new music. The most important of these was the nearly hour-long Music for 18 Musicians, composed from 1974-76, which is one of the seminal works of minimalism. In this work scored for percussion instruments, pianos, strings, clarinets and voices, Reich explores pulses, phasing and the relationships among short melodic patterns, and, while that may sound academic, the melodies of the work are memorable, and even get me tapping my foot and humming along. In the liner notes to the work, Reich says, “There is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minutes of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ than in any other complete work of mine to date.”
This is a difficult work to perform – in part because of the length – and while Reich’s ECM recording is probably the gold standard, a recent recording by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is also excellent. It’s worth noting that the original LP of Reich’s recording was flawed, because it broke the work into two parts; this work simply cannot be listened to with a break, because, unlike most symphonies, there is no pause between sections. Fortunately, the CD came along, and it became possible to play works of that length without a gap.
I was fortunate to see Reich in concert a number of times over the years. The first was a show at the Bottom Line, a “cabaret” in New York, where the classical instruments were slightly out-of-place on the small stage, and where the “large ensemble” playing one of the works on Reich’s second ECM album barely fit. Both Music for a Large Ensemble and Octet are classic works as well, and the ECM period was very rich for Reich’s music. I later saw Reich’s ensemble perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1983 retrospective, where most of Reich’s works were performed in a number of concerts. Seeing Drumming performed live was very impressive, as the musicians move around from instrument to instrument, and there is an element of dance in the process.
Reich has written dozens of compositions over the years, but Music for 18 Musicians remains the ur-Reich work for me, together with Six Pianos, the first work that converted me. If you’re not familiar with Reich’s music, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these pieces, but Music for 18 Musicians is probably the best place to start.
Listen to a 12-minute excerpt of Music for 18 Musicians on Steve Reich’s website.
Bonus trivia tidbit: Steve Reich attended composition classes given by Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, California, and one of his classmates was Phil Lesh, who would shortly thereafter become the bass player for the Grateful Dead.
Posted: 12/8/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: classical music, essential music, minimalism, music, Steve Reich | 6 Comments »
As Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is currently undergoing a revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, I’m reminded of when I saw it there in 1984, the second series of performances after its initial run in 1976. This 4 1/2 hour “opera” is a combination of music, dance and visuals, and was truly unforgettable. Over the years, I’ve collected the different recordings of the work.
First was the 1978 Tomato Records set, Later released on CBS Masterworks, then Sony. At 160 minutes, this was greatly reduced from the full work. Later, in 1993, a Nonesuch recording, on CD, was 190 minutes long, still a lot shorter than the entire work.
But until now, no recording was released of the 1984 performances. Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain Music has done that now, in two versions. The first, a CD and DVD set, contains a 77-minute CD of “highlights” of the work, along with a DVD of a documentary, The Changing Image of Opera, made during the 1984 production, but rarely seen. The second is a 217-minute “complete” recording, available only by download on the iTunes Store (at least for now), and is the most complete recording to date.
The 1984 recording has several advantages over the others. First, it’s a live recording, showing much better how the work actually sounded. Second, there is no attempt to make the sound lush and rich, as on the Nonesuch recording, which, again, brings it closer to its performance.
I’m certainly looking forward to both audio and video releases of the current revival of Einstein on the Beach. Finally, we will be able to see and hear the entire work. I just hope that it’s not too “smooth,” that the years between the first productions and the present haven’t led to too much perfection. One of the charms of minimalism in the 1970s and early 1980s is its spontaneity. This was music that went against the grain at the time, but which has now become more or less mainstream. I hope the radical nature of the original work comes through in the new performances.
(See also an older article, Listening Anew to Einstein on the Beach.)
Update: I received the “highlights” disc and watched the documentary today. If you care at all about Einstein on the Beach, you simply must see the documentary, with interviews with Glass and Wilson, and extensive footage of the 1984 production.
Posted: 12/7/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: classical music, minimalism | 4 Comments »
With the arrival of iTunes 11, classical music fans – and anyone with a large music library – have lamented the removal of certain features and views that help organize large amounts of music. I touched on some of these in my extensive review of iTunes 11 for Macworld, and in my discussion of iTunes 11 on the Macworld podcast. But I would like to summarize here the problems that iTunes 11 has brought specifically to classical music listeners.
First, there is no Composers view. In the iTunes window, you can view your music by Songs, Albums, Artists Genres and Playlists, but Composers has been forgotten.
Next, the Column Browser has been removed. This was a very practical way of viewing your library by drilling down from, say, Genre to Composer to Album. Previously, the Column Browser was available either on the top of a window or on the left side, allowing for two different ways of viewing music. It’s still available, but only in one view: Songs. The Songs view is sterile and hard to use, because there is no artwork displayed, and because there is no visible separation between albums.
Album List view was also removed. This allowed users to display a list of their music with album art, and the artwork delimited each album, making it easy to spot an album at a glance. Also, this list view would display whichever columns a user wanted to see, and users could sort by any column, such as Date Added, Composer, Artist, Album, etc. The new Albums view only shows track names, ratings and times, and sort options are limited.
In the iTunes Store, there is no longer a Composer column when you view an album. So if you see a recording with several works of the same name, but by different composers, there’s no way of knowing which is which, if you want to buy one or several tracks of work by a specific composer.
And in the iTunes Store, the Power Search feature was removed. You could use this to search for items by multiple criteria, including composer. If you were looking for an album with a work by a specific composer, played by a specific artist, this was a practical way to find it.
iTunes is clearly targeted at those listeners who consume songs, not those who collect classical music, or who have large libraries. But what chagrins me is that it would have been simple to keep the above features; they don’t specifically clash with the overall interface. Their removal makes iTunes much harder to use with classical music, and with large libraries. I can only hope that Apple makes some changes so those users who need these features can feel comfortable with the program.
Posted: 12/7/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X, iPod & iTunes Tags: classical music, iTunes | 31 Comments »
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Daniel Barenboim owns Beethoven! Watching this set of DVDs and listening to his magnificent performances shows why Barenboim is clearly the pre-eminent performer of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. While many will disagree – after all, there are countless recordings by dozens of performers – what comes through after seeing these recitals is the deep familiarity that Barenboim has with the music. Playing these sonatas for some fifty years, they have become a part of him, and this shows in the way he performs these works with such conviction. (And without scores, which, alas, too many performers depend on.)
This set contains films of a series of eight recitals that Barenboim performed in Berlin in 2005, comprising all 32 of the sonatas. Each recital lasts from an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half, and contains four sonatas, a mixture of early, middle and late works. The programs themselves work well, but any selection of sonatas played by Barenboim would be fine. The camera work is among the best I’ve seen for this type of performance; there are enough different camera angles to keep it from being repetitive, and the intensity of watching Barenboim perform is enough to trump the limits of filming. The sound is in PCM stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1; the surround mix is excellent.
Barenboim has already recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas twice: once for EMI when he was in his late twenties, and a second time for DG in the 1980s. One could say that these live recitals are closer to the second recording; slow tempi, much rubato, a great intensity and an often meditative approach to the music. Barenboim shines in the late sonatas, and at the end of the op. 111 sonata (no. 32), his intensity is such that he has to wipe tears from his eyes. But the early Haydnesque/Mozartian sonatas are also wonderful, with a full range of youthful passion.
In addition to the eight recitals, this set contains two DVDs of master classes, where Barenboim shares his knowledge and experience with six young pianists. While much of the discussion is quite technical, even non-musicians will find some of the comments illuminating, providing insights into music in general and these sonatas in particular.
This set is perhaps my best musical purchase in years. I plan to watch these recitals many times, and have gotten many insights into the music – some of the best for piano – simply by watching it performed.
Update: This set is now available on CD, but in sonata order, 1-32, rather than grouped by recital as on the DVDs.
Posted: 11/7/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Beethoven, classical music, DVDs | 5 Comments »
A few months ago, I pondered why there are so few albums with digital booklets on the iTunes Store. I had discovered at the time that Apple imposes their own page format, which is not that of CD booklets, adding an extra step in the production process for record labels.
Well I found out something else recently: why record labels don’t add digital booklets to older releases. The answer is interesting; it’s because they can’t. Apple won’t let them. If a label has uploaded an album to the iTunes Store and wants to add a digital booklet later, the only way they can do this is to delete the original, and create a new album listing with a new SKU. And if they do this, then purchasers will no longer be able to re-download music listed under the old SKU.
It’s kind of foolish; it should be drop-dead simple to add something to an album on the iTunes Store, but Apple’s system is so rigid that it’s impossible. So if you wonder why your favorite label hasn’t added digital booklets to older releases, you now know why.
Posted: 10/25/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X, iPod & iTunes, music Tags: classical music, digital music, iTunes, iTunes Store, music | 6 Comments »
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I wasn’t very familiar with Yo-Yo Ma’s work before getting this set, other than having heard his recording of Bach’s cello suites. But I took advantage of a “lightning sale” at Amazon FR to grab this set a few weeks ago at the very low price of €140 (about $190), or less than half the current price on Amazon US (I not that some third-party sellers have it for around $300, but the Amazon US price at the time of this writing is $472). To be honest, the list price for this box is well above what one expects to pay for that many CDs in the big classical box sets we’ve been seeing recently, and this is probably why Amazon FR got a bunch of the sets to put them on sale. It’s worth noting that this is a limited edition, and even though it was released in October, 2009, it has not sold 7,500 copies. (A certificate in the box tells me I have # 6464/7500.)
Like Sony’s other recent big box sets – such as the Murray Periah set and the Glenn Gould Complete Bach Edition, the set contains CDs in wallets with original artwork and the backs of original LPs in tiny fonts. There is a hardcover book, very attractive, on glossy paper, over 300 pages, with essays, photos and album notes. Sony has this down pat; while the three sets I mention are all different, with different numbers of discs, and different sized books (to fit in the appropriate boxes), the presentation of all these sets is excellent.
As for the music, Ma covers a wide range of the classical and non-classical repertoire. From chamber music to orchestral music, he gives an overview of the entire range of cello music, but also veers off in other directions, with a disc of Japanese Melodies, a Claude Bolling disc, and his “crossover” recordings, such as Appalachia Waltz, his Silk Road recordings, and some movie soundtracks, such as for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Seven Years in Tibet.
Ma is an excellent cellist, and he is never boring, though many of these works can be found in versions that are better. For example, his Schubert String Quintet lacks the pathos of better versions, and his first Bach cello suite recording is somewhat bland. (His second recording is much better.) Nevertheless, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by so much of this music as I have been listening to the set, and have discovered many works I’m not familiar with.
I wouldn’t recommend paying the full price, unless you’re an unconditional fan of Yo-Yo Ma (in which case you probably already have the set), but if you can get it at a price similar to what I paid, I’d say it’s well worth the investment.
Posted: 10/6/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: classical music | No Comments »
Here’s a list of the albums in the set:
01 Robert White Sings Beethoven
02 Saint Saens Carnival of the Animals Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, Op. 35 Polonaise, Op. 77
03 Saint Saens and Lalo Cello Concertos
04 Haydn Cello Concertos
05 Beethoven Complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano, Vol. 1
06 Kreisler, Paganini
07 Bach Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord
08 Bach The Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites
09 Bach The Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites
10 Shostakovich and Kabalevsky Cello Concertos
11 Bolling Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano Trio
12 Beethoven Complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano, Vol. 2
13 Schubert String Quintet
14 Japanese Melodies
15 Elgar and Walton Cello Concertos
16 Mozart Divertimento, K. 563
17 Brahms Sonatas for Cello and Piano
18 Strauss Don Quixote Schoenberg Concerto
19 Beethoven Complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano, Vol. 3
20 Dvorak Cello Concerto
21 Boccherini Concerto J. C. Bach Sinfonia Concertante and Grand Overture
22 Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C Minor Schubert String Quartet No. 15
23 Schumann Cello Concerto Fantasiestucke
24 Dvorak Piano Trios
25 Brahms Double Concerto, Piano Quartet
26 Shostakovich Piano Trio, Cello Sonata
27 Barber and Britten Cello Concertos
28 Strauss and Britten Cello Sonatas
29 Shostakovich Quartet No. 15Gubaidulina Rejoice!
30 Anything Goes Stephane Grappelli and Yo Yo Ma Play (Mostly) Cole Porter
31 Mozart Serenade No. 10, Gran Partita
32 Brahms The Piano Quartets
33 Brahms The Piano Quartets
34 Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff Cello Sonatas
35 Tchaikovsky Gala in Leningrad
37 Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, Tchaikovsky Variations
38 Brahms String Sextets
39 Brahms String Sextets
40 Brahms Sonatas for Cello and Piano
41 Schoenberg Verklarte Nacht, String Trio
42 Faure Piano Quartets
43 Made in America
44 Dvorak in Prague
45 Beethoven and Schumann Piano Quartets
46 Chopin Piano Trio, Polonaise brillante, Cello Sonata
47 The New York Album
48 Immortal Beloved
49 Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart Clarinet Trios
50 Dvorak and Herbert Concertos from the New World
51 Schubert Trout Quintet, Arpeggione Sonata
52 Goldenthal Fire Water Paper A Vietnam Oratorio
53 Appalachia Waltz
54 Lieberson King Gesar
55 Schubert and Boccherini String Quintets
56 Yo Yo Ma Premieres
57 Mozart The Piano Quartets
58 From Ordinary Things
59 Tan Dun Symphony 1997
60 Seven Years in Tibet Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
61 Mark OConnor Liberty
62 Soul of the Tango The Music of Astor Piazzolla
63 The Cello Suites Inspired by Bach
64 The Cello Suites Inspired by Bach
65 Korngold and Schmidt Music for Strings and Piano Left Hand
66 Tavener The Protecting Veil
67 Simply Baroque
68 Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, Cello Sonata
69 Yo Yo Ma Solo
70 Appalachian Journey
71 Dvorak Piano Quartet, Romantic Pieces, Sonatina
72 Simply Baroque II
73 John Corigliano’s Phantasmagoria
74 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
75 Yo Yo Ma Plays the Music of John Williams
76 Silk Road Journeys When Strangers Meet
77 Meyer and Bottesini Concertos
78 Naqoyatsi Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
79 Paris La Belle Epoque
80 Obrigado Brazil
81 Obrigado Brazil Live
82 Vivaldi Cello
83 Isaac Stern Schubert, Brahms, Bach, Mozart
84 Yo Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone
85 Silk Road Journeys Beyond the Horizon
86 Memoirs of a Geisha Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
87 New Impossibilities
88 Yo Yo Ma and Friends Songs of Joy and Peace
89 The Bonus Disc 1
90 The Bonus Disc 2
Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE
It’s been a good year for big classical box sets. Whether you’re a fan of Arthur Rubenstein or Glenn Gould, whether you’re interested in old Mercury Living Presence recordings or Karajan’s recordings from the 1960s, on Toscanini’s complete RCA recordings, you’ll find something to fill your shelves and your ears.
I’ve gotten three such sets recently: the 90-CD Yo-Yo Ma: 30 years Outside the Box set; the 42-disc Glenn Gould Complete Bach Collection, and, now, the Murray Perahia, The First 40 Years set. Interestingly, all three of these are from Sony, who is making a big effort lately to re-release back catalog in big boxes at bargain prices. (The Yo-Yo Ma was released in 2009, but the Gould and Perahia are new; in fact, they’re out in Europe at the time of this writing, but not yet in the US.)
All of these boxes are produced in a similar manner. The CDs are in slim wallet sleeves, with original artwork on them, and either the original backs from LPs in miniature or the flip side, or, for those discs originally released on CD, a track list that you can actually read. (The miniature LP notes require a microscope to read.) They’re snuggly fit inside the box, and each of these sets has a hardcover book. The Murray Perahia book is the largest of all, in part because the 5 DVDs in the set are in an actual DVD-sized digipack; in the Glenn Gould set, the 6 DVDs are in the same kind of sleeves as the CDs.
In all of these cases, the books are attractive and informative. They contain essays, photos and information about the discs. The Perahia book, being the largest, has the most notes about the discs, reproducing the original liner notes from each release.
Murray Perahia’s répertoire is fairly standard: There’s a lot of Mozart (all the piano concertos), Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven and Bach. There’s a bit of Bartok, Brahms and Mendolssohn,, a disc of Handel and Scarlatti, but that’s about it. Perahia was never an adventurous musician in his recordings, he didn’t stray from well-worn paths. I’m mostly familiar with his work in the Mozart piano concertos, which are wonderful, but when I actually discovered his pianism was when he released a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2000. This followed a period when he had a serious problem with one of his hands, which caused him to stop playing for several years. During this time, he studied Bach closely, and even played the harpsichord (which requires a bit less hand strength), and his Goldberg Variations, played on piano, have a unique sound, no doubt influenced by that period of harpsichord playing. Following this period, he recorded a number of works by Bach – notably the English Suites and Partitas – for the first time.
There’s a lot of music in this set, all of it familiar, but I’m looking forward to discovering this pianist whose approach is never dull and often interesting. One nice bonus is the 5 DVDs included, one of which features Perahia accompanying Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Winterreise, from 1990.
It’s true that this big box sets can be overwhelming, and they take a long time to listen to. But at about $2-3 per disc, they are rich with discoveries, and when the performer is of this quality, there is rarely a dull disc. I’ve been delighted with the Yo-Yo Ma box set. While many of his recordings are far from being the best versions of their works, his repertoire is broad, and his playing is always skilled and interesting. As for Glenn Gould, I have known all of his Bach recordings for a long time, and this new set offers a number of un-released recordings, along with several DVDs. I’m looking forward to box sets of two of my favorite performers: pianist Alfred Brendel, who retired from the stage in 2008, and the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died earlier this year. While I have many recordings by each of them, these comprehensive box sets allow one to fill in the gaps and discover the less well-known recordings that one may have missed.
Posted: 10/6/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: classical music | No Comments »