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Graham Johnson’s Monumental Work on Schubert’s Lieder to Be Released Soon

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Graham Johnson, the pianist behind Hyperion Record’s monumental series of Schubert’s complete lieder, is known for having a lot to say about these songs. His liner notes to the original releases of the series are rich and full of insight. Unfortunately, the current box set doesn’t come with those notes, but just a book of the lyrics to the songs.

But Johnson has been hard at work for several years, writing the definitive work on Schubert’s lieder, and this book is ready for publication. Published by Yale University Press, Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a 3-volume, 3,000 page set, and will be released soon. (It’s listed as being available in the UK on June 30, and the US at the end of July.) At $300, or £200, it’s a big investment, but it will be worth the money. Here’s what the publisher has to say:

This three-volume boxed set is the definitive work on Franz Schubert’s vocal music with piano. A richly illustrated encyclopedia, these substantial volumes contain more than seven hundred song commentaries with parallel text and translations (by Richard Wigmore), detailed annotations on the songs’ poetic sources, and biographies of one hundred and twenty poets, as well as general articles on accompaniment, tonality, transcriptions, singers, and more. Compiled by Graham Johnson—celebrated accompanist, author, and the first pianist ever to record all of Schubert’s songs and part-songs—this sumptuous work is a must for performers, scholars, and all lovers of Schubert lieder.

If you’re a lover of Schubert’s lieder, you’ll want to get this, in spite of its somewhat high price; it’s more expensive than getting the CDs in the budget box set from Hyperion (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). But having read Johnson’s liner notes to the original CDs, I can only imagine how much more interesting this larger set of books will be. I’ll be spending a lot of time with these books.

Watch Graham Johnson discuss the book:



Jeremy Denk Praises Charles Ives

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Jeremy Denk has in interesting article about Charles Ives in the New York Review of Books. Disguised as a review of a new biography of the composer – Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel, by Stephen Budiansky (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) – Denk addresses much of the criticism of Ives’ music. In particular, he points out how it is often poorly performed, and poorly received due to preconceptions:

Orchestras don’t typically have enough rehearsal time to deal with his complex scores; many musicians are not that enthusiastic about playing Ives to begin with; audiences may have preconceived notions, based on previous traumas.

But he ends with a sweeping statement that validates Ives for all of us who do connect with this crotchety composer:

If Ives’s music often falls flat in performance, does that make the music less great? For most people the answer is unequivocally yes. But it’s worth contemplating the example of three piano sonatas, all written within fifteen years of the premiere of Ives’s “Concord,” by three of the most important American composers: Carter, Barber, Copland. Each of these pieces attempts an epic statement, fusing popular music with the complexities of modernism. Each is more expertly composed than the “Concord”—better crafted, more transparent, more pianistic—and eminently practical in concert. But Ives’s sonata towers over them all, despite or because of its doubts, sweeping past the fine points of constructing a musical work to address the nature and purpose of music itself. And that is the injustice of art; sometimes all the craft in the world is trumped by someone with something more important to say.

Read Denk’s essay. Then get Jemery Denk’s wonderful recording of Ives’ two piano sonatas. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Apple Promotes the Wrong Kind of Classical Music

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Apple’s latest “your verse” campaign, touting the features of the iPad, features conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. As a conductor, he is well-known in the United States, having worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1984, where he was long music director. As a composer, he is also well-known, in contemporary music circles, having written a large body of work.

Apple most likely features Salonen because of his involvement with Touch Press’s app The Orchestra, which is a fine app. Apple also current has a special page devoted to Salonen on iTunes Store, and an iTunes Radio station, where Salonen is “guest DJ,” describing the tracks he likes, sounding like his voice was recorded over Skype from his bathroom.

Apple is also offering a free download of Salonen’s violin concerto. Unfortunately, this is an uninteresting work, and is likely to alienate those who discover classical music through this campaign. I posted a review on the iTunes Store, saying:

Salonen may be a great conductor, but this composition of his is mostly uninteresting. It has all the standard contemporary music tropes: the violin glissandos, the arpeggios, the slightly dissonant crescendos, and a wide variety of orchestration throughout the piece. But the violin is distant, often playing a very high register, and there’s nothing here to hold on to. It sounds like safe contemporary music, that won’t scare away subscribers, but that, in the end, isn’t very memorable.

Another reviewer wrote:

This piece sounds like a half-hour orchestra warm-up by angry musicians – there is really no beauty in it. It simply grates.

Classical music contains multitudes. It’s certainly interesting to expose people to contemporary music, and this concerto won a Big Prize (and $100,000), and is well-considered by the cognoscenti. But it’s not the kind of music that will get a lot of people listening to “classical” music.

There’s a lot of music that can be called classical. Apple is right to promote classical music, but this just doesn’t seem like the right choice to get people to discover a genre that is vast and variegated.

Deutsche Grammophon Releases 100 Great Symphonies Box Set

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4792685.jpgDeutsche Grammophon has just released another of their big box sets. This one is not about a composer or conductor, but is a selection of 100 great symphonies ( , Amazon UK), from Giovanni Battista Sammartini to Philip Glass. According to DG:

We have prepared 100 Great Symphonies whose contents are based on the results of an online vote. Our faithful public was asked the simple question: “What are your favourite symphonies?” Up to 10 different works, drawn from three centuries of music, could be chosen. Over 2,300 people responded, casting over 8,000 votes altogether.

To be fair, that’s not a lot of votes, but the contents of this set are interesting. There is an eclectic range of music from the 18th to the 21st centuries, performed by a wide range of orchestras and conductors. There are the classics, such as Abbado, Bernstein and von Karajan, but also the newcomers like Dudamel.

If you have a large collection, you’ve probably got most of these symphonies, but if not, this is a great way to discover the genre. It doesn’t include all of Beethoven’s symphonies, and only four works by Mahler (I’m surprised it doesn’t have the 3rd), but has Ives’ wonderful Symphony no. 2, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Shostakovich’s 5th, by Mstislav Rostropovich, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie, by Myung Whun Chung, and Bernstein’s Symphony No.2 “The Age of Anxiety,” conducted by the composer.

This box set is available at a nice price, if you live in the UK: it’s currently £83 on Amazon UK. However, it’s not yet released in the US, and Amazon.com lists it at the surprising price of $231. I have a feeling that the price will come down by the time it gets released in the US, in June.

DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Daniel Barenboim Plays the Complete Beethoven Sonatas

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Beethoven_sonatas_2066424Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

Classical DVDs and Blu-Rays come in several varieties. There are the filmed concerts, now commonplace, which are created to provide content to the few “arts” TV channels around the world, then sold on disc to music fans. Some of these are operas, and some are just films of orchestras, ensembles or soloists performing in concert halls. There are also the, now less common, films of artists playing in grand rooms and halls in chateaus or other stately buildings.

What do we really expect from them? They can’t replace the concert experience, no matter how good your DVD/Blu-Ray player and audio system. At best, just like CDs, they provide a record of a performance, but in a way that documents a specific artist’s expressions and emotions. Many of them are simply films of concerts, with little advantage over audio-only versions. Operas are an exception, since there’s the staging and the costumes, and, in some cases, inventive camera-work that will get you much closer to the action than if you were in the audience – just as theatre broadcast to cinemas gives you a totally different view of a play than you would see from the cheap seats, or even the front row.

I’ve seen a lot of DVDs and Blu-Rays, and I’ve been riveted by some, bored by others, and greatly surprised by a handful. I very much like the medium, because they let me approach music differently. However, there are only a handful of optical discs that I’ve watched more than a couple of times. A classical DVD or Blu-Ray needs to have something special to stay on the top of my pile.

There’s an intensely visual performance of Takemitsu’s From me flows what you call time which is entrancing and creatively staged. There’s a film of Purcell’s Fairy Queen which I spin every now and then. And there’s this luminous set of Beethoven’s piano sonatas performed by Daniel Barenboim in a series of recitals in Berlin in 2005. (The latter is also available on CD from Decca, as part of Barenboim’s recent “Beethoven for All” series.)

The latter are probably the films that I watch the most. Not only do I appreciate the subtly inventive camera work, but the performances are excellent. Each program – there are eight in all – provides a selection of the sonatas. Watching these films helped me gain a much deeper understanding of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and a better appreciation of Barenboim as an interpreter of them.

So, when I heard that EuroArts was releasing a “new” set of Daniel Barenboim performing these works, I was very excited. These were recorded in 1983 and 1984 in four different “palaces” and castles, showing Barenboim at what one might call his middle period. His first recording of the Beethoven sonatas on disc, in his mid-twenties, bore the impetuousness of youth. His later interpretations, such as the mid-1980s cycle for DG, show wisdom acquired through experience. These films are from that period, and catch Barenboim at a stage where he had been playing these works for decades. His performances here are polished and refined, though lacking the sparkle of the 2005 live recordings. Barenboim is generally expressionless as he performs, and, while he gets a bit animated at times, his face betrays very little.

The filming is unadventurous. Edits are conservative, there are lots of long shots, and not many showing Barenboim’s dazzling finger-work. There is much attention to the surroundings; the buildings are merely the setting for the music, however, and shouldn’t be more than that. There are some very long static shots, which are very different from today’s MTV-influenced videos.

This leads me back to the original question: what does one expect from a film like this? It’s got great music – more than 11 hours of it -, an excellent performer, and is a visual record of that performer in his element. But he’s really in a studio – albeit a grandiose one – without the spontaneity of the stage, and in many ways it’s similar to a film of someone in a recording studio. No one will watch 11+ hours of Beethoven, or even the 200 minutes or more on each disc (Blu-Ray), in a single sitting. Unlike CDs, which have the convenient length of about an hour, optical discs require more of a time commitment. You can dip into them at any point to hear a favorite sonata but then you will end up not hearing them all.

Technically, this is another of EuroArts’ Recorded Excellence releases, where the company has scanned old 35mm footage to bring it to today’s audiences. The restoration is as good as possible. Compared to something filmed in HD today, it’s lacking; there’s grain and blur, lighting issues and color saturation problems, but they don’t distract from the performances. The images are judiciously cropped from 4:3 to 16:9, and you don’t really notice the difference. (I have the Blu-Ray version of this set; it is also available on DVD.)

In the end, if you’re a fan of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and especially of Daniel Barenboim’s performances, you’ll want to own this, as there aren’t many complete sets on film. I prefer the live recitals because they are more spontaneous, and because each one is a programmatic selection of three or four sonatas, rather than them being in number order. If you’re not familiar with Barenboim’s recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, I strongly recommend you give these a listen – on film or CD. This is a fine document of one of the best performers of Beethoven on piano. In a field with a lot of competition, I find his recordings to be among my favorites. Maybe you will too.

This review was originally published on MusicWeb International.

Book Review: Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

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wheretheheartbeats-2.jpgJohn Cage was arguably one of the most fascinating and enigmatic composers of experimental music of the 20th century. In this book, Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Kay Larson, art critic and Zen Buddhist, looks at Cage’s life and the relationship between his work and Zen Buddhism.

The book is a sort-of-biography, covering Cage’s early life, his student years, and his first forays into composition. A curious man, Cage had begun delving into the works of the Orient, and the turning point in his life, and in his approach to art, came in 1950, when he met D. T. Suzuki, a Japanese author and lecturer who settled in New York City. His earliest book, which had been published in the United States in 1927, came out in a new edition at that time. Suzuki was to start teaching Zen to all and sundry, and Cage absorbed all that he could.

Cage had been involved in many experimental works, including “happenings” and works with what was considered to be non-musical sounds. In the 1940s, he developed the idea of the prepared piano, where he inserted objects and and between the strings of the instrument to give it a more percussive sound. His Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) was his first major work using this technique.

Wherever we are, what he hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.

But the discovery of Zen, along with the I Ching – the Chinese oracle book – which was given to him in 1951 by Christian Wolff, led him to embrace indeterminacy and chance. He was later to use chance operations in all of his compositions.

I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases. Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.

His first major work using the I Ching was Music of Changes (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), a four-part work for piano where Cage used chance operations to determine the score.

They proceed thus, by chance, by no will of their own passing safely through many perilous situations.

Cage was to develop this procedure over the years, and it became his main method of composition. But he was also a lecturer and author, and some of his writings are more profound than his music. (See, for example, his 1961 collection Silence (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).) In his Lecture on Nothing, he made the very Zen-like statement:

It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.

But Cage was just an intellectual Buddhist. Suzuki didn’t teach meditation, and there is no suggestion that Cage practiced meditation at all. He clearly internalized many Buddhist concepts, but he was not a Buddhist.

It’s hard to pin down John Cage, and this book offers more questions than answers. It ends more or less in the 1960s, and doesn’t discuss much of Cage’s work after that period. One could say that Cage had done all he had to do by then; he had made his statements and developed his technique, and the rest – the next three decades – were merely more of the same.

I have very mixed feelings about John Cage. To me, he was a brilliant man, but he was also a charlatan. In writing, for example, 4’33″, a piece where a pianist sits in front of his instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, playing nothing, Cage showed us that the sounds around us can be music. But at the same time, this piece was just a joke. Cage defends it, likening it to the white paintings of of Robert Rauschenberg from 1951, but those – just like Richard Stella’s later black paintings – say nothing. Cage made an interesting statement with 4’33″, but it was an empty statement. To me, his work stagnated once he settled into his aleatoric process.

1333127842-ln1uth25edxiht5n-1.jpegI met John Cage in late December, 1986. At the time, I was living in Paris, and was editing a journal about the I Ching called Hexagrammes. I was very interested in the idea behind the I Ching at the time (something that is no longer important to me), and together with sinologist Cyrille Javary, who directs the Centre Djohi in Paris, I translated several books on the subject, and edited this journal. I had contacted Cage to ask if I could interview him the next time I was in New York, and he graciously accepted.

Cage was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met, and the smile on his face that you see in the photo on the left, was his default expression. He gave me the feeling of being a true bodhisattva, and everything he said was carefully weighed and to the point.

HexagrammesHe explained his process, which turned out to have little to do with the I Ching itself. He had simply adopted a method of using random numbers to fit into preset conditions for his music. His assistant would run a simulation on a computer that was the equivalent of throwing coins (a method used when consulting the I Ching). He would use these numbers to determine notes, durations, rests, etc., all based on decisions he made for each piece. While I was there, he composed a few notes of one of his number pieces, Music For…. It is described as follows:

This work consists of 17 parts for voice and instruments without overall score. Its title is to be completed by adding the number of performers, i.e. Music for Five, Music for Twelve, and so forth. Each part consists of “pieces” and “interludes,” notated on two systems and using flexible time-brackets. Some of the “pieces” are made up of single held tones, preceded and followed by silence, and should be played softly; they can be also be repeated. Others consist of sequences of tones with various pitches, notated proportionally. Tones in these parts are not to be repeated and have varying dynamics, timbres, and durations. The “Interludes”, lasting 5, 10, or 15 seconds, are to be played freely with respect to dynamics and durations of single notes, and normally with respect to timbre. The work uses microtonal pitches. The piano is played by bowing the strings with fishing line or horse hair. The percussionists have 50 instruments each, chosen by the performer with the caveat that selected instruments are able to produce held tones. The string parts follow the notation of Freeman Etudes. The players may decide on the number of “pieces” and “interludes” to be performed, resulting in a maximum duration of thirty minutes.

Cage recounted, in detail, how he proceeded, telling me that he had just begun writing the fourth part of the piece. The process seemed sterile to me, but Cage’s goal was to get out of the way of the music, and let the process do everything, without him making any value judgements. (I have a detailed description of the process, in French, in issue number 3 of Hexagrammes. One day, perhaps, I’ll translate it; I’ve lost the original English tapes and transcriptions.)

But in spite of this, Cage was a fascinating man. We shared two favorite authors: James Joyce and Henry David Thoreau. It turned out that Cage was to be the first reader in a marathon reading of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a few days later in a gallery in Soho, and invited me to attend. Cage read this work – the opening section of the novel – with grace and style, which is no mean feat:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs…

No matter what, John Cage was a fascinating man. This book, Where the Heart Beats, tells the story about how Cage discovered the tools he would use for his compositions, and for some of his writing. Like his music or not, he was one of the most important people in experimental music in the 20th century. I grew up listening to some of his music: his earliest string quartet, his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, and Music of Changes. While there’s a lot of his music that I find uninteresting, it’s fair to say that Cage was unique.


Watch an interesting video of John Cage on the TV quiz show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960, here he performs his percussion work Water Walk. Many laughed, but Cage took this very seriously, and so did the host of the show. It’s quite surprising that someone playing this sort of music was on national television in the United States.



You can also listen to an interesting conversation with John Cage and Morton Feldman.

Why Do Classical Record Labels Overprice their Wares on the iTunes Store?

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There’s one thing I don’t get about classical record labels and digital sales. Here’s an example: The Belcea Quartet’s complete Beethoven string quartets, on Zig-Zag Territoires, a French label.

On the iTunes Store:

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And on Amazon.com:

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What’s the logic behind that? This is just one example of many. To be fair, this is less common with single discs, but the prices of most box sets are much lower on plastic.

Some Forthcoming Classical Box Sets

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I’ve been browsing the online music vendors again, and have found a handful of soon-to-be-released box sets that are on my wish list (or already ordered).

51R0I028GNL._SY450_.jpgThe first is The Leonard Bernstein Collection Volume One, from DG, due out on March 24. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This is a 60-disc set of Lenny’s recordings on DG, after he left Columbia. Many of the Columbia recordings are available in the wonderful Leonard Bernstein Symphony Edition box set. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I hope Sony will release a follow-up to that set, with recordings that are not symphonies.

51XxWlbX08L._SX450_.jpgSviatoslav Richter’s solo recordings are collected in a recently released box set on Decca. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This extraordinary pianist’s collected recordings from Philips, DG and Decca on 33 discs. There is plenty of great music in this set.

81wpNn89SFL._SL1500_.jpgSir Colin Davis is the object of a box set on RCA: Sir Colin Davis: The Complete RCA Legacy. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) On 51 discs, this great conductor’s recordings with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the London Symphony Orchestra. I especially like the recordings of Sibelius symphonies he did with the LSO in the early 2000s; there are seven discs of that cycle in this set. The box costs less than what I paid for those individual discs…

91FDWQKpiML._SL1500_.jpgI’m not a fan of Luciano Pavarotti, but it’s the 50th anniversary of his first recording. As such, Decca is releasing a 28-disc set, Luciano Pavarotti Edition 1 : The First Decade. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This is selling for more than what the Colin Davis set costs, and Decca is clearly going to try and make some profit on this one, with separate boxes for each decade. Good stuff if you like that kind of music, but it’s not what gets me excited musically.

81fNj9MpBvL._SL1410_.jpgThe 36-disc Bernard Haitink The Symphony Edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a retrospective of this great conductor’s work, which includes his 25-year tenure as leader of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. It contains music by Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schumann and Tchaikovsky, originally recorded for Philips, all played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Here are a few more. David Zinman’s Great Symphonies: The Zurich Years 1995-2014 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) on Sony; Philippe Entremont: The Complete Piano Concerto Recordings (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), also on Sony, on 19 discs; Fritz Reiner Conducts Richard Strauss – The Complete RCA and Columbia Recordings, 11 discs on Sony (Amazon.com, Amazon UK); Istvan Kertez, The London Years, 12 discs on Decca (Amazon.com, Amazon UK); 10 discs of Haydn string quartets, by the excellent period ensemble the Quatuor Mosaïques, on Naïve (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). That should keep you busy for a while!