Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jennifer Koh

Last week I interviewed the violinist Jennifer Koh, who will give a recital Feb. 3 in Elkins park, Pa. The link to the article appears at left. I was quite excited to speak with her, since she has recorded the Four Lauds of Elliott Carter. We spoke about twenty minutes. Nothing profound came out of it, but I enjoyed the chat.

I think she's a very beautiful woman, but this same week my managing editor interviewed the singer Rachael Platten. His article also appears in this week's Ticket, and all the buzz from our layout artist and pressmen was about the Platten photos, especially the large one used in the article (as opposed to the cover), which everyone was calling the centerfold. Sorry, Jennifer, I tried to get you noticed.

Ah, and this week, I received my recordings of Andras Schiff playing the Bach English suites, and Andrew Rangel, on Bridge, performing the Ives Sonata No. 1 and the Nielsen Suite Op. 45. An unusual pairing of two of my favorite composers — to my knowledge, the first ever on CD, even though Rnagell, in the booklet, points to some interesting similarities between them. So far I've listened to the Suite. It's a strong, almost stark reading. Very effective. Also very fond of Schiff's rather romantic performance of the Bach. I didn't think I would be (see the romantic reference in teh previous sentence), but at five bucks I couldn't pass it up.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Another day, another list

Critic Anthony Tommasini publishes his list of the ten greatest classical composers of all time in today's edition of the New York Times. My friend and fellow blogger Lisa Hirsch has called this a fool's errand, and I'm afraid I must agree, although, as the long list of comments following the article shows, the process does serve a purpose in generating intelligent discussion.

My own comment is No. 338. I repost it here (slightly edited) in case you overlooked it:

Nice, safe list. Nothing to disagree with, but nothing to get excited over, either. It's the names that didn't make it - but that "get me through my days," as Mr. Tommasini says - that call the whole list-making enterprise into question. If you love something that isn't demonstrably great, or not demonstrably as great as something else, then, it seems to me, the so-called objective criteria for greatness must lack some important element. Subjectivity must be served, and it is precisely such subjective reactions I find more interesting than discussions of range or influence or historical importance.

My favorite dead composers include Charles Ives and Carl Nielsen, who have taken me places no one else ever has, but I can see why a NYT critic would not include them in a list of "the greatest." On the other hand, I dislike Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, and I doubt any list or any amount of argument is going to convert me, however much the may deserve a seat at the table.

Maybe ten slots just isn't enough. A hundred probably wouldn't be, either.

Another commenter — one after my own heart — noted that Elliott Carter wasn't included. He wasn't even included in the list of composers the Times allowed readers to vote for as their favorites, whereas Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein were, and they are much lesser figures, in my humble estimation. But Mr. Tommasini's express criteria include mortality. In his view, one must be dead to be placed among the immortals. So Mr. Carter, at 102, is being penalized for his robust good health.

May he never be included in any list, ever, if it means he goes on living.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

How memory works

Today is my Aunt Ella's birthday. Were she still alive, she'd be 107 years old. (She died in 2001 at age 98). I had forgotten the occasion was pending, and I remembered it only because Keith Olberman said on his broadcast last night, in one of those this-day-in-history" comments, that on Jan. 19, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII exchanged history's first transatlantic wireless telegrams.

How did that piece of trivia remind me of Aunt Ella's ? In 1993, when my aunt turned 90, I gave her a newspaper from the day she was born, and the telegrams were the subject of a brief story on Page 1. The other news of the day was unexceptional. The big headline of the day was a fire. It was a New York paper that has long since gone out of business (I forget the title), but I do recall a large fire in one of the outer boroughs.

Now it strikes me that I don't know what happened to the paper when Aunt Ella died.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ah, now that's more like it

Received my copy of Donna Coleman's performance of the Concord Sonata in the mail today and have been listening to it for the last hour. I won't compare it favorably to other recordings — we are all involved in the common Ives project, and therefore all on the same side — but I will say I like very much the clarity of Coleman's playing, which keeps the themes in the forefront no matter how thick the textures get. I also like the way she distinguishes between passages of differing mood, sometimes simply with a long pause. There's a song-like quality to the playing, particularly in the Alcotts movement, when in a few spots Coleman seems to take on the role of Bronson Alcott's daughter Beth, idly picking out tunes for her own amusement on the "little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children," as Ives describes the scene in his Essays Before a Sonata.

This is an insightful performance that tells a story, as opposed to making a big noise, and it made me remember why I care about this music. If you're in the mood to acquire yet another recording of the Concord, I would recommend it.

The CD also includes fine readings of the Three Page Sonata and the rarely heard Emerson Transcriptions, brief, muscular distillations of material from the Concord Sonatas first movement. As Coleman says in the booklet, Ives couldn't leave this music alone.

Friday, January 7, 2011

No, I don't really like Denk's Ives

Jeremeny Denk's CD of Charles Ives's two piano sonatas has shown up on several end-of-the-year top-classical lists, and, being a big Ives aficionado, I am grateful to Denk for all his work on behalf of this composer, who seems to be rediscovered every few years, only to fall back into obscurity. The following is my review of the CD, which I have also posted at Amazon:

Jeremy Denk has become perhaps our most visible and articulate champion of the music of Charles Ives, which is all to the good. I very much enjoyed his performance, with Soovin Kim, of the composer's four violin sonatas in Philadelphia a few years ago, and so, when I heard he had recorded the two piano sonatas, I was excited. I asked for and received the CD for Christmas, and having listened to it, I have to say it's a disappointment. A big one. I have almost a dozen recordings of the Concord, fewer of the First Sonata, and Denk had not replaced any of them in my affections. He seems to think Ives is an American Liszt (as if we needed one), and he goes in for romantic bombast, banging away in the forte sections while smoothing over the mood shifts and jokes with lots of pedal. The result is aggressive in a way that is often mistaken for Ivesian, but it's also homogenized. The Emerson movement suffers in particular, losing much of its grandeur. The Thoreau movement, by contrast, is overly misty, like a parody of Debussy. (The flute at the end is so distant and washed out that its entrance makes hardly any impression at all.) Ives's famous wit has been suppressed, too, and his homespun elements lack flavor: the hymns aren't very hymnlike, the rags aren't very raggy, and you can't march to the marches. And for the very first time in my life, the First Sonata left me with a headache. This is Ives for people who would rather be listening to something else. (One blogger wrote of this CD, "You don't get many reminders that Ives was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Busoni." And this is a good thing?)
Give Denk credit, though. He managed to do something no other performer has ever done: he made me question whether I have been wrong about the value of Ives's music for so many years. Needing reassurance, I went back to Alan Mandel, Nina Deutsch and William Masselos, and gratefully, I found it in them. I don't dislike this recording, exactly — I could never really dislike any committed performance of Ives — but I disagree with it, and I disagree also with one of the other reviewers here. Definitive, as Ives himself might say, "it ain't."

To wash the taste out of my mouth, as it were, I've pushed by CD acquisition scheduled forward and ordered Donna Coleman's CD of the Concord. I listened to a couple excerpts at Amazon, and it sounds promising.