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Category archive: Classical music
New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross writes about how he still loves his classical CDs. Partly, he admits, it’s nostalgia. CDs were such a huge leap forward when they first arrived that that moment of pure joy is very hard to turn your back on. I can still remember what my first CDs were: Nielsen 3, Brahms Sextets, Barenboim complete Beethoven piano sonatas, Strauss Alpine Symphony … Then there was the realisation that classical CDs would just get cheaper and cheaper and abundanter and abundanter, and then very soon the reality of that happy circumstance. Gramex Boss Hewland prices his stuff with more than half an eye to what Amazon charges, and it remains worthwhile to visit Gramex from time to time, even as all the other central London second hand CD emporia have faded away. He piles them high and sells them cheap.
Yes, the physical space occupied by CDs is a problem. Those piles can get very high. (Visit my home to see that problem on an enormous scale.) But, for me, the internet remains an unenticing place to purchase and play classical music. I have accumulated some virtual titles, as a result of buying them new on Amazon and having an additional “cloud” version of the same thing piped into my computer. But I wouldn’t want to be without the CDs whose purchase provoked this additional twenty first century response.
I wrote recently about the value of keeping things separate, in my case my big home computer and my music making equipment. Even as my big home computer continues not to materialise, I still have music as good as ever, with no messing with some new kind of system to make it work.
But the central problem with classical music on the internet is that it remains, I believe, a mess. Pop music having overwhelmed classical music economically during the last hundred years or so, pop music is the big driver of internet music, and internet music is entirely organised for the benefit of pop fans, and their discreet tracks. We classicists are liable, as Alex Ross explains, to get lumbered with such things as John Eliot Gardiner’s Beethoven Nine labelled as being the work of Lyuba Organosova, merely because she tops of the list of soloists for the final movement. The labelling of classical tracks on Amazon, where they offer you little snippets to listen to, is routinely done by naming the pieces with such things as their tempo or loudness markings, while neglecting to tell you what the piece is or what number movement it is. They just can’t be bothered to get it right. Fair enough. I understand why they can’t be bothered. We classicists aren’t worth bothering with. Buy the CD or don’t and consider yourself lucky, is the message. Until someone really big and well organised does bother about it, classical music on the internet will remain an off-putting afterthought, piggybacking systems devised for something else, rather than an enticing attraction.
When things get reissued, the labelling is liable to go completely to buggery. I, for instance, have that Barenboim set of Beethoven sonatas on EMI from way back, long before the internet, when it first came out as a set of CDs. Since then it has been reissued. So, when the internet tries to assist me in cataloguing recordings I myself have made of it onto my hard disc, it gets it all wrong. Useless.
Classical music on the internet will eventually get sorted out. And when it does, I will, if not dead, presumably hear about it from my classical music mags. A consensus will be announced, saying things like “Classical CDs really are pointless nowadays”, and when you read such articles, it will, after about a decade of premature enthusiasm of the geek-bollocks sort ("all you have to do is blah blah dance on the head of twenty seven pins blah blah blah turn seventy three cartwheels blah blah blah what could be easier? … yes it might all crash but to solve that blah blah blah ..."), eventually become true. A actual, real world majority of Classical freaks will be using this single, best arrangement, and it will work, all the time, like email. Or not.
Even when such a new classical dispensation does emerge, I will probably not bother to switch. It’s not just sunk costs; it will also be declining costs. As internet classical music becomes ever more appealing, so the price of mere CDs will sink and sink, until all of them can be purchased by me from Amazon, for £0.01 plus postage.
Meanwhile, I like that my CD filing system (aka my CD collection) is always accurate. When I dig up a CD that says it is so-and-so’s recording of Brahms 4, it is, and then when I play it, it will be played in the right order. Notes will be to hand to read about this recording if I want to, conveniently stored right next to the CD.
I do have lots of virtual music, as an addendum to my CDs, like those files that Amazon spontaneously volunteers, and like stuff I have recorded from the radio. But the latter starts out being called something like DAB002, and I have never sorted out how to file it conveniently, or even to edit it into individual performances. Life is too short to be bothering. Why edit, when CDs are already edited. Virtual music is strictly an afterthought for me. Plastic music remains the thing itself, for me. And (see above) I don’t believe I’m just being sentimental, even if I am somewhat.
You wait years for a classical music posting at BrianMicklethwaitDotCom, and then two come along in three days. The day before yesterday there was one such. Now there is this one.
Goddaughter 2, who is an aspiring classical singer, told me something this evening that many people in the world have long known but which I did not know, until now. Or maybe I sort of knew it, but was glad to have my knowledge firmed up into real knowledge. What GD2 said was: that the process of having a child, if you are a lady singer, can radically alter or even ruin your voice. Something to do with hormones and muscles, and such things. A friend of hers, who was a mezzo soprano, had a child, and became a soprano. I.e. in plainer English, her voice went up higher. Another singer, hired to sing at a noted provincial opera house in France because she was known already to have been very good in the part, had a child between being hired and the performances, and she had to be sacked because she went from excellent at singing to no good at all.
What a cruel world.
That posting I did the other day about how a really fast computer perfectly fills in for the imperfections of my own deteriorating mental processes may not have impressed anyone else, but it impressed me. And now I am listening to Beethoven symphonies on my CD player, and I am thinking that something similar may happen between a really good symphony orchestra and a conductor.
“Great conductors” are famous for carrying on into their dotage. Lots of people have written and talked about this. The Great Conductor’s grasp of everyday life and its processes collapses, yet the great man’s ability to go on conducting seems mysteriously unimpaired. Why?
This only applies to “great conductors”. Merely good conductors have to jack it in. Again, why? Why this difference? Why do only the Great Conductors often keep going so long?
The usual answers to questions about why this happens tend to focus on the mental processes of the Great Man himself, and upon the magical power of music to improve the brain, or in this case prevent its collapse. But how about considering also the musicians whom they conduct, and the general situation that conductors in generally tend to find themselves in as they get old, and how about also the essence of what a conductor does and does not do, when he is conducting.
A merely good conductor doesn’t get to conduct a Great Orchestra, and accordingly, his job is to make merely good orchestras, or even not that good orchestras play better. Lots of instructions and arguments are involved. You’re doing this, you ought to be doing it like this, and so on. So our merely good conductor finds himself in circumstances where his declining mental abilities are often cruelly exposed. He forgets what he said to the first oboist ten seconds ago, and so so. And, being merely good, and there being plenty of other merely good conductors available, our merely good conductor in due course gets a free transfer into conducting retirement.
But now consider the Great Conductor. He is conducting a Great Orchestra. Because he can. Two circumstances now prevail which are absent when a merely good conductor conducts a merely good orchestra. First, the concert is a sell-out, every time. The CDs continue to sell, no matter how much bodging and stitching and patching up the engineers have to do afterwords. (All sorts of rumours circulate in classical music about this kind of thing.) But second, crucially, the Great Conductor is not called upon to do anything except conduct the Great Orchestra that he is still able to be put at the front of.
I surmise that if you are conducting a Great Orchestra, the effect is rather similar to the effect I described of me sitting at the keyboard of a super-fast state-of-the-art computer (such as I am still being deprived of as I type this). I type and the computer reacts immediately. I switch from one thing to another, and the computer follows me, instantaneously. Well, does not rather the same thing apply when a Great Conductor conducts a Great Orchestra? I suspect it does.
What goes ragged and unreliable when you get old is memory, short-term being especially embarrassing, but basically all varieties of it. But what remains, typically, is your senses, your grasp of right now. And conducting is all about being, as modern parlance has it, “in the moment”, “in the now”. What matters is what you are telling the orchestra to do, right now, and they do it, right now, in the same moment. This, we oldies can still be a part of. What we can’t do is always remember precisely how things went ten seconds ago, or yesterday, or a week ago. But guess what, when you are conducing, you don’t need to think about that! In fact, it may even be an advantage if you make a habit of not thinking about that. Insofar as you do need to be reminded of where you’ve got to, the orchestra does this, by playing what must now be played.
What I am surmising is: it’s not that the Great Conductors are “kept young” by the process of conducting an orchestra and by the gloriousness of the music itself. What is happening here is that as a Great Conductor gets old, at much the same rate and in much the same way that the rest of us do, he finds himself in a situation where the kinds of deteriorations that happen to us all do not matter. The show is able to go on for about another decade or more beyond when you would think it should have ground to an embarrassing halt. His wife has to butter his toast and remind him which symphony he is about to conduct and tell him which city they are in. But once the playing begins, all is well. Any conducting mistakes, and the orchestra irons them out, which may even keep them more alert and awake.
For yes, being conducted by a really old Great Conductor may even work better than usual. A sixty year old Great Conductor may have all kinds of tyrannical and complicated ideas about how to interpret the music which he may insist on talking about at insulting length during rehearsals. He may want to rearrange the orchestra’s membership. He may be a bully and a tyrant. And he may still be quite good at all this, as in: able to make life hell for the orchestra. But all that one of these ninety five year old Great Conductors is able to do is wave a stick in front of the orchestra on the night. The occasional unclear wobble of that stick is not a problem. A great orchestra just takes its cue from its leader and its various section leaders. They know how to play well, no matter what idiocy is going on on the podium, especially if they have played the piece lots of times before with the Great Conductor.
The key variable may simply be: do they like the Great Conductor, or do they not? Perhaps fifteen years ago he was a sadistic bastard, in which case as soon as he starts forgetting people’s names or forgetting what he was trying to say a moment ago in rehearsal, then he is gently but firmly told to stop. But, if they like the old geezer, then all he has to do is stand in front of them on the night, and they are easily able to turn his increasingly vague wavings into a performance of genuine substance and distinction.
Don’t get me wrong. The Great Conductor is still truly great. He is still contributing that certain special something that even the greatest orchestras – perhaps especially the greatest orchestras – do truly need. But that’s now all that the Great Conductor is contributing. And that, if you think about it, could be just about the perfect arrangement for all concerned.
Scrub all of the above if the conductor goes deaf, as Beethoven did quite early in his life. He had to give up performing altogether, and concentrate entirely on composing. Poor old Beethoven. Lucky old us.
Is not socialism truly stranger than a chorus of singing penguins?
LOL. I really did.
Just to add, as a memo to self, I have another musical-stroke-Venezuela blog posting to do at Samizdata, concerning something said by a BBC4 TV presenter at a Prom, following a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony by Gustavo Dudamel and his Venezuelan orchestra, about what a wonderful vision it was of the world for one bloke to be telling everyone else what to do. I have the exact words (in addition to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony) recorded, and I must dig them out. They were truly spectacular, as in: spectacularly stupid.
The BBC worships all things Venezuelan, but has gone rather quieter about that now.
Richard Morrison’s article about the impact of WW1 on music, for the Times, is very interesting, but it suffers from an outbreak of PID (Permanent Italics Disease). This is when you switch on the italics, but then forget or fail to switch them off again. Here is a screen capture of the offending moment and its surroundings:
This was posted on August 16th, in connection with a Prom that happened last night, but it has yet to be corrected, as I write this.
PID is particularly pernicious when it afflicts not only the rest of the text of the piece itself, but then continues throughout the entire page as you see it, as it does here. That is a site software blunder, as well as a posting blunder.
I got to this piece via Arts and Letters Daily, which perhaps explains how I got to it at all, what with the Times paywall and all. Does anyone know how that system is working out for the Times?
It seems a bit shoddy that you have to pay for such typographical ineptitude. It’s not so much the original error that I am unimpressed by. It’s the fact that nobody quickly corrected it. And the fact that the site software doesn’t confine the problem to the one posting.
To be a bit more serious, about the content of the article, I have long regretted Schoenberg’s depressing impact upon music, but I had no idea that the man himself was such a German chauvinist. “Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God …” Good grief.
I go to Lower Marsh because second hand CD shop Gramex is there. (Gramex now has a new website.) But Lower Marsh also seems to be a place where I regularly espy interesting vehicles.
And then, the day before yesterday, there was this “Vespa GS” (I have another less nice photo which shows that clearly written on the front):
Even I could tell it was some kind of classic, and so it proved.
It’s the white bits on the tires that really makes my nostalgia kick in. All the coolest cars and bikes had white walled tires when I was a kid.
Goddaughter 2 is at the very early, tadpole stage of becoming an opera star. She has already been identified as possessing operatic superpowers, but there are, of course, many obstacles for her still to overcome. So, fingers crossed.
This summer she will be performing at a Festival in Belle-Île, which is off the south coast of Brittany. Her family, who live in Brittany, are kindly including me in their expedition to see and hear GD2 in action.
Obviously, there is a Festival website, and equally obviously it is basically a French thing, but it also supplies an English translation:
Welcome to the Festival lyrique international de Belle-Île-en-Mer.
With much excitement, the preparations for our 2014 season are well underway, with artists from all over the world preparing to travel to Belle-Île to rehearse and perform two dramatic masterpieces, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Meanwhile the Festival Choir is busy rehearsing Haydn’s sublime oratorio The Creation, heard for the first time on the island. There will be an orchestral Mozart evening, the ever-popular Ad Libitum gala concert, early-evening recitals by our young artists at the Café Bleu in Sauzon, and a series of masterclasses.
As the excitement builds, we hope you will join our festival family, and be a part of this rich, unique and inspiring season.
Which is fine. But before reading that, on account of having not at first realised that they offered their own English version of the above, I accepted an offer from a little window at the top right of my screen to do a translation of the French original of the above, with some sort of mechanised-computerised process.
It went like this:
Welcome to the International Opera Festival of Belle-Ile-en-Mer.
The preparations for the 2014 season are progressing well, with joyful excitement. Artists from around the world are preparing to come to Belle-Ile to rehearse and perform two masterpieces lyric, Leoncavallo Pagliacci and Gianni Schicchi by Puccini which will be donated to Arletty room. Meanwhile the choir festival works and repeats Creation, sublime oratorio by Haydn, which will be given for the first time on the island, in the churches and the Cathedral of Vannes. Also on the program, the Citadelle Vauban, an orchestral concert of Mozart and the ever popular concert Ad Libitum. Finally, two concerts of our talents in the late afternoon at Café Bleu in Sauzon and a week of master classes.
While riding the excitement, we hope you will join the family of opera festival and be this rich season unique and exciting.
Which I prefer. It’s actually not that bad. Most of the mistakes seem to consist of getting words in the order wrong.
The Salle Arletty is mentioned in the original French version, so it also gets a mention in the mechanised English version as a place to which musical performances will be donated.
For the original French version, go here.
My family used to go on holidays to the southern coast of Brittany when I was small, to a place from which you could see Belle-Île, but we never actually visited it. Expect Belle-Île photos here, when all this happens. Are you already riding the excitement?
Spent the afternoon and evening out with Goddaughter 2. On our travels we encountered a poster advertising the movie Noah. My opinion of Hollywood action movies is that they shrink all stories that they start with back to just the one story which is the same story every time. I asked if that was true also of Noah. Yes, replied Goddaughter 2:
It is basically Transformers with a boat.
LOL. As in: I actually did. Goddaughter 2 also sounds like an action movie, I think.
When I should have been taking my early evening nap, we were instead watching Cosi Fan Tutte at the Imax, and I struggled to stay awake. Not that it was bad. If it had been bad I would have just gone to sleep. But it was good, so I kept on postponing my nap, for about four hours. The result of all this is that I am too now tired to be saying anything more than what you just read.
Well, one other thing. We met under the Big Blue Cock in Trafalgar Square, my thinking in choosing this spot being that you aren’t going to get it wrong. There are no other Big Blue Cocks in London, and you can’t miss it.
We both like it very much.
Happiness is a wallet that I didn’t lose after all
Christopher Seaman on conducting
The ROH from the ME Rooftop Bar
Bits of music at non-musical blogs
David Byrne on the constraints of artistic form
Quotes from there
Amazon pricing puzzle
Steve Davies talk last night
Wedding photography (6): The Wedding and the Reception
Classical CDs from Gramex
Big London Things with clutter in the foreground
A (slightly delayed) Happy New Year
England squeak through against Scotland
Knowing it but not knowing it
76 operas and a monument in the wrong place for Hermann the German
Bizarre History - Johannes Brahms did not murder cats
Shostakovich with cat
An amazon reviewer defends Alex Ross
Mozart might have become a criminal
Dawkins does better sound than God ever did
Alex Ross on Hollywood film scores
A down and up weekend
Only up to some random linkage and a little felinity
Unusual leg extension
An after-echo of the creation of the world - Burgon recycles Milhaud
How building St Peter’s Rome split the Catholic Church and how marzipan was invented in Luebeck
Scrounging Englishmen and stories too good to check
Alex Ross on Sibelius
Llyr Williams and Llyr Williams play Bach
MP3 Haydn symphonies
Ingrid Fliter has a problem with the piano
Our shortening atten … ooh look!
On Bernstein – and Previn
Handel in London – and an angelic tenor aria
“. . . and the air froze . . .”
“Dying is a fulltime business. You haven’t time to do a lap of honour.”
A little drunk blogging
On not seeing Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra
Leonidas Kavakos (and a pianist) at the Wigmore Hall
Further thoughts on Karajan’s conducting
Lang Lang crushes Yundi Li!
Cheap CDs and sopranos I’ve never heard of
Solo piano solace – John Lenehan
Mahler’s 9th in Vienna in 1938
Gramophone are putting their back catalogue of articles online for free
On classical music voice addiction
Nigel Kennedy’s amazing Elgar
Tea with CDs
Oddities and specialisms
Dominic Lawson on Herbert von Karajan
You tend to listen more carefully when something might go badly wrong
Sounding like a different country
Exciting posting about shelves
New classical music venue just down the road from Kings Cross Supplementary
The Rite of Spring sounds to me like technology rather than nature
Toshiba’s violin playing robot
Me talking about the great twentieth century musical divide
Eee PC and Brahms CDs
Pianists conducting themselves
The great DVD packaging clearout
Michael Jennings photos Disney Hall
Taking the recording studio into the concert hall
Humphrey Searle’s Hamlet is the worst Shakespeare opera ever
Photos - four transport - two artistic
At the dogs
Lots of links
Friends of Slava
How compulsion deranges the spreading of ideas
The Emperor Quartet at Conway Hall
Comparing classical music with modern architecture
Glenn Gould on the hereafter
The Joyce Hatto affair - no big deal
Cats and keyboards
He likes it - but does he understand it?
How Stephen Hough took a nap during a piano concerto (that he was playing)
The future of music
Harold C. Shonberg on how to perform Bach
Dutilleux piano music on Naxos
Other people’s photos (2): New architecture in Hamburg
Fixating on particular recorded performances
Back to the future with the virtuoso violinists
Superb Simon Hewitt Jones gig – and a couple of blogger gripes
Me and Alex talking Gilbert and Sullivan
What next for the virtuoso violinists? - Simon Hewitt Jones has some answers
More G&S - and some strange Times errors
John Holloway plays unaccompanied Bach on the baroque violin
The Pirates opens in New York
Sullivan and Grove find some Schubert diamonds
At least I got today’s obligatory posting done before midnight
Feeling Much Better
Heifetz on YouTube
Alex talks (clearly) with me (not so clear) about classical music
As if for the first time
All hail to the Rolling Stones assembly line
Samizdata cranks it out
A little transport history
Classical music Natalie
Alex is too busy - Sting records Dowland songs
Alex and Brian’s latest classical music mp3 – Saint-Saëns etc.
Zehetmair plays the Brahms
Alex and Brian talk classical music mp3 number two
Bartók outside South Kensington tube
Jeffrey Bernard is unwell but very entertaining
This month’s Alex and Brian mp3 about classical music
Debussy denounces Massenet but Puccini follows him
Beneath the treble line with the Voglers
Another mp3 - Alex and Brian talk classical music
Giving up rouge for Lisbon
Armando Iannucci on going to classical concerts - and me on not bothering
Sergei Khachatryan plays Shostakovich Violin Concerto 1
Charles Rosen on Richard Taruskin and on the socially unbound nature of some of the greatest music
Lazar Berman’s Rachmaninov 3
I don’t know the score
More about music bingeing
Thoughts on habits and on killer apps
Christmas with Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues
Thoughts after watching Abbado’s Lucerne Resurrection Symphony
The Elgar/Walker piano concerto and the future of “classical” music
This and that at 9.07am
David Zinman – Thomas Adès – Howard Shelley
Benjamin Nabarro and the Belmont Ensemble