Monthly Archives: April 2021

The Other Guy

Fair warning — this is mostly going to be lost on you unless you are one or both of the following: A Gen Xer and a Seinfeld junkie. So this actually happened:

My 4 1/2 year old sons are, of course, being force-fed a diet of classical music (with occasional ragtime, sometimes played live by yours truly or on record by my old friend and mentor, that late great Johnny Maddox)

and both are taking to it to a surprising extent. To predict, we’ve got one budding conductor — who can actually beat time very accurately with my old baton — and the other who expresses himself more physically through dance and what way more than toddler wiggles but genuinely looks like spontaneous choreography.

Mr. Conductor, who generally likes to be in charge of things (fitting the Maestro type) also actually likes opera. That took me a very long time; I too was force-fed the classics, but didn’t get into opera until my college years. But not so this young man. We started out with Pavarotti, who he can now identify not only by sight but by voice, and can distinguish him from other tenors, particularly the other I’ve chosen to play the most, of course, Domingo (a/k/a “Bingo.”) The favorite based on YouTube options and my own collection, is Rigoletto, where our boy can actually follow the plot (The Duke, “the lady,” and the “Bad man with the puppett.”) 

In trying to get video of Questo of Quella, I was led by YouTube to relent to the Thee Tenors (a complete opera is there, and we’ve made it through almost the whole thing a few times, with him insisting on being read the subititles, which I condense into age-appropriate equivalents) — but (cringe) the only solo version that pops up has him there with Zubin, Bingo, and Jose Carreras. Here’s where Seinfeld comes in.

Both boys are experimenting with playing our piano themselves — no lessons yet — and Mr. Conductor not onlyGilels tinkles along but also composes. His pieces also have titles, which he always announces, and sometimes correspond to his favorite storybooks. A repeat favorite is “The Goodnight Moon Song.” Picking up on this I struggled through The Moonlight Sonata for them, which they thought was slow and boring until I relented and attempted the third movement. Way too rusty, so I put on the Gilels record, because the cover actually has a moon. Mr. Future Nureyev enjoyed that one.

Picking up on this, my wife suggest I try some other moon-themes pieces, and so we tried “Moon River,” which worked on YouTube in the original Breakfast at Tiffany’s clip, which is both short, simple, and features Audrey Hepburn on guitar — another ambition of Mr. Conductor.

What I wasn’t ready for was his immediate request to find Pavarotti or Domingo singing this song, which, YouTube unfortunately revealed, they did, in (yes) The Three Tenors. All three of them, in horrid accents, with ridiculous accompaniment. But of course, while Luciano and Placido were immediate identified, Mr. Conductor turned to me and — cue the Seinfeld, season 7, — asked with genuine confusion about poor Carreras sandwiched between them, “Who’s the other guy”? (skip to 4:15)

I nearly lost it, and if you remember anything about the who Maestro subplot (to the extent that show ever had plots — maybe we should just say sub-theme) there was that episode that revolved around the Three Tenors, which at the time was selling like hotcakes. I had to endure it personally as a then-employee of Tower Records, where customers would actually come in and unwittingly give us examples of life imitating art, asking for that CD of Pavarotti, Domingo and “the other guy.” I have to imagine that Seinfeld heard this himself and this led to writing that episode. But it still rings true, even with four year olds 25 years later. Poor Carreras! As much as I love Pavarotti, and many of the weightier roles (pun intended) Carreras actually was the better singer. (e.g. Aida).

Anyway, jump to 1:40 for proof this actually was on the air. Unfortunately we don’t entirely live in the Truman Show, so I don’t have video of my son actually saying this to me!

Beethoven’s Kreutzer and a Little Something Extra

And now for something entirely un-esoteric, and which I don’t have the library or expertise to offer a comprehensive discourse upon — Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. (For those purposes, consult Norman Lebrecht’s somewhat more extensive but occasionally very differently inclined Slipped Disc Kerutzer.) Both he and I do agree on the bottom line, and that is at least among modern interpretations, no one matches Perlman and Ashkenazy on London/Decca.0FED63EE-0B16-4DC0-8CCB-6E1D1AAB7BE4_1_201_a The sound is front-row center and the performance bristles with energy and vigor throughout, and is subtle and even beautiful at moments of respite (not only in the slow movement); but in total this captures the work as a statement of passion, not a model of composition. What I find unnerving about so many versions of this work that, by Lebrecht’s count, has been recorded more than 100 times, is that too many soloist treat it as just another in the cycle, which to be sure is full of other inspired works and moments of Beethovenian inspiration — but this one stands alone just as the Fifth Symphony is of a different order than the other eight. 

For me, urgency and tempo are a simple and basic part of this, for both the violin and accompanist. Maybe I’m influenced here by a teacher of mine who, in hindsight, put me through a somewhat ridiculously old-school method of measuring my abilities at “musical memory” not as in sight reading or playing by ear, but in terms of recall ability and score memorization: He had the group of us quizzed methodically on our ability to identify a 30 second segment, at random of course, of any of the Haydn symphonies (ALL, yes all, of them); the Beethoven piano and violin sonatas, and any section at all of The Magic Flute. He had us try different methods of recall, one of which was what today we’d call visualization — in the case of the Kreutzer he suggested imagining a horse drawn carriage stuck in the mud with Beethoven inside railing at the driver as an image befitting the first movement. It’s stuck, all these years later, and unless I see that in my mind’s eye the performance fails for me. Perlman passes this test with flying colors, or muddy ones, if you want to extend the imagery.

The other stereo version I find truly compelling in its overall structure as this sense of urgency is Schneiderhan, one of his final records. This was after his Concerto with Jochum had established itself as the sine qua non, which for F6E1A1F8-9903-4837-855E-49A621122623_1_201_amany of us it remains, and here he extends his mastery of Beethoven’s persona and style into the more intimate format. The one interpretative edge he has over Perlman, and it’s slight but it’s there, is that he is able to convey real reflection even in a single phrase or couple of bars, and the transition back to the main melody, in a way that eludes Perlman somewhat more, as well as Ashkenazy. It’s a pity we didn’t get a complete cycle from him we did in the early 1950s, when he partnered with Kempff, although the results there are comparably lackluster. Something must have transformed him as an artist after that Jochum concerto, and it extends into this Kreutzer. There are various European-only reissues, but the violin sound is far richer on the original Alle hersteller pressing.

One has to mention Szeryng or course, and indeed his Living Stereo record with Rubinstein is in this league for me, but still lacks the inspired phasing and drama that both Perlman and Schneiderhan (and their accompanists) have on21074652-F3EE-4A7B-851B-537A4F729F7A_1_201_a display from start to finish. His re-recording with Haebler from 1980 on Philips is decidedly less engaged, though apparently more valued by collectors. The E46C9B8A-4DBA-47D4-813D-BB967114C1D3_1_201_alate analogue sound is superb, as is Haebler’s contribution. Oistrakh had also recorded the cycle with Philips (initially pressed by Mercury) in stereo, a performance which also fetches big bucks from collectors but has always struck me as being dull as dishwater, heresy though it may be to say such a thing. Phoning it in perhaps, if that metaphor works for recording. (The same could be said, in my humble estimation, of Kogan’s single attempt at the work, also Melodiya, issued in the US on MGM for some reason.) My evidence for the harshness of my judgement on the later Oistrakh is comparison to his earlier, scratchy old 1953 Melodiya recording — issued on DDD97A30-44DA-416C-B74C-C36EF037E4F4_1_201_aVanguard in 1957 in a passable pressing, but if one can allow for the sonic limitations the reading itself is more in Perlman and Schneiderhan’s league, with its distinctly more robust and somewhat less refined style in general as was typical of the artist…except when it wasn’t, as was the case for whatever reason in theE3B4D19F-FAE3-4F3A-A322-3E80CE722DE3 stereo cycle, where he and old Oborin just sound bored and playing the notes to get the cash. The Vanguard (“Music Appreciation Records”) record also includes Lecair’s Sonata in D, a short Baroque showpiece that Oistrakh must have like as he recorded it several times,

including a later version for RCA that is available in both stereo and mono; but again neither matches this early old Melodiya. It’s unusually slow for the artist and for the work; by comparison Grumiaux is no less inspired in this little gem which really has nothing at all in common with the

Kreutzer other than containing some of the most infectious, memorable tunes ever put down on paper. The Leclair is a sparkling little gem, while the Kreutzer is a monument, of course. A live recording with Frida Bauer, from the same period:

And the Grumiaux, a truly delectable confection:

A last Kreutzerpick for me is an interesting way to feed off of this comparison, in that the playing of the soloists — Francescatti and Casadesus — is decidedly more Italianate or Gallic (if one wants to be geographical about such CAD89E08-B48A-4138-AF68-BCCAB4222731_1_201_athings). Francescatti’s thinner and more delicate style isn’t necessarily the most natural fit for the piece, especially consider what it means for me and the interpreters I otherwise favor, but he digs deep here and does produce more drama than is customary for him — this is certainly that same person who is a master of Mendelssohn’s concerto, or Casadesus in Ravel, for example — but together they must have set their sights on achieving something very different than their norm, and they did. It took me a while to find a truly clean playing copy, but the mono sound is rich and full, and does the work ample justice. A 1970 live broadcast here, shows the two artists kept the same spirit and personal view of the work over the decades. If anything, time aged its intensity even more for both men than they set down on disc in their youth:

Finzi’s Cello Concerto and a Few Other Things You Shouldn’t Miss from Another Overlooked British Composer

Gerald Finzi is virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic, and to the extent he is, it’s probably because of the semi-accurate film Hillary and Jackie which attempted to chronicle the complex relations (let’s leave it that) between him, the du Pré sisters, and Daniel Barenboim. Be that as it may, the man himself was brilliant a composer whose life, and thus his output, was cut tragically short by incurable illness (parallels to the cellist du Pré sister are inevitable and if nothing else, a strange twist of fate).

Foremost among his works, which run the gamut and include a fair amount of choral and vocal works which don’t interest me at all is his cello concerto, Yo-Yo Ma’s premiere recording (with Lyrita in 1979) — a version that certainly still holds up but really doesn’t give us much in terms of the mature artist Ma would become, or the fullness ofF7B16B27-0154-45CE-8482-E0BAE0CF19D7_1_201_a expression this relatively short but enormously expressive work contains. With Handley at the helm, a master of the British style, this does come off a bit too low-key for my taste, sounding at times like it was a Vaughan Williams concerto (let’s leave the cow rolling in the hay out of it) rather than having more of the vim and vigor we get from Raphael Wallfisch, whose Chandos record recorded seven years later with the same man conducting, shows what can happen when a more mature soloist puts his stamps of a work, and a A494F155-169A-42E6-ADA6-BC14E25EBECE_1_201_aconductor allows him or her to drive the performance. Here we have infinitely more energy, literally from start to finish, and in this work there’s really not a wasted bar. It’s entirely more alive than the Ma version, and the Chandos sound is brighter and fuller than the Lyrita. It’s a pity Ma has never returned to the work; one wonders what the mature cellist would produce rom this score today, with its full range of mood and emotion, presenting so much room for expression, not just from the ensemble but in from the solo passages themselves.

In that regard, it’s actually a much more recent CD version, recorded by Tim Hugh — Jackie du Pré’s pupil no less — on Naxos in 2001 with Howard Griffiths and the Northern Sinfonia, which totally surpasses both Ma and Wallfisch.712oUg6I6oL._SL1097_ It’s slightly quicker overall, and by far the most energetic of the three versions, full of life and leaving one feeling uplifted, despite the melancholy that is undeniably there. Again, one has to wonder how much of this feeling for the work came via du Pré, who to my knowledge never performed the work, though she certainly could have; it was written and published years before her years of performance were forced to conclude. 

The Naxos CD also features versions of two of Finzi’s single-movement piano concertante works that are similarly superb, the Ecologue (a short and mostly inward-looking, sad piece; and the more expansive Grand Fantasia and Toccata). The former is probably my favorite 006654CA-6CE5-46AA-8779-E06BF5AD33A5_1_201_aof the two, which were both originally intended as a larger concerto but the composer himself decided to split them and complete them as separate works; the Ecologue has a more consistent tone, not just because of its brevity but also because the longer piece seems to be a bit of a stylistic mashup which at times feels like its evoking Constant Lambert, Rachmaninoff, and/or Bach, let alone the singular voice of the actual composer. That shorter piece has two competitors on vinyl: Peter Katin with Handley again on Lyrita (1977) who lends it a distinctive and direct feeling, but more notable Howard Shelley with Richard Hickox (1987) on EMI — of course, because Finzi is another one of those composers who for whatever reason apparently only British labels have any interest in. Shelley’s version is far preferable, but it’s really just a filler at the end of an LP mainly dedicated to the Piano Concerto and choral Amore langueo by Howard Ferguson. Next to Ferguson, Peter Donohoe is equally as941D3356-A55E-4332-BAF7-D1CCD00FC6CC_1_201_a eloquent, if even perhaps a bit more so; this pianist seems to have a knack for taking works like this, underperformed and underrecognized, and raising them to the next level, very much leaving one wondering why they aren’t staples of the genre. (Donohoe accomplished this same feat in his justly famous recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, which most critics, and artists, write off as a totally uninteresting sequel to the great First.) What benefits Donohoe in the Finzi — as with Hugh in the Cello Concerto — is the much more involved, integrated, and dynamic playing of the ensemble, who are not just accompanists, but partners is the performance. If one partakes of CDs, or online streamers like idagio, this disc is the one to get; on vinyl there are equivalents, but this is really a desert island CD for me, and I don’t have many!

Not to be unfair to Shelley, here is a live performance with the London Mozart Players in which his overall more tranquil vision of the piece is a bit more vivis than the EMI record:

Speaking of which, it’s also interesting that some of Finzi’s shorter symphonic works, notably the orchestral suite after Love’s Labours Lost has no full competitor on vinyl; Boult, again on Lyrita, recorded three of the numbers from Boughtonthe suite, but not (inexplicably) the most memorable piece, the first one. Here there is absolutely not competitor to William Boughton and the English String Orchestra on Nimbus. The performance and acoustic are phenomenal; unfortunately for us vinyl lovers, this recording, still available on CD, was made right after the label had done away with vinyl; his earlier records of English works (Elgar and Vaughan Williams) are very much worth having. It does seem one has to go to idagio for the Love’s Labours, it’s not to be found on YouTube; the same seems to be the case for Alan Hacker’s Clarinet Concerto. You do have to register, but it’s free and very much worth it, there is no comparable curated archive of classical recordings anywhere else on the web, period. The Clarinet Concerto on that disc is also without peer; the Lyrita, coupled with the Ecologue mentioned above, is totally lackluster in comparison. And Finzi knew how to write for the instrument, which long ago I used to play; among his jauntier and less weighty works are the Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, best heard on Chandos disc with de Peyer (who else) available on late vinyl or CD as part of an enjoyable anthology of English clarinet works.