Recently three CDs found their way into my wife’s and my home, all featuring a certain mid-level European conductor, someone who once had made some noise, and now, apparently, has settled into a career not undistinguised, but also none too notable. His publicist would like him to be better known.
The repertoire on these CDs: Ein Heldenleben, The Shostakovich Seventh Symphony, and Mahler’s Third. Since we’re critics, my wife and I are requested to be curious about all this, and to listen to the CDs.
But — speaking, let me be clear, only for myself, not for my wife, and also meaning no disrespect to the conductor or his orchestra — I can’t bring myself to listen. For one thing, I have a life, or try to have one, in which music is both central, and therefore also something that needs to be rationed. I can’t go swimming in orchestral depths every moment of the day. I don’t feel, right now, like listening to any of these three works, Heldenleben, The Shostakovich Seventh, or especially the Mahler Third, the one of the three that I love the most, and for just that reason don’t want to hear except when I’m thirsting for it.
Or, to put this differently: Just because I love music so much, I don’t want to jump inside large and strenuous orchestral works every day of the week, just because some conductor has recorded them. I hear enough music as it is, some of which, inevitably, I’m not listening to by choice. I have to be careful — for the sake of my love of music, not to say my sanity — not to let music become a burden.
And since I have no reason to believe (again meaning no disrespect to this conductor) that these performances will be in any way a revelation, why should I listen to them at all? What can they possibly tell me about these pieces that I might not already know?
Sorry for the honesty. But if we’re going to play the same music over and over and over and over and over and over again, what else should anyone expect? It’s not a healthy situation. Nick Hornby, bless him, puts the problem very nicely (though in a somewhat different context):
And no, that fourth track [which you've just fallen in love with, listening to some new album] is not as good as anything on Pet Sounds, or Blonde on Blonde, or What’s Going On. But when was the last time you played Pet Sounds?…But then, like I say, if you’re going to stick rigorously to the Greater Scheme diet, then it’s Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds for you — and Don Quixote and Moby Dick — breakfast, lunch, and dinner.