Gifts

Three recordings that enriched my life this past year, as if they were gifts. And, therefore, gifts I’d happily buy for any musical person on my list. 


Stewart’s a friend, so if you want to say I’m praising this too much, go right ahead. But I think you’d be wrong. 

Stewart told me a while ago that he wanted to play all the Beethoven sonatas — in a single day’s marathon. Last summer he played them in Ottawa (he’s Canadian), but over a few days.

At the Ottawa cycle, people (or so Stewart told me) shouted and screamed. And now that I’ve heard the recording I can believe it. At times I just about screamed myself. This is, among other things, big Beethoven — in which I hear what Joseph Kerman once called “Beethoven’s voice — a deaf man’s harsh peremptory shout.” Not a respectable sound. And this isn’t always respectable Beethoven. Steward likes the craziness, the discontinuities. And, I think, the shouts. 

But he offers far more than that. With his permission I’ve put the complete last sonata, Op. 111, online. (First movement here, second movement here.) Listen, and hear for yourself. Especially the second movement. Someone should book Stewart’s all-day marathon. 

I’ll leave you with two of my favorite moments.

First moment: about 5:55 in the Op. 111 second movement, when the third variation leaps from the perfect calm of the music, like an escaped wild man.

Second moment: around 7:55, when — with no effort at all, no transition, no shifting of gears — the wild man is all at once completely at peace.



Stockhausen: Mantra. New Naxos recording by the Pestova-Meyer Piano Duo

Surely one of the most substantial, most absorbing, and just all-round most rewarding pieces written in the past 50 years. And also, of all the big pieces written in styles far from the conventional classical concert hall, one of the closest pieces to the classical tradition. 

Why do I say that? Because this is a big piano work — well, OK, two pianos plus electronics, but still a piano work — that, like the Diabelli Variations or the Goldberg Variations, systematically travels and retravels through a single musical idea. So structurally it seems (and sounds) fully classical, in a traditional sense, even though the structure gets quite elaborate. For instance, the idea the piece is based on — a thirteen-note row, the “mantra” of the title — gets nested within successively larger versions of itself, like those classic Russian dolls. Not what Bach would have done, but on the other hand, it gives even more for your mind to play with while you listen. 

And this is a very playful piece. So full of imagination, verve, wit, and delight. In that way, it’s very much like the Goldbegs, with surprises in both the sound and shape of its large-scale sections, and in the tiny details that rise up and seize you, some of them ravishing little bits of melody Plus another similarity — the utterly simple, utterly peaceful restatement of the mantra at the end is much like the return of the aria at the end of the Goldbergs. Though more laconic, more like a definite ending, and less like a continuation of something that might continue to play forever.

Mantra feels more static, too. In part, I think, that’s because no piece (like the Goldberg Variations) written with standard tonal harmony can really be all that static; the chord progression moves, even if it’s many times repeated. But Mantra also has some deeper stasis, I think, which I haven’t yet figured out. 

What I do know is that I’ve spent some happy hours listening to it. This new recording is full of spunk and verve, and — structurally — as transparent as a piece with so many layers could ever be. Poor Stockhausen! So famous in his day (so much more so than Boulez, for instance), and now, or so it strikes me, so unjustly neglected. If new classical music had ever gotten traction in our culture, this is a piece that thoughtful people would know, just as in previous generations they would have known Beethoven. 

Just a joy. And as complete a reimagining of a standard piece as I’ve ever heard. Jacobs says he thought of this recording as a radio play, but he’d do the same things, I’m sure, in live performance. Just as (in his other Mozart opera recordings, and in his wild account of Handel’s Rinaldo) he assumes that the players accompanying the secco recitatives would take full part in the drama, here he assumes that about everyone involved. So there’s a fortepiano that chimes in during the spoken dialogue, and even the orchestra jumps in, playing (for instance) a completely random dissonant chord to underscore something that’s going on. 

And God, does it work. You really sense — or, anyway, I did — what the work could have been like, when it ran in Vienna as something much closer to what we’d call musical theater than to any idea we might have of opera. 

I like my wife’s discreet description of the vocal side of things  — “the young cast offers light, conversational, capable singing.” So no, this isn’t one of the great recordings, vocally. (Though, as she and I agree, the Tamino is better than that, and I liked the Queen of the Night’s fire. And the others, except maybe the very light Sarastro, are completely acceptable.)

The orchestra, though, is triumphant. And fun. And inventive. I’d swear I heard Papageno’s chimes playing where the score doesn’t call for them, and why not? If you’ve got them, just about anyone in the 18th century would have figured, why not throw them into the mix? 

There’s only one thing I can’t forgive Jacobs for. This starts with taking “Ach, ich fühls” at a quick tempo. I don’t care for that, but fine, he likes it, and I love him, so I’ll give it to him. What I can’t forgive, though, is that during the aria the tempo slows down, and by the end isn’t all that far from what we usually hear. C’mon, René — if you’re going to do it, do it! 

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