Thursday, September 29, 2011

The trouble with CDs

Listening to my Wilhelm Backhaus CD I am becoming distressed by how the sound is cutting out now and then. Every once in a while the CD hits the skids and jumps or fogs out.

It happens right in the middle of the beautiful slow movement of the "Waldstein" Sonata. Among other places.


Compact discs are junk, you know? I remember when they were new and everyone was saying how long-lasting they were, as opposed to old-fashioned records, which could get scratched.

Records are far more durable. Plus you had control over what happened to them. If you took care of a record it would take care of you. If it got scratched, it was because of carelessness. And here is another thing: Even if a record got badly scratched, a lot of the record would still be good. When a CD gets inexplicably ruined, you just have to toss it.

Even cassettes, my brother George and I were talking about them with affection. Cassettes had longer life than CDs. Sure, tapes could break, but cassettes were designed in a way that gave them protection. They have a built-in case the way a turtle has a shell. If you were listening to one in the car, you could take it out and toss it on the seat next to you and most of the time it would be OK.

CDs are so vulnerable. You cannot just toss them on the seat and expect them to be OK.

You have to struggle to find the jewel case which, do not get me started on those. If you cannot find the right case, or maybe you are in traffic and do not have time to look, you have to put it into whatever case is handy. That is why a lot of my CDs are divorced from their cases or missing in action.

Also, liner notes.

No matter how lavishly they package CDs it always comes down to a flimsy paper booklet. Small, so the pictures are tiny. Not like those great old LP sets where you would be sitting there listening with the book on your lap, gazing at a giant-sized picture of Roberta Peters or Leonard Pennario or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I always did enjoy gazing at giant-sized pictures of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Pictures that were much bigger than this one:

CDs, cases, booklets, they are always getting separated and damaged and thrown to the four winds.

It's funny for me, looking back on recording technology. I have never known permanence. Records were already on the way out by the time I started buying them. Cassettes, I liked them, but they always seemed as if they were not here to stay.

Now, CDs, I can see them fading out too. I have a house full of them and I am starting to see they are fools' gold.

I mean, this Backhaus CD. I have listened to it only something like 100 times. It should not  be wearing out on me.

Meanwhile my records go on forever.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Confessions from the keyboard

I am reading a book I got at the University Women's Second Hand sale. It is the memoir of the great accompanist Gerald Moore, called "Am I Too Loud?" It is accompanying me through my life!

Today we would call Mr. Moore a collaborative pianist. But he called himself an accompanist, although he talks in the book about how he was an equal partner with the great singers he partnered on stage.

I have always wanted to read this book. And I was lucky to get it! I paid maybe $2 for it. The Internet makes it clear it is out of print. On eBay there is one for about $10 and otherwise they are all $50, $75, the sky is the limit.

Perhaps when I am through with this I will sell mine!

No, I do not think so. It is just too charming.

Gerald Moore's personality just jumps out at you.

About Feodor Chaliapin, the great Russian bass:

Fred Gaisberg suggested to me in Glasgow that we visit the singer's bedroom at noon to see how our hero was faring. There he was sitting up in bed with the only solid food he allowed himself prior to a concert: a boiled egg and coffee. The egg standing in its cup looked exceedingly minute by contrast with the enormous torso behind it. Each mouthful, one felt, had a long way to travel: up, up, precariously balanced on its spoon between the waistline and the lips, and then down, down a very long way before it reached its destination.  ...

And then I saw a tragic performance; Boris Godunov's death scene was enacted: a distant mumble like the growling of a double bass came from the depths of his being, as with beetling brows and mouth drawn down in despair I heard these anguished words, "M-m-m-m, they bring no salt with my egg."

They don't write like that any more.

Another quote on Chaliapin I cannot resist: "Chaliapin came in clad in a pair of shorts and a kimono round his shoulders. His torso was bare and was so white, so vast, it reminded me of a wall on the Acropolis."

I can see I am going to wind up copying out this whole book onto my Web log!

There are big chapters of course relating to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, pictured here suavely with Moore...

... and John McCormack. That I have not gotten around to them yet is high praise for the book! There is too much other great stuff to keep me occupied.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf comes off as nice.

At a recent performance in Salzburg of 'Don Giovanni' all she could find to say to me was how marvelous Leontyne Price had been and that she had never sung opposite such a Donna Anna before. I told the American girl of this praise from the finest Donna Elvira of our time, but Leontyne said, "Elisabeth made it so easy for me by her encouragement and friendliness."

"The American girl." I love that.

I think you can find Gerald Moore talking on YouTube.

This is just one instance. He is playing Brahms' "Vergebliches Staendchen" and explaining it. Wow, this is fun. I love hearing his thoughts on this song. There is no video on this by the way. Which does not surprise me. Though there are plenty of videos of Mr. Moore on stage he writes that he considers television an abomination.

Dear Mr. Moore.

By the way here is the book's opening quote:

"Normally the most considerate of accompanists, on this occasion Gerald Moore too often overwhelmed the singer."
-- London Daily Telegraph, May 8, 1961.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fabulous Fabio

With my nose in my book, I am so out of things! And today in the Wall Street Journal I was reading Heidi Waleson's story about Fabio Luisi, above, the new conductor of the Metropolitan Opera.

I had no idea the Met had a new conductor, although I did know about James Levine's health problems. And I have never heard of Maestro Luisi.

Waleson writes that Luisi (I keep wanting to write "Bidini," I am mixing him up with Fabio Bidini,  the pianist coming to the Buffalo Philharmonic) ...

(and one day soon we must play the game of famous Fabios)

... has conducted a half dozen "Ring" Cycles. Good, good.

He was trained as a pianist. Good, good.

Wikipedia tells me they have three sons.

His wife is Bavarian. Like me! My ancestry is Bavarian. Well, part of it anyway. I am also from Alsace-Lorraine and, ahem, Baden-Wurttemberg.

Let us watch Fabio Luisi in action.

Sounds good to me!

Does anyone have a problem with that? I don't.

Luisi, buttering up New York, says in closing how much he admires the energy of the city.

"You can really smell and breathe it all the time, even when I take our dogs to the park at midnight. There's a feeling of wanting to be alive and productive for oneself, family, neighbors and society. In Europe, the growing tendency is, 'I don't care, someone will provide.'"

Haha! Buffalo has quite a bit of that "I don't care" attitude and rest assured, Maestro Luisi, there is a lot of that in New York too. We do not have a monopoly on it.

Do not start believing there are not slugs in New York and America at large!

But we should not scare off Luisi. He seems like a sweet guy.

He says, "Here, I feel the taking of responsibility. It's quite amazing for me -- as an Italian, especially."

Cute story.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

We remember the vacant chair

Today is pianist Glenn Gould's birthday. He would be 79. That is too bad he is not around, you know? Glenn Gould would have made a great old man.

If he was as weird as he was years ago imagine how weird he would be now.

Plus it would be just interesting to see what would have happened to him. I bet he would be on Facebook. Just a guess.

I wonder how or what he would be playing on the piano, or whether he would be playing the piano at all.

I am ambivalent toward Glenn Gould because of all the press he gets over stupid things. Whenever you see a movie about him, or a trailer for a movie about him, they can't wait to start talking about his special chair or his heavy overcoat or any of that other dumb stuff that really has nothing to do with anything. It has nothing to do with anything but it is what he is remembered for.

Then the movie makers usually put Bach's "Goldberg" Variations on the soundtrack. Which, he played them superbly, but he didn't write them, you know? I see this sort of thing all the time in movies about conductors. They show some guy conducting, and then this Brahms symphony billows out, and you think: What a genius! But who is the genius -- the conductor, or Brahms? Who is it you are really falling in love with?

That having been said, as pundits like to put it ....

I like to watch Glenn Gould defending Richard Strauss. There was a time when you had to defend him.

This video has a song I love, "Cacilie." One of those great declarative Strauss love songs with an over-the-top piano part. Which, I have to say, Gould plays rather well.

Gould is kind of obnoxious and too sure of himself, and he felt free to broadcast boneheaded opinions. That comes from having a government behind you.

But I do get the feeling his heart was in the right place.

Plus I have to admit this, since I was a teenager I have had a weakness for his thuggy performance of the Mozart A Minor Sonata. So many pianists treat Mozart like glass. Gould does not, that is for sure.

Hahahaha... watch the bubbles in the video.

I think Glenn Gould would have liked them!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The music master

Recently I have been impressed by Pope Benedict XVI and his knowledge about music. I had heard he was an accomplished pianist but I had not realized until recently how he lives and breathes music.

You can tell when someone lives and breathes music, not that you find this type too often, when the person brings music into the conversation for no reason at all.

The pope does this.

Above his a picture of him listening to music alertly.

About a year ago he competently discussed Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" in comparison with Arvo Part's "Cecilie, virgine romana." Amazing that anyone even knows what the "Choral Fantasy" is, not to mention "Cecilie."

I found the pope's erudite comments on this great Web log, Ignatius Insight, where you read all kinds of stuff that never makes it into the mainstream media. The mainstream media have no interest in anyone's views on Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy," let alone Arvo Part.

Ha, ha! Looking at I.I. just now, I see this quote at the top: "But there is no excuse for being unaware of Aquinas." I guess I have some reading to do! I mean, I know St. Thomas Aquinas was a saint, and that he was a great thinker, but that is about it.

On the other hand I know about other stuff and you cannot know about everything, you know?

Unless you are Benedict XVI.

The I.I. Web log also discussed how on another occasion the pope got up on his pope-box (sorry, could not help that) and gave a wonderful speech about Mozart. He was in Italy for a performance of the Requiem and in his talk he knowledgeably discussed how the Italian composers of the time influenced Mozart. He also quoted Mozart's letters. I have read that the pope writes these speeches himself. He does not have anyone else writing them for him.

Amazing, this guy! And I applaud him also for taking on the sticky and problematic matter of reforming the music in the Catholic church which, face it, in the last few decades has pretty much descended into dreck. It is time someone showed leadership in this department.

Music is just so important.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A tale of two critics

Today in the Wall Street Journal there is an interesting column by Terry Teachout about a couple of critics who were, in retrospect at least, corrupt. Criticism is always an iffy job as we talked about the other day but these two took it to the extreme.

There was an art critic named Clement Greenberg who, a lot of painters he gave good reviews to gave him paintings in gratitude for the good reviews. In time he built up a collection worth a fortune.

Then there is the music critic Virgil Thomson, pictured up above, who became a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune in hopes that his name would become better known and more people would program his music. That in itself might not be a bad idea, but the word got out that Thomson could be "bought" if you played his music.

I have to say I do not have a lot of sympathy for either of these guys. Especially the art critic. Terry Teachout seems kind of sympathetic to Greenberg. He writes: "Nobody who knew the famously outspoken Mr. Greenberg at all well believed that his critical judgment could be swayed by giving him a painting. Moreover, the now-famous artists whom he championed were unknown when he first wrote about them, meaning that their work had little or no monetary value. But in the hard-nosed world of journalism, appearance and reality are inseparably entwined..."

What he did not touch on is that Greenberg could not help but influence the value of the paintings he was given. A word from a critic like that, if he was that important, could mean all the difference as far as whether a painting like this ...

.... was an, ahem, masterpiece, or whether it was trash. I mean, like a lot of modern art it could go one way or the other. Much depended on Greenberg's thumbs up or thumbs down. He was a big influence on the market. If Greenberg gave one of these artists a glowing review, the chances went up that if the artist gave him a painting it would wind up being worth something. Hence no big surprise, that his collection wound up being worth a lot of money.

Oh, the world of visual art. Do not get me started! That painting by the way is Kenneth Noland's "No One." It was the example used in the story.

Virgil Thomson, to me he illustrates the growing gap between composer and audience. I wonder how many people outside of a handful of us eggheads have even heard of him. I bet most eggheads have not even heard of him. That opera Terry Teachout mentions, "Four Saints in Three Acts," Teachout writes that it is one of the most important American operas of the 20th century. Fine, who has ever heard it?

I wonder if it is on YouTube.


Well, there are a couple of Virgil Thomson clips and here is part of a Mass he wrote.

That's not too bad, you know? That is just about the best you can hope for, that something is not too bad.

I am trying to think if my reputation as a critic has ever been compromised, if anyone will be picking me apart in the future the way we are picking apart Greenberg and Thomson.

Once I got a bouquet of a dozen roses from a band called Smokin' Butt whom I mentioned in a story. Ha, ha! The good news: Miss Kunz, you got a bouquet of roses! The bad news: They're from Smokin' Butt.

As I go on frittering away my Friday....

Should you want to do likewise, here is the story in the Journal.

Great stuff to chew on.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The closed stacks

It amazes me how in the Internet age you can find so much on the computer. For instance I love being able to paw through the archives of Gramophone magazine. And the New York Philharmonic is putting a lot of its old paperwork up in a searchable archive, too, which I find fascinating. And useful, too, for my book on Leonard Pennario.

What also amazes me though is the amount of stuff that is still kept under lock and key.

Earlier this morning, I am working away at the discography for my book, which is a huge task because Pennario made a million wonderful records, he was not just some schlep. One thing I love to do is track how the records were received -- when they were released, who said what about them. That is where Gramophone comes in handy, and the New York Times, etc.

But would you believe the moldy oldy Saturday Evening Post, oh, they charge you?

A search on Pennario's RCA box set of Debussy Preludes allowed me to view this stingy snippet from the old Saturday Evening Post.

“Whoever’s taste was reflected in the choice of Pennario for this assignment, it is poorly justified by the results," some critic is harumphing. "This record reflects Pennario's previous enterprises in that..."

Then it tells me: "Want to know how to read the rest of this book?" And they want you to pay for it.

Forget it!

As if I am going to pay to slog through this boring, snobby, ignorant, unoriginal, Eastern Eurocentric review.

Take it to your grave, you know?

Same with gray stingy old Harper's magazine.

On the bright side it is exciting to check back on the Internet from one week to the next and see what is appearing. Just because it was not there last week does not mean it will not be there this week.

It is something to look forward to when you wake up in the morning!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Earth to Mary

"Carmina Burana" is coming up at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and I am prepping for it. I must be the only person in the world who has to prep for "Carmina Burana."

 This is funny too. At work yesterday I ran into my friend Michelle in the newsroom and we were talking about what we were working on and I mentioned Carl Orff. And Michelle said, "Wasn't he known for teaching kids music?"

"Yes, he was," I said. I had just read about how Orff taught kids about rhythm, and this course he came up with is still used, etc. Then I stopped. "Michelle, how did you know this?" I asked. "I did not know this!"

I have just simply never gotten around much to Carl Orff, is all. I do not think I have to be ashamed writing that. When you are into music you have to get around to things. You need time. In my life I have squandered an inordinate amount of time on, say, obscure Schubert songs. There are only so many hours in a day, in a week, in your life. Plus I work a full-time job. So there are some things I have not heard.

The funny thing about "Carmina Burana" is everyone else knows it but me.

I mean, of course I know this.

But I did not know, for instance, this.

I am listening to it thinking: "Isn't that beautiful?" Because I am sorry, whatever your opinions on "Carmina Burana," it is. Orff got it right with this little aria.

Then YouTube starts tossing other recordings up at me. Sarah Brightman sang it. Charlotte Church. Barbra Streisand, for heaven's sake. All these popular popsters. How could I miss it? But I did.

I am the only one in the world who never heard it!

The only one!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An old song re-sung

Last night the most unbelievable thing happened.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of Stephen Foster songs came in handy!!

I met Howard downtown at the Hyatt after work so we could hear Jackie Jocko. Howard and I live like college students. We hook up. Anyway, we were listening to Jocko sing and play the piano. And sometime during the course of the evening this gentleman comes up with his wife. And he asks Jocko for "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair."

This guy and his wife, they were adorable. Looked to be in their 40s or 50s, and both of them half in the bag. The woman's name was Ginny, or Jenny, something like that, and she had light brown hair, and that was apparently "their song." The husband was Asian, Chinese I am guessing. Handsome and distinguished-looking. They were hugging each other and asking Jocko for "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair."

Jocko did what he always does and faked it. "I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair..." he started.

Then he dropped off and just played the music. I was sitting next to the piano and I chimed in.

"Borne like a vapor on the summer air!" I sang.

What a strange line that is, when you think about it. Ghostly! But beautiful.

The husband, the Chinese husband, lit up.

"That's right!" he beamed.

All my life I have waited for someone to appreciate me knowing this song!

Stephen Foster songs ... still relevant. I just wished we could have gotten to my favorite line, which is "sighing light the night wind and sobbing like the rain..." In a way it is a pity that "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" got trivialized because of the sitcom "I Dream of Jeanie." This is a weird song.

I am charmed by this arrangement by Ned Rorem.

It has a great unresolved ending.

I think Ned Rorem "got" this song.

It is weird.

But beautiful!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Oh, Mr. Paganini

Yesterday I labored, it being Labor Day, on my labor of love, which is the massive tome I am finishing up. Taking a YouTube break I found the video up above.

I would love to see more videos like this one! Well, it is not exactly a video, it is a set of performances by a bunch of piano aces of "Paganini," the knuckle-busting piece from Schumann's "Carnaval." I play this piece! So for once anyway I know what I am talking about.

It is fun just to sit back and listen to one after another and compare and contrast.

Guess which one I like!

Ha, ha! I am sorry, No. 7 is just superior, no way around it. But there are others I like. Barenboim's has a good excitement about it. There is something I hear often in Barenboim's playing that can get on my nerves which is, he fools around a lot with tempos and dynamics. I have this CD of him accompanying Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in a lieder recital -- picked it up for a quarter at a recent library sale -- and it drove me crazy, I just could not listen to it. Well, apparently Fischer-Dieskau was fine with it, so who am I. But still.

What I am getting at is, this thing about Barenboim's playing, this "listen to me" kind of thing, it works to his favor in "Paganini." I think it is because the piece is supposed to be about a self-centered virtuoso.

Anyway, lots of fun, this video. And great work avoidance on an onerous Tuesday.

When you are through contrasting Mssrs. Barenboim, Rosen and Pennario, you can avoid more work by watching this great classic clip of Ella Fitzgerald.