Music

HHA

A Crop of Recordings XXXVI: Mozart/Muti, Gershwin/Rodziński, Prokofiev and Miaskovsky/Vasily Petrenko, Brahms/Iván Fischer, Handel/Haselböck

Welcome to the world of unselfconscious Mozart as it once was. When this LP first arrived in record bins in 1977, there was nothing stylistically unusual about romantically phrased performances of the composer’s music, delivered by large orchestras with substantial masses of strings. Herbert von Karajan, Bruno Walter, Karl Böhm, George Szell, all recorded “big” Mozart. Towards the end of the decade Josef Krips would turn out some nicely crisp late symphonies with the Concertgebouw for Phillips, a bit reduced in scale, but we were still a long way from the aggressive small dog Mozart which bites at our ankles today and answers to the word “Authenticity."
Commentary

Commentary: What We Do

Raymond Tuttle of Fanfare raised some seldom addressed questions recently about the subjectivity of music criticism. Those questions lead to even greater mysteries, I find. It isn’t often asked, for instance, why music exists at all, but that’s surely where one has to begin, if it is to matter what we say about it. 
HHA

A Crop of Recordings XXXV: Bernstein, Barber, Crawford, Schuman, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Scriabin

I’m always intrigued when European orchestras take up the cause of American music, a simple enough notion to understand semantically but difficult at the stylistic level for continentals to adopt idiomatically. Our music’s frequent combination of seemingly naive musical prayerfulness with ungoverned explosive energy has typically left European musicians a bit puzzled, and the Teutonic world at times more than a little stiff and earnest. So I wondered about this release. Could the Swiss sashay down Broadway with that long-legged swagger and impudence implicit in so much of American life? Could Lucerne really let go?
HHA

A Crop of Recordings XXXIV: British Harvest—Britten, Bridge, Berkeley, Bliss, Walton, Vaughan Williams

It’s rare that a recording for strings alone wows listeners as a sonic blockbuster, but I celebrate this one from its first plucked, throbbing, filigree-laced chords. John Wilson has effectively reconstituted the Sinfonia of London, known to many in fond memory for Sir John Barbirolli’s unsurpassed 1962 LP of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Wilson has set himself up for recording purposes in St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn with stunning results. I don’t think I have ever heard an acoustic more flattering to strings. He also exercises tact in not trying to reproduce the magic of Barbirolli’s program, bringing us instead string works by four of the major “B’s” of twentieth century English music. Only Bax is missing.
HHA

Writing Responsibly for the General Reader: One Music Critic’s Experiences in 1971 and in 2020

How should music scholars write for non-specialists? That is the wide-ranging question that Dave Hesmondhalgh raised in an essay for Naxos Musicology International in November 2019. (NMI is available to anyone who subscribes to Naxos Music Library or whose library does. Click the “Musicology” button on the left edge of the homepage.) Hesmondhalgh lays out numerous beneficial possibilities. But he passes quickly over the single most frequent form of scholarly outreach: books and articles (for newspapers, CD booklets, blogs, online magazines) that address topics likely to be of interest to many. Hesmondhalgh would place this in the category of “traditional public musicology.” He mentions two fine instances: the program notes of Donald Francis Tovey (which were then gathered into the now-classic, multi-volume Essays in Musical Analysis) and the rock criticism of Simon Frith. By profession, I am a historical musicologist. But I got my start as a writer publishing concert reviews. This was, I think, in 1967, when I was 18. At age 66 (in 2015), I began again to publish reviews on a regular basis, now focusing primarily on CDs (though I also write about some books and live performances). It occurs to me that my experiences, struggles, and doubts—or, worse, my haste and lack of doubt!—might be worth sharing here. My examples are two reviews that I wrote nearly fifty years apart and that treat one and the same work (an Offenbach operetta).
Recordings

A Crop of Recordings XXXIII: Schmitt, Grainger, Delibes, Ben-Haim, Novák

Let it never be said that French musical culture is reluctant when it comes to matters of the heart. Speaking in caricature, we incline to think of England as prudish and of Italy as choked-up and glottal-stopped with amorous emotion. The French, though, seem to be the official “culture of love," and--let’s be clear—French musical “impressionism” is largely about sex. All those satiny string breezes and quivering woodwind dewdrops mean little if we don’t imagine languid lovers at center stage. That’s what Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is all about, of course, as is Daphnis and Chloe. But there is a reserve in both Debussy and Ravel which keeps the listener at an artistic remove. No one would accuse Debussy’s Jeux or Ravel’s Mother Goose of louche sensuality. Florent Schmitt, on the other hand, like the film noir composer he could have been, is happy to confront sensual moments in real time. Schmitt’s constantly shifting rhythms mirror the quick intensity of actual emotions and thoughts, the changeable “eclectic” quality of human happenings and the physical process of sex itself. There are moments in La Tragédie de Salomé where you might as well be listening to the headboard banging against the wall.
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