Monday, February 10, 2014

What I've Been Listening To...

Most of the time I am more concerned about avoiding hearing music than listening to it. That's for two reasons: first because so many public spaces from shopping malls to restaurants to plazas are now awash with music blasted out from loudspeakers, and second, because I'm a composer which means that I already have music washing around inside my head.

But I do like to listen to music, of course. I'm just really picky about what and when. I find that in recent years I like listening projects. For example, when I finally got around to the Beethoven piano sonatas, I listened to them all through in order a couple of times with the scores. I listened to the Emerson's excellent box of all the Shostakovich quartets straight through as well, though then I didn't have the scores. I am looking forward to doing that again, but following in the music. I much, much prefer listening with the score. Just listening seems a bit casual. I used to listen to one piece each morning, but now it is more often in the afternoon or evening.

I just finished a really big project: all the Haydn symphonies in the complete box by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Here is the link. Alas, I bought it for $23 US but I must have got the last copy as it is only available now from resellers at several times that. Terrific bargain and I really enjoyed the performances. I will probably write something more detailed at some point, but my feeling after just having listened to the whole set, starting in mid-December and just finishing a couple of days ago, is that these are really excellent performances. Not only that, but I can only recall a couple of symphonies that I didn't really enjoy. Nearly every symphony made me smile with pleasure and there is not a huge amount of music I can say that about! Right now I am upping my previous very high estimation of Haydn. Honestly, after listening to all his symphonies and string quartets (I have them in another box with the Angeles String Quartet) I have no hesitation about saying that Haydn is the equal of any composer. He does not have the dogged intensity of Beethoven or the effervescent sparkle of Mozart, but his music is really their equal, I think. Haydn's music is thoroughly pleasurable with unending surprises, turns of melody, harmonic inventions, rhythmic interjections. It is so very hard to put into words, but wonderful nonetheless.

I just started on a new project, the complete Mozart piano concertos with Malcolm Bilson and John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists. I've only listened to three or four so far, so I will probably say something about that when I get to the end.

When I discover something interesting, I like to try and get my head around the whole thing. Sometimes I'm like that with food too! I once got so obsessed with perfecting my Caesar salad recipe that I made it for dinner three or four nights a week for months. Alas, that also happened with my Belgian waffle recipe which is why I am now on a strict no-carbohydrate diet! Haydn is less fattening.

But what I like about listening my way through a particular composer's work in a single genre is the opportunity to get a sense of how he evolved, how he developed his writing, how he solved the problems of form and so on. You can't do this if you are always hopping around listening to whatever comes along. I guess I listen a bit more systematically than most people. Or do I? Let me know how you listen in the comments.

Let's listen to one of those Haydn symphonies. Here is No. 95 in C minor, the third of the "London" Symphonies. Towards the end of his long career, Haydn visited London to immense acclaim and wrote twelve symphonies to be performed there. That is 33⅓% more symphonies than Beethoven wrote in his whole life.

See what I mean?


Bridge said...

My listening habits are similar to yours although I take a more laid-back approach to projects. For example, I am going through the very slow process of listening to Bach's complete works, Beethoven's string quartets, Shostakovich's string quartets*, the Penderecki symphonies, Haydn's almost-complete works (recently acquired) and a bunch of cello stuff played by Rostropovich. I don't think I am going to listen to them one by one in the way you described, although there is nothing wrong with that I just prefer the variety that comes from listening to all of them concurrently. Though whenever I get a new Beethoven symphonies cycle I take a weekend and go through them all with the score (I have four now, really want the Karajan '63, Bernstein, the Toscanini and all of the famous period cycles (I only have Gardiner and Bruggen at the moment, haven't listened to the Bruggen yet) though it's hard to get some of them without ordering from abroad which I try to do only a few times a year)). I also almost always listen to music with the score, certainly at home. I have a few select scores in paperback form and a decent PDF collection (mostly from, some harder to come by).

*With the same CDs you have actually these quartets are the first time I really give his music a chance, I just had to buy the set seeing as the Emerson Quartet is my favorite quartet and I'm tempted to say the best string quartet there is although I can't say I've listened to enough quartets to really say that. I base that statement on their to date unequaled Bartok cycle which are probably my favorite recordings of anything. It's simply amazing how perfectly the music is interpreted, almost as if there were no string quartet and we were just listening to the contents of Bartok's head as he was notating them.

Whew, make sense of that convoluted post. Incidentally, do you have the Shostakovich quartet scores now? If not I could give you a link to a site where you can get them, some of them are miniature scores however.

Bryan Townsend said...

Someday I look forward to listening to all the Bach cantatas, that would be quite a project! Yes, the Shostakovich quartets by Emerson is really remarkable. I had a poor version of the Bartok quartets and getting the Emerson one improved my sense of those pieces. But in general I'm not so interested in interpretations so one version of the Beethoven symphonies would be plenty as long as it is reasonably accurate. Yes, I do have the Shostakovich quartet scores. Thanks!

Bridge said...

I used to make do with the Barenboim for the longest time but I found out after giving the Gardiner a chance that Barenboim's tempi prevented me from truly getting into some of the symphonies. For example, can you believe that for the longest time the Eroica actually put me to sleep? Chiefly because Barenboim plays it so slow, and to me the tempo Beethoven marked is the one it must be played at. One very notable exception being the fifth, which I find actually should be played slower, especially the second movement which I find is always rushed. If you haven't listened to the Barenboim cycle, at least give the fifth a try, I'm sure you'll find it enlightening. I would stay away from the early symphonies though - they are wonderfully played but way too slow most of the time.

Also, if you haven't already you need to listen to Alexander Rahbari's interpretation of the Rite with the Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic. Doesn't sound very impressive but trust me, it is. I'm amazed how few people seem to have heard it even though I find no difficulty in calling it the best interpretation of the Rite of Spring (even better than Stravinsky's). It's played slower than usual which causes the details to shine through really well, and as you know the Rite is all about details.

You can listen to it here:

Rickard said...

Sometimes I also try to listen to more complete collection of works. Nowadays I'm listening to one Haydn string quartet a day while reading the score. Mainly focusing on the viola part because I'm worse at reading from the C-clef. While I'm not as good as reading the C-clef as the bass clef or treble cleff I have noticed quite a huge improvement. The C-clef is much more natural than it was before. Actually I mainly tend to listen to music when I'm doing other things, mainly studying. So that gives me plenty of time to listen to a lot of music. Recently I've been trying to get more familiar with certain video game soundtracks. Listened to the complete Demon's Souls & Eternal Sonata OSTs. Now I'm in the progress of listening through Final Fantasy XII's OST (it's almost 5 hours). Listened to all Chopin works pretty recently and a not too long while back I've listened through pretty much all Bach cantatas. And before that I've done things like listening to pretty much all of Haydn symphonies. Well, pretty much all because not all are available on Youtube and besides not all have been preserved.

And something about Haydn and Mozart I've been thinking about: Their music is ofc amazing, however in my personal opinion I generally find the music from Beethoven onwards (with the exception of the extreme-modernist or postmodernist etc. madness) more interesting because it tries to be more unique. Yes, it's hard to work within the formal constraints that Mozart and Haydn relied upon but I prefer the more unique individualistic approaches that the romantic (starting with Beethoven and Schubert) and later the early modernist period brought.

Bryan Townsend said...

I wonder how big the club is of people who often listen through the complete string quartets or symphonies of this or that composer? I've listened to nearly everything by Chopin, with the score, as well. The reason for that was that I had to give a talk on Chopin one year and as it was scheduled months in advance, I had time to prepare. At the time I really knew almost nothing about Chopin. I had done a course in 19th century music as an undergrad, but that was a long time ago! So I gave myself a graduate seminar in Chopin, listening to the music (more than once for many pieces), looking at the scores, and reading some of the available material, such as the Cambridge Companion to Chopin, a collection of musicology papers. After this, I felt really ready to give a good talk. Which I did. But right afterwards, this lady came up and played me the beginning of a really famous piece by Chopin on her iPod which she wanted me to identify. I recognized it, but couldn't name it! Just not quite familiar enough with Chopin! It was the Nocturne op. 9.

I have worked my way back to Haydn and Mozart from their successors whom I often find too turgid and lacking in structure. It is really a misunderstanding to think that Haydn and Mozart worked under "formal constraints". Not at all!! All those rules came along many decades later, in the middle of the 19th century. Haydn and Mozart were writing very freely. If you look at them in terms of rules, they were breaking them in every piece.

Bryan Townsend said...

Actually, I think we have all the Haydn symphonies, though about twenty of Mozart's have apparently been lost.