Friday, May 18, 2012

Favorite Recordings

Alex Ross has a post up about favorite recordings with a link to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's favorites (nearly all opera). This gets me thinking, of course, about my favorite recordings. I realize I don't actually have any! I certainly did in the past. There were records I nearly wore out from listening to them: John Williams' complete recording of Bach lute suites, some lute duets, Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven symphonies and string quartets, Debussy's Nocturnes and on and on. Each month or year I would have a new favorite. But I don't any more. I listen to whatever music I am writing program notes for, which is always changing. Sometimes I sit down and listen carefully to a particular piece with the score, for study purposes. Other times I listen all the way through a particular set of pieces like the Beethoven piano sonatas or the Shostakovich string quartets, but I don't keep going back. The last three recordings I listened to were the Quatuor pour le fin du temps by Messiaen, Revolver by the Beatles and Gustav Leonhardt's recording of the Goldberg Variations by Bach. But I wouldn't put them down on a favorite list.

I think the reason is that much of my musical thought these days goes into composition, so there is often some kind of musical idea bubbling around in my head. I don't want to interfere with that, so I tend to avoid hearing music.

The spirit of the age is to be connected with everything and everyone all the time, hence, Facebook.  But if you want to do something, particularly something creative, I think you have to focus. This means avoiding any distractions! I mentioned a while back Elliot Carter's retreat to a cabin in the Sonoran desert for a year to write a string quartet. One of the most important years in my life in music was spent in Alicante, Spain where I did nothing but study and practice guitar for six hours a day. At the end of that year, I had become a real guitarist. The secret is focus and avoiding distraction. Now, of course, this alternates or is complemented by, other periods in which you are open to absorbing all kinds of musical experiences: concert going, score study and, yes, listening to recordings, perhaps repeatedly.

Thinking back, while I don't really have favorite recordings, there are a small group of concerts that I attended that were so memorable I would list them as favorite concert experiences:

  • Nigel Rogers performing 17th century vocal music with harpsichord and astonishing ornaments
  • Andres Segovia giving a stunning--and long!--concert in 1977 at age 84 with several encores.
  • A piece by Serge Garant for piano and six percussionists who, at one point were playing 24 gongs so loud that the piano, played fortissimo, was completely inaudible! But, due to the character of the gong, it didn't seem loud, but rather like a blanket of sound.
  • A concert by the Endellion Quartet a couple of years ago with Shostakovich's 8th Quartet between a lovely Haydn quartet and one of the op 59 Beethoven quartets and it was the Shostakovich that completely won the audience over.
  • A concert of Brahms with piano accompaniment by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (who just passed away--a great loss...).
  • Arthur Rubenstein in recital. I remember most clearly the astonishing colors he obtained in the Busoni transcription of the Bach chaconne.
  • A recital for baroque lute by Jakob Lindberg in which he played his transcription of "Across the Universe" as an encore.
Let's end with some Fischer-Dieskau, one of the greatest singers of all time.

UPDATE: I was at the Salzburg music festival quite a few years ago when Karlheinz Stockhausen brought his whole extended family/ensemble who gave a week of performances - all from memory - of his chamber music. I was chatting with him after one of these concerts, saying that it was a treat to hear his music performed instead of just in a recording and he replied that a recording is like a postcard compared to actually visiting a place. That seems to capture it quite well...

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