Thursday, October 30, 2014

Heavy Halloween Classical

Over at the Guardian Tom Service has a special piece up suitable for Halloween: "10 of the best: metal meets classical". It is suitable for Halloween because these versions are musical monstrosities! Go have a look and then come back as I have a few comments.

The article begins with one of those journalistic slights of hand that we have learned to watch out for:
It is, of course, one of the most honourable cross-connections in contemporary musical culture, the virtuosity and emotional extremity that bind classical and metal together.
"Honourable"? Arrangements of classical pieces performed by heavy metal musicians certainly boldface the virtuosity and emotional extremity at the cost of undermining every other quality such as rhythmic subtlety, phrasing, dynamic shading and beauty of tone color. Heavy metal is, like most pop music, one dimensional. It is a narrow genre and the raucous tone color, "Cookie Monster" vocals and pounding percussion keep the emotional expression to that narrow palette. Classical music, like a round peg shoved into a square hole, does not come off unscathed. That being said, some pieces suffer less than others!

Schubert's lied Der Erlkönig is certainly an imaginative choice, but the singing makes it very uncomfortable to listen to. The eeriness of the original is completely effaced in this version.

Night on a Bare Mountain I couldn't really listen to, but The Hut of the Baba Yaga came off better than expected. The Mussorgsky original has a bit of heavy metal in its DNA.

Dr. Voissy doing the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata is pretty impressive. More than that, actually: his ability to get all that onto the guitar seems uncanny. No, wait, more than uncanny: impossible. That's when you realize, listening closely, that he has at least one other guitar, usually playing accompanying chords, pre-recorded. Aha!

The duel between the classical guitarist and the electric guitarist over the Paganini Caprice No. 24 was just as dreary as you might expect. Mind you, many purely classical performances like that of Eliot Fisk are equally unlistenable. Why? I think the obsessive quality of the theme, plus performances that bring out nothing but velocity is the answer. If you want to watch a pretty good duel between electric and classical, have a look at the film Crossroads, but they use music by Mozart, a far better composer than Paganini!

I guess if you want to hear Vivaldi with a really ugly tone then Children of Bodom is just the thing...

Pergamum deliver a suite of all the most cliched classical themes performed in the most cliched heavy metal fashion. It is a kind of unpleasant perfection, I suppose.

I thought I could listen to Heavenly carpet bomb Beethoven, but I really couldn't.

The Yngwie Malmsteen piece is rather a different category. This is an original composition, a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra that relies on heavy metal versions of Vivaldiesque themes. And yes, there are the usual harmonic sequences, with chorus. I suppose this deserves a more thorough treatment, but not today!

The last piece is Nagaroth's version of the Schubert lied, Der Leiermann. This is even more unsettling than Der Erlkönig. Believe me, it is not a good musical idea to sing Schubert in a choked-off Cookie Monster voice. It is not trivializing it exactly, like doing a polka version. It is performing an aesthetic defacement, rather. Like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa or throwing a bucket of paint on a Van Gogh. Please, just don't?

I have to end this dispiriting post by putting up the original of Schubert's Der Leiermann.  Here is Thomas Quasthoff accompanied by Daniel Barenboim:


Anonymous said...

I saw that post and couldn't bring myself to listen to ... any of it. Thank you for doing the dirty work on our behalf and reporting back. You are a brave person.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks! Just between you and me, even the ones I commented on, I didn't necessarily listen all the way through...