Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Summer Listening List

The Wall Street Journal yesterday had an essay on the fading of the practice to undertake an ambitious list of reading over the summer--the kind of stuff you normally don't have time to get to the rest of the year.
These days, the summer-reading list seems to have gone the way of the perfect tan ... Schools and colleges still make available reading lists for students who are devoted, or anxious, enough to pack Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians”... in with their kayak paddles, but few people seem any longer to identify summer with catching up on the great books of the past or even on the must-reads of the present.
Well, that's probably true. I can recall one summer I spent trying to complete reading Proust, "In Search of Lost Time", but I didn't quite manage it. The essay gives a bit of history of the summer reading list practice:
Perhaps the most representative instance of the dissemination of high culture to the average intelligent reader occurred in 1960, when the editor and critic Clifton Fadiman published his “Lifetime Reading Plan.” The monumental list began with the “Epic of Gilgamesh” and proceeded up through the novels of William Faulkner (it was updated in 1978 and 1986 and once more in 1998), each of its dozens of sections devoted to a single author and his or her work or works. It was the Platonic ideal (Frederick Copleston’s nine-volume “History of Philosophy,” summers of 1975-99, status: unfinished) of the summer reading list.
I read much of the Copleston history as an undergraduate and got all the way up to Kant before I hit the Wall of Utter Incomprehension.

But I think that setting yourself some goals to fruitfully use your leisure time is basically a Good Idea. Otherwise you could end up randomly surfing the Internet, watching cat videos or Russian dashboard cams or, shudder, watching television! So, to forestall those possibilities, let's come up with a summer listening list. Yeah, I know, summer is just about gone, but I just thought of this and whaddayagonna do?

The modest list for beginners:

  1. The symphonies by Beethoven, available on 5 cds with Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
  2. The violin concertos of Bach, Hilary Hahn and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
  3. Seven string quartets by Joseph Haydn, Emerson String Quartet: The Haydn Project (2 cds of Haydn plus a bonus cd of other composers from Mozart to Shostakovich)
That's pretty easy--you could probably get through those nine cds by the end of the month.

The medium list for intermediate listeners:
  1. The string quartets of Beethoven, available on 7 cds by the Alban Berg Quartet
  2. Bach, Mass in B minor on 2 cds with John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists
  3. The string quartets of Bartók with the Emerson Quartet
  4. The six "Haydn" quartets and the string quintets by Mozart with the Guarneri Quartet (terrific bargain, six cds for only twenty bucks)
The more challenging list for hard-core classical fanatics:
  1. The piano sonatas and piano concertos by Beethoven on 12 cds performed by Friedrich Gulda
  2. The complete symphonies by Haydn on 37 cds with Dennis Russell Davies conducting the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra
  3. The complete concertos of Prokofiev on 3 cds with various artists on Decca
  4. The complete symphonies and tone poems of Sibelius on 7 cds with Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
  5. The complete string quartets of Shostakovich on 5 cds with the Emerson Quartet
That will keep you busy to Christmas, at least. Here is a little sample: Friedrich Gulda, piano with Horst Stein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Beethoven:


Rickard Dahl said...

Good idea. I actually own that box with Sibelius symphonies and tone poems. Excellent music (obviously). I still haven't listened through the Scarlatti sonatas. I should get back to that when I get the chance (currently listening to various dance genres and making playlists with examples of each genre).

As for reading: I don't tend to read unless it's something I'm interested in or need to read, which means I rarely read any fiction. In music especially it's more important to practice (and listen) rather than read. The same can be said for video game modding (the more time consuming part is creating rather than reading (although some reading is required to understand how various tools etc. work)).

Bryan Townsend said...

I was going to put in the Scarlatti as a bonus item. I'm on my second go through with them. I listened to all the sonatas in order and now I am listening to the occasional disc, more or less at random.

I wish I had more time to read! I think that the right proportion might be something like, listen to 100 pieces of music, then read one book about music.

Marc Puckett said...
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Marc Puckett said...

Had never listened to any of Gulda's recordings. He seems to have been also open to doing jazz. Hmm.

Bryan Townsend said...

Friedrich Gulda is a fascinating figure. Yes, he was a kind of "crossover" artist long before it was fashionable. He could play jazz as well as classical and even wrote a set of variations on "Light My Fire" by the Doors. But none of this detracted, in my view, from his solid abilities in the core repertoire. Way back in the 70s I owned the box of LPs of all the Beethoven piano concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic and that is still my benchmark reference. And I think his Beethoven sonatas are very fine as is his Well-Tempered Clavier.

Marc Puckett said...

I listened to Beethoven's 5th piano concerto by Gulda yesterday; alas his variations on Light My Fire aren't on Spotify or Apple. Cannot imagine him being a flamboyant sort of performer-- it seemed workmanlike and precise.

Bryan Townsend said...

When in doubt, just to to YouTube, which is where I heard Gulda's Variations on Light My Fire:

I like to tell people that Gulda's Well-Tempered Clavier is for people who find Gould's performance too romantic.


Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Bryan
I don't understand why you say "But none of this detracted, in my view, from his solid abilities in the core repertoire'? Could you explain?

Bryan Townsend said...

Sure could. I'm what you might call a hard-core classical purist. I think that classical music is at its best when it is most truly itself. Unfortunately, this is a bit at odds with our contemporary culture for whom everything has to be diverse and egalitarian. I'm not a fan of diverse and egalitarian and I will be putting up a post tomorrow that explains why. Nearly all the examples of crossover and mixing styles and genres that we find in the current music scene are a hodge-podge. Flamenco-jazz-fusion-heavy-classical-metal is for me a disagreeable mess. But very occasionally someone comes along who can actually do it more musically. Gulda was one. I suspect that the jazz fans might not think much of his jazz, but I don't really know. Another example is Keith Jarrett who does it from the other side. He is primarily a jazz player, but has done some very respectable classical recordings as well. But these people are the rare exceptions.

Marc Puckett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marc Puckett said...

I am looking about for Christine's last comment, which brought to my attention whatever of Rudolf Matz's you two had been discussing-- I seem to have lost the thread quite literally, ha-- and just saw that you had found Gulda's Light My Fire. Thanks! I a m remembering to check YouTube, at least sometimes; progress.

Bryan Townsend said...

All you need to be exposed to all the riches of music (and the crap as well), is a laptop and some decent speakers like the Bose mini Soundlink. Because pretty much everything is on YouTube. Sometimes even with the score! I also suspect the sound quality for a lot of the clips is pretty close to what you get with the subscription streaming services. So why bother? Is it that people are really paying for other people to pick out music for them to listen to?