The Saddest Song

Open Goldberg Variations, Werner Schweer, editor.

Listening to “happy” music can make one feel happier. However, instead of always making people feel worse, listening to sad music often brings on a state of “paradoxical pleasure.”

I am not saying that listening to sad music in and of itself makes people happier. What I am saying is that listening to sad music can evoke a sequence of very complex emotions. Furthermore, many people regard experiencing that kind of a cascade of metamorphosing emotions as “pleasurable.” (Or perhaps, just as a relief.)

The somewhat waffle-like language employed above is in recognition of the fact that many people experience the same music in different ways. By the way, the sequence of emotions Shock/Disbelief/Anger/Despair formerly was called The Four Stages of Saab Ownership. “What do you mean, my engine’s harmonic balancer was held on with glue?”

I think whether the precise emotional mechanism (and what a silly word “mechanism” is to use, in this context) is transference or catharsis or a feeling of empathy will just have to remain a mystery of the human soul. But from the earliest times, serious thinkers (from Aristotle to Schopenhauer) have always recognized that the power of sad music (and also of literature and drama) does not lie in its merely making people feel sadder than they had been.

A recent BBC Culture article asks whether data diving can “reveal” the “Saddest Number One Song Ever.” I think that that article itself reveals the multiple, perhaps even fatal, limitations of such an approach.

If I had to pick one song known to me as the saddest ever (which avoids the major problems associated with judging the quality and the qualities of songs by things like Billboard charts or Grammys), that would be the “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg Variations might not have words, but right at the top of the score it says “Song” (albeit in Italian).

Song samples and more pondering, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Hyperion Knight at the Alexander Piano

What is it about Australians, New Zealanders and Tasmanians and grand pianos??? At the ripe age of 15 years, Adrian Mann asked his piano teacher how long a piano bass string would have to be, not to require a copper wire over-wrap (to add mass, and thereby lower the resonant frequency). Her answer was, “Very long.” Over the next several years, young Adrian taught himself to build a piano almost entirely from scratch; the result is nearly 19 feet long. He is now doing business under the name Alexander Piano. Hyperion Knight was on tour in that part of the world, and so he stopped in, with the above result. There are two other Hyperion K. videos on Alexander Piano’s YouTube page.

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Glenn Gould: Richard Strauss, “Morgen” op. 27, no. 4 (solo-piano excerpt)

In terms of cultural impact in the broadest sense, Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was one of the most important musicians of the 20th century.

Susan Sontag once quipped that every analogy is a lie, so: you have been warned. I think that Glenn Gould’s place in classical music in the mid-twentieth century is analogous to Miles Davis’ place in jazz during that same era. If people owned only one real jazz LP, it likely was Kind of Blue; and if people owned only one real classical LP, it likely was Gould’s J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations. Gould, more than any other pianist, is associated with the Goldberg Variations, to the extent that the opening measures of the “Aria” are carved on his gravestone.

Unlike most classical pianists of the time, Gould largely ignored the 19th-c. Romantic piano repertory exemplified by Chopin and Liszt, concentrating instead on Renaissance and Baroque music. Gould brought early music before the general public at a time when it was almost exclusively the province of academic specialists, or performers on period-correct instruments. In 1956, Gould’s intuitive understanding of Bach’s style of counterpoint, and his unprecedented clarity of articulation on the grand piano fell like a thunderclap, upon critics and the listening public alike. (Gould’s first Goldbergs album was recorded in 1955, but released in 1956.) Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs remain one of the best-selling non-crossover classical recordings of all time.

What Gould revered in Bach was his sense of sonic architecture. I think that the heart of Bach’s art was that Bach created ordered musical structures to reflect the nature of a God who had created an ordered cosmos that was (largely) comprehensible by the use of reason. (Yes; I know. I am painting with a brush so broad that it can’t fit into a one-gallon paint can.) Therefore, it might not come as a total surprise that in this video clip from a television interview, Gould takes Richard Strauss to task for his Romantic self-indulgence. Or, does he really?

More wild guessing from John, and sound bytes from different performances of Richard Strauss’ early song “Morgen,” after the jump. Continue Reading →

Pianist Hyperion Knight to Perform in Providence (RI), February 25, 2018

Audio by Jerry Bruck, Posthorn Recordings NYC; video and editing by John Marks

I will return to my former avocation of concert impressario, and present audiophile-fave-rave pianist Hyperion Knight in a program of Bach, Beethoven, and Gershwin at the First Baptist Church in America, in Providence (RI) on Sunday, February 25 at 2:00 PM. The recital will be open to the public, and free of charge.

The Third Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America is a short (seven minutes) walk from the Providence Amtrak (train) station. The starting time of the recital was chosen to make it possible for music lovers from New York City to Boston to arrive and depart with the least fuss possible.

The program consists of music of J.S. Bach (selected Inventions; and transcriptions of choral and organ music including the “Little” Fugue in g); Beethoven’s piano sonata no. 21 in C, “Waldstein”; and Gershwin’s Suite from Porgy and Bess. The recital will last approximately one hour, and will proceed without an intermission. Continue Reading →

John Barry: “Somewhere In Time” Soundtrack (1998 re-recording)

 

Film-score composer John Barry’s father owned movie theaters in England. So, in a sense, Barry (1933-2011) grew up in the movie business. (The family name was “Prendergast;” Barry used his first and middle names as his professional name.) The movie business and the music business are similar, in that fickle public tastes can make or break projects and careers. Also similar in that the process of actually getting paid can be… quirky.

John Barry composed the scores for 11 James Bond films including Goldfinger, as well as for Body Heat, Born Free, Dances With Wolves, Out of Africa, The Lion in Winter, and Midnight Cowboy. Barry’s film scores won him five Academy Awards and four Grammys. However, it is almost certain that Barry’s most popular (and profitable for him) film score was for a film that was decidedly unsuccessful upon its original theatrical release, finding a larger audience only on cable tv, and then a bit later with the advent of home video on VHS cassettes.

That film is the 1980 time-travel romantic drama Somewhere in Time. The story of Barry’s score’s musical debts to Rachmaninoff and Paganini comes after the jump. Continue Reading →

Keith Jarrett Trio “My Funny Valentine” (Rodgers and Hart)

According to pop-song authority Mark Steyn, there exist more than 100 recordings of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine“—by Chet Baker. Baker recorded the song as a trumpeter with Gerry Mulligan in 1952, re-recording it as a vocalist in 1954, a breakthrough performance that has been widely anthologized. I gather that for the remainder of Baker’s checkered career, audiences continued to demand it, because his last recording of it was in 1985.

The 1937 musical Babes in Arms (set in the imaginary town of Seaport, Rhode Island) is famous not only for “Valentine” (the name of the male romantic interest the song is sung to) but also the standards “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Where or When.” Less well known but equally significant is that the show included a “dream ballet” by George Balanchine.

The song starts in C minor, and in emotional tone is both pensive and a bit anxious. The girl knows that her guy is a bit of a ditz, but the idea of losing him upsets her no end—the climax comes on the words “Stay, Valentine, stay.” Standout versions include those by Anita O’Day; Miles Davis; and Bill Evans with Jim Hall. And, of course, Keith Jarrett, here with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock.

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Hélène Grimaud: Busoni, Chaconne for Piano in D minor (after J.S. Bach)

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a series of six works for solo violin. Three are sonatas. “Sonata” is a technical term that in its largest sense simply means a piece of music meant to be played rather than sung. The other three solo-violin works are partitas, which means that they are made up of parts or movements, usually dance forms.

Bach’s second solo-violin partita’s final movement, a set of variations on a bass line called a Chaconne, is as long as the other four put together. Early on, Bach’s solo-violin Chaconne took on a life of its own, both for being played (at times) without the other four movements, and in various transcriptions and arrangements.

Arrangements or transcriptions exist for orchestra, piano, organ, guitar, cello, and saxophone quartet. Ferruccio Busoni‘s version really amounts to a major re-working of the piece in an overheated fin-de-siècle keyboard-virtuoso aesthetic. The good news is that the architectural structure of the solo-violin piece is substantial enough and resilient enough that the result is musically valid—at least for most of us.

Here’s high-energy Hélène Grimaud in an electrifying live version. To cite just one example, the arpeggio variation that starts at about 6:04 is a marvel of precision and clarity. Arkivmusic.com lists recordings by 36 pianists. So if Ms. Grimaud is a bit too out there for you, there are lots of choices. If I had to choose one and only one, it would be one of Shura Cherkassky’s: either the historical EMI one (circa 1956), or the autumnal Nimbus one (1987).

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Garrick Ohlsson, Rhode Island Philharmonic, Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto

Photo REUTERS © Kacper Pempel, courtesy of Opus 3 Artists

Last Saturday night my musically-astute friend and I attend the opening concert of Maestro Larry Rachleff’s final season as music director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic. Alan Rosenberg of the Providence Journal had asked me to review the concert, so the seats were, as one might expect, excellent. It was a bit of a trip in the WABAC machine (of Peabody and Mr. Sherman fame) to hear soloist Garrick Ohlsson. My high-school girlfriend thought the world of him, while I still vividly recall his Dewar’s Scotch “Profiles” ad that graced the back covers of magazines such as The New Yorker and Playboy when I was in high school. An image of that ad, and more, after the jump.

Continue Reading →

A Summer Sunday’s Afternoon at Tanglewood

2016-08-14 Tanglewood Landscape 400 pix highPhoto © 2016 John Marks

On Sunday, August 14, the musically-astute friend I mentioned in the context of the Andris Nelsons Boston Symphony Wagner/Sibelius CD and I traveled to Lenox, Massachusetts, where the Boston Symphony makes its summer home at Tanglewood. The program consisted of Beethoven’s Op. 64 Coriolan Overture (1807), his Piano Concerto 3 (1800-1801), and Schumann’s Symphony 4 (1841/1851).

But of course, I could not resist indulging in audio geekery, in the process making a new pro-audio friend! Geek-bait photos, official concert photos, and a link to streaming audio of the concert, all after the jump! Continue Reading →

Q&A with Sergey Schepkin

Schepkin small

 

Sergey Schepkin’s Steinway & Sons recording of Bach’s Six Partitas impressed me so much that I asked him to answer a few questions. Run-on questions, in fact. He coped rather well!

It seems I am not the only person who was impressed; Schepkin’s Steinway Partitas has broken into the Top 100 in one category on Amazon’s sales charts.

Here goes!

Q1: One thing that caught my eye was that your web site’s press-blurb list contained a rave from The Listener magazine about your Partitas recording on the Ongaku label, 20 or so years ago. Listener was founded and edited by Art Dudley. Art’s magazine was acquired, but then the new owners folded it. Art then moved over the Stereophile, and so was my colleague until recently.

Therefore, one thing that audiophile readers with long memories will want to know about (and I see that the Ongaku Partita recording is still available from your website) is (apart from the fact that Steinway and Sons’ CD label is an enviable place to be) is (a) why you decided to re-record your Bach repertory…

More run-on questions—and even some answers(!)—after the jump. Klicken Sie hier, bitte. Continue Reading →