Log in

No account? Create an account
05 July 2013 @ 11:55 am
LJ Idol Exhibit B: "In The Right Hands"  
In The Right Hands
LJ Idol Exhibit B | week 7 | 1352 words
Hands (Note: Contains short music samples. Earbuds at low volume recommended).


One of the first things I learned in my earlier career as a classical radio announcer was that if a piece of music didn't grab you right away, the problem might not be the music itself. Often, what was lacking was the performance.

All three of the radio stations where I worked had impressive record libraries, and you could easily find three to thirty performances of the same piece. But some of those performances might be dreadful, some uninspired or just 'okay', and usually just a select one or two were outstanding.

At the first two stations, the announcers tended to put their favorite recordings on the air. Since everyone had a different version of 'favorite', listeners heard a variety of possibilities. The last station attempted a more democratic approach, where various recordings were rotated over time. But is a unique form of torture to sit through a bad or even dull performance of a piece you really like. When open programming choices came up, I picked the performances that I thought really made the music come alive. As a result, I had a lot of similar conversations with listeners who phoned the station:

Caller: "What is this piece?"
Me: "It's XYZ, by so-and-so."
Caller: "But I've heard that before. It doesn't sound like anything!"

A mediocre performance can keep a composition solidly in the background, but a good performance pulls you in.

The flip side of this situation comes when you want to buy classical music. You might have a composition in mind that you really like, but if you buy the wrong version of it, you've wasted your money. Knowing what to buy was easier when I was a radio announcer, because I could listen and re-listen to a lot of recordings and find an album or two to aim for. Now that I'm a "civilian," the process is much harder.

I'm still searching for the right performance of Sibelius' Finlandia. With so many recordings of such a popular piece, you'd think finding a good one would be easy. Amazon.com offers sample audio snippets (which are marvelous, but aren't available for most recordings). Still, I haven't found a viable version. I want a good tempo, fat, aggressive brass, and full but finished sound. More choooong-chungk and less worrrrr-worrufff. I've heard noncommittal Sibelius, muddy Sibelius, and sloppy Sibelius. Lots of it. How hard is it to let the brass swell, but then cut off the end of those chords cleanly?

I've had the same problem trying to find a good version of Janacek's Sinfonietta (still no luck), and the right renditions of Brahms and Bruckner symphonies can be almost as elusive. I own a performance of Bruckner's 8th Symphony that I really love, one of many fantastic recordings by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Georg Solti as conductor. I also have their versions of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, and Bruckner's 4th and 7th. All of those compositions make terrific use of the orchestral brass section, and combining decisive, rich, clean, and aggressive sound was the Chicago SO's hallmark.

I hunted around at Amazon.com to see how other performances compared, just to demonstrate some of the differences. I'm not even a huge fan of Bruckner (the man could not pull off thematic development to save his life), but he knew how to write striking opening musical subjects. The second movement of the 8th symphony is the best known, but I've been fixated on the finale ever since The Dark Knight came out (the movie's signature two-note motif could have been stolen right out of this Bruckner piece). Get those media players ready—these link to MP3 samples:

> Herbert von Karajan/Unknown Orchestra — "Ponderous" best describes this. Slower tempo than most, nice fat brass but the overall sound is muddy. Lots of echo.

> Emil Tabakov/Bulgarian National Radio SO — Not bad, but not as dramatic as it should be (it doesn't use the surprise of volume enough). The violins are a little too loud in some of the counterpoint passages.

> Otto Klemperer/New Philharmonia — Excruciatingly slow. Crisp sound, gorgeous recording quality, but the tempo? When I listen to this, I feel as if I might actually be dying...

> Georg Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra — This is the kind of recording for which headphones were invented. The timing is imperfect in spots, and the trumpets sometimes a little under pitch, but this is a powerful, resonant performance. Contrapuntal strings fold between the brass lines instead of dominating them. Solti used ritardando (slowing) dramatically, and delicately handles the section where the trumpets/winds taper off from the main theme (around :58 in). It's a kickass performance, overall. The Chicago Symphony never hesitated to let the trombones "blat" a little when the music called for it. That rougher sound (and the metallic vibration of the trombone's bell) are why composers score voices for that instrument instead of always opting for the tight purity of the French horn. Solti used the Chicago brass section to distinct advantage for many, many recordings over the years.

Sometimes, you may have more than one favorite recording of a piece because each has qualities that appeal for different reasons. Vladimir Horowitz's recording of Beethoven's Piano Sonata #14 (The "Moonlight" Sonata) was one of the first I really listened to. Most people know the first movement of that piece really well, but it was the final movement that caught my attention. Beethoven's title for the sonata is, Quasi una fantasia (in the manner of a fantasy). The Horowitz version really brings out that aspect:

> Wilhelm Kempff — Crisp and fairly clean, but dry. A few rough spots.

> Arthur Rubinstein — Technically perfect (rare among the recordings I listened to), but also a little dry. Rubinstein performs this in a classical-era (Haydn, Mozart) style, rather than a Romantic style. For many people, the superior technique and the classical style are reasons to prefer Rubinstein's work.

> Vladimir Horowitz — The piano itself has a more modern, romantic sound, but so does the performance. His touch is richer in parts than most pianists, and lighter in others. Horowitz's use of tempo is more elastic at key moments, making the piece much moodier overall. The full performance of this movement has an almost surrealistic feeling to it, very much in keeping with Beethoven's notation.

There is no shortage of great performances of Beethoven's 14th Piano Sonata, but the Horowitz is uniquely interesting as well as beautiful. Ashkenazy comes very close as well.

By contrast, there is only one performance of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto that I really like. It was the first one I ever heard, and it is one of a kind—even other performances by the same violinist don't touch this recording's interpretation:

> Leonid Kogan — The lilting, spun-glass sound of the solo violin brings sweet contrast to the bright chord clashes in the orchestral part. Kogan's performance is impossibly light and it seems effortless. Listening to his artistry again last night prompted me to leave a quick review at Amazon!

> David Oistrakh — The violinist for whom this concerto was written, he was also its best known performer. Oistrakh, who played Bach Partitas with a touch as light as Kogan's work on this concerto, took a more strident, peasant-like approach when performing the solo violin part. The rough, scrubbing sound is typical of most versions of this piece, but far less engaging than Kogan's.

Back in the day, people used to argue whether Pinchas Zukerman or Itzhak Perlman played the violin better. Zukerman had flawless technique, but often played robotically. Perlman had the occasional flub, but played with passion and meaning. Ultimately, Zukerman might have been the better violinist, but Perlman was the better musician.

Whether the artist in question is a conductor or a performer, the right touch can render a recording unforgettable. With classical music, especially because of the length and complexity, it is unfortunately all too easy to find versions of a piece that are uninspired or even dreadful.

My search for the ultimate Finlandia and Sinfonietta and many other pieces continues. But if I find what I'm looking for, all of the time spent getting there will have been completely worthwhile.

If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.

My thanks to the_day_setup, who offered to host one of these important music clips for me. Here is some more information on the performances excerpted here. Any recording by a particular artist or group can't be assumed to be the correct one. The original recording/release date also matters (though the label is less helpful, because works are sometimes later reissued on different labels). These links lead to the same recordings discussed above:

Bruckner Symphony #8
  • Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording. The sample clips from the Tennstedt/London Philharmonic and Barenboim/Berlin Philharmonic recordings were of similar caliber (the Barenboim's recording quality is a little tinny), but I don't know whether the performances of the rest of the symphony were as good.

  • Beethoven Piano Sonata #14, "Moonlight"
  • Vladimir Horowitz (all three sonatas on this recording are excellent)
  • Arthur Rubinstein

  • Khachaturian Violin Concerto
  • Leonid Kogan (violin), Boston SO conducted by Pierre Monteux
  • David Oistrakh (violin), London SO conducted by Aram Khachaturian

  • As for the Brahms Symphonies, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter is the way to go.

    Pr0n Swansonacalculatedname on July 5th, 2013 08:38 pm (UTC)
    i'm tired of LJ telling my comments have been "marked as spam". (and i can't fix my unfinished first paragraph now accordingly, ugh)

    Edited at 2013-07-05 08:39 pm (UTC)
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 5th, 2013 08:45 pm (UTC)
    Aw. You're signed in correctly, so I wonder if it's just in a mood to reinterpret your comments for you! I'd blame Russian software, but the NSA is making us look pretty bad right now. :O

    ETA: Wait! I can see the original comment in my email. Hang on...

    Edited at 2013-07-05 08:47 pm (UTC)
    (no subject) - halfshellvenus on July 5th, 2013 08:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
    (no subject) - acalculatedname on July 5th, 2013 09:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)
    (no subject) - halfshellvenus on July 5th, 2013 09:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
    (no subject) - acalculatedname on July 5th, 2013 10:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
    (no subject) - halfshellvenus on July 6th, 2013 04:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
    (no subject) - acalculatedname on July 6th, 2013 04:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
    Desireex_disturbed_x on July 5th, 2013 09:03 pm (UTC)
    I've never really been a fan of classical music but I get trying to find performance that really clicks with you. I know I've gone through live performance after live performance just to find one that suited me.

    I'm really glad you wrote this. It was interesting to learn about this kind of music. :)
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 5th, 2013 09:13 pm (UTC)
    I was hoping it wouldn't be too much detail for those who weren't much into classical music, and also that contrasting the differences might still make sense to readers in that position!

    The performance can really be everything, no matter what the piece of music. With live performances, you can also get the intangible uptick in the musicians' energy that makes the piece just all that much better. :)
    similiesslipsimiliesslip on July 5th, 2013 09:22 pm (UTC)
    You have much better musical taste than I do. I do know I prefer certain songs by certain artists, but I probably miss the nuances of music that define a piece. It sounds like you understand them.

    My husband is a classical pianist. He would probably agree with you in this entry. He is very talented. That IS one very admirable thing about him. He wishes he could have made a living from his music.
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2013 05:39 am (UTC)
    My original undergraduate degree was in music, and I was an orchestral violinist for many years as well. I still miss playing many of these pieces as a participant!

    It's sad that there are so many more people with talent in the arts than jobs that can support them. I would have loved to be an orchestral musician as a profession, but the competition is fierce and not many places will pay a living wage! I know how your husband feels on that score. :(
    Meep: math with soulmeepalicious on July 6th, 2013 02:24 am (UTC)
    I know zilch about classical music, so I never considered how the performance could effect the impact of a piece. Of course, now that you've mentioned it, I'll never be able to unthink it, because it makes perfect sense. A good teacher can make a "boring" subject fascinating, and a bad teacher can make a fascinating subject dull. Why should it be any different with musical performance?

    Very enlightening. Thank you. :) I'm gonna load up the audio clips to listen to while I continue reading/voting.
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2013 05:43 am (UTC)
    You're exactly right-- the presentation of the material really tends to make a difference. And a teacher who loves and is passionate about his or her subject makes for much more interesting classes than those where the teacher is just teaching a 'fill-the-slot' class that somebody has to teach but which means very little to them.

    Some of the audio clips among the Bruckner were in the "avoid" category, but I'd hoped the differences would make it clearer why some performances 'work' and others do not. Even the 'pretty good' one (Tabakov) could have been better, which is usually a fine point that's harder to describe. It made for a nice example just for that reason.
    oxymoron67oxymoron67 on July 6th, 2013 02:41 am (UTC)
    I get this. I've searched for the right recordings of several pieces. Beethoven's Ode to Joy is a particular stickler. I have a few good versions, but no great ones.
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2013 05:53 am (UTC)
    Oh, the Ode to Joy would be tough. You have to love the orchestral performance and conductor, AND each of the soloists in that final movement, AND how the whole thing comes together.

    I have the Bruno Walter/Columbia Symphony Orchestra recording here, but I'll admit, the tenor's vibrato is kind of getting to me as I listen to it now. :O
    (Deleted comment)
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2013 05:59 am (UTC)
    I'd hoped this would work for people who are less familiar with or formally educated about music, so this is very nice to hear. :)

    The Khachaturian Concerto is a really neat piece. It was very popular at one time, mainly because it incorporates such interesting chords and 'Eastern' melodic touches into a Western art form. Also, Khachaturian just didn't sound like anyone else. He was really distinctly different from Russian composers, and the Armenian 'flavor' he brought to his music was unlike the Hungarian/Czech influence of other composers. The Sabre Dance is his most famous piece.
    ☾witches on July 6th, 2013 11:05 am (UTC)
    I loved this entry! 8D classical music <3
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2013 04:19 pm (UTC)
    Yay! It's nice to find another fan!

    This was and is my first love, always. Even in a completely different profession now, I still gravitate toward it. :)
    (no subject) - witches on July 6th, 2013 11:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
    Kellykajel on July 6th, 2013 06:54 pm (UTC)
    I love to listen to classical music. I haven't listened to it for a very long time. Now I wish I still had some of my old cd's. Thank you for reminding me of this, the first musical passion that was all my own.
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 7th, 2013 06:32 pm (UTC)
    It's especially hard to pay attention to one's own interests when you have small children, but classical music is something you can have on while doing other things (even if it's just a local radio station). I wish I'd done more of this when my kids were little-- the oldest was probably always a lost cause, but the youngest got very worked up over Beethoven's 9th when he was about 18 months old, and he was really intrigued by music in general before other school kids inflicted a fear of the "uncool" on him. :O
    tatdatcmtatdatcm on July 7th, 2013 03:20 am (UTC)
    I don't know much about classical music other than there are pieces I like to listen to. Thank goodness for Pandora and Spotify and their radio station suggestions. It's how I've found a lot of pieces I like. I still couldn't name any of them other than Vivaldi's Spring. I'll have to search out your suggestions and see if they're available.
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 7th, 2013 06:35 pm (UTC)
    I wouldn't recommend the Bruckner as a starting point (his 4th symphony has 3-4 impressive movements instead of the 2 that the 8th has). But the Horowitz/Beethoven sonatas are terrific, Beethoven's 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th symphonies are popular for a reason, and you probably could find some fun things like ballet suites for Giselle, or Swan Lake, or Les Sylphides. The Polovtsian Dances (Borodin) are also terrific.

    I hadn't thought about what might be available on Pandora regarding classical music-- now I'll have to check THAT out! :)
    MamaCheshirecheshire23 on July 7th, 2013 01:22 pm (UTC)
    Thanks for putting this together - it gave me a lot to think about as I look for good classical music both for myself and for my kids!
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 7th, 2013 06:39 pm (UTC)
    I made some suggestions in the comments above about other pieces to look for. But the main thing is that peformances can vary so much, it's worth finding one that works for you. Even the same piece of music can have a hugely different "feel" to it, depending upon the performance. So, if a piece doesn't grab you at first but you think it has potential, try some other recordings and see how that goes.

    Thanks for reading!
    favoritebeanfavoritebean on July 8th, 2013 08:01 am (UTC)
    I have yet to find a likeable recording of Mahler's 2nd. Then there are the performances of pieces that are truly amazing, yet never recorded for us to listen to over and over.

    Since you mentioned the Beethoven, I'm curious as to what you thought of Emmanuel Ax's recording.

    Please let us know if you find a good Finlandia. I really love that piece, but have only relied on live performances for it. I feel in the case of that piece, no recording would do it justice.
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 9th, 2013 02:17 am (UTC)
    I have a Mahler 2nd that I like. For some reason, I thought it was an out-on-a-limb choice for me, like Riccardo Muti or something. But it's actually Solti and the Chicago SO again, with Isobel Buchanan and Mira Zakai. I don't like Zakai's voice terribly much, but I love the rest of this performance.

    I've liked Ax's recordings in general, but don't have a reference point for his Moonlight Sonata. I checked at Amazon, but didn't see anything. There's a ton of Brendel, though!
    (no subject) - favoritebean on July 9th, 2013 02:48 am (UTC) (Expand)
    (no subject) - halfshellvenus on July 9th, 2013 05:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
    adoptedwriteradoptedwriter on July 8th, 2013 03:08 pm (UTC)
    I know so little re classical music, but I do know how different versions of the same song can mean the whole world. A badly done rendition/ remake is such a joke. Likewise a fresh new version of an older song can be a lot of fun. AW
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 9th, 2013 02:19 am (UTC)
    So true. I often like the covers that don't attempt to sound like the original. Chris Issak's "Heart Full of Soul" is nothing like the original, but really good on its own. Same for Lenny Kravitz's "American Woman" vs. The Guess Who.

    Some, now, are an abomination. Lately, I've heard pop girly singers doing "Somebody To Love" and "Born To Be Wild." Sacrilege!
    The New Bubble Girlbanyangirl1832 on July 8th, 2013 07:46 pm (UTC)
    Oh, this was lovely! I grew up playing classical violin and reading all these wonderful musical terms and annotations was like reading a language I haven't spoken in far too long. Thanks for this.
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 9th, 2013 02:20 am (UTC)
    I played classical violin too, for so many years. I was lucky enough to play in two orchestras during my three years in Illinois, and regret that the local Sacramento Symphony was FAR above my capabilities. :)
    Jemima Paulerjem0000000 on July 9th, 2013 10:11 am (UTC)
    You did a good job of making this interesting for those of us who aren't quite musically inclined. :)
    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 9th, 2013 05:43 pm (UTC)
    I'm really glad to hear that-- I'd hoped it wouldn't scare people off too much, and that laypeople could hear the differences in performances enough to know why some might be preferred and others... not so much. ;)
    michikatinski on July 9th, 2013 03:08 pm (UTC)
    Ohhhh...another classical music fan. :) Sometime, if we ever meet, wanna hop over to a concert together? (My favorite orchestra is Cleveland, but I'm open to any that can play in a way that captures my imagination. :) )

    Have you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? The discussions of quality there might interest you. :)

    I'm a big fan of this piece. Good job. <3

    The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 9th, 2013 06:22 pm (UTC)
    Sure, I'd love to!

    I have fond memories of the Cleveland SO under George Szell. That was a good era for them.

    I tried to read "Zen..." ages ago, but couldn't get through it. I was a teenager then, so maybe I should give it another try. It's only been, what, more than 30 years?

    I'm glad you enjoyed this, and it's always nice to meet another music fan!