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
Beethoven Piano Sonata #14, "Moonlight"
Khachaturian Violin Concerto
As for the Brahms Symphonies, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter is the way to go.