Baron Dave Romm's Recommended Music Page 4

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Page 4 of archived music reviews originally run on Bartcop-E.
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Classical Music Guest Columnnist David Bratman

Takacs Quartet, Philip Glass, Henry Cowell

A gift of the Classical Magi.

David Bratman has been a listener of classical music and commentator for many years. Here are some of his recommendations for Bartcop-E!

by David Bratman

Classical music sometimes strikes fear in the heart of people who don't listen to it regularly. It's so complex and full of recapitulations and other oddly-named things, and its fans are such snobs, unwilling to give you the time of day if you don't know how many symphonies Shostakovich wrote or can't tell the difference between Toscanini and Furtwängler.

As a classical snob myself, I have some advice: ignore us. Don't let us condescend to you (Ringo's famous comeback, "I love Beethoven, especially his poems," is still good), and above all don't be paralyzed by our picayune discrimination between different recordings of the same work. Compared to the average difference between two different performers in the same pop song, the difference between two different performances of classical music - especially instrumental music - is minuscule. To the casual ear trained in popular music, they're likely to sound exactly alike.

So don't worry about it. If you've heard a piece and like it, buy that recording, or just get the cheapest or the one with a familiar name as performer. Listen to classical stations, in broadcast or on the web, or check out the enormous subscription-only sound files on the Naxos label website. There's lots of good books giving guidance through the repertoire and explaining exactly what's going on in a piece that lasts forty minutes with no words. Or listen to the excellent explanatory talks on the BBC website.

All the same, if you want the best possible performance of some of the greatest music ever written, one that knocked my socks off a fair distance was the Takacs Quartet in Beethoven's string quartets. There's sixteen of these works - plus a piece called the "Grosse Fuge" (Great Fugue) which was the original finale of number 13 (Opus 130) - and they start easy and get harder. Like most complete sets, Takacs's is in three volumes of two to three discs each. The early quartets are modeled after Mozart's, but they still sound like Beethoven: less genteel, more brusque. The middle quartets are big, forceful works from the same period as the Eroica and Fifth Symphony, the best-known part of Beethoven's career. The late quartets should be saved for last: they're introspective, tough, and gnarly, though they have their surprising soft spots: if you're a Joss Whedon fan, you'll recognize the "danza tedesca" (German dance) movement of that same Opus 130 as the party music from the "Shindig" episode of Firefly.

As for the performance, the Takacs Quartet are just amazing. They really listen to each other, their music breathes as if they were one entity, and as I wrote in reviewing their live performance, they play as if all Hell were on fire. It's only four fiddles (two violins, viola, and cello), but there's as much intensity and vividness here as from any band ever formed.

But people have been recording Beethoven for a century. Someone asked for my favorite all-new music of 2006, and I answered, "Philip Glass's Symphony No. 8." Some people will tell you that Philip Glass writes mindlessly noodling, endlessly repetitive music, but they haven't been paying much attention. He got that phase out of his system over thirty years ago, and added harmonic progressions and shifts in perspective to his discoveries in repetition. His music today has both large and small-scale movement: it goes somewhere, and does it interestingly. Glass is a good classical composer for rock fans. When he builds up a climax from a repetitive motif, it sounds a lot like a rock song with a catchy riff. He's written two other symphonies (the "Low," No. 1, and "Heroes," No. 4) based on David Bowie/Brian Eno albums, and in the 80s put out a song album, "Songs from Liquid Days," with lyrics by Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne, and Laurie Anderson, with vocals by Linda Ronstadt and the Roches. And now he's up to his Symphony No. 8 for orchestra - big (39 minutes), kaleidoscopic, and colorful, with dark strings and piping winds, fast and churning in its first half, quiet and stealthy afterwards. Besides, the number is cool. If you're not a big classical collector, how many Symphonies No. 8 do you have, anyway, besides maybe Schubert's Unfinished? Be honest, now.

All right, let's finish with something short, weird, and a bit obscure. Henry Cowell was one of the great eccentrics of 20th century American music. He invented playing the piano with his whole forearm (softly, producing a hesitant wash of sound), served time in prison on a morals charge, and championed folk music both at home and abroad. Cowell was the man who brought the first great American composer, Charles Ives, to public attention; and he inspired John Cage, the man who rewrote the definition of the word "music."

Of the CDs of Cowell's music, maybe the most interesting is Dancing with Henry, a collection of pieces from the 1920s and 30s mostly written to be danced to, played by a group called the California Parallèle Ensemble. The album has nine different works. There's bouncy dances, exotic Asian harmonies and Irish folk music, plain harmonies and crazy dissonances, and strangest of all, a piece called "Atlantis" including voices that don't sing: in the words of the liner notes, they moan, groan, wail, sigh, grunt, and squeal. It's like some strange modernistic pirate music, or the musical battle between King Kong and Godzilla. Aargh, me hearties!