Listening Notes

There’s the usual Big, Deep Subjects tossing around in my head, seeking coherence, but in the meantime I have the call and response of stereo listener to toss off.

Naxos has been putting out a Robert Craft series focussing on Schoenberg and especially Stravinsky – the records are a mix a new productions and repackages of the older recordings he made for Musicmasters and Koch. The new one out this week is just that, a collection of the Octet, Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, the Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements. The chamber works are two of the composers most attractive Neo-Classical pieces. They are concise, colorfully orchestrated, energetic and completely transparent; you can hear what they do and how they do it simultaneously.

Symphony in C is in the regarded catalogues of Stravinsky masterpieces, but I have a personal soft spot for the Symphony in Three Movements. It is forceful and direct, exciting and covers a broad range of territory in a quick 20 minutes or so. Stravinsky has mentioned that some of the music comes from his experience of watching newsreel footage of World War II, and the first movement also has conveys the attractive side of American industrial might, with the sonic equivalent of of lights flowing and bouncing off a curved, polished sedan as it motors down a Los Angeles boulevard at night. Stravinksy himself has recorded a definitive version, and I’ve experienced the work performed magnificently under Michael Tilson Thomas and David Robertson. The Craft recording, leading the Philharmonia, is also excellent. Symphony in C on this CD is also superb – this is a work that seems difficult to perform consistently well. It is Stravinsky’s most Classical exploration of Neo-Classicism, and frequently I find there is too much focus on the Classical gestures and not enough sense of the long line, the forward motion that always seems to be leading logically to cadences and climaxes. It is these qualities that Craft captures, he has great understanding of this music. This is an excellent set of music, an excellent way to explore this facet of the composers long career and also an excellent way to get started with Stravinsky and Robert Craft in general. All the recordings in this edition are worth hearing, and since the publisher is Naxos they are all at a bargain price (4 for the price of 3 for New Yorkers who can shop at J&R).

I’ve had the CD on the stereo since Tuesday, and it usually leaves me wanting to hear something else. I’m also continuing the unfortunately slow process of, after moving in 18 months ago, getting my collection out of boxes and onto shelves. I’m now done with “A” through “Joe Henry,” which I managed yesterday. Part of the process is pulling out things I have not listened to in a while and thinking, I’d like to listen to that. So Hindemith followed Stravinsky, an EMI CD with Wolfgang Sawallisch leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in some of his most important works, including the Nobilissima Visione suite and the Symphony Mathis der Maler. Hindemith is a composer I usually admire more than enjoy. His best qualities are his overall craft and skill, the ability to write what he hears, and he shares the Stravinskian values of transparency of structure and means of expression. I find him frequently bloodless, however. Perhaps it’s a cliche, but he seems to me to consistently desire the Romantic expression that is the great achievement of his national music, and that expression is an uncomfortable fit for his chosen style. I think that the idea of melody is a good example of this problem. Stravinsky can write enjoyable melodies, but there’s nothing that’s usually memorable, because the melody is ornamental to the overall structural and rhythmic purpose. Hindemith writes similar music, but there’s much more of a focus on displaying the melody, and the music suffers because the melodies are not strong. An example is on the CD, where the ballet suite ends with a Passacaglia, a form based on a repetitive and rising baseline that is laden with emotional power. Bach wrote stunning, wrenching Passacaglias. Hindemith’s is inventive, but the line itself, given orchestral emphasis, is a little clumsy.

This is a long-winded way to saying that, despite the possible problems, I love this CD! Even the most logical, po-faced music has a rhetorical aspect to it, and in the hands of a skilled, committed performer with ideas, any music can be made convincing. This is what Sawallisch doe. He believes in the music and present it with utter commitment and conviction. He makes us believe through the skill, force and especially style of his gestures. The suite is presented with emotional depth and plangency, and the symphony presents the composer at his best and in the best light. The opening captures a quality that is both austere and grand, with quite, open, glassy chords building to a magnificent and moving cadence. It is seductive in the best sense, offering us belief in the thing which, in the moment, we seek.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.