Stuff That Stocking



Beethoven always makes a great gift, more reliable than anything else. And as the greatest artist of the human spirit, there’s no time like now to give Beethoven. Here’s some suggestions that are superb musically and real values money-wise:


This cycle from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the very best, and the price makes it the best value of all the symphony cycles in print.

Piano Sonatas

Much tougher to make one choice here. Kempff is the ideal first choice, and his first, mono recordings are the finest set available. But his stereo versions are also excellent and cheaper.

Those are analog recordings. If you want digital (and well-recorded), Paul Lewis’ set is very good, beautiful played and sane all the way through, though not as deep or dramatic as some others. The price gives it high value.



String Quartets

The final leg of the essential Beethoven tripod (itself fundamental to the Western art music tradition). Like the Piano Sonatas, there’s no clear single choice in terms of musical quality and low cost. This is compounded in that many of the best cycles seem to constantly go in and out of print, leaving the consumer at the mercy of the secondary market.

The early Tokyo String Quartet cycle is a bargain, and is fine, but not in the top rank of recordings. Their later one is superior, one of the best, but the prices are all over the place on the secondary market. The Quartet Italiano cycle is superb, one of the very best, and available at a moderate price.


As for the rest, there are a lot of good ones that are expensive, and a lot of inexpensive ones that aren’t as good. Caveat emptor.

The Artist, Hero



Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man)


Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica,” premiered the night of April 7, 1805. And thus began Romanticism, with what sounds, still, like cannon fire.

If the Classic style of Vienna presents the composers thoughts on music in the form of a Haydn Sonata or a Mozart Serenade, the Romantic style presents the composers thoughts about . . . everything. It is not, “listen to my music,” but “listen to me.” A command, an imperative. And Beethoven begins not at the periphery of this idea, but at the core. In the “Eroica,” Beethoven demands that we consider what he means, and what he means he does not exactly know – he means many things, all at the same time, and many of which disagree amongst themselves. In other words, Beethoven is the artist not as Platonic ideal, but as human being.

This is a part of the “heroic” style which begins with him. Another component of it is the endurance, but not always the triumph, of the human spirit against general adversity and especially internal conflict. The title of the work tells the tale – a crisis of belief without a neat resolution. Beethoven was no admirer of France, but did see in Napoleon Bonaparte the possibility of an Enlightenment Revolution sweeping across Europe. He initially thought of dedicating the work the work to Bonaparte, but as his biographer Maynard Solomon relates, he began to have his doubts when that meant losing a fee from one of his patrons, then was further enraged by Bonaparte declaring himself Emperor. That story is well know, as least apocryphally. The tale continues, though. After completion, Beethoven still considered calling the symphony Bonaparte, and the work did not received the title Eroica until 1806. It had become the symphonic depiction of an abstract “Hero.”

This matters, because the work presents a world of musical, intellectual and emotional conflict; sensation, hope, turmoil, questions without answers, a conclusion but not necessarily a resolution and, most of all, it juxtaposes life and death and describes a journey from one to the other and back again. Romanticism! It is a hero’s life and thoughts, and we can think of that hero as Bonaparte. I had been thrilled by the verve, pathos and passion of the symphony, but it didn’t mean much to me until I read Anthony Burgess’s incredible Napoleon Symphony, a novel that is quite faithfully modeled after the music. The marcia funebre takes on a new life when the narrative depiction is of a group of freezing French soldiers trying to make their way back alive from the gates of Moscow in 1812.

But what Beethoven ultimately felt about Bonaparte was ambivalence, and the symphony is anything but that. It is conflicted to the nth degree. It’s an internal portrait of a hero who is really just a man. Beethoven easily fits that, but so can we all. This heroic idea has nothing to do with power, fame or notoriety, or even the current decadent idea of heroism that ‘conservatives’ are so enthralled by. This is heroism as the daily struggle between human impulse and indulgence and our ethical and moral sense, the struggle to find our place in the community and the universe, and at least do no harm.

The work bursts with energy and seems to wander into traps and travails, falling into extremely unstable dissonance almost at the beginning, and following nothing like Classic harmonic structure – it smashes materials against each other which cannot fit together in any way, and then stands briefly, looking at their shards, before turning with a sigh towards some random direction and, hopefully, some light. And that’s just the first movement. The funeral march is heavy with the tread of pall-bearers accompanying the casket, carries some wistful memories of happier times, before falling apart in grief. The scherzo is a wild, almost drunken peasant dance, interrupted by the distant hunting horns of the aristocracy. The finale is Beethoven himself, impudently making fun of a peer, turning the other’s banal melody into a moving finale via a dazzling set of variations. Musically, this comes through clearly in an excellent new recording led by Andrew Manze with the Helsinborg Symphony:

I find the tempos ideal. There is a tremendous effect at the opening, where the opening chords are played with the force that implies a fast pace, and one is left anticipating the second chord, which builds immediate tension. This is a reading where the music really speaks for itself, and the small size of the orchestra allows clarity of internal detail. I’ve never heard the kind of delineation of dissonance in the internal voices as with this performance. Manze seems to be viewing this work from a point in the Classic period, and is full of subtle wonder about the shift in possibility the symphony produces. The newness is there.

Michael Tilson Thomas also covers the work in great musical detail. Between the two conductors, one can get quite an education into what makes the Eroica revolutionary. My own thought is that with this work, you have an idea that becomes essential to Romantic music, which is of music as a memory art. The Classical style, generally, describes a musical journey from a home key and back again. It is the journey of a technique. The Romantic style describes a personal journey, mainly between degrees of light and dark, and frequently between life and death. The territory covered is internal, and the method is through memory – the hero can only return to life by recalling moments, experiences, joys and sorrows, and by that means reconstitute himself again. This is true in Berlioz, who could not exist without Beethoven, and in the art of Courbet, who himself only cares about telling you what he thinks, whether in the famous self-portrait above or this wonderful one of himself as a Communard, rueful and self-mocking:


The terrific Courbet exhibition at the Met includes the famous portrait the painter did of Berlioz, and relates that the composer did not like the painter at all. Two willful artists together, not surprising. It’s a great picture though, the composer full of the same type of creative conflict and turmoil that Beethoven used as his fuel. We admire, even exalt their work, and frequently disparage their personalities, expecting some kind of easy, shallow psychological correlation between the ‘goodness’ of art and that of the people who produce it. But this is based on a strange idea of goodness – a combination of saintliness and agreeability. Beethoven was not a saint, and often not particularly agreeable. He was a man, and that makes him the artist, Hero.

Beethoven, My Brother


We all have our madeleines.  This morning I sat in a waiting room, and the Beethoven Violin Concerto came over the radio.  Lost time came in search of me, a mass of moments revivified and occupying me equally and simultaneously.  The sensation was familiar in one important way, it was the feeling I have each time I hear this music, which is both the sensation of the moment and the recollection of that same, wonderful feeling from each previous time.  It is the sensation of knowing that Beethoven is my brother.

In my first go-round in Brooklyn, living in Fort Greene in the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, you might have found me some early weekday evenings at the bar of the Alibi Club, which, before the sun set nightly, was a comfortable, no-frills neighborhood place where one could sit quietly, chat and win a pot of cash by putting in your own money and answer for ‘Final Jeopardy.’  I remember one conversation I had with a frequent patron named Noel, about music.  We were talking appreciatively about what we loved, avant-garde jazz for me and classic album rock for him, but when I mentioned that I had been listening obsessively to George Szell’s Beethoven cycle – and I had been – we found ourselves conjoined in a love for Beethoven.  Not everyone loves, or is even interested in him, but he’s easy to love no matter what one’s musical taste or interest may be; we love our brothers, and Beethoven is one.

Pop songs tell us about experiences that we have had our would like to have, we can relate to and identify with the stories and the feelings and the personalities of the tellers/singers, whether we kissed a girl or loved and lost like Frank has.  Sometimes the songs are so good, so complex and enduring that they leave it to us to decided what exactly we are identifying with emotionally, which changes through time as we endure life.  Usually, though, unendurable teenage heartbreak turns into adult disappointment and ennui, and so the teenage songs no longer work and must be replaced by adult songs.  Classical music is different in that it doesn’t tell us very much at all, it instead appeals to totally abstract ideas of time and form.  It asks questions rather than offers answers, and so does not appeal to all, but its appeal is enduring since it’s always an intriguing, often beautiful mystery to solve.  We never actually find the solution, but there is marvelous pleasure in the process.

Classical music does offer personalities, but often these are both abstracted and idealized.  This is especially true in the Classical era, where the music of Mozart and Haydn is guided by their personalities, i.e. their taste and choices, but presents what they think about their own ideas, not themselves directly.  This changes with Beethoven who is so exceptional because he does both simultaneously; he doesn’t need to choose between telling us about himself and about what he thinks of his own abstract ideas.  To Beethoven, that’s an irrelevancy.  In the Violin Concerto, we hear what he thinks about sonata-allegro form, and how he likes to solve the puzzle of finding his way home after a long journey, and this is appealing and satisfying to those who find spirit and beauty in those questions (and they are full of such things).  We also hear Beethoven tell us about himself, not the abstract figure represented in Classical music but his real, Romantic self.  What he tells us in all his music, literally all, is this: I have suffered, and I have struggled, but I have also found joy.

That is something we all desire to hear and to be able to say ourselves at times in our life, and so Beethoven can appeal to everyone.  For other Romantic composers, we react as we would in making or rejecting friendships; how our personalities mix with the music is the key.  If the music is appealing it is because it becomes a friend, and like real friends we think and react in a variety of ways depending on who we are with, and our moods and the companionship we require.  Schumann, Schubert, the eccentric Berwald, the simple, mystical Bruckner, the aesthete Tchiakovsky, the enigmatic Sibelius are all my friends, but I don’t wish their company at all times.  The Stravinsky of The Firebird, Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps is my dazzling, eternally youthful and brilliant friend, while the late-Romantic Schoenberg is an acquaintance who shares few concerns with me, and Richard Strauss is an unpleasant fellow who seeks social circles that I find repulsive.  Gustav Mahler is the exhaustingly intimate friend with whom the discursive, fascinating conversation never ends.

Those are some of my friends, and they are my friends because I like them.  Beethoven is not my friend, however, and I don’t always like him.  He can infuriate me with his scorn, his pettiness, his arrogant and cruel moods – he’s not a person who, if I did not know, I would pursue a friendship with.  That doesn’t matter, though, because I do know him, and he knows me.  He’s my brother, and so I will always love him.

Consumer Reports

Looking out for your dollars, so you don’t have to …

Must Haves and New Releases


* DG is releasing a new Claudio Abbado Mahler cycle. This one collects his live recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and completely supersedes his previous cycle in terms of music making and recording quality. Everything is strong, and Symphonies 1, 3, 5 and 9 are among the finest on record. You can pre-order through Amazon or, for half the price, the Presto Classical site. You’ll also get is sooner through Presto, though once the domestic release date nears, the Amazon price is likely to drop below $50.

* Not available in the US domestic market, there’s another great DG box coming out, 23 CDs of recordings from the great conductor Rafael Kubelik. This one collects the complete symphonies of Mahler, Beethoven, Dvorak, and Schumann. These are fine recordings and this box is a great value.

* Beethoven Symphonies 1 – 9, George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. The best first choice for a Beethoven set, and arguably the finest cycle ever recorded, this has gone in and out of print for the last thirty years, but is available again for less than $20. If you don’t have this, order it today.

PLAYLIST Week 1, 2014

Great recordings of masterpieces from the romantic era. All highly recommended, especially the upcoming Harmonia Mundi releases:

Music I Loved – February 2013

For the shortest month, February was packed with new and upcoming releases that I loved. Taken together with music that was released or previewed in January, I already have a short-list for finest recordings of the year, and my pleasure in listening to these recordings assures me firmly that I will be enjoying them just as much, if not more, by the time the day light starts to wane:
Atoms for Peace, Amok. This recording confirms that Radiohead is Thom Yorke’s band. The only constant with Radiohead is Yorke, but this record sits at the foundation of the Radiohead aesthetic, which combines beauty, power, supple rhythms and an irresistible forward flow. It grooves, shimmers, and surrounds the listener with evocative stimulation. Yorke’s voice floats atop the textures, which balance space and rich colors. A fantastic record.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away. Equally fantastic. This is a departure in style for Cave, but one that suits his ideas and sensibilities so well that it is not only welcome, but seems the point that his career has been moving in. The narrative lyrics and metaphors are still there, rooted deep in Anglo-American folk traditions, the voice is as seductive as ever, but the music not longer holds to song forms. Instead, the vocals are delivered over a beds of looping patterns, making this just as much an ‘electronica’ record as Amok. This doesn’t diminish Cave’s songwriting, but rather focusses it on the things that matter: the words, the rueful, intimate delivery, the sense of the sublime.
Barbara Govatos, violin, Marcantonio Barone, piano, Beethoven, the Violin Sonatas. Did you think I only listen to pop music? This actually had a release date of December 2012, but the promo did not reach me until last month. These are, of course, great pieces of music that sit at the center of the Western Classical chamber music tradition, and these are exceptionally fine performances. Govatos and Barone literally ravish each phrase with musical attention, everything is done with meaning and purpose, and they have a complete understanding of the architectural aspects of the music and how they serve the emotional content. Govatos has a tremendous violin sound, one of the best I’ve heard, and the entire recording has been beautifully captured. Great interaction, lustrous phrasing throughout. This has displaced the formidable set from Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich as the first choice.

The rest of the list:

Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestras, Nielsen: Symphonies 2 & 3. There’s a Nielsen revival going on and that’s exciting. This release finishes up Davis’ live cycle, which has been personal and quirky and rewarding.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Functional Arrhythmias. Dense, complex structural and rhythmic patterns from Coleman. While I miss Jen Shyu’s voice his previous two releases, this is an advance in the sophistication of Coleman’s concept of applying structures found in nature to music. Mysterious, sometimes opaque, but compelling.

Gloria Cheng and the Calder Quartet, The Edge of Light: Messiaen and Saariaho. Beautiful chamber music from two great composers. I love the way Cheng plays Messiaen’s “Huit Preludes” like it was Ravel, and the stark aesthetic of Saariaho’s music is a natural for the group.

Matthias Goerne, Schubert: Erlkönig. From one of the finest contemporary voices and singer, a performance that emphasizes the music and underplays the Romanticism, to great effect.

Richard Egarr, Bach: The English Suites. Egarr has been recording the Bach keyboard works on harpsichord, and his series is one of the finest there is.

Nadia Sirota, Baroque. Perhaps it is, but unlike Bach. This second recital disc from Sirota on co-produced by New Amsterdam and Bedroom Community (UPDATED) is less immediately surprising, but repeated listening shows power and depth to the pieces from Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly, and welcome respites from Shara Worden and others. Very fine.

Jace Clayton, Julius Eastman Memory Depot. This is a major release, ambitious and accomplished. Eastman’s music is exciting, important and neglected, and on this disc Clayton presents both “Evil Nigger” and “Gay Guerrilla,” two piano works that display Eastman’s virtues of irreverence, seriousness and forceful thinking and expression. Clayon uses electronics to rework the instruments sounds in something of an elegiac haunting of his own work by the composer. It’s terrific.

As always, you can support this site by purchasing any of these release through the links in the post, or donate below.


Keepin' It Real

Links and Lists:

The Year in Beethoven

Beethoven is eternal, the calendar just marks time. But we note things that happened during a year and remember it that way, and we reward things from a given you, so it’s time to look at the year in Beethoven. You might find a good gift:

If you all you know of Beethoven is the symphonies, you’re doing fine. If you know the string quartets and piano sonatas, then you are familiar with a good amount of the central masterworks in Western classical music. This year in Beethoven begins with two collections of the symphonies, and please note that before them I already had … fifteen, why do you ask … complete sets, along with various single and partial cycles, There is literally not enough time in the year to listen to those, yet I’ve been mostly listening to Daniel Barenboim’s new cycle, with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and a box that collects previous recordings by Jan Willem de Vriend and the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.


Coming Out Parties

This month, two young pianists are making splashy debuts. One of them is no stranger to classical music fans, that’s Jeremy Denk, who already has a few self-produced CDs, including a great recording of the Ives Concord Sonata to his name, as well as a well-known blog and published articles in the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review. But he is now on Nonesuch, his major label debut. The other is HJ Lim who has, through the mysteries of the classical music business, been able to debut on another major label, EMI, in the most magnificent way possible, with a complete set of the Beethoven piano sonatas.

Even more audacious, the first sonata on the first disc is the Op. 106 “Hammerklavier,” which is a difficult work for even the most accomplished pianists. This is a clear statement of artistic intention and ambition. She handles it with enough ease to make some particular expressive choices, some which seem misguided and all pointing towards her fundamental view of the composer, which is as a proto-Lisztian Romantic. It’s an interesting and valid idea, but I don’t feel she makes a convincing case throughout the thirty-two sonatas. Beethoven straddled worlds, closing out the Classical era and single-handedly creating the Romantic one. That means there are integral elements of both concepts in the pieces, with Romantic personal expression supported by masterful Classical structures. That includes the Op. 106.

She tends toward overdoing changes in tempo. She’s not the first pianist to modulate tempo for expressive purposes without Beethoven calling for it, but where others, like Kempff and Nat do it judiciously, she does it pervasively. Her ritard on the last page of the first movement is already too much, and in the context it diminishes the improvisational feeling of her expressive playing in the “Adagio sostenuto,” which is something special. In her program notes, she focusses on Beethoven and the myth of Prometheus, seeing fire as a metaphor for knowledge and spirituality, and the composer as spreading what she considers a divine inspiration throughout his culture. This isn’t wrong, but it’s also not quite right, and too simplistic. Prometheus is a metaphor for the Enlightment, of which Beethoven was a child, and in that context knowledge is an antidote for received wisdom, including the spiritual kind in the hierarchal structure of Christianity. It also misses the point that what Prometheus gave mankind was a tool, and tools are used to build and make. Beethoven is the greatest builder of all the composers, piecing together incremental units into architectures that are massive, indestructible and still fluid in shape and quick in feel.

This has something to do with tempo, and rhythm, the latter elements being the thing that holds music together through time. Beethoven uses rhythm to build tension like a coiled spring, and the best way to convey that musically is by precision in tempo, which winds the spring subtly but powerfully. Push the tempo around too much, and the tension, and some of Beethoven himself, is lost. Rubinstein’s playing of the sonatas is an exact and fantastic demonstration of what a steady tempo does for the music, and Lim loses a lot in not being disciplined about tempo, one of Beethoven’s pieces of fire.

I am being critical because this is important music, and music that pianists use to prove themselves to audiences. Lim is no slouch, and this set is, although uneven, certainly not bad and often very impressive. Dipping into the pieces, I hear:

  • The ‘Waldstein’ is fine and her transition to the “Rondo Allegretto” is surprisingly understated, the rolling phrases carrying satisfying emotional weight.
  • The “Allegretto – Più mosso” movement of the Sonata in F Op. 54 is technically messy, although the tempo is not at some of the extremes she approches at other times. She has no shortage of chops, so perhaps this is a lack of preparation.
  • The ‘Pastorale’ sonata is well-balanced between relaxed lyricism and sturm und drang, one of the best things in the set.
  • In the ‘Les Adieux’ sonata, the mystery of the opening chords is lost in her rush to hit the “Allegro” mark, though the second movement is excellent. In the final movement, “Vivacissimamente” seems to have been written with her in mind.
  • The first sonata, Op. 2 No. 1, is a great early work, and Lim rushes through it perfunctorily
  • The ‘Appasionata’ is suitably dramatic and not at all overdone.
  • Her ‘Moonlight’ sonata is fast and surprisingly intense, a highlight of the set.

Except for the mixed ‘Hammerklavier,’ her playing of the last handful of sonatas is impressive and I would gladly listen to those tracks rather than pull Goode, Kempff, Lewis, Schnabel or Gulda off the shelves. Not that she replaces those recordings, but she’s a good complement and companion to them. After this start, I’m more than a little curious about what she will move on to next. I’d like to hear her play Liszt, which seems perfect for her hands, her heart and her mind.

A word about the recordings themselves; I was sent the “Mastered for iTunes” digital download, and I do not know what the point of the engineering is. The music was captured in Faller Hall, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, and the acoustic space around the piano has breadth and depth without too much reverb, but the final quality is bright to the point of giving the texture a weird brittleness inside a good sonic field. It’s highly engineered without much attention paid to how it sounds.

This set is currently available at the iTunes store for the promotional price of $9.99, which makes it self-recommending. This would be a value at three times that price or more, and if you’d like to add a complete Beethoven sonata cycle to your library, don’t hesitate, especially if this will be your first. If you know this music already, there is a lot of pleasure and satisfaction in the set. If you’d like a sample, you can download her recording of the Op. 109 Sonata in exchange for nothing more than your email address.
Jeremy Denk’s major label debut is a great CD. More compact than Lim’s, but covers more ground musically in pairing the first two books of Ligeti’s Etudes Pour Piano with Beethoven’s final sonata, in C minor Op. 111. Both are masterpieces of the piano literature, the earlier music pointing the way, technically and aesthetically, to Ligeti’s own great achievement, a set of pieces that pianists will be playing regularly 100 years from now.

The top layer feature of the Etudes is their technical challenges, especially the first one of the first book, “Désordre,” which makes one musician sound like three (and as I saw Ligeti demonstrate in a lecture-performance in the mid-1990’s, was crafted with genius level simplicity). The music also explores the deep resources the piano has for polyphony, poly-rhythms and harmonic textures, and Ligeti creates tremendous, and tremendously fascinating and exciting, complexity out of a proliferation of lines and also a spare sense of harmony that is both mysterious and highly advanced. From the perspective of sheer, cold craft, these are some of the most accomplished compositions in the history of Western classical music, on par with Stravinsky’s virtuoso language in his Violin Concerto. Like that work, the Etudes take stock of the enormous previous history and both synthesize it and point in new directions. Ligeti’s point in history means Bach, Beethoven, Lizst and also John Coltrane and African music via Steve Reich.

The mix of tradition and imagination means that beyond craft, this is some of the most physically and intellectually involving and exciting music there is, full of punchy rhythms, a beguiling way with building clouds of ambient sound, and a very Romantic feeling of personal expression that gropes its way towards the incomprehensible mysteries that lie both inside and beyond all of us. Denk tackles all this with a feeling of strength and rigor that I admire. He handles the pianistic demands with a measured sense of effort, you can hear how damn hard some of the music is to play without ever feeling that it’s beyond him, and even in the most extreme expressive ideas, like in “Vertige” and “En suspens” in Book II, he never lets the gauze cloud a clear view of the music.

Still, he brings out the Romantic quality in the music, more so than in the other fine recordings by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and Fredrik Ullén. He reinforced this at his CD release recital on May 21st at Le Poisson Rouge, where in between the closing etudes of Book I, “Arc-en-ciel” and “Automne à Varsovie,” he elided Lizst’s transcription of “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen Zagen” from the Bach cantata. It was a plangent exploration of how hundreds of years of the development of knowledge about abstract structures, rules of harmony and counterpoint, could be used as the foundation for searching and iconoclastic expression. And that’s what makes the Beethove sonata such an amazing juxtaposition with Ligeti.

Op. 111 is music that only a deaf composer could write. Denk spoke about pairing the “mania of Beethoven with the mania of Ligeti,” each sharing a fervent and not altogether sane needed to free themselves of the ideas that made their art possible. Where Ligeti assumes the listener’s familiarity with musical history, Beethoven uses the first movement of the sonata to review it, like a medley, a nutshell of keyboard music in eight and a half minutes. The second movement is entirely different, focussed on both the simplest musical ideas and the most complex emotional expression. The music breaks down to a series of repeated phrases and seemingly endless trills, monomaniacal in a way that never returned in music until the advent of the Minimalists. It’s as if, hearing only music in his head, Beethoven could concentrate on the smallest bits, the kind of material that in any other composer’s hand would be no more than decoration. He, though, had only an internal sense of time, or timelessness, and so that fragment could expand in the moment to become the thing itself. Imagine the sweet, bright sound of a trill in your head, indulge in the physical sensation in the mind’s ear, the two notes almost literally caressing the imagination. Now imagine that you cannot hear anything around you, except what’s in the mind’s ear, there is nothing to tear you away from that pleasure. What type of ecstasy is possible? In Beethoven’s case, the most exalted kind. What might be an aural prison becomes instead utter freedom, the freedom to say, this is beautiful and exalted to me, and I only need this, and I offer it to you.

While Lim plays this well, Denk plays it with the poise and dignity that Beethoven constantly demands, and that demands maturity. Beethoven was a great humanist, demanding by example that all people be afforded respect, and Denk channels that force. The take captured on the CD is great, one of the best, built on a sense of how each phrase leads inevitably to the next. His performance at Le Poisson Rouge was extraordinary, it absolutely silenced the staff and the crowd. There was the rapturous feeling of being in the hands of a great artist, of seeing through him to each measure and page of the score, watching the notes laid out and building, each upon each, knowing at every moment what would come next, and relishing each moment for how beautiful and satisfying that would be.

April Playlist

Recommended recordings, new and old:
Jerome Sabbagh, Plugged In, on the Bee Jazz label, is packed full of great thinking and playing, it touches on many styles but subverts them all into the Sabbagh’s overall conception, which has grown in both focus and expansiveness. Jozef Dumoulin’s keyboard work, from both the hard-bop tradition and Joe Zawinul’s legacy, is an enormous asset. One of the most satisfying jazz discs so far this year (more album info here).

Beethoven: Complete Symphonies, Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin

Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

Simeon ten Holt: Canto Ostinato, Jeroen van Veen, Sandra van Veen

Elvis Costello, The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook

Ysaye: 6 Sonatas Op. 27, Tai Murray, a powerful, involving disc. These are great and unusual pieces, bravura and thus extroverted but built of of Ysaye’s very personal memories and sensations of violinists he knew and fragments of music they played and he loved. Murray handles to the technical demands with seeming ease, and plays with a gorgeously full, woody sound. What makes the playing special, though, is that she trusts the sonic beauty of her instrument to reach the audience as she digs deep down into the interior of the music, and herself. She seems to disappear, leaving a direct path to the music. As good as it gets.