Good Gifts To Give

Everybody needs some Bukowski in their life.

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Everybody needs some Bukowski in their life. For those who rely on his perspective and sense of beauty, his astonishing industry has meant an enormous amount of posthumous publications.

This new volume of previously uncollected and unpublished poems—many of them appeared decades ago in the mimeographed poetry magazines, how’s that for analog?—is typical of these in one sense: it’s a mixed bag of good and not so good writing.

What makes this book special is that the good writing is some of the best I’ve read from Bukowski, wonderful in spirit and in line. This joins the ranks of his finest books of poems, like Love is a Dog From Hell and Septuagenarian Stew.

And while you’re in the giving mood, please contribute to the Big City Kickstarter campaign. I still need your help, and the campaign is open through December 7. Become a subscriber now for some cool schwag!

“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“I dig the jacket!”

Kurt Elling

Good Gifts To Give

It’s that time of the year, and a day in particular, to think about what you are going to get to give. And since you and your friends and family have good taste and are curious about the world, I first recommend: Beethoven.

I am not here to tell you not to be a consumer, I’m here to help you be an excellent consumer.

It’s that time of the year, and a day in particular, to think about what you are going to get to give. And since you and your friends and family have good taste and are curious about the world, I first recommend: Beethoven.

Everyone needs at least one set of the Beethoven Symphonies, and this one is musically excellent and a great value.

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More hard core means adding the Piano Sonatas and String Quartets. These two sets are great for the ears and easy on the wallet:

Get the Goode Sonatas recording. Others are cheaper but they are either musically poor (Kovacevich) or for more specialized taste (Schnabel, but not great for getting to know the music).

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There are many classic recordings of the Quartets. The Végh is not as technically accomplished as the Emerson, or even Takacs, but oh my the poetic playing is wonderful. This box has a bargain price and also includes their Bartók Quartets, essential compositions though their’s is not one of the best Bartók cycles (get this one instead).

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“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“I dig the jacket!”

Kurt Elling

Discs in a Box

When it’s time to start thinking of giving, nothing beats a box of discs:

Remember, if you order by clicking the links, you help support this site

Jazz:

Dave Douglas: DD50

Trumpeter Dave Douglas turned fifty this year, and his celebration included releasing a boxed set of new and recent recordings, DD50. It’s a rare package in that it collects music that is not only recent but new. The contents are his 2012 recording Be Still, with singer Aoife O’Donovan, and quintet and sextet recordings from this year, Time Travel and Pathways. While these are all also available separately, inside the box you also get a DVD with in-studio playing and music videos, and a code to download four extra tracks, all of which are as good as the official releases.

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The box is both a value and a bargain. I’m not a fan of O’Donovan’s singing, which I find bland and clichéd, and Be Still is too sentimental for me (a personal bugaboo), but the ensemble discs are excellent. Douglas is an excellent player with an uneven recording career. His ambitious compositional projects aren’t successful: though they’re full of good material, he can’t sustain their structures through to the end.

His quintet recordings have always been a favorite of mine though, going back to more than ten years to The Infinite. Time Travel is great, one of the best jazz releases this year. His new quint is anchored by Linda Oh on bass and Rudy Royston drums, and the high energy and intelligent pianist Matt Mitchell and saxophonist Jon Irabagon push the band to a new level. The sextet disc returns some important members of his earlier bands — drummer Clarence Penn and pianist Uri Caine — and is a little subtler but also excellent, despite O’Donovan’s cameo. It’s a survey of his estimable accomplishments in his fiftieth year, and great present to himself and gift to others.

William Parker: Wood Flute Songs: Live 2006-2012

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With Dave Douglas above, this is the only other set on this list of recommendations that is made up of recent and new material. As the title says, these are all live recordings led by Parker, one of the finest and most important musicians on the creative edge of jazz for the past thirty years or so. Every disc features his core quartet, with Hamid Drake on drums (they make one of the finest rhythm sections in jazz history), Rob Brown on alto sax and Lewis Barnes on trumpet. They are augmented and reconfigured into almost every important ensemble Parker has led (except for his big band and his Curtis Mayfield tribute group): Raining on the Moon with the singer Leena Conquest, In Order to Survive with Cooper-Moore on piano, an absolutely wonderful septet with Billy Bang, Bobby Bradford and James Spaulding. The stats are eight CDs, over nine hours of music, only 1,500 copies issued, and 100% never-before released music. The quality is: a rich, involving, exciting and comprehensive look at the state-of-the-art in creative jazz in the early twenty-first century. Considered as an album, this is one of the most remarkable releases of the past decade. Highest recommendation.

The Complete Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941)

Another in the long line of exceptionally produced and essential box sets of historic jazz from Mosaic Records. Chick Webb led one of the greatest bands of the swing era. They were legendary for their power in live situations, but what the these hundreds of tracks show is how incredibly stylish they were. There is an elegance and sophistication to everything they play, and there are plenty of instrumental only tracks that are full of excitement.

Of course, the point of the set is the young Ella, who began singing with Webb when she was still a teenager. She was to my mind, along with Anita O’Day, the greatest singer the music has ever had. Her singing made jazz what it is: precise intonation, impeccable swing, beautiful phrasing. These recordings show the sweet gentleness of her youthful voice and spirit, and are a deeply poignant companion to all here later recordings, especially the great American songbooks, where she is a woman, full of experience, ruefulness, and the blues. The usual informative, detailed booklet from Mosaic, full of great pictures. This set is limited to 5,000 copies.

Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Begins

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The revolution began when Scott-Heron made these recordings for the Flying Dutchman label, and it was revived when this 3-CD set was released January 1. These recordings are Scott-Heron at his finest. They are untempered fire, mordant humor, brilliant criticism and the occasional bits of sad homophobia. His ideas this early in his career where fully formed, and while from track to track the musical conception can be uneven, mainly on the first disc “Songs” (made up of Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Pieces of a Man and Free Will), the force of his intelligence is incredibly exciting, and the bands that feature Bernard Purdie, Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Gerry Jemmott and others are great. Some of the funkiest soul music around, supporting some of the most important vernacular poetry of the past fifty years. Essential for anyone with any interest in African-American music and culture.

Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection 1972 – 1988

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One of the behemoths of the season, thirty-four CDs that collect one one of the most aesthetically varied careers in jazz and American popular music. It’s not cheap, it’s not tidy, but it is full of riches. Jazz traditionalists will balk at its very existence, but listeners who value music that is creatively restless and intriguingly untidy — and that’s a lot of Herbie Hancock fans — will need to snap this up.

It’s also for fans of Sun Ra and his aesthetic associates. As great as Hancock is — and he is a great pianist, composer and bandleader — the view of his career and music-making has been confined to his origins in the contemporary mainstream at Blue Note in the 1960s and his role in Miles Davis’ 1965 – 68 Quintet, the greatest small group in jazz history. Confined to this context, he is a seminal post-bop jazzer who either spread hipness to the masses or sold his soul for cash via funk and dance music. That’s too short and narrow a lever to crack open such an enormous career.

But think of him like Sun Ra, and it all falls into place. They are both brilliant musicians who saw themselves as completely in the African-American tradition, which is unusually capacious and sympathetic. Ra made pop music that was just a natural part of his whole, in which the step from Fletcher Henderson to free-improvisation ritual was nothing more than shifting from the chair to the couch in the same living room. Hancock, though exploration different styles, has been doing the same thing. The Blue Note discs, the Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands, the V.S.O.P Quintet and Future Shock are faces of the same set of values and musical ambitions.

This set represents it all, with the great funk records like Head Hunters and Thrust, the acoustic ensemble, the pop collaborations with Bill Laswell, the hipness and naïve futurism. There are eight discs never released before outside of Japan (including an incredible live album Flood, a reunion trio with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, the soundtrack to Death Wish. This is a must have box set.

Other Notable Sets:

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Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings

Paul Bley: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note

Anita O’Day: The Verve Years 1957-1962

Andrew Cyrille: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note

The Complete Clifford Jordan Strata-East Sessions

Joe McPhee: Nation Time, The Complete Recordings

Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions

Oliver Lake: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note

Paul Motion (ECM Recordings)

Julius Hemphill: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note

Classical

Verdi: The Complete Works

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This is a year of important anniversaries in the Western classical tradition: bicentennials of Wagner and Verdi, centennials of Britten and Lutoslawski. All are represented on this list, but experience in the concert halls, opera houses and in front of my stereo has me firmly convinced of the greatness and importance of Verdi, one of three opera composers (the others are Monteverdi and Mozart) whose achievements are beyond all others and whose legacy is eternal and indispensable.

With Verdi, the revolutionary ideas of Monteverdi — recitative — and Mozart — harmonic structure — and synthesized and furthered by a naturalism that binds the music completely to story and character. The humanity, urgency and tunefulness of Verdi’s operas are unsurpassed. This set includes all his dramatic works, with the two versions each of the masterpieces La forza del destine and Don Carlo, his choral and sacred works, songs, ballet music, the string quartet and a collection of rarities. The musicians include Pavarotti, Sutherland, Muti, Giulini, Domingo, Gergiev … it’s ridiculously rich and, at less then $2/disc, a steal. And if you have the money and want more, you can get Tutto Verdi: The Complete Operas on stage, on DVD.

For about half the price of the box above, you can get a good collection of his generally greatest operas in this box from EMI. I am less and less fond of Wagner each day, but if you care about opera he must be dealt with, one way or another, and DG has a compact and bargain priced box of his complete opera.

Britten: The Complete Works

The other great opera composer celebrated this year is Benjamin Britten, and this is another extravagant collection that covers not only his operas but his excellent chamber music, songs, orchestral pieces and more. While not cheap, it’s again a great value at about $4/disc. The set also includes a 208 page hardcover book with biographical material, pictures, and index and more.

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There are three excellent, stringy recommended box sets of music from important twentieth century composers. Lutoslawski is the first. Vastly underrated, his music extraordinary, reconciling the Western classical tradition with the concepts of John Cage, and doing so with incredible colors and expressive beauty. This box collects the terrific series of recordings on the Naxos label. A necessity for anyone with an interest in modern classical music.

But the other two sets are no less necessary: Henze: The Complete Deutsche Grammophon Recordings, and Pierre Boulez: Complete Works. The Henze set does not cover his whole career, there are chamber pieces and operas that DG did not record, but it has the complete Symphonies, dramatic works like El Cimarron and Das Floss der Medusa, songs, concertos and the late ballet Undine. Henze was an knotty, uncompromising artist with exceptional skill and powerful ideas.

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Other Notable Sets:

Gesualdo: Complete Madrigals

Complete Bach Cantatas

Henri Dutilleux 1916-2013

The Art of David Tudor 1963-1992

Music of Gustav Mahler: Issued 78s 1903-1940

Alexander String Quartet: Bartók & Kodály, Complete String Quartets

Boulez Conducts Mahler

Pop

Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Volume 1

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Self-recommending and, at forty-seven discs plus hardcover book, a good value. If there are any doubts about the worth of this set, consider the contents:

  • All thirty-five studio albums, through Tempest
  • Included is first North American CD release of Dylan
  • Six live albums
  • 2-CD set Side Tracks that collects songs from the recording sessions that were left off the original albums

Warts and all, and with Dylan you need all, and continued listening through this box has convinced me you need it all, including the warts. One can only ponder what Volume 2 will bring …

The Orb: History of the Future

As important as any pop group in the last twenty-five years. Three CDs and one DVD that collect tracks like “A Huge Evergrowing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld,” along with remixes and rarities, two live sets (Copenhagen in 1993 and Woodstock in 1994) and video of Top of the Pops appearances, promo videos and live events.

Other Notable Sets:

Wood Guthrie: American Radical Patriot

Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 1

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Yes: The Studio Albums 1969-1987

The Beatles: Live at the BBC, the Collection

The Vevet Underground: White Light/White Heat 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition

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The Guide To Giving Beethoven

Black Friday is a day best kept close to home, I think, especially considering the possibility of a Zombie menace, always lurking at the edge of large, frenetic, monomaniacal crowds. And so a hearty congratulations on your continued survival!

I understand the need to shop for holiday gifts, I just think most of the time spent on it should be from home, with all the contemporary conveniences. For example, where it used to be something of a guessing game, buying music, now via the magic of the ‘tubes’ it’s easy enough to hear a good example of what it is you’re thinking of, giving music fans almost the same opportunity that book browsers have had. If you know what you want, then you’ll get it, but when trying to choose between what seems to be an equally good set of options, this audio browsing is invaluable.

For example, how to decide which set of complete Beethoven Symphonies to give as a gift? Of course you were considering this, because what better gift to give to anyone, especially the proverbial person who has everything. The Beethoven Symphonies are at the core of Western art music, the place from which a listener can explore the past that preceded the composer and the future (and present) he presaged. They gather together aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, philosophical and moral values that are at the core of our individual experience of contemporary civilization and represent not only the ideals that we hold and strive to follow but their realization, in exhilarating and frustratingly fleeting moments.

This is particular to and special about Beethoven. There are other composers, like Bach and Mozart, who made music that expressed all sorts of ideas about God, the self in society, the values of wisdom and maturity. Their works are masterpieces of artifice, of the artificial creation that is the history of Western art music. Fugue does not exist as a means or experience of human life, it is a puzzle, a set of rules to guide the creation of a piece of music that is about how it fits into, and works against, those same rules. That it can be extraordinarily beautiful, intellectually fulfilling and emotionally and spiritually moving is testimony to the triumph of the human imagination, of man as the creating species, propagating ideas as well as children, and is the insoluble mystery of consciousness, which we can explain mechanically (how it works) but not essentially (why it works). The fugue and other abstract forms, even when bent to the service of specific liturgical expression, are outside our experience, invisible shapes which touch us in the moment but pass by, lost in time. When we hear Bach, we hear his brilliance in solving the puzzle. And when we hear Mozart at his most social and humane, in his operas, we hear what he thinks of his characters, and he is always sympathetic. But the characters themselves are abstractions. In Le Nozze di Figaro, the greatest achievement in opera composition, we hear his good humor, his implicit caring for those without love, but primarily we hear how he reconciles character, deed and drama through music. It is music that brings the figures together, not only in the astonishing quartet where the characters sing about their own interpretation of the moment and each interpretation accompanies the others, no matter how far apart their ideas may be, but literally in the end, when the Countessa and Count are reconciled through music, where the music ensures that Figaro and Susanna remain in Almaviva’s employ. The music is meant to salve, and solve, what in real life would be enduring pain and bitterness. It is beautiful, it is genius, but it is not us, our experience, our life. This is the problem with Don Giovanni, with the strange lightheartedness during and at the end that constantly argues against the pain and tragedy of the Don’s violations. A murderer and sex criminal in real life becomes, on the stage, a transgressor of social boundaries, something that does not truly exist. It is the artifice of it all . . .

There is something different about Beethoven which makes him the greatest of all composers. Not necessarily the most important (though he may be), and certainly not the most influential, at least in terms of how the music that followed him was made, although he did single-handedly create the possibility of a century and more of Romantic music. Beethoven appeals to anyone and everyone, his music is passionately exciting and fulfilling to people who have no interest in classical music. His art is sophisticated, challenging, fulfilling the artifice of art music in the deepest ways, but it is not subtle. It doesn’t need to be. Beethoven is always sincere and direct, he expresses exactly what he is thinking, even if what he is thinking is ambiguous or confused, and without the neurotic drama of Mahler. His mastery of the artificial rules of music is so total and complete that he ignores them with confidence and impunity. Although he is the greatest master of harmonic structure, of laying out a journey that, as maze-like as it can be, unerringly brings us home – we hear that assured inevitability in every moment and so eagerly allow him to lead us forward – he casually flouts the rules of Classical harmonic organization, modulating to new keys by decree rather than by design. It’s as if he tells us to take it or leave it, and we take it because it is so powerful and moving. He moves us through his passion and tenderness, not for abstract notions or characters, but for us. He is the democrat of music, unconcerned with bourgeois rank and status, with how a piece or a form is supposed to go.

As a maker of forms, a builder, Beethoven is unequalled. As listeners, we have no need to identify what he’s working with, whether it’s sonata-allegro form, fugue, rondo, et. al. We can hear how he has shaped something, he makes every piece of the edifice clear just as he never hides the outline of his design, so we always feel the connection between what we hear in the moment and how the music began, we always know that what we are hearing makes sense in an overall plan. Hearing his symphonies, even for the first time, is like walking through a building that has a structure based around such a firmly logical design that we can anticipate the size, shape and purpose of each room before we enter. Even in his late works, in the Ninth Symphony, what seems wild and willful is always assuredly there for a reason. The amazing late structures, heroic acts of imagination for a man who was almost entirely deaf, have forms and shapes only tenuously related to those of the past, yet they still come from what we know of the past. During the riotous first movement of the Ninth the hunting horns that sound from the distance in a peaceful moment seem perfectly in place, perfectly right, a connection to a clear and purposeful reality, even as we, and Beethoven, hear this churning, obsessive music around us and wonder what it’s for and about. We know it’s about something, more likely it’s about many, many things, too many to sort out in the moment or in a single hearing. But it unmistakably has a purpose. It recognizes that the abstract artifice of music is as fine for conveying the messy vulgarity of life as a shout or laugh in the street. It is weird, forceful, upfront and sincere.

That’s why we listen to Beethoven, and that’s why it’s such a good gift. But, which one? There are hundreds of complete sets, either in print or easily available on the after market. How to choose? I have a dozen different sets myself, and have heard at least another dozen in detail. It’s not anywhere near a redundant or excessive amount, there is so much for musicians to say about this music that a dozen, each of them fine, each of which sounds like the very best one when it’s playing, is rather a modest amount. This is especially true since so many excellent Beethoven collections are available at budget level prices.

There are two general divides amidst what is available, having to do with modern or older ways of approaching the music, the modern way being Period Performance Practice, an attempt to recreate the sound and style of the music as it was played in the time it was new, and the older way being the legacy of large scale orchestral playing that comes out of the tail end of the Romantic era and the beginnings of recorded sound. Personal tastes may dictate preference, but neither way is objectively right or wrong, and there are excellent examples of each.

In Period Performance style, the patriarch is Roger Norrington’s set currently on Virgin. This was a historic and controversial undertaking, and one of the reasons it wears its age well is that it, thirty years later, it still sounds jarring. The orchestral sound is leaner and sharper than standard playing, the tempos are very fast, and Norrington does make decisions that at times seem brilliant and at others seem misguided. In comparison to other such recordings, though, Norrington seems almost grandfatherly; his orchestra sound is closer to the norm than those who followed him, like Christopher Hogwood and Roy Goodman, he’s warmer and more human than John Elliot Gardiner’s highly praised by slightly cold and didactic set. He also includes some important overtures and the price is reasonable. My personal favorite Period Performance set is the one with conductor Jos van Immerseel leading Anima Eterna, which is more expensive but might be had for a reasonable price. But Norrington is really a foundational set, exciting, full of ideas, often revelatory and brilliant and a welcome gift to give and receive.

There are more choices in the standard sets, and many bargains. The most famous one, and perhaps the consensus pick, is the 1963 version of the four cycles that Herbert von Karajan recorded, his first one with the Berlin Philharmonic. Rich and powerful and sympathetic in conception, von Karajan did place greater emphasis on Apollonian beauty than Dionysian expression, though nothing is short-changed, everything sounds right and satisfying. You can’t go wrong with this choice . . . although there may be better ones, including an excellent, exciting cycle he recorded in 1950s. The sound is mono and somewhat limited for that, but the playing is intense, leaner and faster than what the conductor would later favor. It’s inexpensive too, but may be a bit specialized. A set I always recommend is an under-appreciated alternative, the symphonies recorded by the excellent Belgian conductor André Cluytens with the same Berlin Philharmonic von Karajan would take over shortly. Exceptionally warm, brilliant and straightforward playing, Cluytens lays out the music clearly and with a very light touch. Although he was expressing his own contemporary thoughts about the composer, the feeling is of the music speaking entirely for itself.

These are analog recordings, though, and if there is value in more up to date sound, there are again excellent and inexpensive digital sets of the music. Leonard Bernstein’s is terrific, as is the great German conductor Günter Wand. Daniel Barenboim’s set is beautifully played, but he favors a deeply Romantic view of the music and may be a bit specialized. Osmo Vänska’s doesn’t break new ground but it does everything wonderfully. There are two fascinating and truly superb sets that combine both modern and older ideas, those from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and David Zinman. Harnoncourt is one of the original Period Performance conductors, but for his Beethoven cycle he used the standard sound of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, changing only the horns to the natural, pre-valve, kind. This is Period Practice applied to modern instruments, and the recordings, all live, are fiery. On disc, the symphonies are only available on a substantial and expensive box set, but the digital download of the symphony cycle alone is at a bargain price. The Zinman set is even better. This was the first using newly revised scores and is one of the most exciting on disc. Zinman’s tempos are at the edge of reckless, but his Zurich Tönhalle Orchestra handles them with ease and brilliance. For those familiar with the music already, the revised scores will have some noticeable revelations, especially in the Ninth Symphony, and some moments, like the oboe improvisation in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, send chills down the spine and make the music sound completely new. Slightly specialized, and not the last word, but pound for pound probably the best single Beethoven set available. Give with confidence.

I think it’s important to include one special, incomplete, unusual set. On the Music & Arts label, there is a collection of most of the symphonies, numbers 3-9, as well as a couple overtures, played by the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Wilhelm Fürtwangler. The sound is fairly rough, as these were radio broadcasts, recorded for the archives and never intended for records and distribution (the digital restoration and mastering is deeply skillful). The playing is greater than any you will ever hear, the ideas preserved within difficult, even frightening. These were recordings made in the Third Reich from March of 1942, the Ninth, to December of 1944, the Third. It’s hard to tell what is going on here because there are so many things going on here. One of them is that Fürtwangler is conducting Beethoven in front of audiences that assuredly contained Nazis and at times (perhaps even these recordings), the likes of Goebbels, Göring and Hitler.

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Though never a Nazi himself, the conductor choose to stay in Germany prior to the start of World War II, appeared at concerts to benefit the Hitler Youth and to celebrate the Führer’s birthday, and led concerts in occupied countries. He also helped spare Jewish musicians from extermination. And he made this music . . . as a musician, Fürtwangler had a rare ability to discern and express what he felt was real poetry in every piece of music he led, and to do so with an intensity that burned, though never harmed, no matter the tempo or dynamic. Beethoven’s music has an inherent, physical power to it, and these performances are intense beyond description, almost to the point of madness. One of the things that is in this Beethoven that cannot be heard anywhere else is a sense of anger, even fury. The music never loses control, but it seems to be telling us, even in the midst of the proclamation of universal brotherhood in the Ninth, or the scene by the babbling brook in the Sixth, that something is very wrong. And why shouldn’t it say this? Beethoven, this deeply moral music and the greatest achievement in German culture is being played in front of people who have set out, through direct effort and indirect support, to exterminate a vast swath of other human beings. Beethoven, who inherently felt what he had to say in music could be heard by all men because all men shared a sense of humanity, is being played in front of people who see those who belong to certain races and nationalities as not even human beings. Fürtwangler, who decided to stay because, rightly or wrongly, he felt that German audiences needed to hear what Beethoven had to say about love and freedom and that it might influence them for the good, is leading that music in front of people enjoying victories in their war of extermination against Slavs, and waiting to be crushed between the pincers of the Allies and the Red Army, is on these recordings burning with a fury that is indescribable, unsurpassed and perhaps directed at himself. And so the music burns. It’s exhilarating and unnerving. It is so because the message in the Ninth Symphony is so clear and so firmly and clearly believed by these musicians and singers as the Wermacht prepares its drive on the Caucasus, it is so because the Fifth Symphony represented hope, humanity and victory to the allies even as Nazi audiences listened to it as the tide permanently turned against them in June, 1943, it is so because the funeral march for the hero in the Third Symphony is played as the Battle of The Bulge rages to the west and everyone knows, even if they cannot say, that their ‘hero’ has lead them to death and destruction. Music matters, but in the grand scheme of things, and even in daily life, it never actually matters, it never changes the world, it hopefully changes our mood. This set matters, however. There is nothing in the history of civilization that so clearly and deeply captures the ideals we hold for ourselves and the monstrous things that come so easily to societies. It matters because American ‘Exceptionalism’ has spread to the exceptional quality of American torture. It matters because nothing is so beautiful as what we could be, and nothing produces so much bitterness as what we become. And Beethoven, via Fürtwangler, bears witness. This recording is almost impossibly difficult and absolutely essential.

Help Me Fight the War on Christmas!

No, not really. I’m not fighting it because there is no such war. O’Reilly, being an obvious and crass egotistical materialist, is probably sweating this one more than ever – with the economy as it is, it seems certain that there will be no retail bonanza this year, and if it can’t be put in a box with a price-tag, Billo The Clown can’t understand it. His Jesus is Mammon. But since we as Americans must be burdened by this massively vainglorious, egotistical, amoral, unethical, stupid and ignorant horse’s ass, we must recognize the true blessings of this country, which is so rich as to create such jobs. There’s something all good people can fight for; work, and good work. Ma, piano piano, fight gently. Lets leave the people of small hearts and large resentments to weary themselves in their corners, wrestling with their tantrums and the ghosts of their own imaginations.

The best way to celebrate Christmas is through true fellowship, and it doesn’t depend on the day of the 25th either, as that is essentially an arbitrary date the Catholic church chose in the 5th century as the birthdate of Christ. We commonly give each other gifts, ideally as a token of this fellowship. So, in the spirit of fighting the good fight, and if you don’t want to follow Justin Timberlake’s low-cost gift idea, here is my completely subjective list (and without any guarantee I’ve flagged the best price, although many of these are also available for download from various sources) of things I know – or think – would be generous and welcome tokens of fellowship, things that remind the recipient and giver of this over the course of time:

Let’s start with a momentous splurge – this month marks the 100th anniversary of two great composers, one still living. To commemorate the one who has passed, and spend a lot of hard-earned money, there’s a new, complete collection of the works of Olivier Messiaen. This is indeed complete, invluding early Ondes Martenot and choral music, all the organ works, and Deutsche Gramaphone filled in any gaps in their catalog with new recordings. There’s no such edition yet available for the work of Elliot Carter, but then he’s still adding to his catalogue, and rapidly. Give him another ten years . . .

That’s not true for all living American composers, however, and there are three excellent surveys of the big three of contemporary American music, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams. For dead composers, major, not so major, and minor, there are many, many sets – and by now you are getting an idea of my fetish for boxed sets. It’s a box full of an entire body of work, neatly contained . . . in a box! What’s not to love? If you have any faith in my taste, these are some of my recent favorites and favorite bargains:

Vaughan Williams – a comprehensive set of beautiful, satisfying music.

Benjamin Britten – one of the 20th centuries great composers, this is a huge collection.

Wagner Operas from Bayreuth – all the major works, with great artists and conductors, from Wagner’s theater.

In the standard repertoire, there are complete editions of the great composers from Brilliant Classics that are excellent value and generally fine quality of music – although the sheer size of them makes them pricy. For collections of major works, these are my very favorites:

Mozart Piano Concertos – along with the later operas, the concertos are the great, emblematic masterpieces.

Haydn Symphonies, Haydn Piano Trios and Haydn String Quartets (Naxos has also released new collections of these works)

Beethoven Symphonies (this is a superb cycle, not well known)

It’s also been a year to celebrate Leonard Bernstein, and this is a great collection – he was a great musician who made a great deal of music that is simply a satisfying pleasue. I do not have these collections of Chopin, von Karajan’s recordings of the symphonic literature and what looks to be an amazing collection of French Baroque music, but I would buy them sight-unseen for myself I covet them.

One of my mainstays is, of course, Mahler, and if you would like to give or receive a Mahler collection, there are several worthwhile choices, and the decision may come to down cost. If money is no object, the New York Philharmonic’s collection of broadcasts of the Mahler symphonies is a treasure; great performances from a variety of conductors, incredible documentation of the music and Mahler’s own time spent in New York, leading this orchestra. Simon Rattle’s recent cycle is excellent, it seems better with each listening. His 2nd and 7th are extraordinary, and he always offers ideas that are constructive to hear and argue with. Still, though, for about half price you can have one of two consistently excellent cycles, from Gary Bertini and Bernstein. The latter is consistently fine, with superb playing and superb sound. Bertini’s approach is straightforward and sober, focussed and intense, and he makes consistently intriguing and satisfying choices in emphasis and phrasing. The latter is a cycle that put Mahler on the popular map, and is more fiery and willful, and actually more controlled than Bernstein’s later cycle, but with inferior sound and execution to Bertini’s Cologne orchestra. You’ll love either, or both.

If you’re looking for jazz, each and all the sets put together by Mosaic Records are excellent in terms of both music and documentation – the booklets are full of information and beautiful photographs, and there’s an enjoyable cachet in seeing the actual number of each limited edition. What to choose depends on taste, since their selection covers swing, bop, hard-bop, vocal and even avant-garde music. For particular recommendations on other labels, some of my favorite jazz sets are these ones for Miles Davis, Herbie Nichols, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.

Thinking about Christmas music? There is actually Christmas music out there that is also good music, which you might find yourself listening to throughout the year. There’s the well-known, and the cultish, but I think the greatest Christmas music of all time was written by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and these two CDs are truly glorious.

Of course, I read too, and books are always wonderful gifts – it’s a way to share something inexpressible about yourself with someone you care for and trust. So, let me skip the books. Ever thought about magazines? I’m a magazine junky, and it is the gift that keeps on giving. I can’t do without The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and I do enjoy Vanity Fair. But perhaps the best magazine gift, in terms of quality and the surprise of every issue, is McSweeney’s, and they are offering some interesting bargains.

Finally, a bit of advocating for myself. I treat this blog as a professional endeavor, as part of the public life of a composer and critic – that is, I treat this with as great a level of seriousness of thought as I do anything I desire to create or any work I am hired to do. It is not, unfortunately, literally professional. If you, my regular or occasional readers, have discovered anything of even modestly lasting pleasure or interest here, to your heart and your mind, if you have learned anything, if you have been presented with something new, please consider even a small donation or a generous gift, either of which will help sustain the enterprise, spiritually, physically, or both. And with that, I’ll end this by asking you to keep an eye out for a few more holiday, end-of-year themed posts, and then, hopefully, some more breathtaking and powerful insights to start the New Year. Whatever you may celebrate, peace and joy to you, in the streets, in the concerts halls, in our rooms.