Consumer Reports

Upcoming releases you should consider:

  • Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: This really is self-recommending, the latest installment of Sony’s ongoing series. What a pleasure to hear Miles Davis recordings that you haven’t heard before! This set covers his early musical maturity to the electric years, is all live, and will be alive. Best price currently is $33.65 at importCDs.com, but the pre-order price drop at Amazon may still be best value.

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  • Ferenc Fricsay: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammphon – Vol. 2 Operas, Choral Works (37 CD/DVD): Volume 1 was not only by far the best reissue of 2014, but one of the very finest recordings of any music. As a conductor, Fricsay (who died young) never had anything like the fame of older and younger peers like Fürtwangler, Walter, Boehm, von Karjan. But he deserves this kind of conductor-based (as opposed to composer or repertoire) collection more than any other, because he not only produced great performances of every piece he touched, but the performances were musically idiomatic across a variety of styles. Where Fürtwangler or Celibidache were great at applying their approach to everything, with mixed results, Fricsay was great at making music. The orchestral recordings are outstanding through and through.

    Now here is the complementary box, which I have been drooling over since the first one came out. The reason is that I had always been more familiar with Fricsay’s opera recordings, brilliant sets of Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte, as well as a stunning Verdi Requiem. This set also has Fidelio, Le nozze di Figaro, an Idomeneo I’m dying to hear, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, choral music from Bartók, Mozart, Brahms, and Haydn, Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms from Stravinsky, and more. Each box is ideal for anyone who loves to hear classical music played with great intelligence and artistry. As I write this, best pre-order price is $96.13 at importCDs.com and that will probably not be bettered.

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  • Leonard Bernstein: Sibelius, The Symphonies: I’m also excited about this, and this is also self-recommending. The combination of these beautiful and profound symphonies and Bernstein’s volatile passion makes for some powerful results. This is a seven CD set and it looks like it also includes at least the Violin Concerto and Peer Gynt. Again, the importCDs.com price of $28.34 looks like it will save you at least $5.

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And for reading, recommended to my by my assistant editor is this forthcoming book on Krautrock:

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You can also buy my book!

Choose what’s best for you, of course, and if this consumer report has saved you some money, please consider supporting this site

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The Tools of the Apple Composer's Trade

This iPad ad has gotten a lot of notice in classical music circles (which generally like to think of themselves as above crass commercialism while at the same time desperate to find any way to make money).

As an unemployed composer, I don’t begrudge anyone making money of their composing, and Salonen has had an admirable career as both a conductor and composer. While I don’t think he’s the finest contemporary composer, nor in a position to move the tradition into new territories, he produces strong, sometimes excellent music. What you hear in the ad is a fragment of his Violin Concerto, a fine (though not flawless) composition.

The ad does give a look into the compositional process. The conceit that he discovered a tune while whistling as he shaved is best seen as a metaphor, but the the rest is real: coming up with material and working it, working it, working it, until you’ve got something that you can call a composition. For me, the most revealing and true moment is when he’s moving colored post-it notes around a large white board. He’s figuring the best way to make the large-scale structure, and that is not only the essential nuts and bolts of being a composer, but the most difficult part of making any piece with substantial duration.

As for the digital tools he works with, you can see a breakdown with more details and discussion here at the Apple site. He’s using Notion for iPad, and the files he makes he then works with on a computer with the main Notion notation program (I crossgraded to this when the future of Sibelius began to look shaky, and recommend it for all composers—it doesn’t do final engraving as well as Sibelius or Finale, but it is much more useful, and much less confining, for the actual compositional process). When he’s playing a piano keyboard on the iPad, that’s Pianist Pro, which can be used for playing, recording sequences, controller software synthesizers, MIDI, etc., and is a real value. Great for kids to bang away on too.

Da Capo al Fine: Beethoven and Sibelius

It’s good we have these new discs, and it’s good this can be done with music. Musicians playing music is roughly comparable to writers reading the works of others for their own personal satisfaction and aesthetic inspiration. Writers read and re-read, and how they feel about a book will change over time, through age, experience and especially the prism of the other books they have read. But what can a writer do with this other than talk about it or use it as fuel for their work? Music is different. The size and scope of a symphony may be like a novel, but a symphony is a set of instructions for musicians to follow, it’s like taking dried mushrooms and reconstituting them in broth. The symphony preserves a composer’s ideas, but it requires musicians to turn it into something we can experience. And how musicians do that can, and should, change. What do weeks and years of meals, sleeping, love and heartache, travel, companionship and loneliness, satisfactions and frustrations, books and elections and family and clothes and clouds have to do with the length of a dotted eighth-note, the fullness of a crescendo, the relative weight of notes in a phrase, and especially the outpouring of inchoate, raw, wonderful emotion from deep in the chest, down through the arm and out of the baton or bow? Only absolutely everything.

From my new Classical TV column:

It’s good we have these new discs, and it’s good this can be done with music. Musicians playing music is roughly comparable to writers reading the works of others for their own personal satisfaction and aesthetic inspiration. Writers read and re-read, and how they feel about a book will change over time, through age, experience and especially the prism of the other books they have read. But what can a writer do with this other than talk about it or use it as fuel for their work? Music is different. The size and scope of a symphony may be like a novel, but a symphony is a set of instructions for musicians to follow, it’s like taking dried mushrooms and reconstituting them in broth. The symphony preserves a composer’s ideas, but it requires musicians to turn it into something we can experience. And how musicians do that can, and should, change. What do weeks and years of meals, sleeping, love and heartache, travel, companionship and loneliness, satisfactions and frustrations, books and elections and family and clothes and clouds have to do with the length of a dotted eighth-note, the fullness of a crescendo, the relative weight of notes in a phrase, and especially the outpouring of inchoate, raw, wonderful emotion from deep in the chest, down through the arm and out of the baton or bow? Only absolutely everything.

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There are two new discs in question, the first installment in the second Sibelius cycle from Osmo Vänskä, this time with the Minnesota Orchestra. It’s already quite different than his previous set, and shows a way with Sibelius that is refreshingly out of the ordinary on the contemporary scene (his previous cycle, with the Lahti Symphony, is consistently good and can still be had for the ridiculously low price of $7.99 for the complete download, meaning you really must buy it, even if you don’t like Sibelius … you will!) http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thbicibl-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B004Z4ZN4A
The other disc is Isabelle Faust’s return to the Beethoven Violin Concerto, paired with Berg’s Concerto. This is an exceptional recording with simply the finest playing of the Berg I’ve heard and incomparable playing of the Beethoven. It’s guaranteed to be one of the leading releases of 2012, and has earned a place in the Bit City library of essential recordings. Buy it. http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thbicibl-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B0062QFZ10

Our Brave New World

This is something excellent that would not have been possible if the major record companies were still running the show: the terrific music from the last weekend of Sibelius and His World, covered in this review, is starting to come out via digital distribution. First up is:

Soon to be followed by:
  • Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5 (Oct. 14 at Amazon)
  • Barber Symphony No. 1 (Oct. 14 at Amazon)
I’m champing at the bit to hear the Barber again, that was a mind-blowing performance, and if the recording at all matches my memory, look for it as the record of the year.

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5

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This is the first in Pietari Inkinen’s new Sibelius cycle that I’ve heard, and as a lover of the composer I am thrilled to hear the music played with such freshness, assurance and beauty.

The set is a classic pairing, the darkest of all the works, Symphony No. 4, written when Sibelius feared he was dying of cancer, with his Fifth, full of resonant light and joy. The Fourth is also one of the most daring, searching examinations of the meaning and possibility of musical time. It is meant to seem not to move, even thought the orchestra plays a sequence of notes and sounds through time. Inkinen handles this in brilliant, unique fashion, balancing an absolutely static and resonant feel for the great rocking chords with a tempo for the melodic material, like the simple cello solo in the first movement, or the entirety of the finale, that is brisker than I have heard on record (Leon Botstein’s recent tough, fantastic live account is something altogether different). The result is a dynamic intensity that sheds none of the shadows that this music calls forth. There is satisfaction in the Fourth, but it must be earned first through despair (for Sibelians, the conductor uses orchestral bells in the last movement).

The Symphony No. 5 is a crowd-pleaser, maybe Sibelius’ most popular work, and the juxtaposition of these two on record can often be an easy sentimental indulgence. Inkinen’s manner is expansive and open, without indulging. The music is so humanely and plain-spokenly expressive, and so beautifully constructed, that the ideal performances are ones where the musicians serve the composer, not vice-versa, and this is an ideal peformance. Even though I am trying to personally reduce the number of physical CDs I have, I now need to add his previous releases in this series, and am eagerly looking forward to the next one, with the unusual Symphony No. 6 and the masterpiece, Symphony No. 7. Highly recommended, and a leading release for the year.

On Listening, Part 1

I think it’s natural for me, as a composer and musician – especially a long-time improvising musican – the be very sensitive to what I hear and really notice the details of sound. My day-to-day experience is a combination of all the activities and sensations of my mind and body, and sounds, things I hear, can matter a lot in the moment of being in a particular place at a particular time. We live in an environment of sound, and it matters.

I also have an iPod, and there’s a lot to say about the device, of course, and I think that’s better left to others. It’s a great thing for me, and I enjoy the experience of having it in a lot of different ways. One way is certainly that way that music can accompany certain experiences, for good, ill or just odd. I had a good one recently, getting on the F train as the Sibelius Symphony No. 6 began. It has a very quiet opening, and it took a little while for me to hear it above the noise of the car – try and keep the volume at less than half – and when it did, the seemingly distant yet clear sounds of the high strings were an uncanny but wonderful moment of discovery, in my ears, in a noisy, crowded public space. I’ve done a rough recreation of what that sounds like here:

This concept of the environment of sound is a vital one, and frequently ignored. For interested readers, I would refer you to this extraordinary, profound book, and the related project.