As part of my one-disc-at-a-time survey of my classical CD collection, I’m going through the Naxos 30th Anniversary box set.
There’s a famous scene in Amadeus where Emperor Joseph II accuses Mozart of writing music with too many notes. Mozart is, of course, shocked and appalled at the statement. The emperor tries to reassure him: “My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.” Mozart’s response is tinged with both disdain and cheek: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”
In my opinion, the music of Anton Bruckner has too many notes. The problem is that, if he “cut a few,” there would be almost nothing left. His Fifth Symphony is full of bombast but lacking in substance, full of lovely moments that go nowhere and amount to nothing. I’ve commented in the past that Brucker is the polar opposite of Anton Webern, a composer I will write about in due course: Webern expresses whole worlds in a matter of seconds; Bruckner says almost nothing, but takes hours to do so. The fourth movement of the Fifth seems particularly pointless to my ear: It’s twenty-five minutes of meandering around a theme of striking banality. It would have been too long at ten minutes; at more than twice that, it’s interminable. The third movement scherzo is no better: It’s bloated and humorless, the antithesis of what a scherzo should be. I know some people love this music. I am not among them. My loss, I suppose.
At least Georg Tintner and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra play it with conviction. Frankly, they play it so well that it almost makes sense. Almost.
As part of my one-disc-at-a-time survey of my classical CD collection, I’m going through the Naxos 30th Anniversary box set. Here’s #1.
For those who consider the music of J. S. Bach to be stuffy, stodgy, and otherwise unpleasant, the orchestral suites are the perfect antidote. This is, in the best possible sense of the word, delightful music. Yes, it’s impeccably written—what do you expect from the greatest musician who ever lived?—but it’s also a lot of fun. The orchestral suites are among the most populist and accessible pieces Bach ever wrote: Whether or not they were ever intended to be danced to, they were closely based on dance forms that would have been recognizable to most listeners. A knowledge of Baroque-era dances is not required to enjoy this music, however. The joy is palpable.
This recording by Helmut Müller-Brühl and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra is, in so many words, one of the finest I’ve heard, and this seems like a good time for a brief but lively discussion about the validity of period performances—that is, performances and recordings where period-authentic instruments are used, and the performance practice is based on the latest research. And just to be clear: While Müller-Brühl’s interpretation is clearly influenced by Baroque performance practice, the instruments used are not authentic to the Baroque era. My other recording of Bach’s orchestral suites is by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music—a leading figure in historically informed performance—and I have to say that, as good as Hogwood is, there are moments where I actually prefer Müller-Brühl’s approach. Two standouts for me are the famous “Air” (i.e., “Air on a G String”) from the Third Suite, which has a wonderful warmth and tenderness, and the Second Suite’s “Badinerie,” which is one of the best (and fastest) I’ve ever heard. I’m reminded of Adam Fischer’s statement (and I’m paraphrasing) that the quality of a performance has more to do with the musicians than the instruments they’re using. Clearly, Müller-Brühl and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra know how to play this music, and the results are a delight.
About a month ago, I decided to do a one-album-at-a-time survey of my classical CD collection. A lot has happened during that month, but this feels like the right time to start it up again.
Back when I was in high school, I sat in on a masterclass featuring pianist Awadagin Pratt. I didn’t consider myself a pianist at the time—truth be told, I still don’t—and I didn’t get much out of it. Pratt also didn’t play a single note, so I had no idea how good he was. Sometime later, I saw his name on a list of classical musicians born in Pittsburgh, so my curiosity was piqued. When I saw this CD on the clearance rack at Half Price Books, I saw no reason not to give it a spin.
This is a wonderful recording of four of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and Pratt’s conception of the pieces is, to my ear, nothing less than remarkable. Among other things, I was struck by how he approached each movement within the context of the larger work. In the wrong hands, Beethoven can feel a bit like a greatest hits reel: Some of the individual moments are so famous that the larger structure can crumble under their weight here. Not so here. Pratt approaches each sonata as a near-seamless work, and the result is powerful and cohesive. Whether or not we really “need” more recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, this is one well worth tracking down.
But there’s another thing that should to be mentioned. One of the reasons why I decided to listen to this recording is that it’s one of the handful of classical CDs I have featuring black performers. The classical music world is, like so many other creative industries, one that seems to disproportionately favor non-black artists. (From my vantage point, a vast majority of classical musicians are either white or Asian.) The first sentence of his bio from the CD’s liner notes is fascinating in its subtext: “Awadagin Pratt shatters the audience’s expectations of a great pianist.” The sad fact of the matter is that, simply by virtue of being black, he probably does. But make no mistake about it: Pratt is a great pianist, and he has made a great recording of Beethoven piano sonatas. Here’s to shattering expectations.
Chris Massa is a US-born musician based in Durham, England. You are on his site right now.
Copyright © Christian David Massa