Album du jour: Max Richter, “from SLEEP”


Now here’s an original concept for you: Eight hours of music designed to put you to sleep. “It’s my personal lullaby for a frenetic world,” says composer Max Richter of his “SLEEP.” “A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”

No offense to Mr. Richter, but I do not need someone else’s manifesto to regulate the pace of my existence, anymore than I need yet another pundit to amaze me with the revelation that if you turn off your electronic devices you can actually do cool stuff like talk to other people. Maybe it’s the cynic and libertarian in me and I’m being close-minded about such things, but that’s who I am.

On the other hand, I’m no less susceptible to the soothing powers of music than the next listener, and have been known to nod off occasionally during concerts, especially of the Sunday afternoon (i.e., nap time) persuasion. So, if Mr. Richter has a nice new musical soporific to offer, I’ll snooze to that!

Basic info: Max Richter is a prolific German-born British composer of post-minimalist music for concert, stage, film and electronics. His resourceful and entertaining “recomposition” (his term) of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was one of the biggest classical hits of 2012-2013, and a favorite of listeners to my NEPR classical show. His latest and longest opus, “SLEEP (received) its world premiere this September in Berlin, in a concert performance lasting from 12 midnight to 8am at which the audience (were) given beds instead of seats and programmes,” to quote from the Deutsche Grammophon record label’s website. No word on whether crackers and juice were served prior to sleepy time.

In its full eight-hour version, “SLEEP” consists of 31 distinct selections scored for various combinations of instruments (played by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, aka ACME), electronics (programmed by Mr. Richter) and wordless voice (the angelic Grace Davidson). I economized in both time and funds, going for the one-hour, seven track single-CD sampler called “from SLEEP.”

And by and large, I found the music to be attractive, appealing and indeed quite restful, if not exceptionally original. In particular, the resemblance of the acoustic (i.e, non-electronic) selections to the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, especially such Pärt works as “Für Alina” and “Spiegel im Spiegel” (click on titles for Spotify playback) cannot be ignored. But originality and other typical priorities of many modern artists are not prioritized as highly by Mr. Richter. Quite the contrary:

I’m perpetually curious about performance conventions in classical music, our rigid rules that dictate how and what music we can appreciate. Somehow in Europe over the last century, as complexity and inaccessibility in music became equated with intelligence and the avant-garde, we lost something along the way. Modernism gave us so many stunning works but we also lost our lullabies. We lost a shared communion in sound. Audiences have dwindled. All my pieces over the last few years have been exploring this, as does SLEEP. It’s a very deliberate political statement for me.

There’s a bit of straw in that statement, and not just the kind you sleep on. The avant-garde, to the extent one currently exists in classical music, is hardly as devoted to “complexity and inaccessibility” as it once was. Under the influence of the aforementioned Arvo Pärt and others, quite a few younger composers now write in quiet, meditative styles, among them Caleb Burhans, who happens also to be a member of ACME, the ensemble featured on this album.

But once I freed myself of my customary cynicism and put aside my critical judgments, I derived considerable pleasure from this music. And despite Mr. Richter’s admonition that “the short one is meant to be listened to and the long one is meant to be heard while sleeping,” I enjoyed a brief nap during one session with “from SLEEP,” nodding off during the soothing second track, an overdubbed vocal duet with organ called “Path 5 (delta)” and coming to during the very lovely final track, “Dream 8 (late and soon),” featuring Ms. Davidson’s voice tolling like a bell in the middle of (almost) every measure. Nice!

And who in modern times hasn’t ever longed to escape our “frenetic world” for a “slower pace of existence?” A few years ago, the choir I sing in performed a number that ended with (in translation) these words:

Sing, ye birds, your tender ditties, lull the weary past;
haunts of men and busy cities, oh farewell, I rest at last.

In their original German, the words come from a Paul Heyse poem called “Waldesnacht” (“Woodland Night”) published in 1850, and set to music by Johannes Brahms in 1874. Some things never change, however many pundits and artists think that they just discovered them. Now please pass me my pillow…

Take this prize and shelve it!

As posted on the website of the British magazine Gramophone:

One of the most highly-regarded pianists of our time, Grigory Sokolov, has refused to accept the Cremona Music Award 2015 because it has previously been awarded to the blogger Norman Lebrecht.

A quick who’s who and what’s what: The Cremona Music Awards, given in the categories of classical execution (i.e., performance), composition, communication (i.e., media) and project, were established in 2014 by Cremona Mondomusica, an annual exhibition of musical instruments, and Cremona Pianoforte, described on its website as “the one and only trade fair exclusively dedicated to the piano world.” These and a few other musical events take place during CremonaFiere (Cremona Fair), held each September, and which credits itself to be “No. 1 for livestock, bioeconomy and fine musical instruments” — sort of like the Big E with a piano pavilion filled with Steinways, Yamahas and Bösendorfers. Grigory Sokolov is a 65-year old Russian pianist who, though not a household name even in most classical households, is held in the highest esteem by fellow musicians for his immense technique and impeccable musical standards. And Norman Lebrecht is, for better or worse, the best-known classical music journalist in Anglophonia, author of several books and writer of a blog called “Slipped Disc.” His position in classicaldom is, roughly, a combination of old-time gossip columnist like Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper, current media scourge like Matt Drudge, and love-him-or-mostly-hate-him media celebrity like the late Howard Cosell.

In very short, then, the Cremona Music Awards (given in its inaugural year to pianist Alfred Brendel, composer Michael Nyman and the Venezuelan FuturOrchestra project in addition to Mr. Lebrecht) is hardly the Nobel or the Pulitzer, or even as noteworthy as Gramophone’s own annual awards. Mr. Sokolov, an acclaimed artist of known reclusive temperament, doesn’t need another award, much less so unimportant a reward, to cap off his distinguished career. And Mr. Lebrecht will no doubt continue undaunted to chronicle the classical scene with the jaundiced ear and acid pen of Addison DeWitt, the jaded theater critic played to perfection by George Sanders in the film “All About Eve.”

As for what put Mr. Lebrecht on Mr. Sokolov’s s*** list, there were apparently some nasty and possibly unfactual comments about the pianist’s refusal to play henceforth Britian because of what Mr. Sokolov felt were excessive security requirements, but the blog post in question seems no longer to be available.

So what do I make of this? A few things:

  1. Classical spats like this are good. They show that people care enough to have strong opinions, even if they burst into flame once in a while. Show me an art form without spats, and I’ll show you a dying art form.
  2. Most awards are meaningless tokens of self-promotion, intended to call attention to the awarding organization by bringing in some famous person or two. And as in journalism, so in the arts: such awards are usually handed out by tiny committees to someone who shares the same biases and ideologies as the committee members. I stopped taking them terribly seriously long ago.
  3. The best way to deal with nasty critics, bloggers, journalists or journalistic organizations is not to attempt to squelch them, but to ignore them. It deprives them of the oxygen of notoriety without turning them into free speech martyrs. And it’s quite beneficial to the blood pressure and stomach lining. Anyhow, that’s my usual m.o., and my life is better for it.

Album du jour: Battles, “La Di Da Di”


Remember, back in the ‘sixties, how AM rock ‘n’ roll stations such as New York’s legendary WABC used to play instrumentals by Duane Eddy, the Ventures, Sandy Nelson, et al., at the end of the hour, then fade them out to hit the timepost for the hourly newscasts? Heck, do you remember hourly newscasts? (An aside: I can remember the predictions of massive listener protests when we decided to drop hourly newscasts from NEPR’s classical shows a few years back, only to hear nary a peep. Then again, radio in the twenty-aughts was a totally different medium from radio in the ‘sixties.)

Something of the twangy, thumping, hard-rockin’ spirit of those classic instrumental artists lives on in the music of the trio called Battles, especially since guitarist, keyboardist, composer and vocalist Tyondai Braxton (check out his fabulous album “Central Market“) left the group in 2010. Now pared down to guitar, bass and drums, Battles specializes in the ultra-precise, rhythmically-intricate sub-genre dubbed “math rock” — another day, another rock sub-genre — which it plays with great energy and skill. There’s nary a note of improvisation on their new album, “La Di Da Di,” but there is constant invention that always leaves you guessing, then delighted with the results. Imagine three race cars hurtling around a track, all the while creating fascinating, ever-changing patterns, and you get the idea — except, I hope, while driving. Fasten your seatbelt and give it a spin.

Album du Jour: Ben Folds, “So There”


And to think that I might have totally overlooked this wonderful album had my friend Matthew Whittall not done a Facebook post of its ninth track. That track by the way, which follows eight of Ben Folds’s typically inventive and engaging pop songs on the complete album, happens also to be the first movement of Folds’s new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, performed by Folds with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. (An aside: I promised Matt that if I mentioned him, I would quote the part of his FB post in which he complained sarcastically of how Folds was “condescended to by career Eurodouche Norman Lebrecht for having the temerity to top the classical charts in benighted America,” referring to this post from Mr. Eurodouche…um, Mr. Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog. Duty discharged, with an additional flipped bird in Mr. Lebrecht’s direction for his anti-American snobbery.)

First about those eight pop tunes, as inventive and engaging (as I already said and will say again) as any you’ll hear this year. Who but Folds would pen such a lyric as

Why didn’t you tell me that I got fat

Now I’m crying all the way from the photomat

Because I see I’ve got more chins than

A Chinese phonebook has

as part of a sweet, yearning ballad called “Yes Man?” Adding to the charm, Folds arranged these songs for his own voice and piano, some rock guitar and drums, and the six-piece hipster classical chamber ensemble yMusic, whose sympathy for the pop idiom (not always demonstrated in such crossover collaborations) is evident in every note, not to mention the occasional giggles and other asides left in the final edits. (Special treat: Check out the brief track 7 and see whether it doesn’t make you smile from ear to ear.)

Then about that Piano Concerto, a far more successful stab at long-form classical composition than earlier ones I had written about by such classical wannabees as Paul McCartney, Béla Fleck and The Dear Hunter’s Casey Crescenzo. Actually, to be fair to Folds, his Concerto deserves not comparison to such poor-to-middling works but consideration alongside George Gerswhin’s Rhapsodies (including “In Blue”) and Concerto, Leroy Anderson’s Piano Concerto, and other sophisticated, jazz-and-pop tinged light classical masterworks. Filled with great tunes (the sweeping opening melody coming straight from the world of Prokofmaninoff!), spiced with distinctive instrumental combinations, confident in voice and not overstaying its welcome by one single note, Ben Folds’s Concerto is a damned good piece — and lots of fun to boot. Of course, that may be the American in me saying that, in which case, three cheers for the red, white and blue!

Album du jour: Beach House, “Depression Cherry”


If one were inclined to associate guilt with easy musical pleasures, which I do not, this album ought to be good for about a year’s probation and community service. Exemplars of a sub-genre known as “dream pop,” the Baltimore-based duo Beach House (Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand) luxuriate in sound for sound’s sake, a kind of updated version of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” Tempos tend toward the slower side of moderate, textures are filled with keyboard pedals, ciphers and swirls, melodies, sung by Ms. Legrand and drenched in reverb, soar heavenward. Fans of the Cocteau Twins (remember them?) will enjoy themselves, and will also get a kick out of the mix of live and machine-derived drumming. Play real loud.

Album du jour: Riccardo Chailly & Gewandhaus Orchestra, “Brahms Serenades”


Johannes Brahms’s two youthful Serenades (he was in his mid-twenties when he wrote them from 1857-60) are best heard not as foreshadowing his four Symphonies, but rather as following in the tradition of serenades, divertimenti and related works by Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven (e.g., the very popular Septet). Light but not insubstantial, with extra helpings of minuets and scherzos, and well-ventilated by delectable woodwind scoring — the second even eschews violins in order to accent the winds — the Serenades make for ideal listening on a warm summer day. Or, I’m sure you’ll also find, on a miserable February evening.

Following up on their superb 2013 set of the Brahms Symphonies (my rave review here), Maestro Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig give us as fine a recorded pairing of these refreshing works as I’ve heard. I couldn’t describe these performances any better than I did those of the symphonies (i.e., I’m too lazy to come up with anything new to say), so to quote myself:

Rich, sleek, clear, focused, balanced, the sound of the orchestra, brilliantly captured by the Decca engineers, is worth the price of the set itself, and one of the finest I’ve ever heard on an orchestral recording.  The strings play as if one, with enough vibrato to enrich the tone but not so much as to thicken it.  The winds sing sweetly, with just the right measure of central European woodiness.  The horns, so crucial to the Brahms sonority, move from mellow to brassy at the drop of a downbeat…

The essential rightness of the sound is matched by the pacing of the music as well.  On the speedometer, Chailly’s tempos would be slightly faster than average, but I can’t think of one time where the tempo sounded pushed or forced.  Of course, it’s not at what tempo you play the music, it’s how you play it at that tempo.  And as we’ve heard from some of those who’ve attempted to conduct Brahms “his” way and on instruments from his time (I’m thinking especially of Sir Roger Norrington), even the sprightliest tempo sounds stodgy when enforced inflexibly and metronomicaly.  Chailly?  Flexibility personified.  Every line shaped, every phrase considered, the music flows as naturally as speech, but also as unpredictably as a stream.  You’re drawn into the music, as if it were an unfolding drama — which, of course, it is — and never let down for a moment…

So yes, while some classical music makes me cry “aaaaugh,” there’s still some that makes me go “aaah….”

DOWNLOAD NOTE: For those who prefer immediate gratification (and who wouldn’t when it’s easily available?), this album is available for download from Presto Classics in multiple audio formats, including the super-fancy spread that some of my friends (Booker) prefer. The Spotify playlist for sampling is below; it’s also available for high-quality streaming on Tidal, though I can’t (or don’t know how to) embed Tidal playlists into the blog.

Sometimes classical makes me want to SCREAM!!


(Photo: Cristina Marsillach in Dario Argento’s film Opera, based on “Phantom of the Opera.”)

Now that I’m no longer engaged in the full-time, life-or-death struggle for the survival of classical music, after 35 years in the trenches, I think I may be suffering from a previously unidentified malady: PCSD. Post-classical stress disorder.

I mean, I still love classical music, though it doesn’t absorb as much of my attention as it used to. And I still get a kick from presenting concerts, doing the occasional class or lecture, and even performing the stuff at a very modest amateur level.

But sometimes, out of the blue, something I hear or, more likely nowadays, read, will turn me into a screaming maniac. I harangue The Wife, yell at the cats, scream at my computer and, of course, post something on Facebook. Funny how therapeutic that last step is, especially considering how little good it actually does.

Would you like some recent examples of PCSD triggers? I think I’m over them well enough to confront them again, though should warn you of their potential adverse effect. Then again, you may think I’m a ranting idiot. I’ll take that chance, if it advances the science and the art.

Read, for instance, the first sentence of this seemingly innocuous CD review: “As time goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Malipiero was a very inconsistent composer.” For those who don’t know, which I suspect is just about everyone, Gian Franceso Malipiero (1882-1973) was a prominent 20th-century Italian composer, known especially in his time as a leading Italian composer of symphonic music. Which, given the history of Italian symphonic music, is sort of like being a leading Italian baseball player. Good for him, but it’s not something Italians tend to excel at. I can’t think of any particular reason you should give two fichi (it means “figs,” people) for Malipiero or his music.

Yet here, in 2015, is a classical CD critic who considers his recently-arrived-at opinion of this irredeemably obscure, permanently forgotten composer to be worth publishing. Here’s classical music, which I almost risked my life to serve (OK, an exaggeration, but that’s my PCSD talking), facing myriad threats from without and within, and yet here’s some pathetic dweeb still picking over the desiccated bones of a composer absolutely no one gives a flying f*** about! Is it any wonder why classical music is in the shape it’s in? Will the music, and those who make, present and chronicle it, kindly wake the hell up and get a f***ing life!?

OK…OK…I think I’m calmer now. Phew — it still gets to me. I mean, I mean…no, no, it’s time to move on, Montanari.

On to, that is, an excellent article by Stuart Isacoff in the Wall Street Journal about the positives and negatives of the increasing number of competitions for young classical artists. It’s a thoughtful piece, and I have absolutely no problem with Stuart Isacoff. It’s not his fault that the classical-industrial complex still puts so much energy into training “artists” (a far-too-generous term for most classical musicians, IMO) to play the same old, same old set of pieces, year after year after goddamn year, as if something new could really be found in the gazillionth rendition of some fossilized “classic” from the “canon.” Such as young piano competition winner Yuanfan Yang, whose performance of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, according Mr. Isacoff, “had a subdued elegance.”

Well — isn’t that special? No insult to Grieg, a wonderful and influential composer whose works were a staple of my radio programs. And his Concerto is a perfectly nice piece, filled with lovely melodies and lively rhythms. But (uh oh, here we go) why, in 2015, are we judging or even caring whether the latest generation of impeccably polished hot-shot pianists can or cannot play the Grieg Concerto with just the right amount of “subdued elegance?” What does this do for the furtherance of classical music, which basically in the U.S. has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel? Oh, I’m sure those who attended Mr. Yang’s performance of the Grieg gave him rapturous applause, because of course it’s just so wonderful that such delightful young people still care for the great music that we love — as if playing Grieg with “subdued elegance” made one one-hundredth the contribution to American culture as new albums by Sufjan Stevens, Alabama Shakes or even bleeping Beyoncé!! Please, please, people — can we ever, finally, stop praising our music and ourselves for accomplishments that no one outside our shrinking coterie has absolutely any use for!?

All right, I’m done. Time for a walk, maybe with some gentle classical music in my earbuds. Let’s see what Tidal has to offer on its classical page…Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto…Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2…A NEW RECORDING OF THE GRIEG CONCERTO…AAAAAAAAAAAAUGH!!!