Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Bruckner Conundrum: The Problem with Anton

Let me start by saying that I believe Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 to be a monumental symphonic achievement of colossal proportions, standing tall above the rest like a Gothic cathedral, complete with massive granite blocks, brightly lit stained-glass windows and mysterious dark corners. But is it not simply a modified copy of No. 8, which is a modified copy of 7, which is a modified copy of 6, and so on. And if you count Symphonies 0 and 00, it took him 10 tries before he got there.

Imagine a fictitious conversation between Anton's parents:

Dear, come and see what Anton is doing.
What is it?
He's counting the number of bricks on the house next door and writing down the number.
So ... maybe he's bored.
Possibly, but look at his piece of paper. He's counted them seven times already.

Anton Bruckner has often been considered a bit of an oddball by music scholars. For a period of time during his life he suffered from numeromania (an obsession with counting). He had a habit of counting the bricks and windows of buildings, and constantly counting the number of bars in his massive scores, to make sure that they were proportionately exact. Was he possibly suffering from a form of autism? That would explain the constant repetitive tendencies in his writing. All of his Symphonies exhibit the same obsessive-compulsive mannerisms. Proportionately sized movements, similar harmonic progressions, intervals and modulations, similar rhythmic gestures, typical unison thematic emphasis, and worst of all, development by constant repetition rather than diverse emotive outlooks. His scores were laid down like architectural blueprints rather than being led forward by inspiration.

Add to all this the staunch Catholic upbringing he matured through which well explains the self doubt, and the fact that he was a lifelong organist, and it all adds up to shed light on why so many passages in his music are hymnic. And everyone knows hymns are repetitive by nature. He would have perceived variety as counter-productive.

Many, many music enthusiasts, musicians and conductors have often compared Anton Bruckner to Gustav Mahler. A comparison that I've never understood. The only aspect these two composers share in common is the sheer size of their symphonies, with single movements lasting longer than a complete Mozart symphony. But otherwise, despite the fact that their lifetimes overlapped, they approached music from two completely different directions, and used two completely incommensurable methods to pursue and develop their craft. When I try and visualize what a Bruckner symphony "looks" like, all I come up with is a set of large well-proportioned granite blocks. Immovable, lifeless and yet beautiful in their symmetry. When I try and visualize what a Mahler symphony "looks" like, I see a massive oak tree, firmly rooted in inspiration, with a solid thematic trunk branching out in multiple directions and reaching for the sky with a glorious crown of leaves.

Do you see any similarities between these two images? All I know is that I would much prefer sitting under the oak tree.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Mind Your Own Business

Now that the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the most prestigious classical music ensemble in the world, has joined ranks with many others and launched its own recording label, I think it would be safe to say that the final nail has been driven into the "major" labels coffin. And by "major" labels I mean the ones that are either owned, operated or controlled by financial institutions, multinational corporations and/or investors, and are part of such a large and multi-tentacled organization, that their names usually require the addition of the word "group".   Deutsche Grammophon in particular, one of the most iconic and globally recognized of classical music labels, has held a very long and distinguished association with Berlin.

Now this is only my opinion (it is my blog after all) but I don't think this is bad news. As a matter of fact I believe it's a good omen for the future of classical music recordings. The large number of smaller independent labels, which over the last 20 years or so have done a great job at keeping the classical music industry's head above water, will now have even more room for expansion, and will keep doing what they've always done better than the big guys, and that's to serve the music first and foremost.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not here to trash the majors. In their heydays, sometime between 1960 and 1995, they all released some stupendous recordings featuring top of the line orchestras, singers and musicians. They were a force to be reckoned with and established comprehensive catalogs of state of the art recordings and developed large rosters of top tier artists. But somewhere along the way, they seem to have lost sight of their vision, and turned down a road leading away from their initial goals.

They all started promoting and selling music as if it were a commodity. They all started marketing "classical" as if it was "pop" music. Now was the era of the glitzy collections and/or the young superstars on the cover. It was no longer the Chopin Nocturnes played by Artur Rubinstein, but rather John Flashy performs the chopin nocturnes. It wasn't about the music anymore. And instead of focusing on the music, and at least trying to release some rarely recorded works or new music by up and coming composers, they were all trying to outdo each other by copying one another. As soon as one label announced that they were planning on releasing a new recording of, say for example, the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, all the other labels would do the exact same thing within a month or two of each other. It's as if they were all of the mentality that their recording, if somewhat better, would prevent the other guy from selling many copies of his. It's that same business mentality you see all the time now, where someone opens a retail store across the street from a competitor, not do sell better stuff or to offer better customer service, but rather to put the other guy out of business. It's the "I will do something to prevent you from doing it" syndrome. And it's not only bad for business, it's terrible for the consumer. That is how we've ended up with so many recordings of the same music, over and over again. The major labels themselves were holding the hammer that drove in the nails.

I own, operate and edit which presents reviews of current classical music recordings. Ever since this website was launched, I've never had any problems whatsoever obtaining review copies of CDs from any of the independent labels, but have never been able to obtain even one CD from any of the major labels. What does that tell you?

All these orchestras now, minding their own business, are free to record what they want and how they want, hopefully "live", and no longer have to follow the directives of label executives who don't know C sharp minor from a hole in the ground. This may well be the classical music revival we've all been waiting for.


Monday, January 20, 2014

The Podium is Empty

Today, January 20th 2014, conductor Claudio Abbado passed away. The loss has left a vacuum in the classical music world. Not only was he one of the giants of the podium, but also a founder and co-founder of many fine orchestras. He helped in exposing many composers to the general public, that may otherwise have remained in the shadows were it not for his conviction and dedication to expanding the repertoire. Not all of his recordings could be considered to be definitive versions, although quite a few are, but it seems that most of them served to elucidate and shed more light on the works involved. I would strongly recommend and endorse any of his recordings, but two of my own favorites and that I consider to be definitive readings, are Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 7. The Mahler in particular, because of its sprawling nature, has always been considered a difficult one in which to sustain momentum, but Abbado does it full justice. Great musicians like him are a rare breed, and with him gone, rarer still. The musical landscape is missing a mountain.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Gone To The Dogs!

It's all over the internet these days (fall 2012), as a matter of fact, it's even an article in a scientific journal and unfortunately, it's become the latest fad to promote classical music as a mindless exercise. Along with "classical music for relaxation" and "Mozart for babies", they are now pushing classical music to de-stress dogs.

Please, don't inflict the Pachelbel Canon or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on your pet. Your dog will probably run away from home and never come back. Play them something stimulating at least. These pieces, that most scientists and psychologists seem to think exemplify classical music, will not only relax your dog, they will put him to sleep. One of my pets used to really enjoy listening to John Oswald's "Spectre" and "Kontakte" by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Cats and dogs need stimulation to be happy. Play "with" your dog, not to it.

Real classical music is meant to stimulate the mind and the imagination, and to challenge the listener. It is not meant, like the pieces listed above will do, to induce sleep. Please stop claiming that classical music is only good for relaxation. And do your dog a favor. Throw him a bone, not a tone!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Bipolar Biped's iPod

Humankind has gone from walking to and from everywhere, to riding a horse, to traveling in a horse-drawn carriage, to sitting for hours each and every
day in an automobile. The consequence of this is that our bodies will slowly degenerate and atrophy. Humankind has gone from learning to read and write, to writing down
everything we know, to reading everything we study, to watching television, to absorbing bits and bytes of information on the internet. The consequence of this is that our minds
will slowly degenerate and atrophy. But worst of all, humankind has gone from creating great works of music over the last 500 years, to attending live concerts, to
reproducing music through recordings, to listening to music at home on vinyl, tape and now CD, to walking around, dead to the world, playing music
through crappy little white ear buds on an iPod. The consequence of this is that our souls will slowly degenerate and perish.

From the heights of musical and artistic accomplishment during the High Renaissance, to shuffling through bytes of digital compressed files on an iPod are two bipolar
extremes that defy explanation. How could we have gone from one extreme to the other. Over the last century alone, we've tried many times, through the advancement
of recording techniques, to reproduce as well as possible the sound and feel of a live symphony orchestra, a live opera, pipe organ or piano recital. And the sound quality
of an iPod is what most of us are willing to settle for? Five years ago, on April 9th 2007, it was announced that 100 million units had been sold, and that by September
2009 that number had ballooned to more than 220 million units sold. And if these numbers aren't scary enough, back in 2005, the creator of this insidious device was
presented with awards and honors for engineering excellence from the Royal Academy of Engineering. In the past, attending a live concert was not only a musical event
but also a social event. It was a communal experience that would lead to lively discussions of either the music itself or its performance. Walking around listening to a
device strapped to your belt is anti-social to say the least. And are you really listening, or is it simply a distraction?

Hold on! I know what you're thinking. You are convinced that whoever is writing this must be a rich, elitist snob who believes that classical music is reserved for only a
privileged, exclusive group of well-educated people. Well, guess again. I'm just a blue jean wearing working stiff that simply cannot abide to see great musical masterpieces
devalued and bastardized that way. And I am also the first one in line when it comes to convenience, but not at the expense of the efforts of others. Let us take, as an
example, a symphony by Gustav Mahler. It would sometimes take Mahler, with page after page of musical notation, revisions, orchestration and so on, anywhere between
one to two years to completely finish composing and editing a symphonic work. A conductor spends weeks if not months pouring over and studying the score of that
symphony in preparation for its recording. The orchestral musicians spend weeks, going over their individual parts to prepare for the actual full orchestral rehearsals that
take place before the recording sessions. The recording engineers and technicians take great care in not only setting up the microphones and equipment to capture the
sound at its best, but also spend lots of time and energy on post-production of the recording to ensure as close to accurate reproduction of the original take as possible.
Graphic designers work on the cover art and writers do extensive research before the liner notes go to print. The record label executives spend money, time and energy,
advertising, promoting and marketing that new recording before and after it hits the streets. So after all that, how can anyone justify downloading (probably for free) that
Mahler recording to their iPod, shuffling it around, partially listening to it once while jogging or running errands, and then deleting it (probably because it sounds like
crap due to the medium its on) to make room for whatever else piece of music strikes their fancy. I'm sure your internet service provider loves you because by doing all
this you're supporting their business, and offering absolutely no support to anyone involved in the production of that recording. Have our lives become an overload of information, work, stress and
time commitments to the point where we cannot indulge ourselves anymore in the enjoyment of good music?

There is nothing wrong with solitary enjoyment of music. In fact it's amazing that we can sit in our favorite chair at home and bask in the glorious sounds of a Bach
Fugue, a Beethoven Concerto, a Mahler Symphony, or a Chopin Nocturne, but not to the detriment of the artistic and human value of the music itself. I know, I know,
a CD itself is also simply a digital copy of a recording, that by its own convenience can be played in the car, at work, on the PC, can be copied and/or thrown away. But
at least while you are listening to it from your favorite chair, booklet notes in hand, you can give that glorious music your undivided attention and the respect it deserves.
Music is the only art form that exists and functions through the dimension of time. That aforementioned Mahler Symphony does not really exist before the first note is
played, nor does it realize its full raison d'être until the last note is played, eighty minutes later.

Music has the power, if not always physically in the same space, to bring us together. The Woodstock festival was an amazing example of that. The music industry is
slowly dying because we, as a collective group, have stopped supporting it. And yes, I agree that record labels and playback equipment manufacturers have often confused
the issue by switching formats or embracing new technology too quickly, forcing us to adapt or get left behind, the iPod and the mp3 audio format a case in point. Stop
downloading and sharing music files, forget where you've put your iPod, and buy CDs again. Maybe the industry will follow us for a change. Give music the time, respect
and attention it needs. Prevent the soul from leaving humankind.

Addendum - April 2012: Because some of my readers have inquired about it, I may, in the near future, add an Amazon mp3 player to some of the pages on my CD review website strictly as a way for you to hear short samples of music you may not have had the chance to hear before. I offer this solely as a helpful listening aid, and not as an alternate music delivery service.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pipe Up and be Heard!

At last! A solo pipe organ recording attracts recognition and wins a Grammy award. In February 2011, the Naxos recording of organist Paul Jacobs' performance of the "Livre du Saint Sacrement" by French composer Olivier Messiaen was awarded the trophy along with the added label of being the first, for an organ recording, to receive such an award.

The number of pipe organ recordings on the market right now is astronomical. The number of recordings of the organ music of Bach alone is astonishing. The number of high quality labels devoted to new recordings of the king of instruments is high, and the number of websites dedicated to information and research about pipe organs all over the world is also very high. More reason to wonder why, within the recording industry itself and all of its affiliated businesses, magazines, websites and retail outlets, talk of the pipe organ seems to be reserved for organists, shelf space in retail outlets is always limited and tucked away in a back corner, and media attention is always focused on the latest star conductor or the youngest new soprano.

Hopefully this turn of fortune will focus attention on the organ as a versatile musical instrument and not something one hears only during church services.
Ironically, the music of Olivier Messiaen, although loaded with religious meaning and liturgical associations, was composed and created to be performed as concert pieces, and not played within the context of the church.

This recording by Paul Jacobs was up against some fierce competition in the category of classical instrumental recording, including an impressive new recording by Marc-André Hamelin which I thought for sure would take away the prize. This Grammy win was certainly a pleasant surprise for me, and hopefully it will generate an increased awareness of Messiaen's music, and focus attention on organ music once again, and help reinforce the recording career of this fine new organist.

Jacobs has already released a new recording in February of 2011. It is an impressive live recording of the Organ Symphony by Aaron Copland, with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. This review will give you more information on the recording itself.

Friday, February 4, 2011

EMI on life support

It's all over the media by now that EMI, one of the longest running and tradition rich recording and music publishing companies, has been taken over by Citibank, one of its major creditors. It has been demonstrated quite clearly over the last few years, that banks don't even know how to manage money, which is precisely the field they proclaim to be experts in, so what on earth are they going to do with a large music company which holds in its catalogue, recordings of some of the most treasured interpretations of classical masterworks. The verdict that is being tossed around at this moment, is that they will more than likely sell EMI's assets to another label.

Unfortunately, that to me seems like a rather scary prospect. As always, Citibank will probably sell to the highest bidder, regardless of who that may be. And of course, being the highest bidder entails that you are a large corporation with more money than appreciation for good music. Citibank does not know the real value, not the monetary value, but the cultural and historical value of what they're holding at the moment, and nor will the other large music conglomerate that takes it off their hands. This is not unlike a yard sale. Whoever buys EMI now will turn around and sell it in their own yard sale for a profit. Everyone knows that major labels, in their appetite for money, have lost sight of music for music's sake.

Please Citibank, if you have any sense of decency at all, the logical and right thing to do would be to sell to a smaller independent label that lives for music and would know what the true value of EMI really is, and would handle and preserve it with the love and respect it deserves. You will most likely lose money in the process, but who cares, that is what you're good at, isn't it? And I almost forgot, it's not your money anyway, it's ours.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Down With Downloads!

What happened to sitting down in your favorite chair, production notes in hand, and listening, and I mean really LISTENING, to a great recording of a superlative performance of a classical music masterpiece. When it comes to demanding convenience, I'm the first one to raise my hand. I am not a patient person, so when it comes to filling my gas tank, the checkout line at the grocery store, renewing a license, paying bills at the bank, driving home from work, etc ... I expect the least resistance as possible, and everything to be instantly available and at a low price. I don't see or demand different value standards from services, utilities, commodities and everyday odds and ends. But when it comes to music, it's a different story.

Download. Detachment from the end product. What and where is what you've just purchased. You are now the proud owner of digital computer code. You can now transfer that code to any of a multitude of devices and listen to music anywhere. You can go jogging to a Mahler Symphony. You can listen to a Palestrina Mass on your headphones at work. You can deal with traffic jams while listening to a Beethoven Concerto in your car. The possibilities are endless. But what's the point? Are you getting anything out of it? How can you justify partially listening, in your car or on your ipod, to a symphony or opera that was months or years in the making. To a recording that required weeks of practice and rehearsals from the orchestral musicians. Focused hard work, and artistic and emotional devotion from the conductor. Hours of painstaking and detailed work from the recording engineers. Informative and interesting booklet notes and cover art work, not to mention weeks of post-production to insure that what you get is of the highest standards.

Nothing can or should replace the importance, value and benefits of a 'live' concert. The simple act of you being in the hall adds to the dynamics of the event. Your personal involvement and participation creates the synergy that makes the reality of a live concert even possible. Technology made it possible for us to enjoy the experience in the comfort of our home. First came radio, with the effect of almost 'being there', but without the interaction and/or hassles of dealing with a crowd. Then came vinyl, in the form of 78s and Long-Playing records. At least with vinyl, there was a large degree of personal involvement and interaction with the product. You had to pull it out of its
protective sleeve, place it on the turntable, wipe it clean, drop the tonearm with precision, watch it spin around as it played, and sit down and read the liner notes on the back of the jacket whilst listening to the music with undivided attention. The cassette tape, although practical, portable, duplicatable and one more step down the road to convenience, sounded terrible, didn't last very long, and had absolutely no charm. Therefore its quick demise. Then came the CDs. The perfect balance between quality, durability and convenience. Great value for the money. Although compared to vinyl, a step up in detachment from the product. They are smaller, don't require as much physical tactile manipulation, and disappear out of sight while playing. But, like vinyl, once inside the player, they require your critical listening attention, and make collecting a fun hobby again. If it's a great recording, you will listen to it many, many times over its lifespan, therefore its one of the best products in regards to value for money.

Record label executives, especially the ones at the top of large, international and multi-layered conglomerates, are all trying to figure out why sales are dropping and why doomsayers keep saying that the classical music industry is dead. The answer is very simple. If you make it too easy to obtain something, it loses its value. There is no satisfaction in getting something for nothing. I used to really enjoy walking (not driving) to my favorite record shop and spend an hour or two browsing the bins, looking for something specific or hoping to stumble upon something obscure that would turn out to be a wonderful revelation. Sometimes just the anticipation of a special order coming in was enough to add value to my purchase. How can you get that same feeling out of downloads? You can't. The internet is riddled with download sites, most likely managed by people who know absolutely nothing about good music, and who probably don't even care about music at all. Their purpose in life is to sell you digital code.

If all the great composers of the past knew how their life's work and revolutionary achievements were being traded today, they would all turn in their graves. In fact, I don't know why living composers and musicians can accept this, and not see where it's leading. It's the same story with books. Humans are very tactile beings. Take away an actual physical product from our hands, and we feel a loss. I know, I know. You're going to say that music is abstract and intangible, and I couldn't agree more. And that is one of the aspects of music that make it so fascinating. How can something so intangible convey so many different emotions? But if you remove a physical, manufactured product from the equation, it seems that all the value and hard work that went into producing a recording disappears. I know that environmentalists are jumping for joy at the notion of less and less packaging floating around out there, but CD manufacturers are working on solutions to that issue every day. And even though it's getting more and more difficult to find classical music CDs in stores, again simply because retailers didn't see the social and cultural value in them, you can still find and purchase any CD you've been searching for online. Many websites, including mine, are still devoted to the well being and future growth of the classical music industry.

Take away the value out of music and the sales go down. As sales go down and without adequate funding, musicians will vanish, orchestras will vanish, conductors will vanish, recording studios will vanish, record stores will vanish, new recordings will no longer exist. All that will remain is one person making sure that the computer that serves your download does not crash. That is not good value for your money. Down with downloads!!!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Farewell to a giant of the keyboard

During the week that I was setting up this blog and preparing for its launch, sad news of the death of pianist Antonin Kubalek was all over the internet. He passed awayat the age of 75, from complications following surgery to remove a brain tumor, on January 19th 2011. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1935 and by the early 1960s had already released his first recordings on the Supraphon label. In 1968 he moved to Canada where he rapidly became a favorite and acquired a large following due to his frequent broadcasts on CBC Radio, and his many collaborations with Canadian musical luminaries. His recording of the rarely performed Korngold piano sonatas was actually produced by Glenn Gould, who very much admired his playing.

Of his many recordings, the ones that are really outstanding in my opinion are his recording of the Czech Dances by Bedrich Smetana and the two CDs he released of various piano works by Johannes Brahms, including profound interpretations of the Op. 116 to Op. 119 works. Unfortunately, most of his recordings are no longer readily available, but hopefully the label(s) that produced them will rectify the situation and reissue them in the near future.

Not the best way to launch a new blog, but I felt the need to pay my respects to a great musician who, by his deep artistry, opened my ears and mind to some unusual piano pieces. May his achievements resonate in the memory of all musicians.