New fiction, new plays – publishers and theaters present the new without apology, it is expected that new work will be offered to the public and that not all of it will be superb. The galleries in Chelsea offer the latest work, people would complain if they didn’t, and not all of it is great. And yet, Allan Kozinn’s recent Times article talks about how musicians have to apologize for the fact that not every new piece is a masterpiece. Why should this even be an issue? The fact that not every new piece is immortal does not mean the presentation of new music has to be justified, any more than the publishing of new fiction.
Perhaps one reason why the new is welcome and expected in writing and the visual arts but not in non-pop music is that there is money to be made in books and in the visual arts (at least in the upper echelons of those fields) – and relatively little money changes hands in the world of new music. So how could new music be worthwhile? Since what my mother always sarcastically called the “almighty dollar” is America’s principal means of validation, new art is naturally considered important, and pop music is considered more “vital” than non-pop. The supposed vitality of pop music has nothing to do with music but rather with the invigorating scent of money.
I’ve been listening off and on for some months now (and it will occupy me for many more months) to the 22 CD set of Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky that Sony released a while ago – the one that Alex Ross wrote about here, and Pliable wrote about here. As of this writing it is available on Amazon here.
The set is obviously an important document of a great composer interpreting his own work. (But read today’s Allan Kozinn piece in the Times regarding the problem of taking the composer’s intention too seriously. I liked the article, though I was a bit confused by his references to Schoenberg as “contemporary music”.) While, as a native Clevelander, I will always revere the Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez Sacre from 1969, holding it above all other versions (I haven’t heard their remake), there is a compellingly crazed intensity to Stravinsky’s own recording. Symphony of Psalms is another highlight, with the stasis of the last movement working its magic. But I have to say that a lot of these recordings just aren’t very good, with ensemble that fails to lock in (this shows up most in the note-filled allegros like the fast movements of the Concerto for Piano and Winds) and appalling intonation – try Agon, for example, where the players are having an agon of their own. The comment attributed to Schoenberg – “my music isn’t modern, it’s just badly played” – applies here.
There are some recorded bits of rehearsal included in the set, and it is disturbing to hear, in one of these, someone in the control room telling Stravinsky that a balance problem can be fixed later on. You never know with any recording just what is control room magic and what isn’t, but in a situation where the recording’s value is partly as a document of the composer’s interpretation, being reminded of the other ears that are at work is troubling. (For a recording of Stravinsky in rehearsal that is not included in this set, go here to listen to him trying out a revision of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments.)
Some intriguing details in the list of performers in this set: the all-star infield of Barber, Sessions, Copland, and Foss playing the four pianos in Les Noces (recalling such collaborations as the Sessions/Copland/Thomson team of narrators for l’Histoire with Craft conducting Speculum Musicae – a performance that took place at the Whitney Museum early in my time in NYC (I also remember that concert because it was the last time I saw the great pianist Robert Miller before his untimely death), or the Babbitt/Harbison/Carter version of the same piece at Tanglewood a few years ago); Bethany Beardslee in Threni – a rather early document of her work, I would guess; a number of songs done by Cathy Berberian; Joseph Szigeti and Stravinsky playing the Duo Concertant, alongside other Stravinsky piano performances by both Igor and son Soulima; Laurindo Almeida (yes, that Laurindo Almeida, from the L.A. Four) playing guitar in the Four Songs; and surely two of the more unexpected names: Sebastian Cabot and Elsa Lanchester as Noah and his wife in The Flood.
I’m glad I picked up this set, but I will be looking elsewhere for more satisfying performances.