Recent Listening

Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano; Variations on themes from “The Magic Flute”. Pablo Casals, cello; Rudolf Serkin, piano. These are exalted performances, noble, penetrating, with beautifully shaped phrasing and intense characterization. Well, what did you expect, it’s Casals and Serkin. Casal’s tone can be a little scratchy at moments, and he adds a bit of vocalizing, but the recorded sound from the ’50’s is quite fine. In his book on the Beethoven piano sonatas, Charles Rosen points out the unorthodox formal scheme of both the piano sonata, Op. 101 and the cello sonata Op. 102, Nr. 1, both of which have four movements played attacca, and several of the cello sonatas have comparably unusual forms.

The Blues and the Abstract Truth; Oliver Nelson. Of the many performances you have heard of Stolen Moments, the first track on this classic, few have quite the right relaxed, slightly dragging lope of the original. The record features a starry “little big band”, with three saxes, trumpet and rhythm. The arrangements are brilliant – I noticed a brief Gil Evans-esque moment recalling “Miles Ahead” – and the soloists are comparably fine. I especially enjoyed Dolphy’s contributions, sounding very fresh coming in from deep left field.

Beethoven and the Daedalus in Philly

The Daedalus Quartet, which is in residence at the University of Pennsylvania, is embarking on a complete Beethoven quartet cycle. It’s hard to believe, but this seems to be the first time all the quartets will be heard in Philly as part of a cycle in a single season. I hope to be at as many of the events as possible, given the very high quality of the Daedalus’s playing and the rare chance to hear all the quartets in fairly close succession. Here’s a trailer, shot in West Philadelphia:

Daedalus Quartet – The Complete Beethoven Quartets from Christopher Andrew McDonald on Vimeo.

It’s a good moment to re-read Joseph Kerman’s book on the quartets, one of my all-time favorite books on music.

Summer Reading 1: Mahler, Beethoven

The first of a few posts commenting on my summer reading:

UnknownGustav Mahler by Jens Malte Fischer, translated by Stewart Spencer.  The composer of famously large-scale symphonies has elicited some exceptionally large books, among them the three eccentrically structured volumes by Donald Mitchell and the four insanely comprehensive volumes by Henry Louis de la Grange. Fischer’s book is modest by comparison, being a single volume, but still, it tips the scales at 766 pages. The book is more of a cultural history than a life and works. “It is impossible to say for certain when Mahler was first introduced to the ideas of Gustav Theodor Fechner…”  is not an atypical sentence. The book reminds me a little of Jacques Barzun’s book on Berlioz: a lot of cultural history, but thin on the music. In fact, I’m not too sure how much Fischer likes Mahler’s music, with the short chapters on the pieces overly indebted to Adorno’s compulsive skepticism about anything affirmative in the music. The slaughtered animals mentioned in the text of the Fourth Symphony’s last movement supposedly make the finale of the Fourth “undermine[s] the brief [?] assurance of the Adagio”; “Mahlerians will find it hard to set aside their sense of uncertainty” about the Third; “astonishingly crass contradictions and inconsistencies typify the first three movements of the Fifth”; and so on. While I learned things here that I have not read elsewhere, the best writing about music draws me back to the pieces, and on that count the book fails.

Unknown-1The First Four Notes by Matthew Guerrieri. The central focus here is the Beethoven Fifth, particularly the opening motif .*  But the myriad spokes radiating outward from that hub represent an alarmingly vast array of topics – from Hegel to Saturday Night Fever, from the French resistance to Beecham’s Pills. There is a good bit of heavy lifting here in the sections on philosophers, but Guerrieri does his best to tie helium balloons of clarity to the German ballast, and I understand slightly more about Kant and Hegel than when I picked up the book. Slightly. Guerrieri’s wit and easy erudition about almost anything, familiar from his blog Soho the Dog, make for a book that is a little like the results of a Google search with “Beethoven’s fifth, the first four notes” as the search terms – except that with this search, every one of the multitude of links is worth reading, and the results have been elegantly formed into appealing larger shapes.

Go here for the book’s related website. Linking the two paragraphs above together, check out Guerrieri’s great comics involving Mahler and Strauss – and the movies.


*) “Tell me Bob, do you think you’d call that four note idea a theme or a motif?”

“Well, Pete, the technical term…” Go here and get set straight on this. (I’m surprised this doesn’t find its way into Guerrieri’s book.)

Orchestration Hit Parade

I am teaching orchestration at my day job this fall, so I was especially struck by the following aphorism in Leonard Slatkin‘s recent book Conducting Business:

There are only three scores you need to study to learn how to orchestrate: Beethoven’s Eroica, the complete Nutcracker and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges.

Intriguing choices, with one each from the classical, romantic and 20th century periods. I don’t think anyone would take exception to the Beethoven, but the other two choices are a little more offbeat. Both the Tchaikovsky and Ravel are from what Ned Rorem would broadly call the “french” side of the musical universe; there is nothing here from the “german” world of Wagner, Mahler or Strauss (though Virgil Thomson tried to make a case for Mahler as a “french” composer). Notice that Slatkin cites the complete Nutcracker, which involves more heavily scored music than the lighter textures that dominate the divertissement that constitutes the familiar suite (is there anything in music quite like the airborne quality of the Overture in that suite?) Thus with the complete version, you get a fuller picture of romantic period practice. The Ravel that is usually taken up by orchestration classes is the orchestration of Pictures, partly because of its excellence, partly because it is usually published with Mussorgsky’s piano original right there on the same page as Ravel’s orchestral version. But L’enfant is an astonishing piece, too little known. Including it adds a piece with voices to the list. And there are elements in the Ravel that point toward instrumental practices normally associated with much later in the century, for example, George Crumb’s music.
So what do you think of Slatkin’s list? What would be your three pieces?

Here is the beginning of L’enfante, Simon Rattle conducting at Glyndebourne:

Recent listening and reading

LifeMusic III Ying Quartet (Dorian). Strong works by Sebastian Currier, Pierre Jalbert, Paul Moravec, and Lowell Liebermann in polished and passionate performances. The Currier is of special interest as he is emerging as an important voice in the use of electronic media, as in Next Atlantis on this disc.


ModernisticJason Moran (Blue Note). Solo piano, prepared piano, piano with sampler – fresh concepts, virtuosic playing from the recent MacArthur grant winner. (Listen to excerpts here.)




Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas Richard Goode (Nonesuch). I recently returned to this set that was issued several years ago because I am starting to work on a new piano piece and have been feeding my ear with standard repertoire. I believe Goode was the first American to record the entire Beethoven sonata cycle. I love the sheer beauty of piano sound of these recordings – beautiful for the variety of colors Goode can produce, from luscious to crisp and million points in between, beautiful for the warm recording sound. I learn more about these sonatas every time I listen to Goode play them.

The Mind’s EyeOliver Sacks. The most recent collection of case studies by the neurologist and geographer of the human brain’s mysteries. The longest piece here is about the patient Sacks knows best – himself – a journal of notes kept during his struggles caused by a cancerous tumor on his eye, and the partial loss of sight that resulted.

Diabolic Diabelli

Now that my piece for the Albany Symphony, “Luminism“, is in the capable hands of Ken Godel, who is computer engraving the score, I can turn my attention to the next project: a contribution to a collection of 25 variations by 25 composers on the theme of Beethoven’s  Diabelli Variations (click on the image at left for an IMSLP link to the score of the Beethoven) to be premiered at the 25th anniversary celebration of Network for New Music here in Philadelphia. The event takes place at the Queen Street branch of the Settlement Music School in Philly, on May 2. Go here to see the list of composers involved; the styles represented are nicely diverse. The title of this post is the title of my piece, and comes from the fact that I have re-imagined the harmony of the theme using stacks of tritones, the good ol’ diabolus in musica, as the theorists tell us.