Recent Listening

These aren’t new releases, just some items I came across at my local library recently.

– Shostakovich, Liszt, Prokofiev: Piano Concertos. Lisa de la Salle, piano; Lisbon Gulbenkian Foundation Orchestra, Lawrence Foster, conductor. In this album of first piano concertos what is striking is the effect made by this juxtaposition of pieces:  after the goofy fanfares of the Shostakovich it is harder to take the sincere fanfares of the Liszt seriously. It is as though the later composer is influencing the earlier one. The performances are very good throughout if not quite top notch; the Prokofiev does not quite rise to the dazzling level of Kissin and the Berlin Phil. and Arrau commands a more profound poetry in the Liszt.

– Pat Metheny, with Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez: Tokyo Day Trip. I am old enough to remember when the designation “EP” meant “extended play” and referred to a 7″ 45 rpm disc that had more than two songs on its two sides. Now an EP actually means a relatively short CD – long for a CD single, I guess, but short for a CD album; there is about 40 minutes of music here, all of it recorded live. The calmer moods  of Metheny’s music can seem slightly spacey – it’s that ECM thing, I guess (the present release is on Nonesuch, actually) – but the uptempo numbers here are fiery ripsnorters.

– Bach: Partitas 2, 3, and 4. Murray Perahia, piano. I love Perahia’s Bach playing for its characterfulness – he has a million shades of articulation, and deploys them in intelligent ways. This disc is very nearly at the level of his sublime Goldberg Variations.

Expectation in New York

Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation) was the closing work on the New York Philharmonic concert I attended back on the 9th. Like a good deal of Schoenberg, it is music I more respect than love.* Quite unlike Wozzeck, to cite another expressionist opera,  I have no emotional connection with Erwartung.** The piece lacks a compelling shape, something Wozzeck certainly has. (I am not referring to the formal schemes Berg employed – suite, symphony, etc. but to the dramatic contour.) The individual gestures in the Schoenberg are striking – some rather more than others. Unsurprisingly, the moments where the ear can latch onto some sort of repeated pattern are the most telling – for example, the brief bustling spot where the harmony is built up and then quickly dismantled in steady sixteenth note rhythm. The fertility of invention is astounding, but ultimately tiresome. Deborah Voigt’s performance was powerful, with plenty of variety in tone and character. It was a good example of a strong performance selling a difficult piece, as the audience called her back repeatedly. I thought David Robertson was superb here and all through the evening. I have commented elsewhere about sitting at a performance of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth and thinking, “Well, it ain’t Berg”. I’m sorry to say I was thinking the same thing at Erwartung.

The program started with Shostakovich’s first symphony. I had forgotten the piece, but the bits that show up in the orchestration textbooks – the timpani and piano solos, for example – brought it back to me. Even with a piece that early in Shostakovich’s career, the listener is left wondering just how sincere and how ironic the music is supposed to be. After intermission, there were announcements and speeches honoring retiring members of the Philharmonic. Surely there was no playful intent, but it was a little funny to then perform Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead immediately after a ceremony for retirees!

*Kyle Gann has written about how few pieces by Schoenberg people actually like. I think my list might be longer than his, but it includes the 2nd and 4th quartets, Transfigured Night, Gurrelieder, the first Chamber Symphony, Pierrot, the piano suite, the Serenade, Book of the Hanging Gardens, the String Trio, Ode to Napoleon, Moses and Aron, perhaps a few others I am forgetting. The “respect” list includes a number of other pieces; and then there are the ones I actively dislike. Everyone  I have ever talked to about it (OK, so not that many people) hates the Wind Quintet.

**I also feel little emotional connection with Lulu, but that is a different situation because the music is so gorgeous.