Too Much Tchaikovsky

Stay Hot!

Last week I finally signed up for a streaming service. First two albums I clicked on were Yuja Wang: The Berlin Recital and Nemanja Radulović: Baïka, both DG releases. Not sure why I chose them, except that I wouldn’t have jumped to buy either one—which is why streaming’s so attractive, of course. You can sample all sorts of things.

For better or worse, I don’t consider myself a huge fan of the late-Romantic repertoire that Yuja Wang embraces. But when I hear this:

it doesn’t simply take me back to my middle-school days, when I was learning that piece. It actually makes me feel like an eighth-grader again. What I mean is, it delivers the palpable excitement of that music’s grandeur, hauteur, and tension (for tension read fear, fury, and desire in all forms) just as if I were hearing it for the first time. Wang not only plays all the notes right, she gets a big sound out of the instrument, and she phrases so that a sense of coiled-spring intensity is always present.

These elements help define hotness, which has little to do with this performer’s glamorous outfits. The term itself is seldom used in describing any classical music, probably because it connotes adolescent sexual appreciation (apprehension? awareness?), an activity considered irrelevant—offensive, even—as one ascends the slopes of the art-music value system. Carmina Burana is certifiably hot, the Art of Fugue certifiably not. Need I even ask which is the “greater” work?

Furthermore, hotness requires specific sorts of intensity, including textural simplicity, repetition (especially, driving or catchy rhythms) and sensuous intent at the Department of Melody. The trick is to balance these factors while maintaining a “serious” façade and—these days—avoiding any whiff of exoticism (i.e., lingering stereotypes linked to Africa and the Middle East).

What else should you know about The Berlin Recital? Besides another Rachmaninov prelude and two of his Études-Tableaux, Ms. Wang includes a Scriabin sonata, three Ligeti études, and the magisterial Prokofiev Sonata No. 8 (full track listing here). It is the only work on her program that directly addresses romantic love, having been inspired by (and dedicated to) Mira Mendelson, a young woman Prokofiev met five years earlier and with whom he lived after his wife Lina was sent to a labor camp. In the first movement, lyricism dominates:

Recording quality seems fine. (I’m still fooling around with my streaming setup.)

Onward: Nemanja Radulović is a Franco-Serbian violinist of demonstrated ability in mainstream repertoire; with Baïka he doubles down on the folk element. He’s working again with the Borusan Istanbul PO and conductor Sascha Goetzel, and the chemistry between them is obvious. Their main course is the Khachaturian Violin Concerto; for once I didn’t fall asleep in twenty seconds.

The album also features Khachaturian’s very fine Trio for clarinet, violin, and piano, plus an arrangement of Rimsky’s Scheherazade for chamber ensemble by Aleksandar Sedlar (the composer, not the footballer) who contributes two lively ethnic lollipops. Here’s his Savcho 3:

 

Like the Yuja Wang album, Radulović’s offering scores high points for energy, tunefulness, and repetition (and no, I’m not forgetting Wang’s Ligeti moments, tuneful and repetitive in their own way). Both artists’ repertoire gets fewer points for counterpoint or “development.” Their cover photos suggest Betty Boop and Niccolò Paganini, two sexual archetypes: Jail Bait vs. His Satanic Majesty, perhaps. From Liszt to “Leopold,” Romantic performers have adopted electric personae as a way to fix their iconic status in audiences’ minds. For women, however, effective visual presentation often meant styling oneself as a Chaste Priestess of Great Art: Clara Schumann, Angela Hewitt. In that sense Wang is bucking a deeply rooted tradition. And since we’re veering into pseudo-academic territory, perhaps we should analyze the finer points of hotness.

Really, there aren’t any. The more a piece of music occupies itself with heat, the less likely it’s got any fine points at all. That’s okay, especially if your hot little number lasts less than, say, four minutes. (Savcho 3 clocks in at 2’58”.) Longer than that, we inevitably encounter the falling-asleep-in-twenty-seconds issue. Heat makes more of an impact when a bit of non-heat lurks nearby; as I recall, even the Sex Pistols occasionally sang about ennui.

Consider, then, Berlioz’s Harold en Italie, a four-movement symphony with viola obbligato and a useful, practical share of intensity. It’s not how hot you are, it’s how you ration out the heat. In the first movement, we meet our hero via his very own idée fixe, but he’s clearly in a reflective, moody frame of mind:

Things pick up later in the movement, helpfully labeled “Scènes de mélancolie, de bonheur et de joie”). Here’s some of that:

Movements 2 and 3 give themselves over to Pilgrims Chanting Evening Prayers and a Montagnard Serenading His Sweetheart. Perhaps Movement 4 (“Orgie de brigands,” marked Allegro frenetico) compensates. In it, poor Harold is completely overwhelmed. You can hear the entire work in the video below; it starts at 44:00. To hear just the final movement, skip to 1:14:20.

 

Let’s be clear: all of Harold en Italie is well-made and enjoyable even if it’s not brimming with hottitude. Nor does it brim, incidentally, with anything related to George Gordon (Lord) Byron, whose Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was Berlioz’s ostensible literary source. Donald Tovey’s 1930-ish essay tells us that

No definite elements of Byron’s poem have penetrated the impregnable fortress of Berlioz’s encyclopaedic inattention. Many picturesque things are described in famous stanzas in Childe Harold; but nothing remotely resembling Berlioz’s Pilgrims March, nor his serenade in the Abruzzi. . . . On the other hand there is no trace in Berlioz’s music of any of the famous passages in Childe Harold.

Tovey also gets picky about Berlioz’s self-proclaimed role as Wild Man of Music:

Mendelssohn declared that what he found so Philistine about Berlioz was that “with all his efforts to go stark mad he never once succeeds.” . . . [A] large part of Berlioz’s charm consists in his earnest aspirations to achieve the glamour of a desperate wickedness against the background of his inveterate and easily shockable respectability.

So, even Berlioz’s intermittent rambunctiousness could be dismissed as inauthentic. Fear not, dear reader: in Berlioz and His Century, Jacques Barzun cited mitigating factors: the Orgie de brigands was

a cultural symptom. . . .The brigand of Berlioz’s time is the avenger of social injustice, the rebel against the City, who resorts to nature for healing the wounds of social man. . . . In Harold [Berlioz depicted] the release of violence and vulgarity. . . .as a needful antidote to the repressions of conventional life.

Hector and George, soulmates in spite of their differences. We’ve been listening to violist Tabea Zimmermann and Les Siècles (François-Xavier Roth, conductor) on a new Harmonia Mundi recording. It’s terrific; I warmly recommend it. If there’s such a thing as Viola Hotness (warm, supple sound), Zimmermann owns it. Roth provides exquisitely caffeinated support. (Yes, they’re the folks in the video.) The album is filled out with Les Nuits d’éte, which further emphasizes Berlioz’s classicism.

In conclusion: remember that not everything loud, fast, and repetitive is therefore hot. I’m thinking of my earliest encounters with Le Sacre du printemps. The Scottsbluff Public Library possessed an LP of Stravinsky’s performance for Columbia, which—as a ninth-grader—I checked out repeatedly over a six-month period. I didn’t “get” it. Everything I’d read about Le Sacre had led me to expect wild, scandalous, deeply sensual and transgressive sounds. But Stravinsky as conductor stripped the music down to its bare, cold bones. Yes, it was fairly loud, fast, and repetitive. (Also, not surprisingly, quite scratchy.) But it felt cerebral, not hot. Years later I got ahold of Bernstein’s Sacre, definitely hotter.

So today’s closing exhibits—intense, engaging, not hot—come from Górecki: Complete String Quartets 1 (Tippett Quartet, Naxos). Do you know Henryk Mikołaj Górecki because of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs? Here is music colder, yet stronger. Its ice will get into your bones. Hope that’s a good thing. Here’s an excerpt from the earliest work in vol. 1, Genesis I: Elementi, for string trio:

It dates from 1962, following Górecki’s return from youthful adventures in Paris. Clearly he had absorbed the new language being developed by Boulez and others. Elementi presents a virtual catalog of avant-garde sounds and techniques, but it also succeeds brilliantly as pure musical narrative. The three string quartets, written between 1988 and ’95 for Kronos, are among this composer’s most important music from later years; the first two are given here. An excerpt from the second, subtitled Quasi una fantasia:

Well, so much for hotness. Time to put away those old Carly Simon album covers and cultivate more wholesome thoughts. I’ll be back with uplifting music to match.