Too Much Tchaikovsky

The Fine Print

They used to be called liner notes. Nowadays, since there’s not always a “liner,” we call them CD booklets, or text inserts, or . . . liner notes. Downloads offer them too: “digital program booklets.”

Notes are important to classical fans. If there’s a song or an opera in a foreign language (which, in the case of sopranos, includes English!) then we may want a translation. If it’s something new to us—Beethoven, Busoni, doesn’t matter—we’ll also want background, context, anecdotes. Performers may want to add personal thoughts. Exhaustive personnel lists (e.g., every single member of the Tapiola Sinfonietta) have also become trendy; they now compete for space with the customary creative and production credits, thank-you’s, and metadata. (I love those details, but then I’m the guy who stays after the movie to watch everyone’s name scroll by.)

You never know when you’re going to need good liner notes. A couple of nights ago, I got a call from Mr. Insomnia at about 2 a.m. So I lumbered out to my living-room recliner, where I keep a nice pair of Senns, a portable DAC, and my iPhone at the ready. Suitably plugged in, I can usually settle down with my Haydn Adagios playlist, maybe a few Goldberg Variations, and await the arrival of Morpheus.

But lately I’ve gone in for new sounds: sometimes the best way to quiet the mind is by actively distracting it from everyday concerns. This time, my Distracting Angel was a Kevin Puts album from Naxos (8.559794). Track 1, the 21-minute Symphony No. 2, sounded “accessible” (major chords, actual melodies) but arbitrary in structure: did a program—an extramusical agenda—lurk in its pastoral-to-stormy-to-peaceful-again progression? Was this music “about” something? I skipped past track 2, River’s Rush, being more curious about tracks 3–5, a new Flute Concerto.

Its first movement proved very satisfying: lyrical but energetic, full of the open-hearted, friendly quality we associate with Howard Hanson, Morton Gould, or Roy Harris, i.e., the centrist wing of 20th-century American music. The flute was handled nicely too. Then the second movement got underway:

Pretty clear what that was “about,” at least superficially. (In case you’re wondering, this kind of hommage or whatever is not only permitted, it’s fashionable at the moment.) But why, I wondered, would Puts pilfer Mozart’s beloved K467 for his middle movement, while in the outer movements he stuck with ideas that carried no such historical baggage?

Later, when I read the liner notes, I learned too much, yet not enough. Symphony No. 2 is Puts’s 9/11 piece, premiered by the Cincinnati SO in April 2002. Only now is it receiving a first recording, which may tell you something. Puts wrote his own notes, which tell you almost nothing. Here are his last two sentences about the Symphony:

At the height of this crescendo, the solo violin returns in a more extended passage than before and effectively subdues the turbulent orchestra. This leads to a reflective epilogue in which a clock-like pulse creates a mood of expectancy and uncertainty, interlaced with hope.

As Yogi Berra might have said, you can hear all that just by listening. Mr. Puts’s prosaic prose captures none of the poetry that may be present in the work itself.

In writing about the Flute Concerto, he also executes a sidestep:

To me, [Mozart’s Andante] is music of otherworldly beauty whose emotional impact is incalculably greater than the sum of its parts. I found myself entering into this hallowed environment, and—in a sense—speaking from within it, freely drawing upon my own proclivities.

Hmm. Enchanted by the simplicity of K467, our composer entered it and spoke from within—except not really, since he was “freely drawing upon [his] own proclivities.” The composer remains silent about those “proclivities,” although they lie at the heart of the matter.

It’s one thing for Alfred Schnittke to have wandered through the desolate scrap-heap of Western civilization, poking amidst the rubble for a bone, a shard, something still edible or meaningful. That was his whole life quest. Mr. Puts will only cop to having fun for a moment with a bit of Mozart. He seems unaware or unable to admit that musically, anything he added or took away will register as a critique, a commentary, a cautionary tale, a sour addendum. Post-modern appropriation of the past is, or should be, very serious business. (As is the task of addressing a national tragedy via an artwork.)

Here’s the takeaway: composers should not write their own notes. Nor should performers. For every Yevgeny Sudbin, who writes about music with wit and insight, you can find a dozen other talkative artists with nothing to say.

And yet. Consider the single most famous liner note ever written. It’s by a performer:

There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint . . . [read more here]

What makes those words so memorable? They are brief and free of hype. The author concentrates on matters both essential and poetic: he reflects on musical creativity in general and jazz in particular, but in an oblique fashion, citing the practices of “a Japanese visual art” to shed light on what improvisation feels like. In short, he provides insight, and in a way that respects the serious nature of the art under consideration. In a final paragraph, he provides an outline of structures in the music but leaves it to the reader/listener to fill in the details, another smart—and respectful—move.

My favorite classical liner notes embody similar values. I’ve just finished reviewing a new Stravinsky album from an unlikely source, conductor Masaaki Suzuki of the Bach Collegium Japan. It’s a winner, and so are the notes by Arnold Whittall. Whittall covers all the bases—ancient historical sources, ballet scenarios, composer’s revisions, aesthetic context, reception history, and more. He’s clever, well-organized, and useful, always useful. If you read his words, you’ll enjoy the music more. Of which, here’s a sample:

If I had space I’d cite other good examples, although practically anything from Hyperion Records would do, e.g., Roger Nichols on the Franck Piano Quintet (CDA 68061). Read and enjoy.

Your turn now. Have a favorite set of classical liner notes? Want to share? (Note: no free LANRover.)