Why Do You Think They Call it Classical?

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Larry: Greetings, music lovers. Today we have a question or two for The Goddess of Conventional Wisdom—who has agreed to talk with us at length, in spite of her busy schedule. Our first question: Why do classical artists, and the Labels Who Enable Them, continue to record and re-record a handful of works that have already survived dozens of recordings, not to mention innumerable live performances?

Goddess of CW: Gosh, kid. Why do you think they call it classical?

L: I almost wish they didn’t.

CW: Maybe you’ll get your wish. I see from an article in some audio magazine that Gil Rose of BMOP is now calling it “the music formerly known as ‘classical.’”

L: So now it’ll be called . . . what? Oh, maybe that’s it: “What.”

CW: Always ready with the attempted joke.

L: Not really. I’d much rather discuss the Consequences and Corollaries of the Classical mindset, for example the Golden Age Illusion.

CW: Yeah, good luck with that. People who can argue for hours about moving-magnet versus moving-coil will not only stick with their illusions, they’ll shop for more.

L: Actually, I don’t think MM vs. MC is that kind of argument. Or even an “argument.” But as Montaigne said, what do I know?

CW: Let’s get down to music. I understand you are consoling yourself in these dark days with familiar sounds. Tunes that have stood the test of time. Nothing, in short, like the stuff you raved about in your last column.

L: True that. Last night, gripped again by insomnia—brought about, I’m sure, by a combination of too many deadlines and too much breaking news—I turned to my hero Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), specifically Symphony No. 6, in a performance that’s several years old now, James Gaffigan leading the Lucerne SO (Harmonia Mundi HMC902188). What magic! What wonderful, life-affirming, healing, tender, brave sounds! Why can’t they write ‘em like that anymore?

CW: Because you don’t really want them to. If it’s Dvořák you’re after, there he is. Already. In quantity. It’s not like someone else could ever do it again, or better. As the sign says, Fuhgeddaboudit. It was a Golden Age of symphonic composers, so there’s now (of course) a Golden Age of Dvořák interpreters too. Enjoy.

L: But I don’t really accept the notion of a Golden Age. I think we tend to imprint—whatever we hear first, or when we’re young, typically between ages 17 and 24, becomes our Favorite, Top Ten, Desert Island Disc, whatever. Eventually that may shut us off to new experiences, whether with the same music or with brand-new pieces in a different style.

CW: Hang on, I’m getting out my violin.

L: Hey, I’m not the one to be pitied and scorned! I’ve got credentials; I’m one of those omnivorous, open-minded musical adventurers. I should’ve been a rock critic, tossing out screeds and bon mots for the Village Voice.

CW: Hate to be the one who breaks it to you, but the Voice is no more. And you’re too old to become a rock critic anyway. So, what have you been up to?

L: Lately I’ve stumbled back into Dvořák’s chamber music. Several years ago I became blissfully aware of his String Quintet in G, Op. 77. A remarkable piece. Now a young-ish group, the Busch Trio, have decided to record all his music for piano and strings. So far I’ve heard the Piano Quartets (Alpha 288) and the Piano Quintets and Bagatelles (Alpha 403). Both are outstanding. Dvořák wrote his First Piano Quartet op. 23 in 1875, having won a grant that allowed him to turn down freelance viola gigs and concentrate on composing. He completed op. 23 in little more than two weeks, having finished the Serenade for Strings op. 22 in the two weeks before that. Melodies—nice Czech ones!—just kept pouring out:

The second movement is a set of variations. Listen to the way the Busch Trio and their mentor Miguel da Silva dive in:

Compare this slow movement to that in the Second Piano Quartet op. 87, written fifteen years later, at a point when Dvořák had achieved international fame. His handling of the materials is not only more assured, it works on a larger canvas, taking considerably greater risks:

The scherzo movements in these works are at least as well constructed, plus they are exciting. (I do wonder why Busch & Co. show up at photo shoots dressed like junior members of an early-‘60s accounting firm. Maybe they’re would-be Mad Men, or else they’re hoping the anachronistic dignity of such covers will wear well.) Here’s part of the scherzo from the Second Piano Quintet (!) op. 81:

Kudos to the Trio and guest artists Miguel da Silva and Maria Milstein, also producer Aline Blondiau. If I ever get the chance, I’m going to ask Didier Martin of Alpha/Outhere how he manages not only to sign such fine young artists but also to cultivate such a consistent “house sound”—never (to my ears) harsh in the treble, boxy, boomy, or overpresent.

CW: Gee, look at the time. Sorry, gotta get going.

L: Too bad. I wanted to tell you about other Golden Oldies I picked up this month. For example, a volume of Jan Willem de Vriend’s Beethoven symphony cycle (Nos. 4 & 6, Challenge Classics CC72361). Also Liza Ferschtman’s Mendelssohn (Challenge CC72748). Above all else, part 1 of Cuarteto Casals’ Beethoven Complete String Quartets (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902400.02). The Cuarteto is a provocative bunch, so it could be fun.

CW: Wait a minute. I smell eau de déjà vu. Didn’t you just complain about “a handful of works that have already survived dozens and dozens of recordings”?

L: Yes, but now I’d like to suggest a corollary to the Golden Age illusion, which is this: one never dips one’s toe in the same river twice, and likewise one never actually hears the same music twice—even with the best/worst intentions (or perfect playback gear).

CW: Oh no no no. That’s metaphysics or something. Thanks, but I gave at the office.

L: I happen to know you didn’t, but here’s a less abstract version: Edward Dusinberre has written an excellent memoir of life with the Takács Quartet, Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets. He talks about what it’s like to work with three other high-strung professionals, how you negotiate your way toward a performance of, say, op. 127, and then another, and another. Each negotiation is different, each performance, each audience. All around you, life goes on. A violist departs; another arrives. Your colleagues grow old, or else they’re less fortunate. Somehow Beethoven has to be re-created in spite of—no, because of—all this. Don’t chide me about metaphysics and I won’t kid you about Karajan, Fürtwängler, Böhm, Mengelberg, Bernstein, Kleiber père et fils. Did any of them stop history in its tracks by creating the perfect Fifth, Seventh, Missa solemnis? I think not. They just stuck their toes in the river.

CW: Maybe, but you miss the point. It’s a jungle out there. We need you to tell us which one is best. We can’t afford to audition ten different recordings of, say, op. 127.

L: There are no worthwhile shortcuts.

CW: Seriously? I happen to know that you own five complete sets of the Beethoven Quartets. Six, if you count the new Cuarteto Casals set, which you’ll undoubtedly continue to collect as it comes out. And you’re not going to tell me which is best? Even for op. 127?

L: I’m not.

CW: But isn’t that your job? Come on, help me out a little.

L: If I do, it will lessen the experience you’ll get for yourself. Your understanding of op. 127, in any recorded performance, will be less authentic. It’s about what you bring to it.

CW: Okay, but shouldn’t I at least begin with one of the best? Can’t you offer at least that little bit of compassion to a poor, wandering beginner?

L: Huh. You’re not a total beginner. You’ve heard Steely Dan, right? As for Beethoven, he’s almost indestructible. So don’t try to find your Desert Island Disc right off the bat. Find two performances, listen to both with as much love and focus as you’ve got. Wait a couple years, then find two more. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Over time—and I mean like ten years, twenty—you’ll build up more taste, more life experience, and a better sense of what’s in that music.

CW: You speak in tiresome clichés—which I love—but I know you’re right. So here’s my own corollary question: isn’t it possible simply to grow out of a piece, or even a whole composer?

L: You may grow weary of certain works. Give them a rest. Then leap back in, because you’ll be surprised at how much wiser, stronger, and more fun Mahler or Stravinsky has become since the last time you interacted with them.

CW: Oh, that’s clever, that is.

L: Just common sense. The work of getting to know the music can’t really be avoided, but the most pleasurable way to acquire that knowledge is circular, over time. Advance, retreat. Advance again. Like Beckett said, Fail. Try again. Fail better.

CW: Please, can’t we hear something nice right now?

L: No, but here is a bracing dose of late Beethoven from Cuarteto Casals. It may help you adjust your attitude toward direct, unmediated experience. You’re welcome.

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