Too Much Tchaikovsky

Organizers and Decorators

Issue 16

Isaiah Berlin gave us foxes and hedgehogs. Classical Greece offered Apollo and Dionysius. Not to be outdone, Ned Rorem came up with his own slam-dunk binary oppositions, French/German. (Example: cats are French, dogs German. If you must know more, click here.)

This summer I’ve discovered a new pair of binaries. Whereas I am (apparently) a born Decorator, my spouse is an Organizer. She’s spent the last two months tearing the house apart, throwing away tons of stuff from our previous lives while carefully sorting what’s left into uniformly sized cardboard boxes, neatly stacked on our new basement shelves.

Every time I’m sent to Home Depot on an “organizing” errand, I come home not only with shelf dividers and duct tape but also with paint samples: hope springs eternal. My better half has promised me that, once everything is organized, we will indeed choose new, tastefully coordinated interior colors.

But let’s talk about music. Did you know that the entire universe of classical music can also be divided into Organizers and Decorators?

I’ve come across some terrific new recordings of cornerstone repertoire by Bach, Haydn, and Beethoven—prime Organizers one and all. Rachel Podger has released a complete Art of Fugue, performed one-on-a-part by her ensemble Brecon Baroque (Channel Classics CCS SA 38316). This is cause for rejoicing. First, her Art is available as a multichannel SACD, proof that Sacks et Cie. haven’t totally abandoned physical hi-res.

Second, it gives us one more chance to hear, understand, and enjoy some of the most skillfully organized music Bach ever wrote. These are fugues, contrapuntal works based on a single theme—unless, of course, they’re double fugues or triple fugues, etc., which can be based on two or three themes or counter-themes. Bach wrote them out without specifying instrumentation. You can play them on a solo keyboard or on any suitable combination of instruments. In other words, they can be Decorated in various ways, but not re-Organized. Design—expressed through pitch and rhythm—comes first, timbre second.

Contrapunctus 1 sets forth the essential fugue subject in as simple a manner (i.e., rectus) possible. One voice begins, others enter in imitation:

Eventually things get more complicated. Here’s a bit of Contrapunctus 7, in which the subject, still rectus, is decorated with added scale notes in the first entry, then decorated and inverted (melodically, up becomes down, etc.) in the second and third entries, then both inverted and augmented (played more slowly) in the fourth, lowest-sounding entry (0’14”).

You’ll soon hear many more alterations and decorations of the theme. That makes Bach’s Art not only phenomenally well organized but also pleasantly varied. Here’s some of the lively two-voice Canon alla Ottava:

Brecon Baroque’s performances are sensitive and intelligent; the recording glistens and whispers just when it should. John Butt’s liner notes are useful too, although he discusses the music in its order of appearance in the 1751 collection, whereas Podger has reorganized the movements to create a better listening sequence. Well, The Art of Fugue was never meant to be played straight through in any order. That’s still no excuse for making it so difficult to find and read notes on individual movements as one is listening.

Moving right along: Haydn wrote fugues too, and he helped invent modern sonata form, so he definitely rates as an Organizer. What’s nice about the newest Haydn series is that organizzatore principale Giovanni Antonini has reorganized its content along thematic lines rather than chronologically. That, and the supercharged performances by Antonini’s period group Il Giardino Armonico, makes this series and its individual sets very attractive. Vol. 3 (Alpha ALPHA672) uses the text of Haydn’s last solo vocal work, “Solo e pensoso,” as a point of departure. Antonini writes,

The textual incipit of the [Haydn] aria “Solo e pensoso” . . . has sent me back again to Haydn’s assertion . . . that his isolated situation [at the Esterházy court] had prompted him to be original in his music. . . . But it is above all the melancholic character found in the slow movements of the symphonies recorded here that somehow links them with the spirit of Petrarch’s sonnet. In all of them, the violins are directed to be played with mutes, a technical means of creating a stifled sound that evokes an introspective psychological situation.

We get Symphonies No. 42, 62, and 4, “Solo e pensoso,” and the overture to L’isola disabitata, an opera with a Robinson Crusoe plot. It all works to form an integrated program. Christian Moritz-Bauer’s booklet essay on “Haydn the Solitary” further ties the room together, as do the gorgeous photos.

And now how about some re-organized Schumann and Beethoven? You’ll hear the Schumann Cello Concerto and Beethoven’s Violin Sonata, “Kreutzer,” with fresh ears if you get Re: Imagined Schumann & Beethoven from Zuill Bailey and the Ying Quartet (Sono Luminus DSL-92204). Is it sacrilege to admit that I enjoyed their “Kreutzer”—originally for violin and piano and here transcribed, like the Schumann, for cello and string quartet—more than I’ve ever enjoyed the original? But the Schumann also gains in intimacy and warmth of expression:

Again, pitches and rhythms create structure, so they matter most. Like Bach’s Art, this music thrives on being re-decorated, because it’s organized.

And now let us now praise some famous Decorators. Who comes to mind? Ravel! His notorious Boléro is little more than 17 minutes’ worth of color changes, i.e., decoration, applied to a single melody repeated over an unchanging rhythm.

Ravel’s luscious Tzigane is also mainly decorative. A snapshot taken in a smoky gypsy tavern, its extended initial “improvisation” pointedly lacks all organization. Listen to the moment—nearly halfway through the piece—where the noodling solo violinist is finally joined by the orchestra:

Arabella Steinbacher is the gypsy here. It would be wrong to call her new album, Fantasies, Rhapsodies & Daydreams (Pentatone PTC5186536) a collection of encores or bon-bons. Even though they mostly emphasize color and spontaneity over structural rigor, these are substantial short works. The tonal beauty of Steinbacher’s playing, coupled with Pentatone’s customary engineering quality, should make this album irresistable even to Organizers.

And so to Liszt. Can a composer ever follow his decorative impulse to such a degree that he completely transforms its effect? Kirill Gerstein’s new recording of the Transcendental Études (Myrios MYR019) presents just such a case. Whereas filigree in Chopin adds mere grace, the “filigree” in these blockbuster études can completely overwhelm us (for samples, click on the catalog number above). We have been pushed into The Sublime. With perhaps the most difficult piano music ever produced by a Romantic, Liszt proved once and for all that nothing succeeds like excess. Extreme Decorating became a potent organizing force almost by itself.

I’ll have more to say about Liszt later this year. For now, his Études powerfully demonstrate the limitations of all binaries.

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