I’ve been reviewing classical records for, like, ever. In the process I think I’ve begun to figure out what matters and what shouldn’t.
Naturally, I’ve made a list. Two lists, in fact: you could call them values and maxims.
Value No. 1: New music matters. Do I still listen to Beethoven? Of course. Mozart, Puccini, Stravinsky, Mahler, Bach? Ditto. But as a mindful member of the food chain, I usually check out the new stuff first. That means listening repeatedly (giving it a quick “test of time”), reading liner notes, analyzing the music’s relationship to other musics, and putting it in context with contemporary ideas, arts, politics, literature, and cultural trends. If we can’t find good new music, share it, and praise it, eventually there won’t be any more.
I cite this value not because music written a hundred or four hundred years ago no longer speaks to us. Obviously it does: that’s what “classic” means. But as a rule, the further back you go, the more those sounds need extra help to reach listeners. Often their original significance gets completely lost.
Think of Gregorian chant. Originally it was functional music for Christian worship, bound to various liturgies, patched together from melodic formulas known to the Middle Easterners who created it and first spread it. When sung, it made such a powerfully sensual, ecstatic impact that many churchmen considered it a danger to those who heard it.
Today it’s widely marketed as relaxing, vaguely spiritual ambient music associated with devotion, withdrawal from worldly concerns, and Ye Olde Medieval Tymes. It’s performed cleanly and carefully, without rhythm, according to rules set down by certain French monks in the late 19th century. A few of us know one or two chant melodies like the Dies Irae, mainly so we can recognize them when they pop up in Berlioz or Liszt. Does this music lack all meaning today? No, but that meaning has atrophied or otherwise changed forever.
In time, so will the meaning of music by Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Stravinsky, and Reich. The moral is obvious: find new music that matters to you.
Value No. 2: Young artists matter. Why should I promote a sixty-year-old performance of Brahms Symphony No. 1 by some long-dead conductor so that his record label can continue to make a buck?
Oh, because it’s a great performance? Maybe so, but no single performance of a Brahms symphony can ever suggest all its beauty, meaning, or sheer musical perfection. You need to hear it in as many guises as possible. Don’t begin and end with Karajan and Klemperer—check out Andrew Manze, Riccardo Chailly, Ívan Fischer, and many more.
This value—that you should help young artists survive while they mature, before they’re totally “great”—seems so obvious. There are many deserving kids coming up these days. Don’t worship the dead. Please.
Value No. 3: Good sound matters. Preaching to the choir, right? The trouble is, we who especially love classical music often become inured to beloved performances heard through a haze of LP scratches-‘n’-dirt or ineptly remastered CDs. (One of my favorite Mahler Ones comes from Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis SO c.1940—not remastered ineptly, but no picnic sonically, that’s for sure.)
I wasn’t all that shocked to discover last year that people who buy physical recordings from Channel Classics—one of the pioneers of multichannel, DSD-based hi-res discs—usually listen only to the Redbook CD layer. Consumer resistance (or indifference) to hi-res offerings remains a stumbling block for the industry. CC have drastically cut back on physical hi-res (i.e., SACDs) and now offer most of their hi-res issues solely as downloads. Elsewhere Blu-rays are further diluting the classical hi-res market.
C’est la guerre. I’ll keep pushing for hi-res, because it seems like a no-brainer. If great music sounds better, won’t people enjoy it more?
Now for the Maxims. Maxim Number 1: Kiss a few frogs, it won’t kill you. This applies almost equally to Values 1, 2, and 3. If you’d like to hear one album a month of stunningly terrific new music (not talking about what geriatrics like Glass, Reich, Adams, Pärt, et al. turn out—sorry, no longer “new”) you’ll have to investigate at least half a dozen releases. (So, one terrific album every six months might be more realistic. When it comes to frog kissing, your patience/stamina/stomach may vary.)
Same when it comes to supporting the best young artists. Every young artist puts out albums. They get money from patrons, foundations, mom and dad, their own piggy banks or trust funds. They have no illusions about making money from these recordings. What they want is bookings. They hope a good album will give them visibility with concert promoters and the media, not to mention their potential audience. If what you want is to be thrilled anew by, say, the Liszt B Minor Sonata, that’s still possible; I heard two such records from younger artists within a month last year. Generally, though, you’ll need to do some frog-sorting. (We critics can help with that.)
Maxim Number 2: Share the good news. Yes, I’m talking to you, that person sitting there in his man-cave who really, really likes Edward Gardner’s Elgar recordings but hesitates to bring that up when he gets together with his Pink-Floyd-worshipping buddies. You’ll never make any converts—thereby aiding and abetting Values 1, 2, and 3—if you hide your passion under a bushel. Come out as a classical fan. Carefully choose some incredible classical music and listen to it with a friend. (Start with your spouse or partner if that seems easier.)
Maxim Number 3: To everything there is a season. Follow your heart. When it leads you back to Beethoven, go there. When it leads you to the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, go there. Be sure to give some things an extra try. (I’m still working on my inability to enjoy John Luther Adams: you never know.) On the other hand, recognize when you’re burned out. Know when to give it a rest.
Which leads me to today’s final thought: at the end of this month, I’m embarking on a sabbatical. I need to rest, recharge, re-think. I’m just too tired of too many things, although I expect that’ll be temporary. You won’t see my words in Copper for a while, but I’ll be at work on something, somewhere. Or maybe not! (Faint smile.)