For all those who say all my off-topic posts are about cars and horse racing, take this.
Today's subject: classical music. A subject I know nothing about. I went through a "classical period" that lasted well over ten years, but I mainly experienced the music rather than learning much about it. That period began in the '80s, preceding, just slightly, the introduction of the CD.
First item of business, the world's best music book title—I saw this last night in the bookstore and had to stifle a laugh. They nailed that.
Following the advice of wise friends, I am saving both Alaska and opera for my old age. (In case you're just skimming casually, that's another way of saying I've never been to Alaska and don't listen to opera.)
Control and perfection
Anybody have a favorite quartet? ("Quartet" as in the group, I mean.) Like I said, I don't have any knowledge of, or training in, classical music or stringed instruments, so I don't know where I get off pretending I can tell the difference. But I've always had favorites anyway. My latest infatuation is for the Verdi Quartet (Susanne Rabenschlag and Peter Stein, violins; Karin Wolf, viola; and Didier Poskin, 'cello). Apparently they've been around for a good long while, not that I knew. They have a light hand, a singing tone, and a gentle way in Schubert. Try their Quintet in C on Hänssler Classics—Martin Lovett joining in on the second 'cello. The music is a great masterpiece that everyone knows, or should. I suppose the Verdi's is not as good a version as the wonderful (and far more famous) older version on EMI by the Alban Berg Quartet and Heinrich Schiff, notable for its rapt control and almost otherwordly perfection. I made many great prints to that disc in darkrooms in years gone by. (I found I needed music without words to print by.) Nothing like it on headphones, either, when you can really concentrate on listening.
(As an aside, anyone who loves Schubert will get a kick out of Too Beautiful for You [Trop Belle Pour Toi ], the Bertrand Blier comedy with Gérard Depardieu.)
Of course the big problem with bowed stringed instruments is that they never sound quite as good in recordings as they do in real life. It's the opposite of what they lately call "classic rock," where the recording is typically articulate and communicative and the live performances thrashy and dinny and too loud to hear. Hearing a live string quartet is an experience worth seeking out.
Of course you can't listen live to the ones that are gone. By far my favorite quartet of all time is the Tatrai, from Hungary. I love the Haydn string quartets above all others, and have ever since I started listening to classical in 1982 or so. I've got two complete sets, neither of which I've listened to completely. The versions I've listened to most intently (and repeatedly) are by the Tatrai. But I've never bought more than the odd disk here and there of the Tatrai's traversal, because it was always too expensive—these recordings have never not been expensive, virtually since they came out on vinyl. The personnel changed with the music, but as far as I know the Haydn band typically included Vilmos Tátrai and István Várkonyi, violins; György Konrád, viola; and Ede Banda on 'cello.
The quartets are available on iTunes now, for what seem like the most reasonable prices I've ever seen—generally $19.99 for six quartets. Try the "Erdody" Quartets Opus 76 if you want a place to start. I've been immersed in the Op. 54/55, amazed all over again at the brilliance and beauty of this nearly ideal matching of music and musicians. And don't make the mistake of hitting the go button and letting it run; I'd recommend listening to one quartet by itself several times before moving on to the next one. It's not actually background music.
Music of the thunderstorm
And lastly, a plug for what I think is one of the greatest classical music pieces ever: Bach's BWV 1052. I have a deathless love for this piece, and (despite buying yet another version last week) have never found a better rendition than Trevor Pinnock's. Roiling skies and the thunder of the gods. One of the greatest of the great masterpieces; Robert Schumann, who was a music critic as well as a composer, thought so. If you don't know it yet, a download will be the best $2.97 you'll spend this week.
So much to enjoy.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic posts that appear on Sundays.
UPDATE: Pak Wan sent along this link to a video of the Alban Berg. Terrific. Gives a fine sense of what seeing a live quartet can be like.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured [partial] Comment by patrick: "Very Funny—I just spent a month in Alaska while my wife sang with the opera company there...."
Featured Comment by Erlik: "The best summation of opera ever:
'"Well, basically there are two sorts of opera,' said Nanny, who also had the true witch's ability to be confidently expert on the basis of no experience whatsoever. 'There's your heavy opera, where basically people sing foreign and it goes like "Oh oh oh, I am dyin', oh, I am dyin', oh, oh, oh, that's what I'm doin," and there's your light opera, where they sing in foreign and it basically goes "Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer! I like to drink lots of beer!," although sometimes they drink champagne instead. That's basically all of opera, reely.' (Terry Pratchett, Maskerade.)"
Featured [partial] Comment by Hugh Crawford: "You don't listen to the opera , you go to the opera. It's like the difference between sushi and fishsticks. Attending the opera is transcendent, listening to recordings of opera is kind of annoying. A soprano friend of my wife had to take martial arts training for one of her roles where she literally got thrown across the stage while singing, and last year at the Met the chorus was performing a cavalry battle while rappelling down a stage filling video screen showing the battle field from overhead. A couple years before that I saw Placido Domingo in "Girl of the Golden West" staged with real horses one of which he was riding while singing.
"Opera is a lot closer to say Iggy Pop than you might imagine."