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3.12.16

The Worst Mozart Biography Ever. Paul Johnson: «Mozart -- A Life»


My apologies, first of all, for the hyperbolic headline, another eyesore in an age of click-bait headlines. I hope to escape total damnation[1]* by having resisted to add that intelligence-insulting trope of a sub-header: “You won’t believe the mistake on page 8!” As every hyperbole, it’s nonsensical, on top of aesthetically displeasing: I have not read every Mozart biography there is, nor can I look into the future. It is perfectly possible that there has been or will be a worse Mozart biography; my faith in the limitlessness of human ingenuity (or whatever the antonym of ingenuity is) is considerable. In my defense, however, it is not very probable that there is a worse Mozart biography, past or future, that will take the cake from (Forbes contributor) Paul Johnson. In any case, can I make up for it by offering a more reasoned, tempered headline now? Perhaps:

“Paul Johnson’s ‘Mozart – A Life’: A Review”?

Incidentally you actually won’t believe the howler on page 8, but if I mentioned it now, you might be tempted to assume that I gleefully found one major error in Johnson’s biography and then hung a whole damnation on it. I would loathe for that impression to take hold. So let me proceed more methodically. Firstly by acknowledging my indebtedness too – indeed co-authorship of – George A. Pieler[2], who wrote this book review with me when we initially hoped to publish it in our co-written column, when the biography came out.

To accompany this review, there is a discography with comment on ionarts and a corresponding playlist on Spotify: Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

In my graduate school, Paul Johnson – the author of “Modern Times” was revered and much quoted. (Tells you something about the school, but that’s not the point.) I was by and large on board with the admiration, but even then the ad hominem attacks against Bertrand Russell, which struck me beneath Johnson to make, raised some warning flags. Now the distinguished commentator, historian, and critic has written “Mozart – A Life”, a slender and personal primer on Mozart if not a biography per se. Johnson, who has lately specialized in short primers on famous figures, styles this is as a new look, giving Mozart’s religion, marriage and career successes their due place.

After two-and-a-half centuries’ worth of biographies, commentaries, and conjecture, it would be bold to claim to present a new view of the composer. Johnson doesn’t, but he has interesting thoughts on Mozart the musician and shares a wealth of personal reactions to his music and life. He wields a seasoned pen and knows how to tell a tale. Unfortunately there are so many problems, factual and analytic, with this work that it is of questionable use for the Mozart neophyte and an exasperating affair for experienced Mozarteans.

Exasperating, because the light entertainment is interwoven with unwarranted hyperbole, tiring laundry lists of works, strange and unsubstantiated biases, wild speculations, and uncritical adoration of the subject. Several statements are plain wrong, others dubious or

#morninglistening: Advent Edition - Homilius




2.12.16

Paul Johnson “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 3 (Symphonies, Operas & Sacred Music)


Right here on ionarts* I have finally published a review of Paul Johnson’s “Mozart: A Life”. A lazy, unedited nightmare of a book that preys on ignorant dunces to read it with delight, misinforming then along the way. But even the worst book about Mozart deserves a soundtrack and unfortunately “Mozart: A Life” does not give any suggestions for recordings that can bring the music to life for the reader (if it were up to me, this type of book would always include an online playlist with a few key works to whet the appetite). In some way I am trying to fill this gap with this list of suggested listening and suggested recordings. Because the discography is long, I split it in three. (* Intended for Forbes.com, but since Paul Johnson is also a Forbes.com contributor, the editors informed me of the site policy never to have fellow contributors review each other's work, which makes good sense, actually.)

“Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 1 | “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 2 



A playlist on Spotify – assembled as best possible the shoddy metadata and limited album availability of Spotify allows – can be found here: Sound Advice: Paul Johnson Mozart Discography

The recommendations are sorted by genre, not by chronology of mention in the book. Some of the recommendations, to insert a teaser, you may find again in an upcoming post of the “Best 20 Mozart Recordings” on Forbes.com.


Symphonies



“The earliest first-class Mozart symphony”, writes Paul Johnson, “when he is clearly on his own in every respect, is K.110 in G, No.12, written in Salzburg in 1771… This is the first recognizable Mozart symphony, in four movements, using sonata style, and with a balanced orchestra. Thirty more symphonies followed over the next twenty years—all of them good but some much better than others and six among the best ever written. Two that deserve to be played more often are K.132 in E-flat, written in Salzburg in 1772, and K.134 in A, both strong, purposeful and

Paul Johnson “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 2 (Chamber Music, Concertos & Serenades)


Right here on ionarts* I have finally published a review of Paul Johnson’s “Mozart: A Life”. It is not a very good book. At all. In the least. But even the worst book about Mozart deserves a soundtrack and unfortunately “Mozart: A Life” does not give any suggestions for recordings that can bring the music to life for the reader (if it were up to me, this type of book would always include an online playlist with a few key works to whet the appetite). In some way I am trying to fill this gap with this list of suggested listening and suggested recordings. Because the discography is long, I split it in three. (* Intended for Forbes.com, but since Paul Johnson is also a Forbes.com contributor, the editors informed me of the site policy never to have fellow contributors review each other's work, which makes good sense, actually.)

“Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 1 | “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 3



A playlist on Spotify – assembled as best possible the shoddy metadata and limited album availability of Spotify allows – can be found here: Sound Advice: Paul Johnson Mozart Discography


The recommendations are sorted by genre, not by chronology of mention in the book. Some of the recommendations, to insert a teaser, you may find again in an upcoming post of the “Best 20 Mozart Recordings” on Forbes.com.


Dances, Divertimentos & Serenades



Writes Johnson: “The nocturne-serenade (K.239 ) has a double bass solo, the only one I can think of in Mozart’s œuvre, plus a pretty substantial

Paul Johnson “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 1 (Keyboard Sonatas, Chamber Music)


Right here on ionarts* I have finally published a review of Paul Johnson’s “Mozart: A Life”. A Travesty, unfortunately, with more mistakes per page than Florence Foster Jenkins’ Queen of the Night aria. But even the worst book about Mozart deserves a soundtrack and unfortunately “Mozart: A Life” does not give any suggestions for recordings that can bring the music to life for the reader (if it were up to me, this type of book would always include an online playlist with a few key works to whet the appetite). In some way I am trying to fill this gap with this list of suggested listening and suggested recordings. Because the discography is long, I split it in three. (* Intended for Forbes.com, but since Paul Johnson is also a Forbes.com contributor, the editors informed me of the site policy never to have fellow contributors review each other's work, which makes good sense, actually.)

“Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 2 | “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 3



A playlist on Spotify – assembled as best possible the shoddy metadata and limited album availability of Spotify allows – can be found here: Sound Advice: Paul Johnson Mozart Discography

The recommendations are sorted by genre, not by chronology of mention in the book. Some of the recommendations, to insert a teaser, you may find again in an upcoming post of the “Best 20 Mozart Recordings” on Forbes.com.


Piano Sonatas


Paul Johnson: “Mozart’s sonatas have suffered because his piano concertos are obviously more accomplished. Among the best earlier sonatas are K.284 (1775), yaddayaddayadda…, K.331 rambleramble. Among the best are the one in

23.11.16

CD Review: Couperin's Lessons


Tom Huizenga and Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Joyce DiDonato looks at war, peace and the Baroque
Washington Post, November 18

available at Amazon
F. Couperin, Leçons de Ténèbres, L. Crowe, E. Watts, La Nuova Musica, D. Bates

(released on September 9, 2016)
HMU 807659 | 70'32"
Lucy Crowe’s first solo disc in 2011, a selection of Handel arias recorded with Harry Bicket and the English Concert, was such a stunning debut that it’s surprising that the British soprano had not recorded another solo album until now, and it’s an equally sensuous recording. This time, the focus is on François Couperin’s “Trois Leçons de Ténèbres,” the first three of the nine musical readings from the Book of Lamentations for the end of Holy Week.

Couperin composed these glorious pieces for the nuns of the Abbaye Royale de Longchamp, a convent founded with the dowry of the sister of King Louis IX, Isabelle de France, who lived there until her death. This famous monastic house in the Bois de Boulogne, just outside Paris, was destroyed, like so many, during the French Revolution. A racetrack now occupies the site.

Crowe is outstanding in this expressive music, especially as the soloist in the first lesson. Her top range is limpid, free of all strain and perfectly suited to the needs of the music. Breath support is effortless. Take, for instance, the melismatic extension of the final note of the first little section, which encapsulates the appeal of her voice in a mere 40 seconds.

In the opening “Aleph,” the first of the exotic vocalizes that accompany the text’s initial letters in Hebrew, preserved in the Latin translation, long melodic arcs swell delicately toward dissonance and then realign with the harmony in ornamented resolutions. The accompaniment is a pale watercolor wash underneath Crowe, provided by Jonathan Rees on viola da gamba, Alex McCartney on theorbo and David Bates on delicately registered organ.

Elizabeth Watts, the soloist in the second lesson, has a more full-bodied voice that carries some excessive weight toward the top and sometimes overpowers the accompanying forces. Although less pleasing on its own, her voice pushes and pulls in beautiful ways against Crowe’s lighter sound in the third Couperin lesson.

Two of Sébastien de Brossard’s trio sonatas are a pretty lagniappe, with two violins playing the same intertwining roles as the two sopranos in the “Leçons.” They complement La Nuova Musica’s performance of Brossard’s chromatically infused setting of the “Stabat Mater,” although in this piece the solos, by members of the chorus, vary in quality.
PREVIOUSLY:
Charles T. Downey, Briefly Noted: Lucy Crowe's Handel (Ionarts, August 29, 2012)

12.11.16

CD Review: Jerusalem Quartet's Bartók


Patrick Rucker and Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Bartók by heart, for the heart
Washington Post, November 11

available at Amazon
Bartók, String Quartets 2/4/6, Jerusalem Quartet

(released on November 4, 2016)
HMC902235 | 78'51"
Béla Bartók’s six string quartets are a cross-section of his musical development. Over 30 years, 1909 to 1939, the Hungarian composer can be heard working his way through the musical trends of the first half of the 20th century. A late Romantic in the mold of Liszt and Wagner, Bartók became a modernist through his study both of pre-tonal folk music from Hungary and other countries, and of post-tonal incorporation of dissonance.

The gold standard for the Bartók quartets up to this point, live and in two versions on disc, has been the Takács Quartet, which gave an exemplary performance of the entire cycle at the Kennedy Center in 2014. The Jerusalem Quartet excels in 20th-century repertoire, including its fine partial traversal of the Shostakovich quartets. To judge from the first disc of its new recorded Bartók set, with the even-numbered quartets, the group’s account will not displace the Takács but promises to be in its league.

The second quartet receives the most convincing rendition, especially the dizzying fluidity in the dancing rhythms of Arabian folk dance in the second movement. One of the first movement’s principal motifs, outlining a minor third in stepwise motion, receives just the right caressing attention from all four players.

The success of the fourth quartet rests on the gently creeping night music of the slow movement, the centerpiece of five movements written in palindromic form (a Bartók signature). The Jerusalem Quartet does not captivate with an eclectic variety of sound like the Takács, and the conclusion of the fifth movement feels too polite to be bloodthirsty. On the other hand, the quartet creates a fun interplay of Stravinsky-esque metric shifts and off-beat accents in the first movement. The inner movements are the most delightful — a restless, questing Prestissimo in the second movement, with mutes on, and an astounding variety of plucked sounds in the fourth movement.

No. 6 is a piece steeped in sadness, composed just before Bartók was compelled to flee Europe for an unhappy few final years in New York. Laments (marked Mesto) open each movement and become the central subject of the finale. The solos that permeate the work are all polished, perhaps too polished. One misses the quirky individualism of the Takács Quartet’s approach.