CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews

11.8.20

Dip Your Ears, No. 261 (Satie Vexation)

available at Amazon
Erik Satie, Vexations
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
(BIS)

Erik Satie’s Vexations is an aptly named work that you have to have heard in order to know that you’ll never need to have heard it. Simple, repetitive, and demanding endurance from the performer, not skill. 18 notes, harmonized, inverted. Just one page of brutalist-simplistic music, but rinsed and repeated – by disingenuous fiat of the composer’s pen – 840 times. The Vexations deserve to be recorded for the archive’s sake, because everyone ought to have the chance to reject this misinterpreted gag of a composition on their own; the only other reason to perform them is to achieve a cheap if exhausting publicity stunt.

It delivers all the stupefying effect without any of the ‘transportive’ qualities of a Philip Glass film score and is bound to inflict pain on anyone of musical sensibility. You’d be just as well off drinking a bottle of cheap booze for such a dulling of your senses. It is, in short, an exercise in masochism and no spin of its alleged “Zeb Buddhist” qualities (as the work’s first champion, John Cage, suggested) or of it being a “study in immobility” (so would be staring at paint dry) can salvage the thing. It’s ironic and telling that Satie, derided for his best music as a mere ‘salon composer’, should be celebrated by some for his worst. Sort of goes to show that if you pump up the crazy just enough, someone will be there to declare you a genius. The truth is that we don’t know what Satie’s intent was when he scribbled the page of music and the absurd instructions down; sarcasm is as good as any; a mocking musical jest of sorts. If you listen to the whole thing, though, the joke’s on you.

That said, what about the performance? For starters, Noriko Ogawa plays on a beautiful sounding Érard, beautifully recorded. For some 70 minutes she is merciless in her rigor and – though I dare not say “refreshingly” – brisk. At the tempo she takes for 142 variations, she’d be done with the whole thing in six (SA)CDs. A far cry from the alleged aimed-at goal of 24 hours, that Satie may have had in mind. (For that, you’d have to go to Jeroen van Veen’s download of the whole thing on Brilliant Classics.) In any case, carping about this would be akin to the joke of two ladies in a restaurant complaining: “The food’s terrible here.” “Yes, and the portions are so small!” But no have fears: Happily, the artist and record label have the good sense to consider this nod towards Satie’s Vexations exhaustive and final, which it more than is. Late in the game, Noriko Ogawa adds some more obvious dynamic variation and shifts in voicing and eventually also the tempo, speeding things up as if to come to a quicker end. If you’ve made it through those 75 minutes, the last five might induce chuckles of relief and acquiescent glee. But three quarters of an hour seem a high price for that.

At the heart of taking this seriously at all is the John Cage dictum that “if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Well, if something is boring after 80 minutes, you could double down until you lose your mind or have invested so much time that you cannot allow yourself to consider it having been time wasted. Eventually, I suppose, Cage will be right. But will it have been worth it? I suggest sticking to Virgil Thompson’s take on the matter, instead: “Try a thing you haven't done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not.”

1/10






15.7.20

On ClassicsToday: Another Vivaldi Edition Violin Concerto Must-Have

Another Vivaldi Edition Violin Concerto Must-Have

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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Unless you are a cetologist, all whales of a species look alike to you. The seasoned eye, meanwhile, will take one glance at a disappearing dorsal fin and immediately conclude: “Oh, look, there’s Laura!” Same thing with Vivaldi violin concertos: The more we indulge, the greater the differentiation and joy. Having arrived at Vol. 63, Naïve’s Vivaldi Edition does just that with this exemplary disc: Six seldom recorded concertos, all of theatrical quality but for the calm and simpler RV 321, all late Vivaldi, written sometime after 1724... [continue reading]

13.7.20

On ClassicsToday: Best Recording of Hans Zender's Superb Winterreise

Best Remembrance Of Hans Zender

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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Composer/conductor Hans Zender, who died last October (2019), is better known for his “composed re-composition” of Schubert’s Winterreise than for any of his other work. That’s not to sell those other “original” compositions short, or his work as a conductor (a fine Mahler Ninth and excellent Schubert First, among them). It’s simply a credit to how spectacularly well-made his orchestral reworking of the Schubert classic is. Sure, there always will be those who find the idea of futzing with an original masterpiece objectionable. And in many cases where a mediocrity latches onto a work of genius, the critics have a point. Not here... [continue reading]

11.7.20

On ClassicsToday: Haydn & The Harp: Light Delights

Haydn & The Harp: Light Delights

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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“Haydn and the Harp” is a delightful disc of music written for the harp based on works and themes of Haydn by the composer’s contemporaries, as well as compositions of Haydn’s where the harp can (or was always meant to) be an alternative to the piano. All the music is tied in some way to Haydn, either biographically or musically. Exupère de La Maniere, for example, grabbed a theme from Haydn’s Symphony No. 63 (“La Roxelane”) and sent it through the variation-wringer for harp solo. Ditto Sophia Dussek with “God Save Emperor Francis”, the tune best known from the slow movement of the Op. 76/3 string quartet or the German national anthem. Nicolas-Charles Bochsa, meanwhile, created a virtuosic “Petite mosaique” of famous melodies from The Creation for harp solo... [continue reading]

9.7.20

On ClassicsToday: Mayseder, a Viennese Bridge Between Classical and Romantic

Mayseder: A Viennese Bridge Between Classical And Romantic

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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The late classical/early romantic Viennese composer Joseph Mayseder is a wonderful discovery whose music is being methodically made available by the Gramola label. He was the concertmaster of the predecessor of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and of the Wiener Hofmusikkapelle–an ensemble that still exists (albeit as a loose ensemble of singers and instrumentalists from the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and the State Opera Chorus) and that performs the musical duties on this disc that couples his musical legacy, a Mass in E-flat major, with an early violin concerto. [continue reading]

7.7.20

On ClassicsToday: Margherita Torretta's Bang-On Scarlatti

Margherita Torretta: Bang-On Scarlatti From Out Of Nowhere

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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Scarlatti recitals on the piano are no longer a rarity, but really great ones still are. Since Horowitz’s groundbreaking disc, outstanding recordings have been made by Mikhail Pletnev, bursting-with-wilful fantasy, Ivo Pogorelich absorbed in his dynamic wonder-world, and Sergei Babayan, with refined insight. More recent additions to the top of the heap, many reviewed on Classicstoday.com, have come from Alexandre Tharaud, Konstantin Scherbakov, Zhu Xiao-Mei, and Yevgeny Sudbin. A very recently received new recording of 20 Scarlatti sonatas did not look particularly promising, much less like it might break into the phalanx of a dozen superior discs–rather it seemed more likely to be just another vanity recording by yet another young artist. [continue reading]

6.5.20

On ClassicsToday: Strauss' Enoch Arden in a new Reference Recording

Granitic Enoch Arden From Bruno Ganz And Kirill Gerstein

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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Monodramas are tricky to pull off. The text has to be very good and the music has to be better still, to fulfill its dual duty of underscoring the drama and offering enough interest on its own, when it does pipe up. The results vary: from the rare best, like the ingenious masterpiece that is Viktor Ullmann’s Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke, to the tawdry and banal, like Liza Lehmann’s The Happy Prince (based on one of Oscar Wilde’s lesser efforts). One of the few gems that works quite well is Richard Strauss’ Enoch Arden on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ballad by that name. [continue reading]

5.5.20

On ClassicsToday: Josephine Knight in Lovely Piatti World Premieres

Self-Serving Schumann And Lovely Piatti World Premieres

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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This new release of the Schumann Cello Concerto purports to be the premiere recording of its absolute original version–a faithful reconstruction of the 1850 “Concertstück”. After cellist Josephine Knight found the autograph in Krakow, she set about to discern the differences from the modern version we know, which apparently include some alterations made or suggested by Robert Emil Bockmühl on whom Schumann relied for advice, and several subsequent performers’ changes. She found “hundreds of differences”, mostly accents, dynamic markings, bowings. The notes, but for a handful, are the same, though. She’s since made this her vehicle and this recording is meant to propel the original version–and presumably her–into the limelight. [continue reading]