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Music Scrooge

This article by Robert R. Reilly appears in the December edition of Crisis Magazine and is reprinted with kind permission of the author.

It's Christmas season and I am supposed to be thinking of others. What would they like for Christmas? Of course, this is very hard for a narcissist. I continue the childish habit of giving people close to me things that I want. That way I will eventually get the things—with the added advantage of seeming to appear generous. However, this ploy has worn thin to those around me and the “mistakes” in my gift-giving of past years are known for what they were, pure acts of self-aggrandizement. I can no longer pull off the astonished and hurt look when I am told that another recording of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder is not what my five-year-old son really wished for. So I will forsake the pretense and openly wallow in what I want.

I want more. More of everything, really. But especially in the musical realm, I would like more classical CDs. In intense spiritual moments, I realize that I won't live long enough to listen more than a few times, if even that, to what I have already accumulated. Ironically, that realization drives my acquisitiveness. How can this be? I answer with an anecdote from the life of English composer Havergal Brian. In an extraordinary twilight career, Brian produced some twenty symphonies after he turned eighty. In his nineties, he was approached for an interview with the Gramophone magazine. When his interlocutor gently raised an intimation of mortality, Brian snapped back: "I can't die; I just bought a new pair of trousers."

And there you have it. That's why we have all those malls. You cannot die if you are shopping, or have recently shopped. On top of this, CDs never wear out, adding an intimation of immortality far beyond what trousers can provide. Also, DVD versions of concerts, operas, and movies never wear out either, which opens a new front in the battle.

In defense of my spiritual defect, I protest that my acquisitions are for purposes of review. It's my job, after all. Okay, it's not my job; it's my paid avocation. It brings in that little extra. This too has worn thin, as the needs for added shelf space have led to the possibility of putting my children in bunk beds. I plead that new DVDs are thinner than VHS tapes. However, those obsessed with the shelf-space-issue worry that now there will be CDs, VHS tapes, and DVDs. Well then, I will offer no more tawdry, transparent excuses; this is a column of naked desire. Just give me these things because I want them. I need them.

The first thing I want is for you to love music. This is my only eleemosynary impulse. However, it, too, translates into self-interest because I will recommend that you buy my book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. (You should also read our Ionarts review.) Buy it for yourself and for your family members, even for those who can't hum. I have already given this book in past Christmases to everyone I know. Now they expect real Christmas presents. The book is slipping from its hold on the 280,000th ranking at, so act fast.

Here is what else I want. (Since I already have almost everything, this list may appear a bit eclectic, but remember this is about me.) I will have to be quick because the list is long, though I will restrict it to 20th-century and contemporary composers. I want Chandos to continue its series of the symphonies of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919–1996). It appears the Olympia label series of Soviet-era recordings of these works are increasingly hard to find, so this new traversal is more than welcome. Volume two on Chandos (10237) offers Symphony No. 4, again with the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Gabriel Chmura. It is not quite as exciting as the premiere under Kirill Kondrashin, who brought it in two minutes faster, but this is a very fine, beautifully recorded version. It is accompanied by the wonderful, haunting Sinfonietta No. 2 and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes. This is like Shostakovich without his satiric, acerbic side.

I want more recordings of Dominick Argento's music. Argento (b. 1927), squirreled away in Minnesota, is an American classic. His Casa Guidi is a glorious orchestral song setting of texts from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's letters to her sister from Florence, gorgeously sung by Frederica Von Stade on a Reference Recording (RR-100CD). It is about as drop-dead beautiful as vocal music gets, enveloped in luminous orchestration. If Richard Strauss had been an American, he might have written something like this, without at all sounding like himself. Two entrancing orchestral works accompany this, the playful Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra and In Praise of Music: Seven Songs for Orchestra. If you are not giving my book for Christmas, this CD would make a great gift for your favorite music lovers.

I want to understand more about the music of Ahmed Saygun (1907–1991), probably the premiere Turkish symphonist of the 20th century. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Ataturk tried to jump-start Turkey into the modern world, which meant to westernize it. Saygun seems to have done the same thing in his music, apparently with Ataturk's blessing. Saygun accompanied B&eactue;la Bartók on his musical expeditions in Turkey, so it will come as no surprise to learn that Saygun was influenced by him, but also by Paul Hindemith, another European visitor invited by Ataturk. In any event, from the first two issues of the CPO label's traversal of Saygun's five symphonies, including Nos. 1 and 2 (CPO 999 819-2) and 3 and 5 (CPO 999 968-2), it is clear that Turkey was ready to join the EU years ago. To the extent this music sounds Turkish at all, it is clearly from a Western perspective. It is also highly sophisticated, brilliantly orchestrated, and harmonically complex. Not always an easy listen, these works fascinate and are clearly from the hand of a master. I want the rest of CPO's cycle.

As an archenemy of the Second Viennese School of music, I want to confess that I thought it just as well that I had never heard Egon Wellesz's symphonies because he was contaminated by it as a student of Schoenberg. Imagine my surprise when, having come across CPO's third release of Wellesz's complete symphonies, containing Nos. 1 and 8 (CPO 999 998-2), that I was bowled over by the First, written when Wellesz was already 60 years old. The first movement contains some absolutely magnificent fugato writing; the third is as beautiful as anything written in Mahler's lineage, without what Franz Schmidt called Mahler's "cheap novel" effects. What a wonderful surprise. I found the atonal Eighth fractured and fragmentary but, needless to say, I want to catch up with the first two volumes in this revelatory series.

Even after that backhanded remark about Mahler, I desire the new recording of his complete symphonies on the Hanssler Classic label, featuring conductor Michael Gielen and the SWR Symphony Orchestra, because critics I respect (e.g., David Hurwitz) say it is one of the best. I know Leonard Bernstein's highly charged versions of these works that remind you why Mahler went to Sigmund Freud for help. I have never written about Mahler because I still don't understand him, but I am willing to try with Gielen's help.

I want to hear British composer John McCabe's other symphonies because I have been enchanted by his Fourth, Of Time and the River, written in 1994. I have just caught up with it, though it was issued on Hyperion (CDA 67089), with his delightful Flute Concerto, at the turn of the millennium, superbly played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Vernon Handley. This highly atmospheric, magical work starts with a repeated running start at something. It burbles along, returns to its starting place, and tries again—not out of frustration, but enthusiasm. McCabe (b. 1939) describes it as "a symphony where the tempo gradually decreases to a central point of stasis and then gradually increases in place to a close . . . with the actual changes in pulse imperceptible point-by-point to the listener." There is a wonderful sense of play and fancy in this work that finds its grounding not in Britten or Tippett, to whom McCabe is wrongly compared, but to the mysterious Celtic twilight world of Welsh composer William Mathias. Take the time to go down river with him.

Of course, I want much more than this. For instance, I want more space . . . Maybe next Christmas? Now I must go shop for those special presents for my children. I can almost hear them now.

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