Europe ’72 Is Here

I finally got my Complete Europe ’72 box set:

I got number 3047:

In my initial listen to parts of the first show (4/7/72, Wembley Empire Pool, London, England), I’m very impressed by the quality of the mix and remastering. The instruments all sound fresh and clear, and the overall sound is very nice. It’s especially interesting to hear Pigpen’s organ a bit more present than in most recordings from this tour, and the vocals are all well balanced.

Listening Anew to Einstein on the Beach

Note: I originally wrote this post in October, 2007, and having an urge to listen to Einstein on the Beach today, I decided to update it and tweak it a bit.

Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach is one of the seminal works of minimalist music. (This genre of music is characterized by repetitive motives and rhythmic structures.) Described as the “first in a Glass Trilogy of operas about men who changed the world through the power of their ideas,” Einstein, first performed in 1976 with staging by Robert Wilson, was so full of new ideas that it rocked the music world. The combination of spoken parts and singing, the tight integration of set design and dance, and the use of minimalist music in such a large scale work, mark Einstein as one of the defining works of minimalist music. Whether you like minimalism or not – and I can understand those who find it boring, even though I don’t – it is hard to deny the importance of this work.

An extensive quote from the notes to the Nonesuch recording, while slightly hubristic, gives a summary of its importance. “It is the first, longest, and most famous of the composer’s operas, yet it is in almost every way unrepresentative of them. Einstein was, by design, a glorious “one-shot” – a work that invented its context, form and language, and then explored them so exhaustively that further development would have been redundant. But, by its own radical example, Einstein prepared the way – it gave permission – for much of what has happened in music theater since its premiere.”

In 1984, I was fortunate to see the revival of the work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York, and was marked by the audacity of the music and the staging. Ten years later, when Nonesuch released a “new” recording of the work, I bought it immediately. (The original, and shorter, Sony recording, originally issued on Tomato records (which I actually still have somewhere on LPs) was later re-released on CD.) Unfortunately, neither of these are available on CD any more, though you can purchase them by download. It’s quite a shame that this opera is out of print on CD.

While I have listened to it several times over the years, it languished on my shelves until a recent query on a classical music newsgroup reminded me that I hadn’t listened to it in several years. So, how does Einstein stand up after all this time? Does it still sound as important? Does it sound dated? Einstein is clearly a product of the 1970s, both musically (Glass’s music has evolved since then, but not to the point of rupture) and culturally (there are many cultural references to the times). The work consists of the following:

1. Knee 1 8:04
2. Train 1 21:25
3. Trial 1: Entrance 5:42
4. Trial 1: “Mr. Bojangles” 16:29
5. Trial 1: “All Men Are Equal” 4:30
6. Knee 2 6:07
1. Dance 1 15:53
2. Night train 20:09
3. Knee 3 6:30
4. Trial 2/Prison: “Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket” 12:17
5. Trial 2/Prison: Ensemble 6:38
6. Trial 2/Prison: “I Feel The Earth Move” 4:09
1. Dance 2 19:58
2. Knee 4 7:05
3. Building 10:21
4. Bed: Cadenza 1:53
5. Bed: Prelude 4:23
6. Bed: Aria 8:12
7. Spaceship 12:51
8. Knee 5 8:04

As you can see above, there are several long sections, which provide the “meat” of the work – ranging from ten to twenty minutes, or grouped into scenes lasting about twenty minutes each – and there are also what Glass and Wilson called knee plays, “brief interludes that also provided time for scenery changes,” with spoken text containing numbers, solfege syllables and poems. These five knee plays provide musical anchors for the work, using the same motives throughout, and the other long sections the “meat” of the narrative.

Some of the sections, such as the first long part, Train 1, or the later Dance 1, are raucous examples of Glass’s signature style, replete with organ and fast rhythmic motives, while others, such as the knee plays, the Entrance movement, and Mr. Bojangles, are more subtle and relaxed. Others, such as Night Train, fit somewhere in the middle. Throughout the work, there is a tension between the speed and intensity of the different sections, providing enough variety – within the relatively strict framework of minimalism – to keep the listener interested. (Though one loses all of the visual effects, which, as I recall, were quite striking; enough so to keep me interested throughout the nearly five-hour performance.) This said, the faster movements seem to me to be the weakest sections of the work, at least musically. They seem to belong to a different era of Glass’s music–similar, for example, to his Music in Twelve Parts, in their “radical minimalism”.

Glass’s music is gradual, but not in the same way as, say, Steve Reich, the other major minimalist composer of the period. Glass seems to focus more, at least in Einstein, on atmosphere, whereas Reich’s music is more about process. One of the most emblematic sections, “Mr. Bojangles”, which features a speaker reciting what may be seen as simply a nonsense text, a chorus, and obligato violin, and what could pass for a minimalist continuo, is a modern version of a Bach cantata. Musically, this section is one of the strongest in the entire work. Visually, if my memory serves, it was also stunning, and I seem to recall that the violinist was sitting on-stage as he performed his part. (And the seductive melodies and motives of that obligato violin return throughout the work, providing coherence, and beautiful music.)

There is no plot to this opera, and it is not even entirely about Einstein. The music, while fitting together, could be listened to separately. In fact, as the notes to this recording point out, “some of the music in Einstein had been originally written for a long series of concert pieces.” For those who cannot sit through the 3:20 of the entire work, there is therefore nothing wrong in listening to it in bits and pieces. After all, this is not an opera in the usual sense of the word. It is more like a series of set-pieces that fit together because of their similarity, motives and atmosphere.

To respond to one of the questions I asked above, Is it dated?, I must answer emphatically that it is not. Minimalism has been integrated into much modern music, both “classical” and electronic music, as well as other genres. Glass and Reich can both be seen as groundbreaking precursors, and, while Einstein may have shocked the first people who saw it performed in July, 1976, at the Festival d’Avignon, little of its music or staging would be seen as unorthodox today. Musically, a few of the sections may sound a bit clichéd, but, for the most part, this music has aged well, and, after nearly thirty years, belongs to the canon of classical music.

While some of this music will annoy anyone who feels that minimalism is not “real” music, other sections of the work are brilliant examples of musical atmosphere and structure. I am pleased to have brought this work back into my listening rotation, even though I won’t be listening to the work in its entirety each time – I’ll listen to a handful of sections, perhaps, or one disc at a time. (With iTunes or an iPod, making a playlist of my favorite sections would be interesting as well.) But I would also like to see a DVD of a performance of Einstein. I don’t know whether any of the performances were filmed, but, if not, it certainly is time for a revival in order to do so. Much more so than many classical operas, this work depends greatly on its visuals and staging, and the time is right for it to come back into the zeitgeist.

On the Subject of “Seriously” Listening to Music

Via the Twittersphere, I became aware of an article by composer Gabriel Kahane about Spotify, digital music, and how we listen now. Mr. Kahane – who I had never heard of before today, and who’s biography touts him as a “peerless musical polymath” – complains that people are no longer listening to music seriously. He says:

Over on the Twitter, there’s been a flurry of discussion as to whether Spotify is an improvement over illegally downloaded music or if it’s basically the same thing. I’d like to propose a third stream: that the problem we face is not one of economics, but of the spiritual nature of how consume music. That is to say: what Spotify and illegally downloaded music have in common is that they both spiritually devalue music by making a surfeit of it too accessible.

and goes on to speak of:

the gluttony of 21st-century consumers who don’t know when to stop downloading and start listening.

This is an interesting point, yet one that is deeply flawed. Mr. Kahane is claiming that people no longer know how to listen seriously to music; that their way of listening is somehow wrong or deficient. It is the usual complaint of the elite cultural world dissing the plebes. My art is good, but you have to spend time to understand it; the art you like is crap because you’re unable to take the time to appreciate it.

Now, I’m one of those people who is willing to take time to discover art (I’ll not limit myself here to simply music). I very much like the music of Morton Feldman, for whom time is a key feature of his works, as some of them stretch on for hours. I’m a fan of James Joyce, and have read Finnegans Wake from cover to cover, with books of annotations to help me get through it. I’m a big fan of Henry James, perhaps one of the slowest novelists in the English language, and one who wrote the most. I’ve read Proust, in toto, first once in English, then twice in French. And I have a passion for Ralph Waldo Emerson, and am currently reading the 16 volumes of his journals, to be followed by the 10 volumes of his letters. So I think I’m one of those who can and will take time when it’s necessary. (Elitist, moi?)

Mr. Kahane claims that, in the past, when we spent $15 on a CD, “there was an economic imperative of sorts to grow to like it,” and says that “Nowadays, the only records that people seem to give second chances after an initial reaction of indifference or dislike are those given the stamp of approval by select tastemakers in the blogosphere.”

Poor Mr. Kahane. Perhaps he’s reacting to poor sales of his own recordings, which may not be the darlings of the “blogosphere.” He feels that, in the future, “listeners of the world simply bounce around from one immediately satisfying songlet to another, and anything that is truly visionary/difficult/new will probably get tossed aside.” What he ignores is that, for decades, this is exactly what most music listeners have done. It’s something called “radio,” and people switch stations whenever they come across a tune they don’t like.

I’m a broad listener, rather than a deep one. I have lots of CDs – thousands, in fact – and lots of music that I’ve bought by download. I write reviews of classical music, and I’m a fan of many kinds of music, from the Grateful Dead to Bob Dylan, from piano jazz to minimalism; from German lieder to Renaissance vocal music. It’s true that I don’t listen to a given disc as often as I used to – it’s simply mathematical. One thing I like to do is find those works that really move me and get multiple recordings of them, to really dig into them and hear what different performers have to say. (One example of that is Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, of which I have some 15 recordings. If you’re not familiar with that work, I recommend this recent recording by Jeremy Denk.) I’m often intrigued by new music, though I don’t pay as much attention to pop and rock as I did in the past, focusing much more of my time on classical works that I am unfamiliar with.

But does this make me a non-serious listener? In any case, who is Mr. Kahane to judge whether any listener meets his criteria for seriousness? The man comes off as a snob with a grudge, and saying that the world doesn’t appreciate Art is nothing new.

More people are discovering more music than ever before. Mr. Kahane should be delighted that his music, rather than being available only in a handful of downtown record stores, is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world. The flip side of this availability is, naturally, that those who are really interested in music will listen to more music, hence listen to any given work less. But would it be better that people only have a small selection to choose from, one that is “curated” by the big record store chains?

I think the number of people who are interested in discovering “new” music is probably not decreasing; if anything, it’s the contrary. Andy Doe, writing on Twitter, made a valid comment: “To argue that streaming services are bad for serious listening is like claiming that public libraries are bad for literacy.”

Mr. Kahane, the philistines are at the gates; just as they always have been.

Update: Mr. Kahane replied to my rebuttal to his post by adding an addendum to it which is a rebuttal to mine. (Yes, terrible syntax…) I will admit that, while I had no attention of being “nasty,” the use of the word “serious” in the conclusion is what irked me most about his post. It’s clear that this was not Mr. Kahane’s intention, and I take note of that.

Mr. Kahane says:

When I was a freshman in college, my classmates and I developed a habit of walking to the hulking tower records at the corner of, I think it was Mass Ave and Newbury. We would spend a good deal of time walking amongst the oppressively lit bins and leave with a disc or two or three. I’m not going to belabor the oft-recounted ritual of unwrapping, reading the liner notes, the aura-of-the-thing to quote Benjamin. Like so many kids of my generation and generations before it, I felt an emotional rush from these acts, and from the assemblage of a collection.

While he is much younger than I, Mr. Kahane does point out the affective nature of choosing and purchasing music, which, I will agree, has gone away as music has become dematerialized. Several years of my life were chronicled in Nick Horby’s High Fidelity, when I hung out in a record store in Queens after coming home from work, with a handful of other music fans, and then went to one or another person’s apartment to listen to new LPs. (The difference in our ages is such that I was doing this around the time Mr. Kahane was in diapers.) And, yes, there was something special about it. But the difference in that time and now is partly due to a change in age, and a growth in the size of my music collection, not just the difference in music being available by download.

No matter, I dislike thinking that the “good old days” were better. They were, in some ways, but in others they were not. Back in the late 70s, it would have been hard to find more than a couple of recordings of, say, Mahler’s symphonies, Schubert’s lieder, or Beethoven’s string quartets. Now, one can find many of them, quite easily, and at much lower prices. Should we lament the fact that music is cheaper, which may lead to some of us buying more?

On the Subject of Applause in Classical Recordings

I recently listened to Stephen Hough and Andrew Litton’s recordings of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos. A spine-tingling performance of these four great works, but which, at the end of each one, was destroyed by loud and buoyant applause, where silence would have been truly golden. These recordings were, of course, recorded live, and it’s hard to keep the audience from coughing or making other noises, but the applause is so disturbing that I won’t be listening to these recordings again. I even tried to edit out the applause, using Fission, but as you can see below, the final reverberation of the orchestra and piano do not fade out before the applause begins. (The red line connected to the play head shows where the two overlap.)

I’ve long hated applause on classical recordings; it bothers me less on live recordings of, say, jazz or rock. This is certainly subjective, but classical recordings seem especially sensitive to the sudden burst of audience frenzy. Many classical works end with a bang – the Rachmaninov concertos certainly don’t fade out – and the silence that follows them is like a blank page at the end of a book. In some cases, there is a gap between the end of the music and the beginning of the overly raucous idolatry, and in such cases, it is simple to edit it out. But in recordings like these, it’s simply not possible; in my opinion, that applause is too jarring to want to listen to them. (My intention here is not to single out this specific recording, but it’s an example of a number of such classical releases.)

It’s not easy to keep an audience quiet. However, it is possible. Just tell them that the work is being recorded, and ask them to wait a few seconds before applauding. A recent video release of András Schiff playing Bach’s French Suites is interesting is the fact that Schiff plays all six suites with no applause following individual works, and the only applause is after he has completed the cycle. This was clearly not something the audience came up with on their own; they were asked to do this.

Another thing to do with classical recordings is somehow make sure that the guy who yells “BRAVO!!!!” at the top of his lungs at the end of every work is not sold a ticket. This guy gets around; he’s on pretty much every recording I know of that has applause, and I’ve attended a good many concerts where he has been in the audience.

Applause has its place. It is a recognition of a wonderful musical experience. People sit in a concert hall for an hour or two, enraptured by music, and want to say “thank you.” But including it on recordings is just unmusical. I won’t listen to such recordings, unless I can remove the applause.

Coming Soon: Grateful Dead Complete Europe ’72 Box Set

For Deadheads, there are few periods as cherished as 1972, and particularly the European tour, where the band rode around on busses and played 22 shows in a seven week period. While an early live album was released from this tour (called Europe ’72, this triple-LP set was a big hit in the 70s, but was only a selection of what they band played. (And it had some overdubs, so it wasn’t totally faithful.)

The Grateful Dead is releasing a 73-CD set called Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings, which will feature “every single note” from the 22 shows on this tour. At a steep price of $450, this is, in some ways, the Grateful Dead’s holy grail. This limited edition may not sell out entirely (they will make no more than 7,200 copies, but only those that are pre-ordered), it’s an awesome document of a fine period in the Dead’s history. Looking forward to hearing these 70 hours of great music.

Update: in true Grateful Dead style, the servers couldn’t even handle one order, and promptly crashed as soon as the set was offered to Deadheads. We’re hoping that this will be resolved soon, and the many Deadheads who want to order will be able to do so. They’re trying to get everything “just exactly perfect.”

Update 2: Much to my surprise, the 7,200 copies of this set have sold out in just four days. As the web site now says:

Hey now! Due to overwhelming demand, surprising even those of us with huge faith in the Europe ’72 project, the entire limited edition run of 7,200 boxed sets has sold out in less than 4 days. We thank you beyond words for your support and belief in this unprecedented and wonderful release.

They go on to say that they will be selling the music without the fancy packaging, so anyone who wants the music will be able to get it. But to think that they just generated $3.24 million dollars in sales to Deadheads in just 4 days…

Update 3: The Dead are releasing Europe ’72, Vol. 2, a 2-CD set of selections from the box set, that have not been released on other recordings. No 2 CDs will give a real example of the 70+ hours of music in this set, but with this and the original Europe ’72, you have a good idea of what was going on in that tour. And this release contains a truly awesome Dark Star from 5/7/72…

Update 4: It’s now 7 months after the announcement, and they’re preparing to send these out. People in the US have been charged for the set, though I haven’t yet. They say that overseas charges should be made this week. This has been a long wait, and I’m sure it will be worth it.

Update 5: August 29, and the first American Deadheads have started getting their boxes. I got an e-mail this morning saying that mine will be shipped from “our warehouse in Amsterdam,” so it will be tracked and all that. No ship date yet, but it should be soon.

Final update: September 12 – I got my Europe ’72 set!

Essential Music: Toru Takemitsu

Way back when, I discovered Toru Takemitsu’s music. I think the first I heard was a few pieces for guitar on an album with a number of twentieth-century guitar works, including one of my favorites, Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal. Something about Takemitsu’s music prompted me to search out other records with his work (this was back in the early 80s, still the LP era), and I found a couple. Listening to his orchestral music hooked me immediately.

I like a wide variety of music, but much “modern” music leaves me cold. I like much minimalism, including Steve Reich and some early Philip Glass; I love Morton Feldman; and I like a variety of other 20th century composers, some, like Sibelius, who are still anchored in melody, and others, like Bartok, whose music is more difficult. I like much of Messiaen’s strange music, and some of the Scandinavian composers. But I’m not a big fan of serialism, or any of the other -isms that turned twentieth-century music into a mass of unlistenable works. (Sure, there are some good things, but much is not to my taste.)

While Takemitsu’s early music was firmly rooted in western avant-garde techniques, around 1977, his style shifted, and this later music is different from most 20th century music. These works are about textures, sound sculptures; when you begin listening to one of his works you enter a landscape, you start moving along a path of sound that takes you through a series of musical moments. None of his works are “big”, in the sense of symphonies, but none are small either, like miniatures. Most of Takemitsu’s best music is orchestral works that range from about ten to twenty minutes long; most have evocative names like A String Around Autumn, Spirit Garden, Tree Line, How Slow the Wind. While he composed some piano music and some chamber music, only one CD is needed to contain all of one or the other. He uses the flute and guitar in many works, and his orchestrations are uniquely subtle; while he may use an entire orchestra, he does so parsimoniously, never adding too many layers of music. He creates sonorous melanges of emotion and feeling, rather than melodic structures. His music sounds like that of no other composer. Much of Takemitsu’s music is recorded, by labels such as DG, Bis and Naxos, and many discs contain one or two of his works. The best ones, the DG and Bis recordings, are “programmed”, in the sense that they contain a full CD’s worth of music that flows from work to work. It would make no sense to issue a CD with, say, his first ten works, because nothing is numbered, there are no links among them. The most accessible discs bear names that suggest the tone of the music: I Hear the Water Dreaming, Garden Rain, How Slow the Wind, Quotation of Dream, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden… All these discs contain wonderful selections of Takemitsu’s music organized into 60-70 minute programs.

If you’re curious, take a chance on one of his albums, either on CD, or from iTunes or Amazon as download. If you’re interested in music that takes you to new places, you may like this music very much. And you may, like me, become a convert, and seek out all the albums you can find…

For more info about Takemitsu, Alex Ross’s article in the New Yorker gives a good overview of Takemitsu’s life. And the Wikipedia article about Takemitsu has a great deal of detail about his compositional career.

(A brief aside. Some twenty-odd years ago, when I was living in Paris and making a living teaching English, I met a fellow American, of Japanese origin, who was taking some teacher training classes with me. For some reason, we got onto the subject of music, and I mentioned Takemitsu. He replied, “Ah, uncle Toru!” He was, indeed, the nephew of the composer. It was in interesting coincidence.)

Book Review: The Quotable Thoreau

The Quotable Thoreau
Collected and edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer
552 pages. Princeton University Press, 2011. $20

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Jeffrey Cramer, notable Thoreau scholar and head of the Thoreau Institute, has been publishing some wonderful books for fans of Henry’s writing in recent years. In 2004 he published Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition, in 2007, I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, and in 2009, The Maine Woods: A Fully Annotated Edition. All of these books take Thoreau’s texts and add annotations and explanations to help the reader better understand the little details.

Cramer’s latest Thoreau collection is The Quotable Thoreau, described as containing “more than 2,000 memorable passages from this iconoclastic American author, social reformer, environmentalist, and self-reliant thinker.” This small hardcover book – roughly the size of a DVD case, or more correctly, a season of Lost – contains a wealth of selections from Thoreau’s varied works. Divided into sections on different topics, such as Beauty, Conservation, Day and Night, Simplicity, Society, and Solitude, each excerpt is from a few words to a few sentences, and contains an attribution specifying which text it is taken from.

Fans of Thoreau will find this an excellent book to keep by their bedsides, to flip through and read nuggets of Thoreauvian wisdom as they please. Those who have never read Thoreau will find a book containing the heart of Henry’s works, in small, easily digestible pieces. (Hopefully, after sampling the appetizers in this book, they’ll go on to the main course of Henry’s full works.)

While any such florilegium of an author’s work is, by necessity, a series of bits and pieces taken out of context, one thing this book does is offer a broader spectrum of Thoreau’s works, and shows how much his writing was all part and parcel of the same set of ideas.

If you’re curious about Thoreau’s writing, this is the ideal book to get to whet your appetite for his larger works, such as Walden. If you’re already a Thoreauvian, you’ll certainly enjoy flipping through this book and finding so many of those sentences and paragraphs that you’ve enjoyed as you’ve read through Henry’s books.

Headphone Review: Sennheiser PX 100 II-i

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For the past few years, my headphone of choice for listening to music on my iPods was the Sennheiser PX 100, a lightweight, inexpensive headphone with surprisingly good sound for the money. A month ago, however, the cable just before the jack broke, and it was time to replace them. The PX 100 has had excellent reviews for years, and was well appreciated by users and journalists alike, but is no longer made. I turned to the PX 100 II-i, a third iteration of the model, which is the most recent version of the headphones, released last year.

Like the original PX 100, the PX 100 II-i is a folding headphone, with a small on-ear earcup. It’s light, there’s no pressure on the ears, and they are fully open: you can hear everything around you. This headphone is excellent for listening when you’re outdoors, where it is important to hear sounds, especially if you’re walking in the city. They do not, of course, limit any sounds, so if you want headphones that do this, you will need to look elsewhere. (I’ll be posting a review of a recently purchased noise-canceling headphone soon.)

The sound quality of this headphone is, as I’ve mentioned, excellent for its size and price. New with this model is an inline remote control that works with iPods and other iOS devices (as well as Macs, and, perhaps, other computers). You can change the volume, and pause what you’re listening to, and, with a double-press, skip to the next track. This remote is also a mic, if you have an iPhone (which I don’t).

However, a valid question is whether it is worth some $25 more just for this remote. (The Sennheiser PX 100-II is currently selling for $65 at Amazon; it is the same as the PX 100 II-i, but without the remote. The PX 100 II-i sells for $90.) I find the remote useful when I’m listening to music both outdoors and even when I listen to my iPod in bed. My iPod touch has an external volume control, but my iPod classic does not. In addition, the controls are positioned about 8 inches from the headphones, so they are easily accessible. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of a premium to pay just for a couple of buttons. (Though it’s certainly more useful if you have an iPhone.)

My only gripe is that the cord itself is rather flimsy, and I’ve already gotten it snagged on doorknobs a few times. It comes out of just the left side of the headphones, unlike the PX 100, which had a double cord that met in the center. That is a bit odd, as all my other headphones have a central cord; that may explain, in part, why I’ve been clumsy with it.

Overall, I’m very satisfied with the PX 100 II-i. I use it often – either when listening to my iPod outdoors, on my daily walk, or, at times, when watching a DVD on my laptop. The sound is clean and crisp, though the bass is weak, which is to be expected from such a small headphone. (I don’t listen to a lot of bass-heavy music.) If you want good sound in a light, folding headphone, the Sennheiser’s PX series is great choice. Either the PX 100 II-i with the inline remote, or the PX 100-II without it, will provide you with great sound and comfort.

Note: no review unit was provided; I paid for these out of pocket. For the record, I have another Sennheiser headphone – HD 580 – and I’ve only once been disappointed by Sennheiser’s products.

Essential Music: Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a huge amount of astoundingly beautiful music, from solo keyboard works to cantatas; from small-scale chamber works, to large passions; from music for organ to works for solo violin or cello. But if there’s one work that stands out as a summation of his music it is the Goldberg Variations, a work written for a two-manual (two keyboard) harpsichord.

This work contains an opening aria, or a melodic sarabande, followed by 30 variations, then a repeat of the aria closes the piece. Collections of variations were relatively common in Bach’s time; in fact, it is possible that Bach was inspired by a set of variations written by Dietrich Buxtehude, called La Capricciosa. But in Bach’s work, the variations do not vary the them of the aria. Rather, they riff on the bass line and chord progression of the aria, which, while not unheard of (other types of works, such as the passacaglia, are based on a similar principle), is unique, given the extent of Bach’s variations.

I have some 25 versions of this work, played on harpsichord, piano, organ, clavichord and guitar, and I never tire of hearing it. The Goldberg Variations is a work that contains a wide variety of forms: from the opening aria, with its sinuous, infective melody, through the many canons in the work, to the wonderful variation 25, which Wanda Landowska called the “black pearl” of the Goldberg Variations (the longest variation, and the most moving), on to the final reprise of the aria.

Many people will be familiar with this work through the recordings of Glenn Gould. He recorded it twice, once in 1955 and again in 1981. These were to be his first and last recordings, and they are available in a budget set called A State of Wonder. Gould’s first recording was a gamble at the time, because this was a work that had been rarely recorded, but it became an immediate best-seller. He later revisited the work, at the end of his life, with more gravitas and less impetuosity, but both versions are wonderful. Gould seems to rush through the first recording, in part because of the limit of the amount of music that could be put on an LP at the time; his 1955 recording is just over 38 minutes. In 1981, he played the work in around 51 minutes, but his tempi only changed slightly; much of the difference in time was his playing more of the repeats. (In the score, Bach has the performer play each variation twice, which was common for baroque music. Few performers play all the repeats.)

There are many, many other fine performances of this work though. A few that I especially appreciate are:

There are many others to explore, including a recording for harp by Catrin Finch (a bit too spacy for me), and several versions for string trio, recordings for organ, and many other instruments. Whichever way your pleasure tends, you’ll find one that fits your taste.

If you want to try out this work, any of the above versions would be a good place to start, but I firmly believe that Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording is the most moving of all for piano, followed closely by Schiff and Perahia. On the harpsichord, Richard Egarr has a beautiful sound, and his recording is the longest in my collection at over 90 minutes for the Goldbergs (there are some other brief works on the two-disc set). Scott Ross’s more concise reading of the work has a bit more bounce, and Masaaki Suzuki is delicate and masterful. So if you don’t know the Goldbergs, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of it and discover this masterpiece of Bach’s keyboard music.

One more thing: for an enigmatic read that is somewhat based on the Goldberg Variations, do check out Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. “Once more with feeling.”

Album Notes: Brad Mehldau, Live in Marciac

Buy from | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

I’ve been a fan of Brad Mehldau’s music for many years now, and own all of his releases (as main performer, not as sideman). I think he’s an extremely innovative pianist, and I especially like his work with his trio. This new album, recorded live at the Marciac Jazz Festival in France, in 2006, features a solo performance, one of only two live solo releases he has made (the other is the 2004 Live in Tokyo).

This is an attractive album, with energetic performances, and flattering sound. (I felt that the Live in Tokyo album had somewhat brittle, harsh sound.) In solo performances, Melhdau tends to wander a bit more than when he has a rhythm section backing him, and this album is a bit less attractive than his live recordings with his trio (such as the 2008 Live at the Village Vanguard). But it’s a fine example of his work, and any fan of jazz piano should definitely get this. Not only does it have two CDs, but also a DVD, with all but one of the songs. (I haven’t watched the DVD yet.)

However, there’s one thing I need to point out. I ordered this set directly from the label, Nonesuch, which provides MP3s by download as soon as the album is released, so you can listen to the music before you get the discs. There are some oddities on some of the tracks: a couple of them end with loud applause that doesn’t fade out; it just cuts off as the next track starts. For example, Lilac Wine has very loud applause at the end (and it deserves it; it’s a beautiful song), then cuts off immediately as Martha My Dear begins. But at the end of Martha My Dear, the same thing happens; it cuts from applause to My Favorite Things.

It is not normal that a professionally edited album would have this abrupt cut between tracks, and, now that I have the CDs, I can see that it’s the MP3s files that were truncated. In fact, in the MP3 files, four of the songs on the second disc – the ones that have the abrupt edits – are missing a total of over 2 minutes. From the amount of applause, it seems like Lithium was the last track in the set, and the rest were encores. Nonesuch’s MP3s are therefore just hacked off at the ends, and there’s no reason for this. So do buy the CDs; don’t buy any MP3s from Nonesuch. I note that Amazon is not selling this in MP3 format, but the timings on iTunes are the same as the bad MP3s I got from Nonesuch, so if you want this album, get it on plastic. While you don’t miss any of the music, the abrupt cut from applause to music is jarring and annoying.

UPDATE: I heard back from Nonesuch, who replied, “We have looked into this issue, and have learned that the original MP3s were indeed mistakenly truncated. We have corrected the files.” So apparently the files will be fixed on their site and on iTunes, but if you do have the truncated files, do get in touch with whoever you purchased them from to get new copies.