CD Review: Glenn Gould Complete Bach Edition

Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

While Glenn Gould was a pianist who performed the works of many composers, his name is inextricably linked to that of Johann Sebastian Bach. More than any other composer, Bach was Gould’s speciality. From his first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955 to his final recording, again of the Goldberg Variations in 1981, Gould recorded nearly all of Bach’s keyboard music.

This set groups all of Gould’s Bach recordings for around $115; not only those released on LP and CD, but also a number of previously unreleased recordings: outtakes from the 1955 Goldbergs recording session; a stereo mix of the 1955 Goldbergs; some preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, from 1952 and 1954; and two live recordings, from 1957 and 1959, of the Goldbergs (Salzburg Festival, August, 1959) and the Sinfonias (Moscow, May, 1957). There are two discs of interviews with Gould – one with Tim Page, and another with John McClure – and a disc of Gould speaking about Bach in German. There are a total of 38 CDs.

This set also includes DVDs; 6 of them. Three of these are directed by Bruno Monsaigneon, featuring the Goldbergs on one, and two others with a variety of works. And three others are from the CBC, from 1957 to 1970, featuring Gould (and others) playing a variety of Bach’s works. Many Gould fans are familiar with the Monsaigneon films, as they have been widely circulated – especially the Goldberg Variations video, which was my first introduction to seeing Glenn Gould perform. The CBC videos are less common, though they have been released in a 10-DVD set Glenn Gould on Television. What we have in the Bach set is, naturally, the Bach performances taken from that set. If you’re a die-hard Gould fan, you’ll want to get the full DVD set as well.

Together with all these discs is a 192-page hardcover book, with some introductory essays, and with notes for each disc. Unfortunately, the notes are very succinct, and while the disc covers reproduce original LPs, the notes on them are too small to read without a microscope. (Is it that hard to include a CD or DVD with PDFs of these things?)

If you’re a fan of Glenn Gould, you may already have the Complete Original Jacket Collection, on 80 CDs, which contains most of what’s in this set, but you won’t have the outtakes, live recordings and DVDs. This set, at a not-quite-bargain price, is worth getting for these extras alone, if you appreciate Gould. Especially since Bach is what Gould did best.

Nice packaging, a fair price, and a bunch of previously unreleased material makes this a good purchase for any fan of Glenn Gould. If you’re not familiar with his admittedly idiosyncratic recordings of Bach’s keyboard works, this would be a good chance to discover one of the most original of performers. You may love Gould or hate him, but you can’t deny that, when he played Bach, he was channelling something transcendent.

John Cage and Morton Feldman in Conversation, 1967




Listening to a recent recording of Morton Feldman’s For John Cage today (on this new recording of his Works for violin and piano, I searched on the web for some information about Feldman and Cage, and found these very fascinating recordings of the two of them in conversation, recorded for WBAI in 1967, and available from Archive.org.

Interestingly, I started listening while playing Feldman’s For John Cage in the background, and this was strangely satisfying.

Here is a summary of the three conversations:

Part 1 (39:25):
This first of a three part conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman was recorded at WBAI in New York between October 18-25, 1967. The segment begins with Cage and Feldman discussing the various ways people perceive intrusion in their lives. The composers then spend some time on the occupation of the artist as “being deep in thought,” and what the goals or purposes of “being deep in thought” might be. A brief analysis of Black Mountain College follows before Cage and Feldman return to the idea of being in thought, and the role of boredom in life. The conversation ends with Cage explaining his hesitation towards taking on students.

Part 2 (49:41):
The second part of their conversation was recorded at WBAI in New York on October 24, 1967. Like the first installment, much of this conversation centers on intrusions in the life of an artist. Cage and Feldman look at how everyday tasks such as correspondence are affected by the artist’s desire to not disappoint the public once the public has recognized the artist. Cage and Feldman engage in a fairly philosophical discussion regarding the telephone, and recount some anecdotes about using the phone book. They also return to the topic of “thought” and whether there is a point in life where a person has thought enough. There is also some discussion of composing pieces with very particular challenges (e.g. a one-finger guitar piece).

Part 3 (43:48):
The third and final conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman was recorded at WBAI in New York in October 1967. Cage and Feldman’s discussion begins with Cage reading part of an article by the architect Kaufman on disposability. Cage seems fascinated by the idea that the large and small scale is becoming ever more prominent in society, while the importance of the mid-scale is dwindling. Some serious debate ensues when Cage expresses the opinion that we already have quality in the world, and what we are truly seeking is quantity. The two also touch on the role of artists in reaction to the Vietnam War, and how musicians seem frequently absent from the political dialogue. The conversation ends with Cage hypothesizing that the printing press changed the course of life activity toward material gain.

Perceval, or The Story of the Grail

Introduction

The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes, is one of the greatest literary works of all time. Written in the second half of the twelfth century, this poem tells the story of Perceval, a teenager raised in a forest by his mother, who encounters some knights, then sees, by chance, a grail in a castle. Not understanding the significance of this, he misses the chance to find out the true nature of the grail by not asking about it. He then wanders in the hopes of finding it again.

The story is both that of Perceval’s coming of age and his quest. The first part shows how this teenager, after being raised in a forest with no father, discovers the ways of the world: he discovers knights and kings, tastes the pleasures of love and the pain of combat. Naïve at first, he slowly adapts to his world, yet never really fits in. After he sees the grail in a castle that he came upon by chance, he then starts learning more about who he is and what the significance of this event might have been. He goes in search of the grail, yet, the text being unfinished, the reader can only speculate on the result of this quest.

While there are many versions of the story, the one by Chrétien de Troyes, the first one written, is psychologically the most powerful and is one of the great myths of the western world. There are several translations available of the Conte du Graal, probably read mostly by college students studying medieval literature. Yet I believe that this story deserves its rightful place as one of the classics of literature, and one of the most powerful myths in the West.

My goal in this translation is not to make a philological translation (although it is based on the authoritative edition of the Old French text and is as faithful as possible). There are scholars who have done so, but their translations often read like scholarly translations: boring, heavy, and stylistically flawed. I am trying to make a translation that can be read with the same lightness that I experienced when I read a modern French translation. This is not a boring story; far from it. But the translations that exist are not made for the average reader looking for a spiritual classic. My translation will also be, in part, a Jungian reading of the text. The symbolism of the Grail legend is extraordinary, and, as Jung and von Franz have shown, this legend can be seen as a paradigm of the process of individuation. I would like that to come through, and I would hope that the readers would be reading this text in part for its symbolic richness.

Individuation can be seen as the realization of self. It is the coming to terms with our inner world, and its unification with our conscious self. And it is the realization that as individuals we are different from the world around us, and that we can become unique. The Grail quest is a search for that indescribable uniqueness that is within all of us. Whether one sees it as the inner Christ, Buddha nature, or the Tao, it is all the same. Many people have an idea that something exists deep within them, but few can follow the path and seek it. Even fewer actually find it.

My Translations

The Story of the Grail, or the Romance of Perceval, by Chrétien de Troyes

The following are links to PDFs of my translations, together with the original Old French.

1 – Prologue

2 – Such Bright and Magnificent Angels…

3 – The Maiden in the Tent

4 – The Red Knight

This is all I’ve translated for now. Other installments may follow.

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Authentic Schubert Piano Recordings

While “authentic” piano recordings of Romantic composers are not very common, there are a handful of musicians who have recorded these works on the fortepiano, or the instrument of the time of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The best-known performer is probably Roland Brautigam, who has recorded complete sets of music, for the Swedish label Bis, by Haydn (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Mozart (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) . Brautigam is currently completing a cycle of Beethoven’s solo piano works – the latest release in this series is dedication to variations (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) .

While Brautigam records exhaustive sets, other performers record some of this piano repertoire on fortepiano. Andreas Staier, who recently released a recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on fortepiano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), has never recorded “cycles” of any composer’s works, but flits around from one composer to another.

But these pianists tend to neglect Franz Schubert. Now that Brautigam is reaching the end of his Beethoven cycle, I hope that he will record Schubert’s many wonderful piano works.

But in the meantime, there is an excellent series of recordings of Schubert’s piano sonatas by Paul Badura-Skoda. This pianist recorded all of Schubert’s piano sonatas on three three-disc sets for the Arcana label, that were recently bundled into a box set (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). As with the other composers cited above, the fortepiano brings the listener back to the instrument that the composer used when writing the music. (Or, in the case of Mozart and Haydn, some of their music was originally composed for harpsichord.) The sound is more intimate and the sustain shorter than a modern piano. But when you consider the dynamics, the attack and the sustain, these composers wrote music for those characteristics, not for those of today’s Steinway or Bösendorfer.

And in 2013, Badura-Skoda released a two-disc set of Schubert recordings, which includes three versions of Schubert’s final piano sonata D. 960 played on three different pianos: an 1826 Graf fortepiano, a 1923 Bösendorfer, and a 2004 Steinway grand. Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Unfortunately, other recordings that Badura-Skoda made for the Astrée label, of the Impromptus, the Moments Musicaux and the Wanderer Fantasie, are out of print, and are very expensive. One can hope that these will be brought back into print someday.

But I also hope that Brautigam will start recording Schubert. He is a sensitive musician, and his recordings of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are excellent. I love listening to music of this period on original instruments. If you haven’t done so, I strongly recommend some of these recordings by Brautigam and Badura-Skoda.

Universal Music: Classical Downloads Done Wrong

I buy music from a lot of vendors: I buy lots of CDs, and I buy music by download from iTunes, Amazon, and individual record labels. I went to Deutsche Grammophon’s web site today to see if they sold Berg’s Wozzeck after a commenter to this post pointed out that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was excellent in it. I’m not a fan of Berg in general, but I thought I’d give it a try. (I bought it from Universal Music because it was a bit cheaper than Amazon, and much cheaper than iTunes.)

Shame on Universal Music for selling downloads like this. There are no track numbers, no disc numbers in the files; the tags are truncated, and the only album art is a 100 x 100 pixel file. Here’s how the tracks look when I added some of them to iTunes:

That’s exactly what the files display; it’s not iTunes that is truncating the tags. Universal expects me to dig out the correct tag information, and, especially, to make sure the tracks are in the right order. There’s also no indication of which tracks are with which opera (this is a set of two; Lulu and Wozzeck), no information about the singers, other than what’s in the truncated Artist tags, nor is there any booklet or any other textual information.

No, never again. I won’t be buying downloads from Universal. I’ve written them asking for a refund, because it is unacceptable that the files they provide are this crappy.

Update: Universal Music is refunding me, but they didn’t say anything about the quality of the files. I’ll delete the ones I have and go buy them from iTunes, where at least I know that the tagging is correct.

The Every-Disc Player: Cambridge Audio 651BD


Available from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

As a music lover, and especially as a reviewer for MusicWeb International, I am confronted with a number of different types of optical discs. CDs and DVDs are, of course, the most common, and have been around for a long time. But in the past couple of years, Blu-Ray discs have come into the market, and they are especially desirable for recordings of classical music concerts or operas.

But even CDs offer a variety of formats. In addition to regular CDs – which follow the “Red Book” standard – there are SACDs, and these come in two types: either in stereo or with multi-channel sound, and they are at a much higher resolution than standard CDs. While most SACDs sold today are hybrid – featuring a CD layer and an SACD layer – there are still some that are not. In addition to offering more channels or higher resolution, SACDs also offer much greater capacity, potentially providing a playing time that exceeds CDs.

Another format is the HDCD standard, which is not widely used. However, I have dozens of HDCD discs, because one of my favorite rock bands, Grateful Dead, issues all their recordings in this format. HDCD claims to offer better resolution than standard CDs, yet these discs are compatible with standard CD players.

There is one last form of “hybrid” disc: the DVD-A, or DVD-audio disc. This is a DVD, just like one used for a movie, but where there is little or no video. (There are generally only menus and/or still images.) The advantage of using DVD-A is longer playing time – up to several hours – and higher resolution files in stereo or multi-track.

When it comes to DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, there are also audio formats that need to be decoded, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

So, with all these formats of optical discs, it can be very useful to have a device that can play them all. This is the case with the Cambridge Audio 651BD, which handles all of the above formats, including 3D Blu-Ray discs.

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Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100: Smaller Footprint, Higher Sample Rate


I’ve been following Cambridge Audio’s products since I reviewed the company’s original DacMagic for Macworld, back in 2010. The company has been kind enough to provide me samples of some of their devices, and I recently received a DacMagic 100, their newest DAC.

The DacMagic 100 is similar in concept to the original DacMagic, but is much smaller: it is 46 x 106 x 130mm (1.8 x 4.1 x 5.1″). To put that in perspective, it’s a bit smaller (length by width) than an Apple Magic Trackpad. It has four inputs: three digital inputs (two S/P DIF and one Toslink), and one USB input. So connecting this device to a Mac, you can either use a Toslink cable (this is a digital audio cable; all current Macs have headphone jacks which double as Toslink jacks) or a standard USB cable.

The front of the device has a power-on button, a source selector, and a display showing the incoming sample rate. One difference between the original DacMagic and the DacMagic 100 is that the new device goes up to 192 kHz; the original only supported up to 96 kHz. To be fair, most people won’t need this increased sample rate, as the majority of high-resolution music files sold are at 96 kHz, but some may want to use this, especially if they work with computers in a recording studio.

Output goes over standard RCA jacks. The original DacMagic (and the more recent DacMagic Plus) also have XLR outputs, which most people outside of recording studios won’t need.

So, the procedure is simple. In my case, using the Toslink connection, I run a Toslink cable from my Mac mini’s headphone jack to the DacMagic 100; it then connects to my amplifier. As with the DacMagic I had before, there is a noticeable improvement in detail, clarity and soundspace.

An external DAC replaces the internal chip in a computer or other device. While Macs have decent DACs, they are not designed for playing audio at high quality. Using an external device overrides the internal DAC in a computer, greatly improving the sound quality. You can also use a DAC such as this between a CD/DVD/Blu-Ray player and your amplifier, to improve the sound of discs you play. There is a noticeable difference between the sound of an average DVD/Blu-Ray player and that of the same device with its audio running through a DAC>

The DacMagic 100 is not cheap. It is currently selling for $369 on Amazon.com. But it is an excellent device, offering great sound, and with four inputs, is flexible enough to serve either for a computer-based music system, or a more complete home entertainment system with multiple devices running through it. (For example, a DVD player, Apple TV and game console.)

Book Review: The Annotated Emerson

When reading any text from the 19th century, it is hard to put oneself in the appropriate context, making it difficult to fully appreciate or even understand what the author is saying. When reading fiction, this lack of context means that, for example, imagining two people sitting in a parlor talking, the reader may not realize that, at the time, this could mean that they were cold (if it were winter), or very hot (if it were summer). That women were very uncomfortable in their corsets, and men in their stiff collars. Or that there were social issues that regulated how members of the opposite sex could meet and converse, and that these subtle contextual elements had a subconscious presence in the minds of contemporary readers.

With non-fiction – a term not used at the time – such as Emerson’s essays, the context covers a very broad political, social and religious spectrum. Words have meanings beyond their simple dictionary definitions (their connotations), and we readers, more than 150 years after the fact, are unaware of these.

On an extreme level, you can look back at Shakespeare’s works. Very few readers of Hamlet, King Lear or Much Ado about Nothing (do you know what “nothing” meant in Elizabethan slang?) would approach these texts without notes, and even those notes and annotations – along with definitions of words whose meanings were different at the time – cannot fully put the reader in the context of these works.

Scholar Jeffrey Cramer has published several volumes of Henry David Thoreau’s works annotated (such as this Walden), and I had long wondered why no one had done the same for Emerson.

Well, now we have such a volume, The Annotated Emerson, by David Mikics. This large book – 9.7 x 9.3 inches, on heavy paper – takes a selection of Emerson’s works and adds notes. Some of these notes merely define words, or explain their usage in Emerson’s time; some explain who certain people mentioned in Emerson’s essays are; and others make links with different works by Emerson, either essays, lectures, or even journal entries.

This is not an exhaustive work; it does not annotate all of Emerson’s essays, nor even a specific collection of them. Rather it chooses some of his most famous works, the ones people will be most likely to read. These include Nature, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, Circles, The Poet, Experience and New England Reformers. Two of his essays from Representative Men – those on Montaigne and Shakespeare, perhaps the two writers that Emerson most appreciated – are included. But there are also political writings: Emerson’s letter to president Martin van Buren about the plight of the Cherokees and his essay on John Brown from 1860, after Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Emerson’s laudatory essay on his friend Henry David Thoreau is included, as are a number of poems. In more than 500 pages, this collection is a fine overview of Emerson’s varied writings, though it contains nothing from his journals.

In addition to the textual notes – it’s worth pointing out the excellent layout, with the notes in the outside margins of the pages – there are dozens of illustrations, many in color, giving more contextual background, and also showing some of the people mentioned in the writings, as well as Emerson himself.

In addition to being a fine text, this is also an attractive book, and its size is more that of a coffee-table book than a collection of essays. (This does make it a trifle harder to read, of course, as it is fairly heavy.)

I can think of no better book for those interested in Emerson to understand more about his writings and his times. Learning more about what Emerson was referring to gives a much richer picture of the extent of his writing, and a better feeling of where he came from.

New Audiobook: Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust, in English

As regular readers of Kirkville probably know, I’m a fan of Marcel Proust. I recently started re-reading A la recherche du temps perdu, but was sidetracked by moving house. Some time ago, I listened to the entire work, on a French audio recording. But not all Proustians are French speakers. Proust actually has quite a following in the US and England, and his popularity is such that Naxos Audiobooks has recently released the first part of a complete, unabridged recording of Remembrance of Things Past (also know as In Search of Lost Time).

The narrator, Neville Jason, has one of those smooth, soft English accents that lulls and entrances you. His reading is leisurely and relaxed. He takes his time, allowing you to absorb the work comfortably, without speaking too slowly, as is sometimes the case on older audiobook readings. Jason’s reading is a performance, but it also sounds like he’s sitting by your side, reading from the book, like a friend. In addition, his French accent is quite good, and when he speaks the names of French people or towns, it sounds as it should.

Swann’s Way is more than 21 hours long, and is only the first of seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Naxos will be releasing each volume individually, and will most likely offer a box set with the entire text – which will be more than 120 hours – when all the titles have been released.

If you want to listen to Proust, and don’t speak French, Neville Jason’s recordings are excellent. For now, this is the only complete recording in the works. Simon Vance, who is also another wonderful narrator, has recorded Swann’s Way, but it doesn’t look like this will be a complete recording of all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, as this recording was released in September, 2010, and no follow-up has yet been released.

Buy Swann’s Way on Amazon.com or Amazon UK.

Here’s a sample of Neville Jason reading the famous “madeleine” scene: