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.

Music Notes: Hyperion 99-Disc Complete Liszt Box Set

Hyperion Records has released a 99-disc box set of the long-running series they have been publishing of all of Franz Liszt’s piano music. Recorded by Leslie Howard, with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra for the concertos, this series has been a labor of love for some 25 years (the first disc was recorded in 1985, and was an early digital recording). Hyperion claims that it holds the Guinness world record for the world’s largest recording series by a solo artist; I don’t know of any that even come close.

Liszt’s music is an acquired taste; I’ve been listening to bits and pieces from this set since I got it nearly a year ago, and while some of the music is too over-the-top for my taste, much of it is very interesting. It contains 7,266 minutes of music, enough to keep anyone busy for a very long time. Discovering an oeuvre like this is a long-term process, and having all the music available in one set makes it possible to flip around from period to period to hear how Liszt grew.

A large number of these discs are transcriptions: of music from operas, of songs by Franz Schubert (11 hours’ worth), of Beethoven’s symphonies (masterful transcriptions indeed). The one set of works that has held me spellbound is the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a series of “mystical” keyboard works. This set is full of surprises, and I have barely scratched the surface so far.

It’s currently listed at €186 at Amazon FR, £228 at Amazon UK, and $302 at Amazon.com, with marketplace sellers offering it for less. Hyperion – one of my sponsors – also has it available for download, in MP3, FLAC and Apple Lossless formats, with impeccable metadata, and full notes embedded in each track. They sell it for £200, but you get an immediate 25% “bulk buy” discount, making it £150. And you don’t have to rip the CDs.

Why Are There So Few Complete Sets of Schubert’s Lieder?

Yesterday, I received a copy of Naxos’ Deutsche Schubert-Lied-Edition, their 38-disc set of Schubert’s lieder, or art songs. Schubert’s lieder is one of my favorite parts of the classical repertoire, and I have many recordings by different singers. Yet, there are only two complete sets of his songs: the Naxos set, and Hyperion’s 40-disc set, which contains 37 discs of Schubert’s songs, together 3 discs of songs by his friends and contemporaries (which is a valuable addition to the set, putting Schubert’s songs in the broader context of his time).

This music is quite popular; singers regularly release new collections of Schubert’s lieder, and perform recitals of this music around the world. Yet only two complete sets of these songs exist. There are other monoliths of classical music that cover as many discs, or even more, and are better represented in the catalog. Take Bach’s cantatas, for example (another of my favorites). There are at least six complete sets of these works (either completed or in progress), and they cover around 60 CDs. Or Haydn’s symphonies: there are four complete sets of these, and they cover from 33 to 37 discs.

But Schubert’s lieder, even though popular (an Amazon search turns up more than 1,000 results) doesn’t inspire the same type of completeness.

It’s worth noting that the two existing Schubert sets were all “organized” or “overseen” by accompanists, rather than singers: Graham Johnson for the Hyperion edition, and Ulrich Eisenlohr for the Naxos. For the former, Johnson chose the best lieder singers of the time, over the many years it took to record the series. For the Naxos series, a focus was made on young German singers, rather than having singers whose native tongue was not German. (It’s worth noting that Johnson plays piano on all the Hyperion discs; Eisenlohr plays on 31 of the 38 Naxos discs.)

No one singer could record all of Schubert’s lieder. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did record all of the songs for solo male voice, or more than half of them, on 21 CDs (my favorite Schubert lieder recordings), but he did not record those written for soprano, or part-songs, with multiple singers. So while an individual singer might oversee such a project, they couldn’t perform all the works. Also, this is a long project to realize, and no singer today could devote themselves to just Schubert’s music for that long. The total time of the Hyperion set is just under 43 hours (not counting the three discs of friends and contemporaries); the Naxos set is a bit over 40 hours. The amount of time it takes to record that much music is monumental.

There are many excellent lieder singers today, and, while it’s interesting to have a handful of discs from them, it would be nice to see more attention paid to these songs. The Hyperion and Naxos sets are both excellent, in different ways, and are complimentary, to those who really appreciate this music. But I’d love to see one or two more sets. Are any labels out there willing to take up the gauntlet? I could imagine Harmonia Mundi or Bis doing such a series; the former has already released several volumes of Schubert’s lieder by Matthias Goerne, and, while he couldn’t sing everything, perhaps they’ll continue with other singers.

One note: if you’re a fan of Schubert’s lieder, you should definitely own a copy of John Reed’s Schubert Song Companion, which gives excellent translations for all the songs. You should also get Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Schubert’s Songs: A Biographical Study. This book is out of print in English, but used copies are available from many on-line booksellers. I have a copy of the French translation, and it’s an interesting look at the songs by someone who knows them very well. A commenter also points out The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder, which contains some songs by Schubert, but also songs by other composers.

A note on the Naxos box set: this comes with a 429-page book, which includes track listings, notes on the music, for each disc, artist information, and indexes. It does not, however, contain song texts, either in the original German or in translation, though the song titles are translated on each disc’s sleeve. (You can download PDFs with sung texts for each volume of the series from this web page. The book is entirely in English, which is the “international version” of the set; there is also a “German version,” which presumably has this book in German. This book is impressive, and useful, but, frankly, I’d very much like to have it in PDF format. It’s hard to read CD liner notes with their small print, and a book this thick is a bit unwieldy. Nevertheless, it’s good that it’s included.

Also, flipping through the notes as I started listening to this set, I spotted a mention that six of the discs feature the fortepiano, the type of instrument that Schubert used, which is different from today’s piano. This is interesting, and I’m looking forward to hearing how these discs sound. This makes me think that if there were another complete set to be made, it would be nice if it were on fortepiano…

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:

DISC ONE
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
DISC TWO
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
DISC THREE
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.

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.)

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.”