I feel kind of stupid for only just discovering this, but YouTube is a wildly excellent source of performances of classical pieces. In fact, instead of putting up two minute long samples in my pages about each of the composers I should start linking to the YouTube performances instead, since they are the full versions of the piece. Either that or put up a separate page with links for each composer. Here are some prime cuts I discovered in my initial explorations:
Shostakovich Violin Sonata – Calligopoulos
Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 – Lugansky
Not too much time for a long lengthy update today I think. We just came back from a boys night out at the graduate student center of events (which is sadly lacking really, but they do have one dollar beers) and it’s a little late so I can’t really think properly. However, there’s been some major comparative listening going on in the last couple of days of Shostakovich’s symphonies, namely, Haitink vs. Rostropovoch vs. Jansons, and it deserves at least a little commenting.
Particularly Symphony No. 15, Op. 141, which as regular readers know is one of my all time favorite pieces. Anyway, one of the most harrowing, icy parts of this splendid piece is right at the end. It’s the restless, crawling percussion ending: the tipping and tapping which at least one person has claimed to be an allusion to the life support machinery whirring through Dimitri’s hospital room in his last days.
It seems that normally people take this at a rather fast clip. I should nip down to the music library on campus and check out what the tempo marking is, but it sounds infinitely better when Haitink does it. He oozes it to a standstill, taking it at about half the speed that the other two conductors I mentioned above do, and it sounds incredible. Every note is played with finality, it’s incredibly menacing like, as another commentator suggests, golden light glistening over black depths. I don’t think anything else I have heard can compete with Haitink’s glacial ending. It’s awesome.
This piece in the Washington Post has been doing the rounds on the web in the last few days. It’s a not-quite-stunt in which the renowned violinist Joshua Bell went busking in Washington D.C with his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. The Post set up cameras to observe how the rush houring D.C residents would respond to one of the worlds finest musicians playing (reasonably unknown) music by some of the finest composers, on (yes, my descriptions are getting predictable) one of the world’s finest instruments. Fine.
They interviewed the people who actually stopped – which was not very many of them, and their thoughts, feelings and descriptions of the incident are all extremely interesting. There are videos from the experiment as well.
While it’s all quite fascinating stuff, the scientist inside me (“… all of us that started the game with a crooked cue …”) is suspicious of how they insisted on doing it during the morning rush hour when everyone was rushing to get to their high powered jobs on time. It’s oh so easy to dismay at the ignorance that most passengers showed when such a fine performance was dangling just feet from their feet, but it would have been different in the evening I think.
Or maybe not and we’re all doomed. The article is well written, and satisfying, whichever way you look at it.
That’s what I am listening to over and over, right now at the moment. It’s going to be a favorite. It already is a favorite. Its curves, its abrupting halts and stops and starts, are insinuating themselves under my skin. Melodies are springing into focus as I type. All in all, it’s a smashing musical offering, and it’s displacing the viola sonata as my favorite late Shostakovich piece.
It seems to be more driven, more alive than that other sonata. Maybe not surprising given that it’s 13 opus numbers earlier and so not quite as pushing on death as the viola one is. What borders it? Well, it’s 134 so we’ve got yet another of my favorite pieces, the 12th string quartet on the bottom-hand side, at op. 133. On the other side we have the 14th symphony, a piece that I wish I liked more – the vocalness is a bit too jarring for me.
Actually almost all my favorite Shostakovich is around this period: Symphony 15 is at 141, the 13th string quartet at 138, the Marina Tsvetaeva poems at 143, and the second cello concerto at 126. What a rich period!
I love the bleakness, the withdrawn and individual nature of the instrumental parts, the striking bittersweet dissonances. I feel like Shostakovich went through four obvious periods: early, enthusiastic experimentation (e.g., the first symphony), a publicly acceptable Stalin-pleasing, life-preserving period (e.g., 5th and 7th symphonies), a vigorous, joyful celebratory Stalin’s-dead period (1st cello concerto, 10th symphony), and finally a period in which he realized that even after escaping the threat of Stalin, death was inevitable (the pieces I mentioned above).
Actually, I feel like the four movements of the 15th symphony are referring to each of these periods, and imitating the styles of each. I’d like to do a more throough post on this. Maybe even write a permanant page. The more I listen to that piece, the more I hear the possible truth of that idea.
I was wondering today why it took me such a long time to start listening to classical music.
I mean, it’s not really that long a time, it’s a reasonably early start to convert over at 23ish: that leaves a decent amount of lifetime to get to know a large chunk of the back catalog pretty well I think. What I mean is, given that I had heard classical music earlier on in life, what prevented me from getting over obsessed with it in the way that I am now, then?
Initially my suspicion was that all of the stuff I had heard before was the really classically sounding classical stuff, that is, stuff which is strongly associated with that kind of music in the general minds eye of the general public: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. All stuff that I still have difficulties really unraveling and getting into, even now. I thought that I could probably blame my parents for not exposing me to Shostakovich and Stravinsky.
But it’s not true.
I must’ve heard the Rite of Spring – I certainly saw Fantasia several times. It just (shockingly, in hindsight) never grew on me. So I wonder what it was that opened my heart to the Saint-Saens which sent me down this path.
I suspect that my musical tastes at the time prepared me for classical. I was very into experimental electronic music, which bears some important similarities to classical. It’s through-composed, it has melodic lines which appear in different forms, it”s long, it often takes a while to fully appreciate. While that helped I don;t think it’s nearly enough to be a compelling argument.
Another suspicion is that I was going through an emotional crisis, real serious can’t-sleep-at-night girlfriend turmoil, which probably opened me up to receiving this more emotionally satisfying, and (probably more importantly) different, music.
But probably the most important thing (and hence the number one classical music beginner’s tip) was that I finally listened to apiece multiple times, over and over, in a row. I distinctly remember the sense, the previously hidden logic, appearing to me. I’d call it an almost- religious experience, the sudden understanding of the depth and intelligence that before had lurked in dark camouflage.
So, if you don’t feel like classical makes sense, keep listening. Listen to a piece over and over, and it might pounce.