Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ten Recordings

Conductor and cellist Kenneth Woods blogs his list of ten must-have recordings. I'm now well into the must-not-have recordings part of my life and live musical experiences are always more vivid for me, but here are ten recordings which I can no longer escape, as they are an intimate part of my musical biography:

Sour Cream: The Passion of Reason. The recorder trio Sour Cream (Frans Bruggen, Walter van Hauwe and Kees Boeke) played an avant-garde repertoire stretching from the 14th through 20th centuries. The playing was always smartly anachronistic.

The Art of Courtly Love - David Munrow & The Early Music Consort of London. Scholarship and performance has now moved on from the Murow era, with vocal performances now the center of intention instead of Munrow's instrument chest, but the liveliness of the playing style and the enduring strangeness of the repertoire remain unmatched.

The old box set of lps of the Heifetz/Piatigorsky concerts. This is old white guys playing music by dead white Europeans under all the wrong circumstances and while they have some stylistic affections that can't be gotten away with anymore, it should be recognized that in these late recordings, Heifetz's musical command overrules his technical gifts and the use of portamento and vibrato is everywhere judicious, even aristocratic. Piatigorsky, on the other hand is as great as always, and should be recognized for his devotion to investigating historical performance practice (read this interview with Dimitry Markevitch for an appreciation of G.P.). This is truly fabulous chamber music. I borrowed this set from the Montclair (CA) public library so often that they had to retire it.

Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 7, Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Two recordings that leave me speechless.

Ives: Symphony Nr. Four, second movement, conducted by José Serebrier. I owned exactly two quadraphonic recordings (the other was The World of Harry Partch, another recording that was very important to me, from the age of 13 or so) and seldom was there such a good match between technology and music -- the sound design is used perfectly to guide the listener through the architecture of the second movement, at each turn a new room, a new landscape, the listener moving through the spaces while the sounds track their own courses. I've still not heard a performance that really "gets" the transcendental fourth movement of this symphony, but the time will surely come.

The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage, the 1958 Avakian recording. There is an extraordinary continuity in the sound quality of Cage's music: straightforward, direct, with dry sounds directly and suddenly adjoint to resonant sounds. This live recording is a piece of its time, and the audience takes much of it light-heartedly, but that's okay.

Webern, Complete Works, conducted by Robert Craft. Musicians now play Webern with accuracy and stylistic sensitivity that were near-impossible to achieve in 1958, and Boulez's two sets are now considered the standard. But Craft's recordings were all that were available for a generation, and for all that they get wrong, they are never boring, influencing a generation of musicians. From Darmstadters to west coast minimalists-in-the-making, it was the style of these performances, which play down the Wiener Espressivo character in favor of a dry and even "objective" tone, that had decisive influence. Opinions about Craft the conductor have inevitably been colored by opinions of his other activities, and much of his conducting was done in place of or alongside another musician - Stravinsky -, and often under next-to-impossible rehearsal and recording situations, making it difficult to sort out Craft's musical contributions. Nevertheless, I believe that a dispassionate assessment of Craft is due, one that will both assert his historical importance and sort out the best of his performances.

La Monte Young: The Well-Tuned Piano. I contributed to the liner notes on this, so my bias is known. Young makes a decisive counter-argument to John Cage, in his rejection of Cage's acceptance of interpenetration between music and the world around it. I believe that Young's long-lasting impact on music making will be in the area of continuity, allowing a piece of music to stake out a particular sonic territory and then to luxuriate in it for as long as it takes.

Richard Maxfield: Electronic Music (Advance) made with a modest studio but with fabulous technique, Maxfield's pieces are alway inventive solutions to the problem of the fixed nature of a recording.

Alvin Lucier: I am sitting in a room (the original recording). The tension between the musically absolute and the psychological in music has never been made more vivid.

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