Saturday, October 31, 2015

800 Words: The Sardonic Catharsis of Shostakovich Part 3


The best music does not exist merely, as so much pop music does (and as so much forgettable classical music once did...), to magnify the significance of the present moment - if the present moment is all that matters, it doesn't really matter what music you listen to so long as it pumps your adrenaline, increases endorphins, fosters camaraderie, and soothes your mood. If the music burns with no more message than a sentence you can find on a fortune cookie, then it is merely background noise which you can use as a tool to elicit the proper emotional response you which for at that given moment.

The best music is far too complex for that - you listen to it with the knowledge that you have no idea how it will make you feel, because every experience with it can be completely different from the time before. It inspires awe and love, but does so in an extra dimension from a canned music that you know will elicit the response in you which you want before you put it on. What it has to say to you is utterly unique to it, and can only be learned with time and repetition's fourth dimension. In April, it may evoke joy, in July it may evoke nostalgia, in October sadness, and in January, awe, and God only knows what the music will make you feel in twenty years' time.

Nothing else in the world makes us aware of the universe's largeness to the extent of music. There are no words to properly elucidate music's impact upon us, because it clearly exists in a dimension we cannot yet understand in which we can hear time itself be bent. The way this is done is that in every piece of music, there are three types of rhythm: phonic rhythm, metric rhythm, and harmonic rhythm. The phonic rhythm is the most atomic level of music - every change in the music, every change of note or dynamic or tone color by every instrument is an articulation of phonic rhythm, and every possible combination of the above is phonic rhythm as well. Once the phonic rhythm is shaped on the micro level, it becomes metric rhythm, which is, of course, the rhythm around which the notes are organized. Shaping the metric rhythm is, at least in Western music, the raison d'etre of it all - the Harmonic Rhythm, by which music goes through a series of chords, modes, and keys and tells the fundamental building blocks of its story and message. Harmonic rhythm is the macro level of music - spans of time large enough that we don't even perceive the change as rhythm, but rhythm it most certainly is.

It is in the interplay between these three rhythmic forces that music often seems to bend time itself. It is something more than simply beautiful, it is an experience not unlike travel through time, and if not through time, then at least through alternate dimensions. Every shift in the harmonic rhythm, whether consciously or unconsciously, causes your ear to anticipate the next shift. But if a composer is good, he does not fulfill your ear's expectations, and he constantly surprises you. If a composer is great, he utterly transcends your expectations into dimensions completely beyond what your imaginations thought capable. A great composition makes you aware on at least three different levels, not only to contemplate the orderly metric rhythm of this present moment, but also to revaluate all those microscopic phonic rhythms you heard in moments past, and contemplate all the macro possibilities of harmonic rhythm henceforth.

Beginning with Wagner, composers began a process of utter abandonment of tonal expectation. By my estimation, the greatest composers since Wagner - here's just a quick list on which I'm no doubt forgetting many: Brahms, Janacek, Mahler, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Bruckner, Nielsen, Sibelius, and to a lesser extent, modernists and pre-modernists like Ives, Ravel, Stravinsky, Copland, Bartok, Berg, Debussy, Messiaen - have all, in their ways, been voices of conservatism; near-obsessives in their focus upon recapturing the embers of a tonal framework to which Wagner lit a match, because the miracle that is harmonic rhythm is only within the tonal sphere. Harmonic rhythm is the entire reason classical music exists - without it, we might as well never listen to it again.

When music abandoned tonality, it abandoned eternity. The most cutting edge music was not a means of contemplation, it was a drug, meant to accentuate the present moment without worry for the past or future. Once Tristan premiered, it was only a matter of time before free-floating tonality was judged an insufficient drug, and the public abandoned music in its more traditional forms for a kind of music that uses music's far more primal force - rhythm - rather than harmony as its structural backbone. We have never recaptured that audience ever since.


"Schönberg is dead, Ellington is dead, but the guitar is eternal. Sterotyped harmonies, hackneyed melodies, and a beat that gets stronger as it gets duller - that is what's left of music, the eternity of music. Everyone can come together on the basis of those simple combinations of notes. They are life itself proclaiming its jubilant "Here I am!" No sense of communion is more resonant, more unanimous, than the simple sense of communion with life. It can bring Arab and Jew together, Czech and Russian. Bodies pulsing to a common beat, drunk with the consciousness that they exist. No work of Beethoven's has ever elicited greater collective passion than the constant repetitive throb of the guitar."

- Milan Kundera

I'm a huge Kundera fan, though never moreso than I was in college. I have, so often, thought along the lines which Kundera articulated here that when I first read this paragraph in college (though I can't remember which book of his for the life of me), that it was as though Kundera played a musical note within me that I was struggling to know was there.

And yet, as I get older, and approach an age when a writer ought to start thinking about making something more permanent than a blogpost, I find myself thinking that Kundera is, to say the least, more than a little hard on rock music.

It's not that Rock can't be eternal art: anybody who's ever heard Imagine, or What's Goin' On, or Let It Be, or A Change is Gonna Come, or Blowin' in the Wind, or In My Life, or Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, or or God Only Knows, or Sympathy for the Devil, or One, or Tangled Up in Blue, or Dancing in the Street, or Bridge Over Troubled Water, or Redemption Song, or The Times They Are a-Changin', or A Day in the Life, or Eleanor Rigby, or Born to Be Wild, or Stand by Me, or I'm So Lonseome I Could Cry, or You Can't Always Get What You Want, or Knockin' on Heaven's Door, or Desolation Row, or Both Sides Now, or Folsom Prison Blues, or Baby What'd I Say, or Moment of Surrender, or The Sounds of Silence, or Georgia on My Mind, or Only the Lonely, or Fire and Rain, or I'll Take You There, or Sloop John B, or Bloody Sunday, or Sail Away, or Hallelujah, or The Harder They Come, or Maybe I'm Amazed, or Beautiful Day, or The End, or Fight the Power, or Cortez the Killer, or Chimes of Freedom and I Shall Be Released, or Jungleland and Thunder Road, or She's Leaving Home and Hey Jude, or so so so so many others, knows that these might be songs that can be played, sung, heard, and loved, by anyone who hears them. You would have to be deaf to the wonders of music to not here the greatness that glows from them with all the inner luminosity of the world's greatest music. This is not just the usual silly tosh about romantic love made by silly musicians for silly people, this is music that touches, through a mixture of music and lyrics, a place completely similar, and yet totally different.

It is so very different from what once was music that it almost requires a different name. This emotional combination derives from music that would be stupid without words, and words that would be stupid without music. It is only in the combination of the two that this music reveals a purpose - in some ways, a pretty extraordinary one. It is similar to variations on both music and poetry, but different all the same. It is the spiritual child of the Musical, and therefore the spiritual grandchild of opera and art-song. If you subtracted one artform from all the various arts which it synthesizes, it would be terrible. But together, it becomes something so much more than what Milan Kundera says it is.

Perhaps when we take this artform truly seriously, we will give it a different name. But so far, we don't really take it seriously. I often think to myself that, like the Troubadours of the Late Middle Ages who wrote their own songs and traveled from town to town, having to produce their own shows, we have created an amalgam of music and poetry that is perfect for an era that requires the maximum utility from its musicians. The best of them were probably very good indeed, and touched upon eternal greatness, nevertheless, nobody remembers the music of Jaufre Rudel de Blaia or Bernart de Ventadorn or Piere Vidal, because the circumstances under which they wrote their songs - just a voice with rhyming lyrics and a guitar - are so easily duplicable. We can hear music almost exactly like the Troubadours in our own era, but hear it in our own language, about people and problems and sentiments we more readily understand. Nevertheless, this is the best aesthetic we're ever going to get under circumstances of a democratic world in which everybody cares about their rights and nobody cares about their responsibilities. Anything is possible, but nobody should be too surprised if, a few centuries hence, there is barely a note of 20th century music which anybody listens to. 

I don't doubt that once upon a time, there were many people who found elements of Mozart and Beethoven stupid, perhaps there still are, but when you view the reduced complexity of the harmonic rhythm in comparison to Mozart and Beethoven, and the reduced capacity of the vocabulary in comparison to the poetry of Shakespeare and John Donne, you see that both are significantly reduced. Perhaps its reduced because its teleology seems (to me at least) to articulate sentiments that are at bottom a little more simplistic - would anyone say that even great songs like Imagine or The Times They Are a'-Changin can even climb to foothills of Beethoven's 3rd's and Don Giovanni's eternal summits unless they're trying to avoid being called elitist or snobbish?

The difference between the classical music of Old Europe and the various classical musics of America is that the greatest music of Old Europe has survived the transition to cultures completely unlike the ones in which they were birthed, and even if people don't know Mozart and Beethoven and Bach, they still know who they are and are in awe of their genius. Will a similar awe carry over the next two-hundred years for Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Paul McCartney?


Perhaps it's the best we were ever going to do in our era when the possibility of so many technical means are at our disposal, and none of us yet knows how to properly use any of them. The best work of this electronic era is in artforms that are still completely new: cinema and television, perhaps radio and now podcasts too. Musical literacy's declined precipitantly since World War I, and in many ways, literacy itself seem to have been declining since the 1960's. In its place is a completely new visual language - Cinema, a combination of drama, music, and visual art - the latter being the most basic of all artforms. When you place cinema into the long-form views of television, you throw literature into the mix as well. What separates cinema from what came before is that it is literally visual art that moves and emits sounds and uses music to color its own mood. It is an entire new dimension of artistic possibility, one that will take literally centuries to exhaust. The novel as we know it seemed to come into shape just as Shakespeare seemed to exhaust the possibilities of the stage. By the time of Moliere, the novel was clearly ascendant. By the time of Ibsen, the novel was so dominant that nobody thought a playwright could ever write plays as powerful as the greatest novelists. Just as Don Quixote seemed to magically appear in Shakespeare's wake, Birth of a Nation and Intolerance seemed to magically appear just as the literary novel was reaching its apex. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Eliot, and Dickens were all merely a generation before, Tolstoy had only been dead for five years; James, Twain, Cather, Chekhov, Gorky, Hardy, Kafka, Joyce, Proust, Mann, Hamson, and Conrad, were all at work or quite recently deceased - it was an epoch, three-hundred years later, when all the complex psychological and metaphysical problems first laid out in Shakespeare were being demonstrated to their fullest plumage. But just as these energies reached their summit, they began to exhaust themselves. So great was the intellectual energy of the world that a new world, a much more technological world couldn't help but be born from it that would (will) vastly expand the possibilities of what it means to be human.

But so great is the onus of mastering this technology that no person could ever master it alone. A novelist can plot out every word of his novel, and these inanimate objects and concepts cannot help but conform to what a novelist wills with only the limits of his imagination to stop him. A composer may not control his performances, but only a composer has ultimate authority over the notes. The artist has his raw materials, the poet his rhymes and metrics. But a film can no more have a single author than can a Medieval Cathedral. So vast is the undertaking of film that it generally requires hundreds or thousands of people to present their faces and bodies to the camera, and hundreds or thousands of people behind the camera to render those on camera to the correct aesthetic effect. Every movie, even the worst pre-packaged crap, is a miracle of invention with more authors responsible for its success and failure than ever we know.

What can today's music, still basking in the afterglow of the Composer's Era, possibly be next to these monumental achievements? If the greatest of Troubadors had to compete in splendor with new Eglisses (Cathedrals) like those Chartres and Amiens and Reims and Rouen and Notre Dame de Paris, how could they possibly compare? So how can even the songs I mentioned above compare in their splendor to Citizen Kane or The Rules of the Game or Children of Paradise or Tokyo Story or The Dekalog or Apocalypse Now or Fanny and Alexander or Mullholland Dr. or Shoah or The Godfather Movies or The 400 Blows or The Apu Trilogy or Ugetsu Mongatori or Raging Bull or Touch of Evil or Sansho the Bailiff or Persona or Blue Velvet or Wild Strawberries or Nashville or Chinatown or A Day in the Country or Aguirre: The Wrath of God or The Seventh Seal or Do The Right Thing or Wild Strawberries or Jules et Jim or Three Colors or To Be or Not To Be and so so so so many others?

Film is the one art form in today's world that is perhaps more miraculous than music. Music allows us to imagine alternate dimensions, but film literally opens up a porthole to the physical properties of an alternate dimension that exists directly in front of us. Nothing in music can compare to that, but since music so little physical substance (does it technically have any at all?), it has nothing but the personality of its creators to animate it. It requires overwhelming personality for a composer or performer to give audiences any kind of great musical experience. Film, on the other hand, is almost the literal opposite of music. Its physical properties are so manifest that it requires almost imperceptible subtleties - one blink of an eye from an actor in the wrong place (or the right one...) can change the entire meaning of a movie. One scene with improper backlighting obscures necessary details to the movie's comprehension. Music works because the individual expression of the performer is compelling in a manner that the audience finds receptive. Cinema works because the audience perceives things that its practitioners only suggest.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

800 Words: The Sardonic Catharsis of Shostakovich Part 2


From now until music ceases to be played, the years '56 and '06 will have dual anniversaries in which Mozart and Shostakovich fight for concert hall eminence - Mozart having been born in 1756, Shostakovich in 1906. But in 2006, audiences will still bloated from the last glut of Mozart performances that inevitably accompany every year with a '41 and '91 affixed, Mozart having been died in 1791. 1991 came at the tail end of the 'period instrument revolution,' and audiences emerged from the newly minted 'historically informed' conceptions of musicians like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner and Charles Mackerras and Arnold Ostman with a so profoundly changed conception of Mozart's music that many music lovers spontaneously decided that all the Mozart they'd heard until then was mere Mozartkugel. The previous Mozart celebrations taking place within 1956's suburban/domestic idyll did an enormous amount to show that Mozart should be taken as seriously as a composer of more intimate music - chamber music, piano sonatas, concertos for nearly every orchestral instrument - as any composer who ever lived. But the celebrations of 1991 showed that in the 'grand forms': symphonies, operas, choral works, Mozart should never have been a lightweight to be shoved aside by later composers who got less adrenaline through more instruments. Mozart was no longer merely charming and poetic, he was Beethoven's companion in arms to - a happy warrior for the post-Cold War world of 1991, a far happier world than the world of 2006.

In 2006, Shostakovich experienced his first centenary celebration - no longer was Shostakovich a contemporary still to be evaluated, he was a titan with an unassailable niche in the Pantheon, coming down to bestow us with an eternal message. 2006, with a new American imperium seemingly set to dominate the world, belonged to Shostakovich. The world turned on its dark side: major terrorist attacks in every major capital of the West either occurred or imminent, and an American superpower responding to them in manners that more and more seemed to resemble the Soviets they'd so recently defeated. Everything which the Soviets used to do during the Cold War: blatant invasions of hostile nations without even a proxy cover, wiretapping citizens without warrant, renditions of residents without trial, trials with foregone conclusions even when defendants were permitted one, propaganda and paranoia on every television channel, and every person suspected an abetter of the enemy who did not shout their support for this militarism from the rooftops. No, despotism in modern America on its worst day never got even close to tyranny of the Soviet Union on its finest... not yet at least... but how could the Land of the Free have come so close to tyranny?... Yet again?...

Hopefully, the Bush Administration, and so much that was authoritarian and incompetent about it, will remain the distant memory it now seems after seven years of Barack Obama (though I wouldn't bank on it...). Nevertheless, the atmosphere of those years, no matter what side you took, felt very much like the mid-century. The internet seemed like a sleeping beast - as undefined in 2006 as television was in 1966. Terrorism did not merely seem like a problem of law enforcement, it was an existential threat - an explosion that kills three could be a harbinger of explosions that could kill three million. We were not facing a few rogue cells, we were facing an implacable monolithic enemy. All there was to disagree about was whether the enemy was the terrorists, or whether it was us.

We've reaped the whirlwind of the 2000's ever since, and yet, as often happens, the whirlwind is so much less of a threat than we'd made it out to be. America may not be the "Greatest Country in the World", or even the 35th from the best, but a place that can go in a few years from Bush to Obama, from the precipice of a super-depression to lowest unemployment since the 80's, is truly resilient. The world has changed as much from 2006 to 2015 as it did from 1991 to 2006, and nowhere has it changed more than in Vladimir Putin's Russia.


(People still call it a piece of trash...)

In 2006, every major world city had a Russian maestro to lead the Shostakovich celebrations - Jansons, Temirkanov, Barshai, Rozhdestvensky, Bychkov, Kreizberg, Pletnev, Ashkenazy, Rostropovich, Kitayenko, Lazarev, Sinaisky, Spivakov, Simonov, Fedoseyev, Gorenstein, Shostakovich's son Maxim Shostakovich, and Valery Gergiev seemingly in every world city all at once - all of them had met Shostakovich as young men, and all were trained by Ilya Musin, the Soviet conducting guru, to give concerts chocked with more primal music-making than just about any Westerner. By the 1970's, classical music was a specialized interest for virtually everywhere but the Soviet Union. In London or New York, the concert hall might be a place where older generations gathered to hear their classics, or where intelligent people gathered to hear interesting aural speculations on what music might be, but was there anywhere except for behind the Iron Curtain where the orchestra, the piano, the string quartet, was a way of life? Was there anywhere else where classical music was still demanded to express the plight of a person's soul? A nation's soul?

Two great Russians had an annus mirabilis that year: Shostakovich, and the man who suddenly took on the mantle of his high priest - Valery Gergiev.

Every generation has one conductor who creates true miracles: Priests and Rabbis claim to show us miracles on earth, but conductors genuinely can. Occasionally, perhaps once in a generation, a conductor arises whose very purpose seems to be to show us those miracles. Every concert is an attempt to reach out to the miraculous - they will either show us something extraordinary, or risk spectacular failure in the attempt. There is no routine at their concerts - with no advance warning, this miracle worker can completely change the tempo, or alter the dynamics, or bend the rhythm to the breaking point and then past it. It doesn't always succeed - a risk is a risk because it might fail - but every concert under their auspice is an attempt to give us the most extraordinary possible experience of music from the orchestra, which is still the most extraordinary of musical instruments. In this generation, that conductor is Valery Gergiev. Before Gergiev, there was Leonard Bernstein. Before Bernstein, there was Wilhelm Furtwangler. Before Furtwangler, perhaps there was Gustav Mahler....

What Wilhelm Furtwangler was to German music seventy years ago, Valery Gergiev is to Russian music today. In neither case has any conductor in recorded history or living memory ever given performances of their preferred music that are so intense, so searing, so searching. Some conductors come close: surely Yuri Temirkanov and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Mariss Jansons give us tastes of the extraordinary with regularity, but not even Temirkanov has made so many music lovers exit the concert hall in so complete a daze as Gergiev has.

For the first half of his career, Gergiev seemed to avoid the mantle that was so obviously his. He made his name throughout the world as a guest conductor with endless performances with every major orchestra of Prokofiev, of Tchaikovsky, of Mussorgsky, of Scriabin and Rachmaninov, even of Stravinsky, but the latest and greatest of those masters, was rarely featured. There was something about Shostakovich that was clearly too discomforting to feature internationally - too recent... too close to home... too close in soundworld to the more challenging master Soviet composers of more recent generations... too uncomfortable... too.... politicized...

It was a bit surprising. There is little in Shostakovich's musical soundworld that is as challenging as Stravinsky, or as even Prokofiev and Scriabin. In so many parts of the West, Shostakovich is a byword for the comfortable romanticism in which Gergiev's Western concerts seemed to specialize. Nevertheless, there was clearly something about Shostakovich Gergiev wanted to avoid - perhaps because he knew that Shostakovich, the real Shostakovich, is a hundred times more challenging and explosive than both his most fervent Western admirers and detractors choose to see. He was even quoted in the nineties as saying that he stopped conducting Shostakovich's 5th because every Russian conductor is always asked to do it, and every performance seems to paint a larger mustache on Stalin.

It's a good line - Gergiev always had a decent sense of humor - but it didn't just illustrate discomfort with being pigeonholed as a Russian conductor, it also illustrated an extreme discomfort with the West's view of Russia as a place crawling with barbarians. In the genteel world of classical music, Eastern Europeans like Gergiev are still viewed with more than a touch of Asiatic 'otherness.' To a generation of orchestral subscribers who grew up in concert halls dominated by the starchy imperiousness of maestros like Bernard Haitink or Claudio Abbado, the raw visceral excitement of a Gergiev concert seems a touch vulgar or dangerous, perhaps even forbidden.

Like Americans, Russians will always be viewed by "Europe" with a bit of suspicion. The very refinement of Europe becomes an impediment to the very things Europeans claim they prize - their view of high culture has become so refined that their culture long since desiccated. The robust, healthy culture of drawing rooms where families were expected to master Brahms and Mendelssohn quartets together is now the artificial culture where their most musical great-grandchildren are expected by their professors to learn the inconsequential atonal note-spinning of another professor so that they can justify massive government subsidies with no strings attached. The glories of music in Central Europe have so long since given way to decadence that much of the new music of Central Europe would be self-parodying to anyone but its most fervent adherents.

20th Century America began an entirely new musical tradition, as different from what came before as the notated polyphony of Leonin and Perotin was from those who preceded them. It is only in Eastern Europe, Russia and its environs, that new classical music seems to reproduce itself in a state resembling health.


Art is not a science, nor is it a feat of engineering, nor is it a drug, and therefore, originality is no guarantor of artistic value. Art which we value today for its originality today may be more prized by future generations for its psychiatric value than its aesthetic value.

Even in the hands of Bach and Mozart, music is by no means a perfect art-form. Classical Music may not hold any antidote to the agonies of our time, but it is a well-built boat that can carry those who love it from the shores of one era to the shores of the next with their spiritual sanity intact. It is a place of soul where we can experience eternal and ecstatic truths, unchanging from one generation to the next. If the Ionian Mode, Polyphony, and Sonata-Allegro Form, resound in the ears of one generation, they will resound equally in the ears of the next, even if - and perhaps particularly because - each concept means something completely different from grandfather to father to son to grandson.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

800 Words: The Sardonic Catharsis of Shostakovich Part 1


High school musicians all love Shostakovich. The music is surly and ironic, yet horrifyingly sincere. He speaks directly to the deepest recesses of gloom, but still manages to conceal its gloom in just enough insouciance to glamorize it. Shostakovich, perhaps more even than Mahler or Tchaikovsky, is everything in music that is perfect for adolescents. And just as he's perfect for adolescents, Shostakovich is perfect for advanced music students as well. Like Beethoven, Shostakovich stretches a musician's technique to the absolute breaking point, and gives him every bit of the same abundance of emotional reward for their efforts.

College musicians hate Shostakovich, college composers anyway. They inevitably come upon a few professors who rant to them that the music is shit. Even if they don't believe anything else their professors tell them, there still remain the obvious nagging questions that yank through their new musical education and social security when they experience their former passion: Why all that gloom? Why all that bombast? Why all that structural padding and long-windedness? Why all the hostility to modernism? Surely, many progressive young musicians hear in his music a reactionary older relative lecturing them on the dangers of the slippery slope to socialism.


Personally, I don't think I understood truly Shostakovich, like Tchaikovsky, until I began reading Russian literature. When you read Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and particularly Dostoevsky, you read passage after passage of characters talking so frankly about the state of their souls that you begin to wonder if suppression of free speech was the only way Russians would ever get out of their own navels. Russia is known as having the most powerful novelistic and short story tradition for a very specific reason - the stakes are simply so much higher. These characters are confessing their deepest agonies, and you never doubt that the agonies are agonies that, if we are fully human, we absolutely share. Like human beings, their suffering is leavened by humor and absurdity, but never enough to forget that suffering is the most important component of their lives. It therefore follows that there's nothing truly philosophical about this manner of engaging with literature - because the needs of these characters are so much more viscral than any philosophical concept. Suffering, true suffering, is too primal to be dominated by any intellectual abstraction. Philosophy of course makes enormous appearnces in the texts of many Russian novelists, but for all the philosophical depth, the philosophy exists to animate the characters and story, not the characters and story existing to animate the philosophy.

German literature was once something light and witty - when you read Heine and Hoffmann and the Brothers Grimm and Lichtenberg and Simplicius Simplissimus, you see that Germany was once a very different place: not a place with its head in the clouds but much closer to the Earth - humbler, less ambitious, less devoted to mastery of the world and its contents. Once you start with Goethe and writers he clearly influenced - writers like Mann, Hesse, Rilke, Joseph Roth, and no doubt so many other writers I have yet to read a word by - seem so bogged down by the heavy philosophical tradition which all the practitioners have to contend with, that creating a reality or characters that live off the page seems to be a secondary concern to translating philosophical ideas into stories. Only in music could did the German creators truly get away from philosophy, and Wagner did everything he could to stuff philosophy into music too.

English novels are just one facet of their long and glorious literary tradition, and hardly the most important - compared to the weight and urgency of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, George Eliot, for all her glories, seems like she's more interested in the trivial concerns and ethics of trivial people, and compared with Shakespeare, even the drama of Dickens is a bit weak. Given the weight and import of Shakespeare and the King James Bible and the metaphysical poets, it shouldn't be too surprising that England's best music also probably comes from the High Renaissance.

It should be obvious (but sadly, it isn't to many), even the best of our written literature here in America is a pale and weak brew next to our movies and TV shows. Past 1970, you can count the high literary fiction that broke into America's public consciousness on your fingers: Ragtime, The Color Purple, Beloved, Infinite Jest, The Corrections, Kite Runner.... As for our music, well... you probably know how I feel...

And let's not even get started on the French...

No one in their right mind would mention Tchaikovsky in the same breath as Mozart, or Shostakovich in the same breath as Beethoven. I also doubt that anyone with equal expertise in music and literature (which, in spite of the sweeping generalizations above, I should in no way claim...) would ever try to say Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich are equal to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in quality and influence. But it is astonishing how close they both get, because what was once true about German music from Bach until Wagner became true about Russian literature from Pushkin until... well,... maybe the death of Solzhenitsyn? What is most important is the emotional bond between creator and audience, everything else is masturbation.

What was the Russian difference? Why did the arts mean more over there than ever it does over here in our lifetime? Did they simply suffer more? Perhaps over a longer period of time they did, but it's hard to claim that they suffered more than Germans or the Chinese, particularly when Russia was responsible for inflicting so much of their suffering. Were their artistic creators more ambitious than in other countries? Hardly - there are relatively taxonomic creations after the manner of German and French thinkers who are more interested in theory than practice.

This is shameful pop psychology stereotyping on my part, but perhaps the difference between Western Europe and Eastern Europe is that Russia is a relatively new modern civilization, emerging from the back woods of history only in the late 18th century. But unlike America, who emerged at a similar moment from a new continent in which they could evolve completely separately, Russia was fused by geography to Europe - to compete with England and France, they had to develop their own tradition, and develop it at a severely accelerated rate. America, so the myth goes at least, is relatively free to be frivolous, a vast expanse of arable land where you can be free to do whatever you like. Russia was, perhaps is, an even vaster expanse of un-farmable land in which society has to be ruled with an iron fist lest everybody freeze to death in the winter. To survive in Russia, you had to trust your neighbors with everything about you. To make the bleak mid-winters worth trudging through, you needed entertainment that was especially luminous and meaningful.

It's the same feeling you get from earlier German music, or earlier British verse, or Renaissance Italian art, classic American movies, or perhaps even Medieval French iconography. It's the feeling you get from documents that show a society, a people, truly grappling with themselves - the feeling that history is not something to study but something being written right now. You have finally learned how to paint, but the canvas is still blank, and you're painting not only for you, but for everyone you know, and every ancestor who worked and suffered so that you can finally make a mark on the world and be remembered in a way they never could. Here is what Carlos Fuentes had to say about it:

"Let me tell you about a curious experience I had this summer. I was writing a novella about the adventures of Ambrose Bierce in Mexico. Bierce went to Mexico during the Revolution, in 1914, to join up with Pancho Villa's army. I had the problem that the voice had to be Bierce's, and it was extremely difficult to render in Spanish. I had to make Bierce speak with his voice, which is available to me in his stories, so I wrote the novella in English. It was an absolutely terrifying experience. I would be writing along in English when suddenly from under the table Mr. Faulkner would appear and say aah, aah, can't do that, and from behind the door Mr. Melville would appear and say, can't do it, can't do it. All these ghosts appeared; the narrative tradition in English asserted itself so forcefully that it hamstrung me. I felt very sorry for my North American colleagues who have to write with all these people hanging from the chandeliers and rattling the dishes. You see, in Spanish we have to fill in the great void that exists between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries. Writing is more of an adventure, more of a challenge. There is only a great desert between Cervantes and ourselves, if you except two nineteenth-century novelists, Clarin and Galdos.
..I remember ten years ago I was talking to an American writer, Donald Barthelme, and he said, “How do you do it in Latin America? How do you manage to write these immense novels? Come up with all these subjects, these very, very long novels? Is there no paper shortage in Latin America? How do you do these things? We find we have great difficulty in the United States as American writers to find subjects. We write slim books, slimmer and slimmer books.” But what I answered on that occasion is that our problem is that we feel we have everything to write about. That we have to fill four centuries of silence. That we have to give voice to all that has been silenced by history.
If you had asked me today where the novel is alive and kicking, I would say it's basically in Latin America and in so-called Eastern Europe, which the Czechoslovaks insist on calling Central Europe. They think of Eastern Europe as Russia. In any case, there you have two cultural zones where people feel that things have to be said, and if the writer does not say them, nobody will say them. This creates a tremendous responsibility; it puts a tremendous weight on the writer, and also creates a certain confusion, because one could say, Oh, the mission is important, the theme is important, therefore the book has to be good, and that is not always the case. How many novels have you read in Latin America that are full of good intentions—denouncing the plight of the Bolivian miner, of the Ecuadorian banana picker—and turn out to be terrible novels which do nothing for the Bolivian tin miner or the Ecuadorian banana picker, or anything for literature either . . . failing on all fronts because they have nothing but good intentions.
But still, we had a whole past to talk about. A past that was silent, that was dead, and that you had to bring alive through language. And so for me writing was basically this need to establish an identity, to establish a link to my country and to a language which I—along with many other writers of my generation—felt we in some way had to slap around, and wake up, as if we were playing the game of Sleeping Beauty."


Just earlier today, I sat down and tried to start a violin sonata. I gave up after ten bars: some Shostakovich here, some Bloch there, some Beethoven everywhere in between. I have very little original to say as a composer, and my best written music is almost always either in arrangments or in borrowing other composers' source material. As a creative musician, I don't have an original bone in my body. But as an improvisor, I can go for hours on the violin, secure in the fact that I can do things no one has done on the page.

I'm going to 'humble-brag' for a moment, dear reader, and tell you that I've consistently heard myself called, by people in a position to know, the 'best violin improvisor in Baltimore.' I don't have anywhere near the traditional technique of people who other people who do similar improvisation and get much more prestigious gigs, but I can say with some degree of certainty that what I do on the violin is more creative than they, in large part because my lack of technique necessitates it. Their invincible techniques, and it's just as true for many guitarists in town, make them sound more anonymous, and the blandness of what they do on the violin blends their stage presence into ensembles far better than I ever could. They have technique that was churned out in a conservatory factory, their playing is virtually interchangeable with one another. They can get through a thirty-two bar solo secure in the knowledge that their technique will never fault them, and it shows - they don't have to live the music they play. I don't have that option onstage. My technique is just good enough for what I do, and not a scintilla better. The minute I start relaxing onttag and phoning it in, is the minute my playing goes out of tune or my bow goes flying onto the fingerboard.

And yet, I guarantee you, I feel freer onstage than they ever do. To do what they do, they have to be slaves to their instrument. Whereas until recently, I picked up my violin only at the few gigs I had every week. They're probably well-adjusted and functional people in their personal lives, but they  have no idea what to do onstage once the violin stops playing. I still get stagefright in the wrong situation, but compared to my personal life, the stage is inevitably an oasis of calm for me, and I instinctually know what to do to keep people interested at almost every moment.

Why is this? Because, relatively speaking, there is so much less history to be burdened by in violin improvisation - the very term 'improvisational violin' is so unfamiliar that to most people that it sounds comical. Even if you borrow a snippet of Beethoven or Shostakovich here and there, the context is so unique that it can't help but be slightly original. Other violinists who switch from classical to bluegrass or jazz have a perfectly tried and true path, they've probably memorized all the same concertos, they probably know the same few licks from their preferred masters of the genre instrumentalists they play, they probably know bluegrass and gypsy jazz better than I do, and they probably know the same rock and pop songs we all know by heart (or at least everybody but me...), but they do not have on instant neurological availability the entire classical canon from Bach and so many before him to Shostakovich and so many after him. They have not committed to heart (not to brain, but to heart, the expression is vital) hundreds of years of accumulated musical wisdom as to what works and what doesn't. They play their instruments better than I do, but they do not play music as well as I do, and I play music better than they play their instruments.

Nevertheless, being called 'the best violin improvisor in Baltimore' has about as much practical use as being called the #1 expert on tropical climates in Greenland. Even so, it gives me enormous pleasure to do, and seems to give audiences some pleasure too. Sitting in front of staff paper, I often feel terrified. But with the violin, with no music in front of me and an audience to whip up to frenzy (and  hopefully catharsis on occasion), I feel free.

Monday, October 26, 2015

800 Words: The Holy Fool

"You get away with saying all those things nobody else would ever dare to say."

- Schmuck's drummer.

I really, really, really don't. It's true that I have very little tact and inner monologue, and I never have. I wouldn't know how to turn off this gaffe-diarrhea without horrendous pain from the effort of holding it in. One can either be ashamed of such an eminent facet of your character, which I often secretly am, or you can try to wear it as a badge of honor, and plow through the fear and guilt to the other side.

To anyone who doesn't know me particularly well, this may seem completely untrue, but I seem to have paid in blood for every taboo I've ever broken. Hundreds and hundreds of friends, and seemingly always feuding with half of them. The life of the dinner party in my 30's as I was the life of the keg party in my 20's, but just as ten years ago, no one who can stand my company past the point that the party ends. Dreams and ambition to the ends of the earth, and nothing to show for them. Just an emotional pain of a depression so great that it becomes a physical hurt, and a slow-burning terror during all those moments it vanishes, knowing that any moment could be the catalyst to bring forth its next appearance.

The Holy Fool is the traditional Christian character who is never punished for saying all the things that would be death to anyone else, but the reason he's spared is because his punishment is obvious to all around him. The tradition is perhaps most valued in Russia, where such a character is known as a Yurodivye.

"By day he laughed at the world, but he wept for it by night." He has surrendered all worldly concerns, devoting his life to acting the severe and self-humiliating eccentric (or being one, it doesn't really matter which). He is utterly at the mercy of the world, he has no means of supporting himself and must live entirely at the charity of his community - alone, penniless, self-abasing, defenseless against those in the community who would do him ill, and so misunderstood that there is no point to trying to make people understand his condition. A figure at best of pity, and all too often of fun.

All he has at his disposal is the ability to say what others never would or could because they have no way of hurting him more than his condition has already hurt himself. The circumstances of his life are punishment enough. He would often be beaten, occasionally even killed, and yet it was considered a terrible sin to offend a Yurodivy, because his position enabled him to see things nobody else could. Some ascribed clairvoyant or prophetic properties to him, but there was no need to ascribe something so grandiose - perhaps he was schizophrenic, perhaps he was 'only' psychotically depressed, perhaps he was mentally deficient in hundreds of ways, or perhaps he just had too much flair for the dramatic, but his difference made him see the world in a different way than others, a different way that others may hate with their guts, but seemed to know in their bones that they need.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Power of Music: Playlist (now 129 composers... will be at least twice or three times this...)

I was watching Simon Schama's Power of Art documentaries last night. It occurred to me, if there were a similar series of Power of Music docs, in which, as Schama puts it:

"In the end, there's only one test that matters. You come into the room, you fix it in your sights. Does it, or does it not attack you in the guts, it does. Does your heart jump? Do your eyes widen? Does your pulse race? Do your feet get a bad attack of lead boots you're so struck down by it? They do..."

Schama chose eight so... let's give a good couple hundred or so suggestions for what might be on this list. Two at most per composer. We're not going for favorites or best or most enjoyable, just music with sheer, searing, Biblical, sublime power, with a focus squarely on eternity. Music that speaks to the deepest parts of us with ecstatic truth:

I'm going mostly forward through music history, though I may go back for 'early (pre-Bach) music. ll add plenty to this as the next few days go on, especially in the non-classical musicians. But I frankly am getting tired of doing this after a good five hours of hunting down links...

All rated 1 to 5 on pure, elemental, inspirational power. To judge a musical work by its musical language or structure is ultimately a superficial reading of music. What is important is the simple human and inhuman power of the music.

Machaut: Messe de Nostre Dame ****

Gesualdo: Tenebrae Factae Sunt ***

Gesualdo: Miserere ****

Palestrina: Missa Hodie Christus **

Palestrina: Improperia ***

Victoria: Tenebrae Responses ****

Victoria: Requiem ****

Lassus: Prophitae Sybillarum ***

Tallis: Spem in Allium ****

Tallis: In Ieiunio et Fletu *****

Byrd: Vigilate ***

Byrd: Firste Pavane and Galliard **

Gibbons: Lord of Salisbury *

Striggio: Mass for 40 and 60 Voices ****

Monteverdi: Solemn Vespers ***

Monteverdi: Lamento d'Arianna ****

Rossi: Adon Olam ***

Rossi: Elohim Hashivenu **

Schutz: History of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ **

Schutz: Psalms of David *

Tartini: Devil's Trill ***

Purcell: Funeral Music of Queen Mary ****

Purcell: Hail Bright Cecilia ***

Bach: St John Passion *****

Bach: Chaconne for Violin *****

Handel: Coronation Anthems ****

Handel Royal Fireworks (admit it, you're sick of Messiah too...) *****

Vivaldi: Four Seasons (long as it's not the usual boring English performance...) ****

Haydn: The Creation *****

Haydn: The Seasons ****

Mozart: Don Giovanni *****

Mozart: Requiem ***

Beethoven: Eroica Symphony *****

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis (everybody knows the 5th and the 9th...) *****

Weber: The Free Shooter ****

Schubert: Unfinished Symphony ****

Schubert: Winterreise *****

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique *****

Berlioz: Requiem ****

Mendelssohn: Octet ****

Mendelssohn: Elijah ***

Schumann: Carnaval **

Schumann: Dichterliebe (Poet's Love) ****

Liszt: Dance of Death ****

Liszt: Mephisto Waltz ****

Chopin: Heroic Polonaise *****

Chopin: Revolutionary Etude ***

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde ***

Wagner: Twilight of the Gods ****

Verdi: Don Carlo ****

Verdi: Otello *****

Gounod: Faust ****

Franck: The Accursed Huntsman *****

Franck: Symphony ****

Bruckner: Symphony no. 9 *****

Bruckner: Os Justi ****

Brahms: Piano Concerto no. 1 *****

Brahms: German Requiem ****

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov *****

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina ***** (everybody knows Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain, so let's just go for the two completed operas - as great as any two ever written)

Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty ****

Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 6 *****

Dvorak: Symphony no. 9 **** (everybody knows the slow movement, listen to the rest)

Dvorak: Cello Concerto *****

Sullivan: Yeoman of the Guard ****

Sullivan: Irish Symphony ***

Faure: Caligula ***

Janacek: Jenufa *****

Janacek: Cunning Little Vixen *****

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius ***

Elgar: The Apostles **

Puccini: Tosca ***

Puccini: Turandot ****

Mahler: Resurrection Symphony *****

Mahler: Symphony no. 9 *****

Debussy: The Sunken Cathedral *****

Debussy: The Sea ***

Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra **** (You know the first minute, you might as well learn the rest)

Strauss: Elektra ****

Sibelius: Kullervo *****

Sibelius: Tapiola *****

Nielsen: Symphony no. 4 *****

Nielsen: Symphony no. 5 *****

Satie: Socrate **

Holst: The Mystic Trumpeter ***

Holst: Hymn of Jesus **** (You know The Planets, I know The fucking Planets, yes it's a great piece of music, particularly the five movements everybody skips, listen to something else by this otherwise underrated composer)

Vaughan Williams: Symphony no. 4 ****

Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem **** (these ought to shake off the image of RVW as a composer of 'cowpat music')

Respighi: Fountains **** and Pines **** of Rome

Ives: Symphony no. 4 *****

Ives: General William Booth Enters Heaven *****

Rachmaninov: The Bells ****

Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead ****

Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy *****

Schoenberg: Moses and Aaron ***

Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw ****

Falla: El Amor Brujo  *****

Falla: El Retablo de Maese Pedro ****

Suk: Asrael ***

Ravel: The Waltz *****

Ravel: Bolero ****

Ruggles: Sun Treader *****

Ruggles: Of Men and Mountains *****

Bloch: Sacred Service ****

Bloch: Baal Shem Tov *****

Bartok: Miraculous Mandarian ***

Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta ****

Stravinsky: Rite of Spring (duh)  *****

Stravinsky: Les Noces *****

Grainger: The Warriors ****

Grainger: Lincolnshere Posy ***

Szymanowski: Krol Roger ****

Szymanowski: Stabat Mater ****

Varese: Ameriques ***

Varese: Arcana **

Berg: Wozzeck ***

Berg: Violin Concerto ****

Kern: Showboat **

Martinu: Double Concerto **** for two pianos, timpani, and strings

Martinu: Greek Passion ***

Prokofiev: Scythian Suite ***

Prokofiev: Ivan the Terrible ***

Honegger: Symphonies No's. 2 and 3 *****

Martin: Mass for Double Choir ****

Martin: Golgotha **

Hindemith: Requiem *

Hindemith: Noble Vision ***

Hanson: Lament for Beowulf ****

Hanson: Symphony no. 2 ***

Revueltas: Night of the Mayans *****

Cowell: ...If He Please ***

Cowell: Symphony no. 4 **

Korngold: The Sea Hawk ***

Korngold: The Dead State **

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess ****

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue **** (in the much better 'jazz band' version rather than the usual orchestra)

Poulenc: Organ Concerto ****

Poulenc: Human Figure **

Ellington: Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue *****

Ellington/Jackson: Come Sunday *****

Copland: In The Beginning ***

Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man ****

Armstrong: West End Blues ***

Armstrong: St. James Infirmary *****

Finzi: Intimations of Immortality ****

Finzi: Dies Natalis ***

Rodgers: Carousel ****

Rodgers: South Pacific ****

Walton: Belshazzar's Feast *****

Walton: Symphony no. 1 ****

Tippett: A Child of Our Time *****

Tippett: Triple Concerto ***

Arlen: Somewhere Over The Rainbow ****

Stein: Gypsy *****

Shostakovich Symphony no. 13 ***** (something other than the 5th should get a doc made about it...)

Shostakovich String Quartet no. 8  ****

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time ****

Messiaen: Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum *****

Barber: Adagio for Strings ****

Barber: Symphony no. 1 ***

Goodman/Prima: Sing, Sing, Sing ****

Hovhaness: Symphony no. 50 'Mount St. Helens" ***

Hovhaness: Saint Vartan Symphony ***

Harrison: Symphony no. 3 ***

Harrison: Gending Pak Chokro ***

Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land ***

Guthrie: Jesus Christ ****

Britten: Peter Grimes ****

Britten: War Requiem **

Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra ***

Lutoslawski: Funeral Music ***

Fine: Toccata Concertante **

Fine: Serious Song **

Ginastera: Estancia ***

Ginastera: Popol Vuh **

Bernstein: Jeremiah Symphony ****

Bernstein: West Side Story *****

Seeger: We Shall Overcome *****

Seeger: If I Had a Hammer *****

Foss: Song of Songs ****

Foss: Baroque Variations ****

Ligeti: Clocks and Clouds *****

Ligeti: Lux Aeterna ****

Boulez: Notations *

Boulez: Repons (I feel sick...) *

Kurtag: Jatekok ***

Kurtag: Stele **

Stockhausen: Song of the Young Ones ***

Stockhausen: Stimmung **

Bock: Fiddler on the Roof ****

Berio: Sinfonia *****

Berio: Folk Songs ****

Crumb: Black Angels ****

Crumb: Star-Child ***

Charles: Hallelujah I Love Her So *****

Charles: What'd I Say *****

Sondheim: Sweeney Todd ****

Sondheim: Into The Woods *****

Rautavaara: The Journey ***

Rautavaara: Vespers ****

Takemitsu: A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden ***

Takemitsu: Orion  ***

Schchedrin: Naughty Limericks ****

Schchedrin: Dead Souls ****

Gubaidulina: St. John Passion **

Gubaidulina: Offertorium *

Cash: Man in Black ***

Cash: The Man Comes Around *****

Gorecki: Symphony no. 3 ***

Williams: Star Wars ****

Williams: ET *****

Penderecki: St. Luke Passion ***

Penderecki: Utrenja **

Schnittke: Symphony no. 1 ****

Schnittke: Cello Concerto *****

Birtwistle: Earth Dances **

Birtwistle: Punch and Judy **

Gulda: Variations on Light My Fire ****

Part: Berliner Messe ***

Part: Miserere ***

Riley: In C ****

Riley: A Rainbow in Curved Air ***

Reich: Daniel Variations *****

Reich: Different Trains ****

Glass: Powaqqatsi ****

Glass: Koyaanisqatsi ***

Silvestrov: Silent Songs ****

Andriessen: M is Man, Music, Mozart ****

Andriessen: The State *

Lennon/McCartney: A Day in the Life ***

McCartney: Let It Be *****

Richards: Sympathy for the Devil ****

Morrison: The End ***

Morrison: Break On Through to the Other Side ****

Hendrix: Star Spangled Banner *****

Tavener: Funeral Canticle **

Tavener: The Veil of the Temple **

Vasks: The Message **

Vasks: Distant Light *

Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer **

 Adams: Doctor Atomic ****

Springsteen: Thunder Road *****

Springsteen: Jungleland *****

Saariaho: The Passion of Simone **

Saariaho: Orion **

Knussen: Higglety Pigglety Pop and Where The Wild Things Are **

Tan Dun: The Map ****

Tan Dun: Ghost Opera ****

Golijov: The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind *****

Golijov: The Passion According to St. Mark *****

MacMillan: Seven Last Words on the Cross ***

MacMillan: Quickening ****

Lindberg: Power ***

Lindburg: Primal ****

Ades: Asyla ****

Ades: Tevot ***

Auerbach: Russian Requiem ***

Stevens: The Last 18 Minutes of Illinoise *****

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Note About These Posts

This series of posts has officially become too personal and painful to continue work upon them. To my regret, I am officially putting these down, yet another project shelved before fruition....

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

800 Words: An Intermission for the Bach Chaconne (Updated) (Updated Again and Finalized)

In this moment when my mood has become so black, I've returned to the violin and to the best of all violin pieces. The Bach Chaconne is the one piece every violinist loves and fears like no other. It is the violin Masterpiece with a capital M. For all my ambivalence about lots by Bach, I'm not stupid enough for it to escape me that at his greatest, he is the very greatest of them (us?) all. I still hope one day to be able to play it, but I'm still far off. For the moment, I've been listening to it ad nauseum, dozens of performances.

Here are the good ones I could find from youtube, ranked in a kind of rough order:


Yehudi Menuhin at 40: As far as I'm concerned, this is single greatest recording of the single greatest violin work. Only a visionary musician - half gypsy of the Earth, half explorer of the cosmos, could ever play like this. Yehudi is fearless - more sensible violinists get slower as the music gets more difficult. Yehudi speeds up (!!!). At times, what we hear in this recording is the cosmos itself, in which Yehudi manages to lift off from ordinary human limitations of what can be done with either the violin or with music. It's possible that Menuhin, perhaps an even greater child prodigy than Jascha Heifetz, never really learned to play the instrument. He was a violinist of 'art', not 'craft,' and sometimes sounds like the world's greatest amateur fiddler. But there are some great musicians of the old school who seem to save themselves for the greatest moments. Their technique is indifferent until the moment they need it, at which point they give us the experience of a lifetime. As the music grows more transcendent, playing that a few minutes previously sounds they'd just gotten out of bed grows into a cosmic event. The more transcendent the music, the more transcendent they become. Furtwangler and Bernstein were like this, so were Schnabel and Edwin Fischer, and Cortot and Sviatoslav Richter, and Casals and the older Rostropovich, and Bronislaw Huberman and Yehudi Menuhin. We have too many professionals in the world of music today who impeccably play notes, but play little music. This is 15 of the greatest minutes of music ever captured by the microphone.


Isaac Stern - The other great Russian-Jewish violinist from San Francisco is the other greatest player of this work. Stern's stock has gone down in recent years with revelations that he was a jerk in his interpersonal relations who virtually blackballed every other promising American violin soloist of his generation. Nevertheless, Stern truly was an extraordinary player  He was not the visionary seer of long-range cosmic events that Menuhin was, but short of Menuhin's raga-like ability to grow something from the earth that rises to the stars, this is as good as it gets. This is the human Bach Chaconne, every phrase, every note, every shading, every accent, communicates something.

Bronislaw Huberman: The tragedy of it. Perhaps the greatest violinist of them all plays the greatest of all violin pieces, and the sound is nearly unlistenable. Listen through the dissonance and you hear the hand of a master who gets to places even Menuhin can't. Menuhin is so busy striving for the infinite that he doesn't relax. Huberman doesn't fall through fire and time the way Menuhin does, but he knows exactly how to suggest the infinite and still capture the humanity you get from Stern. This is the hand of perhaps THE master.

Kyung Wha Chung: To hear Kyung Wha Chung in her prime is to hear what was lacking in so many who came after her. A violinist of volcanic temperment, who also happened to be a beautiful woman. People condescended to her at the time as a woman from the Asian 'provinces' who got to where she was because of her beauty. I remember hearing her fifteen years ago at the National Symphony when her technique was in horrible shape, and thinking to myself 'what the hell was the fuss over?' But in her prime, she was nothing of the sort, and for the violinist she once was, she was, and will always be, one of the immortals. Even if the sound she drew from the violin was not a fraction so beautiful as it was, there was her google musical intelligence and the fearless emotional frankness she brought to her performances. No one except Huberman has ever made this piece work at so slow a basic tempo, and like both Huberman and Menuhin, she uses her slow tempo to speed up when the music grows in intensity, and to highlight the harmonic rhythm as none but Huberman and Szigeti do. This is, truly, one of the greatest, most moving performances of this work.

Leonid Kogan Kogan had a reputation for coldness that is completely belied by this performance, which is lovingly soft in places where every other violinist explodes. This is a performance unlike any other: painfully, soulfully introverted. Kogan can light fireworks with the greatest, and the softness makes his more explosive passages all the more stunning. What in Menuhin's hands is pure vitality and imagination, and in Stern's hands is fire and brimstone, becomes a elegy on life's sadness.

Adolf Busch: In his lifetime, there was no more lauded champion of Bach and you immediately hear why. This is not Bach as a dry exercise, this is Bach the living God. In Busch, we hear what it must have been like to hear the golden-toned, supremely gifted Joseph Joachim - whose violin was muse to Schumann, Brahms, Bruch and Dvorak. Even in the tubby 85-year-old sound, the beauty of Busch's tone is too great for words. There is a hint of German imperiousness, he did not give completely of himself after the manner of his colleagues to the east, and there is very little of passion's grime in his playing. In its place is a kind of divine play, as though he understood this music so completely that he could simply toss off a masterly performance the way Mozart did a masterly String Quintet.


Zino Francescatti
: The French don't fare particularly well in this most emotionally demanding of pieces. Christian Ferras's playing is perfection itself, it's also ice cold. Arthur Grumiaux is not far behind in the perfection department, but there's something about his playing that seems almost chipper and perky. And then there's Zino... who grabs this music by the scruff of the neck and never lets go. Actually, that's not quite true, because occasionally you wonder if he might run out of steam - as though the demands he places on himself might exhaust him. But that's because he's like a wild man for the rest, playing things so bizarrely fast, flexible, and roughly that it sounds like an avant-garde piece of the twentieth century.

Jean-Jacques Kantorow: I have never heard of Jean-Jacques Kantorow until now, but it will suffice to say I'm going to be looking out for many more performances of his. This performance is, seemingly like all the French in this piece (if you decide Zino's Italian...), a little too forthright and lucid. But from the moment he plays those arpeggios sul ponticello, you realize that this will be a performance utterly unlike any other. The sul ponticello moment is indicative of the whole thing: it's a wonderful touch, but a little too style-centric, as though the violinist is adapting a pose rather than truly living the music. But even if it's a pose, it's an extraordinarily effective pose. Kantorow, unlike Milstein or Szeryng or Rosand, is not simply content to let his unwillingness to be vulnerable make the music sound slightly bland. Who's to say that Bach would not have thrilled to such virtuoso championship of his music?

Dmitri Sitkovetsky (starts at 16:45): My god, what we lost when we lost his father, Julian Sitkovetsky, in his early 30's. Julian could have been the greatest violinist of the century, though his recording of the Chaconne was surprisingly diffident. But at least here is his son, very nearly as talented as his father - a true artist of jaw-dropping technique who clearly has something original to say. The son's interpretation is anything but diffident, and blows his father's out of the water. In anything, it's wayward - there are some interpretive decisions and rubati that work like magic like the way he holds out those 'A' harmonics in the D-major section, others don't quite make sense to my ears. But this is a real artist combing the work for meaning that no one else finds.

Oscar Shumsky: I met Oscar Shumsky when I was seven and my Bubbie took me into the Green Room of the Baltimore Symphony after he played the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I told him I played the piano and violin, and he grabbed me by the head, shook me, and said 'Stick with it kid!' Perhaps this colors my reaction to him, as does his career. Unlike Aaron Rosand and Ruggiero Ricci, I'm positive that Shumsky was in the same class as Stern and Menuhin. Perhaps he was compelled to forego a virtuoso career, but regardless, he was a great violinist and true musician. Perhaps all that prevents this recording from true excellence is that he clearly was a bit older (perhaps around the time I met him) when this live performance was recorded. Like with Zino, you can feel the energy drain towards the end, but my god, the infinity of colors and phrasings he gets here. Even if the execution is not quite 100% (though rather close even so), this is a master musician at work.

Janine Jansen: Thanks to the forces of the modern market, we unfortunately have a surfeit of attractive women in the violin world at the top of the concert circuit. Some of them are very good - I couldn't find Chaconne recordings on youtube from Baiba Skride or Leila Josefowicz, but I'd look forward to hearing them. But there are others who so seem to lack personality that I'm a bit mystified as to why they belong among the top flight of the world's violinists - Hilary Hahn of course, Julia Fischer, Ariella Steinbacher, Viktoria Mullova, Sarah Chang (make your own list), and James Ehnes from the male side. I don't begrudge them their technique, and I think it's wonderful that women are finally getting a shot as men's equals. But I wish these violinists had more worthwhile to say than they clearly do, and I wonder how much of it is truly a feminist triumph and not simply a triumph of aesthetics in marketing. When significantly less attractive performers like Dora Schwartzberg and Ida Haendel, greats of the previous generations, step on the stage, you know that they're there because of musical ability. Who knows how many deserving players are kept out because certain adequate but empty players (both female and male) look good on a CD jacket. But among the violin 'babes', Janine Jansen is easily the most gifted, and can hold her own with the greatest of any period at all. There is only a slight bit of Historically Informed about this, and if anything, this makes it feel as though she is the closest in conception to Bach's own. Everything is understated and pretty until she suddenly overwhelms you with both the technique of her playing and with Bach's compositional ingenuity. With age might come the wisdom to scrawl her natural explosion of talent all over this piece more than any other, but in the meantime, this is still a great performance.

Ivry Gitlis: He must be in his seventies here, and he's still going strong at 93. Ivry is my favorite violinist and the kind of violinist I'd have most liked to have been - not that I ever could come up to his ankles on my best or his worst day. Ivry's sound and style will ever be mistaken for anybody else because no violinist has ever had the confidence to be so consistently himself. Gitlis never had the Teutonophile Menuhin's relentless striving for metaphysical truth - he is a gypsy fiddler from beginning to end. He knows the work so well that he seems as though he's making it up as he goes along - constantly saying to himself 'how might it sound if I try this?...' In his playing, in the playing of almost all the old players, we hear a dirt and grime that you never get in the laquered playing of today's violinists who always leave something in reserve - even Heifetz and Milstein have that quality, but none more than Gitlis, whose playing always contains Huge accents unafraid to muss the sound of the instrument, vibrato, a huge sound that most teachers today would tell students comes from too much pressure on the bow.

Pekka Kuusisto: This is a performance that needs to be watched, not listened to - a performance so different from every other that it has to be experienced for the sheer novelty. I have never heard a performance of Bach's Chaconne that provokes laughter from the audience, and yet that's what happens here because Bach's unaccompanied Chaconne is accompanied by a juggler who interprets the Chaconne visually. I'm not going to judge the relative merits of pairing Bach with a juggling act, but I will say that an accompanying juggler is perfect for Kuusisto's high-wire playing style. I don't think there has ever been a modern violinist (and I'm pretty sure he was playing a violin) who can play the notes with Kuusisto's clarity, and I'm not even sure that Baroque Violinists like Kujken dispense of the score in the little time it takes Kuusisto. Far more than the original generation of Baroque Violinists, Kuusisto captures a Baroque spirit. There's nothing tragic about Kuusisto's approach, but as a piece of virtuosity, not even Heifetz and Milstein could ever touch this bravado.

Alina Ibragimova: What a talented player! Somehow she's managed to operate completely under my radar when she's clearly a star to a lot of people. This 30 year old Russian violinist is clearly influenced by period style, but not at all beholden to or inhibited by it. Her focus is single-mindedly on what's expressive, not what's correct. If anything, she combines the best of the lean sound of the new Baroque style with the charisma, rich tone, and beautifully human phrasing of the old school Eastern European players.

Joshua Bell: I'm ashamed of loving Joshua Bell's playing. There is nothing worse than finding out that a handsome musician who has an A-list career due to marketing is actually talented, but Joshua Bell is very much the real thing. I don't know if there's ever been a violinist who ever moved around and grimaced onstage as much as Bell, and yet in Bell's case, it's reflected in his playing, which is so free. He does not have quite the volcanic temperament of Stern or Gitlis, or the visionary probity of Menuhin and Huberman, he simply does not hold anything back from the resources he has. The result is, perhaps, a shade too pretty, but only a shade, and is real music-making at the highest level.

Yehudi Menuhin at 60 (starts at 1:25:17): Menuhin did not have the overwhelming energy at 60 which he had at 40. Was he any more insightful about this piece at 60 than he was at 40? Not really. But he still could summon up things of which less gifted violinists could never dream. He still incinerated those chromatic arpeggios, he still made the D-Major section into something profoundly moving, and he still brought the whole thing to a passionate and exciting conclusion that made you think you had been through a profound experience.

Nathan Milstein: I used to rate Nathan Milstein higher than I do now. He is, like Heifetz, a supertechnician who does impossible things with his instrument as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Whereas Heifetz overwhelms you with his explosive power, Milstein simply tosses it off. He was a very low-key master, always elegant and tasteful. The urgency you get in the playing of so many other great violinists - the sense that the musical truth they communicate is the most important thing in the world, the sense that they have something to say that you get nowhere else, is usually not present in his playing. But here he is, at 82 years old (!!), giving a performance of technical accomplishment that great violinists half his age would never be able to equal - playing the piece at a faster basic tempo than he ever did when he was younger (!!!). It also happens to be, by some distance, his finest, most urgent performance. Full of tempo bends and amazing shading that comes from a lifetime's living with this work. Milstein and the Bach unaccompanied violin music were virtually synonymous for a half-century - his Bach is a little too self-effacing to my ears, but even at his most diffuse, there is no denying his particular greatness.

Very Good: 

Sajaka Shoji: A wonderful, at times moving, performance by an underrated young violinist who is better than a lot of her better known violin babe colleagues. She is not, however, a violinist of great insight yet. But this is very promising, a performance of passionate temperament. Let's see how she plays this in twenty years.

Thomas Zehetmair
: I laughed when I saw the caption for this video: 'This may be the most ambivalent performance.' Well, no it isn't, not at all. Zehetmair is a very particular type of violinist - a great virtuoso concerned not at all with beauty of tone but only with communication of naked musical truth. In other words, my kinda guy. I can't say I find this performance particularly moving, but I am thoroughly absorbed. Zehetmair has created virtuoso Baroque theater in this, an angry, scorched-earth performance. I doubt this is what Bach had in mind, if anything it sounds closer in spirit to Vivaldi. But it is only possible in the hands of a truly great musician.

Aaron Rosand: Aaron Rosand was, and according to reports still is at 88, the textbook example of a true virtuoso. Menuhin had transcendent heights and days when he sucked, but Rosand was as reliable as the sunrise. Perhaps never truly great, but always very, very good. Rosand was already 70 years old in this performance, and as with Milstein, no allowances for age have to be made. As ever, he never puts a single foot wrong. Every idea he has is musical and gives us a good idea of the spirit of the piece. Everything he did was suffused with imagination, if only he had followed that imagination a little farther. It might have been Isaac Stern who blackballed his career, it might also have been the fact that he never quite seemed to give 100%. The overwhelming personality of Stern, Menuhin, Perlman, was never his way. He was the consummate professional, and his way was always to leave a little reserve in his tank so that the next performance would always be as good as the one before. When you give good performances, year in, year out, for seventy years, you should probably be considered an immortal performer. But the whole of Aaron Rosand's achievement is perhaps more impressive than any one performance.

Henryk Szeryng: David Oistrakh apparently used to joke: "How is it that whenever I hear a violinist on the radio and I don't know who it is, it's always Szeryng?" It's a cruel sentiment, but there's no question that it's grounded in some truth. In his recordings, Szeryng's great quality was his moderation. He had every quality of a great violinist - virtuoso technique, a gorgeous sound, plenty of musical intelligence - but they were all held in such balance that you could rarely remember any distinguishing quality of a Szeryng performance. They were all a little anonymous, generic, bland, faceless... Such is the case with his studio recording, and it's unfortunate because Szeryng clearly was a very fine violinist. It's a fine performance that gets the essence of Bach across, but if you asked me to name anything about it I like or dislike, I'd have a very difficult time knowing what to say. This live performance, which is the one I've linked to, is far more interesting. I have to find some more of Szeryng's live performances, because this suggests a far more commanding, substantial violinist who has many original things to say.

Akiko Suwanai: Here is Akiko Suwanai playing the Bach Chaconne at 18 years old, wearing the kind of girlish dress that no 18 year old woman should ever have to put on. I often think that the 'classical soloist babe' craze comes from the fact that for so long, we infantilized our performers. There are no original insights here, but this is still a wonderful old style Romantic performance, full of lovely shading and phrasing.  I might have ranked this still higher. Unfortunately, she doesn't play the last quarter of the piece! So you'd think the piece has a happy ending...

Schlomo Mintz: I don't know how Mintz's stock went down so precipitously after he was a young man. When he was in his 20's, he was already better than Perlman, Zukerman, Kremer, Chung, Lin, and just about all of his older colleagues. No one since Oistrakh or Adolf Busch drew a sound this beautiful from the instrument, with intonation that was almost infallible. He married it to an rigorous musical mind and a scorchingly passionate temperament. This performance, however, has one serious limitation, which is that he insists on doing the whole piece in a single tempo, and a slow one, with hardly a hint of rhythmic flexibility. In its way, it's an amazing accomplishment that lends Bach an incomparable nobility you get from no other violinist. But in such a unique approach (one you'd think would happen more often), quite a bit is lost. Even so, a violinist as great as Mintz knows how to draw on a dizzying array of shadings from his instrument to sustain interest though his self-imposed limitation.

Yehudi Menuhin at 20: At 20, Menuhin seemed as though he would become the greatest violinist the world would ever know: Heifetz with a brain. What is sad about Menuhin is that at times, he was the very greatest, but he didn't get there very often. To hear him in this recording from 80 years ago is to hear the violinist that might have been. He was not yet a mature artist, not yet under the mystic spells of Furtwangler and Ravi Shankar and Stefan Grapelli who would expand his understanding of music to the highest peaks, but his natural facility was so inborn that he at this age as though his technique was infallible, with an integrity and intelligence and passion which made him fit for the most intellectually and emotionally demanding violin pieces in the world. By his 30's, his technique began to fall apart when his reflexes were not what they once were, and he never truly recovered even if his musical insights into the Three B's (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) went beyond every violinist save Huberman and Busch and maybe Kreisler. Here, in the first ever recorded set of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin, he still plays like an excellent student. Not too many original insights, but real expressivity and excitement.


Josef Suk: Dvorak's great-grandson was the ultimate musical aristocrat. He never interpreted, he simply played, and trusted that his natural judgement and musical instincts would carry the day, and that's precisely what they always did. This is a warm, almost luminous, performance that has no particularly distinguishing features. There is no interpretation, just a fine violinist, almost too fine, drawing his bow across the strings and trusting that his innate sense of proportion will guide the performance to the right places. Inevitably with Suk, they did. Suk will never give you revelations, but he'll always give you a good, well-shaped performance with lots of warmth.

Josef Szigeti: Heifetz or Milstein might be the violinist's violinist, but Szigeti is the 'musician's violinist.' Operating at a much slower basic tempo than most, he mines the contours of Bach's music for minerals and juice that nobody else finds. Holding notes nobody else does to emphasize a different element of Bach's broken up chords, taking as much time as he needs for every potential profundity to register. It's all pretty austere. You would expect a violinist so close to Bartok to be more interested in the virtuoso side of Bach, but even so, it is very much a performance of interest.

Julia Fischer: I'll give Julia Fischer this, compared to Hilary Hahn she's a volcano. In both cases, there is a kind of robotic aw shucksness to both their personae and to their musical expression. No emotion is played up to such an extreme that it would ever challenge make the listener hear anything in the music that they didn't want to hear. To a lesser extent than Hahn, people always say that Fischer plays like an angel. But therein lies the problem - everything is so plain and white that at the end you simply stand in awe of the prettiness of the performance without having felt like you've lived through anything meaningful. Unlike Hahn, Julia Fischer deserves a bit more credit than this. Again, like Hahn, she has musical intelligence in spades, and she is willing to give herself emotionally over to the piece. But she will never contradict what good taste dictates, and will always stay within the bounds of what a good student with an impeccable sound should do. She can draw the listener in emotionally, but everything is too emotionally healthy. If there are no nightmares in her emotional world, it misses a large part of what makes the Bach Chaconne such a compelling piece to so many around the world for so many generations.

Jascha Heifetz: It doesn't really matter what Heifetz recording you review, because they're inevitably the same. Compared to the giants that surrounded him, Heifetz was not only perfection itself but also something of a cipher who had very little original to say about music. But like so many of the supertechnicians of yesteryear who were criticized, often rightly, for their coldness - Toscanini, Weingartner, Szell, Reiner, Karajan, Horowitz, Hofmann, Godowsky, Bolet, Michelangeli, Milstein, Ricci, Kogan, and Heifetz above all... - how full of personality they sound compared to the great technical overachievers of today - who can give completely perfect performances yet leave the music in their hotel rooms. There are times in this performance when this perfect violin machine, alongside his amazing virtuoso fireworks, sounds downright human. It's pretty far from a profound performance, but it's not always superficial either.

Rachel Podger: I had serious misgivings about listening to this performance. Not because I have any particular trouble with the Baroque violin, but because the poster retuned Podger's 415-A to the traditional 440. When you have perfect pitch, this truly interferes with understanding the player's intention - it probably interferes with everybody else's too. Nevertheless, the difference on the Baroque violin is remarkable - no violinist can get this level of clarity on a traditional violin. But clarity is not much of a virtue in of itself. What makes this recording special is the improvised ornamentation - a factor which I'm convinced was far more common in Bach's day than even the freest 'period' instrumentalists employ.  Would that Podger employed still much more of it. I remain convinced that a truly great performance on a Baroque Violin is perfectly plausible, I just haven't heard it. You will never get the sheer heft and charismatic force of the modern violin on a Baroque instrument. The greatness of performers in Bach's day must have come from the ornamentations, the improvisations, the additions and editions, the 'improvements' they made on the original music. I have yet to hear a violinist who can truly capture the improvisatory essence in Bach's Chaconne. I doubt that we will ever hear penetrating artists charismatic after the manner of Menuhin and Huberman ever again. The new great Bach players will be thinner-toned artists with great improvisatory skills.

Arthur Grumiaux: Everybody loves Arthur Grumiaux's Bach. It's certainly good, but what's wrong with me that I don't love what everybody else falls into ecstasy describing? I guess, in a word, it's just too tasteful. The playing is beautiful and, to a point, quite expressive. But there are no unfathomable depths suggested, just good, elegant playing with clean lines and intonation that generates some excitement and never forces you into an ecstatic experience. Coming away from this recording, you'd think that Bach's piece is an engaging but impersonal masterpiece that operates within the limitations of music from an inexpressive period of musical history.

Gidon Kremer: The historically informed performance movement is necessary in music that doesn't give us eternity. Lest that seem like a putdown, there is a lot of very good Baroque music which doesn't quite get us there. But in a piece as great as the Bach Chaconne, it can only spell trouble. It may or may help us get to the Bach which Bach wanted, but it does not give us the Bach we need. Kremer's reading is infused by the period-practice style, and it is only to its detriment. The tempo is too fast and inflexible to hit the mark, but Kremer, surely the best star violinist of his (which includes Itzhak Perlman), will never give a bland performance. Even at his most arid, he rethinks every bar for a mannered performance unlike any other. It feels like a deconstruction of the Bach Chaconne, but even an exercise in intellectual gymnastics tells us something new about the piece we can't hear anywhere else.

Uto Ughi: I have never heard of Uto Ughi before today. Unlike Salvatore Accardo, whose stupefying technique in this piece clearly hid a poverty of ideas, his fellow Italian is clearly a fine player of not quite secure technique who is clearly sensitive to the emotional needs of the piece. Perhaps that's unfair to Ughi's technique, he's clearly in his sixties during this performance, but then again, perhaps it's not fair to the emotional sensitivity required for the Bach Chaconne. The basic tempo here is pretty fast, and rarely is Ughi particularly flexible about it. He does everything he can to feed the emotional needs of the piece without slowing down, and it's admirable how well he does, but there wouldn't have been a problem at all if he were simply a little more accommodating to his, and Bach's, enormous expressive range.

Gil Shaham: Another performance from the Zehetmair/Kremer school, but with a much more smoothened, traditionally beautiful sound. Shaham, perhaps the last of the great Israeli giants to bestride the world stage, is of a completely different type of violinist than Perlman and Stern and Vengerov - in many ways he's much closer to Nathan Milstein in approach. Shaham retains the sweetness of tone which the Russians and Israelis are known for and some of the emotional investment too, but there is a thoroughly modern sleekness about his approach. Tempos are almost always Heifetz-level fast, and there's plenty of visceral excitement. But in comparison to his Israeli forerunners, the resources are a bit more husbanded. There isn't quite the same willingness to throw all of yourself into every note.

Ruggiero Ricci (starting at 12:16): Even today, when supervirtuosos populate the planet, it is startling how clean Ricci's playing can be in the most difficult passages. The most difficult runs are played as though they're nothing at all. His sound is beautiful and tasteful, he never explodes off the strings, and contains beautiful soft playing and shadings galore. Perhaps this is Bach as Sarasate, but you could do much, much worse.

Arnold Steinhardt: A gentle, austere performance that deliberately seems to eschew the usual fireworks. Steinhardt, ever the chamber musician, probably plays 75-80% of this at a piano dynamic or beneath. It's a remarkable achievement, but I doubt it would ever work in any performance space with more than a few people in it. You can tell how closely miked Steinhardt is because the sound constantly shifts fro one speaker to the other, as though every slight movement affects the microphone placement. It never explodes or attempts to reach transcendent heights, but it has a true private vulnerability and tragic dignity.


Julian Sitkovetsky:  The legendary Soviet violinist who died far too early, if he hadn't, it's a fair bet that he'd strip Oistrakh and Heifetz of their laurels. This performance, however, is not one that could be used as evidence of the fact. Sitkovetsky's playing is sensitive and at times somewhat exciting, but it also mistakes lugubriousness for profundity. What sounds cathartic in the hands of the most understanding players sounds in his hands downright bleak. Stick with his son's version.

Sigiswald Kujken and Lucy van Dael: Pre-modern instruments are so different from their modern equivalents that it often sounds like we're listening to completely different works of art which you have to judge by completely different criteria. These two Dutch Baroque violinists were younger contemporaries of early music giants like Leonhardt, Koopman, Bruggen (indeed, Kujken and his family might be said to be giants in themselves). All of the above except Koopman are known for their austerity, and both Kujken and Dael are cut from the same cloth. Both are extremely propulsive performance, relying on the Baroque Violin's natural clarity and rhythmic vitality to carry all before it. It's truly amazing how well the Baroque Violin can do precisely that, but aside from the power of the instrument, there are no particularly special insights or interesting phrasings. Ornamentation is not even as present as in Jansen or Zehetmair. Clearly, both are splendid technicians (and if anything, Van Dael sounds even more adept than the legendary Kujken). Nevertheless, aside from their chosen instrument, there is very little she does to recommend either performance to us.

Maxim Vengerov: Vengerov, yet another Russian-Jewish violinist who happens to only be in his early 40's, is getting near to the end of the line of Eastern Euorpean Jews who play the violin better than anybody else that started well over a century ago with Leopold Auer. He is (or was), for my money, the best in the world today, but the sweet-toned but not always in tune, overt emotion of his style is dying out. Along with Gil Shaham and Nikolai Znaider, he appears to be the end of the line. This is not Vengerov at his best. In the performance I'm linking to, he is playing at Auschwitz, which is a bit vulgar, and playing a Baroque Violin, which at least frees him up to handle the piece a bit more roughly than he does in his other recording on youtube when approaching the piece with a traditional instrument. But aside from playing at Auschwitz, and cutting out the shift to major in the central section, there is still no overall approach that animates the playing. A musician who becomes so animated in Prokofiev and Lalo who is not similarly animated in Bach is not a deep musician. 

Frank Peter Zimmerman: The German violin is coming back. Zehetmair, Zimmerman, Tetzlaff, Isabelle Faust (whose celebrated recording I couldn't find on youtube), and Julia Fischer if you like that sort of thing... Zimmerman does not have Zehetmair's brass balls (nobody except him does), but they share a distrust of sweet-expression (as do Tetzlaff and Faust), and are only interested in the unadorned musical truth of what they play. This is another fast, acerbic performance. It's exciting, but next to Zehetmair and Kremer it's a little more normal seeming, and at times comes across as a very good performance by another very good violinist, only a little coarser. Next to so much of what happens in the contemporary violin world, it's very refreshing. I still wish they wouldn't be quite so afraid of real emotion.

Nicola Benedetti: This is a small-scale, lightweight performance. It will never change anybody's life. It's completely afraid of passion or emotional commitment, but nevertheless, there is real musical intelligence on display here. Beneath the swishing bangs is a violinist of real intelligence and vitality who may one day develop into a great artist. On the other hand, she might not.

Wolfgang Schneiderhan: It's almost too bland to put on this list, but not quite. It's also far too warm in expression to leave off. There are no transcendent heights in this recording, just a slow, steady hike that is perfectly content if it doesn't quite get to the mountaintop.

Christian Tetzlaff: The description of Zehetmair's performance as 'the most ambivalent performance' may apply much better to Tetzlaff. It's an admirable, modernist, performance, that fundamentally chooses to view it as music so absolute that the player seems completely indifferent to whether or not he moves you. There is an admirable integrity in that. It is not a performance for the ages, and if somebody ever held this performance up as a great one, I'd probably fume, but I do appreciate the thought that went into it.

Itzhak Perlman: There is much too much skill here to leave Perlman off this list. Perlman's playing is incredibly warm-hearted and intelligently phrased and shaded, burning with a desire to communicate the sadness and vulnerability of this music. The only problem is that it's lugubrious as hell, almost deliberately ignoring the Bacchic (Bachic?) ecstasy which he makes such a specialty of in 19th century Romantic Repertoire. It's as though violinists like Perlman and Vengerov cease to be themselves in this music, thinking that 'very serious repertoire' like Bach has to be handled with a 'very serious approach' that precludes any of the vibrancy for which they're so well known.

Ida Haendel: Poor Ida Haendel, neglected by the A-list for so many years because she was a woman. This performance was done, like Milstein, when she was already 82, but unlike Milstein, you have to make allowances. It's not just the technique, which is actually better than a performance on youtube from ten years previously. The true problem is caution - the basic tempo is extremely slow. Nevertheless, the spell comes through. Haendel has one of the great violin sounds, a tiny woman who gets the thickest and most luxuriant sound. Even in her eighties, that sound is still there, and lets her amble through to the end of time. Like her Romanian compatriot, Georges Enescu, there are plenty rewards for someone willing to cut through the sheer barrage of technical mistakes (and compared to Enescu's recording, this is nothing...).