Dear La Folia 1.
[Russell Lichter has suggested couching his contributions as e-epistles — Internet notes from the front, if you like. I have taken the liberty of stringing several such together. Russell’s seemingly cryptic opening comment touches on a topic we’d been tossing back and forth — the efficacy of audiophile wires, with Russell taking the skeptical view. Happy reading. Ed.]
Dear La Folia 1.
[February 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:3.]
Dear La Folia,
In keeping with your suggestion that we share our thoughts about CDs, having dispensed with the high-end cable debacle in the only way it can be dispensed with — by ignoring it — I pulled a disk of great personal interest from my library of 16/44 digital media: Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, Bartók’s Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Rafael Kubelik conducting the Chicago Symphony, Mercury Living Presence 434 378-2.
The world of audiophiles, music lovers all no doubt, can be roughly divided into three camps: those who like the sound of MLP recordings, those who do not like the sound of MLP recordings, and those who have never heard MLP recordings, for whatever reason. Of course there are those special people who evaluate equipment without playing a single classical CD. I place them in a separate camp, preferably at some distance from the first three. I am of the first group. I like the MLP sound. And I am grateful to the powers that be. May they ascend to heaven munching halva, for reissuing these analog recordings in CD format. (Sometime I’ll share my view of the other side of this coin, those black-souled conglomerates who sit on some of the greatest recordings of the century and refuse to reissue for fear of not making enough profit. May they…oh, never mind.)
I’ve a total of six piano and two orchestral versions of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. The best performance is the one I am listening to at that moment. Some music I can hear over and over, Pictures, Le Sacre, the Goldbergs, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, and each time it astonishes and thrills me, overfloweth my cups, and maketh me say with Zorba, “Men like me should live forever.” (I hope you won’t get bored with that quotation. I tend to use it.) Ravel transcribed Pictures for orchestra, but I forget myself: you already know that. We will all agree that Ravel knew a thing or two about orchestration. Mussorgsky — well, Mussorgsky knew a thing or two about piano compostion, and showed a wild and unique genius in creating these portraits of portraits.
Recorded in 1951 using a single Telefunken condenser microphone, this CD is monaural, no mixing, nothing. I hear this disc as confirmation of my belief that it is the recording engineer who makes or breaks a recording. Compared with this CD, most recordings are broken. It has wonderful dynamics, realistic timbre (I think, it’s been a couple of years since we went to Davies), great clarity. It accomplishes what so very few recordings manage to accomplish, it sounds real. I do not know what the hell I mean by that statement except to say that if the point of spending big bucks on audio gear is to approach the thrill of live music, this is a recording of exceptional merit, as they say, a thriller.
It is also a performance of brilliance. I’ve never heard an orchestral version (admittedly I’ve heard very few) to rise to the occasion as does this one. Kubelik has absolute control of an orchestra of very fine musicians, and he has infected them all with his intense vision of this exuberant music. The performance has everthing I could dream for this
music, strong, vital, lucid, wild. Kubelik and the Chicago understand this music, heart and mind, the only possible way to achieve this level of authenticity: everything rings true.
There. Too many words, not much said. I promise, now that we’ve begun our little corresondence, to be brief in future, and try to make the content justify the length.
Postscript: I’ve never listened to the Bartók on this recording. I haven’t been in the mood for years.
Bach: Toccatas, BWV 910-916, Glenn Gould, piano (Sony SM2K 52612).
There are several things to talk about here, before even getting to Bach’s music. My ignorance of the state of the commercial CD business found me surprised that H&B Music had the English Suites listed as discontinued. I checked around on the Internet, and sure enough, Tower expressed doubts about the availability of numerous Sony Bach/Gould recordings. The handwriting seems to be on the wall: Sony appears to be abandoning production of at least some, perhaps all, of their Glenn Gould CD catalog. One ought to have anticipated some sort of capitalist horse play when Sony came out on their own with a proprietary CD format [see postscript].
“By increasing the amount of information representing the musical signal,” Robert Harley tells us from the pulpit in The Absolute Sound, “SACD can provide higher fidelity than CD.” And to hell with Nyquist and his theorm. Is this a precursor to forcing SACD disks down our throats? Now all we’ll need is a spare $5,000 for the new Sony jitter box, which apparently doesn’t do all that hot a job on 16/44 CDs. That, alas, would be the best we can hope for. Otherwise, we may be seeing the disappearance of these unique performances. Couldn’t happen, you say? One doesn’t just simply eliminate cultural treasures? Doesn’t this music belong to all of us, in a sense?
No, the music belongs to Sony (recall how baffled Native Americans were by the concept of ownership). And yes, they can withdraw a cultural treasure from public access whenever they bloody well feel like it for any reason at all. (One of these days I’ll tell you about Alica de la Rocha, Connoisseur, French Pathe, and the master tapes of Michel Block playing Albeniz’ Iberia.) Thinking about Sony’s business ploy generates mixed feelings, not least being gratitude: I’d managed to snag a copy before this release disappeared from the shelves. And other, less happy thoughts. As for the paneled boardrooms where the suits issue such blundering, ignorant, short-sighted decisions, what can one say? Pass the croissants and coffee, and they can all kiss my royal Irish ass. [This is presumably one of the suits speaking. So far as I’m aware, Russell’s Gaelic roots aren’t. Ed.]
Even those benighted souls who do not like Glenn Gould’s Bach performances grant him great technical ability. But that’s way short of the mark. The technical mastery is combined with a ranging intelligence and a fierce iconoclasm. Even if one doesn’t “like” an interpretation, one sits up and takes notice, one listens because one has never before heard anything like it. And in the end, the crystalline clarity. the incisive intelligence reveal things about the music. It surprised me after listening to these CDs a couple of times, after listening to Gould humming along more continually and more in tune than usual and seeming to have a jolly time, that he didn’t particularly like this music from a technical standpoint. “[W]hen large chord units are inserted into any predominantly linear texture–in the Bach toccatas, let’s say–it’s a very unsettling experience. When he wrote the toccatas, Bach had not yet learned to interrelate his vertical and horizontal intentions ,” Gould said in a 1976 interview. I would have sworn Gould liked this music. Well, Gould is always surprising me. Perhaps I’m just easy to surprise. Same with the Mozart sonatas. I was taken unawares when I read he didn’t like this music, which is the only performance of the sonatas I’ve so far liked.
The toccatas themselves do not have the complexity, the profound portraiture, the broader vision and structural confidence of the French or English Suites, or the Partitas, and yet they have special virtues of their own which one does not find in that other music. The spontaneity, simplicity and nobility of a great heart are wonderful in their own right. Old men do not feel what young men feel, cannot compose the songs young men can compose. Do we love the ubiquitous d-minor Toccata and Fugue for organ (the possibility that it is not Bach’s notwithstanding) any the less because it suffers from the boisterousness of youth? One finds fugues of the same exuberance, ease and sheer delight in these toccatas; pensive, meditative slow movements gently walking ancient hallways and rooms, resolving into lines of sparkling rhetoric, climbing and weaving like creatures of space; fragile structures of secret, subtle emotions, pure energy dancing through unexplored realms. The young warrior dancing a dance on a purely human scale in the garden of the gods. (Perhaps I was right in my initial impression, perhaps Glenn Gould did like this music, despite technical and intellectual reservations. Each note is thought out, the sense of each passage clear and natural and unhurried, the pianist is giving it his all, heart and mind, drawing out the potential of melody and rhythm with absolute sureness; he seems to be bidding us listen to each single note as it’s played.) Need I say more? Find yourself a copy, write a letter to Sony, sit down, open your heart and listen to these gems from Bach’s salad days.
Postscript: I drag Sony over the coals for what I assumed is the discontinuation of the Glenn Gould 16/44 CDs. Not so, according to Leslie Gerber of Parnassus Records, “Sony has been deleting the older CD editions and replacing them with remastered new editions.” Apologies.