Monday, August 5, 2013

Thoughts on "Transitions".

I had this great idea for a Music Is Good article in which I would combine a review of Olga Pashchenko's wonderful debut album "Transitions" with a discussion of how it reflected various preconceptions that could be entertained about classical music. Things that I had "learned and unlearned". But it soon struck me that the reader might never have had such preconceptions or even been aware of their existence, and hence I'd have a much harder case to make. So instead I can write about it here, where I can put in any old shite and not feel like I'm letting anyone down.
Such thoughts of preconceptions were also encouraged by my by-the-way noticing that the EMI compilation "The Classic Experience" was released in 1988 and I thus can say that classical music has been a feature of my listening habits for an even quarter-century. (I can't actually remember the exact circumstances of that album appearing; I think we got it for my father for his birthday or something. I can't even say for certain that this was the first classical album I listened to with any regularity. I might have had a few other things before it. Screw it, this is my memoir, and I get to say what's an acceptable level of fact).
It'd be a nice coincidence if Olga Pashchenko were herself a quarter-century old, but she's a little older than that. You can have a listen to the album and read the sleeve notes on the relevant page at Outhere Music, so all we'll say by summary here is that it's a fortepiano recital featuring music by Dussek, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. Come to think of it, if you have good enough eyesight you could have got that from the cover image above. (See? I can put in any old shite!).
Now here's the preconceptions bit.
1. Classical music can be divided neatly into periods.
OK, this one wasn't a preconception I started out with, in as much as back in 1988 it was all just "classical music" and I had no real notion of what the chronology of it was. But I soon learned that there were these eras: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and... well, it got a bit tricky then because Modern included music written nearly a century earlier as well as much more recent music that didn't sound as modern as some of the older modern stuff. Also you could have Early Music which sometimes included Baroque. This sort of thing is generally very helpful for organising your thoughts, but—as the current chapter of A History of Classical Music will show if I ever get around to finishing it—there are grey areas. Which is where Olga Pashchenko finally comes in, because "Transitions" is about the move from Classical to Romantic. Beethoven's op.33 Bagatelles are from 1802 but if anything they mark a transition from Baroque to Romantic; conceptually they're the sort of character pieces a Couperin or Schumann might have written. And the other pieces... well, you can spend ages attempting to identify Classical versus Romantic notions in all of these works, but ultimately that's just an academic exercise. The great thing about being a music listener today is that we can listen to anything whenever we like; "new" music is like as not several centuries old. So these classical eras are useful guides but we can also say "so what?" Here's some Dufay, here's some Dutilleux...
2. Piano music belongs on a grand piano.
Olga Pashchenko here plays on two fortepianos, an instrument that in 1988 I was unaware of. I remember one of the first issues of Classic CD I read (circa 1993 for the sake of argument) had something about Melvyn Tan in it (also an anecdote about someone being told that Melvyn Tan was one of the top fortepianists in the world, and wondering who the other 39 were). So Mozart and Beethoven were played on a modern grand and that was all I knew about it. I don't keep too close an eye on these things but Beethoven on fortepiano seems to raise few eyebrows these days; in a 2010 review of one of Ronald Brautigam's sonata discs, Christopher Brodersen in Fanfare said "Although not the first pianist to use a period instrument to record the complete Beethoven sonatas (that honor belongs to Malcolm Binns on L’Oiseau-Lyre, circa 1977), Brautigam is the first to approach the music in such a way that the choice of a period instrument is no longer a novelty, or even the main attraction", so I guess that's about where we stand now. But, again going back to Classic CD, the whole notion of "historically informed practice" came as something of a surprise to me; I think the first time I paid serious attention to the idea was with Gardiner's Beethoven 9 (the "Froh, froh" section was on a cover disc), which would have been 1995 I suppose. Obviously period practice had been around for quite a while at this stage, but it was news to me, implying that it certainly wasn't the norm. These days you get complaints that Nobody's Allowed to play anything the "old-fashioned" way; if you try to conduct a Mozart symphony with more than forty players you'll be run out of town. Or something. True, there are some who will insist that Beethoven was most certainly writing for a modern grand (I know!) and thus should only be performed on same. To which all one can really say is "pfft". The music Olga Pashchenko plays here sounds perfectly at home on the instruments she's using.
3. Mendelssohn was a middle-class sentimentalist.
I'm not actually sure of the extent to which this idea was prevalent back in 1988 or subsequently, but I certainly picked it up from somewhere other than my own mind. Maybe it's just one of those myths that I only read in the context of being exploded; maybe in 1988 everyone knew Mendelssohn wasn't some overly genteel Victorian but still had to keep pointing out that he wasn't, sort of like nobody believes Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 400 times but there are people who still like to remind us that he didn't. Anyway, though I don't think I myself ever specifically dismissed Mendelssohn on these grounds, I never felt any particular need to explore his music; this was mostly because I'd group him with Brahms and Schumann as 19th-century composers I wasn't that keen on, but there was certainly some sense of his bad reputation preceding him. Too many wordless songs, doves' wings, and fairies. Anyway, listening to the Variations serieuses, especially on a fortepiano, should set things right. Aside: We were watching the recent Proms performance of the Beethoven 7 last night and the presenter did the usual thing of quoting Wagner's comment about it being the "apotheosis of the dance", which got me thinking about how there are certain "stock quotes" for classical music (yes, including Stravinsky's dig at Vivaldi). Yes, the Wagner quote is a nice one to throw in approvingly, but can we also pause and consider the fact that Wagner also said that Mendelssohn could never be a great composer on the simple grounds that he was a Jew, and if someone is capable of making that sort of asinine statement about music, why should we take him seriously as a commentator on the subject? (Insert smiley here to placate outraged Wagnerians).
4. Obscure composers have been forgotten for a reason.
Ah yes, the Canon. I do indeed believe that there's a canon of great composers and great works, but I also believe this canon to be the outcome of a democratic, if nebulous, election. Who are the great composers? Those who stand a reasonable chance of being mentioned when someone is asked "who are the great composers?" Certainly there are some—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven—who seem to have had a particular ability to appeal to a huge proportion of listeners, but the fact that we all have favourite composers that tend not to show up on these lists of the greats shows how ultimately futile such lists are. So Beethoven is definitely a Great Composer, and Jan Ladislav Dussek definitely isn't. And we can say this authoritatively because...? Recently Jerry Coyne asked (in the context of the recent JK Rowling Pseudonym Kerfuffle), "Imagine that Beethoven had never written his Fifth Symphony. But then, a few years ago, someone finds the score of that piece in a stack of old papers—written by someone other than Beethoven, say, one Gustav Biederstücker.  What would happen?... It should be recognized as a lost masterpiece. But it wouldn’t, because it was written by Biederstücker and not Beethoven. It would be ignored." Well, that got me thinking that if Beethoven hadn't written his Fifth Symphony then this would surely have had a knock-on effect in terms of Beethoven's posthumous reputation—one less symphony to intimidate Brahms or for Berlioz and Liszt to idolise; only 8 Beethoven symphonies and thus no "curse" associated with a 9th; and of course no "V for Victory" motto; different clichéd music required for certain situations... butterfly wings! butterfly wings! It's conceivable that the absence of Beethoven's Fifth from history would mean that the very definition of a "masterpiece" would be changed, on the grounds that this work of music itself laid the foundation for the things that became regarded as "great music" in the later 19th century. So we can say Dussek wasn't "as good" a composer as Beethoven but perhaps to some extent this is because "Beethoven" is actually part of the definition of a good composer. History written by the victors etc. (Which also reminds me tangentially of Joseph Heller's "Picture This": Homer couldn't have been the author of both the Iliad and the Odyssey because nobody could be that great an author... unless he was a genius on the order of Homer.). Hey, this also reminds me of something I wrote a few years ago about teaching newcomers to classical music using single-composer compilation albums: "The other controversial aspect is that your Bachs and Beethovens get equal time to your Telemanns and Hummels. But at least it offers a broader perspective on the world of music. It's more of a "listen without prejudice" approach. Possibly your pupil might mentally rewrite history if they're not, as it were, obliged to consider composer A to be more worthy than composer B." So let's put ourselves in the mind of the Fictional Total Novice who's listened to Olga Pashchenko's "Transitions" and heard music by Dussek, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. They've never heard of any of these composers or their music. And we ask: which one of these was subsequently declared a godlike genius? Presumably they would reserve judgement until they'd heard more of each man's work. And then...?
5. Oh yes, one last preconception.
This one I thought was deader'n a dodo, but actually I'm not sure: That the major labels are your best option. Back in 1988, Naxos celebrated its 1st birthday; Chandos and Hyperion were less than a decade old. The vast majority of albums I bought before about 10 years ago were on major labels. But now it's quite the reverse. We see it in the Nereffid's Guide Awards each year; the majors (now, of course, down to 3) do win some awards but it's the indies who make by far the best showing. But I did a double-take recently when I read this in the digital magazine thingy Gramophone produced for its latest awards: "And once again, the difference between major company and independent is less discernible" (drawing attention to Beethoven symphonies on Glossa versus "1612 Vespers" on Decca). I'd say the mere existence of that Decca recording is newsworthy, certainly, but it's an outlier for the majors, who by the way got 17 out of the 66 nominations. Seems like the "difference" between majors and indies is that indies produce three-quarters of the best music. Now let me wheel around with a horrible journalistic manoeuvre and say something like "I don't know if Olga Paschenko's album will appear in next year's Gramophone Awards, but..."

And that's what I think about when I listen to "Transitions", the new album by young Russian pianist Olga Pashchenko, out now on the Fuga Libera label.