Essential Music: The Return of The Durutti Column

UntitledFor those who weren’t around or listening to music in 1979, it’s hard to imagine how different the world of “popular” music was. Critics and retailers hadn’t fragmented music into the many genres you see today in stores, and many of today’s genres didn’t even exist. Rap was taking its first steps, ambient and electronic music were considered avant-garde, new age was just budding, and punk and disco were battling it out in the record bins. New wave was just following in the footsteps of punk, as progressive rock was in its final death throes.

Amidst the punk and new-wave music that came out of England, as part of the late-’70s independent music scene, was a now-legendary record label based in Manchester: Factory Records. Its first two groups were Joy Division (which, after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, morphed into New Order) and The Durutti Column, but Factory released many other records by little-known groups, and the Factory concept, together with other independent labels in the UK, such as Rough Trade, revitalized a moribund music scene.

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Essential Music: Charles Ives

Scott Mortensen writes:

I vividly remember the first time I ever heard the music of Charles Ives. The piece was the raucous “Putnam’s Camp” movement from Three Places in New England. I’d never heard anything so immediate and vital and joyous; it made me laugh out loud with pleasure. My current favorite recording of this work is by conductor James Sinclair and the Orchestra New England, a disc that also includes Ives’ Four Ragtime Dances, the Set for Theatre Orchestra, and other short orchestral works. If you’ve never heard Ives’ music before, this is the perfect place to begin. To my ears, Ives’ Fourth Symphony is one of the great masterworks of the twentieth century. Ives’ Fourth is one of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ specialties, and no one has surpassed his recording, which is coupled with Symphony No. 1. Tilson Thomas’ mastery of Ives’ music is also clear on his recording of the Holidays Symphony, an essential disc that also includes tremendous readings of “Central Park in the Dark” and “The Unanswered Question,” which is probably Ives’ best known composition.

Along with orchestral music, Ives composed a large body of songs and chamber works. For a fascinating selection of Ives’ songs, check out recital by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish. DeGaetani has a completely idiomatic command of Ives’ unique musical language, and the disc demonstrates the enormous stylistic range of his songs.

Lastly, no survey of Ives’ essential music is complete without his Second Piano Sonata, subtitled “Concord, Mass., 1840-60.” Each movement of the sonata is a musical portrait of a New England Transcendentalist writer who inspired Ives: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcott family and Henry David Thoreau, and. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has made two recordings of the “Concord.” They are very different, but each is stunning in its own way. For the more Olympian, thrusting view, seek out his first recording on New World; for a more inward, depths-plumbing perspective, try Hamelin’s recent recording on Hyperion.

Scott Mortensen is an avid fan of the music of Charles Ives, and has created the Internet’s most comprehensive web site on the composer.

Yet Another Important Box Set: Bach’s Sacred Cantatas

Gustav Leonhardt & Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the Concentus Musicus Wien

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If you like Bach, you simply must be familiar with his sacred cantatas. These vocal and instrumental works, written to be performed in church on Sundays and on feast days, feature some of Bach’s finest melodies. This set, conducted by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, was groundbreaking when it was first released, starting in the 1970s. At the time, it was the only complete set of cantatas, but now many others are available. Performed in what is now called historically informed performance, this set is unique in that it has no female singers; only boys are used for the soprano voices, unlike other recordings.

This re-release is a reminder just how great this music is, and how important it is to know. While I have this set, and like it, I prefer more recent recordings, such as the in-progress complete sets by John Gardiner or Maasaki Suzuki. But the pure instrumental sound achieved in these recordings, and the simplicity of the boy singers’ voices, makes it an essential recording. It’s not cheap, but for Bach fanatics it is a must-have.

Glenn Gould Box Set: Available Now

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As the holiday season approaches, it’s time for plenty of box sets to tempt music fans. This one, a collection of every recording Glenn Gould made, 80 CDs that resemble the original LPs, is a godsend for fans of the Great Gould. I have to admit having a weakness for Glenn, especially for his Bach recordings. While I own all his Bach, and much of his Beethoven, there are many discs I don’t have, and this set is very tempting indeed. Gould was one of those rare performers who lived a life dedicated to music his way. He famously gave up touring to focus on recording in the studio, looking for perfection with technology. This may or may not have been the best choice, but Gould’s recordings are some of the most idiomatic in the history of piano recordings.

Coincidentally, I recently read an interesting biography of Gould entitled Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. So I’m in the perfect mindset to listen to lots of Gould, and I’m looking forward to this set.

The Demise of the Recording Industry

As music fans know, the recording industry is in a shambles. The labels, and the RIAA, like to blame it on file sharing and illegal downloads, but what if the reality were different? What if the recording industry has sown the seeds of its own destruction? Prospect magazine has an interesting article looking at how the industry is killing itself, and how it seems unlikely to pull out of its current slump.

From the article:

“Yet the music industry itself must take some of the blame for the decline of the CD. For the past 15 years, free covermounts [CDs included for free] on magazines and newspapers, licensed or even paid for by record companies, have diluted the perceived value of recorded music in general and CDs in particular.”

Hattogate, or, The Music You Hear is Not What You Think

Fans of classical music know that there are great performers and there are the rest. But those with any experience listening to music also know that a lot of what you hear depends on context: if you think you’re hearing a great performer, you’re likely to appreciate their performance even more.

In addition to my activities writing about Macs and iPods, I also review CDs for MusicWeb, an independent British web site that publishes reviews of classical CDs. So I was quite amused this morning when I read an article on the web site of the British classical music magazine Gramophone, entitled Masterpieces Or Fakes? The Joyce Hatto Scandal.

Joyce Hatto is a late pianist who had recorded a handful of good discs then suffered from cancer, from which she died in June 2006. Somewhere in the past year of her life, recordings started spewing out from a small label, run by her husband, showing this woman to have a surprising range of talents, and Gramophone, along with other publications, began championing these recordings. But some months ago, posters to the rec.music.classical.recordings newsgroup began questioning the possibility that this woman could have played all these works, with styles that sounded so different. One poster said:

“After hearing so much about Joyce Hatto, I started purchasing some of her recordings. While nothing I have heard is bad (in fact, I am glad I bought these CDs), I have noticed something eerie: that the pianist playing the Mozart sonatas _cannot be_ the pianist playing Prokofiev
_or_ the pianist playing Albeniz. I have the distinct feeling of being the victim of some sort of hoax. Does anyone else share these feelings?”

Well, where I come from, you might say, “them’s fightin’ words”, but they incited some people to start looking more closely at this phenomenon. The results seem to be clear (as shown in the Gramophone article linked above): not only was this a hoax, but a purely monetarily-driven one, which simply took copies of some works, fiddled with others, and released them to a world of people who fawn after the latest sensation.All this raises many questions, of course. First, you have to feel bad for the professional critics who, hearing something they liked, not only lauded it, but created the context to fulfill their wishes with each subsequent recording from this pianist. Second, it shows that there are, perhaps, some recordings by lesser-known musicians that had been “pirated” and branded with the Joyce Hatto name which merit further attention. Had these same critics panned the discs that were the actual sources of the Hatto recordings?

Finally, and perhaps more important, it shows the futility of any kind of criticism. Well, you can’t copy books or movies, but for classical music where critics review not so much the music as the interpretation and performance, how much criticism is truly objective? Perhaps it is time for critics to work blindly, getting nothing but blank discs (or digital files) and reviewing these, then, only after the reviews are filed, finding out who the performers are. This would, of course, not be to the liking of the major record labels, for whom marketing is often more important than actual performances. (Granted, this is only really valid for instrumental performances; it is relatively simple to recognize a familiar voice in an opera or other vocal recording.)

There has always been criticism of critics, but nowhere other than the classical music arena does the concept of “great performances” or “reference performances” hold sway. These are the benchmarks against which other performances are measured, and they can be self-fulfilling: the more familiar you are with your benchmark, the more you will like it and reinforce its validity.

I tend to be somewhat obsessive about music, and, for some composers, actively seek out different versions of works I like in order to have a variety of performances, because no one performance can be considered final or perfect. I have never succumbed to unfailing appreciation for a specific artist (though Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is by far my preferred singer of German lieder), and tend to search broadly. It’s a shame for those who do think they found the new musical messiah, and many music publications–including Gramophone, who will have to make a serious mea culpa–will suffer from this type of hoax.

While it’s almost surprising this hasn’t happened before, there are actually a few reasons that make this case different from others. Joyce Hatto had not performed anywhere for a long time, so no one would have been able to compare her performance style with her recordings. Also, this was a very small label, and, while Hatto-mania may have blossomed, it certainly never went far enough to generate large sales. It seems that the greed behind this hoax was limited to a single person, the late pianist’s husband.

But with digital technology so prevalent, such that anyone can copy a CD and release it as their own, no one has time to check all the recordings that are released to make sure they are what they say. (Kudos to Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio for taking the time to analyze these recordings down to their waveforms; check this link for examples, both audio and visual, proving that the Hatto recordings are not indeed Hatto recordings.) While it is unlikely that there are many unscrupulous record labels who would consider perpetrating such a hoax, the cat’s out of the bag, and this may give ideas to others. Caveat emptor, right?