It starts quietly enough, with a simple falling-fifth motif, but the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff's neglected Piano Sonata 1 develops into a work of epic proportions nearly 40 minutes in length, with haunting melodies, massive dynamic contrasts, and lush, sensual harmonies.
The electric clocks in my house keep better time than the ones I wind, yet I scarcely look at them. It is the ticking, I think, that comforts me. I like to lean my ear against these various pendulums and, back and forth, gently rock my life away.
As I sit down to write a year's-end musical retrospective, I feel that the old column-writing joke between Stereophile editor John Atkinson and myself about first needing a subject and, second, needing it to make sense, will not be a problem this time out. For me, the music and almost everything else about 2001 have been dwarfed in importance by the mayhem wreaked on New York on September 11.
It's been three years since the February 1997 issue, when I last talked with Klaus Heymann, founder and chairman of HHN, the parent company of the Naxos and Marco Polo labels. When I heard that he'd be in New York for a visit, I jumped at the chance for another interview.
"Like many audiophiles I have often sped home from a concert to fire up the audio system, and then, to the sore vexation of my wife and guests, spent the rest of the evening plunged in the morbid contemplation of what, exactly, was missing."
Art and commerce are butting heads once again, now that England's popular Brit Awards include a category for classical music. Last month's inaugural nominees included some highbrow names (Rachmaninoff, Bryn Terfel), but leaned heavily on such "crossover" artists as Paul McCartney for his orchestral forays, and classical violinist Kennedy (formerly known as Nigel Kennedy) for The Kennedy Experience, his CD inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Classical sales are still down, and record companies, one suspects, are latching onto quasi-classical popular works to boost the sector's profile. For traditionalists, of course, this shows that classical music is falling further into the cultural black hole of all things Madonna, Spice Girls, and McDonald's. They're pissed—in the American sense, that is.
How am I to convince music lovers that this CD is markedly different from Attention Screen's first two live CDs?
The question kept running through my head as I marveled at the breadth and maturity of Attention Screen's remarkable improvisations during a pre-concert sound check in the Piano Salon of Yamaha Artist Services, Inc. (YASI), at 689 Fifth Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan.
Attention Screen impressed even more at the public concert the following night, April 24, 2010. As the band members engaged in one improvisational miracle after another, fearlessly exploring new territory, the beauty and inventiveness of their playing astounded me.
John Atkinson: Making It Live
The e-mail from Stereophile reviewer Bob Reina was straightforward: "I want to make a demo of my new jazz group. I plan to record the session in my living room by getting my old four-channel Teac 3440 out of mothballs and sticking one or two mikes on each instrument. I'd like your view on which mikes would be most appropriate for the four instruments . . . "
I have a confession to make: I play contrabassoon . . . for a living. Now to many this may not seem like such a sin, but within the musical community my instrument is viewed with about as much regard as the common garden slug. This perception is not completely unjustified; often being relegated to roles depicting monsters and evil, along with the occasional digestive grunt, helps perpetuate the general disdain for the contra. However, playing the lowest (non-keyboard) instrument in the symphony orchestra gives me a somewhat different perspective on things, not unlike that of a dwarf in a crowded elevator: a view from the bottom up. It's amazing just how much pitch and harmonic coloration there is down in the subbasement. And shoring up the foundation of the wind section, as well as being the true bottom of the orchestral sonority, can be very satisfying. Although playing an instrument with a limited repertoire can sometimes be disconcerting, it also has its advantages. During rehearsals, if I'm not required for a certain work, I can go out into the house for my own private concert, or stay put in the orchestra and get a sonic thrill that makes the IRS and WAMM systems sound like tin cans.
John Atkinson on the Recording
"This will fix it!" Kimber Kable's Ray Kimber placed some acoustic baffles around the table on which sat my Apple TiBook. We were recording Robert Silverman performing one of Beethoven's masterworks for piano, the Diabelli Variations, Op.120, and I had been bothered by a faint whistle underlying the music. It turned out to be the sound of my laptop's fan, an unforeseen drawback of my decision to dispense with tape and record straight to hard drive for the August 2004 sessions. We had already had a problem with a slight slapback echo from the balcony of the Austad Auditorium at Weber State University in Utah, which Ray had fixed with drapes, and a problem with low-frequency rumble from airplanes overflying the college campus during one session had been solved by Ray phoning the air traffic control tower. However, even Ray couldn't deal with thunder, so that was the one session we decided to finish early.
Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice
By Tad Hershorn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 470pp. Hardcover, $34.95.
One night in 1942, Billie Holiday was singing at a Los Angeles nightclub. Between sets, she crossed the street to have a drink with Norman Granz. She was in tears because some black friends who had come to hear her had been turned away.
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009): 475pp. Hardcover, $30; paperback, $16.95.
If you plan to read just one book about Louis Armstrong, whose virtuosic cornet solos pushed jazz past rudimentary ensemble playing and launched his phenomenal career as an instrumentalist and singer, make it Pops. Teachout built it on brickwork laid by authors who preceded him, so you'll benefit from their research, as well as from narrative on 650 previously private reels of tape that Armstrong recorded and archived. Moreover, Teachout is a musician and music critic who offers opinions on his subject's discography.
Few people seem to realize that Armstrong (19011971) called himself LOU-iss. "All White Folks call me Louie," he once noted, and in some instances that may have been patronizing. In others, it was surely an instinctive response to the man's infectious warmth and informality.
The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, by Eric Siblin (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009); hardcover, 318 pp. $24.
In his lifetime, J.S. Bach (16851750) was an obscure figure. He never lived in a major city, he didn't work in the musical formoperathat in his era could propel a composer to stardom, and his style seemed antiquated to many. Bach saw a mere nine of his compositions published; when his consummate masterwork, The Art of the Fugue, appeared the year after he died, it sold just 30 copies.
Eric Siblin includes these and countless other facts in The Cello Suites, a book that will fascinate anyone who loves Bach's music. He notes, for instance, that Bach's four musical sons kept his work in circulation, that Mozart was mightily impressed by a motet he heard at a Leipzig church, and that the 12-year-old Beethoven raised some eyebrows when he performed The Well-Tempered Clavier in Vienna.