Posts Tagged ‘Music’


Favourite classical recordings

January 30, 2009

At Commentary, Terry Teachout lists his top 25. I don’t know any of them!

I’m going to do my own list.

(And my top 25 films, TV shows, blogs, conspiracy theories….)


War and the agony of the artist; or, Furtwangler plays Beethoven’s 9th three times

January 27, 2009

Because I have a new Furtwangler gravatar, and because we’ve been surrounded by the echoes of a war these past weeks, I’ve had occasion, over the past few days (not that I needed an excuse), to listen to three of Furtwangler’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, given in 1937, 1942 and 1951.    These were in London, Berlin and Bayreuth respectively before, during and after World War II.  I was interested to see if I could gauge what he thought of the war that was coming, the war he was part of, and the war he remembered.  I think I got something out of the experience which I’d like to share.

But first, some words about  Wilhelm Furtwangler, the greatest of all conductors in the age of recorded music.  For Furtwangler, the romantic repertoire of symphonies, concertos, songs and operas was like the flow of a great, unending river.  Under Furtwangler’s baton, you are carried on its breast, in calm and flood, for an hour or so, until the work comes to an end.  Then you are released from it, and it sets you down, but the river flows on, in time and space and memory, until the next of his performances you are privileged to be part of.  Once you have heard Furtwangler conduct Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner or Wagner, it is almost impossible to listen to anyone else conduct their works.

So conscious was Furtwangler of his responsibility, and the power he wielded in calling up the passions and poetries of composers long dead, that his hand often trembled before the first downbeat of the baton.  A famous story is told of a leader of first violins who looked up to see the conductor tormented by hesitation at the start of a performance, and called out encouragingly, “Coraggio, Maestro!”

For Furtwangler, any performance of Beethoven’s Ninth was a religious ritual.  He gave the symphony only on special occasions.  The work is, of course, most famous for its chorale, the fourth movement which sets Schiller’s Ode to Joy to music of extraordinary power and force.   Furtwangler saw the great finale as the culmination of all that went before it, the dread, the storms of violence, the tearing grief, the hope, the longing, expressed in Schiller’s words: “Alle Menschen werden Bruder, Wo dein sanfter Flugel weilt!”

But Furtwangler knew better than any before or since that in Beethoven’s setting of the Ode the joyful processional and the auto-da-fe go ever together.  Human nature walks as readily to an execution as to a wedding, and the grim beat of war compels no less than the gentle words of peace.  Each elegant polka masks the Dance of Death. The pipe-and-drum march of the Chorale leads as surely to the death chambers as to the canivale.  That is why Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (although perhaps not Schiller’s) is also an Ode to Despair.

All this Furtwangler understood with a perfection never equalled.  And because of that, the three statements he left us with these performances of the Ninth might cause us to reflect on how a great artist and a man of good conscience and decent instincts responded through the fragile medium of music to the reality of a war which, with all its ineluctable brutality and inexorable cruelty, tore his treasured dreams to pieces – and those of the German people, who never wanted the war that Hitler forced them into.

Read the rest of this entry ?


While we wait….

January 25, 2009

…. myself not least, for normal service to be resumed, can I introduce visitors to one of the the finest offerings of the folk music revival of the 1960’s – Crazy Man Michael, by Fairport Convention?


And now for something other than war, etc.

January 10, 2009

The great John Renbourn performs – doesn’t sing terribly well, but as a singer he’s strictly an accompanist; just watch those fingers – one of the best blues songs from the ‘sixties, and one of the hardest to get right. I should know, I’ve tried and failed (often)

‘Blues Run the Game’, by Jackson C Frank:


New Year’s Concert in Vienna, tonight

January 1, 2009

For those interested, the annual New Year’s Concert in Vienna will be broadcast tonight in the Australian  eastern states at 21.15 on SBS.  Tonight’s concert will be directed by Daniel Barenboim.

From last year’s concert under Georges Pretre:

UPDATE: Well, that was fun.  A little Teutonic, perhaps, and probably because of Barenboim’s affinity with the Berliners.  There was definitely a degree of emphasis in the upper bass which made the sound rather heavy and thick.  A lighter touch would not have gone amiss. And I didn’t think the orchestra really sparked, as if they and Barenboim were not really at one.

Interesting that Baremboim included in the traditional New Year message a plea for ‘human justice in the Middle East’.  Given his well-known sympathy for the Palestinian cause, that was pretty pointed.  Hmm.


Talking of hi-fi…

December 16, 2008

….which of course we weren’t.

Here’s the system I’ve got:

CD transport: CEC TL2
Digital-to-analogue converter: Audio Note DAC 3 Signature
Turntable: Rega P3, with a Goldring 1042 moving magnet cartridge
Pre-amp: Naim Audio NAC 72, with HICAP power supply
Power amp: Naim Audio NAP 140
Speakers: Sonus Faber Minima Amator
Cables: Van den Hul Digicoupler (transport to DAC), VDH The First The Ultimate (DAC to pre-amp), Naim SNAIC interconnects for the amps, Naim NACA-5 speaker cables

Sounds great to me.

You might think this is an open invitation to burglars, assuming (a) they knew who I was – thanks for keeping it quiet, WP – and (b) they knew where I lived, but you’d be wrong. All this kit is long superseded in the market place, lights up (not) like a dead Christmas tree on spent batteries, and wouldn’t fetch a red cent down the pub or Cash Converters. Anyway, it’s guarded night and day by an attack cat. She even scares me, sometimes.

But boy, does it sing an awesome song.

What it doesn’t sound like is this:

Listen to how tinny it sounds. I really feel for people who grew up with the idea that MP3 files (the worst audio format ever invented) played on a PC actually constitutes a genuine musical experience. Apparently a lot of the recent surge in turntable sales is down to people belatedly realising how wrong they were.

Great singer, though, Fritz Wunderlich. You can hear it – just – even through the sludge. Go out and buy the CD – or better yet, the LP (remember them?)

Go vinyl!


A little Furtwangler

December 8, 2008

Pretty tall, actually. And what a mover.

The greatest maestro in the history of recorded sound (Wilhelm Furtwangler, 1886-1954) conducts the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in Salzburg, 1954. It will never be played better. In rare colour footage, too. And quite respectable sound.