Category Archives: Chamber Music

Benjamin Britten

The New Republic has posted an article I wrote about Benjamin Britten, based on last year’s 10oth annviersary celebrations of his birth. I’ve always been ambivalent about his music, loving some of it, indifferent to much of it. But I ended the year loving more of it, especially after making peace with what I call his fundamental tendency to smallness.

Every article about Britten has to deal with his erotic fixation on boys. Here’s how I grappled with that:

That particular psychosexual key may seem to unlock many Britten mysteries. In his biography, Powell devotes a few obligatory pages to unraveling the darker side of the composer’s years as a schoolboy, including the possibility that he was the victim of rape. These questions are not particularly relevant to Britten’s music, though they do explain many of the uses to which he put music, and some of the subjects that he felt needed elaboration through music. Decrying cruelty to innocent young men or boys was a prism through which Britten transcended his own inclinations to smallness. But that same smallness—the middle-class propriety that suffuses everything he wrote with occasional cathartic exceptions—was also a compensation mechanism for the frightening sexual allure of sadism and pederasty. The trope of sadism and innocence was both a form of protest and a heavily cathected nexus of desire that could not be contained within his immensely proper lifestyle. Spiritually and intellectually, the way out of his limitations was too terrifying a road to travel. Auden, a friend from early years and a collaborator on projects such as the operetta Paul Bunyan, seems to have noticed this, and said so, and the 
friendship was sundered.

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A question about social media and the arts

So  much of social media is about recommendations and suggestions: You need to hear/read/see this. We eagerly offer and receive them. Yet in the cultural arena it’s seen as high-handed, even an act of snobbery, to say: You need to hear/read/see this. Why? Lingering resentment over the hurt caused by genuine cultural snobbery a half century ago? Reflexive resistance to any thing that smacks of cultural authority? Simply a matter of tone? Something I’m missing? It’s curious to me that all orchestra programs aren’t structured around a basic suggestion, the conductor and musicians saying: You must listen to this.

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Lang Lang and chamber music

           

              There’s a plant on my shelf that sits in a metal pot and for some reason (sympathetic vibrations) it rattles when certain tones are played loudly on the stereo speakers nearby. I first noticed this while listening to a recording by Lang Lang, the 27-year-old piano phenomenon. In fact, most of Lang Lang’s recordings at some point make this poor plant buzz in its pot. All plants deserve names, so naturally I call this one Lang Lang.

            Poor Lang Lang (the plant) has had quite a work out after an afternoon spent listening to a new Deutsche Grammophon recording of Lang Lang (the pianist) performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor (with cellist Mischa Maisky and violinist Vadim Repin). It’s a big boned piece, almost a piano concerto with chamber accompaniment, and I’m afraid that if there are concerns out there about Lang Lang’s tendency to big-boned and somewhat unrefined playing, this new disk won’t allay them.

            And if there are concerns about the tendency of all-star chamber music ensembles—the kind that come together for a one-off performance or recording—to sound not particularly cohesive, this disk won’t allay them either. The Tchaikovsky trio is a famously over-scaled piece, orchestral in its basic thinking and not well adapted in its gestures and accompaniment figures to the chamber music sensibility. Tchaikovsky can be terribly blunt, and he needs an orchestra to carry the weight of the ideas he explores in this chamber work.

            We have Tchaikovsky’s busy correspondent Madame von Meck to thank, in part, for the score. She spent the summer of 1880 near Florence, and hired a trio of musicians to entertain her. Among them was an 18-year-old pianist she called Bussy, who was none other than Debussy. The French musician’s time there inspired him to compose an early piano trio (long lost, but discovered and returned to the repertoire in the 1980s). And it seems to have inspired Madame von Meck to pressure her epistolary friend to write his own trio, which he did in 1882.

            Even Tchaikovsky recognized that he had merely “arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for my instruments.” But the piece still works, if the players throw themselves into it with emotional abandon and the dramatic sensibility a film by Douglas Sirk. So perhaps this is perfect Lang Lang material.

            Except that one would like to hear him tackle a piece that wasn’t quite so much up his natural allies, especially in his first chamber music recording. “Chamber music is like you’re playing in midfield, passing the ball everywhere,” he told Gramophone magazine a few months ago. “It’s about teamwork.”

            Indeed. But it’s also about scale and balance and textural clarity, and while there are patches throughout the recording that suggest ample teamwork, there are many passages that make one wish Lang Lang had chosen something by Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn. One feels compelled to listen because this is his first chamber music recording, and in the end, you get very little chamber music. And a whole lot of Lang Lang.

            It is possible to pull three famous musicians who don’t work together into the same room and get a respectable, even thrilling performance of the Tchaikovsky trio. I still cherish a silly album memorializing an 85th anniversary concert held at Carnegie Hall in 1976, including a magnificent reading of the trio by Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern and Mstislav Rostropovich. Teamwork is precisely the wrong word for the performance. It’s more like a collective hallucination, which we’re allowed to watch from the outside.

             But Lang Lang and his mates don’t get there. It is strangely fussy, this album, filled with misguided attempts to patch over the all too apparent seams of the music, strange tempo fluctuations, heightened dynamic extremes, and sustained fortissimo playing that loses character and impact. I keep thinking of that word, teamwork, and I wonder if it’s become a pernicious term in the way people think about chamber music, a mindless reflection of the status “teams” have taken on in corporate culture.

            Lang Lang has a very good team here. Maisky is fantastic throughout, and Repin, though he can be coarse, manages to project the violin line with enough force and presence that it isn’t lost in the piano thickets. But I suspect that most people will buy this recording because they’re Lang Lang fans, or interested in his development. And they won’t be surprised to learn that even when taking new steps, Lang Lang hasn’t strayed far from the comfort zone.

            I can’t say that for poor Lang Lang the vine, addled all day, and wishing, I’m sure, for something a little lighter, softer, and more delicate. Perhaps Bussy’s first piano trio will do the trick.

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