Tag Archives: Kennicott

Bach on the Harp

Some people hear music through the strangest of portals. There are opera lovers who love only one voice, and they will love any music that voice sings. And there are orchestra fanatics who can’t abide solo recitals or chamber music or–heaven forbid–an evening at the opera. But the oddest of these single-minded creatures are the music lovers who specialize in one instrument. The flute is the Alpha and Omega. And thus, the Vaughn Williams Tuba concerto is a lovely piece… if played on a flute. And only on a flute.

I wish I could say nicer things about Catrin Finchs new recording of the Bach Goldberg variations on Deutsche Grammophon. She is certainly a fine musician. And it’s an ambitious recording. Before she could even think of going into the studio, Finch had to transcribe the entire piece. And there’s the problem. Finch is a harpist.

Nothing against the harp, I assure you. The end of Das Rheingold (scored for six harps, playing what is, according to harpists, really, really badly written harp music) wouldn’t be the same without it. But the harp isn’t the ideal instrument for the Goldbergs.

The harp, like the harpsichord, is a plucked instrument. Unlike the harpsichord, which can only pluck the string with a single degree of force (thus resulting in a limited dynamic range), the harpist can pluck with varying degrees of force, and introduce nuances of expression into the line. But every string must be damped individually, and there’s a tendency throughout Finch’s Bach to let them ring too long. The result is muddy, a bit like a pianist playing with a sloppy pedal technique.

If you love the harp, Finch has no doubt made a noble effort. If you don’t love the harp—and I mean love the harp—the texture grows monotonous and the constant soupiness of the instrument wearisome. That brings us to an important question: Was there ever a need to transcribe the Goldberg Variations for harp in the first place?

We enter strange territory here. For serious harp lovers, who see the world only through harp-colored glasses, there is an unending need for new harp music. It’s like living in a world in which you can read only Linear B. Until someone translates “War and Peace” into Linear B, you’re S.O.L.

For the rest of us, there is already a delicious abundance of recordings of the Goldberg Variations on instruments much better suited to the music, including the piano and harpsichord. Translating it for the harp is a stunt, but not quite funny enough to rise to the level of party disk (see Florence Foster Jenkins).

Transcription needs to be better theorized. First, let’s divide transcription into those which are essentially variations, such as the great opera fantasies written for the piano (Liszt, Thalberg, and co.) in the 19th century. These are unique and individual compositions, and a very different thing from the second category: Transcriptions that are essentially translations. These emphasize the illusion of a seamless fit, as music is moved from one instrument to another. Clarinet sonatas transcribed for harmonica, etc. These must be criticized on a case by case basis.

Some recent efforts to play French harpsichord music on the piano, for instance, work rather well. Alexandre Tharaud makes harpsichord music by Couperin sound very convincing on the piano, but he’s an intelligent musician who knows how to finesse expressive pianistic analogues for the harpsichord’s more formal language of ornamentation. But I would never recommend these interpretations anyone unfamiliar with the music, because too much is lost. And generally it takes a heroic musician to overcome the general fact that one-for-one transcriptions produce bad music.

Alas, even though they amuse at first, Finch’s transcription don’t offer much new insight on the Goldbergs. The best she can do is make her Bach sound almost as good as it would sound on a harpsichord or piano. It’s an illusionist’s trick to present Bach on the harp, except the illusion fails when you start looking for the contrapuntal clarity. It reminds me of Marion Cotillard lip-synching to Jil Aigrot’s phenomenal imitation of the voice of Edith Piaf in “Ma Vie en Rose.” It’s a remarkable sleight of hand, and you’re impressed by how well it works… up to a point. But if you want to hear Piaf, then put on Piaf. The same thing with the Goldbergs. And if you must listen to the Goldberg Variations transcribed, then try Glenn Gould.


Filed under Culture, Music

Put Locke to Work

I received a brief email from a reader who took issue (I think) with my review of the Academy Award nominated “The Garden,” appearing in today’s “Post.” I framed this documentary, about the contest over a 14-acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles, in terms of John Locke’s theory of property.

“Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature has provided and left it in, he has mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature has placed it in, it has by this labor something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men.”

Mix your labor with the earth, and that patch of earth is yours. It’s an enticing theory, especially if you live in a country such as the U. S. which retains a vigorous cultural memory of the frontier. Yes, of course the frontier wasn’t empty, and there were plenty of native people mixing labor with it before the Europeans arrived with their more heavy-handed mixing. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of owning something simply through its improvement and its upkeep doesn’t have powerful resonance. And it’s that power that makes the gardeners in “The Garden,” mostly poor Hispanic residents, sympathetic figures despite the deeply complex question of who actually owns the land they’re tilling.

My email interlocutor asked what seemed at first like a non sequitur: What do you have to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In general, I find it best not to introduce flash-point issues such as Middle East conflict into reviews of community gardening movies. But the writer has a point. And it’s an all the more salient point given that I reviewed “Lemon Tree”—a drama based on a real life story about a Palestinian woman who loses her family’s lemon grove when the Israeli minister of defense moves in next door–a week earlier. If I was going to bring up Locke, perhaps that was the time.

Locke’s theory of property was probably never meant to leave the rarefied confines of the State of the Nature, that all-purpose intellectual breeding ground located somewhere between the North Pole and the Land of the Purple Ponies. But it remains an emotional idea, a feeling about ownership and rights more than an argument. It is curious how powerful the feeling is, especially given what I wrote about Peter Brown’s lecture a few days ago. Paradise is pre-work, pre-tilling, pre-mixing your labor with the land. Locke’s ideal shows how far we’ve come since the Loss of Eden. Both movies dip into paradise imagery: the Lemon Grove and the South Central Garden are clearly meant to be Edenic patches in a hostile, ugly world. But their ownership, their connection to the people who have made them into a little bit of paradise, is all through that very post-lapsarian idea of work.

That said, I’m still not likely to gratuitously raise the Israel-Palestine conflict in any movie review that isn’t explicitly about the Israel-Palestine conflict. There’s no margin in it.

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A New NEA Chairman

          We learn today that the National Endowment for the Arts will have a new Chairman, an intriguing signal of things to come from the Obama Administration. Rocco Landesman, a prominent and impressive Broadway producer with a Yale pedigree and a St. Louis past, will succeed Dana Gioia, the previous Chairman who resigned in January as the government changed hands. I’m not sure the tone set by the New York Times article that announced the choice is exactly how I’d want to start my tenure. The Times presented it as a significant break with the previous administration.  Here’s a sample:


Choosing Mr. Landesman, 61, signals that Mr. Obama plans to shake things up at the endowment. While a major source of money for arts groups around the country, it has historically been something of a sleepy bureaucracy, still best known to some for the culture wars of the 1990s.



No matter what you think of the past six years at the Endowment under Gioia’s tenure, the NEA managed to come back from the dead and build some serious political capital. No matter what a new chairman wants to do with the agency, maintaining that capital, with the Congress and the public, is critical.


The NEA has enjoyed a relatively trouble free existence in recent years. But that’s no reason to believe that it can’t instantly be in the cross hairs of hostile forces, if a campaign is mounted against it. And given the need for traction against the Obama administration among the Republican opposition, an anti-NEA campaign is not unthinkable. So one wonders if stressing continuity might be the better PR option. Of course, Landesman’s appointment has just been announced and the New York Times is not his PR firm. 


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