A blog by Barry Edelson

Music, Dead and Alive

Yesterday I was listening to a recording I find especially moving, a Brahms Intermezzo played by Ivo Pogorelich, and I realized that I hadn't been to a concert for a while. Then a second thought came into my head: how often have I ever had so intense and pleasurable a listening experience in a concert hall? It occurred to me that perhaps Glenn Gould was right after all, that music was best heard alone.

Strange coincidence that I had just been thinking about Gould, the late Canadian pianist and iconoclast, when an article about him by Bernard Holland should appear in the Times today. Even stranger that Holland should single out another pianist to ask whether he had been influenced by Gould, and that pianist should happen to be Pogorelich.

As a young music listener in my teens and twenties, I detested Gould and most of what he claimed to stand for. His brilliance was unassailable, but, as Holland explains very plainly, Gould's propensity for rocking the musical boat often overwhelmed his judgment and good taste. He once said that the tragedy of Mozart was not that he died so young but that he lived so long. His ridiculous political pronouncements were even more irritating than his musical ones. For example, he wrote that life for a musician in the Soviet Union would be preferable to life in the West. One would have thought that a free spirit who had the good fortune to be born in Canada and to work in the unquestioning freedom of a Toronto recording studio would have thought the rigidly enforced obedience and conformity of the Communist East to have been especially repellent.

But for all of Gould's outrageous pronouncements, his notions about the inadequacies of the modern concert experience no longer strike me as bizarre. Gould's aversion to public performance may have been rooted in his particular neuroses and his celebrated inability to get along with all but a few of his fellow musicians. (Leonard Bernstein's very public disclaimer of a Gould performance from the stage at Carnegie Hall in 1962 is merely the most infamous example.) Nonetheless, as I listened raptly to Pogorelich playing the Brahms Intermezzo, my first thought about not getting to concerts often enough was immediately overtaken by the painful acknowledgement that I have rarely experienced a piece of music as fully and joyously amidst the coughs and whispers and electronic beeps of a concert audience as I frequently do in the privacy of my own home.

I'm not disavowing concerts entirely, or suggesting that I have never been transported by a performance while being part of a live audience. Nor will I likely never give up entirely on attending concerts (though there are certain venues which I do avoid entirely), but I find it nearly impossible to give my full attention to the full length of a live performance the way I am able to do when listening to a recording in a quiet room.

This episode reminded me of another moving music-listening experience I had recently. Earlier this year, I found a CD (online, of course) of an old recording of the Beethoven Sixth Symphony which I had long ago worn out in vinyl. I first discovered the Beethoven symphonies at the age of 15 when my eldest sister received a set of them as a wedding present. She and her husband apparently had little interest in them so she let me take them home. This was nearly my first exposure classical music of any kind, and over the next year or two I listened to each of the symphonies over and over, to the point where I literally knew them note for note. How many countless hours did I spend alone in the den, shadow-conducting the symphonies in a state of utter reverie, in the dark but for the faint glow of the stereo receiver?

These Beethoven symphonies — the Sixth, known as the "Pastorale", in particular — left such an impression on me that I was convinced that I had discovered the single greatest achievement of the whole of mankind, let alone of the brief history of Western music. Of course, I discovered many other composers over the next few years, and started buying records little by little. And, needless to say, in all the years since, I have stumbled upon much other music, some of it also wonderful. But even after more than 30 years of listening to countless recordings and attending many concerts, I realize that my initial, youthful and ignorant impression of the Pastorale turned out, inexplicably, to be true: it was like nothing anyone had ever heard before. Though grounded in the classical idiom from which it sprang, its harmonies and style and structure thoroughly explainable in musical terms, the Pastorale defies all expectations of what a piece of music should sound like. Where did it come from? How could Beethoven possibly have conjured these sounds from his imagination? We are so accustomed to hearing Beethoven now that we cease to wonder at the utter mystery of this music's very existence.

The specific recordings I am referring to were the very first Beethoven symphony cycle made by the Berlin Philharmonic, led by the Belgian conductor André Cluytens. They date from the mid-1950s, even before the first and far more renowned Beethoven recordings by Herbert von Karajan. The performances are sumptuous, romantic, gorgeous, but also controlled and perfectly balanced. Listening to this particular Pastorale — and very nearly to the same degree, the Ninth Symphony in this set — is as close to a spiritual experience as I have ever had listening to music. (A few years later in college I found another Cluytens recording of Beethoven, this one of the Violin Concerto with David Oistrakh as soloist, which is also an exquisite and unforgettable performance.) The drawback to these recordings is that they spoiled me. I have never heard another Pastorale that was even remotely comparable and have avoided hearing it in concert for that very reason. (So deeply ingrained had it already become in my mind by the time I was in high school that even seeing its animated depiction in "Fantasia", during one of the movie's many re-releases, failed to plant any unwanted images in my head.)

From a purely aesthetic point of view, the Pastorale remains the single most original piece of music I have ever heard. Listening to this recording again on disc, minus the blips and scratches of my old vinyl LP, was like hearing it with new ears. But not the same as hearing it for the first time: this was an incomparably better and deeper hearing, colored by all the years in between. It was never about innocence, anyway, but about an awakening to beauty and truth which contained an incipient awareness that these would always be unattainable ideals. A joy beyond description, beyond compare.

It is unimaginable to me that listening to the symphony in a live performance could have ever provided a more profound or rewarding experience. Months later, I am still overwhelmed by the memory of playing the new CD for the first time, of standing motionless for the entire duration of the work. And this rapture was induced by a recording made more than 50 years ago, played by musicians who are mostly long since dead. Glenn Gould would probably have hated the romanticism, but he would surely have approved of the listening.

November 23, 2007

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