The Books and Videos columns in this month’s issue of Music Media Monthly both focus on the classical realm: Steve Dankner looks at a book-length treatment of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, a lavishly illustrated history of the celebrated violin maker Stradivari, and a two-volume analysis of the 20th century string quartet. Anne Shelley focuses on vocal music in her Videos column, with DVDs of singers interpreting Schumann lieder and French art songs, along with a recital by Finnish soprano Karita Matilla. Gene Hyde brings us news of a website chock-full of free concert recordings from 1960s San Francisco, and in the Sound Recordings column I draw your attention to new releases by School of Seven Bells and Cas Haley, as well as classic reissues of albums by Stevie Ray Vaughan and avant-garde sound sculptor Bob Ostertag. As always, there’s something here for just about everyone!
If you’re a Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony aficionado (and most music lovers are,) and want to learn everything about the “Ninth,” I highly recommend the just-published book on this great masterwork: The ‘Ninth’- Beethoven and the World in 1824, by Harvey Sachs, published by Random House. In it, you’ll trace the development of the work from Beethoven’s earlier, experimental Choral Fantasy, op. 80, composed 16 years before the ‘Ninth,’ and learn about the reign of the repressive Bourbons, Hapsburgs and Romanovs who tried to quash middle and lower class uprisings (and wanted no part of Beethoven’s “Republican” sentiments, much less Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”) after the French Revolution.
Sachs, in the most engaging section of the book, transports the reader to the ‘Ninth’’s Vienna premiere, (which also included three ‘Hymns’ – movements from the Missa Solemnis) with descriptions based on eyewitness and performer accounts. For a sense of living history, it’s truly eye-opening, turning the recondite into a visible tempest: badly-copied music, a hot, crowded theatre, not enough rehearsal time, a bad performance with an overwhelmed chorus, and to top it off, the deaf, oblivious Beethoven on the podium, still conducting after the music had finished.
Books such as this, devoted to a single work, run the risk of becoming a book-length program note. That’s not the case here. Sachs, while admitting to not being a card-carrying musicologist, is a conductor and author of eight other books on subjects as diverse as Arturo Toscanini, Arthur Rubinstein, Placido Domingo and Georg Solti. Sachs brings other, equally important skills to the task of telling the backstory behind the planning, composition and premiere performance of the ‘Ninth’ – such as his thoroughgoing knowledge of early 19th century European history, the cultural life of Vienna during that era, and the crosscurrents in poetry (Lord Byron,) the novel (Stendhal) and painting (Delacroix) – resulting in a highly readable and elucidating artistic comparison, and an outstanding literary companion to the ‘Ninth.’ Highly recommended.
The ‘Ninth’- Beethoven and the World in 1824, by Harvey Sachs, published by Random House, 2010; ISBN 978-1-4000-6077-1. Hardback.
String players have universally acknowledged Antonio Stradivari’s preeminence as “the greatest violin maker who ever lived,” according to the author of this comprehensive tome on the Master. This is a book that will appeal, obviously, to string players, and also to guitarists, lutenists, mandolinists, lovers of early music (both listeners and performers) – even harpists (who knew that Stradivari made a single documented harp)?
Archives, churches and the Museo Stradivariano in Cremona, Italy possess Stradivari’s instrument patterns, many of which are illustrated in the book. Baroque stringing and tuning practices and tables of measurements for both the standard violins, violas and cellos crafted at his workshop, as well as non-standard, transitional stringed instruments that never caught on and/or are lost are documented. Stradivari is amply filled with hundreds of black and white photographs of the Master’s instruments, mostly depicted in parts: scrolls, necks and body patterns, et al. A full-color section of some of the rarest violins and cellos with lavish decoration adds to the sense of awe one feels at the genius and artistry of the long-lived Stradivari (1644? -1737,) who made these masterpieces for over 60 years, and who created over 1100 instruments in all, of which about 650 are extant.
Lavishly printed, this is a 300-page, coffee table sized volume. Stradivari will certainly be of interest to any individual or music library with a collection in the areas of music history and research, iconography and instrument construction, and performance practice. The book is a pleasure to read, either in whole or in part – as either a detective story of sorts (Stradivari’s lost varnish formulae, for example) or as a reference work to be consulted by stringed instrument makers and restorers.
Author Stewart Pollens was Conservator of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for 30 years. Highly recommended.
Stradivari, by Stewart Pollens, published by Cambridge University Press, 2010; ISBN 978-0-521-87304-8. Hardback.
Quoting editor Evan Jones, “… twentieth century composers… have chosen the string quartet for their most substantial and seriously conceived statements.” It is certainly true that the string quartet, along with the symphony, these most ‘classical’ of genres, has survived the turbulence and stylistic dislocation of the last century. However…
These volumes make visible in printed form, at least, the quartets of composers who, with a few exceptions, seldom make it to the concert hall. Occasionally, one encounters a Prokofiev or Hindemith quartet (likely the Third,) or the Shostakovich Eighth Quartet in concert. What about the quartets of Ligeti, Berio, Cage, Babbitt, Mel Powell and Shulamit Ran?
These two volumes are in the form of 20 chapters – mostly written by music theorists, and are clearly intended for other theorists/academicians who possess the ability and interest to plow through page after page of dry analytical verbiage and graphs: both latter-day Schenkerian and quasi-mathematical.
The volumes, though handsomely produced, utilize a too-small font size that has a grey-ish cast, making the text very hard to read.
This literature, in my opinion, would benefit from trade book treatment for the general reader, perhaps accompanied by a sample compact disc of the music – something that can be understood by the serious music lover, so that these works might appear on listeners’ and performers’ radar. Then, if they were to be performed in concert with some frequency, everybody would be happy, including, I presume, the theorists.
Intimate Voices – the Twentieth Century String Quartet, Vols. I and II;
Volume I: Debussy to Villa Lobos; Volume II: Shostakovich to the Avant-Garde, Edited by Evan Jones. University of Rochester Press, 2009. ISBN 13: 978-1-58046-229-7
– Steve Dankner
This month’s title – Got LIVE if you want it – is taken from a 1966 live album by The Rolling Stones, which was one of the first live albums I bought. As rock music diversified and grew in popularity during the late 1960s and 1970s, the live concert grew more popular, as did live albums. Concerts provided a format for artists to try out new work, stretch out songs beyond the confines of the recording studio, interact with fans, expand their fan base, and generally develop as musicians. Not surprisingly, as more concerts were staged, more promoters came on the scene. Perhaps the most famous and influential promoter was Bill Graham, who started booking shows in San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium in the mid 1960s. Many classic “live” albums were recorded at Graham’s venues, including The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East, Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, and most of the Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead LP.
Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991 while returning from a concert, and the Graham estate was purchased by a businessman named Bill Sagan in 2002. Sagan discovered that Graham’s estate contained more than 5,000 live concert recordings, including shows by The Who, Santana, Bob Dylan, The Band, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Little Feat, and many, many more. Sagan began digitizing these concerts, and they’re now available on a website called Wolfgang’s Vault, the title inspired by Bill Graham’s nickname (the Berlin-born Graham’s given name was Wolodia Grajonca, and he went by the nickname “Wolfgang”).
Wolfgang’s Vault is one of the finest sources of free streaming concert recordings available, documenting live performances by many of rock’s biggest and most successful acts. As if the Bill Graham recordings weren’t enough, Wolfgang’s Vault has added the King Biscuit Flower Hour concerts from the 1970s and 80s, as well as several other collections, which add a number of folk, blues, and jazz performances to this impressive concert website.
So what’s in Wolfgang’s Vault? There’s the Concert Vault, which is the main focus of this review, but there’s also the Vault Store, where you can purchase all kinds of vintage rock n’ roll posters, clothing, and photography. For fans of 60’s San Francisco bands, there’s a wealth of posters and clothing from that era, courtesy of the Bill Graham archives.
There’s also an online edition of the classic rock music magazine, Crawdaddy!, which had an irregular publishing history in print, but has been resurrected and is alive and well on the Wolfgang’s Vault website with columns, feature stories, and reviews. There’s a link to the independent label Daytrotter, which includes songs and concerts from many artists, as well as links to a list of concerts. Finally, there’s a blog for the site, which highlights a variety of music-related topics and website offerings (as of this writing, the blog promoted $4 downloads of concerts by the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1973 and the Ramones in 1978, announced new releases by moe and Galactic, and presented a comparative study of two different live versions of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up:” one by Marley and the Wailers from 1979, and a cover by Bruce Springsteen with guests Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Tracey Chapman from 1988).
The real lode, however, is the Concert Vault, which contains (by my rough count) over 3,700 concert recordings, each available as free streaming audio. The music covers many genres. Here’s a jazz sampler: Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis’s fusion bands, and a slew of performances from the Newport Jazz Festival, including Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Cecil Taylor, and more. Want blues? Check out shows by Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, James Cotton, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Folk and “americana?” The Ash Grove collection includes performances by Roscoe Holcomb, Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Again, this just is just a brief sample.
The deepest vein, however, is found in the rock music concert collection, which ranges from 1960s San Francisco shows to performances by the Drive-By Truckers this past summer. The classic material is remarkable, as noted above. Pink Floyd fans can check out a concert from 1970, circa Ummagumma, then contrast it with the full-blown Animals tour arena gig in 1977. There are several shows from Bob Dylan and the Band’s legendary 1974 tour, as well as 1970 Moondance-era shows by Van Morrison, a half-dozen shows by Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and with her Stax-influenced Kozmic Blues band. Or perhaps you prefer Roxy Music, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, U2, Bob Marley, Taj Mahal, or Aretha Franklin? They’re all here, and much more.
Gaining access to the music is easy. The first step is to set up a free account, which requires providing only an email address and user name. This allows you to stream the concerts and create a saved playlist. All concerts are available for free listening through the website’s audio player, but should you want a copy of a concert for yourself, most can also be purchased as MP3 or lossless FLAC downloads at about the same cost as an audio CD. For $50 you can upgrade to the “WVIP” level, which includes perks such as some free downloads and reduced prices on downloads. However, the free membership will get you plenty of content. And that might just be enough. Enjoy!
– Gene Hyde
Bob Ostertag has been using samplers to create avant-garde sound sculptures of varying degrees of beauty (and reflecting varying degrees of his political radicalism) for over three decades now. Although he has recently made much of his earlier work available for online download under a Creative Commons license, several items from his back catalog are now being made available again as physical CDs as well via the Seeland label (distributed by Revolver in the U.S.). One of the best is Getting a Head (Seeland 516), a classic of experimental tape music that was originally issued in 1980 in a limited LP release and has been reissued sporadically since then. It consists of two parts: one based on a performance by experimental guitarist Fred Frith, and the other on one by percussionist Charles K. Noyes. Ostertag created tape loops from those recordings and hooked them up two three tape recorders while also connecting them to helium balloons; the results are fascinating and, frankly, loads of fun.
Somewhat less fun is the ironically titled Like a Melody, No Bitterness (Seeland 508) from 1997, on which Ostertag takes a wide variety of sound sources and basically throws them into an electronic blender. This one is interesting as well, but much more abrasive and almost confrontational. (As of this writing, Ostertag’s website at http://bobostertag.com seems to be down.) Grades: A (Getting a Head); B- (Like a Melody, No Bitterness)
School of Seven Bells was formed when guitarist Ben Curtis left Secret Machine to give his full-time attention to a collaborative project with twin singer-songwriters Claudia and Alejandra Deheza. The music they make has been widely compared to that of both Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, and although I can see where the comparisons come from (both vocalists sing in a head voice similar to that of the Cocteaus’ Elizabeth Fraser, and they favor the same kind of spiraling, surprising melodies), I’d say that despite its often dreamily floating sonic textures the music of School of Seven Bells is actually the more tightly focused of the three. There’s a toughness to the beats and resolute focus on lyrics that sets this band apart, and the hooks are subtle but absolutely real. Disconnect from Desire (Vagrant/Ghostly International 597) is the current album, and it’s brilliant. Start with this one and then work your way back – that’s what I plan to do. Grade: A
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s is one of the most heartbreaking in rock history. Almost destroyed by his addictions, he pulled himself out of a swamp of dependencies with herculean effort and was then killed in a freak helicopter accident. Over the course of his brief but tumultuous career he released some of the most compelling albums of blues-rock ever made, and one of them (against all odds) was his sophomore effort, 1984’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather. That album is now being reissued in deluxe form with eleven bonus tracks added to the original program and a second disc documenting a sizzling 1984 concert performance in Montreal. To hear this material is to be stunned again both by Vaughan’s superlative technique and his impressive taste and maturity, and to despair again at the cruelty of fate. Grade: A+
Some readers may recognize Cas Haley’s name and face from his second-place finish on America’s Got Talent in 2007. An unlikely-looking reggae artist (he’s a burr-headed, bespectacled, burly and tattooed Texan), Haley writes in a style that draws equally on roots reggae, indie pop and tight-harmony R&B, and his second album, Connection (Easy Star ES-1022), is a pure joy. Is it lightweight? Sure, but lightweight pop music is the real roots of reggae – just listen to 1960s ska and rock-steady recordings if you don’t believe me. And what Haley is delivering is as good as the best of it. Highly recommended. Grade: A
– Rick Anderson
Filmed on 14 November 1987 in the Hans-Rosbaud-Saal in Baden-Baden, this <i>Liederabend</i> showcases Fischer-Dieskau doing what he does best. The silver-haired, doe-eyed veteran of both the world of opera and the German army achieved an early start to his career, and this is likely due as much to his musically-rich upbringing as the support he received in his mid-twenties from Wilhelm Furtwängler and other professionals. Though his early years were filled with operatic engagements (the Vienna Staatsoper and Bavarian Staatsoper at twenty-four, the Salzburg Festival at twenty-seven, and the Bayreuth Festival at twenty-nine were just the beginning), Fischer-Dieskau’s output of and contribution to German art song are unprecedented. His recordings include nearly all lieder written by Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Beethoven, Brahms, and Strauss, and he is estimated to have over 1,000 songs in his repertoire. Here, Fischer-Dieskau performs two of Schumann’s song cycles in whose writing Clara played a significant role, both logistically and inspirationally.
Included with the DVD is a bonus audio recording from September 1997. The disc kicks off with an infrequently-recorded declamation by Schumann (Ballade vom Haideknaben op. 122, no. 1) in which we’re treated to Fischer-Dieskau as a colorful narrator in spoken-word. Two more ballads by Franz Liszt follow, along with the “Rilke Cycle” (Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke) written by Viktor Ullmann in 1944, the same year of the composer’s untimely death in Auschwitz.
This DVD kicks off a series of similar releases by Hänssler in which Fischer-Dieskau and one of his regular lied collaborators Harmut Höll perform in the Hans Rosbaud studio. As is the case with this production, most of the footage for this series was shot in the mid-to-late-1980s. At eighty-five, Fischer-Dieskau is not getting any younger, and this footage and that which will follow in the series is sure to be of value to performers and historians, alike.
Grammy-award winning mezzo Susan Graham treats viewers to a pleasant and moving evening of French art songs presented roughly in chronological order and three minutes and fifty-nine seconds at a time. While this recording was captured at the 2009 Festival in Verbier, Switzerland, Graham and pianist Malcolm Martineau performed this exact program on many occasions earlier that summer during an international tour of the United States and United Kingdom. At one song per composer, the pair provides a smorgasbord of primarily twentieth-century French masters—an ideal arrangement for audience members who desire thematic continuity but also crave programmatic variety. The seemingly ‘best-of’ set is actually strategically grouped; the capable duo features the work of several pioneers of French lyricism, the lush piano accompaniments of the later Romantics, a couple once-riot-inducing and blatantly anthropomorphic early-twentieth-century works, and mélodie, a famous vocalise, and a brief cycle from many core twentieth-century composers. Martinau’s playing is sensitive and very complementary to Graham’s interpretations—her performances of the Ravel and the Hahn especially stand out. With close-up shots of both performers’ masterful technique and with subtitles provided in French, English, German, and Japanese, this disc will be as much a useful tool for voice students as it is an enjoyable concert.
The celebrated Finnish lyric soprano Karita Mattila—now fifty, yet having begun an international opera career at twenty-four—is more than comfortable taking center stage, yet she seems especially in her element here on her home turf. Her early roles were mostly Mozart until the 1990s, when her leading performances in recordings of Die Meistersinger von Nümberg and Jenůfa won her some Grammy awards. In 2005, Musical America awarded Matilla with the title of Musician of the Year; the famed Martin Katz—Matilla’s pianist for this program—was also honored by Musical America in 1998 as Accompanist of the Year. The footage on this disc is taken from two different sellout concerts at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki in October 2006. The program includes canonic songs by Duparc and Rachmaninoff and Dvorák’s cycle Gipsy Songs, yet the challenging song cycle Quatre Instants is clearly the gem of the concert. Composed by fellow Finn Kaija Saariaho and dedicated to Mattila (who sang its premiere in Paris in 2003), the cycle—performed here as its premiere recording—is noticeably engaging for both Katz and Matilla, though the fact that Matilla uses and at times relies on the score for this piece is somewhat distracting. The bonus audio disc—a recording in which Mattila collaborates with pianist Ilmo Ranta—includes songs by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Sibelius, Kuula, and Melartin.
– Anne Shelley