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May 2024

Bruch: Violin Concerto #1 in G Minor

I have underrated this concerto. I've listened to it three times over the past week or so, as part of my little project involving Joseph Joachim's view of the greatest violin concertos:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.

I had not heard it for many years, and though I remembered liking it I thought of it as above all a technical showpiece, impressive but not necessarily deeply affecting. And on the first of these three hearings that expectation was, if not fulfilled exactly, then not contradicted, either. 

As far as I could recall, I did not own a recording, so I went to Idagio and settled on one, one of very many: Arthur Grumiaux and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw conducted by Bernard Haitink. I enjoyed it, of course, but in a casual sort of way. Very impressive. Oh, that's lovely. I like that tune. Great finale. But I was pretty sure it was not going to end up at the top of my Joachim ranking. 

Thinking I would try a different recording, just out of curiosity, I went to Classics Today and found a recommendation for another Grumiaux recording, this one with Heinz Wallberg conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. (The recommendation, by the way, is from David Hurwitz, whose reviews on YouTube I've mentioned before. I've also mentioned that I found him a little annoying to watch and listen to, but he's grown on me. I've begun to enjoy his quirks, his humor, and his generally unpretentious style.)

My reaction to the second Grumiaux recording one was pretty similar: beautiful, not a rival to Mendelssohn's. 

Then I discovered, while looking for something else, that I have an LP that includes this concerto. How did I not know that I have it? Well, two reasons: one, it has both the Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos, and I never know how to shelve multi-composer recordings. I have a good many of these, probably between fifty and a hundred, and they're shelved in very rough chronological order, since such albums usually include works of more or less the same period. That doesn't work very well, though it's better than nothing. And two: several years ago I came into possession of several hundred LPs that were going to go to Goodwill if I didn't take them (see this post). And most of those have hardly been organized at all. Or played. This was one of them: 

Milstein-Mendelssohn-Bruch(Image from Discogs; my copy is STEREO, to be played only with a stereo cartridge and needle to avoid damage)

The New Philharmonia Orchestra is not the same as the Philharmonia Orchestra though they are related (seems to be a long story). I don't know whether it was just the fact that this was my third hearing of the concerto within a week or so, or the nature of the performance, or my state of mind at the moment, but this time I was bowled over. It's a great concerto, fully worthy of Joachim's placement of it among the greatest. "Richest, most seductive"? Not the adjectives I would choose, but very powerful in any case and certainly among the greats.

This is a 1961 recording, and as I mentioned, it's an LP: analog all the way. The other two I heard were digital, though they're old enough that they were probably recorded in analog. And they weren't at the highest possible resolution. Whether any of that had to do with my reaction I can't say. Maybe it was Milstein himself. 

Now on to Brahms. I've heard that one fairly recently, and really thought that there had been a discussion about it here, but I can't find it. I already know that I love it. I think it's going to be hard to say that I prize any one of these over the others. 

Also, I'm adding Sibelius to this project, which at that point will put me outside of Joachim's list by nationality--he did say "the Germans"--and although the composition of the Sibelius concerto just barely falls within Joachim's lifetime, we can assume he never heard it. I've heard it, but only once or twice, and I didn't feel like I had really gotten it. Maybe I should add Tchaikovsky, too?

King Crimson in the '80s

I was not always a fan of prog ("progressive") rock. In its early-to-mid 1970s heyday I was in fact dismissive of it: pretentious, over-complicated, sacrificing good songwriting for an emphasis on virtuosity not really suited for rock music. In short, it seemed to be trying to be something that rock music isn't and shouldn't be: of interest on purely musical grounds, where it was never going to be able to compete with jazz and classical. It was twenty years later that I gave it a second look, for a non-musical reason: my then-adolescent children had gotten interested in popular music (i.e. rock) and I was trying to steer them away from the uglier stuff. 

That didn't work, but it did change my mind. That is, my basic criticisms were justifiable and remained intact, but I enjoyed the music anyway, which led me to listen, in most cases for the first time, to Yes and King Crimson, and to develop quite a liking for them. There were a few others, but I only made a point of hearing most of the 1970s work of those two. And of them, KC seemed to have had the most interesting post-'70s career. 

But that's not really fair. Yes was a band with a fairly consistent lineup and a very consistent sound, at least through their first decade, and seem to have faded away after that, with the exception of one commercially successful and reportedly very atypical album in the early '80s. King Crimson, on the other hand, has not been a proper band at all through much of its fifty-plus years, but rather the ever-changing musical project of Robert Fripp, in which he has included various other musicians as suits his interests and purposes. It's been the exact opposite of consistent lineup and sound--Fripp tended to disband the group, at least partially, after every album or two, and reassemble it, at least partially, and go off in a somewhat different musical direction.

As a band, King Crimson was officially dead as of about 1975. But after half a decade or so Fripp revived the name for a group  of instrumental virtuosos consisting of himself, guitarist Adrian Belew, bass player Tony Levin, and drummer Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes). This band recorded three albums, Discipline (1981), Beat (1982), and Three of A Perfect Pair (1984). 

I would suppose that fans of progressive rock in general and King Crimson in particular were disappointed in these. One of the hallmarks of prog is long compositions with a lot of virtuoso instrumental work, and, despite the very high level of technical skill of all four players, that's not what these albums are. Most of the songs are in fact songs, of fairly typical pop song length, of a piece, with little instrumental stretching out. But that doesn't mean they're simple. They're not great songs as such--you don't come away humming them, or moved by the combination of words and music. But they're interesting. Rather than the complex twists and turns more typical of prog, or the basically simple and repetitive chord changes and beat of most pop, these songs have a static sort of quality--complex, and shifting slowly rather than driving forward. If I felt more confident of my technical understanding of music I would try to describe that more precisely. 

But I can say with confidence that one fairly constant feature is the use of complex repetitive hyperactive guitar figures that slowly shift rhythmically. I find it very hard to follow them for very long. I think I've got it and then suddenly it's wait, where did the accent go? "Frame by Frame," from Discipline, is a good example.

The bass and drums are also doing a lot of complicated things with rhythm there. It's as if the whole emphasis on complexity which characterizes the progressive rock concept is focused on rhythm. Basically, this band invented "math rock" (from Wikipedia) : "a style of alternative and indie rock with roots in bands such as King Crimson and Rush. It is characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures (including irregular stopping and starting), counterpoint, odd time signatures, and extended chords. " A week or so ago I found a YouTube video in which Adrian Belew explains this sort of thing, the way the guitar parts shift in and out of phase, so to speak, with one player starting one of these figures, the other playing it but with one note left out, and so on, so that the beat begins to float. But I just spent thirty minutes looking and can't find the video now. 

All this may seem a long way from the long and elaborate suites so often found in '70s prog. But if you listen to "21st Century Schizoid Man," the very first track on the very first KC album, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), you find that the connecting thread is very clear. 

To call a work of art "interesting" is sometimes to damn with faint praise, at least on my part. And the word does pretty well summarize my opinion of these three albums. But I mean it quite literally. This is not my favorite music, but it is in fact interesting, interesting enough to return to now and then. There seems to be a consensus among critics and fans that the chronological sequence of the three albums is also the sequence of their quality, the first (Discipline) being the best. I agree with that. But if one likes the style at all, they're all worth hearing. 

A group consisting of Belew, Levin, Steve Vai (a name known to anyone interested in rock guitar), and Danny Carey, drummer of the band Tool, is doing a tour under the name BEAT performing this music. They're not coming anywhere very near me, but if they did I'd go. 

Two Bleak House Dramatizations

Both are from the BBC, naturally, and are serials made for television, each running roughly eight hours in total. The first was made in 1985, the second in 2005. Both are worth seeing, but all in all I think the second is superior and the best choice if you're only going to watch one.

The 1985 one, like the Dombey and Son dramatization I mentioned recently, took me back to Sunday evenings in the '70s and '80s watching PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. Comparing those with more recent similar efforts, you can sort of see the improvements in technology and, probably, financing. Visually, for instance, Bleak House 1985 is often less sharp, clear, and bright than Bleak House 2005. (I think I'll refer to them just as "1985" and "2005" for the rest of this post.) This is especially true in outdoor scenes, especially in London, where it actually is effective: the creators apparently wanted to portray the city as extremely dim and murky (which is certainly consistent with the book), and they succeeded. The slum called Tom-All-Alone's is nightmarish, as such places probably were in reality.

The two are pretty different cinematographically, and I don't know how much of the difference is technological and how much a stylistic choice. I recall, watching 2005 when it was originally released (almost twenty years ago!), thinking that the way the faces of characters often filled the screen almost entirely was a little annoying, reducing or almost eliminating a sense of the space in which they existed. But on this viewing I didn't really notice that, which makes me think it's a change in style to which I've become accustomed in other works. There was one small but irritating thing in 2005 which I think was a sort of fashionable device at the time, perhaps, and I hope, out of fashion now. That's a way of doing transitions with a literal bang. We're switching from London to Bleak House, say: wide shot of house BANG; quick cut less wide shot of house BANG; quick cut to closer shot of house BANG. Then on into the actual scene. After maybe half the episodes I got used to it, but I did wonder why someone thought it was a good idea. Maybe appropriate in some kind of noisy hyperactive contemporary movie, but for Dickens?

Changes in acting style are also apparent. In general the approach in 1985 is a little broader and more blunt. It seems, on one level, more acted, or stagey, while 2005 is perhaps more subtle--but then I don't know enough about acting to talk about it intelligently in a general way, so I would do better to compare specific characters. 

Like any male of my age, I am an admirer of Emma Peel Diana Rigg, and so it pains me a little to say that she did not make as powerful a Lady Dedlock as Gillian Anderson, whom I had of course enjoyed as Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, but whose ability as a more serious actress I had doubted. The big difference is that Gillian Anderson does icy very, very well, while Diana Rigg--whether by nature or by actor and director choice I don't know--is warmer and more openly vulnerable. I vaguely recall from my first viewing of 2005 that I thought Anderson's performance was a little weak compared to the others, and that her English accent seemed somewhat forced and not entirely real. Well, I didn't feel that way this time. A little stiff, maybe, is the worse I would say about the accent. I was very critical of it in her more recent portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, as well as in the crime drama The Fall in 2013. I don't know what to make of that--surely her accent didn't get less authentic over the past twenty years or so, as she has lived in England for much of that time (and lived there for a significant portion of her childhood). But anyway, applause to Scully Anderson for this performance.

Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn in 2005 is surely the ultimate. And I'm pedantic enough that when I use the word "ultimate" I mean it pretty literally. (I'm always annoyed when I see an advertisement for something like "the ultimate PC," something which will be more or less obsolete and certainly surpassed within months.) Not ultimate as in chronologically final, but ultimate in the sense of unsurpassable. I suppose someone someday might prove me wrong, but I just can't imagine a more convincing and effective portrayal of Tulkinghorn, nor one more in keeping with the character as he's portrayed in the book. The Tulkinghorn in 1985, Peter Vaughan, is fine, just not in the same league for mystery, menace, and intelligence.

Anna Maxwell Martin, as Esther Summerson in 2005, also seems more convincing to me than 1985's Suzanne Burden. And so on--as I look over both cast lists, I think 2005 takes first place in most instances. There are a couple of characters who don't seem all that effective in either one. Sir Leicester Dedlok doesn't have the mountainous snobbery and pomposity I imagine, but maybe what I imagine is impossible. Nor does either fully convey to me the noble generosity of his reaction to the family's crisis. I somehow think John Jarndyce should be more colorful than he is portrayed, but again, that may be my misreading, or at least eccentric reading. Slimy little Guppy is good in both. 

Anyone who watches as many British crime dramas as I do will immediately recognize Phil Davis as Smallweed in 2005, also a noticeably superior portrayal to 1985's. He's often played similar characters, irascible, hostile, and creepy.  

I won't bother picking over the choices each version makes in tailoring the narrative for this length and format. I did quarrel with some, but I don't recall thinking that they were unjustifiable. It must be a difficult task.

Here's the, or a, trailer. Not an especially good one, in my opinion. Notice that they say "Charles Dance vs. Lady Dedlok." I didn't realize he was that well known. You can hear the end of one of those BANGs as it begins. 


Andrea Schroeder Sings David Bowie's "Heroes"

In German: "Helden."

I never heard of Andrea Schroeder until a few weeks ago when I was looking for cover versions of this famous song. You know it, right? If not, click here.

I was never much of a David Bowie fan. I didn't care for the whole glam rock, sexually androgynous thing, but, more importantly, I just didn't care that much for most of his music. I had a slightly annoying conversation about this on Facebook around the time of Bowie's death. I said more or less what I just said, and several younger people explained to me that it was a generational thing, and I Just Didn't Understand. 

Nonsense. Look, y'all (I said): David Bowie was a bit older than me. It had nothing to with age and everything to do with musical taste. I heard Ziggy Stardust several dozen times while I was working in a record store, and never cared much for it, though I had liked his earlier album, Hunky Dory, quite well. And I never listened to him much after that.

But somehow or other I did hear "Heroes," a basically very simple song which seems to have a mildly addictive effect on a lot of people. And, maybe in part because it's basically simple, yet deeply appealing, it seems to lend itself to some very varied ways of performing it. And maybe also because of the lyric, with its odd combination of defiance and despair. "Yes we're lovers" but "nothing can keep us together." And:

Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day

You can read the English lyrics here.

I like covers of well-known songs which rework them substantially. Or rather I should say they interest me, as of course they're not always successful. This one, I think, works spectacularly well. I like it just as much when I'm not looking at the screen with the beautiful Andrea Schroeder gazing deeply into my soul eyes.

I must definitely hear more of her music. She's German, obviously, and AllMusic doesn't say a word about her, nor does Wikipedia, but her own website has some impressive recommendations. 

My next-favorite cover of "Heroes" is by the metal-ish band Motörhead, and as you might suppose it is night-and-day different. I don't recommend listening to this one immediately after Andrea Schroeder's. If at all. It's hard rock.

Lemmy Kilmister, 1945-2015, RIP. One wonders, if one is a Christian, where such an apparently purely heathen soul goes.

A Note On Flannery O'Connor and Race

Having read a bit more about the unpublished Flannery O'Connor work mentioned in this post, I'm getting the impression that much of the discussion about it, and possibly the book itself, are focused on Flannery O'Connor's views on race. 

This interview with the book's editor, Jessica Hooten Wilson, by a couple of slightly obtuse Georgia Public Radio guys, is an instance. I'm sure they're smart guys who went to college and all, but this is the way they see the world:

Orlando Montoya: So I'd like to think that this story would have become Flannery's statement on race, that she might have come down on the right side, and that it would have clarified a lot of our doubts about Flannery and race. But it's also possible that she could have just ended up making some other point.

Peter Biello: Like, well, what other point?

Orlando Montoya: Religious.

Peter Biello: Oh, okay.

Orlando Montoya: A religious point. I mean, her entire body of work is just oozing, as you said, with this Catholic sense of the world. And so there's a reason Catholics just love Flannery. And to me, when I read Flannery and this story's no exception, there's just a lot of judgment, from everyone to everyone. And so that's why I kind of find her kind of difficult. Her pages are just dripping with judgment, this Catholic sense that there's going to be a reckoning and you better be on the right side. And these fragments are no different.

Oh, okay.

They're creatures of their time and culture who don't see their own as clearly as O'Connor did hers. And they are, in a limited way, admirers of her work. At least the one guy understands that the Catholic viewpoint is not just accidental to the stories. But to view the very glancing connection between O'Connor's views on race as more interesting and important than the theological-philosophical foundations of her work is indicative of a very defective understanding of it (and possibly of art in general, but never mind that now).

Moreover, the clear implication here is that the Catholic aspect is something at least mildly negative, which certainly indicates a view of the work that is seriously limited at best. We have to put up with her weird religious obsession, they seem to suggest, but we can hope that she might, in keeping with our expectations of what constitutes progress, have set that stuff aside and talked about what we think is important, i.e. race, come down on "the right side" of the matter, and "clarified a lot of our doubts." (What does that mean, exactly? Remove our doubts, I suppose. "Clarified" could mean either confirmed or contradicted.) And if she didn't? Well, clearly our doubts must remain; Flannery O'Connor is "problematic." 

It's especially wrong-headed, downright ludicrous, for a 21st century progressive to complain of an excess of judgment, when the more zealous among them rarely stop judging everything and everyone in Western civilization, apart from themselves and the present moment, as inadequate if not evil. And let us note, too, that it is often precisely the harsh, stubborn, and ignorant judgmentalism of her characters that is seen to be under the judgment of God.

I sometimes wish I could be transported several hundred years into the future so I could participate in the establishment of the judgement of "history" on our own time. The confidence that we are on its "right side" is probably going to be one of the more risible things about us. Our culture has rightly rejected blatant anti-black racism, but influential sectors of it have embraced a long list of other absurd and harmful views, not least of which is another form of racism, in which white people are considered to be indelibly stamped with something called "whiteness," an ontological stain with which they are born and which can never be erased, and which requires perpetual acts of penance. Penance, not atonement, because atonement is impossible, except perhaps by civilizational suicide. (The parodic resemblance to Christianity has often been noted; it's one of the most visible motifs of post-Christianity.)

I've been annoyed for a long time by the treatment of "racist" as a binary condition rather than a thing, like any other single human vice or virtue, that exists in degrees. If that label can be stuck on a person, it works pretty much like the old death's head symbol for poison: you're either racist or not, poisonous or not, and sensible people will keep away. Real people, real hearts and minds, of course don't function that way. One can have mild and even harmless prejudices against people of another race or culture without being guilty of any serious moral wrong. A few years ago the writer Paul Elie published an article called "How Racist Was Flannery O'Connor?" I didn't read it, though it was recommended to me, because I disliked the "When did you stop beating your wife?" tactic of the title: in a culture where anything and anyone who can be plausibly tagged with the word "racist" is to be condemned without reservation or nuance, it seemed a poisoning of the well. (This tactic has been overused to the point where it may not be effective anymore. I noticed a few years ago that many of the taggers have switched to "white supremacist.")

The truth is that race is just not a very significant aspect of O'Connor's work, which deals above all with universal questions, posed by means of an extraordinary skill in evoking those questions within a very specific, concrete, and limited place, time, and culture. Whatever racism she was personally guilty of is pretty mild stuff (and if you don't think it was mild you've led a sheltered life). She seems to have granted the basic rightness of the civil rights cause, which a serious racist of the time would not have done.

In that interview Jessica Hooten Wilson says, in defense of O'Connor's treatment of black people in her work, that

...she only knew how two Black people would talk when a white woman was in the room...

Well, of course. And she recognized that that was the situation. I think she mentions in one of her letters that she understands that what she sees--what any white person in the segregated South would see--in black people is often a carefully mannered façade, and she didn't feel able to write from within the consciousness on the other side of that façade. Call that an artistic limitation if you want to, but it's not a sin.

Although she was my parents' age, I grew up in the same segregated rural Southern world that she did. I was in high school when the passage of the Civil Rights Act began the process of putting an end to that world. It is a personal and living memory for me, not something I've read about. And I can testify that when she does picture, in her work, black people as seen by white people, the two so near and yet so distant, she is very accurate. Do the people who worry so much about her opinion of black people not notice that she doesn't think very highly of white people either?

Examination of conscience is much more easy, pleasant, and rewarding when the conscience being examined is someone else's. Those who want to put Flannery O'Connor on trial would do better to read, or re-read, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."

Beethoven's Violin Concerto

I've started to follow through on my idea of listening to the four violin concertos praised by Joseph Joachim, one of the great violinists of the 19th century:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.

To these four I plan to add the Sibelius concerto, which of course came after Joachim's time. I've heard them all at least once,  but I want to get to know them better. And also to see whether I agree with Joachim. 

Mendelssohn I just recently heard (see this post), and that was what led me to this little listening project. I'm taking them in chronological order, so Beethoven is first. My usual procedure in getting to know any piece of music, classical or other, is to listen to it three times within some relatively small span of time--a week or so. In this case I listened to three different recordings: Heifetz and Munch, ca 1960; Christian Ferras and Karajan, 1967; Perlman and Guilini, 1981 (in that order).

In the past I have been less than enthusiastic about this concerto. On the basis of one or two inattentive hearings, I just didn't think it was, for Beethoven, an especially remarkable piece. (I said so to my violinist son, and he was horrified.) Well, that' the past. I now consider the first movement to be among my very favorite Beethoven works. As far as I'm concerned it could be a standalone work. It's substantially longer than the other two movements combined, and seems to me complete and satisfying in itself.

The second movement, though comparatively brief, stands with it in quality, and leads directly into the third without a pause. It's there that the concerto as a whole falls down a bit. It's a vigorous "happy ending" to a work which has had a distinctly reflective, if not melancholy, spirit. And to me it's a bit of a letdown, the opposite of its intended effect. This is no doubt in part a result of a sense, which I've mentioned before, of temperamental incompatibility between me and the great composer. It's the energetic Beethoven, who sometimes seems to me a bit unconvincing, a bit overemphatic. For that reason, when (or if) I decide to rank these concertos, I don't think Beethoven's will be at the top.

About the recordings: I don't think anyone could criticize Heifetz's performance except on the grounds that it's too perfect. It seems effortlessly perfect, and for that reason a bit chilly in comparison to others. I didn't think that until I heard Ferras, and was struck by a sense of emotional warmth and depth which I didn't feel in the Heifetz. 

Those two were on LPs that I own. For the third listening, I decided to look for recommendations. A while back my friend who's a classical music expert had brought to my attention to the YouTube channel of Dave Hurwitz of Classics Today. He has roughly 1,000,000 videos on YouTube, including a long series on reference recordings: the one, or maybe the few, recordings of some work that he considers to have set the standard. His choice for the Beethoven violin concerto is the 1981 recording by Itzhak Perlman and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carlo Giulini. So that's the third one I listened to (via the IDAGIO streaming service), and, "reference" or not, I definitely prefer it to the others. 

I find Hurwitz a little annoying to watch and listen to, but his opinions are worth hearing. Here's the one where he names the Perlman/Guilini performance as his top choice. (There is a grotesque figure of speech at about 6:10. What was he thinking?)


Global Catholic Literature Seminar on Flannery O'Connor's Why Do the Heathen Rage?

In case you're interested, this is the next GCL seminar.


I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I didn't even know this book was being released. Moreover, now that I've heard of it and looked around for a bit for information about it, I am not sure I even want to read it. 

Why not? Well, as far as I can tell, it doesn't even rise to the level of "unfinished novel," as the book's cover calls it, but is rather just a parcel of sketches and drafts of scenes. The book's subtitle is more modest: "A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress." The Collected Stories includes a very short one called "Why Do the Heathen Rage?" which seems to be one of these sketches, and it can hardly be called a story at all--some characters are introduced, a stage is set, but that's about all.

Still, my experience with these seminars makes me willing to give it a try. It's not very expensive--$65 before May 10, $75 after. It consists of four 90-minute sessions on consecutive Monday nights beginning June 3. You can register at this link. It isn't mentioned in that announcement, but in the past the cost of these seminars has included a copy of the book or books to be discussed. 

UPDATE: You do get a copy of the book, either paper or electronic, though if you register late electronic may be the only way you can get it in time for the first session.