Category: Music

Best classical music recordings of 2020

As you might expect, this has been a pretty spectacular year for listening to classical music on disc, too good you might say.  Here is what I enjoyed the most:

Beethoven Complete Piano works, by Martino Tirimo.  I probably know the performance canon for Beethoven piano sonatas better than any other area of classical music, and this is one of my two or three favorite sets of all time.  They are fresh, direct, and to the point, and remind me of the earlier Yves Nat set, though with better sound and the mistakes edited out.  Here is one review: “It’s decades since a pianist has managed to convey such an overwhelming sense that we’re listening to pure Beethoven. And there are 20 hours of it — surely the greatest recorded achievement of this anniversary year.”  The pianist is a 78-year-old Cypriot who is barely known even to most of the concert-going public.

Beethoven Bagatelles, by Tanguy de Williencourt.  This is Beethoven at his most arbitrary and willful and whimsical, all good things.  I have many recordings of these pieces, but these are perhaps my favorite.  Why again is it that French pianists are so good with Beethoven?

Beethoven, Complete works for Piano Trio, van Baerle Trio.  Again, the best recording of these works I have heard, and there is stiff competition.

Masaaki Suzuki put out more Bach organ music, and conducted an incredible version of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.  His genius remains under-discussed, as he is also a world-class harpsichord and keyboard player, and has produced the definitive recording of Bach’s entire cycle of cantatas.  Why is there no biography of him?  He is one of the greatest creators and performers in the entire world in any area.  If you are wondering, his parents were Japanese Protestants and he is a Calvinist.

Chopin CD of the year would be by Jean-Paul Gasparian.

Morton Feldman piano box set, played by Philip Thomas.  Five CDs if you go that route, this is what I listened to most this year.  It is also very good played at low volume, a useful feature in crowded pandemic homes.

I listened to a good deal of Szymanowski, who has finally started to make sense to me.  In prep for my CWT with Alex Ross, I relistened to a great deal of Wagner.  What rose in my eyes was the von Karajan Die Meistersinger and the Clemens Krauss Ring cycle.

As for contemporary classical music, I enjoyed:

Hans Abrahamsen, String Quartets.

Philippe Manoury, Temps Mode d’Emploi.

Caroline Shaw, Orange, Attaca Quartet.

This year I also rediscovered Robert Ashley’s opera Atalanta (Acts of God), and Raymond Lewenthal’s Alkan CD, one of my favorite recordings of all time, a kind of proto-rock and roll.

As for concert life, I did manage to see Trifonov play “Art of the Fugue” at the Kennedy Center before the whole season shut down, and in January the Danish Quartet playing Beethoven in NYC.

Free Britney Spears

Jamie Spears was authorized by the California Superior Court to control his daughter’s finances, health care, and aspects of her daily routine. The conservatorship was initially temporary. Twelve years later, it’s still in place. The court documents and hearings—there have been many over the years—have been mostly sealed to the public, so little is known about the actual nature and conditions of the agreement.

Britney’s father can control virtually all of the terms of her life, and Britney is vociferously opposed to having him as her “conservator.”  I know very little about the mental condition of Britney Spears, but I would think the case for enslaving her — as we have done — should face a very high bar indeed.  She hardly seems totally unable to function:

She released four albums, went on as many world tours and, for her successful Piece of Me residency in Las Vegas, played 248 shows in the span of four years, grossing $500,000 per show.

Guess who controls the money and the terms of employment?  The Straussian element shows up on Instagram:

What appears to the uninitiated as a random assortment of selfies, inspirational quotes, and dance videos is, according to supporters of the so-called #FreeBritney movement, a desperate plea for help. First, there was the color of her shirt, which appeared to match commenters’ calls for her to wear yellow (or red, or blue, or white, or anything) if she were in trouble. Then there were the roses, “a symbol of secrecy and silence,” as one user pointed out. In one video, Spears walks back and forth nine times, obviously Morse code for SOS. And then of course there were her eyelashes.

Here is the full article from Vanity Fair. Don’t forget this:

“Conservatorships are very hard to get out of—much, much harder to get out of than to get into, and that’s something many people don’t realize, even people who are seeking conservatorships,” said Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project.

Britney’s life matters, free Britney Spears.

My Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

Recommended.  And I thank Carl-Henri Prophète for assistance with the transcription.

What our new Chinese overlords desire for us

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is a top 10 album this week — more than four decades after its release — thanks to a viral TikTok video that’s had everyone vibing along to “Dreams.” Rumours now ranks seventh on the Billboard 200 chart, the publication announced last night, the album’s first appearance in the top 10 since 1978, a year after it debuted.

Rumours’ newfound popularity is thanks to a viral video from Nathan Apodaca, who goes by 420doggface208 on TikTok, that shows him skateboarding down a road and sipping cran-raspberry juice straight from the jug, while “Dreams” plays over top. It’s been viewed more than 60 million times since being posted at the end of September, and it’s even inspired both Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks to sign up for TikTok over the past two weeks. Fleetwood recreated the viral video himself, while Nicks posted a video of herself lacing up roller skates and singing along. They have a combined 35 million views.

Here is the full story, via Fernand Pajot.

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?

Recommended.

Against digitalized subscription services for the movies

Quality public taste is a public good, and right now we are taxing it:

Another response to my whining might be to tell me that I live in a world of cinematic plenty, especially considering my various subscriptions and DVD collection. That is also entirely fair, but do keep in mind the original worry: that the future flow of movies is being broken up and that Hollywood is not regenerating the notion of a cinema with cultural centrality and import. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” and “Annie Hall” had real meaning to generations of Americans. Movies might now be in danger of becoming like board games: Many Americans love and play Scrabble, chess and Clue, but they are not a strong part of our common culture…

Now consider the landscape for movies: Streaming services include Disney+, Apple TV+, Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and Fubo TV. (I’m not even counting services such as the Criterion Channel, which are not large in terms of revenue but crucial to anyone, like me, who loves foreign films.) I’m not yearning for monopoly, but I do miss the good old days of paying $13.50 to walk into any theater and see the latest release. And I could watch without being constantly nagged to join their popcorn subscription service.

That is an excerpt from my latest Bloomberg column. If instead everyone watches Rear Window or 2001 on a large screen, over time they help make each other’s tastes better, and to the benefit of broader society.

And no, I am not a huge fan of musical streaming either.  It makes the lower quality taste too easy to cultivate and preserve.

Toots Hibbert, RIP

Possibly a Covid death (NYT), he was leader of Toots and the Maytals, and along with Desmond Dekker a favorite figure from the earlier period of reggae music.  “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop” and “Monkey Man” I still listen to frequently, among others.  I was lucky to see him in concert twice, once as recently as two years ago, the other time in the late 1990s…

My Conversation with Matt Yglesias

Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  Here is the CWT summary:

They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.

Here is one excerpt:

It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.

*Collected Writings of Morton Feldman*

Feldman probably was the most important American composer of his generation, he interacted with the leading NYC painters of his time, and it turns out he is a splendid writer as well.  His observations are to the point, often with a Nassim Taleb kind of sting.  Here is one bit:

Recently in the Sunday papers an article about Messiaen appeared in which a great virtue was made of his political “disengagement.”  Reading this article, we learn how deeply religious this composer is, how much he looks forward to his vacations in Switzerland, how proud he is of Boulez, and how involved he is with bird calls.  Can we say man is really disengaged?  His chief occupation seems to be this disengagement.  There is something curiously official in the way his interests and views are described — as though nothing could now disturb all this.

Or:

But he has nothing to worry about, that chap in Tempo.  He’s going to have it all.  Pitch relationships, plus sound and chance thrown in.  Total consolidation.  Those two words define the new academy.  You can tie it all up in the well-known formula, “You made a small circle and excluded me; I made a bigger circle and included you.”  A kind of Jonah-and-the-whale syndrome is taking place.  Everything is being chewed up en masse and for the mass…

It may seem strange to call Boulez and Stockhausen popularizers, but that’s what they are.  They glamorized Schoenberg and Webern, now they’re glamorizing something else.  But chance to them is just another procedure, another vehicle for new aspects of structure or of sonority independent of pitch organization.  They could have gotten these things from Ives or Varèse, but they went to these men with too deep  prejudice, the prejudice of the equal, the colleague.

More books should have sentences like: “[Virgil] Thomson disliked me on sight, as a youth, and it’s never changed.”

The full title is Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman,” edited by B.H. Friedman.

I think Feldman two greatest works are For John Cage, and also String Quartet #2, which is about five hours long.  This year I have been listening to the Philip Thomas 5-CD set of Feldman’s piano music more than just about any other CD.  It is not the very best Feldman, but it is some of the best Feldman to listen to, if only because the pieces typically are shorter.

Claims about Richard Wagner

The truth is that Wagner’s popularity was already in relative decline during the Weimar Republic and simply fell further, more quickly, under the Nazis.  During the last years of the Kaiser’s Germany (and despite the cost and privation of the First World War), the Master’s works were still hugely popular, accounting for over eighteen per cent of all opera performances, a share no other composer came to matching.  By the mid-1920s, though, the figure had dropped to around fourteen per cent.

After Hitler took power, Wagner’s share plunged to well below ten percent.

The truth is that many Nazis, in high and low places, were bored to tears by Wagner.

That is all from Jonathan Carr’s excellent book The Wagner Clan.

How to aid the arts during a pandemic

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  In addition to “the usual,” we might also consider arts vouchers:

The second element of the arts rescue plan would take a different tack. Rather than giving money to arts institutions, the federal government could set aside some amount for a concept known as arts vouchers, originally developed by the British economist Alan Peacock.

Arts vouchers are similar to education vouchers except that they cover the arts. The government would hand them out to each American and allow state and local governments to specify which institutions and individuals would be eligible to receive such vouchers as payment. Unlike direct grants to arts institutions, arts vouchers give consumers a big say in where aid goes. They could be more popular with voters, because they give each one a direct benefit — namely, cash in pocket (yes, they would have to spend it on the arts, but it’s still cash).

Most of all, vouchers would recognize that planning authorities, even at state and local levels, don’t always know which artistic forms will be popular. If some reallocations are inevitable — for instance out of nightclubs and into outdoor bluegrass festivals — vouchers will allow those preferences to be registered quickly.

Obviously, if state and local governments specify a narrow set of eligible recipients, arts vouchers aren’t much different than direct grants. In that case, little is lost. Still, one hopes that vouchers can be used more imaginatively. Imagine the city of Detroit allowing vouchers to be spent not just at the Detroit Institute of the Arts but also on hip-hop, street art and outdoor theatre.

In short, vouchers can allow American artistic innovation to proceed, even flourish, rather than merely preserving everything as it was before the pandemic. Vouchers also serve an important macroeconomic function by maintaining consumer spending and demand, thus addressing one problem area of the broader economy. With direct grants to arts institutions, there is always the danger the funds simply will sit in the coffers of still-closed non-profits while the broader economy remains weak.

Vouchers shouldn’t be the entire plan of arts assistance for at least two reasons: They may not be a sufficient lifeline for small arts institutions that cannot yet reopen, and they may not help the arts sectors that draw in foreign tourists, most of all in New York City.

There is more at the link.

My excellent Conversation with Ashley Mears

Tired of lockdown, pandemic, and rioting?  Here is a podcast on some of their polar opposites, conducted by “a bridge and tunnel guy” with an accomplished sociologist.  Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

Ashley Mears is a former fashion model turned academic sociologist, and her book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit is one of Tyler’s favorites of the year. The book, the result of eighteen months of field research, describes how young women exchange “bodily capital” for free drinks and access to glamorous events, boosting the status of the big-spending men they accompany.

Ashley joined Tyler to discuss her book and experience as a model, including the economics of bottle service, which kinds of men seek the club experience (and which can’t get in), why Tyler is right to be suspicious of restaurants filled with beautiful women, why club music is so loud, the surprising reason party girls don’t want to be paid, what it’s like to be scouted, why fashion models don’t smile, the truths contained in Zoolander, how her own beauty and glamour have influenced her academic career, how Barbara Ehrenreich inspired her work, her unique tip for staying focused while writing, and more.

Here is one excerpt especially dear to my heart:

COWEN: Let’s say I had a rule not to eat food in restaurants that were full of beautiful women, thinking that the food will be worse. Is that a good rule or a bad rule?

MEARS: I know this rule, because I was reading that when you published that book. It was when I was doing the field work in 2012, 2013. And I remember reading it and laughing, because you were saying avoid trendy restaurants with beautiful women. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m one of those people that’s actually ruining the food but creating value in these other forms because being a part of this scene and producing status.” So yeah, I think that’s absolutely correct.

And:

COWEN: I have so many naive, uninformed questions, but why is the music so loud in these clubs? Who benefits from that?

MEARS: Who benefits?

COWEN: I find the music too loud in McDonald’s, right?

MEARS: Clubs are also in this business of trying to manufacture and experience what Emile Durkheim would call this collective effervescence, like losing yourself in the moment. And that’s really possible when you’re able to tune out the other things, like if somebody is feeling insecure about the way they dance or if somebody is not sure of what to say.

Having really loud music that has a beat where everybody just does the same thing, which is nod to the beat — that helps to tune people into one another, and it helps build up a vibe and a kind of energy, so the point is to lose yourself in the music in these spaces.

And:

COWEN: Let’s say you sat down with one of these 20-year-old young women, and you taught them everything you know from your studies, what you know about bodily capital, sociological theories of exploitation. You could throw at them whatever you wanted. They would read the book. They would listen to your video, talk with you. Would that change their behavior any?

MEARS: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. They might not be too surprised even to learn that this is a job for promoters, and the promoters make money doing this. Most of them know that. They didn’t know how much money promoters are making. They don’t know how much money the clubs are making, but they know that they’re contributing to those profits, and they know that there’s this inequality built into it.

…in this world, there’s a widespread assumption that everybody uses everybody else. The women are using the club for the pleasures that they can get from it. They’re using the promoter for the pleasures they can get from him, the access. The promoters are using the young women. The clients are using the promoters.

The drawing line is when there’s a perception of abuse. People have a clear sense that lying about being exclusively romantic would be a clear violation, so that would be abusive. But use is okay. Mutual exploitation is okay.

Definitely recommended, a unique and fascinating episode.  And again, I strongly recommend Ashley’s new book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, one of my favorite books of the year.