THE ALAN’S ALLEY A-LIST
The Alan’s Alley of time past was differently spelled. Its citizens were a colorful lot; one of them – Minerva Pious, aka Mrs. Nussbaum – became a dear friend in my early New York days. My friends in the new Alley are no less colorful: Mozart, Monteverdi, Offenbach, Golijov, Schubert, Thurber, Sturges, the Renoirs Jean and Pierre, the Bergmans. My lists are not necessarily “ten best”; they are of no predetermined number. They are cumulative; I add — or subtract – at will. At 84 I find that my memory has become more interesting than ever. I often wake up obsessed with some movie I saw 70 years ago, not since, which I now remember in exact detail, even who I saw it with — or some piece of music, the same. Then I often make the mistake, since the archives of CDs and DVDs are so lavish nowadays, of trying to re-visit that too-fondly-preserved memorabilium, only to come up against one sad shock after another. Therein lies the danger in exactly the kind of list-making I intend to launch upon in this space.
My lists are not of any series of provable “bests”; they are of works created by people I respect, which have made my process of getting from day to day a lot more rewarding than it might otherwise have been. In case you want to share that process, you’ll find Amazon’s pictograms alongside the items still in circulation, with room for pleasant company. Come along.
Mozart: Quintet in G minor, K. 516: Indispensable. About the personal torments that inflame this disturbed (and disturbing) outpouring – from the time also of Don Giovanni and of two other quintets (K. 515, 581) of comparable power to shock and exhilarate – I can never stop writing. (I did just last week, in fact, when the Calders played it at Zipper Hall.) There is a moment in this work that sticks with me. I wrote the following vignette first in 1971, and copied it into the preface in my book whose title this website has filched (So I’ve Heard, Notes of a Migratory Music Critic, Amadeus Press, 2006):
Form in music is often written about and discussed, but not very well understood. It is overtaught, or badly taught, in music-appreciation classes. “Gotta know your classic forms before the final!!” I once heard an academic colleague screaming at some hapless student, thereby losing another potential music-lover from the ranks. Form is simply the logical way in which the memory is engaged in the listening process. The composer makes certain basic statements at the onset of a piece—a melody, a key, a tone, a rhythm—and then involves us in tracing the course of events as he intensifies this material, varies it, departs from it, and (if he chooses) returns to it. Composers of Mozart’s time tended to cast their music in fairly clear forms, just as many architects of the time were obsessed with making everything look like the Parthenon; that is why the period is called “classical.”
Mozart towered above his contemporaries, because he thought up better musical ideas, and also because he refused to be complacent toward the artistic rules of the time. He had the vision to see the infinite variation of detail that these rules actually allowed. Let me try to describe one event in a work particularly precious to me, the slow movement of the G Minor String Quintet (K. 516). The movement is in the key of E-flat major, and according to what we know from books (and what Mozart knew from his own sense of logic) we can expect the music to move from an initial statement in that key, through a harmonically unstable period of modulation, to a second stable area in the closely related key of B-flat major (the “dominant,” your textbook will call it). Mozart doesn’t exactly do that, however. The somber, elegiac nature of his material leads him (or he leads it; it doesn’t matter) to the key of B-flat minor. Now, if you take the two scales that start on the same note—B-flat major and minor—the most striking difference between them is the third note: D-natural for the major, D-flat for the minor. The passage in B-flat minor has been hushed, saddened, centered around the lower end of the range. Now something miraculous occurs: the first violin soars up to the top of its range with a lyrical, ecstatic melody that begins on a D-natural, thus setting in the strongest possible light the fact that Mozart has now, finally, shifted to the major key. All he has done here is to expand, or bend slightly, the standard attitude of his time regarding key relationship. But he has also created, within classical convention, a sudden, startling drama. If I had to choose a favorite single note in all music, it would be that high D-natural in Mozart’s Quintet. (New York magazine, January 25, 1971)
See also my note on the Quintet, in the Blog titled “Devastation” (March 22)
Bach: Cantatas for the 15th & 16th Sundays after Trinity: Nowhere in the Bach legacy is the richness and breadth of his own musical imagination better revealed than in the Cantatas he produced for his various church posts: at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in his culminating years, but at other courts and congregations before as well. The most moving, stirring – even if, by our modern standards often naïve – of these works are those in which the soul of the earthly questioner confronts the divine answerer. “Dear Lord, When shall I die?” “Liebster Gott, wann werd’ich sterben?” asks the soul on earth, in Cantata No. 8 – Bach’s numbers do not run chronologically, by the way — and the series of answerers not so much answer the question as respond “Why worry?” There are harmonic twists in this work so lush that they transport you across centuries, and I also love these live-performance recordings by John Eliot Gardiner, his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists as they travel from one great European church to another. The album photography is also gorgeous.
Salonen: LA Variations: By 1997 Esa-Pekka Salonen had made the Los Angeles Philharmonic relevant, to its city and to the possibility of a future for classical music in a community. Critics from beyond the mountains were dropping by, and they were writing about glowing musical activity in Los Angeles as a “continental shift.” The young Salonen had arrived with a nice portfolio of solid compositions learned in the best European classrooms, but a November night in 1997 marked a turning point: real symphonic music such that cast pride on its composer, his orchestra and the city that gave him a standing, cheering ovation at its premiere. Other splendid music surrounds this one strong new work on this disc: Mania, a dazzling cello concerto for the Finnish virtuoso Anssi Karttunen, Giro and Gambit, fanciful short orchestral pieces, and the Five Images After Sappho, marking the start of a glorious partnership with the American soprano Dawn Upshaw.
Mahler: Symphony No. 9: A lifetime and a musical era end in the quiet, solemn tones of a solo cello. An hour before, Mahler had raged, shaken his fist, grimaced sardonically. Now he has abandoned the battle, and has taken us along with him in this haunting journey of resignation and farewell. There would be an attempt at a Tenth Symphony, but the tired heart begins its throb in the gentle, reflective moments of the first movement, rises up in anguish, settles back. The sorrow, tinged with irony and resignation, is mirrored in a small book you cannot put down: Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by the late Lewis Thomas, cancer pathologist and troubled humanitarian, words written in terrifying poignancy about the burden of being young in a nuclear age.
Smiles of a Summer Night: In 1955 Ingmar Bergman, having already drawn the outlines of mortality in the stark tragedies of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, created the perfect human comedy in this marvelous roundelay of matched love games set among the layers of Swedish society on a sublime Midsummer Eve. there is no music here — except when Eva Dahlbeck holds us spellbound with a German ballad out of nowhere — yet the symmetry, the perfect balancing act here cannot help but bring to mind Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, and Steve Sondheim came even closer to proving this when he turned the film into hs own masterpiece A Little Night Music. That, alas, ended up as a horrendous Elizabeth Taylor film. My other perfect comedy, if you should ask: Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve; in these hard-pressed times, it’s comforting to revisit a time when the swindle could still undergo treatment as high art. Just that infinitesmal twist of Barbara Stanwyck’s lower lip reminds us of an art form now, alas, vanished into a time now forgotten.
Schubert: Quintet in C: There is no way to explain the surge of creative energy that overtook the frail frame of Franz Schubert in the year of his death; we just accept, and marvel. On a Sunday in 1951 I climbed Mt. Tamalpais with friends in the afternoon, and heard the Hollywood Quartet with Kurt Reher — studio musicians who had formed a “serious” ensemble of extraordinary sensitivity — play the Schubert Quintet at night, and the memory of that day will always remain. (There are other excellent performances, but none like this, none that sustain the lyric line of the slow movement as these people did.
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro: From the loving bylay of the opening duet to the hymn of forgiveness that makes things (temporarily) all right at the end, Mozart’s music achieves the miracle of endowing its stage-full of varied personages with the spark of life that forms the essence of human, breathing grand operatic drama. The music commands and shapes time, and every one within that continuum experiences genuine emotion. Above all else, this is my desert island opera — except that I would need more than one performance: the beautifully clean-cut Cologne ensemble under René Jacobs and, on DVD, the spacious Royal Opera erformance under Pappano, with the endearing Figaro of Erwin Schrott, and that enduring classic of all classics: the marvelously detailed, dramatically urgent performance under Erich Kleiber (father of Carlos), with Cesare Siepi as the Figaro for all seasons.. Ah, the luxury of choice!