Sunday, March 26, 2017

a meditation on Schubert's WINTERREISE

Franz Schubert died at the age of 31.

When I listen to his works, a condition of reverence permeates my brain -- a spontaneous, natural hallowing of his memory. He conjured music of deathless beauty. His songs are exquisite spells of melancholy.

I think this book is a good thing, a well-written and thorough appreciation of the great song cycle Winterreise:

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Schumann's SPRING

Robert Schumann's imagistic, programmatic ideas for his Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 38 ("Spring") came to him only after the work was completed.

He suggests for the opening movement a longing for spring. Later in the symphony, a sense of things coming to life. Projected onto the last movement is a sort of in-the-moment melancholy that spring is passing too darn fast.

This is the first symphony I fell in love with. It happened around 1979. I still have this LP, recorded in 1958:

LP - Szell: Schumann Symphony No. 1 "Spring" + "Manfred" Overture - Epic BC 1039

I bought the George Szell and Cleveland Orchestra CD of all the Schumann symphonies:

Schumann: The Four Symphonies; Manfred Overture

I've always had some trouble trying to apply Schumann's after-the-fact spring imagery to this work. Occasionally, I succeed in placing my imagination beside an imaginary winter fireplace -- longing for spring. Occasionally, I succeed in sensing a surge of growth, of vernal energy and bounteous bloom during later symphonic moments. But for the most part, I take in this work as an abstract musical wonder -- I'm stunned by and made captive to high-quality aural structures, oblique emotions, gestural spirits.

amazing and wonderful

I've been a Doctor Strange fan since the Strange Tales comics of the 1960s. The artist Steve Ditko's pocket dimensions back then entranced me, suspended my teenage time, made me strange.

This movie is a quality envisioning, a marvelous homage:

Doctor Strange [Blu-ray]

Monday, March 6, 2017

a thrilling thing

A lot of folks would say that the music of Johannes Brahms is conservative, unadventurous, even formally claustrophobic. During his time, the musical radicals Liszt and Wagner were ascendant and excited the public. But I think the denser, plaintive textures of Brahms are more artistically intrepid and exhilarating than the chromaticism of Liszt and the hyperventilation of Wagner.

Brahms's adherence to certain formal constraints or models didn't prevent him from filling those composition spaces with stunning moments of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic invention. When I say "invention" I mean something unique to Brahms: the coming-to-presence of unusually elevated spiritual substances. Brahms wasn't religious, so when I say "spiritual," I mean something more like "intensively artistic."

Even today -- Brahms. Artistic culture has sadly deteriorated, become facile, hectoring, and ironized nearly to death. And what passes nowadays for a musically thrilling creation, in whatever genre, faints into mediocrity and irrelevancy when set beside Brahms's "String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2."

Here, Brahms goes deep, goes into abstract tissues of subtlest emotion and austerest beauty. What could be more thrilling than that?

Friday, March 3, 2017

perfection happens

Not often. When it does in musical creation, is there a basic principle at work or in play that can be fetched by intuition, proposed by the listening, floating brain?

How about inevitability?

Chopin's "Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1" flows and develops with an organic, unifying complexity of formal elements. Color and rhythm, line and structure, contrast and rhetoric. Also spiritual components -- disquiet and beauty, dream and melancholy, regret and candlelight. These aspects taken together build up a dynamical, living momentum, startling the ear and soul with a sense of ordained emergence, of aural fate.

The effect is like listening to music spontaneously write itself. The artistic logic unspools as if according to a graceful algorithmic compulsion. What we hear could not be otherwise. This night piece defies the natural and usual law of contingency. The fact that it exists is as necessary as time and gravity.

Is paradox also part of perfection? As this nocturne enters and interrogates the evening, a sense of improvisation blends into the destiny of the flowing equation.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Poet Mike Finley -- boldly going where

I'm sort of addicted to the subtly beautiful and semi-mystical poems of Adam Zagajewski. Not all his poems delve into and create toward this effect. But those that do achieve their hold on me owing to his round-about, ostensible manner and quality of saying. Wrapped within that poetic quality is a persistent thematic pulse, which also attracts me. Beneath the banality, absurdity, and morbidity of existence teems another atmosphere of being that Zagajewski presents -- hope.

In my experience, Zagajewski's way toward the poetic and the mystical (are they not almost the same things?) is commendable. Most folks amenable to the poetic-mystical would, I think, appreciate Zagajewski's style and approach. But most folks -- including most readers of poems -- aren't interested in the strange and vague pulsing beneath the everyday. The notion that the world has somehow dreamed us from unknowable matrices of urge, change, music, heat, and psychism has little or no traction on the everyday mind.

So, anyway. Zagajewski pleases me because he has been touched by wonder and beauty, because he transforms the uncanny nature of experience into compact vessels of subtle words. The mystical is an after-tone or back-glow of experience in the foreground. It's an aura or residue. Time and substance are haunted. Apples in a cart on an old street seem to quietly gesture toward the ghostly miracles of ripening and presence.

Then there is another poet who doesn't deflect observations of beauty, wonder, and the mystic into a half-embarrassed, super-subtle reformatting of image and emphasis. He doesn't make those elements of being diffuse because of artistic "good taste." He confronts and presents those elements directly, as if an amateur prophet or unofficial priest.

This is remarkable and unsettling.

Mike Finley manages to directly say the strangeness, wonder, and significance of human being without being a pompous, tiresome jackass. Or without being a super-subtle Polish genius. Such a thing is almost impossible in poetry. Yet Finley, owing to some wakeful quality of spirit or visionary robustness -- pulls it off.

The radical mystic aspect of being that wafts through the ordinary, permeating experience with an implicit teleology activates his poem "Water Hills." First and final causes blend together paradoxically on the liquid horizon of inspired language. Finley doesn't mince words; he states the peculiar fact of the matter (actually, the rising and tides of matter itself). Yet those words vibrate toward us a fainter, unspoken suggestion concerning an invisible hope.

"Water Hills" is a kind of preachment, a heightened observance. The images are somehow documentary and metaphorical at the same time. More surprising, there's no weakening of intention or expression into irony. This is shocking. Nonetheless, we don't shriek and flee. We are, to the contrary, mesmerized during this poem. This is not usual. This is art.

Water Hills

Mike Finley abides in Saint Paul, Minnesota 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Schubert's last three piano sonatas

Which CD set?

That's the question. One must decide or be trapped within a spectrum of faltering discernment, leading eventually to soul-darkening monomania.

Alfred Brendel, Radu Lupu, or Paul Lewis?

Overall impressions:

Brendel -- magisterial, immersive, architectural   
Lupu -- sensitive, poetic, intensive
Lewis -- beautiful, holographic, powerful 

Recorded in 2002 and 2013, Lewis's set benefits from up-to-date engineering -- the clarity is marvelous to behold. Brendel's set was recorded in 1972 and 1975. Lupu's in 1971, 1982, and 1994. But although quality of recorded sound is important, my emphasis here is on interpretive artistry.

In the Sonata in C minor, D. 958, Brendel somehow knows -- spiritually as it were -- when not to pedal. Those rare and ineffable moments are decisive musical effects. In addition, the listener senses that he or she is in the presence of an ineluctable, masterful conception. His is the best version.

In the Sonata in A major, D. 959, Lupu brings this score to aesthetic life as an aural morphing of sunny Viennese moods into a darker rhapsody. Normality, melancholy, and ecstasy blend into an unsettling triplex of intuited Schubertian consciousness. Lupu understands. His is the best version.

In the Sonata in B flat, D. 960, Lewis barely edges out the Romanian. Brendel's version strikes me as more dutiful than profound. Lupu impressively conveys this as a slow-building danse macabre but misses a certain required pulse of deep metaphysical seriousness. Lewis projects this last great sonata as a waking dream, both tragic and cathartic. In the two previous compositions, his beauty, holography, and power are overwhelming. Here, he applies the perfect restraint, bringing those inherent stylistic qualities under control, to proper scale. Schubert's spiritual imagination and precluded time are uncovered and allowed to glow. His is the best version.

Each artist claims one of the sonatas, in my estimation. So what's a soul to do now? If you've got the money, spring for all three sets. Schubert's late piano music is that important. If you can only afford one, I recommend Paul Lewis's set. Why? Because he comes up short by the merest of degrees on D. 958 and D. 959. As mentioned, he's perhaps too beautiful, too holographic, too powerful in those two sonatas.