Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ducklings and violin sonatas

I'm interested in the idea of musical imprinting: based on an analogy with the idea, borrowed from psychology, "of any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior". I have a special link with the music of the Dave Clark Five in the same way that the duckling has formed a special link with the poor cat in this animated gif:

For some reason most of the online discussions I've read on this topic so far talk about this issue in relation to popular music. My link with the Dave Clark Five is indeed special, since in all likelihood only those who were young teenagers when Glad All Over was a hit would have any kind of positive response to this music today. Thus you can bet that most DC5 fans nowadays are likely be sixty-somethings, like me.

But of course there's imprinting going on in classical music as well. In my late teens our mailman delivered a five-LP set of Beethoven's music every month, recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, in the Time-Life Beethoven Bicentennial Collection. Month after month (17 of them) of great music, even towards the end when I opened up an album of the master's Irish and Scottish Folk Song arrangements, which I've loved ever since.

This resulted in a weird bias towards Beethoven in my music history knowledge. Constantly repeated listening imprinted on me the particular performances. Today I'm likely to listen to Beethoven symphonies conducted by John Eliot Gardiner or Jordi Savall or Gustavo Dudamel, but the right sound, the proper sound for Beethoven's symphonies is Herbert von Karajan. I tend to dislike most of Karajan's music, and I quite despise him as a man. But when I think "Beethoven Symphony" in my mind, I hear the Austrian jet-setter recording this in the DGG studio in 1962:

So the piano sonatas are little ducklings running through my brain after Wilhelm Kempff. The string quartets template is by the Amadeus, the cello sonatas by Fournier & Kempff. And the violin sonatas, which I loved from the beginning, were from the 1970 recording by Wilhelm Kempff, again, and 2016's Centenary Boy Yehudi Menuhin. Listening to one sonata at a time this music might be revolutionary and dramatic, or vulgar and clever, or just heart-breakingly sad.  Listening to them all at once, from op. 12 no. 1 to op. 96, which takes four hours, is like watching a full season of The Wire, or reading The Golden Bowl.

Why the Trip Down Memory Lane before I talk about the album in question, the re-issue of Jane Coop and Andrew Dawes' 2001 Beethoven Violin Sonatas? Well, it's partly because the TDML is part of my schtick by now, but it's also to set up this: when I compared Coop & Dawes to Menuhin & Kempff, I often preferred them to the template in my head. When I preferred the earlier version, I could still admire the decisions the Canadian musicians had made. Music of this quality is as far as it can possibly be from a zero-sum game, so there's plenty of room for Perlman and Ashkenazy, or Kremer and Argerich, or many others. But to have a recording that's new to me push around one of those old imprints? Maybe the brain is indeed more plastic than we used to think. Maybe all that Sudoku is paying off!

I loved this re-release a lot. Hope I made that clear! Here's the first movement of the Spring Sonata, with leaves and blossoms bursting:

The sound of this recording is full, sounding of an open, reverberant space. It was recorded at the First Nations Longhouse at the University of British Columbia, an amazing building. I won't make any claims for a special spiritual connection between Beethoven and the Longhouse, but at the very least it's a space where two exceptional musicians made great music together.

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