Tag Archives: Classical

[124] Johannes Brahms – The Four Symphonies

21 Aug

I listened to these pieces for 14 hours yesterday.


And while I did at times notice moments of elegance and interest, at the end of the day the whole thing just washed over me unlike waves on a beach.

Yes, unlike – the beach is gradually changed by the water.  I was not.

Perhaps, once more, it is timing.  These large, abstract pieces fare poorly in comparison with the stunning and intimate piano and cello pieces just past.

Or perhaps it is just my mood.  Maybe I’m not feeling symphonies today, or at least not ones which I do not recognize.

And this is the final straw – this lack of recognition, the fact that after hearing each piece half a dozen times and more, I do not find myself humming passages, am not anticipating favorite moments as I did throughout the Beethoven Symphonies, both familiar and new to me.

In picking this Recording for the 1,000 Tom Moon praises the subtlety of the composition and performance.  I guess sometimes I don’t want subtlety.

Sometimes I just want to be hit in the head.

Next Week: Johannes Brahms – Violin Sonatas, Opp. 78, 100, 108

Owned before blogging? No. (11 of 124 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No. (19 of 124 = 15%)
Recommend? No. (102 of 124 = 82%)

[123] Johannes Brahms – Sonatas for Cello & Piano, Opp. 38, 99, 108

14 Aug

This may have been exactly what I needed right now.


In the midst of a hectic and at times overwhelming summer, these contemplative and compassionate tones are literally music to my ears.  Both piano and cello are beautiful in tone and melody, interacting playfully and mournfully – sometimes simultaneously.

For Classical pieces, they sound decidedly modern, the interplay seeming almost Jazz-like.

All here is grace and fluidity which clearly must be a good thing.  It is never obvious who has the lead – the two instruments, the two instrumentalists share the stage equally and effortlessly, revealing a give and take that evokes a powerful sense of balance and harmony.

And the melody!  Each tune tells a story, expressive and enveloping, with enough depth to withstand endless exploration and examination.  I may still be faking it when it comes to the Classics, but I certainly do know what I like when I hear it.

If you believe that you don’t like Classical music, if you have no idea where to start, you could do far worse than taking a listen to these accessible and hugely enjoyable tunes performed with a warmth and comfort which, to my mind, make them essential.

Next Week: Johannes Brahms – The Four Symphonies

Owned before blogging? No. (11 of 123 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No. (19 of 123 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (102 of 123 = 83%)

[90] Hector Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique

26 Dec

I love melody.  I’m not sure how fully I realized this fact until I dug down into the reasons that I found myself unmoved by this Romantic classic.

John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique

John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique

I was fascinated by the backstory – a composer smitten with an actress in her role as Shakespeare’s Ophelia wooing with extravagant song – and the fact that the moral of the story is, “be careful what you wish for.”  I was intrigued to hear the period instrumentation, to explore the “program notes” provided at the premier.

I was excited to hear this piece until the very moment the music began.

I have found myself completely unable to engage, and once again I was not immediately clear why.  The orchestration is familiar, the performances crisp and energetic, and still I find nothing to cling to.  It takes me very many listens to realize at least part of the problem.

There is nothing I can hum along with.

While I am certain others (starting with my very own guest blogger) will disagree, I fail to discover a memorable moment.  This would make for a difficult hour of listening if I only played through one time.

By the sixth or seventh hour I’m just sick of it.

There are notes being played, and they seem to be in pleasing enough combinations.  There are solo sections and wall of sound harmonies.  And after weeks of listening, if I heard a section on the radio or in a store tomorrow, I would not recognize it as Berlioz, let alone as the Symphonie Fantastique . . .

It is an odd thing to admit, and may reflect more of failing on my part than on that of Berlioz, but it is true nonetheless.

Perhaps he can win me over next week.

Next Week:  Hector Berlioz – Les Troyens

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 90 = 10%)
Heard before blogging? No. (12 of 90 = 13%)
Recommend? No. (72 of 90 = 80%)


Guest Blogger Rebecca Safeer: Hector Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique

22 Dec

I love having guest bloggers to provide a different style, a different view on the recordings we are exploring.  This week I am pleased to introduce Rebecca Safeer, who stopped by my office every day during the summer to hear what I was listening to that day . . .


My first reaction to this piece was, “Wow, this is long.”  And it is.  The piece is a little under 50 minutes long.  And that is how many times I probably listened to it.  

Over the past two months the count on my iTunes is at 45.  And after listening to a piece that much I can tell you that it is an amazing piece of music.  At first I didn’t like how long the piece was but I continued to listen to it in its entirety until I appreciated every part of it.   

Symphonie Fantastique is a piece of music from the Romantic period.  During the Romantic period (from about 1800 to about 1910) music was written with an emphasis on color.  The color that a piece of music shows is based on its instrumentation and the range at which those instruments are used.  During this time there was also the discovery of writing what is called program music.  This means that instead of writing a piece of music to show off all you can do with an orchestra or an ensemble, you wrote music based on a story or a theme.   

Berlioz does both of those things perfectly with his Symphonie Fantastique.  You can tell right from the beginning that the score is supposed to be accompanied by some type of story.  Berlioz envisioned a tale of an artist.  And each of the five movements are meant to be the development of this theme and to show various episodes in the life of the artist. 

There are many different sounds in this piece.  There are parts in which it feels like you are at a ballet and you could be floating on a cloud whilst listening to this peaceful music.  Then there are sections with a call and response between the higher instruments and the lower instruments.  However the best part about this piece is how the emotions of the artist that Berlioz is trying to convey come through by listening to the arrangement of the score.  You can feel the pain and suffering through the excitement build up by the horns and the timpani.  You can hear the love and freedom of the waltz theme when you hear the harmonies between the violins.  You can hear the triumph with the beautiful sound of the french horn. 

I absolutely love this piece.  Thanks to Avri for letting me be a guest blogger.  I really enjoyed listening to and learning about this recording.


Rebecca studied Spanish Language and Literature at Stony Brook University.  She has studied music since 4th grade and graduated with a music minor.   

While studying in Barcelona, Spain she kept a blog which can be read here

Rebecca teaches middle school science and is proud to see many of her students’ experiments integrate science and music.

[89] Luciano Berio – Sinfonia for Eight Voices and Orchestra

19 Dec

This is a weird and wonderful ride, energetic and mysterious, by design complex to the point of opacity.

Gotesburgs Symphonika and London Voices conducted by Peter Eotvos

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and London Voices conducted by Peter Eotvos

The designation Classical becomes very difficult when dealing with modern music, and this 1968 work could be a poster child for the phenomenon.  The orchestration is traditional enough, but the use of eight jazz vocalists speaking snippets of text in such a way as to be never fully understood is something else entirely.

It is this “something else” that makes Sinfonia worthy of a listen.  Imagine expanding on the final coda moment of The Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper, into an thirty minute event and you are on your way to understanding what is going on here.

The vocals are urgent and immediate – at times angry, at times contemplative but always incomplete.  They sketch a series of moods rather than telling a concrete story, leaving the details to the listener, guided by the ebbing and flowing of the orchestra.

It is thought-provoking and unique, compelling and surprisingly accessible.  I imagine it would be quite a spectacle to watch in person, but that imaginative aspect is one of the things that make it so enjoyable to listen to.

Perhaps actually seeing the performers would take away some of the magic I experience as I explore these sounds, as I attempt not to completely decipher the (for want of a more accurate word) lyrics.

Both orchestra and vocalists are clearly enjoying themselves throughout here and I find it hard not to get caught up in that joy.  The themes might be tense and hectic – a reflection of the turbulent late 1960s of its composition as well as the uncertain early 2000s of this recording – but the result is a confident exploration of the human condition in the modern world.

It is difficult to be unmoved by a piece that attempts such an undertaking, much less one that succeeds to the extent that Berio does here.

Next Week:  Hector Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 89 = 10%)
Heard before blogging? No. (12 of 89 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (72 of 89 = 81%)

[88] Alban Berg / Igor Stravinsky – Violin Concertos

12 Dec

It takes me only a moment to place why these awkward, off-putting sounds feel so familiar – this is the music that H. P. Lovecraft must surely have been hearing in his head while writing “The Music of Erich Zann”.

Mark Kaplan and the Budapest Festival Orchestra

Mark Kaplan and the Budapest Festival Orchestra

That the short story was written more than a decade before the Violin Concerto is no barrier where the great old ones are concerned . . .

The hauntingly beautiful string sounds are full of unnatural corners and half remembered fears, a stunning juxtaposition of appealing and appalling.  My 5-year-old daughter on hearing this piece could not decide whether it made her sleepy or afraid.

It sketches an image somewhere between terror and the rightness of everything.  Words clearly do not do justice to the complexities, the emotional affect of either the composition or the performance.

The Stravinsky Violin Concerto that follows the Berg – both performed flawlessly by Mark Kaplan – is almost an afterthought under these circumstances, the controversial composer sounding almost traditional after the genius of Berg’s horror.

I am so taken by the Berg piece that I am sure I am not giving Stravinsky a fair shake, but I can’t bring myself to care.  The price of admission was more than covered in the half hour of the opening two movements.

What the Stravinsky does achieve is to allow the listener a return to the mundane world, rejoining reality rather than floating away untethered before the disc ends.

It is almost enough to make you believe the Great Old Ones are real, and still out there dreaming of waking.

Next Week:  Luciano Berio – Simfonia for Eight Voices and Orchestra

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 88 = 10%)
Heard before blogging? No. (12 of 88 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (71 of 88 = 81%)

[85] Benedictine Monks of St Maurice and St Maur – Salve Regina

21 Nov

Dull voices droning on in dull unison for almost an hour.  No passion, no excitement, no thank you.

Gregorian Chant

Gregorian Chants

I have heard Gregorian Chant before – it was hard to avoid it for a while there in the late 80s and early 90s.  Someone made it “cool” in the New Age revival and this sound was all over the radio, TV advertisements, even the pop charts.

It was never a sound that inspired me, but I was more than prepared to give Tom Moon the benefit of the doubt.  After all much of this entire process has been about experiencing the very best of genres I do not know or perhaps even especially like.

And as with all of the albums I find myself unable to recommend, I listened again and again, in every setting and situation I could think of, trying to find an angle, a hook, anything to grasp on to.

I never did find one.

My problem is not that this is clearly religious music.  Even such an Openly Secular individual as I can be moved by religious music (see Missa Solemnis . . .)  For good or ill, religion can provoke strong emotion, and strong emotion is meat and drink to most of the best music.  But in reaching for serenity, the monks here are as far from any emotion as they can be.

I hate pretty much every moment.

Sometimes Electronica or Minimalism removes passion for effect, but in each case the passion is replaced with something, perhaps cerebral or intellectual.  But these chants appear to be reaching for nothingness, for white noise.

I’d rather listen to actual silence.

In the past, when dealing with a Tom Moon selection that I am not enjoying, I research.  I learn the historical importance, the social and musical context.  It is a measure of my frustration with the mediocrity I feel I am hearing here that I cannot summon the desire to care.

It’s just not engaging enough, accomplished enough, interesting enough, flat-out not good enough for me to care why someone might think it important.

There is music I like to drift away to, sounds of contemplation and reflection.  This recording will never join those albums.

It may well be the first recording in the 1,000 I will never listen to again . . .

Next week:  Tony Bennett and Bill Evans – The Tony Bennett-Bill Evans Album

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 85 = 11%)
Heard before blogging? No. (12 of 85 = 14%)
Recommend? No. (68 of 85 = 80%)


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