The Well-Tempered Ear

A lot of neglected classical music should stay neglected

October 3, 2009
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By Jacob Stockinger

Two chamber music events this past week brought up the question of what to do about music that is neglected and disappears from the active repertoire.

Should it be brought back from the dead?

Well, the answer depends.

Last Friday night and Sunday afternoon, I heard the UW Pro Arte String Quartet perform the only work by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (below right) in that genre, his String Quartet in G Minor. Greig

It is a piece that was good enough in its place and day, but doesn’t hold up all that well to the greatest string quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, to name some obvious comparisons.

Still, the Grieg proved a good piece that deserves being brought out of retirement periodically. (The Emerson String Quartet even won a Grammy with it two years ago.) You hear echoes of the Norwegian folk songs in Grieg’s most popular works – the best of the piano pieces, the “Peer Gynt” Suite, his two violin sonatas and the Piano Concerto in A Minor — and the charming salon-like elements that you hear through Grieg, although this piece of chamber music seems more serious and more worked over or crafted for contrapuntal texture than Grieg’s other works.

So, I say I don’t want to hear the Grieg too often, but I do want to hear it every once in a while. It is worthy of at least that much.

On the other hand, on Saturday night I also heard the Ancora String Quartet of Madison perform the String Quartet No. 7 in D Major Op. 192, No. 2 (yes, Op. 192!!!) by Joachim Raff (1822-1882). Raff, below right, was championed by Mendelssohn and Liszt, and he also composed 11 symphonies (Heard one lately? I haven’t.) Raff

To be sure, there was some fine playing and a few moments of fine music in the six-movement work. But for all the popularity of the piece (the music’s narrative concerns a miller’s daughter love and wedding) – in its day, according to the program notes, excerpted movements were often played for encores or weddings – I found it a lesson is why so much classical music is lost, and justifiably lost, to contemporary ears.

It just doesn’t stand the test of time and changing taste.

Nothing about the Raff seemed very durable to me, so I say let it languish in obscurity, food for doctoral theses in musicology.

No offense to the Ancora, but I think they should let that kind of repertoire alone and let it alone so they can focus on better pieces that do more justice to them, to the composer and to their listeners.

Lord knows, there are so many string quartets, great and near-great string quartets, that don’t get heard as often as they should. Plus, a lot of the true rarities are available on CDs now.

One example that comes to mind is the Romantic Piano Concerto series of recording (up to 49 volumes, see below right) on Hyperion. Romantic Piano Concertos

See for yourself:

Hyperion has done a great and invaluable public service by recording these usually neglected works (although I’m not sure Mendelssohn’s concertos count as neglected).

But when you listen to these CDs, you find yourself wondering: How many of these do I really want to hear live?

The answer is simple: Not many.

Oh, I find a Hummel concerto or a Moscheles concerto sufficiently to my liking. But do I want to hear it over the truly great piano concertos by other romantics like Chopin or Schumann or Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff.

Decidedly not. Maybe I want, at best, to hear them live once in my lifetime.

But for the most part, a lot of neglect classical music deserves its fate and should remain neglected.

Are there neglected classical works that you favor and would like to see revived?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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