The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The music is ALWAYS more important than the performer or performance. That’s good to remember especially during holiday gift shopping.

December 24, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, here we are — down to Christmas Eve, down to the last shopping day before Christmas.

Then, of course, after the holiday and gift-giving comes the chance to redeem all those gift cards and spend all that cash.

In past weeks, I have offered a series, compiled by distinguished critics from The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine to NPR and the list of Grammy nominations , of suggested recordings from 2011 that would make fine holiday gifts for classical music lovers.

Here are links to those posts:

But I recently ran across this review by Alan Elsner of a single upcoming release. It reminded that in many cases you can and should ignore the experts, and instead simply obey your own impulses.

It is good to remember that the music is ALWAYS more important than the performer or performance.

The great pianist Artur Schnabel said something similar when he remarked that great music was frustrating to work on because it was always better than it could ever be played.

In this case, the review is talking about a new recording of French music by Saint-Saens, Franck and Ravel for Sony by violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. (Unfortunately, it won’t be released until Jan. 10, so don’t look for it in time for the holidays. That seems bad consumer timing from Sony, no? Maybe Grammy Award eligibility has something to do with that.)

There is a local tie-in, by the way. Both Bell and Denk (below, teaching a student master class in Madison) have appeared together and separately in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater. And the violin sonata was recently heard in a transcription for cello on “Sunday Live From the Chazen.”

But what struck me about this review was the depth of commitment the review felt toward the music – in this case, the famous Sonata for Violin and Piano by Cesar Franck (below), a certified masterpiece. And that is, I think, a very important lesson to remember.

If certain piece of music has special meaning for you, then even an old recording of it makes it a gift from the heart and to the heart, as Beethoven once described a major composition he had written. To give music you really love is to give a piece of yourself.

For me, that would be, among many others, Bach’s Partita No. 2 for keyboard, Cantata No. 147,  and the “Goldberg” Variations; Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27; Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Op. 109 and 110 plus his Piano Concerto No. 4 and Symphony No. 7; Schubert’s last two piano sonatas, two Piano Trios and Cello Quintet; Chopin’s Ballade in F MinorScherzo No. 3 and Sonata No. 3; and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, Piano Quintet in F minor and Symphony  No. 4.

I would be lying if I didn’t say I have favorite performers and performances, among them Arthur Rubinstein (below) in Chopin and Brahms.

But I would also be lying if I didn’t stay that I knew and loved the music before I knew and loved the performer, and that I have heard many performances in those works and liked them. The music elevates the musician.

In any case, I like the personal quality and commitment you find in this review. I hope you find it as appealing and convincing as I did. It brings us back to the basics of music – which is not to nit-pick over which performance is the best or is somehow definitive, though performances can indeed make a different in our appreciation, but instead to guide us to the greatness of the music.

Here is a link to the review:

Still, if you need more help, here is one person’s general list of the Best 100 Best Classical Works – without specific artist or performance performances, or without being confined to the past year.

And here is a list of the all-time top classical recordings that is not limited to releases this past year:

Happy hunting.

And happy listening.

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