The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Today is the Winter Solstice and winter officially starts. The Ear greets it once again by listening to Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise.”

December 21, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Despite all the snow and cold of the past few weeks, winter officially begins today.

The winter solstice, bringing with it the longest night of the year, arrives today at 4:44 a.m., Central Standard Time, this morning, Wednesday, Dec. 21.

Winter Trees

To mark the occasion, people often listen to appropriate music such as the “Winter” section of “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi or the “Winter Dreams” Symphony by Peter Tchaikovsky.

Over the past several years, something else has become a tradition for The Ear.

Every year on the arrival of the Winter Solstice, he listens to a recording of the song cycle “Winterreise” (Winter Journey”) by Franz Schubert.

It takes about 70 minutes.

One unforgettable hour plus.

Too bad it isn’t performed live every year or featured every year on Wisconsin Public Radio.

There are so many excellent recordings of the work.

Over the years, The Ear has listened to the songs performed in recordings by Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Haken Hagegard, Mark Padmore, Jonas Kaufmann and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe, who one year did perform it live with pianist Martha Fischer on the Winter Solstice at the First Unitarian Society of Madison *(below) — and it was magical.

Winterreise applause

Yet his favorite remains the version by the English tenor Ian Bostridge with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes for EMI Records. (Bostridge also made one for Hyperion Records with pianist Julius Drake.)

The Ear likes the way Bostridge uses a kind of Sprachstimme or speech singing to bring expressiveness to the music. He also like the touch of lightness that the tenor range brings to the music, which is plenty dark by itself.

Also, every year, The Ear sees if he has a new favorite song in the cycle. But so far he still has two favorites, which you can find on YouTube along with the rest of the cycle.

One is the opening song, “Gute Nacht” or “Good Night.” It is hard to imagine a better way to kick off the mysterious cycle than with such an obviously metaphorical song in which “night” plays so many roles and has so many meanings.

Here it is:

And of course, he also loves the last song, “Der Leiermann” or “The Organ Grinder.” Listen to its alternation with between voice and piano, to that drone broken by silence showing despair, solitude and loneliness, and you understand why it was also a favorite of the great modernist playwright Samuel Beckett.

Here it is:

The Ear wishes you a hopeful winter – despite all the signs that it will instead be a winter of deep discontent – and hopes you will find time to take in “Winterreise.”

It is Franz Schubert’s winter journey.

But it is also my own and yours.

Here is Bostridge talking about what the cycle means to him:

Enjoy.

And tell us if you have a favorite performance of “Winterreise” and why?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Would you like to buy Beethoven for a Buck? Try the complete piano sonatas by HJ Lim and the compete symphonies by Daniel Barenboim.

September 14, 2012
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Do you like Beethoven (below)?

Do you like the 9 symphonies? The Ear does.

Do you like the 32 piano sonatas? The Ear likes many of them, although I prefer all five of the piano concertos to most of the symphonies and most of the sonatas.

But a deal’s a deal.

Would you like to buy Beethoven for a Buck?

Try the digital download of the complete 32 piano sonatas by HJ Lim and the compete 9 symphonies by Daniel Barenboim.

Barenboim (below), the child prodigy pianist and former artistic director and conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is a well-known name.

Pianist HJ Lim (below), however, is a new name and has chosen an ambitious way to become known to the public.

She has recorded and released on EMI all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas. It is a monumental feat that was rare once, but is becoming more and more common.

Here is a link to an excellent story about the new Beethoven releases that appeared on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog. By chance, it seems perfectly timed for the just announced new generation of Apple’s iPods and iPhone as well as the update on iTunes that is coming in October.

Be sure to read the reader comments at the bottom of the blog posting.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/07/16/156843391/beethoven-for-a-buck


Classical music: EMI releases a compilation inspired by the bestselling “Fifty Shades of Grey” novel trilogy.

July 8, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

What is the difference between erotica, soft-core pornography and romance novels?

I’m not sure that I know. I guess it’s whatever is steamy and turns you on — or off.

But I am sure it doesn’t matter a whole lot when it comes to the publishing phenomenon of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy (below), by E.L. James, that has been flying out of bookstores all over the country. Tongues are buzzing, or is it wagging, about the books and their subversive taboo sensuality. (Sounds a bit like all those must-read banned books from the 1950s, no? Are we that bored again in our real lives?) 

So far, it largely seems a women’s phenomenon. Even President Barack Obama said he didn’t know about them, but added in good humor that would ask First Lady Michelle Obama if she had a copy on the night stand at home in The White House.

So far, The Ear has seen no news of her response.

It’s probably safer that way, especially in a campaign year, no?

Apparently, the novels make references to or could suggest quite a lot of classical music. (So, will some libraries ban the music just as they have already banned the novels?)

So now the record label EMI is cashing in on the phenom books by releasing a bestselling “50 Shades of Classical Music” anthology as part of its downloadable “50 Best” series — for $5.99 It has 15 tracks of the music specifically mentioned in the novels plus another 35 tracks that maintain — should we say, prolong — the same kind of experience and atmosphere.

Here are links with more information:

http://www.sacbee.com/2012/07/02/4606087/emi-classics-releases-50-shades.html

http://www.starpulse.com/news/index.php/2012/07/04/check_out_fifty_shades_of_classical_mu

“Experience the Dark Side of Classical Music” runs the advertising.

Hmm—sure sounds tempting. Sexy, even.

So here is a link to the Official Site:

http://www.greatestclassical.com/

It sounds crassly commercial and exploitative – kind of like the books themselves – but maybe that is a wrong or hasty assessment.

What do you think of the books and the idea of a classical music anthology inspired by them?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music news: Chinese pianist Yundi Li leaves EMI and returns to Deutsche Grammophon as his home recording label, according to the Wall Street Journal.

May 8, 2012
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

There is good news to report on the recording front.

As of last Friday afternoon, the Hong Kong-based Chinese pianist Yundi Li (below) – at 18 the first Chinese pianist and the youngest person ever to win the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (he did it back in 2000) – has left EMI and returned to Deutsche Grammophon.

Here is a link to a story in the Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122790914204065299.html

And here is another link to an Asian site:

http://www.asiaone.com/News/Latest%2BNews/Showbiz/Story/A1Story20120507-344346.html

This is good news because he was let go by Deutsche Grammophon when his superstar Chinese compatriot and competitor Lang Lang (below) was the big seller and demanded that Li be let go because Lang-Lang felt there just wasn’t room for two Chinese pianists at DG.

Then of course the best-selling and flamboyant Lang-Lang – nicknamed Bang Bang by some critics — sold out to Sony Classical that had gone shopping for him with a black check. He reportedly settled for a payment of $3 million – during a time when record companies were general cutting back on new releases and in-house artists.

So Li when to EMI, the British label that has had major financial problems recently.

For EMI, he changed his name simply to Yundi and recorded the complete Chopin nocturnes as the first installment of complete Chopin project that never materialized. He then recorded a live recital, with lots of Chopin and some Liszt, in Beijing; then he came up with an all-Chinese recital. All of the seemed like let-downs to The Ear.

Clearly, he seemed headed – steered, should I say — on the path to being the Lang Lang of EMI.

The charismatic and deeply musical Li deserved better than that. And now he has it.

I have yet to see an official announcement from DG or its parent company Universal, so I don’t know whether he will retain how new single name Yundi – which seems too precious and gimmicky — or return to Yundi Li, as I would like to see. (Similar to the way the punky British violinist Nigel Kennedy, below, went by the moniker Kennedy for a while and then came to his senses and returned to Nigel Kennedy.)

According to industry watchers and insiders like British journalist and critic Norman Lebrecht, for DG Li will record first popular Beethoven sonatas (the “Moonlight,” “Appassionata” and the “Pathetique”) and then Beethoven concertos for DG. 

That is a significant expansion of his repertoire and reputation, though his CD for DG of a recital in Vienna suggests those choices will be just fine. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see the results and should mark a major course change for the better in his career. I hope his programs and recordings become more exploratory.

Anyway, The Ear sends out Congratulations to Yundi Li, to Deutsche Grammophon and to all piano fans.


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