I did read a review of Mozart recordings that spawned a reaction, though not a clear one. I'm not sure quite why, but I'm never quite trustful of articles that appear in journals and magazines like Slate—they're usually interesting, but I can never avoid a nagging feeling that there is something partially unrevealed (or maybe it's wholly revealed but I don't discern it clearly). Even though the contributions are usually well-written, researched, clearly expressed, etc., I get the feeling that there remains an unrevealed something behind an unrevealed curtain—a political rag that doubles as cultural critic? too much East Coast? too much canon? (even though it has funny bits about how to survive too-falutin' cocktail parties) Maybe it's just the threatening aggressivity of the name. . . . Anyway, Marc Geelhoed, a Chicago music critic and blogger, responds to three recent CD releases from the label Deutsche Grammophon (DG).
I haven't yet mentioned the overzealousness of response to this Mozart year—see him rolling his eyes in Vienna this spring (at right)? Even Mozart has had enough. It's great that so much attention is being paid to a composer (there is even a book about Mozart and Brno!), but in Vienna you might not be mistaken in thinking that he is the only great thing that the city has ever produced, apart from large helpings of sugar and whipped cream in your coffee alongside a slice of Sacher tort. True, they have tourism to think of. The review (and the CDs covered) is a symptom of Mozartitis: Geelhoed discusses three new recordings (3!) of one (1!) Mozart sonata, all by pianists (otherwise they wouldn't be canonic recordings), that have been released even though recording companies could try something new (and perhaps a few different instruments for a change). Why, I ask, don't they record something else? Geelhoed answers:
All those Mozart recordings exist because Mozart has won a place in the Classical Music Hall of Fame (also known as "the canon") and because pianists have found methods of playing his music in their own ways.
I suspect it's more due to the former reason since the classical music audience that buys recordings is negligibly small for any of the large recording labels (one of which DG, which only records classical, must be a subsidiary of). But how DG stays afloat charging such outrageous prices for day-old music when labels with fresher selection and more attractive prices abound (e.g., Naxos), is beyond me. Apparently enough people buy them—even I have a few, because they usually are great recordings, though also staunchly stodgy as well. DG, though, is about the most canonical classical music label one can think of.
Speaking of canons (of any sort, really) usually makes me nervous. I resent canons, and the way that there are revered is absurd—not because the concept of artistic and cultural categories is wrong (is there any other way for us to incorporate new things than to compare them with what we've already experienced?), but because of the inherent valuation that comes along with "canonization." The blithe way that Geelhoed mentions "the canon" as if its existence is a given and as if we should all know exactly who's made it in, is not just frustrating but condescending. First, there is no "Hall of Fame"—if anything, it's more like a mausoleum. Second, mentioning this "canon" in quotes and in a parenthetical aside clearly excludes the reader from "classical-music afficionados" (mentioned at the end of the review) by making sure it is clearly revealed, yet in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink kind of way. But perhaps, if it's in quotes, then it doesn't exist? But then why would he have mentioned it in the first place? And, if not the canon, then what explains the existence of these recordings?
Geelhoed ends with a more pragmatic observation: "Which recording of the three mentioned above is the best? Which one did you prefer? That's the one." Though avoiding the question, Why did you prefer it? (which can lead in more directions than the canon, I suspect), he does hit on a truth of listening: it's good because there's something you liked about it. And it's not a crime to try to articulate this something.
I was reminded of the way Peter Shickele—on his show Shickele Mix, which he said was "Dedicated to the proposition that all musics are created equal"—used to invoke Duke Ellington with the quip: "If it sounds good, it is good."
But never fear, views to balance the canon are never far away in the blogosphere. For a dose of humor in this rather dreary, serious world of (serious ) music reception, I've found the curious, obscure "Classical Pontifications" blog a welcome antidote.
Of course, Prof. Shickele is pretty hilarious too, which you can see from his Web site.
Tags: music, canons, discursions, reviews