Monday, December 30, 2013

Monday Musical Object

Today's Monday Musical Object is...

...the “Original Jacket Collection:  Vladimir Horowitz”.  It’s an impressive chunk of recorded sound, the ten LPs Horowitz recorded for Columbia in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, including the double album of his return to Carnegie Hall, all on CDs packaged in slips printed with the original LP labels.  I got it, on sale, for $25. 

This is a crazy object on many levels.  First, the music.  Wow.  Horowitz.  The colors he could call out of a piano, the drama, the beauty, the charm, just…wow.  Faults may occasionally be found, or violations of modern taste, but they’re rare and subjective.  There’s not much can be said but…wow.

Once the jaw gets picked up off the floor, attention can be paid to the packaging.  It’s quaint.  It does make me nostalgic for the LP format: sleeve pictures could be large enough to be art, and liner notes could be informative.  The art has been shrunk, and the liner notes are still informative but make me reach for my glasses. 

Another thought-provoking feature of this object is the price.  Twenty-five bucks for some of the most amazing performances on record.  This is something that, while great for a consumer, is problematic.  Let’s say I am (as I once was) a young student without much money but seeking to broaden my knowledge of music with a nice recording of some Scarlatti.  I could risk paying full price for a newly issued CD, featuring a pianist who is developing an interesting career—say, the recent recording by Alexandre Tharaud. I could go further out on a limb and buy, at full price, a recording by somebody I’ve never heard of, but who has been picked up by a known label.  Or, I could go and buy Horowitz, for cheap.  Duh.  The only thing the recent recordings have to offer, to the naive, is superior sound quality, which doesn’t count for much in the MP3 age.  A performer today is in competition not just with her cohort, but with a century's ancestors.

So, there’s a final thought this cube of culture knocked out of my head.  On listening to it, it becomes apparent that Horowitz was very much a “live” performer.  There are artists who are at their best in the studio (Glenn Gould is one of many examples).  Then, there are those that you just have to be there for.  These recordings of Horowitz, many from concerts, are great, but it’s clear that the concert experience would have been transcendent. I don't think the attendees would have traded their ticket stubs for a shiny disc.

For about as long as there have been humans, there has been music—and when a human stopped actively making music, the music stopped.  For a tiny smidge of human history, we’ve been able to bottle up this temporal art, and in 2013 I can listen to a concert from 1965 played by a guy who died in 1989.  I’m not a hundred percent sure that this miracle is a good thing.  I have the Carnegie Hall concert playing in the background, and sadly, I’m not really paying attention to it.  I dip in and out—there was a five-minute pause between the last two paragraphs, while Horowitz played the snot out of the Bach-Busoni fugue in c minor—but right now I’m sort of humming idly along with the Schumann Fantasy.  I type, and the combined genius of Schumann and the talent of Horowitz provide nothing more than high-class background noise.  Doesn’t this cheapen the experience of music—especially at $25 for 10 CD’s?

I haven’t resolved this for myself, and in most cases, I don't need to.  There are recordings that I treasure—Horowitz playing the Rachmaninoff 3rd with Reiner, a lot of Glenn Gould’s work, and so on—that I will happily play as background while I muck out a goat pen, but that I also return to again and again, and listen to as hard as I can.  But there’s a separate class of recordings: recordings that I’ve played once, and they knocked my socks off and curled my hair.  Richter and Leinsdorf playing the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, Arrau playing the Liszt 1st Concerto, Godowsky playing the Chopin Berceuse…for some reason, I won't to return to these, though they wait for me.  It seems somehow unmannerly to hear them again, and sacrilegious to contemplate doing anything while they play.  These recordings remind me, paradoxically, that for virtually all of humanity—and probably, those in the audience in 1965—music is played, then stops,

                                           and is never heard again.     

I am curious, if anybody is out there reading this: is there anything transcendent and wonderful you’ve experienced—music, art of any sort, a place, anything—that you have perfect freedom to revisit, but won’t?

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