Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Adventures in Radio

I don't listen to music on the radio all that often, but yesterday as I was scanning the dial, I got pulled in twice, first by a transcription I really didn't like (but which intrigued me enough to listen to the end) and then by a transcription I loved (but didn't get to hear to its end). I'm generally a big fan of transcriptions, and not just of the kooky variety you see in the previous post. They so often provide a fresh perspective on the familiar.

So, what caught my ear first was the beginning of Saint-Saëns' pleasant, if not-so-interesting violin showpiece, Havanaise. I was trying to remember the title (Habanera? No. Pièce en forme de habanera? No, that's Ravel...Havanaise!) during the piano intro when I was surprised to hear a cellist swoop in with the solo rather than the expected fiddle. Within about two measures I was pretty sure it was a Yo-Yo Ma Production; he has a distinctive way of sliding around a little too purposively that seemed like a giveway, not to mention that the poor guy has clearly been bored with the standard cello rep for a long time. Somewhere I still have an old LP version of his take on some Paganini and Kreisler - really not good times.

And that's the thing. Although I studied the cello, married a cellist, and generally love the cello, I just don't think it works out very well in violin rep - maybe with the exception of the Franck sonata, but even that's still better on the violin. The violin simply sounds much more natural scampering around, especially up in the stratosphere. Some of Ma's takes on the Paganini caprices are really frightening sounding, and I say that with all due respect for his tremendous abilities. It's just not music that works on the cello, at least not once you've heard it on violin. And so it was with the Saint-Saens (who did manage to provide cellists with one of the more cellistically satisfying concerti) - the Havanaise should remain a violin piece, if it must be heard at all.

[I've just realized I've taken quite a few little shots at Ma on this blog, which is unfortunate because I really admire him, yet I find him to be a rather tragicomic figure: so good at being a great cellist, but clearly restless, wanting to reach out and be something more. Even the over-the-top manner in which he performs standard rep suggests he can't just be happy playing the cello well - he seems too intent on making us believe how great the music is, even though his playing does that quite well. Generally speaking, I simply haven't been able to get interested in any of his well meaning projects. The "Inspired by Bach" videos seem too contrived. Some of his jazz experiments are just odd-sounding, as I mentioned here. And, of course, he annoyed me no end by participating in Prairie Home Companion's Hymn to Obama. I know this all sounds petty coming from someone who hasn't achieved a fraction as much. Maybe I should just be grateful that my skills as a pianist are finite enough that I'll never be bored with the music on my shelf.]

But getting back to yesterday's radio, I was grateful I stayed with WGBH because next came a scintillating rendition of Beethoven's overture to The Creature of Prometheus in a performance by pianist Cyprien Katsaris. I actually only heard the first part before I had to park and walk to my office. At first I wasn't too disappointed that it had already ended by the time I got the radio back on because I'd already resolved to download it as soon as possible. Sadly, it's not available for download or for purchase except as a cruelly priced ($68.10) used CD. But, trust me, it was pure entertainment. [UPDATE: You can hear it - and much more - here. Thanks, Tulsa Gentleman.]

Anyway, I continue to believe the piano-as-orchestra genre is wildly underrated, and am in the midst of planning some informal noontime performances of the Beethoven symphonies in 4-hand arrangements. There's just something exhilarating about the over-the-topness of that sound. So, if you're keeping score, this pianist/cellist is a big fan of symphonic sounds on the piano, but not such a big fan of violin virtuosity via the cello.

My other recent adventure in radio
came Saturday morning on the drive to my daughter's orchestra rehearsal. I always try to be a good soldier (in what army, I'm not sure) and listen to WCRB's Kid's Classical Hour that airs at that time; it's generally painful on a variety of levels, but Daughter of MMmusing always likes hearing stories, and more than not (when Keith Lockhart isn't breaking out some bold classical word of the day like tempo) they just play one of those Classical Kids stories about wide-eyed youngsters developing spontaneous relationships with the great composers.

So this week we got Tchaikovsky Discovers America. Honestly, it wasn't so bad; there was a cute scene where various snippets from The Nutcracker are inspired by dessert talk (it really connected ideas with music), and there was a moment when an excerpt from The 1812 Overture was playing and I was reminded that, yes, even in that unfairly maligned bit of auditory cheesecake, there are melodies more beautiful than Haydn or Verdi ever imagined. But my favorite moment happened early on as the children usher Mr. T past some "truly American music." You can listen here since, fortuitously, this is one of the audio samples on iTunes. Aside from the painfully earnest dialogue, in which these imaginary 19th-century children of privilege are revealed to be wise beyond their years, we hear Swing Low, Sweet Chariot sung in the kind of polished, pristinely arranged tight harmonies that I'm sure one heard from railway men on every corner in ol' NYC.

Well, I think my snarky work is done here for the day.


Unknown said...

Here it is for $16.99



Wow, thanks Tulsa Gentleman! Clearly I gave up too soon - although, even though I failed the Google test, this will be an interesting test of whether I'm patient enough to await a mail-order CD in this age of instant downloads. Still, what a great website Katsaris has. I may end up spending more than $16.99.