2/28/08

An Ethicist Extraordinaire and Poulenc Is a Drunken Ape!

We’ve only scratched the surface of ClassicsToday.com, the “online guide to classical music.” The Detritus Review has had some cheap laughs at Executive Editor David Hurwitz’s expense. But there are many, many other contributors.

One such regular contributor is composer, teacher and blogger Daniel Felsenfeld.

Before we get to him, however, I’d like to point out a few things. Classics Today (CT) is, in itself, a wonderful idea. For our benefit, CT rates recordings on two facets, each on a scale from 1 to 10, performance quality and recording quality. According to their review philosophy, found here, they believe that

the performance rating far outweighs the significance of the sound rating.

I would agree. If I were a critic. You can’t dismiss great performances from yesteryear because they didn’t have digital technology.

The best recordings are those in which a listener’s attention is primarily drawn to the music itself. Great sound adds to your enjoyment of the music, bad sound interferes with it.

I applaud their philosophy.

The problem with any rating system, however cleverly devised, is that it tends to place undue emphasis on differences that ultimately may be trivial at best, and misleading or inconsistent at worst. The standard of classical music performance today is relatively high, and the difference between say, a 9 and a 10 may be self-evident to the critic, but either inaudible or irrelevant to another reviewer or to individual listeners. For this reason, whenever possible and appropriate, we include with each review a "reference recording" of the music in question.

Fair and Balanced, if I may use a registered trademark.

You should feel no compulsion to agree with our critics; in fact, disagreeing is equally important, because the ultimate purpose of ClassicsToday.com is to enable you to find the music and recordings that suit your personal taste.

Thank you. I will disagree when I have sufficient cause.

CT elaborates on how we can find recordings that suit our tastes:

by taking the advice of the critics you find sympathetic, and by ignoring the advice of the ones whose perspective leaves you cold.

Sympathetic or cold to my tastes, my perspectives. Good enough, I suppose; it’s a perfectly cromulent foundation for an online site that reviews classical music.

CT even wishes us

Happy Listening!

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Then there is Daniel Felsenfeld.

Listening to the piano music of Salvatore Sciarrino, I was reminded of Truman Capote's excoriation of Kerouac's On the Road: "That's not writing, it's just typing." This is not composing, it's just notating.

On an unsanctioned, imaginary scale from 0 to 0 for compositional quality, Felsenfeld gives this a -i, which is neither here nor there, because the scale doesn’t exist, in this world or his, or Truman Capote’s, which is pretty weird and smoky. Very weird and smoky.

Aside from the early (1983) Sonata II, which is not un-beautiful with its flurrying filigree against dark, lush chords (in a fearlessly heavy-handed live performance by Shai Wosner), these pieces are almost completely devoid of interest.

“Not unbeautiful.” Not unbackhanded.

I was under the impression that by coming to this site, we’d get a fair and balanced review of a newly released recording, based on the quality of performance and sound. Unfortunately, I think that the pieces were so bad, so devoid of interest, that Felsenfeld decided that the most ethical thing to do was to take preventative action by breaking the philosophical bylaws of CT. The ends justify the means. It’s like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We had to do it. Just had to.

Sciarrino has only two gestures at his disposal: the plink and the thunk, with variations of course (such as the ker-plink and the ka-thunk).

Unless you’re John Cage or an imitation, that’s all the piano does: plink and thunk, and the like.

What if I was already a huge fan of Salvatore Sciarrino? Felsenfeld’s crusade won’t be successful. He’s just making this difficult on himself.

The pianists--Nicolas Hodges, Oscar Pizzo, and the aforementioned Shai Wosner--no doubt give committed and accurate readings,

Hey, hey! The performance sounds good. There. Was that so difficult?

but who can know in material this muddled?

Yes. It’s that difficult.

Ultimately, what could have been interesting and artful sounds like Poulenc played by a drunken ape.

Poulenc is a drunken ape! And Liszt has limp noodles!

I was defending Schoenberg's piano music to a student of mine some years ago, a non-musician who after hearing Op. 23 said "I could do that." I led her to the piano and made her try, and she found it not so easy.

You’re so understanding. And you stood up for Schoenberg. What a guy. What an ethical guy.

If she happens to be reading this review, perhaps Sciarrino would be a better place to start. This she can probably do.

Gross. I thought I was supposed to hear something about how it sounded.

Anyways (rolls eyes sarcastically)...

Felsenfeld even gave this recoding a score, because he had to. Let’s see. Oh! A three for performance and a nine for sound quality. That review sounds cold to my tastes.
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5 comments:

AnthonyS said...

Felsenfeld is a good writer, his work on New Music Box is certainly some of the better fare. He's also a good composer-- I just played a piece of his for my class a few weeks ago.

Sator Arepo said...

@ anthonys:

Generally, yes. (We happen to know the gentleman.) And, yes. However, I was glad to see Empiricus excoriate him for this particular piece. He apparently, hates Sciarrino. Fine. But, wow. What a hatchet-job.

Anyhoo,
Sator Arepo

Evil-Lyn said...

First of all, I'm pretty sure that Poulenc WAS a drunken ape. Well, that's what I heard.

At least Felsenfeld writes coherently about his subject -- a rarity as the Detritus Review continues to show. While Mr. Felsenfeld may have not been terribly even-handed in his review (jumping to harsh and unsubstantiated attacks), it does remind me of my own concert going experiences, especially where new music featured -- There is a lot of truly god awful music out there, and everyone wants me to pretend its good.

Every so often I can empathize with a truly scathing review.

Empiricus said...

True. There is a lot of bad music out there, old and new; and most of it does not deserve automatic praise. However, making public aesthetic judgments assumes an air of conceit. After all, who gets to be the final judge of beauty? While I'm not suggesting Dan is arrogant, I am criticizing this particular review's out-of-hand dismissal of Sciarrino's music--the stated purpose of Classics Today is to be fair and impartial to the quality of the music, and to review the performance and sound quality, instead.

I like Dan's blog, too. He doesn't give us many gems like this one. We caught him good.

AnthonyS said...

Nice to hear some sense coming from Snake Mountain these days-- and from Skeletor's own Dana Perino, nonetheless.