Guest ColumnistWhat I do and why

What do I do as a music critic? Why do I do it? Perhaps these are questions you have never posed yourself. The more selfless reader, however, might have wondered exactly how I occupy myself in order to come up with the musical selections I present each month. I have been doing this for 15 years. That's a lot of months. You would think that I had nothing more to say; if I were talking about myself, I wouldn't. What I write is only indirectly about me, in that it records my reactions to what I listen to, but it is what I hear that I am trying to describe, not myself. I am just the medium; the message comes from the music and its composer.

Why do I do this? Well, when I first fully experienced great music at about 19 years old -- it was Sibelius's Fifth Symphony -- I was taken so far outside myself that I have never been the same. I liked it out there. I wanted to stay, and I immediately wanted to take others with me. I am not sure that this was an eleemosynary impulse; it was too instinctive. I was more or less driven to it. I started grabbing whomever I could to sit down with me to listen to the Sibelius Fifth: "Let's go to this place far outside ourselves." I sensed it was a better place.

But what exactly happens there? And how does one persuade others to take the trip? This required words. I became a musical travel agent and began writing brochures for my favorite composers. I also began exploring that great beyond -- and, to my delight, there seemed to be no end of it. Music of our own time, which for most of my life meant the 20th century, particularly fascinated me, because I couldn't figure out the prevalence of noise in the avant-garde, as against the beautiful contemporary music that retained its connection with the past and about which no one seemed to know anything. The latter was being ignored. Something had obviously gone very wrong -- and why was almost everyone in the press and in academe calling it right? This led me to acquaint myself with composers personally and to ask them what they thought they were doing. Some of them subsequently became friends. This was a thrill and a privilege, to say the least.

Despite what one might suppose, composers do not usually speak in technical terms of their craft; they speak in terms of ideas and of the spirit. They often sound like philosophers. Some told me that our civilization was going through a spiritual crisis that was manifested in the elevation of ugliness as a norm. The return of beauty, in turn, manifested a spiritual recovery. I was fascinated by the number of contemporary composers who spoke explicitly in terms of spiritual sickness and health. This led to a number of interviews that were later gathered into that last part of my book, "Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music," published by Morley Books.

I, of course, have spoken with many composers who are neither Catholic nor Christian. Invariably, they find their own words to express their longing for the infinite and how beauty serves as a portal to it. Great music has consistently been described in this way. That committed non-Christian Goethe said about Bach's great fugues that "it is as though the eternal harmony has a conversation with itself." And Stravinsky said: "The profound meaning of music and its essential aim is to promote a communion, a union of man with his fellow man and with the Supreme Being."

To write about music, one must listen to it. This is harder than it sounds. There is the Jimmy Carter approach to music -- he had it piped into the Oval Office -- as a kind of aural background. That may be pleasant, but it will not inspire many insights into the music. For that, one must concentrate in the same intense way as one does with a great poem or novel. I don't want to make this sound too grim; I seek opportunities to do it on CDs and at concerts as much as I can. With focus, then, the music begins to "speak," or has a chance to possess you. Then you can write about it. As hard as this can be, it has vastly increased my level of appreciation for music. If I really want to understand a piece of music, I force myself to write about it. Then I inflict the results on you.

Why don't I stop talking about what I do and do it? In the remaining space, here are some recent treasures I can briefly urge upon you -- taken in reverse chronological order. I have been completely blown away by the Violin Concerto by Lionel Sainsbury, on a new Dutton CD (CDLX 7245), with violinist Lorraine McAslan and the BBC Concert Orchestra, under Barry Wordsworth. After listening some six times, completely addicted to the main theme, I finally looked at the CD jacket cover and was shocked to discover that this melodic, syncopated charmer was written in 1989 -- and not in the 1930s or 1940s where I had placed it. It sounds like William Walton at his most rhapsodic. If you want your spirits lifted and your heart warmed, here is the work to do it. Anyone who loves British music will find in this piece a reason to fall in love with it all over again. Gorgeous playing by all concerned.

Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) was a great British symphonist (get the complete set of eleven on Chandos) who also composed four fine string quartets. On Naxos, the Maggini Quartet seems to be the group of choice to record 20th-century British chamber music, and it has now brought to a close its traversal of the Rubbra quartets with Nos. 1, 3, and 4 (8.572555). This is serious, deeply ruminative, and lyrical music, which travels from the melancholic to the ecstatic. At the head of the Third Quartet, Rubbra affixed a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas: "Song is the leap of mind in the eternal breaking-out of sound." As in its other releases on Naxos, the Maggini Quartet is superb.

Another chamber music treat comes from the CPO label, with volume No. 2 of the complete string quartets of Felix Weingartner (1863-1942), who was known as one of the great conductors in the early 20th century. CPO had also released most of his seven symphonies. The few I listened to struck me as derivative and weak. Not so the chamber music. Weingartner was certainly not a trailblazer in his musical techniques, but he possessed contrapuntal mastery and considerable melodic felicity. The Fifth String Quartet is a gracious, genial meeting of Dvorak and Mendelssohn, with Schubert always in the background. The 40-minute String Quintet that accompanies it is an exquisite work that is even more Schubertian (not surprisingly so, as it was written as a tribute to him), with an occasional nod to Wagner. It is irresistibly lyrical and closes with an Allegro that fades mesmerizingly on what sounds like a distant evocation of Shubert's Ave Maria. It is a breathtaking four-minute conclusion that held me in a heavenly trance. This is very special, made so by the fine Sarastro Quartett, with Petra Vahle playing the second viola in the Quintet.

I loved the first two CPO releases of the string quartets of Bernhard Molique (1802-1869), with the Mannheimer String Quartet, and am now delighted to have volume No. 3, with Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. Though Molique was born in 1802, these two works still have one foot firmly planted in the late 18th century (my favorite place to be), and thus are long on charm. If you like Ludwig Spohr or early Beethoven, this will delight you.

Speaking of Spohr (1784-1859), congratulations are due to the Marco Polo label for completing its monumental traversal of all 36 Spohr quartets, after some 20 years of effort, with the release of volume No. 14 (8.225982). I have followed this excellent series throughout and have discovered many gems. Quartets Nos. 31 and 36, performed here by the Concertino String Quartet, are among them. Spohr's last quartet is modeled on Haydn and Mozart. It is distressing to learn that he was so depressed toward the end of his life that he embargoed the performance of this wonderful work, and it was not performed for some 150 years until this recording. It is a very lovely, touching work. Bravo, Marco Polo.

There: I said what I do, and then did it.

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