It’s been a long, strange gap between top 10 lists here at Everything But the Music, mostly because I like to tell myself that I’m busy and don’t have as much time as I’d like to dedicate to writing. The truth is that I’m lazy and these are a lot of work to compile, fun as they may be. At any rate, with the incredible success the previous lists enjoyed (tens of page views!), I figured now was as good a time as any to dive back in and give the fans what they want, or perhaps the exact opposite of what they want depending on your viewpoint. Without further ado, here it is: the definitive, inarguable list of the ten best symphonies numbered 2. Continue reading
This is the second in a series tentatively called “Erik responds to significant BBC-related items months after people stopped giving a shit.” The first, my take on the Havergal Brian “Gothic” Symphony, can be found here. There is a reason for the delay, however. If I were lying unremorsefully, I would say that it is because I embarked on a massive listening spree of the conductors on the list to better comprehend their respective legacies (in fact, this is somewhat true…I have been listening to the work of the conductors on the list lately, but I only decided to write this two hours ago, so it wasn’t part of some master plan or anything). If I were speaking truthfully, I would say that I spent major portions of the last month-and-a-half watching every episode of “The Wire,” which was one of the five best things I’ve done in 2011 (seriously, if you haven’t watched that show, it is without question the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on television and you should abandon all your obligations to watch it immediately……..after finishing reading this). For reference purposes, the list of the 20 greatest conductors can be found here.
Continuing what has magically turned into a series that I didn’t intend to start, we’re counting down the 10 Best Symphonies no. 3. The field is more crowded than ever, probably uncomfortably so. I had a hell of a time sifting through all these amazing works, and some pieces that I really love got left off altogether. The most interesting trend I noticed in compiling this list was the startling amount of quality Symphonies no. 3 by American composers; it is very clearly a lucky number. Ives, Copland, Schuman, Rorem, Harris, Bernstein, Cowell, Diamond, Ward, Glass, Hanson, Hovhaness, Mennin, and Sessions all contributed strong entrants to the field (clearly I should have just made a list of Symphonies no. 3 by American dudes). Which of these made the cut? Here we go… Continue reading
When I first thought about a countdown of the best symphonies numbered four, I sort of assumed it would flow roughly as naturally as the countdown of symphonies numbered five. I was wrong. What an unbelievably crowded field. Normally I would be inclined to use the “honorable mention” as an excuse to list something that may not immediately leap to mind (as in the Don Gillis Symphony no. 5 ½ on the previous list). But when I made my little chart, there was no room for half-assed attempts at getting Mozart 40 or Haydn 94 or 104, or The Poem of Ecstasy on the list, which kind of blows my mind. Obviously the pool of possibilities swells with the inclusion of Brahms and Schumann, but wait until this thing is done and you see who got left off altogether. Without further hyperbole… Continue reading
A few years ago, some friends and I devised an NCAA-style bracket tournament to determine the greatest composer of all-time through a rigorous series of discussions. The overwhelming majority of humans would likely declare that arguing over who was better/more important between Ravel and Schoenberg is a pointless waste of time. Just because they’re correct doesn’t mean it still can’t have benefits; talking about music, no matter how unusually, is far from pointless.
It is with that same general spirit in mind that I invite you into my world of randomly ranking things like best symphonies based solely on their number. It probably seems like a ridiculous idea, and it is, but it still gets you thinking about great music, and ultimately that’s good. Read this and think about it. Even better, listen to the music and rate for yourself. Think of me as a cult leader and classical music as the cyanide Kool-Aid. Do it now. Continue reading
Opera in the 20th century became totally cool from a plot standpoint. Gone were the days of a plot that really solves itself in 3 minutes but takes 2 and a half hours to get through (she loves WHO?!!), and in its place were plots about all kinds of fucked up shit, with music to match.
Because it was requested some moons ago by someone on something, I have decided to make another list, this time consisting of the 5 best operas of the 20th century. “Why 5?”, you’re not asking yourself right now. Frankly, it’s simple: I don’t feel like I know enough 20-century operas to pare down to 10, but I feel like I know enough to pare down to 5 while maintaining something resembling integrity. With that in mind:
5) Porgy and Bess–George (and Ira…and Ira) Gershwin
If aliens come to Earth intent on destroying us, it is distinctly possible that we could shield ourselves from their hellish death rays and mind control by simply joining in a world wide chorus of “Summertime,” quite possibly the most versatile and oft-interpreted piece of music ever (Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Sublime, AND The Zombies?). But wait, there’s more. “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” ”There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” and on and on. Sportin’ Life is one of the all-time great opera characters (conceived for Cab Calloway as if it weren’t already cool as hell). And it’s historically relevant, casting an eye on the unseen side of life in the slums in the ’20′s.
Recommended Recording: Even though it’s cheating the system a little bit, it has to the Miles Davis/Gil Evans disc. My Lord is it good.
4) The Nose–Dmitri Shostakovich
Before Shostakovich had cemented himself as one of the premier composers of the 20th or any other century, he operated in quite a different sound world. The Nose comes from the pre-5th Symphony days (which seems to mark the cut-off point for a lot of things in Shostakovich) and more importantly squeaks in before Stalin came to power, which needs no further explanation; in fact, it lies between the 2nd and 3rd symphonies (as a reference point) and immediately precedes the infamous Nicolai Malko “bet you can’t re-orchestrate this from memory in an hour” Tahiti Trot challenge in Shostakovich’s opus numbers.
The music is a chaotic hodgepodge of styles, held together by strict musical forms (a concept we’ll see on this list again here shortly). The libretto is based on a short story by Gogol, possibly the best writer in the history of Russia and assuredly the best writer in Russian history if you’re asking me. It tells the story of a St. Petersburg official who manages to lose his nose and watches it achieve a greater social status than he himself before it magically re-attaches itself. Gogol’s ability to write satire is matched by Shostakovich’s ability to create it in sound, an ability Shostakovich would use in his “mature” years to great effect.
Recommended Recording: Rozhdestvensky/Moscow Chamber Theater/Leningrad Philharmonic in a recording of the folks who revived the opera after it was censored, overseen personally by Shostakovich himself.
3) Wozzeck–Alban Berg
The subject matter of this, Berg’s first opera, is quite literally enough to depress a person just by reading it: exploiting the poor (for the benefit of science!), jealousy, insanity, adultery, and the inevitable struggles of literally just existing. The music itself is an amazing exploration of form, with each act being broken up into 5 scenes, and each scene being a unique form. Because it’s such a rad plot and structured so awesome-rad, I’m going to just quote the WikiPedia synopsis, which explains the opera rather well.
Scene 1 (Suite): Wozzeck is shaving the Captain who lectures him for living an immoral life. Wozzeck protests that it is difficult to be virtuous when he is poor, but entreats the Captain to remember the lesson from the gospel, “”Laßet die Kleinen zu mir kommen!”" (“Suffer the little children to come unto me,” Mark 10:14). The Captain greets this admonition with pointed dismay.
Scene 2 (Rhapsody and Hunting Song): Wozzeck and Andres are cutting sticks as the sun is setting. Wozzeck has frightening visions and Andres tries unsuccessfully to calm him.
Scene 3 (March and Lullaby): A military parade passes by outside Marie’s room. Margret taunts Marie for flirting with the soldiers. Then Wozzeck comes by and tells Marie of the terrible visions he has had.
Scene 4 (Passacaglia): The Doctor scolds Wozzeck for not following his instructions regarding diet and behavior. However, when the Doctor hears of Wozzeck’s mental aberrations, he is delighted and congratulates himself on the success of his experiment.
Scene 5 (Rondo): Marie admires the Drum-major outside her room. He makes an advance on her, to which she first rejects but then gives in.
Scene 1 (Sonata-Allegro): Marie is telling her child to go to sleep while admiring earrings which the Drum-major gave her. She is startled when Wozzeck arrives and when he asks where she got the earrings, she says she found them. Though not convinced, Wozzeck gives her some money and leaves. Marie chastises herself for her behavior.
Scene 2 (Fantasia and Fugue on 3 Themes): The Doctor rushes by the Captain in the street, who urges him to slow down. The Doctor then proceeds to scare the Captain by speculating what afflictions may strike him. When Wozzeck comes by, they insinuate that Marie is being unfaithful to him.
Scene 3 (Largo): Wozzeck confronts Marie, who does not deny his suspicions. Enraged, Wozzeck is about to hit her, when she stops him, saying even her father never dared lay a hand on her. Her statement “better a knife in my belly than your hands on me” plants in Wozzeck’s mind the idea for his subsequent revenge.
Scene 4 (Scherzo): Among a crowd, Wozzeck sees Marie dancing with the Drum-major. After a brief hunter’s chorus, Andres asks Wozzeck why he is sitting by himself. An Apprentice delivers a drunken sermon, then an Idiot approaches Wozzeck and cries out that the scene is “”Lustig, lustig…aber es riecht …Ich riech, ich riech Blut!”" (“joyful, joyful, but it reeks…I smell, I smell blood”).
Scene 5 (Rondo): In the barracks at night, Wozzeck, unable to sleep, is keeping Andres awake. The Drum-major comes in, intoxicated, and rouses Wozzeck out of bed to fight with him.
Scene 1 (Invention on a Theme): In her room at night, Marie reads to herself from the Bible. She cries out that she wants forgiveness.
Scene 2 (Invention on a Single Note (B)): Wozzeck and Marie are walking in the woods by a pond. Marie is anxious to leave, but Wozzeck restrains her. As a blood-red moon rises, Wozzeck becomes determined that if he can’t have Marie, no one else can, and he stabs her.
Scene 3 (Invention on a Rhythm): People are dancing in a tavern. Wozzeck enters, and upon seeing Margret, dances with her and pulls her onto his lap. He insults her, and then asks her to sing him a song. She sings, but then notices blood on his hand and elbow; everyone begins shouting at him, and Wozzeck, now agitated and obsessed with his blood, rushes out of the tavern.
Scene 4 (Invention on a 6-Note Chord): Having returned to the murder scene, Wozzeck becomes obsessed with the thought that the knife he killed Marie with will incriminate him, and throws it into the pond. When the blood-red moon appears again, he wades into the pond and drowns. The Captain and the Doctor, passing by, hear Wozzeck moaning and rush off in fright. The orchestra rise during the drowning is quoted in Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” (1968–69).
Intermezzo (Invention on a Key (D minor)): This interlude leads to the finale.
Scene 5 (Invention on an Eighth-Note moto perpetuo, quasi toccata): Next morning, children are playing in the sunshine. The news spreads that Marie’s body has been found, and they all run off to see, except for Marie’s little boy, who after an oblivious moment, follows after the others.
Recommended Recording: Claudio Abbado/Vienna State Opera
2) Salome–Richard Strauss
Sometimes when you baptize Jesus, you totally become famous. So much so that chicks start demanding your decapitation as a test for the creepy desires of their stepdad. Salome is based on the Bible by way of Oscar Wilde (that’s weird to type), and has everything you’d ever want in an opera, including nudity (which is great unless Birgit Nilsson happens to be in town), shield-crushing, veils, and King Herod. Strauss’ music is Strauss’ music, which is to say lush, evocative, and entertaining. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” is one of the great pieces of music, evidenced by the fact that it’s excerpted all the time, and the final scene is the craziest soprano lunacy this side of Brunnhilde taking a perfectly good horse with her into a huge fire. There’s something about the shock value that occurs when the story unravels…no matter how many times you see it, and you know what’s coming, you still feel completely repulsed, terrified, and enthralled all at once. Think of it as the Maury Povich “Who’s the father?” episode of opera. Shit, I should make an opera out of the transcript of one those…a new project born right before your very eyes. Your very eyes!
Recommended Recording: Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic and the only Jokaanan worth really sinking your teeth into…or cutting the head off of…Jose van Dam.
1) Bluebeard’s Castle–Bela Bartok
The beauty lies in the simplicity (that’s fucking ingenious if I understand it correctly, Walter…it’s a Swiss fucking watch). 2 onstage characters, 1 large set, 1 act, 1 hour. Bluebeard elopes with his new wife, Judith, and takes her back to his sweet pad (the importance of the castle is duly noted by Bartok, who actually lists it on the dramatis personae list…which is cool and creepy at the same time). Once there, Judith wants some natural light and begs Bluebeard to open some doors, but he refuses. She keeps nagging him until he gives in, making their relationship just like every other relationship ever, and we start seeing shit behind doors.
The doors and rooms all have colors associated with them, as follows:
- (The torture chamber) Blood-red
- (The armory) Yellowish-red
- (The treasury) Golden
- (The garden) Bluish-green
- (The kingdom) White
- (The pool of tears) Darkness; the main hall is darkened, as if a shadow had passed over
- (The wives) Silvery
Blood stains everything she sees, and her mind begins to piece everything together. By the time she sees the pool of tears, she knows what’s up, but demands to see the 7th door opened. If there was anything that would be cooler than Bluebeard having killed all his wives…it would be making them wear heavy-ass jewelry and crowns and shit, worshipping them, forcing Judith to join them, and then locking them up (I hope my girlfriend isn’t reading this…I don’t have a castle anyway).
The minor second plays a huge role musically…they call it the blood motif, as you hear it anytime Judith notices blood on Bluebeard’s stuff. There is a broad arching key structure of F# moving to C and back to F# which some people apparently think represents darkness and light, and which, now that I think about it, makes perfect sense. That type of synergy is what makes this the best opera of the 20th century…it has so many awesome puzzles in it, it’s as ominous a story as you can imagine, and it has the benefit of Bartok at his “A” game.
Recommended Recording: Istvan Kertesz/London Symphony with Christa Ludwig as Judith and Walter Berry as Bluebeard, and also Walter Berry looking VERY suspiciously like a modern day Bluebeard taking women back to his apartment and acting inappropriately on the Decca Legends cover photo.
There it is. I issue apologies to every Britten opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Elektra, The Rake’s Progress, Lulu, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Rusalka, Tosca, Jenufa, The Golden Cockerel (the suite is one of my all-time favorite pieces, though), The Love for Three Oranges, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany, Moses und Aron, Antony and Cleopatra, Turandot, Die tote Stadt, and The Cunning Little Vixen. I literally immediately regret my list not having Britten or Janacek on it. But it’s too late…I’m already wearing the heavy-ass jewelry.
Or concerti to the informed, pedantic wordsmith.
This week I played a concert featuring the Dvorak Cello Concerto, played fabulously by a gentleman named Matt Johnson, a member of the Kansas City Symphony. Very musical, sweet tone, good approach to the piece…I enjoyed it immensely. It got me thinking to myself…
What if I were to combine my love for music with my love for ranking things and compiling lists in an entirely subjective fashion? We needn’t wonder what that would look like any longer, because I intend to start right now with a look at the 10 Best Concertos.
When I was a young, inexperienced horn player, I would often complain that the concert halls were constantly filled with solo appearances by violin, cello, and piano. My reasoning was simple: they’re flashier instruments than horn, trumpet, oboe, or flute. It wasn’t very long that I discovered the truth: the music written for the big 3 solo instruments is light years better than most everything else. There are some exceptions, but overwhelmingly the music is of vastly superior quality.
My ranking system is based on many complicated factors, ranging from how I feel about these works to how I feel about these works in relation to one another to how I feel when I perform or listen to these works. Bearing that sophisticated criteria in mind:
Carl Maria von Weber–Concertino for Horn and Orchestra
Because it has to be listed somewhere, I’m making an honorary no. 11. If you don’t know this piece, look into it. Terribly difficult for the soloist (IMO much more so than other examples like the Gliere or Strauss 2nd), but genuinely one of the most delightful pieces of music regardless of period, style, or genre. And as if charm weren’t enough, Weber uses multiphonics in the cadenza, where by the hornist plays a pitch and hums a note at the same time to create chords…only about 120 years ahead of its time.
Recommended recording: Hermann Baumann, Masur/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Purportedly an introspective look at the feelings Elgar was dealing with while confronting the post WWI scene and his own mortality, it certainly is a burdensome work in many respects, but in all good ways. At times heavy, at times lighter than an insect, at all times filled with Elgar’s mastery of texture and orchestration, and a great solo part. A glass case of emotions…anybody?
Recommended recording: Jacqueline du Pre, Barbirolli/London Symphony
Robert Schumann–Piano Concerto
It’s hard to imagine a more arresting beginning to a piece of music…huge chord, awesome descending line in the solo piano, gorgeous oboe melody (when is an oboe melody not gorgeous?). Quite literally a perfectly constructed piece, perfectly paced, and with a perfect balance between solo and orchestra. Why is it ranked 9th? I don’t know.
Recommended recording: Sviatoslav Richter, Matacic/Monte Carlo National Orchestra
Samuel Barber–Violin Concerto
The 2nd movement is in the running for best movement on this list (what was that about gorgeous oboe melodies?), but the whole concerto is bad ass. Like most everyone else, I find the 3rd movement a little disjointed in comparison to everything before it, but it’s also about the most exciting 4 minute moto perpetuo you’ll ever hear.
Recommended recording: Elmar Oliveira, Slatkin/St. Louis Symphony
Alexander Arutiunian–Trumpet Concerto
Insane? Yes. But it is my favorite wind concerto, bar none. Written for the unrivaled king of Russian trumpet players, Timofei Dokschitzer, it has everything you’d want: flash, drama, huge trumpet sound, some really sweet legatos, and an awesome cadenza. It doesn’t hurt that the beginning grabs you by the throat and holds on for the entire 20 minutes. Look into this, stat.
Recommended recording: Timofei Dokschitzer, Rozhdestvensky/Bolshoi Theater Orchestra
Pitor Ilyich Tschaikovsky–Violin Concerto
Dismissed as too difficult by a few soloists, Adolph Brodsky (yes, THE Adolph Brodsky) premiered the piece with Hans Richter in 1881. Eduard Hanslick thought it sucked, but he thought Wagner sucked too, so he’s kind of an idiot on occasion. Turns out they were right about it being difficult, but it’s also awesome. A good friend once compared this piece to a blonde porn star with huge, probably fake boobs, and I like that comparison (not so crazy about blondes or huge, fake boobs, but whatever). Flashy, yes, but popular with good reason.
Recommended recording: David Oistrakh, Rozhdestvensky/Moscow Radio Symphony (DVD)
Dmitri Shostakovich–Piano Concerto no. 1
Written early in his career, before his friends all got killed and Stalin was mean to him (as a wise man once told me). Which only proves that he could write heart-wrenching and satirical music regardless of the political circumstances. ALMOST a double concerto, but at any rate featuring a prominent trumpet part. The last movement quotes Haydn, marking a meeting of two of the all-time satirists in music history. This piece is gold.
Recommended recording: Mikhail Rudy, Jansons/Berlin Philharmonic/Ole Edvard Antonsen
Sergei Rachmaninov–Piano Concerto no. 2
Popular with Hollywood, appearing in almost a dozen films, including the dreaful Spider-Man 3. Written after Rachmaninov had overcome writer’s block and a little bit of clincial depression for good measure. The 1st movement might belie that a little bit, but the 3rd movement is quite simply one of the most alluring movements in all of music, with a theme as eminently whistlable as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the standard for classical whistling.
Recommended recording: Jeno Jando, Lehel/Budapest Symphony
Johannes Brahms–Violin Concerto
On the subject of pieces being perfect… Like so much of what Brahms wrote, this is perfect. Great orchestral introduction, the greatest solo entrance in the repertoire, and a huge movement constructed with a complete mastery of form. Beautiful 2nd movement (with a gorgeous oboe melody!), and a gypsy-ish 3rd movement which I almost always associate with There Will Be Blood now (I’M FINISHED!). I feel guilty not ranking this #1, and I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable not doing so, but my gut is huge and tells me otherwise…
Recommended recording: Nathan Milstein, Steinberg/Pittsburgh Symphony
Antonin Dvorak–Cello Concerto
A piece to be admired for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is conviction. Written for the composer’s cello-playing friend Hanus Wihan (with some input from Victor Herbert, the Babes in Toyland dude!), Dvorak emphatically rejected the suggestions made by his friend after the premiere (most notably for a cadenza in the 3rd movement). Good call, because it’s an amazing piece as is. Tuneful, grand, folksy, everything you love about Dvorak.
Recommended recording: Mstislav Rostropovich, Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic
Jean Sibelius–Violin Concerto
An incredible journey. The 1st movement sounds absolutely 1000% like what I imagine Finland to look like…desolate, peaceful, turbulent, icy. It’s a really haunting movement all around, and yet it has that borderline cartoonish 2nd section with the bouncy flute melody. But that’s why we love Sibelius. Beautiful 2nd movement. The 3rd movement has more energy in 7 minutes than some composers mustered in their entire careers. And the last 2 minutes of the concerto are almost certainly the music that will usher in the return of Jesus, assuming he takes the form of Lemminkäinen somehow. They sound brutally unplayable, and yet also the baddest ass shit ever in the hands of a master.
Recommended recording: Jascha Heifetz, Hendl/Chicago Symphony
Let the record show that I acknowledge: the Haydn Cello Concerti, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the Beethoven Violin Concerto and, frankly, all 5 piano concerti, 2 dozen Mozart concerti for various instruments, the Grieg Piano Concerto, the rest of the Rachmaninov piano concerti, the Berg Violin Concerto, the Shostakovich and Prokofiev violin and cello concerti (or Sinfonia Concertante in Prokofiev’s case), a lot of Bach and Vivaldi, the Brahms Double, and the Ravel G major. Also let the record show that Schelomo isn’t a concerto, which is how I’ll be able to sleep tonight.
See you next time I randomly list 10 things I the order of my choosing!