Here are four recently-published books and four new classical music albums that I have greatly enjoyed this past year…
I’ve read several excellent biographies (and one great autobiography) this past year. Foremost among the former is Jan Swafford’s magisterial Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, which could easily be termed the definitive biography of perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived. Mr. Swafford demonstrates a penetrating understanding of the composer’s temperament and his oeuvre. He rejects the common idea that Beethoven was a “Romantic” or a “revolutionary,” instead deeming him a “radical evolutionary,” who built upon the traditional musical forms perfected by his contemporaries, Haydn and Mozart. Non-specialist readers may find Mr. Swafford’s detailed, technical analyses of the music itself too difficult and disruptive of the narrative flow, and other readers may find off-putting the occasional evidence of the author’s anti-Christian bias; yet the former greatly enhances our understanding of the composer’s genius, and the latter may only slightly color the author’s conclusions about his subject’s religious works, particularly his late Missa Solemnis, which Mr. Swafford sees less a religious utterance than a personal one. (Beethoven was a baptized Roman Catholic but did not practice the faith, though he did believe in God’s active involvement in human affairs and did allow a priest to administer Last Rites to him on his deathbed.) One comes away from Mr. Swafford’s biography newly impressed by the achievement of Beethoven the composer and with an intimate familiarity with Beethoven the man—prone to angry outbursts and egotistical (Haydn referred to him as “The Grand Mogul”), but also quick to contrition and possessing a generous spirit.
Michael Korda’s Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee is an even-handed assessment of the legendary general (and perhaps our greatest American), which resists the hagiographical temptation, but which makes no secret of the author’s admiration of his subject, whose very nobility, Mr. Korda argues, lent dignity to the cause of the South—a cause in which Robert E. Lee never believed, if one accepts that secession and slavery were its bedrock principles. Lee made the agonizing decision to side with Virginia in the secession crisis, choosing hearth and home over the Union and Army he loved so dearly, because of his devotion to duty, the guiding star of Lee’s life. At heart a “beserker” who relished the excitement of combat, Lee yet reigned in his lust for battle, exercising here as in every aspect of his life a superhuman degree of self-control. Lee saw devotion to duty and self-control as the marks of a gentleman, and Mr. Korda argues that Lee preferred being a gentleman above everything else, perhaps including even military victory. It was this reverence for manners, in the author’s view, that explains Lee’s tragic flaw as a commander: his aversion to personal confrontation and subsequent reluctance to dress-down derelict subordinates, and even to issue direct orders to recalcitrant generals, most regrettably to the stubborn General James Longstreet during the ill-fated Gettysburg campaign.
S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson presents a compelling picture of the general who became Robert E. Lee’s “right arm” (in Lee’s own, famous words), until he was accidentally mortally shot by his own men during the battle of Chancellorsville. Thomas Jonathan Jackson the warrior was perhaps the best general, on either side, of the entire Civil War, but Thomas Jackson the man, as presented by Mr. Gwynne, is equally fascinating: the socially-inept bachelor and awkward teacher who can’t control his own students becomes a feared commander who doesn’t hesitate to execute deserters and who promotes the idea of total war; the simple man of an austere Presbyterianism faith who yet loves to debate the finer points of theology and is fascinated by the intricate glories of medieval English cathedrals; the slave owner who opens a Bible school for free and enslaved blacks despite the opposition of the white community and the laws of Virginia. Like Mr. Korda, Mr. Gwynne admires his subject but also sees his flaws. Jackson’s greatest failing, Mr. Gwynne suggests, was an inability as a military man to get along with his colleagues, whether they be superiors (Lee being the great exception) or subordinates, as evidenced by his repeated filing of charges—most commonly, for dereliction of duty and cowardice—against those under his command who dared to retreat in the face of the enemy.
It is a shame that so many conservatives will dismiss Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run because—horrors!—the author-musician is a political liberal. But goodness, beauty, and truth are found in many places, and here readers may ascertain evidence of all three. Many reviewers have already noted that Mr. Springsteen goes into great detail in his memoir about his depression, which first descended upon him in the late 1980s and which has become more acute in the last decade. But another noteworthy revelation is that Mr. Springsteen, a self-described egotist and misogynist, is very critical of himself, especially in his treatment of the women in his life. As I said in my original review, the appeal of what the author calls his “long and noisy prayer” will naturally be limited mainly to Mr. Springsteen’s fans and those who with a deep interest in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. However, the beauty of Mr. Springsteen’s writing, along with his penetrating observations about human nature, and his well-crafted history of an interesting and important life give this memoir an appeal that should extend beyond his own devoted audience.
I consider Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the famous “Pathetique,” the greatest work ever composed in the genre. And this year brought with it what is perhaps the greatest recording of this masterpiece ever made: that by Teodor Currentzis with his MusicAeterna orchestra. Mr. Currentzis is a controversial,charismatic, young conductor—you know the type—but in his case the bite is equal to the bark. His “Pathetique” is a reading of tremendous, unrelenting intensity, with Mr. Currentzis bringing forward several usually-hidden instrumental lines, and with horns braying in the finale with an unprecedented mournfulness. In the searing final movement, too, the listener can at times hear gasps from the conductor and the sounds of the string players leaning into their instruments, seemingly with such ferocity that they are about to break their bows; though I usually find such extraneous noises an irritation, here they give the sense of being present at an unforgettable live concert, at which both performers and public are completely enthralled and simultaneously devastated by the tragedy on display.
Many conductors have attempted to solve the riddle of Mozart’s Requiem by re-imagining (i.e., re-completing) this unfinished masterpiece, so one might exclaim, “Not again!” at conductor Rene Jacobs’ new recording, which uses a version of this work by composer Pierre-Henri Dutron. Thankfully, Mr. Dutron’s version is quite convincing, not entirely eschewing the parts composed by Mozart’s contemporary Franz Süssmayr, but simply correcting and re-working some of Süssmayr’s contributions. Thus the timpani-infused Confutatis has never sounded more exciting and indeed dangerous, and the Benedictus, now led by the solo quartet, is more touching, and the slightly extended Osanna, more interesting. The result is a version of the Requiem that will not shock the casual listener familiar with the traditional version of the piece (Mr. Dutron does not include the re-discovered separate “Amen” fugue that Mozart likely intended for the work), but which at the same time will sound fresh to seasoned listeners of all types, especially during the inferior, Süssmayr-crafted movements. Conductor Jacobs leads with his usual gusto but without any hint of his occasional, irritating eccentricities.
Alongside the Requiem, the most notable incomplete work in the classical canon is Franz Schubert’s Eighth Symphony. Though it carries the nickname, “The “Unfinished,” the truth is that Schubert did indeed finish the work, but he cannibalized the last two movements for his incidental music to the play, Rosamunde, literally tearing them out of the score of the symphony. Though several musicologists have fashioned the missing movements from the Rosamunde music, none has done so as effectively as conductor Mario Venzago in his new recording with the Kammerorchester Basel. Maestro Venzago also brings with him a brisk baton to the proceedings, effectively tying this late masterpiece to the composer’s earlier symphonies and avoiding an overly portentous approach that infects most readings. That the reconstructed second half of the symphony matches the familiar first two movements in their power and beauty is a tribute to Maestro’s Venzago’s handiwork at the desk and on the podium.
The medieval composer Perotin’s “Beata Viscera Marie Virginis” (“Blessed Flesh of the Virgin Mary”) is an astounding piece that must rank with the most beautiful sacred works ever written. In a version featuring renowned soprano Cecilia Bartoli, it is the highlight of a new album of Advent and Christmas music by the Sistine Chapel Choir. Miss Bartoli is the only woman to have recorded an album with the choir, which has never sounded better than in this recording of medieval and Renaissance compositions.
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