The Greatest Recording of All Time, Etc.

Joseph Horowitz

It’s nice to be noticed, so thank you to those who have complained about the paucity of recent filings in this space. Usually I write a blog when I’m excited or upset. I don’t notice that I’m any less excited or upset than usual – just that the blog engine has been running down lately. So here is a list of things I should have been blogging about:

1. Some kind person has posted on youtube the greatest vocal recording of all time. This is Fyodor Chaliapin singing Anton Rubinstein’s “Persian Love Song” in 1931 — when Chaliapin was already 58 years old. Arthur Rubinstein once remarked in appreciation of Chaliapin that his speaking voice and singing voice were the same. And so they are: he speaks this song, every word of it. Incredibly, this performance at the same time furnishes a bewildering lesson in vocal wizardry and finesse. It is impossible to say what is more to be admired: the projection of feeling, the perfection of technique.

Here is an artist — admired by Stanislavsky as an exemplary actor — who transformed everything he touched. Richard Capell, in his treasurable 1928 survey of Schubert’s songs, recalls Chaliapin’s version of the famous Standchen: “How the song revives and flowers in Chaliapin’s art! Not to be forgotten is his [rendering] of ‘Komm, beglucke mich’ [‘Come, delight me’] — wheedling, anticipative, irresistible.” Henry Krehbiel, reviewing Chaliapin as Leporello at the Met in 1908, complained that he “conceived all his characters as if they had been dug out of the muck of Gorky’s stories of Russian low life.” In fact, the very notion of Chaliapin as Leporello is overwhelmingly potent.

To savor his Boris, forget the studio recordings. The version to hear is the one recorded live at Covent Garden in 1928. Last fall, lecturing for the NEA Music Critics Institute, I had occasion to compare Chaliapin (in Russian) and Hans Hotter (in German) as the dying tsar. We spent 15 or 20 minutes listening — repeatedly — to these artists sing two lines: “Farewell my son, I am dying” and “Forgive me.” Both readings — one as a crazed Slav, the other a noble Wotan — beggared description. Hotter became an opera singer upon encountering Chaliapin in Prague. Singing actors.

2. My son Bernie, who sometimes appears in this space in the role of Vladimir Horowitz idolator, has apprised me of another recent addition to the youtube repertoire: films of the young Van Cliburn in Moscow. It is now possible to see as well as hear his incomparably affecting reading of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, incomparably accompanied by Kiril Kondrashin. Even more remarkable: you can see Cliburn and Kondrashin in the second Rachmaninoff concerto — a work Cliburn disappointingly recorded for RCA. The Cliburn Rach 2 is majestic, ardent, and original. And the sight of this young artist, the greatest American piano talent of his generation, living his implausible dream of Russia, sharing the clairvoyant sureness of his innocence, is never to be forgotten.

3. PostClassical Ensemble, the chamber orchestra which I co-founded with Angel Gil-Ordóñez in DC eight years ago, has just been awarded $200,000 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Our announcement also announces two seasons of thematic festivals linking the Music Center at Strathmore (a major DC/Baltimore presenter) with Georgetown University and the Film Department of the National Gallery. The humanities template we pursue marries music, film, theater, dance, and academia. The forthcoming festivals are “The Stravinsky Project,” “Celebrating Ives,” “Falla/Stravinsky,” “Schubert Uncorked,” “Interpreting Shostakovich,” and “Mexican Revolution.” The participating artists include the pianists Jeremy Denk and Alexander Toradze, the bass trombonist David Taylor, the Spanish cantaora Esperanza Fernandez, the Israeli/American choreographer Igal Perry, and the Shostakovich scholar Solomon Volkov. We’ll undertake a major Shostakovich film retrospective, a new Schubert trombone concerto, and our third Naxos DVD.

4. I should find something more to write about in the coming weeks. January 22-23-24, the National Symphony Orchestra will premiere “Ted Sorensen Remembers JFK,” a film I co-created with the video artist Peter Bogdanoff (my frequent collaborator) as part of a subscription program celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy inauguration. I then head for Pittsburgh, where I’ve helped to curate a Pittsburgh Symphony Tchaikovsky festival presenting 19 events in the span of 12 days (February 2 to 13); it incorporates film and theater; it links to four universities and half a dozen high schools. Thence to Pennsylvania, where two Philadelphia-area elementary schools celebrate Black History Month with a themed Dvorak program stemming from last summer’s NEH “Dvorak and America” Teacher Training Institute. Then Southern California, where the latest Pacific Symphony “Music Unwound” production will use actors, visuals, lighting design, and organist Paul Jacobs to introduce unsuspecting Orange County audiences to Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (February 24-25-26). Then back to DC, for PostClassical Ensemble’s Lou Harrison festival (Feb. 26; March 4-5), followed by the National Symphony’s performances of the Turangalila Symphony (March 10-11-12), which I’ll attempt to contextualize with lighting, super-titles, and some additional Messiaen.

PostClassical Ensemble’s successful application to the Mellon Foundation began and ended as follows:

“Though orchestras are sometimes debunked for behaving ‘like museums,’ any number of American museums are in certain respects more forward-thinking than any number of American orchestras. Museums program thematically. They have scholars on staff. They produce distinguished publications. These are policies that promote audience engagement, institutional and educational linkage, and alignment with the contemporary moment. More than museums, orchestras can seem stranded, insular, anachronistic. Typically, their ‘educational’ activities are satellite enterprises, disconnected from the subscription agenda; frequently, they narrowly focus on elementary and middle schools. What Virgil Thomson notoriously said of the New York Philharmonic in 1940 — that he understood why it was ‘not a part of… intellectual life’ — by and large remains anomalously true of orchestras, if they are to be counted as cultural institutions…

“The conductor Theodore Thomas, who inspirationally propagated symphonic culture throughout the US in the late nineteenth century, preached: ‘A symphony orchestra shows the culture of the community.’ In many communities, large and small, Thomas’s prophecy proved true. In the course of the twentieth century, however, many American orchestras lost influence — in the community; in the culture at large. PostClassical Ensemble is conceived in the conviction that if orchestras are to regain impact as agents of cultural identity, a broader humanities mandate would vitally enhance both their mission and their capacity.”

Writing the other day to Andrew Druckenbrod of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Tchaikovsky festival, I found myself saying:

“Ultimately, what most excites me about this festival is its communal scope. With the [2009] Rachmaninoff festival behind us, we’ve acquired solid festival partnerships with the collaborating universities (we are drawing both on faculty and student participants). And we’ve added high school partnerships. This is a challenging moment for America’s orchestras. Everyone knows that. How can orchestras amplify cultural service to the community? This festival attempts a lot of answers.”

Stay tuned.