Mozart Again?!!?

The tricky art of making the classical music canon sound new.

Is there a harder job than being an A&R executive in classical music? You’ve got a dwindling audience, and worse yet, a finite oeuvre of stuff that your patrons will buy. It’s not like you can order another Beethoven on demand, or assign three of your underlings to instantly expand the canon.

Your only saving grace is something called “thematic programming.” In other words: You present music organized around an enticing notion people will be more likely to shell out for. Some of these albums (“Gardening With Vivaldi”) reek so badly of desperation you don’t need to know anything about music to know to stay away from them. But thematic programming is also one of classical music’s last, best hopes: When it’s properly done, it can refresh an overfamiliar work or draw attention to a neglected one. In that spirit, here’s a short guide to the genre.

The Contrived Concept Record Offers various short works—many of them lightweight—that share narrative inspiration or conceptual character (a telltale sign of this genre is an overcute title). Take, for example, Devils Dance, acclaimed violinist Gil Shaham’s release from Halloween 2000, which claims to offer music that is “devilish, demonic, dark, and spooky.” The repertoire includes two lackluster arrangements from the films The Witches of Eastwick and Young Frankenstein, along with tuneful or virtuosic pieces by Saint-Saens (“Danse Macabre”), Bazzini (“{{la Ronded es Lutins #113309 }}”), Tartini (the “Devil’s Trill” sonata) and Sarasate (the “Concert Fantasy on Gounod’s ‘Faust’ “). The two problems with this CD are that 1) the works are fluff; and 2) they’re played without any sort of demonic possession. Shaham, a wonderfully clean violinist and charming performer, doesn’t make them bite. He’s too precise, too accurate, and too undersupported by the material. The disc also includes pleasant, seldom-heard works by Ysaÿe, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and living composer William Bolcom. But there is really no compelling musical reason to purchase this record, unless you’re throwing a très pretentious Halloween fete.

The Legit Concept Record
Is governed by a concept that’s truly explored, not just thematized. Consider Night Songs, a new collaboration between soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet: It’s a collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century art songs set to texts inspired by the night, moon, and the idea of the subconscious. The repertoire includes wonderfully rendered, touching songs of Fauré (“{{NightSongs_ClairdeLune#113313}},” “Nell”), Debussy (“Mandoline,” “{{Beau Soir#113312}},” “La Flute,” “Le Tombeau des Naiads”), the somewhat obscure Joseph Marx (“Nocturne,” “Selige Nacht”), Richard Strauss (“Ruhe, meine Seele,” “Leises Lied”), and Rachmaninov ("V Molchani Nochi Taynoy,” “Son,” “Eti letniye nochi”). The beauty of this album is that it offers songs that vocal-music novices and experts alike may not—and should—know. Fleming sounds as good as she ever has: She has the sort of voice—rich, searching, uncommonly sensitive—that could get an opera-hater to buy a subscription to the Met. Not to be overshadowed, Thibaudet’s colorful finger work and keen ear for making chamber music embellish the so-called “background music” that’s usually played by a mere “accompanist.”

Other examples of notable, recently released Legit Concept Records: Compassion, a contemporary-music tribute to the late violinist Yehudi Menuhin, including works of Steve Reich (“Duet“), Gyorgy Kurtag (“Ligatura”), and Chen Yi ("Romance of Hsiao and Ch’in”); experimental violinist Gidon Kremer’s "{{Silencio #113314 }},” a minimalist mélange conjoining the work of American icon Philip Glass (“Company”) and Estonian mystic Arvo Pärt (“Tabula Rasa”) with Russian Vladimir Martynov ("Come In!”); and "{{Verklarte Nacht #113316 }}” by violinist/conductor Thomas Zehetmair and the Camerata Bern, a combination of the namesake work by Schoenberg, which means “Transfigured Night,” a “Divertimento” of Hungarian modernist Béla Bartók, and the gripping “Four Transylvanian Dances” of Sandor Veress.

The Substitute-Transcription Record
An album featuring music written for one instrument (or set of instruments) played on another instrument (or set of instruments). The term “transcription” may be a bit misleading here. Transcriptions, in music-speak, most often refer to famous tunes that are embellished to create an “encore” or “showpiece” for a new instrument; think of pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s ridiculously difficult rendition of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” “Transcription,” however, can also refer to an actual piece of music that is simply scored with a different instrumentation. The most notable Substitute-Transcription Record of late is double-bassist extraordinaire Edgar Meyer’s rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, first made famous by cello aristocrat Pablo Casals and, more recently, by Yo-Yo Ma. This is a dazzling gimmick: A double bass is considerably larger than a cello, which makes it all the more difficult for Meyer to accomplish the intricate string-crossings and sequential note-patterns that keep even good cellists in practice rooms most of their life. Meyer’s sound has a deep, haunting quality: The lower-pitched, throatier voice of the bass makes for a passionate, period-instrumentlike interpretation. It sounds like he’s playing a monster gamba, the viol that ruled the early music scene. (Click {{here#113306}} to listen to the “Gigue” from the G-major Suite and the Prelude from the {{D minor#113305}}.) Meyer also dances through the G-major “Courante” and D-minor “Gigue” like a Baroque dervish. Commend him for making such a difficult and entertaining album.

The Antithetical Experiment-Comparison Record
Combines accessible music with that commonly considered “crunchy,” “atonal,” or—oooh scary!—“modern.” Pianist Thomas Larcher’s “Klavierstucke” is a good example. It contrasts piano music by Arnold Schoenberg (the early 20th-century father of atonal “serialism” or “12-tone” music) with that of Franz Schubert, 19th-century composer of Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished,” and of many other pretty and dark pieces of genius. (Click {{here #113308 }} to listen to Schubert’s “Klavierstucke” in D minor.) Here the composers are attacked slalom-style so that you’re forced to compare them. Schubert’s music is a map of what can be done with tonal harmony and rhythmic form, while Schoenberg’s is the ultimate antithesis. (Click here to listen to his “Klavierstucke” Op. 11 No. 1.) You get a philosophic flash of what the trajectory of classical music meant in the past and what it means now, and a lot is left for you to discover between the lines.

The Explainer Record(s)
Comes complete with audio commentary explaining the music. In his recent release of Gustav Mahler’s jingle-bell-y Fourth Symphony, Benjamin Zander offers a four-part monologue as a companion to the work. You don’t need to be a Mahlerian neophyte to enjoy Zander. He provides generally intriguing insights about the work—how the last movement was originally written to serve as the seventh movement of Mahler’s Third, a grandiose work devoted to nature, say, or how “the central dilemma of insufficiency in a world of plenty was painfully real” to the composer. The performance isn’t the most inventive, dramatic, or powerful reading of the work I’ve ever heard (for those qualities in a modern recording, get one by Leonard Bernstein or Georg Solti). But it is at once fluid, full of woodwind wit and sensuous string phrasing. In all, not a bad choice for someone looking to learn about a composer many people consider too heavy, philosophical, or long-winded to handle. (Click {{here#113311}} to listen to some of the opening. Or {{here#113310}} to listen to Zander’s commentary.)

The Historical Find Record
Devoted to recital or studio recordings of historical and/or musical significance that never made it to record-store shelves. The latest to surface is a recording of Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet’s Rediscovered Liszt Recital from 1972. This tape, from one of Bolet’s Liszt sessions, never made it to market because, says producer Jon M. Samuels, it was supposed to serve as a first volume in a multi-LP set that never saw completion. Bolet has impulsive fingers and a fun-loving temperament—just the right sort for pieces like Liszt’s “Gnomenreigen” and “{{La Campanella#113301}}.” He can also speak quite deeply through his keyboard: Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s {{Tannhauser Overture#113302}}, an extraordinarily demanding and technical piece, requires the philosophic scope of an experienced articulator of mature symphonic statements. Bolet delivers.

In short, there are reasons, amid the gimmicks, to continue to buy classical music. (I actually prefer the term “concert music”; the term “classical” refers to pre-Romantic 18th-century music like that of Mozart and Haydn.) Music is an ever-evolving art that, unlike painting or literature, is perpetually recreated each time someone picks up an instrument. Furthermore, there’s a large and vitally important community of new-music composers who devote their lives to expanding and riffing off the canon in ways that help us understand it better. Consider that the next time you catch 10 CDs including Beethoven’s Fifth on the shelf and think they’re all the same.