The Boston Phoenix
April 22 - May 6, 1999

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The write stuff

Penguin Classics on CD

by Jon Garelick

Penguin Classics Wendy Wasserstein on Dvorák's New World Symphony! Arthur Miller on Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh! Tobias Wolf (!!) on Beethoven's Ninth!

The possibilities offered by the Penguin Music Classics CD series are too strong for the working music reviewer to resist. After all, how often do we labor dutifully over descriptive analysis when what we really want to do is fly off into anecdotes and dissolve in a puddle of our own feelings?

Classical album-liner notes have always been the worst offenders at evoking objective criteria in discussing classical music ("The various sections characterizing sonata form are clearly evident . . . "). So when the Penguin Music Classics began appearing a few months ago (drawn from the vast Decca holdings that include Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and London), with their accompanying "literary" liner notes, I was game, ready to throw in the towel and give in to the amateurs (hey, I've long considered myself little more than an informed amateur who can make deadline). There was the authoritative Penguin Classics look of those CDs: the familiar black-and-pale-yellow-border design, anonymous 19th-century-Romantic-looking paintings slapped on. And oh those promises crying out from a red diagonal flag in the upper-left-hand corner: "Featuring original essay by Harold Bloom." I knew Harold wasn't a musicologist, and probably not a musician, but he had to know a few things about Mozart that I don't (jazz and pop, not classical, are my specialties). And if he didn't, so what! A smart guy writing about stuff he doesn't know about is better than a dumb guy writing about stuff he does know about. Bring da noise, Harold!

I wasn't disappointed. The "original essays" in the Penguin Classics are never more than 500 words or so. And yes, in parts they amount to little more than very fancy blurb writing. Bloom reports that while poring over the proofs of his book on Shakespeare, he refreshed himself by "listening intently to the astonishing performances by Alfred Brendel of Mozart's Piano Concertos Nos. 21 and 23." His little essay touches on Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, Sir Ralph Richardson as Falstaff. He tells us nothing about Mozart, and little more about Brendel than that "he is faithful to Mozart, yet the style of his performance is altogether individual." How exactly he's "faithful to Mozart" or "altogether individual," Bloom never says. See what I mean? Forget the editorial blue-penciled scribbles of "How so?" in the margin. It's Harold Bloom, baby: ship it!

Time and again the Penguin writers are mute before the power of music. "Beethoven's last period was ineffable . . . its effects on us simply beyond description," writes John Fowles, adding for good measure that the Arietta of the Opus 111 Piano Sonata "has always moved me to tears." Concedes Wolf: "Beauty, great heartedness, endless surprise -- the words don't get you there."

But the Penguin Music Classics do tell their stories. Arthur Miller writes of how he calmed down over-eager actor Lee J. Cobb before the first production of Death of a Salesman at a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. " . . . I recall being struck for the first time by the series of near-climaxes, each reined in until the final ingathering explosion. I leaned forward and whispered into Lee's ear, "This is the last ten minutes.' " A lesson in aesthetics.

Wasserstein takes us back to her first listening to the Dvorák symphony as a kind of elitist showing off to the other high-school kids. In Prague, years later, listening again to the Dvorák on a Walkman, she makes a connection between Dvorák's old world and his visit to the new, the old world of her immigrant parents, the new world they found in America, her own divided heritage.

Garrison Keillor remembers the Handel Messiah as community musicmaking in Minnesota. Ethan Canin recalls his embarrassment that his father was a symphony violinist and not something more hip -- until the elder Canin gets a job as a studio musician and shows up on movie soundtrack, something the young Canin can brag about to his friends. Colleen McCullough remembers her first exposure to classical music as a Catholic school girl in Sydney. Edmund White identifies with Tchaikovsky's homosexuality.

The writers rarely talk about strictly musical matters. Sometimes they never get around to talking about the performances at hand (Keillor is "introducing" Georg Solti's Messiah, but among professional recordings he mentions only Leonard Bernstein's.) In the best of the Penguins, the stories are what get you there, worth twice their length in descriptive analysis. Wolf's is a story about his family, but it's also about art and taste, and the importance of having one's taste validated, even if by a child.

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