If I keep this up, one element I’d very much like to include as a recurring feature would be musical recommendations. I don’t pretend to be anything other than a fairly avid listener. I was never a student of music, per se. Not a scholar. I play, but I’m not particularly proficient. I have, however, spent a scandalous amount of his time on earth listening, fairly closely, and quite repeatedly to a lot of music. There is no hyberbole in suggesting that some of my best friends in life have been pieces of music, and certain performances of certain pieces of music. They have carried me through difficult times, absolutely, and taught me. They have done that thing that art is supposed to do: Thery have refined me and my emotions. For better or worse, I would not be who I am without them.
In that regard, I’ve always considered that one of the kindest and most generous things a person can do for another is recommend a piece of music – say simply, “this means, or has meant a lot to me. Perhaps you should give it a listen, too.” Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’ve ever NOT taken such a suggestion, usually within a day or two of its having been made - just because I also think that being able to enjoy a piece of music is one of those rare pleasures in life to which there is no downside – as opposed to, say, eating, where some of the most delicious dishes also happen to be bad for you; or sex, where to have it with one person often means betraying another. With music, if someone else I know has managed to find a way to love a given piece, well, I want to find that way too. Why wouldn’t I? It’s pure profit.
Let me begin, then, with a recommendation that was specifically recommended to me. This would have been probably 18 years ago. I bumped into a college friend on Hudson Street in NYC – not someone I knew all that well, but he was working in the classical music industry, as an agent, and offered up the fact that he had been obsessing recently over the Bernstein/Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of Shostakovich’s 7th. I was not all the familiar with Shostakovich at the time, and in fact, my classical interest, which I’d stoked pretty wildly in my teens, had gone dormant in my college years and early twenties, but I was at that time Jonesing for more than my pop/alternatice collection was giving me, and so on the strength of this quick recommendation, and the look of bliss in my friend’s eye when he made it, I went right out and purchased it.
I know from the first four measures that this was exactly what I’d been needing, longer and more flexible, more unpredictable lines. Only later would I come to recognize the relative disrepute into which the 7th had fallen. It’s one of those warhorses that suffers critically from being too popular, largely on the strength (or weakness) of what is widely considered to be a gimmicky first movement, the final twenty minutes of which is given over to a march that plays a deliberately goofy melody, oh, I don’t know, maybe twenty times in a row, upping the ampage, heightening, and wringing the thing until by the end it has literally become a monster (some say Hitler; others Stalin). Bartok apparently thought the passage so musically ridiculous that he went ahead and ridiculed it, to nearly equally inspired effect in the third movement(?) of his Concerto for Orchestra (a version of which I will also be recommending). Me, I like the Bartok spoof (surrounded as it is on one side by a gorgeous woodland idyll, then followed by one of the loveliest melody lines Bartok ever penned), but I also like the Shostakovich march, because it is catchy, and absurd, which just goes to show something I’ve often found to be true with the more melancholic composers: the fact that I’m always initially drawn to them by their humor. I thought Shostakovich was funny before I thought he was sad and beautiful, and the same is true of Schubert – I couldn’t believe how funny and charming the fourth movement of 960 was. Or the third. Loved it, and came to love the rest of him only subsequently. In the case of Shostakovich, there was the march in the 7th; the scherzo of the fifth; the middle section of the third movement of the seventh, which is actually my favorite movement of the symphony. His cello concerto.
Shostakovich snobs wil turn up their noses at much of this, tossing the the Seventh and the Fifth in the category of Shostakovich compromises, kowtowings to the pressure Stalin was putting on him (the composer’s own dedication of the Fifth refers to it as his response “to just criticism," Stalin’s proxies having been unkind about the Fourth.) Well, I poo-poo the poo poo-ers. True, the more radical and personal and defiant Shostakovich is beautiful, too, but if Stalin scared Shostakovich into writing the fifth, well, good for him – at least on that one count.
I’ll be writing more on this topic, I suspect – how different composers' respond to political pressure, and in particular Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Indeed, it was the purchase of the 7th that, in addition to single-handedly reinvigorating my taste for the big, muscular symphony, set off a joyous years-long competition between Shostakovich and Prokofiev in my living room, one that could be said to have yielded several books for me, and my style in general. For now, however, let this entry stand as an obvious recommendation of another obvious recommendation. It’s not news that the hungry ear of an uninitiated listener, yearning for long lines and dynamism and scope and lilting beauty, will find pleasures in the Shotzy’s 7th. What is news is that the particular recording at question should be so exceptional. (There is no exceptional, or consummate, recording Shostakovich's Fifth, so far as I can tell, which is odd, and a problem.) This version comes packaged with a recording of Shostakovich’s First Symphony, which is also pretty darn good, especially considering that he wrote it when he was something like nineteen, or seventeen. But it is the 7th which shines, and changed the game for me. This is an oozing, passionate, very live, very well recorded performance. It’s Bernstein being Bernstein, blooming and breathing. He and the engineers stand you right in the orchestra’s midst. The music enters the mind directly, and cultivates aggressively. I don’t know the last time I actually listened to it. I don’t know when the next will be, but thanks eternal to all involved, but especially Mssr. Bernstein, Shostakovich, and Bagdade, my generous friend on the street.