I’ve never been convinced that classical music really is in so much trouble. Seems to me it’s done quite well for itself, as artisitic genres go. Granted, novels aren’t symphonies, but if someone told me that the finest actors of the day would, two hundred years from now, be routinely gathering in studios every couple of years to read yet another voicing of the best novels written today, for the purpose of commercial distribution – and that these actors could actually make a living doing so – I would be both surprised and encouraged.
That’s not to say that there aren’t certain characteristics of classical music, qua commercial product, that impede its greater success. I would argue that one of these is Mozart, oddly enough. But that for a later post. Another is the fact that there’s just so much to choose from – not just so many different composers and pieces, but so many different versions of those pieces. One doesn’t have to have all that cultivated an ear, after all, to recognize that it matters quite a lot which version of a given piece you happen to listen to. One version – of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for instance, might drift into the wallpaper for you, while another (and I’m looking at you, Fabio Biondi) absolutely explodes in your head. Given the marked difference in effect between one rendition and another, it’s understandable that one doesn’t want to arrive home (i.e. download) the wallpaper when you could have gotten the dynamite instead. And so the uninitiated customer, prompted by the soundtrack of the movie he or she just saw, is to be forgiven if, standing before the full catalogue of expertly recorded “Nimrods,” seeing that they are sixteen apparently viable options in front of him, not really knowing the good investment from the bad, ultimately throws up his or her hands and returns to the pop-rock section, where there really only are one or two worthy versions of most given songs.
Squeeze played Squeeze well. I'll get the Squeeze.
Of course there are lots of books and Penguins guides and websites that can help an interested party navigate, but the very existence of such an industry – of musical advice – testifies to the problem, a problem which becomes particularly acute when we start talking about the REALLY popular pieces, the war horses, the ones that have been recorded literally hundreds of times. If one is on a budget (as we can assume anyone who takes this kind of interest probably is), one wants to feel he or she is getting the best of the best or his or her ten bucks.
It is with this concern in mind that I would seek the settle the matter on what is surely one of the top ten, if not top five, piano compositions of all time – at least by measure of its popularity and ubiquity in the repertoire. I speak of Schubert’s 960 (AKA sonata in B-flat, AKA sonata number 32) which holds the distinction of not only being of the great piano compositions of all time, but also the last that Schubert ever wrote, during the syphilitic binge of creativity with which he closed his life at the tender age of 31, and which has long tempted me to go out and sleep with the dirtiest whore I can find, just to see if I could contract the same level of genius and creative energy. Truly the amount and the quality of product that Schubert turned out in the last year of his life stands as one of the great and most confounding human achievements of all time. It’s sick and incomprehensible, and among it s purest jewels is 960, for which reason there exist hundreds if not thousands (what with Youtube) of recorded versions.
Further complicating the issue, of choosing which one to go with, is the fact that 960 (and Schubert in general) really isn’t that difficult a piece, either to play or to listen to, which is to say, you can’t separate the wheat from the chaffe by confining yourself to players with the best technique. Most proficient high-schoolers can play the damned thing. Most truly gifted pianist have been playing the piece since they were six, for which reason you will never hear 960 at a piano competition; it just doesn’t provide enough opportunities for the player to show his or her chops. No, as with all Schubert, the challenge is an almost exclusively interpretive one, but even that overstates the case. All the piece really asks is that it be played tastefully, and fluidly, and musically, how to draw out its beauty without sounding foofy, its humor without miniaturizing it, its gravity without seeming ponderous; how, in other words, to let the darned thing sing.
Well, friends, the weird thing is, as subtle a challenge as it poses, and as many extraordinary players as have stepped up and offered perfectly serviceable answers, I am here to tell you that there is one that puts to shame all the rest:
And here is why.
In my borne days I’ve never heard a recording that so sensationally adopts of faith in which a piece like 960 was composed: of casual intimacy. Rubinstein is one of those who had been playing the piece since he was a boy, and boy, it shows, what an old friend he is returning to here. And making plain to the listener, by dint of that familiarity, that this really isn’t a concert hall piece. It sounds dismissive to call it a salon piece. It’s better than that. It’s emotional scope is tremendous, and yet, in Rubinstein’s hands, one is quickly convinced that the proper confine of the piece – at least physically, is the parlor. The sound engineer clearly agrees. He sits you very close. You are five feet from him. You are sitting in the living room while he plays, sipping the drink of your choice, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think he was improvising. There is not a moment of strain or hesitation. All the notes are so found. In addition ot being a liltingly, achingly simple and beautiful, it is also an exceedingly funny one. Rubinstein was, by all account, a charming man. This performance leaves no doubt how lucky one would be to count him a friend, or dinner companion -- sympathetic, dry, self-effacing, elegant, and profound.
Different pianists seem to get the humor of different composer. Horowitz -- of whom, I have to confess, I am not always so fond -- clearly gets Scarlatti in a way that others (Pletnev) don’t. Richter gets Prokofiev. Rubinstein, whose affinity for Chopin is more famously noted, really gets Schubert. The third movement, what industry writers will routinely call a bit of "quicksilver," is uncommonly dry and delightful here. The main phrase of the second section ends with a a three-note repeptition. One wonders if Schubert knew that he was being funny when he wrote it, or knew how funny he was being. Probably, but none ever told the joke better that Rubinstein.
And of course, if a player (or person) gets the humor of another, the likelihood is that he or she gets the rest as well. In 960, there is a world of emotion, and youth, and age. Rubinstein emcombasses all of it and every note. He simplifies. He clarifies. Her serves.
If you are inclined, shove the heap aside and rest easy. You will have two new friends.