Where has all the romance gone? Right here!
Inveterate observer of the cultural scene that I am, I have noticed while gazing down from my lofty perch that these are not the most romantic of times in the arts, or at least in what, with appropriate "air quotes," we might refer to as the "high" arts. What's in? Irony, detachment, darkness. What's out? Sentiment, directness, display. If you doubt me, listen to Fresh Air for a week or two.
It also strikes me that classical music may be the last redoubt of romance in the arts, which may be one of the reasons it seems increasingly out-of-place in our current culture. What, for instance, could be less ironic than a none-too-svelte Rodolfo and Mimì bellowing their love at each other in La bohème ? No wonder the arbiters of cool culture hath decreed that all productions of Romantic opera must be set either in Brooklyn or on the moon, and must be overrun by mobsters, pimps, or when all else (including the producer's imagination) fails, Nazis? We dasn't see these operas done the old-fashioned way, don't you know, lest the icky, sticky emotions we're manipulated to feel become too much for our cynical, world-weary selves to take.
And how about Romantic instrumental music? Again, no schmaltz, please, we're on a diet. Give us instead original instruments in place of grand pianos, chamber orchestras in place of the full orchestral monty, fast tempos rather than indulgent adagios. And please, for God's sake, cut down on the vibrato!
All right, I exaggerate. That's what satire does. But I also think I'm accurate in describing the direction classical performances have been heading for a while now, including, I'll admit, on WFCR's playlist. Hey, if you can't beat them, join them. How nice, on the other hand, to welcome a couple of CDs that stick up for romance, without half-measures or apologies, and do so with elegance and class. You've heard them on WFCR, and will keep hearing them — if you don't mind adding a little honest sentiment to your day.
On her Violin Lullabies CD, the extraordinary violinist Rachel Barton Pine celebrates the birth of her and husband Greg's baby daughter Sylvia with 25 lovely and relaxing selections, not a sneer or smirk in the bunch (hear Rachel discuss it on NPR). Call them Berceuse, Wiegenlied, Schlummerlied, Nana, Vuggevise, or in plain English, Lullaby, these pieces take us back to the repertoires of such long-ago virtuosi as Jan Kubelik, Maud Powell, Eugène Ysaÿe and Jascha Heifetz. Whether straight or muted, Rachel's tone is pure and sweet, her phrasing natural and songlike, a throwback to the very "vocal" style of violin playing from previous generations. The imaginative and varied pieces may not include the equal of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" or Bach's "Chaconne," but there's not an unfelt note in the CD's 79 minutes. It's been a long time since I've been as moved by a violin album.
Switching to the keyboard, we find frequent Springfield Symphony guest pianist Jeffrey Biegel, compiling sixteen works by pianist-composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, pieces "unashamed of sentiment, frill and facility," on an album whose title puts it directly, A Grand Romance . And just look at the roster of composers: Moritz Moszkowski, Adolf von Henselt, Anton Rubinstein, Mischa Levitzki, Ignacy Jan Paderewski — a veritable who's who of seemingly superhuman piano heroes, from the time when classical was known as "long hair music" for the leonine manes many of them sported atop their stunning profiles. How did Jeffrey come by his taste for such untimely music? Let him explain: