Make it different, or don't bother
In the January 18, 1968 edition of the New York Review of Books, American composer and diarist Ned Rorem fired one of the opening salvos of the still-raging internecine war for the soul and ears of American classical music. He did it not with an attack on atonality or a jeremiad on stuffy audiences, but with one of the best-ever considerations by a (pardon the expression) serious composer on the serious pleasures of pop music. And he set the tone for his article "The Music of the Beatles" right at the start:
I never go to classical concerts any more and I don't know anyone who does. It's hard still to care whether some virtuoso tonight will perform the Moonlight Sonata a bit better or a bit worse than another virtuoso performed it last night.
Touché! Not that there's nothing new to say about the "Moonlight" and the other Beethoven Sonatas, as many compelling renditions done since 1968 attest. But I know how he feels, and often feel the same way. So many performances of the same old music, so few that say anything new about the music. And not just Beethoven. Take the piano music of Maurice Ravel, for instance, a small enough body of work to fit on two recitals, but one of the finest contributions to the French piano repertoire ever. It's a repertoire that some very accomplished pianists have recorded in complete editions, including a few that we've played frequently on WFCR. I'd rather not name names, but if you search our playlists, you'll find out who they are. Yet I have to say, I sometimes get the impression that I could present the work of one pianist under the name of another, and it wouldn't really matter. Sure, the pianism is beautiful, and the works emerge with Ravel's genius intact. But they're so literal! Where's the personality? Where are the minute touches of tempo, touch and color that make the notes come to life?
So how refreshing to discover belatedly a Ravel set I'd overlooked when it was released in 2004, featuring a pianist whose energetic, dance-like Bach I gushed about in a previous post. Not that Alexandre Tharaud overwhelms or distorts Ravel, rather, he partners with the composer, nudging the tempo here, highlighting a phrase there, letting the music breathe, swing and sing. Do you want to hear what I mean? Tune in for the "Menuet Antique" at 9:00 and "Le tombeau de Couperin" later in the hour, Wednesday morning on WFCR.