On Needing A Classical Woot Beer

OK, that joke may be a little inside even for us. The Sibs both babysat a pair of brothers in years gone by, the younger of whom had an adorable speech impediment even at age 5 or 6 or so, such that his r’s became w’s (it’s called a “rhotacism,” and with its long ‘o’ is not to be confused with “eroticism.” Check that, those two probably do meet up somewhere, but I won’t be the one to find out where.). Anyway, this little creature sauntered up to the counter at a swim club one fine summer morning and announced, “I NEEEEED a woot be-aw!” It was quite hilarious, and at least one of us never forgot it. Poor kid, having been exposed to the double barrels of these Sibilant Siblings, he’s probably carjacking someone right now.

Well, in adulthood (defined by Will Truman as, “I wear suits and stuff”) we can still have desperate need of a woot beer, and many other things besides. One of those, of course, is a particular piece of music, or passage within a piece of music, or a few notes within a passage of a piece of music (yes, that’s right). Today, for me, with grey skies blanketing the city and a steady drizzle on (vastly preferable to hazy humidity), I suddenly had a burning need to hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s prelude in G minor.

It is a rousing, stirring, yet supple piece of music. Here is the one and only Vladimir Horowitz playing it with verve and precision; the former is especially wonderful, as he seems to nearly break the piano! I also like Horowitz’s deliberate tempo; I have a recording of Ashkenazy playing it, which I love, but he blazes right through it. Horowitz builds the power of the piece with his pregnant pauses. As did the Pied Piper. Try listening to this and not wanting to march with some colorful, highly festooned European military unit before World War I!

The prelude is numbered 5, out of 10 in Opus 23, though it was written first. Ashkenazy’s take: “an unmistakable Russian intensity, strong lyrical melodies, and changes of character that range from sublime sweetness to passionate virtuosity.” That about encompasses it, Volodya.

And what of the man who wrote it? Schonberg’s treatment of Rachmaninov is fascinating. Among the more memorable (pun) tidbits:

His memory was not only all-encompassing; it was actually frightening. He could hear a piece of music–a symphony, say–and play it back not only the next day but the next year or the decade after that. He had the kind of musical mind that automatically absorbs sound-impressions or sight-impressions. From ear and eye to brain and fingers was an instantaneous process.

The rest of the chapter, dealing with why Rachmaninov is unfairly maligned by critics and historians, is a worthy read. I agree with his statement that Russian nationalism is present in Rachmaninov’s music. From the first listen on, I seem to hear some sort of thundering pan-Slavic melody in this prelude. Wikipedia backs me up–apparently Soviet troops were treated to a rendition by Emil Gilels during World War II, to remind them what they were fighting for (memory skills! no?). Ashkenazy also clearly agrees.

Rightly or no, sometimes it is a woot beer-level listening need.

Missed It

As you can see, the Sibs have yielded to the indolence of summer and not posted since May 17. Actually, a lot of life events got in the way. “But we’re back, it’s almost spring!” Wait, that’s not true. We are not the birds from A Year With Frog & Toad (unfortunately).

Yesterday morning my alarm clock woke me to the sounds of WETA, the DC-area classical station that is to WQXR what Eddie’s family is to Clark Griswold’s in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation: a hick cousin. Womp womp. I should balance that by saying that WETA has many admirable qualities (thank you, Neil Simon: “I’m very fond of you myself. You have some very nice qualities.”), one of which is an ability to magically play the Kreutzer Sonata in moments of extreme need. The Kreutzer is one of the few reasons I will agree with Sib the Elder that everyone loves Beethoven (because aside from that and a few other pieces, I actually don’t). It is incredible. It’s completely Batman, and I’m glad WETA plays it in its entirety so often. May I assume most readers of this blog will have seen “Immortal Beloved”? “It was that damned sonata…the Kreutzer.”

Swerving back into the correct lane, WETA was playing the overture to something called “The Mute of Portici.” I had never heard it before, much less of it, and in my half-sleeping haze, when the brain more easily makes connections (science), I thought immediately of a Punch Brothers tune called “The Squirrel of Possibility.” Naturally I saw a direct line between the two, “So that’s where they got that title from! How cool that it was from some obscure classical piece.” Well, I predictably awoke to a harsher reality when my cool, deadpan prefrontal cortex went to WETA.org and, upon finding the title, realized it had nothing whatsoever to do with Punch Brothers. Missed it.

It’s actually a jaunty, quasi-foreboding way to start your day (as I guess most operatic overtures might be? Not really a fan. See OldSib.). Parts of it really do seem like an alarm clock that’s been snoozed several times (which is, I suppose, what it was doing on WETA’s morning shift).

Composed by someone named Daniel-François-Esprit Auber. Really? Yes. If I had that name, I would ruthlessly enforce full usage in all social interactions. No “Sprit” for short. I will gallantly admit I’d never heard of him before. Naturally, he’s famous enough in France that a street leading to the Paris Opéra is named for him. What do you want from me? I didn’t know Balzac or Chateaubriand before I studied there, either.

Well, my Ostriches of Incontinence, I will leave you with a bit of the Brothers Punch (can’t find a good, free version of the S of P; I like the Critter/Thile collabo below (starts after the 1:00 mark) and have watched it many times). Their connections to the classical world are so rife and diverse, I can’t believe I’m using this non-existent one. Here’s to “so awake, what waking calls asleep”!

Nailed It!

Yesterday afternoon, my office was being bathed and soothed by the sounds of WQXR, when in came two colleagues to do their level best to disrupt and destroy the calm. Mid-conversation when my attention to the music was firmly on autopilot, one of them suddenly perked up his ears (metaphorically, as my colleagues are catlike only in a figurative sense) and said, “Is this ‘Entry of the Guests’ from Tannhäuser?” Inwardly sheepish because I didn’t know (by day I’m a mild-mannered knowledge worker until I step into a classical phonebooth; my coworkers know nothing of this dalliance), I clicked over to the QXR page and indeed, he had instantly and accurately identified the piece. I congratulated him on his acumen. I also mentally congratulated him on his pitch-perfect pronunciation of Tannhäuser (something no Revelrous Sib would fail to notice).

Truth be told, Wagner does very little for me. It may be that I’ve read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” too many times, though I’m not going to really go near the biography vs. art debate. Beyond all that Wagner/Nazi lore (not to mention the bending of Nordic mythology), though, it’s also in general not the type of classical music that speaks to me. Of course, I’d never paint with that broad a brush, as I have found myself enjoying pieces of his over the years. Larry David, my antihero, memorably whistled his “Siegfried Idyll,” which is lovely, in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which sparked the below exchange. OK, I guess I am driving a little closer to the case of Biography v Art than foreseen, but at least it’s through the irascible wit of Larry rather than some heavy-handed philosophy.

And here’s the actual piece. Who better to play it than the Berliner Philharmoniker?

In sum, it’s nice when classical makes an appearance in your everyday life. So a tip of the brushed top hat to my colleague who, to quote Andy Dwyer of Parks & Rec fame, “nailed it.”