Very, Very Old School Essentials – The Year 1904
All of my colleagues on this site have been busy arguing about the best recordings of 2004. I have stayed away from those arguments because I don’t really care about modern popular music. I do, however, care quite passionately about very old and unpopular music. I don’t know what that says about me psychologically. Today’s column looks back to the world of music as it stood just over a century ago.
In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt was elected president of the United States, and Frank Gotch beat Tom Jenkins to win his first American Heavyweight Wrestling title. The first Rolls Royce was built, the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed, and the ice cream cone was invented. Count Basie, Joseph Campbell, Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby, Salvador Dali, John Gielgud, Cary Grant, Glen Miller, Pablo Neruda, Dr. Seuss, B.F. Skinner, and Fats Waller were all born in 1904. The first ever remake of a successful film was shot in 1904, an inferior version of the 1903 classic “The Great Train Robbery.”
1904 was also an important year in the history of music, as flat disc phonograph records were invented by Emile Berliner, and the following events also took place:
5) Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto was debuted.
Glazunov is generally counted among the best of Classical Music’s minor composers. His music is kind of a bridge from the rich melodies and colours of Tchaikovsky and the more complex and intellectual music of Prokofiev and the other post-revolution Russian composers. While the Violin Concerto may not be his greatest work, it is certainly his most popular. The first two movements have more than their share of pretty melodies, but the real reason for the concerto’s status is the blazing finale which is one of the great excuses for true virtuosi to show everyone what they are capable of.
Jascha Heifetz surely ranks among the greatest musicians to ever have lived. He is, without a doubt, the most technically perfect violinist ever recorded on modern equipment. The two disc RCA set “Jascha Heifetz: The Supreme” costs less than many single discs, and it has to be one of the greatest bargains in any record store’s Classical section. It includes a jaw-dropping version of the Glazunov, as well as definitive versions of the Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius Concertos, the Bruch Scottish Fantasy, three short Gershwin Preludes, and the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita no. 2, which is arguably the greatest piece of music ever written for solo violin.
I cannot possibly give a higher recommendation to any recording.
4) Gustav Mahler debuted his 5th Symphony
The wacky, fun-loving Gustav Mahler wrote a lot of intensely dark and emotional music. Much of it filled with shocking contrasts. There is an oft-repeated story that young Gustav once fled into the streets in fear of a savage beating from his father and hid near a calliope that was playing a happy tune, after which he always associated pleasant music with personal trauma. If you can relate to that story, then this may be the perfect music for you!
A lot of music critics seem to prefer versions of Mahler’s 5th that are exactingly performed under strict control, but I’ve always felt that the music benefits from being played in a hysterically emotional manner. Leonard Bernstein is not only the kind of shameless egocentric genius that can milk this piece for all it’s worth; he is also the man most responsible for bringing Mahler’s music into the general consciousness after it had been neglected by the Classical establishment for decades. Bernstein recorded the piece twice. His version with the New York Philharmonic is rough in some parts and schmaltzy in others, while his Vienna recording is relatively unfocussed and overly personalized. Both recordings absolutely kick ass, especially the almost volcanic intensity of the Symphony’s many big climaxes. Those who would prefer a more civilized and respectful version of this great work can go screw themselves.
3) The LSO gave their first concert.
Among wrestling fans, if someone talks about HHH, nobody looks around all confused wondering whom they mean. Nobody assumes that the wrestler in question is “Handsome” Hiroshi Hase. It’s like that with Classical Music nerds and the LSO. The L doesn’t stand for Louisville or Lismore (unless, perhaps, you’re actually in one of those cities). The LSO is, obviously, the London Symphony Orchestra. Much as HHH considers himself the greatest wrestler of all time, the LSO consider themselves the world’s premier orchestra. Certainly, they rank among the worlds foremost practitioners of polite and proper music making. Generally speaking, their recordings are almost always listed among the very best, but almost never at the very top. Their recording of Dvorak’s extremely popular 9th Symphony is a terrific example of this. It is played enthusiastically, there are no noticeable technical flaws, and it is very well recorded, but it is simply not transcendent. I highly recommend owning more than one version of The New World Symphony, and I think that this version is pretty much ideal as an example of how the music would sound if it was supposed to be played more or less exactly as it is written. The Penguin Classics disc is also dirt cheap.
2) Coleman Hawkins was born
35 years after he was born, Hawkins created what may very well be the most perfect jazz performance ever recorded. His October 11, 1939 version of Body and Soul was a quick one-off thrown in at the end of a long recording session. The band only did one take of the song, they only briefly quoted the original melody, and Hawk’s solo is only two choruses long, but it is the best example of the kind of spontaneous perfection that all jazz strives to achieve.
The song makes an appearance on almost all Coleman Hawkins compilations, and many general jazz anthologies as well. The Ken Burns collection covers significant moments from throughout Hawkins’ career. Some of the older tracks have significant background noise, so if that kind of stuff bothers you, you may want to look elsewhere.
1) Antonin Dvorak Died
I know that Misawa is not The Greatest Japanese Wrestler of All Time. He’s up there, certainly, but even if I look objectively at only those wrestlers who peaked while working for Giant Baba in the 1990s, Toshiaki Kawada stands out as being just a little better, and even he pales in comparison to Jumbo Tsuruta. It doesn’t really matter to me, though, as Misawa is my favourite Japanese wrestler, and I enjoy his average matches as much as or more than most wrestler’s best matches.
I know that Antonin Dvorak is not the Greatest Composer the World Has Ever Seen. He’s in the pantheon, certainly, but even if I consider only Central European composers of the late 19th Century, Brahms stands out as being just a little more accomplished, and even his body of work can’t compare to Beethoven’s. That doesn’t matter to me, though, as Dvorak is my favourite composer, and I’d much rather listen to one of his minor works than to most composers’ greatest triumphs.
Some time in the next month or two, I’ll be devoting an entire column to why I love listening to Dvorak, and why I think that you might love his music, too. In the meantime, go out and pick up George Szell’s recording of the Slavonic Dances. Just trust me on this one.