Monday, February 28, 2005


The importance of positioning oneself

Opinions are not to be taken lightly. To many people, they are important parts of a pattern that makes up their entire personality: A preference or opinion is how someone is (or wants to be) viewed in the eyes of others.
This can be pretentious manners, but doesn't necessarily have to be something so trivial.

This weekend I rented the movie Shine. Again.
I love this movie, not only the Oscar-awarded acting that Geoffrey Rush uses to portray the gifted pianist David Helfgott, who escapes into madness when the outer world becomes too frightening. For anyone who loves piano pieces from the Romantic, and Modern-Romantic era (mostly Liszt and Rachmaninov) this movie says something about the stakes for performers who try to succeed in the in the ferociously competitive world of classical music.

The high-brow world of classical music is also a great case scenario for a study of people's preferences, and the importance music fans give (or would like to orchestrate) concerning their pet pastime activity. (The same is true about die hard rock'n'roll-fans too, but you often lack the high-brow connections in discussions over chord-settings and lyrics from The Ramones versus The Clash. My personal favorite is otherwise The Ramones' first album, by the same name, with two songs that begins "I don't wanna... " - "I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You" and "I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement" - and two songs with the more positive connotation "I Wanna" - "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue".)

Anyways, the philosophy of esthetics is a highly dangerous topic, filled with numerous landmines. But as we are mostly interested in the general theory of establishing propositions of thought, we don't necessarily have to value their philosophical legitimacy.

Now, imagine that you want to signal to someone that you feel very strongly about a subject. You then try to create a convincing argument, use the appropriate language, and so forth. This is what an economist might label to attend to your resources, and allocate as much energy as you may provide, in a setting that you will foresee (or assume) according to your rational expectations.
If we go back to Shine, and its monumental theme which is being spun around Rachmaninov's third piano concerto, there are obviously strong opinions about which pianist can best convey the emotions of Rachmaninov's seductive and highly complex piece that so few performers can truly master.

In my opinion, based on my somewhat small collection of recordings of the "Rach 3", I would like to stay away from the mainstream of opinionated fans, who argue that Rachmaninov's own recordings from 1939/1940 or the early Horowitz' recordings (1930) are to be viewed as extraordinary just because they are played fast and resolute. My reason for objecting is that both Horowitz' and Rachmaninov's recordings are shorter (around 33 minutes) as opposed to the full time recording (46 minutes). Rachmaninov allowed for some severe cuts in his live performances, just to be sure that he didn't bore his audience with this monstruously long concert.

The Decca label's own grand old man - Ashkenazy is another one many fans would praise, and then especially his old recording from the sixties with the Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, with Kyril Kondrashin as their conductor. He has also played it together with London Symphony Orchestra, both with Anatole Fistoulari and Andre Previn on the pulpit.
And there are more names that ought to be recognized: Peter Rösel and Bernd Glemser, Idil Biret, Byron Janis, Jon Nakamatsu, Lang Lang and not to forget Konstantin Scherbakov. They all have something to admire, but not all of them can deliver the entire piece, its three very different movements, in a convincing way.

But back to the signals and people's opinions. As there is no cost of delivering a highly critical message on the web, the statements and evaluations on the web are often extremely harsh, following a tradition that comes close to slandering behavior in the press. There are numerous examples of these reviewers with very strong opinions: Here's one. Here's another. And here's a whole list of people with strong, and sometimes highly opposing views on Helfgott's ability to play the Rach 3. (It is hard to track all the recordings that have been made of the Rach 3 - here's an extensive list.)

But... one important part about evaluating a piece, is measuring up to a number of standards concerning esthetics: Is there an objective epistemological truth to musical taste? Is there relativity in the ontological performance of a musical piece? As you will see above - none of the reviewers even come close to such philsophical statements - but many of them are very keen on stressing their high-brow attitute, in an effort to nurture their own credibility and their own favorite pianists. This may very well be called pretentious behavior. But it is also something else - it is a way of signalling sincere concern in a world in flux - where other interests may come just as easy. By having an extreme position, or an extremely strong one - people can signal belonging and identity to others. Especially when the cost is near to nothing.


Oh, and my personal favorite version of the Rach 3? ;) It has to be Leif Ove Andsnes performing live together with Oslo Symphony Orchestra and Finnish legend conductor Paavo Berglund (1995). Andsnes is amazing with his bombastic, forceful nature and he has chosen the less played cadenza in the first movement. It really sounds like elephants running across the piano - exactly like Rachmaninov described his intentions with the piece.

(By the way - I recommend the following ultimate bumper sticker for crazy music fans.)

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