Tuesday, April 6

Bach and Mozart for the Uninitiated

As a child of the Fifties and Sixties, my appreciation of music was rather stunted early on by a steady diet of Herman’s Hermits, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Dave Clark Five. My only introduction to Western Civilization’s great musical legacy was the background score to the Mighty Mouse cartoons which followed Clutch Cargo and Sky King on Saturday mornings. Thankfully, I have gradually come to appreciate the rich legacy of classical music--though I must confess that my appreciation is still shrouded by a rather dense pop-culture fog of artistic illiteracy. You can imagine then my glee when I discovered a recently rereleased series of multi-media publications from HarperCollins aimed at long-deprived boomer-types like me.

More than a book, more than a recording, and more than both together, each Play-by-Play title is a kind of musical travel guide for listeners who want to do more than simply appreciate the classics--they are for those who actually want to understand them. The texts briefly chronicle the life, times, and work of each composer and then offer movement-by-movement and moment-by-moment commentaries of pivotal pieces. Those commentaries are then linked directly to recordings of the pieces by a unique digital indexing system embedded in the compact disks. The performances are top-flight, the accompanying discographies indicate appropriate avenues for further investigation, and the crystal clear glossaries help map out any unfamiliar terrain.

In Bach Play-by-Play, the analysis and commentary by the renowned classical critic Alan Rich is informative, comprehensive, and sufficiently technical while remaining very entertaining and surprisingly free of unexplained jargon. The performances by Joshua Rifkin’s famed Bach Ensemble are of sterling quality--and the selections are very apropos. Cantata No. 147 is among the best-loved Bach choral works. Atop a gentle dance-like orchestral outpouring, the familiar movement known as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring rides confidently and exultantly. Add to that Cantata No. 80, Bach’s great Reformation Day treatment of A Mighty Fortress, and you have a marvelous introduction to this Baroque master’s rich repertory.

In Mozart Play-by-Play, the analysis and commentary by Mr. Rich is once again substantive but accessible. And the performances are magnificent. Alfred Brendel’s virtuoso work is highlighted in the Piano Concerto No. 20, one of my all-time favorites with its melding of the symphonic sonata form and the vocal cadenza form. The Piano Concerto No. 21 features a majestic call-and-response encounter between a bassoon march and a piano lilt. Thankfully though, every step of the way through Mozart’s soaring score, the textual guide heightens the listener’s enjoyment and understanding of the piece. Again, the editors have afforded us with a fine introduction to the prolific work of this great eighteenth century prodigy.

With additional titles profiling Beethoven and Tchaikovsky--and hopefully, many more to come--the volumes of the Play-by-Play series comprise a helpful mini-course in music history, theory, appreciation, and composition. Thank goodness. This is one area where I for one, can use all the help I can get.

No comments: