May 12, 2011

Rough Draft: On Letting Go

One of the hardest things I did before moving to Amsterdam was to give away my collection of 500 odd audio CDs - painstakingly curated over a period of more than 8 years. Sure, I have a digital copy on my hard-disk now but having been through 3 audio formats (Microsoft’s WMA, Sony’s NetMD and finally MP3), it was vaguely reassuring to always have the master copies’ at hand. But it was not for the reasons of acoustic fidelity (hearing is not a faculty known to improve with age) that I felt bad about parting with them; rather the qualms were about abandoning the physical aesthetic of the packaging that had made collecting CDs worthwhile.

Most western classical CDs come with carefully written notes about the work, musician biographies; and depending on the label, beautiful artwork. For example, I still remember the recordings of Bach’s Double Violin Concertos on Harmonia Mundi not only for the divine music, but also because the linear notes included this playful photoshoot of the vilonists Andrew Manze and Rachel Podger:

From the linear notes of Bach's Double Concerto recording issues by Harmonia Mundi

Often, the musicians add some unique insights into the work or the place where the work was recorded. Heres what Quatuor Ysaÿe had to say about their recordings of some of the rare works of Beethoven:

We were familiar with the Abbey of L’Epau, having played their prior to choosing it as a recording location. L’Epau, so close to the city [Le Mans] and yet so far from man… The first time we assessed its full force was when we visited it alone, for recording trials. In the space of an instant, the place belonged to us: confidence was established, and we were on friendly ground. The beauty of the stone, the haromy of the volumes, the play of light, which alone gives rhythm to the hours - all contributed to the triumph of the spirit and called forth the music. . . The dormitory, where we recorded, boasts exceptional acoustics, coloured by a natural reverberation that is ideal for the sonority of strings. The volume is large without ever being overwhelming, and in it, the quartet resonates without dryness or hardness, but with the brightness and clearness that we hoped for.”

It might colour your opinion of the recording before you hear it, but chances are that you’ll appreciate what you hear more.

Then there is the matter of listening to works that are CD buddies’, together. By some strange trick of fate, certain western classical works acquire affinity for each other and are always issued together on a CD (and on LPs before them). Often it is the obvious stylistic similarties that bring two works together (Debussy and Ravel’s string quartets), but sometimes it could be the doing of an obscure historical quirk (Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is paired with Schumann’s Piano Concerto because these are the only works by these composers in their respective genres). In an era where you buy tracks’, the notion of a complete classical work itself is fast disappearing to say nothing of two complete works being paired together.

There is a brighter side to this whole episode. I am now in the same city (Amsterdam) as one of my favourite concert venues (Concertgebouw). This Friday I’ll finally be listening to a live performance of two of my most cherished chamber works:

  1. Beethoven’s String Quartet in F (Op. 135)
  2. Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor (Op. 10)

The links above point to 7 year old posts on my previous blog. Life has been kind.


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