Friday, November 2, 2012

Celestial passions

Lord, how I love these old contraptions! They are musical time machines transporting us back to a simpler, more ingenuous time. This baby must have been a high-status piece of equipment in the Victorian era, like the stereos of the 1960s (when you invited your neighbor over and turned the amplifier up to 11). It amazes me how pristine the sound quality is: I don't think this instrument could be reproduced today to sound any better.

Bestial passions

Since music is something I swim in like a fish in the ocean, YouTube has been a huge blessing for me. I can dip in, bail after a few seconds if I don't like a piece, and saturate myself with the ones I do love, over and over again. Not only that, but the more analytical side of my listening mind can revel in comparisons of the same piece.

I've been getting into Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy, a piece which is almost embarrassingly erotic and which caused quite a stir when it debuted in Paris for portraying "bestial" passions. Which it did. One incensed audience member even walked out, going straight over to his mistress's chambers where he fucked the living daylights out of her.

I was thinking about fauns, erotic music, Debussy and the flute. Then I found a rapturous version of Debussy's Reverie by an ensemble which was unknown to me before. Trio del Garda has a web site, but no CDs, not that I can find. You can download quite a few YouTube videos, but the quality isn't very good. This surprises me: musicians have such cut-glass, noticing-your-watch-tick-across-the-room hearing that you'd think they would not allow even a hint of sound distortion, not to mention all those audience heads that seem to indicate amateur video. Are they really so strapped that they allow this inferior product to represent their work? I didn't post the Reverie, but only because the soundtrack is so full of offputting distortion.

But I had to post something of theirs, so I chose an unusual arrangement of a familiar, favorite piece (the Intermezzo from Cavalliera Rusticana by Mascagni: remember Raging Bull?), usually played by lush orchestra with orgasmic organ in the background. I noticed the flautist first, of course, since he is obviously the lead instrument in this ensemble.  I am very very picky about woodwinds, having grown up with wind players all around me, flute, oboe, clarinet (which my brother insists isn't really a musical instrument but a sort of pacifier for Middle School band students).

The best-known, like Galway, don't always fall on my ear in the best way. Galway had a very syrupy vibrato and a tendency to push the high note until it sharped. Jean-Pierre Rampal was the genius of his time, and I was privileged to hear him in concert many years ago. Defying the limits of the instrument, his tone was fat and lush and even sensuous. Surely he somehow expanded the resonant frequency of an instrument that can be excruciatingly thin, even sour. It was a fat shiny pelt of a sound, a musical mink coat that you could run your fingers through. No one has equalled it since.

But this guy, well, he has something going for him. He has a pronounced vibrato, in fact if there were any more it would be too much. But he uses it so beautifully. His high range has great purity and precision, so the end of the phrase needs something to soften and "voluptu-ize" it (and yes, I know that's not a word, but it's Friday and I feel like making stuff up). In short, I like him. I am CRAZY about chamber work that is very pared down, not so much string quartets as things like flute, bassoon and harp. Harp is sublime in ensemble, but completely wretched on its own. The only solo harpist I have ever really enjoyed is Harpo Marx, and only because he played jazz on it.

The first video I posted today is of the same piece (the Mascagni Intermezzo), played on a vintage Regina 17" upright music box with an automatic changer. I've posted this one before, but I think it's time for an encore. It's very beautiful, with an otherworldly quality in the decay of the notes, a dreaminess. Though it's played with precision (rubato seems out of reach for such things), it never sounds mechanical. And it's absolutely in tune, which most of these things aren't. What I love best is the changing mechanism, no doubt deemed a marvel of its time: you didn't even have to get up! How those thin discs avoided becoming unplayably warped is beyond me. I especially love how the disc disappears at the end, falling in a blur like some musical guillotine.