Friday, December 17, 2010

The Grand Old Man of Elevator Music

Stuff I wouldn't have known if I hadn't picked up a copy of Norman Lebrecht's saucy-but-informative The Maestro Myth, specifically about the late Maestro di tutti Maestri Herbert von Karajan: he was not only the kingpin/dictator of the podium and the recording industry; he still rules us from the grave.  That is: Karajan is surely one of, maybe the, most recorded classical artist (a search for "Karajan" in Amazon music yields 9,000-plus hits).  He achieved his dominance partly through an artful and masterful collaboration with the top brass at Sony: they worked together to devise and market the digital music which swept the field away from the old LPs (recall--the secret of success in the music biz is to make sure we all have to repurchase our favorites every four-five years).
A corollary: Karajan understood for the mass market, classical music had to be boring.  Or at least "unsurprising," in the sense of "elevator music."  Technically proficient, of course--nobody can fault Karajan for technique.  But reassuring, anodyne.  This flattening of technique seems to have suited Karajan's temperament.  Lebrecht says:
Where lte performances  by Klemperer, Walter, Stokowski and other elder statesmen accquired dimensions of wisdom and grandeur, Karajan's recordings become shallow and insipid as he pursued continual refinement of the quality he perceived as breuty.  'Would you prefer them to be ugly?' he demanded when his interpretations were challenged.
And right there, I think, you have the dirty little secret of too much modern classical, including opera: technically proficient, but with the rough edges or the eccentricities all knocked off.   Like the cider you'd get if you cut out all the wormholes before you threw the apples in the press.  No, not elevator music: banker music:  Can't be too upsetting here.

I shouldn't complain: I listen to a lot of this stuff, and enjoy it.  But I remember Jim  Svejda, the public-radio classical music guru, years ago choosing his favorite recording (LP, no doubt) of Beethoven's Fifth. His choice: the CBS Orchestra.  Not because they were the best, but precisely because they weren't.  He argued that you could hear them thinking, "hey, we're playing Beethoven"--and practically falling off their stools. Gave the performance an energy and urgency that you just wouldn't have found with a more experienced crew.    Energy and urgency, can't have that.  Blame Karajan.

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