When you practice a piece of music, something I have not done in some time, there’s a necessity to find the section in the music that is giving you the most trouble and working on it, so it gives you less trouble. The problem was always for me – I was never persistent enough to entirely iron out the mistakes. The troublesome section would continue to bite me – especially if I stopped playing it for a while.
Normally, this blog has been about politics, and ordinarily I would make some point about most of our politicians being similar – not persistent enough to iron out mistakes. Or, in their case, lacking the reflective ability to know about their deficiencies.
And yet, I won’t be extending that metaphor, largely because I am disgusted by most of politics and by most politicians. Thinking about politics makes me exhausted, quite frankly. So, I am writing about something that has been consuming me this past couple of months – assumptions and beliefs I had made about “classical” music performance. And having them confronted, forcing me to be persistent and iron out the mistakes I had been making. Most of our male politicians in Canberra are incapable of any of that kind of thing.
2021 and David Hurwitz
I wrote about my classical CD collection last year in this post – which spells out how the recordings of Roger Norrington came to dominate my single version of most repertoire collection. It also shows how my 2020 rediscovery was based mostly on my opinions from my 20s. I even started to buy the recordings of the 2010s answer to Roger Norrington, Francois-Xavier Roth and his Les Siecles group. But as I have continued to look for multiple versions, I discovered the videos of David Hurwitz.
David Hurwitz is a finance and real estate bloke in New York which is just a way to fund his true love – classical music. He plays percussion for community orchestras and is the executive editor of ClassicsToday.com, an American classical music review website that comes up a lot when you search for reviews of specific CDs. Lockdown for him has meant that he has taken to Youtube and spilling out all of his knowledge, wisdom, anecdotes and feelings about classical music. A LOT of all of those things.
Hurwitz has pumped out more than 500 videos in this last year, and I have watched a fair few of them. They have jolted me. Led me down an entirely different listening path, and forced me to confront my own prejudices and judgements about classical music performance. Thing is, after watched these videos, I have developed a large respect for his opinions, because they clearly come from a place of great, detailed knowledge of the works, conversations with other experts, musicians and conductors. Above all, his love for music is what drives him, but it’s a love based on research and detailed reflection. It is also admirable that Hurwitz’s anecdotes and opinions reveal that he has no time for marketing hype and grand statements. He is also very, very funny. Using a Karajan CD box in a workout video is one of the funniest things I have seen on Youtube.
Confrontations and “Howevers”
Over the time of watching the videos, I have been confronted by his contention that Roger Norrington may well be the worst conductor of modern times ; that Francois-Xavier Roth and Les Siecles were just more HIP hype ; that the (cheap, but widely praised) Riccardo Chailly cycles of Brahms and Beethoven that I had bought in 2020 were “boring”; that Gramophone and its reviews may just be mostly bullshit. He also places a lot more emphasis on respecting US orchestras and the conductors who worked there – especially in the 50s and 60s – than most of what I read before. In addition, a very large proportion of recordings in my shelves didn’t even made it to his “good” section of his videos (with a few exceptions). As I said, very confronting, especially to my mid 20s self.
There’s two ways to respond to confrontations. Be like a lot of men on the internet and shut down and stay with the views you formulate in your 20s, or really try to understand how you reached those views. Also, do the research. This last point made me dive back into the Maestro Myth of Lebrecht and realise great chunks of it is complete half arsed bullshit, even if Karajan still was a bit of a tyrant with bizarre ideas about cars.
One of the features of many of Hurwitz’s videos is that he will suggest a range of good, very good and excellent recordings of any particular work, with the climax being his “However” recommendations for what he believes is the best recording of pieces. I started by listening to some of them on Apple Music – if I could find them – and then, if I loved them, I would scraping through Amazon and Ebay for them. That has not been all that easy from Australia, due to sky high postage costs from the US and Japan. However… I have managed to get a fair few. What I have discovered is that indeed, pretty much all of them have been absolute bangers of recordings (I know that term is probably not age appropriate, but I think it’s apt) and better than the ones I had.
That’s not to say that I have become a Hurwitz disciple in the way I was a slave to the trends that abounded in my 20s. I don’t agree with him on everything. For example, I still prefer Stephen Hough’s Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto recordings to the Lortie ones he recommends – partially because I have long adored the music of Saint-Saens and have my own ideas about how it should sound, which is not based on the opinions of others in the way many of my opinions were formed about other composers’ works. An example of this would be that I have almost no opinion of Bruckner or Sibelius, because I have not really heard much of their music. Also in terms of differing from Hurwitz, I also still like a lot of what Roth is doing, because I don’t think he’s a slave to his research in the way Norrington, Gardiner and some others in the HIP movement tended to be in the past. I think a lot of HIP people who are recording now are very good. I also still like Norrington in a couple of recordings. I will admit, however, in regards Norrington, that I had stopped listening to most of his recordings some years ago, which I thought was due to me losing interest in music. Listening to them now up against other recordings, I realise that most of them really aren’t that good.
Where Hurwitz’s videos have been of most help to me is to understand the distinctive features of the music, conductors, orchestra, sonics of the recording and the sound that arrives as a combination of all of those features. He provides a system upon which I can base any future judgements. Having the reference editions can help triangulate where your tastes are. The problem for me previously was working out which “reference” ones to get. And Hurwitz’s recommendations have reached into all sorts of unexpected areas, such as Naxos and the super cheap Brilliant Classics recordings from East German state orchestras. Plus, I know which super cheap Warner or Universal boxes to look for. I also will go down the Czech Supraphon rabbit hole at some stage, because I have long admired the music of Martinu (I think of him as one of the best composers of the 20th Century) , but have found it hard to find recordings.
The other thing Hurwitz’s videos do is show the features of repertoire that is largely unfamiliar – such as Martinu’s – in a detailed and entertaining way. There’s corners of the repertoire I have not experienced in a lot of detail, but look forward to doing so, having bought the However version of them, or finding them on Apple Music to listen to in the car first. (I need to stop buying CDs, even if they are mostly cheap!) He has, for example, has shown me how to approach Dvorak in a way I had not before. I have been blown away by the recordings I have been buying of his music.
A New Way of Listening
The result of all of this reflection and self confrontation is that I feel much better about my choices and listening to music these days. I have a sense of connection to a wider world of music listening that I had before, that my listening can have a focus and purpose. That my classical connection isn’t just a very extensive musak soundtrack. This feeds to a wider sense of who I am as a person. That in my late 40s, I have needed to do a close zoom into my belief systems and realise what is received wisdom and what is genuinely my own, or what can be genuinely my own into the future.
Watching the videos en masse have also shown me in a profound fashion the worth of respecting tradition. In other words, music performance should not be based purely on the printed notes and written research – in this analogy, some in the HIP crew were like fundamentalists using the Bible for their purposes. Music should really be a thing where traditions passed over time should be more respected, which is a good philosophy in life. We can’t just throw out everything that has happened between the time the music was written and now and start anew. That philosophy of life should not be applied just to music.