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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The joy of musical shopping

I oppose Gun Control and I oppose Porn Control. In the War on Drugs, I am confident that the side I back (Drugs) will eventually be declared the winner. But what I actually like is classical music, and about a week ago I visited Mr CD in Soho, which is my second-favourite second-hand CD shop in London, to get another fix. Just now, some of the CDs there are particularly fine bargains.

Two purchases from Mr CD have given me special joy, namely two double albums of violin concertos by Vivaldi, at £2 (~$3) per album, i.e. £1 per CD.

I have a love hate relationship with the music of Vivaldi. I love it when it is played as I love it to be played, and I hate it when it is played as I hate it to be played. And I hate it when Vivaldi is played in the “authentic” style, on “original instruments”, by musicians who also fancy themselves as scholars. What this means in practice is coming down on the first beat of every bar with a great bulge of over-emphasis. What I like is best described by the Italian word “legato”, a steady line of melody in which the volume doesn’t come and go within each note. And of all the famous composers, I find that the gap between how good it can sound and how bad it can sound is greatest with Vivaldi. Good Vivaldi is heartbreakingly lovely. “Authentic” Vivaldi is boringly, relentlessly pointless, like the worst sort of ‘elevator music’.

The most detestably authentic musicians I’ve ever heard are some people called “Musica Antiqua Köln“, who are misdirected by a man called Reinhard Goebel. I have a CD by these people, which I have only kept so that I could one day denounce them to the entire world without miss-spelling their names. They shouldn’t all be taken out and shot by a firing squad which specialises in using original weapons, because that would be wrong. As a libertarian I defend the right of people to express themselves in any way that does not aggress against the rights of others, no matter how horribly they avail themselves of this right. But you get my point.

But ah joy, the Vivaldi CDs I came upon in Mr CD were played by the Chamber Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, in other words by real musicians. I think this orchestra may be a slimmed-down version of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra itself, no less, a suspicion strengthened by the fact that one of the solo violinists in the Opus 3 Concertos (“L’Estro Armonico”) is the great Willi Boskovsky, the VPO’s long time leader. The recording was made in 1964, long before authenticity struck, but just recently enough for the sound quality of the recording to be okay. Viennese opera musicians wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a baroque recording project these days.

I played the CDs eagerly as soon as I got home, and all the joy I used to get in my youth from listening to Vivaldi came flooding rapturously back.

The difference between this sort of music making and Musica Antiqua Köln is the difference between making lingeringly rapturous love, and merely humping up and down, trying and failing to force on an orgasm.

On the same expedition I also acquired the latest recording in the LSO Live series, a beautiful performance of Elgar’s First Symphony conducted by Sir Colin Davis, brand new this time, for a mere £5. This is my favorite LSO Live CD so far. (You can find out more about this and the other excellent and keenly priced CDs in this series, and about how to purchase them, by going to the London Symphony Orchestra website.)

The impression usually left in the mind of the listener by this wonderful symphony is of great dignity and great splendour, the main tune of the first movement being especially dignified and splendid (it’s marked “nobilmente”). But in this performance it was the quieter and subtler orchestral details that most caught my attention. Sir Colin Davis is quoted in the sleeve notes thus:

“If I am conscious of being older now I think my feelings must have changed too! Like a lot of older people, I am looking for space. There is more space between the bar-lines than people understand. There is more time for musicians to gauge the rise and fall of a phrase. There is no virtue in driving things just for the sake of it, which is a temptation of youth. But of course if one did not do that when one was young one would not enjoy not doing it when one was older!”

For once, the artist’s sleeve note claim and the artist’s actual artistic achievement correspond perfectly.

People who say that money can’t buy happiness are just no good at shopping.

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