A line from Phoebe Stuckes that has (for lack of a better word) stuck with me in the turnover of a new year: “I want to be stinking drunk in a restaurant eating bread from a basket, thinking of vintage Prada and snow.”
Much as we like to fetishize the process, listening is an inherently simple act. The most complete definition, provided by Pauline Oliveros, consists of “directing attention to what is heard, gathering meaning, interpreting, and deciding on action.” It’s the “gathering meaning” and “interpreting” bit that tends to cause a traffic jam of sorts. There’s academic meaning and interpretation, a ramrod, straight-backed form of gathering that tends to resemble ecumenical sadism. There’s a less rigorous sort of psycho-emotional listening, charting a composer’s biography through their works, mapping their emotional states onto each diminuendo and fortissimo. There’s a completist form of listening that, depending on the subject, can start to feel like living in the movie “Groundhog Day”—“Well, it’s Scarlatti sonatas…again.”
But, in the first weeks of 2022, what I want as a listener is the meaning and interpretive equivalent of being stinking drunk in a restaurant eating bread from a basket, thinking of vintage Prada and snow. When It-girl author Ottessa Moshfegh’s agent described her as “this kind of weapon”—a writer who rises at five a.m. and spends three hours in the boxing gym before sitting down to work—Eloise Hendy questioned the “rejection of joy and…repression of desire” inherent to such a routine. “What if I didn’t want to become a weapon?”
There’s no sublime purpose to Grieg’s song cycle, “Haugtussa,” set to selections from compatriot Arne Garborg’s novella-in-verse of the same name. “Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on the heights,” the Norwegian composer once quipped. “I only wanted to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home.” Likewise, the heroine of “Haugtussa,” the eponymous mountain girl Veslemøy, isn’t a weapon-as-a-woman. She’s too busy talking to bears and picking blueberries to hit up the boxing gym.
There’s a mystical quality about her, as well: Her eyes see into another world. Accordingly, Grieg’s score veers between rippling glissandi and esoteric minor chords that resolve into miniature idylls. On a new recording of the cycle, the centerpiece of “Grieg” (Decca), pianist Leif Ove Andsnes sounds like he’s boarding Ravel’s ship on the ocean, before soprano Lise Davidsen picks up a vocal line that’s more Senta than Solveig: “Oh, if you know the dream and know the song, you will want to hide the notes.”
The midpoint of “Haugtussa,” a first meeting between Veslemøy and her lover, is heady and hazy, quietly lingering in joy and making garlands of desire. It’s not hard, however, to figure out that this doesn’t end well. Grieg’s music gives us no hairpin curves, it simply moves us from one room of the house to the next towards Veslemøy’s inevitable abandonment and death, and Davidsen and Andsnes are faithful executors of the composer’s architecture.
Beethoven’s ambition is easier to weaponize than Grieg’s, something Twitter will never let us forget. Which is why any recording of his work that can temporarily backburner The Discourse™ is all the more welcome. Enter Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt, with their recent recording of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas, Op. 30 (Ondine). Written between 1801 and 1802, the trio of sonatas is Beethoven in his own turnover from late Classical to early Romantic era, a turnover that we experience in real time listening to the works in order. Not every Beethoven work was a church or a temple, and these works show him—like Grieg—building homes. Such a sense of interiority is, in fact, visible throughout his works, but can easily be overshadowed by bombast.
Elements that may seem forward-looking are, as Vogt puts it in the liner notes, “inward-looking.” The first of the three sonatas, Vogt finds, is “really very inward in orientation. In it I already detect traces of the slight melancholy that sometimes resonates in his music.… [It] belongs to his most personal music of all. Thoughts of farewell are also articulated here.”
Tetzlaff agrees: “What Beethoven is so often associated with is a stance of rattling at the gate, challenging fate… Where he really makes the heart bleed is at moments when the melody doesn’t at all need anything additional, and nevertheless we’re all gripped while listening.” It’s easy to pinpoint these spots on his musical timeline, but it’s an incomplete portrait of the composer. He was no stranger to wanting to feel the totality of human experience and emotion, and masterful at distilling those oceans of yearning into their most basic elements and arrangements. Like Davidsen and Andsnes, Tetzlaff and Vogt have an innate rapport and intimacy that allows these characteristics to filter through the music.
It’s a natural progression from Tetzlaff and Vogt’s Beethoven to Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin’s recent recording of Liszt’s “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses” (Steinway). Another composer whose braggadocio could obscure a quieter, and more guarded personality, the Poetic and Religious Harmonies show, as Lin puts it, “a very private Liszt, one who’s retreated to his inner self.” Tendler and Lin recorded these pieces in September 2019, long before global lockdowns; hearing the works nearly two years later is like opening a time capsule at the exact right moment in the future.
Neither Lin nor Tendler, both champions of 20th- and 21st-century composers, are the first names you’d think of to trade off on nearly 90 minutes of Liszt’s solo piano music. Rather than akin to asking Picasso to follow a paint-by-numbers kit, it becomes a sort of musical koan; a study in contrasts and context. Listening to this recording is akin to jumping into an ice-cold lake on a swelteringly endless August afternoon. It’s the sort of thing I’ll be glad to hibernate with, a blanket of desire to fold on my lap as I stare out the window, thinking of vintage Prada and snow. ¶