Decades ago, in another incarnation, I caught a piece of classical music on tape one night. It sounded so familiar, but I had no idea what it was (later I discovered the signature phrase is used in an old Warner Brother’s cartoon, “The Minah Bird”).
All I knew was that it did things to me.
When I hear people say that they “love” music, to me that’s like saying that they love breathing or eating. I lose myself in music. I need it when I write. When I draw or paint, I can’t pick up a pen or a paintbrush without first choosing the music. But this piece was different. I learned that I had to be careful where I listened to it after weeping openly on a bus one day. And not just lady-like tears sliding down my face; raw, hiccuping sobs. A little embarrassing, yes.
Eventually I discovered that the piece was “Fingal’s Cave”, also known as the “Hebrides Overture”, which Felix Mendelssohn wrote in 1830 after visiting the Scottish island of Staffa. In this piece he has certainly captured the cresting power of the North Atlantic. Excited, I went right out and bought the first copy of the symphony I could find in the bargain bin at Sam Goody’s, a rendition by the Lithuanian National Orchestra. The version I have on tape is from an old LP, it’s scratchy and truncated, so this was going to be wonderful.
To my amazement, I got nothing from this version.
All the notes and phrasing were there, I recognized the melody. But something was missing and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I went back to my taped version and listened carefully. It was the tempo. My crackly old taped version flung itself against my ears with complete abandon. It didn’t care about phrasing or letting each instrument speak clearly. It was that 19th century ocean, slamming into ancient sea caves.
A couple of years later I picked up another copy of the overture, this time being performed by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Maybe this would be better.
It is definitely a better version but it still doesn’t make me cry and that other scratchy, crackly rendition almost always does.
From the opening bars, the Szell version is grander and much more solemn. It is also significantly slower. The urgency in the opening of my old taped version seems to come from the faster tempo but I think it also sounds higher in pitch as well. That could just be the difference between tape and CD but it is a telling difference. In the opening of the Szell version I can hear the individual instruments more clearly whereas the taped version, being played faster, tapestries the instruments’ sounds together into a whole that feels so much more powerful.
As I go back and forth between the two, I find that I can stop and start the Szell piece easily and pay attention to how he is leading his orchestra, and me, through this piece. I have a terrible time doing this with the other version; it is so compelling that I don’t like stopping it long enough to write about what I’m hearing.
Once the main melodic phrase is established in the Szell piece, he goes quieter and the build up is less apparent than in the taped version. At the point where the piece goes into a brief shift to minor pitch, Szell eases into it elegantly and seemingly without effort. In contrast the taped version, again moving faster, uses that moment of minor pitch to fling a wall of violins up for a hard rise that almost immediately falls away in, to me, perfect mimicry of small waves hitting and then pooling into worn rock. Szell, moving slower and more deliberately, lets the individual violins be heard and then, what sounds like cello to me, rises to establish another phrase that will be repeated but not as prominently as the opening phrase.
It could be a “feature” of the inferior recording of the taped version or I could be hearing things outright but it seems to me that throughout there is something going on underneath the other instruments, a thrumming that rides under the higher pitched voices and pushes them into those breath-stopping crescendos that come later. Right after that first teaser crescendo in the taped version, there’s a break in the tape so I’m not able to compare the next passage.
The Szell piece seems to have so much more going for it. It is certainly more melodic and the delicate repetition of that so-recognizable opening phrase precedes a majestic rise that gets its bright edge from a phalanx of brass.
Even though I’m not hearing any brass at that point in the taped version, it does something that the Szell piece isn’t doing. It’s grabbing me and pulling me into the wild, cold sea. Its repetition of the signature phrase at that point is much more staccato and there’s one rising violin under it that joins others and, now some brass, to keep rising, rising, some flutes join in there as well, and then just before it explodes, it gets pulled back and cellos come from under the froth created by the flutes and violins to ground the piece again with that haunting melody. Szell’s piece uses straight brass here and it sounds so much more courtly, dignified, orchestral. He then goes quiet, using a circling background of violins to let his brass and flutes pick out a new melody.
Szell’s piece is beautiful and, if I’d never heard this other bastard of a recording, I’d love the piece just for his handling of it. He lets me in, opens his hallways of sound and effect so that I can see what he’s doing. But he doesn’t reach into my guts and make me forget to breathe for the sheer, brutal power of the music. And somehow this old, scratchy, beat up version does that and, moreover, it does it every single time I listen to it. It’s never lost its power to take me somewhere no other piece of music ever has.
At this point, just before all heck breaks loose in the Szell rendition, I can hear his percussion, his weaving of violins and brass, the deliberate push towards a rather obvious crescendo. There’s this thing Mendelssohn asks his violins to do at this point, an almost sawing effect, that serves as a springboard for the climax. Szell employs it. The taped version pillages it. There is no elegance or finesse here as there is none in the North Atlantic as it pummels the coast of the Hebrides. There is nothing but raw power.
Those circling, thrumming violins and then the startling, sweet trumpets that signal some small peak before the strings take the listener back down to a deceptive calm, a gentle repetition of that second melodic line that the cellos established earlier. This gets sliced by urgent violins that start circling and rising, piercing and still rising and the percussion throws its weight in behind it and the whole orchestra circles and rises, circles and rises, brass shouts that something is about to happen and those sawing violins are under it all, shoving it forward and nothing can withstand the onslaught as it crashes, gathers itself and crashes again. And here I am, forgetting to breathe again as it just keeps coming, just keeps flinging itself onto the rocks.
Even the closing is punctuated by hard spikes of strings wound tightly together before slower pizzicato drops me on the beach, out of breath and grinning with tears streaking my face for the sheer breathtaking joy of the ride. And that’s the difference. Szell gives me a lovely, haunting piece of music and does it with precision and technical mastery. That old taped version grabs me and flings me into the ocean.
Eventually, with my partner’s help, I tracked down what feels like “my” version by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Claudio Abbado.
This version certainly has the vigor and passion of my scratchy old taped piece and both take me for the wildest ride and, in the end, it’s done with pitch, tempo and all the energy of a storm-driven ocean.
We are a destructive, dangerous, ugly species in so many ways. But just having produced something this transporting and magical gives the whole human race a pass in my book. Enjoy.
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