I turned 50 years old today. As it turns out, there’s also a second milestone on the near horizon: this fall will mark my 25th anniversary working in the music business. Hard to believe that the time has passed by so quickly, but I’m so grateful that classical music feels no less important to me now then when I first fell in love with it back in college.
As a bit of a thank you note to the artists and composers that have made a special impression on me over the years, I put together a list of 50 favorite recordings. You can read that list here at my blog for Huffington Post.
Soon after the list was published, a few people dropped me a note to ask which, of those fifty recordings, were my very favorites. I deliberately alphabetized the list by composer, rather than tried to rank the recordings in some kind of “Top 50” countdown, to avoid making impossible decisions about which recording ranked higher or lower. Still, if push came to shove and I absolutely HAD to choose my top three favorites, I’d likely pick the three described below. Each selected work is from a composer who possesses a very distinct and recognizable sound, but all three works have an obvious connecting thread: they all celebrate nature.
So drumroll please: my top three favorite recordings….
Number 3 – Philip Glass: Powaqqatsi
So, I’m giving my number three slot to Philip Glass’s music for Godfrey Regio’s visionary 1982 film Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation. The title comes from a Hopi word meaning “parasitic way of life.” The phrase has many meanings in the context of the film, but the principal meaning, as revealed in Regio’s stunning imagery, is the degradation brought about by wanton industrialization. Long before there was talk of global warming, this film – and it’s predecessor in the “Qatsi trilogy,” Koyaanisqatsi – made it clear that a way of life that ravaged the natural environment was dooming our species to physical and spiritual misery.
The subject matter may be deep, and often dark, but Glass’s score is luminous. It is, to my taste, the richest, warmest and most human music he has composed. There’s a strong element of world music in it, with thrilling drumming and exuberant singing. Listening to it – or, even better, watching the filming, is an utterly transforming experience.
The recording: Philip Glass Ensemble
Number 2: Olivier Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles (“From The Canyons to the Stars”)
Since I think I did a pretty good job of summing up my love for this work in my Huffington Post blog, forgive me for doing a little self-borrowing here!
It was conductor Myung-Whun Chung who first introduced me to Messiaen’s music with a recording of the explosively original Turangalila-Symphonie that really shook me. As Deutsche Grammophon’s press agent, and later U.S. label chief, in New York, I dedicated a lot of time and resources to promoting the label’s Messiaen’s releases, probably the most gratifying work I did while working in the recording industry.
Chung’s recording of Messiaen’s “Canyons” came out long after I left the label, but it’s probably the version of this visionary work that I return to most. Messiaen wrote it on a commission from the great arts patron Alice Tully, who sought a work to mark America’s bicentennial. The result is a mystical, kaleidoscopic depiction of “God’s Country” — the beautiful canyons of Southwest Utah, including Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park — complete with Messiaen’s trademark birdsong transcriptions and a battery of percussion including an instrument invented by the composer (the geophone!). The eighth movement, “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran,” is more soothing to the soul than any music I have ever encountered — it is the quiet breathing of God’s universe at peace.
What a wondrous work!
Recording: Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung (DG):
Number One: Mahler Symphony No. 3
I’ve written about my annual “First Day of Sumner” ritual, which has, as its centerpiece, listening to Mahler’s Third Symphony (here’s a link to that post). And after thinking about it for a while, I think I’d have to say that this work really is my favorite piece of music.
As Mahler explained in a program that he ultimately held back from publication with the symphony, each of the six movements depicts a stage of evolution from “inanimate nature” to “universal love.” Movement one, lasting a full half hour, originally bore the heading “Pan Awakes – Summer Marches In” [the mythical figure Pan was the God of summer – and many other things]. The rugged beginning – with its howling, sliding trombones – seems to convey the heaving of the earth itself as it thrusts up the rocks and meadows and mountains. Slowly but surely living matter begins to appear (as you listen you can easily guess when this happens), and march music (that comes back stronger and stronger) captures life taking hold and growing in abundance and power. The last five minutes of this movement can knock you off your seat if you play it loudly enough!
The graceful second movement is “What the Flowers of the Meadow Tell Me,” followed by “What the Animals of the Forest Tell me”. The mysterious fourth movement, “What Mankind Tells Me,” features a solo female voice singing texts by Nietzsche (the same source that would inspire Richard Strauss’ most famous work) asking the question “What does the deep midnight say?” Sunlight returns in the fifth movement with a choir of boys’ voices imitating the angels in a song featuring texts from Mahler’s favorite folk poems, The Youth’s Magic Horn: “Heavenly joy is a happy city. Heavenly joy knows no end.” I won’t hesitate to say what I think about the final movement, “What Love Tells Me”: it is, in my mind, the most beautiful and expressive 20-plus minutes of music ever written (crying during the last three minutes is practically inescapable!). As famed Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange puts it, “With this hymn of praise to the Creator of the World, conceived as the supreme force of Love, Mahler took the final step on the road to Eternal Light.”
Recording: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam/Haitink (Philips Originals):
Bernstein’s first recording of Mahler’s Third with the New York Philharmonic is a great one, and comes in a terrific set of all nine of the composer’s symphonies. Well worth having, and a set of Mahler Symphonies belongs in ever music lover’s household.