Category Archives: Music

Less Praise, Please

Solon famously recommended calling no man happy until he was dead.  It’s just as advisable, I think, not to call him great.  There are some compliments that should only be paid after the object of admiration is safely deceased.  Otherwise it gets embarrassing.

Consider the biographical note written by Cécile Buffet for Alain Planes’ Harmonia Mundi CD, Haydn Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2.  Planes is a gifted pianist and (to judge by his photograph) he’s been on this planet much longer than I have, so it’s only right that his accomplishments are noted.  Buffet’s fawning idolatry, however, is too much:

A great lover and connoisseur of painting, no less learned in his passion for poetry, Alain Planes enjoys a career in his own image: right from the start he has followed the path of life rather than the siren songs of a glory that demands too many compromises. 

From a mother with an artistic temperament…he has inherited and retained fervent humility and disinterestedness of gesture.  In the end it is this that creates style – rigor is of little use without grace.

The man is still alive, for God’s sake.  Let’s not jinx him by smothering any perfectly adequate virtues he may posses with so much saccharine flattery.  If Plaines is as humble and disinterested as Buffet claims, he can only blush at this.  But then, did he have no say at all in the liner notes for his own CD?  No one should take himself this seriously.

Perhaps it’s just Gallic effusiveness.  I ought to be happy, I suppose, for the opportunity to be mildly scandalized, and for the laughs:

There is in him something of a curious blend of Proust and Wilde.  With the first he shares his relationship with time, profound, expanded, Schubertian.  With the second, a certain intellectual dandyism, a form of refined cynicism that nonetheless does not sacrifice tenderness.

Thankfully it’s the Expanded Schubertian and not the Intellectual Dandy that comes through in Planes’ music.  But if there is a bit of Wilde about him, it might serve as inoculation against his admirers’ excesses.  “Praise makes me humble,” Wilde once wrote, “but when I am abused I know I have touched the stars.”

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At about three minutes and fifteen seconds into Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude, there is a musical phrase so evocative, so strangely transfixing.

The prelude opens with a pleasant melodic theme laid over repetitive mid-range notes that suggest (to me) the slow dripping of water through wide deciduous leaves, maple leaves perhaps.  It’s a sound you’ll never hear while the rain is actually falling (it’s too quiet not to be drowned out), but it slowly steps forward and lingers afterwards.  Then, about a minute and three-quarters into the piece, the clouds begin to heap themselves up slowly, ominous and black, until they are immediately overhead.  There is a brief, violent downpour.  The skies soften for just a moment and then begin to mass themselves for a second assault.  There is another ferocious burst. 

Then in the immediate sequel, a moment resembling nothing so much as the vanishingly brief convex that chases an ocean swell, there comes the marvelous phrase.  In the rest of the prelude there is nothing like it for texture or character.  There’s something arch and almost sinister in it, but majestic; vaguely threatening but stark and blameless as a bare mountain of creviced granite, sleek and steaming after a summer shower.  It’s the commentary of stone spires that drink in rainwater clawed from the ragged edges of clouds.

The phrase repeats itself once, but softer, and then resolves into a reprise of the opening melody measured out in the perseverating drips that fall between the leaves.

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