One-Hit Wonders and Kleinmeister

I’m finally beginning to think about the preparation for a long-desired course on rock and popular music from 1970 to 2000. Although I listened to some rock music from earlier (The Who, The Beatles, The Monkees [!], Chubby Checker, Steppenwolf, and a few others), I only began to pay much attention to it in the 1970s, and even then I didn’t really get very excited by much of it until the later ’70s and ’80s—the synthpop invasion of the ’80s was my watershed moment, and I think that I knew something new was on the horizon (and also that what I had loved was over) when I first saw the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991.

My tastes are quirky—I experienced (in particular) the ’80s as it happened, before television and radio stations were dumbed down (in Clear Channel fashion) to play only the biggest-selling hits and rarely if ever play anything that was less known. (For instance, I’m shocked at the relatively narrow rotation schedules on the three Sirius channels devoted to these three decades.) And so I liked what I liked without knowing or caring how popular it was in the mainstream; I can remember many times staying up very late for some video show or another on TBS of MTV hoping that one of the obscure songs I liked would come on—and being disappointed more often than not.

I think if I were going to teach a course about this music I would want to have a good chunk of it (over half? more?) devoted to the so-called one-hit wonders of the era—for these delightful songs were often more surprising than the usual chart-topping fare. Likewise, some very established bands occasionally released songs that didn’t have a huge success, and these too were often, somehow, more compelling to me. Perhaps this is my temperament.

If I like one-hit-wonders and little-known songs by mainstream bands, however, I’m almost diametrically opposed to the classical equivalent, the Kleinmeister—composers who, if known at all, are known for only a handful of pieces, and who are regularly treated to mini-revivals by musicologists with too much time on their hands and university performers who want to carve out a niche for themselves in the agony of pre-tenure or the limbo before associate professors are finally promoted to full professor. There’s a small number of such works that I really think deserve to be better known: Sonata 5 in G Major from the Armonico Tributo of Georg Muffat (c.1645–1704), for instance, or (more recently) Change, by Judd Greenstein (b. 1979). Most of it, though (pieces by a dizzying array of Baroque and Classical composers and not a few nineteenth-century ones, too), is mercifully unknown today. The music they wrote was competent but eminently forgettable, unless and until performers of the first rank lavish their attention on it—I’m thinking, for instance, of Mahan Esfahani’s current interest in Jiří Antonín Benda (1722–1795) and possibly Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959); great performers make a difference.

I guess I’ve put my finger on the distinction in my mind between the one-hit wonder and the Kleinmester opus: the performers of one-hit wonders are themselves great performers, at least for that one song, and the songwriter, producer, and everyone else involved in making the record seem inspired—at least for that one song. And there’s a built-in freshness about the humble one-hit band, too; one doesn’t need to consider its entire catalog comparatively because there is no catalog. (Try evaluating Elvis Costello’s enormous output to single out the really great songs and you quickly find out how difficult it is.) I’m inclined to think that the most discerning listeners of pop and rock don’t simply follow the chart-toppers, but also sample more widely and have some of these more obscure works as favorites. Too often we’re made to feel ashamed of such ephemera; we call them “guilty pleasures.” But I don’t feel guilty, and I have a feeling that populating my course-to-be with such offerings will actually result in a more vivid experience for the students, not least because it gives them the chance to search for things outside of their comfort zones.

In addition to the Muffat and Greenstein pieces I mentioned above, I include two other obscurities: the one-hit-wonder Tee-Set, and their “Ma belle amie” (1970) and “The Lebanon,” by The Human League (1984). And for good measure, a nice cover of “The Lebanon¨ by a French indie artist, unTIL BEN.

Muffat, Passacaglia from Armonico Tributo

Greenstein, Change

Tee-Set, “Ma belle amie”

The Human League, “The Lebanon”

unTIL BEN, cover of “The Lebanon”

CD Review: Mahan Esfahani—Byrd, Bach, Ligeti (Wigmore Hall Live 66, 2014, 75 minutes)

Mahan Esfahani is the foremost young harpsichordist today and has the potential to reinvent the standards for artistic performance. I have already reviewed his excellent Hyperion recording of C. P. E. Bach’s Württemberg Sonatas in The American Record Guide and am currently preparing another ARG review discussing his fabulous performance of all Rameau’s harpsichord music. This 2014 CD also matches the high quality of all the others.

Esfahani is such a great player, first and foremost, because he is a musician who seems to value the experience of music and its performance from its beginnings to now. This is an unusual position to be in for a harpsichordist, made still more unusual because there is a strong and noble tradition in harpsichord and other early music performance to recreate, in so far as possible, the sound of the music as its composers might have heard it. I’m inclined to think that examining performance treatises and extant exemplars of historical instruments does tell us a great deal; however, those players who appeal, in particular, to performance treatises seem sometimes to ignore the intended audience for these works: many are intended for beginners or young performers who need guidance and advice on such things as phrasing and expression. But surely more seasoned players would go beyond the suggestions of treatises and inflect more of their own sensibility, musical awareness, and life-experience into the music, and in a manner that cannot be described in writing. Just as certainly, these aspects would vary considerably from one musician to another, making them equally impossible to capture in prescriptive prose.

I believe Esfhani draws on many musical experiences when he performs: I have described a Schubertian expressivity in his C. P. E. Bach, and he himself refers to “the sounds of American big bands and their particularly mellifluous saxophone sections” with respect to the last thirty-five measures of Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock. Such moments in his playing give me hope that early music performance can continue to evolve, just as other classical music performance has. I even dare to  hope that we will see more non-early-music performances of Bach, Handel, and others.

This disc documents a concert performance from Wigmore Hall on May 3, 2013. The program begins with a very large sampling of William Byrd’s music: three plainchant settings of “Clarifica me, Pater,” the first and fifth pavans and galliards from My Lady Nevells Booke, two fantasias, “The Marche Before the Battell” (from Nevell, appearing again in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book as “The Earl of Oxford’s Marche”), and three variation sets: “John, Come Kiss Me Now,” “Callino casturame,” and “Walsingham.”

“Jhon, Come Kiss Me Now” is a good example of what makes his playing so spectacular. It sparkles with vigorous phrasing and just the right amount of incisive staccato when needed. The harpsichord (a copy of a 1711 Pierre Donzelague double-manual) sounds quite nice uncoupled for several interior variations in succession. He also responds very sensitively to the figurations in Byrd’s music when they shift several times midway through a single variation, taking the change as an opportunity to adjust his own expression accordingly. This seems almost a commonsensical thing to do, of course, but it’s something I rarely hear in harpsichord performances, where a one-affect-approach per movement is the norm. The later virtuosic variations are all impeccably managed without sacrificing any bit of the particular character each one has.

The final two sets are shorter but no less substantial. In the first, Esfahani performs the three- and six-voice ricercars from Bach’s Musical Offering. The readings are a little more brisk than I’m used to (the six-voice ricercar often suggests a rather heroic bravado). Both choices are made clearer by Esfahani’s excellent notes; they suggest that perhaps Bach is having a bit of fun at the King’s expense by taking up and simultaneously critiquing the galant-style figurations that appear in the three-voice ricercar, while in the six-voice one he offers “a vision of eternity that is inexplicable in its scope.” He ends this set with a brilliant choice of the Canon per tonos, where each new modulation seems an opportunity to move into ever more intense expressive terrain.

The final set closes the recital nicely in the present, with the three masterly works by György Ligeti, Passacaglia ungherese, Continuum, and Hungarian Rock. Esfhani performs these works on a 1972 double-manual by Robert Goble & Son tuned in meantone. These three works, especially Continuum, are legendary for their difficulty; more overlooked, I think, is the psychological complexity in the other two works, which unfold far more fitfully and unpredictably. Esfahani seems perfectly attuned to these complexities, matching them to his blistering virtuosity to seal the deal. The disc includes the audience’s applause, including a full minute of appreciation after the final Ligeti piece. Hearing their excitement, I wish I could have been there too.