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4. SPRINGSTEEN AND PROKOFIEV (Dec. 2003)
Music is my succor, maybe the last thing I believe in. I go to it as to a
spring, and I'm of a generation-- perhaps the last ever-- that can still put
classical music first, though I turned on to pop too in my twenties. (A good
decade, the 60's.) But then, classical was once pop too, hard as that is to
believe now, desiccated now.
Prokofiev gets his props as a "great", gets hoisted to the pantheon row by whoever does the hoisting, and I take out his Piano Concerto # 3 and Piano Sonata # 7 for a needed listen, each work considered by many his best in those forms, and among the best of their century. The performances are exceptional-- the young Ashkenazy backed by Previn in the Concerto, and Horowitz (who gave the American premiere, and whose performance Prokofiev considered "miraculous") in the 7th.
The Concerto has a peaceful and briefly beautiful opening, then turns thrilling and stunning, briefly-- but soon the stomping, banging "modernist" Prokofiev takes over. The Concerto hurries along-- mostly skippy, skirling, hopping-about music-- a lot of the music is momentary, jabs of sound flying at you like hail. Brass and winds are used rudely and nose-thumbingly, in those ways never heard before modernism. The percussion writing is often clattery, even kitschy. And whatever moments of beauty exist, they are rarely shared by the relentlessly modern piano. I listen, with no emotional involvement whatsoever, though cognizant of Prokofiev's "skill", and knowing he wrote some exceptional music. But listening to this "masterpiece" I'm thinking: Why does so much of modern Russian repertoire sound like bad circus music? Some moments of beauty here, yes, but willfully subverted by energetic irony, sheer loudness, a playful and deliberate waywardness, making it clear how old-fashioned Prokofiev found the pre-modern ethos: transcendence through beauty. As opposed to the modern ethos: transcendence through subversion. Ah, here we are, at the whirring finale, the virtuoso's delight. Whhirrr! Fast fast, loud loud, bangybangbang and it's over. It made the virtuoso sweat, and now he can grin. Comes Bravo Bravo Bravo as automatic as noise in the subway. I feel nothing.
I'm thinking. From far out in left field-- maybe not so far-- a picture pops into my head: the sterile, harshly angular, remorselessly modernist heaps offered as replacements and memorials for the World Trade Center. They don't even acknowledge what happened at Ground Zero-- these cut and dried shapes could serve equally in a Dallas office park or as some Hong Kong billionaire's headquarters. They look neither left-- at Death-- nor right-- at its transcendence (however falsely, for we are mort...).
Wait! too much, yes? to dump on poor Prokofiev's head! why am I even having these thoughts...?
I put on the Sonata, not in the best mood. It has a bangy, hopping-about opening-- more bad circus music-- which devolves into some meandering, followed by a busy loudness as if startled awake-- I realize that, as regards most of Prokofiev's solo piano music, I do find he's an emotionally uninvolving banger. Critics, knowing they can't call such music "lovely" or "soul-stirring" or "sublime"-- use such words as a critic today, anyway, and you're an object of ridicule-- do like to call it "motoric", a praise of energy. The 20th Century is full of such "motoric" works-- the overrated Barber Sonata, Kabalevsky's Third Sonata (whose last movement is a "perfect" combination of circus and motoric), so many others. Then serialism came, as if even a blank energy was overrich, and classical music had a death-wish.
I'm still listening.
Unquestionably, a lot of Prokofiev's music is "ironic" also-- might as well get to that word too-- Shostakovich's even more so-- might as well get to that word too, since like "motoric" it's a "new praise". It implies superiority, of course, the superiority of cleverness over feeling. But like so many I'm tired of irony, though like spam it seems to grow the more we despise it and wish it would disappear.
Oh, the Sonata's still playing. The third movement is actually one of the best of its "motoric" kind. Suddenly it ends. It's there, then it isn't, unlike, say, a Beethoven Symphony, whose ending is a preordained summation. It's the difference between reaching the summit of a mountain and screeching to a halt in a drag race.
Poor Prokofiev, I'm beating him with the biggest club I can find.
But even this third movement is a screen against feeling, a kind of perpetual-motion sound machine that allows no alternative to its untenderness.
My soul needs food. I throw Springsteen's The Rising onto the player.
I'd avoided the album for a long time, thinking, as many, that Springsteen was played-out, that his "Glory Days" had ended with a bad Woody Guthrie imitation. Also, I was suspicious of the album's connection to 9/11, the possibilities for exploitation. But I came to love the album for its feeling and heart. It has two things Prokofiev doesn't-- Death. Love. Amazingly, it is the mere "pop" musician who-- looks to the left-- looks to the right.
The music is uncomplex, no miracles of counterpoint to be heard, no harmonic barriers breached. The voice is full of choked emotion, indeed, the music is drenched, supersaturated with emotion-- unapologetic, unironic-- Springsteen is the least ironic, least "hip" rock great of all-- he sings as a man and a friend, sometimes conversationally, sometimes howling at the insult of loss, or yelping with party pleasure, uncynical despite everything, unsubverting, unwinking, full-hearted, deep-hearted-- desperate for transcendence and beauty, even out of grief. He wields human emotion like a sword. Sort of like Beethoven. As he paints simply, directly, with broad brushstrokes of primary color:
I cut my bow from the wood
Of this tree of evil
Of this tree of good
Complex myself, I yearn for the simple. I want to be lifted up by music, nothing more, before the flesh is ash, and the protons of the ash are digested by the universe. I love the defiant party-juice of "Mary's Place", a latter-day "Rosalita". "The Rising" itself, the song, is potent with transcendent fury. I feel like I'm in a church for the churchless. I don't care where he stands in the "pantheon", if he stands at all, I wanted to be lifted-- and I'm "Rising".
Later, I might journey to "conclusion". Do Critic. The emotions voted long ago. What is a "masterpiece"? If classical music is dying it's for not listening to our whining needs. Something so simply as a hungry heart-- is not to be mocked.
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