Earlier this summer, classical pianist Lang Lang released an album filled with instrumental versions of Disney songs. Right away, I got mad, because he didn’t call it The Jingle Book. But on a deeper level, I was upset because I already had a Lang Lang album playing Disney songs: his version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. One of the most luxurious albums ever released – with countless different versions available on the same streaming platforms, making your app look like it’s somehow broken – it’s also one of the least engaging records never made. Every hair is in place, but nothing sings; nothing retains its meaning for more than a moment. Lang Lang’s Goldberg Variations are an ideal recording for people whose idea of Bach is summed up in the enthusiastic phrase “That’s Bach.” These listeners have suffered too much under the yoke of Glenn Gould, who insisted on reading things in Bach! The beige on beige of Lang Lang’s subtle attempt to assassinate Bach’s greatness will delight them to no end.
Lang Lang’s successful attempts to play music like an android on Westworld reminds me to caution you against a few other performers, who also darken the starry sky of classical music like slow-passing airships. The first of these is the Emerson String Quartet, which formed in the 1970s. Along with many other once-promising cultural things launched in Manhattan, the Emersons have now drifted imperceptibly to Long Island, the place where (in next year) they intend to go away once and die. Their legacy includes nine Grammy awards, including Best New Philosophical Reference and Best Hip-Hop Video, and more than 30 recordings, some very long. (By “long” I mean your app will force close if you even think about downloading such stubbornly full LPs.)
The Emersons like to claim, every time they record someone new, that this new guy is their absolute favorite composer. In the beginning, there was only “the Haydn project”. Later, Felix Mendelssohn also turned into an Emerson branded project. The quartet has been making music for a long time, and I think they sometimes forget the gimmicks they’ve tried before. Is there any other band in the world releasing an album called Bach: the art of the fuguethen follow it with Bach: Fugue, a completely different recording? Certainly in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays there are many moments where Emerson urges people to treat everything as new, and directly aimed at them. But I doubt even the original Emerson is ready to back up its namesake quartet. Check out their liner notes on Bach, where they credit fugues with helping them think more clearly; it’s pretty obvious that none of them realized such music existed until shortly before they recorded it all on tape. I also don’t think they realize that Bach wrote some very good pieces of music that weren’t fugues. I imagine them flipping through Bach records, probably on vinyl, throwing anything that isn’t a fugue against the nearest wall.
The problem with such unbridled and brilliant enthusiasm is that it is only half an inch deep. The Emersons love anything that has already become a certified classic, and they love it for the same reasons everyone else does. They perform Haydn with a kind of respectful confusion, as if they knew his melodies were going to zigzag and stutter, and they felt nervous about it. He’s supposed to be serene, so they can’t really explain to you all the ways he isn’t. They play Mozart as if they weren’t even in the room; each composition somehow plays itself out of pity for the listener. Mozart’s brilliance doesn’t just disappear; instead, he screams, like a living person being held for ransom in a soundproof cell. Beethoven, after Emerson’s assimilation, is chiefly ruined by their tears of sordid fear; the way these opportunists sneak up on Beethoven’s less accessible quartets, nudging each other in mutual incomprehension, you’d think they were violating parole. I once read a wonderful quote that the only travelers who feel completely at home, 100% of the time, no matter where they go, are sociopaths. String quartets are like that too.
My final choice, for a “who’s-who” of classic parody, is a harder call. There are many suitors. Their transgressions vary. But I would say the worst of them are Georg Solti, the famous Wagnerian, and Janine Jansen, the violinist. Everyone is a product of their time. Solti rose to fame in the late 20th century, when he was widely praised for treating classical music as Tommy’s B-side. Sir Georg Solti was chosen by God to put the “rock” in “Ragnarok”. He wielded his staff with all the subtlety normally reserved for whipped mules. Children exposed for any reason to one of Solti’s screaming maidens invariably cry. It mixes the hummed tunes of Wagner with the latest in electroconvulsive therapy. Moreover, his orchestral outbursts are equally monolithic, invigorating and energetic. I once played it out loud in a New York apartment on a hot summer day with the windows open. The cars in the street began to honk like mad. I’m pretty sure two burglar alarms went off. Until dubstep, Solti was the most somatic music money could buy. You always knew something was going to happen if you put it on. I don’t mean anything good, but sometimes boredom doesn’t respond to any gentle remedy.
Janine Jansen, on the other hand, is the perfect heiress to Solti: if he was an avatar of the CD era, for classic “fans” who “know their stuff”, she is the vaporous and soulless queen of platforms. streaming. Like Solti, it is canonical; unlike him, his default mode is caution. Solti was still waving his arms, for his clutch, like a man trying not to fall and die. Jansen is always lying down, her violin leaning against her head or placed on her hip like a tasteful brace. The concerto, in which she specializes, is for her a perfect chance not to eclipse the orchestra. She mimics them softly, as if asking, “Did I hear you right?” His radio attempts to put Vivaldi, Beethoven and just about everyone else in a coma were not overlooked. I’m sure a focus group somewhere once tried to figure out what drives listeners to stream entire albums of classical music. The answer is “don’t turn off the album right away, because it’s too unpleasant”. In the world of classic Muzak, if you stay 12 seconds, you’ll probably go on for two hours. That’s why no one can top Janine Jansen, the first person to become a superstar by eliminating the shrillness from everything.
But sometimes the liveliness of something is its greatest sign of life. The most vital performer I’ve come across recently, Sueye Park, got her start playing Paganini. She is an eloquent violinist. There’s nothing ragged about her, nor any recordings where she comes and shoots you like Solti does. This is why Paganini is such a strange starting point. If Park was just using Paganini as an alibi, to distract us from his own troubles getting certain tones, then he would be a more predictable choice. (That’s precisely why Julia Fischer recorded the same 24 Caprices, for example: to be praised for all that she does wrong.) But it is antithetical to her. Paganini is not at all close to the true object of his music; it is too acidic, cynical and complacently formal. But it is also surprisingly tender, in fits and starts. This is clearly what she loves the most about him: the way Paganini is better than even he imagines. His choice is also inconsiderate. There’s something radiant about the imprint of a whim, if the decision maker is like Park, a new face who still has everything to lose.
Classical music struggles to be meaningful. Its hall of fame is full of overrated charlatans like Georg Solti. I can’t think of anyone else except Ronald Reagan, who is so poorly remembered. Plus, right now, the classic is only a game for the giants – for the mega-brands, like the Emersons, with their clever trick of paying arrogant tribute to everyone. Perhaps Janine Jansen fans believe, as the famous saying goes, that “the future is ours.” But I oppose it. Classical music has become a dead language, a rote exercise, something designed to be ignored. All the more reason to think that Ralph Waldo Emerson was right: “the landscape belongs to the beholder”. A few rare performers like Sueye Park look at the music as an invitation. We stand beside him, immersed in an unknown past, dwelling on Paganini for no other reason than a sudden, almost staggering realization of beauty.