This week’s “What to Read” is a bit of a cheat. There’s only one thing on the list, and it’s not even an article. I’ve been reading a lot this week, about Paris, and immigrants and Syria and ISIS and I suspect we all could use a bit of break.
The idea behind this feature on my blog is simple: taking time to delve into something more deeply, to pay attention. It’s hard to do that these days, and I’m as guilty as anyone else.
So today’s recommendation is this. It will require 49 minutes and 42 seconds of your time.
There’s a scene in Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety where two couples who are best friends have a dinner together and then afterwards (this is in the mid-20th century, I think the late 1930s), they all go to the living room, put on a phonographic record and just listen to a piece of music. When was the last time you did this? Other than live concerts, we never actually sit and listen to music anymore. Music is our soundtrack, the background, the thing that hovers behind our conversations and cocktails, accompanies our workouts, but isn’t really heard. Music is so widespread now, we barely notice it. But a century or two ago, it took effort to make music happen, and when it did, it demanded our attention.
So, the backstory. As I was doing chores around the house and a classical music station was playing in the background, I began to hear something extraordinary as I did the laundry. I recognized the sounds of the piano solo as Beethoven, but the work was unfamiliar to me. It was dissonant, jarring–and clearly something extraordinary.
The piece is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #29. It is has no instantly recognizable melodies as do the Moonlight or Appasionata sonatas. The work is rarely played or recorded because it is fiendishly difficult to play. Stravinsky described it was “inexhaustible and exhausting.” The work is incredibly modern and complex. The slow, patient adagio is absolutely heartbreaking and tender (and if you must skip, start the video at 15:57). The piece builds gradually to the finale, which is an absolutely insane, manic fugue that is nothing short of astonishing. It’s J.S. Bach on Adderall and LSD.
This performance by Daniel Barenboim is mesmerizing. He does a magnificent job with such a demanding piece, and I find it extraordinary that he’s not only an accomplished conductor but one of our great soloists. I hope you have time to enjoy it. Either way, have a great weekend.