When it comes to classical music, and to a much greater extent, wine, I'm a bit like Columbo. I don't always know exactly what I'm talking about, but my instincts usually bear me out. It's pretty easy to find lots of great cheap classical recordings sitting in thrift stores, and buying a stack of vinyl will usually cough up a couple of lifelong treasures. There exists a great wealth of tender, brilliant, & mind-blowing music out there that is miles away from the inflated, ponderous visage that is conjured up by most people when they hear the term "classical music." No matter which genre one chooses, one has to dig a bit to find any artist's most relevant work. There are exceptions (Bach, Beatles, Bird), but for the most part, an artist's most popular work is not necessarily their most profound. Most of the time, the years will do the sifting and the good stuff eventually rises to the top. But even with a major artist, like Sinatra for instance, only a select group know of his dark & personal 50's albums "No One Cares" & "Where Are You?"
Franz Liszt, in his day, was as much a sensation as Sinatra or Elvis was in theirs. His performances were legendary. When he used to give concerts, they'd keep two pianos on the stage because he'd bust so many strings on the first, he'd have to move to the second. When the second one was destroyed, the concert was over. The composer, John Field, seeing Liszt perform for the first time, turned to his companion and asked, "Does the artist bite?" Women used to throw their handkerchiefs and undergarments at him. Both men & women would routinely faint at his concerts and have to be rushed from the hall. At the height of his career, as the biggest concert draw in Europe, he abruptly said, "I quit." He was thirty-six. He decided to devote his time to composing and teaching. Imagine Hendrix, in his prime, retiring from the stage to make records and give guitar lessons! Liszt didn't perform again for almost four decades, and then, as an old man, he toured Europe and gave the money to charity. Like Sinatra, the guy had class, taste, & balls.
The Hungarian Rhapsodies, for which Liszt is most famous for today, are nice, showy pieces. They are the first compositions many people associate with him. When I was younger (so much younger than today), I bought a record of his two piano concertos played by Alfred Brendel on the budget Vox label. They both knocked me out and I still love & listen to them today. They both possess super melodies, bold orchestral colors, and great swagger. But, again, these are big pieces designed to make great pianists show off their capabilities. It wasn't until years later that I got a sniff of the other side of this man's genius, thanks to Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. But, before I continue, a sip of tonight's wine...
There are two guys at the snobby wine store across the street: the thin guy and the fat guy. The fat guy doesn't want to be bothered by anyone unless they're dropping a hundred bucks. The thin guy likes to talk about wine, and though he tells me the same stories over & over again, he's very patient with my dumb inquiries about all this discounted damaged label juice that he just wants to get rid of. I picked up this bottle of Bordeaux and asked him, "How about this?" He lowered his glasses on his nose to get a better look at the label and said, "That," then leaning in for closer inspection, "might be interesting."
Bordeaux is the Cadillac of wine. Before California, Australia, etc., if one mentioned "fine wine," they were most likely talking about wine from the Bordeaux region of France. This is the wine that Ben Franklin wrote home about. He drank so much of the damn stuff while petitioning the French government on Americaís behalf, that he came down with the gout and blamed it on too much of "France's fine wine & rich cuisine." Thomas Jefferson died broke with a wine cellar fully stocked with expensive Bordeaux. In the recent U.S. wine boom of the past twenty years, most of us are used to seeing wines labeled by the grape variety: Cabernet, Merlot, etc. Bordeaux is a blend, usually of Cabernet, Merlot, & Cabernet Franc. This particular bottle has a very sexy label. Sexy, to me in this case, means expensive looking. There is a fine line drawing of a huge Chateau, with "Chateau Timberlay" written underneath. This is surrounded by lots of French writing and two medallions. On top of one it says, "since 1366." 1366? As a Yank, I have trouble wrapping my consciousness around such a date. I picture a guy with a bad haircut dressed up in a metal knit shirt holding a bloody ax in one hand and a beer stein in the other. But then again, I guess that's not far from something one would see today on MTV. Maybe we're going through a neo-Medieval phase. Bordeaux is often not ready to drink for years after it is bottled. It has to age in order to shed some of its harsh tannins. Though this wine is from '95, it is still plenty tannic. The nose is not too big on this, some cherry and lemon peel (it is, after all, a $5.00 discounted bottle, though it retails for about $12.00). The color is a light ruby, lighter than most Bordeaux I've tried. But the first taste gives off lots of really deep flavors that go all the way back on the tongue. Sour cherries and cigars. Very long finish. I'd bet whoever made this wine probably had generations of wine makers in the family. It's complete, realized, and confidant. Yet, for all its taste, it's very parsimonious in the flavors it does give up. It seems to be holding back. There's something uptight about this wine. Some wine is like an over-eager dog that jumps onto your lap & licks your face. It seems to say, "I taste like raspberries, I taste like chocolate, I'm big, I'm lovable, love me, LOVE ME!!" This wine says, "I may not be beautiful, but I'm pretty. And my daddy has money. If you don't like me, you can fuck off.."
So back to Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. When my daughter was around three, she really loved this show and I loved watching it with her. While totally non-threatening, it's never condescending. Fred Rogers would often have musicians as his guests (being a fine pianist & songwriter himself), and he would talk to them about their art in very simple, direct language. In one episode his guest was the great pianist, Andre Watts. "Hello, Andre," said Fred, "What are you going to play for us today?" "I am going to play a little known piece by the great composer, Franz Liszt. This piece is called "Nuages Gris," or "Gray Clouds." What came forth was nothing I would ever associate with Liszt. There was nothing technical or showy about this piece. It was stark, naked, and scary. Almost atonal. It was the last thing you'd ever expect to hear on a show aimed for kids, but Fred Rogers was always up for challenging his young audience in his own inimitable way. I made a mental note to check out this late-period Liszt stuff.
Besides teaching and writing, Liszt was a pretty severe ladies man. Itís a small wonder that he had so many female students. But after years of whoring around Europe and shacking up with any Countess who owned a castle (sometimes two at the same time), he decided he didn't want to go to Hell and joined the Priesthood. Not that he stopped his carousing, he just figured he'd hedge his bets a little. But as he got older, he became a more private person. By the late 19th century, the Romantic era he helped to usher in was long gone. Chopin, Schumann, & Mendelsohn all died before the age of forty and Liszt alone remained from his old buddies. In his sixties, he started to compose these little epigrammatic pieces for his own enjoyment and curiosity. Many were never even published in his lifetime and some weren't even recorded until a few years ago.
I found this double-album from 1978 at the same two-dollar per disc Salvation Army thrift store I had mentioned in the last entry. In huge white letters across the top is the artistsí name, "Nyiregyhazi." Though he's in a suit, the man seated at the piano looks like some life-damaged soul you'd see in a nursing home. I never heard of him or his crazy name (pronounced Near-edge-hazee) before, but I could tell from looking at the titles of the compositions, that enclosed was some of the late-period Liszt I had been searching for. "Nuages Gris" was included here as well. The vinyl looked like it was never played. Because this was a double album, they wanted four bucks, as per their policy of two dollars a disc. Here came my favorite part: The Haggle. I reached the counter, put down the record, & said, firmly, "Two bucks." To my surprise, the Spanish lady with the dice earrings shrugged & said, "Ees OK." I laughed as I handed over her the bills and said, "Who else is gonna buy this crazy shit?"
Boy, what I didn't know! Crazy is not the word for what I have here. Reading the liner notes, it turns out that Nyiregyhazi was a child prodigy that became a sensation in his teens, playing in sold-out concert halls around the world. He even studied with one of Liszt's own pupils. Then, after a fight with a concert promoter, he flipped out on his manager and became blackballed for some forty years. He became a hobo and lived on the streets of LA & the subways New York. He didn't touch a piano for decades. Trying to raise money for his ailing ninth wife (that's right, ninth wife!), he agreed to perform at a church in San Francisco. Somebody taped the show, released it on a small label, and all hell broke loose. Classical critics claimed that Nyiregyhazi possessed some long lost Romantic spirit and Columbia gave him the first recording contract of his career. He was in his seventies.
Speaking of Romantic, I've concluded that this wine is like the girl you go out with date after date, not because you want to eventually marry her, but because there is something unknown about her that you must uncover, something hidden well beneath the surface, something that you're sure will eventually reveal itself. Sip after sip, I marvel at the way this wine seems to defy being broken down into its individual components. The flavor from the oak seems to bend its way into the lemony citrus flavors in a really beautiful way, but it's too prim, too fussy. A little mean. I go to write something and the wine says, "You want to write about ME? You still know nothing of me. Take another sip, sucker"
And this music is just as unsettling, although in a totally different way. I was totally unprepared for such a raw and emotional listening experience. This record makes Skip James sound like Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. There are wrong notes EVERYWHERE. The tempos are glacial. "Nuages Gris" was pretty slow when Andre Watts played it, but here the notes hang in the air like icy crystals of anguish. The quiet parts are so soft, like the cooing of a sleeping child. Then, on the louder passages, he's banging away like a madman. I have to keep getting up to make the stereo louder, then lower, then louder again. If this is the true Romantic spirit, everyone who was running around Paris in the 19th century must have been out of their minds. Nyiregyhazi doesn't seem to settle on any fixed tempo on some of the pieces. If he likes a particular chord, he seems to hold on to it for dear life, draining every shard of feeling he can before leaving it to go on to the next one. There is nothing overtly intellectual here, though the information and feelings conveyed seem almost too advanced, too real, too personal and direct to fully take in. I'm reminded of that episode of Star Trek when Spock does a mind meld with some rock-like creature that can't speak. He concentrates, closes his eyes, and waits for the thing to speak through him. Finally he screams out, "PAIN!" That's what this music is, heartbreaking pain, the pain of loss, the pain of life. Though at the same time, it is also very dignified, not self-pitying and finally, hopeful. I did some research on the web about Nyiregyhazi and it turns out that soon after these recordings were made, he drifted back into homelessness and died a few years later.
This LP hasnít been re-issued on cd, so you have to check e-Bay if you want to find a copy. Fine music, like fine Bordeaux, requires a bit of patience. Though the pieces here are fairly short, they are not three minute pop songs. Liszt's late period music speaks on a very rarefied & intimate level. Here, he's interpreted by a homeless madman who hits all the wrong notes, but somehow seems to find all the right ones as well. I'm not feeling very comfortable tonight after indulging in two of mans' oldest balms for the soul, wine & music. I feel anxious. There are reasons that recordings like "Tonight's The Night" by Neil Young, "No One Cares" by Sinatra, "Where Did Everyone Go?" by Nat King Cole, are at best, marginally popular, though the artists themselves are world famous. They cut too deep. Most of the time, we listen to music to feel good, to relax. Music such as this does not seek to entertain, but to help us uncover a deeper truth. And as they say, the truth hurts.