Friday, October 31, 2008
The consolations of art
The savagery of this election is unlike any before — and 2004 was acidic enough. Just blogging here, commenting on others' blogs, and reading about the campaign has left me drained, feeling like Michelangelo when he painted himself as an empty bag of skin in the Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel. If I tried to follow all the developments, charges, countercharges, rumors, and commercials, as some people apparently are able to, I'd go mental.
When the world is too much with me at times like these I turn off the chatter and get immersed in good music. While The Messiah was doing his all-TV-channels, May-Day-in Red-Square parade the other night, I was in a different world, reminding myself of what my species can do at its best, rather than the norm.
My vehicle of deliverance that night was a recording of Dvořák's 6th Symphony, performed by Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. The Dvořák 6 is bracingly red-blooded in places, ravishingly lovely in others. Dohnányi isn't on my short list of great contemporary conductors (which includes Mariss Jansons, Valery Gergiev, Charles Dutoit, and — if he's still active — Sir Charles Mackerras), but he seems to have the temperament for this composer.
Czech music of the 19th century is quite different in sound and spirit from others of the same period, especially the Austro-German stuff. Its tone is probably closest to Hungarian, with some of the same Slavic spice, but also a resigned, melancholy sweetness. Maybe you have to be Czech or Hungarian to fully capture that sound, and Dohnányi has it in his Hungarian genes.
The 1991 Decca recording is typically full-bodied, with excellent transparency, a fine example of the sound quality the company's production team was getting at the time. (Decca has since been swallowed by Universal, which mainly sticks to reissues from the back catalog and a few calculated blockbusters.)
Listening to the Dvořák was a cleansing, uplifting experience — a reminder that while politicians and economists are banging on about how we can live better, we can also live deeper. There is a hierarchy of meaning. This world is important, but not ultimately important.