Recordings in Review: James Ellroy

James Ellroy
A portrait of James Ellroy

[When James Ellroy, the celebrated crime novelist, told us that he listened to classical music in the dark, we were intrigued. It seemed a taste at odds with the brutal material of his fiction and the spiky, driven character of his prose. We asked him to tell us about the music he listens to, and the account he sent us has all of his raw, idiosyncratic style.]

Anton Bruckner died a virgin. It is well known that he never slipped the schnitzel to man, woman, or beast. Franz Liszt got more action than Frank Sinatra’s rat pack in their prime. Johannes Brahms played piano gigs in whorehouses and fought venereal diseases most of his life. He lusted after Robert Schumann’s wife, Clara Wieck Schumann, and probably transferred his lust to Robert and Clara’s four foxy daughters. It is well known that he never slipped the schnitzel to any of the five women. Sergei Rachmaninoff was a dour mofo. Duke Ellington’s son, Mercer, called him “Blue Serge.” Sergei knew that love is colder than death. As proof of this: his Second Piano Concerto was used as the soundtrack for the 1945 British weeper Brief Encounter. The flick is a dry hump — tweedy Trevor Howard and tight-assed Celia Johnson meet in a train station and nobly refuse to consecrate their love. Brief Encounter is a big fat drag. The music tells you what the would-be lovers might be saying if they had more soul and functioning genitalia.

The nineteenth-century Romantic composers possessed soul and major-league huevos. They were all about “More.” They wanted to destroy the European aristocracy and express their personal drama with stratospheric bombast. Symphony orchestras had expanded. The Industrial Revolution was raging. The fast movement / slow movement / fast movement symphony-concerto form was made for them. They cut loose with great panache and blared their pre-psychologized, pre-Impressionist passion, however infused with identifiable twentieth-century neuroses. Anton, Franz, Johannes, and Sergei came to work. I’m here to recommend a hot evening alone with them. I will justify the profane and disingenuous tone of this review by hipping you to four great performances of four great pieces of music.

1. Bruckner: Symphony no. 4 in E-flat Major (Romantic), Eugen Jochum conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (DG 427 200-2).

This is a Tyrolean call to piety and love. Heroic themes collide with well-inserted folk ditties and overlapping horn calls. This is Bruckner’s most good-natured, accessible, and exuberant symphony. Jochum puts a hard edge on his brass — they blare at odds with his smooth strings — and you sense ten minutes in that you are experiencing a spiritual struggle in the Bavarian Alps, circa 1865. Dig the horns at the beginning of the third movement. Dig the muffled horn call that repeats throughout all four movements. Jochum plays Bruckner’s later symphonies with more subtlety and altogether more power. Here he jumps up the juice with hambone empathy. He plays the Fourth the way it should be: heart on the sleeve.

2. Liszt: Piano Concerto no. 2 in A Major, Kristian Zimmerman, piano, Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra (DG 4235712).

This concerto starts out and ends up blasting. Liszt was the word bravura personified. He wrote concertos that only he could best play. This performance runs under twenty minutes. It’s a continually fanatic clash of piano and orchestra. The expository themes are thunderously loud; the folk tunes that run counterpoint sound hallucinogenic. This concerto is a sprint. Get cozy in the dark with it and see if you can follow the dramatic logic. Every time I look behind the virtuoso banging I find something new and subtle and spooky.

3. Brahms: Piano Concerto no. 1 in D Minor, Emil Gilels, piano, Eugen Jochum conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (DG 4191582).

This concerto is a big tragic monster. It’s lyrical. It’s ponderous. It’s grim. It’s heavy on the kettle drums, à la Brahms’s First Symphony. He began work on it after Robert Schumann — his mentor and the husband of his decades-long beloved — attempted suicide. He later built his First Symphony from sketches for this concerto. It sounds that way. It sounds like Brahms dumped a piano into the middle of a symphony and let the pianist play his way towards the end. Gilels plays the soft passages in the first movement as if he were describing the mountains on Mars. This concerto is an overachiever that doesn’t quite pull its full weight. It never sounds cohesive, but Jochum and Gilels don’t seem to care. There’s something about it that grabs me and doesn’t let go.

4. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no. 3 in D Minor, Martha Argerich, piano, Riccardo Chailly conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Phillips DG 4466732).

Rachy rocks in this rambunctious, Rabelaisian, Russocratic extravaganza. We’re into the twentieth century now. Rachy’s working on sonority and dissonance. He’s morose and probably pining for a woman. He doesn’t get her — the first movement soars to great heights and ends on a downer, like a musical premature ejaculation. He chases her spirit in the second movement. Every moment roils like a restless dream. He moves past the woman into some other sphere in the third movement — back into the loveless rectitude of marital cadences, the Czarists and the Reds on the horizon. Rachy laid himself out in this concerto. He never lets you get comfortable with any repeated theme. The narrative through-lines jump on a dime. Argerich growls, purrs, bangs, and struts like she’s the only one who knows what Rachy’s talking about. And she knows that love isn’t colder than death — because she can play this piece.

from The Yale Review, Vol. 85, no. 2, April 1997.

image: James Ellroy, 2008

Originally published:
April 1, 1997


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