Moments of Bliss
For someone who lives and breathes music, it is all but impossible to put together just a single playlist. But during this period of quarantine, I’ve been craving small expressions of beauty…moments of bliss. I’ve been cutting flowers from my garden and placing them all throughout my house. I reinstalled an old bird feeder in my backyard and have spent hours watching the birds reclaim some of the space that humans usually invade. And I’ve found myself repeatedly listening to the music that is simple and straightforward—music that captures sheer beauty in its transparency; music that pierces my heart and makes me want to weep. Admittedly the choices here are a bit melancholy, if not a bit sappy, but this is a somber moment. With this playlist, I encourage you to just relax and listen. Close your eyes. Turn up the volume. Escape and enjoy a few moments of bliss.
Aram Khachaturian: Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from the Spartacus Suite No. 2
Last fall, I began listening to the Open Ears Project, a podcast produced by WNYC Studios. I highly recommend this “sonic love letter” in which people from all walks of life share a classical track that means the most to them. When the podcast first came out, I listened to a new episode every morning on my walk to work and discovered, through someone else’s ears, music that I hadn’t heard before or that I hadn’t heard in a long time. The Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet, Spartacus, is contemplative, romantic, soaring, and gorgeous. Actor Alec Baldwin selected this piece as music that “never fails to change my mood…to revive me…to lift my spirits.” I couldn’t agree more.
Johann Sebastian Bach: from the Organ Sonata No. 4, BWV 528
Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is a recent discovery for me. There is something about his approach to the piano and to music-making that is heart-breakingly simple. When the quarantine first began, I listened to his recordings over and over again. I never tire of the track included here from Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4. The way that the music slowly spins, quiet and plodding, building layer by layer to a climax that is important and profound, moves me every time. It is as if someone is whispering an essential and profound secret in my ear.
Franz Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 1, No. 1
Although I have tried for years to persuade an ensemble to play it on our series, Haydn’s very first string quartet rarely gets performed. Essentially a violin solo with string accompaniment, it is not likely to jump to the top of the priority list for a string quartet of equals. At my previous job, I did succeed in getting the Petersen Quartet, heard here, to play this movement as an encore. I always loved their performance of this work and the way that you can hear the four quartet members collectively breathe together. It’s amazing ensemble playing, and the melody is simple and lovely.
Sergei Prokofiev: Andante from Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor
David Oistrakh has always been one of my favorite violinists. I love his sound—it’s so full of love. When I was in high school, I used to spend hours at the Princeton Record Exchange trying to find his recordings. That is how I first came across Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, with its remarkable slow movement, imbued with extraordinary beauty and longing. I especially like the way the harmonies blend into each other, causing momentary dissonances, and how the simple melody returns at the end with even more passion.
Antonín Dvořák: The Moon Song from Rusalka
When I think of music that moves me the most, I almost always return to the human voice. I find it truly miraculous. Hearing Maria Callas, the King's Singers, or Louis Armstrong brings up something we can all relate to and yet all be awed by. When I listened to this year’s Met Opera Gala (virtual—of course) I was reminded of this gorgeous aria from Dvorak’s Rusalka. I then listened to many recordings to find a favorite and eventually landed on one by Leontyne Price, a singer I wish I had heard live. It’s hard to imagine a more sweeping and gorgeous melody—a true love song.
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19
The slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata is, for me, one of the most stunning pieces of chamber music ever written. The music just seeps with tenderness, love, and romance. We presented the Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk a few seasons ago. His sound compliments this work—it’s soulful, rich, and passionate. And there is something inimitable in the sound of the cello, whose low notes can’t be recreated on any other instrument in the same way.
Johannes Brahms: Alto Rhapsody for Male Chorus, Contralto, and Orchestra, Op. 53
I have been obsessed with Brahms ever since I first heard his complex, dark, and romantic music. He is definitely “my guy.” There is almost no piece he wrote that I don’t love. When I first discovered he wrote a piece for alto and male chorus, I listened immediately. I was lucky enough to hear it first sung by Dame Janet Baker, whose voice is perfection. I have gone back to this piece, and to this recording in particular, at many moments in my life, and it never disappoints. There are so many colors and moods in this piece, but the moment the choir joins in, at roughly 6:36 and then again at 9:10, is so poignant. It is the perfect moment of bliss.
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