The Critic Was Right

Copyright © Fred Flaxman, 1997

I grew up in Palisade, N.J., a small, suburban community perched on cliffs 350 feet above the Hudson River, directly opposite the incredible skyline of Manhattan. In the '40s and '50s Palisade was almost always a peaceful place where one middle class, single-family house followed another and the kids behaved well except on Halloween. The majority of its residents were Italian-Americans, but there were a handful of Jewish families, a few Irish and some Armenian households as well.

Everyone around seemed to do something practical for a living. To one side of our red brick Georgian colonial house lived a man who owned a clothing store. To the other side was a dentist. Down the street, on the very edge of the palisades themselves -- with the best view of anyone -- was a man named Alberto Anastasia. He was rumored to be the president of a company called Murder, Incorporated. I never talked to him about what he did for a living, but I assume that it was practical, too. And, except for one chap who was gunned down in my barber shop a few blocks from my house, Mr. Anastasia seemed to do all his work in New York.

But there was one neighbor who didn't seem to belong to any of these groups, either by ethnicity or profession. His name was Walter Grueninger, and he was, of all things, a music critic.

Two or three times a day I walked my dog, Buster, around the block. Every time I passed the Grueninger house, I could hear classical music playing inside. Wednesday nights, if memory serves me well, there was always live chamber music performed by a string quartet with Walter Grueninger as the violinist. I stepped up my pace on those evenings to get past the sound of those strings as fast as I could. I couldn't stand chamber music, especially if there was no piano involved. And Buster, I was sure, felt the same way. Why else would he start howling like a wolf every time we passed by?

I rarely got to speak to Mr. Grueninger, but one day, when I was in my early teens, I bumped into him coming back from New York City on the same bus. We sat down together and talked about classical music.

I remember that I had just discovered Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite, and loved listening to it over and over. I really went for big, flashy, loud, colorful orchestral music, and I was honest enough to tell this High Fidelity music critic just what I considered great music.

"Some day you'll get tired of that kind of music," he told me. "When you're older, you'll learn to love chamber music. That's almost all I listen to now for my own personal pleasure, though I need to listen to other music for my work."

Of course I thought what he said was ridiculous. How could I ever get tired of Liszt's piano concertos or Tchaikovsky's symphonies? And how could I ever come to like the screechy sounds of catgut bowed across strings?

Well, the critic was right. The older I get, the less I go for orchestral music, and the more I appreciate the intimate sounds of string quartets, trios and sonatas for two instruments. And I'd like to share with you the names of some of the most beautiful, romantic, immediately accessible chamber music I know. Following each piece is a recommended compact disc recording.

If any of these pieces are missing from your collection, I think you'll thank me for introducing them to you. I've stayed away from Beethoven and Bach, whose chamber music is deep and wonderful, but more difficult -- definitely not recommended for people who feel about chamber music as I once did.

  • Schubert: "Arpeggione" Sonata in A Minor, D.821. Two words of warning about this piece. 1. Don't get it as performed on an arpeggione. This was a sort of bowed guitar invented around 1823 by a Viennese instrument maker named Johann Georg Stauffer. The instrument was a museum piece by the time Schubert's sonata for it was published, and, if you ever hear it played, you'll understand immediately why. 2. Don't get it as played on a flute, even by Jean-Pierre Rampal. This piece demands the low, lyric tones of a cello. [Lynn Harrell, cello; James Levine, pianist. RCA Papillon 6531-2-RG.]

  • Rachmaninov: Piano Trios No. 1 in G Minor, Op. posth., and No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 9. [Borodin Trio. Chandos CHAN 8341.]
  • Rachmaninov: Sonata for Cello & Piano, Op. 19 and Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14. [Lynn Harrell, cello; Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano. London 414 340-2.]
  • Borodin: String Quartet No. 2 in D Major. [Borodin String Quartet. EMI CDC 747795-2.]
  • Brahms: Trios for Piano, Violin & Cello, Opp. 8 and 87. [Julius Katchen, piano; Josef Suk, violin; Janos Starker, cello. London 421 152-2.]
  • Brahms: Piano Quartets No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, and No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60. [Artur Rubinstein, Guarneri Quartet. RCA 5677-2-RG.]
  • Schubert: String Quartet in D Minor, D810 ("Death and the Maiden") [Amadeus Quartet. DGG 410 024-2.]
  • Schumann: Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op. 44, and Quartet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op. 47. [Emanuel Ax, piano; Cleveland Quartet. RCA 6498-2-RC.]
  • Dvorak: "American" String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96, B.179. [Kocian Quartet. Denon 38C37-7234.]
  • Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50. [Borodin Trio. Chandos 8348.]
  • Mozart: Piano Quartets in G Minor, K478, and in E-flat Major, K493. [Menahem Pressler, piano; Beaux Arts Trio. Philips 410 391-2.]

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