Monday, December 10, 2007

Getting Ready For Christmas

We had a nice weekend.

On Friday night, Joshua and I had my parents over for dinner, and our agenda for the evening was to try to select as many Christmas gifts as possible before the evening was over.

Per Joshua’s choice, we gave my parents the same dinner he and I had prepared two nights earlier: chicken noodle soup, chicken boiled in herbs, baked-macaroni-and-cheese, homemade stewed tomatoes, butternut squash and lima beans. We had gingerbread for dessert.

We succeeded in deciding upon a good portion of our Christmas gifts for everyone. Some of the gifts we ordered online Friday night, and we ordered more gifts online Saturday night.

I think a couple of trips to a mall will be all Josh and I will need to do in order to complete our shopping for the season, although my mother, I fear, will probably make half a dozen shopping outings between now and Christmas.

As for me, my only hope is that everyone will enjoy the finger-painting kits Josh and I picked out for everyone!

On Saturday morning, Josh and I moved over to my parents’ house for the weekend to begin Christmas preparations. First thing, over breakfast, we made a long list of things that will have to be completed over the next two weekends.

Then we set about getting things done.

First thing, while my parents stayed in, drinking coffee and catching up on the newspapers, Josh and I went out to do some food shopping for my mother. We had a long list of things to pick up, including all kinds of flours and fruits and nuts and other baking items my mother will need for her Christmas baking.

When we returned from the food store, Josh and I oiled furniture in the living room and dining room and foyer, and we oiled the staircase in the foyer, and we laid down wax on the floor of the foyer and the front stairwell. This latter task was not easy to do, because another member of the household wanted to get into the midst of things and leave a paw-print motif on the floor of the foyer and on the stairwell. Finally, just to get the job done, we had to put him in the living room and close the doors that separate the living room from the foyer. The dog remained on the other side of the doors, barking and whimpering in turn, because he had been shut out of our fun.

When we were done applying wax, we all had a quick lunch, and then we all went out to get the Christmas tree. My mother selected the tree she wanted, and we brought it home and erected it in the living room.

Afterward, Josh and I laid down wax on the downstairs hallway, on the center stairwell and on the upstairs hallway. My parents had to keep the dog in the kitchen until we were done, because the dog would have made a mess of everything. He carried on the whole time, because he knew that he was missing out on something. He remained in the kitchen until the wax had dried, at which point he had to run around all over the house and inspect everything in order to see what Josh and I had been up to.

Josh and I rested for an hour before dinner, and so did my Dad. He had been oiling kitchen cabinets and kitchen furniture while Josh and I had been oiling and waxing other parts of the house.

For dinner, my mother gave us prime rib and baked potatoes, along with a garden salad created with what seemed to be dozens of different fresh vegetables. We had raspberries and ice cream for dessert.

After dinner, Josh and I oiled furniture in the downstairs family room, and then we pretty much called it day, at least in terms of getting the house ready for the holidays.

On Sunday, after church, we decorated the Christmas tree. We also polished all the furniture we had oiled on Saturday, and polished the floors and stairwells we had waxed on Saturday. By Sunday night, most of the house, except for upstairs, was ready for Christmas. A little touchup vacuuming and dusting is all that will be required between now and Christmas.

On Sunday night, my mother asked Josh and me how she could reward us for our work, and we told her that we would be happy to accept an around-the-world cruise on the new Queen Mary. However, since Josh and I have too little vacation time to go anywhere anytime soon, we decided to settle for some Belgian stew, one of my mother’s finest dishes. It is made from cubed beef, spices, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, peas, carrots, sweet onions, different cheeses—and dark lager beer! It is one of my favorite things to eat in the wintertime—it creates the most divine aroma, and it has an unusual and most satisfying flavor. The dog goes nuts when he smells it brewing, and it is one of the few things my mother will feed him that contains vegetables. Since my mother had spent so much time preparing the Belgian stew, the dog did not get his usual Sunday night chicken, and I do not think he minded in the least.

The dog had a lot of fun this weekend, because he likes to observe and participate in all household activities. The Christmas tree always fascinates him, of course, but the living room is always closed off to him when the Christmas tree is mounted, because otherwise he will knock it down and literally destroy it. He will be allowed to enter the living room for the next three weeks only when accompanied by someone.

My parents learned all about the dog’s fascination with Christmas trees in 2001, the first year he lived with my parents. My parents had erected and decorated the tree one weekend. The following Monday morning, my mother had to step out to run a few errands. She was only gone for forty-five minutes, and before she departed she had specifically told the dog to leave the Christmas tree alone. Generally, the dog is very good about following instructions. However, the Christmas tree must have been irresistible to him, because when she returned home the living room was in a state of total disarray.

The dog had knocked the Christmas tree down. The tree was on the floor, and ornaments and tinsel and lights were strewn across the room. When my mother found him, he was busy chewing on ornaments and tinsel and lights to the point that most were completely unsalvageable. Because there is carpeting on the living room floor, only a handful of the ornaments were broken, happily, or otherwise the dog might have cut himself on broken glass. Luckily, as well, my mother had unplugged the lights before she left the house. If she had not done so, the dog might have electrocuted himself while chewing on the string of lights (which he was in the process of doing when my mother discovered him).

My parents had to discard the tree and most of the decorations and start over. At least the permanent silver and crystal decorations emerged unscathed, probably because they were heavier and sturdier than the non-permanent decorations. My parents were able to keep those. However, because of the mess, my parents had to have the carpeting in the living room professionally cleaned before they could erect a second tree the following weekend. From that point forward, the living room has been sealed off from the dog during the Christmas season.

The dog does not mind not having the run of the living room, however, because he always remains in the room my mother is using during the weekday and he always remains in the room my parents are using during weeknights. When others are in the house, he goes back and forth between whatever rooms people are using, trying to keep an eye on everyone.

When everyone is home, he always enjoys a houseful of people, because that means he has lots of people to play with and lots of people and lots of activities to monitor. For the Thanksgiving period, when extra family members were present for over two weeks, he had a marvelous time.

However, the week after Thanksgiving, according to my mother, he seemed to welcome a rest period, spending a lot of time sleeping or napping during the day. This only lasted for about a week, she said, at which point he was ready for lots of activity again. It was good, therefore, that Josh and I were there to help keep him occupied and stimulated this weekend. He was happy we were there (although he was unhappy when he was prevented from interfering with our waxing of the floors), giving him lots of attention and affection—and snacks.

All weekend, while we worked, we listened to music. We listened to three discs of music, all by great masters. None of us was particularly ready yet for any Christmas music, but all of us wanted to listen to great music filled with spirit and spirituality.

One disc we chose was a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Since Josh and I had spent the latter part of last week listening to a recording of the Goldberg Variations performed on the harpsichord, we chose a completely different version for the weekend: an arrangement of the Goldberg Variations for string orchestra, performed by the New European Strings under Dmitri Sitkovetsky, on the Nonesuch label. The arrangement is Sitkovetsky’s own, and uses fourteen string players—eight violins, three violas, two cellos and one double bass—and a harpsichord.

I have loved this arrangement of the Goldberg Variations since the first time I heard it in high school (I received this disc as a Christmas gift from my parents when I was fifteen years old) and I remain fond of this disc even after the passage of twelve years. Sitkovetsky’s arrangement allows the different contrapuntal lines to be heard clearly, in sharp relief, and the players are encouraged to use lots of color, which works splendidly in this performance. In addition to its color, this performance has lots of concentration and lots of energy (and lots of quick tempos, much quicker tempos than most keyboard performances offer). The Goldberg Variations is such a great composition that this Baroque masterpiece can easily survive a vigorous, neo-Classical performance—and neo-Classical is precisely what Sitkovetsky’s performance is. The effect is bracingly modern, if perhaps a little short on spirituality.

Bach purists probably detest the Sitkovetsky arrangement, and I recall my father not being particularly impressed when he first heard this recording many years ago. However, my father enjoyed this recording this weekend, and so did my mother. Josh loved it—in fact, Josh liked it much more than the Gustav Leonhardt harpsichord recording of the Goldberg Variations we had listened to last week, even though he had very much enjoyed the Leonhardt recording while we listened to it—and I fear it may be hard for Josh to listen to another harpsichord recording of the Goldberg Variations any time soon.

Of course, Josh loves Bach above all other composers, and to some extent this is true of my mother, too (for her, it is a contest between Bach and Mozart). My father is very much a Beethoven man, while my favorite composer has always been Brahms.

My mother insists that it is Bach’s music, and only Bach’s music, that babies respond to. According to my mother, babies do not respond to Mozart’s music, or music by any other composer—but babies DO respond to music of Bach. To this day, my mother contends that all three of her babies, whenever unsettled by a mild case of indigestion or whenever tired or cranky or out of sorts, were comforted and soothed by Bach’s music. She says that she could not have raised us without Bach’s help.

The dog, however, seems not to respond to music of Bach, or music of other German masters, either, for that matter. Is this because German Shepherds are actually a breed from the Alsace-Lorraine? He is fascinated, above all, by the music of Erik Satie, particularly the Gymnopedies piano pieces, which he will listen to with utter fascination over and over. Satie’s music must be hypnotic for some animals.

The second disc we listened to was Mozart’s Mass No. 19, his Requiem Mass. The recording we chose was the Odyssey recording made in 1979 in Stuttgart (originally issued by Columbia, then transferred to Columbia’s budget label, Odyssey, and recently made available again on Sony). The conductor is Helmuth Rilling, leading the Bach Collegium Stuttgart and the Gachinger Kantorei Stuttgart, with soloists Arleen Auger, Carolyn Watkinson, Siegfried Jerusalem and Siegmund Nimsgern.

The Mozart Requiem is a difficult work to listen to, because so little of it is genuine Mozart. Many pages of the score are inspired, but even more pages of the score are not, making it a very uneven and, ultimately, not very satisfying work. The edition Rilling used in this recording was the standard version of the time, more Sussmayer than Mozart. Rilling now uses a more modern version of the score, the Robert Levin edition.

We chose this particular recording because we had not listened to it for many years. We also chose this particular recording because it features what is probably the finest quartet of vocal soloists that appear in any recording of the work.

Siegfried Jerusalem and Siegmund Nimsgern were known as Wagner singers, not Mozart singers, and yet this recording captures their voices before the music of Wagner had destroyed their vocal sheen. Both are excellent, and fully in keeping with Mozartean style as practiced in the first three-and-a-half decades after World War II, and the beauty of their voices surely must incite disbelief among those who only heard these artists later in their careers, in heavier repertory.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Carolyn Watkinson was the anointed successor to Janet Baker, and her voice definitely carries the sound associated with the British mezzo-soprano tradition. For some reason, however, Watkinson’s career did not take off, at least at the exalted level many had expected, and she long ago disappeared from the world’s concert stages. My parents heard Watkinson on a couple of occasions, and they believed her to have been a very fine artist.

Arleen Auger has always been my favorite soprano, and this recording was the first of three recordings of the Mozart Requiem she was to make. Her final recording of the Mozart Requiem was made on the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, December 5, 1991, under Georg Solti, and that day was to be the last occasion Miss Auger was ever to sing Mozart, at least professionally. Two months later, Miss Auger was diagnosed with the brain cancer that was to end her life so prematurely, thus ending the career of the finest singer America has ever produced.

The soloists are the primary reason to listen to the Odyssey recording. Rilling has never been anything more than a capable Mozart conductor, and this recording offers a capable performance of the work, and nothing more. However, I have never heard a great recording or performance of this work, probably because the inspiration of the writing is too uneven to allow a great performance to be created.

The third disc we listened to was a recording of the Brahms Serenade No. 1, performed by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, on the RCA label.

It is amazing how many Leonard Slatkin discs my father owns, considering how little regard he has for Leonard Slatkin. The reason my father owns so many Slatkin discs, I believe, is because he used to buy most major releases on most major labels.

The Slatkin RCA performance of the Brahms Serenade No. 1 is not bad, and it is superior to the contemporary release of the same work by Michael Tilson Thomas on the Sony label.

RCA and Sony tried out Slatkin and Tilson Thomas in the music of Brahms by having them record the two serenades as tests before embarking on complete Brahms symphony cycles. In both cases, RCA and Sony decided not to carry out the projects after witnessing the results of the serenades.

I love the Brahms serenades, and Slatkin’s performance of No. 1 is very lovely, but mostly because the playing is so fine and not because he brings anything special or notable to this repertory. The Saint Louis Symphony plays beautifully in this recording—it was a far, far finer ensemble in the late 1980’s than the mediocre body it is today—and the recorded sound is rich and clear and mellow.

It is regrettable that great Brahms conductors like Eugen Jochum and Herbert Von Karajan and Bruno Walter never bothered to record the Brahms serenades. There are lots of versions that have been made—Boult, Haitink, Kertesz, Slatkin, Tilson Thomas and others—but great Brahms conductors always seemed to have given these charming works a pass. I cannot understand why. I would give my right arm to hear a Karajan version of these works, what with his wondrous command of orchestral timbre, texture and color, surely ideal for these works.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed hearing the Slatkin recording very much. Despite the dark coloration of the orchestration, Brahms revealed sunniness and charm and wit and whimsy in this delightful work.

Josh had never heard the Brahms Serenade No. 1 until this weekend, and he loved the work. My mother loves this work very much, too, and it was a perfect complement for the Bach arrangement and the Mozart mass.

Next weekend, we will get the rest of the house ready for Christmas, and get the gifts wrapped, and help my mother with baking, and perhaps do a little shopping, mostly for my nephew (it is more fun to buy toys in the toy store than to buy them online). And, by the end of next weekend, we hope to be ready for Christmas, more or less.


  1. Enjoyed your long and lovely post. I want to personally add that if you are on the Slatkin trail now, Naxos is releasing a Leroy Anderson set over the course of 2008 for the Anderson centennial. I am proudly sharing that I had the good fortune and musical experience to record the Anderson Piano Concerto in C with Maestro Slatkin conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. This will be released in January as cd #1. Maestro Slatkin did a marvelous job with this concerto, and breathes fresh life into the shorter morsels your father probably grew up with in the 20th century of Leroy Anderson favorites.

  2. Jeffrey Biegel:

    Thank you very much for your kind comments.

    I will definitely seek out that Naxos disc when it is released in January.

    I have never heard the Anderson Piano Concerto, so it will be new for me. I only know the "standard" Anderson works, such as Sleigh Ride and Syncopated Clock and a couple other of the more well-known works.

    I thank you again for your kind comments.

    I must ask: however did you find my blog?


  3. Hi Andrew-Thanks! I have been invited to perform it in your area for next summer--will let you know if it's a definite deal--

    If you can, I use my AOL email more--which is Hope to stay in touch-
    Best regards,

  4. Andrew, I have all three of those discs and I hate them all, the Mozart most of all.

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  6. As a Brahms lover, do you have a recommendation for a recording of the Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano? The Clarinet Quintet is one of my all-time favorites.

  7. Hello, David.

    The two best recordings of Opus 120 both use the viola version.

    The old mono EMI William Primrose/Rudolf Firkusny recording is the very best of all, I think. It has never been matched. The sound is quite good, but I do not know whether it remains in print. You can probably locate a copy online somewhere, at negligible cost. The performances are magical: very Old World, very mellow, very reticent, and full of warmth and deep feeling.

    The early-1990's Virgin recording with Lars Anders Tomter and Leif Ove Andsnes is also excellent. I do not believe it is in print at present in the U.S., but I believe it remains in print in Europe. It is a version obviously performed by young men, and offers performances with great energy and a great sense of discovery (and fun).

    I have heard most of the recordings using the clarinet version, and none of those recordings equals the two viola recordings mentioned above. If I were you, I would definitely avoid the Schifrin/Rosenberger recording on Delos and the Cohen/Ashkenazy recording on Decca, neither of which is worth buying.

    If Karl Leister made a recording of Opus 120, it might be worth seeking out. Leister had the perfect sound for Brahms, and probably knew the style as well as any clarinetist who ever lived. I know Leister made a recording of the Brahms Clarinet Trio and the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, so he very well may have recorded the sonatas, too.

    I hope all is well with you, and that you are planning a wonderful Christmas with your loved ones.


  8. I found a recording with Leister of the complete clarinet chamber works on Although it will duplicate the Quintet, at $9.98, it's worth it.

    I found several recordings with Primrose, but none with Firkusny as his pianist. The Andsnes/Tomter collaboration is available on a two disc recording with several other compositions. I can't afford it right now, but will keep it in mind.

    Thanks for your kind Christmas wishes. My Chicago-based daughter will spend a week here with her mother and me. The new boyfriend will arrive after Christmas for our inspection ;>)

  9. David, the Primrose/Firkusny recording of Brahms Opus 120 was available on Amazon US, Amazon Canada and Amazon UK as of five minutes ago. It is a single CD, featuring both sonatas coupled with a recording of Hindemith's Der Schwanendreher.

    Oddly, two different sellers on eBay are also currently offering LP's of the Primrose/Firkusny Brahms sonatas.