The Friday Symposium: Themes and Variations

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

Some of the more popular musical forms are equally applicable in the cocktail world. Take for example, the enduring form of theme and variation. There are many famous examples to choose from–this blog has already addressed Bach’s Goldberg Variations but skipped Beethoven’s Diabelli Variation. Rather than return to Beethoven, let’s consider an example from Schubert, his comparatively brief Imromptu in B-Flat Major, D. 935 No. 3. Setting aside the debate as to whether this is really the third movement of another piano sonata (as Robert Schumann believed) or simply the third of four indepdent works (as Schubert’s publisher determined), it is as perfect an example of the theme and variation form as you are likely to find.

The composition opens with a serene and floating melody, which is repeated beforre being put through its paces across five variations. The first variation adds a dotted rhythm, with synchopated chords in the basss. The second variation transfers part of the theme to the bass. The third variation modulates to B-Flat Minor, the parallel minor key, adding triplets in the accompaniment. For the fourth variation, Schubert modulates again to G-Flat Major before unleashing long and sweeping scales in the final variation. The music appears destined to return to the tonic of B-Flat Major, but instead we get a pause, leading to a brief coda in the form of a chorale. It’s a lovely work, especially in the hands of one of the great interpreters of Schubert, Alfred Brendel.

Franz Schubert, Imromptu in B-Flat Major, D. 935 No. 3:

Schubert was a natural at this form given his great gift for composing melodies. But music isn’t the only art susceptible to a “theme and variation” form. Consider the Negroni, as classic a cocktail as you could hope for. Invented in Florence about 100 years ago at the late-lamented Caffè Casoni for Count Camillo Negroni, the drink has become one of the stars of the 21st century cocktail revolution. And like Schubert’s best melodies, it is simplicity itself–equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, served up with a twist of lemon.

Variations on the Negroni are endless. The Boulevardier is a modern classic, appearing on many cocktail lists across the country–it simply swaps out the gin for bourbon. Choosing the right bournon to offeset the bitter Campari and a not trivial amount of sweet vermouth is no easy task. Rye actually might be your best bet here. All things being equal, I much prefer the ligheter and effervescent Negroni Spogliato, which substitutes sparkling Prosecco for the gin–a more pleasing version of the now-ubiquitous Aperol Spritz. Some variations make two substitutions, such as the Old Pal, which swaps out the gin for rye and the sweet vermouth for dry. Only the Campari and the tell-tale lemon peel garnish hint at its origins. The White Negroni, invented in France, swaps out the Campari for Suze and the sweet vermouth for dry. As it was invented by a director of Plymouth gin, the English contribution to the cocktail (and the lemon peel) are the only links back to the original.

As Bach and Beethoven were fond of demonstrating, the creative mind can take any theme and spin out endless variations on it. Bach was famous for doing so on the organ during church services; Beethoven’s inventive exploits largely took place in private at the piano. So too have bartenders with the Negroni. Pick one from the above or invent your own. Just keep it three equal parts and garnished with a lemon peel.

Classic Negroni Cocktail

  • 1oz gin (Plymouth is preferred)
  • 1oz Campari
  • 1oz Sweet Vermouth (Cocchi Storico is preferred)

Comine ingredients and stir for 30 seconds. Serve up with a twist of lemon.

The Friday Symposium: Death and the Composer

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

Franz Schubert died at 31, but he is hardly the only or even the youngest composer to die before their potential had been fully realized. Pergolesi died at 26; Bellini at 33. Mozart died just short of his 36th birthday, Purcell just over his. And, still to come in this history, neither Felix Mendelssohn, George Gershwin nor Georges Bizet saw their 40th birthdays. We are all poorer for that.

Just consider the monumental career of Beethoven, which I have spent the better part of six months chronicling. He seriously considered suicide at 32 due to his progressive deafness. Had he done so, Beethoven would have been a footnote in music history–a composer of two promising symphonies, no operas, a handful of chamber music pieces, and assorted other works. His Pathetique and Moonlight sonatas would be his best known works, hinting at what might have been a great career left unfulfilled. Schubert, by constrast, was already a great composer–even if he feared that his music would not survive his death.

I will sing a cycle of spine-chilling songs to you.

Franz Schubert

Staring clear-eyed into the abyss, Schubert composed Die Winterreise, his greatest song cycle. Over 24 songs, Schubert tells the story of a solitary man, tormented by his memory of love, seeing nothing but death before him. In contrast to the cheerful cherrub celebrated by his friends in their memorials of him, Schubert rips the shroud of religion from the mystery of death and presents us with the horror of the human condition: We die alone, cold and hungry, with an old organ grinder showing us the way.

The parallels to Schubert’s life are not hard to discern—the composer was frantically working on his magnum opus from his deathbed.  Unlike Mozart who was frantically trying to give instructions for how to complete his Requiem, Schubert had finished his song cycle and he died shortly after correcting the proofs from the printer.  Everything you need to know about Schubert the composer is summed up in these songs.  They are as clear a vision of a composer’s soul as I have found.

The tenor Ian Bostridge is one of the foremost contemporary interpreters of Schubert songs.  His recording around the turn of the century, at the start of his career, is a modern classic. Recently, however, he released a live version, recorded with the composer Thomas Ades at the piano.  This is, by far, the better recording.  Time has certainly taught Bostridge a thing or two about these songs, which he performs regularly.  But having Ades as a collaborator has surely paid benefits.  Bostridge’s singing is more lyrical and the music flows much more naturally.  Der Leiermann (The Hurdy Gurdy Man), which closes the set, seems to anticipate Kurt Weil a century on.  It is a remarkable song.  Use the links in the comments to listen to #1, #5, and #24—or the entire set. 

Franz Schubert, Winterreise, D. 911:

When talented composers die so young, we often wish that they had been granted more time and wonder what they would have produced had they lived into old age. We will never know. But the perfect cocktail for contemplating such questions about Schubert while listening to Winterreise is surely the Corpse Reviver No. 2. Conceived by thoughtful bartenders as a “hair of the dog” remedy, there are many versions of the Corpse Reviver. They are all strong and, as they say, to the point. Of these, Harry Craddock’s 1930 version, memorialized in his legendary Savoy Cocktail Book is the most famous and the most influential. When you see cocktails that have four equal parts (strong spirit+citrus juice+2 strongly flavored spirits), that cocktail finds its roots here.

The Corpse Reviver No. 2

1oz London Dry Gin

1oz Cointreau

1oz lemon juice

1oz Cocchi Americano

dash of absinthe

A few notes about the ingredients. I prefer Plymouth gin, but any well-balanced London dry gin will do. The original recipe calls for orange liquerer, but I would steer away from cheap or overly sweet versions. Cointreau strikes the right balance there. Finally, the recipe (like James Bond’s Vesper) calls for Lillet. The original version is no longer made and Lillet Blanc is a poor substitute. Cocchi Americano is closer to the mark. Finally, you can add a couple of dashes of Peychaud’s bitters instead of the absinthe rinse.

Instructions: Rinse couple with absinthe and discard. Combine the other ingredients and shake hard and strain. Garnish with orange slice or a cherry.

The Friday Symposium: Christmas Edition

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

Last year’s Christmas Playlist was such a hit, I decided to make two more. Taking a break from all things classical, here’s a playlist of classic songs that have been jazzed up.

A traditionalist at heart, I think there is nothing better than the very best carols sung by a chorus. The next list includes all of my favorites.

Finally, here’s last year’s list, which traces the history of Christmas music over time.

Thanks to A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens will forever be associated with Christmas. And that’s a good thing, because the best thing to drink on Christmas is punch and there is no Punchmaker in history quite like Charles Dickens. Of course, Dickens’ most famous punch was captured in a particularly florid passage in one of his greatest novels:

I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens refers to another even more traditional punch, as Scrooge is making amends for his mistreatment of poor Bob Cratchit: We will discuss your affairs this afternoon, over a bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Unlike the poor rum punch favored by the chronically destitute Mr. Micawber, Scrooge favors Mr. Cratchit with a very upscale wine-based punch, made with roasted oranges studded with cloves, port wine, hot water and sugar.

But these are quite well-known and can be found in many recipe books. After all, Dickens’ penchant for punch extended far beyond his fictional creations. He loved nothing more than entertaining over a steaming bowl of hot punch. Indeed, a sterling silver punch ladle was auctioned at Christie’s some time ago, noting that it had been used by a Mr. Charles Dickens, Esq. at the George and Vulture Tavern, Cornill, London. Sadly, the ladle has been sold on to parts unknown, but the George and Vulture remains, as it was, in the Cornill section of the City of London. Namechecked in The Pickwick Papers, it remains a must-go for anyone seeking to recapture a bit of Victorian London.

But how would Dickens’ make his own punch? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. Preserved in a letter to a friend, written in January 1847, is Dickens’ own recipe. And it is a corker–one of the very best drinks you will ever have. Trust me (or at least trust Dickens).

The Charles Dickens Punch

  • 3/4 cup of demerara sugar
  • 3 lemons
  • 2 cups of Navy-strength rum
  • 1.25 cups of VSOP Cognac
  • 5 cups of black tea
  • whole nutmeg

A few notes on the ingredients. While any sugar will do, demerara sugar provides a higher molasses content and a much richer flavor. Worth seeking out, not only for this recipe but for your Old Fashioneds too. It is essential to use Navy-strength rum. While I have made this successfully with non-overproofed rum, the extra alcohol helps considerably in lighting the fire. Yes, you read that correctly. Finally, do not skimp on the Cognac. Hine VSOP is a reasonably priced bottle and you will have plenty left over for several after-dinner snifters. Finally, while any black tea will do, I am very partial to using Mariage Freres’ Marco Polo blend or Harney & Sons Paris blend. Both provide subtle red fruit flavors that add an extra dimension to the punch.

To make the drink, add the sugar and peels of the three lemons to a heat-proof bowl. Rub the lemons and sugar together to release the citrus oils and let sit for 20 minutes. Add rum and cognac. Light on fire (best method is to light a spoonful of rum and add the flaming liquid to the mixture) and let burn for 3 minutes. Extinguish fire with heatproof cover. Remove lemon peels from the punch. Add the juice from the 3 lemons and add the hot tea. Garnish with citrus wheels and grated nutmeg.

The punch can be served hot or cold. I prefer it hot, especially since making the drink can provide your guests with a story and a show.

The Friday Symposium: A Schubertiade

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

As chronicled here, Mozart exploited his remarkable talents to become the first freelance composer in history. As such, he was beholden only to those who paid for his compositions and not to any one church or any one aristrocrat in particular. Beethoven took Mozart’s revolution one step further, refusing to bend his art to anyone and relying on a small circle of friends to fund him with no strings attached. For a while, this worked out splendidly for Beethoven–that is, until his benefactors ran out of cash.

Schubert, true to his poetic leanings, had no sense for money or business and was, accordingly, living at the very fringes of poverty for most of his short adult life. To ease his financial burdens, Schuberts friends organized small gatherings–much like the Greek symposiums that inspired the title for this series of articles–called Schubertiades. The idea was to gather like-minded folks in a salon to converse, drink, and enjoy Schubert’s music. While most of the works Schubert composed for these gatherings were songs, he also included some smaller works for solo piano, which he often performed. Schubert was nowhere as skilled a pianist as Beethoven or Mozart had been and these works tend towards the simple side.

These gatherings were vitally important to Schubert for other reasons. Naturally shy and slight of build, Schubert spent much of his life skulking around in the shadows. Despite living his entire life in Vienna, he apparently never met Beethoven. He certainly had the opportunity to do so–at the very least, they were both in the same room for the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But stories abound about Schubert hiding behind a pillar to observe his idol Beethoven, surrounded by admirers.

The Schubertiades coaxed Schubert out of his shell and proved to be a model for other composers of similar disposition in the future. These parties also served as the primary means by which Schubert’s music was disseminated and promoted. Devotees of Schubert continue to mount Schubertiades today, especially on January 31st (Schubert’s birthday). Here is a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite Schubert tunes that would be right at home at one of these salon-concerts.

The best cocktail to serve at a convivial gathering is, without question, a punch. Not only can a punch be mixed in advance, a punchbowl is always a welcome and festive sight at a party (and, no, I am not talking about the garbage cans used for punch at a fraternity house). Anyone who has visited Vienna in the winter will know that the Viennese are fond of their glühwein, which is served out of little stands all across the town. Mulled wine, while delicious, is not a punch. A proper punch must have five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, juice, water (or tea), and spices.

The Swedes make a punch called Glögg, which with a little tinkering fits the bill here. It is a perfect, if not potent, tipple for a Schubertiade on January 31.

Glögg

  • 1 bottle red wine
  • 1 cup ruby port
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 6 cloves, whole
  • 5 cardamom pods, crushed
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 whole orange peel, with 1/4 cup of juice

Add all ingredients to a large sauce pot and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Sweeten to taste with additional sugar, as needed. Strain into punchbowl. Serve in punch mugs, garnished with a tablespoon of raisins and sliced almonds.

The Friday Symposium: Assessing the Recorded History of Beethoven’s Ninth

One of the great joys of classical music is delving into the often rich recorded history of a particular composition. Conductors, often lampooned in popular culture, are all very serious students of the music they perform and their directorial decisions significantly shape the music we hear. How? Tempo is the most obvious lever, but so are dynamics, and how the various parts are woven together. Some conductors will ask you to be more forceful on certain notes or, speaking as a former string player, use your bow to create more or less stacatto, legato or other techniques that help to shape the color of the music the audience hears. Then there is the very abstract notion of feeling–what is perceived as a march by one conductor is a dance to another. And, it must be said, the frequent and highly debatable practice of “correcting” the score.

There is, I submit, no symphony capable of such a wide range of interpretive choices at Beethoven’s Ninth. This is, of course, typical of Beethoven’s Late Period compositions–Beethoven forces peformers to make interpretive choices. Here is a very, very short overview of some of the highlights.

Furtwängler/Berlin (1942)

Where to start? Easy: Wilhelm Furtwängler. The revered former chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (1922-1945) appears to have had a supernatural connection to Beethoven and the Ninth in particular, bending Beethoven’s will to his own, as the dozen or so recordings he left to posterity will attest. So let’s start with the most famous, from March 1942. This performance was part of a celebration for Adolf Hitler’s birthday and, accordingly, a few words about Furtwängler and the Nazi regime are in order. There is no question that Furtwängler cooperated with the Nazis and was held in high esteem by them (although perhaps somewhat less so than party member Herbert von Karajan, see below). Yet historians suggest that Furtwängler sought to oppose the Nazis from within. I have not studied this issue and offer no opinion on the matter, save for the evidence presented by this recording. It is, quite simply, the most unique in history. Beethoven’s Ninth is nearly always uplifiting in spirit. Not so here. Furtwängler transports the mustic inot something angry, tragic, full of dread, and, somewhat amazingly, utterly without the feeling of hope and redemption than appears to be hard wired into the finale. This is Exhibit A on how a great conductor can meld even the most formidable music to his purpose. This is the stuff of nightmares. Instead of radiant joy, we get “we are screwed.” This performance is iconic, but to get a sense of how Furtwängler could manipulate the music, compare this recording to those he did in 1951 or 1954. Like Beethoven, Furtwängler is speaking in tones to those in his audience and if the murderers in his 1942 audience knew what he was saying, he wouldn’t have lived long afterwards.

Toscanini/La Scala (1946)

For many Americans of a certain generation, the epitome of conducting was embodied in the great Arturo Toscanini. Certainly, grounded as he was in the operatic tradition of his native Italy, Toscanini knew how to best amp up the drama–fast tempos. But Toscanini was not simply a clock watcher, his belief in the power of simple, unadorned peformances that hewed closely to the score was the seed that bore fruit in the Period Instrument Movement. You will be hard pressed to find a more exciting performance than this one.

Klemperer/Philharmonia (1957)

To be fair, there is only so much historical sound I can take and my favorite recordings nearly always are from the digital era. That said, the great Otto Klemperer, recording at the dawn of the stereo age, is always at his best with Beethoven. And this recording with the London Philharmonia, while a bit slow for my taste, is one of the true imperious recordings of the Ninth out there. The Ninth starts at track 42 on this compilation.

Karajan/Berlin (1962)

Let’s get this out of the way: Herbert von Karajan was a Nazi. Party member and beneficiary of the regime, his crime against humanity is a permanent stain on his character. That said, no serious overview of the recorded history of Beethoven can ignore him. Along with Furtwängler, he reigns supreme in this material and recorded the Ninth about a dozen times during his very long career (I did manage to catch him at the end live at Carnegie, even though my father would have prefered me to be protesting outside). Here he is, at the peak of his very forbidable powers, totally in control of both the Philharmonic and the Vienna Opera Chorus. Karajan viewed this as his best recording, and the public agreed. It sold more than a million copies.

Gardiner/L’orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (1994)

The Period Instrument (or Historically Informed Practices) Movement took the baton from Toscanini and ran with it. John Eliot Gardiner’s 1994 account has long been my reference standard for the work–until I started writing this blog. While I nearly always prefer period instruments for music composed prior to 1830, the exception just might be Beethoven’s Ninth. Beethoven simply wasn’t recording for the 1820s during his Late Period–he was composing for the final evolution of the orchestra. Nothing was too big or loud for Beethoven here and I suspect that he would prefer modern instruments for this work. Nonetheless, Gardiner’s incredibly brisk pace injects a ton of drama into the proceedings and remains a firm favorite.

Chailly/Gewandhausorchestra

The Gardiner recording has been my favorite since its release nearly 30 years ago. But Chailly has supplanted Gardiner, much to my amazement. I cannot deny that the sound production is a major reason why–it is just perfectly recorded: Open and spacious, while perfectly balanced. The fine details shine through in this supremely elegant performance. Also, Chailly strikes the extact right tempos while Gardiner is, on balance, a bit too fast for me (I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it is true). My one quibble would be that the naturalist soundscape of the trio in the second movement isn’t as perfectly realized as elsewhere, but it is a tiny complaint, reflecting that a truely definitive recording of the Ninth will forever elude us. Interestingly, the historic Gewandhaus orchestra traces its roots back to Beethoven’s time and was the first orchestra to perform a cycle of his symphonies. It seems fitting that 200 years later, they should be the ones to get closest to the ideal.

The foregoing scratches just the very surface of one of the richest catalogues in the history of recorded music. A few others to consider:

Fricasy/Berlin (1957)

Szell/Cleveland (1961)

Solti/Chicago (1972)

Kebelik/Munich (1975)

Harnocourt/Chamber Orchestra of Europe (1991)

Norrington/Stuttagart Radio Orchestra (2000)

And when you are done with those, there are about 200 more.

Like Beethoven’s Ninth, a great red wine is capable of tantalizing depth and broad scope of expression, vintage after vintage. Brunello di Montalcino, from a lovely town in southern Tuscany, is probably my favorite wine. It is made entirely from one specific clone of the sangiovese grape and remains one of the most frustrating wines on the market. Young Brunellos are absolutely delicious. For a year or two after release, they are an explosion of fruit and flowers, most notably cherries, but plenty of blackberry and other black fruits at the back end that hint at pleasures to come with time. Brunellos are highly acidic and very tannic on release, and that tart almost astringent note at the end upon release will soon come to dominate the wine, rendering it practically undrinkable for a decade. A decade on, the wine enters its prime drinking window. Those fresh fruit and flower flavors are no longer present, but the wine has turned sweeter with age, bringing forth notes of candied cherries, figs and nuts. Those harsh tannins (the drying flavors so prominent in black tea) have mellowed into a chocolately goodnesss, while the acidity has also mellowed and the end notes seemingly go on forever. Old Brunello is just magical–as good as Italian wine gets.

As a rule, the better the bottle, the less good it will be on release and the more time it will need in the cellar. Happily, Brunello had fantastic years in 2010 and 2012, which are now just coming into their own. A few bottles to look out for:

Ciacci Piccolomini, Brunello di Montalcino, “Pianrosso”

Altesino, Brunello di Montalcino, “Montosoli”

Casanova di Neri, Brunello di Montalcino, “Tenuta Nuova”

Each of these will run around $125 retail in a well-priced shop, but each also produce less expensive Brunellos. The most important thing is vintage. 2010/2012 should be the target this year.

The Friday Symposium: Beethoven Swings

It should not be a surprise to any regular reader of this blog that I consider Beethoven’s chamber works to be his most significant compositions, and his piano sonatas in particular to be among those where my connection to Beethoven is strongest. Beethoven’s final piano sonatas are breathtaking in their beauty and inventiveness and, perhaps, in the fullness of time I might come back to explore some of them in greater detail. But if I am ever going to get to Schubert (currently stalking Beethoven around Vienna like the shy fanboy that he was), I’m going to have to make some cuts. The Godfather took me to task for ignoring the Fourth Piano Concerto. Fair point–but ignoring any of the late sonatas or quartets is a far worse crime.

Beethoven’s Late Period works fill me with equal parts awe and dread. Reaching back through time, right to where this blog began in the 1300s, Beethoven’s music begins to incorporate techniques that had been long abandoned, while at the same time thrusting form and harmonics forward–so forward that these remarkable compositions naturally coexist with so much of the music that is being written today.

A few examples:

Beethoven’s 30th piano sonata is not nearly as famous as the one it succeeds, but in many ways it is my favorite of his Late Period works for solo piano. Most analyses focus on the third movement–a grand theme and variation that rivals anything that Bach produced–and rightly so, but my interest today lies in the theme from the first movement, which repeats regularly as part of the sonata form. It is instantly recognizable, at least to me–I dedicated an entire entry here to the endless appeal (and reuse) of Couperin’s theme Les Barricades Mysterieuses. Let’s refresh our recollection:

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses:

Beethoven takes this timeless tune and jazzes it up.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109:

Jazz you say? Yes, jazz. And if there is any question about whether Beethoven could swing, what he let fly in the second movment his final piano sonata leaves absolutely no doubt (skip to 6:40 in the below if you are impatient):

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111

Whether Beethoven invented boogie-woogie in 1820, nearly a century before the jazz age, is really besides the point. By this point in his life, Beethoven could be forgiven for slipping permanetly into the blackest of moods. Robbed of his most prescious sense, a complete failure in matters of love and family, denied the stable income his benefactors had promised, and, with the final defeat of Napoleon, the liberal dreams of his youth dashed against the authoritarian rocks of monarchy–very little had gone Beethoven’s way in life. And yet, his ideals and profound optimism endured. Beethoven wrote this final work for his instrument roughly contemporaneously with the start of his work on the Ninth Symphony. Rhythmically adventurous, harmonically complex–this is a triumph of optimism over the very depths of nearly absolute despair.

Beethoven’s Late Period demands scotch, the most contemplative of spirits. Unfortunately, spiking demand, thanks to increasing interest from Asian markets and collectors, has driven up the cost of scotch to frankly ridiculous levels. The next few entries in this series will be devoted to Late Beethoven and Scotch, a match made in heaven.

Today’s selection is Ardbeg’s Uigeadail. Like Late Beethoven, just reading it can be scary–how the hell do you play/pronouce that? For the record, it is something like Oog-a-dal. Playing Beethoven is considerably more difficult. But also like Late Beethoven, it presents as one thing (classically tonal/full of fresh flowers and fruit on the nose), but is decidedly something more different (chromatically adventurous/tasting clearly of smoke and the sea). Most importantly, the scotch is just perfectly balanced, across all of its various components, high strength (do add a drop or two of spring water to your dram), and . . . ok, this analysis is getting a bit strained. Let’s just say that Ardbeg’s Uigeadail is one of the best value scotches on the market today, about $75 in a liquor store that prizes customers equally with profit.

The Friday Symposium: A Cocktail for the End of Time

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished …

Revelation 10:1-2, 5-7 (KJV)

Our good friend Luke!!! has suffered through some sleepless nights of late, worried about the potential atomic consequences of events unfolding in the Ukraine. This one is for him.

Stalag VIII-A was as far from paradise as one could get in 1940, a dark and dreary German prisoner-of-war camp. By 1940, the better part of 50,000 French and Belgian prisoners were being housed in barracks originally intended to hold only 15,000. The prisoners were malnourished and unprotected from the cold, having been stripped of their clothing by their Nazi captors.

Into this hell on earth arrived a 30-something French conscript named Olivier Messiaen, already a noted composer and whose deep Catholic faith animated his music to a degree not seen since J.S. Bach sought to express his own Lutheran ideals in tones. Messiaen was not unknown to the cultured German officers, who provided the composer with pencils and music paper. So Messiaen, cold and starving, began to pray. The result was one of the more remarkable compositions in music history.

Inspired by the above quote from the Book of Revelation, Messiaen dedicated his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) to the Angel of the Apocalypse. Born amidst the horrors of war, the immediacy of famine and frost, Messiaen’s music is the antithesis of what we would anticipate. No bombast here. Messiaen is instead concerned with moving rhythm out of time and space itself. And what emerges from his music isn’t despair, but rather transcendence.

Messiaen’s time in this blog will come in due course and I will have a lot to say about this remarkable composition. But not today: For this Friday–with Armageddon ever present in our news cycle–I can think of no more appropriate music.

Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps:

Is there a cocktail for the end of time? Well, sort of. The Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster is the stuff of legend. As reported by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the cocktail was invented by Zaphod Beeblebrox, one-time President of the Galaxy. The Guide states: “The best drink in existence is the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, the effect of which is like having your brains smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.” If the Apocalypse is truly upon us, this is the cocktail I want.

There is only one small catch. The ingredients are a bit tough to come by. Ol’ Janx Spirit, water from the seas of Santraginus V, Arcturan Mega-gin, Fallian marsh gas, etc. are just not exactly available in my local liquor store (or, in fact, exactly real). So to recreate this recipe in the real world, I will take inspiration from the Guide liberally.

Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (as adapted for Earth)

  • 1oz clarified lemon juice
  • 2oz Beefeater gin (chilled in freezer)
  • 1/2oz Goldschlager
  • 1/2oz Everclear
  • splash tonic water
  • 2 dashes mint bitters
  • olive to garnish

Combine clarified lemon juice, gin, Goldschlager, Everclear, bitters and shake well. Pour into glass with one large ice cube. Top with a splash of tonic water with a single olive to garnish. Do not consume more than one of these, unless you are a thirty ton mega elephant with bronchial pneumonia. (Don’t look at me, I didn’t make the rules.)

Bonus Recipe:

After creating the above, I consulted with The Godfather who is responsible for the “clarified” instruction above. After saying that was the only thing he would change, he set about changing virtually everything else. So, for the first time, an “improved” version:

Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (as adapted for Earth, improved version)

  • 1oz clarified lemon juice
  • 2oz Beefeater gin
  • 1/2oz Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash moonshine
  • 1/2oz Yellow Chartreuse
  • 1/2 tab Alka Seltzer
  • 2 dashes mint bitters
  • dash of edible gold leaf flakes
  • lemon peel stuffed olive

Combine clarified lemon juice, gin, moonshine, chartreuse, bitters and shake well. Pour into a cocktail glass and add Alka Seltzer. Sprinkle gold leaf on top and add single olive to garnish. Do not consume more than one of these (see above).

The Friday Symposium: Collapse the Light Into Earth

At some point in the 1980s or early 1990s, rock musicians began to abandon functional harmony–the idea of building music around a tonic chord or key. Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana is a good example of this. Drawing on a wide range of inspirations, such as The Pixies and Sonic Youth, Niravana began charting a decidedly atonal future for rock music in which harmonic tension and resolution would be abandoned. Of course, classical composers got there first, nearly 100 years earlier, but it would be a fool’s errand to argue that Cobain and his grungy peers were studying scores by Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg or other 20th century composers. Most of them were barely music literate and were simply writing what sounded angsty and non-commercial to them.

Around the time that Nirvana was blowing up, in England, a young progressive guitarist and songwriter was beginning to chart his own path. Steven Wilson and his band Porcupine Tree began life solidly in the space-progressive world first charted by Pink Floyd. Wilson wears his influences–Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, most prominently among others–on his sleeve, often leading critics to declare his music to be derivative. That’s unfair. Brahms’ First Symphony sounds so much like Beethoven that it is routinely referred to still as Beethoven’s 10th. Today, Porcupine Tree inhabits a space best described as progressive-metal, which if you are imagining Metallica performing albums like Selling England by the Pound, you are not too far off from the truth.

As it happens, Porcupine Tree is one of the Professor’s favorite bands, so when the opportunity arose to see them live with him, I jumped at the chance. Porcupine Tree are a hard band to connect to, especially if you jump around their catalogue instead of listening to complete albums. I had a hunch that a live show might help me find their groove a bit more efficiently. It did, which isn’t to say that I came away entirely sold on the band–especially in its current prog-metal phase.

Having immersed myself in Beethoven over the last several weeks, it was easy to pick up on Porcupine Tree’s obsessively repeating rhythms and riffs. I even heard what I thought were polyrhythmic sections, but listening again to the studio versions I determined that I was wrong–instead of two truly independent rhythms, the band is quite skilled at disguising variations of a rhythm over a 4-5 bars, after which you get what appears to be rhythmic resolution, but in fact was never truly clashing to begin with. Wilson also veers into atonal composition at times, producing strange chord progressions that bend your ear while, as a singer, using chromatic progressions that further distance his music from any sort of obvious tonal center.

That said, I think the band is at their best when they mix things up, either by retreating back to Meddle-like space-prog (The Moon Touches Your Shoulder) or by incorporating pseudo-polyrhythms to break up the ever-repeating riffs that sometimes can border on monotony. Personally, I welcome Wilson’s rare returns to a more functional harmony in his singing (Piano Lesson–an homage of sorts to late 90s Brit Pop).

While Wilson’s jazz and classical influences permeate his solo efforts (for example, Deform to Form a Star), his efforts to do so within the confines of Porcupine Tree appear to be more limited. That said, from time to time a few of these interesting Conversations peak out from the gloom, most notably this Philip Glass-inspired piano introduction.

Porcupine Tree, Sentimental

Philip Glass, String Quartet No. 2, IV. Quarter Note = 160

Philip Glass, Mad Rush:

At the close of the concert, Wilson remarked that Porcupine Tree isn’t the sort of band that has that one song that they have to play at every concert. And then they played the one song they have to play at every concert (Trains). It’s a good tune and clearly one of their very best, but I actually prefer another song on that album, which they also played last Friday night. For a band that embraces the dark and morose side of life, the lyrics are almost uplifting, as is the spare music that backs Wilson’s line.

I won’t shiver in the cold

I won’t let the shadows take their toll

I won’t cover my head in the dark

And I wont forget you when we part.

I won’t heal given time

I won’t try to change your mind

I won’t feel better in the cold light of day

But I wouldn’t stop you if you wanted to stay

Collapse the light into earth.

Steven Wilson

As autumn approaches, here is a cocktail worthy of that song, along with a playlist of some of the Porcupine Tree songs that I’ve come to appreciated over the last week.

Collapse the Light Into Earth

  • 1oz Laird’s Apple Brandy Bottled-in-Bond
  • 3/4oz lemon juice
  • 1/2oz honey simple syrup (1:1 ratio)
  • Champagne
  • Grated nutmeg

Combine brandy, lemon juice and syrup and shake well to combine. Strain into a coupe, top with Champagne and grate fresh nutmeg over the top.

The Friday Symposium: Music and Cocktails for the Last Days of Summer

The last days of summer don’t mean as much as they used to these days. While some, no doubt, will board their last train back to the City on Monday afternoon, or otherwise brave the traffic and the dreaded LIE, come Tuesday morning I will still find myself seated here, 100 miles from the office I’ve visted only a handful of times since March 2020.

Yet the pending finality of the silly season calls for music that its light, somewhat trivial, and rebellious all at once. Which got me to thinking about Cecilia Bartoli, unquestionably one of the great mezzos of her age, but whose fear of flying (and, perhaps, smaller voice) has too long kept her from singing in the US consistently. Her 2006 album, Opera Proibita, fits the bill in both respects.

Opera Proibita features music that had been banned in the 18th century in Rome by the Church, fearing (perhaps with just cause) that the opera houses were dens of corruption and immorality. The album features some of the best known hits of Baroque opera–just the perfect thing for a late summer’s evening.

The album also happens to be one of my wife’s favorite, so I thought I would pair it with her favorite cocktail–The Little Grey Lady. Vanishing few people have heard of this drink, but I can’t take credit for it–I found the recipe in a magazine several years ago. It is a lighter and altogether more refreshing riff on The Last Word, a classic cocktail built on four equal parts and which will no doubt feature later on in this blog. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t like this drink.

Quick story. We used to go frequently to Nick and Toni’s, the famed East Hampton restaurant, when the great Kevin Grillo manned the bar. One night, I asked Kevin to make The Little Grey Lady for us, only to find that, of the four components of the cocktail, he only had one (the lemon juice) and he even lacked the bitters that give cocktail its distinctive grey/pink hue. Eventually we found some substitutes and renamed the cocktail The Maidstone Mist (as the cocktail is named for the pink/grey hue of the fog that sometimes settles over Martha’s Vineyard). In any event, here’s the recipie.

The Little Grey Lady

  • 1 oz Plymouth gin (do not substitute a London Dry gin, which throws the favors off)
  • 1 oz Cocchi Americano (you can substitute Lillet Blanc, although it is not as good)
  • 1 oz St. Germain (we now use St. Elder if you can find it)
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • healthy dash of Peychaud’s Bitters

Shake well and serve in a coupe with a twist of lemon.

The Friday Symposium: Thomas Tallis and White Châteauneuf-du-Pape

On this edition of the Friday Symposium, we go even further back in music history to motets composed by Thomas Tallis. One of my Desert Island Discs is certainly the Tallis Scholars’ recording of Spem in Alium, along with other Tallis compositions.

One of the most complex and ethereal compositions of its or any other age, there is one pairing that seems appropriate and just happens to be a fantastic late summer wine. While the red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are more plentiful, the few white wines the region produces are among the best in France (and, thus, the world). Like its red counterpart, white CDP is typically made from a blend of grapes, a combination of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, Clairette Rose, Grenache Gris, Picardan Blanc, Piquepoul Blanc and Piquepoul Gris. The actual blend and the proportions thereof are left entirely to the winemaker.

The La Fagotière Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is one of my favorites. Fermented in stainless steel, it exhibits none of the secondary oak flavors that typically get in the way of white wines. It is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picquepoul Blanc, bringing peach armoas and citrus flavors to the fore. Unlike many CDPs, this is made to drink on the younger side and the 2018s can be found fairly easily for about $40 a bottle. A bit on the expensive side, but just a perfect match for the Tallis.

The Friday Symposium: Bach and The Martini

Leave it to academia to turn something wonderful into something dreadful. When most people hear the world “symposium” today, they think of a bunch of talking heads sitting on a podium massaging their own egos. In the Ancient World, however, a symposium was decidedly more fun–after all, the word symposium is derived from the Greek “symposio”, which means “drinking together.” A symposium, in Ancient Rome, was therefore a drinking party where wine and music flowed together. So when Our Friend from Boston requested a paring of music and drinks in this blog, my mind turned to the original meaning of symposium. I will also note that this idea was in part stolen from The Friday Belt, which was one of the best features of what was probably my favorite blog ever.

The first drink, of course, has to be the Martini. It is one of the first and one of the best, an icon that is bracingly refreshing in summer as it is the literal representation of winter in a glass. No drink brings as much history and atmospherics to the table. And once you know how to make one, the riffs on the formula are nearly endless.

Let’s start with what a Martini is not. It is not made with vodka. It is not simply chilled gin in a glass. It is a cocktail and thus made from a combination of ingredients, one of which is dry vermouth. I love vermouth and take my “dry Martinis” quite wet by modern standards. Julia Child was fond of the Reverse Martini (two parts vermouth to one part gin). Audrey Saunders brought back the Fifty-Fifty Martini. But the classic is and will always be three parts gin to one part vermouth, which is what I drink. Finally, a Martini, like every cocktail that is made solely from spirits, should stirred, not shaken. There is little more depressing in life than ordering a Martini and getting ice chips floating at the top of the glass. In this regard, this classic scene from The Thin Man (first scene in the montage), was complely wrong. Incidentally, the glass used by Nick Charles in these films is now known as the Nick and Nora glass, which is as an ideal vessel for a Martini and nearly any other variation of it.

A Martini, like most cocktails, should be small, no more than four ounces total. Bars love these swimming pool masquerading as cocktail glasses, but really that is just a vehicle for a warm drink. A Martini should be silky smooth in texture, bracing in flavor, and icy cold in temperature. A perfectly made Martini is a thing of beauty; a poorly made Martini is the cocktail served in hell.

Today’s Martini drinker is faced with an endless set of gin and vermouth combinations. The classic, Beefeater and Martini & Rossi, is a classic for a reason. A more upscale version, The Botanist and Channing Daughters VerVino Variation 1, amps up the flavor considerably. For those who do not like juniper-flavored gins, Plymouth and Perucchi Bianco make for a nice pairing. As for the other more popular premium gins, I do not like Tanqueray in a Martini (a G&T is an entirely different story) and I do not like Bombay, either in its original or sapphire versions, altogether. My favorite is decidely middle of the road: Broker’s and Dolin Dry. Three to one, stirred, with a dash of orange bitters and olives thank you very much. Both will make less of a dent in your wallet than any of the others mentioned here.

Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin are similarly bracing, brilliant when perfectly executed and unlistenable when they are not. Today’s recording is Nathan Milstein’s. His performance is cold perfection of technique, the heat of which only emerges after you’ve had a few.

The classic “Dry” Martini is not, however, the original version. It is, in fact, a riff on the original recipie–The Martinez. The Martinez is made with equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, to which a teaspon of maraschino liqueur and a few dashes of orange bitters are added before stirring into a coupe garnished with a twist of lemon. It is altogether a solid drink, even if the Dry version we know today was a clear improvement.

Just like the hipster bartenders who have resurrected the Martinez, period instrument performers have sought to improve on Milstein’s classic recording, bringing historically informed instruments, bows, and techniques to the table, all in an effort to get closer to Bach’s ideal. Like these recreated Old Tom gins, period instrument recordings of Bach’s sonatas and partitas are interesting but can’t really match Milstein’s peerless classic. But both the drink and these new recordings have their fans. Thomas Zehetmair, in his more recent recording of these works, gets closer to that ideal than most. Perhaps a Martinez for that one.