Does Alex Ross know anything about Baroque Music?



American music critic Alex Ross is best known as authority on music of the 20th Century, especially through his blog (“The Rest is Noise”), his award-winning book of the same title, and the many pieces he’s written for The New Yorker.

Ross has a well-deserved reputation, to be sure, and keen insight to burn.

However, his recent list, “2010: The Most Memorable Moments in Music,” left me wondering if he knows much about Baroque music. For the most memorable recording on the list, he chose the Irish Baroque Orchestra’s 2010 release of 17th-century Italian chamber pieces.

“For no reason other than pure pleasure, I found myself listening repeatedly to a disc entitled “Flights of Fantasy: Early Italian Chamber Music”—an anthology of Baroque pieces with Monica Huggett and the Irish Baroque Orchestra, on the Avie label. The playing has an intoxicating freedom, as if the music were being made up on the spot. The program ranges from rough-edged celebration to pristine lament, giving a comprehensive picture of Baroque styles and moods.”

It was heartening to see that he loved the recording so much he became addicted to it. Happens to all of us—we get hooked and can’t stop playing that one movement, work, or entire recording.

What I take issue with is in his final line. Namely, that the program gave “a comprehensive picture of Baroque styles and moods.”

Come again?

A recording of mostly Italian works (sorry, Biber doesn’t count) which gives a highly selective and scattered picture of 17th Century does not come close to being comprehensive. The word “early” might have been omitted from the title of the CD itself since at least two of the composers represented came to prominence during the latter half of the century.

My whole point is that no single recording can give a all-encompassing picture of the Baroque period—a messy, hard-to-define era in which Ross found “pure pleasure” but succumbed to over-generalization.

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