Next door in The Onion‘s A.V. Club, Steven Hyden throws down a prov0cative test for musical greatness: Five consecutive albums of surpassing greatness. Those are my words; he never comes out and says whether the albums have to be classics, or just great, or can be very good if at least one is a classic. But you get what he means if you read the article, which is that for all the great bands throughout history, there are mighty few who’ve released five great albums in a row. The Rolling Stones fail his test, but Queen passes. So, interesting.
I got thinking what a classical list would look like of musicians who’d put out five excellent-to-classic albums in a row. This turns out to be a bit more challenging for classical musicians than rock bands: Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have 29 albums alone on the RCA Living Stereo series, and Reiner has an additional 133 currently available. I’m no historian of rock, but I’m fairly certain that is more than the Beatles and Queen and Led Zeppelin have recorded, combined.
Some might say that added number of recordings makes it easier to hit the five-album mark: more records, more chances. But I think that if you’re doing a lot, the overall quality will hit a bigger range. There’ll be a few all-time classics, which will be historic standards. They become the benchmark, and it becomes harder to repeat that standard. The law of diminishing returns kicks in the more records are made, with several that would have been classics ending up sniffed at because they don’t meet a previous standard. By contrast, conserving one’s resources and recording when you’re rested and ready makes reliable success easier. Call it The Don Giovanni Conundrum: The more women you seduce, the more ugly women you end up fleeing. That’s my theory, at least.
The other challenge for the test-giver is that even if you have a few thousand classical recordings around, it’s not necessarily true that you have five of an artist’s in chronological order if for no other reason than you aren’t a 60-year old music critic, and despite having spent more money on CDs and records in your life than on say, food. So there might be five killer recordings, but you’ve only heard four of them. Whereas a rock fan is more likely to have five consecutive albums of a band if they only made, say, ten. And there are a lot of really good bands who never made even five albums (Joy Division), so you’ve heard everything they’ve recorded. To the test!
Fritz Reiner and the CSO make the cut. The run starts with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (with the playing entirely living up to the promise of the frisky cover art), continued with Beethoven 5 and the Coriolan Overture, then Mahler 4, followed by two desert-island recordings of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and a collection of Russian showpieces called Festival. The Russlan and Ludmila Overture is still one of the most exciting chunks of music ever recorded. (video with bonus cat pictures)
Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the second conductor/orchestra pair I seek out on vinyl) also make it, having a few five-record series interrupted by albums I haven’t heard. They get in on the strength of Debussy’s Images (one album), then the “French Touch” with Ravel and Paul Dukas, a strong #3 in a powerful Brahms 4, then Jascha Heifetz playing the Mendelssohn and Prokofiev (#2) concertos, and rounding it out with a speaker-blowing lease-breaker of a Saint-Saens Third Symphony.
I’ll try and take some time and dig into the discographies of some living musicians this weekend and see what surprises get turned up. I have a hunch that despite or because of voluminous catalogs, Herbert von Karajan, Maurizio Pollini, and others may not make it in. There’s also the stuff that I don’t have or isn’t readily available on Spotify, which just means I need more music.