Since attending concerts is only one part of a well-rounded musical education, I thought I would take a stab at writing about a new recording to show a different side. I chose the new Telarc disc of P.D.Q Bach and Peter Schickele entitled The Jekyll & Hyde Tour, recorded live in Maryland, oh so long ago on June 16, 2007. The album features Schickele of course, singing and playing the piano, off-coloratura soprano Michele Eaton, tenor profundo David Dusing and the Armadillo Quartet from Los Angeles. The cd is a record of the tour that Peter Schickele took around the country, playing old P.D.Q Bach favorites with the premieres of newly "discovered" works, along with some humorous music of Schickele himself. Ultimately however, I couldn't get behind this music as much as previous P.D.Q. efforts. They have become too visual in their humor and and ultimately, not about what Schickele can do with music, which has always stunned me.
My love affair with P.D.Q Bach goes back quite a long way to when I was a freshman in college, sitting in the audio/visual center of the Iowa State University library laughing my head off to Iphigenia in Brooklyn. Although the physical humor was there in that performance too (missed by me since it was an audio recording), I could get the gist of what was going on as long as the music remained intact. On this disc for example, which features quite a substantial string quartet by P.D.Q, the music of the quartet is completely interrupted for an unimpressive joke about cell phones going off during performances, except this time, it was one of the musicians taking the call. I am sure it's sort of humorous if you're there, but not so much when you listen to it. I guess when you run out of musical ideas, the simpler humor has to be forced into service. As I listened to the cd, I kept on being baffled by the idea that Schickele's music is taking backseat to such bad jokes. Bad jokes are par for the course in his introductions and comments, but they invaded the musical works just a tad too much for my taste.
The featured works of "Bach" on this album include a set of songs entitled Four Next-to-Last Songs, in a very Schubertian mood, a massive string quartet in F major called The Moose ( complete with police siren (I'm sure it's funny visually)), and some small rounds for the three voices (Schickele, Eaton and Dusing). The set of songs, sung uninspiringly by David Dusing, was not Schickele's best, and certainly does not compare to the Four Folksong Upsettings, sung beautifully and hilariously by Dana Krueger. The last song's big punch line is about Linda Tripp! How is that funny in 2008? The string quartet is funnier but veers off into nonmusical humor far too often. It does begin humorously enough with the quartet performing some rather modern sounding music only to discover they have the wrong parts, which, once corrected, leads into typical Mozartian grace. That is the essence of musical humor. Sirens and cell phone calls, not so much. The rounds are cute and short. Of the pieces that Schickele claims as his own, which includes two songs and two rounds, the Songs from Shakespeare are the most entertaining. They take famous speeches from various Shakespeare plays and match them with musical styles from the '50's. My favorite is the speech of the Three Witches from Macbeth. Of course, all the songs can be finished in under 6 minutes total, so that leaves a lot of the cd with music that is rather disappointing at times. I guess nothing can top Oedipus Tex. I'll keep on waiting.
Although I am not impressed with this cd, please don't let it stop you from exploring the world and music of P.D.Q Bach. He is exactly what classical music needs at times - that dose of humility where we don't take ourselves too seriously. Try any of his other albums. You won't be disappointed.