Month: August 2017

#45 KAY STARR IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING (1948)

#45

KAY STARR
IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING (1948)

MUSIC—JOSEF MYROW, LYRICS—MACK GORDON

Kay Starr is one of the more interesting popular singers of the 1940s and 50s. Referring to her only as a “popular” singer is, I guess, not technically correct, as she also sang country and jazz—Billie Holiday called her the “only white woman who could sing the blues.”

And I suppose even that—“white woman”—is also not technically correct. She was born in 1922 on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma; her father was a full-blooded Iroquois and her mother half Iroquois. She won a singing contest at the age of 7 on a Dallas radio station, and was singing professionally at the age of 15. In her mid-twenties, she signed with Capital Records and had an active career until the rock and roll era replaced her kind of singing.

The “prime time” of her career therefore coincided exactly with the post-war years in which the United States was trying to forget the horrors of war and was rapidly becoming the world’s largest market economy—a time of innocence, at least on the surface, and of looking to the future. Record companies capitalized on this yearning and pushed their best female singers to the top of the charts—Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Margaret Whiting, and Kay Starr.

The song I am posting is the very first song I ever heard from Kay Starr, and I instantly fell in love with her vibrato. The best metaphor I can come up with for her—a cliché, it’s true—is that she is a songbird. If Edith Piaf was France’s “Little Sparrow”, I would say that Kay Starr deserved a similar accolade here in the US. I could listen to her sing open vowels forever. And the way she maintains such an appealing vibrato even on some consonants—“n’s” and “ng’s”—is impressive, and so attractive.

This song bears the title of the movie from which it came—a completely forgettable comedy about baseball from 1948 called, of course, It Happens Every Spring. Don’t waste your time looking for it. But this theme song from the movie, slowed down considerably for this version by Kay Starr, is memorable. The lyrics are predictable—baseball, the green grass of spring, love in the air, everything is new, etc. They could equally well have been la-la-la or nonsense syllables. For me, it is her voice that matters.

 

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#44 CHOPIN BALLADE #4 IN F MINOR FOR PIANO, OPUS 52

#44

CHOPIN
BALLADE #4 IN F MINOR FOR PIANO, OPUS 52

VLADIMIR HOROWITZ, PIANO

Frederic Chopin wrote four ballades for piano. These four pieces, ranging from 8-12 minutes each, form the very heart of Chopin’s writing for piano. They are said to be inspired by the poetry of his countryman, Adam Mickiewicz.  (The accompanying photo here of Chopin’s piano was taken in the Chopin room at the Mickiewicz/Polish museum in Paris.)

One commonality among these four ballades is that Chopin certainly intended them to be performed in public by virtuoso players. They are each sensationally difficult for the pianist, technically and musically. He ends each ballade with pages of breathtaking scales, double thirds passages, and extreme leaps, all requiring a wide dynamic palette. Yet nowhere does he ever sacrifice musical depth for mere flashiness.

Of the four ballades, the fourth is widely thought to be the greatest, and most challenging, of the bunch. Chopin wrote it in 1842, when he was 32, composing it primarily at Nohant, in central (and rural) France where his lover of five years (at that point in time), George Sand, had an estate. Considering Chopin’s long-term ill health and his general state of continual nervous exhaustion, this was a period of relative calm and incredible creativity for him.

The piece is dedicated to Baroness Rothschild who, in Paris, had been introducing Chopin to all the right people (those with deep pockets, etc). Since Chopin did not create a standard “form” for his ballades, this particular one is a cross between a sonata and variations—hardly necessary to know, though, once the piece’s opening measures have grabbed your attention.

The Fourth Ballade is one of Chopin’s most popular works. There are over 100 commercially available recordings of it, and I have no idea how many Youtube videos! Choosing a single Youtube clip to represent this work can almost be accomplished by a coin toss, there are so many fine interpretations. If you have the time to listen to various versions, I would recommend Rubinstein, Richter, Kissin and Zimerman as good choices. I like this Horowitz recording, despite the 64 (!) year old sound (link is right above piano photo). Since many of my Facebook friends are pianists, I already know that any choice I make for this particular work will not please everyone! Feel free, of course, to make suggestions!

I can also say—truthfully, too—that my favorite pianist in this work is my wife, Tiraje, who I could listen to playing the Fourth Ballade all day long.

If classical pianists listed a “top ten” list of great piano works—or maybe even a “top five”—this work would be on most of their lists. For many, it’s at the very top.

 

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#43 CARPENTERS GOODBYE TO LOVE

#43

CARPENTERS
GOODBYE TO LOVE

The long string of hits by brother-and-sister performers Richard and Karen Carpenter came to an end in 1983 with the tragic death of Karen Carpenter at the age of 32, due to anorexia.

From the time I first heard Karen Carpenter’s soothing voice, I thought it was just golden. The sound and memory of that voice is inextricably (and wonderfully) intertwined with my first years as a student in New York. Richard Carpenter was, and is still, a first-rate composer and arranger. The multi-layered, richly harmonized sound that he utilized in recording Karen’s and his voice many times over on the same track became their trademark sound. If one listens to his entire recorded output (with Karen), it is easy to see how thorough his knowledge of music was—classical and pop–and how diverse his compositional abilities were.

The Carpenters had dozens of hit recordings, including Close To You, We’ve Only Just Begun, For All We Know, Rainy Days and Mondays, Top of The World, Yesterday Once More, I Won’t Last a Day Without You, and many others. This particular song, Goodbye to Love, is from 1972. It underscores the way Karen Carpenter could seamlessly sing a melody, almost as though she never had to take a breath. It is easy for me to think her voice will resonate with popular music lovers for decades to come.

In addition to her voice, I find the 8-bar repeated harmonic pattern that concludes this song, over which we hear an improvised fuzz guitar solo—performed by Tony Peluso, a musician brought in especially for this recording session–quite appealing.

 

 

 

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#42 BACH CANTATA #4, BWV 4 CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN

#42

BACH
CANTATA #4, BWV 4
CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN
(CHRIST LAY IN DEATH’S BONDS)

MUNICH BACH CHOIR AND ORCHESTRA
KARL RICHTER, CONDUCTOR

ALL MOVEMENTS (8)
Written 1707

I am breaking my own self-imposed limit of recommending a “favorite” or best movement from each cantata with BWV 4, Christ Lag in Todesbanden.  Every movement of this work is superlative.  This cantata, justly, is one of Bach’s most impressive and popular works.

There is good reason that it is studied in collegiate music theory classes around the world. Like the other cantatas I’ve posted thus far, it is a chorale cantata, one in which a chorale melody—written, in this case, by Luther—is varied, very obviously and unmistakably, in each movement. The melody was THE hymn tune used for Easter services in all Lutheran churches at the time Bach wrote the cantata, so it would have been very familiar to his congregants. To hear it adorned the way Bach did must have been mind-blowing to its first listeners.

This may be the first chorale cantata that Bach wrote. He was 22 years old when he composed it! Even with our 20/20 hindsight into the lives of Mozart and Mendelssohn—and others who wrote masterpieces early in their lives—the emotional depth of this piece and the absolute control that Bach exercises from beginning to end are evidence—to me, anyway—that this is just an astonishing composition for such a young man. It is a towering masterpiece.

It is comprised of eight movements. A short opening orchestral sinfonia sets the stage for seven successive movements, all in E minor.

 

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#41 BACH CANTATA #3, BWV 3 ACH GOTT, WIE MANCHES HERZELEID

#41

BACH
CANTATA #3, BWV 3
ACH GOTT, WIE MANCHES HERZELEID
(OH GOD, HOW MUCH HEARTACHE?)

BACH COLLEGIUM STUTTGART
HELMUTH RILLING, CONDUCTOR

FIFTH MOVEMENT (of six)
Written 1725

Bach was obviously fond of a particular melody, written in 1587 by Martin Moller, which serves not only as the kernel for this cantata–another chorale-based cantata–but also for three other large choral works.

The Youtube link here is to the fifth movement of the cantata. Although the opening choral movement of this cantata is truly wondrous throughout—a continually felicitous interweaving of winds and strings with (one might say) accompanying chorus–I find the fifth movement duet for soprano and alto the one that I return to the most often. This duet is accompanied by a pair of unison oboes and strings, and is one of the loveliest in all the cantatas.

Text in English:

When cares press upon me
I will with joy sing to my Jesus.
Jesus helps me bear my cross,
Therefore I will say with faith:
It always works out for the best.

The singers here are Arleen Auger (soprano) and Helen Watts (alto).

 

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#40 BACH CANTATA #2, BWV 2 ACH GOTT, VOM HIMMEL SIEH DAREIN

#40

BACH
CANTATA #2, BWV 2
ACH GOTT, VOM HIMMEL SIEH DAREIN
(AH GOD, LOOK DOWN FROM HEAVEN)

BACH COLLEGIUM STUTTGART
HELMUTH RILLING, CONDUCTOR

FIRST MOVEMENT (of six)
Written 1724

The theme of this cantata is the barrenness of life on earth without the love of God. The opening choral movement is a minor-key, deep work for which Bach chose a strict style of imitative counterpoint. The appearance of each new voice is quite clear, even when the note values lengthen. The chorale melody here was written by Luther. The interweaving of voices and the forward momentum that Bach is capable of establishing in serious, even somber, works is remarkable.

I should mention here that reams of musical analysis have been written by theorists and musicologists about every work of Bach. This may be truer for the cantatas than any other genre he wrote in. But unless such analysis is essential for a listener to appreciate a particular movement in a first hearing, I will seldom be referring to it in my postings.

The first movement of this cantata is extremely well represented on Youtube. This version (Helmuth Rilling’s) is one I particularly like. It is the entire cantata, six movements. The first movement concludes at 4:12.

 

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#39 BACH CANTATA #1, BWV 1 WIE SCHON LEUCHTET DER MORGENSTERN

#39

BACH
CANTATA #1, BWV 1
WIE SCHON LEUCHTET DER MORGENSTERN
(HOW BEAUTIFULLY SHINES THE MORNING STAR)

MUNICH BACH CHOIR AND ORCHESTRA
KARL RICHTER, CONDUCTOR

FIRST MOVEMENT (of six)
Written 1725

Although I’ve mentioned that the BWV numbers do not correlate with the chronology in which Bach wrote his chorales, I think it is fitting that THIS cantata was accorded BWV #1.  WHAT could possibly be a happier introduction to the Bach Cantatas than this movement in the happy key of F Major, with a great boychoir, and the sound of horns throughout?

The long notes in the soprano part—easily seen in the score in this clip—are the chorale melody around which this cantata is written.  This situation–a chorale melody in a particular voice, being sung in long notes, while Bach weaves his magic in the other vocal parts and in the orchestra (baroque orchestras being much smaller than modern ones)–this is the common scenario in those cantatas labelled “chorale” cantatas.  The chorale tunes themselves were written by others–very often, by Martin Luther himself in the previous century.

 

 

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#38 BACH CANTATAS, A BRIEF INTRODUCTION

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH

THE CANTATAS

A Prologue to my postings

By nearly universal agreement among classical musicians, Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived from 1685 to 1750, was the greatest of all classical composers. He wrote an immense amount of music. A standard joke about him is that he did not actually live long enough to have written—by hand nonetheless—all that he actually did write! The quantity is staggering—1126 works–as is the quality.

As a pianist, it would probably seem natural for me, in my first posting of Bach, to focus on one of the keyboard works, or perhaps a group of them. While the many keyboard works are no less impressive than anything else he wrote, my personal feeling is that the best introduction to JSB is through his Cantatas.

What I would like to do is to submit for your possible enjoyment a single movement from each of the 209 surviving Bach Cantatas–movements that I find to be most enjoyable, irresistible, or educational—or, quite often, all three at the same time.

 

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In preparation for doing this, let me just list a few bullet points about the Bach Cantatas:

  • A Bach cantata is a choral/vocal composition, most often with a sacred text, and with instrumental accompaniment.
  • The majority of Bach’s cantatas were intended for performance in a church, as they utilize Christian texts.
  • A four-part choir is employed, and there are as many as four vocal soloists participating, in most of the cantatas.
  • Bach wrote cantatas over a 40 year period, from 1707 to 1747 (age 22 to 62.)
  • The cataloguing of Bach’s compositions was accomplished by Wolfgang Schmeider in 1950 in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis—the Bach Works Catalogue. In it, Bach’s works are not chronologically listed, as is the usual case with other composers’ works, but rather by category. Cantatas happen to occupy the first category, and other categories follow—motets, passions, keyboard works, etc. Within each grouping, the works that comprise that category are also NOT in chronological order. Consequently, the first cantata—BWV #1—dates from 1725, 18 years after the composition of his actual first cantata. These are certain works that only pianists who have reached a plateau of technical prowess—perhaps mountain peak would be better terminology–can even think about playing—or at least playing competently and convincingly. And at the top of the heap is the “Rach Third.” Pianists who have played it speak of it in the same tones—reverential or boastful—that that those who have been to the top of Everest must speak about that experience. They’ve done it. Others have not.
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#37 RACHMANINOFF THIRD PIANO CONCERTO, FIRST MOVEMENT – post # 2

#37

RACHMANINOFF THIRD CONCERTO – WEISSENBERG/PRETRE post # 2

Two parts to this post.  If you are interested in such things, here is the exact same performance as in the previous post, in which you see the score of the piece progressing as the piece progresses:

 

And finally, here is a clip of the same participants in a live performance from 1969 in Italy:

 

 

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#36 RACHMANINOFF THIRD PIANO CONCERTO, FIRST MOVEMENT – post # 1

#36

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF
THIRD PIANO CONCERTO, FIRST MOVEMENT – post # 1

ALEXIS WEISSENBERG, PIANO
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
GEORGES PRETRE, CONDUCTOR

The Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto is–pretty much by universal consensus among pianists–the most difficult piano concerto to play and to perform. When considering all the other various piano concertos—at least those that are regularly heard at symphony concerts—and the question of which is the most difficult concerto arises, there are actually a number of contenders: the Brahms Second Concerto, the Prokofiev Second, and the Bartok Second are all incredibly challenging for the pianist, both from the musical-interpretive perspective and most especially from the technical perspective.

And then there is the Rachmaninoff Third.

These are certain works that only pianists who have reached a plateau of technical prowess—perhaps mountain peak would be better terminology–can even think about playing—or at least playing competently and convincingly. And at the top of the heap is the “Rach Third.” Pianists who have played it speak of it in the same tones—reverential or boastful—that that those who have been to the top of Everest must speak about that experience. They’ve done it. Others have not.

The enduring popularity and appeal of a work of art doesn’t lie in the physical difficulty of its execution, of course—regardless of the extent of the technical fireworks involved. In the case of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, it is the immediate appeal–right out of the starting blocks–of a distant and melancholy melody–and the flow, sometimes torrential, of changing harmonies that keep listeners on the edge of their seats—all the while marveling at the jaw-dropping difficulties the pianist must execute. It is little wonder that performances of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto are always sold out.

Rachmaninoff wrote the Third Concerto in the summer of 1909, when everything was right in his life. The performance he gave of it, with Gustav Mahler conducting, in New York in December of that year, was an experience he never forgot. He was blown away at how detail-oriented a conductor Mahler was and how rigorous was his rehearsal technique.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of truly great players who have recorded the Rach Third. I happen to really be drawn to the performance by Alexis Weissenberg. I think you will be impressed by the piece and the performance. Listen, in particular, to the cadenza—the solo show-offy part—at 10:36.

One more post on this to follow.

 

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