Category: Orchestral/Choral/Chamber

#421 SAINT-SAENS PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN G MINOR, OPUS 22

#421

SAINT-SAENS

PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN G MINOR, OPUS 22

FIRST and THIRD MOVEMENTS

VERDA ERMAN, PIANO
ISTANBUL STATE SYMPHONY
NEZIH SECKIN, CONDUCTOR

Back to 1868…like being in a time machine…

French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) was a genius. Because he was a musical prodigy, a career in music seemed inevitable—and that is exactly what occurred. In his long lifetime, Saint-Saens became one of the best-known and most-performed musicians alive. But he also distinguished himself in the study of French literature, Latin and Greek, theology, mathematics, philosophy, archaeology and astronomy. He was particularly drawn to astronomy. He could have made a career in any of these fields.

As a musician, Saint-Saens was primarily a composer, but he was also the organist at the magnificent church La Madeleine, the church of the Empire (where, among others, the memorial services of Chopin and Faure were held). His teaching career at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris was brief by choice—just five years—but it was substantial enough to hand down a revered legacy to his student Faure and Faure’s student, Ravel, both of whom regarded Saint-Saens as a genius of the highest order.

*****

Saint-Saens wrote five piano concertos. In a previous posting, we heard Saint-Saens Fifth Piano Concerto (Music I Love # 244), nicknamed the “Egyptian” after its exotic second movement. The “Egyptian” does not get played that often, although in recent years French pianist Jean Ives-Thibaudet has become a vigorous champion of the work. One hears much more often the Second and Fourth Concertos. And, of all five concertos, there is no real question that the one with the most immediate audience appeal is #2. Saint-Saens wrote it in three weeks (!) when he was a young 33 years old.

The outer movements of the concerto, in particular, are replete with the fireworks that one would expect from a composer who is also a magnificent virtuoso pianist. The first movement is dramatic and serious, the third movement light as air, but both require impressive technical abilities.

*****

Anyone reading my posts from the outset in 2017 will see that I have been delving deeper and deeper into Turkish music—music both modern and ancient, instruments both familiar and not so familiar, and performers both popular and classical. Obviously, being married to a first-rate Turkish musician—as well as having an extraordinary sister-in-law pianist—there have been some inevitable pro-Turkish musical influences on me. But Tiraje has never been one to push onto anyone her preferences or opinions (on anything). So, although she has always pointed out Turkish musical artistry to me, I find that I am only now hungrily asking her opinion about this and that music, this or that performer, and so on.

*****

Verda Erman

There is no lack of great modern classical Turkish musicians, and perhaps that is most true concerning pianists. One of the pianists that Tiraje has introduced me to recently is Verda Erman, a pianist with both amazing technical and interpretive abilities. I am posting her playing today because it is so noteworthy.

Verda Erman became a State Artist in 1971, the year the honorary title was created (a title also held by Tiraje’s siter, Meral). She toured extensively around the world as a guest musician after 1971. She enjoyed successful tenures in Belgrade, Paris, Montreal and Bucharest. Pianist Rudolf Serkin invited her to the Marlboro Music School and Festival in the U.S. state of Vermont. She continued to perform with the Turkish Presidential Symphony Orchestra as piano soloist on the orchestra’s European tours. Erman’s death in 2014 from leukemia was a real blow to the world of Turkish classical music.

In today’s links, you will hear that Verda Erman’s abilities are not quite matched by the Istanbul Symphony, good as that orchestra is. Nor is the balance between soloist and orchestra ideal. Nevertheless, from a pianistic perspective, this is an outstanding Saint-Saens Second, one of the best I have ever heard.

For me, listening to Erman’s playing is like being in a time machine. How easy it is to imagine, while hearing Erman’s playing, that you are actually there in the hall as the young Saint-Saens premiered his concerto, with the great Anton Rubinstein conducting. This is amazing playing of an amazing work.

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#412 BRAHMS NANIE, OPUS 82

#412

BRAHMS

NANIE, OPUS 82

ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONAIRRE ET ROMANTIQUE
MONTEVERDI CHOIR
JOHN ELIOT GARDINER, CONDUCTOR

One of Brahms’ good friends in Vienna was the painter Anselm Feuerbach. Feuerbach was to painting what Brahms was to music composition—meaning they had the same classically-rooted inclinations. When, in 1880, Feuerbach died, Brahms was moved to write a work in his memory. They had been close, and nearly the same age. Feuerbach’s death was unexpected. The work that Brahms wrote as a memorial to Feuerbach is Nanie. Nanie means “a funeral song,” which is derived from the Roman goddess of funerary lamentation, Nenia.

*****

My parents-in-law, years ago, had a summer home on the Black Sea, a modest stucco house in which one could enjoy the fresh air and hear the waves of the nearby sea. On our first visit to the house, which was actually still under construction, I strolled out onto the porch, in the mid-day sun, to listen to some music on my Walkman. I put in a newly-purchased cassette—I had brought along a number of them to discover while on vacation—and started to listen to it as I walked around the porch. The first sounds I heard were heavenly.

It was Nanie, which opens with a blanket of orchestral serenity and the presence of an always-comforting oboe. When the chorus enters, it was almost an afterthought, a surprise.

But of course, it is a most beautiful “afterthought,” for the chorus is the centerpiece of the work. In some ways, in Nanie, the chorus is like a Greek chorus, intoning words that lament not the passing of Brahms’ friend, but the ever-present reality of death in our world. Brahms used the text to Schiller’s “Nanie,” which begins with the lament: EVEN THE BEAUTIFUL MUST PERISH!

In a similar way to Brahms’ approach to musically commenting on death, which we heard in the German Requiem (Music I Love #104-107), so we hear here an acquiescence to the inevitable, a surrendering to our common fate. Nanie is a work of comfort, meant to console the living.

As a measure of Brahms creativity, it is impressive that Brahms could compose Nanie—along with his Academic Festival Overture and Tragic Overture—all substantial (and wonderful) compositions—as peripheral works to the composition of the monumental second piano concerto, which we recently listened to (MIL #406)–all composed in the same 18-month period.

John Eliot Gardiner offers here a heartfelt, sympathetic performance of Nanie.

Pics: Nenia, goddess of funerary lamentation; Anselm Feuerbach, painter, in a self-portrait.

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#408 SIBELIUS FINLANDIA

#408

SIBELIUS

FINLANDIA, OPUS 26

BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
SAKARI ORAMO, CONDUCTOR

The dignity of a nation reflected in music…

I’ve mentioned before—I imagine more than once—that in my drive to musically self-educate myself during my teens, I acquired many “basic repertoire” and “suggested best of the best” lists of classical music to hear—music that one was supposed to listen to before any others—music lists meant to give you, in a distilled form, the highlights of the endless fields of classical music. My OCD was already in full bloom, so I proceeded to listen to all of these works. I still have several sets of LPs that, thankfully, were available to serve this very purpose.

One of the works that made it onto every one of these lists (which, as you might expect, were almost carbon copies of each other) was FINLANDIA by Sibelius. It is a glorious work. If you have not heard it—or if you’ve not heard it for a while—I think you will enjoy this 8-minute performance.

*****

I’ve mentioned before in other posts—on his Second Symphony and Violin Concerto—that Sibelius (1865-1957) is, in most people’s minds, the greatest Finnish composer. Certainly, on the evidence of these three works alone, he deserves consideration for that honor.

Sibelius was one of the very few composers we label “great” who simply stopped composing, by choice, at a certain point in his life. For his last thirty years—realizing that the romantic sweep of his music was simply not the way of the future—that he had become an anachronism—he stopped composing. Musicologists have actually named this last part of his life the “Silence of Jarvenpaa”—the town in which Sibelius lived.

*****

But stopping composing could not have been farther from Sibelius’s mind in late 1899, when he composed Finlandia. And how the work came to be created in the first place is an interesting story.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Finland was a Russian territory. The empire had been imposing increasingly strict censorship upon the Finnish press. By the point in time when Finlandia was composed, the liberal newspaper Päivälehti had been shut down for three months, with only the conservative (pro-Russian) Uusi Suometar allowed to continue publication. The majority of the country’s population, including of course its artists, were aghast at this censorship.

In the Press Celebrations of 1900, an organized protest against these impositions, occurred. Central to this event, and threaded through it, was the music of Jean Sibelius, who felt it incumbent upon himself to express the dignity and honor of his country in music. To do this, Sibelius composed a seven-part work:

• OVERTURE
• VAINAMOINEN’S SONG – Vainamoinen was a Finnish demigod, the originator of chants and song
• THE BAPTISM OF THE FINNS – the 4-century period during which Finland was Christianized
• DUKE JOHN IN THE CASTLE OF TURKU – the 16th century Finnish king who reconciled Protestants and Catholics in Finland
• THE FINNS IN THE 30 YEARS WAR – the heroism of Finns during this prolonged and brutally destructive 17th century conflict
• THE GREAT HATE – the scorched-earth policy of the Russians as they raped Finland in the 18th century – the same censors, the Russians, who were then silencing the Finnish press
• FINLAND AWAKENS

“Finland Awakens,” the final part of this work, is what we now know as FINLANDIA. But because it would have been too dangerous to publicly use his actual titles for these final two movements, The Great Hate and Finland Awakens–Sibelius would have been exiled or executed–he had to mask the names of these movements, not only at the initial performance but for some time afterwards as well.

The music of the last movement became immediately and immensely popular—particularly the hymn section, which even today is one of the most important national songs of Finland. Consequently, Sibelius had to rename the work several times—even though it was a secret to no one what message the music was supposed to convey. For years, Finlandia was known as “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of the Finnish Spring” or “A Scandinavian Choral March.”

It is now, of course, FINLANDIA, still a source of sincere pride for all Finns.

*****

The music, from its initial foreboding and fortissimo brass choir, is alternately turbulent and tender, but always serious and proclamative. It is music that is redolent of the pride a people can take in their own land.

The hymn-like music, at 5:08 in today’s link, which comes on the heels of much orchestral turbulence, is the heart and soul of Finandia. Many people have supposed that Sibelius took an existing hymn tune and simply inserted his own arrangement of it here. But it is in fact entirely original. The sound of a serene capella choir, singing its love for Finland, is a wonderful and unexpected contrast which never fails to connect with audiences.

This fine performance–another one in the magnificent Royal Albert Hall–is by the BBC Symphony, whose current conductor is a Finn, Sakari Oramo.

Pics: Sibelius’s home in Jarvanpaa, where Finlandia was composed – two images of the Finnish terrain

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#406 BRAHMS PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 83

#406

BRAHMS

PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 83

EMIL GILELS, PIANO
CHICAGO SYMPHONY
FRITZ REINER, CONDUCTOR

The greatest piano concerto?

For a classical pianist, there are certain works that are so awe-inspiring that they are difficult to write about. Where does one begin? The inadequacy of words, the lack of effective metaphors, the paucity of comparisons to anything in nature—all are obstacles to speaking about such works.

Rather than make clumsy attempts at natural comparisons—the Brahms B-flat Concerto is the Everest of piano concertos, the Brahms B-flat is the planet Jupiter, the Brahms B-flat is the Amazon jungle, etc—all of which fall short—I’ll just say I consider it to be the greatest piano concerto. There are many, many other pianists who would say the same thing.

At 45 minutes in length, it is also one of the longest. There are, to be sure, concertos that are longer—Busoni’s and Furtwangler’s, for instance. But in terms of magical content, the Brahms B-flat is packed with beauties that other concertos lack.

*****

Warning: lengthy personal story to follow that has very little to do with the music!

I first heard the Brahms B-flat when I was a junior in high school. You may remember my habit, already acquired at that age, of reading record review magazines. This habit was not only so I could hopefully fill my life with qualitatively fine listening experiences, but it was also out of financial stinginess—I knew I could only spend whatever money I had ONCE on the recording of a given work, so it had to count. Consequently, it did not take me long to discover that the recording of the Brahms Second by Russian pianist Emil Gilels, with the Chicago Orchestra under Fritz Reiner, was highly regarded by many as the best of the best. I bought it.

For whatever reason, a strong first memory I have of the work occurred on an overcast, autumn Saturday morning. I had been listening to the record for the entire previous week, and I was out in the street, passing football with a friend. So strongly was the music going on in my head that I could only peripherally pay attention to catching and passing the ball. It was like I was sitting in the front row of a great concert by a great performer–while passing football.

I thought to myself, I hope that SOME DAY I’ll be able to play this great work. As it turned out, I did get that opportunity, but not exactly in a way I had hoped for.

Eight years after this football-with-Brahms morning, I was in the doctoral program at CCM at the University of Cincinnati. I had won the piano concerto competition playing the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto. In those days, the orchestra conductor, who would have been one of the judges of the competition, asked you what you would like to play with the orchestra, and whatever concerto you chose would be on a concert the following school year. I grabbed the chance to say the Brahms Second. He said fine, let’s plan on it next May—a whole year away.

That sounded great to me, it would give me plenty of time to learn and get comfortable with this behemoth of a work, perhaps playing it through with a second piano accompaniment dozens of times in preparation for the orchestral concert.

That contest occurred in May. I went to Istanbul during the summer to marry Tiraje. But after we were married, Tiraje had to wait three months before she received clearance to come and live to the U.S.—a standard wait time even in those pre-terrorism days. So, I arrived back in Cincinnati in mid-September by myself, thinking of course that I still had plenty of time to learn the Brahms.

By complete chance, in early October, I happened to glance at a calendar of events for the fall and saw that the conductor had moved the concert from May to early December, giving me just two months to learn the piece, which I had not even started on.

Needless to say, it was—for me—a gargantuan and tension-producing task. I found an opportunity to try the work out in late October in a South Carolina concert, and felt reasonably confident with it. As it happened, the very day I was scheduled to play with the orchestra was the day Tiraje, pregnant with Jason, arrived in Cincinnati, with all her suitcases and her cat, Peanut. It was a hectic day. The concert came and went, and was a good—and memorable—experience.

My experience of having to learn a challenging work in a short period of time is, by the way, in no way exceptional for pianists. It just happened to be MY particular experience.

*****

This is Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. The First was hardly less imposing. That one had been written in 1858 when Brahms was just 25. Although it has but three movements—compared to the four of the Second Concerto—it is also a lengthy work, demanding a lot from both the pianist and orchestra.

Twenty-three years went by before Brahms revisited the piano concerto form. By that time—1881—Brahms was known all over the western world as one of the greatest composers. The reception the concerto received at its premiere performance–with Brahms as soloist, of course–was overwhelmingly positive–just as it has been right up to the present day. Being the landmark of pianism and concerto-writing that it is, the Brahms Second, throughout its history, has attracted the finest pianists, playing at their very best. Concerts featuring the work are predictable sell-outs. Because of its length, the concerto is often either the entire first, or entire second, half of a program.

Just a couple of other remarks.

• Brahms thought of his concertos—two of them for piano, one for violin, and one involving both violin and cello—as being SYMPHONIC in nature. The natural evolution of the concerto had been such that the performance of a concerto appeared to be conversational to an audience—one felt that the soloist and the orchestra were two entities having a musical conversation: sometimes one would speak, sometimes the other, and sometimes both at the same time. But Brahms integrated the solo instrument into the very fabric of the composition. One could easily—and correctly—think of his concertos as symphonies in which a solo instrument is woven into the overall fabric. The piano and the orchestra are one.

• It cannot be overstated how great a pianist Brahms himself was. It is obvious from his compositions, as well as the historical record, that he was one of the greatest pianists of his day, from his late teens onward. He had it all—enormous power, the widest dynamic spectrum, agility beyond belief. His works—especially this concerto—demonstrate this truth. Octaves, trills, scales in thirds, huge fortissimos that must cut through the sound of a full orchestra, the tenderest pianissimo phrases played with the most legato touch—everything is here.

• Not that it is necessary to know, with reference to the B-flat Concerto, but Brahms’ style was essentially set by the time he was twenty. Early Brahms, late Brahms—it is all cut from the same cloth. The denseness of his harmony—eight note chords being not uncommon at all—and the presence, within the same composition, of drastically differing moods—the alternation of the martial with the tender. One hears these things just as much in his first pieces as his last.

*****

The work has four movements. As is so often the case with multi-movement great works like this one, it is not for me to suggest one movement over another. The majesty of the first movement, from its opening horn motive—the tumult of the second movement, with its incredible pianissimo (and fortissimo) octave passages—the lyricism of the third movement with its lengthy and beautiful cello solo, performed here by the great Janos Starker—and the grace of the fourth movement, which sounds light and breezy but is treacherously difficult to actually play—these are just the briefest descriptions of this work.

What I can tell you for certain is that everything I’ve said about the work falls woefully short of describing its glory.

1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 16:04
3rd movement 24:17
4th movement 36:21

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#403 MOZART “QUEEN OF THE NIGHT” – ARIA FROM MAGIC FLUTE, K. 620

#403

MOZART

“QUEEN OF THE NIGHT”

ARIA FROM THE MAGIC FLUTE, K. 620

DIANA DAMRAU, SOPRANO
ORCHESTRA OF THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE
COLIN DAVIS, CONDUCTOR

I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! I hope you will regard this post as a pleasant Christmas offering, even though the sentiment expressed in the Queen of the Night aria is anything but charitable! 😊

*****

For a future post, it might be fun to find and post as many commercials as possible that utilize great music as sales-pitch reinforcements. What brings this to mind right now is that I have been hearing the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute in a certain car commercial lately.

I find that my reaction to the use of great music in the service of capitalism alternates between amusement (mostly) and disgust (sometimes). But—since I’ve been hearing this particular commercial pretty often—and hearing Mozart’s stupendously great and difficult aria so frequently, as background music—I felt I should go ahead and post the aria in its full glory, the way it SHOULD sound.

I’ve loved the Queen of the Night aria since I first heard it, and my guess is that most people have the same reaction. The vocal acrobatics alone make it “must-listening”—like watching a tight-rope walker, high up there with no net below.

*****

Since I am slowly (very slowly, I know) covering all the Mozart operas in my posts, I WILL eventually be addressing the entire Magic Flute, certainly one of Mozart’s greatest creations. For right now, I just want to zero in on this one aria.

The Magic Flute was the last—of 22—operas that Mozart would write. When thinking about Mozart and opera, it’s important to remember that ever since Mozart was a little boy, it was obvious he had a very strong theatrical streak. He wrote great concertos, great symphonies—great this, great that—but operas were where his heart was. Writing for the stage came as natural to him as breathing. Some of the most enjoyable and enlivening times of his life were spent with the librettists of whatever opera they would be collaborating on. The Magic Flute was completed just two months before his death.

It may be helpful to set the stage for the Queen of the Night aria, which is certainly a part of the opera that audiences wait for. Technically, the aria is Act II, scene 8—somewhat late in the opera’s action—and the aria’s actual title is “Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”—”Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart.” The scene depicts a fit of vengeful rage in which the Queen of the Night places a knife into the hand of her daughter Pamina and exhorts her to assassinate Sarastro, the Queen’s rival–or else she will disown and curse Pamina.

The libretto for Magic Flute was written by the very talented Emanuel Schikaneder. Here is his Queen of the Night text, in English:

Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart;
Death and despair blaze around me!
For if Sarastro feels not the pain of death through thee,
Thence shall thou be my daughter nevermore.

Disowned be thee forever,
Abandoned be thee forever,
Shattered be forever
All the bonds of nature

If it is not through thee that Sarastro turns pale!
Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, gods of vengeance, hear the mother’s oath!

The aria is certainly one of the most famous in the opera repertoire, and maybe the most famous “rage aria” ever written. Mozart apparently wrote it for his wife’s sister, Josepha Hofer, who had the extraordinary range and power to pull it off.

Supposedly, on the night of Mozart’s death—as he lay, unknowingly, on his death bed—Magic Flute was five weeks into its run— Mozart whispered into his wife’s ear that his sister-in-law would now be singing the Queen of the Night, hitting and holding that B-flat so impressively: “Hear ye, gods of vengeance…”

*****

There are many fine Queen of the Nights on YouTube. Over time, the aria has become a yardstick for coloratura sopranos to show their worth. Soprano Diana Damrau’s Queen is certainly one of the best. In addition to singing with absolute control, she is quite an actress as well, bringing an element of the demonic to her portrayal of the Queen.

*****
Just as an aside: Mozart, of course, did not know that when he was composing Magic Flute that it would be his last opera. But it is interesting to hear certain orchestral passagework in Magic Flute—in this very aria, actually—that exactly replicates parts of his very first opera, written when he was 11 years old, Die Schuldigkeit des Ersten Gebots. In that regard, the operas form an unintended set of bookends in the world of Mozart opera!

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#400 HOLST THE PLANETS – MARS, THE BRINGER OF WAR

#400

HOLST

THE PLANETS
MARS, THE BRINGER OF WAR

BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
SUSANNA MALKKI, CONDUCTOR

ISAO TOMITA

ROYAL PHILHARMONIC
ANDRE PREVIN, CONDUCTOR

I do not mean to shortchange any of the rest of Holst’s seven mini tone poems which comprise his masterwork, The Planets, by focusing today only on MARS. Every movement of The Planets—MARS the Bringer of War, VENUS the bringer of peace, MERCURY the winged messenger, JUPITER the bringer of jollity, SATURN the bringer of old age, URANUS the magician, and NEPTUNE the mystic—all of them are wonderful. I will link to the entire work at the end of this post.

But ever since I first heard MARS, I really loved the controlled excitement Holst was able to create when he wrote it.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a British composer. The Planets is certainly his best-known work, but he was hardly a one-hit wonder, having written substantially in many genres—opera, orchestral, solo piano, solo vocal, chamber, works for band, ballet, and quite a bit of incidental music. Nevertheless it was his work, The Planets, written 1914-16, that most music lovers immediately associate with his name.

Each of the movements of The Planets is supposed to conjure ideas and emotions that are associated with the astrological significance of each individual planet—the supposed influence of the planets on our psyche. This was not just a passing interest in Holst’s life or simply a hook upon which to hang musical ideas that he hoped might be popular. Holst was a real devotee of astrology and horoscopes.

Originally scored for two pianos, Holst then transferred his ideas to orchestra. His good friend Adrian Boult conducted the first performance. Boult (1889-1983) became—justifiably, because he was so attuned to Holst—THE conductor who would be most associated with The Planets. He made at least three recordings of the work, one of which was my entry point to knowing any Holst at all.

*****

I am linking to three clips:

• A live performance of the work by the BBC Symphony in that most impressive of halls, Royal Albert in London.

• A performance—actually, a “rendering” would be a better word—of MARS by the Japanese pioneer of electronic and “space” music, Isao Tomita. Tomita (1932-2016) became world famous in the 1970’s with the consecutive release of album after album of note-by-note realizations of great classical music on analog synthesizers. Among these albums were Holst’s The Planets, Snowflakes Are Dancing (music of Debussy), Pictures At An Exhibition (Mussorgsky), The Firebird (Stravinsky), and Daphnis and Chloe (Ravel). In total, he recorded 19 albums, and wrote 13 soundtracks.

As you might expect, his work was either widely denounced as being derivative, unnecessary, and disrespectful (to original composers) – or it was viewed as showing great music in a different light. One either loves Tomita or hates him. I fall into that first category. I own a LOT of Tomita CDs.

• Finally, I am linking to a performance of the entire seven-movement work, as performed by Andre Previn and the Royal Philharmonic. The Boult recording IS available on YouTube, but the sonics of the Previn are much more up-to-date and, I think, will make for an enjoyable listening experience for you.

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#397 CHABRIER ESPANA

#397

EMMANUEL CHABRIER

ESPANA

ORCHESTRAL – DUO-PIANO – BALLET

ORCHESTRAL:
BBC SYMPHONY
LEOPNARD SLATKIN, CONDUCTOR

DUO-PIANO:
ROBERT AND TIRAJE RUCKMAN, DUO-PIANISTS

BALLET:
BALLET ZAMBRA, ANADLUSIA

ESPANA is Emmanuel Chabrier’s most famous orchestral composition. The fiery work is exemplary of the huge musical influence that Spain had on France during the entire 19th century. There are many who feel that French composers were actually the best composers of “Spanish” music: Bizet’s Carmen, Debussy’s Iberia, Massenet’s Le Cid, Faure’s Le pas espagnol, Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnol—and perhaps the most Spanish-sounding of all the French-connection composers, Chabrier’s Espana.

Interestingly, Chabrier (1841-1894) did not devote himself to music composition until he was 39 years old. His family had insisted on his going into a law career, and for over twenty years, his compositional activity was simply a peripheral, but meaningful, part of his life. In 1883, a few years after he finally abandoned all pretense of a law career, he took a vacation trip to nearby Spain. Overwhelmed with the vitality of the music he heard there, he returned to Paris and wrote Espana.

As a result of his having had no formal studies in music, Chabrier felt free, as a composer, to write as he pleased, thus paving the way for French modernism. He was greatly admired by the French heavyweights who followed him—Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Poulenc. Even Gustav Mahler declared Chabrier to be the “start of modern music.”

In the 1880’s decade, Chabrier was quite prolific, concentrating on opera, opera bouffe, and operettas, clearly seeing himself as a composer for the stage. His life was cut short at the age of 53 due to the effects of syphilis. In addition to his body of compositional work, Chabrier also left behind an enormous corpus of letters—nearly 1200 of them which give the reader a glimpse into French music history as well as simply being a fascinating glimpse of the times in which he lived.

Espana is one of the brightest of orchestral works. It is in the repertory of all major orchestras—except in Spain, where there seems, even to this day, to be shunned. Perhaps this has to do with some proprietary sense of “ownership” of the “jota” rhythm, one can only guess. It is an extremely popular orchestral work, traversing that bridge between “serious” and “pop” orchestral concerts.

The orchestral version of the work is here played by the BBC Symphony in Royal Albert Hall—what an incredible venue that is!—at one of the BBC Proms concerts in 2002.

Tiraje and I have loved and played Espana, in its two-piano version, for a very long time. Chabrier had, in fact, first envisioned the work for piano duet, only later being persuaded to arrange it for orchestra. This recording of us playing the work is from a 2000 concert. The video is a little dated.

As you might guess, with such a lively piece, Espana has been choreographed—hence, my inclusion of the link to Ballet Zambra’s wonderful performance.

ORCHESTRAL:

DUO-PIANO:

BALLET:

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#396 PALESTRINA MISSA PAPAE MARCELLI: GLORIA

#396

PALESTRINA

MISSA PAPAE MARCELLI: GLORIA

TALLIS SCHOLARS
PETER PHILLIPS, DIRECTOR

All music lovers have their “go-to” comfort music, music to soothe their souls when soul-soothing is necessary. Certainly one of the composers whose music I feel that way about is Palestrina. Some 14 months ago, I posted the Kyrie from his Pope Marcellus Mass (Music I Love #79). Today, I’ll continue on in this same mass with the Gloria movement.

The musical setting of the Mass consisted of five movements: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. From one musical setting of the mass to another, the texts of these movements would stay invariably the same.

In the Renaissance, composers often gave their best efforts to their mass compositions. If you were a musician, and especially if you were a composer, the “route” to success—and to being heard—was through the Church. Palestrina, who lived from 1525 to 1594, was certainly one of these composers who applied his best efforts to his masses.

Palestrina was the leading composer of the Counter-Reformation. Talking about the Counter-Reformation requires just a little explication.

The Reformation began in 1517 with a rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church—which, of course, had been the only church—it was THE Church—in the Christian world. The liturgical changes in what became known as Protestantism were brought about by Martin Luther. These in turn caused a ripple effect within the Lutheran Church—and then all Protestant churches, particularly as relates to music. A simple, more direct, more accessible-to-the-people kind of music was desired than had been the case in the Catholic Church. Strophic hymns utilizing repetitive music for each stanza were favored, especially toward mid-sixteenth century. These hymn tunes eventually became the basis for the direct, but nevertheless complex, music of J.S. Bach, whose music was the very peak of Reformation music.

In general, Protestants distrusted—especially at the outset—the allure of art, including music, in their services. Catholic music had been seen—correctly—as being too complex, too much art-for-art’s-sake and therefore not so meaningful to congregations. The Counter-Reformation sought to address the Reformation head-on by purposefully appealing to those who had left the (“true”) faith by intentionally appealing to their senses in art and music. Yet, the prime directive for all Counter-Reformation artists was to primarily be communicative and only secondarily be “artsy.” This was the dictum that Counter-Reformation composers abided by.

Palestrina, who wrote—among an absolutely enormous life’s works—107 masses became the leading, and most loved, composer of the Counter-Reformation. One can pick virtually any one of his works and be instantly transported into a world of beauty and harmony (using the word “harmony” here in the abstract, not as a parameter of music). The words of his mass texts are clearly understood and not obscured by unnecessary melismas. His use of harmony is more diatonic, less chromatic than had heretofore been the case.

The Missa Papae Marcelli—the Pope Marcellus Mass, dedicated to the memory of the pope by that name—has justifiably become the sine qua non of Palestrina masses. I have yet to see a music history textbook that does NOT include this mass as the shining example of Counter Reformation beauty.

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The second movement—the Gloria movement—is presented here.

The text of the Gloria is meant to celebrate God the Father and Christ:

• Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will. We praise You, we bless You, we adore You, we glorify You, we give You thanks for Your great glory

• Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens

Lord God, heavenly King, O God Almighty Father

• Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe, Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis

Lord Jesus Christ, Only-Begotten Son, Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us

Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram. Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis

You take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. You are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on u

• Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen

For You alone are the Holy One, you alone the Lord, you alone the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in the Glory of God the Father. Amen

*****
Pictures: Palestrina; Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major at the Vatican.

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#394 BEETHOVEN SEPTET, OPUS 20

#394

BEETHOVEN

SEPTET, OPUS 20
FIFTH MOVEMENT – SCHERZO

I know—a strange juxtaposition of pictures: Schroeder and Lucy with the young Empress Maria Theresa….

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Any Peanuts fans out there? I can’t say I’ve always been big on reading comics in the newspaper. There have been a few that I liked, but mostly the comics section of the paper has always seemed like a vast and humorless wasteland. But, like a lot of other PEANUTS fans, I found Charles Schultz’s daily comic—and especially his longer Sunday comics—to usually be not only funny, but also thought-provoking and even warm and tender, all at the same time.

And of course, within the Peanuts world, I personally identified with Schroeder, the little boy character who played piano and was always oblivious of the love Lucy was sending his way. She could never get his attention, so attuned was he to Beethoven.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I worked every summer at Monsanto Research Corporation. I worked in what is called a pilot plant, where huge guys—all well over six feet tall with huge biceps, a requirement for even working there–moved 55-gallon drums around all day long. I worked as the pilot plant “secretary” to the manager of the plant. I could type fast and had my organizational OCD, and of course, my shining personality. I became kind of a mascot for all these huge guys—they dubbed me “Schroeder,” and even gave me a hard hat—which I had to wear every day, of course—with SCHROEDER emblazoned on it.

Anyway…Peanuts lovers will remember that for Schroeder, the most important holiday of the year was BEETHOVEN’S BIRTHDAY—December 16. Schroeder was always wishing everyone, on that most important of days, “happy Beethoven’s birthday.” He really loved his Beethoven.

So…happy Beethoven’s birthday, everyone!

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Beethoven composed a Septet in 1799, when he was 29 years old. It was an unusual and innovative work because of its instrumentation—one each of clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. It is a major work of chamber music, comprised of six movements and running 40 minutes in length. In Beethoven’s day, it was one of his most popular and ingratiating works.

I can’t remember, actually, the first time I heard this work. I believe it was in high school. I loved the whole work—it IS Beethoven, after all—but most especially, I loved the fifth movement, a gem of happiness in E-flat Major and the shortest movement of all six. If you remember having LPs, you may remember that when you had an LP on which you liked a particular track more than others—and played it the most often—eventually you could see that track was changing color, becoming less shiny and more worn—the stylus would be wearing the vinyl down. I remember that when I looked down at my Septet LP as it was playing, I could see that this fifth movement track was becoming less and less shiny as time went by.

It is a happy piece, and I hope you will enjoy it as you celebrate Beethoven’s birthday.

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One interesting non-musical aside about the work, one that we sometimes overlook when looking at the scores of so many composers, and that has to do with the dedication. Dedications give us biographical clues about composers’ lives. In this case, Beethoven dedicated the Septet to the Empress Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa, who died in 1780, had been the ruler of the Hapsburg Empire and the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. She had been a patroness of the arts, particularly of music. When she wasn’t pregnant—she gave birth to sixteen children—she was hosting musical soirees at Schonbrunn. She was said to be especially fond of Haydn’s music.

Aside from being the primary music patrons in Vienna, Maria Theresa and her emperor husband Francis are probably best remembered in music history as having hosted the Mozarts in their very first tour in 1762. Mozart was just six years old, and he became so enamored with the seven year old Marie Antoinette that he proposed marriage to her on the spot. Maria Theresa was very fond of the young Mozart.

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Beethoven’s dedication of the Septet to her was probably meant to be observed by her son, Maximilian Francis, who was in fact Beethoven’s enthusiastic patron at the time he wrote the Septet.

What Beethoven’s dedication to Maria Theresa—actually, all of his dedications—points out is that he knew he had to “play the game.” Life as a composer in Beethoven’s time was impossible without patronage. So Beethoven—who would ultimately, once he was older and more established, become the archetype of independent composers—knew, at this stage of his life, where his bread would be buttered. Hence, all the dedications in his music.
It is sad that Maria Theresa did not live to hear this most bubbly and happy of works.

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#389 MARC-ANTOINE CHARPENTIER TE DEUM

#389

MARC-ANTOINE CHARPENTIER

TE DEUM

Elsa Saque, Joana Silva, sopranos
John Williams, counter-tenor
Fernando Serafim, tenor
Philippe Huttenlocher, baritone
José Oliveira Lopes, bass
Bernard Gabel, trumpet
Antoine Sibertin-Blanc, organ
Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon
Michel Corboz, conductor

video:

Chamber choir “Voces Musicales”
Conductor Andres Mustonen
The State Academic Chamber Orchestra of Russia

“Te Deum” is an early Christian hymn dating from the fourth century that begins “We praise Thee, O God.” The authorship has been ascribed to either Ambrose and Augustine. The text is as follows:

We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud : the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim : continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy : Lord God of Hosts;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty : of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world : doth acknowledge thee;
The Father : of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honourable, true : and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost : the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory : O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son : of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man : thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death :
Thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God : in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come : to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants :
Whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints : in glory everlasting.

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The list of major composers, not to mention the minor ones, who have composed musical settings of the Te Deum is impressive and long:

Haydn
Mozart
Berlioz
Verdi
Bruckner
Dvorak
Britten
Kodaly
Part
Lully
Walton
Tallis
Byrd
Purcell
Elgar

Handel composed no less than three Te Deums. The text—nowhere near as long as a Mass, yet long enough to require a substantial composition—has been a perennially popular one.

Certainly one of the most popular Te Deums of them all is that of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). I really love this work. Charpentier lived and worked in Paris at one of the most artistically fecund moments in history. He worked with Moliere and Corneille, he was a courtier at the court of Louis XIV, and knew all the prominent musicians of France, most notably Lully.

Charpentier, from 1688 to the end of his life, was music master at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Sainte-Chapelle is on the Isle de la Cite in the Seine River, and is very close to Notre Dame Cathedral on that crowded island. The chapel is one of the Gothic architectural glories of France, its stained glass second to none. When Tiraje and I visited Sainte-Chapelle a year ago, we were amazed at how beautiful it was. And it was here that the music of Charpentier would have echoed about the walls and high ceiling.

Charpentier’s life overlapped with the beginning of Bach’s life. Not that there is any connection, but I’m just pointing out that he would have lived in the middle third of the Baroque era (1600-1750.) His music, and especially this Te Deum, are part of the amazing musical cornucopia of the French Baroque. He composed during that most interesting transition time, the bridge between the modality of the ancients and the emerging tonal harmony, which ultimately was solidified by Bach.

I know I’ve mentioned somewhere along the way the Musical Heritage Society, an organization from which I ordered so many LP’s back in the day. One of these, ordered simply from a few favorable paragraphs I had read about it, was a recording of the Charpentier Te Deum. That was indeed a fortuitous discovery for me. And now, perhaps, maybe for you as well.

I am linking to an excellent audio recording, the best one available on YouTube. The soloists as well as the choir are all excellent. I thought it might also be interesting to see a video recording of a work like this, so I am linking to that as well.

I imagine myself in Sainte-Chapelle on a clear and placid Sunday morning. The strong sunlight outside makes the stained-glass interior of Sainte-Chapelle absolutely dance with life. The musicians are assembled near the altar, and Charpentier’s Te Deum begins…

Pics are Charpentier and the interior of Sainte-Chapelle.

audio:

video:

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