Category: Orchestral/Choral/Chamber

#297 BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY #6 IN F MAJOR, OPUS 68 (“PASTORAL” SYMPHONY)

#297

BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY #6 IN F MAJOR, OPUS 68

FIRST MOVEMENT

VIENNA PHILHARMONIC
LEONARD BERNSTEIN, CONDUCTOR

The first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony—which is subtitled a “pastoral” symphony, intending to bring to mind a walk in the country and a bonding with nature at its most felicitous—is certainly one of my favorite works of Beethoven. You may already know that Beethoven—especially as his hearing loss grew more acute, and he was feeling more and more isolated within himself—took to taking long walks in the Viennese countryside. A direct result of these walks was his sixth symphony, which has five movements—not three or even four—each one of which has a description given by the composer, having to do with some aspect of nature:

1st mov’t Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside

2nd mov’t Scene by the brook

3rd mov’t Merry gathering of country folk

4th mov’t Thunderstorm

5th mov’t Shepherd’s song—cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

I first heard the Sixth Symphony—and all the other Beethoven symphonies—when I purchased, as a teenager, the complete set of Beethoven Symphonies performed by the NBC Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Truthfully, I probably played each one a hundred times in my high school years. One of my favorite movements from all nine symphonies is this one. Can there be a Beethoven work so full of repose and serenity as the first movement of the Sixth Symphony?

Soylent Green…

I have another strong association with the movement, other than just repeatedly—hedonistically—enjoying the music, ever since I was a young man. Perhaps like me, you have also seen Soylent Green, the 1973 movie starring Charleton Heston and Edward G. Robinson (in his last film)? It was a post-apocalyptic movie in which the earth, in the year 2022 (!), is experiencing a permanent greenhouse effect, pollution is rampant, resources all over the earth are depleted, and euthanasia has become the standard and accepted policy to deal with an overpopulated earth. There is a euthanasia scene—Edward G. Robinson has reached the age at which he is required to go to a particular station in order to be euthanized. Each person has some control over what they see and hear as they die in a drug-administered death. Edward G. Robinson’s character hears, as he dies, the first movement of the Beethoven Sixth Symphony (as well as a couple of other selections—Tchaikovsky and Grieg—“light classical” was his music request) while simultaneously watching fields of flowers and other scenes of nature. It is a very moving scene—especially on the big screen—and its effect in the movie is underscored by the contrast, in the rest of the movie, with continual darkness and shadows. The way the world used to be—back in the 20th century and earlier—is now only seen in movie projections. The scene is not something one forgets the beauty of. The use of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in the movie was pure genius.

And of course—movies aside—the music stands alone as yet another great Beethovenian monument…

This performance by Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic is a fine one.

Here also is the Soylent Green clip, for anyone interested. Unfortunately, the colors in this clip are not as vivid as they were in the movie! Beethoven starts at 2:39.

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#295 RICHARD WAGNER RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES

#295

RICHARD WAGNER

RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES

BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
DANIEL BARENBOIM, CONDUCTOR

UNCITED PERFORMERS FROM “APOCALYPSE NOW”

I once read, at least thirty years ago, that of all historical figures, the only person to have had more books written about himself than Richard Wagner was Jesus Christ. I don’t know where I read that statistic. I believe my reading it pre-dated my owning my first computer, so I would have no record of it other than the memory. And I don’t know how accurate the statement was. All I know is that it stuck in my head. I do know that quick checks online reveal that many thousands of books have been written about him, not only in German and English, but in other languages as well.

So it is with a little trepidation that I am posting my first post of Wagner.

He was just a composer, how could there possibly have been—why does there continue to be—so much interest in him?—I can hear a fictitious student ask. Obviously, he was more than just a composer, he was intellectually brilliant and a force of nature temperamentally. Compositionally, he WAS in fact second only to Beethoven in his influence on the course of art music—and some would say that is a reversal of the true order.

With Wagner, we’re not dealing with an ordinary man and we’re not dealing with an ordinary composer—even among the great ones.

I always try to create a balance in my posts between offering information about a composer—his life, and how the details of his life impacted the composition of certain works—and offering some information about a particular work in question. With Wagner, that simply can’t be done in a single post. There’s just too much information. Here are some basics, in no particular order, starting with a couple of that you may already remember from your high school world history class:

• Wagner (1813-1883) is continually—and correctly—identified with anti-semitism. His life and his music were later closely identified with Hitler and Nazism.

• He proudly claimed to be the most Germanic of all composers, embodying in his music the very essence of the German people, Germanic history, and Germanic legend.

• His life was as tumultuous as can be imagined, characterized by political exile, turbulent love affairs, and extreme debt while living in opulent circumstances, often provided by others. He was regarded and acknowledged to be the great genius of his time, so it was considered an honor for those with deep pockets—especially King Ludwig II of Bavaria—to support him.

• His reputation as a composer is as a creator of operas. When one thinks of Wagner, one thinks of opera. His concept of opera, known as the Gesamtkunstwerk, revolutionized the form. A Gesamtkunstwerk was a “total work of art,” encompassing not only musical, but poetic, visual, and dramatic arts all rolled into one experience. He combined these elements into the four operas comprising his Der Ring des Nibelungen—the Ring of the Nibelung. In Wagner’s vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, music was subservient to the drama—the verbal (sung) ideas and the stories they were depicting were the vehicles for the music, not vice versa. Wagner purposefully did not call himself a composer of operas, but of dramas.

• Wagner had his own opera house built at Bayreuth, Germany—built for the sole presentation of his operas, which continues to the present day. Hundreds of thousands of Wagner-lovers—a special category of music lovers, in my mind—have flocked to Bayreuth to hear Wagner operas every summer since the 1880’s. If one heard, at a typical Bayreuth Festival, only the four operas of The Ring, this would entail four days of concert attendance—people plan vacations around the Bayreuth Festival.

• Wagner’s operas number thirteen. Most are lengthy. They range in duration from Das Reingold at two hours and forty minutes to four hours and thiry-five minutes for Die Meistersinger. Attending a Wagner opera often means an earlier start time and later end time for a single performance.

• Musically, Wagner’s music became a pivotal point, a hinge, in the history of music—not just art music. His use of chromaticism and quickly changing tonal centers led to a reconsideration of the way musical form had been regarded and utilized. There would have been no Mahler or Bruckner—or essentially any twentieth century composition—as we now know it, anyway—without Wagner. Tristan and Isolde, a love story based on the Arthurian story, is perhaps Wagner’s most-loved opera with the general public, and is often cited as THE work on which this hinge first moved.

• Wagner’s wife, Cosima, had been both the married wife of the famed conductor Hans von Bulow and the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt when Wagner started a relationship with her. She gave birth to their daughter, Isolde, while still married to von Bulow.

• Both Wagner and Cosima were prolific writers. The strongest literary and philosophical influence on Wagner had been Arthur Schopenhauer, in whose works he identified with a deeply pessimistic view of humanity. Throughout his life, Wagner called his acquaintance with the writings of Schopenhauer the most important event of his life.
__________

These bulleted items are, as you might imagine, only the barest, thinnest outline of this man who became so pivotal in the history of music and the history of Germany—and by extension of both, the history of the western world. And, as is always the case, there is no need to know any of this to appreciate his music. Which brings up my next point.

It will come as no surprise, even to those who know no more about Wagner than what I have just written, that Wagner is a complex personality—regarded by some as despicable, and equally by others as admirable. His life exemplifies the truth—if we hadn’t grasped it already—that we will often find goodness and evil residing in great men, sometimes in equal proportion, just as can be seen as a general characteristic of all people. Part of the experience of growing up—it was certainly part of MY growing up experience—listening to great performances of great music written by great composers—is the gradual, but continual, realization that many of these men had flaws, some them pretty serious. Separating, in one’s mind, a man’s behavior from his abilities is an ongoing—and inevitable—part of music appreciation.
__________

Wagner’s Ring cycle included, as its second opera, Die Walkure—a story that was based on Norse mythology. In Norse mythology, a valkyrie is one in a group of female figures—goddesses—who decides which soldiers die in battle and which live. Die Walküre’s best-known excerpt is the “Ride of the Valkyries”. It is one of a handful of Wagnerian works that have become part of our everyday life, tunes that we recognize but often don’t know why.

But many readers may indeed know why you know this music. You may remember Francis Ford Coppola’s movie “Apocalpyse Now,” one of a number of Vietnam films that came out in the decade after America’s involvement in the war had ended. In it were displayed many horrors of the war, including a particularly brutal American helicopter attack on an innocent Vietnamese village. If you remember this scene, you also remember the music that accompanied it was The Ride of the Valkyries. I’m including a link to that to jog your memories.

Barenboim’s performance with the Berlin Philharmonic is quite exhilarating.

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#290 MONTEVERDI MAGNIFICAT

#290

MONTEVERDI

MAGNIFICAT

MONTEVERDI CHOIR
ENGLISH BAROQUE SOLOISTS
JOHN ELIOT GARDINER, CONDUCTOR

Images: Monteverdi–The Visitation, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1491–St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Claudio Monteverdi was the first truly significant composer of the Baroque era. Indeed, his life (1567-1643) overlaps the Renaissance with the Baroque in the same way that his music represents the last of the best of the Renaissance and the first of the best of the Baroque–the last great pillar of one musical era and the first great pillar of the next. His music is regarded as the great “hinge” between musical eras.

Monteverdi was born in Cremona. His life’s work was accomplished in two localities—in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo from 1590-1613, and at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice from 1613 till his death. He composed both sacred and secular music, was—for all intents—the first composer of opera (with his L’Orfeo), and was an astute defender of what became known as the “seconda pratica” or “stile moderno”—a style of composition that looked to the future, with its basso continuo style, as opposed to the past which had been rooted in Franco-Flemish polyphony.

In truth, though, Monteverdi was a master of both styles, and the prima pratica—the “first practice”—is more evident in this Magnifcat than the seconda.

In the Christian religion, the Magnificat is a highly regarded hymn, supposedly spontaneously uttered by Mary, the mother of Jesus, upon the visit of her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. It is a canticle—that is, a hymn not taken from the Psalms—and it appears in only one of the gospels, that of Luke.

The text, in modern English, is as follows:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his humble servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed,
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen. Alleluia.

The number of composers, both great and not-as-great, who composed musical settings for this text is quite impressive. It is, in fact, almost a who’s who of musical genius: Dunstable, Dufay, Binchois, Josquin, Taverner, Willaert, Tallis, Byrd, Victoria, Gabrieli, Praetorius, Monteverdi, Gibbons, Schutz, Buxtehude, Charpentier, Pachelbel, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach, Salieri, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Gounod, Franck, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Walton, Persichetti, Penderecki, and Rutter. These are just the “mountain peak” names of composers who wrote Magnificats. One can only guess, in hindsight, that composers may have regarded the writing of a Magnificat (usually, composers wrote only one) as some kind of rite of passage.

Musical settings of the Magnificat became, over time, a fixture in the Vespers—or evening—service within the Catholic Church. (Of course, prior to the Reformation, there was ONLY the Catholic Church; nevertheless, Magnificats were composed after the 16th century for Protestant consumption as well.) Claudio Monteverdi composed his Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) in 1610. Historically, Monteverdi would fall right in the middle of all these illustrious Magnificat composers. He had not left Mantua yet to become the maestro di capella at St. Mark’s—the most prestigious musical position in the Catholic world—so his Vespers became the crowning achievement of his years at the court of Mantua.

Indeed, Monteverdi’s Vespers was the greatest work of religious music before Bach. It is an outstanding, and lengthy (at 90 minutes), work. Monteverdi actually wrote TWO Magnificats for performance within his Vespers; they occur one after the other at the conclusion of the Vespers. The one I am linking to is the second one, the one that makes it onto “best-of” music appreciation listening lists. In his Vespers, Monteverdi links the past—all the movements of the Vespers including the two Magnificats are based on Gregorian Chant—with the future—a distinct veering away from modality to what we now regard as traditional functional harmony.

It has been conjectured that Monteverdi may have written the Vespers as a kind of “audition” work in his application to become St. Mark’s music director. We’ll never know. But John Eliot Gardiner assumed as much in his making of this legendary 1990 recording of the Vespers. It was recorded at St. Mark’s with its marvelous acoustics.

As always—one need not know ANY of this to appreciate every note of Monteverdi’s Magnificat. A sensitive soul and a curious spirit are all that is really required. The choral writing here is spectacular.

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#283 BACH CANTATA #26, BWV 26 ACH WIE FLUCHTIG, ACH WIE NICHTIG

#283

BACH

CANTATA #26, BWV 26

ACH WIE FLUCHTIG, ACH WIE NICHTIG
(AH, HOW FLEETING, AH HOW INSIGNIFICANT)

ALL MOVEMENTS (6)

Written 1724

BACH-COLLEGIUM STUTTGART (Movements 1-5)
HELMUTH RILLING, CONDUCTOR
ARLEEN AUGER, SOPRANO
DORIS SOFFEL, MEZZO-SOPRANO
ADALBERT KRAUS, TENOR
PHILIPPE HUTTENLOCHER, BASS

MUNICH BACH CHOIR AND ORCHESTRA (Movement 6)
KARL RICHTER, CONDUCTOR

Going from bubblegum pop yesterday to this Bach Cantata today is a little mind-blowing in its degree of change even for me–as though one was pedaling a bicycle down an alley and suddenly came to a clearing of endless vistas, verdant vegetation and blue skies.

When I first started posting the Bach Cantatas last August, I said that I would be presenting my “favorite” movement from each cantata, the one that I presumed would be THE hook for each cantata to lure listeners into listening to each cantata in its entirety.

I don’t know whether that has happened. I hope so.

But I have also had some times—Cantata #4 Christ Lag In Todesbanden and Cantata #202 Weichet Nur, Betrubte Schatten (the wedding cantata), for instance—where I simply felt I had to offer up every movement of those cantatas because they were not only all equally great, but each movement could in fact be one of those “hooks”. And so, once again, I am breaking my own self-imposed rule with Cantata #26.

This is a spectacular cantata. Bach wrote it in 1724, while his employment in Leipzig was only in its second year (of what would turn out to be twenty-seven). As you can gather from the English translation of the title, the textual theme of the cantata is the transience of human life, how fleeting it is, and how insignificant man is in relation to the eternal. Bach wrote the cantata in six movements, involving four soloists, the choir, and an orchestra which included a horn, flute, and three oboes.

MOV’T 1 (2:28)
ACH WIE FLUCHTIG, ACH WIE NICHTIG
(Ah, how fleeting, ah how insignificant)[

You may recall that in a “chorale” cantata, one hears a melody—often written by one of Bach’s Lutheran forebears, including, most notably Martin Luther himself—one hears a melody sung in long notes in one of the choral parts, with the others weaving around it or supporting it in some way underneath. In this movement, you will hear the sopranos singing this melody.

In this opening, the strings, and all orchestra members, play with astonishing vitality, followed by an equally adept chorus. The energy Bach displays in this movement is the very definition of forward motion, of music that is being propelled along. The abrupt suddenness of the end of the movement is indicative of the brevity of man’s time on earth.

I very much like Rilling’s recording of this because of the extreme energy he extracts from it, so I am linking to it. Unfortunately, the homemade videos that were uploaded along with Rilling’s recording have nothing—at all—to do with the music or with Bach. I would advise simply listening to the music and not get distracted by the videos.

MOV’T 2 (5:25)
SO SCHNELL EIN RAUSCHEND WASSER SCHEIST
(As quickly as rushing water)

Once again, we are reminded that in Leipzig, Bach must have had at his disposal—or at least, available—very fine singers. One would not write movements like this, requiring GREAT vocal skill, if singers were not actually available to serve as conduits for his music. In this recording, Adalbert Kraus is simply amazing. He and the flute and the violin are, in turn, supposed to bring to mind the “rushing water”—which they do.

MOV’T 3 (1:00)
“DIE FREUDE WIRD ZUR TRAURIGKEIT
(Joy becomes sadness)

The text here laments the obvious—that all of the works of mankind in general and of every man and woman individually are extinguished like a flame at death—like a flower that is here today, gone tomorrow. Again, Bach writes coloratura—quickly moving notes—this time for the alto. Such an impressive (and too brief!) recitative sung by Doris Soffel.

MOV’T 4 (4:33)
AN IRDISCHE SCHATZE DAS HERZE ZU HANGERN
(To hang one’s heart on earthly treasures)

A trio of oboes accompanies the bass soloist in yet another astonishing example of vocal virtuosity. Imaginative commentators hear this movement as a bizarre musical depiction of the underworld, a mock sarcastic dance of the dead. Personally, I think you have to have, a priori, a Christian (and Lutheran) lens to hear such a thing. But whatever one imagines—or, if one simply hears the music as music—this is a most entertaining movement.

MOV’T 5 (0:48)
DIE HOCHSTE HERRLICHKEIT UND PRACHT
(The highest glory and magnificence)

The text in this brief but very beautiful recitative—sung once again by Arleen Auger—says, once again, the obvious—that even the highest and most exalted earthly ruler is quite forgotten after his death. I have remarked before how very interesting Bach’s recitatives are—full of melodic and harmonic interest. Recitatives—solo vocal parts with sparse accompaniment—in this case, a quiet organ and string bass—usually just move the “action” along until the next aria is sung. Cantatas—and operas—very often alternate recitative and aria throughout an entire performance. Bach’s recitatives are different than most because they constantly involve the listener, they pull the listener in. They are equally important to his arias.

MOV’T 6 (1:00)
ACH WIE FLUCHTIG, ACH WIE NICHTIG
(How fleeting, how insignificant)

Although Rilling’s final movement, the 4-part chorale which ends all of the cantatas, is perfectly fine, I don’t think it captures the majesty of the music as well as Karl Richter’s, so I’m linking to it here. How easy it is to imagine oneself in Bach’s St. Thomas Church, with its red arches spanning the enormously high ceiling, and the reverberant acoustics propelling the sound upwards and backwards from the altar! This is a very impressive chorale movement.

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#279 BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY #7 IN A MAJOR, OPUS 92 – SECOND MOVEMENT

#279

BEETHOVEN

SYMPHONY #7 IN A MAJOR, OPUS 92
SECOND MOVEMENT – ALLEGRETTO

VIENNA PHILHARMONIC
LEONARD BERNSTEIN, CONDUCTOR

Music as therapy…

One of the advantages of becoming familiar with a lot of music is that, at various moments in your life, certain works come rushing from your subconscious to the surface of your mind to comfort you, or to match your mood, or to lift your mood—the library of music in your head becomes your therapeutic medicine shelf, without your having to lift a finger. Maybe you have experienced this.

I think I have mentioned somewhere along the way that I am a student of history. Few things—really, only music itself—have held a firmer grip on my mind for my entire life. I was in high school when I discovered I had this intense interest. It seemed to me then, at 16, and also now, fifty years later, that the primary descriptive word for what has happened over the course of history is “tragic.” One could say that this kind of thinking is pessimistic or cynical. But to me, I feel like the primary lens to view history is one of tragedy. For me, it’s just being realistic.

In particular, I’m always aware of the fact that history has been, and still is, a never-ending succession of wars. Different explanations are put forth as to why men go to war. Debates continually occur about how THIS war was a just war but THAT war was not. Very often one observes that the two sides of a given conflict are praying to the same god—and if not, they are certainly praying to THEIR god.

In the end, what is plainly observable is that, regardless of why or how, war has continually happened. It IS the thread—or maybe I should say the strong rope—running throughout mankind’s history. Millions upon millions of men have died, and the resulting sadness and heartbreak for the countless people who were left to cope when the war du jour ends is just immeasurable. The cheapness of life and the legitimacy of their cause are the common philosophical links among all the rulers—then and now—who send men (and in our time, women) to their deaths.

There are other points of view about history that I am not blind to. The genius of mankind, the impressive accomplishments of every successive civilization, the amazing things that have been discovered—in hundreds of disciplines—about our world and the universe. Those things are all like lights in the wilderness for us. The arts in particular keep our heads above water, and keep despair an arm’s length away.

My reading over the past few years has been focused on the continuing power struggles in western Europe from 1000 to 1600 and, most recently, on the history of the Ottoman empire. It is difficult to come away from a study of these things without being continually stunned at just how many people have died in war—and, of course, of disease or starvation. And these time periods are just a slice of the totality of history.

What do any of my thoughts along these lines have to do with music, the actual subject of Music I Love?

Well, I found it interesting, especially over the past few days, as these depressing thoughts would come over me, that I found the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony coming into clearer and clearer focus in my mind’s ear. Not only does this music match my mood, but also simultaneously lifts me out of it. I have no idea how this can happen. It is as though the music takes on the role of one’s own personal empath.

Beethoven wrote his Seventh Symphony in 1812. The juxtaposition of the symphony’s first movement—maybe the cheeriest thing he ever wrote—with the second movement—a calm surveying of a bleak emotional landscape—is one of the most amazing things in all of the nine symphonies.

I will post the Seventh Symphony again, in its entirety, at a later time. I am sorry to have made this post one of those that is mostly about me. But my intention, as I hope everyone knows—even in these unintentionally exhibitionistic posts—is to point to certain works of music. Right now, I just want to share this very deep work, the second movement of the Beethoven Seventh.

This video of the Vienna Philharmonic and Bernstein is a little dated, being from 1978. But the interpretation—and especially Bernstein’s tempo—are so agreeable to me that I had to make it the one to offer you.

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#278 BACH AIR ON THE G STRING

#278

BACH

AIR ON THE G STRING

VOICES OF MUSIC

DETROIT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
LEONARD SLATKIN, CONDUCTOR

There are some works of classical music that have made their way so far into the consciousness of western society that a vast cross-section of people are familiar with their tunes—Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and Brahms Lullaby, for instance. Included in these tunes would have to be Bach’s “Air on the G String.” My initial acquaintance with the melody occurred in my teens when I would listen to the only classical music available on radio where I lived: “The Classics” on WHIO-FM, an hour-long program every weeknight. It used the Air as its theme song. It would be years before I discovered who wrote the tune—I just knew I loved it from the first time I heard it.

Bach wrote four Orchestral Suites. A suite—whether for orchestra or solo instrument—was a group of 5-8 pieces, meant to be played as a unit, and which were titled after various dances that were popular, or had been popular, in the time period—the Gavotte, the Bouree, the Courante, the Minuet, the Gigue, and so on. These were what we call “stylized” dances—they were not intended to actually be danced to, but rather were reminiscences, or musical representations, of what these certain dances were like—in the same way that one would not actually dance to Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz.

Many of Bach’s contemporaries really liked this particular form—the suite for ensemble. Telemann, for instance, wrote well over 100 of these orchestral overtures, and others came close to that number as well. Bach did not seem to favor the form. He only wrote four orchestral suites, and unlike his suites for solo instruments, he did not group them together for publication.

However—they ARE Bach, and therefore, they ARE great music.

The third one of these suites, written in D major—all five of its movements are in D—was written in 1730 when Bach was 45. The second movement was entitled “Air”. An air was a song-like, lyrical composition. The suite to which the Air belongs is written for brass instruments, strings, and harpsichord. In Bach’s second movement—the Air—only the strings play; the other instruments are silent. The violin and viola part interweave with one another throughout the composition.

Bach did NOT give the movement the title “Air on the G String.” This came about in the late 1800’s when a German violinist named August Wilhelmj arranged the entire movement: first he transposed the movement from D Major to C Major, then transposed the first violin part down a further octave so that the entire melody could be played on the violin’s lowest string—the G String. In the score, Wilhelmj wrote in “on the G string”—hence, the movement became known, in his version, as the “Air on the G String.” These days, that playing direction—to only play on one string—is not often followed. And, the work has blossomed out to be played in arrangements for sometimes small and sometimes large string orchestras.

I have mentioned in other posts about some musicians’ preference for “period” or “early” or “original” instruments when playing music written before, say, 1825—the idea being that, to be pure to the score—and to replicate the sound that Bach (in this instance) actually would have heard—one must use authentic instruments of the time—or usually, replications of such instruments. Consequently, one finds entire sets of compositions—by Bach or Mozart or whoever—represented on recordings in both their “period” instrument sound and their modern instrument sound. My feeling is there is no right nor wrong to this—whatever you prefer is what you prefer. Or maybe you enjoy both, as I often do.

I’m therefore presenting two versions of the Air on the G String here—one with a small ensemble of “original” instruments—not Wilhelmj’s version—and the other by a larger, modern string orchestra in the version that we most often hear. You decide.

The calm mood established by Bach in this Air is wonderful regardless of the version one prefers.

The original instruments version is performed by the Voices of Music, an early music ensemble based in San Francisco.

Images are Bach and August Wilhelmj.

Original instruments

Modern instruments (Wilhelmj version)

Detroit Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting

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#281 HAYDN PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR

#281

HAYDN

PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR

SIN A MA, PIANO
MUSIC HIGH SCHOOL SCHLOSS BELVEDERE WEIMAR
JOAN PAGES VALLS, CONDUCTOR

In the same way that many musicians automatically and immediately think of Bach and Handel when they think “Baroque”—those two composers towering over the multitude of other composers who lived during the late baroque era—we often think of just three names when thinking of the “Classical” era—Mozart, Beethoven, and Franz Joseph Haydn.

Of these three, Haydn would be the grand old master. He was Beethoven’s teacher during Beethoven’s critical twenties. And he was an older and helpful colleague to Mozart, for whom he had the greatest admiration. His largess of spirit was demonstrated when he told Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang’s father), “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute. He has taste and what is more, the greatest skill in composition.”

Haydn had stumbled into what many consider an idyllic life for a composer, becoming court composer at Esterhazy when he was 28 years old. The Esterhazy family was one of the richest in all of the Hapsburg empire. They had multiple palaces throughout Hungary, and lived, essentially, as royalty. Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, for whom Haydn was employed, was a music lover. Music played an unusually prominent place in his life and his affections. At the Eisenstadt palace—where Haydn was to be employed for the rest of his life–the prince had a glasshouse converted into a theatre in the palace park—just one performance venue that Haydn could choose from.

During Haydn’s years in the prince’s employ, his reputation as a first-rate composer, conductor, and teacher became well-known all over Europe. The prince had no problem with allowing Haydn to write works that were to be played elsewhere (most prominently, in London) and to go there to conduct them.

Haydn’s duties were to 1) continually compose works for performance in the palace theatre(s), 2) hire and fire all court musicians, 3) take care of all instruments—there was an in-house orchestra for which Haydn could compose, 4) archive all the music scores, and of course, 5) to perform and conduct. In his contracts, it was also stipulated that Haydn should know his place—that even though he was the third highest paid individual in the entire palace—indicating the value that the prince placed on him—he was still in fact a servant, and needed to dress and behave accordingly!

At Esterhazy, among the voluminous compositions that Haydn was to write were 52 piano sonatas and about a dozen piano concertos. The harpsichord was still the keyboard instrument of choice when Haydn began his work at Esterhazy, but by the time he composed his final piano concerto (this one, in D Major), the performer was given the choice of harpsichord or fortepiano. The concerto has become the most popular of all his keyboard concertos. It is a delightful work.

I have two memories associated with this concerto. It was the first piano concerto I ever learned. I would have been ten years old. I am certain my playing was not as refined as Sin A Ma’s in the exquisite performance I am linking to. But I always considered myself lucky to have had THIS piece be my entry into the world of piano concertos!

And secondly, I have mentioned my hobby—at one point, an obsession—of listening to shortwave radio broadcasts. About thirty years ago, I was tuning around the dial one night and came upon a particular frequency that I knew was used by Radio Austria. They were playing the most beautiful, heavenly piano concerto—articulately played, energetic, communicative, fun!—WHO and WHAT was this? For whatever reason, in that moment, I was hearing the Haydn D Major for the first time—however it came about, I had no idea what I was listening to. It would be, I suppose, meeting someone on the street that you hadn’t seen for a long time—but who you also hadn’t thought of for a long time—and only after engaging in conversation for a minute did you realize who you were talking with. It was a full thirty seconds before I realized what I was hearing—but those thirty seconds were so delightful that I’ve not forgotten them to this day.

Well, a long and self-indulgent story, sorry.

There are a number of fine Haydn D Majors on YouTube. I’m posting this one, though, not only because it features a young player, but because I think she captures the essence of Haydn better than the other versions I have heard. This was the first prize performance for Sin A Ma, a young Korean pianist, in the fourth international Franz Liszt competition for Young Pianists. She is really superb. She makes it easy for me to visualize Haydn himself playing this with his Esterhazy musicians. I have to say, I am also very impressed with this orchestra, comprised of young players from a Weimar performing arts high school!

Images are Haydn and the music hall at Esterhazy.

Movement timings:
1st movt – 0:00
2nd movt—8:42
3rd movt—15:50

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#280 RACHMANINOFF RHAPSODY ON A THEME OF PAGANINI, OPUS 43

#280

RACHMANINOFF

RHAPSODY ON A THEME OF PAGANINI, OPUS 43

STEVEN HOUGH, PIANO
BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
SAKARI ORAMO, CONDUCTOR

Niccolo Paganini was the great violin virtuoso of the 19th century. He is only inadvertently the subject of this post, but what a colorful person he was! Born in 1782 in Genoa, his musical ability was quickly discovered and encouraged. Although he was equally fluent with both violin and guitar, it was for his violin playing that he became famous. His influence on all violinists was profound. He expanded violin technique well beyond what it had previously been.

In 1813, when he was in his early thirties, he began touring all over Europe, astonishing audiences everywhere. His compositions were all written as vehicles intended to impress listeners with his violinistic pyrotechnics. He was not known to be a good teacher—in fact, pretty much the opposite—but violinists and other composers learned very much about the possibilities of their instrument from his works.

One such work was his 24 Caprices, each one of which was designed to show the unlimited technical possibilities of the violin. The reason that classical pianists—who perhaps have never—and will never—hear a note of Paganini’s violin music—the reason pianists know about him is that he had a profound influence on Franz Liszt. As a young man, Liszt heard Paganini when he played in Paris, and this happening turned out to me very consequential for the history of piano music.

Liszt was taken by two things—#1, the extraordinary technical demands that Paganini placed on himself—and #2, he was impressed by the audience’s reaction to Paganini, the continual ovations and the outpouring of adulation. Liszt seized on this inspiration, and the rest was history: Liszt became the Paganini of the piano, expanding the way pianists and composers have thought about the instrument ever since. One cannot think of Liszt without simultaneously thinking of the technical difficulties involved in playing his music. And of course, to this day, playing Liszt impressively in public is almost a guarantee of a standing ovation.

The very last one (#24) of the Paganini Caprices, in A Minor, is, after all these years, still considered by many to be the most difficult work ever written for violin. It incorporates a simple and catchy melody that has caught the attention of many composers, only the first one of which was Franz Liszt. These composers have used this particular melody as the basis for some profoundly difficult-to-execute works. Liszt in his 6th (and final) “Paganini” etude; Schumann’s arrangement of all the Caprices, including #24; Brahms in his mind-blowingly (!) difficult set—actually two lengthy sets—of Variations based on the melody; and closer to our time, Andrew Lloyd Webber in his Variations, and Lutoslawski’s Variations for Two Pianos. Over fifty prominent composers, generation after generation since Paganini’s time, have composed works based on this melody. It has almost become a litmus test for a composer’s creativity, particularly as it relates to writing technically difficult works.

Perhaps the most beloved of all these Paganini-inspired works is Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody of a Theme of Paganini. Written in 1934, the Rhapsody is in fact the fifth and last piano concerto that Rachmaninoff would write. In 24 variations for piano and orchestra—a very tightly configured interrelationship—Rachmaninoff wrote one of the most beloved works of the 20th century. These 24 variations, played without interruption, nevertheless correspond well to what would be a traditional 3-movement concerto structure, with variations 1-10 being the “first movement”, numbers 11-18 being the second, and numbers 19 to the end being the third.

It is very possible that, at some point in your life, your heard the famous 18th variation—far and away, the lushest and most “romantic” variation of the bunch—in which Rachmaninoff simply turns the them upside down, transposes it into a distant major key, and fires away—you may have heard it in long-ago commercials for sets of “Classical Favorites”: “These great classical pieces will give you HOURS of pure listening pleasure, folks—ALL of the greatest classical music on just THREE long-playing records—EVERYTHING from Bach’s Air on a G String to Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata to Brahms lovely Lullaby to Rachmaninoff’s piercing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—don’t delay, folks, this is a limited-time offer!”

Well, you might not remember those commercials, but I certainly do.

The concerto is certainly right up there with Rachmaninoff’s earlier Third Concerto in terms of technical difficulty. The different character and mood with which Rachmaninoff imbues each and every variation—making each one a separate and endearing piece—is quite impressive. The “Rach-Pag”, as pianist refer to it, has always been high up on the list of must-learn concertos for every player.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear the work many times in person, but for me—for Tiraje and me—the cream of the crop performance was by pianist Misha Dichter with the Cincinnati Symphony. Tiraje and I choose to sit within ten feet of the piano soloist in concerto performances (if possible) and Dichter’s performance was as inspiring as any I’ve ever heard, unforgettable actually. I can remember it now as if it just happened.

However, I think that opinion might have changed—in 2013, the year of the attached link—had I been ten feet away from pianist Steven Hough in this performance with the BBC Symphony. Don’t deprive yourself of hearing the whole work by heading for the 18th variation in order to hear it all by itself (it’s at 20:20)—but if you do, please make sure you come back to listen to the whole work. In my opinion, it is the fastest 25-minute concerto every written, so quickly does the time fly by! (Also, Hough’s comments in the interview which precede the performance are informative and very well worth listening to. As you’ll hear, he speaks about music with a naturalness that equals his playing.)

This is SUCH a great concerto, every listening experience to it is as good as one’s first! And this is a truly superb performance.

Images are Paganini, Rachmaninoff, Steven Hough.

 

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#278 BEETHOVEN PIANO CONCERTO #3 IN C MINOR, OPUS 37

#278

BEETHOVEN

PIANO CONCERTO #3 IN C MINOR, OPUS 37

ANNIE FISCHER, PIANO
HUNGARIAN RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
ANTAL DORATI, CONDUCTOR

Thus far, I’ve posted the first seven of the Beethoven piano sonatas—7 of 32, each one of which I can call a “favorite”. Beethoven wrote 5 piano concertos, in which the pianist performs as soloist with an orchestra. Of these, I can only say that 3 of them are favorites of mine—numbers 1, 3, and 4—music that has slipped into my subconscious mind forever, and those are the ones I plan on posting. Today, I’d like to start with the Third Concerto in C minor.

We have seen, in previous posts, Beethoven’s attraction to the key of C Minor and how the pieces that he chose to write in that key are universally dramatic, each one making emphatic, definitive “statements”. These pieces include three piano sonatas, his fifth symphony, the “choral” fantasy, and the 32 variations for piano. C Minor obviously must have had special psychological meaning, and special utility, for Beethoven.  The Third Concerto belongs to this particular group.

There is actually still some speculation about the exact year Beethoven composed the Third Concerto. For quite a long time, the year 1800 was the date given for its composition, but that date is now in question. We know that the piece was not premiered until 1803, with Beethoven himself as soloist—this, of course, simply being the way it was in those days: composers played their own works. The day of the concert pianist, who made a living playing the works of others, was still decades away. Because the work was premiered in 1803 and not published until the following year, there are some who feel that the year 1800 is simply too early, that Beethoven would not have waited three whole years until having the work performed.

But this little musicological quandary aside, the Third Concerto is as compelling a piece to listen to as anything Beethoven would write. It has always been my favorite Beethoven concerto. On a personal note, the Beethoven Third was the first concerto I ever played with an orchestra. And although the experience of playing any concerto with an orchestra is thrilling, I will always have special feelings associated with this exciting and dramatic work.

Mozart had developed the piano concerto into the major formal structure that it ultimately became. Beethoven picked up the baton, so to speak, and pushed the form well beyond anything Mozart had imagined. This is not a critique of Mozart, of course, it is just something that was inevitably going to happen. Regarding the Beethoven Third, there are a couple of things to note:

• Tuttis. The opening part of a concerto—and anywhere in a concerto where the orchestra is playing by itself—is called a “tutti”. Beethoven extended the length of the opening “tutti” of the third concerto to four minutes, underscoring the fact that his concertos were NOT simply vehicles for a pianist to shine as soloist, but were highly integrated orchestral/piano works. Brahms, in his First Concerto, would extend the opening “tutti” even further to four and a half minutes (or five if the orchestra is lacking vitality)—which feels like an eternity to the pianist who is just sitting there, waiting to enter. Brahms himself referred to his concertos as “symphonies for orchestra and piano,” so tightly integrated had the form become.

• There is a somewhat humorous story attached to the first performance of the Third Concerto. Composers in Beethoven’s time performed with the music in public. The day when doing this was seen in a negative light—when playing everything by memory while playing in public became de rigueur—would not occur until Franz Liszt’s time, some thirty years in the future. Turning the pages for Beethoven during the very first performance was Beethoven’s friend Ignaz von Seyfried, who later wrote: “I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper.”

Annie Fischer (1914-1995) was a Hungarian pianist, one of the great pianists of the twentieth century. She had won the International Liszt competition when she was just 19 years old. A Jew, she fled Hungary for the safety of Sweden during the war years, returning to Hungary in 1946. Her playing was greatly admired in Europe, and she performed with all the great conductors. She was reluctant to make recordings, feeling that any recording made without the presence of an audience would be artificially constricting. Nevertheless, her recordings of the entire set of Beethoven sonatas, made over a period of 15 years, are one of the treasures of classical piano recordings.

This video of her performance of the Beethoven Third has deservedly been praised ever since its first appearance, which I believe is from some time in the 1950’s. There is a depth of feeling and simplicity of interpretation in her playing that I find really appealing.

Images are Beethoven and Annie Fischer.

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#268 MOZART DIVERTIMENTO IN D MAJOR, K. 131

#268

MOZART

DIVERTIMENTO IN D MAJOR, K. 131

NEVILLE MARRINER, CONDUCTOR
ACADEMY OF ST. MARTIN’S IN THE FIELDS ORCHESTRA

Four horns! Plus a lot more….

Aside from playing Mozart Piano Concertos and Sonatas while growing up, my acquaintance with Mozart—in his totality—came about in two spurts later in my life—and is now ongoing. While studying for doctoral oral exams a long time ago, I listened to some of Mozart’s “greatest hits” works—symphonies, chamber works, concertos for instruments other than piano, and so on—things that I might get asked about during the exams. Then, sometime around 15 years ago—and especially while I was making the 100-mile round trip between Dayton and Cincinnati while teaching at CCM—I made it a goal to listen to everything he had written (626 works!). It was great driving therapy.

It would be nice, I suppose, and convenient—if I could just quickly rattle off my favorite Mozart—maybe ten or twenty works—or even, being very liberal, fifty or so. But the truth is, it is far easier to list works of Mozart that I don’t care for.

There are not many.

One of my favorites, then—among hundreds of favorites—is the Divertimento in D Major. A divertimento was a work specially composed for a particular social event—not exactly background music, but also not serious, stop-what-you’re-doing-and-listen-to-this music. It was music composed for a small ensemble—not orchestra size, but bigger than, say, a string quartet. It was meant to be entertainment, not heavy-duty.

“Divertimento” was the most commonly used term for these multi-movement works, they were also known as serenades, cassations, and notturnos. Sometimes divertimenti were played outdoors.

This particular divertimento is in six movements, and was composed when Mozart was 16 years old. It is a work in “concertante” form. This means that Mozart contrasted one group of instruments (violins, violas, and bass–the strings) with another group (flute, oboe, bassoon, and four horns–the winds).

Yes, four horns. The work may have been written for a wedding, or it may have been written for some important social event in Salzburg. The presence of four horns is extraordinarily unusual, and by itself suggests that we don’t know enough about the work’s circumstances. Just HAVING four good horn players available for a performance in Salzburg—let alone for a performance at a social event—would have been unusual.

This recording by Neville Marriner and the AOSMITF is, like all Marriner recordings, urbane and polished. I love the entire work, each movement. But, I would specifically recommend the first, second, and sixth movements, which occur, respectively, at 0:00, 5:14 and 24:19. This is happy, carefree music that absolutely should not be dismissed either because it is not “serious” or because it was written by someone so young.

It may interest you to know that Mozart was not fond of the sound of the flute. Yet the flute plays a prominent, and oh-so-happy role here—as it does in countless other Mozart works.

The first and sixth movements feature those four horns. The second movement is a string serenade of exquisite calmness.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes there are individual moments in pieces that appear so beautiful as to take one’s breath away every time you hear them, regardless of how many times that is. In the sixth movement here, that moment occurs for me is the eight seconds (!) between 28:26 and 28:34—the aural equivalent of a sugar overdose, or the visual experience of seeing a field of sunflowers. These measures may do nothing for you—but they are one reason I keep returning to K. 131.

Happy listening (and that’s what it will be).

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