Category: Orchestral/Choral/Chamber

#384 DVORAK THE GOLDEN SPINNING WHEEL, OPUS 109

#384

DVORAK

THE GOLDEN SPINNING WHEEL, OPUS 109

PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA
ALAN GILBERT, CONDUCTOR

I have to confess that it has taken a long time for me to warm to the music of Dvorak (1841-1904). The Czech composer’s impressive body of work was primarily symphonic—nine symphonies—and I’ve made many, many attempts to “get into” them. Although my musician friends may not hear those symphonies the same way I do, it has always felt to me that Dvorak is continually modulating, continually changing key, never giving the listener TIME to appreciate him.

But perhaps this says more about me than about Dvorak.

*****

I had not intentionally heard much Dvorak while growing up until I read about Brahms’ association with him. Brahms, as my readers know, is a composer whose music—all of it—I know and love. Brahms (b. 1833) was not much older than Dvorak when he was a judge in the Austrian State Prize competition in 1874. It was then that he—Brahms—heard Dvorak’s entries into that competition—a truly massive submission consisting of fifteen works including two symphonies, several overtures and a song cycle. Brahms was totally impressed by Dvorak’s music. Dvorak won first prize, and his career, mainly centered in Prague, became considerably more solid. Up to this point in time, Dvorak had lived in near-poverty conditions. He did not own a piano, and at the time of his submission to this contest, he lived with five other men, one of whom owned a spinet piano and allowed Dvorak to compose on it.

In 1877, Dvorak entered the Austrian Prize competition once more, this time submitting his Moravian Duets and his Piano Concerto. Brahms was so struck with Dvorak’s talent that, after Dvorak once again won, he made Dvorak’s career part of his life’s work. He recommended Dvorak to his own publisher, and did everything he could, with his extensive connections all over the continent, to boost Dvorak’s career. Astonishingly, Brahms even copy-proofed and edited Dvorak’s scores, something that was just unheard of–the greatest composer in the world offering to do what was essentially regarded secretarial work for a MUCH lesser known composer. It would be as if Tolstoy, in his day, ASKED to edit the works of an unknown author from another country.

Dvorak’s career now blossomed, becoming international. The British, in particular, loved his music—he was invited to London nine times. Dvorak came to America in the 1890’s, where he directed the newly created National Conservatory of Music, an institution that—quite unusual for its time—admitted blacks and women on equal footing with white men. Dvorak’s main purpose in coming to the states, however, was compositional: in the same way that he had been incorporating Czech folk songs in his own music, he felt that there was an “American Music” waiting to be discovered in African-American and Native American music, and that it should become the basis for future American music. He struck up a great friendship with Harry Burleigh, one of the very first African-American composers. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to traditional American spirituals.

Dvorak’s secretary while he was in New York was a young Czech, whose family was from a Czech community in Iowa. Dvorak spent the summer of 1893 there, absorbing as much of what he felt to be the “real” America as he could. Back in New York, he had been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write a major work. His Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”)—far and away his most popular work to this day—was a rousing success, and can be seen as a distillation of the American influence upon Dvorak’s musical sensibilities. Its second movement, Largo, incorporates the famous spiritual-like song, “Goin’ Home.”

Although Dvorak returned to Europe in 1895—the conservatory had fallen on hard financial times, and he was truly homesick—his reputation and influence on music—and on American music—was substantial.

*****

Dvorak’s entire output, as I mentioned, is substantial. I’ll be returning to him at a later date here with his Serenade for Strings. But, I did find, in Dvorak’s symphonic poems, what to me is the “real” Dvorak—a talent who keeps you continually interested and who does not feel the compulsion to continually be changing keys, thinking perhaps that is the best way to keep listeners involved.

Dvorak wrote five symphonic poems in his early fifties: The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Wild Dove, and A Hero’s Song. With the exception of A Hero’s Song, which some consider to be Dvorak’s “musical” autobiography, the other four symphonic poems are based on poetry by Karel Jaromir Erben, a great Czech folklorist.

The stories are essentially fairy tales. The story of the Golden Spinning Wheel is definitely NOT your typical happy-ending, nice-moral-of-the-story fairy tale. It is VERY Stephen King-ish. Here is a synopsis:

While out riding, a king happens upon a young lady, Dornička, and falls in love with her. He asks her step-mother to bring her to his castle. The step-mother and step-sister set off towards the king’s castle with Dornička. On the way, they murder her, hack off her feet and hands, and cut out her eyes. The step-sister poses as Dornička and marries the king, after which he is called away to battle.

Meanwhile, in the forest, a magician finds Dornička’s remains and decides to bring her back to life. He sends a page to the castle to persuade the step-sister to part with “two feet” in return for a golden spinning wheel, “two hands” for a golden distaff, and “two eyes” for a golden spindle. The body complete again, the magician brings Dornička back to life.

The king returns from battle and hears the golden spinning wheel tell the gruesome details of Dornička’s murder. The king goes off into the forest to be reunited with her. The two murderesses are thrown to the wolves.

*****

How’s THAT for a bedtime story for your kids?

I am linking to a great performance, which is further heightened by its inclusion of the story appearing onscreen as the work progresses. I feel this entire work—despite the gruesomeness of its programmatic “plot”–is absolutely lovely. Maybe you will think the same thing, I hope so.

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#383 JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH SINFONIA IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 18, NO. 2

#383

JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH

SINFONIA IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 18, NO. 2

Everyone is familiar with the name J.S. Bach, for many the greatest composer who ever lived, a claim that is very hard to dispute. But, JSB’s life work can be seen, in retrospect, as the summing of an era—the Baroque—the tying together of all loose ends—the writing of counterpoint better than anyone ever had or ever would.

If you are of a certain mindset, you believe that the history of music evolves in cycles—of simplicity, followed by complexity, followed by simplicity, etc. The premise in such a belief, I guess, is that the human psyche can only take so much of the same thing—whether simplicity or complexity—for long periods of time. It is easy to understand that the rhythmic complexity of Middle Ages works was followed by the (initial) simplicity of the Renaissance. And that the complexity of the Baroque—personified by JSB—was succeeded by the charming innocence of the Rococo. I’m not sure how well such a theory holds together in total, and especially when we consider the profusion of both the “simple” and the “complex” in so-called modern music—say, from 1900 on.

BUT – what does seem clear is that the sons of Bach were NOT going to continue in the direction their father had gone. This is especially true of my favorite of the Bach sons—Johann Christian Bach. It should probably be re-iterated here that Bach was prolific not only in music, but in procreation, having fathered twenty children by two wives.

Johann Christian Bach was Bach’s eighteenth child and his last son. The Bach family had been a guild of composers for generations by the time JSB was born. So, if you were a Bach, you were a composer. Some, naturally, were better than others. Older than Johann Christian were his brothers Wilhelm Friedemann (b. 1710—JSB age 25), Carl Phillip Emanuel (b. 1714, JSB 29), and Johann Christoph (b. 1732, JSB 47), all credible composers. JSB was 50 years old when his youngest son, Johann Christian was born. So perhaps—with this age difference—it was inevitable that this youngest son would have the most progressive and non-Bachian palette of all the Bach sons.

I have mentioned before my love of Mozart. It only takes a few bars of any Mozart work—and perhaps, especially, the works he wrote as a child—works that were, both at the time and in retrospect light years beyond his adult contemporaries—to make me soporific, like a highly alert drug addict—if you’ll pardon the incongruity of such a description.

THE greatest influence—certainly from my standpoint—on the prodigious 8-year old Mozart—was Johann Christian Bach, the “London Bach.” In 1762, at the age of 27, JC Bach premiered three of his operas in London. Queen Charlotte was so infatuated with him that he became her music master, and lived in London till the end of his life in 1782. (He was known in London as John Bach.) Music historians—especially those who specialize in Mozart—remember JC as the very young Mozart’s friend, mentor, and promoter—in that order. He was extraordinarily gracious to the little boy during his London stay, which occurred in 1764. I love Johann Christian Bach because he was so giving and so selfless to the young Mozart.

He did not treat Mozart as a little boy—there was absolutely no condescension toward Mozart due to his age because JC recognized that he was interacting with a genius of a very high order. He taught the young Wolfgang a lot about orchestration, about the style galant so popular in that day, and in general, about the music profession. Mozart was never the same after the time spent in London with JC Bach.

One can hear this (JC) Bachian influence in many of the early Mozart symphonies. If Johann Christian sounds lightweight to our ears, it may be because we associate his name with his fathers, where everything was HEAVY. But JC is thoroughly delightful. Mozart could not have had a better, more professional and accomplished mentor than Johann Christian Bach.

Since JC himself was only 29 when Mozart visited London (for an extended stay), he was at that certain age where he could just barely imagine himself to be old enough to be Mozart’s father—he was far more like a big brother—and one who “knew the ropes.” He spent a full five months with Mozart, and can be—should be—regarded as the only real teacher that Mozart ever had—or ever needed.

I know I’ve spent as much time here talking about Mozart as about Johann Christian Bach. But that is only to set the stage for one of his most joyful works—his symphony in B-flat major. The symphony was at the very beginning of its evolution, which had stemmed from the opera overture. This is one of the earliest examples of the three movement symphony. MELODY is the keyword when thinking about JC Bach. You will enjoy this work.

I think I am incapable of separating music from its historical context. It is so easy to hear the formality and the repose that characterized all of Europe in this time period—the 1780’s…

1st movt Allegro assai 0:00
2nd movt Andante 3:16
3rd movt Presto 6:48

Picture is Johann Christian Bach painted by Thomas Gainsborough.

 

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#378 BERLIOZ THE DAMNATION OF FAUST

#378

BERLIOZ

THE DAMNATION OF FAUST

RAKOCZI MARCH (MARCHE HONGROISE)

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
GEORG SOLTI, CONDUCTOR

D’AMOUR, L’ARDENTE FLAMME

JOYCE DIDONATO, MEZZO-SOPRANO
BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
SIMON RATTLE

Collegiate music students the world over are grateful for the rest of their lives for having heard so many works they had never heard—sometimes never heard OF—in their various college classes. For me, one of those works was Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust. I first heard it when various parts of it were assigned for analysis in one of my theory classes at Juilliard.

My (now) well-worn LPs of the work by Colin Davis and the London Symphony had just been released in the fall of 1973 when I was studying the work. I was strongly attracted to this work from the first time I heard it. And true to my OCD self, once I had become acquainted with it, I had to go out and purchase it—I had to own it.

*****

The Faust legend—a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly pleasure—is related in Goethe’s Faust, written in 1808. The work is considered Goethe’s masterpiece—as well as the greatest work of literature in the German language. From the time of its publication onward, it captured the attention and imagination of a very literate and religious Europe in the 19th century.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) certainly fell under its inspiration. Berlioz, a composer who never—ever—thought small, wrote his Damnation of Faust in 1845. It is a work of nearly two and half hours that has confounded all those who would produce it ever since. Berlioz scored the work for an enormous orchestra, a 7-part chorus, a children’s choir, and four vocal soloists. Part opera, part oratorio, part cantata, it defies being presented successfully in any of those forms. Berlioz called it a “legend dramatique.”

The work is now most often presented as a concert work—as an oratorio.

*****

When Berlioz first read Goethe’s Faust, he was transfixed by it, reading it incessantly, at meals, while walking in the streets, everywhere and at all times. His eventual musical depiction of the work is true to the chronological unfolding of Goethe’s story.

In that story, Faust, who is an intellectual pursuing all the wisdom he can possibly obtain, has become disillusioned with life and is about to commit suicide. He hears peasants singing and dancing and realizes he will never have their kind of simple happiness. When he hears a distant army marching, and hears the soldiers’ enthusiasm for the glory of fighting—he knows this also is a joy he cannot ever relate to.

The Devil—Mephistopheles—comes to Faust just when he is going to kill himself, and offers him “the deal”—serve him eternally in hell and, in exchange, experience his deepest earthly desires until then–a deal Faust does not refuse.

Mephistopheles shows Faust a vision of a beautiful and innocent girl, Marguerite, who Faust is very desirous to meet. The Devil takes Faust to her, but in spite of his near reverence for her innocence and beauty, he seduces her and ultimately leaves her.

In the end—of course—Faust has been tricked by the Devil. He winds up suffering torments in hell, while Marguerite experiences the bliss of heaven.

*****

There are many moments of beauty and excitement in Berlioz’ Damnation. I’ve chosen two of the most popular—music that haunted me then–in my college days–as it does now.

The tune for the Rakoczi March had been popular in Hungary for generations at the time Berlioz utilized it in Damnation. Until Berlioz’ time, it was the unofficial state anthem for Hungary. A Hungarian musical friend in Vienna had sent Berlioz the Rakoczi melody, suggesting Berlioz orchestrate it. This he did, creating one—of three—purely orchestral insertions—no chorus or vocal soloists—into the Damnation score. In Damnation, this is the music of the troops marching by that Faust hears.

The Rakoczi March has become one of the most loved, and most often played, orchestral marches in the entire orchestral repertoire. Georg Solti’s recording with the Chicago Symphony is absolutely superb.

*****

One of the most moving moments of Damnation occurs in the fourth act when Marguerite, who has been seduced by Faust, laments that even though Faust has abandoned her, her love for him still burns intensely within her heart, and she is awaiting his return—which, of course, will never happen.

This aria was a favorite of the great Maria Callas, and is here sung tenderly by the expressive and beautiful Joyce DiDonato. The lyrics in English:

Loves fiery flame,
Consumes my beautiful days.
Ah! The peace of my soul
has fled forever!
His departure, his absence
Is the death of me,
And away from his presence,
Everything seems in mourning.
So my poor head
is soon driven mad,
My weak heart stops
Then ices over immediately.

I admire his strong gait,
Its carriage so graceful,
His mouth’s sweet smile
The charm of his eyes,
His enchanting voice,
He sets me ablaze,
His hand, caress,
Alas! His kiss
Of one amorous flame
consumes my days!
Ah! The peace of my soul
has fled forever!
I am at my window,
where outside, all day –
This is the view I wish to see him appear,
Or hasten his return.
My heart beats and presses
Whenever I feel he is coming.
According to my affection
I will always remember him!
O the flame caresses!
I would one day
See my soul exhale
In his kisses of love!

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#375 RODRIGO CONCIERTO DE ARANJUEZ

#375

RODRIGO

CONCIERTO DE ARANJUEZ

2ND MOVEMENT – ADAGIO

JOHN WILLIAMS, GUITAR
BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
PAUL DANIEL, CONDUCTOR

Pictures:  Rodrigo, Victoria Kahmi, the Gardens of the Palace of Aranjuez.

I think it is probably safe to say that the Rodrigo guitar concerto—the Concierto de Aranjuez—is the most beloved guitar work ever written. I know that is saying a lot, but the widespread appeal of this concerto—and particularly its second movement—goes well beyond guitar aficionados to a much wider general audience.

Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) had an interesting, and inspiring, life story. Born in Valencia, Spain in 1901, he lost his sight to diphtheria at the age of three and was totally blind for the rest of his life. In his childhood and adolescence, he was taught how to play violin, piano, and guitar by rote, and learned music theory and composition by Braille. All of his subsequent compositions were written in Braille and then transcribed for publication.

Rodrigo’s lack of sight did not deter him from living a full and musical life. He studied piano and composition with Paul Dukas in Paris, as well as musicology under Andre Pirro. His published compositions date from 1923 when he was just 22 years old. Twenty years later, he was awarded Spain’s National Prize for Orchestra for his “Cinco piezas infantiles.” He taught at the prestigious (and enormous, with 86,000 students) Complutense University of Madrid from the 1940’s until his death. In 1983, Rodrigo was awarded Spain’s highest award for composition, the Premio Nacional de Musica. He was raised to the nobility by King Juan Carlos in 1991, and given the title of “Marques de los Jardines de Aranjuez”—Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez.

Aranjuez was a town in central Spain, south of Madrid. Rodrigo’s most famous work, the Concierto de Aranjuez, takes its inspiration—according to the composer—from the sounds of nature and the evocation of 16th century Spain associated with the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, built by Phillip II.

The bereft intensity of sadness heard in the Adagio movement is without doubt why this work is one of the best known in all of 20th century art music. The actual circumstances of this work’s creation did not come out until many years after its composition, eventually told by his wife. While a student in Paris, Rodrigo had fallen in love with a Turkish pianist, Victoria Kamhi. They had met in 1929 and were married in 1933. Kahmi was a promising pianist, but she gave up her career and her musical life in order to facilitate his. The couple’s first pregnancy, in 1937, ended in a miscarriage. Rodrigo was racked with grief and pain at this loss, feelings that could only come out in this second movement. This association—his mourning for a lost child and this movement of the concerto—is not just conjecture. It certainly underscores the personal meditation on loss one hears in this music.

Rodrigo was a fine pianist, but he did not play the guitar. Nevertheless, he still manages, in his guitar music, to capture the role of the guitar in the Spanish psyche. As you will hear from the very beginning of the work, this Adagio movement also features the English horn as a solo instrument. These two instruments have a dialogue of sadness at the outset of the work—perhaps the English horn is Victoria, the guitar Joaquin?

*****

Live performances of the work, as you can imagine, are problematic. Since the classical guitar, even in the hands of a master, can only project so far into a large hall, the balance between soloist and orchestra is very delicate. I’m not sure whether all solo guitarists in this concerto customarily use amplification. I’ve heard it both ways. Tiraje and I heard the great Pepe Romero perform the concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony some years ago, and he did not use amplification. We were not sitting that far away—maybe the tenth row, on the orchestra level—and yet his sound did not always carry. In many live recordings, such as can be heard on YouTube, the guitarist is being helped by amplification—which is preferable, I think. This particular clip—featuring a guitarist I’ve loved my whole life, John Williams—seems to have taken place in the humongous Royal Albert Hall in London, in which case amplification for the guitar would absolutely have been necessary.

If you have not heard this work before, I would strongly suggest savoring it. Wait until you have the time—10 minutes or so—to really hear it out.

ADAGIO MOVEMENT – JOHN WILLIAMS, GUITAR

And, I would be remiss if I did not also mention that the outer movements are a joy to hear as well—lively and ever so Spanish. For that pleasure, you may want to listen to Pepe Romero with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting:

COMPLETE CONCERTO – PEPE ROMERO, GUITAR

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#371 DEBUSSY PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN

#371

DEBUSSY

PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN

CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA
PIERRE BOULEZ, CONDUCTOR

A diversion before even speaking about the music:

I have spoken a number of times of how thrilling to me my musical education at Juilliard was. A very large part of that 6-year thrill was coming into contact with excellent players from all over the United States and all over the world. Truly, these young people were like no other group of young people I could ever imagine. My first year there, in particular, was extraordinarily eye-opening. I remember an ongoing feeling I had that first year of feeling truly unsophisticated—from the sticks, so to speak—when observing my fellow students, all of whom seemed to be 18 going on 35. Eating in the cafeteria was like being in a mini United Nations—so many different languages to hear, so many different personalities present at every table. Robin Williams (from the drama division) dancing on tabletops, ballerinas and violinists showing off to each other on the spur of the moment, everyone always very “alive.”

I’m recalling these things now because of today’s post, Debussy’s wonderful Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. I should explain that, like many large conservatories then and now, Juilliard had several student orchestras. One could think of them as the “A” team, the “B” team, and so on. I had a friend in one of my classes, a violinist whose boyfriend was a flutist. I played chamber music with the girl, Dana. Her boyfriend was Tim. We were all about 20 years old. This boyfriend was not only a flutist, he was principal flutist in the Juilliard Orchestra—the “A” team. Dana and I were talking about an upcoming concert on which Debussy’s Prelude was going to be played. That is when I learned that her boyfriend was going to be playing the lengthy and seductive flute solos that are heard throughout the piece. I was astonished. I only knew Tim casually, but nevertheless—to put it in athletic terms—it was like knowing someone who plays tennis, someone just 20 years old and seemingly a regular guy, who you find out is going to be playing in the U.S. Open next week.

You get the idea. The classmates I got to experience at Juilliard are people I’ve never forgotten. Philip Smith, who became principal trumpet of the New York Phil, John Fullam who became principal clarinetist for the Buffalo Philharmonic, David Wakefield who was the horn player for the American Brass Quintet—and dozens—scores, really—of others as well. These outstanding instrumentalists were as inspiring to me as all my pianist colleagues.

The concert featuring Tim’s playing of Debussy was, like all the Juilliard Concert Orchestra concerts, outstanding.

OK, sorry once again for my self-indulgent walk(s) down memory lane. 🙂

*****

There are a number of bullet items one should take note of when thinking about Debussy’s history-making Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun:

• Supposedly, Maurice Ravel, when speaking about Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, said that “if there is music to be heard at the Gates of Paradise, then this is it.” For Ravel, a composer of considerable stature, to say such a thing is pretty significant. It elevates the piece to a certain level even before one has heard it.

• The work was written in 1894 when Debussy was 32. Pierre Boulez, the great 20th century conductor (of the NY Phil) and composer felt that the work—even though written six years before the 20th century began—was the first great 20th century work, a true vision of the future. As an aside to that statement and as a testament to the esteem in which Debussy is held, I remember that my teacher at Juilliard for Piano Rep—Joseph Bloch, a kindly and accomplished man through whose classes every pianist went—often said that the greatest composer of the 20th century—the one with the most permanent influence on the direction music would take—was Debussy. Considering that Debussy died in 1918, that is an amazing statement to make, and it certainly left its mark on me.

• Debussy IS thought of this way by many musicians. His use of harmony—what he heard in his mind—was so different than what had come before him. And his disregard for formal structures and what had been known, up to that time, as functional harmony, were the pillars of his craft.

• Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was inspired by the poem of the same name by Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898.) It is important to know the story: a faun was a mythological creature, half-human, half-goat. The poem describes the sensual experiences of the faun who is just awakening from a pleasant afternoon nap. He then has a dialogue with several nymphs—the female deities who inhabited nature—about his dream-like impressions.

• Mallarme’s poem is regarded by many as the greatest poem in the French language. Interestingly, Mallarme was definitely NOT thrilled with Debussy, his younger artistic colleague, using his poem as a springboard for a musical work. He was dead-set against the idea, feeling that the very idea of attempting to express in music the ideas of literature went against nature and against logic—that “even with the best intentions in the world, it was a veritable crime as far as poetry was concerned to juxtapose poetry and music, even if it were the finest music there is.” But after attending the premiere performance, he was a different Mallarme: “I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé.”

• The solo flutist is the faun throughout. As Boulez said about it, “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.” I’m linking here to the Boulez recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, one of my favorites. Maybe it was because Boulez was French, or maybe he simply had an affinity for Debussy, but I find Boulez’s Debussy recordings to be uniformly wonderful.

 

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#370 BRAHMS DOUBLE CONCERTO IN A MINOR, OPUS 102

#360

BRAHMS

CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN AND CELLO (“DOUBLE CONCERTO”) IN A MINOR, OPUS 102

FIRST MOVEMENT

DAVID OISTRAKH, VIOLIN
MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVITCH, CELLO
CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA
GEORGE SZELL, CONDUCTOR

I was a junior in high school when I acquired my love for the music of Johannes Brahms. Although I had learned a number of his piano works by that time, I had not delved into his orchestral or choral writing until I heard his German Requiem. So, I didn’t really know Brahms.

As I was growing up, I was fortunate to have friends who were also talented pianists and music-lovers. One of them, Tom Johnson, lived in Oakwood—at the time, Dayton’s wealthiest suburb—and his parents’ house was situated on a hill that overlooked all of downtown Dayton, such as it was. Tom was two years older than me, and in addition to being a fine pianist, he was really intelligent. (They don’t always go hand in hand.)

Tom was home for Christmas vacation from Harvard, and I had gone over to his house for the evening. In my eyes, Tom was all about sophistication. During our evening of talking enthusiastically about music, he pulled out an LP that he said I just HAD to hear. “Your life will never be the same,” he said.

The recording was Brahms’ German Requiem, performed by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Ernest Ansermet. He was right, my life was never the same. As we sat and listened to Brahms, looking out over downtown Dayton, I thought that all was right with the world. I drove home late at night, determined to buy that recording—mail order, of course—immediately.

*****

Not only did I listen to as much Brahms orchestral music as I could during the rest of high school (and consequently for the rest of my life), I also felt I had to know everything about Brahms the man. What kind of PERSON creates such beauty? What were the circumstances of his life? What thoughts went through his head?

I don’t know that I have the complete answer to those questions even today, but I do have an entire bookcase devoted to my many Brahms books. The very first one of these I read—Karl Geiringer’s 1936 excellent biography—I read in its entirety sitting on the stairstep going from our garage into the house during that junior year of high school. I’m not sure why I settled in reading on that step, but I did. It is a very pleasant memory.

*****

Brahms would write many works involving the orchestra—two Serenades, four Symphonies, five miscellaneous (and large) works including his amazing Variations on a Theme of Haydn, ten works that involve choirs (including the Requiem), and four concertos. The Double Concerto, Opus 102, was to be his very last work for orchestra.

At Juilliard, I was lucky enough to have a music theory teacher for several consecutive years who loved Brahms, Norman Grossman. He had his classes study many of Brahms’ works, including the Double Concerto, which is where I made its acquaintance.

[Just coincidentally, another reason I loved his class was the opportunity to play footsies with Tiraje, who was also in his class…but that is another story.]

A “double” concerto, as you can guess, is a concerto for two instruments and orchestra. This final orchestral work of Brahms is of gigantic proportions and requires two absolutely first-rate and well-matched soloists to be successful. One might think that this “requirement” would be easily met these days, but the logistical challenge (not to mention the financial one) for an orchestra in finding two high-caliber soloists to commit to a performance, say a year in advance, is not that easy. Many orchestras present the Double Concerto utilizing their own principal violinist and cellist.

Tiraje and I heard such a performance—an outstanding one and the only one we’ve heard in person—in Cincinnati a few years ago, which featured Eric Lee, the symphony’s principal cellist and his brother, Benny, violin.

*****

As with so many of Brahms’ works, I truly love this concerto—in particular, the first movement. How to best convey one’s enthusiasm for a musical work you love to those who have never heard it? How to infect another person with the same thrill you receive from it? Obviously, if I knew the answer to that, I would do just that right now. I guess, in this case, all I can do is to suggest that you listen for certain places in the movement:

• listen to the virtuosity and perfect overlap of Oistrakh and Rostropovich at 2:05 in their extended cadenza at the outset of the work
• at 2:25 and 3:10, let the majesty of the work wash over you and speak to your soul
• at 5:52, luxuriate in the lushness of Rostropovich’s vibrato and the lyricism of Brahms melodic writing

I think this is a remarkable and lengthy first movement. Its intensity never lets up. It concludes, in this clip, at 16:52. Of course, the second and third movements are totally lovely, as well. But this is one of those War and Peace-length works. If the work is not familiar to you—I would wrap myself up in the first movement a few times before going on with the rest of the work. But that’s just me.

David Oistrakh (1908-1974) was the renowned Soviet-era violinist, one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century. Likewise, Mstislav Rostropovitch (1927-2007), also Russian, was one of the titans of cello playing in the 20th century. I will never forget hearing a public master class at Juilliard in 1976, where Rostropovich was instructing the 20-year old Yo-Yo Ma how to play the cello! It was pretty impressive to hear the two of them up on stage.
This recording, by the way, was to be George Szell’s final recording. He died just weeks later of cancer, leaving an amazing legacy of recorded performances to the world.

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#367 BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY #2 IN D MAJOR, OPUS 36

#367

BEETHOVEN

SYMPHONY #2 IN D MAJOR, OPUS 36

CHICAGO SYMPHONY
GEORG SOLTI, CONDUCTOR

Happiness, anyone?

“A hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.” So wrote a music critic for the “Zeitung fuer die elegante Welt”–The Newspaper for an Elegant World–in 1803 after hearing the premiere of Beethoven’s Second Symphony.

We have seen before how completely wrong music critics have been—with the advantage of our 20/20 hindsight as well as our own broadened musical sensitivities—and this particular example is one of those howlers, so bad that it’s good, if you know what I mean.

*****

For many music lovers, Beethoven is DEFINED by his Ninth Symphony, his final symphony, the one of monumental (and unprecedented) proportions. In a similar vein, many listeners think of the Appassionata Sonata as THE Beethoven piano sonata, the one which best represents the Sturm Und Drang qualities of his personality.

I have mentioned before how easily swayed we all are by the very few pictures or paintings of certain composers, unconsciously assuming that a certain temperament which we think we see in a picture or photo IS the composer. For Beethoven, that picture is often that one that seems to capture his shaking-his-fist-at-the-heavens pose.

And of course, there is a certain amount of Beethoven’s music that sounds just like that. But Beethoven—logic tells us, if nothing else—was a complex personality, whose actual temperament is reflected in a myriad of ways, a virtual rainbow of emotions.

Beethoven realized already in 1802 when he was composing his Second Symphony that he was going deaf, and was becoming quite depressed about it. But you would never know that from the happiness and joy in this symphony. We heard happiness permeating his First Symphony (Music I Love #245) and here in his Second Symphony he continues with a marathon of good natured reflecting: the joy of simply being alive and also, I would guess, the sheer joy of composing, realizing with every stroke of his pen the exultation of creating.

*****

I think an important perspective to assume, when listening to Beethoven or any composer, is the perspective the composer has at the moment of creation. Because of our hindsight knowledge, we tend to listen to this work or that through the lens of a composer’s entire oeuvre, his entire lifework. We might easily therefore view Beethoven’s Second Symphony thinking backwards, as it were, from the Ninth Symphony until we reach the Second. We might view his works in context.

We’re tempted to do this, automatically I think, in all fields of art. We think of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground in the very same breath as thinking about The Brothers Karamazov, which came nearly 20 years later. We think of Georgia O’Keefe’s Drawings through the lens of her Blue and Green Music. And so on.

But none of these artists knew anything at all about their future work when they were young and creating—they had no clue. At the moment they were creating, THAT is all there was. At the moment Beethoven created this Second Symphony, he was obviously filled–overflowing–with happiness. He was not the clenched-jaw, furrowed-brow Beethoven that it is so easy for us to think of.

Perhaps, had Beethoven not lost his hearing and also experienced some happiness through a love relationship, the entire remainder of his creative output might have been different. We view his creativity, retrospectively, as a monolith, when it was anything but to him.

*****

OK, sorry. I start writing in a talking-to-myself mode and pretty soon, ten minutes have gone by…

*****

In my life, I’ve owned a number of sets of Beethoven Symphonies. Two of them that really stand out–partly as wonderful memories and partly as just great performances–are the Toscanini/NBC Symphony set and the Solti/Chicago Symphony set.

I acquired the Toscanini set—with its hot pink cover framing Toscanini’s glaring face—when I was a junior in high school. I probably listened to each symphony a hundred times in my final years of high school. And then, twenty years later, Tiraje and I were killing time one Saturday when we judging a piano competition—it was lunch hour—so we went to a nearby used record and CD shop where I found a set of brand-new, still in shrink-wrap, Georg Solti/Chicago Symphony Beethoven Symphony LPs—for $18! It was one of the best bargains I’ve ever had!

Today’s performance is a link to Solti conducting Chicago. I believe they are on tour somewhere in this recording. It is an amazing performance. Pick any movement – #1 at 0:00, #2 at 12:20, #3 at 23:02, or #4 at 26:44. Each one is a jewel of happiness. You cannot lose.

 

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#363 TCHAIKOVSKY PIANO CONCERTO IN B-FLAT MINOR, OPUS 23

#363

TCHAIKOVSKY

PIANO CONCERTO IN B-FLAT MINOR, OPUS 23

MARTHA ARGERICH, PIANO
ORCHESTRA DE LA SUISSE ROMANDE
CHARLES DUTOIT, CONDUCTOR

One of the most famous stories in the history of classical music involves the first hearing of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor by his friend and mentor Nikolai Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky’s work on the concerto—in 1875 at the age of 35—was very fresh—he had just completed it a few days before. He was hoping that Rubinstein would not only love the work—and praise him for it—but would agree to be the pianist at its premiere performance. Here, in Tchaikovsky’s recollection, is what occurred (it’s worth quoting at length):

I played the first movement. Not a single word, not a single remark! If you knew how stupid and intolerable is the situation of a man who cooks and sets before a friend a meal, which he proceeds to eat in silence! Oh, for one word, for a friendly attack, but for God’s sake one word of sympathy, even if not of praise. Rubinstein was amassing his storm… Above all I did not want sentence on the artistic aspect.

My need was for remarks about the virtuoso piano technique. R’s eloquent silence was of the greatest significance. He seemed to be saying: “My friend, how can I speak of detail when the whole thing is antipathetic?” I fortified myself with patience and played through to the end. Still silence. I stood up and asked, “Well?” Then a torrent poured from Nikolay Grigoryevich’s mouth, gentle at first, then more and more growing into the sound of a Jupiter Tonans. It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten. “Here, for instance, this—now what’s all that?” (R caricatured my music on the piano) “And this? How can anyone …” etc., etc.

The chief thing I can’t reproduce is the tone in which all this was uttered. In a word, a disinterested person in the room might have thought I was a maniac, a talented, senseless hack who had come to submit his rubbish to an eminent musician. It was astonishing that such a ticking off was being given to a man who had already written a great deal and given a course in free composition at the Conservatory, that such a contemptuous judgment without appeal was pronounced over him, such a judgment as you would not pronounce over a pupil with the slightest talent who had neglected some of his tasks.

I was not only astounded but outraged by the whole scene. I am no longer a boy trying his hand at composition, and I no longer need lessons from anyone, especially when they are delivered so harshly and in such an unfriendly way. I need and shall always need friendly criticism, but there was nothing resembling friendly criticism. It was indiscriminate, determined censure, delivered in such a way as to wound me to the quick. I left the room without a word and went upstairs. In my agitation and rage I could not say a thing.

Presently R. enjoined me, and seeing how upset I was he asked me into one of the distant rooms. There he repeated that my concerto was impossible, pointed out many places where it would have to be completely revised, and said that if within a limited time I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honor of playing my thing at his concert. “I shall not alter a single note,” I answered, “I shall publish the work exactly as it is!” This I did.

*****

So, this was the first evaluation of what has come to be, for many music lovers, THE greatest piano concerto—or, at minimum, one of the most beloved.

Tchaikovsky was so hurt and annoyed at this behavior that he asked the great German pianist, Hans von Bulow, if he would give the premiere performance—which he did, in Germany, a thousand miles from Moscow.

Tchaikovsky did slightly revise the work, twice, in the following years, often at the suggestion of pianists who were performing it, making this passage more playable and that passage more easily heard through the bombast of an orchestra.

I don’t have figures for which piano concerto, in the history of music, has been performed the most often. I think there would only be a handful of contenders—the Rachmaninoff Second, the Chopin E minor, the Mozart D Minor, maybe the Beethoven Emperor concerto. But I imagine the Tchaikovsky would come out on top. It is a terrific audience pleaser, and for good reason.

The proportions of the concerto are unusual. The first movement alone is longer than the combined length of the 2nd and 3rd movements. It is a hugely difficult first movement from a technical angle, yet contains intense lyricism throughout. The second movement is reminiscent of many movements from Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, a sketch of idyllic repose. And the third movement is all fireworks from its very first notes, concluding with pages of stunning octaves from the pianist.

As you might expect, no work becomes beloved by the general public without the presence of tuneful, easily-remembered and beautiful melodies. Listening to the Tchaikovsky Concerto is something like being a butterfuly, gliding gracefully from one melodic flower to another.

A work like the Tchaikovsky Concerto, written nearly 150 years ago and with a long history, has, of course, a number of stories related to it. And the work been recorded countless times—it has always been a surefire winner in terms of album sales.

Certainly one of the most famous historical incidents–at least to Americans–concerning the concerto was when Van Cliburn, the tall and lanky young Texan, won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the cold war when America and Russia were deathly afraid of each other. Cliburn won with his performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

The main theme of the concerto’s first movement was utilized by Orson Welles in his famous Mercury Theatre of the Air radio program. In movies, just a couple memorable uses of the concerto are in the 1971 movie Harold and Maude and the 2005 film The Meaning of Life.

In terms of recordings, it would be a very long list indeed enumerating all the pianists who have recorded the concerto. Perhaps it would give an idea of the concerto’s enduring popularity by simply saying that Emil Gilels recorded it 14 times, Artur Rubinstein 5 times, the pianist Solomon recorded it 3 times, Sviatoslav Richter recorded it 5 times, and the list of great players who have recorded it twice is quite long. The work has been loved and listened to the world over ever since it became possible to record symphony orchestras.

*****

I should also mention here that I’ve been referring to the concerto as though it were a singular work and the only piano concerto Tchaikovsky wrote. It is not. He wrote two additional piano concertos, #2 in 1880 and #3 in 1893. The second concerto certainly has its moments—my own piano teacher, David Bar-Illan, was a champion of the second concerto, playing it often as well as recording it, and he always felt it was vastly underrated.

But the second concerto has never had (and will never have) the popularity of the first. The third concerto is essentially just a partial work—a single movement that at first had its life, in Tchaikovsky’s imagination, as a symphonic work. It is more of a curiosity than a concert piece.

*****

With the enormous popularity of such a concerto, it is actually difficult to choose a “best” YouTube version of the Tchaikovsky First to link to. One of the most popular is that of the young Martha Argerich, performing under Charles Dutoit. I believe they were married at the time (Tiraje knows these things better than I do—she knows everything Martha). Theirs was certainly a great collaboration. Argerich has always been known for her flair and fire, and of course, this recording is no exception. She plays the concerto as though it were the easiest thing in the world!

At 35 minutes, listening to the entire Tchaikovsky Concerto becomes a part of one’s day. But singling out one movement over another to listen to in this case seems a preposterous thing to do. So, I do hope you’ll have—or take—the time to listen to the whole work. If you already know the work—or maybe even this performance—it will be a long and pleasant reminiscence. If you don’t know the work, I would say you are in for a treat.

Pics are Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rubinstein, and the young couple–Martha Argerich and Charles Dutoit.

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#356 STRAUSS ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA

#356

RICHARD STRAUSS

ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA

INTRO ONLY—SUNRISE:

BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
HERBERT VON KARAJAN, CONDUCTOR

FULL: SUNRISE – BACKWATERS – GREAT LONGING – JOYS AND PASSIONS – SONG OF THE GRAVE – SCIENCE AND LEARNING – THE CONVALESCENT – DANCE SONG – SONG OF THE NIGHT WANDERER

LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC
ZUBIN MEHTA, CONDUCTOR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Along with all of America—and much of the world, really—I first became acquainted with Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra by hearing it in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. I went to see the movie in June of 1968 with my high school friends Rick and Tim, both of whom were musicians. We were all blown away by the music—throughout the movie—and of course by the ambiguous storyline. Afterwards, we went to McDonalds and discussed for a long time what that black monolith really was. The scene in the movie in which the Zarathustra music is heard is its very opening—the sun rising over the monolith.

*****

Richard Strauss wrote Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1896 at the age of 32. He was inspired by Fredrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name, which had been published a mere five years before. Nietzsche, of course, has become known to history as one of its deepest thinkers. The basic idea of Zarathustra is the idea of eternal recurrence—a theory that the universe and all existence and energy has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space.

That is a pretty heavy thought….And whether one agrees with it or not, the seriousness with which Nietzsche was taken during his lifetime is reflected by the rapidity with which one of the world’s greatest composers—Strauss—took the idea and attempted to reflect it in music.

Zarathustra had been the central figure in the ancient Persian religion/philosophy of Zoroastrianism. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra was the “new” Zarathustra, a figure who turned traditional thought and morality on its head.

*****

Richard Strauss truly was one of the great orchestral composers in the history of music. His tone poems—single movement works meant to tell a story or express an idea—have proven to have universal appeal. These tone poems include Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben, Symphonia Domestica, An Alpine Symphony—and of course, Also Sprach Zarathustra. Taken together, they could illustrate an ideal, and complete, utilization of the orchestra.

*****

During my student years in New York, I lived in a subletted room in a lady’s apartment on the upper West Side. She was a widow, a musician, and had an enormous rent-controlled apartment in which she rented out four rooms to students—from Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, and Columbia. I would take the subway home from all-day practice, and each night about 10:00 or so, would listen to whatever had my interest du jour.

How many nights I listened to the Mehta recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra! I was astonished to discover that after that incredible opening, that there were still 28 minutes of compelling—and super-lush—orchestral listening in Zarathustra!

Of all the Strauss tone poems, I would have to say this is my favorite.

I am including two links here: both the Introduction, with which everyone is familiar (in a truly spectacular performance) and the full version. The performers for the Intro clip are uncredited, but by comparing it with other Karajan recordings of the work, I am pretty sure this is Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a fantastic rendition. I have enjoyed Herbert von Karajan’s version with the Vienna Philharmonic ever since I first heard it in the original 2001 movie, but I think this is even better.

Mehta’s full version is the one I still think is the finest one available. In his hands, we hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic at its zenith. The full version of Zarathustra has nine subdivisions, each corresponding to significant chapters in Nietzsche’s novel.

*****

You will observe in the Intro clip a picture of Strauss congenially shaking hands with a Nazi official. Strauss was a Nazi, and held an official “cultural” position of high rank during the war years. It is possible that he truly believed there would be a sunnier, better future led by the National Socialist Party. If so, that was obviously quite naïve of him. Once again, we observe that the artistry of an individual can exist side by side with inclinations that the rest of the world wants nothing to do with, that a person’s gifts can be bigger than the person himself.

Enjoy Zarathustra. Listen to the music, don’t think about the composer.

Pics are Strauss, Nietzsche, the sun rising over the monolith.

 

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#351 RIMSKY-KORSAKOV SCHEHERAZADE: PRINCE AND PRINCESS

#351

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV

SCHEHERAZADE: THE YOUNG PRINCE AND YOUNG PRINCESS

ALL-STAR ORCHESTRA
GERARD SCHWARZ, CONDUCTOR

Music that speaks to the soul…

SCHEHERAZADE was a symphonic suite composed by the Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888. It is his most popular work, and represents the epitome of his (already great) orchestrating ability. Scheherazade is comprised of four movements, each one of which represents a facet of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

The Arabian Nights were, in turn, a collection of middle eastern folk tales written in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age from the 8th to the 14th centuries. In the Nights, Scheherazade is the wife of a Sultan, who has plans to kill her. She forestalls this plan by telling him story after story—the Arabian Nights.

Rimsky (as he is often referred to, a shortened version of his hyphenated last name) sought general inspiration from the Nights. His plan was not to depict particular stories from the Nights in Scheherazade. He originally titled the four movements “Prelude, Ballade, Adagio, and Finale”—generic titles with no special literary allusion. He did not want the listener to associate any of the movements specifically with the voyages of Sinbad, which are central to the Arabian Nights. Rather, he said:

“All I desire is that the hearer, if he likes my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements.”

*****

It was Rimsky’s faithful student and protégé Anatoly Lyadov who ultimately—after Rimsky’s death—gave each of the four movements its name, cementing in our minds the four stories:

1. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
2. The Kalandar Prince
3. The Young Prince and The Young Princess
4. Festival at Baghdad – The Sea – The Ship Breaks Against a Cliff

*****

I think I have mentioned elsewhere that Rimsky-Korsakov combined a career in the military with a life of composition, that he was a member—really the most professionally accomplished member—of “The Five”—those Russian composers who were breaking ranks with Western ways of composing—Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov. His influence on western composition, in turn, can be heard in works by Debussy, Ravel, and Respighi.

*****

Because of the immediacy and emotional depth of the music of Scheherazade, it has become a standard work in the symphonic repertoire. There are very few works of Russian music that are better known or more beloved. Non-musicians—even non-music lovers—have, over the years, become acquainted with it, hearing it as the backdrop for so many figure skating routines.

In particular, the third movement—The Young Prince and The Young Princess love story—is the simplest music of the suite, a simple A-B-A form, and the most immediately appealing. It is just so beautiful, with its long, spun-out phrases, music that speaks with immediacy to the soul.

*****

The All-Star Orchestra is a very interesting project of the conductor Gerard Schwarz. He gathered 95 of the best musicians from the major American orchestras—half from Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Washington (DC), Houston, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, and the other half from the various New York City orchestras. Together, they filmed 8 programs of symphonic music for PBS utilizing 18 high definition cameras, playing in empty halls—the emphasis was exclusively on the music with no distractions. Scheherazade was part of the series.

Pics are Rimsky-Korsakov and Gerard Schwarz.

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