Category: Orchestral/Choral/Chamber

#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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#264 BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY #9 IN D MINOR, OPUS 125, FOURTH MOV’T ODE TO JOY

#264

BEETHOVEN

SYMPHONY #9 IN D MINOR, OPUS 125
“CHORAL SYMPHONY”

FOURTH MOVEMENT
“ODE TO JOY”

CHRISTIAN THIELEMANN, CONDUCTOR
VIENNA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
VIENNA SINGVEREIN
ANNETTE DASCH, SOPRANO
MIHOKO FUJIMURA, ALTO
PIOTR BECZALA, TENOR
GEORG ZEPPENFELD, BASS

Although there may be other contenders—for the classical music tune that the most school children are familiar with even though they don’t know where it comes from—I am guessing that the “Ode to Joy” melody would win such a contest. It is the central theme around which everything else revolves in the fourth and final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Its simplicity—it moves up and down by scale degrees, making it easy to sing and easy to remember—has endeared it to many millions of music lovers, both serious and casual, for nearly two hundred years.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the prospect of writing anything about the Ninth Symphony. It is one of those cases where the more you know about it and the more you know about Beethoven, the less competent you feel in taking on the subject matter—there is just so much there. Beethoven finished composing the symphony in 1824, just three years—as it turned out—before he died, at the age of 57. It is such a towering masterpiece that its mere existence has intimidated all composers ever since.

I have always liked a good analogy. So–if one were to make an analogy, Beethoven’s Ninth would be the planet Jupiter. The works by the next two great symphonists (chronologically) after him—Brahms and Mahler—would be Saturn and Uranus. Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Schumann would be Neptune-sized; Dvorak and Sibelius Earth-sized; Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff Venus-sized; everyone else, Mercury. Or put another way, if it were a tree, Beethoven’s Ninth would be a giant redwood, and all the rest would be your regular forest pines and neighborhood oak trees. You get the idea. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was of such scope, and such depth—Beethoven’s compositional output, period, was of such breadth—that everyone coming after him did whatever they could to avoid the inevitable comparison.

Brahms postponed and postponed his own first symphony for fear of it being compared with Beethoven’s last symphony. Mahler, the great Austrian composer whose life overlapped the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—had deep and unshakable superstitions regarding the composition of his own ninth symphony which were related to his feelings about Beethoven’s Ninth. Upon finishing his Eighth Symphony—the Symphony of a Thousand (because of the large number of performers required for it)—he absolutely felt he would die at the conclusion of his next symphony—number 9. He felt that no self-respecting composer should attempt that magical number, it belonged to Beethoven. To do so would be, he felt, sacrilege, and would surely bring bad luck—it would bring death. He actually disguised his ninth symphony by naming it Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Having felt he had thus cheated death, he went about composing his great own great ninth symphony. Halfway through the composition of #10, however, he did indeed die.

All of this is just to point out the stature of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and to give an idea of the esteem it was held in by composers who had to follow in his footsteps.

The symphony is written in four movements, and requires about 75 minutes to perform. With the composition of his Third Symphony, which requires about 50 minutes, Beethoven had already broken the bonds of symphonic length and form. In the Ninth, he adds a chorus to the final movement, the first major composer to do so in a symphony, thus creating what was, in its time, the longest symphony ever written.

I cannot recall the first time I heard the “Ode to Joy” melody—it probably appeared in one of my earliest piano books when I was seven years old. It is a melody that I could hear forever and not tire of. I first heard the melody in its appropriate context—as part of a symphonic recording—in the Toscanini/NBC Symphony Beethoven set while I was in high school. Like all of my Toscanini LP’s, I played it until it was unplayable.

Here, I’d just like to cover some salient points about the Ode to Joy movement.

• At the time of the Ninth Symphony’s premiere performance, Beethoven had not appeared in public—because of his hearing situation—for twelve years. As with all of his major works, the premiere took place in Vienna. But Beethoven had to be persuaded to allow the premiere to occur there. By this time—the 1820’s—quite a bit of the music heard, in this most musical of all cities, was Italian—Rossini operas, in particular. Beethoven had preferred, and planned on, the work being premiered in Berlin to an audience that he felt would have a deeper understanding of Schiller’s text. In the end, he was petitioned—by popular acclaim of the notables of the city as well as the general populace—to go ahead with the premiere in Vienna, and that is what occurred.

• The premiere at the Theater am Kärntnertor involved the largest number of performers ever assembled for a symphonic performance. I think it is important to imagine this first performance: Michael Umlauf, the Theater director, knew how disastrous it would be for the deaf Beethoven to attempt to conduct at all—which is what both he and the public wanted—let alone such a colossal work. So, a kind of dual-conducting arrangement was fashioned in which the orchestra was advised (by Umlauf) to ignore Beethoven’s conducting and follow Louis Duport—the actual conductor of the Philharmonic—with Duport occupying the conductor’s podium and Beethoven standing in front of it. Beethoven, of course, was hearing his composition in his mind, and would set the tempos before each movement by beating a silent measure for the players and singers to see.

But, he could not help himself from becoming physically involved in the performance. A description has come down to us: “Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.”

It was widely reported—enough times and from enough sources to appear credible—that, since he could not hear, Beethoven continued to conduct after the final notes were played. At that point, one of the female vocal soloists turned him around to acknowledge a staggering ovation from a packed house. The audience did not hold their applause to the symphony’s conclusion, though. They were stunned by every part of the symphony, and acknowledged Beethoven with standing ovations after every movement.

• Beethoven had hand-picked the four vocal soloists. It is interesting that the two female singers were very young women—ages 18 and 20—who would have only been known to Beethoven by the operatic reputations, not from his hearing them first-hand—Henriette Sontag and Caroline Unger.

• You may know the words to the melody as being “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” These English words were added to the melody in 1907 by an American, Henry van Dyke. This is the version found in countless hymnals around the English-speaking world.

• There have been far too many performances of the Ninth Symphony to celebrate this event or that circumstance to list here. Perhaps one performance in our recent collective memory is that of Leonard Bernstein conducting a multi-national orchestra, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

• One interesting music trivia fact is that the length of compact discs—CD’s—was originally formulated to be 74 minutes long based on the length of time it takes to perform the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. The recording engineers at Philips and Sony felt that if a single CD could contain the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, that would suit everyone in the listening world. As a guide, they utilized the legendary 1951 recording of the Ninth by Wilhelm Furtwangler, which takes 74 minutes.

THE TEXT

• The Ode to Joy poem was written by the poet Friedrich Schiller in 1785. Beethoven added some of his own text additions to the poem. Clearly, to the deaf, lonely, and big-hearted Beethoven, the words of this poem, which would form the nucleus of the final movement of his final symphony, were important. The poem is addresses the unity of all mankind:

O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More songs full of joy!
Joy!
Joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.

Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join our song of praise;
But those who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At natures breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He sent on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
Like a hero going to victory!
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.

Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your creator?
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must he dwell.

• A formal analysis of the fourth movement has proven to be a subject of disagreement among music theorists and writers—and probably not of extreme interest to readers of these posts. I just want to give my own quick synopsis of the “Ode” movement as a possible listening aid.

0:00 setting the groundwork, reworking ideas from previous movements
3:16 first appearance of the Ode to Joy theme, low strings, unison melody only
4:00 first decorations of the OTJ theme, strings and bassoon
4:45 string orchestra – extremely lovely interweaving around the OTJ theme
5:26 full orchestra OTJ
7:55 melody sung by bass OTJ melody
8:40 soloists sing OTJ melody in ensemble, joined in by chorus
10:24 Turkish March – a different key, a laid-back version of the OTJ theme started by winds, then joined by tenor
12:00 orchestral fantasy involving music from previous movements
13:49 wonderful full chorus/orchestra treatment of OTJ
14:40 slower-paced choral/orchestra re-treatment of theme from first movement

From 19:00 to the end – Beethoven throws everything into the soup, snippets of the Ode to Joy theme continually interspersed in what can only be described as controlled frenzy.

Such brief remarks as these do not do justice to this remarkable movement, let alone the entire symphony. If you already know the Ode To Joy melody, this performance by the Vienna Philharmonic—some 187 years after they premiered it—should be a treat. If by chance you’re hearing it for the first time, it may be a revelation.

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#263 SIBELIUS SYMPHONY #2 IN D MAJOR, OPUS 43

#243

SIBELIUS

SYMPHONY #2 IN D MAJOR, OPUS 43

GEORGE SZELL, CONDUCTOR
ROYAL CONCERTGEBOUW ORCHESTRA

Can a symphony capture the essence of a nation?

When the title of one’s blog is “Music I Love,” then obviously, superlatives about whatever I’m posting will abound. So, here is yet another work about which I cannot find adequate words to describe how much I love this music.

Sibelius wrote seven symphonies. There is nothing wrong with any of the others—the fifth and the seventh are very often performed, and all of them have much to offer the attentive listener. The Second Symphony is the greatest of them all, however. And furthermore, it is simply one of the great symphonic works of the twentieth century.

My students all know that I am not one who easily equates music to “things”—whether they are people, places, or ideas. Nevertheless…there is something about this symphony that evokes the great forests and craggy sea inlets of Finland. Surprisingly to me, these are feelings that came to me immediately and unprompted upon hearing the symphony, some 46 years ago. There is a “northern-ness,” a certain intrinsic Nordic quality, to this music that is unmistakable.

I should also mention that this performance of George Szell conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (of the Netherlands) has been, since 1964, at the very top of many reviewers lists as the very best recording of this work. I’ve heard many recordings of the work. This one is phenomenal. Szell’s ability to control the dynamics of the RCO—a legendary orchestra—is superb.

Jean Sibelius is Finland’s pride. He composed the Second Symphony 1901-02, shortly after the premiere of his popular Finlandia—another wonderful and obviously nationalistic work, but not quite the Everest represented by this symphony. Sibelius called his Second Symphony a “confession of the soul.” He conducted the inaugural performance of the work in 1903 with the Helsinki Philharmonic. Three sold-out performances—the first one scheduled and the additional ones by public demand—indicate the enthusiasm—and the pride—felt by native Finns for this music.

It should be mentioned that aside from the nationally-indigenous imaginings that the piece conjures up, the work—especially its final movement—became a focal point for the Finnish public in their desire for independence from Russia (Finland was part of Russia at this time). Serious music critics of the time were saying they heard the voice of an independent Finland expressed in this music, likening Sibelius to a shaman at work. The unmistakable Nordic sound of the Second Symphony caused it to be championed—by many who heard it—as the “Symphony of Independence.”

It is somewhat ironic—viewed in retrospect—that Sibelius was born into a Swedish family in Finland, and did not enter the Finnish educational system until he was eleven, learning the Finnish language during his teens. Nevertheless, he became a resolute Finn in spirit, and prided himself as a composer for writing music representative of the Finnish people. He was a Finn through and through.

The symphony is written in four movements, requiring 40-some minutes of listening time. As I have suggested before, if you think you might have an interest in hearing this great work—and do not have 40 minutes to spare—then I would listen to one movement at a time. If even this is not possible, then I would plead with you to just listen to the first movement. I do not see how you could regret this. (Plus, I think listening to it will “hook” you for the whole work.)

Sibelius was a master at writing for all sections of the orchestra, but perhaps this is most true of his writing for the winds. And among the winds, perhaps this is most true of his writing for bassoon. The darkness with which he writes for the winds here brings to mind—for me—those winter months in the high latitudes when the sun sets in mid-afternoon and there are less than six hours of daylight each day. The equality of the strings and winds in the first movement achieve a feeling of remarkable Spartan northern-ness.

Sibelius likened the second movement of the symphony to a feeling of broken-hearted protest against injustice, as though “the sun had lost its light and flowers had lost their scent”—a feeling of desolation. The quiet, plucked string bass at the outset, contrasting with the bassoon/oboe plaintive lament – is something one does not forget. Ecstasy via music is certainly something I experience each time within this movement.

The third movement starts off with an angry machine-gun figure for the strings. The winds are given plenty of action again here. One feels this movement is all about preparation for the fourth movement, to which it is conjoined. Some commentators feel a similarity between this last movement and the final glorious movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (Beethoven also conjoins his third and fourth movements in that symphony.) Its colossal and regal themes are indeed glorious, and are one reason native Finns saw this movement as an unsubtle call for Finnish independence.
________________________________

Certainly a topic for future contemplation in these posts is composers who “quit while they were ahead.” We have often made mention of composers who died prematurely. But there have also been some cases of first-rate composers who simply made a decision to stop composing. Sibelius was one of these. Sensing, at the age of 60, that the kind of music he was writing was out of step with the “new” music of Schonberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok, he decided to simply rest of his laurels.

Sibelius died at the age of 91. His reputation as one of the great symphonists of the twentieth century was undiminished at the time of his death—and remains so.

Sibelius’s Second Symphony….

1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 9:26
3rd movement 22:07
4th movement 27:51

Photos are the young Sibelius; TIME’s recognition of Sibelius in 1937; the opening measures of the symphony; Szell’s legendary recording.

[Even though I am in Istanbul at the moment, my (self-imposed) schedule of daily activities—museums, much time spent with friends, and our usual trek to Bodrum in southern Turkey—will necessitate my posting in the early mornings—as I always have. I hope this does not interfere with anyone seeing the next couple weeks of posts.]

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