#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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#289 ELLA FITZGERALD GERSHWIN SONGS

#289

ELLA FITZGERALD

GERSHWIN SONGS

I remember, as a young boy sometime in the 1950’s, seeing and hearing Ella Fitzgerald on various TV shows—variety shows of one kind or another. She was kind of ubiquitous—when I began to notice her, it seemed like she was always on this show or that. I had no idea that she was already known by various monikers—the First Lady of Swing, the Queen of Jazz, Lady Ella. But I could appreciate the pureness—that is the best word for it—of her tone. And, even at that age, I could appreciate the lyrics of whatever she was singing because she lived each song—she became a real musical conduit.

I want to only post one small–but significant–aspect of Ella’s vast repertoire today. I’ll plan on having more time—later—to really give a better tribute to Ella—Ella, who was known by all of America by her first name only.

My strongest connection with her singing is through the Gershwin Songbook. Tiraje has always had a real passion for Gershwin which was contagious. During her preparation, years ago, of playing a lengthy medley from the Gershwin Songbook for a pops concert with the Dayton Philharmonic, I got to really listening—because she was—to Ella singing these great songs.

For many music-lovers, the Gershwin songs ARE Gershwin, much more so than anything else. Gershwin, as we’ve noted before, started out—as a teenager—writing songs in Tin Pan Alley. He wrote one great song after another during his brief life. The “Gershwin Songbook” was actually published during his lifetime, in 1932, a collection of 18 of his songs.

These are the songs from that publication:

Clap Yo’ Hands
Do-Do-Do
Do it Again!
Fascinating Rhythm
I Got Rhythm
I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise
Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)
The Man I Love
My One and Only
Nobody But You
Oh, Lady Be Good
Somebody Loves Me
Strike Up the Band
Swanee
Sweet and Low Down
‘S Wonderful
That Certain Feeling
Who Cares? (So Long As You Care for Me)

In 1959, Ella greatly expanded on these 18 songs with the release of a 5 album set—Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book. It was recorded with Nelson Riddle, her first collaboration with the great conductor and arranger.

Choosing favorite Gershwin songs is an impossible task. Each one of them is a gem. I gravitate toward the ballads myself. Here are just a few of my favorite Ella-sings-George selections.

SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME

THE MAN I LOVE

S’WONDERFUL

EMBRACEABLE YOU

OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY

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#288 MOZART PIANO CONCERTO #14 IN E-FLAT MAJOR, K. 449

#288

MOZART

PIANO CONCERTO #14 IN E-FLAT MAJOR, K. 449

MURRAY PERAHIA, PIANIST AND CONDUCTOR
ENGLISH CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Some random thoughts about Mozart…

It is always so easy to project backwards in time, upon the lives of certain great composers, a 2018 sensibility—even if we have no intention of doing so. Since we cannot help but view everything—our own existence, the cosmos, everything that has gone before us—through the lens of our own time, it is inevitable that we will also do so when thinking about many of the great composers.

So I find myself, when listening to the Mozart piano concertos—or any Mozart, actually—frequently catching myself and remembering what it may have been like for him, what his orientation to his own life and time was, and how different that may have been from what we might think about it, if we simply give in to a knee-jerk reflexivity and imagine certain “modern” things about him.

My posting today of K. 449—we’re well past the half-way point in listening to the 21 solo concertos—dates from 1784. Mozart had just turned 28. He would live only another 7 years—not, of course, that he knew that. The recording of sound in the late 18th century was, of course, impossible. It may have been someone’s fantasy, but even that is not likely. Music was written for immediate consumption, and once performed, was not likely to be performed again. The age of ticketed concert series had not quite arrived—concerts were arranged by the church or by a particular court where a composer might be employed. Since Mozart had neither one of these situations during the last ten years of his life in Vienna, he had to arrange his concerts himself.

We’ve already observed how he would take his fortepiano—not yet the heavy, iron-laden thing it would ultimately become, but rather a wooden instrument with detachable legs that could be moved around from place to place via a carriage. He would take his instrument to the large home of a patron or some other important person, and perform his concertos with other musicians, serving as both conductor and piano soloist.

So, there were no concert series, no managers to secure a “booking” for performing in front a large and receptive audience. No adulation or back-slapping—no “way to go, Wolfgang, THAT was some concerto!”

There was also very little, in the minds of pre-Beethovenian composers, in terms of thinking about posterity—that is, how their creative work would fare in—and what it might mean to—future generations. In this regard, things were pretty zen in the art music world. One lived for the day, for the moment. Music playing (for the performers) and music appreciation (for the small-ish audiences that Mozart would have played for) were things that occurred in the moment, so to speak—remembered for a short time by the composer/performer, and forgotten very quickly by those in attendance.

There were no conservatories, brimming with brilliantly talented performers eager to learn your concertos. The age of the concert pianist, who performs a collection of works by other composers on a single concert program, was still decades away. If you composed, you performed. If you didn’t perform, your works would never be heard. Your very transient goal was simply to obtain that next performance of your work, to be heard by someone who might be able to make a NEXT performance of your NEXT work possible.

Although Mozart, when thinking about his operas, would have envisioned them as occurring in large theatres or halls designed for such a purpose, that would not have the case for his concertos—especially being, as he was, the first free-lance composer, someone who had to “make it” by his own ingenuity and through the people-connections that he could acquire. If he had been presented the opportunity to perform one of his concertos in a hall such as we are familiar with today—on a large proscenium stage, with 2000 or more seats, with the furthest seat being, say, 200 feet away–I imagine his first (and instinctive) thought would be that his instrument—the fortepiano—would simply not be heard very well in such an environment! His piano concertos were, musically, much more intimate affairs than we, as seasoned present-day concert-goers, might imagine.

These are some of the things I think about when listening to Mozart concertos. His world was quite removed from the world of classical music as we experience it in our century.

One of the reasons I got to thinking about this anew today is that I knew that, with K. 449, the E-flat major concerto, Mozart suddenly became quite self-conscious about his own work. From this work on, until he died, he kept a meticulous record of his works, arranging them in chronological order, marking dates of completion, writing down the themes of individual movements, and so on. We don’t know exactly why he did this. I think the likeliest guess would be that he wanted to keep a musical diary. And perhaps—perhaps—he was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, there might be some interest in him after his life was over. As it turned out, this “musical diary” has been quite valuable to biographers and musicologists.

And just one other thing, as I ramble on…Biographers of composers seem to always want to divide a composer’s life into three parts—early, middle, and late—even if the composer in question died young. It is not the most logical way of thinking about a composer’s work. I happened to become very OCD about Mozart about 15 years ago, attempting to learn all the details, musical and historical, about each of his 626 works. I’ve probably spent more time listening to “early” Mozart—say, everything he wrote up to his late teenage years—than most people. And one thing that is very interesting—and one aspect of this concerto, K. 449—is that there are MANY little turns of phrase, many harmonic progressions here in K. 449 that are totally identical to similar passages that he wrote in his earliest works—as a child.

Obviously, this kind of thing is true in every composer’s works—one recognizes stylistic similarities among any composer’s works, from beginning to end. (Well, not so true, I admit, for Stravinsky, but he was pretty exceptional…) The only reason I am mentioning this is that there exists, in the minds of many musicians, a prejudice concerning Mozart’s early works—that they are in some way inferior to his later works. When in fact, they are all cut from the same cloth. One just has to see the cloth in its entirety.

OK enough soapboxing…

I had also wanted to suggest ways of listening to music for non-musicians who know nothing at all about musical forms, keys, and so on. This post is already lengthy, so I’ll save that for the next Mozart concerto. WAM wrote three in a row, as we’ve seen he sometimes did—and K. 450 and 451 will be next up.

K. 449 is an extremely beautiful concerto, regarded by many music lovers as their favorite. Murray Perahia’s performance is exemplary. K. 449 is considered to be the first of Mozart’s “mature” concertos—obviously, a subjective designation, but one which reflects the care that he lavished upon each movement.

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#287 BRUCE HORNSBY MANDOLIN RAIN

#287

BRUCE HORNSBY

MANDOLIN RAIN

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Bruce Hornsby (b. 1954) is an American singer, pianist, and song-writer. He draws upon a pianistic background which includes classical, jazz, bluegrass, rock, and blues. Unlike many performing musicians who never bothered (or felt they never had to bother) with a college education, Hornsby honed his skills and widened his background by attending the University of Richmond (in his home state of Virginia), the Berklee School in Boston, and the University of Miami with its strong jazz program. As soon as he arrived in Los Angeles, he became a much-desired sessions player (as well as touring performer) for Ambrosia and for Sheena Easton. Over the years since then, he has appeared in albums released by Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills and Nash, Stevie Nicks and Pat Metheny. He was keyboard man for the Grateful Dead from 1988 to 1995 (when Jerry Garcia died). As a collaborator with others and then as lead man for his own band, Hornsby has garnered much attention and many awards.

RCA signed him and his band—The Range—in 1985 and he had his first (and biggest) hit with “The Way It Is.” Hornsby is particularly noted in his playing for his rhythmic invention, being able to overlap two different rhythms, to syncopate at will, and in general, to rhythmically retain his listeners’ attention. He combines in many of his recordings the sound of a synthesizer with that of a bright acoustic grand piano.

Hornsby has always been growing musically, and always experimenting with sound, especially with his newest group, Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers. But he always returns to his acoustic piano roots. His first release with Columbia Records in 2004–an acoustic piano CD–was done in collaboration with Sting, Elton John, and Eric Clapton, all titans of pop music. From time to time, Hornsby will also work in some Bach–the Goldberg Variations–into one of his concerts. He is truly a versatile musician! The most recent chapter in his musical life involves an ongoing collaboration with bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs.

My favorite Hornsby song is “Mandolin Rain” from 1986–early Hornsby. His love of bluegrass (which would ultimately result in a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 1990) overlaps with his rock experience in “Mandolin Rain.” It has long been in the Best of Best pop music folder on one of my Ipods. In particular, I am really attracted to what Hornsby does here rhythmically, and in particular the ten seconds (!) from 4:14 to 4:24—I just find it so pleasing!

A memory for some, maybe a brand new experience for others….

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#286 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #8 IN C MINOR, OPUS 13 (“PATHETIQUE”)

#286

BEETHOVEN

PIANO SONATA #8 IN C MINOR, OPUS 13 (“PATHETIQUE”)

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

There are, among the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, a number that have acquired nicknames—monikers that have become permanently associated with particular compositions and by which everyone now knows them. By my count, there are 12 of these. 12 out of 32.

Beethoven did not intend for a single one of these sonatas to have a “nickname.” They were, each one of them, simply compositions that were reflecting the next stage, the next page, in his creative life. Nevertheless, because of the nicknames, most listeners know these twelve sonatas better than the other twenty—twenty sonatas that are equally interesting, equally beautiful and each one of which moved Beethoven’s compositional evolution forward.

Just for the record, here are those nicknames:

“Grand Sonata” Sonata #4, Opus 7
“Pathetique” Sonata # 8, Opus 13
“Funeral March” Sonata #12, Opus 26
“Moonlight” Sonata #14, Opus 27, No. 2
“Pastoral” Sonata #15, Opus 28
“The Tempest” Sonata #17, Opus 31, No. 2
“The Hunt” Sonata #18, Opus 31, No. 3
“Waldstein” Sonata #21, Opus 53
“Appassionata” Sonata #23, Opus 57
“a Therese” Sonata #24, Opus 78
“Les Adieux” Sonata #26, Opus 81A
“Hammerklavier” Sonata #29, Opus 106

I briefly mentioned this phenomenon when we looked at Sonata #4 in E-flat major, the lengthy and impressive “Grand Sonata”—the sonata that Czerny, Beethoven’s assistant, felt was much more deserving of the title “Appassionata” than the work that actually came to bear that nickname. Nicknames can be handy for us, that is true. But I would wager that the above sonatas, collectively, are listened to far, far more than all the others. And that is certainly true of today’s sonata, the Opus 13 sonata in C Minor—the “Pathetique.”

When we looked at the Opus 10, No. 1 sonata, we saw how Beethoven favored the key of C Minor for compositions that were tragic, full of passion, and profound. The “Pathetique” sonata is another one of these C Minor works that expresses extreme passion and emotion in what I think of as being reminiscent of Greek tragedy—sorrowful and full of pity, life viewed through a tragic lens.

The word “pathetique” refers to this feeling of tragedy—not, as English speakers might presume, pathetic. There are other music works with this same appellation—notably Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and final symphony. Beethoven wrote this sonata in 1798 when he was 28. Many musicians regard the “Pathetique” as the culmination of Beethoven’s first period. Interestingly, there are still some sources today which say that Beethoven DID indeed pick and prefer the “pathetique” label. But in fact, it was his publisher who added the words “grande sonata pathetique” to the title page of the first edition.

It is true that Beethoven could have had the words removed—and did not—so perhaps there is a case for his at least acceding to the sonata being “pathetique.”

The work is in three movements. The first movement, which starts out quite slowly—and is marked “Grave” or “serious”—is no doubt one of Beethoven’s most well-known themes. It is as tragic as music can get. The whole movement is full of sturm und drang. A side note of interest (to me, anyway, and probably to most pianists) about Beethoven’s rhythmic notation is that fairly often in his piano works, Beethoven includes extremely small note values when attempting to “get it all in” in certain measures. It is not uncommon at all in other composers of the time to see eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and even thirty-second notes in their rhythmic notation. But in Beethoven, one often sees sixty-fourth notes, and even, as here in the “Pathetique” beginning, some hundred twenty-eighth notes. This kind of writing would typically occur in his slow movements, some of which appear at first glance—because of the presence of these small note values—to be massive blobs of ink—in which single measures stretch out into two staves of music!

Perhaps you may have been a listener to Karl Haas’s excellent “Adventures In Good Music.” AIGM was a syndicated daily radio program of classical music, expertly presented by Haas. AIGM had a 37-year run and was the most listened-to classical radio program in radio history. It was so popular that it was even kept going for two years—in reruns—after Haas’s death in 2005 at the age of 92. I was a great fan of AIGM. AIGM used as its theme music the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique.” It has become—and not because of AIGM, of course—one of the best-known melodies Beethoven would ever write. It is eminently hummable! Pop composer Billy Joel even used the theme as the chorus in one of his songs, “This Night.”

Finally, the restless energy of the last movement—when combined with the outstanding preceding movements—are obvious reasons that, of all the Beethoven sonatas, this is the first one that “caught fire” and established a fair amount of contemporary fame for the composer. It was a work that he himself played—if not in public, then for close associates—for the rest of his life.

Richard Goode’s performance, as usual, is exemplary.

Movement timings:
1st mov’t 0:00
2nd mov’t 8:35
3rd mov’t 14:06

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#285 BURT BACHARACH I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER

#285

BURT BACHARACH

I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER

DIONNE WARWICK
ARETHA FRANKLIN
LIANNE LA HAVAS
TRINTJE OOSTERHUIS

I suppose there are some music lovers who have never been attracted to the music of Burt Bacharach, but it’s really kind of hard for me to imagine. His writing is so inventive, so imaginative, and so felicitous that it just seems like anyone with ears would find it immediately pleasing.

Doing a panoramic survey of Bacharach’s songs will be the subject of another post—it’s too intimidating to take on right now. Together with his song-writing partner Hal David, Bacharach wrote hundreds of easy-listening songs from the 50’s to the 80’s. I’ll save my admiration (in writing) for him for later.

For right now, I just want to focus on one particular song, “I Say a Little Prayer.” Bacharach had developed a special (professional) relationship with Dionne Warwick, starting in 1962, when they recorded “Don’t Make Me Over.” For quite a number of years, Warwick’s voice, in hit after hit, was synonymous with Bacharach’s music.

I was in the middle of my tenth grade year of high school when “I Say a Little Prayer” was popular. I found both the melody, the rhythm (which is very interesting), and the lyrics all really attractive.

Hal David was Bacharach’s lyricist. They had already had ten years of song-writing success in 1967, when “Prayer” was released. The lyrics were timely: although not particularly evident when listening to the song, the lyrics are meant to convey a woman’s concern for her man who is serving in the Vietnam War—an extremely timely subject in the late 60’s.

“Prayer” was the fourteenth collaboration of Bacharach and Warwick which resulted in the release of a single. All of the previous recording sessions they had done were accomplished quickly—most of them in three successive takes, and many in just one. Bacharach insisted on ten takes of “I Say a Little Prayer.” Of particular concern to him was the tempo. The time signatures of “Prayer” were unusual in that they were continually varying: two measures of 4/4, a measure of 10/4, back to 4/4, and a chorus in 11/4 (which itself is subdivided into 4 and 3 and 4). Settling on a tempo that adequately reflected this varying meter, while also expressing the lyrics, was important to Bacharach.

Warwick’s version—the one that acquainted the world with the song, and still to this day is the version of the song that most listeners relate to or think of first—became a huge hit. It was certainly a song I loved. I can vividly remember having the song in the forefront of my mind during many a “homeroom” period—the first thing in one’s everyday life in high school—during the winter of 1968. But Bacharach was never fully satisfied with this version, feeling that, ultimately, it was just too fast.

“Prayer” was SO popular—whether you were relating to the contemporary (Vietnam etc.) lyrics or not—and most listeners, I am guessing, definitely were not. For most people, Prayer’s lyrics were timeless and simple and only concerned with love. And the music was infectious. The song was IMMEDIATELY covered—first by Sergio Mendes and then by the Baja Marimba Band—both of which illustrate the purely musical power—i.e. compositional, melodic and rhythmic—which the song held.

Aretha Franklin’s version of “Prayer” was released in the fall of ’68, not even a year after Warwick’s and it became yet another commercial success. Truer to the Bacharach’s feeling about the tempo, there was definitely something more real about her less upbeat version, something more soulful, something everyone could relate to. For many, Franklin’s version became the go-to version of Prayer.

I love them both, and am including links to both. But as you might expect from any well-written song, there are quite a number of covers of the song. It lends itself well to all manner of interpretations, from reggae to big band to calypso to soul to Sweet Adeline-type choral. The song was prominently featured in the 1997 Julia Roberts movie My Best Friend’s Wedding, which gave it a second life on the pop charts. “I Say a Little Prayer” is, among all Bacharach’s compositions, also one that did exceedingly well internationally, in other languages—in Mexico, in France, in Switzerland. Franklin’s version was a chart-topper in the U.K. as well.

Two of my favorite versions to appear well after Prayer’s initial success are those by Lianne la Havas and Trintje Oosteerhuis.

Lianne la Havas (born 1989) is a British singer and song-writer. Her exotic looks come from her Jamaican father and Greek mother. This particular video went viral years ago after it was recorded at Belgium’s Rock Werchter festival. Havas’ love for the song—which she says is “perfect in every way”—is evident in her delivery.

Trintje Oosteerhuis (born 1973) is a Dutch singer who I guess one could say specializes in doing covers—of Billie Holiday, George Gershwin—and of Burt Bacharach. Two of her albums—The Look of Love and Who’ll Speak for Love—are both collaborations with Bacharach, with whom she has a close professional relationship. Bacharach plays piano for her on each of these albums. Oosteerhuis can really get to the heart of Bacharach/David songs.

I think you will also like these two lesser-known “Prayer” versions, too.

DIONNE WARWICK

ARETHA FRANKLIN

LIANNE LA HAVAS

TRIJNTJE OOSRHUIS

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#284 CHOPIN THE WALTZES FOR PIANO

#284

CHOPIN

THE WALTZES FOR PIANO

VARIOUS PERFORMERS

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Painting: Chopin Playing the Piano in Prince Radziwill’s Salon by Hendrik Siemiradzki.

Waltzes were one of the pianistic genres that Frederic Chopin wrote in. These also included Nocturnes (Music I Love #144), Preludes (#283, #243, #215) Ballades (#187, #100, #44), Etudes (#161), Polonaises, Mazurkas, and Sonatas (#19). Among all the works he would write for solo piano, the Waltzes have an unequalled degree of elegance about them.

They were written for the salon, not the concert hall. They were not meant at all for dancing, they have no place in the ballroom. Rather they were written for the salon, for intimate performances for small audiences. Like many of the above genres, Chopin would write waltzes for his entire (too brief) life. His first waltz was written when he was 14, his last when he was 39—the year of his death.

Even casual music lovers are likely to be acquainted with one or two of the Chopin Waltzes, maybe without even knowing it—the so-called “minute” waltz in D-flat Major and the famous waltz in C-sharp Minor are probably the two best known. But, truthfully, all the waltzes deserve to be equally known and loved. Like the Nocturnes and the Etudes, there are no “weak” waltzes.

The exact number of waltzes that Chopin wrote is somewhat unclear. He only published 8 during his lifetime. Five more were published posthumously, and an additional five were published—when they were discovered—since his death, these without opus numbers. That brings the number to eighteen. Depending on the edition of them that one purchases, one will find anywhere from 14 (the minimum) to 18. In addition to these, there are an additional 18 that we know he wrote, but have been lost or are in the hands of private individuals, who have the legal rights to them. (Presumably, they were written as gifts and have been passed down generationally—although I am simply guessing at this.)

At the time of Chopin’s death, Opus 65 was as far as his published works were numbered. In the years immediately following his death, a number of other works—up to Opus 74—were published. After that, all works that were subsequently discovered were published as they turned up, but without opus numbers.

In writing this post, I was undecided about whether to simply post a single waltz—to give a flavor for the rest of them—or whether to link to quite a number of them. I’ve chosen to link to a number of them. Choosing a favorite waltz for me is simply ridiculous, not possible. My favorite Chopin Waltz is whichever one I happen to be listening to.

And I think you also will be happy with whichever one of these you click on…

A MINOR

One of the posthumous waltzes, given the kind of care and attention it deserves in a live concert by Grigory Sokolov.

E MINOR

I was so fortunate, when young, to be given a number of Chopin Waltzes to learn. This was my first. (But see below, Opus 34, no. 2.) And of course—needless to say—I could not then—or ever, of course—play this waltz as well as Evgeny Kissin! He is SO fine. This performance is an encore given after a concerto performance.

OPUS 18 “Grand Waltz Brilliante”

The brilliance of this waltz makes it a frequent program starter—or conclusion. Trifonov’s usual elegance.

OPUS 34 NO. 1 A-FLAT MAJOR

I had the great pleasure of judging this young lady in a competition when she was just 10 years old. As soon as I possibly could, at the conclusion of the competition, I found her mother in the audience and inquired, “Ma’am, do you know how gifted your daughter is?” Her mother was totally gracious and smiling—“Yes, we just moved to New York from Hong Kong so Tiffany could study at Juilliard.” She was the youngest student there. This is from one of her Juilliard recitals, when she was a grande dame of 14.

OPUS 34 NO. 2 A MINOR

This is a special memory for me in that it was actually the first waltz I played. It was in a simplified version for children, and I had no idea it was a waltz. It was titled and had an accompanying picture! “Stopping at an Inn on a Winter Evening.” It is lovingly played here by Valentina Lisitsa.

OPUS 69 NO. 2 B MINOR

Another of the posthumous waltzes, played very elegantly by Dalia Lazar in a live concert.

OPUS 70 NO. 1 G-FLAT MAJOR

Krystian Zimerman won the International Chopin Competition in 1975, so he is obviously formidable in the entire Chopin literature. Which is easy to hear here.

OPUS 69 NO. 1 A-FLAT MAJOR “L’ADIEU”

Yet another posthumous waltz, performed by—in many musicians’ opinion—THE great Chopin player of the 20th century, Artur Rubinstein. This waltz was written for Maria Wodzińska, to whom Chopin was once engaged–as a “goodbye” piece.

OPUS 64-1 D-FLAT

And another Chopin Competition winner–Garrick Ohlsson won the acclaimed competition in 1970. I have mentioned elsewhere that one of the greatest perks of all in attending Juilliard was getting to meet great players and performers who went on to be world famous—and always, for good reason. Garrick happened to be the best friend of my roommate, the late Edmund Battersby. I met him during my first month in New York, just after he returned from Poland and winning the Chopin Competition. He was always gracious, humble and interested in whatever YOU were doing. He has always been a class act, and as you can see, he is a giant of a man.

OPUS 64 NO. 2 C-SHARP MINOR

I think it is likely that if there is ONE Chopin Waltz that every pianist has played, it is this one. Its melodies, and the different character of its sections, are things that stay in an audience’s mind long after the concert is over. I probably don’t need to say that Sergei Rachmaninoff was not just a great composer or a great conductor, but he was also one of the 20th century’s great pianists.

OPUS 42 A-FLAT MAJOR

I featured Eric Lu in another Chopin post recently. I really love this young man’s playing! He was born to play Chopin… The melody of this waltz, though written in the traditional time signature of a waltz (3/4), is nevertheless heard by the listener as though it was written in 2/4.

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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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#282 BUBBLEGUM POP

#282

BUBBLEGUM POP

CUFFLINKS—TRACY
ARCHIES – SUGAR, SUGAR
TOMMY ROE—DIZZY

A friend and reader of my blog asked me a few months ago if or when I would be doing a post on bubblegum music—bubblegum pop, which received a LOT of radio play in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I think she thought I would balk at doing this—perhaps thinking I would feel it was beneath me? But I told her that yes indeed, I would be posting some bubblegum pop—because it IS music I love.

Some of it, anyway.

Bubblegum music was pop music aimed at a particular audience—pre-teens and teenagers. The market was always ripe, the songs were uniformly upbeat, the lyrics only mud-puddle deep, the harmonies were simple and repetitive, production was inexpensive—using assembly-line composition techniques (it they can even be called that), and often unknown—or nearly unknown—performing groups. The lyrics of bubblegum songs often included references to sweet things—sugar, honey, butterscotch, marmalade, anything sweet that could be compared to the experience of first love. Huge, win-win marketing deals were worked out between record producers and cereal and bubblegum manufacturers.

The actual term “bubblegum pop” was the invention of record producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz who—no surprise—produced many of the bubblegum groups. Bubblegum had a nice run in terms of material success, but—alas—instantly faded into history when disco and punk arrived in 1977.

When thinking about the fact that this music was aimed at such a young audience, it is possible that there may be something of a condescending approach to it from some pop music lovers who feel they can only be attracted to more grown-up songs with grown-up lyrics. When thinking that way, though, it is instructive to remember that the most successful—and arguably—ultimately—the best rock band in the world—the Beatles—had fans, in 1964, whose average age was 13, and for their first two years of releasing one hit after another, the Beatles were aiming squarely at this same market: I Want to Hold Your Hand, Do You Want to Know a Secret, Eight Days a Week, etc.

Not that I ever had any qualms about liking (some) bubblegum music. One is attracted to what one is attracted to….

But I AM using the qualifier “some” to say that out of all the bubblegum half-decade of “hits”, only a few really appealed to me. Many did nothing for me at all: the Lemon Pipers “Green Tambourine”, the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “1-2-3 Redlight”, the Ohio Express’s “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (I’ve Got Love In My Tummy)”, and Bobby Sherman’s “Hey, Little Woman”—all of them top ten songs in their time—did not musically interest me. There just wasn’t enough of a hook.

I should say, before getting into my “top three” bubblegum favorites that there were several groups who overlapped the bubblegum phenomenon and more legitimate serious) pop music. Three of these were the Monkees (“I’m a Believer”), the Cowsills (“The Rain, the Park, and Other Things”), and Tommy James and the Shondells (“Crystal Blue Persuasion”). I have quite a bit to say about their music, and somewhere down the road, plan on doing a separate post for each group.

But for today, it’s pure bubblegum.

My favorite bubblegum song was “Tracy” by the Cuff-Links. The Cufflinks was comprised of studio musicians in the Staten Island, NY area. They were produced by THE bubblegum legend, Ron Dante. Ron Dante not only wrote their songs, including “Tracy”, but he sang all the vocal parts, harmonized, produced, and multi-tracked everything. Not only was “Tracy” his creation, but he also created the fictional bubblegum group, the Archies (see below). Dante was also the award-winning producer for the first nine of Barry Manilow’s albums (!).

CUFFLINKS—TRACY

 

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#281 FLAMENCO GUITAR A SHORT SURVEY

#281

FLAMENCO GUITAR
A SHORT SURVEY

GIPSY KINGS – BAMBOLEO
BEN WOODS—BARCELONA NIGHTS
RAFAEL CORTES – DON CORTES MAYA
TOMATITO—SOY FLAMENCO
SABICAS – GRANADINAS
PACO DE LUCIA – ENTRE DOS AGUAS

PACO DE LUCIA, AL DI MEOLA, JOHN /MCLAUGHLIN – MEDITERRANEAN SUN

I cannot remember the first time I heard flamenco guitar. I am only guessing that it was in some television show or movie in which flamenco dancing was also taking place—perhaps by a beautiful, black-haired girl with a white top, red swirling skirt and black boots. I just don’t remember.

But I know that I’ve always been attracted to flamenco music. Every person who picks up a guitar for the first time has to play the three parallel major chords that (they presume) typify much flamenco music: E Major/F Major/G Major/F Major/E Major—the playing of which gives one a momentary feeling of connection with the instrument—and with flamenco. I think that when I was a kid, I had an idea, because of these three simple chords, that flamenco as a musical style was probably simple.

I could not have been more wrong in thinking that. Flamenco has a history at least 250 years old, is written many styles, and although it is a part of western music, it is also nevertheless considerably different from everything traditional.

Addressing flamenco music adequately is beyond the limited scope of a single post. But what I would like to do today is just list a few generalities about flamenco and then offer a few really impressive links.

• So, there are essentially five forms that comprise flamenco:

Toque — instrumental (guitar)
Cante—singing
Baile—dancing
Palmas—hand-clapping
Pitos—finger-snapping

• Flamenco is presumed, historically, to be an amalgamation of different kinds in indigenous music that were occurring at the same time in southern Spain in the 1700’s—and most of all, in Andalusia. Although flamenco music is often associated with the Gypsy ethnicity, it is much more a mix of native Andalusian, Muslim, Castilian, Jewish, and Gypsy music. Flamenco music in Spain actually pre-dates the arrival of Gypsies there, and it was only the Gypsies of Andalusia—not elsewhere across Europe—who played flamenco music. Flamenco is more about southern Spain along the Mediterranean than it is about the Gypsies.

• Of all the explanations that have been proffered regarding the origin of the word “flamenco,” the one that seems to make the most sense to me is that it is derived from the Spanish word “flama”—flame, or fire. “Flamenco” could have thus been associated with the tempestuous music of the Andalusian gypsies.

• A PALO is a flamenco style. There are over fifty palos, ranging from the very serious—cante grande—to the very frivolous—cante chico.

• Flamenco music uses a particular MODAL SCALE, a version of the ancient Phrygian mode. That scale would be, from bottom to top: E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E. Note that is NOT our major scale: E-F sharp-G sharp-A-B-C sharp-D sharp-E—nor is it our minor scale: E-F sharp-G-A-B-C-D sharp-E. It is also interesting—and essential—to note that flamenco music relies on microtonal writing, particularly for singers, in which successive sounds are frequently smaller than a traditional half-step. I don’t want to get too technical here, but this is important: as all string players know, “enharmonic” notes—notes that, on the keyboard, which are identical, such as F-sharp and G-flat, and represent exactly the same sound—enharmonic notes are different pitches for string players, with the F-sharp being lower than the G-flat. For flamenco guitarists, this is standard and routine. The long and short of this—of this paragraph—is that flamenco music has a particular sound that is more flexible, that has more “bend” than our western ears are used to.

• Finally, the importance of rhythm—COMPAS—to flamenco cannot be understated. If there is no guitarist around to make the rhythm apparent, then hand-clapping and finger-snapping must be employed. A strong rhythm is essential.

Flamencos are written in three rhythms: what we know as traditional 2 beats per measure (as in tangos); 3 beats per measure (as in fandangos); and—very important for flamenco—the use of 12-beat patterns which do not correspond to anything in classical music, and in which the strong beat that we would call the “downbeat”—the first beat of a measure—is not stressed. Rather, a typical 12-beat pattern would have its accents heard in the following way (I’m sorry that the typographical limitations of Facebook make me have to write it for you this way):

one-two-THREE-four-five-SIX-seven-EIGHT-nine-TEN-eleven-TWELVE—with the capitalized beats being accented. As an example of this in music that you may already know, Leonard Bernstein uses 12-beat patterns in his “America” from West Side Story.
________________________________________________

Even this little flamenco information may be more than you need or want. But it may also give you something to think about as you listen to these excellent examples.

I happened to become interested enough in flamenco to start learning about it after hearing the Gipsy Kings about twenty years ago. I think my older son Jason had recommended them to me. The Gipsy Kings (their spelling) are a group of musicians from southern France who perform Andalusian Spanish music. All the members’ parents were in fact Spanish gypsies. The worldwide popularity of the group took off in 1989 when their third album, “Gipsy Kings,” took off in the U.S.—particularly the song “Bamboleo.”

The Gipsy Kings have been criticized for not being flamenco purists, but that has not diminished their audiences’ enthusiasm for their music. And there is no question that flamenco is their original source of inspiration.

GIPSY KINGS – BAMBOLEO

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Ben Woods is a sensational guitarist who plays all over the world and who has become best known for his blending of Flamenco and Metal—a strange combination, for sure, but he makes it work. Anything he plays, whether it is straight flamenco or a blend of flamenco and other influences, is incredibly impressive. He has impressive fingers.

BEN WOODS – BARCELONA NIGHTS

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Rafael Cortes (b. 1973) and Jose Fernandez Torres (who is known as “Tomatito”—b. 1958), both native Spaniards, are the most prominent flamenco players of our current time.

RAFAEL CORTES – DON CORTES MAYA

TOMATITO—SOY FLAMENCO

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Sabicas (1912-1990) was a flamenco guitarist of gypsy origin. He was one of flamenco’s greatest players and composers. His technique was considered to be the best in the world. A grand old master, as you can see in this older video.

SABICAS – GRANADINAS

__________

And finally, there is Paco de Lucia (1947-2014), who was not only a virtuoso player and composer, but an innovator as well. By the 1960’s, flamenco as a beloved tradition was losing its traditional popularity in Spain. De Lucia sought to keep the tradition alive by infusing flamenco with salsa, with jazz, and with bossa nova—old wine in new skins. It was a huge loss to the music world and to his many fans when de Lucia—who had a 2-pack a day smoking habit—collapsed and died on a Mexican beach a few years ago. This video was de Lucia in his prime, as a young man, with his group in the late 1970’s.

PACO DE LUCIA – ENTRE DOS AGUAS

 

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