Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: They don't make organists like Virgil Fox anymore

Virgil Fox at the console of Riverside Church's grand Aeolian-Skinner organ

by Ken

Somehow I wound up with at least two and maybe three copies of a CD reissue in the "RCA Living Stereo" series: the album of Encores recorded January 27-30, 1958, on the grand Aeolian-Skinner organ of Manhattan's Riverside Church by that master showman of the organ Virgil Fox (1912-1980). When one of those copies, still sealed, suddenly popped out in the open, it got me to thinking. While most of the selections would be sneered into oblivion by today's musical intelligentsia,

I had a feeling it would be both more fun and more musical than the music being generated contemporarily in what word has it is a new golden age for the organ, with incomparable genius organists composing new horizons for this grand old instrument. The only thing that would be more exciting is if any of the music was the tiniest fraction as interesting as these little baubles.

So I thought today we'd just arrange a series of musical snapshots from the album, like these organ arrangements of three thrice-familiar little pieces.

BACH: Jesu, joy of man's desiring (arr. from final chorale of Cantata No. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: In D.C., still no Lincoln -- or even a Boccanegra

Leonard Warren as Simon Boccanegra
I weep for you, for the peaceful
sun on your hillsides,
where the olive branches
bloom in vain.
I weep for the deceptive
gaiety of your flowers,
and I cry to you "Peace!"
I cry to you "Love!"

Leonard Warren (b), Simon Boccanegra; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fritz Stiedry, cond. Live performance, Jan. 28, 1950

Lawrence Tibbett (b), Simon Boccanegra; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Ettore Panizza, cond. Live performance, Jan. 21, 1939

by Ken

The great political chronicler Richard Reeves titled his book about the start of the post-Nixon (i.e., post-Watergate) presidency of Jerry Ford: A Ford, not a Lincoln. I think of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt. And while other American presidents have certainly risen to moments of great challenge, it's not something our political system can be counted on to make happen, and if anything even less so with the rabble that makes up our Congresses.

So perhaps it's not surprising that under the combined influence of the fratricidal follies rending the House of Representatives and a not-all-that-attentive watching of the whole of the upgraded-for-HD Ken Burns Lincoln film, and in addition with the notable contrast of the summonses to a very different sort of action delivered by Pope Francis on his American visit, my mind wandered to the rising-to-the-moment of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, the plebeian Doge of Genoa faced with the riot that breaks out in his own Council Chamber between the blood-rival factions of Plebeians and Patricians, following the attempted abduction of the patrician daughter Amelia (in reality Boccanegra's long-lost daughter Maria, as he himself has only recently discovered, in the Recognition Scene of Act I, Scene 1, which we spent a fair amount of time on here once upon a time) on behalf of the Doge's henchman Paolo, which was foiled by Amelia's patrician fiancé, Gabriele Adorno, who killed the would-be abductor.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Ramón Vinay and the search for the soul of Otello

Lauritz Melchior sings Otello's monologue (in German, in a 1930 HMV recording) maybe better than I've heard anyone else sing it. (Note: We've got English texts coming up in a bit if you want to jump ahead to them.)

by Ken

I first heard about the Melchior performance of Otello's monologue in Conrad L. Osborne's 1963 High Fidelity magazine discography of Otello. It took awhile, but eventually one day I was browsing the import section of the new releases at one of the record stores I frequented, and there was an LP devoted to Melchior on a label I had never seen, which as far as I could tell didn't even identify itself, except as "Lebendige Vergangenheit," or LV. The company turned out to be Preiser, which became and remains an important source of vocal reissues. I didn't know that then, though, but I had no choice except to pay bust-out retail for the disc. (When could I expect to find this unknown label on sale?)

As I hope you've already heard, the performance turned out to be every bit as good as promised by CLO.

As it happens, Conrad's Otello discography in High Fidelity is also the source of the quote about Ramón Vinay's Otello that I talked about the other day, when I recounted how I succeeded in digging it up for an obituary I was assigned to write of the Chilean-born baritone-tenor-baritone after he died (on Jan. 4, 1996; I looked it up).


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Swinging Haydn with Vilmos Tatrai playing and conducting

Violinist and conductor Tátrai (1912-1999)

Symphony No. 31 in D (Horn Signal) (1765):
i. Allegro

Symphony No. 73 in D (La chasse) (The Hunt) (1782)
iv. Presto

Hungarian Chamber Orchestra, Vilmos Tátrai, cond. Hungaroton, recorded 1965

by Ken

So I noticed this CD lying atop one of the millions of piles of CDs I've finally been trying to organize, and it didn't instantly ring a bell: a pair of D major sort of hunt-themed Haydn symphonies -- the Horn Signal, No. 31, and La Chasse, No. 73, performed by the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Vilmos Tátrai. Above we've heard the movements most responsible for the symphonies' nicknames (though it should be noted that the then-overwhelming contingent of four horns is used throughout the Horn Signal Symphony).


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Signposts on the steep path of Otello's downfall

Now and forever farewell, blessed memories!
Farewell, sublime enchantments of her thought!
Farewell, shining battalions; farewell, victories,
flying arrows and flying steeds!
Farewell, triumphant and sacred banner,
and reveille ringing shrilly in the morning!
The clamor and song of battle, farewell!
The glory of Otello is here at an end!

Francesco Tamagno (t), Otello; piano. Victor, recorded February 2003 (digital transfer by Tim Ecker) -- for some notes on this recording, see below

by Ken

We've been ruminating about and eavesdropping on Verdi and Boito's Otello and his monstrous fall, and last week I posed the question of how the Moor of Venice sinks from the ecstatic raptures of the Act I Love Duet to the moment in Act III when he browbeats the innocent Desdemona lying in the dust by his hand ("More Vickers -- 'Otello fu,' how he gets from here to there").

I would like to answer that more fully, but for now we're just going to signal a pair of signposts along the way, as the poisons his lieutenant "honest Jago" dumps in his mind take hold, in the form of the lie that Desdemona is having an affair with the Moor's former lieutenant, Cassio. Then next week I hope to flesh these moments out.

Otello: Act II, Otello "Tu, indietro" . . . "Ora e per sempre addio"
OTELLO: You! Stand back! Flee!
You have bound me to the cross! Alas!
More horrible than any horrible injury
is the injury of suspicion!
In the secret hours of her lust
(and they were stolen from me!) was by breast agitated
by no omen? I was bold, happy.
I knew nothing yet; I didn't feel
on the divine body that I adored
and on her lying lips
the burning kisses of Cassio! And now, and now . . .

Now and forever farewell, blessed memories!
Farewell, sublime enchantments of her thought!
Farewell, shining battalions; farewell, victories,
flying arrows and flying steeds!
Farewell, triumphant and sacred banner,
and reveille ringing shrilly in the morning!
The clamor and song of battle, farewell!
The glory of Otello is here at an end!

[from "In the secret hours of her lust"] Enrico Caruso (t), Otello; Victor Orchestra. Victor, recorded in New York City, Dec. 28, 1910

Mario del Monaco (t), Otello; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Georg Solti, cond. Live performance, June 30, 1962

Jon Vickers (t), Otello; Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. Live performance from the Salzburg Festival, July 30, 1971

Plácido Domingo (t), Otello; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Carlos Kleiber, cond. Live performance, Dec. 7, 1976

Luciano Pavarotti (t), Otello; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded live in concert, April 1991

The great heroic tenor Francesco Tamagno was 36 when he created the role of Otello at La Scala in February 1887, but 52 and semi-retired when he recorded three excerpts, in February 2003: Otello's entrance, "Esultate"; the scene at the end of the opera following his murder of Desdemona, "Niun mi tema"; and the performance we heard above of the Act II outburst "Ora e per sempre addio." At least four takes have been circulated, and they're noticeably different, perhaps nor surprising when we hear his sort of improvisatory, embellished approach -- and all much slower than the composer's metronome marking, which we see above.

But notice that Enrico Caruso too sings "Ora e per sempre addio" a lot more lyrically than the virtual battle cry we're accustomed to. Would they actually have sung it this way (a good deal slower than Verdi's metronome marking, as we see above) in the theater? Who knows?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: More Vickers -- "Otello fu," how he gets from here to there

Jon Vickers (t), Otello; Rome Opera Orchestra, Tullio Serafin, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July-Aug. 1960

by Ken

Leonard Bernstein had such a strong feeling for the scene of the death of Otello as depicted by Arrigo Boito and Giuseppe Verdi that, as I recall the story (maybe somebody can help me out here? I can't remember where I read or heard him tell the story), he named a family dog "Otello Fu" -- and everyone assumed the name was Chinese.

Last week, remembering Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, we heard two performances of the sublime Love Duet that ends Act I of Verdi's Otello, one of his legendary roles. I should perhaps have issued a spoiler alert before noting that by the end of the opera Otello will murder Desdemona.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: More Vickers -- "I am afraid, I am afraid that I will never again be granted this divine moment" (Boito and Verdi's Otello)

A chunk near the end of the Otello Act I duet lip-synched by Jon Vickers (Otello) and Mirella Freni (Desdemona), from the Unitel film, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, including our excerpt (at 1:21)
[The sky is now quite clear. Some stars are visible and, on the rim of the horizon, the blue reflection of the rising moon.]
OTELLO: Such is my soul's joy that I am afraid,
I am afraid that I will never again be granted
this divine moment
in the unknown future of my destiny.
DESDEMONA: Dispel such anguish.
Our love will not change from year to year.
OTELLO: Upon this prayer,
let the ranks of angels respond: Amen.
DESDEMONA: Amen, let them respond.

Jon Vickers (t), Otello; Leonie Rysanek (s), Desdemona; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Tullio Serafin, cond. RCA, recorded July-Aug. 1960

Jon Vickers (t), Otello; Mirella Freni (s), Desdemona; Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan. Live performance from the Salzburg Festival, July 30, 1971

by Ken

We've talked about this before, and for me the giveaway here is Otello's repeated "temo" ("I am afraid"). I suppose someone without his potentially disabling fear might express himself similarly at a moment of such perfect happiness -- and this is surely the greatest love scene, with or without music, ever imagined by the mind of artistic man, only somewhat undercut by our knowledge that by the end of the opera the man will murder the woman.

But again, listen to that repeated "temo," and tell me you're not hearing a man who, at the pinnacle of his success, both career-wise and personal, believes at every moment that in the next moment it could all be taken away from him. If for some reason you really, really hated Otello, and wanted to destroy him, and you knew this about him, this might be the angle you would work.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Jon Vickers in consolatory, even happy mode

"Froh, froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen"

Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
which he set on their courses,
through the splendor of the firmament;
thus, brothers, you should run your race,
like a hero going to conquest.

Jon Vickers, tenor; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. Westminster-MCA-DG, recorded June 1962

Jon Vickers, tenor; Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Cleveland Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded Oct. 13-15, 1978
-- from the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

by Ken

Last week I put together, from audio clips we'd already heard over the years, a quick tribute to the late Jon Vickers, and still feel guilty about not including at least English texts for the selections, on the shabby ground that digging them out would have involved too much time and effort. (Well, oo-hoo!) Nobody complained, which is even more discouraging. One of these days I will go back and fix that post.

I led that post off with the above excerpt from the epochal finale of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, precisely to hear Vickers in a "froh" frame of musical mind, since his greatest musical assumptions, despite moments of triumph, were on the desolate side. Again, we have two versions, one early-ish, the other much later. I thought you might like to hear the complete performances of the finale from which the excerpts are drawn (which we have in fact heard before, so you'll find them at the end.)


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

Jon Vickers and Sena Jurinac as Florestan and Leonore (Covent Garden, 1961)

From the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony:
"Froh, froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen"
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
which he set on their courses,
through the splendor of the firmament;
thus, brothers, you should run your race,
like a hero going to conquest.

Jon Vickers, tenor; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. Westminster-MCA-DG, recorded June 1962

Jon Vickers, tenor; Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Cleveland Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded Oct. 13-15, 1978

by Ken

Jon Vickers died last week at 88. Over the years at Sunday Classics we've heard a lot of Vickers, for reasons I hope will be obvious from the the handful of selections I've selected for today's "Snapshots" post. I'm thinking we ought to do some sort of proper retrospective of just the stuff we've heard, but meanwhile, I think these snippets will speak for themselves.

[Sorry, no texts this week. I thought I could round them up relatively easy from the original posts, but Yahoo, which used to make it not-too-difficult to find DWT posts, now seems to all but ignore "downwithtyranny" in searches, and I just didn't have the time or will to search out all these posts or redo the texts. I'm not even crazy about the Beethoven Ninth translation fragment I hurriedly popped in above.]

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Lucia's last happy snap

Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti at the Met in 1987
LUCIA: Ah! On the breezes
will come my ardent sighs.
You will hear in the murmuring sea
the echo of my grieving
Thinking that I feed on sighs and grief,
shed a bitter tear then on this ring.
Ah, on this ring then!
Ah, on this ring then!
Ah, on that ring then!

Joan Sutherland (s), Lucia; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Tullio Serafin, cond. Live performance, Feb. 26, 1959

by Ken

I know we're making microscopic progress toward our goal, that other Verdian musical dramatization of the aging process (besides Germont's aria "Di Provenza" in La Traviata, by way of the "double aria" format Verdi inherited from the Italian bel cantists. And this week we're slowing down even further.

Last week we heard Lucia di Lammermoor's great Scene 2 double aria as she awaited her secret lover, Edgardo, near the fountain on his family's ruined Scottish estate. I thought this week we would move on, or rather back, to the Scene 1 double aria of Lucia's brother, Lord Enrico Ashton and maybe get as far as the way he treats his sister. But even though we left Lucia singing rapturously of her love for Edgardo, a rare moment of unbridled happiness for her, I don't think we can leave her there. We really need to "see" her meeting with Edgardo. Here are four musical snapshots.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: A fountain, a harp, and a mind in distress

No, this isn't the fountain of "The Siren" referred to in the stage direction, but it's a reasonable guess that the Ravenswood fountain might have been based on the Fontana della Sirena in the Piazza Sannazaro in Naples. Just imagine it on a lonely Scottish estate fallen nearly to ruins, like so --
A park in the ground of the Scottish castle of Ravenswood. We see the fountain called "The Siren." Once it was covered by a beautiful structure decorated with all sorts of Gothic details; now only the ruins of this structure remain. It is nightfall.
[All translations in today's post by William Ashbrook]

RAI Turin Symphony Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. Broadcast performance, Oct. 10, 1967

RCA Italiana Orchestra, Georges Prêtre, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July-Aug. 1965

Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Richard Bonynge, cond. Live performance, Nov. 12, 1975

by Ken

Here we hear three takes on a lovely 2½-to-3-minute musical snapshot -- Molinari-Pradelli decisive and sympathetically straightforward; Prêtre similarly decisive but a little more individual in some of his phrasing choices and, surprisingly (at least to me), turning out to time out a little quicker; and Bonynge more romantically discursive.

The music, which is sometimes described as an "interlude" between the scene preceding and the one about to take place, is pretty clearly indicated in the score as an orchestral lead-in to what follows -- though of course it's up to the stage director to decide where exactly to raise the curtain on Scene 2. In the meantime, I'm delaying identifying this piece of musical mood-setting (in the event that you don't know) to give you a chance to just allow it to wash over you and maybe sink in a little, to maybe set a mood. It's clearly the harp that dominates the music, and the fountain that dominates the scene, but I don't think anyone can say how exactly they're expected to relate.

And here I think we can jump ahead just a bit to our next snapshot, to add this vivid response to mention of the aforementioned fountain. In fact, since it's only 11-12 seconds, we're going to hear it three times.
That fountain! Ah! never
do I see it without trembling.

I think we clearly have three interesting, and interestingly, different renderings of this extraordinary moment, but one thing I think we can also say is that, from the purely vocal standpoint, singer B handles it with greater assurance, and singer C handles it with astonishing assurance -- producing a sound of amazing fullness that doesn't strain or curdle at all on the upward leap for the "Ah!" in "Quella fonte! Ah! mai."


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: LIfe among the Druids

The first page of Bellini's Norma autograph score

BELLINI: Norma (1831): Overture

Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala (Milan), Antonino Votto, cond. Live performance, Dec. 7, 1955

Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala (Milan), Tullio Serafin, cond. EMI, recorded Nov. 5-12, 1960

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlo Felice Cillario, cond. RCA, recorded September 1972

National Philharmonic Orchestra, James Levine, cond. CBS-Sony, recorded 1979
About the performances: I really admire the weight that Votto brings to the Overture without stretching or padding it, as Serafin and Cillario do with varying degrees of success. If you want just the notes, Levine's your guy.

by Ken

The plan was different. We've been poking around the 19th-century Italian opera format of the aria-and-cabaletta or "double aria" -- a contrasting pair of arias, usually the first slowish and the second fastish, which with an adjustment of circumstances producing the change allows the singer to show off a wide range of vocal and dramatic capabilities.

We started with Verdi struggling with the format in La Traviata, producing pedestrian or worse cabalettas for the tenor and baritone in Act II, Scene 1, but then last week pointed out that to end Act I he had produced for Violetta what is surely the greatest double aria of them all, her "Ah, fors'è lui" and "Sempre libera."