Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Ravel's "funny music"

The first 18 bars (1:48 in the Heifetz recording, 1:42 in the Francescatti, and
1:56 in the Perlman) of the 58-bar solo that opens Ravel's "funny music"

RAVEL: Tzigane (concert rhapsody for violin and orchestra):
Opening solo

Jascha Heifetz, violin (1953)

Zino Francescatti, violin (1964)

Itzhak Perlman, violin (c1974)

by Ken

No, we haven't by any means finished with our listen-in to Richard Strauss's serio-comic operatic treasure Ariadne auf Naxos -- or to Strauss's Four Last Songs (we still have the two most ambitious songs to cover). But for several weeks now I've had another musical itch eating at me, so I thought we could take some time out to deal with it.

And it involves a little story.

Playing in my NYC public-high-school orchestra wasn't all toil; there was the occasional perk. Okay, I'm way overstating the "toil" part, being that I wasn't what you would call a nose-to-the-grindstone practicer, which probably has something to do with how mediocre a violinist I was. And the perks weren't so grand either. The one I'm thinking of this week was a pass to a presentation on that week's New York Philharmonic subscription concert, at the Juilliard School -- not where it is now, in Lincoln Center, but in its old home on Claremont Avenue in the vertiginous reaches of Manhattan's Morningside Heights, premises that were taken over by the Manhattan School of Music when the Juilliard packed up and moved downtown.

Note that this beneficence didn't include a ticket to the actual concert.

It was a pretty venturesome solo subway journey from Brooklyn for a young teen still relatively new to the city, but I actually found the place, and then found my way back home, and in between I was treated to a presentation by the professor and composer Hugo Weisgall (right), who was so charming and witty and welcoming and smart that ever since, whenever I happen to listen to some of his music, I wish I enjoyed it half as well as I enjoyed Dr. Weisgall himself that evening.

I no longer remember the full program for that concert, or who the perfomers were -- in large part because the perk didn't include a ticket to the actual concert. But I do remember Dr. Weisgall talking about two of the works on the program. It was, I think, my first exposure to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor (one of only two Mozart concertos in a minor key), and that exposure must have something to do with the lifelong passion I've since enjoyed for Mozart's piano concertos.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Richard Strauss: "Music is a holy art," sings Strauss's Composer -- plus Two (out of Four) Last Songs, part 2

"Music is a holy art"
THE COMPOSER: Music is a holy art, which brings together all men of courage, like cherubim around a shining throne, and for this reason it is the holiest of the arts. Holy music! -- from the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos

Sena Jurinac (s), Composer; Vienna Philharmonic, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA-Decca, recorded 1958

Teresa Zylis-Gara (s), Composer; Staatskapelle Dresden, Rudolf Kempe, cond. EMI, recorded June-July 1968

Agnes Giebel (ms), Composer; Vienna Philharmonic, James Levine, cond. DG, recorded January 1986

Anne Sofie von Otter (ms), Composer; Staatskapelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. DG, recorded Sept. and Dec. 2000

by Ken

Last week, in part 1 of this post, our ongoing look-and-listen to Richard Strauss's favorite among his operas, and probably among his works, Ariadne auf Naxos, landed us at this passionate declaration by the idealistic young Composer in the Prologue created with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal for the revised 1916 version. And from there we detoured to the first two of Strauss's Four Last Songs, at least in the order devised by Strauss's publisher at Boosey and Hawkes, Ernst Roth, who took the posthumous publication of these songs in hand and included this note (in German, French, and English):
These four songs are not only Strauss's last contributions to the "Lied," which played such an important part in his life's work, but they are also the last compositions that he finished.

The first sketches of Im Abendrot (At Dusk) are found in a notebook from the end of 1946 or beginning of 1947. The final sketch of the score is dated "Montreux, 27th April 1948" and the score itself was finished on 6th May of that year.

The sketch of Frühling followed, with the full score completed at Pontresina on 18th July 1948.

Beim Schlafengehen (On Going to Sleep) was finished on 4th August and September, Strauss's last completed work, on 20th September of the same year.

A mood of farewell pervades the four songs, particularly Im Abendrot and September. It is, however, the farewell of a man who leaves the scene of earthly struggle and triumph without disappointment or reproach, without fear of destruction and doom, but with serene confidence in eternity and immortality. And so when the poet asks in Im Abendrot (bars 69-75) "Ist dies etwa Tod?" ("Can this be death?") the horn enters with that same Transfiguration motif which the young man 60 years before had set against Death.
The title Four Last Songs isn't Strauss's, of course. In fact, from among the poems of Hermann Hesse he had been considering (he flagged 14 in a collection he had been given), in addition to the three he completed setting -- "Frühling" ("Spring"), "September," and "Beim Schlafengehn" ("On Going to Bed") -- he began sketching a fourth, "Nacht" ("Night"), to go with a setting of Joseph Eichendorff's "Im Abendror" ("At Dusk").


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Richard Strauss: "Music is a holy art," sings Strauss's Composer -- plus Two (out of Four) Last Songs, part 1

"What is music then?"

The question is asked at 0:28 of this concluding clip of the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos -- asked and then answered by the composer of the about-to-be-performed "opera seria" (Sena Jurinac), as filmed at the 1965 Salzburg Festival, directed by Günther Rennert and conducted by Karl Böhm (with Paul Schoeffler, nearly 68, as the Music Master; in a moment we'll hear him 21 years earlier).
COMPOSER: What is music then?
[With almost drunken solemnity] Music is a holy art, which brings together all men of courage, like cherubim around a shining throne, and for this reason it is the holiest of the arts. Holy music!
[ZERBINETTA appears at the back and calls her partners onto the stage. HARLEKIN comes hastily out of the room on the right, buckling his belt as he runs onstage.]
What is that? From where?
[SCARAMUCCIO enters, like HARLEKIN finishing his dressing as he comes.]
These creatures!
In my holy sanctuary cutting their capers! Ah!
MUSIC MASTER: You allowed it!
COMPOSER [furious]: I ought not to have allowed it; you shouldn't have allowed me to allow it! Who told you to drag me into this world? Let me freeze, starve, die in my own!
[He runs off in despair. The MUSIC MASTER looks after him, shaking his head.]
-- English translation by Peggie Cochrane

Julia Varady (s), Composer; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Music Master; Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig), Kurt Masur, cond. Philips, recorded January 1988

Imrgard Seefried (s), Composer; Paul Schoeffler (bs-b), Music Master; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance in honor of Strauss's 80th birthday, June 11, 1944

Tatiana Troyanos (ms), Composer; Paul Schoeffler (bs-b), Footman; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Nov. 29, 1967

[in English] Janet Baker (ms), Composer; Malcolm Donnelly (b), Music Master; Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Norman Del Mar, cond.Live performance from Glasgow's Theater Royal, 1977

by Ken

In last week's post, "Why won't everyone just let poor abandoned Ariadne die in peace?," as we focused on the two-part monologue of the title character of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos, one thing I was constantly on the verge of saying was: Just listen to the epic, unrestrained gorgeousness of this music. For sheer unrestrained gorgeousness, I'm not sure I know anything like it in all of music. Somehow, though, I managed to leave it to the music to speak for itself.

Last week we were stressing the "serious" side of Ariadne -- without, I hope, completely losing sight (or sound) of the comic side, because it's the combination of the two that make the opera, in its revised 1916 form, with the Prologue added, such a treasure -- treasured not least by its composer. It wasn't an accident that it was chosen to honor Strauss on his 80th birthday, via the performance from which we heard the whole Prologue in the October 11 post "Meet the composer, Richard Strauss-style."


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why won't everyone just let poor abandoned Ariadne die in peace?

"There is a realm where all is pure"

Ernst Stern's design for the original 1912 Ariadne auf Naxos (click to enlarge)
There is a realm where all is pure:
it has a name too: Realm of Death.
[Rises from the ground.]
Here nothing is pure.
All is finished here.

[She pulls her robe close around her.]
But soon a messenger will draw nigh,
Hermes they call him.
With his staff
he rules all souls:
Like birds on the wing,
like dry leaves,
he drives them before him.
Thou beautiful, serene god!
See! Ariadne awaits!

Oh, my heart must be cleansed
of all wild grief,
then your presence will call me,
your footsteps will approach my cave,
darkness will cover my eyes,
your hand will touch my heart.
In the beautiful festal robes
that my mother bequeathed me
my body will remain;
the silent cave will be my tomb.
But mutely my soul
will follow its new lord,
as a light leaf in the wind
flutters downward, gladly falling.
Darkness will cover my eyes
and fill my heart;
this body will remain,
richly adorned and all alone.

You will set me free,
give me to myself,
this burdensome life,
take it from me.
I will lose myself entirely in you;
with you Ariadne will abide.
[She stands lost in thought.]
-- English translation by Peggie Cochrane

Maria Cebotari, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. EMI, recorded Nov. 16, 1948

Leontyne Price, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. RCA, recorded 1965

"Playgoers, I bid you welcome. The theater is a temple, and we are here to worship the gods of comedy and tragedy. Tonight I am pleased to announce a comedy."
-- the principal player at the outset of A Funny
Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

by Ken

We've already had a taste of the comedy of Ariadne auf Naxos, in the October 11 Sunday Classics snapshots post "Meet the Composer, Richard Strauss-style," observing the comically serious young Composer make his way backstage through the craziness preceding the performance of his opera seria of the same name. Now, above, we've gotten a taste of the tragedy.

(In studio recordings, I should add, of just this excerpt. The lovely Maria Cebotari [seen at right], heard here less than seven months before her untimely death, at 39, did sing Ariadne, and must have been radiant in the role, but Leontyne Price didn't take it on until years after she recorded this stand-alone "Es gibt ein Reich" in her Art of the Prima Donna series, in which she sampled roles she hadn't sung. Eventually -- not this week, but eventually -- we'll hear more of her eventual Ariadne.)

We've also had a masterful exposition, two weeks ago, of the conventional way of handling comedy and tragedy, from the principal player at the top of Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first show for which Stephen Sondheim wrote music as well as lyrics. It's probably still my favorite Sondheim song, and I can't ever hear it enough. So . . .


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sunday Classics tribute: Apple pays homage to the Captain

We have here, at 0:12, one of the world's great march tunes --

Eastman Wind Ensemble, Donald Hunsberger, cond. KEM-Disc, recorded c1981

by Ken

In the above audio clip I've left in some lead-in, so we can hear the pulse-quickening build-up to the Big Tune, except that when it comes, it comes -- devilishly, given that build-up -- in hushed form! Then at 0:27, when the tune gets its only repetition, it's heard in full voice, after which, all too quickly, it's gone! Leaving us wanting more, no? (We're going to hear one conductor who came up with a solution of sorts to this problem.)


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Free! [an updated, more "post-like" version]

• Updated again: We've got the Frankie Howerd "Free"!
• And one last bonus update: "Comedy Tonight"
• Okay, one more thing, or actually two: Let's hear Zero
do "Comedy Tonight" too (twice, in fact)

"Free": "Oh, what a word!" sings Pseudolus (the great Zero Mostel, 1915-1977)

Zero Mostel (Pseudolus) and Brian Davies (Hero), vocals; Original Broadway Cast recording, Harold Hastings, musical director. Capitol, recorded 1962

Frankie Howerd (Pseudolus) and John Rye (Hero), vocals; Original London Cast recording, Alyn Ainsworth, musical director. EMI-DRG, recorded 1963
[Note: More of Frankie Howerd's Pseudolus to come at the end of the post]

by Ken

Yesterday I missed a walking tour (of Brooklyn's Bensonhurst and Bath Beach neighborhoods, not something that comes along every week), one that I'd not only paid for but that I wanted to do badly enough to have registered for it even knowing that it would knock out all afternoon possibilities for the Saturday of Open House New York Weekend.

But for the first time in I-don't-dare-try-to-calculate-how-many years, it wasn't because of the obligations of daily blogging. Which no doubt accounts for the fact that out of the mass of music rattling around my head, this song from Burt Shevelove, Larry Gilbert, and Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has been singing in my head.

I had planned to offer you Frankie Howard singing "Free" as well, from the London cast recording, but so far that plan remains a victim of the software revolt I cited in an earlier version of this post. I would need to dub it from LP, and so far my audio editing software isn't working with the years-delayed computer OS upgrade I just installed.

Meanwhile, here's Zero Mostel, as the Roman slave Pseudolus, contemplating being "Free" with his young master, Hero (Brian Davies), from the Original Broadway Cast recording of Forum (the first musical for which Sondheim wrote music as well as lyrics). [UPDATE: As noted up top, and as heard above, in a tiny triumph of human over technology we've now got the Original London Cast version of "Free"!]


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Meet the composer, Richard Strauss-style

The first part of the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos, with Paul Schoeffler as the Music Master and Sena Jurinac as the Composer (we're going to hear the radiant Jurinac in her glorious 1958 studio recording, which I've described as the best recorded performance I know of any operatic role, and Schoeffler in a 1944 live performance), staged by Günter Rennert and conducted by Karl Böhm, filmed at Salzburg in 1965 -- the remaining four parts are also on YouTube.

by Ken

It was a long, arduous path from conception to ultimate creation, the strange entertainment concocted by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, his librettist on two previous, wildly different operas, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, in collaboration with the great stage director Max Reinhardt, who had collaborated with them on Rosenkavalier.

The original idea was to provide a half-hour musical entertainment to be inserted in an adaptation (by Hofmannsthal) for Reinhardt of Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Not surprisingly, the half-hour entertainment grew and grew, until it was a weird one-act opera that -- despite being scored for chamber orchestra -- would tax the vocal resources of the greatest opera houses. And it combined two seemingly uncombinable art forms: a deeply serious opera seria that is observed, commented on, and eventually intruded on by a troupe of commedia dell'arte musical comedians. And of course it was imprisoned inside the play, and constitued too much opera for playgoers and too much play for operagoers.

Long story short: Eventually Hofmannsthal and Strauss liberated Ariadne by creating a Prologue, set backstage in the room of the home of the richest man in Vienna where the evening's entertainment is shortly to be performed. And they created the character of the Composer, the creator of a deeply serious opera seria. The new Prologue not only explains how these two wildly different entertainments came to be scheduled for the same evening's entertainment (and, eventually, how they come to be combined) but creates for us the world of a theatrical backstage. (The always-practical Strauss arranged an orchestral suite from the incidental music he had written for the play, in its German guise as Der Bürger als Edelmann.)

We've already heard the very opening of the Prologue -- still scored for chamber orchestra, as the original opera-intermezzo was.

R. STRAUSS: Ariadne auf Naxos: Prologue: Orchestral introduction

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Mar. 28, 1970


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?