Sunday, April 18, 2010

Roaming the landscape (and seascape!) of the imagination -- the full orchestral splendor of Debussy

Valery Gergiev conducts the London Symphony in the concluding "Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea" from Debussy's La Mer in March 2007.

by Ken

After Friday's quick look at Debussy's world of piano miniatures, in last night's preview we left off with the full orchestral splendor of one of the staples of the orchestral repertory, the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. As I noted, it's part of one of the seemingly endless stream of busted plans and projects that lined the creative career of Debussy (1862-1918), in this case what was to have been an orchestral suite inspired by Mallarmé's poem "L'après-midi d'un faune" ("Afternoon of a Faun"). As with so many of those aborted projects, however, the yield was nonetheless some extraordinary music.

(Quick faun-check: Remember, we're not talking about a fawn, such as Bambi, but a faun, the half-man, half-goat Roman woodland spirit known for its insatiable horniness.) Here's the Afternoon of a Faun again:

Alain Marion, flute; Orchestre National de l'ORTF, Jean Martinon, cond. EMI, recorded 1973-74

Here's another work of Debussy that was born of a plan that didn't come to fruition the way that was intended, of all things a Rhapsody for Saxophone and Orchestra:

Jean-Marie Londeix, alto saxophone; Orchestre National de l'ORTF, Jean Martinon, cond. EMI, recorded 1973-74


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Preview: Debussy from "Syrinx" to "Afternoon of a Faun" -- or is it vice versa?

Paula Robison plays Debussy's "Syrinx" at the 1986 Festival Casals in Puerto Rico.

If you spend much time among flutists -- a course of action I'm neither recommending nor especially warning against -- you'll find that "Syrinx" is one of the standbys to which they return constantly in warmups and instrumental noodling.

by Ken

You may have noticed that in last night's preview featuring three simple but exquisite little pieces by Claude Debussy (1862-11918), in assorted arrangements as well as the piano originals, I neglected to include dates of composition. This wasn't entirely neglect. Except in the broadest terms, I have more difficulty hearing time with Debussy than with almost any other composer. The dates just didn't seem to come into the discussion. For the record, the Suite bergamasque, which includes "Clair de lune" ("Moonlight"), was written around 1890.

It's a good question, and deserves an answer. The answer is that nobody knows. Oh, it has a bunch of linguistic analogs that suggest various meanings, but what exactly it means, we don't know. You might think it would help that Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)wrote a piece called Masques et bergamasques, but he didn't do that until 1919, when Debussy had recently died, and the likelihood is that what he meant by "Bergamasques" was, "whatever the heck Debussy meant, morbleu.")

Friday, April 16, 2010

Preview: Debussy -- the man who heard the music in moonlight

David Oistrakh plays "Clair de lune" ("Moonlight") with trusted accompanist Frida Bauer in Paris, 1962.

by Ken

So you think you don't know from Claude Debussy (1862-1918)? Here are three little pieces, originally written for piano solo, that have been absorbed into the general culture, arranged for just about every imaginable performance situation.

(1) "Clair de lune" ("Moonlight")

arranged (again) for violin and piano

Jascha Heiftez, violin; Emanuel Bey, piano (arr. Roelens). American Decca/MCA, recorded Nov. 29, 1945
arranged for guitar
Angel Romero, arr. and guitar. Telarc, recorded Aug. 3-6, 1987

played on the organ of New York City's Riverside Church

Virgil Fox, organ of the Riverside Church (New York City). Capitol/EMI, recorded Oct. 4, 1960

Sunday, April 11, 2010

In perfect balance -- Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto, where everything comes together just right

This is the first part (of three) of longtime pals Martha Argerich (born 1941) and Nelson Freire (born 1944) playing Rachmaninoff's delightful Second Suite for Two Pianos. (We last heard Argerich and Freire, separately, playing Schumann.) We'll hear more of the performance below.

by Ken

Friday night we heard the first movement of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, as played by Arthur Rubinstein and Fritz Reiner -- the way I first encountered the music on RCA's Rubinstein Heart of the Piano Concerto compilation LP. Last night we detoured to make a quick run through Rachmaninoff's "other" piece for piano and orchestra -- other than the four concertos, that is -- the wonderful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Today we're back to the Second Concerto.

It's not Rachmaninoff's most ambitious concerto, which would be the Third. I know people who are nuts for the Third Concerto, but I've never warmed to it nearly as much as the Second, which seems to me not only one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, but one of the most amazingly well-balanced, in terms of its movements, in the classical literature.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Preview: A peek at the "fifth" Rachmaninoff piano concerto

Paganini started it all, with the theme that every composer wanted to write variations on -- as if Paganini (1782-1840) hadn't already done it himself in the 24th Caprice for solo violin. We've got a proper violin performance below, but here guitarist Eliot Fisk plays his own transcription.

by Ken

Last night we sampled the second of Sergei Rachmaninoff's four piano concertos, in anticipation of our look tomorrow at the entire piece. In addition to the four formal concertos, Rachmaninoff's piano-and-orchestra output includes a remarkable set of variations, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, on "the" Paganini tune. It's one of his most inspired and loved creations, and I don't know of any better way to illustrate the richness of his imagination than to make a tactical leap from the early variations to the most famous of them, the 18th (of 21).

To go back to the beginning, here's what Paganini actually wrote, as played by the young Itzhak Perlman.

PAGANINI: Caprice No. 24 in A minor

Itzhak Perlman, violin. RCA/BMG, recorded March 1965

Friday, April 9, 2010

Preview: Heart of the piano concerto, Part 2: Rachmaninoff's 2nd

The opening movement of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto works even if the soloist (Arkady Volodos here) doesn't have all that much imagination. Fortunately the movement (not quite complete -- these aren't exactly speedsters, and that introductory piffle runs the clock down) is nicely conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

by Ken

I explained recently how I was first exposed to Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto: via an RCA compilation LP called Heart of the Piano Concerto, which consisted of single movements from Arthur Rubinstein's then-most-recent RCA recordings of six popular piano concertos. It was the biting, driving Rondo finale of the Beethoven concerto that was included, and that had won my heart by the 50th or 60th playing.