Sunday, August 29, 2010

The piano-and-orchestra Liszt -- the orator meets the poet


Here's the first part of the Second Piano Concerto played by Alfred Brendel, with Eliahu Inbal conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. (The performance concludes here. There's an interesting video performance by pianist Yakov Fliere, from 1974, with Maxim Shostakovich conducting -- part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.)

by Ken

We've heard a sampling of Liszt the orchestral virtuoso (in the form of the best-known of his 13 symphonic poems, Les Préludes, Friday night) and of his virtuosic but equally poetic keyboard wizardry (performances by Sviatoslav Richter, Georges Cziffra, and Aldo Ciccolini last night, along with a video performance of the First Piano Concerto).

We've talked before about the emergence in the West of the roster of great Soviet musicians long prevented from performing here by the Stalinist and immediately post-Stalinist regimes. When Emil Gilels, by any standard one of the century's great pianists, caused the predictable furor, he told interviewers that the pianist they really needed to hear was Richter, who was still being kept under wraps. Rather amazingly, he lived up to the hype.

In 1961 in London Richter played both Liszt piano concertos and the Hungarian Fantasia for piano and orchestra with his compatriot Kiril Kondrashin and the London Symphony, and happily Philips recorded the concertos, for a disc that remains a phonographic landmark -- recorded, incidentally by the Mercury "Living Presence" team of producer Wilma Cozart Fine and engineer Robert Fine, though the tapes have for decades now rested exclusively in the hands of the sonically more conservative Philips technical people. It's a pity the two concertos made such a convenient LP, which is presumably what discouraged Philips from recording the Hungarian Fantasia, which turns out to be quite a loss when we hear the live performance. True, notes get spilled all over the place when all hell breaks loose, and this would have been fixed in a studio recording, but my goodness, is it possible not to be blown over by the hurricane force of this outburst?

LISZT: Hungarian Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra


Sviatoslav Richter, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, cond. Live performance, 1961

Jorge Bolet, piano; Symphony of the Air, Robert Irving, cond. Everest, recorded c1959

Michel Béroff, piano; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur, cond. EMI, recorded June 1979

Liszt wrote his two piano concertos (and indeed most of a third, only in modern times come to light) at basically the same time, which allowed him to pursue markedly different expressive agendas; the two are so different, and yet so complementary, that they have flourished in each other's company since early LP days. The First Concerto, as you may gather from the video clip we saw last night, is in large measure the Liszt of Les Préludes: grandiose, sweeping, a robust treat. While the Second Concerto indeed builds to a wonderfully grandiloquent march finale, the wonder of this piece is the gentle songfulness of its opening theme, and the way it evolves into that finale.

The piece is basically a theme-and-variations set, in a single movement, though with significant changes of tempo -- and, more significantly, and deliciously under-conspicuously, a slide from triple meter, first to 6/8 duple meter (at the Allegro agitato assai), then briefly back to the 3/4 of the opening (Tempo del Andante) before switching to good old-fashioned square-jawed 4/4 at the Allegro moderato -- the very tempo we're going to need (even with a brief return to the still-duple-meter 6/8) for the outbreak of the Marziale. (And when the Marziale finally breaks out, you really shouldn't have any difficulty hearing in it the lovely original theme.)

We're going to hear the 1961 Richter-Kondrashin studio recording I mentioned above, and also a performance by the highly poetic Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, whom we heard playing the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, also with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, and finally Alfred Brendel's first recording (for Vox).

On a technical note: CD programmers naturally enough treat some (and some cases all) of the tempo changes in the Liszt A major Concerto as appropriate points for tracking; of course on a CD we don't hear those track points. Since in our format I have no way of creating seamless track switches, we're going to hear the piece somewhat broken up, and not identically broken up, so that in the Richter-Kondrashin recording we hear the buildup to and outbreak of the Marziale un poco meno allegro, whereas in the Zimerman-Ozawa the Marziale gets its own track point, and the Vox recording has a slightly different breakdown.

LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A:
Adagio sostenuto assai; Allegro agitato assai Allegro moderato Allegro deciso; Marziale un poco meno allegro; Allegro animato


Sviatoslav Richter, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, cond. Philips, recorded 1961

Krystian Zimerman, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond. DG, recorded April 1987

Alfred Brendel, piano; Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen, cond. Vox, recorded 1975
#

Sunday, August 22, 2010

In the opening vision of Mahler's "Song of the Earth": "Dark is life, is death"


Jon Vickers, not in his best vocal shape but still a powerful presence, sings "The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth" in a 1985 Proms concert, with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. (The other soloist was Vickers' partner in the 1982 Philips recording with Colin Davis, Jessye Norman.)

by Ken

Nobody who's visited Sunday Classics will be surprised that we're taking on Mahler's Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde) backwards. This is the work, you'll recall that Mahler conceived, after soaring with Goethe to the cosmological heights in his Symphony No. 8, in the aftermath of the diagnosis of his terminal heart condition.

In Hans Bethge's German translation and adaptation of Chinese poems, The Chinese Flute, Mahler found texts for the six song-movements that made up what should by rights have been his Symphony No. 9, if he hadn't had such superstitious dread of the doom a Ninth Symphony had spelled for Beethoven and Bruckner. (To compound the craziness, by the time the decision about naming was made, the work he would call his Ninth Symphony was mapped out in his head, which led him to believe that he had circumvented the jinx. Of course the joke, such as it was, was on him. He didn't live to complete the work that by his numbering would have been his Tenth Symphony.)

Talk about working backwards! First, in a need to celebrate the artistry of Maureen Forrester, we simply blundered into the undisputed crowning glory of Das Lied, the half-hour final alto song-movement, "The Farewell" ("Der Abschied"). In a way, though, it was helpful to be focusing on Forrester, since it allowed us to focus on her stupendous performances of this music. That spared us the distraction of other, differently glorious performances.

Now, as I explained in Friday's and last night's previews, we've been working our way backwards through the three tenor songs of Das Lied: movements No. 5, "The Drunk in Spring"; No. 3, "On Youth"; and now finally No. 1, "The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth." I made the point, in connection with "On Youth," that I have found rather circuitious paths to personal identification with the songs of Das Lied, and I might make the general point that this is what, for me, music or any other art form is about: finding one's own connection to it. I don't believe that anyone can "teach" us how to listen, though many people can, by design or otherwise, provide us with lessons of varying usefulness as we develop our own way of listening.

Just by way of demonstrating how never-ending this process is, in the course of my relistening for these posts, I put on the 1959 EMI recording conducted by Paul Kletzki (made, by cosmic coincidence, some two weeks before the memorable RCA recording conducted by Fritz Reiner), intending to listen, of course, to the first movement, but I let it play, and for as much as I've said I'm unpersuaded by the octave-lower baritone option Mahler offered for the alto songs, and as often as I've listened to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's performance in this recording and been left unpersuaded by it, this time I found myself warming to it more, especially in the movement that I confess remains most elusive for me, No. 4, "On Beauty." Just goes to show ya . . . er, something.

I've already made an embarrassing attempt to describe my personal connection to "On Youth." You'll surely be relieved to learn that I don't propose to do the same with "The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of Earth." Let me just say that this movement, despite being not even a third as long as "The Farewell," has come to be just as personal. But then, it is perhaps one of the abiding deep truths of Das Lied that the small matters as much as the big.

Mahler doesn't leave much idea about the central idea of this drinking song. Three times, at the end of what we might think of as the song's three stanzas, the tenor sings to us:
"Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod"
("Dark is life, is death")



Jon Vickers, tenor; London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, cond. Philips, recorded March 1981

BREAKING IT DOWN

I've broken this movement down according to those three "stanzas" defined by the "Dunkel ist das Leben"s. I had a much more ambitious musical plan, though still following this breakdown plan, but it self-destructed via my clumsy editing skills and the obstreperousness of the editing software I'm using. Still, we do have what I'm calling parts A, B, and C, more or less as I intended them, with parts parts A and B going beyond their "Dunkel ist das Leben" to include the orchestral music between "stanzas" (and in one case maybe a tiny bit into the next) and parts B and C going back to the previous "Dunkel ist das Leben," so that there is considerable musical overlap. That was intentional, if only to give you an opportunity to hear this amazing music more often.

Before we go there, however, I thought it might be helpful, since I keep mentioning the shocking transformation of Mahler's artistic identity between the climax of the Eighth Symphony and the start of its successor work, to hear that climax of the Eighth Symphony, a setting of the final scene of Goethe's Faust, so here it is.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat: Part II, conclusion: "Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis"
[English translation by Peggie Cochrane]

All things transitory are but parable;
here insufficiency becomes fulfillment,
here the indescribable is accomplished;
the ever-womanly draws us heavenward. [much repeated]


Soloists, choruses, London Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond. BBC Legends, recorded live in the Royal Albert Hall, March 20, 1959

Now let's hear the start of Mahler's Song of the Earth, the opening chunk of "The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth." Note that all of the Das Lied translations are by Deryck Cooke.

part A
Now beckons the wine in the golden goblet,
but drink not yet, first I'll sing you a song!
The song of sorrow
shall in gusts of laughter through your souls resound.
When sorrow draws near,
wasted lie the gardens of the soul.
Withered and dying are joy and song.
Dark is life, is death.

Murray Dickie, tenor; Philharmonia Orchestra, Paul Kletzki, cond. EMI, recorded October 1959

part B
Dark is life, is death.
Master of this house! Your cellar holds its fill of golden wine!
Here, this lute I name my own!
To strike the lute and to drain the glasses,
these are the things that go together.
A full goblet of wine at the right time
is worth more than all the kingdoms of this earth!
Dark is life, is death.

Francisco Araiza, tenor; Berlin Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. DG, recorded Feb.15-17, 1984
[UPDATE: Thanks to my clip-editing and -processing ham-handedness, and to my general organizational gracelessness under time pressure, I originally posted a defective version of this clip, which started in the right place but continued to the end of the movement. I've got it right now. I think.]

part C
Dark is life, is death.

The firmament is blue eternally, and the earth
will long stand fast and blossom in spring.
But thou, O man, how long then livest thou?
Not a hundred years canst thou delight
in all the rotten trash of this earth!

Look there, down there! In the moonlight, on the graves
squats a mad spectral figure!
It is an ape! Hear how his howling
screams its way through the sweet fragrance of life!

Now take the wine! Now it is time, companions!
Drain your golden goblets to the dregs!
Dark is life, is death!

James King, tenor; Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, cond. Philips, recorded September 1975


NOW LET'S PUT IT BACK TOGETHER

Now we're going to hear "The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth" from my three all-around favorite recordings of Das Lied. (There's a large group of wonderful recordings, including some we've sampled, like the Reiner-RCA, the Kletzki-EMI, and the Giulini-DG, or even better the live Giulini performance with the Vienna Philharmonic on Orfeo, that occupy what for me is an elite "second tier.")

We start with Bruno Walter's final recorded crack at this work whose premiere he had conducted not quite 50 years earlier, in Munich in November 1911, five months after the composer's death. This is the eternally splendiferous New York Philharmonic recording for Columbia, from which we heard tenor Ernst Häfliger sing the fifth song, "The Drunk in Spring," Friday night.

Colin Davis's Philips Das Lied offers its share of frustrations but nevertheless seems to me a truly great performance. Davis has never been known for his "way" of working with singers, and in this recording he seems hardly aware of what sort of tenor he's working with in Jon Vickers, with that oddly produced but engulfingly huge voice and singular personal intensity; clearly, to take advantage of his special qualities, he should have had less driven tempos, and a bit of give and take with his conductor, which might also have smoothed out his German. (Vickers traveled with his own set of vowels, which weren't right for any of the languages he sang regularly in -- German, Italian, French, and English.) Davis was more considerate of his alto soloist, Jessye Norman, whose voluminous soprano descended easily into true contralto territory.

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
i. "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde"
("The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth")

Now beckons the wine in the golden goblet,
but drink not yet, first I'll sing you a song!
The song of sorrow
shall in gusts of laughter through your souls resound.
When sorrow draws near,
wasted lie the gardens of the soul.
Withered and dying are joy and song.
Dark is life, is death.

Master of this house!
Your cellar holds its fill of golden wine!
Here, this lute I name my own!
To strike the lute and to drain the glasses,
these are the things that go together.
A full goblet of wine at the right time
is worth more than all the kingdoms of this earth!
Dark is life, is death.

The firmament is blue eternally, and the earth
will long stand fast and blossom in spring.
But thou, O man, how long then livest thou?
Not a hundred years canst thou delight
in all the rotten trash of this earth!

Look there, down there! In the moonlight, on the graves
squats a mad spectral figure!
It is an ape! Hear how his howling
screams its way through the sweet fragrance of life!

Now take the wine! Now it is time, companions!
Drain your golden goblets to the dregs!
Dark is life, is death!

Ernst Häfliger, tenor; New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded April 1960

Jon Vickers, tenor; London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, cond. Philips, recorded March 1981

And now, from what just may be my very favorite Das Lied recording, Otto Klemperer's EMI stereo remake (which by the way was Christa Ludwig's first recording of the piece, when she claims she didn't understand the music yet -- ha! so much for the importance of "understanding"), let's hear all three tenor songs, in part for the opportunity to hear the astounding Fritz Wunderlich sing them. I think, by the way, that it must surely have been via the Wunderlich-Klemperer recording that I experienced the revelation regarding "On Youth" which I tried to describe last night; now if only Colin Davis had had the sense to take a tempo like this in his recording with Jon Vickers!

(I notice that we haven't talked at all about the strange vocal requirements of this music, which result in its being sung by such a strange assortment of tenors, from light "character" tenors like Murray Dickie and Richard Lewis to full-fledged heroic tenors like Vickers and James King. Well, some other time perhaps.)

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde
i. "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde"
("The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth")

Now beckons the wine in the golden goblet,
but drink not yet, first I'll sing you a song!
The song of sorrow
shall in gusts of laughter through your souls resound.
When sorrow draws near,
wasted lie the gardens of the soul.
Withered and dying are joy and song.
Dark is life, is death.

Master of this house!
Your cellar holds its fill of golden wine!
Here, this lute I name my own!
To strike the lute and to drain the glasses,
these are the things that go together.
A full goblet of wine at the right time
is worth more than all the kingdoms of this earth!
Dark is life, is death.

The firmament is blue eternally, and the earth
will long stand fast and blossom in spring.
But thou, O man, how long then livest thou?
Not a hundred years canst thou delight
in all the rotten trash of this earth!

Look there, down there! In the moonlight, on the graves
squats a mad spectral figure!
It is an ape! Hear how his howling
screams its way through the sweet fragrance of life!

Now take the wine! Now it is time, companions!
Drain your golden goblets to the dregs!
Dark is life, is death!

iii. "Von der Jugend" ("On Youth")
In the middle of the little pool
stands a pavilion of green
and of white porcelain.

Like the back of a tiger
arches the bridge of jade
over to the pavilion.

In the little house friends are sitting,
beautifully dressed, drinking, chatting;
several are writing verses.

Their silken sleeves slip
backwards, their silken caps
perch gaily on the back of their necks.

On the little pool's still
surface everything appears
fantastically in a mirror image.

Everything is standing on its head
in the pavilion of green
and of white porcelain;

Like a half-moon stands the bridge,
upside-down its arch. Friends,
beautifully dressed, are drinking, chatting.

v. "Der Trunkene im Frühling
("The Drunk in Spring")
If life is but a dream,
why then toil and fret?
I drink till I can drink no longer,
the whole livelong day!

And when I can drink no longer,
since gullet and soul are full,
then I stagger to my door
and sleep stupendously!

What do I hear on awakening? Hark!
A bird sings in the tree.
I ask him if the spring is here;
I feel as if it were a dream.

The bird twitters, "Yes!
Spring is here -- came overnight!"
In deepest wonder I listen.
The bird sings and laughs.

I feel my glass again,
and drain it to the dregs,
and sing, until the moon shines bright
in the black firmament.

And when I can sing no longer,
then I go back to sleep;
for what does spring matter to me?
Let me be drunk!

Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Philharmonia/New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66
#

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Preview: Mahler's view of idyllic youths turns them upside-down


Tenor Robert Dean Smith sings "On Youth" from Mahler's Song of the Earth, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink, in November 2006 (part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Haitink's association with the orchestra).
MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
iii. "Von der Jugend" ("On Youth")

[English translation by Deryck Cooke]

In the middle of the little pool
stands a pavilion of green
and of white porcelain.

Like the back of a tiger
arches the bridge of jade
over to the pavilion.

In the little house friends are sitting,
beautifully dressed, drinking, chatting;
several are writing verses.

Their silken sleeves slip
backwards, their silken caps
perch gaily on the back of their necks.

On the little pool's still
surface everything appears
fantastically in a mirror image.

Everything is standing on its head
in the pavilion of green
and of white porcelain;

Like a half-moon stands the bridge,
upside-down its arch. Friends,
beautifully dressed, are drinking, chatting.

by Ken

As I explained last night, heading toward tomorrow's Sunday Classics post, we're working our way backwards through the three tenor songs (Nos. 1, 3, and 5) of Mahler's Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde), starting last night with the last of them, "The Drunk in Spring" ("Der Trunkene im Frühling"). Tonight we come to the shortest of the song symphony's six movements, No. 3, "On Youth" ("Von der Jugend"), which typically lasts 3-3½ minutes -- though tomorrow we're going to hear the longest as well as most remarkable performance of the song I've ever heard.


FOR THIS SONG I PROMISED YOU A STORY . . .

. . . of "the special personal identification that opened this song up for me -- or perhaps opened me up for this song" type. Here goes.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Preview: In Mahler's "Song of the Earth" we meet a springtime drunk

The elegant Swiss tenor Ernst Häfliger is our first
soloist in Mahler's song "The Drunk in Spring."

by Ken

Bruno Walter's 1960 Columbia recording of Mahler's song symphony Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde), the composition that fell between his Eighth and Ninth Symphonies and would have been No. 9 if he hadn't been so superstitious about allotting that fateful number to a symphony, was originally released on three LP sides. Surprisingly quickly, though, it was compressed onto two very well-filled sides, and that was my first recording of Das Lied, whose texts are German adaptations by Hans Bethge (from the collection The Chinese Flute) of Chinese originals.

Even as I was getting to know the piece, it was obvious that the emotional center of gravity was the concluding sixth movement, the half-hour song "The Farewell" ("Der Abschied," which we blundered our way into in our Maureen Forrester remembrance), about equal in length to its five predecessors put together, so that was where I usually headed, and since it was preceded on Side 2 by the last of the tenor songs, that meant I listened just as often to the contrastingly very brief song "The Drunk in Spring" ("Der Trunkene im Frühling"), as sung by the elegant Swiss tenor Ernst Häfliger -- a studio replacement, you'll recall, for the English tenor Richard Lewis, who sang in Walter's live New York performances that April but had only months earlier recorded Das Lied with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony for RCA. (We're going to hear some of that performance tomorrow night.)


INEVITABLY, THE ATTENTION OF THE DAS LIED LISTENER
GRAVITATES TO THE WEIGHTIER ALTO SONGS (NOS. 2, 4, 6)