Sunday, December 30, 2012

Parting, though not without a struggle -- with "an increasingly calm acceptance of fate"

A symphonic finale in search of an ending

In the first not-quite-six minutes or so of this clip, Lenny B's comments are superimposed over a rehearsal, which gives way to the actual performance at about 5:55. We first saw this clip in the January 2012 post "At how bad a point did the cell-phone ring heard 'round the world interrupt the NY Phil's Mahler Ninth? Let's complete the symphony." (We also heard Lenny conducting the complete finale from a July 1979 Tanglewood performance with the Boston Symphony. Later we're going to hear the broadest of his recordings of the movement.)

by Ken

Well, when we attacked "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"), the half-hour sixth and final song of the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth (in a July 2009 Maureen Forrester remembrance post), we pretty much just plunged in (in August 2010 we followed up with the three tenor songs), and I'm afraid that's what we're going to do as well with the other completed work composed after Mahler's diagnosis of terminal heart disease, the Ninth Symphony.

I noted when we listened to Mahler's "most characteristic" and "least loved" symphony, the Seventh (in November -- first the three middle movements, then the outer movements), that the composer would use this basic plan again. In the Seventh it's a pair of enormous outer movements bracketing a core of "other" musics: the two "Night Music"s wrapped around a scherzo. This is very much the plan of the unfinished Tenth Symphony, with a core consisting of a pair of scherzos bracketing the little "Purgatorio" movement (we heard this core of the Tenth later in November) -- with the crucial difference that those gigantic outer movements are now slow rather than normal symphonic fast ones.

That switch, of course, had already been made in the Ninth Symphony (which, as I noted in Friday night's preview, should properly have been the Tenth, if Mahler had had the courage to tempt fate and give Das Lied the dangerous-for-symphony-composers number nine). It's hard to think of words to convey the scale and dimension of the opening Andante commodo and concluding Adago of the Ninth.


Most listeners are likely to agree that the prevailing subject matter of the Mahler Ninth is farewell, the final parting -- as we can surely divine from the clip we've seen again up top, with Leonard Bernstein providing voice-over commentary over the final 10½ minutes of the finale. But even in those majestic outer movements the tone is hardly singlemindedly elegiac, and in those "otherish" middle movements the parting journey covers some very different ground.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Preview: Do I hear a Ländler?

On Jan. 18, 1961, the first day of recording (the date cited above is clearly wrong), Bruno Walter rehearses the Los Angeles free-lancers who made up the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in the second half of the first movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Producer John McClure also talks about the circumstances of the recording, and then we hear work on the opening of the second-movement Ländler.

by Ken

Before we continue, perhaps we ought to make sure we know what a Ländler is.
The ländler is a folk dance in 3/4 time which was popular in Austria, south Germany, German Switzerland, and Slovenia at the end of the 18th century.

It is a dance for couples which strongly features hopping and stamping. It was sometimes purely instrumental and sometimes had a vocal part, sometimes featuring yodeling. -- Wikipedia
There is a Ländler, as it happens, in Mahler's First Symphony. Here it is in the recording the 84-year-old Bruno Walter made during the same time period -- late January and early February of 1961 -- as the recording of the Ninth Symphony which is the subject of the above clip, narrated by original producer John McClure.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D:
ii. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell

(Powerfully animated, but not too fast)

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Jan.-Feb. 1961


Maybe we should reestablish Walter's connection to both the Mahler Ninth and the work that preceded it, the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) -- the supreme masterworks conceived and completed after the composer learned he was suffering from terminal heart disease.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

It's "The Nutcracker" -- the whole deal! (Again!)

With the "Nutcracker Suite" sequence of Disney's Fantasia now unavailable, I thought to kick off we'd just look at this little teaser from Helgi Tómasson's San Francisco Ballet staging.

by Ken

[To repeat, this is an "encore presentation" of last year's complete-Nutcracker post, which I thought came out pretty darned well. You probably think it's a huge labor-saver just running a post "rerun." Perhaps I thought so too, but it never works out that way.]

The plan is pretty simple. As promised in Friday night's preview, when we heard two quite differently terrific performances of Tchaikovksy's own Nutcracker Suite, today we're going to hear the complete ballet, and chunks of it -- solely at my discretion -- twice!

Pretty much the last thing I added to what you'll see in the click-through is the plot synopsis (filched from Wikipedia). I went back and forth a lot about this, because I really don't pay much attention to plots, or even programs, when I listen to music written for the dance. I'm not a dance person to begin with, and I guess my listening orientation is to allow the music to plug its own built-in "program" into my imagination. Still, in the end it seemed to me that this curious format (for want of a better word) we've got going here at Sunday Classics is actually an extremely good way to hook up the plot and the music.

I'll have some quick (I hope) notes about the specifics when we get to the click-through, so let me just throw out two points about The Nutcracker:

(1) Tchaikovsky really didn't want to write the damned thing. So no, it was about as far from a "labor of love" as you can get.

(2) It was written to share a double bill with one of the composer's less-performed operas, Yolanta, which is the part of the bill that really interested and moved him. It has, in fact, nothing (that I can see or hear) in common with its birth billmate, and it strikes me as an incredibly difficult piece to really bring to life, but as with many difficult, fragile creations, its specialness holds special rewards. It deals, first, with the desperate desire of a very powerful man -- a king, in fact -- to shield a loved one, in this case his only daughter, from pain, in her case the knowledge that she's blind. But in the larger sense it deals with the futility of trying to protect someone from something it's impossible to "protect" her from, like reality. Someday we should undoubtedly talk about Yolanta. (But it's difficult.)


Friday, December 21, 2012

Preview: By popular demand, the gala DownWithTyranny "Nutcracker (The Whole Deal)" returns

You'd want to think twice before bidding on this record. The ABC Command label tells you it's one of the inferior later pressings; you want an original gold-label issue. (Note: Unfortunately, last year's preview-opening video clip of the Nutcracker Suite segment of Walt Disney's Fantasia has disappeared -- not entirely surprisingly, I guess. To be honest, I don't like it much anyway.)

by Ken

As far back as the mind recalls, Sunday Classics has celebrated the holiday musically at last in part with music from Tchaikovsky's ballets, and last year I went whole hog and offered a complete Nutcracker, basically double-covered throughout, and assembled from, well, a whole bunch of recordings. And as I ventured in last year's Nutcracker preview, what better way could there be to "warm up" for the main event than with the composer's own Nutcracker Suite, good old Op. 71a? In the click-through we've got two quite splendid, and interestingly different, performances.


TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a:
i. Miniature Overture

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, William Steinberg, cond. Command, recorded c1963

Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, cond. Decca, recorded c1985

You'll note straightaway in the Miniature Overture that William Steinberg is taking a rather spritelier approach and Charles Dutoit a more buoyant, caressing one. Both the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Montreal Symphony play utterly delectably.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Remembering Rafael Kubelik, Josef Krips, and Rudolf Kempe

The arrival of the Comedians in Act III of The Bartered Bride
BEDRICH SMETANA: The Bartered Bride:
Overture and Dances (Polka; Furiant; Dance of the Comedians)

Philharmonia Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond. EMI, recorded 1951

by Ken

With no particular rhyme or reason, as I explained in Friday night's preview, we're hearing snatches of treasures I found in an embarrassingly large order I just received from that indispensable repository of (mostly but by no means only) classical cut-out and overstock CDs and DVDs, the Berkshire Record Outlet. These particular snatches spotlight three "K" conductors. I'm especially fond of their solidly grounded musicianship, making music from the inside rather than imposing external "rules" or playing for crowd-grabbing "effects."

Friday night we heard orchestral excerpts by Berlioz and Hindemith from a four-CD "portrait" of the wonderful Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996, seen here around the time he was music director of the Chicago Symphony, 1950-53) drawing on his early recordings for EMI, Mercury, and Decca. I thought we'd start out today's wider sampling by listening to some of my favorite music, the Overture and Dances from Bedrich Smetana's comic opera The Bartered Bride (which in fact we already heard back in a November 2009 post, "It's not for nothing that Smetana was dubbed 'the father of Czech music'").


Friday, December 14, 2012

Preview: Three "K"s -- remembering three conductors who were great artists

The gossamer "Ballet of the Sylphs" from Berlioz's Damnation de Faust is played by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik in this 1950 EMI recording, from a four-CD Kubelik "Portrait," one of the treasures that came out of my nearly 17-pound Berkshire Record Outlet carton this week.

by Ken

I'd been good for so long. Oh sure, I usually scanned the new classical overstock and cut-out listings on the Berkshire Record Outlet website most every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and sure, I dumped stuff in my shopping cart. But that didn't commit me to anything, and I figured that by and large the things that interested me would interest enough other site followers that they would soon enough go out of stock -- "soon enough" in this case being "in time to protect me from actually buying them."

Every now and then, something appears that (a) I really want and (b) I know can't remain in stock very long. Which happened just recently with a CD issue -- finally! -- of the not-quite-complete series of Beethoven string quartets recorded by the Paganini Quartet for RCA Victor between 1947 and 1953. Not only have these never been on CD; I'm not aware of them ever being reissued on LP. And in fact, all the LP copies I've ever come across have been really chewed up. They may not have sold a huge number of copies, but the people who bought them apparently played the heck out of them.

What that means, when there's an item I really want, is that I have to take a look at my shopping cart, to see what might still be available. And apparently it had been long enough since my last order that, even though yes, a fair number of things I'd dumped in had indeed gone out of stock, there was a heckuva a lot of stuff still poised for purchase. I started studying the list like it was a work of scholarship, or maybe a primary source document. I tried everything in my powers (which unfortunately include only a small store of willpower) to jettison items to get the order down to manageable size. But still there remained something like 46 other items (CDs and DVDs, many of them of course multiple sets). What could I do? The flesh is weak.

I won't tell you how much the order came to in dollars, but in weight it came to nearly 17 pounds. Since it arrived earlier this week, andI've only begun to sift through the treasures. But I noticed a number of samplings from conductors of a sort I'm especially fond of.

It goes back to a point I was making just last week, contrasting performers who think they can assemble performances by tacking bunches of notes together following some rules they think they've found in some book or article with performers who understand that the only way you find you way inside a piece of music is by finding how and why it moves from the inside.


. . .  "Ballet of the Sylphs," above, and we'll hear another Kubelik tantalizer in a moment, along with samples from our other conducting "K"s.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

In which Beethoven's violin sonatas turn out to be OK after all

David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter play Beethoven's First Violin Sonata, in 1970.

by Ken

As I mentioned in Friday night's preview, I came away from a recent three-recital series presenting the complete Beethoven violin sonatas, well, impressed but unenchanted. The violinist and pianist seemed earnest and competent, and from their performances as well as their spoken comments there didn't seem any doubt about their appreciation for the music. And yet I came away thinking my longtime fondness for this music had maybe been outgrown.

Now the Beethoven violin sonatas aren't necessarily the most diverse portion of the composer's output. For one thing, they were written mostly in a fairly compact time frame. The first eight date from the period 1797-1802 -- the three sonatas of Op. 12 in 1797-98, the single sonatas of Opp. 23 and 24 in 1800-01, and the three sonatas of Op. 30 in 1802 (an important year for Beethoven; as we know from the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, he was in such despair that he came close to committing suicide). The great sonata we know as the Kreutzer, written on a much grander scale, followed soon after, leaving only by the fascinating and lovely G major Sonata, Op. 96, to come -- from 1812, making it the closest thing there is to a "late" Bethoven violin sonata.

But contrast came almost automatically for Beethoven. As we've discussed in such cases as the "fraternal twin" Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, expressing himself in one mode of musical discourse seemed to build up a need to express himself in a very different one.

I guess I was left thinking that the generally lighter emotional weight of the violin sonatas led to a lesser degree of individuality. Until something curious happened.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Preview: This 40-second piano-and-violin excerpt is one of my favorite musical moments

by Ken

This roughly 40-second piano-and-violin excerpt is for me a cherished musical moment, so we've heard it four times -- in performances that are pretty different but all pretty fine, I think. (We're actually going to hear another performance I'm not so crazy about.)

I thought I'd hold off a moment identifying, not just the performers, but the music. I'd like to think that listeners who don't recognize the music may be just a little surprised to learn who wrote it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

More of Carmen and Don José, plus Sunday Classics revisits G&S's "The Sorcerer"

The final scene of Carmen with Elena Garança (Carmen) and Roberto Alagna (Don José), directed by Richard Eyre and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, at the Met in September 2010

by Ken

Okay, here's the deal. I led readers to believe, in Friday night's preview ("'Between us, everything is finished' (Carmen)") that today we would "take (I hope) a fairly close listen to the Carmen-José scene" that concludes Carmen. I really did hope, but it's not going to happen. Meanwhile, up above we've got the whole thing, every damned note, and we'll have another performance -- in English! -- below.

As usually happens when it comes to musical matters that really matter to me, and trying to explain why they matter, I'm having a devil of a time, and I really don't want to give up without a fight. Yesterday when I got home from a New York Transit Museum tour of the 1904 South 6th Street subway power substation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (still in service, though not as originally constructed), I got a little more work done on Carmen, but then I had to brace myself for the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' revival -- after ten years! -- of The Sorcerer, and I was faced with staying up all night to do some sort of slapdash job before heading off for my Wolfe Walkers tour of the Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park with Justin Ferate this morning. (At least I didn't have to travel far for that one!) Also, it was really cold in my apartment. In that discouraged state, I made the executive decision that for once no, I didn't feel like doing that. So I'm not going to.


here's the whole of the Final Scene from the 1946 Hollywood Bowl English-language performance -- conducted by Leopold Stokowski, no less! -- we sampled Friday night.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Preview: "Between us, everything is finished" (Carmen)

Olga Borodina and Marcelo Álvarez as Carmen and José (Act II)

by Ken

We've been working our way up to the final meeting of the free-spirited (but also doom-ridden) gypsy Carmen and her onetime soldier lover Don José. This week we get there.

We've got a lot of performances of chunks of this surprisingly compact climactic scene coming up, but I want to highlight in particular two statements that define the state of stalemate Carmen and José have reached by the start of Act IV of Bizet's Carmen.


which, as we'll see in a moment, is only sort of what they actually say. (I don't want to make too much fun of Ramón Vinay's English, which after all is no less idiomatic than most of our original-language Josés' French. The Chilean tenor was a wonderfully intense and humane singer in some of opera's most demandingly heroic roles.)

DON JOSÉ: "I'm not threatening you"
[rendered here as "I have not come to harm you"]

[in English] Ramón Vinay (t), Don José; Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, cond. Live performance, July 11, 1946

CARMEN says: "Between us, everything is finished"
[rendered here as: "For you and I, this is the end"]
DON JOSÉ says: "Carmen, there's still time! Yes, there's still time!"
[rendered here as: "Carmen, I cannot believe you! No, I cannot believe you!"]

[in English] Winifred Heidt (ms), Carmen; Ramón Vinay (t), Don José; Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, cond. Live performance, July 11, 1946


Sunday, November 25, 2012

All the major players in "Carmen" gather outside the bullfighting arena in Seville

The Entr'acte to Act III is played by the Berlin Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, with Emmanuel Pahud as flute soloist, at the orchestra's 2010 Silvesterkonzert (i.e., New Year's Eve concert)

by Ken

As I explained in Friday night's preview ("Enter the Toreador"), we're picking up on our look at the unfolding of the romantic obsession of the Army sergeant Don José, a Basque who has left his home in Navarre for the southerly latitudes of Seville, for the free-spirited gypsy Carmen, whose original interest in José was the very fact that he was one of the rare man who shows absolutely no interest in her. However, by the end of Act II, where we left the couple in part 1 of this series ("'And long live the music that falls on us from heaven' (Carmen)"), he was thoroughly under her spell.

We're going to move pretty quickly through Act III to get to the climactic meeting of the now-former lovers in Act IV.

BIZET: Carmen: Entr'acte to Act III

We already did the Act III Entr'acte pretty thoroughly in a February 2012 flute-and-harp post, and we just heard (and saw) it again at the top of the post. Well, here it is again.

Orchestra of the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, cond. EMI, recorded 1969-70

Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. EMI, recorded 1958-59


Friday, November 23, 2012

Preview: Enter the Toreador

By the time Don José arrives at Lillas Pastia's joint in Act II of Carmen, we have a new player. Enter the Toreador. (Above: Aris Agiris as Escamillo at Covent Garden, 2010.)
ESCAMILLO: Let's go! On guard! Let's go! On guard!
Ah! Toreador, on guard! Toreador! Toreador!
And surely think, yes think while fighting
that a dark eye is watching you,
and that love awaits you!
Toreador! Love awaits you!
ALL: Toreador, on guard! Toreador! Toreador!
And surely think, yes think while fighting
that a dark eye is watching you,
and that love awaits you!
Toreador! Love awaits you!

The high-flying French baritone Ernest Blanc sings the refrain of the first stanza of the Toreador Song, with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting Radiodiffusion Française forces in his 1958-59 EMI recording of Carmen. (Don't worry, we're going to hear the complete Toreador Song.)

by Ken

Even though in this Carmen series (begun two weeks ago, "'And long live the music that falls on us from heaven' (Carmen)") we're trying to focus on the romantic obsession of Don José, we can't ignore the other characters who intersect with the poor fellow's existence at this crucial moment -- most obviously Carmen herself, of course, but also the bullfighter Escamillo. For him Bizet happens to have concocted one of the most famous tunes in the history of tunedom.

In Part 1 of this series we had taken José up to the point of being the recipient of a special dance from the object of his infatuation when he meets her at Carmen's friend Lillas Pastia's joint on the outskirts of Seville -- just as soon as the young sergeant has been released from the brig for allowing Carmen to escape from his custody in connection with her stabbing of a fellow cigarette-factory worker. However, by the time José shows up at Lillas Pastia's, the dashing toreador has made an appearance, followed by his adoring throng. As it happens, the final stage of the relationship between José and Carmen is going to play out in front of the arena where Escamillo is toreadoring.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mahler's most characteristically "Mahlerian" symphony is also his least loved, part 2

This is the start of Leonard Bernstein's October 1974 video recording of the Mahler Seventh Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic.

by Ken

In approaching the gigantic opening movement of the Mahler Seventh Symphony (in the Klemperer recording it runs to almost 28 minutes), we cheated. We've already heard our reward once we cross to the other side, in the previous post in this series ("Mahler's most characteristically "Mahlerian" symphony is also his least loved," Nov. 4): the three movements that Mahler imagined first -- the two Nachtmusik (Night Music) movements bracketing a scherzo -- before finding himself at a loss as to what should surround all of them.

By way of reminder, here again is musicologist-critic Mosco Carner (1904-1985) telling the story of how Mahler overcame this creative impasse, from Carner's liner note for the 1968 Klemperer-EMI recording:
From a letter written to his wife five years after the completion of the symphony (1905) we learn that it was while being ferried across a lake in the Tyrol that the movements of the oars suddenly released in him the music or, rather, the rhythm and character of the slow introduction, and that in four weeks the first, third and last movements were finished. (This is an excellent illustration of a fact observed in the psychology of the creative process that a quite trivial event may act as a trigger to make conscious what was once stored deep down in the artist's unconscious.)
And here again are the two performances we heard two weeks ago of just the opening minutes of the opening movement (I've replaced my LP-dubbed Klemperer clip with one from the CD which also runs as far into the introduction as the Solti clip):

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded May 1971

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 18-28, 1968


Friday, November 16, 2012

Preview: Another set of three exotic Mahler "middle movements"

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the BBC Philharmonic in the Deryck Cooke performing version of the first of the two scherzos of Mahler's uncompleted Tenth Symphony, 2007.

by Ken

We're in the middle of two projects. Last week we continued our Sexual Obsession in Opera series with the initial intersection of the protagonists of Bizet's Carmen, the free-spirited gypsy Carmen and the Basque army sergeant Don José, both displaced to Seville. And two weeks ago we attacked Mahler's uniquely wonderful Seventh Symphony from the middle: listening to the three middle movements -- the two Nachtmusik (Night Music) movements that frame a scherzo. Those two movements are in turn framed by the symphony's "big" movements.

We're going to come back to Carmen, probably next week, to hear Carmen and José through to their climactic confrontation. Meanwhile this week we return to the Mahler Seventh, to hear those grand outer movements, which we'll do on Sunday. For tonight I thought we'd take a peek into the future.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"And long live the music that falls on us from heaven" (Carmen)

Plácido Domingo sings the Flower Song at the Vienna State Opera, Dec. 9, 1978, with Carlos Kleiber conducting and Franco Zeffirelli directing. (The unheard Carmen is Elena Obraztsova.)
DON JOSÉ: The flower that you threw me
stayed with me in my prison.
Withered and dried out, that flower
always kept its sweet perfume;
and for hours at a time,
with my eyes closed,
I became drunk with its smell,
and in the night I saw you.
I took to cursin gyou,
to desting you, to saying to myself,
"Why did fate have
to put her there in my path?
Then -- I accused myself of blasphemy,
and I felt within myself
I felt only one desire,
one lone desire, one lone hope:
to see you again, Carmen, to see you again.
For you had only to appear,
only to cast a glance at me,
to take possession of my whole being,
o my Carmen,
and I was your possession!
Carmen, I love you!

Enrico Caruso, tenor; orchestra. Victor, recorded Nov. 26, 1911 (restored by Bob Varney)

Georges Thill, tenor; symphony orchestra, Philippe Gaubert, cond. EMI, recorded 1928-29

Jussi Bjoerling, tenor; Frederick Schauwecker, piano. RCA/BMG, recorded in recital at Carnegie Hall, Sept. 24, 1955

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Prague Phliharmonic Orchestra, Marco Armiliato, cond. Decca, recorded August 2007

by Ken

As I mentioned in Friday night's preview ('If you don't love me, I love you, and if I love you, watch out' -- meet La Carmencita"), we're putting our Mahler Seventh Symphony project on hold after doing the three middle movements last week ("Mahler's most characteristically 'Mahlerian' symphony is also his least loved"). (I can report that the set containing the Klemperer-EMI recording finally arrived yesterday!)

Instead this week we've started another two-part post, in effect a continuation of a series that began with a fair amount of still-not-completed poking around the two great operatic retellings of the story of Manon and the Chévalier des Grieux an then the famous Letter Scene inspired by the passion of Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin. The subject here is obsessive passion: first as shared by Manon and des Grieux, then as experienced unidirectionally by Tatiana, and starting this week going in the opposite direction, with the obsession of the Basque Don José, an army sergeant, for the gypsy Carmen.


We've heard the Carmen Prelude and the entr'actes to Acts II-IV, back in March. The rousing Prelude is music that has entered the popular imagination. We hear it continuing on into the first statement of the "fate motif," which we've already heard attached to Carmen's hurling of a cassia flower at José's feet (which he would shortly after be seen picking up), and we just heard as the lead-in to José's desperately imploring Flower Song from Act II.

BIZET: Carmen: Prelude

Orchestra of the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, cond. EMI, recorded July 1969-Feb. 1970

Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded November 1963

Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Michel Plasson, cond. EMI, recorded Feb.-Mar. 2002


Friday, November 9, 2012

Preview: "If you don't love me, I love you, and if I love you, watch out" -- meet La Carmencita

Keep your eye on the flower: We're in the square in Seville outside the cigarette factory where the charismatic gypsy CARMEN and the other cigarette girls work.CARMEN has just sung her Habañera (which we'll be coming back to in a moment) to the assembled soldiers and assorted other drooling males. As our excerpt begins she has been surrounded by a group of importuning young men. The only man paying no attention to her the young Basque sergeant DON JOSÉ.
CARMEN looks at the young men one after the other, leaves the circle they've formed around her, and goes straight up to DON JOSÉ, who is still occupied with his little chain. CARMEN throws a cassia flower at DON JOSÉ. He stands up abruptly. The flower has fallen at his feet. Outburst of general laughing.

CIGARETTE GIRLS [surrounding DON JOSÉ]: Love is a gypsy child;
it's never, never had any law.
If you don't love me, I love you;
if I love you, watch out!

The factory bell. The girls exit running. CARMEN exits first. The young men exit right and left. The soldiers and the lieutenant return to their posts. DON JOSÉ has his eyes fixed on the flower, which has fallen on the ground in front of him.

Chorus of Radio France, Orchestre National de France, Seiji Ozawa, cond. Philips, recorded July 13-22, 1988

by Ken

In just a moment José is going to pick that flower up, and then . . . well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Just keep your eye on that flower!

You thought we were going to be finishing up with the Mahler Seventh Symphony this week, right? Or rather starting and finishing up, since it's the hulking first and last movements that still await us after hearing the enchantingly weird three middle movements last week ("Mahler's most characteristically 'Mahlerian' symphony is also his least loved").

Well, for various reasons -- not least that I'm still waiting for that CD set I mentioned ordering which includes the Klemperer recording of the symphony, rather than working from my LP copy -- I'm going to put that off till (probably) next week, and this week start another two-part inquiry, which itself forms a series of sorts with our recent looks at the operatic retellings of the story of Manon and the Chévalier des Grieux and the unrequited passion of Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin.

I'll explain this better, or at least more fully, on Sunday. Meanwhile, as promised above, let's have our proper introduction to La Carmencita.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mahler's most characteristically "Mahlerian" symphony is also his least loved

Claudio Abbado conducts the first five minutes of the chamber-music-like fourth movement, the second "Night Music" (yes, with guitar, mandolin, and cowbells!), of Mahler's Seventh Symphony -- at the 2006 Lucerne Festival.

by Ken

We concluded Friday night's "Night Music" preview with a two-minute-plus "glimpse" of "what I think qualifies as the ultimate in Night Music." Here's the complete movement:

MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 in E minor:
ii. Nachtmusik I (Night Music I): Allegro moderato

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded May 1971

If you wonder about that movement designation "Nachtmusik I," it means just what it says. It's the first of two "Night Music" movements. Here's the other, "Nachtmusik II," from the same recording.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 in E minor:
iv. Nachtmusik II (Night Music II): Andante amoroso

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded May 1971


. . . because that's where Mahler started. As it happens, we've already heard his Sixth Symphony ("The Andante of the Sixth Symphony -- the most beautiful movement Mahler ever composed?" and "Is Mahler's Sixth Symphony any more 'tragic' than life itself?," July 2011), so we're starting more or less where he did. And the first ideas that came to him which seemed capable of being developed further were the two Nachtmusik movements. And then he was stuck. He doesn't seem to have lost confidence that his pair of "Night Music"s could be the core of something; he just couldn't figure out what.

In a useful liner note for Otto Klemperer's 1968 EMI recording of the Mahler Seventh, the Austrian-British musicologist-critic Mosco Carner (1904-1985) tells the story of how the composer overcame this creative block:

Friday, November 2, 2012

Preview: Night Music

Part 1 (of the poster's 17) of the 1990 New York City Opera telecast of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music

by Ken

The German Nachtmusik is literally "night music," but by extension it's also the standard term for "serenade." As for example:

MOZART: Serenade in G, K. 525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik)

Vienna Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. Victor 78rpm set M 364, recorded Dec. 17, 1936, digital transfer by F. Reeder

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. Victor 78rpm set DM 1163, recorded 1945, transferred and restored by Bob Varney
[Restorer Bob Varney notes of the 1945 Beecham set: "A 1947 magazine ad showed this recording priced at $3. That would be the equivalent of about $30.25 today and would buy only 16 minutes of music."]


We'll be hearing what I think qualifies as the ultimate in Night Music. Here's a glimpse. Note that in the opening two-horn dialogue, the theatrical first part is played by the Chicago Symphony's legendary Dale Clevenger (born 1940), who has been the orchestra's principal horn since 1966 -- and, yes, is still on the job.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded May 1971

Sunday, October 28, 2012

They say that falling in love is wonderful -- Tchaikovsky's Tatiana writes a letter

Renée Fleming as Tatiana in the Letter Scene
Are you an angel, sent to guard me,
or will you tempt and then discard me?
Resolve these doubts I can't dispel.
Could all my dreams be self-delusion?
Am I too innocent to tell?
Has fate prepared its own conclusion?

Renée Fleming (s), Tatiana; London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded Dec. 16-21, 1996

by Ken

Is there anyone who hasn't frenziedly punched out an e-mail and then, still in the grip of that frenzy, pressed SEND only to regret it as soon as the frenzy passes? It appears that for all the wizardry of the technology and the instantaneousness of communication, we 21st-century folk aren't that different from our technologically primitive letter-writing ancestors.

In last night's preview we set the scene for what we're going to be hearing tonight: the scene in which young Tatiana Larina, in the wee hours of the morning, declares her love for Yevgeny Onegin, the visiting friend of her sister Olga's fiancé, Lenski. We heard the intense Prelude, the opening quartet, set in the garden of the Larin country estate, in which the sisters sing a duet from inside the house while their mother and nurse listen and reflect outside, and we heard some interactions between the paired young people and Lenski's ravishing declaration of love for Olga.


Now it's several days later, and an intensely excited Tatiana, alone in her room, figures out what to do. We're going to listen to the whole of Act I, Scene 2, where the "Letter Scene" proper is bracketed by scenes between Tatiana and Filipyevna, the nurse. In fact, we're going to break it down into manageable bits with the assistance of one of our CD versions, but I thought we now might just take the plunge.

Here are three performances -- very different but, I think, quite effective in their distinctive ways.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Yevgeny Onegin, Op. 24:
Act I, Scene 2, Letter Scene, Tatiana

TATIANA's room, very simply furnished with old-fashioned whtie wooden chairs covered with chintz, and window curtains of the same material. A bed, over which is a bookshelf. A chest of drawers, covered with a cloth, and on it a mirror on a stand. Vases of flowers. At the window, a table with writing materials.

TATIANA has told the nurse, Filipyevna, that she can't sleep, and had Filipyevna set up her writing table with writing supplies. The nurse has left. TATIANA remains for a long time lost in thought. Then she rises, very agitated and with an expression of resolute determination.

[Note: What follows is the singing translation by David Lloyd-Jones used in the Welsh National Opera English-language recording we're going to be hearing.]

TATIANA: To write is foolishness, I know it,
but as I love him, I must show it.
And though I languish evermore,
I'll learn what rapture lies in store!
Desire has poisoned me with longing;
all day I only think of him.
For though I hide in my despair,
my fatal tempter finds me there;
My tempter haunts me everywhere!
[She goes to the writing table, sits down and writes, then pauses.]
No, that won't do! I'll start another.
[She tears up the letter.]
What's wrong with me? I'm all on fire.
I can't think how to start.
[She writes again, then pauses and reads over what she has written.]

"I had to write, my heart compelled me;
What is there more that I need to say>
Henceforth I know that you'll disdain me
for acting rashly in this way.
But if you'd only show compassion
and think how wretched I must be,
you'll surely not abandon me!
At first I meant to hide my secret;
believe me, I had hoped that you would never know it;
never know, never know!"
[She lays the letter aside.]
Oh yes, I'd sworn that I would hide my love.
And not betray this madness that consumes me.
But now I can't subdue my passion any more;
fate will decide what whatever lies in store.
I shall declare myself and trust in my confession!
[She writes again.]
"Whatever brought you to this lonely place?
For since I live here in seclusion
I would never have seen your face,
or would have known such bitter torment.
My heart would soon have grown contented,
and then as time went by, who knows,
I might have chanced to find another,
agreed to honor and respect him,
and made a faithful, loving wife . . ."
[She becomes lost in thought, then rises suddenly.]
But no!

No, there could never be another
to whom I'd give my love!
My life is bound to yours forever;
this is decreed by heaven above.
Now my existence has a meaning,
that noble soul for which I sigh.
I know that God above has sent you
to guard and to love me till you die!
Often I'd seen you in my dreaming;
your face and form had long been dear.
Nightly you whispered in my ear;
your words disturbed me with their meaning.
And then . . . that dream of mine came true.
For when we met, I straightaway knew you,
and in that instant, beating wildly,
my heart cried out to me: "Love him, love him!"

For you were always there beside me
when, sick at heart, I knelt in prayer.
Your noble presence seemed to guide me
when I would help the poor and
needy in charity.
Yes, it is your beloved vision
that comes in this moment of decision
to stand beside me as I write,
and fill my heart with new emotion,
with whispered promise of devotion
that brings me comfort and delight.
[She goes to the table and sits down again to write.]

"Are you an angel, sent to guard me,
or will you tempt and then discard me?
Resolve these doubts I can't dispel.
Could all my dreams be self-delusion?
Am I too innocent to tell?
Has fate prepared its own conclusion?"
[She again rises and and walks about pensively.]

"No, come what may, I'm now resolved
to lay my worthless life before you.
Pity my burning tears and grant me
your protection, I impore you,
I implore you!
Imagine, I am all alone;
there's no one here who understands me.
[She comes downstage.]
I fear my reason will desert me;
to find release I'd gladly die.
I long for you,
I long for you to be my savior;
one word can set my heart on fire
or simply stifle my desire,
to leave me desolate and wretched!"
[She goes quickly to the table and hurriedly finishes the letter. Then she stands up and seals it.]
It's finished! Dare I read it through?
For shame and terror now assail me.
But since his honor is my pledge
I boldy trust he will not fail me!

Galina Vishnevskaya (s), Tatiana; Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, Boris Khaikin, cond. Melodiya, recorded 1956

Leontyne Price (s), Tatiana; London Symphony Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded June 1970

[in German] Ljuba Welitsch (s), Tatiana; Philharmonia Orchestra, Walter Susskind, cond. EMI, recorded May 22, 1948

RECORDING NOTES: The Price and Welitsch recordings are stand-alone excerpts; the Vishnevskaya is from the 1956 Bolshoi Opera complete Onegin . . .

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Preview: Meet Tchaikovsky's Tatiana, who's going to be writing a famous letter

Soprano Anna Leese and baritone Mark Stone as Tatiana and Onegin in Act I of Yevgeny Onegin at London's Opera Holland Park this past July

by Ken

In early September we listened to a bunch of Tchaikovsky waltzes that included the one embedded in the opening scene of Act II of the composer's opera Yevgeny Onegin, which led to mention of the letter that young Tatiana Larina had written to a guest at her mother's country estate, Yevgeny Onegin, the worldly friend of her sister Olga's fiancé, Lenski. The writing of that letter is one of opera's great scenes, and I've been meaning to get back to the Letter Scene. This week is it.

Tonight we're going to fill in some background, and we're going to start at the very beginning, on the country estate of Madame Larina. After the Prelude, the curtain rises on Larina and her children's old nurse, Filipyevna, in the garden, listening to the Larin daughters, Tatiana and Olga, singing a suitably moody Russian duet from inside the house.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Yevgeny Onegin, Op. 24: Prelude and Opening quartet
The garden of the Larin country estate. On the left a house with a terrace; on the right, a shady tree. It is early evening.

Madama Larina is sitting under the tree making jam on a portable stove; Filipyevna is helping her. Te doors leading from the house onto the terrace are open and the voices of the two girls, singing a duet, can be heard coming from within.

TATIANA and OLGA: Have you not heard, from beyond the grove at night,
the voice that sings of love and sings of sorrow?
When, at the morning hour, the fields lay silent,
the music of the pipe, simple and sad,
have you not heard?
Then the music of the pipe, simple and sad,
have you not heard?
LARINA: They sing, and I too
used to sing that song in days gone by.
Do you remember? I used to sing it too.
FILIPYEVNA: You were young then.
[The duet continues as the older women chat and reminisce.]
TATIANA and OLGA: Have you not sighed
on hearing that sweet voice
sing of love
and of its sorrows?
Wen in the forest . . .
LARINA: How I loved Richardson!
FILIPYEVNA: You were young then.
LARINA: Not that I'd read his books,
but in the old days Princess Alina,
my cousin in Moscow,
kept on to me about him.
FILIPYEVNA: Yes, I remember.
TATIANA and OLGA: . . . you saw a youth
and met the gaze
of his sunken eyes . . .
LARINA: Ah, Grandison! Ah, Richardson!
FILIPYEVNA: At that time your husband
was still courting you, but against your will;
you were dreaming of another,
one who pleased you much more
in heart and mind!
TATIANA and OLGA: . . . Did you not sigh? Did you not sigh? &c.
LARINA: Ah, Richardson!
Why, he was a fine dandy,
a gambler and an ensign in the Guards!
FILIPYEVNA: Years long gone by!
LARINA: How well I always used to dress!
FILIPYEVNA: Always in the latest fashion!
LARINA: Always in the fashion and becomingly!
FILIPYEVNA: Alwaways in the fashion and becomingly!
TATIANA and OLGA: Did you not sigh,
when you met the gaze
of his sunken eyes,
did you not sigh, did you not sigh, &c.
LARINA: But suddenly, without even asking me . . .
FILIPYEVNA: They married you off without further ado!
Then, to relieve your unhappiness . . .
LARINA: Oh, how I cried to begin with!
I nearly left my husband!
FILIPYEVNA: . . . The master came here.
Here you busied yourself with the household,
became resigned and settled down.
LARINA: I busied myself with the household,
became resigned and settled down.
FILIPYEVNA: And God be thanked!
LARINA and FILIPYEVNA: Habit is sent us from above
in place of happiness.
Yes, that is how it is:
Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.
LARINA: Corsets, album, Princess Pauline,
the book of sentimental verse,
I forgot them all.
to call the maid Akulka instead of Celine
and restored at last . . .
LARINA and FILIPYEVNA: . . . The quilted dressing gowwn and mob cap!
Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happipness.
Yes, that is how it is:
Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.
LARINA: But my husband loved me truly . . .
FILIPYEVNA: But the master loved you truly . . .
LARINA: . . . and trusted me unreservedly.
FILIPYEVNA: and trusted you unreservedly.
LARINA and FILIPYEVNA: Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.

Mirella Freni (s), Tatiana; Anne Sofie von Otter (ms), Olga; Rosemarie Lang (ms), Madame Larina; Ruthild Engert (ms), Filipyevna (the Nurse); Staatskapelle Dresden, James Levine, cond. DG, recorded June 1987

[in English] Kiri Te Kanawa (s), Tatiana; Patricia Bardon (ms), Olga; Linda Finnie (c), Madame Larina; Elizabeth Bainbridge (ms), Filipyevna (the Nurse); Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. EMI/Chandos, recorded June 29-July 6, 1992


The sisters, for all they have in common, are also very different. Most obviously, Olga is way more outgoing than the introverted Tatiana. More particularly, Olga has a fiancé, the poet Lenski; the two of them grew up on neighboring estates, and as we'll hear in a moment their parents in fact destined them for each other.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What can we say? Composer Gustav Holst performed this foul deed himself!

HOLST and SPRING-RICE: "I vow to thee, my country"

From the Royal British Legion's Festival of Remembrance, Nov. 12, 2011

by Ken

As I indicated in Friday night's preview, in which we saw a technically blah video clip of a pretty decent performance of the "Jupiter" movement of Holst's The Planets, it was slogging through Episode 2 of Series 2 of the new Upstairs Downstairs that set me off on this musical mini-inquiry.

It is, in a word . . . well, the technical term is dreck. It had a reason of sorts for coming into existence when it did, c1921, as Britons tried to rally from the horrors of World War I. But that's an explanation, not excuse. Just by way of reminder, here's where the music came from.

HOLST: The Planets, Op. 32:
iv. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity: central theme

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, cond. EMI, recorded 1978-79


. . . is that the deed was done by the composer himself!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Preview: So I was slogging through Episode 2 of Season 2 of the new "Upstairs Downstairs" . . .

Charles Dutoit conducts Tokyo's NHK Symphony in 1998 in "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," the middle movement of the seven that make up Gustav Holst's beloved concert suite The Planets.

by Ken

Yeah, I wish the picture and sound of our clip were better, but at least Dutoit gets the piece, which you wouldn't think would be all that difficult. But this sets him apart from some very famous conductors you can see on YouTube. (I don't want to mention names, but it's a shame that as grand a conductor as Eugene Ormandy, especially in splashy orchestral display music like this, will be remembered for that slack late performance from 1975, and Seiji Ozawa, another conductor I admire a lot, and again especially in splashy orchestral display music, doesn't do much better.)

What we're going to be concerned with in this week's Sunday Classics post is the majestic contrasting section of the jolly "Jupiter" movement, which is to say starting at 3:20 of the clip. If you've been watching Season 2 of the sad new series of Upstairs Downstairs, you'll know where we're going. And if you haven't seen this week's Episode 2, enjoy the music now -- because it's going to be tougher come Sunday.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Anatomy of an overture -- Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri"

Sir Neville Marriner conducts the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in a 2006 Rheingau Music Festival performance of Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri Overture that's even a bit broader than the wonderful 1974 recording we're going to hear.

by Ken

In the concert hall there aren't many more atmospheric musical openings than that of the Overture to Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Woman in Algiers), an it makes for an opening that's if anything more atmospheric in the opera house.

As I mentioned in Friday night's preview, we're at the opposite end of Rossini's career from what I called the "post-theatrical" one, which followed the 1829 premiere of William Tell in Paris, where the composer had relocated in 1824. The reason I wanted to present something from that long period (remembering that he lived on till 1868), in this case the tenor's "Cujus animam" from the Stabat Mater (1831-41), was to show that Rossini (a) didn't stop composing and (b) hadn't suddenly lost his skills or inspiration.

In fact, the very busy decade of opera composing that preceded Rossini's sudden withdrawal from the stage raises a lot of questions of its own. There's a lot of fine music there, and a number of operas that can speak to audiences given adeqaute consideration, understanding, and in many cases casting -- conditions that pretty much never apply. A lot of William Tell itself rises to powerful heights, as we've discussed and heard a bit, but I think it would be incredibly difficult to make this real for audiences and also deal with the portions of it that don't seem to work so well.

In fact, for all the explorations and exhumations of Rossini's vast output, his position in the repertory still rests on the three comic masterpieces he wrote between 1813 and 1817. This may be a good time to listen again to the very opening of the Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri, eight bars scored just for softly plucked strings until that thundering from the full orchestra on the downbeat of bar 8.

ROSSINI: L'Italiana in Algeri: Overture -- Andante, part 1

(1) Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Giuseppe Patané, cond.
(2) Philharmonia Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond.
(3) National Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, cond.
(4) Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner, cond.

Note that in just these eight bars we can hear that we have four very different performances, starting with the quickest, Giuseppe Patané's (using tempos very similar to those of Arturo Toscanini) and proceeding to almost equally broad ones from Riccardo Chailly and Nville Marriner. The Marriner performance is set apart by a distinctive, much more firmly plucked pizzicato from his strings.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Preview: The post-operatic Rossini

Tenor Dalmacio Gonzalez sings the "Cuius animam" from Rossini's Stabat Mater -- in an August 1981 Proms performance with the Philharmona Orchestra conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. (DG made a recording with the same forces as the Proms performance.)

by Ken

It's impossible to talk about the career of Gioachhino Rossini (1792-1868) without taking note of the fact that, though he lived almost another 40 years, he completed his last opera, William Tell, in 1829, at the age of 37. With his retirement from the stage he didn't stop composing, though -- though now, freed from the exigencies of opera-house work, he could decide what and when to compose (probably the most representative products of this period are the short instrumental and vocal pieces collected as his Sins of Old Age), and didn't show a lot of concern for unleashing these works on the public.

Among the "post-theatrical" compositions are Rossini's two major sacred works, the Stabat Mater (1831-1841) and the Petite Messe solenelle (1864-67). The highly unorthodox Mass clearly qualifies as a "late" work, whereas Rossini's setting of the medieval Latin poem Stabat mater dolorosa (The Sorrowful Mother Stood) was completed well before the composer's 50th birthday. For our purposes this week, however, it does give us one example of music that came from his pen following his retirement from the stage.

What we're hearing tonight is the famous tenor solo, "Cujus animam gementem" (which soars famously up to higher-than-high-C high D-flat). I don't think it's going out on a limb to suggest that not many composers would have heard music anything like what Rossini did for the "Cujus animam."

The Caruso and Bjoerling recordings were done as 78s, and so were almost certainly influenced by the 78-side recording limitation. Even so, I think it's fair to say that the Giulini-conducted performance in the video clip above is really broadly paced, even more so than the 1967 Rome Radio performance from which we hear Luciano Pavarotti singing the "Cujus animam" below. For comparison, we're also hearing the Decca studio recording Pavarotti made just a few years later with István Kertész.

ROSSINI: Stabat Mater: "Cujus animam gementem"
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,

now at length the sword has passed.

O how sad and sore distressed

was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,

she beneath beholds the pangs

of her dying glorious Son.
[English adaptation by Victorian poet-composer Edward Caswall]

Enrico Caruso, tenor; Victor Orchestra. Victor, recorded Dec. 15, 1913

Jussi Bjoerling, tenor; orchestra, Nils Grevillius, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 12, 1938

Luciano Pavarotti, tenor; RAI Symphony Orchestra, Rome, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. Live performance, Dec. 22, 1967

Luciano Pavarotti, tenor; London Symphony Orchestra, István Kertész, cond. Decca, recorded March 1971


We're actually going to be focusing on the other end of Rossini's creative career.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Manon and des Grieux go their separate ways, or try

Natalie Dessay sings Manon's farewell to her table from Act II of Manon, from the same 2007 Barcelona performance from which we saw Rolando Villazón sharing des Grieux's dream with her in last night's preview. (Isn't it wonderful that you can sing like this and still be a star?)

by Ken

We're going to hear more of the full scene, but for now, to try to wash away the taste of the above performance, here's just the aria sung in Italian, as "Addio, o nostro picciol desco."

MASSENET: Manon: Act II, Manon, "Adieu, notre petite table" ("Farewell, our little table") (sung in Italian)
[Approaches the table, laid for dinner.]
Farewell, our little table,
that brought us together so often.
Farewell, farewell, our little table --
so big for us, however.
We take up, it's unimaginable,
so little space . . . especially while squeezing each other!
Farewell, our little table!
The same glass served us both.
Each of us, when we drank,
searched for the other's lips on it.
Ah! poor friend, how he loved me!
Farewell, our little table, farewell!

Mirella Freni (s), Manon; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Peter Maag, cond. Live performance, June 3, 1969

As I wrote in last night's preview, today we're focusing on music that Massenet found to portray the pain of separation felt by both Manon and des Grieux. And as I also mentioned, we're filling in here some knowledge that Manon possesses already when des Grieux shares with her his ravishing dream, a dream that might not seem nearly so dreamy to her even if she didn't know that he's about to be abducted from their cozy little love nest by emissaries of his father, the Count des Grieux.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Preview: Tonight finally we hear des Grieux's "Dream" as sung by . . . well, you'll hear

Des Grieux (Rolando Villazón) shares his dream with Manon (Natalie Dessay) -- from Act II of Massenet's Manon in Barcelona, 2007.

by Ken

For tonight's preview we're going to revisit the young Chévalier des Grieux's "Dream," as shared with his young lover Manon Lescaut at a time when she, alas, already knows that they're as little as minutes away from everything between them coming to a crashing end. We're going to hear it tonight in a recording I was too lazy to prepare for presentation earlier. As we'll hear once again, des Grieux has no clue as to what's about to happen.

To recap: A high-spirited, ravishing, even magnetic (to men, that is) 16-year-old girl, destined by her family to be shut away in a convent, crosses paths with a dashing young aristocratic scion, and their hormones explode. They run off together and are deliriously happy -- for a while. Not long after, however, a mere couple of acts later (four at most) if it's an opera, one of them will be so destroyed that dying is more or less the easy way out, leaving the other behind, life in tatters.

It's the story of the Chévalier des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut, as first told novelistically by the Abbé Prévost, and then operatically by Jules Massenet and Giacomo Puccini. The case I've been trying to argue is that, setting Romeo and juliet aside, possibly no doomed couple has exerted as powerful a hold on the romantic imagination as these two.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mahler Symphony No. 8, "Veni, Creator Spiritus"

If you can bear the video mis-sync, here's the first 8 minutes of Part I of Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 8, his setting of the medieval hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus," with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (and soloists and choruses too numerous to mention -- even if I knew who they were) at the 2002 Proms.

by Ken

As I noted in Friday night's preview, there is an unmistakable rupture between Mahler's Eighth Symphony (which has been saddled with the unfortunate rubric "Symphony of a Thousand"; yes, it calls for eight vocal soloists and a double chorus plus children's chorus in addition to orchestra reinforced by organ, but that's a long from a thousand performers) and the song-symphony that followed, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). As everyone surely knows by now, in the interim the composer received the dire diagnosis of his untreatable heart disease.

In the Eighth Symphony, however, we find Mahler from the very outset still at his heaven-stormingest, as we heard in the video clip above.

Performances of the Mahler Eighth were once rare events. By now they have become, if not quite commonplace, then hardly rarities, and recordings . . . well, they have become more or less commonplace. Which makes this once-hardly-approachable work much more readily available, but still hardly easy of approach.

We're going to limit ourselves to Part I of the symphony, Mahler's setting of the medieval hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus." (Part II, which last more than twice as long, is a setting of the final scene from Goethe's Faust.)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Preview: Before and after -- Mahler learns that the's dying

by Ken

We've actually heard the music we're going to hear (again) in tonight's preview -- an an August 2010 poat called "In the opening vision of Mahler's "Song of the Earth": "Dark is life, is death", which focused on the three tenor songs -- Nos. 1, 3, and 5 -- from Das Lied von der Erde, the work that Mahler undertook following his diagnosis of untreatable heart disease. It seemed obvious to begin by hearing the way his preceding work work, the Eighth Symphony, had closed, with the conclusion of Goethe's Faust. (FYI: This excerpt begins very softly. It gets louder.)

MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat: conclusion, "Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis"
All things transitory are but parable;
here insufficiency becomes fulfillment,
here the indescribable is accomplished;
the ever-womanly draws us heavenward.
[much repeated]
-- English translation by Peggie Cochrane

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond. BBC Legends, live performance from the Royal Albert Hall, March 20, 1959 (6:39)


Sunday, September 23, 2012

How Massenet and Puccini make Manon and des Grieux matter to us

MANON [sad and resigned]: Come now, Manon, no more chimeras,
where your mind goes while dreaming!
Leave these ephemeral desires
at the door of your convent!
Come now, Manon, no more desires, no more chimeras!

Beverly Sills (s), Manon Lescaut; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Julius Rudel, cond. ABC-DG, recorded July 1970

by Ken

This is the 16-year-old Manon of Massenet's Act I, arrived in Amiens by coach where she has been met -- and promptly abandoned -- by her cousin Lescaut for dumping off to a convent. (We're going to hear a fuller version of this scene later.)

A few weeks ago I began poking around The Story of the Chévalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut (the title of the novel by the Abbé Prévost which formed the basis for all the subsequent adaptations) as it was shaped by Jules Massenet for his operatic Manon. Then in Friday's preview we switched over to Puccini's later rendering, which he distinguished by calling it Manon Lescaut.

The last thing I'm interested in is seeing which opera is "better." They seem to me wonderfully complementary, a classic case of two great storytellers who tell the same story, which comes out somewhat different because of their different sensibilities, emphases, and audiences. And I think looking at both operas helps us focus on what makes the story of these doomed lovers so enduringly fascinating.

Let's start by going back to the beginnings of both operas. We already heard the brief Prelude to Massenet's opera, but let's hear it again, first in a performance we already heard, then in one we didn't.

MASSENET: Manon: Prelude

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Julius Rudel, cond. ABC-DG, recorded July 1970

Orchestra of the Capitole de Toulouse, Michel Plasson, cond. EMI, recorded July 1982

Massenet's curtain rises on a "genre" scene at the inn in Amiens where Manon and des Grieux are going to meet. Puccini begins his opera with a similar sort of scene, focused on the male students at the inn flirting with the young ladies.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Preview: The other operatic "Story of the Chévalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut"

DES GRIEUX: Gentle lady, accept my prayer:
let those sweet lips tell me your name.
MANON: Manon Lescaut is my name.

(1) Jussi Bjoerling (t), des Grieux; Licia Albanese (s), Manon; Rome Opera Orchestra, Jonel Perlea, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded July 1954
(2) Giuseppe di Stefano (t), des Grieux; Maria Callas (s), Manon; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Tullio Serafin, cond. EMI, recorded July 1957
(3) Richard Tucker (t), des Grieux; Renata Tebaldi (s), Manon; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. Live performance, Jan. 17, 1959

by Ken

We've already begun poking around the operafication of one of the literature's most commanding "love at first stories," that of the Chévalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut, as set forth originally novelistically by the Abbé Prévost. So far we've focused on the good times, the falling-madly-in-love times, as realized in music by Jules Massenet in his Manon. The young Puccini, having as yet no reputation to speak of, had the temerity to undertake another operatic Manon, and for him it was the breakthrough work. Manon Lescaut has its musicodramatic shortcomings, but it also contains large quantities of great music, and great dramatic music.

Just as in Massenet, Manon and des Grieux meet outside that inn in Amiens, after she has been deposited there by coach for transshipment to a convent -- though here the relation exercising such lack supervision is not her cousin but her brother. After the click-through we'll hear a full version of this compact scene. For now I want to focus first on those first words exchanged by the young people, and then jump a few minutes to the impact the encounter has on des Grieux.

PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut: Act I, des Grieux, "Donna non vidi mai"
DES GRIEUX: Never have I beheld a woman like this!
To tell her "I love you"
awakened my spirit to new life.
"Manon Lescaut is my name."
How those fragrant words
wander in my spirit
and caress my quivering heart.
O gentle murmur, ah! may it never cease!
"Manon Lescaut is my name."
Gentle murmur, ah! may it never cease!

Giuseppe di Stefano (t), des Grieux; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Tullio Serafin, cond. EMI, recorded July 1957

Richard Tucker (t), des Grieux; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. Live performance, Jan. 17, 1959

Not to worry, we are going to hear Bjoerling's "Donna non vidi mai," but for now I thought we'd hark back to the master, who recorded the aria only once, but I think once was all he needed.

Enrico Caruso, tenor; A. Regis Rossini, harp; Victor Orchestra. Victor, recorded in New York, Feb. 24, 1913

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Taking a closer look at Schumann's "Carnaval"

Cézanne's "Pierrot and Harlequin" (1888)

by Ken

We began listening to Schumann's great piano suite Carnaval Friday night, listening to contrasting pairs -- the composer's dual self-portraint in "Eusebius" and "Florestan" and the "Noble Waltz" and "German Waltz" plus the rousing conclusion, the "March of the League of David Against the Philistines."

We're not going to go as far into Carnaval as I expected Friday night, for various reasons. Partly it's because I've just acquired a couple of recordings I didn't have, and have a number of others on order. But partly it's because exquisitely crafted miniatures can go by so quickly that we can scarcely taken them in, and so I want to slow these down -- sort of the way we did back in January 2011 with the exquisitely crafted miniatures that make up Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which spread over two previews and two main posts ("We begin our walk-through of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition" and "Concluding our walking tour").

So today we're going to focus just on the beginning and the end of Carnaval, building on the portions we've already heard. And we're going to start with another contrasting pair, the first numbers in the suite following the "Préambule," Schumann's portraits of two stock commedia dell'arte figures.

SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9:
2. Pierrot: Moderato (2/4)
3. Arlequin: Vivo (3/4)


I can tell you that our performers are two members of our Carnaval "team," which is shaping up to consist of:

Claudio Arrau
Alicia de Larrocha
Nelson Freire
Wilhelm Kempff
Yevgeny Kissin
Leonard Pennario
Sergei Rachmaninoff
Charles Rosen
Arthur Rubinstein


Friday, September 14, 2012

Preview: Preparing for a close-up look at Schumann's "Carnaval"

"Eusebius" and "Florestan" were Schumann's own characterizations of the two sides of his own personality -- the dreamy introvert and the passionate extrovert, respectively.

SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9:
5. Eusebius: Adagio; Più lento molto teneramente (2/4)
6. Florestan: Passionato (3/4)

Claudio Arrau, piano. Philips, recorded in Amsterdam, September 1966

by Ken

We've already done a wild swoop through the large output of that peerless romantic Robert Schumann, including a smattering of his distinguished solo-piano works in April 2010 ("In Schumann's case, obsession wasn't necessarily a bad thing"), and in November 2011 we took a close-up look at his exhilarating song "Widmung" ("Dedication"). This week we're going to home in on the best-known of his solo-piano suites, the relatively early Carnaval. As we've already heard, among its many contrasting pairs is a self-portrait in the form of Schumann's musical depiction of his introverted and extroverted sides, Eusebius and Florestan, respectively.


4. Valse noble: Un poco maestoso (3/4)
16. Valse allemande (German Waltz): Molto vivace (3/4)

Wilhelm Kempff, piano. DG, recorded in Hannover, March 1971


21. Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins
(March of the League of David Against the Philistines)
Adagio; Più lento molto teneramente (2/4)

Nelson Freire, piano. Decca, recorded in Lugano, Dec. 18-22, 2002


We're going to hear a team of pianists tackle the whole of Carnaval.