Sunday, July 29, 2012

Listening back to Otto Klemperer's "Così fan tutte" recording

Klemperer with his Così score at the time of the recording

by Ken

As I indicated in Friday night's preview, today we're going to listen again to a little of the recording that Otto Klemperer made of Mozart's Così fan tutte," in celebration of sorts of this lovely recording's overdue reissue by EMI.

We actually did a more comprehensive listen-through to chunks of this recording in the March 2011 post "Remembering Margaret Price, Part 3 -- as Mozart's Fiordiligi," and I've begun replacing the original audio clips for that post, made from my German-pressed LPs, with clips from the (pretty good) new CD issue. As I've said, it's not among my very favorite recordings of the opera, but as I indicated in writing about it for The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera, in this case most of Klemperer's special insights have been intuited by other conductors on records -- among whom my clear favorite remains Eugen Jochum in his near-miraculous 1962 DG recording.

We're just going to hit some high points today, with a couple of other performances tacked on, and I thought we'd kick off with a perennial favorite excerpt of mine, the Act I farewell trio, as the ladies think their fiancés are going off to war, in a scheme engineered by their cynical old friend Don Alfonso.

Act I, Trio, Fiordiligi-Dorabella-Don Alfonso,
"Soave sia il vento"

Gentle be the breeze,
Calm be the waves,
And every element
Smile in favour
On their wish.

Margaret Price (s), Fiordiligi; Yvonne Minton (ms), Dorabella; Hans Sotin (bs), Don Alfonso; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Jan. 25-Feb. 18, 1971

Irmgard Seefried (s), Fiordiligi; Nan Merriman (ms), Dorabella; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Don Alfonso; Berlin Philharmonic, Eugen Jochum, cond. DG, recorded December 1962

[in English] Elizabeth Harwood (s), Fiordiligi; Janet Baker (ms), Dorabella; John Shirley-Quirk (bs-b), Don Alfonso; Scottish National Opera Orchestra, Alexander Gibson, cond. Live performance, May 1969


Friday, July 27, 2012

Preview: A master's view of three Mozart opera overtures

by Ken

One of my early records that I played over and over was a Seraphm LP of Mozart opera overtures beautifully played by the Royal Philharmonic under Colin Davis. (Yes, that's it above!) I've always really, really loved Mozart overtures -- but then, what's not to love? (I might mention that back in May 2010 we had a Mozart-overture "quiz-contest" in which we heard the overtures to The Abduction from the Seragio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte.)

Considering how late in life Otto Klemperer began recording operas for EMI (when the earliest of the three recordings we're going to hear from tonight, the Don Giovanni, was made, he was already 81), it's kind of amazing that eventually he would record all three of the "da Ponte operas" (i.e., the ones with those sublime librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte) as well as The Magic Flute. It pains me to think that in his last couple of years, amid his increasing incapacitations, he was working on two scores special to him which EMI would have been happy to record: the Mahler Sixth Symphony (following his uniquely fascinating recording of the Seventh) and the "other" Mozart operatic masterpiece, The Abduction from the Seraglio. EMI actually scheduled sessions for Abduction (twice, if I recall correctly), which he was unable to do.

The four Mozart operas he did record are all, er, "special" performances, which you wouldn't necessarily want as your only recording (hint: they're not exactly, um, speedy), but their specialness includes qualities you won't hear anywhere else.


(Since the Don Giovanni Overture, instead of coming to a full stop, leads directly into Leporello's opening aria, I decided to tack that on here -- though we then have an abrupt ending with the dramatic first entrance of Donna Anna.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bruckner 7 -- a symphony built on its opening pair of musical twin towers

The string chorale that bursts out shortly after the start of the Adagio (at bar 4 above) of the Bruckner Seventh

by Ken

As promised in Friday night's preview, our subject today is the seventh of Anton Bruckner's outsize nine symphonies, which unlike the Fourth Symphony, with its remarkably evenly weighted four movements, is cast in the form, as I put it, of "an opening movement and an ensuing slow movement of such emotional weight as to dominate the whole piece." (We heard the whole of the Fourth Symphony in the January 2010 post "Bruckner's Fourth Symphony -- four stories for four movements." We also heard the formative Second Symphony, in the August 2011 post "Bruckner begins to establish his voice, hushed and clear." The latter post, I just discovered, had a broken link to the click-through, which I've fixed -- in case anyone has been waiting all this time to read and hear that post.)

Which means that our obvious focus is going to be on those first two movements, which dramatically counteract the silly image of Bruckner which seems to me to excite the ardor of the composer's devout faithful: Bruckner as a a sort of musical idiot savant, a piously Catholic naïf piously erecting monumental musical cathedrals in the ether. About Bruckner being in some ways naïve I don't think there's much doubt, but I think we would have some serious disagreements, the Bruckner Faithful and I, as to where and how that naïveté kicks in. However, the idea that these symphonies are underpinned by reflexive piety seems to me fairly nutty. (I'm embarrassed to own that I've used one of those cheesy architectural mega-metaphors for the title of this post. It's just so tempting.)

There's a reason why Bruckner's Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, and perhaps also the three movements he completed of the Ninth, are the symphonies of his which are often enjoyed by music-lovers who don't have much use for the rest of his work. And yet it seems to me that it would be hard to think of anything more quintessentially Brucknerian than the orchestral chorale we just heard from near the opening of the Adagio of the Seventh, or the opening two minutes of the symphony which we're about to hear, which already demonstrate Bruckner's dependence on repetition as well as the way he can build the orchestra from the softest hush to the most thundering outburst.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 in E: opening


The performances we've heard so far, by the way, both feature the Vienna Philharmonic (the orchestra best known to Bruckner), as indeed do all the performances we're going to hear today. The snatch of the Adagio at the top is conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, that of the opening of the symphony by Karl Böhm.

Next we'll hear the complete performances of these movements -- and more.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Preview: Two Scherzos

Eugen Jochum conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony in the Scherzo (third movement) of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony.

by Ken

In writing recently about the structure of Tchaikovsky's string sextet Souvenir de Florence, I noted that it employs a particular movement format:
an opening movement and an ensuing slow movement of such emotional weight as to dominate the whole piece. Haydn was already doing it when he invented the [four-movement symphonic] form, doing it in both symphonies and string quartets. It's the format of the wonderful Symphony No. 88, with the otherworldly slow movement, which we heard in September 2010.) It's also the format of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, which we heard last week.
I added:
Bruckner, who supersized everything else about the symphony, also supersized this ratio in his Seventh Symphony, which has that massive opening movement and then that haunting Adagio, followed by an invigorating but comparatively brief Scherzo and Finale. The trick is to have those later movements hold up their end of the deal even while conceding emotional primacy to the first two movements. This is in marked contrast to Bruckner's differently remarkable achievement in the Fourth Symphony: producing four movements of roughly equal musical and emotional weight. (We actually took in the whole shebang in January 2010, in "Bruckner's Fourth Symphony -- four stories for four movements." ) It just goes to show that there really aren't any rules about any of this, that it's all about what you can make work.

For better or worse, I'm so highly suggestible musically that this naturally set the Bruckner Seventh running in my head. For tonight I thought it would be fun to listen just to the Scherzos of the Bruckner Fourth and Seventh. You'll notice that they're not radically different in length, but they seem to me radically different in emotional weight (we can talk about this Sunday), and of course the Scherzo of the Seventh is rendered virtually svelte by the vastly greater weight of the symphony's first two movements.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat:
iii. Scherzo: Bewegt (Lively)

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. and Nov. 1963

Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Decca, recorded Oct. 8 and 10, 1989

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 in E:
iii. Scherzo: Sehr schnell (Very fast)

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded November 1960

Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Decca, recorded August 1990


As you may have guessed, we're going to hear the Bruckner Seventh Symphony.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Mr. Strauss Goes to Italy

Zdeněk Košler conducts the Slovak Philharmonic in the first section, "In Campania," of the 22-year-old Richard Strauss's "symphonic fantasy" Aus Italien (From Italy).

by Ken

In the standard telling the 22-year-old Richard Strauss -- already Kapellmeister of the Munich Court Orchestra -- was encouraged by no less than Johannes Brahms to go to Italy, and if Brahms told you to go to Italy, you probably would too.

As with the Italian sojourn of young Felix Mendelssohn which produced his Italian Symphony (which we heard two weeks ago, followed by Tchaikovsky's string sextet Souvenir de Florence last week), Strauss's travels filled his head with music. He visited Bologna, Rome, and -- in the Campania region south of Rome (see the map at right) -- Naples, Capri, Salerno (which includes the town of Campagna), and Sorrento. The result was the sequence of four musical impressions he called Aus Italien (From Italy). When he performed his "symphonic fantasy" (generally counted as the first of his symphonic poems, his most characteristic orchestral form) with the Court Orchestra in March 1887, the reception was bordered on the disastrous. Interestingly, Strauss's confidence in the piece wasn't shaken, which takes a pretty darned tough set of musical balls.

I can't say I've ever been wildly enthusiastic about, or given enormous attention to, the piece, but approaching it again, listening with the sounds of the composer's long subsequent career in mind, I'm startled by the extent to which it's all there. In a not especially illuminating liner note for the original issue of the Kempe-Dresden recording, Ernst Krause referred to Aus Italien as "this early evidence of what was to come." This now seems to me to be putting it mildly.

The insinuating, shifting harmonies that shimmer and the tunes and melodic fragments that soar -- it's vintage Strauss. And it all moves so inexorably. This is music that's always in movement, and the ways of its movement effectively lay out the composer in his full career.

(In Friday night's preview we listened to the chunk of Act I of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier which includes the Italian Singer's possibly affectionate, possibly sarcastic aria. "Di rigori armato." The deep affection for Italy evinced in Aus Italien should at least answer any thought that blanket ridicule was intended.)


Friday, July 13, 2012

Preview: A decidedly unorthodox musical tribute (if you can call it that) to Italy

by Ken

Tonight's music doesn't plug directly into the musical lovefest with Italy we've been celebrating the last couple of weeks with Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien and string sextet Souvenir de Florence and Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. Eventually I think you'll see how it all hooks up, but for tonight you may have to take it on faith.

The Italian Singer conjured here by our emphatically non-Italian lyricist and composer isn't exactly what you'd call a homage, but is at least meant to be, well, sort of Italian. The aria our team created for their tenor is by no means easy to sing. Without getting fancy about it, I've simply plucked out three very famous tenors who happen to have recorded it (plus another from a famous recording), and none of them has an easy time with it. Indeed I've alway suspected that one of them still wishes he could have had another crack at it, or perhaps he doesn't think it would have helped.

Given the degree of difficulty, it's always an intriguing question as to how well our composer expected it to be sung. At least when well sung, though, it's such a ravishing piece that with almost any other composer it would seem all but inconceivable that it didn't aim deliberately at being one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. With this particular composer, however, there are a number of instances of startling beauty that doesn't seem to fit the general understanding of the situations for which it was written. My feeling is that the deficiency lies in the general understanding of the situations and not the composer's calibration of musical appropriateness, but as I say, it's a legitimate question.

Right now we're going to hear just the aria itself, and for these cuts I've left myself at the mercy of the CD track editors, and have therefore arranged the performances in the order of how much of the orchestral lead-in is included in the aria track -- [A] includes hardly any, [C] and [D] the whole thing. Of course all the music is included in all the recordings; I'm speaking only of where the track point occurs.

In the click-through, where we're going to hear the whole little scene for which this aria was created, I've made sure that we hear the fulll orchestral lead-in all three times.






Since this is supposed to be an Italian tenor, can you tell which if any of our four tenors is/are in fact Italian?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tchaikovsky's home away from home, or perhaps haven from home, inspired this "Memory of Florence"

No, there's nothing at least overtly Italian about the orchestral introduction to Tchaikovsky's great opera The Queen of Spades (performed here by the Sofia Festival Orchestra under Emil Tchakarov). The connection is that a good part of the composition of the opera was accomplished in the haven provided by the composer's beloved Florence.
When he is creating, the artist must have calm. In this sense, creative activity is always objective, even musical creation, and they are mistaken who believe the artist can use his talent to rid himself of specific feelings of the moment.

The sad or happy emotions which he expresses are always and invariably retrospective.
-- Tchaikovsky, in a letter to his patron Nadezhda
von Meck, explaining how he set about composing
by Ken

We began this series of musical reminiscences of Italy with Tchaikovsky's glorious romp, the Capriccio Italien, then moved on to Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony -- offered with the promise that we would be returning to Tchaikovsky, who was able, thanks to the generosity of his patron Nadezhda von Meck, to establish a sort of home away from home or perhaps a haven from home in Florence. (Madame von Meck had a villa there, but they don't seem to have broken their rule of never actually meeting.)

In Friday night's preview we heard the gorgeous Adagio of the string sextet, Souvenir de Florence, that Tchaikovsky conceived in his happy refuge. In the liner note for the orchestral performance we heard by David Zinman and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, John Warrack writes:
It was to Italy, and above all to Florence, that Tchaikovsky owed what he called "the happiest months of my life." Time and again, fleeing from the exhausting round of his duties at the Moscow Conservatory or from the unhappiness of his private life, he would turn his steps to the South and, basking in the warmth of the Italian spring, he absorbed impressions that were to colour his music in many different ways . , , ,

To his patroness Nadezhda von Meck he was able to write, after returning to Russia from Florence with the score of Queen of Spades: "I had hardly finished the opera before I took up a new piece, the sketch of which I have already finished. I hope you will be pleased to hear that I have written a string sextet.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Preview: A quick musical peek at the place in Italy that really captured Tchaikovsky's heart

Florence: Il Duomo. We hear, in orchestral guise, the end of the second movement, Adagio cantabile e con moto, of the Tchaikovsky string sextet Souvenir de Florence ("Memory of Florence"). We're going to hear the complete performance of this movement in the click-through.

by Ken

In last Friday's preview we kicked off this composers' celebration of Italy with Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien, a souvenir of the composer's happy visit to Rome. But the city that really captured his heart was Florence, which inspired one of his chamber masterpieces, the string sextet Souvenir de Florence (Memory of Florence). (For the record, the main work we heard in Sunday's post, "Young Felix Mendelssohn traveled to Italy, and when he returned home . . . ," was Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony.)

Tchaikovsky stressed that he was composing six solo parts that would combine in a unique way. Which hasn't stopped orchestras from beefing the sextet up to chamber-orchestra proportions. And I thought we would start tonight by listening to the glorious slow movement both in its composed form and then in orchestral guise. The orchestral version may not have been what the composer had in mind, but once you hear it, I think you'll understand why orchestras like to claim it as their own.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Young Felix Mendelssohn traveled to Italy, and when he returned home . . .

Volker Hartung conducts the Cologne Young Philharmonic in the first movement of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony in Cologne's Philharmonie, 1999. (He keeps the movement trimmed down by skipping the exposition repeat.)

by Ken

For everything from simple warm-weather vacation destination to deep cultural repository, Europe's southernmost projections -- the Iberian, Italian, and Greek peninsulas -- have always exerted a magnetic pull on the continents more northerly inhabitants. We've already sampled the musical fascinations of Spain, but musicians have always felt a special connection to the cradle of Italy. We began listening to products of this connection in Friday night's preview, a tribute to Tchaikovsky's tribute, the Capriccio italien, and we'll be returning to Tchaikovsky's Italophilia, but today we're going to listen to Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony.

This image graced the jacket of the original Epic LP issue of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra's stereo recording of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. (We're going to hear their earlier mono version -- eventually.)