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.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Do I hear a waltz? (Tchaikovsky edition)

Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963)

by Ken

Nothing fancy going on here this week. As I explained in Friday night's preview, we're just listening to four waltzes that happen to be included on an-all Tchaikovsky DG CD reissue conducted by Ferenc Fricsay. Okay, maybe not quite "just." It's possible that there are one or two diversions or digressions along the way.

Right now, for example, we're going to kick off, not with a waltz, but with a polonaise. Friday we listened to the waltz from Act II of the opera Yevgeny Onegin -- in both its "concert" form and as it's heard in the opera, as the music around which the opening scene of Act II, a ball given on the country estate of Madame Larina, unfolds. We're going to hear that again, in some different performances (plus the Fricsay, of course), but first we're going to hear the polonaise that opens Act III, introducing a considerably more cosmopolitan ball, in Moscow, at the home of Madame Larina's daughter Tatiana, now married to a genuine prince (and a prince of a fellow is our Prince Gremin).

TCHAIKOVSKY: Yevgeny Onegin, Op. 24:
Act III, Polonaise

Staatskapelle Dresden, James Levine, cond. DG, recorded June 1987

Orchestre de Paris, Semyon Bychkov, cond. Philips, recorded October 1992

USSR State Radio and Television Large Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Fedoseyev, cond. Audiophile Classics, recorded 1986

Sofia Festival Orchestra, Emil Tchakarov, cond. Sony, recorded Jan. 15-21, 1988

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Sir Colin Davis, cond. Philips, recorded December 1977

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Jan. 12, 1971


Friday, September 7, 2012

Preview: Do I hear a waltz? (Tchaikovsky edition)

TCHAIKOVSKY: Waltz from Act II of Yevgeny Onegin, Op. 24
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ferenc Fricsay, cond. DG, recorded Sept. 10-12, 1957

by Ken

So I was looking at this DG CD reissue of the 1952 recording of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony by the dynamic Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963), filled out with material from a 1957 Fricsay Tchaikovsky LP. It's that filler material that I fixed on, and in particular the profusion of waltzes -- three of them standing by themselves (from the ballets Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker and the opera Yevgeny Onegin), plus yet a fourth contained in a little suite from the ballet Swan Lake.

In a way this isn't all that remarkable, since Tchaikovsky wrote a lot of waltzes, and not just the ones in the three ballets, and among them are some of the world's most celebrated, like the four included on this CD. Still, I thought it was interesting that the planners of that 1957 Fricsay Tchaikovsky LP were so waltz-happy.

If we wanted to go really waltz-crazy there is, goodness knows, plenty of material among Tchaikovsky's output. But I thought it might be fun just to focus on the four included on this CD, even though we've surely heard the three ballet-derived waltzes in our frequent incursions into the Tchaikovsky ballets. For our preview, we're starting with the other waltz, which in fact is played by Fricsay (and others) in not-quite-its-original form. In the click-through we'll hear that original form.

[In case there's any confusion, the above image is indeed of the CD, whose cover is a miniaturized reproduction of the original LP jacket of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony recording, which of course made no mention of the other Tchaikovsky material Fricsay recorded exactly five years later. (The recording dates are September 9-10 for the 1952 symphony sessions, and September 10-12 for the 1957 dance-music sessions.)]



Sunday, September 2, 2012

"The (Hi)story of the Chévalier des Grieux and of Manon"

MASSENET: Manon: Prelude to Act II

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

by Ken

This isn't an excerpt you're apt to hear often outside the context of the opera (it's not meant to stand alone, of course), but I've plunked it in here, not just because it's such a lovely two minutes' worth of music, but because it directly follows the chunk of duet we heard between Manon and the Chévalier des Grieux in Friday night's preview, when they declared so joyfully that they would live in Paris, tous les deux, tous les deux. Because as Act II begins, they are indeed living in Paris, tous les deux, and for this while at least, they're blissfully happy.

Without worrying about dramatic context for a moment, let's jump to later in the act, near the end, in fact, and hear des Grieux share with Manon a dream he's had -- one of the most celebrated and beautiful specimens of the lyric-tenor repertory, often known simply as "The Dream." (Not to worry, in the click-through we're going to hear it in proper dramatic context.)

Manon: Act II, Recitative and aria, des Grieux, "Instant charmant, où la crainte fait trêve" ("Enchanting moment, where fear is dispelled") . . . "En fermant les yeux ("On closing my eyes")
DES GRIEUX: Enchanting moment, where fear is dispelled,
where we are just the two of us.
Listen, Manon, while walking
I just had a dream.

On closing my eyes, I see
in the distance a humble retreat,
a little house,
all white, in the depths of the woods.
In its tranquil shadows
clear and joyous streams,
in which leaves are reflected,
sing with the birds.
It's Paradise. Oh, no!
Everything there is sad and morose,
for there's one thing lacking there.
Still needed there is Manon!
Our life will be there,
if you wish it, o Manon!

Jussi Bjoerling, tenor; orchestra, Donald Voorhees, cond. NBC Radio concert, Jan. 8, 1951

Léopold Simoneau, tenor; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Paul Strauss, cond. DG, recorded 1953

[in Italian] Beniamino Gigli, tenor; orchestra, John Barbirolli, cond. Live performance, London, June 26, 1931

In good time the story of Manon and des Grieux (as told originally by the ex-Benedictine Abbé Prévost in his 1731 novel L'Histoire du Chévalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, bearing in mind that the French histoire conveniently means both "story" and "history") will turn not just wrong but horribly, disastrously wrong. For this week, though, I want to focus on what's right about the relationship, from the standpoints of both participants, as I'll explain in a moment.