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.