Sunday, March 31, 2013

Our "J" and "K" conductors shine in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and "Così fan tutte"

Eugen Jochum (a few years older in the picture!) conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in the Overture to Mozart's Così fan tutte, from his December 1962 DG recording of the complete opera.

by Ken

We're showing off our "J" and "K" conductors in Mozart operas this week. In Friday night's preview we heard both Eugen Jochum and Josef Krips conducting the opening of The Abduction from the Seraglio. Today we're going to hear each in excerpts from one of the great operas Mozart wrote with his supreme librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte: Krips conducting Don Giovanni and Jochum conducting Così fan tutte -- not only my favorite recordings of these much-recorded operas, but two of my all-time favorite opera recordings.

The two performances reflect markedly different sensibilities, but that same quality of basic musicianship -- which I might boil down to discovering how the music wants to move of its own momentum -- I've been trying to highlight in our tributes to Jochum, Krips, and our other "K" conductors, Rudolf Kempe and Rafael Kubelik.

You don't really think of matters of tempo (or at least I don't), because the tempos have been chosen to make scenes happen, and that's where at least this listener's focus is. Nor do you especially register obvious ploys to create rhythmic "momentum"; the point is that the momentum happens from within, with the music always seeming to move of its own volition in accord with the dramatic needs of the moment, while at the same time, cunningly enough, allowing the music to shine fully.

In the booklet for the Decca "Legendary Performances" reissue of the Krips Don Giovanni there's an "evaluation" of this legendary performance, which of course is careful to allow for its "legendary" status (otherwise the author wouldn't have been paid; these people do now how to give their masters what they're looking for) but picks it apart in a "checklist"-type way. Some of the learned-sounding prattle is moderately accurate as far as it goes, which isn't far, while much of it not even that. But almost all of it is innocent of what seems to me the most important, and in some ways only, consideration: how does the music play?

I don't like doing this: spotlighting performances I expressly don't like, all the more so in a case like this, where the recording seems to me to fundamentally misrepresent the performer. But here's the Così Overture again, and performed by Karl Böhm, for whom this opera may be said to represent a specialty. If you were to describe the performance objectively, in terms of tempo and phrasing and articulation, it might sound like "Böhm's Così Overture," but to me it doesn't, at all, because it doesn't move the way "Böhm's Così Overture" did in every other performance I've heard. In this version, much of the life has been squeezed out of the music.

MOZART: Così fan tutte, K. 588: Overture

Philharmonia Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. EMI, recorded November 1962

Here, by contrast, is a Böhm Così Overture, unfortunately in so-so broadcast-quality mono sound, from just a few months earlier.

MOZART: Così fan tutte, K. 588: Overture

Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, cond. Recorded live at the Salzburg Festival, Aug. 8, 1962


Friday, March 29, 2013

Preview: Two of our "J" and "K" conductors shine in Mozart

As a native Salzburger, not to mention a man with ambitions to be master of all the musical heights, Herbert von Karajan tried, tried, and tried again to make his mark in Mozart. This Don Giovanni Overture is better than many of his efforts -- far from great, but not bad.

by Ken

In the "modern era" of Sunday Classics we've had occasion to take note -- largely but entirely coincidentally -- of four conductors from roughly the same era who to me epitomize "musicality," something I'd rather have you listen to and glean for yourselves than attempt to define. So far we've heard our three "K" conductors (Rudolf Kempe, Josef Krips, and Rafael Kubelik; preview and main post) and our "J" conductor (Eugen Jochum; Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) alphabetically segregated. This week as we move into the treacherous terrain of Mozart, and specifically the Mozart operas, we're going to cross-group, since two of our conductors are responsible for what seem to me two of the all-time great operatic recordings.

For tonight, though, we're just going to focus on the openings of two great Mozart operas, what seems to me his first true operatic masterpiece, The Abduction from the Seraglio, and that towering masterpiece from the height of his creative outpouring, Don Giovanni. (Actually, we first heard this music, and many of these recordings, in a May 2010 preview post.) I hope this will be fun because we're going to hear these two overtures, neither a stranger to the concert platform, as stand-alone pieces, with little concert endings tacked on, and then we're going to hear them the way they were composed, to lead directly into the operas' opening numbers.


MOZART: The Abduction from the Seraglio, K. 384: Overture

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner, cond. EMI, recorded c1981

MOZART: Don Giovanni, K. 527: Overture

Staatskapelle Dresden, Sir Colin Davis, cond. BMG, recorded c1998


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Remembering Risë Stevens

Risë Stevens sings the "Habañera" from Act I of Bizet's Carmen -- I gather from a 1951 TV performance.

by Ken

As I mentioned in Friday night's preview, since Risë Stevens was an important exponenet of a number of roles that have commanded attention here at Sunday Classics that we've already heard a fair amount of her. For the most part, then, today's musical remembrance will involve literal remembrances, with the addition of a couple of items we haven't heard before.

The plan couldn't be much simpler: We're just going to revisit each of these classic roles from Stevens's repertory, starting with what I suppose must be considered her real signature role, Carmen.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Preview: Risë Stevens (1913-2013)

Risë Stevens as Prince Orlofsky (who may be blasé about
most worldly matters, but not about his beloved champagne)

J. STRAUSS II: Die Fledermaus: Act II, Champagne Trio

Risë Stevens (ms), Prince Orlofsky; James Melton (t), Eisenstein; Patrice Munsel (s), Adele; Robert Shaw Chorale, RCA Victor Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA, recorded c1950

by Ken

No, Risë Stevens didn't make it to the 100 mark, but most of us would settle happily to make it into our 99th year.

She was a Met mainstay for more than 20 years, from 1938 through 1961, and sang a number of signature mezzo roles well enough that we've heard her a lot here in Sunday Classics -- as Bizet's Carmen, Saint-Saëns's Dalila, Gluck's Orfeo, Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier ("Rose Knight") Octavian, and, yes, even Johann Strauss's Prince Orlofsky. As a result, although we'll be hearing some new material as well, much of what we'll be hearing in this week's remembrance will be a refresher for us.


. . . here's a tidbit I found which we haven't heard, Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin's "Long Ago (and Far Away)," written for the 1944 film Cover Girl. It's apparently from a broadcast from the year the film was released.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Perusing Van Cliburn's legacy (and yes, we'll even get to "the Tchaikovsky")

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30:
i. Allegro ma non tanto

Van Cliburn, piano; Symphony of the Air, Kiril Kondrashin, cond. RCA-Sony, recorded live in Carnegie Hall, May 19, 1958

by Ken

The Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, as I've said, I love beyond qualification -- and we heard Van Cliburn play the first movement, with Fritz Reiner conducting, in the April 2010 post "In perfect balance -- Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto, where everything comes together just right." As to the more ambitiously scaled Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, one of the supreme virtuoso challenges, well, I've just never come under its spell, though rehearing the first movement played live by the Cliburn-Kondrashin team (just a couple of days after the pianist's triumphant return from Moscow as winner of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition), I'm as close to being persuaded as I've ever been.

As I mentioned in Friday night's preview of this week's Cliburn remembrance, I got the copy of the Complete Van Cliburn Album Collection I mentioned having ordered in the brief post noting the pianist's passing.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Preview: Remembering Van Cliburn

TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23: 
ii. Andantino semplice; Prestissimo; Tempo I

Van Cliburn, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, cond. RCA-Sony, recorded mostly live in New York City, May 30, 1958

by Ken

In the quick remembrance I posted following the death of Van Cliburn, I ventured: "The easy way to go would have been with the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, the piece that became so identified with him when he rocketed to fame in 1958 (at age 23) with his grand-prize win at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow." Well, now that we're approaching the closer listen to Cliburn's art I promised then, we're getting around to the Tchaikovsky First Concerto, but most people would probably be expecting to hear one of the fistfuls-of-notes outer movements, and here we are with, instead, the slow movement. Oh, there's some fireworks in the movement's accelerated mid-section, but when I think of Cliburn, I always think first of the seemingly effortless, un-self-conscious beauty of the playing -- beautiful in sound and expression.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

"The pride of the King withers before the pride of the priest!" (King Philip, in "Don Carlos")

Eric Halfvorson as the Grand Inquisitor and Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip in Don Carlos at Covent Garden -- we'll be hearing both, though not together (and not even in the same language).

by Ken

As I noted in Friday's preview ("Every day is a good day for an auto-da-fé"), this week we pick up at the point where we left off in the January 27 post "Verdi's King Philip -- a man in crisis," with King Philip II of Spain alone in his study at dawn, having (presumably once again) spent a sleepless night over what he presumes to be the infidelity of his wife. And then at this ungodly hour, enter the Grand Inquisitor, 90 and blind, having been summoned by the king, yes, but clearly seizing the advantage of the hour (at his age, how much sleep does he need?), almost certainly knowing from spies in the palace that the king isn't sleeping anyway.

Over the years I've imagined "doing" this scene all sorts of ways, but not quite this one -- just laying it out there. I had 20 or so performances laid out in front of me, and contemplated all sorts of ways of breaking the scene up or down, and in the end I just threw my hands up and decided to let it speak for itself. With, moreover, a translation I've hardly touched, and with which I'm not thrilled, and which in addition is of the French text, which is not what nearly all our performances are using, and there are important differences. For example, when the Inquisitor asks Philip what means he has chosen to punish his son, in French the king answers with the enigmatic "All . . . or nothing," which certainly does call for more explanation, whereas in the Italian he simply replies, "Extreme means."

Nevertheless, I'm going to trust that the nine minutes or so of the scene will speak for itself, as (I believe I put it), the 90-year-old blind man wipes the floor with the most powerful -- secular, that is -- person on the planet.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Preview: Every day is a good day for an auto-da-fé

In the course of his travels, Candide finds himself in Lisbon just in time for both an earthquake and an auto-da-fé, the "act of faith" that was the Inquisitorial Church's patented mode of festivity built around the burning of heretics. Composer Leonard Bernstein conducts the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra in this famous July 1982 concert performance of Candide, with Clive Bayley (Bear-Keeper), Neil Jenkins (Cosmetic Merchant), Lindsay Benson (Doctor), Richard Suart (Junkman), John Treleaven (Alchemist), Adolph Green (Dr. Pangloss), and Jerry Hadley (Candide). We're going to hear the start of a less jolly theatrical auto-da-fé.

by Ken

Lately we've heard some orchestral introductions that not only set the scenes for the memorable operatic scenes they introduce, but grab the listener's imagination unforgettably. For example, in February 24's "In Boris Godunov, the Russian people do just as they're told" we heard the introductions to the two scenes of the Prologue to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (heard here in Rimsky-Korsakov's edition).

MUSSORGSKY: Boris Godunov (ed. Rimsky-Korsakov):

Opening of the Coronation Scene

Alexei Maslennikov (t), Prince Shuisky; Sofia Radio Chorus, Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. Decca, recorded November 1970

Here are three equally vivid and equally contrasting musical introductions, to consecutive events:



Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded 1965-66


Sunday, March 3, 2013

This "Russian theme" used by Beethoven should be familiar

The Alban Berg Quartet (Günther Pichler and Gerhard Schulz, violins; Thomas Kakuska, viola; Valentin Erben, cello) plays one of Beethoven's most beautiful creations, the Molto adagio from Op. 59, No. 2, in June 1989.
SUNDAY AFTERNON NOTE: At the moment the audio clips aren't loading right. You may get lucky, or have your patience rewarded. Otherwise, I can only ask you to try again later. Sorry! (Sigh.)
UPDATE: seems to have had some sort of system crash -- ohboy!
SUNDAY EVENING UPDATE: All seems to be OK now!
by Ken

Here's Beethoven's version of what he noted as a "Thème russe":

The theme should sound familiar. Just last week we heard this version:


It's at 2:17 of this video clip.

And the Mussorgsky version is at 1:49 of the video clip atop last week's post.]


Friday, March 1, 2013

Van Cliburn (1934-2013)

SCHUMANN (arr. Liszt): "Widmung" ("Dedication")

Van Cliburn plays the Liszt arrangement of Schumann's exhilarating song "Widmung" ("Dedication"), c1970.

by Ken

I want to put off doing a proper memorial to pianist Van Cliburn until I get the copy of RCA's newly released Van Cliburn: The Complete Album Collection which I ordered as soon as I saw that it exists, not realizing at the time that he had in fact just died.

The easy way to go would have been with the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, the piece that became so identified with him when he rocketed to fame in 1958 (at age 23) with his grand-prize win at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Instead I thought we'd lead with a solo piece we heard played by Arthur Rubinstein in the November 2011 Sunday Classics post "And then came 'Widmung' " -- and then the following week played by the great American Romantic Earl Wild.

I think we hear here the basic Cliburn virtues: the beautiful, clean, effortlessly full sound and the wholesome extrovert temperament.