Friday, May 31, 2013

Preview: Colin Davis's surprising triumph in Mahler

Tenor René Kollo sings "On Youth" from Mahler's Song of the Earth, with the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in May 1972.
MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
iii. "Von der Jugend" ("On Youth")

[English translation by Deryck Cooke]

In the middle of the little pool
stands a pavilion of green
and of white porcelain.

Like the back of a tiger
arches the bridge of jade
over to the pavilion.

In the little house friends are sitting,
beautifully dressed, drinking, chatting;
several are writing verses.

Their silken sleeves slip
backwards, their silken caps
perch gaily on the back of their necks.

On the little pool's still
surface everything appears
fantastically in a mirror image.

Everything is standing on its head
in the pavilion of green
and of white porcelain;

Like a half-moon stands the bridge,
upside-down its arch. Friends,
beautifully dressed, are drinking, chatting.

by Ken

In this series devoted to Colin Davis, my general proposition has been that most really good CD performances seem to result from our boy "just doing it" -- hearing basic qualities in music and executing them decisively. This doesn't leave a lot of room for imagination or "creative re-creation," or what in general I would think of as really enlightened or illuminating interpretation.

And then there was his recording of Mahler's Das Lied von Der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the song-symphony composed based on Hans Bethge's German translations of Chinese poems composed between the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Crucially, it was conceived and composed following the diagnosis of the composer's untreatable heart disease. It would be hard to think of a work that depends more on deep understanding, of empathetic projection of its tiniest musical cells. Not, in other words, material in which we would expect to hear CD at his most persuasive.

And certainly CD's other Mahler recordings -- of the First, Fourth, and Eighth Symphonies, that I know -- are the generally drab affairs one might expect. But the recording of Das Lied . . . .


Sunday, May 26, 2013

The young Colin Davis gets off to a running start

The early-career Colin Davis

MOZART: The Abduction from the Seraglio, K. 384: Overture (with concert ending)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Colin Davis, cond. EMI, recorded c1961

by Ken

In this week's preview, I took a stab at describing the "happy traits" of Colin Davis's early career: a natural sense of musical flow coupled with a preference for having the music play with determination and make its points naturally. By way of illustration, I offered the vivid performances of Mozart's Idomeneo and Clemenza di Tito Overtures from CD's c1961 EMI LP of nine Mozart overtures, as contrasted with the still-pretty-good but noticeably more forced performances from his c1989 BMG CD of 12 Mozart overtures. We also heard the Magic Flute Overture from both Mozart overture records along with the performance from Davis's 1984 Philips recording of the complete opera.

As I've said before, very likely a bunch of times (at least I hope so!), there aren't many things I value more in the realm of art than the alert musical instincts of a talented musician. That innate talent still needs a whole lot of developing, including in the direction of expanding, both widening and deepening, in order to provide a true underpinning for an artistically productive career. But without this innate musicality as a starting point, where is there for the would-be musician to develop?


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Preview: Memorable Mozart from the no-nonsense younger Colin Davis

The Seraphim LP issue of the c1961 Colin Davis disc of Mozart overtures I keep going on about, as in this July 2012 preview

by Ken

I've spent a lot of time and effort trying to find a path into Mozart's two mature efforts to resurrect the opera seria, Ideomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito. Though the operas themselves remain for me massive expenditures of genius effort which came to not a whole lot, I love both overtures with an abiding passion. What's more, in the case of the Clemenza Overture in particular, when I finally saw the opera in the flesh for the first time, I was surprised by how effective a theatrical overture it was. If only what followed had lived up to that promise.

MOZART: Idomeneo, K. 366: Overture

MOZART: La Clemenza di Tito, K. 621: Overture

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Colin Davis, cond. EMI, recorded c1961

My abiding affection for these ovrtures must relate to the first performances of them I got to know well -- the ones we just heard, which I hope you'll agree are especially robust and attention-grabbing. They are, of course, from the Colin Davis LP of nine Mozart overtures, long available here as a budget-price Seraphim LP, which I keep going on about, including last week's Colin Davis and Magic Flute "double" preview. (I was pleased to see our friend Philip Munger note in his comment on that post that he wore out his copy of that LP.)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Good night, thou false world!" -- (final) exit Papageno?

"Good night, thou false world!"

PAPAGENO: Right, then, that's still how it is!
Since there is nothing holding me back,
good night, thou false world!
-- most of our Magic Flute translations by Robert A. Jordan

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Papageno; Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, cond. DG, recorded June 1964

Or in English: "Fare thee well, thou world of pain!"

[in English] John Brownlee (b), Papageno; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Live performance, Dec. 26, 1942

by Ken

We were just looking at Mozart's and Beethoven's exceptional use of minor keys for opening movements of symphonies and concertos, and one point I could have made more explicit is how frequently -- among these admittedly infrequent cases -- the "thematic" material that inspires such a plan is more "motivic" than really melodic -- think of Mozart's D minor Piano Concerto (No. 20) or of Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth Symphonies.

But of course the minor mode doesn't preclude great tunes, and I think that's what planted the thought of this great moment from The Magic Flute in my head. It's the moment when Papageno the lowly bird-catcher is driven by his loneliness to the ultimate despair, and I think the Fischer-Dieskau performance in particular makes it clear that Mozart plays this moment "for real." (Not to worry, we're going to hear the complete scene, er, eventually.)

As I suggested in Friday night's "double preview," "Enter the bird-catcher; exit Sir Colin Davis," we're focusing this week on Papageno, though as we often do, we're going to start with the Overture.


Friday, May 17, 2013

(Double) preview: Enter the bird-catcher; exit Sir Colin Davis

Colin Davis (1927-2013) at home

by Ken

As I must have mentioned, one of my core LPs in the early getting-to-know-music stage was a budget Seraphim issue of a disc of Mozart overtures conducted by Colin Davis early in his career. There were fine performances of all these indispensable pieces, and my recollection is that I played that LP a lot.

The subject of my complicated feelings about Sir Colin, who died on April 15 at 85, as a conductor has come up occasionally in these posts, and I'm afraid I'm going to need to rehash it in order to memorialize him properly, though I'm going to want to stress the truly wonderful things he did. The thing is, those truly wonderful things, which were often quite unexpected (who, for example, would have expected a great recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde from him?) tended to be a lot less heralded than a lot of stick-waving hackery.

I don't have those fine old EMI Mozart overtures on CD, and so tonight, since I happen to have some consideration of one of the characters of Mozart's Magic Flute in mind, I thought we'd let Sir Colin give us a taste from his 1984 Philips recording of the opera -- not a great performance by any means, but a pretty good one. We hear first Davis's Overture, which we've actually heard before.

MOZART: The Magic Flute, K. 620: Overture

Staatskapelle Dresden, Sir Colin Davis, cond. Philips, recorded January 1984

Now we hear the bird-catcher Papageno's two ever-familiar, ever-beloved ditty-like songs.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What comes after Mozart's and Beethoven's minor-key symphonic opening movements?

What comes after the monumental, mysterious opening movement of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, which we heard last week? At the link, Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in what seems to me a grindingly prosaic rendering of the thunderingly dramatic scherzo.

by Ken

I realize I should have been saying more about this amazing music we've been hearing, dipping into the two symphonies apiece for which Mozart and Beethoven composed opening movements in the minor mode. But really, when it comes to an incandescent movement like the opening one of Mozart's great later G minor symphony, No. 40, could I really have said anything more helpful than, say, "Wouldja listen to that?" And ditto when it comes to the opening movements of Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. I mean, we're talking here about two of the monuments of human civilization, and I thought talking should take distant second place to listening.

What we began pursuing in this week's preview is the question I raised last week: Where do you go from there?

My point was, if we accept that writing a minor-mode symphonic first movement is an uncommon and nervy thing to do, and is likely to happen only if a composer has been seized by some gripping musical material that requires it, where does he want to take his audience next?

Consider, for example, the most modest of the four Mozart and Beethoven symphonies we began last week: Mozart's earlier G minor symphony, No. 25. Let's add the second movement to the performances we heard last week of the first.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Preview: Moving on with those Mozart and Beethoven minor-key symphonic opening movements

Tonight we hear both Leonard Bernstein's 1961 and 1977 recordings of the second movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

by Ken

Last week we heard all of the minor-key symphony opening movements that Mozart and Beethoven wrote -- two apiece. I suggested that one obvious question is: Where do you go from there?

We're going to explore that a little on Sunday. (Last week I said I thought it would be in two weeks -- wrong!) And we're going to start tonight by hearing what comes next in two of those symphonies: emphatically, spaciously major-key slow movements.

MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550:
ii. Andante

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, William Steinberg, cond. Capitol-EMI, recorded 1958

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded 1955

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67:
ii. Andante con moto

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Sept. 25, 1961

Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live, September 1977

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The symphonic Mozart and Beethoven open in minor mode

They look so simple, these eight notes, but they form one of the most striking and readily identifiable motifs in all of music -- the opening of one of Beethoven's two minor-key symphonic first movements.

by Ken

In Friday night's preview we listened to all of the first movements among Mozart's 40 or so symphonies which are in minor keys. That's right, both of them, which happen to be in the same key, G minor.

Partly this was out of abiding affection for the masterpiece among them, the great Symphony No. 40, and partly it was as a springboard to listening to the two first movements among Beethoven's nine symphonies which are in minor keys, Nos. 5 (C minor) and 9 (D minor). It seems clear to me that these movements have something in common, something that sets them apart from all their major-key brethren -- and something that even sort of applies to the littler Mozart G minor Symphony, No. 25.

Let's listen again to the Mozart G minor opening movements.

MOZART: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183:
i. Allegro con brio

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia, recorded Dec. 10, 1954 (mono)

Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Josef Krips, cond. Philips, recorded June 1973

MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550:
i. Molto allegro

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded 1959

Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Josef Krips, cond. Philips, recorded June 1972


Friday, May 3, 2013

Preview: The symphonic Mozart dips into the minor

Leonard Bernstein prepares listeners for listening afresh to Mozart's Symphony No. 40. (Warning: It's pretty technical.)

by Ken

I had a couple of possible post ideas that started to overlap and scrunch into each other. I had in mind a post where we would listen to the iconic first movements of Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, and I was thinking separately about my curious ambivalence about Mozart's symphonies with the notable exception of the G minor, No. 40. And it was hard to escape one thing these three landmark symphonies have in common.

For tonight I thought we'd start by listening to the first movements of the Mozart's Symphony No. 40 and also No. 25, which happens to be in the same key (G minor). Of Mozart's 40-ish symphonies, these are the only ones that have minor-key first movements.

MOZART: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183:
i. Allegro con brio

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia, recorded Dec. 10, 1954 (mono)

Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Josef Krips, cond. Philips, recorded June 1973

MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550:
i. Molto allegro

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded 1959

Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Josef Krips, cond. Philips, recorded June 1972


We'll be pursuing this question of minor-key symphonic first movements and hearing both of Beethoven's.