Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fleshing out our sound picture of Leon Fleisher

RAVEL: Sonatine
i. Modéré
ii. Mouvement de menuet
iii. Animé

Leon Fleisher, piano. Epic-Sony, recorded July 14-16, 1958

by Ken

In Friday night's "Leon Fleisher postscript" -- a "postscript," that is, to the previous week's post on "Schubert's mighty Wanderer Fantasy," in which Fleisher had been featured -- we heard a bit of perhaps unexpected repertory from Fleisher, Debussy's "Clair de lune," from a 1958 Debussy-Ravel LP. I suggested we might hear the complete Suite bergamasque, from which "Clair de lune" derives, but I thought instead we'd hear Ravel's Sonatine.


In April 2012 I wrote about a pleasant evening at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at which Fleisher had shared the bill with a very different sort of pianist but a longtime colleague, Gilbert Kalish, who had served with him as faculty chairman during Fleisher's long stint as artistic director of one of the country's prestigious music-education programs, the summer Tanglewood Music Center.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

From Paraguay with love -- "Watch the First 54 Seconds. That's All I Ask. You'll Be Hooked" (Adam Albright-Hanna)

by Ken

This video (which, given its wide-screen format, you might want to watch on YouTube directly) came to me as a pass-along, from an post by Adam Albright-Hanna whose full title is:

"Watch the First 54 Seconds. That's All I Ask. You'll Be Hooked After That, I Swear" (Adam Albright-Hanna)"

It's at about 0:51 that the boy who has just described how his "cello" was constructed -- out of discarded scrap materials, starting with an oil can for the body of the instrument -- begins to play the opening Prelude of the Bach First Cello Suite. And sure enough, I was hooked.

I know there are messages being sent and lessons to be learned, but I really don't know how to amplify this. About the only thing I could think to add was a fuller representation of the music we hear:

BACH: Solo Cello Suite No. 1 in G, S. 1007:
i. Prelude

János Starker, cello. BMG, recorded June 1992

Or this very different take, by Mstislav Rostropovich, who when he finally got up his courage to recorded the Bach cello suites declared himself unfavorably disposed toward what he called the French habit of turning Bach's structural writing into sing-songy tunes.

Mstislav Rostropovich, cello. EMI, recorded March 1991

VIVALDI: The Four Seasons: I. Spring:
i. Allegro
ii. Largo
iii. Allegro

Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Szymon Goldberg, violin and cond. Philips, recorded Oct. 22-26, 1973

MOZART: Serenade in G, K. 525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik):
i. Allegro
ii. Romanze: Andante
iii. Menuetto: Allegretto
iv. Rondo: Allegro

Vienna Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. EMI, recorded Dec. 17, 1936 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Preview: A Leon Fleisher postscript

Leon Fleisher plays a piece we've heard a lot (most recently endorsed by mezzo Susan Graham!),"Clair de lune" from Debussy's Suite bergamasque, from this July 1956 Epic Debussy-Ravel LP.

by Ken

No, no, Fleisher hasn't died -- at least not that I know. What I mean in the post title is a "postscript" to last week's post, in which we did a sort of hare-and-tortoise journey, "Adding Schubert's mighty Wanderer to our roster of musical fantasies," with the then-35-year-old Leon Fleisher as our "hare" and the ripely matured 78-year-old Arthur Rubinstein as our "tortoise."

I mentioned last week that Sony Classical has just put out a Complete Album Collection with little CD reproductions of all of Fleisher's LPs as well as CDs for Sony and its predecessor labels, Columbia Masterworks and Epic. And I mentioned that I was watching the mailbox for my copy.

It arrived Tuesday, by which time I had finished tinkering with Sunday's post. (If you haven't looked at it since last Sunday, you might want to take another peek.) In playing with the set, I was startled to realize that the 1963 record we were drawing on, a coupling of the Wanderer Fantasy with Schubert's A major Sonata, D. 664 was the last "normal" record Fleisher made at the eight-year mark of his association with Columbia and Epic. It wasn't planned that way, of course. But the loss of his use of his right hand put an end to that part of his career.

I was reminded too that Fleisher had begun his association with Columbia with an earlier Schubert LP, containing perhaps the grandest of the three immensely scaled breakthrough piano sonatas that turned out to be the composer's last, coupled with eight of the 12 tiny German dances of D. 790. (Until now the Ländler we've heard have mostly been the souped-up ones from Mahler's First and Ninth Symphonies -- see the December 2012 preview post "Do I hear a Ländler?")

SCHUBERT: Ländler (12), D. 790:
No. 1 in D [1:11]
No. 3 in D [0:34]
No. 4 in D [0:33]
No. 5 in B minor [1:07]
No. 6 in G-sharp minor [0:42]
No. 7 in A-flat [0:59]
No. 8 in A-flat minor [1:15]
No. 11 in A-flat [0:53]

Leon Fleisher, piano. Columbia-Sony, recorded July 27-39, 1954, and May 4, 1955


We're going to  hear some fairly random excerpts from the Fleisher box, including (I'm thinking) the whole of the Suite bergamasque.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Adding Schubert's mighty "Wanderer" to our roster of musical fantasies

Clifford Curzon plays the first two sections of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, in a 1949 Decca recording. You'll find the rest of the performance below.

by Ken

A couple of weeks ago we celebrated "Fantasy Week at Sunday Classics" with a fantastic roundup that included the Choral Fantasy (for piano, soloists, chorus, and orchestra) of Beethoven, the Hungarian Fantasia (for piano and orchestra) of Liszt, and the Scottish Fantasy (for violin and orchestra) of Max Bruch. Of course there are lots of other musical fantasies, or fantasias (as I pointed out, we distinguish between the two words in English, but it's a distinction that doesn't exist in the standard "musical" languages -- Italian, French, and German), but it occurred to me at the time that we were missing one obviously important one.

So this week we add to our fantasy roste Schubert's C major Fantasy, D. 760, more familiarly known as the Wanderer Fantasy, for piano solo (at least until Franz Liszt got his hands on it). It's a piece whose rhythmically driven opening, once heard, seems to me unlikely to be forgotten.

SCHUBERT: Wanderer Fantasy (Fantasy in C), D. 760:
Opening, part 1

Mikhail Rudy, piano. EMI, recorded c1987

But immediately Schubert turns the same material into something very different, and then returns to the original driven mode, and then back, and then . . . .

Friday, July 19, 2013

Preview: This is no happy wanderer Schubert presents to us

SCHUBERT: "Der Wanderer" ("The Wanderer"), D. 493
Poem by Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck

I come down from the mountains.
The valley streams;
the sea roars.
I wander, silent and joyless,
and my sighs always ask, "Where?"
Always "Where?"

The sun seems so cold to me here,
the flowers faded and life old,
and what they say is empty sound.
I am a stranger everywhere.

Where are you? Where are you, my beloved land?
Sought for, dreamed of, but never known!

The land, the land, so green with hope,
the land where my roses bloom,
where my friends go wandering
where my dead rise up
the land where my language is spoken,
o land, where are you?

I wander, silent and joyless,
and my sighs always ask, "Where?"
Always "Where?"

In a ghostly whisper it calls back to me,
"There where you are not,
there is your joy!"
by Ken

We'll come back to the boldface highlighting in a moment. It happens to be our reason for listening to "Der Wanderer" this week, but it's a justly popular Schubert song in its own right, with a gravity that's beautifully captured by Gerald Moore in the above performance. This is not a happy wanderer.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Karl Ridderbusch as the King in "Lohengrin" -- this is what's now called "shouting"???

ELSA has appeared in a very simple white garment and overwhelmed the assembled nobles with the purity and innocence of her bearing. Now KING HEINRICH tries to get, well, anything at all out of her regarding the disappearance of her little brother Gottfired, which she is accused of being responsible for.

KING HEINRICH: Are you she, Elsa of Brabant?
[ELSA nods her head affirmatively.]
Do you recognize me as your judge?
[ELSA turns her head toward the KING, looks him in the eye, and then affirms with a trust-filled gesture.]
Then I ask you further:
Is the charge known to you,
which has been brought so weightily against you?
[ELSA glances at TELRAMUND and ORTRUD, shudders, bows her head sadly, and affirms.]
What do you have to say against the charge?
[ELSA through a gesture: "Nothing!"]
So you acknowledge your guilt?
ELSA [staring sadly for a long time around her]: My poor brother!
ALL THE MEN: How wondrous! What strange behavior!
KING HEINRICH: Speak, Elsa, what do you have to confide to me?

by Ken

Can't somebody get that damned Ridderbusch fellow to stop ferchrissakes shouting? (This is a very tiny joke, which I'll explain in a moment.)

This two-minute-plus extract comes from what is still my favorite Lohengrin recording, the 1971 DG studio version conducted by Sunday Classics stalwart Rafael Kubelik. In it we hear Karl Ridderbusch in his matchless prime as King Heinrich and Gundula Janowitz singing Elsa's single line, one of the most haunting lines in opera, "Mein armer Bruder. (I had thought of doing a collage of maybe ten singers singing it, but do you have any idea how much time editing such a thing would have taken?) If there are two more beautiful, riveting minutes of music anywhere in the recorded annals, I don't know what they are.

Since we last dipped into Lohengrin, this past February in the "Remembering Eugen Jochum" posts that included excerpts from his 1954 Bayreuth performance, I've gotten hold of a CD edition of the Kubelik-DG recording, which I had only on LP and open-reel tape, and my admiration is if anything greater than ever. I think the Act I Prelude is an excellent example.

WAGNER: Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond. DG, recorded April 1971

We've heard some beautiful performances of the Lohengrin Prelude. In that February post, for example, we heard one by Sir Adrian Boult. But I'm not sure I've ever heard a fuller, more pulsing-with-life one than Kubelik's. And this is true of the Lohengrin performance as a whole. I'm not sure people generally appreciate just how difficult an opera this is to make musical and dramatic sense of, and Kubelik's performance has a riveting continuity I've never heard matched in a lifetime that has included a lot of Lohengrin performances. (Curiously, Kubelik's 1967 Bavarian Radio broadcast Meistersinger, which acquired a legend before anyone without archival access was able to hear it, and which to my ears turns out to be crashingly ordinary, is praised to the skies by the online cognoscenti.)


Friday, July 12, 2013

Preview: What a difference a top-quality bass makes as King Heinrich in "Lohengrin"

WAGNER: Lohengrin: Act I: Royal Herald, "Gott richtet euch nach Recht und Fug" ("God will pass rightful judgment on you") . . . King Heinrich, "Mein Herr und Gott" ("My Lord and God")
God will pass rightful judgment,
so trust in Him, not in your own strength!
LOHENGRIN and TELRAMUND [standing opposite each other, outside the circle]:
God will pass rightful judgment on me,
so I shall trust in Him, not in my own strength!
KING HEINRICH [proceeding to the middle with great ceremony]: My Lord and God, I call upon you
[Everyone bares their head in deepest reverence]
to be present at this fight!
Proclaim through the sword's victory a verdict
that clearly shows what is deceit and what is truth!
May he who is innocent fight with the arm of a hero,
and may he who is false be sapped of strength!
So help us God in this hour,
for our wisdom is but folly!



by Ken

What we have here are three performances of the King's great prayer near the end of Act I of Lohengrin -- performances widely spaced in time, by basses who were all highly regarded in their times, and also widely spaced in quality, ranging from the near-sublime to the near-ridiculous. We'll hear them again in a moment, with proper identifications.

But first I should explain that when we first dipped into Wagner's Flying Dutchman last month ("Preview: Father's Day special -- meet the sea captain Daland" and "Father's Day special -- Wagner's Daland usually knows better than to trust in the wind"), the idea was to focus on the outstanding German bass Karl Ridderbusch in his glorious prime, in two great performances, as Daland in Dutchman and as the King in Lohengrin. Then I got sidetracked into "A little more of The Flying Dutchman -- we hear from the sailors" (preview) and "In The Flying Dutchman Wagner shows there's more than one way to get from Act I to Act II and from Act II to Act III." Well, around here that's always a risk.

This week I want to proceed to Ridderbusch's King Heinrich der Vogler, and we'll get there Sunday, but first I wanted to hit the King's two vocal high points.. We started with the King's stupendous invocation near the end of Act I, initiating the trial by combat between the unknown knight who has fallen from the heavens to defend Elsa of Brabant, accused of causing the disappearance of her little brother, Gottfried, and her accuser, her and Gottfried's guardian, the Brabantine noble Friedrich of Telramund.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Brooding and striving, grand and intimate, it's Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy"

by Ken

In Friday night's preview we revisited Beethoven's Choral Fantasy (for piano, soloists, chorus, and orchestra) and Liszt's Hungarian Fantasia (for piano and orchestra) in anticipation of turning our attention today to Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra.

With this installment we have concluded our survey of the three works of Bruch known to most music lovers. We heard the soulful Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra ("A haunting little piece that tells us less than we would think about its composer's roots") and the great First Violin Concerto in G minor ("From brooding depths to sparkling heights") in April.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Preview: It's Fantasy Week at Sunday Classics!

Homero Francesch is the piano soloist in this performance of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Jeunesse Choir.

by Ken

We have a great musical fantasy coming up Sunday -- Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, so I thought tonight we would review the two wonderful fantasies we've already heard.


We first heard it in the August 2010 post "The piano-and-orchestra Liszt -- the orator meets the poet."