Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sunday Classics holiday edition: It's "The Nutcracker" -- the whole deal! (One more time!)


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 a second "encore presentation" of 2011's complete-Nutcracker post (the first since since all the way back in 2012!), which I thought came out pretty darned well. As I wrote in 2012, you probably think it's a huge labor-saver just running a post "rerun," and perhaps I thought so too, but it didn't work out that way.]

The plan is pretty simple. As promised in last 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.)


MOVING ON TO OUR COMPLETE NUTCRACKER

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sunday Classics holiday edition preview: For the first time since 2012, we bring back the legendary DWT gala "Nutcracker ('The Whole Deal')"

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 2010'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.


WE HAVE TWO DIFFERENTLY SPLENDID
RECORDINGS OF THE NUTCRACKER SUITE

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.


IN AUDIO TERMS, BOTH RECORDINGS HAVE
STELLAR PEDIGREES, IN CONTRASTING STYLES


Sunday, December 21, 2014

A cluster of explosive young talents explode in "On the Town"

For the 1960 recording, Betty and Adolph reprised their
1944 roles, anthropologist Claire de Loon and sailor Ozzie


BERNSTEIN, COMDEN, and GREEN: On the Town:
Act I, "Carried Away"


Betty Comden, Claire; Adolph Green, Ozzie; 1960 studio cast recording, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony


by Ken

On a daily basis we're assaulted by so much slop and slime that I worry about insufficient attention being paid when we're given worthwhile stuff. So it has been on my mind to call your attention, as I mentioned last night, to a really outstanding piece in the November issue of Vanity Fair called "Innocents on Broadway," in which Adam Green gives us a richly and beautifully detailed portrait of the early life and early career of his father, the great lyricist (and sometime actor) Adolph Green, which also includes similarly rich portraits of a band of remarkably talented people whose rising careers were intertwined with his -- notably his eventual writing partner of 60 years, Betty Comden; his best friend, Leonard Bernstein; and the amazing actress Judy Holiday.

"This year would have been my father’s 100th birthday," Adam G writes early on,
and it would have made him indecently proud to see it marked by productions of so many of the musicals that he and his partner, Betty Comden, wrote in their 60-year collaboration: a stage adaptation of their 1953 MGM movie, The Band Wagon, as part of the Encores! series at New York’s City Center; a live broadcast on NBC of their 1954 version of Peter Pan; the first Broadway revival of their 1978 screwball operetta, On the Twentieth Century. Most of all, though, he would have been thrilled to see the ebullient revival, also on Broadway, of On the Town, their 1944 musical, about the amorous exploits of three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in the big city, which introduced the phrase “New York, New York, a helluva town” into the American lexicon and announced the arrival of a new generation in the American musical theater.

"ON THE TOWN WAS A LANDMARK"

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"New York, New York, it's a heckuva town"


In June 1992, lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green narrated a famous London concert performance of On the Town at the Barbican Centre with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. (An audio recording made at the same time is still available, but there doesn't seem to be a DVD issue of the concert.) Here Comden and Green introduce the opening number, as our three sailors, let loose for a single day on the city, sing "New York, New York," with Thomas Hampson as Gabey, Kurt Ollman as Chip, and David Garrison as Ozzie.

"On the Town was a landmark, the first show by a bunch of bright upstarts -- [Leonard] Bernstein, [Betty] Comden and [Adolph] Green, and Jerome Robbins, all still in their 20s -- who would go on, together and apart, to help shape the cultural landscape of the 20th century."
-- Adam Green, in "Innocents on Broadway,"
in the November issue of Vanity Fair

by Ken

After a six-year stint at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he headed out into the world with this inspiring send-off from a teacher who had seen him perform in the class show he had written and directed: "I hope you've got enough talent to make a living at that, because otherwise you're in big trouble."

We have no way of knowing how many people in similar circumstances we never hear more about, either because they just weren't good enough or, more poignantly, because they just never found a way to impress their talents on a big, uncaring world. In this case, though, "he" was Adolph Green, and not only he but a tight circle of his intimates were headed for great things, which came into focus for a number of them when On the Town opened on Broadway on December 28, 1944.

Green's son, Adam, has written a really wonderful piece for Vanity Fair about the history that culminated in that historic night, with both Adolph Green and Betty Comden, who had written the lyrics and who would go on to enjoy a 60-year partnership, in the cast (in roles they had sensibly written for themselves), and with music by Adoph's best friend, Leonard Bernstein. It's such a good story that I want to offer a closer glimpse of it tomorrow, but for tonight I thought we'd hear a musical preview.



IN 1960 COLUMBIA RECORDS ASSEMBLED A STELLAR CAST,

including a number of members of the 1944 original cast (among them Betty and Adolph), for a studio recording of On the Town with the composer conducting. I thought we'd hear the opening number from that classic recording.


Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein at the recording session, with producer Goddard Lieberson in the background

BERNSTEIN, COMDEN, and GREEN: On the Town: Introduction (including "New York, New York")

John Reardon, Gabey; Cris Alexander, Chip; Adolph Green, Ozzie; 1960 studio cast recording, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony


TOMORROW: "A cluster of explosive young talents explode in On the Town"
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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday Classics diary: I love this theme, especially when it's played like this





by Ken

I love this theme. It's majestic, maybe even monumental, irresistibly forward-moving, even swaggering, and at the same time tender and uplifting -- if I could put it into words, I guess I wouldn't need the music.

Now, the theme can be played kinda fast:



And it can be played kinda slow:



And it can be played the way we just heard it:




THIS LAST PERFORMANCE IS THE ONE
THAT GOT MY ATTENTION THIS WEEK


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Re. release of the "Senate Torture Report," what might Beethoven's Don Florestan and Donna Leonore have to say?


"We need reliable intelligence," Young Johnny McCranky said today on the Senate floor. And, he insisted, "Torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence."

by Ken

Earlier this evening Howie wrote about the will-they-or-won't-they-release-it situation of the "executive summary" of what I'm just going to call the Senate Torture Report. And he already had me thinking about it yesterday when he passed along the above clip of Young Johnny McCranky on the Senate floor.

As it happened, I took a half sick day this morning, and listened on the radio on to ongoing yammering about the Torture Report release issue, and while most of the commenters -- including local callers-in to WNYC -- were lining up in the expectable ranks for or against, I was made aware that Young Johnny has broken ranks loudly with his normal compadres, the national-security nutjobs for whom any matter slapped with a "national security" label becomes a hot-button issue, whether real national security is really involved or not. I don't have to name names, right? You know the mentality: To invoke "national security" is to end all discussion.

But, as we've known, Young Johnny doesn't toe the "national-security nutjob" line when it comes to torture. And we know that his thinking about the subject comes from a different source than does the "thinking" of, say, "Big Dick" Cheney, who has no reality outside his diseased imagination. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but, having mostly written Young Johnny off as a person of any intellectual or principled responsibility, I'm refreshed to hear him standing by his principles.

And it matters. Because normally when it comes to matters slapped with that "national security" label, it's hard to find turf to his right. Not so here.

In the clip, after acknowledging that, yes, release of the Torture Report summary might lead to violence in some places, but noting that "sadly, violence needs little incentive in some quarters of the world today," and after pointing out that for the world there aren't going to be a lot of surprises in the account of the "degrading treatment" inflicted by American interrogators on terror suspects (black sites, secret prisons, waterboarding -- the standard kaboodle), and arguing that while the report might provide "an excuse" to harm Americans, people who would do so "hardly need an excuse for that," the senator gets to the heart of the mattter:
What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice, and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow. That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials, on the record and in private, that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism. And I suspect the objection of those same officials to the release of this report is really focused on that disclosure: torture's ineffectiveness. Because we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much.

CHALK IT UP AS A COINCIDENCE . . .

. . . but this afternoon at work I had a set of proofs that really had to get read, especially after my morning's absence. So naturally I was thinking about a blogpost instead. In the hope that it might possibly help me block out outside thoughts, I decided to put on a CD. For various reasons I don't do this much these days, and so I don't have that much on hand in the office. One thing I do have is the 85-disc-or-so Toscanini Complete RCA Collection, and occasionally I'll pull out a disc at random, which is what I did today. It turned out to be a compendium of shorter Beethoven pieces that begins with a Leonore Overture No. 3 from June 1, 1945, and so this is what I found myself listening to with Young Johnny McCranky still talking about torture in my head.

Talk about being "on point" for tyranny, authoritarianism, torture, and the suppression of any awkward information on those subjects! Leonore No. 3 was Beethoven's third attempt at an overture for his only opera, which happens to deal with these very subjects, and after musically recollecting the happier-days memories of the secretly imprisoned and tortured Spanish truth-teller-to-power Don Florestan, the overture evokes the trumpet calls that in the opera will herald the arrival at the prison of the royal minister Don Fernando. Unfortunately for Florestan, his nemesis, the governor of the prison, Don Pizarro, has had just enough advance warning of the Minister's visit to take the necessary step to eliminate any risk of his exposure: planning the elimination of Florestan. In Pizarro's hastily improvised plan, this should cover his ass, and he and the minister can enjoy a lovely session of mutual congratulations.

So here I was trying to read my proofs, and we came to the first lyrical subject of the overture, and I was struck by how beautifully shaped this Toscanini performance is. Beautiful shaping, you have to understand, is something we don't usually think of in connection with Toscanini, at least the later Toscanini who is most familiar from his most-circulated recordings, which are more often thought of as impressing with their sense of drivenness. And here is old Maestro Arturo (he was 78 at the time of this recording), without sacrificing any sense of forward movement, giving beautiful shape to the music to which the tortured and starved Florestan, dying in his secret dungeon, will recall:


Julius Patzak (t), Florestan; Vienna Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond. Live performance from the Salzburg Festival, Aug. 3, 1948

Plácido Domingo (t), Florestan; Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, cond. Teldec, recorded 1999

Jon Vickers (t), Florestan; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Feb. 13, 1960

Here is the section of Leonore No. 3 in question, as played by a conductor of almost the opposite reputation from Toscanini, the ever-so-spaciously inclined Hans Kanppertsbusch (from a complete recording of Fidelio with the Bavarian State Orchestra made in December 1961):



And here's the Toscanini performance sandwiched between two performances of Leonore No. 3 we've heard before:

BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a


Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Live performance, Feb. 22, 1941

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded in Studio 8-H, New York City, June 1, 1945

Philharmonia Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. Capitol-EMI, recorded c1958


WHAT A MAN DOES FOR HIS PRINCIPLES,
AND WHAT'S DONE TO HIM AS A RESULT

I wrote at some length about the uncompromisingly principled Don Florestan and his equally uncompromising wife in a May 2012 post called "Beethoven's superhero couple: The Florestans have for sure done their duty," with particular reference to the monologue he sings as we first meet him in his dungeon, gaunt and skirting death, at the opening of Act II. We really don't know what Florestan's "crimes" were against the governor of this state prison, Don Pizarro, but it's obvious that Pizarro regards him as a mortal threat. He seems to understand all too well: the thing we need to keep in mind here: that Florestan doesn't compromise his principles, rergardless of the consequences. And the same is true of Leonore.

I realize that the torture dynamics here don't align exactly with those investigated in the Torture Report. Here the tyrant isn't trying to extract information from his torture victim; he's just trying to ensure his permanent silence. Still, what wouldn't the like of "Big Dick" Cheney give for the ability to similarly silence their enemies at home?

Here I'm thinking not of the high dramatics of the dungeon scene, and how the Minister's arrival by sheer luck comes just in the nick of time to prevent Pizarro from exacting his final revenge on Florestan. I'm thinking of the following scene, in which the prisoners have been released and the Minister -- a close personal friend of Florestan and Leonore -- arrives and sings in platitudes so plangent that it's hard to believe a political prisoner has just barely escaped execution.

Although the Minister has only a few more lines to sing than we hear here, the role is so important, the writing so beautiful and noble, that even in the opera house it is usually assigned to something close to a front-line baritone or bass -- and on records it has been cast with genuine front-line talent, as we also hear here. (You'll note that in the orchestral introduction Toscanini definitely lives up to his reputation for, er, getting on with it.)

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio: Act II, Scene 2, Arrival of the Minister
Outside the prison. A crowd of people and liberated prisoners are gathered before the gates.

PEOPLE and PRISONERS [variously]: Hail! Hail!
Hail to the day, hail to the hour,
long yearned for, though unimaginable,
when justice and clemency together
appear before the gates of our tomb!
Hail! Hail!
Hail to the day, etc.
Hail! Hail!
[DON PIZARRO and the Minister, DON FERNANDO, enter, escorted by soldiers.]
DON FERNANDO: Our noblest king's wish and suggestion
lead me to you, you poor souls, here,
so that I may lift the veil of wickedness
which has wrapped you all in heavy gloom.
No, no longer kneel slavishly --
harsh tyranny is far from my mind.
A brother is seeking his brothers,
and if he can help, he gladly will.
PEOPLE and PRISONERS: Hail to the day, hail to the hour!
Hail! Hail!
DON FERNANDO: A brother is seeking his brothers,
and if he can help, he gladly will.
ROCCO [rushing through the guards, with LEONORE and FLORESTAN]: Well then, help these poor people!
DON PIZARRO: What do I see? Ha!
ROCCO: Does it move you?
DON PIZARRO: Away! Away!
DON FERNANDO [to ROCCO]: Then speak!
ROCCO: Let all mercy, all mercy
unite this couple!
Don Florestan --
DON FERNANDO: The man believed dead?
That noble man who struggled for truth?
ROCCO: And suffered numberless torments.
DON FERNANDO: My friend, my friend,
the man believed dead?
In fetters, in fetters,
pale he stands before me?
LEONORE and ROCCO: Yes, Florestan!
Florestan, you see him here.
ROCCO: And Leonore!
DON FERNANDO: Leonore!
ROCCO : Let me present this jewel among women.
She came here --
DON PIZARRO: Let me say two words!
DON FERNANDO: Not a word! She came --
ROCCO: -- to my gate there,
and entered my service as a boy
and did me such good, loyal service
that I chose her for my son-in-law.
MARZELLINE [who with JAQUINO has joined the crowd]: Oh, woe is me! Woe is me! What do I hear?
ROCCO: That monster in this very hour
wished to bring about Florestan's death.
DON PIZARRO [pointing to ROCCO]: Bring it about, with him!
ROCCO : In league with us.
Only your coming called him off! Etc.
PEOPLE and PRISONERS: Let the villain be punished,
who oppressed the innocent!
Justice holds the sword
of vengence poised for judgment!
Let the villain be punished!

José van Dam (bs-b), Don Fernando; Karl Ridderbusch (bs), Rocco; Zoltán Kélémen (bs-b), Don Pizarro; Helga Dernesch (s), Leonore; Helen Donath (s), Marzelline; Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. EMI, recorded 1970

Nicola Moscona (bs), Don Fernando; Sidor Belarsky (bs), Rocco; Herbert Janssen (b), Don Pizarro; Rose Bampton (s), Leonore; Eleanor Steber (s), Marzelline; NBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond. RCA-BMG, broadcast performance, Dec. 17, 1944

Franz Crass (bs), Don Fernando; Gottlob Frick (bs), Rocco; Walter Berry (b), Don Pizarro; Christa Ludwig (ms), Leonore; Ingeborg Hallstein (s), Marzelline; Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded 1962
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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Have a happy Charles Ives-accompanied Thanksgiving!


"Certainly one of the things Ives wants to do is to provoke us, to challenge us to think about music in ways we never have," says Michael Tilson Thomas as he talks about and performs Charles Ives's Holidays Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in their PBS series Keeping Score. You can watch the Ives show here.

by Ken

We've done it before, and by gosh, we're going to do it again: celebrate Thanksgiving with the symphonic poem the American original composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) created to depict Thanksgiving, which formed part of his Holidays Symphony (or New England Holidays), made up of Washington's Birthday, Decoration Day, The Fourth of July, and lastly Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day, which fall somewhere between independent pieces and movements in a collective whole.

This commentary appeaers on the webpage accompanying the Keeping Score show devoted to the Holidays Symphony.
A hundred years ago, Charles Ives composed a portrait of a year in New England. The Holidays Symphony veers between tender sentiment and savage chaos, a sonic three-ring circus. Beautiful and provocative, the composition, like the rest of Ives' music, encourages the listener to think about sound in new ways.

The poet Walt Whitman makes an interesting comparison with Ives. Both men experimented with their art forms, juxtaposed serious themes with frivolous beauty, and spent decades editing and revising their masterpieces. Also like Whitman, Ives imagined various musical strains from around the world merging into a single song of mankind, but whereas Whitman used music as a metaphor, Ives used music as his medium.

The emotional material for Ives' music came from his experiences growing up in the town of Danbury, Connecticut, the son of the town bandmaster, George Ives. George had been a Union Army bandmaster in the Civil War and had a playful relationship with music that he that he passed on to his son. Once, George had two bands march toward each other while playing different songs, just to know what it would sound like.

Ives wrote most of his music between 1900 and 1920, a period in which the United States became a world power. He worried that prosperity was leading Americans to lose touch with their values. In an attempt to enshrine the America he cherished, Ives composed four movements that trace boyhood memories of seasonal celebrations, an American "Four Seasons." This was the Holidays Symphony.

NOW WE HEAR TWO PERFORMANCES OF THANKSGIVING,

including one conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas -- an earlier recording with the Chicago Symphony. Along with the performances we have the Keeping Score Web commentary on Thansgiving.

IVES: Holidays Symphony:
iv. Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day



Baltimore Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, David Zinman, cond. Argo, recorded September 1994

Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, cond. CBS-Sony, recorded 1986
The Thanksgiving movement can be traced to Ives' college days at Yale. Music originally written for the organ at Center Church in New Haven was reworked into the final movement of the Holidays.

Thanksgiving illustrates the changes that occur when ideas confront one another. Once again Ives divides the orchestra into groups playing hymns in two opposing keys. Most prominent is the traditional Thanksgiving hymn, "The Shining Shore." Again, the bottom drops out, and we hear the swing of a scythe—either the harvest or the Grim Reaper has arrived. The ultimate question is asked again and as the music picks up again toward celebration and noise, the listener expects a confrontational crunch.

Instead, Ives surprises us. A large chorus sounds out Thanksgiving hymns. The choir sings a round and the whole procession passes into the distance. The different songs merge into one universal hymn of mankind.

Recognition came late to Ives. Thanksgiving was first publicly performed at the premiere of the complete Holidays Symphony in April of 1954, just a month before Ives' death.

Happy Thanksgiving! (And also Forefathers' Day, though that's not till December 22.)
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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Classics report: The Schneider Quartet's legendary Haydn recordings finally make it to CD


The cover of the booklet accompanying the indispensable Music and Arts CD reissue of the legendary not-quite-complete 1951-53 Haydn Society cycle of the Haydn string quartets by the Schneider Quartet

by Ken

For decades now it has been one of the gaps in the ranks of available recordings, through much of the LP era and, until now, the whole of the CD era. But this month Music and Arts has released a specially priced 15-CD set of the 54 Haydn quartets recorded by the Schneider Quartet in the early '50s, "newly remastered mostly from the original master tapes." The massive project was spearheaded by company founder Frederick J. Maroth but was pursued, becoming a memorial, following his death in November 2013.

Alexander Schneider (1908-1993), described by Tully Potter, in his customarily excellent essay for the album booklet, as "one of the more remarkable musicians of the last century." was a violinist who expanded into something of a one-man music industry." He had spent a dozen years (1932-44) as second violinist of the Budapest Quartet, the third Russian to replace the old Hungarian players. (His older brother Mischa, a cellist, had preceded him by two years. A few years later, with the coming of violist Boris Kroyt, the Russianization of the Budapest would be complete.) Schneider eventually rejoined the Budapest, and even though the second violinist is normally thought to play the least defining role in a string quartet, to be the most interchangeable element, it's fascinating how much animated and musically probing the Budapest was with Schneider than without.

In the period between his Budapest stints, Schneider undertook also sorts of chamber music initiatives and became a mainstay, first of Pablos Casals' Prades Festivals and then of the Marlboro Festival (more and more often as a conductor), and devoted more and more of his energies to performances with young performers. Around 1950 his attention turned to the great body of Haydn's string quartets, and it became known that the newly formed Haydn Society, taking advantage of the dawn of the LP era, was planning to record all of the string quartets with a Haydn formed for the purpose by Schneider, which came to include violinist Isidore Cohen (later second violinist of the Juilliard Quartet and the violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio), violist Karen Tuttle, and cellist Madeline Foley, in time replaced by Herman Busch (whose brothers included the outstanding conductor Fritz Busch and violinist Adolf Busch, the father-in-law of pianist Rudolf Serkin).

The quartet did perform all the Haydn quartets in concert, but with funds critically short was unable to record the 24 quartets of Opp. 9, 54/55, 64, and 71/74, though it turns out that Op. 64 was actually begun; the first and last movements of Op. 64, No. 1 have their first commercial release, edited from unedited master tapes from a session in October 1954. The Schneider Quartet Haydn performances remain unmatched for their combination of structural integrity with personal relish and big and bold interpretive choices.

By way of illustration, I thought we would listen to a couple of movements we've already heard, the first movement of Op. 33, No. 2, and the famous theme and variations movement of Op. 76, No. 3, and then dip into the early quartets.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Last scherzo with Anton


The prince of symphonic scherzos? Leonard Bernstein conducts the Scherzo of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra augmented by players from numerous other international orchestra, in this Christmas Day 1989 performance of the symphony in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

by Ken

Last week we got (eventually) to the first movement of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony -- a massive report, I'm arguing, that all is far from well in our world. Next week we will get to the last movement that Bruckner composed, a crowning Adagio that, I will argue, reports that all is way far from well in our world.

And in between we have Bruckner's last scherzo.


BRUCKNER'S SCHERZOS AREN'T VERY JOKELIKE

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Bruckner 9 -- what "cathedrals of sound"? With a detour through Wagner's "Ring" cycle


BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor:
i. Feierlich, misterioso (Solemn, mysterious) -- opening

[A] Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. EMI, recorded Dec. 1-2, 1976

[B] Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. DG, recorded live, June 1988

by Ken

Yes, these are the "A" and "B" performances of the opening of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony we heard in last night's preview ("We said it wasn't over till we heard Bruckner 9"), which I described as "very different (but significantly related)." Longtime readers will probably have guessed, because I've used this trick before, that the significant relationship between the performances is that they're by the same conductor, as noted in the listings above.

I want to get to the reason why I excerpted this pair of performances, but first, let me throw out a question for your consideration as we listen through the three movements of the Ninth Symphony that Bruckner actually composed. (Eventually I suppose we'll have to talk about the movement he never did compose, a finale, but for now we will be considering these three movements the "complete" symphony -- and they form a quite satisfying whole to me.) The question is:

Is this happy music?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics preview: We said it wasn't over till we heard Bruckner 9


by Ken

It's going to be pretty much a quick in and out tonight -- an actual, you know, preview. Sunday, as you may have guessed, we finally tackle the Bruckner Ninth Symphony. I still haven't decided whether we're going to do the whole thing in one fell swoop, which is going to make for an extremely large and unwieldy post, because there are any number of issues that come up, or we're going to work our way through the piece in pieces. Either way, here's a preview of what we're going to hear.


IN A NUTSHELL -- THE BRUCKNER
NINTH IN UNDER 2½ MINUTES


BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor

excerpt from i. Feierlich, misterioso (Solemn, mysterious)


excerpt from ii. Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft (Animated, lively)


excerpt from iii. Adagio: Langsam, feierlich (Slow, solemn)


Bavarian State Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. Orfeo, recorded Dec. 23, 1984


YOU WANT MORE? OKAY, HERE'S A LITTLE MORE

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Who is the author of Hoffmann's misfortunes?

Her mother's portrait sings to her --
Erin Wall as Antonia, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2011
VOICE OF ANTONIA'S MOTHER: Antonia!
ANTONIA: Heavens!
MIRACLE: Listen!
VOICE: Antonia!
MIRACLE: Listen!
ANTONIA: God! My mother! My mother!
VOICE: Dear child, whom I am calling
as in olden times,
it's your mother, it's she;
hear her voice!
Dear child, whom I am calling, etc.

Felicity Palmer (ms), Voice of Antonia's Mother; Jessye Norman (s), Antonia; Samuel Ramey (bs), Miracle; Staatskapelle Dresden, Jeffrey Tate, cond. Philips, recorded 1987-89

Christa Ludwig (ms), Voice of Antonia's Mother; Edita Gruberová (s), Antonia; James Morris (bs-b), Miracle; Orchestre National de France, Seiji Ozawa, cond. DG, recorded c1986

Patricia Kern (ms), Voice of Antonia's Mother; Beverly Sills (s), Antonia; Norman Treigle (bs), Miracle; London Symphony Orchestra,Julius Rudel, cond. ABC-EMI, recorded July-Aug. 1972

by Ken

As I indicated in last night's preview, here we are for one more week with Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann.

I'm going to try to keep my prattling to a minimum. I just felt we needed a better focus on the unfortunate life situation poor Hoffmann has situated himself in. At one point he asks the students whether they would like to know who is "the author of my misfortunes," presumably having in mind Councillor Lindorf, whom he casts as the bass-baritone "villain" in his three tales -- and who is in fact busily engaged in sabotaging Hoffmann's current grand passion, for the great actress La Stella. But by the end of the opera, I think we have a better idea -- apparently better than Hoffmann himself has -- who the author of most of his misfortunes is.


AN EVIL GENIUS AT WORK

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics preview: Our Frantz knows it's all a matter of technique


"It's technique" -- tenor Kerry Jennings as Frantz

by Ken

This was looking like the week for our curtain-lowering Bruckner Ninth, but I've made an executive decision that we can't leave Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann the way we did. So in preparation for tomorrow's farewell to Hoffmann, I thought tonight we'd enoy a tasty morsel from the Antonia act (which we're resolutely calling Act III, the last of the three "mad loves" promised to recount in the Prologue.

As regular readers know, some of my most loved operatic activity takes place with or even among the minor characters, and there aren't many Iove more than the servant in the Crespel household, whom we almost met last week, when we picked up at the point where Hoffmann had just been admitted into the house by the servant Frantz, in direct contradiction of the specific instructions of the departing Crespel not let let anyone in while he's out.

Frantz, alas, is pretty deaf, though one gets the feeling that he perhaps doesn't listen all that attentively. In any case, the master-servant exchange left Crespel in a rage and Frantz in a snit over the constant abuse he takes from his master. Now, left alone, he licks his wounds.

We hear first the celebrated comic actor Bourvil, who sings the "comic" tenor roles in the 1948 Opéra-Comique recording; then the cherished Swiss character tenor Hugues Cuénod; and finally the veteran French character tenor Michel Sénéchal (whom we've heard in a variety of musical settings, including Mahler!).

OFFENBACH: The Tales of Hoffmann: Act III, Song, Frantz, "Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre" ("Day and night I wear myself out")
FRANTZ: Day and night I wear myself out;
at the least sign I shut up.
It's just as if I was singing.
But no, if I was singing,
he'd have to moderate his contempt.
I sing alone sometimes
but singing isn't easy.
Tra la la la la la la la la la la la,
it's not the voice, however,
tra la la la la la la la la la la la,
that I'm lacking, I think.
La la la la la la la la la la la --
[His voice cracks.
No, it's technique, no, it's technique, etc.
Tra la la, etc.

Heavens. one can't be good at everything;
I sing pitifully.
But I dance agreeably;
I say so without false praise.
Gosh, dance is my strong point,
and dancing isn't easy.
Tra la la la la la la la la la la la,
With women my shapely legs,
tra la la la la la la la la la la la,
aren't what let me down.
La la la la la la la la la la la --
[He makes a false step and falls.
No, it's technique, no, it's technique, etc.
Tra la la, etc.

Bourvil (t), Frantz; Orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1948

Hugues Cuénod (t), Frantz; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Richard Bonynge, cond. Decca, recorded 1971

Michel Sénéchal (t), Franz; Orchestre National de France, Seiji Ozawa, cond. DG, recorded c1986


IN THIS WEEK'S GHOST OF SUNDAY CLASSICS POST --

We finish up with Tales of Hoffmann.

THE TALES OF HOFFMANN POSTS

"The poet Hoffmann and the legend of Kleinzach" (Sept. 14)
Preview, "The name of the first was Olympia" (Sept. 19)
"Hoffmann just can't get over is 'three mistresses'" (Sept. 21)
Preview, "Our Frantz knows it's all a matter of technique" (Sept. 27)
"Who is the author of Hoffmann's misfortunes?" (Sept. 28)
#

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Hoffmann just can't get over his "three mistresses"

"It's a song of love that soars aloft sadlly or madly": Nazhmiddin Mavlyanov (Hoffmann) and Hibla Gerzmava (Antonia) at Moscow's Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater

by Ken

In preparation for our quick survey of the poet Hoffmann's account of his three "mad loves," as set out last week, in last night's preview we made the acquaintance of the first of them, Olympia-- the "artist," according to Hoffmann's reckoning. (We'll come back to this in a moment.) As I noted last night, making Olympia's acquaintance is more than Hoffmann did before he fell soul-convulsingly in love with her. (It doesn't help that the poor fellow is literally looking at her through the equivalent of rose-colored glasses, sold to him by one of Olympia's creators, the eccentric inventor Coppélius.) Of course this is only the teeniest exaggeration of the way many of us so frequently fall just as consumingly in love as our poor hero has.

As noted, we're going to sample some of the astonishing music by which Offenbach captured the states of need and urgency and bliss that afflict Hoffmann in all three of his mad stories. First, though, let's meet another, very different object of the poet's passion: Antonia, one of the theatrical literature's great creations.

(Note that we're going to hear a sprinkling of German-language performances today. As with Gounod's Faust, the German-sourced Tales of Hoffmann -- the fantastic fables of E.T.A. Hoffmann, the source of the opera's tales, are standbys for German readers -- was taken up by German audiences if anything faster and more avidly than by French ones.)

OFFENBACH, The Tales of Hoffmann, Act III, Orchestral introduction and Romance, Antonia, "Elle a fui, la tourterelle" ("She has flown, the turtledove")
Munich. The home of Crespel. A bizarrely furnished room. At right a clavichord. Violins suspended from the wall. At left a window. At the back two doors, one the door to Antonia's room; in front, at left, a window casement that leads to a balcony, which is closed by a curtain. Between the two doors at the rear a large portrait of a woman hanging on the wall. The sun is setting. ANTONIA is seated at the harpsichord.

Romance, Antonia
She has flown, the turtledove!
Ah, a memory too sweet!
An image to cruel!
Alas, at my knees
I hear him, I see him!
Alas, at my knees
I hear him, I see him!
[She walks to the front of the stage.]
She has flown, the turtledove,
she has flown far from you;
but she is always faithful
and she keeps her faith!
My dearly loved, my voice calls to you!
All my heart is yours!
All my heart is yours!
She has flown, the turtledove,
she has flown, she has flown far from you!
[She approaches the harpsichord again and continues, standing, leafing through the music.]
Ah, dear flower that has just bloomed,
in pity answer me!
You that know if he still loves me,
if he keeps faith with me!
My dearly beloved, my voice implores you,
ah, let your heart come to me,
let your heart come to me!
She has flown, the turtledove,
she has flow, she has flown far from you.
[She lets herself fall on the couch in front of the harpsichord.]

[in German] Julia Varady (s), Antonia; Munich Radio Orchestra, Heinz Wallberg, cond. EMI, recorded 1979

Rosalind Plowright (s), Antonia; Symphony Orchestra of the Opéra National du Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels), Sylvain Cambreling, cond. EMI, recorded June-July 1988

Victoria de los Angeles (s), Antonia; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1964

Beverly Sills (s), Antonia; London Symphony Orchestra, Julius Rudel, cond. ABC-EMI, recorded July-Aug. 1972


HOFFMANN'S "THREE MISTRESSES"
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN POSTS

"The poet Hoffmann and the legend of Kleinzach" (Sept. 14)
Preview, "The name of the first was Olympia" (Sept. 19)
"Hoffmann just can't get over is 'three mistresses'" (Sept. 21)
Preview, "Our Frantz knows it's all a matter of technique" (Sept. 27)
"Who is the author of Hoffmann's misfortunes?" (Sept. 28)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics Preview: "The name of the first was Olympia"


Party chez Monsieur Spalanzani! A real doll is Olympia, the first of Hoffmann's "mad loves" (Matthew Polenzani and Anna Christy at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2011).

by Ken

We heard the ineffable line "The name of the first was Olympia" last week -- five times over, actually -- as the poet Hoffmann prepares to give his crowd of adoring students in Luther's tavern his account of the first of his promised three "mad loves." Now we hear it again, in three languages, showing how hard it is to make the line work quite as poetically in any language but French, where "Olympia," being accented -- like most all French words -- on the final syllable, can stand at the top of the line's upward rise.

We're also hearing the line with a bit more in context this week, including the hauntingly resonant chorus of the students, which we can now hear is the tune that echoes after Hoffmann's ethereal announcement of the name "Olympia," and also including the Entr'acte that follows immediately -- or rather two of them. Cambreling and Beecham use a quiet mediation on the haunting "Écoutons! Il est doux de boire" theme, while Wallberg uses the more traditional first statement of the grand minuet that will be heard later as entrance music for the guests at Monsieur Spalanzani's grande soirée.


STUDENTS: Let's listen! It's pleasant to drink
during the telling of a mad story . . .
STUDENTS and NICKLAUSSE: . . . watching the bright cloud
that a pipe throws into the air!
HOFFMANN [sitting on the corner of a table]: I'll begin.
NICKLAUSSE: Silence!
STUDENTS: Silence!
COUNCILOR LINDORF [aside]:
In an hour, I hope, they'll be dead drunk.
HOFFMANN: The name of the first was Olympia.
[The curtain falls while HOFFMANN speaks to all the attentive STUDENTS.]

Entr'acte

Ann Murray (ms), Nicklausse; Neil Shicoff (t), Hoffmann; José van Dam (bs-b), Councilor Lindorf; Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of the Opéra National du Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels), Sylvain Cambreling, cond. EMI, recorded June-July 1988

[in German] Ilse Gramatzki (ms), Nicklausse; Siegfried Jerusalem (t), Hoffmann; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Councilor Lindorf; Bavarian Radio Chorus, Munich Radio Orchestra, Heinz Wallberg, cond. EMI, recorded 1979

[in English] Monica Sinclair (ms), Nicklausse; Robert Rounseville (t), Hoffmann; [Lindorf's line omitted]; Sadler's Wells Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. Decca, recorded 1947-51 (soundtrack of the Powell-Pressburger film)


TONIGHT WE MEET THE FAMOUS OLYMPIA
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN POSTS

"The poet Hoffmann and the legend of Kleinzach" (Sept. 14)
Preview, "The name of the first was Olympia" (Sept. 19)
"Hoffmann just can't get over is 'three mistresses'" (Sept. 21)
Preview, "Our Frantz knows it's all a matter of technique" (Sept. 27)
"Who is the author of Hoffmann's misfortunes?" (Sept. 28)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: The poet Hoffmann and the legend of Kleinzach

"Le nom de la première était Olympia"




Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1964

Richard Tucker, tenor; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. Live performance, Dec. 3, 1955

Léopold Simoneau, tenor; Orchestra of the Concerts de Paris, Pierre-Michel Le Conte, cond. Philips-Epic, recorded 1958

Plácido Domingo, tenor; Orchestre National de France, Seiji Ozawa, cond. DG, recorded 1986

Francisco Araiza, tenor; Staatskapelle Dresden, Jeffrey Tate, cond. Philips, recorded 1987-89

by Ken

I don't think I have, but it may be that you've heard music more hauntingly beautiful than this tiny bit -- the final half-minute of the Prologue to Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, as the drunken poet Hoffmann offers a tavern's worth of adoring students, hanging on his every word, his promised account of the first of his promised three "mad loves." I've gathered five distinctly different performances, plain and fancy, but all, I think, decently haunting. (Any preferences?)

I've painted myself into a corner here. For a good part of this week it was seeming like the time for the giving up the Sunday Classics ghost. However, while we already had, goodness knows, lots of loose ends that will be left dangling, one that I added just last week is strikes too close to home for me. I explained that last week's assortment of operatic (mostly) drinking songs touches me too personally. (There are times when Hoffmann is my favorite opera.)


I THOUGHT POSSIBLY I COULD SIMPLY
THROW OUT HOFFMANN'S DRINKING SONG

THE TALES OF HOFFMANN POSTS

"The poet Hoffmann and the legend of Kleinzach" (Sept. 14)
Preview, "The name of the first was Olympia" (Sept. 19)
"Hoffmann just can't get over is 'three mistresses'" (Sept. 21)
Preview, "Our Frantz knows it's all a matter of technique" (Sept. 27)
"Who is the author of Hoffmann's misfortunes?" (Sept. 28)
Starting by going just up to the point where something clearly goes wrong with the song.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: I have a song to sing, O!



Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland sing the "Brindisi" from Act I of Verdi's La Traviata, with Richard Bonynge conducting, at the Met in October 1970.
ALFREDO: Let’s drink, let's drink
from the joyous chalice where beauty flowers.
Let the fleeting hour
to pleasure’s intoxication yield.
Let’s drink to love’s sweet tremors –
to those eyes that pierce the heart.
Let’s drink to love -- to wine,
that warms our kisses.
ALL
: Ah! Let’s drink, let's drink to love --
to wine, that warms our kisses.
VIOLETTA [rising]: With you, with you
I would share my days of happiness.
Everything is folly in this world
that does not give us pleasure.
Let us enjoy life,
for the pleasures of love are swift and fleeting,
as a flower that lives and dies
and can be enjoyed no more.
Let’s take our pleasure!
While its ardent, brilliant summons lures us on.
ALL: Let’s take our pleasure
of wine and singing and mirth,
till the new day dawns on us as in Paradise.
VIOLETTA [to ALFREDO]: Life is just pleasure.
ALFREDO [to VIOLETTA]: But if one still waits for love --
VIOLETTA [to ALFREDO]: I know nothing of that --
don’t tell me --
ALFREDO [to VIOLETTA]: But there lies my fate.
ALL: Let’s take our pleasure
of wine and singing and mirth,
till the new day dawns on this paradise of ours.

by Ken

Extra credit if you saw the title of this post and sang back, "Sing me your song, O!"

In a moment we'll come back to "I have a song to sing, O!," but first, by way of sort-of-explainaton of what we're up to today, it's not exactly a rarity in opera where one character or another is asked to sing for the entertainment of a gathering, often with drinking involved. Nor is it a rarity for one character or another to offer a song to a gathering for their entertainment. I have such a scene in mind, and to get there I thought we'd hit some of the more notable specimens, and we've started with perhaps the most famous of all, the "Brindisi" (drinking song) sung by Alfredo, and joined by Violetta, at the start of Act I of La Traviata.

In fact, we're going to hear the full setting of Alfredo's "Libiamo," but first --

"I HAVE A SONG TO SING, O!"

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: "Kaleidoscope" -- a fondly remembered LP happily holds up under decades-later scrutiny


HOW DO WE GET FROM POINT A TO B TO C?

Point A, the opening of the piece (as heard last night):

Shortly we'll hear how we get from there to Point B:

However, Point B leads directly into Point C:

London Symphony Orchestra, Charles Mackerras, cond. Philips-Mercury, recorded July 1961

by Ken

Last week I reported my discovery of a hidden treasure trove (free!) of overtures, F. Reeder's Internet Archive compendium of "Overtures - Recorded 1926-1847)" -- 33 mp3 transfers of 29 overtures conducted by 18 conductors, most of them legendary (e.g., Barbirolli, Beecham, Furtwängler, Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Reiner, Rodzinski, Toscanini, Walter, Weingartner). That helped nudge me into an overtury mood. I recalled that a happy heap of my listening over the years has been to recorded collections of overtures and related short orchestral pieces.

As I mentioned, this mood inspired me to finally order CD issues of material that had once been part of my "go to" listening material. As a result, we're not going to do much with the Reeder treasure trove this week, but we'll come back to it. Also, I should mention that in a February 2011 post I already flashed back to one of those treasured overture discs, the Capitol Paperback Classics reissue of Erich Leinsdorf's wonderful c1958 catchily titled Opera Overtures LP with the Philharmonia, augmented on CD with some fine overture performances by Felix Slatkin and Miklós Rózsa.

Another of those LPs sprang back to life with the arrival of those ordered CDs: a Mercury Living Presence CD reincarnation of sorts of Charles Mackerras's Philips LP Kaleidoscope. What we heard in last night's preview was the music that more than anything made me fall in love with the original Kaleidoscope. The CD isn't the original Kaleidoscope, exactly. On it material from two LPs is smooshed together (from the Kaleidoscope LP everything is here except two additional Brahms Hungarian Dances, a minimal loss), all recorded at the same time by the legendary Mercury "Living Presence" team of Wilma Cozart Fine, recording director; Harold Lawrence, musical supervisor; and C. Robert Fine, chief engineer and technical supervisor. The domestic Philips LP was in effect a "Living Presence" LP, which explains why it sounded so good. Unfortunately as with the general run of domestic Philips pressings, it could be, well, problematic -- my copy came badly warped.

But that didn't stop me from listening to it a few zillion times, especially the piece we began hearing last night. What we heard was the hushed, haunting opening -- "Point A" in the A-to-B-to-C sequence above. Now here's the whole thing, starting with the Mackerras recording. Then we have that wise old German hand Robert Heger (from a complete Merry Wives recording) and vintage Herbert von Karajan, plus a dip into the F. Reeder overture grab bag, turning up a conductor now hardly known, Nikolai Sokoloff (1886-1965), who does a pretty nice job while squeezing the thing onto one 78 side.

NICOLAI: The Merry Wives of Windsor: Overture


London Symphony Orchestra, Charles Mackerras, cond. Philips-Mercury, recorded July 1961

Bavarian State Orchestra, Robert Heger, cond. EMI, recorded 1964

Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. EMI, recorded c1959

[trimmed (and rushed) to fit on one 78 side] Cleveland Orchestra, Nikolai Sokoloff, cond. Brunswick, recorded May 1927 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)


A CONDUCTOR NOT SO EASY TO "TYPE"

Schedule note

There will be a post today, which will include all of the piece whose opening we heard in last night's preview ("Attention, please!"). But I got bogged down doing some LP dubbing (yes, for a ghost post!). Check back at 2pm PT/5pm ET -- maybe sooner!
#

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics preview: Attention, please!

Can you imagine a more ravishing musical attention-getter?



London Symphony Orchestra, Charles Mackerras, cond. Philips-Mercury, recorded July 1961

by Ken

What we hear above is really and truly a preview; we're not going to hear any more of this piece until tomorrow's Ghost of Sunday Classics post. Many of you will recognize it (we've actually heard it before), but for now I just want to focus on this ravishing opening.

This is a talent, I think, the ability to grab a listener's attention musically. Not in a mechanical, conk-over-the-head way, which I suppose can be done by formula, but in a genuinely imagination-engaging way. The talent can certainly be cultivated, shaped, refined, but I think either you've got stuff in you head that can do the trick or you don't. We've listened, for example, to the way Puccini opened nearly all of his mature operas -- that, I think, is simply astounding, and a measure of unique genius.

One reason I'm so bowled over by the way our composer above seizes hold of our imaginations is precisely because there isn't any conking over the head. Just listen to what he does with that out-of-nothing hush, then gradually gathers momentum. Gorgeous!

This makes me think of the musical solutions Puccini's great predecessor Verdi found for the first of his two supreme masterpieces, Otello. We've heard all of these before (if anyone would like links, please just let me know in the comments; it's so tedious gathering them when there's no earthly purpose), but let's listen first to the similarly quiet orchestral introductions to Acts II, III, and IV.

VERDI: Otello

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: "Baton Bunny" music with and without the Bunny, plus a treasure trove of overtures and, oh yes, "Gaudeamus igitur"

In which we watch part of a cartoon, then listen
to an overture, and then another overture, and then --
can you imagine? -- drift off into other, er, stuff



A nice chunk of Chuck Jones's Baton Bunny (1959) -- from the confident-looking start, things deteriorate pretty quickly.

by Ken

As I mentioned most recently Friday night, New York City's Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, is currently hosting a grand exhibition devoted to one of the giants of animated film, Chuck Jones. And as I mentioned Friday night, this afternoon I hope to get to MoMI for this week's "Chuck Jones Matinee" (each week the same hour-long program is offered on Saturday and Sunday), to see -- in 35mm, on a large screen -- Duck Amuck, which I've already declared the greatest cartoon ever made, and What's Opera, Doc?, the famous Bugs Bunny classical-music extravaganza.

On my last weekend visit to the museum, the CJM program included a different classical-Bugs enterprise, one I didn't remember: Baton Bunny, from 1959. In it Bugs attempts to conduct Suppé's A Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna Overture, and you can see some of it above.

We've heard our fair share of Suppé, entirely in the form of overtures. Yes, occasional efforts are made to revive some of his numerous operettas, but they don't stick. A dozen or so of his overtures do, however, for the simple reason that they're utterly wonderful, utterly gorgeous music, and among them are a couple -- I mean Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry -- that I would listen to as happily as anything in the orchestral repertory.

When the poster of our Baton Bunny clip posted it, a rash of commenters were frantic to know what the music was. The question was answered in due course, of course, but we're going to answer it in our own way -- with three distinctly different performances.


FRANZ VON SUPPÉ: A Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna: Overture

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: At Castle Adamant, behind enemy lines, the truth is found, the truth is found!


How we got here: Hilarion, Cyril, and Florian make their entry into the grounds of Castle Adamant, from a Savoynet production in Bruxton.

"Darwinian Man, though well-behav'd,
at best is only a monkey shav'd!"

-- Lady Psyche, in Act II of Princess Ida

by Ken

Last week, in "Prince Hilarion's mission of the heart," we left our royal wooing party -- comprising Prince Hilarion and his childhood friends Cyril and Florian -- safely embedded behind enemy walls, in the garden of Castle Adamant, seat of the woman's college founded by Princess Ida, Hilarion's betrothed since she was a 12-month-old and he was twice as old. The princess, alas, has shown herself unwilling to honor her infant betrothal. In fact, in her 21 years she has had quite her fill of men, and has forsworn them; hence the college for women only.

As I noted last week, the common assumption that it's the women being ridiculed in Princess Ida seems to me utterly unsustainable by anyone who has eyes, ears, and a working brain. The lofty goals of Ida and her protégées may be tainted with charming silliness, but at least they have goals that go beyond fighting the next battle. By comparison, the behavior of the men -- whether of the martial or the poetical strain (our dramatis personae includes a quantity of each) -- ranges from preposterous to ludicrous and back.

Two plans are afoot to bring Princess Ida around, and at the moment we've been following the quest of Prince Hilarion to penetrate Castle Adamant and woo his child bride. To that end he, Cyril, and Florian have succeeded in disguising themselves as students of the college, and have even withstood the scrutiny of the princess herself, though in fairness what she has been scrutinizing these ungainly young maidens for isn't male impersonation but the earthly disappointment that is the true mark of an educable young woman.

Last week we heard our young gentleman agreeing with the princess, in a beautiful quartet, that "The world is but a broken toy, its pleasures hollow, false its joy." At this point, a new disaster befalls.
[Exit PRINCESS. The three gentlemen watch her off. LADY PSYCHE enters, and regards them with amazement.]
PRINCE HILARION: I'faith, the plunge is taken, gentlemen!
For, willy-nilly, we are maidens now,
and maids against our will we must remain.
[All laugh heartily.]
LADY PSYCHE [aside]: These ladies are unseemly in their mirth.
[The gentlemen see her, and, in confusion, resume their modest demeanor.]
FLORIAN [aside, to HILARION]:
Here's a catastrophe, Hilarion!
This is my sister! She'll remember me,
Though years have passed since she and I have met!
PRINCE HILARION [aside, to FLORIAN]:
Then make a virtue of necessity,
and trust our secret to her gentle care.
FLORIAN [to PSYCHE, who has watched CYRIL in amazement]:
Psyche!  Why, don't you know me? Florian!
LADY PSYCHE [amazed]: Why, Florian!
FLORIAN: My sister! [Embraces her.]
LADY PSYCHE: Oh, my dear! What are you doing here -- and who are
these?
PRINCE HILARION: I am that Prince Hilarion to whom
your Princess is betrothed.
I come to claim
her plighted love.
Your brother Florian
and Cyril came to see me safely through.
LADY PSYCHE: The Prince Hilarion? Cyril too? How strange!
My earliest playfellows!
PRINCE HILARION: Why, let me look!
Are you that learned little Psyche who
at school alarmed her mates because she called
a buttercup "ranunculus bulbosus"?
CYRIL: Are you indeed that Lady Psyche, who
at children's parties, drove the conjuror wild,
explaining all his tricks before he did them?
PRINCE HILARION: Are you that learned little Psyche, who
at dinner parties, brought in to dessert,
would tackle visitors with "You don't know
who first determined longitude -- I do --
Hipparchus 'twas — B.C. one sixty-three!"
Are you indeed that small phenomenon?
LADY PSYCHE: That small phenomenon indeed am I!
But gentlemen, 'tis death to enter here:
We have all promised to renounce mankind!
FLORIAN: Renounce mankind!? On what ground do you base
this senseless resolution?
LADY PSYCHE: Senseless?  No.
We are all taught, and, being taught, believe
that Man, sprung from an Ape, is Ape at heart.
CYRIL: That's rather strong.
LADY PSYCHE: The truth is always strong!

John Bernard (Prince Hilarion), Melanie Melcher (Lady Psyche), Bradley Wilson (Florian), Christopher Swanson (Cyril). Newport Classic, recorded live at the 1999 Ohio Light Opera Festival


IF THIS SOUNDS LIKE A SONG CUE, IT IS

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Prince Hilarion's mission of the heart


"The world is but a broken toy": Disguised as students of the woman's college established by the Princess Ida, Florian (William Whitefield), Cyril (Patrick Hogan), and Prince Hilarion (Colm Fitzmaurice) meet Ida, Hilarion's betrothed (Kimilee Bryant), in the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' January 2008 Princess Ida.

by Ken

We've already dealt somewhat with the more martial aspects of Princess Ida, the mortal struggle between Kings Gama and Hildebrand -- the fathers of the bride and groom, respectively -- over the consummation of the union between Princess Ida and Prince Hilarion plighted when she was a 12-month-old and he was twice as old, he's told. The hitch, now that Ida is 21 and Hilarion 22, is that the princess has had quite her fill of men and has sequestered herself in Castle Adamant as the headmistress of a woman's college.

The arrangement ordered by King Hildebrand, you'll recall, is that Gama and Ida's "three hulking brothers" are to be held hostage (an exceedingly kindly and gracious hostagedom, as it turns out) while Hilarion avails himself of one opportunity to persuade his child bride to accept him. Naturally Hilarion chooses to have his childhood friends Cyril and Florian at his side, and one of the keys to the flood of amazing music Sullivan produced, especially in Act II, is this core trio he had at his disposal. As we've often remarked, something about the trio medium set his genius ablaze, and that extends to "expanded" trios -- trio-plus-one quartets (of which we'll hear an instance today) and trio-plus-two quintets (of which we'll hear an instance next week).

In last night's preview we made the acquaintance of the prince himself. Now without further ado, here is Hilarion announcing what we might call --

THE PLAN

I should probably say something about the performances, which span three-quarters of the century, dipping back into the acoustical era. You can follow individual performances throughout our excerpts, or listen to the very different treatments accorded individual numbers. There seems to me no question, though, that the strongest "Hilarion and Friends" trio, is that of the 1954 Decca recording -- with a just-right pair of tenors and a fine baritone. The 1965 Decca team (with the same baritone) holds its own, though.

Princess Ida: Act I, Recitative and Trio, "Come, Cyril, Florian" . . . "Expressive glances shall be our lances"
Recitative, Hilarion
Come, Cyril, Florian, our course is plain,
tomorrow morn fair Ida we’ll engage;
but we will use no force her love to gain,
nature has armed us for the war we wage!
Trio, Hilarion, Cyril, and Florian
HILARION: Expressive glances
shall be our lances,
and pops of Sillery
our light artillery.
We’ll storm their bowers
with scented showers
of fairest flowers
that we can buy!
CHORUS: Oh, dainty triolet!
Oh, fragrant violet
Oh, gentle heigho-let
(Or little sigh).
On sweet urbanity,
through mere inanity,
yo touch their vanity
we will rely!
CYRIL: When day is fading,
with serenading
and such frivolity
we’ll prove our quality.
A sweet profusion
of soft allusion
this bold intrusion
shall justify.
CHORUS: Oh, dainty triolet! etc.
FLORIAN: We’ll charm their senses
with verbal fences,
with ballads amatory
and declamatory.
Little heeding
their pretty pleading,
our love exceeding
we’ll justify!
CHORUS: Oh, dainty triolet! etc.

Derek Oldham (t), Prince Hilarion; Leon Darnton (t), Cyril; Sydney Granville (b), Florian; Light Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Harry Norris, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 14, 1924

Derek Oldham (t), Prince Hilarion; Charles Goulding (t), Cyril; George Baker (b), Florian; D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 27, 1932 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

Thomas Round (t), Prince Hilarion; Leonard Osborn (t), Cyril; Jeffrey Skitch (b), Florian; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, New Symphony Orchestra of London, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded cOct.-Dec. 1954 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

Phiip Potter (t), Prince Hilarion; David Palmer (t), Cyril; Jeffrey Skitch (b), Florian; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. Decca, recorded May 1965

John Bernard (t), Prince Hilarion; Christopher Swanson (t), Cyril; Bradley Wilson (b), Florian; Ohio Light Opera Chorus and Orchestra, J. Lynn Thompson, cond. Newport Classic, recorded live at the 1999 Ohio Light Opera Festival


PENETRATING THE PERIMETER

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics preview: Could we have a royal operetta without a dreamy prince?


GILBERT and SULLIVAN: Princess Ida: Act I, Introduction and Opening Chorus, "Search throughout the panorama for a sign of royal Gama"
Pavilion attached to KING HILDEBRAND's palace. Soldiers and courtiers discovered looking out through opera glasses, telescopes, etc., FLORIAN leading.

CHORUS: Search throughout the panorama
for a sign of royal Gama,
who today should cross the water
with his fascinating daughter --
Ida is her name.
Some misfortune evidently
has detained them -- consequently,
search throughout the panorama
for the daughter of King Gama,
Prince Hilarion's flame! Prince Hilarion's flame!
FLORIAN: Will Prince Hilarion's hopes be sadly blighted?
CHORUS: Who can tell? Who can tell?
FLORIAN: Will Ida break the vows that she has plighted?
CHORUS: Who can tell? Who can tell?
FLORIAN: Will she back out, and say she did not mean them?
CHORUS: Who can tell?
FLORIAN: If so, there'll be the deuce to pay between them!
CHORUS: No, no,
we'll not despair, we'll not despair!
For Ida would not dare
to make a deadly foe
of Hildebrand, and so --
search throughout the panorama
for a sign of royal Gama,
who today should cross the water
with his fascinating daughter --
Ida, Ida is her name.

[Opening Chorus at 3:41] George Baker (b), Florian; D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 26 and 28, 1932 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

[Opening Chorus at 4:12] Jeffrey Skitch (b), Florian; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, New Symphony Orchestra of London, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded cOct.-Dec. 1954 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

[Opening Chorus at 4:01] Jeffrey Skitch (b), Florian; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. Decca, recorded May 1965

[Opening Chorus at 3:54] Bradley Wilson (b), Florian; Ohio Light Opera Chorus and Orchestra, J. Lynn Thompson, cond. Newport Classic, recorded live at the 1999 Ohio Light Opera Festival

by Ken

As I mentioned last week, I finally got wise to the existence of the "Gilbert and Sullivan Archive Edition" of the vocal score of Princess Ida (edited by Paul Howarth, first published in 2007, with a somewhat corrected edition published in 2013), and on arrival it has yielded an immediate discovery. You may recall that I had made the momentous decision to downgrade the "stub" of an overture to the opera from "overture" to "prelude." As it happens, I had never seen this piece in score, because the old Chappell edition, which until now was my only Princess Ida score, like the Chappell vocal scores of several other G-snd-S operas, didn't include the overture! These editions seem to have been frozen in time from the moment of original publication, when the publisher apparently hadn't yet received the overtures.

So what do I discover upon opening my new score? Two things:

(1) The orchestral introduction isn't called "Overture," it's called "Introduction"!

(2) The end of the Introduction is marked "attacca," meaning that it's meant to flow directly into the following number, the opera's opening chorus. I had had some reservations about the designation "prelude," since the piece is self-standing, but I harked back to the examples of the Preludes to Verdi's Rigoletto and Traviata. The attacca marking vindicates this, and I would go ahead comfortably calling the piece a "Prelude" if not for the possibility that the score designation "Introduction" actually traces back to Sullivan. So, "Introduction" it is -- and I thought our first order of business now should be to hear the opening of the opera this way. Like we just did above!

Beyond this, I thought that since we slipped into Princess Ida by focusing on the two kings, the fathers of our royal non-couple, this week we might focus on the young bridegrom, the son of King Hildebrand, Prince Hilarion -- and his friends Cyril and Florian (whom we just heard briefly in the vigil for the arrival of King Gama and his daughter).


SO LET'S MEET PRINCE HILARION