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

Act II, Introduction

Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. Decca, recorded 1961

Act III, Introduction (5 performances)

(1) National Philharmonic Orchestra, James Levine, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded August 1978
(2) Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded in concert in Chicago and New York, April 1991
(3) New Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli, cond. EMI, recorded Aug., Oct., and Nov. 1968
(4) Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Carlos Kleiber, cond. Live performance, Dec. 7, 1976
(5) Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. Live performance from the Salzburg Festival, July 30, 1971

Act IV, Introduction

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond. RCA-BMG, broadcast performance, Dec. 13, 1947

But let's recall how the opera begins, anything but quietly, with the violent storm that threatens to wreck Otello's ship as it nears port in Cypress:

VERDI: Otello: Act I opening: Chorus, "Una vela!" . . . "Dio, fulgor della bufera" . . . Otello, "Esultate" . . . Chorus, "Vittoria! Vittoria!"
Outside the castle, with the sea wall and sea in the background. An inn with a pergola. It is evening. A thunderstorm is raging.

THE CROWD: A sail! A sail!
A standard! A standard!
MONTANO: It’s the Winged Lion!
CASSIO: We can see it when the lightning flashes.
THE CROWD: A trumpet call!
A cannon shot!
CASSIO: It’s Otello’s ship.
MONTANO: The violent waves
make it rise and fall.
CASSIO: They lift the bow skyward!
THE CROWD: The clouds and sea conceal it.
And lightning now reveals it.
Lightning. Thunder. Vortex.
All the tempest’s fury.
The waves tremble. The sky trembles.
The world itself trembles to its core.
With blind rage the waves make the heavens spin.
The gods shake the callous sky
like a bleak, billowing veil.
All is smoke. All is fire.
An inferno that enflames and engulfs all.
The universe itself shakes.
The north wind soars like a phantom.
The titans strike the anvil, and the heavens roar.
God, in the midst of the storm smile upon us.
Save the banner of Venetian glory!
Thou, who reigns over the geavens and the earth.
Calm the gale.
Place the anchor true in the midst of the sea.
JAGO: The mast is breaking.
RODERIGO: The ship will crash on the rocks.
JAGO: (May the sea be Otello’s grave.)
THE CROWD: They are saved!
They’re manning the rowboats.
They’re approaching shore!
They’re at the docks. Evviva!
OTELLO: Rejoice!
The pride of the Ottomans
rests at the bottom of the sea.
Our glory is from heaven.
For the storm
has destroyed our enemy.
THE CROWD: Evviva, Otello! Evviva!
The enemy is destroyed, buried in the deep sea.
For a requiem they have the crash of the waves.
The abyss of the sea. Victory!
Our enemy is buried at sea.
The storm is calmed at last.

Alan Opie (b), Montano; Antony Rolfe Johnson (t), Cassio; Leo Nucci (b), Jago; John Keyes (t), Roderigo; Luciano Pavarotti (t), Otello; Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded in concert in Chicago and New York, April 1991


A very well-known, also ravishing orchestral piece written some 20 years later (1867) than our mystery piece. The later work begins:

Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded December 1966

Of course this turns into:

J. STRAUSS II: On the Beautiful Blue Danube (Waltz), Op. 314

The Karajan performance, dating from perhaps the musically strongest period of his career (the end of the '50s to the end of the '60s), could hardly be more gorgeous, but then, the 1972-ish disc of Strauss waltzes by Karl Böhm, in relaxed and buoyant form, is one of my favorite records. (We've already heard a couple of other selections from it.) Finally, the Viennese composer-conductor Robert Stolz (1880-1975) gives us something a little different, perhaps more idiosyncratically Viennese.

Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded December 1966

Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, cond. DG, recorded c1972

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Robert Stolz, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded in the 1960s


Our mystery work complete, and a bunch of other stuff.

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