Sunday, November 29, 2015

Chausson's "Poème": a gem of French Romanticism

Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), around 1895

Ginette Neveu, violin

David Oistrakh, violin

Zino Francescatti, violin

by Ken

Now that, I dare say, is one gorgeous tune, and a tune gorgeously suited to the solo violin. (One feature worth noting in the tune's formal notation: The accented beats the ear hears hardly ever occur on the downbeats where one would expect them. What seems like such a simple, straightforward flowing melody actually isn't so simple or straightforward.)

As I mentioned last week, when we listened to Ravel's "funny music," the concert rhapsody for violin and orchestra Tzigane, it was actually its frequent disc-mate, Ernest Chausson's Poème for Violin and Orchestra, that actually got me thinking about the pieces, which were both included, with Zino Francescatti as soloist, on a CD in Sony's Leonard Bernstein Edition, filling out Lenny's 1961 New York Philharmonic recording of Berlioz's Harold in Italy (with William Lincer, the orchestra's principal violist from 1942 to 1972, as soloist).


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Ravel's "funny music"

The first 18 bars (1:48 in the Heifetz recording, 1:42 in the Francescatti, and
1:56 in the Perlman) of the 58-bar solo that opens Ravel's "funny music"

RAVEL: Tzigane (concert rhapsody for violin and orchestra):
Opening solo

Jascha Heifetz, violin (1953)

Zino Francescatti, violin (1964)

Itzhak Perlman, violin (c1974)

by Ken

No, we haven't by any means finished with our listen-in to Richard Strauss's serio-comic operatic treasure Ariadne auf Naxos -- or to Strauss's Four Last Songs (we still have the two most ambitious songs to cover). But for several weeks now I've had another musical itch eating at me, so I thought we could take some time out to deal with it.

And it involves a little story.

Playing in my NYC public-high-school orchestra wasn't all toil; there was the occasional perk. Okay, I'm way overstating the "toil" part, being that I wasn't what you would call a nose-to-the-grindstone practicer, which probably has something to do with how mediocre a violinist I was. And the perks weren't so grand either. The one I'm thinking of this week was a pass to a presentation on that week's New York Philharmonic subscription concert, at the Juilliard School -- not where it is now, in Lincoln Center, but in its old home on Claremont Avenue in the vertiginous reaches of Manhattan's Morningside Heights, premises that were taken over by the Manhattan School of Music when the Juilliard packed up and moved downtown.

Note that this beneficence didn't include a ticket to the actual concert.

It was a pretty venturesome solo subway journey from Brooklyn for a young teen still relatively new to the city, but I actually found the place, and then found my way back home, and in between I was treated to a presentation by the professor and composer Hugo Weisgall (right), who was so charming and witty and welcoming and smart that ever since, whenever I happen to listen to some of his music, I wish I enjoyed it half as well as I enjoyed Dr. Weisgall himself that evening.

I no longer remember the full program for that concert, or who the perfomers were -- in large part because the perk didn't include a ticket to the actual concert. But I do remember Dr. Weisgall talking about two of the works on the program. It was, I think, my first exposure to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor (one of only two Mozart concertos in a minor key), and that exposure must have something to do with the lifelong passion I've since enjoyed for Mozart's piano concertos.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Richard Strauss: "Music is a holy art," sings Strauss's Composer -- plus Two (out of Four) Last Songs, part 2

"Music is a holy art"
THE COMPOSER: Music is a holy art, which brings together all men of courage, like cherubim around a shining throne, and for this reason it is the holiest of the arts. Holy music!
-- from the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos

Sena Jurinac (s), Composer; Vienna Philharmonic, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA-Decca, recorded 1958

Teresa Zylis-Gara (s), Composer; Staatskapelle Dresden, Rudolf Kempe, cond. EMI, recorded June-July 1968

Agnes Giebel (ms), Composer; Vienna Philharmonic, James Levine, cond. DG, recorded January 1986

Anne Sofie von Otter (ms), Composer; Staatskapelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. DG, recorded Sept. and Dec. 2000

by Ken

Last week, in part 1 of this post, our ongoing look-and-listen to Richard Strauss's favorite among his operas, and probably among his works, Ariadne auf Naxos, landed us at this passionate declaration by the idealistic young Composer in the Prologue created with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal for the revised 1916 version. And from there we detoured to the first two of Strauss's Four Last Songs, at least in the order devised by Strauss's publisher at Boosey and Hawkes, Ernst Roth, who took the posthumous publication of these songs in hand and included this note (in German, French, and English):
These four songs are not only Strauss's last contributions to the "Lied," which played such an important part in his life's work, but they are also the last compositions that he finished.

The first sketches of Im Abendrot (At Dusk) are found in a notebook from the end of 1946 or beginning of 1947. The final sketch of the score is dated "Montreux, 27th April 1948" and the score itself was finished on 6th May of that year.

The sketch of Frühling followed, with the full score completed at Pontresina on 18th July 1948.

Beim Schlafengehen (On Going to Sleep) was finished on 4th August and September, Strauss's last completed work, on 20th September of the same year.

A mood of farewell pervades the four songs, particularly Im Abendrot and September. It is, however, the farewell of a man who leaves the scene of earthly struggle and triumph without disappointment or reproach, without fear of destruction and doom, but with serene confidence in eternity and immortality. And so when the poet asks in Im Abendrot (bars 69-75) "Ist dies etwa Tod?" ("Can this be death?") the horn enters with that same Transfiguration motif which the young man 60 years before had set against Death.
The title Four Last Songs isn't Strauss's, of course. In fact, from among the poems of Hermann Hesse he had been considering (he flagged 14 in a collection he had been given), in addition to the three he completed setting -- "Frühling" ("Spring"), "September," and "Beim Schlafengehn" ("On Going to Bed") -- he began sketching a fourth, "Nacht" ("Night"), to go with a setting of Joseph Eichendorff's "Im Abendrot" ("At Dusk").


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Richard Strauss: "Music is a holy art," sings Strauss's Composer -- plus Two (out of Four) Last Songs, part 1

"What is music then?"

The question is asked at 0:28 of this concluding clip of the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos -- asked and then answered by the composer of the about-to-be-performed "opera seria" (Sena Jurinac), as filmed at the 1965 Salzburg Festival, directed by Günther Rennert and conducted by Karl Böhm (with Paul Schoeffler, nearly 68, as the Music Master; in a moment we'll hear him 21 years earlier).
COMPOSER: What is music then?
[With almost drunken solemnity] Music is a holy art, which brings together all men of courage, like cherubim around a shining throne, and for this reason it is the holiest of the arts. Holy music!
[ZERBINETTA appears at the back and calls her partners onto the stage. HARLEKIN comes hastily out of the room on the right, buckling his belt as he runs onstage.]
What is that? From where?
[SCARAMUCCIO enters, like HARLEKIN finishing his dressing as he comes.]
These creatures!
In my holy sanctuary cutting their capers! Ah!
MUSIC MASTER: You allowed it!
COMPOSER [furious]: I ought not to have allowed it; you shouldn't have allowed me to allow it! Who told you to drag me into this world? Let me freeze, starve, die in my own!
[He runs off in despair. The MUSIC MASTER looks after him, shaking his head.]
-- English translation by Peggie Cochrane

Julia Varady (s), Composer; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Music Master; Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig), Kurt Masur, cond. Philips, recorded January 1988

Imrgard Seefried (s), Composer; Paul Schoeffler (bs-b), Music Master; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance in honor of Strauss's 80th birthday, June 11, 1944

Tatiana Troyanos (ms), Composer; Paul Schoeffler (bs-b), Music Master; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Nov. 29, 1967

[in English] Janet Baker (ms), Composer; Malcolm Donnelly (b), Music Master; Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Norman Del Mar, cond. Live performance from Glasgow's Theater Royal, 1977

by Ken

In last week's post, "Why won't everyone just let poor abandoned Ariadne die in peace?," as we focused on the two-part monologue of the title character of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos, one thing I was constantly on the verge of saying was: Just listen to the epic, unrestrained gorgeousness of this music. For sheer unrestrained gorgeousness, I'm not sure I know anything like it in all of music. Somehow, though, I managed to leave it to the music to speak for itself.

Last week we were stressing the "serious" side of Ariadne -- without, I hope, completely losing sight (or sound) of the comic side, because it's the combination of the two that make the opera, in its revised 1916 form, with the Prologue added, such a treasure -- treasured not least by its composer. It wasn't an accident that it was chosen to honor Strauss on his 80th birthday, via the performance from which we heard the whole Prologue in the October 11 post "Meet the composer, Richard Strauss-style."


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why won't everyone just let poor abandoned Ariadne die in peace?

"There is a realm where all is pure"

Ernst Stern's design for the original 1912 Ariadne auf Naxos (click to enlarge)
There is a realm where all is pure:
it has a name too: Realm of Death.
[Rises from the ground.]
Here nothing is pure.
All is finished here.

[She pulls her robe close around her.]
But soon a messenger will draw nigh,
Hermes they call him.
With his staff
he rules all souls:
Like birds on the wing,
like dry leaves,
he drives them before him.
Thou beautiful, serene god!
See! Ariadne awaits!

Oh, my heart must be cleansed
of all wild grief,
then your presence will call me,
your footsteps will approach my cave,
darkness will cover my eyes,
your hand will touch my heart.
In the beautiful festal robes
that my mother bequeathed me
my body will remain;
the silent cave will be my tomb.
But mutely my soul
will follow its new lord,
as a light leaf in the wind
flutters downward, gladly falling.
Darkness will cover my eyes
and fill my heart;
this body will remain,
richly adorned and all alone.

You will set me free,
give me to myself,
this burdensome life,
take it from me.
I will lose myself entirely in you;
with you Ariadne will abide.
[She stands lost in thought.]
-- English translation by Peggie Cochrane

Maria Cebotari, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. EMI, recorded Nov. 16, 1948

Leontyne Price, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. RCA, recorded 1965

"Playgoers, I bid you welcome. The theater is a temple, and we are here to worship the gods of comedy and tragedy. Tonight I am pleased to announce a comedy."
-- the principal player at the outset of A Funny
Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

by Ken

We've already had a taste of the comedy of Ariadne auf Naxos, in the October 11 Sunday Classics snapshots post "Meet the Composer, Richard Strauss-style," observing the comically serious young Composer make his way backstage through the craziness preceding the performance of his opera seria of the same name. Now, above, we've gotten a taste of the tragedy.

(In studio recordings, I should add, of just this excerpt. The lovely Maria Cebotari [seen at right], heard here less than seven months before her untimely death, at 39, did sing Ariadne, and must have been radiant in the role, but Leontyne Price didn't take it on until years after she recorded this stand-alone "Es gibt ein Reich" in her Art of the Prima Donna series, in which she sampled roles she hadn't sung. (Eventually -- not this week, but eventually -- we'll hear more of her eventual Ariadne.)

We've also had a masterful exposition, two weeks ago, of the conventional way of handling comedy and tragedy, from the principal player at the top of Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first show for which Stephen Sondheim wrote music as well as lyrics. It's probably still my favorite Sondheim song, and I can't ever hear it enough. So . . .