Saturday, April 26, 2008

Mozart: Symphony #40 and #41

These are two familiar and highly recognizable Mozart symphonies that are an absolute pleasure to listen to, even if you're a retired trumpet player who resents all of the crappy parts he had to play in Mozart symphonies in high school orchestra.
James Levine and the Wiener Philharmoniker
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Symphony #40 and Symphony #41 (1788)
Deutsche Grammophon, 1990

Both of these symphonies have what I consider a more typical symphonic structure (compared to, say, last week's Elgar Symphony #2). For example, listen to the opening melody in Symphony #40, and then hear how Mozart massages that melody into various keys, forms and variations throughout the movement.

What's so fascinating about Mozart is his ability to toy with a simple melody--literally to wrap it around his finger and mess with it in ways you'd never imagine--and yet the music still seems so flawless, logical and beautiful.

Four brief final notes:

1) I found (amazingly) an Amazon link to the exact CD that I have in my collection, and I highly recommend this specific recording. It's excellent, bordering on flawless. Also, for anyone interested in getting an encyclopedic collection of Mozart's complete symphonies, I've included a link to a highly regarded collection here (for a surprisingly reasonable price of around $50). See also the graphical link below. Note that I get paid a small affiliate fee for products you might buy at Amazon should you follow these links and make a purchase. Think of it as my tip jar!

2) Mozart's trumpet parts still suck. I don't even hear trumpet parts at all in #40. And #41 is, you guessed it, mostly oompah parts.

3) If you haven't seen the movie Amadeus, rent it. Now. And then come back. Although it exaggerates the relationship between Salieri and Mozart to the point of total fiction, the movie tells a fascinating story about the nature of genius. Oh, and the soundtrack's pretty good too.

4) I hope James Levine gets himself a new pair of glasses. And a haircut.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Edward Elgar: Symphony #2

Anyone who made it to their high school graduation will instantly recognize Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March #1, which features possibly one of the most memorable classical music melodies of the 20th century.

But I wouldn't bother making today's recording, Elgar's Symphony #2, a building block of your classical music collection.

Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Symphony #2 (1911)
EMI Classics, 1991 (0riginal recording 1976)

The symphony seemed both shapeless and plotless to me, even after two close listens. That would be fine if the music were in any way arresting or beautiful (see Debussy or Vaughan Williams, both of whom composed shapeless, plotless beautiful music), but I found I had zero emotional involvement in this symphony throughout.

In fact, if anybody would like my copy of this CD, just shoot me a quick email with your snail-mail address (see my profile for my email) and I'll be happy to mail it to you. First caller wins.

One quick listener note: I'm not one to pick apart mistakes in a recording, but I can't help noticing them. If you listen very carefully at the 7:50 mark in track #3 (the second movement) of this recording you'll hear the oboe player badly miss a couple of notes. Ouch.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bruckner: Symphony #7 and How Beethoven Ruined It For Everyone After Him

Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, unlike most everything else he composed, was actually met with acclaim and enthusiasm when it was premiered.

We've already discussed how Bruckner was a misfit in his world and suffered during his life. Today, I'd like to talk about Bruckner's personal self-doubt.
Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony #7
Teldec Classics, 1993
Classical music is rife with composers with enormous egos (e.g. Beethoven, whose enormous ego was thoroughly justified) as well as composers with enormous insecurities (e.g. Brahms, whose enormous self-doubts were thoroughly unjustified).

Many 19th Century composers suffered the bad luck of living in the shadow of Beethoven, who wrote music so nearly perfect and with such gravity that people during this era thought his works were the ultimate last word in symphonic music.

Composers like Bruckner had it worse still: they labored under Beethoven's shadow and under their own insecurities. Recall how Brahms burned many of his early works? Bruckner had attacks of insecurity late in his life such that he massively rewrote and rearranged most of his great symphonies (one of the few symphonies that he did not rewrite was his Seventh). These attacks of insecurity didn't help his creations one bit, as modern orchestras almost invariably perform the original versions, not the revised versions, of his works.

It's hard to believe that composers as gifted as these could be just as insecure and self-conscious as the rest of us.

The closest modern analogy I can come to is playing professional golf during the era of Tiger Woods or playing tennis during the era of Roger Federer. You could be an absolutely amazing golfer, but you'll always be cursed by comparison to these giants of their era.

As my wife will say (in a passable Homer Simpson imitation), "Dumb Beethoven!"

The irony of Bruckner's Seventh is that this symphony was widely appreciated at its premiere. It was more typical of concert-goers to walk out in the middle of performances of his other works.

I have just a two listener notes for you this time. What I really encourage you to do is to listen to this symphony and just let it wash over you. It's filled with beautiful melodies and rich with emotion.

1) Listen to the opening theme at the very beginning of the first movement and tell me you don't love this composer. Just as with the opening french horn theme in his Fourth Symphony, you can always count on Bruckner for recognizable and memorable themes.

2) Notice how the second movement's primary theme is again memorable, simple and elegant. Listen for the rising three-note melody (stated for the first time at about the 40-second mark, again at the 8:50 mark, and several other times later in the movement). Listen from the 12:30 mark when the brass section performs several variations on this melody, and from the 17:00 mark when the strings play their own layers of variations over this same melody.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Brahms: Symphony #2

Brahms' First Symphony, which we listened to in February, was reportedly the product of at least 14 years of work (some sources will say two decades), as he felt the heavy burden of attempting to compose a symphony with sufficient "gravitas" in the post-Beethoven era.

In contrast, he wrote his Second Symphony in less than a year.
Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Brahms: Symphony No. 2
Philips, 1991
It's interesting how a genius like Brahms puts so much pressure on himself writing one symphony that it takes him so many years and so much suffering to get it done. But in the next year, he quickly pounds out another symphony--one that's just as beautiful by the way--without putting any evident pressure on himself at all.

In both symphonies he came up with the goods. But how can the composition of one work be so seemingly effortless while the other needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to completion?

This is yet another aspect of Brahms that's so fascinating to me. You can't help but be encouraged in your own creative efforts when even the great geniuses had seemingly arbitrary struggles and successes when creating their work.

For example, when I'm writing, there are times when some solid work will burst out of me with very little effort. At other times, however, writing can be horribly painstaking. And unfortunately, it's seems totally arbitrary which kind of process I'm going to get on a given day. And of course there are times when my finished product can be so repulsive to me that I too want to burn the works, just like Brahms did.

A few brief listener notes for the Second Symphony:
1) Note how, in general, the Second Symphony seems more spontaneous and less forced than the ponderous and grave First Symphony.

2) Listen for the primary melody repeated throughout the first movement. Does it sound oddly familiar at all--maybe like a well-known children's lullaby? Ha. And they say sampling wasn't invented until the 1980s.

3) The third movement was so apparently so well received at the symphony's premiere performance (in December of 1877) that the orchestra immediately encored it.

4) And if you want to have your spirits massively uplifted in a brief ten minutes or so, have a close listen to the fourth movement.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bach: The Cello Suites

Surprisingly little is known about Bach's Cello Suites. It's unclear when Bach composed them and there isn't even a definitive manuscript.
Jian Wang, cello
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750 )
Six Cello Suites
Deutsche Grammophon, 2005

In fact, the popularity of these amazing works is due to the singular coincidence of famous Catalan cellist Pau Casals finding an edition of the suites in a thrift shop.

Casals probably did more than anyone else towards popularizing these works (he made the first complete recording of the cello suites in the mid 1930s), and today the cello suites are seen by many as the greatest works ever composed for a solo instrument.

These suites sound profoundly difficult to play (of course I'm saying this with zero knowledge of how to play a cello), but the music doesn't have the many-layered complexity of what you'd typically expect from a Bach composition. The pieces are simple and elegant, and they are beautiful, inspiring and calming to listen to.

I encourage you to listen carefully to this unique work of music. I promise you it will be time well spent.

If you're interested, below is a link to the famous Casals recordings remastered for CD. I wouldn't bother buying the Jian Wang disc that I have in my collection (listed above). Wang's performance seems capable (at least to this non-cello playing amateur), but his playing is at times muddy, and he makes occasional technical errors that can be distracting upon close listening. If I had it to do over again, I'd buy the Casals performance.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Beethoven: Piano Trios: "Ghost" and "Archduke"

In today's post, we'll take yet another short break from symphonic works, and a return to some more beautiful works of chamber music.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Trio in D major, "Ghost"

Piano Trio in B flat major, "Archduke"
The Geister Trio
Deutsche Grammophon, 1970
Beethoven's symphonies certainly get the bulk of attention from listeners, in part because in many peoples' view, he brought the symphonic composition to a point of utter perfection (although some might say ponderous imperfection). But his chamber music is considered equally as important from an artistic standpoint--and quite frankly, it's quite a bit more relaxing to listen to.

Today's musical selections are piano trios, which consist of a violin, a cello and a piano. Or more accurately stated, a fortepiano, which was the a predecessor to the modern piano, and was the instrument in use in Beethoven's day.

Beethoven was also considered one of the greatest fortepiano players of his era, and in addition to piano trios, he composed a 32 piano sonatas (these are works for solo piano) which were renowned for their technical difficulty. We'll listen to some of these piano sonatas in the coming months.

These trios are so beautiful, austere and elegant, it's almost impossible to believe how quickly Beethoven wrote them: Beethoven composed Ghost in 1808, the same year he composed his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and he composed the Archduke trio in just one month's time, in 1811.