Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphony #1 and Symphony #2

"The works of Rimsky-Korsakov music may be conveniently divided into two groups: the overplayed and the unknown."
--Richard Taruskin, author, The Oxford History of Western Music (6 Volume Set)

After tackling one of Rimsky-Korsakov's most "overplayed" works last week, I have to share the unfortunate truth that his three stunning symphonies tend to fall into the "unknown" category for most people.

This post will discuss R-K' s First and Second Symphonies, and in the near future we'll tackle the second disc of this two-CD set, which includes his Third Symphony as well as two of his best known works: the Russian Easter Festival Overture and Capriccio Espagnol.
Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

3 Symphonies; Capriccio espagnol; Russian Easter Overture
Deutsche Grammophon, 1988

Some interesting trivia on Rimsky-Korsakov:
1) As a member of the Russian navy, he was stationed on a Russian frigate that did tours in the Hudson River and the Chesapeake Bay during the American Civil War.

2) He taught some of Russia's most famous composers, including Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Glazunov and Igor Stravinsky.

3) He had synesthesia, a condition in which the mind cross-wires sensory perceptions. Rimsky-Korsakov apparently saw colors when he heard certain chords. And I thought you had to drop acid to experience this.

Listener notes on the First and Second Symphonies:
1) Does the opening chord of the First Symphony sound at all familiar? Yep, practically identical to the first chord of Scheherazade. Other than that, these two pieces couldn't be more different.

2) If Symphony #1 doesn't grab you at first, give it time and a few more tries. I found that this symphony became more compelling and much more interesting to me after a three or four close listens.

3) Listen for the soft, rising harp arpeggios at the very end of the second movement of Symphony #1. If you have a copy of the Neeme Jarvi/Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra recording, you might cringe. That harp is badly out of tune!

4) Doesn't the opening minute or two of the Second Symphony sound like it could be the soundtrack to a 1940s-era film noir movie?

5) Note that R-K's Symphony #2 has an idee fixe that appears and reappears throughout the four movements, just like Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. In R-K's case the idee fixe represents Antar, the protagonist of his story.

6) Note that both Symphony #1 (at about 26 minutes) and #2 (at about 32 minutes) are relatively brief works, and the individual movements (with one exception) are a reasonably bite-sized five to eight minutes long. Perfect for any of you who might be a bit intimidated by the potential time commitment involved in learning the great classical musical works.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

If you're just starting to learn about classical music and you're interested in acquiring your first few recordings, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade would be a great start to your collection. It's one of the richest, most vibrant symphonic works out there, and is enjoyable and accessible to even the most novice classical music listener.

First, let's start with the backstory:

"The Sultan Shakhriar, persuaded by the falseness and faithlessness of all women, had sworn to put to death each of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by arousing his interest in tales which she told him during a thousand and one nights. Driven by curiosity, the sultan put off his wife's execution from day to day and at last gave up his bloody plan altogether. Scheherazade told many marvelous tales to the Sultan. For her stories, she borrowed from poets their verses, from folk songs their words, and she strung together fairy tales and adventures."
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Solo Violin: Michel Schwalbe
(also includes Borodin's Polowetzer Tänze)
Deutsche Grammophon, 1967

I guarantee you will love this work. The storyline is exotic, the musical themes are memorable and compelling. And it's particularly amazing how Rimsky-Korsakov achieves such a rich, lush sound despite the fact that this work is scored for a normally sized orchestra.

In contrast, Gustav Mahler--roughly a contemporary of Rimsky-Korsakov and another composer known for a rich and lush sound--generally scored his symphonies for much larger-than-typical orchestra, often including six or eight trumpets rather than the typical two, and a woodwind section double the size of what a typical symphony orchestra might carry. (A side note: one of the contributing reasons many professional musicians love Mahler is the opportunity his symphonies provide for extra work...).

So of course Mahler can achieve an exceptionally rich and deep sound--he's basically cheating by stacking the deck! But Rimsky-Korsakov uses a "normal" orchestra, and yet somehow achieves a sound as layered and arresting as the highest high points of any Mahler symphony.

See below for links to excellent recordings of Scheherazade in both MP3 and CD formats. Enjoy! We'll return to Rimsky-Korsakov again shortly, when we'll listen to his symphonic works.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Brahms: Piano Quartets #1 and #3

Today's disk is one of my all-time favorites. I affectionately call it "old man" because of the picture of a somnolent Artur Rubenstein on the cover.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor

Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor

Artur Rubinstein and the Guarneri Quartet
RCA, 1988, originally recorded 1967
I'll confess, it took some getting used to for me to appreciate these chamber music works. First, I'm a trumpet player, and know less than nothing about stringed instruments or the piano. Heck it wasn't until I got this disk that I figured out that a "piano quartet" wasn't four pianos playing together (it's actually a string trio--violin, viola and cello--accompanied by piano). Second, most beginning listeners, when they think of classical music, think of the symphony as its primary form.

But spend 40 minutes listening quietly and closely to Brahms' Piano Quartet #1 and tell me it isn't one of the most beautiful, complex and emotional works of music you've ever heard.

Each movement of these two Piano Quartets has palpable tension that rises and falls throughout the piece. Brahms can create emotion in a small ensemble that rivals any composer using the full arsenal of a symphony.

While undeniably pleasant to listen to, this music is also complicated and challenging. It might take you a few passes to really get your arms around the key melodies and themes in each of these two works. But just remember: one of the great pleasures of listening to great music (of any kind) is that you are rewarded for repeated listens.

Brahms wrote three piano quartets; this disk contain exceptional performances of Quartets #1 and #3. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn't offer my particular recording, so I've linked below to a well-regarded CD (as well as MP3's) of the complete Piano Quartets performed by the Beaux Arts Trio. If you're interested in getting to know these profoundly beautiful works, feel free to click either link to head over to Amazon.

A brief note on MP3 files: Be aware that typically, each MP3 file represents only one movement of a given classical music work. Thus there are four "tracks" to each piano quartet. Clearly, the powers that be didn't have classical music in mind when they developed the MP3 format. However, the link directly below should allow you to purchase the entire album in MP3 format with one click. Below that is a link to Amazon to the same recording in traditional CD format.

I'm also experimenting with a new Amazon widget (over on the right side margin) that will also help you to purchase MP3s of more of the music I discuss on this blog. Please tell me what you think!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Brahms: Symphony #4

I just finished listening to a symphony that has, at a stroke, made this entire blog worth every minute I've spent writing it.

This CD of Brahms 4th Symphony has been sitting on the top shelf of my CD rack, collecting dust, for at least two years. I've never once listened to it until now. And I cannot believe I've let this amazing work lie fallow in my home without even knowing it.

And now I have a new all-time favorite Brahms symphony.
Carlos Kleiber and the Weiner Philharmoniker
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony #4
Deutsche Grammophon, 1981
This symphony is so haunting and beautiful that I had to listen to it a second time immediately after the first.

I find the contrast between Brahms' first two symphonies and his fourth particularly interesting. His first two symphonies seem structured and formal, in the style of Beethoven's symphonies (note that this is not an original thought--most serious classical music commentators would agree with this assertion).

Brahms' Fourth Symphony, however, is music of an entirely different style and era. I'll submit to you one brief example: you could easily convince me that the second movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony was written by Mahler--a composer who to some extent was a contemporary of Brahms, but who wrote much more florid and lyrical music.

Two brief listener notes:

1) Listen to the eight chords played at the very beginning of the fourth movement, and then listen to how the rest of the movement is built around wildly different variations on that theme. This musical form is called a passacaglia.

2) Notice the decidedly un-Beethovenian style ending, yet another clear example of how Brahms made a stylistic break from his symphonic idol. The Fourth symphony resolves itself quickly--it just ends, almost unceremoniously. There's no 25-second series of repeated fifths and octaves like the melodramatic ending of Brahms' First Symphony, or for that matter any of Beethoven's symphonies.

I can't wait to listen to Brahms' Third.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Handel: Water Music

Handel has unfortunately fallen out of favor among classical music fans in the modern era. Beyond the Messiah (his most famous oratorio), Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, his music isn't well-known or widely performed today.
Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert Orchestra
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Water Music

Polydor, 1983
But this composer was treasured during his day in his adopted homeland of England, and his output was massive, encompassing 29 oratorios, 42 operas, more than a hundred cantatas, and countless other works of chamber music.

If I were in "CD buying mode" rather than "listening to the CDs I already own" mode, I'd probably purchase recordings of some of Handel's oratorios, or some of his suites for keyboard and harpsichord. But for now I'll have to settle for a careful listen to today's recording, Water Music, which is Handel's second best-known work after the Messiah.

Some brief listener notes:

1) The exact recording I have listed above (the Trevor Pinnock/English Concert Orchestra recording) is available on Amazon, and it's likely one of the most well known and popular recordings of this work. I recommend it, despite the fact that it's performed on period instruments. I'll write more on the "period instrument controversy" at a later time.

2) We've talked before about how listening to classical music, especially long-form symphonic works, can involve a non-trivial investment in time for anyone with a job and a busy family life. Ironically, Handel's Water Music, with most movements clocking in at anywhere from two to four minutes, fits perfectly with the habits of the modern popular music listener. Perhaps today's work can be a good way for you to break into classical music before you try and tackle longer symphonic works. Trust me, it will be worth it!

3) If you're new to this work, have an extra listen to the third and fifth movements (tracks 3 and 5), as well as track 11. These are the most familiar and recognizable movements in Water Music.

4) In track 7 of the Trevor Pinnock recording (the Bouree), listen closely from about the 0:40 mark when the strings hand the melody over to the woodwinds, which then take over until the strings return at about the 1:20 mark. See if you can hear the clacking of the woodwinds' keys as they play! There are instances throughout the entire CD where you can hear this (see for example from 0:51 in track 8), but this is one of the more pronounced examples. Dumb period instruments.

5) Forgive me for saying this, but whenever I listen to this Water Music, I can't help but think of Weird Al Yankovic spending every weekend at the Renaissance Fair (...with his name on his underwear of course). I hope my saying that doesn't permanently ruin this piece for you.

6) Finally, I have Amazon links below to four highly regarded recordings of Handel's music. If you are considering purchasing CDs or MP3s of his music, I'd recommend any of the links below. As always, when you buy products from Amazon via links on this blog, I receive a small affiliate fee--think of it as my tip jar.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Bach: Violin Concertos

This week I listened to one of our all-time favorite CDs, a recording of three of Bach's most famous violin concertos. It reminded me of my favorite Bach story:

It dates from college. My roomate in those days was a capable piano player, and at college he took organ lessons and became quite a gifted organ player.

Once during his senior year, he was practicing in the University's chapel, pounding away at Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. A young freshman kid walked into the chapel, came up to him, and in a fit of wanting to show how cultured he was, he asked, "is this BWV 565?"

"Yes, it is. But dude, don't call it that. Nobody calls it that." I think he also muttered under his breath, "you dweeb" as the kid slunk away.

And therein lies a lesson (I guess). Don't bother to try to show off--it only makes you sound like a tool.
David and Igor Oistrach, violins
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Violin Concerto in A minor (BWV 1041)
Violin Concerto in E major (BWV 1042)
Violin Concerto in D minor "Double Concerto" (BWV 1043)
Deutsche Grammophon, 1962

Today's disc is a heavy rotation favorite in our home, and we've probably listened to it hundreds of times over the years. A couple of comments:

1) These are some of Bach's most well-known works and they are a privilege to listen to. I was unable to find an exact match of the disc in our collection, but I've found two excellent substitutions that you can consider, with links here and below (once again, if you purchase products at Amazon via links on my site, I will receive a small affiliate fee--think of it as my tip jar):

First is a Deutsche Grammophon disc of BWV 1041, 1042 and 1043 with violinist Hillary Hahn.

Second is a complete collection of Bach Concertos from Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert Orchestra on five CDs. This collection is well-regarded (take a look at the feedback comments), and is available for a surprisingly reasonable price.

2) Another brief comment on how pointless classical music snobbery is: on my disc, there's a bonus concerto of Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Violins, Strings and Harpsichord in A minor. I used to look down my nose at Vivaldi, thinking of him as the kind of composer that silly freshman girls would play while they studied in their dorm rooms (under their posters of Monet's Water Lilies of course). And then, I actually spent some time listening to his works and I found out I was missing out on some truly exceptional music. Once again, not unlike my initial and ridiculous trumpet-centric view on Mozart, I find there's something to appreciate in almost all major classical music composers.

Oh, and of course I grew to like Monet too. Although I haven't bought any posters. Yet.