Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Liszt: Eine Faust Symphonie

Prior to today, I can't remember ever listening to a single work by Liszt in my life. What a spectacular oversight!
Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Faust Symphonie
Deutsche Grammophon, 1977

In his day, Liszt was better known for his piano playing than his composing. His prowess at the keyboard was legendary, and he may have been the greatest pianist who ever lived. Just two quotes from my Essential Canon of Classical Musicwill suffice to illustrate how even the great composers of his era held him in awe:

I should like to steal from him the way to play my own etudes.

I've just witnessed a miracle! I was with Liszt at Erard's [a piano maker], and I showed him the manuscript of my concerto. He played it at sight--it's hardly legible--and with the utmost perfection. It simply can't be played any better than he played it. It was miraculous.
--Felix Mendelssohn

Of course, today, Liszt's reputation is based more on his compositions. Today's CD, a recording of Liszt's A Faust Symphony, is a three movement rendering of the legend of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for youth, success and love on Earth. The first movement represents Faust, the second represents Gretchen (Faust's love interest) and the third, Mephistopheles.

This symphony is musically complex and challenging. It doesn't have the more obvious tonality and musicality of the music I've been listening to lately, mostly works by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Thus it took me a couple of thorough passes through this CD before I really had my arms around the key musical themes. But I felt like I was richly rewarded for my patience.

If you listen to this other works by Liszt and don't "get it" at first, don't be discouraged--in many ways his compositions were a hundred years ahead of their time. Try to listen attentively to the work a few of times over a few days, and see what you think of it after that. He just might grow into one of your favorite composers.

Also, if you're interested in pursuing the music of Franz Liszt further, I've included a list of some of his key works below, as well as links to Amazon to two high-quality box sets of his complete piano works and orchestral works.

Listener Notes for A Faust Symphony:
1) Be prepared to be challenged by this symphony if you are new to classical music. This work has long movements (the first movement alone is longer than two entire Haydn symphonies stacked end to end) and you'll likely find the music somewhat difficult to follow. There are other works that would be much better to start with if you're a classical music novice.

2) Doesn't the tuba entrance at 3:39 in the first movement shake the ground? I love it.

3) You can hear just the slightest mumbling from a transported Leonard Bernstein at 6:08 in the first movement.

4) Listen for the principal trumpet's nervous and unsteady entrance to his solo at 23:46 in the first movement. When I hear high-school caliber playing like this done by a supposed professional, it makes me question my decision to not go pro as a trumpet player. Come on man! This is a solo! You're stating the key theme of the entire symphony, and it's supposed to be beautiful! Sheesh.

5) One comment on the second movement, which is one of the most beautiful musical works I've ever heard. Listen carefully at 7:02 and 7:12. The strings are collectively taking a big breath before they play each phrase! Who do they think they are pretending that they're playing wind instruments?

Actually, I've performed under conductors who have encouraged string players to do this very thing, because it gets them to think like wind instruments with regard to the length and arc of their phrasing. The audible breaths also have the effect of adding an layer of eerie mournfulness to this performance. I like it.

6) The third movement sounds like something Debussy might write (it has some of the auditory techniques we heard in La Mer). The only thing is, Liszt wrote this fifty years earlier--a testament to how he was far ahead of his time. In fact, this entire symphony sounds more like 20th century music than a work completed in 1854.

7) Here's a translation of the German chorus at the end of the third movement:

All things transitory are but parable;
Here insufficiency becomes fulfillment,
Here the indescribable is accomplished;
The ever-womanly draws us heavenward.

8) Notice the full cathedral-style organ playing underneath the orchestra in the last few minutes of the third movement.

Key Recommended Works by Liszt:
These are some of Liszt's most exemplary works. See also the links below for two high quality box sets of Liszt's compositions.

Hungarian Rhapsodies for Piano
Hungarian Rhapsodies for Orchestra
The Transcendental Etudes
Sonata in B Minor for Piano
Preludes for Orchestra
Concerto #1 in E flat Major for Piano and Orchestra

Friday, October 24, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #2

Today's post will cover Beethoven's Second Symphony, the other symphony on my 1985 CD of the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Herbert von Karajan.

Like the First, this symphony is part of Beethoven's "backward looking" period. Most of what we hear in this symphony bears striking resemblance to what you'd hear from Mozart, Haydn or other composers of the Classical era.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Deutsche Grammophon, 1985

And yet, while the structure and many of the melodic and harmonic elements sound "Classical" you can also hear, at times, a level of stress and emotional content unheard of in a typical Classical-era symphony.

Part of the increased emotional content of this symphony was doubtless a function of Beethoven's personal struggles. It was at this time he was beginning to suffer from the deafness that would ultimately rob him completely of his hearing:

"But what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing! Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair; but little more and I would have put an end to my life; only my art held me back. It seemed impossible to leave the world before I created all that I felt myself called upon to accomplish and so I endured this wretched existence."
--Beethoven, ca. 1802 (about the time when he completed his Second Symphony)

As I spend more time repeatedly listening to Beethoven's early symphonies and thinking about them in the context of Beethoven's personal history, I'm finding these works more fascinating than I ever imagined. And they take on even more significance and gravity when you think of these works as precursors to the next seven symphonies Beethoven would write, which include two or perhaps three of the greatest symphonies in the entire history of classical music.

One brief point of order before we get to the listener notes. Let me clear up what might be a source of terminological confusion for classical music newbies: the term "Classical" with a capital C refers specifically to the Classical era of classical music (usually considered the period from the early 1700s to the early 1800s). When I use the term "classical" with a lower case C, I'm referring more broadly to classical music of all eras. Hopefully that clears things up a bit!

Listener Notes for Beethoven's Second Symphony:
1) The opening chord is quite a contrast from the First Symphony, isn't it?

2) I particularly like how the meter changes from eighth notes to triplets early in the first movement (occurs at about 1:27 in track 5 on this CD).

3) Listen at the 2:52 mark in the first movement: That's when the "Mozartian" portion of this symphony begins, and it lasts essentially until the end of the movement. It almost makes you want to say "Too many notes!"

4) If you have good set of headphones, turn up the volume from 5:08 to 5:16 in the first movement (during the brief flute solo). You can hear the musicians frantically turning the pages of their music.

5) Am I the only person who thinks of the opening notes from Home, Home on the Range when I hear the key theme of the second movement? I'm probably going to go straight to classical music hell for saying that. I don't mean to make fun.

6) I struggle for a word to describe the third movement because it's just not a word you'd use to describe Beethoven's music. But for better or worse, that word is "fun." This brief, four minute long movement is genuinely fun music.

7) Have you ever heard Beethoven give a bassoonist the kind of action he doles out in the fourth movement? I wonder if bassoon players out there enjoy playing this work.

8) At 2:58 in the fourth movement (track 8) you can hear more frantic page turning, and at 3:30-3:33 you can hear the french horn miss an entrance. And for the next 20 to 30 seconds the entire woodwind section loses its footing. The clarinet comes in slightly off-key, the bassoon flubs an entrance and then the oboe flubs an entrance. Only the flutes hang tough here. But everyone quickly gets back on their feet to finish off the movement.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #1

Today we will cover Beethoven's First Symphony, from a 1985 CD of the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Herbert von Karajan.

I can see why music critics and historians consider Beethoven's First Symphony to be backward looking. There are times when you can hear Beethoven's stormy temper lurking in the First, but otherwise this symphony work sounds stylistically and structurally quite a bit like the music of Haydn or Mozart, key composers of the Classical era.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Deutsche Grammophon, 1985

Most music historians group Beethoven with Classical-era composers. But he wasn't really of the Classical era, nor was he truly of the Romantic era. He straddled both.

His work evolved from Classical in style into forerunner works of the Romantic era (the Third Symphony is arguably a proto-Romantic work), and then evolved into true Romantic works (the Fifth and the symphonies that followed). And of course his later works (e.g., the Late String Quartets) went far beyond the Romantic era, which were a hundred years ahead of their time in their experimention with atonality.

Listener Notes for Beethoven's First Symphony:
1) The gentle soft opening chords of this symphony is a shocking contrast to the familiar "dut-dut-dut dahhhhh" sledgehammer opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, isn't it?

2) The rapid eighth notes that begin at about 1:58 in the first movement sound like they could be the backdrop of any of Mozart's symphonies. But then Beethoven throws a wrench into our perceptions at the 5:52 mark of this movement, and he shows how this symphony differs from Classical era works. Mozart or Haydn would probably be about ready to wrap up the first movement at this point. But Beethoven? No way. He's just getting going. He modulates the key up a step, goes on to compose and extended bridge, and then returns to the main theme at the 7:20 mark.

3) Crappy trumpet part alert: After playing a few chords in the second minute of the first movement, and some desultory chords here and there (but mostly counting rests), the trumpets finally get to come in for real for a few arpeggios at the very end. Bor-ing! Not the kind of of symphony I would have liked to play as a teenage kid, that's for sure.

4) The entire second movement sounds exactly like something Haydn might write, particularly considering its brevity.

5) The fourth movement opens up with a really neat feature: the strings softly hint at the main theme, playing portions of an ascending scale, adding notes to them each time, and then letting loose with the main theme. What an interesting way to gently build tension! And Beethoven uses this effect a few more times in the movement to build tension elsewhere. Really creative.

6) Note at 5:38 in the fourth movement (right near the end), when the trumpets play a unison high note with the violins. Can you hear how the trumpets are quite a bit flat, and out of tune with the violins? It's always a bit annoying to hear a bad intonation mistake at the climax of a symphony--it kind of kills the moment.

In our next post, we'll cover the other work on this CD, Beethoven's Second Symphony.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Haydn: Symphony #40, #50

Today we will cover listener notes to Haydn's Symphony #40 and Symphony #50, the final two works on this exceptional CD of four Haydn symphonies.

Haydn was a giant of the classical era of classical music, and if you're interested in getting a representative sample of his music, you should seriously consider buying today's recording, as well as a recording of either his "London" Symphonies, or his "Paris" Symphonies.

Let me just repeat for emphasis from last post that the four symphonies on this CD are performed brilliantly, and nearly flawlessly, by the Heidelberger Sinfoniker.
Thomas Fey and the Heidelberger Sinfoniker
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 39, 34, 40, 50
Hanssler Classic, 2001/2003

Listener Notes for Haydn's Symphony Nos. #40 and #50:

Symphony #40:

1) 30 seconds into the first movement of #40 (and it happens again at 1:38 when the initial theme is repeated) there's a an interesting musical feature Haydn puts in here: while the oboe and the first violins are playing long high notes, the second violins and violas play a repeated pattern of three eighth notes beneath them. It sounds almost like a needle skipping on a record--except that's impossible with a CD. That's another thing I love about Haydn: music in his era was supposed to be highly structured, and on casual listen, Haydn's music sounds like it plays by the rules. Yet if you listen closely, you can't help but notice all the little subversive musical things he sneaks into his works.

2) Do the four movements of Symphony #40 sound like they belong together? They don't to me at all, particularly the second movement. In fact, I'd argue you could substitute the slow movement from any other Haydn symphony in here and only a few classical music geeks would ever know the difference.

3) The fourth movement is a fugue! That's a first for me: I've never heard Haydn trying his hand at composing a fugue before. It's beautiful. And just like Bach, only happier.

Symphony #50:
1) For the first movement of this symphony, Haydn recycled music he had written for a one act opera called Philemon und Baucis. I can see why he did it: not only was it a great way to save time (how else was he going to write 104 symphonies?), but this movement is excellent--a truly triumphant piece of music.

2) Triumphant or not, though, the strings and woodwinds get all the good parts here. The brass are stuck counting rests and playing oom-pah parts.

3) The second movement has an interesting feature: the violas play the same melody along with the violins, except the violas play it one octave lower. It gives the string section an added dimension of depth and body.

4) Tell me you can listen to the fourth movement of this symphony and not get an ear-to-ear grin on your face. This movement was so captivating on the first listen that I had to listen to it again right away. And it's one of the key reasons this symphony is my runaway favorite of the four works on this CD.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Haydn: Symphony #39, #34

I've mentioned before how I had never really appreciated Haydn before starting this blog. I had always thought of his music as rigid, highly structured and filled with more ornamentation than emotion.
Thomas Fey and the Heidelberger Sinfoniker
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 39, 34, 40, 50
Hanssler Classic, 2001/2003

This batch of four Haydn symphonies puts the lie to those assumptions just like all my other Haydn CDs. Haydn did amazing, facetious, challenging and even shocking things with the symphony. He was every bit the flexible risk taker that Mozart was, despite that era's relatively strict sense what the structure and format of a symphony should be.

And this CD of the Heidelberger Sinfoniker, under the direction of Thomas Fey, is an exceptional performance across the board. There is hardly a mistake or off-key note in the entire CD, a particularly significant achievement as this recording was done with period instruments. For pathological listeners like me, it's a treat simply to enjoy the music rather than be distracted by playing errors.

But let me share one complaint: Why would you record Haydn's 39th, 34th, 40th and 50th symphonies not only out of sequence, but also out of order? Not only does this make categorizing your music more difficult, it makes it nearly impossible to be systematic about acquiring Haydn symphonies.

We saw this phenomenon with my Haydn London Symphony CDs, which contained a total of six of the composer's 12 London symphonies. Don't get me wrong, it was a (mostly) exceptional recording, and listening to and writing about these symphonies was a great joy.

But guess how these symphonies were sequenced on the CD? #94, #100, #101, #96, #103, #104. How is this logical?

Let's say I wanted to have a complete collection of all twelve of Haydn's London Symphonies. If all I could find were randomly (or idiosyncratically) sequenced partial collections, I'd most likely end up having to buy half a dozen separate recordings to approach a complete collection. Worse, this hypothetical six CD mini-collection would probably have six versions of the "Drum Roll" Symphony and no versions of Symphony #102.

If anyone can articulate a legitimate artistic reason for recording symphonies both out of sequence and out of order, please share it with me. I'd love to hear it.

And until I hear a real reason, I'll just assume that this is just a scheme to force consumers to buy extra music. It certainly must help drive sales of boxed sets.

Listener Notes for Haydn's Symphony Nos. #39, #34, #40 and #50:
Indulge me while I rearrange these symphonies into an order that doesn't hurt my eyes so much:

Symphony #34:
1) The long (at least for Haydn) opening movement of the 34th Symphony is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard by the man.

2) Haydn's music is often a study of contrasts, and the 34th Symphony is no exception. After being lulled by the first movement, he makes you jump out of your seat with the Allegro of second movement. Better still is how Haydn flaunts symphonic convention. After all, the first movement is supposed to be aggressive and fast, and second movement is supposed to be slow and quiet. Not the other way around.

3) I particularly love the grace-note-inflected triplets played by the strings in the beginning of the fourth movement of #34.

4) Yet another symphony that's over too soon. After the beautiful nine-minute first movement and the speedy five-minute second movement, the next two movements are barely six minutes long together. All of a sudden this symphony is over before it starts, and we're off to yet another wonderful (and arbitrarily sequenced) symphony!

Symphony #39:
1) I know I recently called Haydn's symphonies the auditory equivalent of an amuse-bouche (although I never meant this statement to sound so condescending). But after being overwhelmed by Beethoven the other day, the contrast between Beethoven's gravitas and Haydn's light-hearted fun seems extreme. Perhaps I should listen to my own advice and avoid listening to classical music composers out of order.

2) Haydn puts a catchy and amusing "hook" at the very beginning of Symphony #39. It's an introduction of the theme of the first movement, but at the same time it's a bit of a headfake. We hear 8 measures of introduction, a fade into a few uncomfortable seconds of silence, and then the symphony starts for real.

3) The tension of the opening few moments of the fourth movement of #39 is real shock. Maybe this symphony isn't quite such an amuse-bouche after all...

I'll be back in a few days with listener notes to the two remaining symphonies on this CD, Symphony #40 and Symphony #50!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Classical Music of Disney's Fantasia

This blog's core purpose isn't really to address classical music in film, but I just spent the other day watching the full-length version of Fantasia, and I wanted to share on this blog how this movie can provide you and your family a fascinating way to experience classical music.

The animation work in this 1940 film was revolutionary for its day, and of course it contains The Sorcerer's Apprentice, one of the best-known and most memorable animated film shorts of all time.

And the rest of Fantasia is equally memorable. One of the film shorts is an animation of the geological and evolutionary history of Earth set to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, with underwater scenes of the first ocean life, scenes of fish evolving into amphibians, the birth and dying off of the dinosaurs, and a memorable (but paleontologically improbable) battle between a T-Rex and a triceratops. If you introduce your sons or daughters to this film at an age when they're showing interest in dinosaurs, you'll get them interested in classical music too.

And who could forget the unicorns, pegasuses and centaurs (including some rather fetching looking centaurettes) prancing and gamboling to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony?

This film features some of the most amazing hand-drawn animation of all time, some of it kitschy, some of it outright funny, all of it beautiful. Enjoy this movie it with your family and see if it doesn't put classical music in a whole new light for you!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music

Just a quick link to share with readers today. This one stings a bit (a century beyond its relevance??), but it's still funny and oh, so true:

Stuff White People Like: Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music

Friday, October 3, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #3 and Leonore #3

The most commonly told anecdote about Beethoven's Third Symphony is the story of its dedication. After completing the symphony in 1803, Beethoven initially dedicated it to Napoleon as a representative of the freedoms and ideals of the French Revolution.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Symphony #3; Leonore Overture III
Deutsche Grammophon, 1966/1977
And then, of course, Napoleon crowned himself emporer.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say Beethoven literally wigged out when he heard the news. He flew into a rage and tore up the title page of the symphony manuscript. And as told by his longtime friend and assistant Ferdinand Ries in the book Beethoven Remembered, Beethoven shouted:

"So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will trample the rights of man, indulge only his ambition. Now he will think himself superior to all men and become a tyrant!"

And yet this symphony's historical significance goes far beyond a mere anecdote about Napoleon. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the Beethoven's Third established the modern conception of the symphony.

Certainly this work represents a break from the "Classical era" of classical music, the period from the early 1700s to the early 1800s which featured more modest, though no less beautiful, symphonies by brilliant composers such as Mozart and Haydn. However, in the expansive emotional range of Beethoven's Third, we begin to see the first stirrings of classical music's Romantic era. The symphony was leaving the 18th century--and it would rarely look back.

In fact, of all of the music written in the prior century, perhaps only supra-symphonic works like Mozart's Requiem or Handel's or Haydn's oratorios cover as much emotional ground as Beethoven's Third Symphony. In some ways, the Third has such broad scale and scope that it makes even the most beautiful Haydn symphony seem like a trifling amuse-bouche by comparison. But the Third also stumbles at times (as we'll see below), as Beethoven hadn't quite yet found the voice that would ultimately give the world his greatest work, the Fifth Symphony.

Listener Notes for Beethoven's Third Symphony:
1) The first movement is almost too much to take. There's such power and triumph in just the first few minutes that it overloads the senses. Just the other week, I wrote that the first movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony felt like an entire symphony. Same here.

2) And yet the second movement feels like another full symphony! Indeed, composers like Haydn wrote entire symphonies that were shorter than just this one movement.

3) Shrill clarinet alert: listen at 8:05 in the second movement for the clarinets bleating out a nasal-sounding unison part.

4) I particularly like the fugue-like section near the end of the second movement (runs from about 13:55 to 14:30 in my recording), where the strings and woodwinds answer to each other.

5) The french horns really blow it during their key part in the third movement (begins at about the 2:48 mark). Not only are they off-key, but they fail to play the part in tight unison and they play the part weakly.

6) While I'm on the subject of the brass, let me make a general comment on the caliber of the overall brass section in the Berliner Philharmoniker. Frankly, I'm not impressed. No power, poor intonation and no spirit. The trumpets in particular have a tendency to veer out of control at key, high-volume parts throughout the performance. I should have bought a recording of Beethoven's Third Symphony as performed by my idols from the Chicago Symphony.

7) Listen to the extremely technically demanding flute solo at 3:37 in the fourth movement. Our flutist nails it here.

8) There is at least one instance in this recording where the french horns really nail a big part: at 7:55 in the fourth movement, when the horns state the key theme.

9) Honestly, I was disappointed with the structure of the fourth movement, and in particular by the sudden and surprise finale, which starts off with a sudden loud chord at 10:46 and races off to an equally sudden finish less than two minutes later. It seems like every critic and commentator is quick to celebrate the inexorable logic inherent in the structure of Beethoven's symphonies, including the Third. To me, however, this conclusion sounded (dare I say it?) abrupt and almost random.

Listener Notes for Leonore #3:
1) Nobody really thinks of Beethoven as a composer of operas. In fact, he struggled mightily to write just one, Fidelio. The opera premiered in 1805, but afterward Beethoven heavily revised it three more times. This work, Leonore #3, is the best known version of the overture to this opera. And despite being named #3, it was part of the second version of the opera, performed in 1806.

2) Isn't the main theme, when it gets introduced by the full orchestra at 4:18, absolutely inspiring?

3) I've played the off-stage trumpet call back in my playing days (on this disc it begins at 7:51 in track 5). It's more difficult than it sounds. It's one of those parts that is quite easy to play in a small practice room, but it's another thing entirely to play it off-stage in a concert hall with an appropriately big but controlled sound.

4) At 9:39, can you hear the bassoonist bungle that run in the duet with the flute player? Whoops.