Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Debussy: Preludes for Piano, Disc 1

It's cheating to use the word impressionist when describing Debussy's music, and yet it's a simple fact that Debussy's piano compositions sound just as impressionistic as his orchestral compositions. Today's Preludes are stunning and vivid--they have splashes of wild color, strange chords, strange melodies and weirdly unorthodox techniques.

This guy is a true rule-breaker, no matter what instrument he works with.
Krystian Zimerman, piano

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Claude Debussy: Préludes

Deutsche Grammophon, 1994 [2 CDs]

Until today, I had only experienced Debussy's La Mer and Images, both of which are orchestral works which are at times is so vivid that you can literally almost see the music (the first movement of La Mer is an excellent example of this).

The Preludes for piano are equally vivid, but I'd argue that at times Debussy's special effects and musical gadgets interfere with the music itself. I'll cite some examples in the listener notes.

One final word: don't buy this 2-CD recording expecting to hear Schumann- or Chopin-style piano music. Be ready for something wildly different.

Listener Notes for Debussy's Preludes (Disc 1):
1) Prelude 1, Danseuses de Delphes: At the 1:44 and 1:48 marks, you'll hear dissonant chords that sound almost like mistakes (they're not). Man, this ain't Chopin. This music is much more challenging. Also, notice in this track how pianist Krystian Zimerman breathes so loudly that you can clearly hear it over the music. He's no doubt lost himself in his passion for the music.

2) Prelude 2, Voiles: One word. Creeeeeeepy.

3) Prelude 3, Le vent dans la plaine, is a particularly impressionist(ic?) sounding work.

4) Prelude 5, Les collines d'Anacapri: Here's an excellent example of Debussy using musical gadgets and special effects to excess. All of the excited zings!, swoops! and pings! sound interesting, but they aren't music.

5) Likewise, Prelude 7, Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest, is another effect-laden piece that quite frankly doesn't sound musical at all. It's full of banging chords and too much use of both extreme ends of the keyboard. Rumble-rumble, ping! ping!

6) But then Prelude 8, La fille aux cheveux de lin, shows how Debussy, when he doesn't try to overstuff his compositions with special effects, can write stunningly beautiful music.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Schumann: Second Symphony

I stood by the body of my passionately loved husband, and was calm. All my feelings were absorbed in thankfulness to God that he was at last set free, and as I kneeled by his bed I was filled with awe. It was as if his holy spirit was hovering over me--Ah! If only he had taken me with him.
--Clara Schumann, after the death of her husband Robert Schumann

We return to George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra's exceptional recording of Schumann's Four Symphonies to hear his Symphony #2.
George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Schumann: Symphonies 1-4; Manfred Overture

CBS, 1958/Sony, 1996

When I sat down to listen to Schumann's Second Symphony, I assumed it would sound as Mozart-like as his First Symphony. I couldn't have been more wrong: these two symphonies sound strikingly different.

Listener Notes for Schumann's Symphony #2:
1) You can tell right away that this symphony is far more Romantic in style. If Schumann wrote his First Symphony in a style following Mozart, he wrote his Second following Beethoven.

2) Excellent examples of classic Romantic style: the passage beginning at 1:58 in the first movement; also the passage at 2:46 in the first movement.

3) The closing major chords of the first movement could be cribbed right out of a Beethoven symphony!

4) At 1:36 in the second movement, there's a tempo change that the Cleveland Orchestra doesn't get quite right.

5) The second movement is one of the more unusual scherzos I've ever heard. Quite frankly, it's odd enough that the second movement is a scherzo in the first place. And good lord, you sure wouldn't be able to dance to it. But wow, does it ever have an exciting ending!

6) The third movement is widely considered one of the most beautiful orchestral works Schumann ever wrote. I can't say I disagree. And nice to hear a beautifully played, in-tune clarinet solo at 2:59-3:10 (it repeats at 7:40).

7) I found the fourth movement to be somewhat of an anticlimax. It felt like the first movement had a much more rousing (and conclusive) ending.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Shostakovich: First Symphony

I can't help it. I just don't like Shostakovich.

This is the second time I've tried my hand at a Shosty symphony, after listening to and heartily disliking his Eleventh Symphony.

Unfortunately, I felt no emotional connection to his First Symphony either. The music seems random and arbitrary to me--and to be honest, I even caught myself rolling my eyes at a few of Shosty's musical devices. And as I'll show in the listener notes, it's more film score music than symphony.
Leonard Bernstein and the Chicago Symphony
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 7
Deutsche Grammophone, 1989

Lucky me: I've still got three more of his symphonies left to listen to: his Second, Seventh and Twelfth.

A little historical background before we get to the listener notes: Shostakovich wrote his First Symphony in 1925 at the shockingly young age of 18. It was his graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory.

Audiences loved it. In the words of my Essential Canon of Classical Music, the First Symphony "was an unexpected triumph, and overnight Shostakovich became a hero of Soviet music, lauded as the first illustrious child of the [1917 Russian] Revolution."

Eventually, the Soviets would come to their senses and decide classical music was a petty bourgeois pretension, and the Soviet regime turned on Shostakovich in the 1930s. The composer drifted in and out of favor with his government over the remainder of his life.

Listener notes for Shostakovich's First Symphony:
1) Right from the opening moments of this work, I have misgivings about this symphony and the fact that it sounds like incidental music for a film. As we've seen before, this is a common criticism of Shostakovich's symphonies.

2) Regarding the arbitrariness of this music: the first movement features passages of strangely loud and then strangely soft music that seem to follow each other for shock value rather than any structural or musical reason. It all seems directionless and emotionless.

3) "Buh, buh-buh-buh buhhhh, budup, budup, buh-dahhhhh." I suppose that's the primary melody of the first movement? Yeesh.

4) Cinematic music alert in the second movement: at the 0:58 mark in the second movement, there's a flute duet with a a snare drum, triangle and strings playing in the background. This passage could easily be background music for an episode of the original Star Trek. In fact, I'm thinking specifically of this episode, and the scene when Kirk gets zapped after he falls into the obelisk (view from 4:50-5:07).

5) Interesting to hear the piano appear out of nowhere to play a solo part at the 3:07 mark in the second movement. Unfortunately, that part later devolves into really cheesy movie music from 3:58 until the end of the movement.

6) There is an admittedly fun trumpet part at 3:35 in the second movement. I'll give Shosty credit for that.

7) There's yet another passage in the fourth movement (it runs from the 2:00 minute mark to about the 2:48 mark) that is in my view a perfect example of Shostakovich's movie music. Listen to it and tell me why you don't agree.

8) And finally, as if to prove my case, there's a classic cinematic flourish at 6:30 in the fourth movement: a melodramatic sfrorzando from the entire orchestra, followed by.... solo tympani! If that isn't self-caricaturing music, I don't know what is. Consider me a petty bourgeois listener, but I'm just not sure what the Soviet regime saw in this symphony.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Piano Music of Robert Schumann: Klavierwerke: Sonata #2 for Piano, Night Visions, Three Romances and Forest Scenes

Today, at long last, I'll finally cover the fourth and final disc of my four-CD recording of Schumann's piano works performed by Wilhelm Kempff. Here are discs 1, 2 and 3 if you missed them.

I've really missed Schumie and his incomparable solo piano compositions. And what's amazing to me about these works is how complex they are. It's actually easier for me to follow a symphony--with all its dozens of different instruments--than it is for me to follow a single pianist performing one of Schumann's works.

Despite repeated listens to each of the CDs in this four disc collection, I feel like I've only scratched at the surface of this music.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Performed by Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991)
Schumann: Piano Works
Deutsche Grammophone, 1975

Before we get into the listener notes, let me say without reservation that I highly, highly recommend this exceptional recording to anyone interested in classical piano music.

Listener notes for Schumann's Sonata for Piano #2 in G minor:
1) Once again, it's amazing how many voices can sing out from just ten fingers and one piano. Fortunately, this extremely complex music doesn't have the uniform, machine-made sound of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

Listener notes for Nachtstucke (Night Visions):
2) I can't help but imagine ghouls or zombies traipsing to and fro when I listen to the first movement of Night Visions (Track 5, Disc 4).

3) In the second movement (Track 6), I can see happy little sprites traipsing all over the place. And then in the third movement (Track 7), it sounds like the ghouls, spirits and sprites are all holding hands and doing some sort of frolicsome dance together in a field in some kind of a creepy dreamworld. Or something.

4) The fourth movement is so sad and mournful, and such a contrast to the first three movements that it hardly seems to belong.

Listener notes for Drei Romanzen (Three Romances):
5) Interesting use of dissonant chords in many parts of the main theme of the first movement (Track 9). You can hear them right away in first minute, and they are repeated in the final minute.

6) I wonder what love state Schumann had in mind for each of these movements. Perhaps the first movement with all the dissonance was a lover's quarrel, and the second movement (Track 10) is the mournful separation, and the third and final movement (Track 11) is the playful reunion of the lovers?

Listener notes for Waldszenen (Forest Scenes):
7) The first of the Forest Scenes, Entritt ("entry" in English, Track 12) is possibly the most beautiful and elegant piece of music I've ever heard in my entire life.

8) At the 0:17 mark of Track 14 (Einsame Blumen/Lonely Flowers) it sounds like Kempff makes a bad mistake. However, the same note pattern recurs at 1:01, so unless he deliberately made the mistake twice, Schumann probably wrote it that way. For a piece about flowers, it's a bit jarring.

9) I'm wondering what Schumann meant, exactly, by naming the fourth Forest Scene "Place of Evil Fame" (Verrufene Stelle).

10) Finally, Wilhelm Kempff's playing is extremely clean throughout this disc. I didn't hear a single error or missed note--in contrast to the (admittedly few) stray mistakes on disc 1.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Schumann: First Symphony

To be sure, a Schumann score is not as foolproof, as "self-rising," as a score of Wagner or Tchaikovsky or Richard Strauss, nor has the musical substance of a Schumann symphony the kind of inexorable propulsion of some Beethoven symphonies, which will survive even a shabby performance relatively unharmed. But is it really Schumann's fault that it takes a little trouble on the part of the conductor and orchestra to make his symphonies come off?
--George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, 1946-1970

Schumann didn't just write music for the piano, obviously. But there is a bit of a debate as to the importance of his four symphonies.
George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Schumann: Symphonies 1-4; Manfred Overture

CBS, 1958/Sony, 1996

Fortunately, George Szell worshipped Schumann's four symphonies, and he conducted and recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra what is widely considered to be one of the best recordings ever of Schumann's First Symphony.Today's post is dedicated to that recording, which I highly, highly recommend.

A few introductory words about the Cleveland Orchestra: While Cleveland might be better known these days for its appallingly bad pro football team, this underappreciated city actually has a world-class orchestra. And Clevelanders have George Szell to thank for this--under Szell's direction (some might say dictatorial control), Cleveland transformed from a competent regional symphony into one of the world's finest orchestras.

Listener notes for Schumann's First Symphony:
1) It's almost shocking to go back to a "traditional-sounding" classical music symphony immediately after experiencing the overwhelming power and weight of Mahler's Third. Only some 55 years separate the compositions, but they sound centuries apart, don't they? I will say it's more relaxing to listen to a symphony when you don't have to keep a fearful grip on the volume dial.

2) I can see how this symphony could sound like a Mozart knockoff to a first-time listener (this is one of the criticisms leveled at Schumann's symphonies), but give it a chance and a few extra listens. To paraphrase Woody Allen, it's more complex and original than it sounds.

3) At 5:17 in the second movement (Track 2) what should be a beautiful passage played by the trombones gets mangled by poor intonation. Note that according to this CD's liner notes, this recording took place over two days--I'm surprised they didn't notice and re-record that passage. Cleveland is a better symphony than that.

4) A few comments about the particularly enjoyable third movement (the Scherzo): The main theme/motif of the third movement is quite interesting, especially when Schumann morphs it though major and minor keys. That creates quite a bit of tension and release.

5) Further, there are also several quite interesting meter changes in the third movement. At 1:19 in Track 3, the third movement shifts from 3/4 meter (that's the typical meter for a scherzo movement) into an unexpectedly lively 2/4 meter. At 2:42, it switches back to the original theme and meter. Then, at 3:21, we switch yet another meter, before returning back to the original theme once again at 4:24. Finally, there's a soft coda at very end of the movement, during which Szell takes all sorts of liberties with the tempo. This is one of the more interesting Scherzo movements I've ever heard.

6) The opening to the fourth movement sounds almost like a major scale! Admittedly, this movement sounds quite Mozart-like--at first. But listen at the 4:14 mark, when an entirely different theme with a very un-Mozart like tension begins.

7) Readers who are familiar with my writing on the Philadelphia Orchestra will know that it's a sadly rare pleasure for me to listen to clarinet solos that are played completely in tune.

8) Finally, getting back to the criticism that this symphony sounds like a Mozart knockoff, the very last minute of the fourth movement sounds, unfortunately, exactly like something Mozart would write. I'll be quite curious to see if Schumann's other symphonies (I'll be writing posts on all four) share this trait at all.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mahler: Third Symphony

But I have surely written you that I am at work on a large composition. You cannot believe how this claims one's entire being, and how one is often so deep in it that for the outer world one is as if dead. Try to conceive a work so vast that in it the entire world is mirrored--one is, so to speak, only an instrument on which the whole universe plays. (I have explained this to you often, and you must accept it, if you really wish to understand me. Everyone who wishes to live with me must learn this. In such moments I no longer belong to myself.) ...These are fearful birth pains the creator of such a work suffers, and before all this organizes itself, builds itself up, and ferments in his brain, it must be preceded by much preoccupation, engrossment with self, a being dead to the outer world. My symphony will be something the world has not as yet heard!
--Gustav Mahler, in a letter to his lover Anna von Mildenburg, describing the gestation of his Third Symphony--and responding to her complaints that he was not writing to her often enough (quote thanks to The Essential Canon of Classical Music and Composers On Music: Eight Centuries of Writings).

I've been looking forward to listening to this monster of a symphony for a long time, but in a way I had to get up the courage to do so:

* It takes up 2 CDs.
* It has six movements (initially, Mahler considered a seventh).
* It lasts more than 90 minutes.
* And the first movement alone is a symphony in itself, at more than 33 minutes.

I can't imagine the courage it must have taken to write it.
Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Mahler: Symphony No. 3

Deutsche Grammophon, 1999

There is a fine line, however, between earth-shattering drama and melodrama, and in this symphony Mahler repeatedly stomps over that line--especially in the first movement.

And that flair for melodrama apparently infected the producers of this recording too: the final track on this CD (Track 19) is entitled "Applause"--and it is three minutes and twenty seconds long. Yes, you heard that right. There's a more than three-minute-long track, deliberately placed at the end of this symphony, that contains applause. Clapping.

And yet I love this symphony like very few in my collection. That's how it is with Mahler--you have to embrace the melodrama. What a fool I've been to let this CD sit on my shelf, collecting dust, for so long!

Listener Notes for Mahler's Third Symphony:
1) The Berlin Philharmonic must have some monster French horn players. They really let it rip in the opening passage.

2) An occupational hazard of a live recording: somebody on stage accidentally drops something during the pianissimo section at 0:42 in Track 1. I'm sure we'll hear a more than typical number of mistakes, as well as--shudder--coughs, from the audience.

3) There's a big trumpet mistake late in the first movement (at 1:39 in Track 8 on CD 1). In his "buh buh buh buhhhhhh!" part, he really whiffs the last note.

4) This first movement is truly a symphony within a symphony. At 32 minutes, it's materially longer than Beethoven's entire Fifth Symphony. Heck, Haydn could fit three or four "symphonies" into 32 minutes! But it does beg a question: How many times, for example, should you incorporate major musical climaxes, um, in your first movement? And after three, four, or even five major climaxes, what could possibly be left to say for the remaining hour of the symphony? After I finished the first movement, I couldn't believe that I had only heard one-third of this work.

5) Whoo. Onto the second movement--only 64 minutes to go! This is not a symphony for the attention-span-challenged.

6) The second movement is so quaint and beautiful, and so radically different in tone and style from the first movement, that it seems preposterous that the same composer could have written both.

7) The third movement has to be the kookiest Scherzo movement I've ever heard. It sounds like something out of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

8) A piece of trivia regarding the off-stage trumpet in the third movement (begins at 0:12 in Track 7 of Disc 2): That's actually not a trumpet, or at least it's not supposed to be. It's a flugelhorn, a brass instrument very similar to a trumpet but slightly larger and more mellow-sounding. At the beginning of Track 9, you'll hear a trumpet come in with a gentle call which is immediately answered by the off-stage flugelhorn--those two passages give you a good sense of the difference in sound between the two instruments.

9) I'm very pleased with the cough-related behavior of this audience. I noticed just a few barely-audible stray coughs during the third movement, another couple in the fourth movement, and that was about all. Further proof that the Europeans behave better than Americans in the symphony hall.

10) Lots of elements of the fourth movement are downright ghoulish. The vocal soloist singing in an unusually low register (the singer, Anna Larson, is a contralto, which is the lowest of female singing registers--if she were a man she could sing a mean tenor part), the really low notes from the bass viols, the odd glissandos (first the oboe, then the saxophone), the lyrics (drawn from Nietsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra), and then a children's choir entering with cheery major chords--that then warp into creepy-sounding minor keys. This movement is almost too much to take.

11) I think if you want to understand why musicians and audiences worldwide have deep affection for Mahler, listen to the fourth and fifth movements of this symphony. It's hard to believe that this much emotion and tension can take place in music.

12) Holy cow on the ripping brass parts in the final movement, especially towards the end of Track 16, and at the very end in Track 18. No brass player on earth would feel anything but love for this symphony.

13) And I have to eat my words from earlier in this post when I picked on the "Applause" track. It belongs there. It totally does. I understand now.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

The older we get, the more we lose that divine self-confidence which is the treasure of youth, the fewer are those moments when we believe that what we have done is good.
--Sergei Rachmaninoff, in an interview, at age 56.

The Symphonic Dances was the last work Rachmaninoff ever composed. He completed it some four years after his Third Symphony, during a period in his life when "he had become increasingly dissatisfied with himself as a composer and even as a pianist."

Yet more compelling evidence that the profession of classical music brings misery to the vast majority of those who enter it. The more I learn about the lives of major classical music composers and musicians, the more I'm relieved that, at age 17, I gave up any serious idea of becoming a professional trumpet player. I can only think how miserable and self-critical I'd be now at age 40.
Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor
Symphonic Dances

Deutsche Grammophon, 1998

Listener Notes for Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances:
1) Strange, and disappointing, to hear idiosyncratic instrumentation again--a classic symptom of dreaded film score music disease. Examples abound in the early minutes of the first movement: low-register piano notes, percussion used for effect, warbling saxophones solos, harp/piano duets, chimes, piano/flute unison parts, gongs, etc.

2) According to the liner notes with this CD, Rachmaninoff had never used a saxophone in a composition before (thus making my guess last week of the instruments used in the first moments of his Third Symphony incorrect, apparently), but he was influenced by Alexander Glazunov's Saxophone Concerto. Yep, despite the catastrophe that happened when Glazunov drunkenly conducted Rachmaninoff's First Symphony, these two men somehow managed to remain friends.

3) At 6:22 in the first movement there's a stunningly beautiful passage played by strings and piano. It lasts until about 8:40, and then, unfortunately, the film score music comes back.

4) The second movement has to be one of the weirdest, most macabre waltzes I've ever heard.

5) And then it's back to directionless film score music for the third and final movement.

6) I know I'm being a bit harsh on my boy Rachy here. But it's okay to not like a given classical music composer. You can't love everybody. Give everyone a fair listen or two and feel free to decide who you like best and least. You'll have better context, then, for where to invest your time and attention. And once you have enough context know which of the major composers or works you like or don't like, you'll never have to worry about buying the wrong classical music CD, or paying up for symphony tickets that you won't enjoy. You'll know in advance to bias your time towards composers you really like, or composers you don't yet know.

7) And while this CD is admittedly not a favorite of my collection, it is cleanly played. Thus if you're a fan of Rachmaninoff's symphonic works, this is a good CD to buy.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rachmaninoff: Symphony #3

Thanks to a drunk conductor and some harsh criticism, Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony came very close to never being written.

In 1897, at the young age of just 23, Sergei Rachmaninoff's career as a composer nearly ended before it began with the premiere of his First Symphony. He had already built a reputation for himself as a master pianist, and he had already composed an opera as well as a few other significant works. But the premiere of his First Symphony, which was poorly performed, badly conducted (by an allegedly drunk Alexander Glazunov) and excoriated by critics, nearly destroyed him.
Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor
Symphonic Dances

Deutsche Grammophon, 1998

Rachmaninoff fell into a period of deep depression. It would be four years before he would compose again, and it would be twelve years before he would write another symphony. Fortunately, that symphony, his Second, was very well received by critics and audiences alike.

Rachmaninoff completed his Third Symphony much later, in 1936, and he considered it among his greatest works. However, once again, a lukewarm reception from audiences deeply discouraged him, and it would be another four years before he summoned the courage to write his next (and last) work: his Symphonic Dances, which I will discuss in my next post.

Listener Notes for Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony:
1) I love the how the introductory soft passage (it sounds like a unison saxophone and clarinet) gets you to lean forward, ear cocked, and then whammo!--the whole orchestra comes in and blasts you right back into your seat.

2) I kept asking myself throughout the first movement, "where is this symphony going?" It's good music, and it has a beautiful 14 note melodic motif, but it has too many Shostakovitch-like film score accoutrements. This symphony doesn't really speak to me yet.

3) The opening few minutes of the second movement are another good example of film-score-itis: It sounds beautiful, yes, but at the same time it could be background music for The Blue Lagoon. The use of the harp, the glockenspiel, the soft triple-tonguing trumpets, the idiosyncratic use of percussion--they all sound like film-score gadgets to me.

4) Note the reprise of the opening "whammo chord" at the beginning of the third movement. At least this time I wasn't leaning forward in my chair!

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sibelius: Fifth Symphony

Forget the snotty music critics who berate Sibelius as a simpleton who wrote "insufficiently complex" music. I consider him a truly gifted composer who can create a wide range of emotions in his beautiful, grand and all-too-brief symphonies. In this journey of mine through my dusty classical music collection, Sibelius is turning out to be one of my most pleasurable discoveries.
Paavo Berglund and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 3 in C major
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major

EMI Records, 1988
Sibelius began his Fifth Symphony in mid-1914, and while the work contains overtones of war and gloom, the key themes of this symphony are optimism and triumph. It's interesting to note, however, that Sibelius wasn't happy with the original version, completed in mid-1915, and he reworked this symphony over the next year--and then reworked it yet again in 1919. Clearly, just because a symphony sounds triumphant doesn't mean the composer felt particularly triumphant while writing it. Apparently Sibelius wasn't entirely satisfied with his creation.

Listener notes for Sibelius' Fifth Symphony:
1) The first movement starts out sounding like something Bruckner would write, a likely reason why critics (at least the critics who fancy themselves in the vanguard of "radical" classical music) excoriate this symphony.

2) But when you hear the first movement morph from those Bruckner-esque major chords into a tense and creepy passage featuring the bassoon solo over shimmering strings (starts at about the 6:00 mark in Track 4 on this CD and runs to about the 7:00 mark), you can tell that there's more to Sibelius than meets the ear. This passage, and the next several minutes that follow it, show an underappreciated aspect of Sibelius' music: he takes you to many more emotional places than Bruckner, and he does it with subtlety, smooth transitions and without beating the listener over the head (unlike Mahler, for example).

3) The first movement ends in a moment of intense triumph. It's hard to believe Sibelius originally wrote this work in 1914-1915, not only given the outbreak of World War I. It's even more hard to believe he wrote this work during a period when much of his income was cut off. According to the liner notes accompanying this CD, royalty payments from German music publishers had been the largest source of his income at the time.

4) In the second movement (at the 1:33 mark in Track 5), listen for the flute and oboe duet. At first, I thought for sure that the flute made a bad mistake, but then the same dissonant note occurs ten seconds later at 1:43, then again at 1:58, and then again in a variety of forms throughout the movement. It's a strange-sounding motif, and it takes a few listens to get used to it.

5) What do you think of the ending of the second movement? Can you even call that an ending? It's as if the work just peters out, the musicians turn the page, and then "okay people, time for the finale!"

6) Admittedly the third movement contains some schmaltzy french horn chords (an example occurs at 1:15 in track 6, and then an even more schmaltzy example occurs at the 2:00 mark), but we should at least give Sibelius credit for massaging that motif into various keys and forms later in the movement. He could have just left that theme hanging there in its original form and gone for a cheap Bruckner-esque thrill (after all, triumphant major chords played by French horns is a common feature of every Bruckner symphony).

Instead, Sibelius builds this theme into the fundamental fabric of the movement. For example, you'll hear the oboe and woodwinds pick up this theme in a minor key at the 5:00 mark, and then the trumpets pick it up still later in a major key but with creepy, gloomy undertones. Finally, the entire orchestra tackles a variation of the theme near the ending.

7) I'd love to hear your impressions of the very end of this symphony, where the orchestra plays six final chords, separated by what feels like artificially and uncomfortably long rests. Do you consider this an unusual artistic device that serves to build tension? Or is this just cheesy? I'll admit that I sat up and took notice when I first heard this atypical ending, but it's my view that Sibelius sacrificed some of the sincerity of this symphony by giving it a gadget of a conclusion.

A final note: I've provided links on Amazon here and a graphical link below to a highly-regarded box set of all of his complete symphonies (there are seven) as well as all of his tone poems, suites and incidental music.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sibelius: Third Symphony

It's been a year and a half since I last listened to the music of Jean Sibelius. And if nothing else, I'm annoyed with myself for once again overlooking this often-overlooked composer.
Paavo Berglund and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 3 in C major
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major

EMI Records, 1988
Sibelius' Third Symphony represents a significant stylistic break from his First and Second Symphonies, both of which were typical examples of the so-called heroic-national style (Sibelius was a fierce Finnish nationalist during a period when Finland struggled under Russian control).

However, the Third Symphony, as my Essential Canon of Classical Music puts it, "entered into a different sphere of musical thought, using a radically condensed form totally devoid of the grand manner of his earlier music." Compared to Sibelius' Second Symphony, which I wrote about back in 2008, this work is simpler, more slimmed-down and--if I may say so--less pretentious. It avoids the overwrought schmaltz of Vaughan Williams (VW was a Sibelius contemporary), and yet it still features plenty of soaring and riveting passages. Like Mahler, but more concise.

Before we get to the listener notes, a quick item for listeners who would like to experience more works by Sibelius: I've provided links on Amazon here and a graphical link below to a highly-regarded box set of all of his complete symphonies (there are seven) as well as all of his tone poems, suites and incidental music.

Listener Notes for Sibelius' Third Symphony:
1) When you hear a french horn part as ripping as the one at 0:59 in the first movement, you know you're going to be in for a good symphony (listen for a reprise of the part at the 6:46 mark).

2) Listen to the parts played by the cello section from 4:45 to 5:45 in the first movement (also reprised at 7:34). There's a lot of tension here, as well as carpal-tunnel syndrome.

3) Do the last two chords of the first movement sound to you like the "ahhhh-mennnn" that comes at the end of a church hymn?

4) My favorite parts of the second movement are the wonderful syncopated bass viol plucks at the 1:23-1:33 mark and again at the 3:16-3:26 mark.

5) This symphony seems to lose direction a bit in the third and fourth minutes of the third movement. Not what you'd expect in a tightly composed, "slimmed-down" symphony. But this is a minor misdirection in an otherwise gripping work.

6) Finally, there are very few obvious mistakes in this performance, but two unfortunate ones arrive when the woodwinds play two overly feverish and shrill trills in the very last minute of the final movement. I'll give them an "E" for enthusiasm.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Does Bach Suck?

It's not often that you see a classical music-related comment that makes you spit out your coffee:

"Bach sucks because he was not a true composer. A true composer hears the music before he writes it. Bach composed using a mathematical system of numbers which he tought[sic] his students. After his death one of his students published a book “How to write a menuet[sic] with little or no musical knowledge”. Frankly, the result of his work is not musical, the opening bars always sound musical because he copied someone else’s melody, broke it down into numbers and wrote counterpoint from it. Handel did not even like Bach, because Handel wrote music. Anyone who does like Bach does so because they are told to. For a comparison, listen to music by Frescobaldi, Rameau, or Couperin, then listen to Bach. The difference? Something that is musical throughout the entire piece, and something that is musical for 10 seconds and quickly loses interest."

Once I'd finished mopping the coffee off of my laptop, I had to admit I found myself agreeing.

Not with the claim that Bach sucks per se, but that Bach is one of the conundrums of classical music. How can a man who wrote such an impressive mountain of stunning music, who revolutionized Western music's entire conception of music theory, harmony and counterpoint (even to the point of revolutionizing how we tune our intruments), at the same time write music that all sounds the same?

Here's an example. Listen to the twenty-four Preludes and Fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier and try to come up with a single hummable melody or a single memorable motif. And, while you're enduring this exercise, tell me, do these works arouse any emotion in you, other than perhaps a sense of aesthetic beauty at the symmetry and mathematical perfection of the music?

Depending on your memory for music, you might find all twenty-four works interchangeable, even nearly identical. I think I understand now what Glenn Gould was trying to say in the liner notes to his ham-handed recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Yes, they are all beautiful. But it's a robotic beauty, a mathematical beauty. Not one of them has a climactic moment. There are no lulls, no surges, no sweeping emotion. Nothing. The music is hypnotic, but there is not a single component part that stands out as memorable or notable.

Perhaps this is why Bach's music collected dust for centuries, until Mendelssohn and others rescued it from obscurity.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D

Laura: What are you listening to?
Dan: Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.
L: Which one?
D: He only wrote one.
L: So Violin Concerto Number 1 then?
D: Uh, well, just "Violin Concerto." I think.

If you thought the critical reaction to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was bad, wait until you hear about the abuse heaped upon his Violin Concerto.
Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Itzhak Perlman, Violin
Violin Concerto
Piano Concerto No. 1
RCA/Papillon, 1987

Despite the fact that Tchaikovsky dedicated the work to Leopold Auer, a famous violinist of the time, Auer refused to play it, considering it too technically difficult. Later, violinist Adolf Brodsky, a fellow Russian, performed the work for an audience in Vienna in 1881--and the audience hissed (apparently, booing didn't become popular in Europe until years later).

Worse still were the critical reviews. As the (uncredited) liner notes accompanying this CD tell it, "the notorious critic Eduard Hanslick" said:

..."the violin is no longer played; it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue" and that the concerto "brings to us for the first time the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks in the ear."

I wonder what this guy would have said after hearing Paganini's Caprices.

Listener notes for Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto:
1) Could there be a bigger contrast between the enormous, hippopotamus-like opening of the Piano Concert No. 1 and the quiet opening of this work?

2) Does anyone else find off-putting Perlman's excessive use of vibrato? I feel like I want to go up to him and say, "dude, just play the notes, okay?" It's disappointing when musicians (at any level, not just the pros) layer so much affectation on top of their playing that it detracts from the music.

3) One thing about Itzhak, though, is he has ferocious technical skills and he can make even preposterously difficult passages sound easy and effortless. A textbook example is the violin runs he plays from 4:40-4:52 in the first movement.

4) At the 7:15 mark of the first movement you can hear a particularly brutal "theme-and-variations" passage for the soloist. Even as a non-violinist I can tell that this passage is preposterously difficult. It sounds like something Paganini would write on a day when he was feeling ill will towards violin-playing mankind.

5) Listen at 9:47 and 9:57 in the first movement. Did you know a violin could play a note this high?

6) More ridiculously difficult parts: the solo violin passage from 12:57 to 13:54 contains difficult ascending runs. Perlman just blasts through them with no problem.

7) For headphone listeners and recording geeks only: the bassoon arpeggio in the opening of the second movement (it occurs at the 0:22-0:24 mark) jumps from the left speaker to the right for no apparent reason. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself watching the performance, you can almost see the musician teleport across the stage. Only the recording engineers and producers will know for sure, but this sounds to me like a splice of portions of two different takes. Also, at 0:37 in the same movement it sounds like there might be another splice when Itzhak comes in, another at 3:02 in the second movement, and yet another at 7:40 in the third movement.

I'm sure splicing like this is a common occurrence, simply because it's impractical to do repeated run-throughs of an entire symphony when you can just redo the dodgy passages and splice them in later. And of course it's nothing like what's done in pop music, where "singers" like Britney Spears will do 20 or more takes of any given song line in order to generate (out of pure luck?) the one take that actually sounds good and is sung on key.

9) Funny how an extremely minor (some would say unnoticeable) recording error can send a listener with sub-clinical OCD (uh, like myself) into a state where he's purely listening for recording errors and not really hearing the music at all. I had to put this disc away for a couple of days and tackle it again after a break.

10) The aggressive segue into the third movement is a real joy--and a bit of a shock, isn't it?

11) Itzhak's playing isn't anywhere near as clean in this movement as it is in the other movements. Then again, this movement truly does require him to do some serious yanking about and tearing asunder.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1 in B-Flat Minor

I replied that I would not alter a single note, and that I would have the concerto printed exactly as it stood.
--Tchaikovsky, reacting to Nikolai Rubinstein's harsh criticism of Piano Concerto #1

Today's CD contains one of the very few examples of CD liner notes that are not only comprehensible, but actually fun to read.
Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Misha Dichter, Piano
Piano Concerto No. 1
Violin Concerto
RCA/Papillon, 1987

In a (sadly uncredited) essay, readers learn the story about the reaction Tchaikovsky received when he showed his first piano concerto to his boss at the Moscow Conservatory, Nikolai Rubenstein:

"Rubinstein excoriated the work after a private hearing.... Tchaikovsky was pitilessly flayed for what Rubenstein charged was tawdry, plagiaristic and unpianistic. The irate pedagogue even went to the piano and burlesqued page after page."

Tchaikovsky then did what any self-respecting genius would do: he got a second opinion. He sent it to the famous German pianist and conductor Hans von Bulow, who loved the work so much that he took it with him on a concert tour of America.

It only adds to the irony that Rubenstein eventually changed his mind and came to appreciate this work. There's no accounting for taste, is there?

Listener notes for Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1:
1) Who doesn't find the first 30 seconds of this concerto familiar to the point of parody? And what is it about Tchaikovsky's music that makes it so easy to parody? In fact, I'd go so far to argue that this concerto, along with the love theme from Romeo and Juliet and the 1812 Overture, are three of the top four "familiar to the point of parody" classical music works (the fourth? It has to be Beethoven's Fifth Symphony).

2) After learning of the deep cynicism behind his 1812 Overture, I can't help but listen for additional cynical musical devices and other compositional tricks Tchaikovsky might have used in this work. Quite frankly, I couldn't hear any.

3) It's interesting to listen to such a ponderous and lengthy first movement (more than 20 minutes), followed by two pipsqueak movements of less than seven minutes each.

4) Listen from 10:00 to 10:43 in the first movement: have you ever heard such tension and energy build in the middle of a movement? And then it's followed by an unexpected letdown when the orchestra cuts out and the piano takes over.

5) Bad playing alert: at 12:32-12:37 in the first movement, the trombone has a prominent part and he blows it, with high school-caliber play and no sense of phrasing or control.

6) Forgive me for saying this, but I come down on Rubenstein's side of the argument (rather than von Bulow's) on the quality of this concerto. To me, there's just too much pounding away, too much instantaneous grandeur for me to enjoy this work. I'd be curious to hear other opinions, however, and I'd love to hear the opinions of any piano players out there who can comment knowledgeably on the joys (or miseries) of performing this work.

7) The second movement is an example of why I prefer Tchaikovsky at his least pretentious. His simple and beautiful melodies are more compelling to me than his grandiosity. Recall how Liszt called the second movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata "a flower poised between two abysses"? This movement is more like flower poised behind a hippopotamus.

8) For those of you who are curious, the subtitle for the third movement, allegro con fuoco, doesn't mean, uh, what you might think it means. It means to play quickly and in a fiery and energetic style (or, literally, fast with fire).

9) The third movement is an excellent example of the gift Tchaikovsky had for adapting folk tunes into new and compelling classical music music (this gift was shared by his fellow Russian contemporaries too, including Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky).

10) The final few passages of the third movement make for an amazing climax. First you have the build from 4:46 to 5:29, then a slight reduction in tension when the piano takes over at 5:30, then more build of tension until the huge entry of the full orchestra at 5:46. My head was about to explode!

...and then I realized I had the volume turned up just a little too high on my headphones.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saint Saens: Third Symphony (the "Organ" symphony), Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Saint-Saens knows everything, but he lacks inexperience.
--Hector Berlioz

It's safe to say that Camille Saint-Saens' life was far more interesting than his music.
James Levine and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 "Organ"
Dukas: L'Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer's Apprentice)
Deutsche Grammophon, 1987
He was a true polymath: a musical prodigy, a scientist, a philosopher, a travel writer, a poet and a composer. He lived a life filled with tragedy: when Saint-Saens was in his early forties, his two-and-a-half-year-old son died in a fall from the balcony of his Paris apartment. Just six weeks later, his other son died of pneumonia at just seven months of age.

And three years after these incomprehensible tragedies, he walked out on his wife--in the middle of a vacation they were taking together! He left a note for her at their hotel and simply left.

Today we'll go over Saint-Saens' third and final symphony, widely known as the Organ Symphony. It's an enjoyable symphony with some interesting and unusual features, and it is probably the composer's best-known work. However, it is not a work I'd rank among my top classical music favorites.

I think most classical music critics would agree with me. My classical music bible, David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music, backhandedly refers to Saint-Saens' "slick, pseudo-Classical forms, and their refreshing neatness." And the liner notes accompanying this CD (which you would think would be a tad more promotional) contain this harsh gem: "...the symphony lacks the profundity of other 19th Century masterpieces."

Last, we'll also go over a few listener notes for the other work on this CD, Paul Dukas' forgettable The Sorcereror's Apprentice.

Listener notes for Saint-Saens' Third Symphony:
1) This symphony has an unusual structure, with just two movements rather than the more typical four. And yet the two movements have a substructure that roughly corresponds to a traditional four-movement symphony: the first movement has two primary parts, and the second movement begins with a Scherzo (albeit a highly unusual one, see below) and ends with a finale. Thus this work could easily be seen and heard as a four-movement symphony.

2) Another (somewhat) unusual feature: this symphony has an introduction lasting more than a minute. It doesn't add much to the work in my opinion, and a greater composer would consider the intro to be filler and strip it out. Beethoven, for example, never wrote symphonies with superfluous features like this.

3) That said, Saint-Saens can still write some darn good brass parts. Two examples: 4:30-4:50 in the first movement, and much of Track 4 (the second portion of the second movement).

4) The last minute of the first movement sounds like background music to a TV drama--something you'd hear on The Avengers perhaps.

5) You might ask, after ten minutes of this symphony, where the heck is this organ everybody's talking about? It makes a very quiet entrance in Track 2 (the third part of the first movement), but wait....

6) Track 2 is moving and emotional, and strangely, when I'm listening to this part of the symphony, I have this powerful feeling that I'm my younger self, at about age 8, sitting in church, and about to stand up and sing a hymn accompanied by our church's old $800 warbling electric organ. It's simply amazing how music can have such a powerful sensory force that it can literally transport you elswhere (or elsewhen).

7) I particularly like the Scherzo movement, with its quick tempo, shocking minor key and even more shocking pick-up-note-based motifs. I do feel like this portion of the symphony cribs stylistically from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

8) And then we have a piano? Listen at the 1:36 mark in the second movement (Track 3). I thought this was an organ symphony!

9) I told you to wait for the organ, and I hope when you hear the huge entrance it makes in the finale (at the opening seconds of track 4), the wait was worth it. All I could say was whoa. Brainsplitting.

Listener notes for Dukas' L'Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorceror's Apprentice):
1) A couple of words on this forgettable work. I don't understand why it's included on this CD, other than to make buyers feel less ripped off by buying a CD that only has 47 minutes of music on it (without Dukas' work included, this CD would be only 36 minutes long). But why not include another work by Saint-Saens? Ah, that would probably require extra effort to record another symphony, wouldn't it? Much easier to drop in some unrelated recording that's already made and sitting on file somewhere.

2) If it weren't for Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, and the famous animated film Fantasia,this work would be utterly forgotten by our culture by now. It's interesting how an icon of pop culture can overwhelm and co-opt a work like this, isn't it?

3) Finally, somebody clearly placed a microphone too close to the conductor during the recording of this work, giving listeners the distinct pleasure of hearing conductor James Levine muttering, grunting and groaning on a few places in this work (most notably at 6:03-6:30 and 8:00-8:11). Given his fashion proclivities for bad hair and worse glasses, I bet it would be fun to watch him bouncing and caterwauling all over the podium during a live performance.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas

He has captured the click of castanets, the strumming of guitars, the thud of muffled dreams, the harsh better wail of Gypsy lament, the overwhelming gaiety of the village band, and above all, the wiry tension of the Spanish dance.
--Ralph Kirkpatrick, harpsichordist and Scarlatti biographer

Quite frankly, it's pure luck that any of Domenico Scarlatti's beautiful music survived at all.
Ivo Pogorelich, piano
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Scarlatti: Sonaten
Deutsche Grammophon, 1992
The original manuscripts of his famous harpsichord sonatas were discarded upon his death, and if it weren't for his wife who had seen to it that his work was copied, his entire oeuvre would likely have disappeared down the memory hole.

Worse, even those copies were ignored for more than a century.

Scarlatti was born into an extremely musical family in Italy, and he was a startlingly talented harpsichordist. But it wasn't until he left Italy to be the private teacher of a princess in Portugal's royal court (the gifted harpsichordist and future queen of Portugal, Maria Barbara) that his genius for composition began to shine.

Scarlatti composed some 600 sonatas for his star pupil, but only published some 30 during his lifetime, dedicating them to the King of Portugal. A deeply unpretentious man, Scarlatti modestly named the opus Exercises for the Harpsichord, as if it were some forgettable book of etudes.

Ironically, Scarlatti's works didn't find a wide audience until a century after his death. In 1838, Carl Czerny (once Beethoven's pupil and a gifted pianist and composer in his own right) edited and published some 200 hundred of Scarlatti's sonatas. And in the early 1900s another 300 of his sonatas became available, thanks to the Italian composer Alessandro Longo.

Listener Notes for Scarlatti's Sonatas:
(One preliminary note: I'll be using Kirkpatrick numbering for these sonatas)
1) This is the second time I've had the privilege of listening to Ivo Pogorelich: I wrote about his performance of Chopin's stunningly beautiful Preludes more than a year ago. Today's CD features an older, slightly more contemplative Ivo--at least that's what we're apparently supposed to think, judging by the cover photograph of him gazing sadly at us out of the corners of his eyes from what appears to be an Elizabethan-era parlor. One of the more amusingly pretentious examples of classical music cover art.

2) Sonata #20 (Track 1 on this CD): Obviously, these works were written for harpsichord, not piano. And Pogorelich plays this sonata in a particularly bouncy, staccato style, as if he's trying replicate the harpsichord's sound on his piano.

3) Another harpsichord vs. piano thought: the harpsichord has no dynamic range--it can only play notes at one volume level. The piano, however, allows the musician to change volume by striking the keys more or less firmly (hence the derivation of the piano's original name, the pianoforte). In fact, the piano enables many phrasing subtleties that cannot be played on a harpsichord. Thus it bears asking, how many artistic liberties is Pogorelich taking when he performs these works? And are they justifiable liberties?

4) Sonata #9 (Track 3): Have you ever heard this many trills in four minutes' worth of music?

5) These sonatas are all 3-5 minutes long, perfect for the modern listener's attention span, and a lot more profound and relaxing than most of the popular music out there.

6) Sonata #1 (Track 5) is a personal favorite of mine. I like the suspense, the minor key and the various flourishes and idiosyncrasies of this work.

7) Did the producers of this CD scramble the numerical order of these sonatas just to annoy me? Here's the order of sonatas: 20, 135, 9, 119, 1, 87, 98, 13, etc. It looks like some kind of Fibonacci sequence.

8) Sonata #13 (Track 8) is supposed to be played fast, at least according to the work's subtitle, Presto, but Pogorelich takes it easy and plays it at a tempo more like the Allegro of Sonata #1. More artistic liberties.

9) Sonata #8 (Track 9) sounds like something Chopin or Schumann might write--one hundred years after Scarlatti lived! Admittedly, this might be a function of Pogorelich's choice of a ponderously slow tempo rather than the Allegro marked on the piece.

10) Sonata #487 (Track 13) is another personal favorite. It sounds like an Eastern European folk tune, with dissonant chords, interesting syncopation--and lots of grace notes, trills and embellishments throughout.

And when the final track ends, all I want to do is figure out where I can more of these amazing sonatas. After all, there are 600 of them!

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Rimsky Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture; Capriccio Espagnol Redux

One particularly annoying thing about the Rimsky-Korsakov works on this CD is that they are recordings of performances I already own, on a CD that I already wrote about.

Granted, these works are still a great pleasure to listen to (uh, again), but I'd prefer that that publishers at least chose another performance of the same work by the same symphony. At least then listeners could compare the two. But of course the publisher can make more money by simply re-copying an already recorded performance, and no one, except a few true classical music nerds, will ever know the difference.
Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Tchaikovsky (1841-1904); Borodin (1833-1887); Rimsky Korsakov (1844-1908)

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture and Marche Slave
Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances and In The Steppes of Central Asia
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture and Capriccio Espagnol
Deutsche Grammophon, 1990

However, this is a blog about systematically going through all of my classical music CDs, and this is another CD in my collection. So, dammit, I'm going to listen to these works again and still make (just a few) comments.

Listener Notes for Russian Easter Festival Overture:
1) It's an interesting experience (to me at least) to re-read my prior notes from this recording and see to what extent my views differ a year later. An example: the opening oboe part really bugged me last time--yet I didn't really notice the intonation issue this time around.

2) The tubas and trombones have a delicious, huge sound in this work. If I close my eyes, I feel like I'm listening to the Chicago Symphony. It's a bit strange though, because these same musicians sounded underfed in the 1812 Overture, a work recorded two years later by the same symphony. Did the low brass section change personnel?

Listener Notes for Capriccio Espagnol:
1) I'll give the clarinet soloist an "E" for enthusiasm, but a B- for intonation for the solo at 0:13 and then reprised at 0:36.

2) Yep, I still like the second movement best with those wonderful opening French horn chords. There's something about a team of French horns playing clear, well-tuned major chords that really makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

3) The principal flutist is one of the standout musicians in this symphony. As an example, listen to the extremely difficult solo beginning at 9:07.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture and Marche Slave

The overture will be very loud and noisy, but probably has no artistic merit, as I wrote it without either warmth or love.
--Tchaikovsky, writing about the 1812 Overture to his patron Madame von Meck

Tchaikovsky wasn't the only critic of his 1812 Overture. There isn't a music pundit anywhere who hasn't said something witheringly condescending about this work ("it is filled with cheap thrills," sneers my trusty Essential Canon of Classical Music). 1812 is the bane of high school bands anywhere and an eye-roll-inducer at summer pops orchestras everywhere.

And despite all this, it remains one of the most electrifying works of classical music ever written.
Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Tchaikovsky (1841-1904); Borodin (1833-1887); Rimsky Korsakov (1844-1908)

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture and Marche Slave
Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances and In The Steppes of Central Asia
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture and Capriccio Espagnol
Deutsche Grammophon, 1990

Listener Notes for Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture:
1) This is a somewhat unusual recording in that it includes a chorus, which was not how Tchaikovsky wrote the piece. It's a bit disconcerting at first to those familiar with the instrumental version, but you'll find you'll quickly grow to like it.

2) At the 4:30 mark, you'll hear the woodwinds attempt to play the well-known theme, which is usually played using an articulation technique called triple-tonguing (I know it sounds a tad pornographic, but it's not, sorry to say). What makes me chuckle however, is how reed-based woodwinds, even at the professional level, cannot triple-tongue. It's something any decent brass player can do competently at the high school level.

3) This isn't a completely clean recording. One of the more noticeable muffs is the bass (or perhaps E-flat?) clarinet playing completely out of tune at 7:02-7:05.

4) From 7:15-8:10, listen for the soaring, Bruckner-esque strings--that is some heavy schmaltz Tchaikovsky's throwing in here. But I can't help it, I love this stuff. Who cares if these are cheap thrills? Also, note that this passage gets re-used at 11:03.

5) From 12:07 to the end, just let the tension build and let the music wash over you. If you know anything about the Russian character and this culture's ability to endure suffering and display heroism at certain unique moments of its history, you'll understand why this work can be so emotionally powerful.

6) A few words about the cannon shots that are regular features of any performance of The 1812 Overture (I know, more cheap thrills): The shots on this CD were fired by the Gothenburg Artillery Division, using cannons dated from 1863. I'm sure the original instrument purists were, uh, up in arms when they found out cannons from the mid-19th Century were used for a work celebrating a war that took place in the early 19th Century. Also, the liner notes from this CD, in a peculiar example of how to waste readers' time with useless information, contains this amusing little nugget:

"Bjorn Harmond, the Division's president since its foundation, supervised the firing of the shots, which were ignited using linstocks and detonated with black blasting powder."

Nice. I don't know how I got through life not knowing this.

Listener Notes for Marche Slave:
1) Tchaikovsky wrote Marche Slave in support of Russia's involvement in the 1876 Serb0-Turkish war, and it's filled with familiar-sounding Slavic folk tunes. He didn't view this composition with the same cynical derision with which he viewed his 1812 Overture.

2) Ah, but does the key theme at the 4:54 mark sound at all familiar to you? Yep, it's taken directly out of the 1812 Overture (actually, both are renditions of Russia's Tsarist National Anthem). But it's worth asking--which of these two works was more cynically composed?

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