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.
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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

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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.




Please take a look at my other blogs!
Casual Kitchen: Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.
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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.
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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

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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?



Please take a look at my other blogs!
Casual Kitchen: Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.
Quick Writing Tips: Short posts on writing, twice a week.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The 100th Post of 101 Classical Music CDs

Somehow it came and went and I never noticed. But my discussion of Grieg's Lyric Pieces was the 100th post here at this blog.

And so I'm going to take this opportunity, belated as it is, to thank you for reading and for sharing in this journey I'm taking through my classical music. I'm so grateful for this blog, because it's taught me an important lesson beyond the composers, the history and the music. It has taught me that there is amazing beauty and joy in life right in front of our noses--if we would just take the time to look, listen and pay attention.

But because I was too busy with life, all of the amazing classical music I owned just sat there, in a corner of our living room, dusty, forgotten and ignored. Those 101 classical music CDs were a metaphor for how I failed to appreciate the truly important things in life--and now they've become a metaphor for how I'm beginning to get it right.

Okay. Enough sentimentality. As some of you have noticed, I took a bit of a break from this blog over the past few months to travel and to work on some other writing projects--including a blog about writing I'm quietly launching.

But I'm back now--and it's time to get back to the music.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Alexander Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia; Polovtsian Dances

I am a composer in search of oblivion, and I'm always slightly ashamed that I compose.
--Alexander Borodin

Today we're going to listen to two works by Alexander Borodin: the lesser-known In the Steppes of Central Asia, and the popular and well-known Polovtsian Dances.
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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

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Borodin never gets top billing in symphony concerts or on classical music CDs, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he's on the undercard on today's CD. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, a work well-known to the point of parody, gets to be the headliner.

It shouldn't be this way. If you take the time to have one close listen to Borodin's infectious Polovtsian Dances, you'll wonder why the 1812 Overture is so much more popular.

Borodin was a man of immense talents, but music was arguably one of his weakest subjects. He was a brilliant scientist (one of Russia's most prominent), a gifted and popular university teacher, and an early supporter of education for women--but he was an untrained and undereducated composer.

Unfortunately for us, Borodin died at the relatively young age of 53, and because of the many obligations of his scientific career, he did not compose that much music over the course of his brief life. We are all the poorer for it.

Listener notes for Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia:
1) Borodin composed this seven-minute work (it's usually called a tone poem for lack of a better descriptor) in honor of the 25th anniversary of Tsar Alexander II's coronation.

2) Off-key clarinet alert from 2:15 to 2:3o. Is the clarinetist from the Philly Orchestra sitting in on this performance? Another slightly less off-key solo from the clarinetist comes at 6:40. I'm already dreading the famous clarinet solo in the opening minutes of the Polovtsian Dances.

3) The flute player answers the clarinet solo at the very end of Steppes and has no trouble at all with intonation.

Listener notes for Borodin's Polovtsian Dances:
1) Well, I can't say our clarinetist flubs the well-known solo here (at 2:17-2:30), but I've heard it played better by a high-schooler at an all-state band performance (I'm serious). Note also that the flute really fumbles the following call-and-answer solo shared with the piccolo.

2) One of my favorite parts of this work is at 3:30, when the third dance starts. The tympani gets the tension going, then the tuba explodes with shockingly powerful downbeats beneath the rest of the orchestra. I love that.

3) It's a little strange listening to this work with a chorus singing along with it. I've only performed (and heard it performed) with instruments only. But these dances were originally part of the opera Prince Igor that Borodin wrote (and never finished by the way), so this is how the Dances were originally written.

4) The former trumpet player in me was never all that happy with the boring trumpet parts of the Polovtsian Dances, but now that my playing days are over, perhaps this isn't such a good measure of a classical music work any more, is it?

5) The interlocking solos between the oboe and clarinet (they occur twice during the work, at 5:46 and again at 8:38--and then the strings play the same parts a third time at 9:28) turn out to be really effective tension-builders. Sometimes the really unusual and creative musical effects like these can only come from a composer who spent his life as an untrained outsider.