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.
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Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor
Symphonic Dances

Deutsche Grammophon, 1998
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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.
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Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor
Symphonic Dances

Deutsche Grammophon, 1998
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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.
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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
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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.
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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
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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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