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Fifty Year Friday: Marta Argerich and Carlos Paredes

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This 1967 recording contains two of the most popular Twentieth Century piano concertos, full of energy from one of the brightest classical music stars of the 1960’s, the twenty-six year old Argentine, Marta Argerich.  An impressive pianist since her early teens, winning both the Geneva International Music Competition and the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition at the age of 18 within three weeks of each other, Marta teams up with conductor Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic to provide a stunning, wild-ride performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.  This LP also contains the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto, a work influenced by George Gershwin and the jazz music of the 1920s.  What sounds like an inspired, spontaneous work, was a work of intense labor and craftsmanship. Writing music”, noted Ravel, “is seventy-five percent an intellectual activity.”

TRACKS
Serge Prokofieff (1891-1953) Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26

1. Andante – Allegro

2. Theme and Variations

3. Allegro ma non troppo

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Piano Concerto in G Major

1. Allegramente

2. Adagio assai

3. Presto

 

This is Carlos Paredes first album, yet is is an unquestionable masterpiece.  Paredes plays an instrument called the Portuguese guitar, a twelve steel-stringed instrument, popularly used in Fado music (Portuguese folk music) known for its expressive and often wistful qualities.  In this album we are treated to both Paredes’ amazing virtuosity as well as his gift for serious composition.  Each work displays an individual character and identity and invites repeated listenings. If you don’t usually sample the youtube videos sometimes provided, its worth making an exception here:

Tracks for “Guitarra portuguesa”

Variações em Ré maior
Porto Santo
Fantasia
Melodia N.2
Dança
Canção verdes anos
Divertimento
Romance N.1
Romance N.2
Pantomima
Melodia N.1

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Fifty Year Friday: Arthur Rubinstein “Chopin: The Nocturnes, Pink Floyd “Pipers at the Gates of Dawn”

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It’s not very difficult to make the case for Chopin being the greatest composer for the piano of the last 190 years.  I chose 190 years, since Beethoven was around until 1827, and its irrelevant, and even irreverent, to compare Beethoven and Chopin. One can even make a good case for Chopin being the greatest Western composer of the last 190 years despite weaknesses and/or apparent lack of interest in mastering orchestration and writing pieces for full orchestras that go beyond providing general accompaniment for the piano.

One can also make a good case for Arthur Rubinstein being the greatest Chopin performer of the Twentieth Century.  In 1967, RCA released a 2 LP set of Rubinstein playing all the Chopin Nocturnes.  All of these were recorded in 1965, except for Opus 55, No. 2 which was recorded in 1967. (Interesting, that is the only track that has notable distortion or harshness. For all the other nocturnes, the recording sound is quite good and provides an intimate, warm listening experience.)

What makes Rubinstein such a welcome interpreter of Chopin is that he doesn’t overemphasize the emotional nature of the music.  Some performers go a bit to far in slowing down, speeding up, playing too loudly here, playing too softly there — trying to eke out as much emotion as possible.  “Rubato” is the performing technique of slightly changing the notated rhythmic duration of notes, thus deviating from notes strictly aligning with their written place within the pulse of the rhythm.  When done right the overall pace is not violated so that if a given note is made shorter, another note or other notes are then made longer so the one doesn’t lose the overall beat of the music. When overdone, rubato, along with accelerando (speeding up),   rallentando (slowing down) and tenuto (holding on to notes for additional time) becomes a violation of the original spirit of the music, effectively remaking it into something akin to over-dramatic acting. Many performers, particularly in the first seventy years of the twentieth century, took extreme liberty with the music, stamping it with their own mark or as a means of pulling out inherent meaning in the music they felt was implied but not notated.

Rubinstein, who takes a relatively sober approach with Chopin, has so much control over which notes within chords or concurrent groups of notes get emphasized (and the general loudness or softness of each and every note he plays) that he can get a full range of emotions within even a strict tempo.  His tempo, of course, is far from strict or mechanical, but he never allows it to escape into regions of extreme excess. Instead of taking unacceptable liberty with the tempo or individual note values, he makes the music sing and sparkle, providing a window into the inherent expression and delicate craft of each of these nocturnes: each one providing their own world of night-like expressiveness with subtle emotional twists and turns sometimes exploring sadness, loss, longing, darkness, tenderness, patience, determination, reflection, wistfulness, sympathy, sensitivity, sentimentality, loneliness, isolation, discovery, thoughtfulness, triumph, confusion or other emotions and aspects of the human psyche.

This recording is currently available as a 2 CD set, remastered and either in 16-bit or 24-bit (SACD) versions.  Value-conscious consumers will be wise to opt for “The Chopin Collection” box set which is an 11 CD set with all these nocturnes, and all the mazurkas, waltzes, preludes, other solo piano music (minus the etudes), and as a bonus, the piano concertos — this entire set currently selling at under $24.  Those with a larger budget and more available listening time may choose to get the much more expensive 142 CD “Arthur Rubinstein Complete Album Collection” set (with 2 DVDs and a 164 page booklet.)

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Tracklist [from discorgs.org]

A1 Opus 9, No. 1 In B-flat Minor
A2 Opus 9, No. 2 In E-flat
A3 Opus 9, No. 3 In B
A4 Opus 15, No. 1 In F
A5 Opus 15, No. 2 In F-sharp
B1 Opus 15, No. 3 In G Minor
B2 Opus 27, No. 1 In C-sharp Minor
B3 Opus 27, No. 2 In D-flat
B4 Opus 32, No. 1 In B
B5 Opus 32, No. 2 In A-flat
C1 Opus 37, No. 1 In G Minor
C2 Opus 37, No. 2 In G
C3 Opus 48, No. 1 In C Minor
C4 Opus 48, No. 2 In F-sharp Minor
D1 Opus 55, No. 1 In F Minor
D2 Opus 55, No. 2 In E-flat
D3 Opus 62, No. 1 In B
D4 Opus 62, No. 2 In E
D5 Opus 72, Op. 72, No. 1 In E Minor

Credits

 

In my junior year of high school, with summer not too far off, one of my favorite people of all time, who I will just refer to with the initial “P”, and I were discussing music in the back of trig class and P. mentioned how good Pink Floyd was.  The year was 1972 and I was probably talking about King Crimson, Yes, Jethro Tull, or ELP when P. started expressing his approval of Pink Floyd.  I was interested and accepted his offer to lend me three of his albums, Ummagumma (1969), Atom Heart Mother (1970) and A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), finding many things I liked, but also finding several detours from what I considered the general flow of music.  P. also, perhaps at a later point in time, lent me the first album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (1967).  I was more pleased with that album then the others, and puzzled that this was the first album as it seemed the strongest to me, which was not the usual pattern that I saw for most groups where the first album was the weakest, the second better and the third or fourth finally being the break-out album.  This first album, though sounding dated to my early 1970’s sensitivities, seemed stronger and more consistent than the other three I had previously heard.  I am not sure if I had noticed that one musician, “Syd Barett”, was the composer of most of the music for the first album but was absent on the others.  I think its possible I did realize this and was probably why I didn’t pay much attention to any new releases by Pink Floyd until I saw the movie “Pink Floyd at Pompeii” , at our local art-house theater, The Wilshire theater.  This film captures Pink Floyd performing several selections of their music in an empty Pompeii amphitheater, the music completely enveloping and engaging. After seeing this, I was sold on Pink Floyd, and had I seen this a couple of years earlier, I would have listened much more intently to those albums my trigonometry classmate had lent me.

Looking back now with thousands of additional hours of listening to lots of different music, I can better appreciate this album much more than I ever could have at age sixteen. It doesn’t matter whether this is labeled art-rock, space-rock, psychedelic rock or something else: it is bold, original and relevant for 1967 and is still fun to listen to today.

The album borrows its title from a title of the seventh chapter of  Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows  a cool title, indeed, but also a chapter that contains an interesting reference for a musical group that started out primarily as a psychedelic dance band:

“(Rat:) ‘…And hark to the wind playing in the reeds!’

`It’s like music–far away music,’ said the Mole nodding drowsily.

`So I was thinking,’ murmured the Rat, dreamful and languid. `Dance-music — the lilting sort that runs on without a stop — but with words in it, too — it passes into words and out of them again — I catch them at intervals — then it is dance-music once more, and then nothing but the reeds’ soft thin whispering.'”

And we have dance music with words and far-away lilting non-stop psychedelia-based tunes with their first two singles, written by Syd Barret, “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” and their less dance-able, more exploratory, third single, “Apples and Oranges” also written by Syd Barrett.

And this album is filled with easily accessible dreamy, languid, melodic gems: these all written by Syd Barrett.  The UK version (import version for us Americans) is different from a somewhat messed-up U.S. version (the version I will reference below is the superior UK version.)

“Astronomy Domine” is a masterpiece of space rock – vast, unfolding, hints of the infinite and timeless, paced with a relentless, cosmic inevitability, modal and chromatic.

“Lucifer Sam”, about a Siamese cat, is more whimsical but still edged with an embrace of psychedelia and a chromatic passage reminiscent of the James Bond theme.

“Matilda Mother” opens slow-paced, relaxed, and dreamy, shifting to a more rhythmic passage and then back to the dreamy opening before its short Indian-like instrumental — providing but short contrast to the returning dreamy theme and a brief instrumental coda.

While other groups at this time are starting to augment their music with strings, woodwinds, and exotic instruments, Pink Floyd achieves equally impressive results with a traditional line-up of vocals, guitar, bass, organ/piano and drums.  Syd Barrett’s guitar, though not textbook virtuosic, is expressive, flexible and effective.  Vocals include wind effects and bird calls, “oohs” and “aaahs”.  The organ provides drones and other relatively simple effects.  “Flaming” and the more free-form “Pow R. Toc H.” shows off the ability of the band to create very different soundscapes, the former showcasing guitar and organ, the latter, nicely showcasing piano, bass drums, guitar, simple vocal effects, and organ in various moods and attitudes with an almost jazz-like piano and drum interlude providing welcome contrast.

Roger Waters provides a very sixties contribution in the opening of “Take up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” which then dissolves into a group jam.

We get back to great music on side two with the opening of “Interstellar Overdrive”, though it does soon meander, losing focus — but better uncompromising and adventurous, than bland and commonplace: perhaps the band assumes the listener will have some assistance with illicit substances.  Pretentious, often a term overused as an invective against progressive rock much more than psychedelic rock, is a term I am loathe to use — but I will concede that the ending is a bit over the top.

We get back to Barrett mini-masterpieces for the last four tracks.  The music is unassuming, natural and foundationally simple.  “Gnome” is pure pop, but with a Barrett twist.  “Chapter 24” is spacey and reflective with lyrics apparently based on the 24th chapter of I Ching “The Return” (or “Turning Point”) as translated below by Richard Wilhelm:

“Everything comes of itself at the appointed time. This is the meaning of heaven and earth. All movements are accomplished in six stages, and the seventh brings return. Thus the winter solstice, with which the decline of the year begins, comes in the seventh month after the summer solstice; so too sunrise comes in the seventh double hour after sunset. Therefore seven is the number of the young light, and it arises when six, the number of the great darkness, is increased by one. In this way the state of rest gives place to movement”

Compare this to the Barrett lyrics:

“A movement is accomplished in six stages
And the seventh brings return.
The seven is the number of the young light.
It forms when darkness is increased by one.
Change returns success,
Going and coming without error.
Action brings good fortune:
Sunset.

“The time is with the month of winter solstice
When the change is due to come.
Thunder in the other course of heaven;
Things cannot be destroyed once and for all.
Change returns success,
Going and coming without error.
Action brings good fortune:
Sunset, sunrise.

“Scarecrow” opens up with some nifty percussive syncopation upon which the melody is overlaid, giving us a short song that’s simple and complex simultaneously.

“Bike” magnificently ends this album with more hazy, dreaming psychedelia based on simple melody and chords effectively arranged and presented.  This is a perfect conclusion to a very different album than anything else in 1967 popular music.

After listening to this album, and looking at the song credits, one might very well conclude that Syd Barrett was the key member of Pink Floyd and without them they would either struggle as a band or be very different and probably not nearly as good. Without getting into the tragedy of Barrett’s behavioral disorders, likely an after-effect of repeated LSD usage, which is covered by numerous resources on the web including Wikipedia and several WordPress blogs (most of which are generally much better written than this one), the band soon dropped an unreliable and unpredictable Syd Barrett from their line-up.  Barrett continued to struggle from the aftermath of chemically-caused neurological damage, subsequently recording two solo albums in 1969, and then more or less becoming a recluse until his death in 2006 at the age of 60. From such a promising first album ensues an heart-sickening tragedy; just another instance of a unconventional, creative genius taken away from us in the turbulent, unpredictable, ever-changing 1960s.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

UK release

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Lead vocals Length
1. Astronomy Domine Syd Barrett Syd Barrett and Richard Wright 4:12
2. Lucifer Sam Barrett Barrett 3:07
3. Matilda Mother Barrett Barrett and Wright 3:08
4. Flaming Barrett Barrett 2:46
5. Pow R. Toc H. instrumental 4:26
6. Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk Waters Roger Waters 3:05
Total length: 20:44
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Lead vocals Length
1. Interstellar Overdrive
  • Barrett
  • Waters
  • Wright
  • Mason
instrumental 9:41
2. The Gnome Barrett Barrett 2:13
3. Chapter 24 Barrett Barrett 3:42
4. The Scarecrow Barrett Barrett 2:11
5. Bike Barrett Barrett 3:21
Total length: 21:08

US release

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Lead vocals Length
1. See Emily Play Barrett Barrett 2:53
2. “Pow R. Toc H.”
  • Barrett
  • Waters
  • Wright
  • Mason
instrumental 4:26
3. “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” Waters Waters 3:05
4. “Lucifer Sam” Barrett Barrett 3:07
5. “Matilda Mother” Barrett Barrett and Wright 3:08
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Lead vocals Length
1. “The Scarecrow” Barrett Barrett 2:11
2. “The Gnome” Barrett Barrett 2:13
3. “Chapter 24” Barrett Barrett 3:42
4. “Interstellar Overdrive”
  • Barrett
  • Waters
  • Wright
  • Mason
instrumental 9:41

Personnel

Pink Floyd

Production

  • Syd Barrett – rear cover design
  • Peter Bown – engineering
  • Peter Jenner – intro vocalisations on “Astronomy Domine” (uncredited)
  • Vic Singh – front cover photography
  • Norman Smith – production, vocal and instrumental arrangements, drum roll on “Interstellar Overdrive”[125]

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Previous Fifty Year Friday Posts:

The Beatles

Jimi Hendrix

John Coltrane/Jefferson Airplane

Thelonious Monk/McCoy Tyner

The Doors

The Velvet Underground

Fifty Year Friday: Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and “Song of the Earth”

Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony performed by Sir John Barbirolli and the New Philharmonia Orchestra (live recording of August 16, 1967 — Proms performance)

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Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony was first performed in May 1906 by the composer. Interestingly, Mahler performed the movements in a different order (Allegro, Andante, Scherzo, Finale) than the order in the version published two months earlier. What apparently occurred was that Mahler, during rehearsals, decided that the symphony worked better if the second and third movements were swapped, placing the scherzo in its historically more traditional place after a slow second movement and before the last movement. Mahler notified his publisher to put out a second edition with the new order of Allegro, Andante, Scherzo and Finale and to include errata additions to unsold copies of the first edition.

For the next few decades, Mahler’s sixth was performed with the Scherzo following that Andante slow movement.  Then in the 1950s the first editor of the Critical Edition of Mahler’s works, Erwin Ratz,  came to the conclusion that Mahler had got it right originally and that despite Mahler always conducting the Sixth with the Scherzo after the Andante, that the correct order should be with the Scherzo before the Andante. Without any solid supporting evidence, Ratz, when finalizing the “authoritative” Critical Edition of the Sixth Symphony in 1963, stated in the preface that Mahler had meant to revert to the original order as represented by the first edition, but did not (as Mahler had died in 1911.)

Turns out we now know that Ratz had falsified evidence to support what probably was a personal conclusion based on his analysis of the score.  The Scherzo shares thematic material with the first movement as well as tonal orientation.  Analysis may support a view that Mahler wrote the piece to be performed in the order Ratz proposes, but composers certainly are allowed to make changes, as Mahler not only did to the order, but to the score itself,  and Mahler, known for revising his published works, probably would have made further changes over time if he had lived longer.

In 1998, the latest Critical Edition of the Sixth was released, with the Ratz error still in place, but then in 2004, The Kaplan Foundation published a paper including an essay by recording engineer Jerry Bruck and an essay by Reinhold Kubik, the new chief editor of the Mahler Critical Edition. overturning the Ratz order of Scherzo before Andante and refuting Ratz’s assertion.

Thus with a few exception, all recordings between 1961 and around 2000 or so, have the Scherzo occurring before the Andante.  One notable exception is the live January 1966 Berlin Philharmonic recording conducted by Sir John Barbirolli and the live August 16 1967 and the August 1967 studio recording performed by New Philharmonia Orchestra and also conducted by  Sir John Barbirolli.

Performing a complex work like Mahler’s Sixth demands serious study of the score. It is not a work that easily comes together into a comprehensible whole.  For this work to sound like a single unified piece with an overall logic and message, it requires a major commitment by any conductor.  Barbirolli was indeed very serious in his study of this work.  Perhaps it was through such score analysis that led to Barbirolli’s decision to put the Scherzo after the Andante. Perhaps he realized that the Andante provided the necessary contrast, release of tension, and proper overall flow when coming between the opening movement and the scherzo.

When these recordings where first issued, the two live version had the movements in the order they were performed, but for the August 1967 studio version, EMI reversed the order of the middle movements to place the Scherzo back earlier as was indicated in the erroneous critical edition.  Reportedly, Barbirolli was more disappointed then angry at this, but thankfully, current CDs of this studio version have the Scherzo properly placed as the third movement as performed originally and consistently by both Mahler and Barbirolli.

There are only a few recordings of the sixth undertaken before these three Barbirolli recordings in 1966 and 1967.  Since 1967 there have been several dozen recordings, most of these occurring in the CD era.  For those recordings made in the last forty years of the twentieth century where the Scherzo was performed before the Andante, one might just be tempted to program the CD to play these in the proper order, but this doesn’t quite work so well as each of these conductors crafted an overall performance architecture to work around an earlier placed Scherzo.  In my opinion, switching the order, just makes these performances less logical and cohesive, not more.

Of the two 1967 Barbirolli recordings, both are worth a listen, and the notable differences are as follows:

  1. The 1967 live recording sound is not such a great recording sonically.  The studio recording is much better.  Even the earlier 1966 Berlin live performance is significantly better sounding than the 1967 live recording.
  2. The 1967 live recording is far from a flawless performance with some audible flubs by the orchestra.
  3. The pace of the two recordings are much different. The tempo of the live 1967 recording, like the live 1966 recording, is an appropriate tempo to keep the music moving forward and connect the various ideas.  The tempo of the studio recording is puzzling slow::
    1. First movement: 1967 Studio: 21:20. 1967 Live: 19:08
    2. Second movement: 1967 Studio: 16:03. 1967 Live: 14:00
    3. Third movement: 1967 Studio: 13:59. 1967 Live: 12:08
    4. Fourth movement: 1967 Studio: 32:48. 1967 Live: 29:23
  4. The orchestra sounds more engaged and more focused in the live recording.  Some of this may be due to the faster tempo, but certainly playing live often brings out the best in concert hall performers.
  5. Unfortunately, both these recordings omit the repeat as noted in the score of the first movement, a common practice when recording long works during the LP era.

This 1967 Live recording may suffer slightly in comparison to more recent recordings of Mahler’s Sixth, but historically, one has to love how Sir John Barbirolli not only took on what was then a vastly underappreciated work, but got so much right in performing this work.

Mahler’s “Lied von der Erde” (“Song of the Earth”) performed by Otto Klemperer and Philharmonia Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Christa Ludwig mezzo soprano, and Fritz Wunderlich tenor

 

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Recorded in February and Novemeber 1964 at two venues (with the orchestra changing its name from “Philharmonia” to “New Philharmonia” in between) and released in 1967 on a 2 LP set along with five songs from two different Mahler works (two songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” and three of five songs from “Rückert-Lieder”) this was the best recording of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied Von Der Erde” found in college music libraries in the 1970s, where music majors like me often went to listen to such works as part of their music history studies. This recording captures the music with detail and beauty, presenting a relatively forward plane of sound such that solos are clear and both singers are placed in front and not lost amidst a large orchestra. It is a real joy to listen to on a good audio system with the clarinet, oboe and flute lines distinct and luminously clear  throughout and the two soloists balanced so well against their orchestral accompaniment.

There is no disputing the importance or quality of what many consider to be Mahler’s greatest work.  Composed in 1908, it was written after 1) Mahler had suffered through the politics of hatred and antisemitism that forced him to resign as director of the Vienna Court Opera, after 2) Mahler learned that he had a fatal heart condition, probably a congenital defect that had claimed the lives of his little brother and later his mother, and, 3) worse than either of these for any parent, the loss of his five-year-old daughter, Maria to scarlet fever and diptheria.

marial “With one stroke,” he wrote to his friend Bruno Walter, “I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn”.

“Das Lied Von Der Erde” is a symphony in six parts written on the text of seven poems from Hans Bethge’s first book of translation of Tang Dynasty poetry, “The Chinese Flute.” Mahler begins “Das Lied Von Der Erde” with these dark words attributed to wandering Chinese poet, Li Bai:

“The wine beckons in golden goblets
but drink not yet; first I’ll sing you a song.
The song of sorrow shall ring laughingly in your soul.
When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul,
wither and perish joy and singing.
Dark is life, dark is death!”

Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” is a work one can listen to repeatedly absorbing the sparkling, transitory joy, the moments of anguish, despair, and bleak, unshakable sorrow, and the spiritual sophistication and beauty of Mahler’s chromatically extended tonality.  Of all the recordings out there, this 1967 classic recording by Klemperer, the Philharmonia Orchestra/New Philharmonia Orchestra, Christa Ludwig, and Fritz Wunderlich is a perfect place to start or return to, depending how many times you have listened to “Das Lied Von Der Erde.”  Otto Klemperer was one of the few conductors who actually knew Gustav Mahler, heard Mahler conduct, and survived into the age of stereo to record him.  Perhaps this is the closest to hearing how Mahler would have recorded this work.

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