Recording of the Week: Four Last Songs

June 17, 2010

Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs are not only a personal valedictory, but they are the end of more than a century of glorious German art songs; they are the farewell to the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, and finally Strauss himself. These hibernal songs written shortly before the composer’s death, and not performed until after it, have been recorded by almost every soprano of note over the past 60 years. The earlier Strauss, he of the whale sized orchestra and bombast amid beauty, had long been tamed by time. What remained was a gentle old age devoid of anger covered by resignation and acceptance.

The standard by which all interpreters of these works is judged was set by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Here is her recording of the third of the songs – Beim Schlafengehen. All four of them can be downloaded here for only one euro which at today’s exchange rate is less than $1.25. Schwarzkopf’s sensitivity and phrasing reveal every nuance of these beautiful songs. Her almost fragile tone captures the beautiful poignance that Strauss’ final effort suffused these songs. Note the wonderful reading of the text of the third and final stanza.

Beim Schlafengehen
(“Going to sleep”) (Text: Hermann Hesse)

Nun der Tag mich müd’ gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, laßt von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken.
Alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele, unbewacht,
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.

Now that I am wearied of the day,
I will let the friendly, starry night
greet all my ardent desires
like a sleepy child.

Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.

And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night’s magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.

Renée Fleming easily equals Schwarzkopf in her interpretation of these songs. And she brings to them a more lustrous instrument. She takes the song much slower than Schwarzkopf – her version is a minute and forty seconds longer. Her voice is so perfectly controlled that this greater duration is not readily noticed as the beauty of the song and her voice seems enhanced by this rendition. Here is Fleming’s singing the last stanza of Beim Schlafengehen.

Fleming is so good with Strauss that I wonder what drives her to the bel canto repertory where she’s good enough, but does not reach the level she attains with Strauss. This recording contains five additional Strauss songs which are all gorgeously rendered. Particularly noteworthy is Wiegenlied.  The disc concludes with Der Rosenkavalier  Suite conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

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Di Stefano Sings Schubert’s Ständchen

June 6, 2010

Schubert and Giuseppe Di Stefano is not a common association. But here he is singing Schubert’s Ständchen (Serenade Di Stefano) in Spanish. It’s from the soundtrack of a Mexican movie made in 1953. Below are the Spanish lyrics he sings followed by the original German. After these is an English rendition. So what we have is a German song sung by an Italian in Spanish with an appended English version. Regardless of the linguistic farrago, Di Stefano sings the song beautifully. His voice is in pristine condition which means it’s beautiful beyond words.

Spanish

“A claror de triste luna faro de pesar
El rigor de mi fortuna quiero aumentar
Todo en paz con blando sueño duerme en derredor
Solo yo, mi duclce dueña. Velo con dolor
Dardo soy que busca errante lauras para ti
Pues quedé tu esclavo amante luego que te vi
Tu quizá gentil señora mientras peno yo
Soñarás que fiel te ador quien infiel nació
Mas te ví por la ventana, ya piedad logré
Tu que fuiste ayer Tirana premias hoy mi fe…”

German

“Leise flehen meine Lieder
Durch die Nacht zu dir
In dem stillen Hain hernieder
Liebster komm zu mir
Flüsternd schlanke Wipfel rauschen
In des Mondes Licht
In des Mondes Licht
Willst mein liebend Herz du lauschen
Warte Liebster nicht
Warte Liebster nicht

Hörst die Nachtigallen schlagen
Ach sie flehen dich
Mit der Töne süßen Klagen
Flehen sie für mich

Sie verstehn des Busens Sehnen
Kennen Liebesschmerz
Kennen Liebesschmerz
Rühren mit den Silbertönen
Jedes weiche Herz
Jedes weiche Herz

Lass auch dir das Herz bewegen
Liebster höre mich
Bebend harr ich dir entgegen
Komm beglücke mich
Komm beglücke mich
Beglücke mich”

English

“My songs quietly implore you
through the night;
down to the silent wood
my love, come to me!
The tree tops whisper
in the light of the moon;
Don’t be afraid, my love,
no-one will observe us.

Can you hear the nightingales?
Oh! They implore you,
their sweet lament
pleads with you on my behalf.

They understand the yearning I feel,
they know love’s torture,
with their silvery notes
they touch every soft heart.

Let them touch yours, too,
sweet love: hear my plea!
Trembling I await you,
come, bring me bliss!”

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Recording of the Week: Hummel Piano Sonatas 2 and 5

May 30, 2010

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837) was one of the most celebrated musicians of his time. Born in what was then Hungary but is now Slovakia, Hummel was a child prodigy. He soon found his way to Vienna where he lived and studied with Mozart for two years. He also studied with Haydn and Salieri. He knew Beethoven and was considered at least his equal at the piano. He was one of the great piano virtuosos of any period. He also knew Schubert who dedicated his last three piano sonatas to Hummel. By the time they were published both musicians were dead so the dedication was changed to Schumann. Chopin was a great admirer of both Hummel’s compositions and playing. Hummel taught some of the greatest pianists of the mid 19th century – eg, Sigismond Thalberg.  He ended his life in Weimar where, along with Goethe, he was the cultural star of the city. In life he was world famous, in death oblivion.

What happened? Mostly it was Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert whose lives overlapped his. Their music and that of the great composers who followed overwhelmed Hummel who was thought to be old fashioned and inferior. Regardless of cause, Hummel’s posthumous lot was silence; he was a footnote to the classical age of music. His only composition that most musically literate people knew was the trumpet concerto which was apologetically performed as a virtuoso vehicle for a gaudy trumpet player. It’s likely that Hummel himself was intimidated by the greatness that surrounded him. He wrote no symphonies. I suspect Beethoven scared him away from the form.

Recently there has been a gradual resurgence in interest in Hummel’s music. The author of about 175 compositions, his best work is for piano – sonatas, chamber music, and concertos are prominent among his output. His writing for piano requires a skill that only the finest pianists possess. He started out as a Haydn/Mozart epigone. But by the time he was forty he had developed into a progenitor of romanticism in music.

His work, at its best, is tightly constructed and harmonically advanced. The two compositions that are on the featured disc show both Hummel’s development and his originality. His second sonata written in 1809 (Op 13) is very interesting. Its first movement sounds like he’d never heard a note of Beethoven. It’s well constructed, but it sounds as if written forty years earlier. The adagio that follows is from a different world. It has its’ own voice and quite lovely. The final movement, marked allegro con spirito, is a rousing display of vigor and virtuosity. Ian Hobson, the soloist on this recording, gets everything possible out of it.

The 5th sonata (Op 81) was written 10 years after the 2nd. In this great piece, likely his most adventurous work for solo piano, Hummel is deep within the romantic era. The first movement is more a fantasy than a sonata form movement. Its feel and weight are those of music written decades later. It’s worthy of comparison to Schubert and Schumann at their best. The second movement seems like Chopin though the great Pole was only nine years old when this work in F Sharp Minor appeared. Listen to the opening of this movement (Largo) and you’ll hear why everyone who listens to it thinks of Chopin. The final movement presents a technical challenge built around a folk-like dance theme. The sonata is a masterpiece that deserve frequent performance.

It’s clear that Hummel was a great composer. Though not in the front rank with Beethoven and Schubert, he was right behind. His music is just beginning to be rediscovered after languishing for more than a century and a half. I’ll return to his work in later posts.

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Recording of the Week : The Soul of Tango

April 19, 2010

Astor Piazzolla was born in Argentina in 1921 to Italian parents.He grew up in New York City. As a child he heard both jazz and Bach. He also learned to play the bandoneon while in America. When he was 16 he returned to Argentina where he routinely played in the tango clubs of Buenos Aires. In 1954 he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.

Fluent in Spanish, Italian, English, and French he was equally versed in jazz, European classical music, and the tango. The result was a synthesis of all these styles that resulted in a unique idiom. Once you’ve heard Piazzolla’s music it stays in you head and you can readily identify anything he wrote.

His transformation of the tango into something new was initially met with resistance by his countrymen. His first success was in Europe and North America. But genius eventually wins out and he won over his compatriots. His music is typically written for five instruments – bandoneon, violin, piano, bass, and electric guitar. The tango is the foundation on which he builds his music, but jazz is often melded with it particularly in his piano writing. The influence of Bach is strongly felt by the intricate use of counterpoint in his writing.

The Soul of Tango is a two disc set that contains an excellent representation of Piazzolla’s music and development. The recordings were made in performance. They are outstanding as is the sound reproduction. Libertango was written when the composer was living in Rome in the 1970s. The influence of jazz is obvious in this piece. It is characteristic of his mature style.

This album is available on disc or by direct download. It’s well worth having for both those unfamiliar with Piazzolla’s music as well as those already aficionados of the Argentine composer and performer.  Piazzolla is clearly one of the 20th century’s finest composers. His voice is unique.

He died in 1992 following an incapacitating stroke in 1990.

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Recording of the Week – The Complete Symphonies of Glazunov

January 4, 2010

Alexander Glazunov  (1865 – 1936)is a transitional figure in Russian music coming between between the lush romanticism of Tchaikovsky and the more spare and edgy music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovitch. His eight symphonies show considerable growth in style and fluency.

In addition to his compositions he was the director of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory where he taught Dimitri Shostakovitch. He was also well known as a conductor. His drinking was notorious. He conducted the disastrous premiere of Rachmaninoff’s  first symphony apparently while drunk. Rachmaninoff was so depressed by his symphony’s failure that he stopped composing for several years and sought professional help.

Amazon has all eight of Glazunov’s symphonies for sale as an MP3 download for only $5. In fact, if you recently downloaded some music from Amazon you likely received a promotion code good for $5 off your next download. If so, you can get all eight of the symphonies for nothing.

Amazon encodes their MP3 files at 256 kbs/sec – twice the rate of Itunes files. Thus, the sound is much better. It’s good enough to burn Amazon’s MP3s to CDs and then play through a high quality music system if your computer’s speakers and sound card are weak.

The performance of these eight works by Vladimir Fedoseyev  conducting the Moscow radio Symphony Orchestra (now the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra) is idiomatic and insightful. At this price purchasing these symphonies is a no brainer. Highly recommended.

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Merry Christmas

December 25, 2009



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Opening Night at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival

July 20, 2009

Sunday, July 19, marked the beginning of the season for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The first half of the program was devoted to French music. The second half consisted solely of Brahms’ Piano Trio No.1 in B major.

Ralph Kirshbaum

Ralph Kirshbaum

First up was Faure’s lovely Elegy in C minor. This short piece was beautifully played by cellist Ralph Kirshbaum and pianist Marc Neikrug. The same duo followed with Debussy’s Sonata for cello and piano. Written in 1915, Debussy’s sonata is a severe test for a cellist. Kirshbaum was more than up to it. He has a great technique and a wonderful line to his playing. A virtuoso performance.

The succeeding two works were writen for narrator and instruments. They were doubtless programmed to give actress Claire Bloom something to do. Both exemplify the general rule that works for narrator and music are not for adults. If you’re paying attention to the speaker the music is like movie music. And if you’re listening to the music the speaker only a distraction. If you want words with music they should be sung.

Claire Bloom

Claire Bloom

The first of these two was Debussy’s setting of Pierre Louÿs’ hoax poems Songs of Bilitis. Madame Bloom recited only 12 of the 143. It seemed like she was going through all 143. The first half of the evening, which seemed of Wagnerian length to me, concluded with Poe’s Masque of the Red Death with incidental music by André Caplet. Here are the full details:

DEBUSSY Chansons de Bilitis
Claire Bloom, narrator; Tara Helen O’Connor, flute; Bart Feller, flute ; June Han, harp ; Giuseppina Ciarla, harp; Marc Neikrug, celesta
ANDRE CAPLET Conte Fantastique (Masque of the Red Death)
Claire Bloom, narrator; Johannes String Quartet: Soovin Kim, violin; Jessica Lee, violin; Choong-Jin Chang, viola; Peter Stumpf, cello; with June Han, harp

When the intermission finally arrived there was a stampede to the bathrooms reminiscent of the Oklahoma land rush. The audience was so gray that only an emergency urology consult allowed the men’s room to empty in time for the Brahms. But then Brahms and we had to wait for an award presentation the significance of which was lost on me and probably much of the audience.

But the trio was worth the delay. It’s so good that it had to be presented by itself. It would have dwarfed any of the earlier pieces had they been in closer proximity. Soovin Kim, violin; Peter Stumpf, cello; Shai Wosner, piano had the audience on their feet cheering at the end of this great piece. Brahms chamber works are in the artistic heavens with those of Haydn and Beethoven. The trio was written early in Brahms’ career and then revised near its end. No matter, it has all the beauty and complexity unique to its author. The three players found the right balance preventing the piano from taking over as often happens in piano trios or quartets. My only quibble is that the violin’s intonation was occasionally slightly off.

The Saint Francis Auditorium where this concert was held has clear and bright acoustics. If it weren’t for the very hard benches it would be an ideal location for chamber music. The series runs until August 24. Highly recommended, but bring a cushion.

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