I mean, if they could have only gotten a couple of decent soloists this would have been a home run.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (Barry Millington, 1988):
Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Violoncello in A minor, Op. 102
“I must tell you that I have had the strange notion of writing a concerto for violin and cello!” wrote Brahms to the conductor Franz Wullner in August 1887. A few days later, in a letter to Clara Schumann, the description was amended to “happy notion” – an indication that Brahms had relished the challenge of producing a work in such an unusual, and potentially problematic, medium.
The Double Concerto comes at the end of a line of substantial orchestral works: 4 symphonies, 3 concertos, 2 serenades, 2 overtures and the ‘Haydn’ Variations. It was written in 1887, during the second of the three summers Brahms spent at Hofstettern on Lake Thun in Switzerland, and was performed in Cologne on October 18 the same year.
The composer clearly intended the work as a gesture of reconciliation to his violinist friend Joseph Joachim, from whom he had become estranged over the latter’s divorce, and it was Joachim and his quartet colleague Robert Hausmann that Brahms had in mind when composing the work.
The short opening orchestral statement is reflected upon by the solo cello in a quasi-improvisatory passage, soon followed by another in which the two solo instruments exchange ideas in the non-competitive spirit that is to characterize the work as a whole.
Just as these extended solos recall the opening of the B Flat Piano Concerto, so the gently weaving figurations of the central F Major sections of the Andante look back to the slow movements of both piano concertos. The finale is a fusion of sonata and conventional rondo elements.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Although not the only work Mendelssohn wrote for the medium (a youthful concerto in D minor has also been occasionally performed), the E minor is invariably referred to as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.
It is, without doubt, his finest concerto for any instrument and its passionate advocate, the late Hans Keller, was prepared to put it alongside the masterpieces of Beethoven and Brahms as “arguably the greatest of them all.”
It was written for the violinist Ferdinand David while Mendelssohn was on a recuperative holiday at Soden near Frankfurt am Main in September 1844 and was first heard the following March at the Leipzig Gewandhaus under the Danish composer Niels Gade.
The greatness of the work lies partly in its formal innovations, but primarily in the compelling potency of its melodic inspirations. Dispensing with the conventional opening orchestral tutti, Mendelssohn launches his solo instrument immediately on a poignant cantilena soaring high above the stave.
The slow movement too is dominated by an intensely lyrical theme both announced and expanded exclusively by the soloist. The first two movements are joined by a transition effected by a sustained bassoon note, scarcely sufficient to quell the applause that might have been expected in the nineteenth century.
A further structural innovation is the placing of the first movement cadenza at the end of the development section rather than later in the movement, following the recapitulation.
The finale, which is introduced by an eloquent little meditation by the soloist, is in the elfin dancing style – and indeed in the key – of Mendelssohn’s Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Johannes Brahms – Concerto for Violin and Violoncello in A Minor, Op. 102
Vivace non troppo [8:41]
Felix Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
Allegro molto appassionato [12:59]
Allegro non troppo – Allegro non vivace [6:27]
This CD is not f-ing around (excuse my German!). In the late-1980s, Bernard Haitink conducted the finest band in the land and Perlamn and Rostropovich were no slouches either!
Emanuel Ax sort of knows what he’s doing… and he’s also sort of a master of liner notes (see below):
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (By Emanuel Ax):
“I felt certain an individual would suddenly emerge fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner, who would achieve mastery not step by step, but at once, springing like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove. And now here he is, a young man at whose cradle graces and heroes stood watch. His name is Johannes Brahms…”
This was Schumann’s greeting to the twenty-year-old composer who had so impressed both Clara and Robert with his mastery. He had already played movements of his first two piano sonatas for Joseph Joachim, who was equally overwhelmed by the music’s “undreamt-of-originality and power” and by Brahm’s equally mesmerizing playing.
Brahm’s education create the two sides of his nature that make his music unique, personal, and virtually instantly recognizable. His music teacher Edouard Marxsen – an accomplished musician who valued Classical form and logical structure – strongly encouraged Johannes’ interest in composition, as well as accomplishment in virtuoso piano playing.
At the same time, the Romantic movement in literature swept the young man off his feet (he called himself Johannes Kreisler, Junior, after E.T.A. Hoffmann’s mad violinist-hero, and kept a notebook of literary quotations which he named “Young Kreisler’s Treasure”).
This tug between structural balance and Romantic excess delineates one of the cardinal trademarks of Brahm’s music. The other ubiquitous element is rhythmic complexity, especially as exemplified in the hemiola.
Marxsen was instrumental in working with Johannes to strengthen his left-hand independence and sense of cross-rhythm. The contrast of two-against-three and various multiples of this relationship – so integral to Brahm’s dramatic pulse – represents a rhythmic counterpart to the emotional tug of excess and control. The feeling of inevitability in the large structure is always accompanied by a sense of turmoil underneath.
The Sonata No. 3, Opus 5, is unusual for Brahms in two respects: he cast the work in five movements (although one could almost make a case for doing the last three without pause, as part of one large structure); and, at Brahms’ request, a quotation from Sternau was included in the published version at the beginning of the second movement:
Der Abend dammert, das Mondlicht scheint,
Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe Vereint,
Und halten sich selig umfangen.
(Night falls and the moon shines,
Two loving hearts are united,
Embracing each other blissfully.)
This evocative and touching phrase shows the influence of Romantic literature on Brahms – so striking considering his usual distaste for ascribing literary allusions to his music.
The piece must have been virtually finished by the time Brahms was twenty and had met the Schumanns for the first time – the second and third movements of the work, in fact, were premiered as a unit by Clara Schumann in a concert in Leipzig in 1854: the first performance of the whole Sonataoccurred at a musicale in Magdeburg by Hermann Richter.
As usual, Brahms tinkered with the work for a long time, and, also as usual, we have only the final product, along with letters which tell Joachim that he had “substantially altered” the Sonata, and again, that he must “severely review the Sonata, especially the Finale.”
In any case, the final product has become one of the glories of the pianist’s repertoire.
The first movement – Allegro maestoso – isremarkable for its combination of breadth and intensity (in a letter from 1856, Brahms remarked: “NB, It would have been better to mark the first movement Moderato“). The outer limits of the instruments are immediately established in the first five measures; the next episode, with the muted pyramid of hemiolas (cross-rhythms), will act as an animating force throughout the Sonata. There is a remarkable economy of thematic material, as the first theme, the second theme, and, in fact, the transitional material between the two all share the same leap of the fourth.
The second movement, with the Sternau superscription, progresses from the intimate, yearning first theme to the even more hushed and intimate interlude in the sub-dominant which then becomes transformed into a coda of great ecstasy.
Once again, economy of thematic material combines with mastery of form and a prodigious invention to produce the most spontaneous-seeming, sublime effect. The last arpeggio of the movement appears to demand a continuation directly into the passion of the Scherzo, which abruptly breaks the rapturous stillness.
(The Scherzo perhaps testifies to Brahms’ familiarity with the Mendelssohn Piano Trio in C Minor; the theme is a note-for-note quotation of the Trio’slast movement; and Brahms’C-Minor Piano Quartetseems to owe much of its last movement to the same Trio’sfirst.)
The Intermezzo, a true intermission – subtitled “Reminiscence”(Ruckblick), goes back to the love theme of the Andante, but this time in the minor mode; one feels very much a sense of loss and desolation.
Its conclusion speaks of tragedy, and the Finaleemerges from it almost reluctantly – the pauses and fermatas have the function of a recitative-introduction, and it is an absolute masterstroke that Brahms also makes this quasi-improvisatory rumination the actual theme of the Rondo. With each repetition of the material it becomes stronger, until finally the entire series of hesitations resolves in an accelerated coda. The feeling is one of bursting the bonds which have held “the young eagle” (as Schumann called him) in check, and the final flight to freedom.
The Three Intermezzi, Opus 117,also start with a superscription: the words “Schlaf Sanft, mein Kind” (Sleep, sleep, my child) from a Scottish lullaby. The mood of peace and intimacy of the first gives way in the secondand third Intermezzi to ever increasing darkness and despair.
These pieces and, in fact, almost all of the late piano works are more directed toward the individual than toward the audience. Joan Chisell, in her book on Brahms, very plausibly suggests that Brahms’ piano writing in his later years was motivated by the increasing frailty of Clara Schumann, who was so intimately associated with all his creations for the piano. The dimensions, outwardly, have become smaller, but the inner dimensions are greater than ever before – the density of emotion and intellectual stimulation is as great in these works as in anything Brahms or, for that matter, anyone ever penned.
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Opus 5
Allegro maestoso [10:36]
3 Intermezzi, Opus 117
No. 1 in E-flat Major [4:39]
No. 2 in B-flat Minor [4:32]
No. 3 in C-sharp Minor [6:10]
Just a great recording from one of the great master interpreters of Brahms in history. I couldn’t find a video of him playing it (the link above is over Emanuel Ax playing the 3rd movement in audio only) but here is a great classic performance in by Claudio Arrau from Santiago, Chile in 1984 (though it completely looks like the 1960s).
Recording Location: CBS Recording Studios, New York, NY, 1982
There is nothing to review about Glenn Gould’s final piano recordings – just listen and love.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES: (by Peter Eliot Stone)
The nineteenth century ballade took its earliest inspiration from literary sources – the ballads or narrative poems, usually German or English in origin, dealing with legendary, historical or often purely romantic characters and happenings.
Thus, ballades were early characterized by a programmatic content that could easily seize the imagination both of composer and listener alike. Works by some composers, such as Frederic Chopin, were even considered to parallel lines of poems – in Chopin’s case those by fellow-countryman Adam Mickiewicz.
Johannes Brahms, on the other hand, devoted his ballades, as a rule, to “absolute” music, and his Four Ballades, Op. 10 of 1854 contain only one “programmatic” piece – the first in D minor.
This Ballademusically embodies the famous Scottish ballad of patricide, Edward (“Why does your brand sae drop wi’ bluid, Edward, Edward?”), which Brahms knew in translation from Johann Gottfried Herder’s Stimmen der Volker and which he later set for alto and tenor (Op. 75, No. 1). Brahms climaxes this grim dialogue between mother and son with the Beethovenian fate motif that was to color many of his other works. When the opening theme returns, Brahms treats it in a surprisingly operatic fashion.
The second Ballade, in D major, departs from its lyrical mood with a dramatically contrasting middle section.
The elfin third Ballade, in B minor, labelled intermezzo and functioning in the set as a scherzo, likewise differentiates its middle section. Brahm’s interest in the inner voices of the fourth Ballade, in B major, reveals the influence of his friend Robert Schumann, but Brahm’s more classic reserve and his formal sophistication yield glimpses of the master’s mature style.
Brahms dedicated his Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 (1879), to the charming and musical Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, originally entitling them “Capriccio (presto agitato)”and “Molto passianato.”For Brahms, the word capriccio did not seem to imply a light-hearted caprice (unless he used the titles ironically). Almost all of his caprices were gloomy, turbulent, and in the minor mode.
Regarding publication in 1880, Brahms suggested the title “Rhapsody”to Elisabeth. She answered: “You know I am almost most partial to the non-committal word Klavierstucke, just because it is non-committal: but probably that won’t do, in which case the name Rhapsodien is the best, I expect, although the clearly defined form of both pieces seems somewhat at variance with one’s conception of a rhapsody.”
Somewhat at variance, indeed!
Temperamentally “youthful” but compositionally mature, there is nothing improvisatory or irregular about these pieces. The first, in B minor, contains its agitation within a da capo form to which a coda has been added.
The second, in G minor, unleashes its passion through what for all intents and purposes is a sonata form. Yet the pieces do not resemble movements that might flow from the pen of the neo-classicist Brahms when he intended to write a sonata. Here, Brahms eschews the stable expository section for the instability of development right from the start.
In the first Rhapsody, the middle, bagpipe-like section, is based on a complete exposition of a “second theme” that had been arrived at prematurely and in the “wrong” key in the first section where it was then interrupted by a further intensive development of the first theme.
The G-minor Rhapsodyopens with a true primary-group theme whose iambic rhythm, one of Brahm’s fingerprints, contrasts fittingly with the march-like secondary group theme. But the oppressive nature of this second Rhapsody continues to the bitter end, unlike the brief B-major close of the first Rhapsody which somewhat softens its turbulence.
1: Brahms Ballade, Op. 10, No.1 (D-Minor)
2: Brahms Ballade, Op. 10, No. 2 (D-Major)
3: Brahms Ballade, Op. 10, No. 3 (B-Minor)
4: Brahms Ballade, Op. 10, No. 4 (B-Major)
5: Brahms Rhapsody, Op. 79, No. 1 (B-Minor)
6: Brahms Rhapsody, Op. 79, No. 2 (G-Minor)
Below is a fascinating (audio) recording of the complete Brahms Ballades recording session from 1982. I didn’t listen to the complete 5 HOUR (!!) recording – but just so much great audio of Gould being Gould (so to speak). Enjoy!
[This recording receives the VERY RARE 88 out of 88 for the simple fact – it’s Glenn Gould’s last piano recording before his death. It may not deserve 88 out of 88 (from a review standpoint) but as a huge Gould fan, anything less would be silly.]
Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter (Conductor)
Recording Location: American Legion Hall, Hollywood, California (Tragic Overture 1960; Symphony No. 4 1959)
The final recording of the Brahms symphony cycle Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, the 82-year-old genius really brings a weight and importance to Brahms that only an 82-year-old genius can bring.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES: (None)
This is a discount CD from the remastered CBS Masterworks recordings – so, unfortunately, no notes. I would have loved to have read about the recording of the Brahms symphony cycle.
1: Tragic Overture, Opus 81 [13:18]
Symphony No. 4, Opus 98
2: Allegro non troppo [12:55]
3: Andante moderato [11:46]
4: Allegro giocoso; Poco meno presto [6:26]
5: Allegro energico e passionaato; Piu Allegro [11:16]
These great old recordings aren’t heard that much anymore. So happy I have them in my collection. This project is allowing me to go back and listen to CDs that I may not have ever heard again.
The above links at the top of the page are of the actual recordings reviewed here (no video). Below is just a really great live performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 – Bernard Haitink conducting. Enjoy!
Recording Location: Medinah Temple, Chicago, May 1978
The greatest performance of the greatest Brahms symphony [best of 4] (and you can take that to the Medinah Temple!).
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (English notes by Lionel Salter):
SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN F MAJOR, OPUS 90
When Brahms had written his First Symphony he was still unsure of himself as a writer for orchestra, and though respected as a musician, had still to make a reputation other than as a pianist and conductor.
By the age of 50, sever years later, this had all changed: established as a composer with the great success of his Second Symphonyand Second Piano Concerto, and honored with doctorates from the universities of Cambridge (which he declined) and Breslau, Brahms was now internationally famous, and though he continued to give concert tours, these began to take second place.
In 1883, however, feeling the need for rest after strenuous concert activities, he went to Wiesbaden, where he completed the Third Symphony: it was performed on December 2 by the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter (who had also introduced the Second).
Hanslick, Vienna’s leading critic, greeted the work thoughtfully and enthusiastically: “Many [music lovers] may prefer the titanic force of the First, others the untroubled charm of the Second… but the Thirdstrikes me as artistically the most perfect. It is more compactly made, more transparent in detail, more plastic in the main themes; the orchestration is richer in novel and charming combinations; in ingenious modulations it is equal to the best of Brahms’ works.”
An allusion to Brahms‘ earlier days may be seen in the main subject of the first movement, which is rhythmically identical with that of the “Rhenish” Symphony by his friend and champion Schumann; but an even more meaningful retrospective glance is provided by the work’s initial three chords, a thematic cell that permeates the entire symphony. This is a version – as it were, saddened by experience – of Brahms’ frequently-invoked youthful “life-motto” F-A-F (Frei aber Froh, “free but cheerful”), which had been a response to his erstwhile friend Joachim’s F-A-E (Frei aber einsam, “free but alone”), a figure that appears in bars 3 and 4 of the Andante.
The Brahms pattern’s false relation (F-A / A-flat-F) lends the whole work a major-minor ambiguity which is resolved only at the very end when, after a finale in which the symphony’s climactic dramatic conflict is centered, it returns with a kind of calm philosophical resignation. (All the movements, indeed, end quietly.)
ACADEMIC FESTIVAL OVERTURE, OPUS 80
In acknowledgement of the honorary doctorate conferred on him by Breslau in 1879, Brahms composed, the following summer, two works which he conducted in that city on January 4, 1881. One was the Tragic Overture, which had partly existed in draft for some time, the other, brand new, the Academic Festival Overture, a rollicking pot-pourri of student songs.
It begins mysteriously with an oblique reference to the popular Rokoczi March, proceeds via a drumroll to “We have built a stately house” (to which the students would have sung their own, unprintable, alternative words), “The father of the country” (on violins) and the freshmen’s initiation song “What comes from up there”(on bassoons), and finally erupts into a joyously full-throated version of the most famous of all student songs, “Gaudeamus igitur.”
1-4: Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Opus 90 [38:51]
5: Akademische Festouverture, Opus 80 [10:35]
Above is a bonus Bernstein live performance of the 3rd Symphony – just because it’s awesome and I would prefer to have live performances as opposed to just audio (the Solti audio music links are at the top).
Recording Location: Avery Fisher Hall, New York (1-4 February 21-24, 1992; 5 December 1992)
Brahms #2 conducted by Herr Kurt – what’s not to like?
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Jim Svejda, 1992):
SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN D MAJOR, OPUS 73
For more than twenty years Johannes Brahms tried his hand of the symphonic genre without having to face the dreaded prospect of actually writing a Symphony.
The two Serenades Opus 11 and Opus 16, the D minor Piano Concerto No. 1 and even A German Requiem contain the materials of his innumerable aborted attempts to assume the mantle that had been placed on his head years before he was willing to wear it.
“There are asses in Vienna who take me for a second Beethoven,” he once said to his friend, the conductor Hermann Levi. “You don’t know what it means to the likes of us when we hear his footsteps behind us.”
A musical conservative who was determined to follow in the line of Haydn, Mozart, and his great idol, Brahms was unwilling to risk a direct comparison with Beethoven until he felt fully ready. He would not publish a string quartet until he was forty, and his long-rumored, eagerly awaited First Symphony would not be performed until November 4, 1876.
With the Symphony’s agonizing gestation behind him and the work launched with considerable success – following the premiere in Karlsruhe, members of the orchestra thanked him for proving that Beethoven had not necessarily said the final word on symphonic form – Brahms would dash out the Second Symphony during the summer of the following year.
Written in Portschach, an enchanting Austrian resort village on the shores of the Worthersee, the new symphony apparently gave its composer little trouble, a fact the modest Brahms attributed to the beauty of his surroundings.
By mid-summer work was proceeding so well that he could afford to write teasing, self-mocking letters to his friends. “You have only to sit at the piano,” he instructed Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, “put your small feet on the two pedals in turn, and strike the chord of F minor several times in succession, first in the treble, then in the bass (ff and pp), and you will gradually gain a vivid impression of my “latest.”
The musical and emotional resemblance of Brahm’sSecond Symphony to Beethoven’s“Pastoral” has not been lost on listeners over the years, any more than it was on the audience which heard it for the first time on December 30th, 1877 at a Vienna Philharmonic concert conducted by Hans Richter.
Brahms ardent champion, the powerful Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick could report: “Seldom has there been such a cordial public expression of pleasure in a new composition. Brahams’sSymphony No. 1was a work for earnest connoisseurs capable of constant and microscopic pursuit of its minutely ramified excursions, the Symphony No. 2 extends its warm sunshine to connoisseurs and laymen alike.”
For all its outward geniality, the lengthiest of Brahms’s symphonies is a work which conceals unexpected depths of seriousness and dark introspection; and for all its apparent effortlessness, it is one of the most rigorously organized of all Brahms’s works.
For instance, almost all of the Symphony’s thematic material grows from the simple three-note figure in the cellos and basses heard at the beginning of the opening Allegro non troppo. Several preliminary transformations of this motif lead to the flowing theme in the first violins which launches the first movement proper. A secondary theme, again derived from the three-note kernel and tinged with unfulfillable longing, is heard in the cellos and violas.
The dark voices of the cellos also dominate the opening of the Adagio non troppo, one of the most sorrowful major key movements in the symphonic literature. The horn, flutes and oboes take up the cellos’ song, reshaping it into a second theme which, with the first, undergoes an expansive and luxuriant development.
In place of the traditional Scherzo, the Symphony’s third movement is a curious hybrid structure perhaps best described as an Intermezzo in Scherzo form. The delicately scored principal theme alternates with two faster episodes of exceptional grace and lightness; all are thematically related and all derive from the Symphony’s germinating three-note cell.
A reference to the same motto begins the energetic Finale. Three principal themes are presented, developed, altered and reconfigured in rapid succession. While this good-natured cascase of notes is in fact one of the most intricately worked-out of the composer’s inventions, most attempts at closer analysis are usually swept away by the blaze of D major sunlight in which the Symphony ends.
ACADEMIC FESTIVAL OVERTURE, OPUS 80
When the University of Breslau conferred an honorary doctoral degree on Johannes Brahms in March of 1879, they expected – at very least – a symphony from the grateful composer.
The composer, who had become a proficient pianist in some of the more fashionable establishments of the red-light district in Hamburg, decided to return the favor with what he called “a jolly potpourri of student songs a la Suppe.”
Written in 1880, the same year which saw the composition of the grimly serious Tragic Overture, his “SuppePotpourri“ reveals a side of Brahms’s musical personality which he rarely displayed. For apart from the Finale of the Second Symphony, a few of the songs, and the virtually unknown Triumphlied– a festive occasional work written to celebrate the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War – the Academic Festival Overture is one of that handful of pieces in which Brahms abandons his celebrated mood of “autumnal melancholy” and gives his considerable sense of humor free reign.
While the Overturemost certainly is a “jolly potpourri” based on four traditional German university songs, it has little in common with Suppe’s irresistible, but feather-weight Light Cavalry or Poet and Peasant. It is a superbly fashioned and amusingly “academic” sonata-allegro movement which both impressed and befuddled the University’s Rector, Senate and Faculty when Brahms presented it to them on January 4th, 1881.
The pompous introduction, in which the surly mutterings of bearded professors might be heard, concludes with a hymn-like setting of the first of the Overture’sprincipal themes, “Wir hatten bebauet ein staffliches Haus,” a song whose revolutionary sentiments caused it to be banned in Germany throughout much of the 19th century.
Two dramatically contrasting themes are now introduced: the patriotic “Der Landesvater,” first heard in the second violins, and the comic Freshman hazing ditty – whose presence in the Overturescandalized its first audience – “Was kommt dort von der Hoh?” – announced by a pair of jovial bassoons.
A brief development of all the major themes leads to a magisterial coda based on the celebrated “Gaudeamus igitur,” which Brahms decks out in the most resplendent orchestral fabric he would ever employ.
Curiously enough, Brahms despised the title of the piece. For years he tried to think of something better than Academic Festival Overture, but apparently never could.
1-4: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 73 [39:38]
5: Akademische Festouverture, Opus 80 [9:38]
Fantastic performance and recording – but really, I’m just doing time until we get to my favorite Brahms symphony – No. 3!
Recorded at the studios of Radio Breme on April 1985 and in Paris (salle Adyar) on July 1985 following a recital given by Levinas on October 13, 1984
My battered, scratched and skipping 30-year-old recording actually enhances the craziness of these rarely played disjointed and dissonant pieces.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES FROM 1985 – A LOT HAS CHANGED SINCE THEN (in French – translated by Google Translate):
Pierre Boulez was born in Montbrison (Loire) in 1925.
He moved to Paris in 1942 to devote himself to music. In 1945 he studied composition with Olivier Messiaen and Rene Leibowitz (twelve-tone technique) . A year later, he became director of music at the Scene de Renaud-Barrault Company.
In 1954, he founded the Concerts du Petit Marigny, then the Domaine Musical. Between 1955 and 1960, he lectured in Darmstadt analysis, and until 1966 taught analysis, composition and conducting at the Musik Akademie Basel . He was also a visiting professor at Harvard University.
From 1965 his activity as a conductor takes a preponderant place and he directed in 1976 Wagner’s Ring Cycleat the centenary of Bayreuth.
Pierre Boulez is also the President of IRCAM, director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and professor at the College de France.
Boulez: Piano Sonata No. 1
This work was written in 1946 and performed by Yvette Grimaud the same year.
For fundamental analysis of the Sonata, which includes two movements, it is necessary to refer to the now classic book Cominique Jameux.
Olivier Messiaen was born in 1908 in Avignon.
In 1919, he entered the Paris Conservatory. M. Emmanuel, M. Dupre and P. Dukas are its main masters.
In 1931, he becomes the main organ player in the Church of the Trinity in Paris.
In 1936, he founded the group Jeune France with A. Jolivet, Daniel Lesur and Y. Baudrier.
In 1942, he was appointed to the Paris Conservatory, where he successively taught harmony and analysis, aesthetics and rhythm.
Starting in 1966, he taught composition – P. Boulez, P. Henry, G. Amy, K. Stockhausen and L. Xenakis among his students.
Olivier Messiaen is interested in rhythm, studying the rhythmic systems of India and Greece , and to the singing birds he patiently noted during his many trips: two sources of inspiration often presented in his work, which also testifies of a Christian faith constantly underlying .
Regard de L’esprit de Joie (Regard the Spirit of Joy)
Les Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jesus are inspired by the contemplation of the Child God of the crib and looks that land on him from the unspeakable gaze of God the Father.
Rene Koering was born in Andlau (Alsace ) in 1940. He studied music in Darmstadt until 1960.
In 1961, he became director of the Musiktage de Donaueschingen
His works (symphonic music, concertos, electroacoustic works, chamber music and operas) were performed at various festivals .
Since 1971, he taught at the Beaux-Arts. He was also Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music, and also has important functions at Radio France.
1-2: Pierre Boulez: Piano Sonata No. 1 [9:42]
3: Olivier Messiaen: Regard de L’Esprit de Joie” [10:07]
4: Rene Koering: Piano Sonata [23:26]
There really is not much to add – other than Google Translate is pretty spotty – either that or the original French notes are written by a second grader. No matter, hopefully you get the gist of it.
This is a French-produced disc (Ades Records) of pretty poor quality – thus the low rating below.
Borodin String Quartet (Mikhail Kopelman – violin; Andrei Abramenkov – violin; Dmitri Shebalin – viola; Valentin Berlinsky – cello)
Recorded in 1980 by Melodiya in the USSR (Released in the US by EMI in 1987)
It was “Kismet” that full-time scientist and part-time composer Alexander Borodin should write these exquisite string quartets! (see what I did there?)
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by John Warrack, 1982):
When Tchaikovsky and Borodin wrote their string quartets in the 1870s – Tchaikovsky’s three between 1871 and 1878, Borodin’s first between 1873 and 1879 – they were entering virgin territory.
Though both had written a good deal of chamber music as young men, these works were for the most part either student efforts or pieces conceived in a fairly unassuming manner for amateur entertainment.
The Russian string quartet, as a genre, did not exist. There were previous attempts – even Glinka completed a quartet, though he did not think much of it – but in Russian musicians’ endless debates on the course their art should take, the quartet did not play a large part.
The foundation of the Russian Musical Society in 1859 gave an enormous impetus to Russian musical life. Chamber music featured in the Society’s programmes; and new interest in the string quartet followed upon the founding of the Russian String Quartet in 1871.
Its members were Panov, Leonov, Yegorov and the young cellist, later to be a distinguished figure in Russian musical life, Alexander Kuznetsov. Tchaikovsky described them in 1874 as ‘an ideally harmonious ensemble.’ Other players, in St. Petersburg and Moscow, formed more or less regular ensembles; and the effect was to increase rapidly the appreciation and understanding of the classics of Western string quartet music among Russian musicians.
However, Russian composers were concerned to develop their own methods, rather than model themselves slavishly on Western example. More than the virtuoso French quatuor concertant tradition, it was to the Viennese tradition that they turned, despite the natural Russian affinity for Latin rather than Teutonic art; but when Borodin began work on his first quartet, he was clearly anxious to find structural methods that were more identifiably Russian.
The use of folk music, or melodies close to the Russian folk manner, was one immediate stimulus; but Borodin did not associate himself with the so-called Slavophiles, the more vigorously nationalistic of the Russians, and indeed when he showed his first sketches of this quartet to Mussorgsky and the critic Stassov, they were ‘horrified,’ he said.
He may have begun work as early as 1873-4; the sketches were ready by April 1875, more substantial work was done during a happy summer in 1877 in the country, and the quartet was finally completed, with the scherzo, in early August 1879.
The slow gestation can be partly explained by the fact that he was also working on Prince Igor(to which there are some thematic resemblances), also perhaps by the problems of building a novel work in a non-existent tradition.
The first performance, by the quartet of the Russian Musical Society (which had by now changed some of its members) was in St. Petersburg on December 30, 1880; it was a success, the players declaring that they were ‘simply delighted’ with the work.
Borodin’s attachment to classical practice led him to keep to the traditional sonata form structure for his first movement; and indeed after a moderately slow introduction, the first subject of the movement is actually based on a theme by Beethoven.
In admitting this, Borodin did not identify the theme: it is in fact from the finale of the B-flat Quartet, Op. 130. However, the handling of the theme is in no way like Beethoven: the flowing melody is passed around the two violins and the cello with variants of its basic form.
This varied repetition was a device much admired by Russian composers in Glinka, and in many different ways used as the substance of large-scale movements, but Borodin’s handling is unusually free and subtle
It leads to a second subject also in freely-flowing quavers, at first over a shifting drone bass; and only towards the close of the exposition does the music reach any real tension, in the wake of a fugue initiated by the cello. After the recapitulation, the movement ends quietly with a long mysterious coda.
With the Andante, Borodin turns openly to a more folk-like manner, and even, it seems, to an actual folk tune. At the time he wrote the movement, 1874-5, he was helping Rimsky-Korsakov with gathering material for his Collected Russian Folk-Songs; and a song that particularly attracted him in one of the anthologies they searched, Vassily Prokunin’sRussian National Songs (1872-3), was ‘The Song of the Sparrow Hills.’
Borodin used a version of it in Prince Igor, on which he was simultaneously working, and, beginning with the viola counterpoint to the opening tune, the whole Andanteis permeated with variants and reminiscences of the song.
Borodin’s biographer Sergey Dyanin, who studies these correspondences in detail, suggests that the course of the movement is also colored by the words of the song. This concerns an eagle holding in his talons a crow which tells him of a young hero he has seen lying dead, while over him hover three pipits that are his mother, his sister and his wife.
If we wish to follow this idea, the first theme may be associated with the eagle and the crow, the fugato with the pipits, the impassioned ending with their grief.
Dyanin goes further and suggests associations with an imagined story of the young hero: there is no justification for this beyond Borodin’s known liking for background programmes, nor any reason to regard the lively Scherzoand Trioas anything but a brilliantly assured contrast to the somber mood of the Andante.
For the finale, Borodin returns to sonata form, once again prefacing it with a brief introduction. As before, there is a stronger emphasis on sustaining the movement’s considerable momentum by means of varied repetition, and insistence on the driving rhythms, than on any development in the manner of Beethoven.
By contrast with this work, Borodin’ssecond, and much better known, quartetwas written in a short space of time, during a contented summer in the country at Zhitovo.
Increased assurance, rather than this burst of creativity, should perhaps be given credit for the quartet’s greater unity, not only of mood but also in thematic handling. Thus, there already appears in the first subject a dactylic figure (a long and two short notes) which the listener is clearly intended to recall when it occurs more prominently in the second subject.
These two related themes are the substance of the movement’s progress through the traditional exposition, development and recapitulation; but Borodin produces two other fragments of themes – they are scarcely more than figures of four bars each – which serve to shed contrasting emotional light on the main pair of themes.
The Scherzois no less ingeniously put together. Perhaps Borodin thought it difficult to handle a traditional Scherzo-and-Trioin times so far removed from the Scherzo’sdance origins in the Minuet; but he acknowledges the connection by answering his fleeting, almost Mendelssohnian first theme with what is virtually a waltz. These are then made the material of a brief sonata movement.
After the famous Nocturne– a movement much abused by arrangers, and with its ravishing, somewhat oriental tune best presented as Borodin intended – the finale opens with a brusque, Beethovian gesture of question and answer.
Essentially, it is based on the rapidly and ingeniously varied treatment of these two themes (they immediately turn out to work together fugally) and a contrasting second subject. If the repeated question-and-answer interruptions suggest some private references, what matters to the listener is a skillfully and satisfyingly constructed finale, most original in form, to a brilliantly original quartet.
1-4: String Quartet No. 1 in A Major [36:51]
5-8: String Quartet No. 2 in D Major [28:53]
Methinks Mr. John Warrack is a bit of a snob in his notes. If you write CD notes about Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 and fail to mention that some of the melodies became the foundation of a popular Broadway musical (“Kismet” – he even won a posthumous Tony Award!) and an incredibly beautiful popular ballad (“And This Is My Beloved”) and instead just say the quartet has been “abused by arrangers” – you are probably a bit of a music snob. For the most part, nobody would have even heard of Borodin if it wasn’t for “Kismet.”
Recorded at the Unitarian Church in Budapest by Phoenix Studio from July 28-31, 1991
I know very little about Boccherini and don’t listen to a lot of guitar quintets – so the following liner notes should be educational for both of us.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Keith Anderson):
The Italian cellist and composer Luigi Boccherini was born in Lucca in 1743, the son of a double-bass player.
His family was distinguished not only in music, but boasted poets and dancers among its members.
His elder brother Giovan Gastone, born in 1742, was both dancer and poet, the author of the text of Haydn’s Il ritorno di Tobia and the libretti of some earlier stage-works of the Vienna Court Composer, Antonio Salieri.
His sister Maria Ester was a dancer and married Onorato Vigano, a distinguished dancer and choreographer. Her son, Salvatore Vigano, who studied composition with Boccherini, occupies a position of considerable importance in the history of ballet.
Boccherini was giving concerts as a cellist by the age of thirteen, and in 1757 went with his father to Vienna, where they both were invited to join the orchestra of the court theatre. Boccherini returned to Italy, but there were further visits to Vienna, before he finally secured a position in his native town.
In 1766, however, he set out with his fellow-townsman, the violinist Manfredi, a pupil of Nardini, for Paris, having performed with both violinists and with Cambini in chamber music in Milan the previous year.
In France, Boccherini and Manfredi won considerable success, and the former continued his work as a composer, as well as appearing as a cello virtuoso.
In 1768, the pair left for Spain, where Boccherini seems to have lived until his death in 1805.
In Madrid, he was appointed composer and virtuoso de camera to the Infante Don Luis, younger brother of King Charles III. Part of the following period he spent in Madrid and part at the Palace of Las Arenas in the province of Avila, where the Infante retired after an unacceptable marriage.
Members of the Font family were employed by Don Luis as a string quartet and renewed their association with Boccherini at the end of the century.
After the death of the Infante in 1785, the composer entered the service of the Benavente-Osuna family. At the same time, he was appointed court composer to Friedrich Wilhelm, who in 1787 became King of Prussia, providing the cell-playing king with new compositions on the same kind of exclusive arrangement that he had earlier enjoyed with Don Luis.
There is, however, no evidence that Boccherini ever spent any time in Prussia. After the death of Friedrich Wilhelm and the departure of other patrons from Madrid, Boccherini received support from Lucien Bonaparte, French ambassador in Madrid, and remained busy until the end of his life, although visitors reported that he lived all the appearance of poverty.
Boccherini’s style is completely characteristic of the period in which he lived, the period, that is, of Haydn rather than of Mozart or Beethoven.
He enjoyed a reputation for his facility as a composer, leaving some 467 compositions. A great deal of his music is designed to exploit the technical resources of the cello, in concertos, sonatas, and, particularly, in chamber music for various numbers of instruments, including a remarkable series of quintets with two cellos.
The twelve quintets for guitar and string quartet, of which eight have survived, are arrangements by the composer of works written for pianoforte quintet in the late 1790s.
The set of six quintets here recorded (only three in volume 1) were dedicated to the Marques de Benavent, an enthusiastic amateur guitarist.
The first, the only one in a minor key, is in four movements, and establishes the mood, its Spanish elements mingling happily with the idiom of Vienna.
It is followed by a three-movement Quintet in E major, ending in a Polish dance.
The thirdof the group, in B-flat major, returns to the four-movement form, its Minuet and Trio now preceding the slow movement.
1-4: Quintet in D Minor, G. 445 [19:53]
5-7: Quintet in E Major, G. 446 [18:16]
8-11: Quintet in B-Flat Major, G. 447 [21:26]
OK – so Boccherini was a prolific and important dude and his family was crazy talented. I need to investigate why his nephew (Salvatore Vigano) “occupies a position of considerable importance in the history of ballet.” It’s a nice, pleasant disc – brunch music – very Haydn. (Though the guitar is barely distinguishable in this recording – maybe that’s the style or the acoustics.)
London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas – Conductor
Recorded September 1993 – London, Henry Wood Hall
I was excited to listen to this disc again – such rhythmic bravura and musical surprises from Mr. Bernstein!
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by MIchael Barrett):
ARIAS AND BARCAROLLES (1988)
Two of Leonard Bernstein’s last compositions, A Quiet Place (1983) and Arias and Barcarolles (1988) share the same subject: the modern American family.
Arias and Barcarolles, a concert work, gives us fleeting glimpses into a marriage (there are two duets for couples, a wedding scene and meditations on birth and death).
The opera A Quiet Place, written in collaboration with the librettist Stephen Wadsworth is the story of a broken family thrust back together at a funeral (Act 1), showing, in flashbacks, their turbulent history (Act II, which incorporates Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s one-act opera from 1951), and, after the funeral, their eventual reconciliation (Act III).
But the two works have more than a theme in common.
As Michael Tilson Thomas has put it: “Quiet Place and Arias and Barcarolles both show LB as a masterful musical conjurer. He is so amazing in transforming tone rows from angry ostinatos to scat riffs, bluesy ballads or Mahlerian adagios. The music is so clever, yet engaging and satisfying to follow. He was so happy that in these… works he had really conquered serial writing and that he achieved it, not by excruciating study, but by applying his brilliant sense of gamesmanship. If Lenny had wanted to write ‘brainy,’ really difficult music he certainly could have. With his mastery of mental jotto and acrostics, he could have out-puzzled us all. But the essence of music and life for him was communication. His work poses questions and conundrums but also offers solutions.”
After playing Mozart and Gershwin at the White House in 1960, Bernstein experienced a somewhat awkward moment, President Eisenhower greeted him and said, “You know, I liked that last piece you placed; it’s got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all those arias and barcarolles.”
According to Eisenhower’s definition, Arias and Barcarolles at first would seem to be music without a theme; the musical elements are disparate and eclectic: twelve-tone writing, rhythmic improvisation, late romanticism, scat-singing and pure Coplandesque Americana.
There is, however, a theme running through the texts, which is revealed in the opening lines of the “Prelude”: “I love you, it’s easy to say it, and so easy to mean it, too.” We have entered the private and sometimes dark thoughts of a couple, and are off on a musical exploration of different aspects of love.
The “Prelude”‘s accompaniment, spiky, discordant and rhythmic, is periodically interrupted by the impassive vocal line, which seems oblivious to the musical storm brewing behind it.
This idea of turmoil masked by calm is continued in the lyrical “Love Duet,”where both characters sing a random list of everyday questions while narrowly avoiding the deeper conflicts lurking beneath their ironic detachment.
Over constant, machine-like eighth-notes (quavers) in the orchestra – the piece is in 10/8 meter – the couple is singing about the song they are singing (about their relationship!). It defies their categorization, like the music of Arias and Barcarolles itself: (Is it) “minimal music or classical or popular song? All of them wrong.”
“Little Smary” is a bedtime story the composer remembered hearing repeatedly as a child, told by his mother, Jennie Bernstein, who is credited with authorship of the text. The musical setting follows a double course, alternating the mother’s bright, animated tone with the profound emotions experienced by the child listening. There is a despairing Berg-like interlude at Smary’s loss of her little “wuddit” (rabbit), and a brilliant Straussian flourish at her triumphant recovery of it at the end of the song.
After this brief excursion into the world of children, “The Love of My Life” takes us back to the realm of adult reflection through a long, improvistory twelve-tone orchestral introduction. (The notes are indicated, but not the precise rhythms). The tone row alternates mercurially with tonal sections in a variety of moods, including a few measures of hard-driving blues. The song is edgy, obsessive, questioning and, at the end, ironic, subtly quoting the beginning of Tristan und Isolde at the words, “So that was it, huh?”
“Greeting” was written in 1955 after the birth of the composer’s son Alexander, and then revised in 1988. In its rapt, ethereal atmosphere it hovers above the key of A major without ever actually alighting on an A major triad, and ends on the dominant, E. The repose in this song is the eye of the hurricane of emotion elsewhere in the work.
“Oif Mayn Khas’neh” (“At My Wedding”), the setting of a Yiddish poem by Yankev-Yitskhok Segal, is a surrealistic reminiscence of a wedding. Like “The Love of My Life,” it uses a twelve-tone row as a recurring motif, while the music courses through many different tonalities. The song illustrates an essential theme of Arias and Barcarolles: passion can inspire love, but it can also unleash mayhem. At the mid-point in the song, there is a cantorial cadenza. The music then builds from a quiet, slow recapitulation of the opening, accelerating in tempo to a frenzied climax at the end of the song.
“Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight” is an affectionate portrait of Charles Webb (Dean of the Indiana School of Music), his wife Kenda, and their sons Malcolm and Kent (in the original version, their parts are taken by the pianists; here they are performed from the orchestra).
In this little domestic drama, played out at four in the morning, the two rambunctious children are head singing together. Kenda, having scolded them into temporary silence, can’t sleep and takes the opportunity to throw a tantrum. Charles calms her with a romantic memory, they say their prayers one last time, and fall asleep as the children are heard quietly scat-singing once more.
A truculent march begins the piece, which continues in a succession of popular music styles — cool jazz for the children, a virtuosic musical theatre-style patter for Mrs. Webb’s tirade and a suggestion of swingtime for Mr. Webb’s reminiscences.
The “Nachspiel” (Postlude) is a slow waltz, with the two singers humming a descant. Headed “in memoriam,” this final song maintains an inward, elegiac tone, never rising above a hush. The piano version has also been published in a collection of “Thirteen Anniversaries.”
Arias and Barcarolles was first performed in New York in May 1988 in a version for four singers (Joyce Castle, Louise Edeiken, John Brandstetter, Mordechai Kaston) and piano duet (the composer and Michael Tilson Thomas); the version with two voices had its premiere in Tel Aviv in April 1989 (Amalia Ishak, Raphael Frieder, Irit Rub-Levy, Ariel Cohen) and its first New York performance in September 1989 (Judy Kaye, William Sharp, Michael Barrett, Steven Blier).
An arrangement by Bright Sheng for strings and percussion was first performed in New York in September 1989 (Susan Graham, Kurt Ollimann, the New York Chamber Symphony of the 92nd St. Y conducted by Gerard Schwarz).
The orchestration by Bruce Coughlin was given its first performance in London in September 1993, with the conductor, orchestra and soloists of the present recording.
A QUIET PLACE (1983)
After four productions and one major revision, A Quiet Place has still to find a foothold in the repertoire, yet it contains music which is arguably among the most powerful, affecting and lyrical Bernstein ever wrote.
Much of this has been included in the suite, which was compiled by Michael Tilson Thomas, myself and Sid Ramin, who also provided the additional orchestrations. The first performance was given in September 1991 by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.
The suite begins with the Prologue, the musicalization of a violent car accident, accompanied in the opera by the comments of witnesses and onlookers (the chorus); in the suite these are exclaimed by an array of percussion instruments following the contour and rhythm of the original Spechstimme choral parts.
A brass chorale emerges, growing phrase by phrase to reach a dramatic climax. In the opera, it is sung to words from Dinah’s final diary entry, “Give all for love, for love is strong as death.” It is she who has been killed in the car accident, and it is her funeral with which the opera begins. Attending are her husband Sam, their grown children, who arrive late, and family friends.
Silent and aloof through most of Act 1, Sam finally, in an operatic tour de force, gives vent to his rage, guilt and frustration toward himself, his children and his deceased wife (Sam’s Aria). In the suite, Sam’s baritone is given to the trombone, propelled by brilliant, metrically shifting orchestral outbursts.
The response to Sam’s fierce Ariais the beautiful Trio, sung by his and Dinah’s daughter Dede, their son Junior, and Dede’s husband, Francois. They recall heartfelt letters they wrote as children to their fathers. Here the vocal lines of Dede (soprano), Junior (baritone) and Francois (tenor) are taken by solo viola, bassoon and english horn respectively.
The Jazz Trio (“Mornin’ Sun” ) from Trouble in Tahitidepicts the troubled marriage of Sam and Dinah 30 years earlier. The words describe, somewhat ironically, the bliss of upper-middle class suburban life in 1950s America. The light, nightclub-combo scoring of the original has been re-worked in the suite into a Big Band number, giving it symphonic weight.
The opening chorale from the Prologuereturns, this time quietly and without a climax, punctuated only by fragments of the jazz clarinet tone-row from Trouble in Tahiti.
The suite ends with the Postlude to Act 1. Junior is left alone onstage with his mother’s coffin, after one of his aggressive psychotic episodes has effectively cleared the funeral parlor of family and friends. In this wordless scene, in which he becomes aware of his disarray, the music describes his remorse, tender memories of his mother, and anguish of his grief.
WEST SIDE STORY: SYMPHONIC DANCES
Some commentators have gone so far as to call West Side Storythe great American opera that composers have supposedly been trying to write for decades.
Bernstein himself, however, reminded us that West Side Story is not an opera: the denouement is spoken, not sung. And so the work remains a child of the Broadway stage – where it opened in September 1957 and ran for nearly two years – albeit one of its most complex and sophisticated children.
It is a testimony to Bernstein’s gifts and versatility that material from a successful Broadway musical could be turned into a symphonic score which has found a secure place in the standard orchestral repertoire.
In collaboration with the choreographer and director Jerome Robbins, Bernstein created a theatrical world where dance is on an expressive par with song and dialogue. Much of West Side Storyis told through dance, and the choreography generates the essential energy of the action; writing dance music allowed Bernstein to deploy the full range of his compositional powers.
The Symphonic Dances (1960) extracted from the complete work are arranged according to an organic plan rather than in dramatic sequence. In their orchestration Bernstein had assistance from his lifelong friend, Sid Ramin, and Irwin Kostal, who together had recently revised the scoring of West Side Story for the screen version.
The first performance of the Symphonic Dances was conducted by Lukas Foss with the New York Philharmonic in February 1961.
Bernstein’s amanuensis Jack Gottlieb has outlined the action of the principal sections of the Symphonic Dancesas follows:
Prologue: The growing rivalry between two teenage gangs, the Jets and Sharks.
Somewhere: In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship.
Scherzo: In the same dream, they break through the city walls, and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air and sun.
Mambo: Reality again; competitive dance between two gangs.
Cha-Cha: The star-crossed lovers see each other for the first time and dance together.
Meeting Scene: Music accompanies their first spoken words.
“Cool” Fugue: An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility.
Rumble: Climactic gang battle during which the two gang leaders are killed.
Finale: Love music developing into a procession, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of “Somewhere.”
1-8: Arias and Barcarolles (1988) [33:45]
9-14: A Quiet Place: Suite (1983) [22:07]
15-23: West Side Story: Symphonic Dances (1957) [22:10]
After those notes up there, I doubt anyone has made it to the bottom of the blog. But if you did, the video above is a real treat (not from the disc featured – but the “Mambo” from West Side Story is in the Symphonic Dances. This video, conducted by the great Gustavo Dudamel is a real joy!
Recorded live at Hitomi Kinen Kodo, Tokyo, on May 28, 1993 (BBC Music)
What to say about this version of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique that I didn’t say about the last one… oh, yeah… this one is better!
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Robert Cowan):
Berlioz’s semi-autobiographical Symphonie Fantastique grew out of his burning infatuation for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. He had seen Smithson play Ophelia in 1827, and his Symphoniewas completed three years later.
Berlioz himself stated in a programme note that it was his intention in the piece to ‘treat various states in the life of an artist, insofar as they have musical quality.’
It was the first major orchestral work to follow a detailed programme, and broke new ground by introducing the concept of an idee fixe, or recurring ‘motif,’ in this instance representing Harriet Smithson.
Wagner was to learn a great deal from Berlioz’s innovation and indeed his own ‘leitmotif’ is inconceivable without Berlioz’s inspired prompting.
A further revolutionary aspect of the symphony is its five-tier structure.
Each movement has a subtitle that refers to a specific aspect of the programme: the first, ‘Daydreams – Passions,’ reflects wavering joys, fears and frustrations in the face of amatory obsession; the second, ‘A Ball,’recalls happier times, but a chance encounter with the beloved deflates its high spirits; ‘In the Meadows’ opens to the pastoral piping of two shepherds and ends with distant thunder; the ‘March to the Scaffold’ reports the artist’s attempted suicide, his dreams of killing the woman he loved and his death by the guillotine; and ‘Sabbath Night’s Dream’ finds him among spirits, sorcerers and monster, preparing for his own funeral.
Berlioz’s original scoring included an ophicleide (an obsolete low brass instrument, commonly replaced nowadays by the tuba), bells (doubled, originally, by six pianos), an E-flat clarinet, and a pair of cornets, although the cornets aren’t always used in modern-day performances.
The Symphonie Fantastique, or five ‘episodes in the life of an artist,’ was premiered at the Paris Conservatoire on December 5, 1830, under the direction of Francois-Antoine Habeneck.
Another leading pioneer of musical Romanticism, Franz Liszt, was in the audience, and within three years he had undertaken the gargantuan task of transcribing the entire symphony for piano solo.
1: Daydreams – Passions [15:05]
2: A Ball [6:13]
3: In the Meadows [15:52]
4: March to the Scaffold [6:29]
5: Sabbath Night’s Dream [9:57]
This whole bit about Berlioz writing this piece for some Irish actress chick was news to me. And they ended up marrying in 1833 (the liner notes should have mentioned that!). The marriage fell apart by 1840 after Berlioz started having an affair. Harriet Smithson moved out, suffered a form of paralysis that left her barely able to speak and died in 1854. Just another tragic tale from the Romantic era.
(I put pictures of Harriet Smithson in throughout the notes because she is more interesting looking that Hector Berlioz– sort of like Kristen Wiig in this one.)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti – Conductor
Recorded in 1985 (EMI Records)
Symphonie Fantastique – it’s not just the creepy music from the insipid Julia Roberts movie “Sleeping With The Enemy.”
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by James Harding, 1984):
Fifty years ago Berlioz was out of fashion compared with today, and there were far fewer chances of hearing his music.
Writing in the mid-thirties, the English critic James Agate observed: “Two reasons why Berlioz is unpopular in this country – nine-tenths of musical critics have not the ears to hear him, and the public, not knowing whether to sound the “z” or not, is shy of mentioning him. It will be eighty years before the work of this composer ceases to be what the American book reviewer calls a “flop d’estime.”
Add to this the fact that there is, with the possible exception of Le Carnaval Romain, hardly a whistleable tune in the whole of Berlioz, and one can understand the neglect of his music. He has since, however, achieved his right place, and more quickly than Agate’s pessimism warranted.
Yet, as always with this most paradoxical of composers, even his warmest admirers can find something to criticize.
Why didn’t he end the Symphonie Fantastiquewith the Marche au supplice?, Agate inquired. “Sheer composer’s vanity, of course, and some nonsense about finishing the story. Also because, like Wagner, he had no sense of the point at which, in the hearer, saturation is reached. The Marcheis one of the most final things in music, in the sense of bringing a work to an end; there is no more going beyond it than you can go beyond the buffers at Euston station.”
Many other people have thought the same, among them the musician Hippolyte Chelard, a close friend of Berlioz, who believed the Marche au supplice, which the composer salvaged from his unfinished opera Les Francs-Juges, to be the finest thing in the whole work.
What, though, would have been the reaction of an average middle-aged Parisian music lover in 1830 when the Symphonie Fantastique was first heard?
Remember, he would have been brought up on the classical symphonies of Mozart and Haydn. He would have thought Hummel a greater composer than Beethoven who had died three years earlier.
In any case, at that time, with no radio or gramophone records, music traveled much less fast, and a Beethoven symphony was still a novelty in Paris – or, rather, in the eyes of most, an aberration perpetrated by a madman.
How would our average music lover have responded to the ‘programme’ which Berlioz insisted on distributing among the audience?
Imagine his puzzlement at being asked to believe that the music, an ‘episode in the life of an artist,’ represented the feelings of a young man who, hopelessly in love, takes opium and plunges into a sleep haunted by strange hallucinations.
The first movement, Reveries et passions, shows him dreaming of his beloved, an idee fixe which obsesses him.
Then, at a ball, he perceives her in a swirling waltz.
During the third movement, Scene au champs, he finds momentary peace in the countryside but is troubled anew by his unrequited love.
He dreams he has murdered her, and the Marche au supplice takes him to the scaffold.
The Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat features the motif which stands for his faithless love and distorts it into a Witches’ Sabbath where evil spirits gather to bury the artist’s headless corpse and intone a hideous parody of the Dies Irae.
The views of our average music lover were doubtless echoed by composers of the time.
After studying the score Rossini is said to have murmured: “What a good thing it isn’t music.”
When the twenty-two-year old Mendelssohn heard it in 1831 he pronounced it “utterly loathsome.” He added that there was “nowhere a spark, no warmth, utter foolishness, continued passion represented through every possible exaggerated orchestral means….” The Symphonie Fantastique was “indifferent drivel” and “unspeakably dreadful… I have not been able to work for two days.”
Unlike the writer Stendhal, who in 1835 remarked that he had taken a ticket in a lottery which would bring him fame in 1935, Berlioz did not have quite so long a wait.
In his lifetime he was hailed by the poet Theophile Gautier as one of that great Trinity of Romanticism which also included Victor Hugo and the artist Delacroix.
Over the year the technical clumsiness of his scoring which so offended generations of purists has come to be seen as the price paid for a genius whose dazzling originality and fertile inventiveness are at last recognized as unique in music.
1: Reveries – Passions [15:35]
2: Un bal [6:09]
3: Scene aux champs [16:02]
4: Marche au supplice [6:44]
5: Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat [9:43]
While certainly not one of the greatest symphonies of all time (in my opinion), it certainly didn’t deserve the treatment or the reviews of Mendelssohn or Rossini. Do those talentless jerks seriously think they can do any better?
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa – Conductor
Recorded in 1980 (Deutsche Grammophon)
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Volker Scherliess – translation by John Coombs):
If it is true that a recording can be not only entertaining but at the same time revealingly instructive, then that is the case here; it brings together two works of the same genre and the same period; each commissioned by a prominent violinist and composed with his particular technical accomplishments in mind – two virtuoso concertos, therefore, successors to the great bravura pieces of the 19th century, but by no means restricted to demonstrating dazzling violin playing.
Each is, indeed, a work of the highest quality, and occupies a place of importance in the oeuvre of its composer.
(Alban Berg once remarked that a concerto is the “art form in which it s not only the soloists who have an opportunity to display their virtuosity and brilliance, but also for once the composer.”)
The list of similarities could be extended further, but the remarkable fact is that these external resemblances highlight all the more clearly the fundamental contrast between the two works, and between their composers.
Stravinsky’sConcertowas written in 1931 for the young American violinist Samuel Dushkin, who (as is specifically stated in the score) gave the composer technical advice on the writing of the solo part.
Stravinsky said, jokingly, that the Concertoshould “smell of the violin,” and in the event no potential of violin technique remained unexploited.
The element of display is also fascinating in the orchestra, which despite its full scoring always creates the transparent effect of chamber music.
This work is a masterly example of neoclassicism, not reactionary and content with superficial stylistic copies, but creating something wholly new as a result of an affectionate approach to models from the past – often parodistically distorted.
The movement titles indicate a return to baroque forms: Toccataand Capriccio– two fast movements charged with motor energy – enclose Aria 1 and Aria II, both of which are dominated by a richly decorated cantabile line.
At the beginning of each movement the soloist plays the same motto-like chord D’ – E” – A”’, but otherwise the music is not concerned with thematic associations, with evolution from a germ cell or with rising to emphatic climaxes, but with assembling colorful elements in the manner of a collage.
The deliberate avoidance of subjective moods, expression and feelings, instead the creation of music which is refreshingly serene, effervescent and objective, music without a “message” or “idea” (except that of virtuosic playing) – that was Stravinsky’s intention.
It was quite otherwise with Alban Berg.
When the violinist Louis Krasner asked him for a violin concerto in February 1935, he was uncertain at first of the form which the work should take.
The death of the eighteen-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of the brief marriage between Mahler’s widow Alma Mahler-Werfel and the architect Walter Gropius, on April 22 affected him so profoundly that he decided to create a memorial to the girl: he dedicated this Concerto“to the memory of an angel.”
Its layout encompasses several musical layers. Berg based his compositional procedure on Schoenberg’s twelve-note technique, but he used it in an unorthodox manner (his based 12-note row contains major, minor and whole-tone elements), and even combined it with purely tonal music – a Carinthian folk song and the chorale Es is genug in Bach’s harmonization.
These contrasting elements serve Alban Berg’s wish “to translate characteristics of the young girl’s nature into musical terms”: the Concertoas a whole is intended to depict life (1st movement), the struggle with death, and transfiguration (2nd movement).
When at the end a vision of the “angel” is evoked again by the reappearance of its musical motifs, the rare mastery with which Berg blended form and expression, musical logic and a poetic idea, is more than ever apparent.
1-2: Berg: Violin Concerto (“To the memory of an angel”)
3-6: Stravinsky: Violin Concerto
Not a great recording from a technical standpoint – it was the early days of CD production after all (either that or my CD is wearing out) – but the fantastic playing of Itzhak Perlman overcomes any technical issues and makes this a truly fantastic disk. The Stravinky almost feels like you’re listening to something as accessible as Mozart after hearing the 12-tone complexities of the Berg piece.
Beethoven is not the ideal composer for Glenn Gould (as Bach is – as illustrated hereand hereand hereand hereand here) but this is still a rousing, exciting performance throughout and, certainly, never boring.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Marc Vignal – translation by Robert Cushman):
To inaugurate at least two of the important periods of his career, Beethoven wrote a work of vast dimensions in the four traditional movements and applying Haydn’s principles of form on a scale hitherto unknown: on the one hand, the Eroica Symphony in 1804 and, on the other, the Hammerklavier Sonata (No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106) in 1818.
Only three piano sonatas – No. 30 in E major, Op. 109; No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110; and No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111– were written after the Hammerklavier. They were composed between 1819 and 1822 in parallel with the Missa Solemnis, the other major work to which Beethoven was then devoting his time.
As for the Diabelli Variations, although they were started in 1819 before the last three sonatas, they were only completed in 1823, after a long interruption. The year 1823 was also that in which Beethoven did most of the work on the Ninth Symphony. After this there remained only the last five string quartets.
Compared with the Hammerklavier, the last three sonatas appear to mark a return to a certain brevity, even to a certain simplicity. All three are about the same length with, as a common characteristic, special importance given to the finale, which in each case lasts over half the length of the entire sonata.
Nevertheless, although Opus 109 has three movements and Opus 110 four, Opus 111 has only two. In themselves these overall structures were in no way extraordinary, but it is noteworthy that, in both Opus 109 and Opus 110, the section preceding the finale tends to be reduced to the role of an introduction.
The finales of Opus 109 and Opus 111 are in the theme-and-variations form, ending almost imperceptibly in silence (and yet they do not truly seem to end), while that of Opus 110 is a complex combination of recitatif, arioso and fugue (variations and fugues especially preoccupied Beethoven at the end of his life).
By comparison with what leads up to it, the finale of Opus 111 functions as an antithesis.
That of Opus 109 returns to and somehow prolongs the first movement (with the second movement acting as a violent interlude), while the finale of Opus 110 – the only one of the three to end fortissimo – little by little frees the energy previously held more or less in check.
Unlike the Hammerklavierand each in its own way, Opus 109, Opus 110 and Opus 111are constructed in “open” form, and in them we remark a considerable simplification in style and in the working-out, as well as clearer alternations of tension and relaxation. Such alternations, however, are especially characteristic of the composer’s late works. In these sonatas Beethoven confronted time – and eternity.
Begun in 1819, Sonata No. 30 in E major, Opus 109 was finished in the autumn of 1820 but not published until November 1821, with a dedication to Maximiliane Brentano (the daughter of Antonie Brentano, whom Maynard Salomon believes the most likely candidate for the “Immortal Beloved”).
The manuscripts show that the first movement was originally planned as a separate piece, probably for inclusion in the future series of Bagatelles Op. 119. Of the last three sonatas this is the one that is most unlike the Hammerklavier, after which it offers a welcome feeling of relaxation.
The first movement presents a very free alternation of a lively theme (Vivace ma non troppo, sempre legato), of almost impressionistic sonorities, with an Adagio espressivo bearing the traits of an improvised recitatif. The Prestissimo in E minor (second movement) enters without a pause. The third movement (Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo), which returns to E major, opens with a calm, lyrical theme (a kind of sublimated sarabande) followed by six accelerating variations and closing with the repetition of the theme.
Initially sketched in 1819 and completed by December 18, 1821, Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110was published in August 1822, without a dedication. It begins with a Moderato cantabile molto espressivo which is undoubtedly the composer’s most beautiful lyrical movement, setting aside his slow movements. It offers resemblances with Schubert. There are many themes, but they follow one another smoothly.
Then comes a violent Allegro molto in F minor, a sort of scherzo in duple (rather than triple) time. After a normal organ point, everything forms a solid block, as Beethoven successfully performs the miracle of interlocking different opposites: arioso and fugue, profound despondency and elan vital. A solemn recitatif in B-flat minor (third movement or introduction to the finale?) marked Adagio ma non troppo opens this “universe of alternation” and culminates in an A repeated 26 times.
Then rises a song of lamentation (Arioso dolente) in A-flat minor leading to a fugue in A-flat major (Allegro ma non troppo) bringing a respite. When it falls away, the Arioso dolente comes back in G minor, more gasping, more despairing than ever. Ten increasingly powerful, obstinate G major chords try a new sally, and the fugue returns inverted and in G major (a distant key). This fugue is dropped once A-flat major reappears, thereby reinforcing the dramatic, triumphal effect of the final measures, especially since the piano writing here is particularly brilliant.
Completed in 1822 and published during the same year, with a dedication to Archduke Rudolph, Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111has only two, completely dissimilar movements: minor and major modes, sonata form and theme-and-variations form, dynamic character and static character, dramatism and contemplation, etc.
It opens with an introduction (Maestoso) largely based upon diminished seventh harmonies. Three diminished sevenths follow one another and return in the same order as chords at the end of the Allegro con brio ed appassionato and, above all, as a generalized harmonic procedure during the central development.
This development is fugal: the main theme of the movement clearly called for a fugue, but Beethoven withheld using it earlier to provide increased animation in the development.
The second movement is the famous Arietta (Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile) in C major with variations. The theme is very simple, and the working-out moves toward constantly greater simplification – not in the musical or sound fabric, quite the contrary, but as regards the very conception of the theme, which is gradually reduced to a mere skeleton.
After about a quarter hour of the purest C major, we reach a cadential trill followed by a modulation to E-flat major: this passage constitutes the only harmonic motion in the movement and also the only passage in which, from the rhythmic standpoint, everything remains completely suspended, until the return of C major in the final, accelerated variations.
As Charles Rosen points out, Beethoven’s exploration, late in his life, of the tonal universe became more and more essentially meditative.
1-3: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 30 in E Major, Opus 109
4-6: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 31 in A-flat Major, Opus 110
7-8: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 32 in C Minor, Opus Opus 111
An 85 rating almost seems too low for ANY recording by Glenn Gould (he’s Glenn freakin’ Gould for goodness sake) but this entire recording is just so over the top intense that all subtlety is lost on the first notes of the first cut. But 85 out of 88 is still way better than most. I love Glenn Gould!
Sonatas 3 and 7 Recorded Live in 1960 and Sonata 19 Recorded Live in 1965 (Reissued by Leningrad Masters – 1995)
One of those amazing historical recordings pulled from the abundant but badly preserved Soviet vaults, Sviatoslav Richter rips into these sonatas like a great pianist in his prime – if only the recording quality were as perfect as these performances.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (typos included from the original horrible translation):
Born in Zhytomyr on March 20, 1915 during his life, Sviatoslav Richter has been one of the most brilliant pianists in history.
After receiving general musical tuition, the Ukrainian musical completed his training with Heinrich Neuhaus.
He worked for seven years under this great pianist and teacher, his classroom companion being the equally gifted Emil Gilels and he soon made friends with Mstislav Rostropovitch and Sergei Prokofiev.
It has been said that Richter possesses an amazing capacity for improvisation and memory, but the real secret of his success is to be found in his powerful personality, which emerges in a revealing manner in each of his passionate interpretations.
Richter is an artist totally consumed by music. He was awarded first prize at the 1935 USSR Piano Competition.
Always seen as controversial at the time, today the pianist is considered a “megastar” who keeps record companies at a distance and shies away from the concert circuit.
Each time he sits down at the piano, Richter reflects, with a sublime capacity for philosophy, on the fundamental questions and messages which surround the works he confronts in a repertoire which ranges from Bach to Shostakovich.
In this live recording, we encounter one of the cornerstones of Richter’s art: “his” Beethoven.
There are very few opportunities for the record lover to preserve Richter in the music of Beethoven and consequently this record has value as a rarity.
Richter has been captured live in his creative work – an immense, metaphysical and exclusive creation – of Piano Sonatas Nos. 3, 7 and 19 by Ludwig van Beethoven.
1-4: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 3 in C Major, Opus 2/3
5-8: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 7 in D Major, Opus 10/3
9-10: Beethoven Sonata for Piano No. 19 in G Minor, Opus 49/1
I remember being so excited after the fall of the Soviet Union when they opened the previously closed vaults of Soviet recordings. There was so much there. I only wish there was a company that remastered and took care of these precious moments in time. I love the great musicians from the 20th century Soviet Union. Like ballet, music composition, art and opera, they were really in a class by themselves.