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!
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.
BBC National Orchestra of Wales – Mark Elder, conductor (BBC Music)
Recorded: Live at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, Wales – January 11, 1992
For some reason, I thought Bluebeard was a pirate story – but, in reality, he is a violent guy who keeps marrying and murdering his wives – and then brings the next potential wife to his castle (think Sweeney Todd with less of a motive).
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
The early years of this century witnessed radical developments in Hungarian music and literature. Endre Ady and Bela Balazs achieved significant reforms in poetry and drama, and Bela Bartok joined forces with his friend Zoltan Kodaly to explore the riches of Hungarian folk music.
Balazs dedicated his one-act play Bluebeard’s Castle to both Bartok and Kodaly, but it was Bartok who responded more readily to Balazs’s potent symbols and storyline.
The idea of male secrecy challenged by female curiosity must have greatly appealed to him: he was, after all, a profoundly private individual whose life was underscored by powerful infatuations and deep-rooted relationships.
All three of Bartok’s stage works – Bluebeard’s Castle, The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin – deal with some aspect of man’s relationship to woman.
Bartok wasn’t the first composer to set the story of Bluebeard to music: Gretry, Offenbach and Dukas preceded him. But the Bartok/Balazs collaboration is unique – in its narrative simplicity, the psychological force that lies behind the characters and in its very personal symbolism.
The drama is internalized, its outward manifestations merely the guides to a whole range of repressed conflicts. The descriptive power of the music equals, indeed surpasses, most other works of its kind; seven doors and seven meaningful spectacles behind them, all reflected in orchestration that is so startlingly graphic that a physical stage set hardly seems necessary.
It is for this reason that Bluebeard’s Castle relies less on its theatrical production than on its musical interpretation.
Although its musical language is firmly rooted among the somber woodlands of Debussy’sPelleas, Bluebeardhas its own spicy tang and graphic impact.
Bartok revised his original score before the 1918 Budapest premiere and continued in effect minor changes up until the Thirties.
In its final form, Bluebeard’s Castleis unquestionably one of the century’s most magnetic operatic masterpieces.
1: Prologue: auguries of darkness and desire [3:16]
2: The arrival [15:21]
3: First Door: the torture chamber [4:41]
4: Second Door: the armory [4:17]
5: Third Door: the treasury [2:17]
6: Fourth Door: the garden of flowers [4:52]
7: Fifth Door: expansive domains [6:46]
8: Sixth Door: the lake of tears [13:52]
9: Seventh Door [9:47]
It’s pretty dark, disturbing stuff – now some of those pictures of Bartok (from previous blogs here and here) make a little more sense.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Sir Georg Solti, conductor (London)
Recorded: Orchestra Hall, Chicago – January 1981
Yeah, now we’re talking – that’s SIR Georg Solti to you, buddy – close personal friend of Mr. Bartok!
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
Bela Bartok, A Personal Note (Georg Solti, London, 1981):
“When I was studying music in Budapest, I was lucky enough to encounter Bela Bartok in very varied circumstances. He was a calm and introverted man, who spoke little, but who greatly enjoyed the company of young people and who was enormously touched by their admiration. Above all things he hated intolerance, dictatorship and fascism, which drove him from the native Hungary he so loved.
First of all, I was in his piano class for a short time. He was a marvelous teacher, who never interrupted his pupils, but let them play through to the end and then took their place to show them how the piece should be played!
A little later, as a member of the jury for the Liszt Academy’s composition examinations, he had occasion a number of times to judge my compositions, which must have been particularly horrible to him!
In 1938, I turned pages for him at the first public performance of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, which he played with his wife. This took place at the Budapest Opera, but sadly only the young people in the audience applauded the work and saw the true importance of such a masterpiece.
It was also at the Budapest Opera that I was able to watch him while he was supervising the production of The Miraculous Mandarin. He was very meticulous and I remember how he would stand in the hall, his metronome in his hand, checking the tempi.
When preparing these two works for the recording, I was determined that the tempi should be exactly as Bartok wrote and this led me to some extraordinary discoveries, chief of which was in the second movement of the Concerto for Orchestra. The printed score gives crochet equals 74, which is extremely slow, but I thought that I must follow what it says.
When we rehearsed I could see that the musicians didn’t like it at all and in the break the side drum player (who starts the movement with a solo) came to me and said “Maestro, my part is marked crochet equals 94,” which I thought must be a mistake, since none of the other parts have a tempo marking.
The only way to check was to locate the manuscript and through the courtesy of the Library of Congress in Washington, we obtained a copy of the relevant page, which not only clearly showed crochet equals 94, but a tempo marking of Allegro scherzando (the printed score gives ‘Allegretto scherzando).
Furthermore, Bartok headed it ‘Presentando le coppie’ (Presentation of the pairs) not ‘Giuocco delle coppie’ (Game of the pairs). I was most excited by this, because it becomes a quite different piece.
The programme of the first performance in Boston clearly has the movement marked ‘Allegro scherzando’ and the keeper of the Bartok archives was able to give us further conclusive evidence that the faster tempo must be correct.
I have no doubt that thousands of performances, including my own up until now, have been given at the wrong speed!”
BARTOK: CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA (Notes by: Lionel Salter):
While Bartok was ill in the USA in 1943, Koussevitzky came to his hospital room to offer him a commission for an orchestral work; in reality this had been urged by Szigeti and Fritz Reiner in an effort to alleviate the composer’s impoverished condition and his feelings of frustration, though this had to be kept secret from him, as his pride would not have allowed him to accept anything that smacked of charity.
The outcome was the Concerto for Orchestra – his last orchestral work except for the Third Piano Concertoand the unfinished Viola Concerto– which was completed in eight weeks and called for a very large orchestra, instruments often being treated “in a solostic manner,” as he said in his initial analysis.
Its first performance in Boston on December 1, 1944 was an instant success. The gratified composer wrote in a letter, “Koussevitzky is very enthusiastic and says it is “the best orchestra piece of the last 25 years’ (including the works of his idol Shostakovich‘).” The last words refer to Bartok’s pique that, while he himself had been neglected, Shostakovich’s“Leningrad” Symphony, with its “ridiculous” march theme, had, owing to wartime feelings, been widely welcomed: the Concertobears evidence of his understandable reaction.
The andante opening of the Introduzionebegins mysteriously with a characteristically Hungarian theme in the bass, built up on the interval of the fourth (which is to pervade the entire work and assume basic importance). A rhythmic theme of declamatory character develops from a flute phrase, and a rising five-note scale spanning a tritone appears, persists, and turns into the opening bar of the ensuing Allegro vivace, which is in orthodox sonata-form.
The first subject contains, in addition to the tritone scale, two rising fourths; and these (the second filled in with the intermediate notes) become the basis of a trombone theme, which is later to be taken up in two fugati.
The actual second subject, first heard on the oboe over a string drone, vacillates between two notes in a curious way. The movement as a whole is full of ingenious contrapuntal resource – including elaborate strettos and canons both forwards and in reverse – and culminates in a blazing statement by the brass of the early trombone theme.
The gay scherzo, in the printed score entitled Giuoco delle coppie, is in fact, int he composer’s manuscript, headed Presentando le coppie. A side drum without snares (in a rhythm about which the autograph reveals that Bartok had at first been undecided) ushers in the instruments, which trip on in pairs; the bassoons in sixths, the oboes in thirds, the clarinets in sevenths, the flutes in fifths, and the (muted) trumpets in major seconds.
The brass, accompanied by the side drum, then pronounce a benediction over the couples in the form of a short chorale (the opening notes of which are ingeniously derived from the closing line of the first movement) after which the instruments return in the same order as before, but this time fructified by additional instruments of their own (or similar) kind pattering along beside them, mirroring their activities or interlocking with them. A final cadence combines all the original instruments, in their initial relationships into a single chord.
The Elegiaharks back to the start of the Concerto, and uses among its kaleidoscopically-presented, folk-like material both the motif in fourths and the “declamatory” theme from the Introduzione.
The scoring is impressionistic – an example of the “night music” which consistently obsessed Bartok – and at the end of the solo piccolo’s repeated single notes recall the repeated xylophone notes in the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
The fourth movement is basically an Intermezzoin which two folk-like melodies of flexible, wayward shape alternate. But halfway through comes a rude interruption. The clarinet forgets itself so far as to wander into a burlesque of the notorious march-tune in Shostakovich’s“Leningrad” Symphony (with a half-recollection of The Merry Widow at the back of its mind): it is greeted with jeers and catcalls from the orchestra, which then strikes up a German-band oom-pah bass over which the violins join in with the tune and are rowdily mocked by the wind; the tuba gives a final elephantine echo of the clarinet’s original lapse of taste.
Order being restored, the serene Intermezzois resumed and, after short flute cadenza, ends with fragments of the first theme.
The Finale, the most considerable and brilliant movement of the Concerto, begins (after a brief horn-call) with a bustling perpetuum mobile in the strings, and throws off numerous thematic motifs, the most important of which is a trumpet theme that is extensively developed: it becomes the subject of a fugue, and is treated in inversion, stretto, augmentation, diminution and every other contrapuntal ingenuity.
There is an abbreviated recapitulation, and the movement ends with a short coda after the trumpet theme has been hammered out in triumph by the full brass.
BARTOK: DANCE SUITE:
The Dance Suite dates from exactly twenty years earlier. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the amalgamation of the towns Buda and Pest, works were commissioned from three Hungarian composers (each in his forties at the time).
These were played at a concert on November 19, 1923, which began with the Festival Overture by Dohnanyi, who conducted on that occasion: his piece has sunk virtually without a trace, but the other two works stand among the brightest jewels in their native repertoire.
Kadaly’s masterpiece, the Psalmas hungaricus, besides evoking a period of tragic strife in his country’s history, also expressed something of his own bitterness at his treatment by politically-motivated adversaries; but Bartok, who had suffered similarly from hostile attacks, and who moreover was in the midst of emotional crises in his domestic life, rose above these to produce a composition whose joyousness and immediacy of impact – not to speak of its brilliant construction – have ensured its lasting popularity.
It was soon taken up very widely – in Cincinnati, Prague, London (at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert) and throughout Germany – and when Vaclav Talich conducted it with his Prague orchestra in Budapest in 1926 the entire work, at the public’s insistence, had to be encored.
1-5: Concerto for Orchestra [I – 9:00; II – 6:05; III – 6:30; IV – 4:01; V – 9:30]
6: Dance Suite [15:52]
If you read through that (very informative, I thought) you definitely don’t want to read anything further from me. Go on with your lives! A brilliant recording and ANOTHER 88!
Maurizio Pollini, Piano – Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Claudio Abbado, Conductor) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Recorded: Chicago, Orchestra Hall, February 1977
After nothing but a diet of Bach for the past couple of weeks, a little Bartok at his chaotic best is just what the doctor ordered – this is an excellent recording.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Paolo Petazzi – translation, Gwyn Morris):
Bela Bartok’s first two piano concertos, dated 1926 and 1930/31, belong to two different stages of the period when he was formulating the musical language of his advanced maturity – a synthesis in which an original reassessment of certain aspects of the European cultural tradition (Bach, Beethoven, Debussy) combined with stimuli and influences resulting from the study of Hungarian and Balkan folk music: in assimilating rhythmic and melodic elements foreign to Western classical music, Bartok did not use them in an ornamental, “exotic” way but as an integral part of a new language.
Concerto No. 1, composed between August and November 1926, immediately follows other important piano works like the Sonataand the “Out of Doors” Suite, to which it bears a strong affinity; these works mark a revival of Bartok’s creative activity after three years of almost total silence.
In a famous statement he made to the musicologist Edwin von der Null, Bartok himself stressed the presence of new stylistic characteristics in the Sonataand the First Concerto, pointing out the fruits of his interest in Baroque music, such as a more striking use of counterpoint than was apparent in his previous compositions.
Concerto No. 1 can also be seen as Bartok’s personal response to certain trends in the 1920s, from neo-classical objectivism to the vogue for solid construction and Bachian counterpoint. But Bartok’s style remains alien to the ironic taste for “pastiche” and “square-cut music”: in its harsh, severe, rigorous conception, Concerto No. 1 reveals a unity and force that are quite singular.
In the solo part, the more strictly percussive aspects of Bartok’s piano style predominate in a quest for violent sonorities, biting harshness, combinations of sounds conceived more as blocks than chords in the traditional sense.
And already in the First Concerto this type of piano writing spurs Bartok to probe the potentialities in the relationship between piano and percussion: in this respect there are clear anticipations of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937).
The use of ostinatos, insistent motor rhythms sustained by constant propelling energy, are what chiefly link the Concertoto other experiments of the ’20s; but Bartok’s way is a highly personal one, a deliberate choice of discourse in the first person (and thus poles apart from Stravinsky and neo-classicism).
The balance between soloist and orchestra, only theoretically akin to that of the Baroque concerto, is brought about within a severe conception in which the orchestral colour is mainly sober and tends more to an essential chiaroscuro (excluding, therefore, innovations in sonority) than to a wide variety of colour, in keeping with the compact form of the entire work, its obsessive unity and the violent, barbaric energy which bursts forth from the harsh, hammering writing.
In the introduction to the first movement, which immediately defines some essential characteristics of the music, there emerges a basic melodic cell to which a great part of the material of the composition is related.
Immediately after the introduction, the soloist states the first theme, the only one which stands out strongly in relief; those that follow are less broad and more like brief thematic nuclei. Hence, even if one recognizes in the first movement sonata-form construction (exposition-development-recapitulation), the logic which determines it is profoundly different from the Classical conception, in its combining and elaborating of the thematic material within a closely-knit, contrapuntal web and its frequent use of the ostinato technique.
The Andante, where the strings are silent, begins with a dialogue between piano and percussion. New and subtle relationships of timbre in this austere meditation open up regions of astonishing originality and profundity.
In the central section of the Andante, clearly constructed in A-B-A form, the piano repeats an ostinato figure which acts as a background to a crescendo traced by the woodwind. A brief transition with grotesque trombone glissandi links the second to the third movement, which is more animated and lively throughout.
A string ostinato accompanies the statement of the first theme; the successive ideas which support a structure tending to the episodic are all variations of a single nucleus. It is possible to detect connections between the thematic material of the first and the third movements, even though these are not constructed systematically as in Concerto No. 2.
In an article which appeared in 1939, Bartok wrote: “My First Concerto… I consider it a successful work, although its style is up to a point difficult, perhaps even very difficult for the orchestra and the public. And so I decided, a few years later, in 1930/31, to compose my Second Concerto with fewer difficulties for the orchestra and more pleasant themes. This aim of mine explains the more popular and easier character of the greater part of the themes…”
This statement should not be taken too literally, but it points to the different style of the two concertos. In the roughly five years that separate them, Bartok had written, among other works, masterpieces like the Thirdand Fourth Quartets and the Cantata profana, and their proximity is discernible in the inspiration of the Second Concerto.
Here, there are certainly no compromising concessions to “easy music,” but it is true that the thematic material presents a more clearly recognizable profile and the quality of expression is more fluid in comparison with the harsh tension of the First Concerto.
Similarly, the orchestral writing provides a greater variety of colours, more lively and vivid – especially in the third movement, the only one in which the whole orchestra is featured (in the first movement, the strings are silent; in the Adagio, the woodwinds are excluded from the first and third sections).
The relationship between soloist and orchestra is also one of slightly less rigorous integration, allowing space for cadenzas in the first movement. The overall construction of the Second Concerto is similar to that of the Fourth Quartet: the first and third movements, with their internal similarities, are symmetrically placed around the central movement, which itself has a ternary construction – Adagio-Presto-Adagio.
In the Allegro, the first theme is obviously inspired by Stravinsky: the melodic shape of the first notes corresponds to the beginning of the horn theme at the start of the finale of The Firebird. Other analogies can be drawn with Petrushka. Such occasional affinities can also indicate how differently Bartok and Stravinsky – in his Russian period – used popular themes.
In Bartok, we note an underlying sense of moral conviction, of familiarity bred of a long and intense study of folk music – in other words, an involvement leading to results far removed from those produced by Stravinsky’s dry stylization.
In any event, Bartok turns to advantage in a most personal way the “Stravinsky” theme in the Second Concerto.
In the sonata-form construction of the first movement (where the recapitulation presents the inversion of the themes in the exposition), there is a lavish variety of invention and modes of expression.
The Adagiois another specimen of “night-music” based on a completely different range of timbres from that of the Andantein Concerto No. 1. In a kind of tense and mysterious dialogue, we hear by turns a slow-paced chorale rendered by the pallid sonorities of the strings and the meditative comments of the piano with arabesques of intense evocative force.
After the first Adagio, a real Scherzo(Presto)leaps into action, light and pungent, with extreme and fantastic mobility; then, the opening episode returns and the Adagiofades away in an atmosphere of uncertainty.
In the third movement, the first theme – with its incisive energy, its hammering, barbaric force – seems to lead back to the mood of the First Concerto.
It is the only really new thematic element in this section, and acts as a refrain whose appearances frame the other episodes, all based on variations of the thematic material in the first movement (it is not difficult, on listening, to recognize the transformations of the “Stravinsky” theme); the movement takes shape as a fantastic, animated and richly coloured sequence of changing inventions articulated in an incisive, synthetic and energetic fashion.
1-3: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 [9:06; 7:52; 6:23]
4-6: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 [[9:37; 11:45; 6:04]
There is some truly frightening moments in these pieces and must say, I got a little scared listening to this late night alone in my office. There is something about piano and percussion that just makes a person a little jumpy.
New York Philharmonic – Leonard Bernstein, conductor (CBS Records)
Come on, it’s good – it’s just another one of those ‘Greatest Hits” packages from the vaults – not quite sure why I filed this one under ‘B’ – I suppose for Samuel Barber.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (uncredited):
Although four of the five works presented here were written in the twentieth century, it is not incorrect to entitle this album “Romantic Favorites.”
(A correction is perhaps due because the full orchestra, and not just strings, performs the Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves.’)
The lush string lines and harmonic and melodic fluidity in many ways fall well within the flavor of the Romantic era, and certainly each work has long been popular with concert audiences.
Composed in 1936 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), originally as a slow movement of a string quartet, the “Adagio” is built on a single lyric subject stated at the outset of the movement. Canonic treatment follows, leading to a fortissimo climax and tranquil close.
This piece was chosen by Arturo Toscanini for its first performance in 1938 and again for programs during a South American tour, the only American work to be so favored by the Maestro.
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) completed his First String Quartet in D Majorin February 1871, and it was premiered that month in Moscow. The second movement, “Andante cantabile,” was the main reason for its great popularity and was Tchaikovsky’s first composition which incurred wide success outside of Russia.
In 1876, a special concert was held at the Moscow Conservatory to honor Tolstoy, who was moved to tears by the movement.
The “Andante cantabile” is in three-part form and is based on the Russian folk tune “Vanya Sat on the Divan” that Tchaikovsky obtained from a carpenter in Kamenka, Russia.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) completed his five-movement Fifth Symphony in 1902. The brief fourth movement “Adagietto” (only 103 bars long), marked Sehr langsam (very slowly), is scored for strings and harp. It is in great contrast to the more turbulent music heard before it in the Symphony.
After its premiere in Cologne in October 1904, Mahler wrote to his wife, Alma, “Performance excellent! Audience immensely interested and attentive – despite all their puzzlement in the early movements! After the Scherzoeven a few hisses! Adagiettoand Rondoseem to have won the day.” The “Adagietto”is perhaps the most immediately accessible of all movements from Mahler’s symphonies.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrong Fantasia on “Greensleeves”in 1929 for his opera Sir John with Love, based on Shakespeare’sThe Merry Wives of Windsor.
“Greensleeves”was a hit song of the late 1570s, and Shakespeare mentioned it more than once in his plays. It was even rumored to have been written by Henry VIII, a composer of many similar tunes. The Fantasiaalso incorporates as a middle section another English folk tune, “Lovely Joan.”
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was one of the most distinguished of early English musicians, a predecessor both of William Byrd and John Wilbye.
Tallis wrote a set of eight tunes (found in the Metrical Psalter of Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury), one on each of the ecclesiastical modes. These date from 1567. The theme utilized by Vaughan Williams is the third in the sequence, in the Phrygian mode.
According to Vaughan Williams’s wife, Ursula: “He took this tune as a theme for a fantasia, using the strings of the orchestra grouped as a solo quartet, a small string band, and a larger body of players: with the Norman grandeurs of Gloucester Cathedral in mind and the strange quality of the resonance of stone, the echo idea of three different groups of instruments was well judged… The audience in the Cathedral that September evening had come to hear Elgar conduct Gerontius, but before that work Ralph stood in front of them, looking taller than ever on the high platform, dark haired, serious, inwardly extremely nervous, and the grave splendour of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was heard for the first time.”
1: Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 [9:56]
2: Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis [18:12]
3: Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on “Greensleeves” [4:56]
4: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: “Andante Cantabile” from String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 [9:24]
5: Gustav Mahler: “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor [11:05]
This is indeed one of those lights-down-glass-of-wine (or four) discs that we all love to play once or twice a year.
Isaac Stern, English Chamber Orchestra – Alexander Schneider, Conductor (CBS Great Performances)
One of the best recordings of J.S. Bach’s music ever made (as long as you ignore all the annoying audience noises in the background).
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (uncredited):
Most of the concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1759) – including the six Brandenburgs– were composed in the years 1717 through 1723, the period of his tenure as court organist and director of the orchestra for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen.
Apart from his prowess as organist and conductor, Bach was an accomplished violinist who had, according Albert Schweitzer, “learned from Vivaldi the perfect violin technique, the art of writing ‘singably’… For him there was really only one style that naturally suggested by the phrasing of the stringed instrument – and all other styles are for him only modifications of this basic style.
In view of Bach’s predilection for the violin, it is all the more disappointing that only three of his works specifically written for the violin have been left to us.
On the often inaccurate basis of stylistic analysis, scholars have postulated that the majority of Bach’sharpsichord concertos are arrangements of concertos originally written for the violin.
True or not, we have to content ourselves with the two Concertos for Violin and Orchestra and with the Double Violin Concerto.
However, this can scarcely be regarded as a hardship. The Double Violin Concerto is a masterpiece, and the two solo violin concertos are like twins divinely blessed.
The very fact that there are only two has worked in their favor. We do not have to contend with the disappointing knowledge that there are some 350 others, equally good and not strikingly dissimilar, vying for our attention – as in the case of Vivaldi, who, legend says, composed violin concertos even during meals.
And it was Vivaldi who was probably the moving force behind Bach’s violin concertos. Bach had already paid the Venetian master the not inconsiderable compliment of transcribing a number of his published concertos for solo keyboard, and, further, he turned a Vivaldi concerto for four violins into a concerto for four harpsichords.
Curiously, all these transcriptions show Bach rethinking idiomatic violin music in terms of the keyboard. When he came to compose his own violin concertos, the harpsichord – with its self-sufficient contrapuntal possibilities and its quick, unsustained brightness – was entirely forgotten.
Bach’s violin concertos are not virtuoso showpieces, as Vivaldi’s tend to be, but are conceived completely in violinistic terms.
In form, Bach takes over Vivaldi’s characteristic three-movement, fast-slow-fast pattern. The final movements of both solo concertos, as with Vivaldi, are giguelike dances. The slow movements are again a favorite Vivaldi device – long candilenas over a recurring ground bass.
Only in his first movements does Bach depart somewhat from the practice of Vivaldi and his fellow composers. The general form is the same.: The orchestra is given a distinctive theme, heard at the beginning and end of the movement and also, in abbreviated form, throughout its course; this orchestral ritornello alternates with passages for solo violin.
But while the solo passages in Vivaldi are often merely brilliant displays of virtuosity with small relationship to the ritornello, in Bach the soloist fully shares the thematic material with the orchestra.
The A-Minor Concerto opens with a playful melody, aerated with well-calculated pauses. In this movement, the solo violin is also lighthearted, moving through a rather conventional series of sequential passages with enviable bounce and aplomb.
The Andanteis an ostinato piece. The ground bass constantly returns to its thrice-repeated low C, giving it an earthbound quality in contrast to the floating solo violin.
The final giguehas a French grace about its endlessly spun-out triplets. The soloist is given real opportunities here in whirling-dervish speedups of the basic rhythm.
The Violin Concerto in E Majoropens with an Allegroin the solid commanding style of the Brandenburgs, with three proclamatory chords that echo persistently throughout the movement. The soloist plays in real dialogue with the orchestra; there is no rigid separation of tutti and solo.
The Adagiobegins and ends with the low strings stating a long, rather melancholy, ostinatobass. Over this, the violin sings a tender song in phrases that seem endless and are virtually devoid of cadential points.
The Allegro assaiis one of Bach’s business-like finales – staid, self-assured, rather “fat” in instrumental texture. The movement, with its alternation of ritornello and solo, comes closer to the Vivaldi ideal of Baroque concerto writing than does the first movement.
The Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and Orchestra was also written during Bach’s Cothen period when the nature of his appointment forced him to concentrate on instrumental music.
It holds a unique position among the many compositions that he wrote for the Court band of some eighteen pieces, for the possibilities of contrasting two solo instruments removed this work substantially from the customary concerto type.
This is particularly true of the slow movement, in which the discourse of the two violins reduces the orchestra to a very subordinate position.
Back too full advantage of the aptitude of the violin for melodic beauty. He set the two instruments against each other in a veritable dialogue, with the orchestra providing harmonic and rhythmic background.
As in many of Bach’s concertos, the slow movement is the point of gravity of the entire composition, flanked by two fast and more or less conventional sections.
1-3: Concerto in D MInor for Two Violins and Orchestra, BWV 1043
4-6: Concerto No. 1 in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, BWV 1041
7-9: Concerto No. 2 in E Major for Violin and Orchestra, BWV 1042
(Sorry, I found no video of the Isaac Stern / Itzhak Perlman recording. Those two hacks above will have to do.)
The “Double Concerto” is featured in one of my favorite movies – Woody Allen’s “Hannah & Her Sisters.” The opening strains of the piece take me immediately to the scene where Sam Waterston is giving Dianne Wiest and Carrie Fisher an architectural tour of New York. This CD is a great workhorse classic and has many of Bach’s “hits” that most people will recognize immediately. It is a well-earned “88” on my piano scale!