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!
Recorded live on September 3, 1981 at the Royal Albert Hall, London
ONE-SENTENCE REVIEW (BEETHOVEN):
OK – so unlike my last review of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (which was awful), this one is a terrific live recording from 1972 – conducted by Sir Adrian Boult – and that’s pretty much all you need to know.
ONE-SENTENCE REVIEW (BRAHMS):
Though the Brahms Symphony No. 2is not a personal favorite (I’m afraid if I would have been present during the performance you might have heard me yawn on the recording), but this is still a great live performance of (in my opinion) a boring symphony and a must listen for any fan of Brahms.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
No liner notes – it’s just another one of those cheap discs (cheaply made – not cheap performances by any means) that came with my paid subscription to BBC Music Magazine in the early 1990s. That magazine is long gone and it was sad when it went away. I used to love to get those surprise discs every month in the mail. Ah, well…
1-5: Beethoven – Symphony No. 6 in F, Opus 68 (Pastoral)
6-9: Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D, Opus 73
Note: These bottom videos are meant to be a really good live recording that I can share and not just the sound recordings of the CDs being reviewed (those are meant to be the links at the top).
Very competent, solid recording. It’s Beethoven as Beethoven should be played and Brahms as Brahms should be played – nothing wrong with that.
So – this is another one of those ridiculous 1990s CD-ROM discs where you could, supposedly, follow along with the score while it played in your computer – but mostly it just jammed and the performances of these discs were always pretty terrible.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
No liner notes but lots of instructions on how to get it to work in your computer. All very complicated and it never really worked. I tried a few of these discs and they were always pretty frustrating but I still bought them because the concept of being able to follow along with the score while a piece of music played was very new and very exciting.
I just wished it would have worked.
1: CD+ROM Data Track
2: Mvt. I: Allegro ma non troppo
3: Mvt II: Andante molto mosso
4: Mvt III: Allegro; Mvt. IV Allegro; Mvt V: Allegretto
But I give you a really good performance below:
It was a novelty and would have been really cool had it worked and had the performances chosen actually been decent. But, alas, these were pretty terrible discs from the Laserlight division of Delta Music Inc. (whatever that is).
New York Philharmonic (Leonard Bernstein, conductor)
Back from vacation – oh, yeah – and starting with one powerhouse symphony that everyone in the world can hum and one forgotten symphony that gets no respect – and, in fact, is actually hated (which is which – do you think?)… regardless, this is a classic recording not to be missed.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (written by Michael Danner):
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Opus 60
This symphony lies like some sunlit valley between the cragged “Eroica”and the mountainous Fifth Symphony. Beethoven composed this work in 1806 during the summer months, it is generally believed, that he spent with his friends the von Brunswicks at their estate in Hungary.
Some musicologists – notably, Sir. George Grove – hold that the Fourth Symphony is an expression of the composer’s feelings for Countess Therese von Brunswick, to whom he was reputed to have become engaged.
“When writing the symphony,” said Sir George, “his heart must have been swelling with his new happiness. It is, in fact, the paean which he sings over his first conquest.
But the Fourth Symphonywas not well received at its first performance, in Vienna, during the winter of 1807. One critic, admitting “wealth of ideas, bold originality and fullness of strength,” still complained of “neglect of noble simplicity” and “excessive amassing of thoughts.”
Carl Maria von Weber, then an aspiring twenty-year old musician, write a derisive article in which he had a violin claim, after a performance of the work, that it had been forced “to caper about like a wild goat” so that it could “execute the no-ideas of Mr. Composer.”
A more illuminating and sympathetic interpretation of the Symphonyis left to us by Sir George Grove, who write that “a more consistent and attractive whole cannot be… The movements fit in their places like the limbs and features of a lovely statue; and, full of fire and invention as they are, all is subordinated to conciseness, grace and beauty.”
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67
In Berlioz’s opinion, the Symphony No. 5 was the first of Beethoven’s symphonies in which the composer “gave the reins of his vast imagination, without taking for guide or aid a foreign thought.”
It seems to come, wrote Berlioz, “directly and solely from the genius of Beethoven; he develops in it his own intimate thought, his secret sorrows, his concentrated rage, his reveries charged with a dejection, oh, so sad, his visions at night, his bursts of enthusiasm.”
The date of the Fifthhas not been definitely determined. The Symphonywas begun in 1805, shortly after the completion of the “Eroica,”but it was laid aside almost at once, and Beethoven presumably did not resume work on it until 1807.
It is supposed that he completed it in that year, though it remained unplayed for another twelve months. The first performance took place in Vienna, at the Theater an der Wien, on December 22, 1808.
Concerts were concerts in those days, and the audience that heard the premiere of the Fifthalso heard the Sixth Symphony and the Choral Fantasy, the Piano Concerto in G, two numbers from the Mass in C, the aria “Ah, Perfido”and an improvisation by the the composer.
Apparently the performances were deplorable, and perhaps for this reason the new works on the program were indifferently received. But the subsequent history of the Fifthwas one of repeated triumphs.
The first movementof this great work is possessed of a wild and demonic energy – “a frenetic delirium that explodes in frightful cries,” as Berlioz expressed it.
The second movement is a noble and melancholy contemplation; in form, variations on two themes.
The scherzoestablished a mood of mystery and terror that remind Berlioz of a sinister scene in Goethe’sFaust.
Suddenly, at the close of this movement, comes one of the greatest strokes in Beethoven, the mysterious bridge passage leading into the exultant shout that begins the finale, a glorious ascent from the darker recesses of the soul to the light of courageous, challenging life.
Note: Mr. Bernstein’s is a complete performance of the Fifth Symphony, with all repeats observed, exactly as Beethoven indicated.
1-4: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Opus 60
5-8: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67
Because Symphony No. 4 isn’t famous and we haven’t heard it a thousand times, it comes off as a little flat and boring while the Symphony No. 5, of course, does not disappoint, especially under Mr. Bernstein’s fiery baton! Classic. Classic. Classic.
The Academy Of Ancient Music (Christopher Hogwood, Conductor)
Recorded at Walhamstow Assembly Hall, London – August, 1985
Even though this symphony, I think, is most effective when performed with the best modern instruments money can buy, this “authentic instrument” recording (thanks, Sir Hogwood) is the standard bearer and generation after generation will forever have this fabulous recording to know exactly how this masterpiece sounded in Beethoven’s day (provided the orchestras in Beethoven’s day didn’t suck).
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (written by Barry Cooper):
Although Beethoven was born and brought up in Bonn, he moved to Vienna in 1792, at the age of nearly 22. Once there, he quickly became recognized as a virtuoso pianist, and he also become wildly admired for his remarkable ability at improvisation.
His reputation as a composer, however, developed more slowly, and until the end of the century his compositions found favor with only a small number of people. But two works did more than anything to broaden his popularity – the Septet Opus 20 of 1799-1800 and the ballet Die Geschopfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) of 1801.
The Prometheusmusic was to play an important role in the genesis of the Eroica Symphony of 1803, and so an understanding of the ballet and its background is essential for a full appreciate of the Symphony. Ballet in Vienna had reached new heights during the 1790s, with several being produced each year; many were new, with music by such composers as Sussmayr, Weigl and Wranitzky, and most were labelled as belonging to a particular type, such as comic, heroic or tragi-pantomime.
Beethoven’sPrometheus, first performed on 28 March 1801, formed part of this tradition and was described as a ‘heroic allegorical’ ballet (notice the word ‘heroic’).
The work was so successful that it received twenty-three performances in less than two years. The finale appears to have been particularly popular, and Beethoven soon took advantage by arranging the two main finale themes as Contretanzefor use at balls (it is sometimes stated that the Contreanzepreceded the ballet, but the sketches indicate that ballet undoubtedly came first).
In 1802, he used the principal finale theme again, this time for a set of piano variations Opus 35; he even requested the original publishers to mention on the title page that the them was from Prometheus, though his request was ignored.
As soon as he had finished sketching these variations, he wrote on the next two page of his sketchbook a plan for the first three movements of a symphony in E-flat – a plan that was to evolve into the Eroica Symphony.
The fact that there are no sketches for the finale at this initial stage suggests he had already decided to base this movement on the popular theme from Prometheus,; thus the Eroicabecame the fourth work to use this theme.
During the next few months, the planned Symphonylay dormant, but Beethoven returned to it in the middle of 1803. He worked intensively on it throughout the summer, as usual composing the movements in the same order as they appear in the finished version.
By autumn 1803, the Symphonywas more or less complete, but he continued touching it up for at least a year or so afterwards and it was not finally published until October 1806.
The Eroicaor ‘Heroic’ Symphony was the first of his symphonies to have specific extra-musical associations. But although he doubtless expected the musical reference to his heroic ballet to be instantly recognized by the Viennese public, Prometheuswas not the only hero he had in mind.
According to one account, General Abercromby (who had been killed in action in 1801) was the hero was provided the initial idea for the Symphony.
More significantly, Beethoven intended to dedicate the work to Napoleon, whom he regarded as the hero who had overthrown the tyranny of the Anicen Regime. He had even written out a dedicatory title page, when news reached Vienna that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor.
In a fit of rage, Beethoven is reported to have torn up the page, exclaiming, “Is he too nothing more than an ordinary man? Now he too will trample on all human rights.”
In a manuscript copy of the Symphonywhich he possessed and which still survives today, Napoleon’s name on the title page is so heavily deleted that there is a hole in the paper.
In the end, the Symphonywas dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz, who not only paid Beethoven for the dedication but also enabled him to try out the Symphonyseveral times at the prince’s palace before its first public performance on 7 April 1805.
The work is thus best regarded as a portrayal of the idea of heroism rather than of any individual; the title page of the first edition leaves the matter ambiguous, stating that the Symphonywas ‘composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’ (‘compsta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo’) – either the memory of the Napoleon that was (before he became emperor) or of any great man.
The concept of heroism is portrayed in the music in a number of ways, most conspicuous of which is the size of the work. For Beethoven, a hero was apparently a larger-than-life character, and so the Symphonyis substantially bigger than any previous one.
In the first movement it is the gigantic development section in the middle of the movement that best portrays the hero, as it builds up to a climax of ferocious discords, followed by a desolate theme in the woodwind and ultimately the triumphant return of the main theme.
The second movement is headed ‘Marcia funebre’ and alternates between minor and major – between mournful melancholy and noble pathos.
In the third movement, a scherzo and trio, the heroic element appears most clearly in the trio, where a theme of uncommon boldness is played on three horns instead of the usual two, giving a much fuller sound. This theme, like many of the main themes in the Symphony, is based on the notes of the tonic chord, a device that contributes much to the heroic quality of the music.
(Some analysts suggest these tonic-chord themes are derived from the two opening chords of the Symphony, but the sketches show that these two chords were very much an afterthought.)
In most earlier symphonies the finale was a relatively light movement, but the Eroicamarks the beginning of a trend towards much weightier finales. This is hardly surprising when one remembers that the main themes of the Eroica finale was an important generating factor for the whole Symphony.
Beethoven did not specify any programme in the finale, but it is tempting to see the movement as reflecting the plot of Prometheus. The ballet begins with a storm, and similarly the finale of the Eroicahas a stormy opening; next Prometheusencounters two statues he has made, and in the Symphony the stiff, unharmonized bass-line that follows the storm could hardly be more statuesque.
Prometheusbrings the statues to life, and Beethoven likewise breathes life into the empty bass-line by adding various counterpoints, culminating in the addition of the tune borrowed from his ballet.
In the rest of the ballet the now living statues are introduced to various arts, while the remainder of the SymphonyBeethoven proceeds to use a great variety of musical arts, including variation, fugue and symphonic development.
The meaning of the ‘allegorical ballet’ is this: Prometheusis a lofty spirit who finds the men of his day in a state of ignorance and civilizes them, making them susceptible to human passions by the power of harmony. Thus it concerns the creative artist, a hero who breathes life into his creations and civilizes those around him. This idea can also be discerned in the gradeur of the Eroica, where the real hero is surely the composer.
It is of course possible to appreciate the Eroicawhile knowing nothing of its connections with Prometheusand Napoleon. But if we are to make progress towards ‘authentic’ listening, which is the logical counterpart of authentic performances, it is essential to be aware that the original audiences would have understood at once the reference to Prometheusin the Eroica, as well as appreciating that the Symphonywas breaking new ground.
It is also important to appreciate the genesis of the work – both its musical and extra-musical origins – so that we can approach it from the same angle as the composer. Such attitudes will certainly enhance our enjoyment of the music, and our receptiveness to the ideas that Beethoven was trying to communicate.
1-4: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major – Opus 55 – ‘Eroica’
Napoleon had to get all cocky and name himself “Emperor” – doesn’t he realize that Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony could have been dedicated to him? What a dumb ass.
Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Bruno Walter, Conductor)
Recorded at American Legion Hall, Hollywood, California, 1959
Now we’re getting into the meat – Beethoven Symphonies 1 & 2 –all I can say is Ludwig van is a talented man… the future looks promising.
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (none):
Another budget disc from CBS Masterworks. They couldn’t even afford liner notes. But here’s a bit of info from our friends at Wikipedia:
SYMPHONY NO. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven’sSymphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21, was dedicated to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an early patron of the composer. The piece was published in 1801 by Hoffmeister & Kühnel of Leipzig. It is unknown exactly when Beethoven finished writing this work, but sketches of the finale were found from 1795.
The symphony is clearly indebted to Beethoven’s predecessors, particularly his teacher Joseph Haydn as well as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but nonetheless has characteristics that mark it uniquely as Beethoven’s work, notably the frequent use of sforzandi and the prominent, more independent use of wind instruments.
Sketches for the finale are found among the exercises Beethoven wrote while studying counterpoint under Johann Georg Albrechtsberger in the spring of 1787.
The premiere took place on April 2, 1800 at the K.K. Hoftheater nächst der Burg in Vienna.
The concert program also included his Septet and Piano Concerto No. 2, as well as a symphony by Mozart, and an aria and a duet from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. This concert effectively served to announce Beethoven’s talents to Vienna.
SYMPHONY NO. 2
Symphony No. 2 in D major (Op. 36) is a symphony in four movements written by Ludwig van Beethoven between 1801 and 1802. The work is dedicated to Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky.
The Second Symphony was mostly written during Beethoven’s stay at Heiligenstadt in 1802, at which time his deafness was becoming more apparent and he began to realize that it might be incurable.
The work was premiered in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on 5 April 1803, and was conducted by the composer. During that same concert, the Third Piano Concerto and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Oliveswere also debuted. It is one of the last works of Beethoven’s so-called “early period”.
Beethoven wrote the Second Symphonywithout a standard minuet; instead, a scherzo took its place, giving the composition even greater scope and energy. The scherzo and the finale are filled with vulgar Beethovenian musical jokes, which shocked the sensibilities of many contemporary critics.
One Viennese critic for the Zeitung fuer die elegante Welt(Newspaper for the Elegant World) famously wrote of the Symphony that it was “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.”
1-4: Symphony No. 1, Opus 21 in C Major
5-8: Symphony No. 2, Opus 36 in D Major
Regardless of what Wikipedia, above, says – I think Symphony No. 1 is clearly a “Beethoven” symphony” and not as indebted to his predecessors (unless we’re talking about length) as others may believe. And no matter how many times I listen to Symphony No. 2, I just don’t get the “hideously writhing, wounded dragon…” It’s just not that violent (but I’m sure that joke killed at the Biergarten after the concert).
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.