Classical Music Thread -

Positron

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A lighter side of John Dowland. "It was a time when silly bees could speak", set to the verse by Robert Earl of Essex. The "silly bee" in the verse laments how she has to buzz and toil, bringing honey and wax to the hive, yet time seems never in her favor. Why can't she be idle like the lazy drones, or climb high like the ants? Hey, even the "fruitless flies" manage to earn friends! She complained to the King of Bees, whose sagely reply is, "You serve Time, but Time doesn't serve you".

So while it might be "silly" by Dowland standards, it is still pretty depressing stuff.

 
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nonvir_1984

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I'm most appreciative you posted the Dowland. It provoked memories that I'd carefully packed away but which although tedious to share are nevertheless bitter-sweet to recall and I realize now, needed an airing.
It enough to say that "When Laura Smiles" is now so politically incorrect but it delightful. I've met modern girls who are actually insulted by it.
It was one of my friend's favorites and mine, as it captured her so well. We spent a winter, surrounded by snow, where our only company was each other, music and poetry and the sighing of the wind through the trees and across the snow riven fields. I prefer the female voice to the male singing this, but my friend preferred the tenor. Here, female voice:

This reverie also brought to mind a poem we could recite and is both the alpha and omega: Cory's Heraclitus:

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
 
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Positron

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Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt called Robert Schumann's only opera, Genoveva, "a symphony with voices". The score is indeed multifarious and often extremely delicate; if it isn't the best thing Schumann has ever written for orchestra, than God knows which is. The story, based on a French legend, is a paltry and not especially engaging gender-flipped #MeToo: Count Siegfried goes on the Crusade and leaves his young wife, Genoveva, to his trusted Knight Golo. Golo drools over Genoveva, who spurned his advances and calls him a bastard. Hurtful truth level exceeded, Golo defames her and accuses her of adultery. Genoveva is taken to be executed, but was saved last minute by her religious devotion.

Here I cue up the very beautiful monologue by Genoveva when she prays for Deliverance in the face of death. Please excuse the Eurotrash production. The conductor here is, again, Harnoncourt.

The Genovera in Harnoncourt's older, audio-only, production (Ruth Ziesak) is better cast than Juliane Banse in this video: more pure and less matronly. Unfortunately Harnoncourt imposes his idiosyncratic Existentialist-Marxist gloss on the characters and cast the roles accordingly. The characterization of the men thus becomes very weak, the casualty of an over-interventionist music director. I adore Harnoncourt and I think he always has interesting things to say, but it doesn't mean everything he says is sensible.
 
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nonvir_1984

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Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt called Robert Schumann's only opera, Genoveva, "a symphony with voices". The score is indeed multifarious and often extremely delicate; if it isn't the best thing Schumann has ever written for orchestra, than God knows which is. The story, based on a French legend, is a paltry and not especially engaging gender-flipped #MeToo: Count Siegfried goes on the Crusade and leaves his young wife, Genoveva, to his trusted Knight Golo. Golo drools over Genoveva, who spurned his advances and calls him a bastard. Hurtful truth level exceeded, Golo defames her and accuses her of adultery. Genoveva is taken to be executed, but was saved last minute by her religious devotion.

Here I cue up the very beautiful monologue by Genoveva when she prays for Deliverance in the face of death. Please excuse the Eurotrash production. The conductor here is, again, Harnoncourt.

The Genovera in Harnoncourt's older, audio-only, production (Ruth Ziesak) is better cast than Juliane Banse in this video: more pure and less matronly. Unfortunately Harnoncourt imposes his idiosyncratic Existentialist-Marxist gloss on the characters and cast the roles accordingly. The characterization of the men thus becomes very weak, the casualty of an over-interventionist music director. I adore Harnoncourt and I think he always has interesting things to say, but it doesn't mean everything he says is sensible.
Shit. Why do I agree with you? I came here to do one thing and have been entranced by the video. Now I have spent time having my soul improved.
 

nonvir_1984

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The Lark Ascending is with good reason one of the most admired and loved pieces of chamber music. Like all musical works of genius, it requires exceptional technical skill but also emotional immersion to play to a standard that elicits the genius of the work and its emotional intensity. Although thought quintessentially English, I have seen it used to evoke grand tableaux of landscapes as diverse as Yosemite and the Alps in Switzerland as well as the Outback in Australia. It is at once timeless and also not anchored to any geography, but evokes the very essence of nature. There are many fine recordings, but still, one of the best is this one, by Iona Brown and the ASMF, led by Sir Neville Marriner.
I have chosen this along with two other pieces to see me from this world, when my time comes.

 

Positron

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The RVW piece that would transport me out of this world is his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

And even such well-known composer here are plenty of works that remain underexplored and underplayed. Take, for example, his Piano Concerto.


It has every ingredient for a smash hit: big-boned romantic statement, melody, wit, virtuosity, and a delicate transparency that rivals Ravel. Yet somehow no pianist wants to pick it up.

And his string quartets. The recording by the Maggini Quartet under Naxos is quite stunning and deserves every reward. Still they didn't manage to persuade any other string quartet to pick them up.
 
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nonvir_1984

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Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Talllis is a favorite. Another is Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.
RVW is superb and I am so glad to have met him and that he accompanies me through life's travails.
It is odd to think that for a long time, many critics did not much care for RVW. Utterly incomprehensible. Even today, i have German colleagues who regard RVW as overly sentimental and excessively romantic. Bizarre, I know. I find I must be in the mood for the String Quartet and the Piano Concerto. The sheer enormity of the thematic swings can be disconcertingly powerful and disorientating.
I must confess to being prone to melancholy and sentimentality. Thought of living but never lived, I guess. These two pieces are most evocative for me, and receive regular outings:

but this second piece is so, ugh, sighs.....

 
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Positron

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Francis Poulenc's magnum opus, the opera Dialogues des Carmélites, is a very cinematic work. If Schumann's Genoveva buries the characterization and plot elements under recondite harmonic relationships and thus rendered the work accessible only to scholars and connoisseurs of romantic music, Poulenc's fault is that he underlines too much, so that at time you can almost hear suspense-film clichés. Still, there is no question that many of his sonic tricks are very clever and effective -- perhaps even touching. For example in the final scene, when the nuns are marched to the scaffords. You hear them sing, calmly and in unison, Salve Regina. The guillotine blade falls. Shocked silence. One second later, the singing resumes, much more ardent than before. The subsequent blade-fall no longer interrupts the singing, and the voices grow fewer and fewer in number until, finally, it is the turn for the protagonist Blanche. Her solo singing -- and her own life -- cut off with the last blade-fall.


Dialogues des Carmélites is also the first in a series of 20-century French operas that deal with fear and overcoming fear -- others include Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise and Marcel Landowski's La Vieille Maison. Incidentally listening to Dialogues increases my disdain and distaste of revolutionaries, and the hypocrisy they hide behind the tricolore. A commissioner tells the nuns, who identify themselves as the servants of God, that there will no longer be any need for servants after the Revolution. Turns out that Blanche has to survive being someone's servant and, because she comes from a powerful family, is mercilessly abused.

Bonus content: Laura Kaminsky's As One has to be the first opera about trooning out. Although whether you count it as an opera, a song cycle, or a monodrama like Schoenberg's Erwartung, is a matter of opinion. Maybe genderfluidity goes with genre-fluidity?

 
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Strine

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The Lark Ascending is with good reason one of the most admired and loved pieces of chamber music. Like all musical works of genius, it requires exceptional technical skill but also emotional immersion to play to a standard that elicits the genius of the work and its emotional intensity. Although thought quintessentially English, I have seen it used to evoke grand tableaux of landscapes as diverse as Yosemite and the Alps in Switzerland as well as the Outback in Australia. It is at once timeless and also not anchored to any geography, but evokes the very essence of nature. There are many fine recordings, but still, one of the best is this one, by Iona Brown and the ASMF, led by Sir Neville Marriner.
I have chosen this along with two other pieces to see me from this world, when my time comes.

The most powerful moment in Lark to me is, at 10:18 in that particular recording, the huge shuddering intake of breath by the orchestra, followed by a gossamer sigh as the lark slides silently down the vaulting air. I'm never satisfied with one particular recording; the Hahn isn't perfect, but she plays that part with superhuman control (as is her style) with very good vibrato on the double stops. English music conjures nostalgia more powerfully than the music of any other nation, I think.

Francis Poulenc's magnum opus, the opera Dialogues des Carmélites, is a very cinematic work. If Schumann's Genoveva buries the characterization and plot elements under recondite harmonic relationships and thus rendered the work accessible only to scholars and connoisseurs of romantic music, Poulenc's fault is that he underlines too much, so that at time you can almost hear suspense-film clichés. Still, there is no question that many of his sonic tricks are very clever and effective -- perhaps even touching. For example in the final scene, when the nuns are marched to the scaffords. You hear them sing, calmly and in unison, Salve Regina. The guillotine blade falls. Shocked silence. One second later, the singing resumes, much more ardent than before. The subsequent blade-fall no longer interrupts the singing, and the voices grow fewer and fewer in number until, finally, it is the turn for the protagonist Blanche. Her solo singing -- and her own life -- cut off with the last blade-fall.


Dialogues des Carmélites is also the first in a series of 20-century French operas that deal with fear and overcoming fear -- others include Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise and Marcel Landowski's La Vieille Maison. Incidentally listening to Dialogues increases my disdain and distaste of revolutionaries, and the hypocrisy they hide behind the tricolore. A commissioner tells the nuns, who identify themselves as the servants of God, that there will no longer be any need for servants after the Revolution. Turns out that Blanche has to survive being someone's servant and, because she comes from a powerful family, is mercilessly abused.

The closing scene approaches melodrama, but is still very effective, and I always admire when Poulenc puts aside his naughty-boy ironic homo antics and doubles down on his Catholicism. The ritual and sincere gesture of that closing scene is very Catholic indeed.

We all know Scheherazade, but I came upon this recording of the second movement recently and was awestruck. The opening violin solo is business as usual, but the orchestra is obviously French: a now-obsolete basson is heard with the opening oratory for the Kalendar prince, and much faster than is usual today, with powerful droning in the strings. The effect is incredible: red dusk, heady perfumes, the flapping of cloaks in a sirocco. I never realised how amazingly atmospheric this passage is supposed to be, and how much styles change - these days the strings are barely audible and the bassoon solo is slow and masturbatory. The penetrative French oboe answering it is also enticingly arabesque, and the movement continues in this exciting, edgy and slightly rough fashion; much more in line, I think, with what Rimsky-Kosakov actually wanted. If you identify this recording, let me know!
 

Positron

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Hmm. Not too keen on the basson but the oboes are delectable. The strings are far more emphatic than what I used to hear and it is very refreshing. Someday there is going to be a historically-informed performance practice modeled on the early 20th century French orchestra.

I must polish off the opera CDs that have been sitting in the boxes for years -- because I'm going to buy more soon!

Janáček's Jenůfa is a very gripping drama, a seemingly unavoidable tragedy that is redeemed at the end by forgiveness. But because Janáček pruned much of the details when he set Gabriela Preissová drama to opera, one needs background information to appreciate the story's full impact. Fortunately the set conducted by Charles MacKerras comes with a detailed commentary by John Tyrell. Without it, we might not know that the shadowy character the Kostelnička ("wise woman"), who in the opera commits infanticide for the sake of her stepdaughter Jenůfa, has lived a hard but honorable life, and that she has just nursed a girl with diphtheria back to health. We would also be baffled by the violent jealously of Laca, not realizing that he has already been disinherited by his brother Števa, and is suffering the indignity of working as an apprentice at the mill that he ought to have half the rights. What's more, Števa the playboy has also stole the heart of his love, Jenůfa.

But in the end, Jenůfa is about the two strong women, Jenůfa and her stepmother the Kostelnička, making the most out of a very difficult situation. Here is the Act II monolog of the Kostelnička: she makes the fateful, horrible decision: the only way that Laca might marry Jenůfa is to kill the baby that Jenůfa has bore out of wedlock with Števa (who categorically refuses to take her).


I have a feeling that the decline of classical music listeners has something to do with major record labels' unwillingness to provide detailed, scholarly notes.

Curiously I find Czech an easy language to follow; I often find myself lost in the thicket trying to follow a German libretto.
 
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Positron

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Before J.S. Bach and his Goldberg Variations, we have the Italian keyboard maestro Girolamo Frescobaldi and his Cento Partite Sopra Passacagli -- A mighty set of 100 variations on a Passacaglia theme.

 

Positron

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I have been indisposed for some time, and alas this visit will be fleeting. But I have music. The selections on this thread are at once thought provoking and highly emotive. I do wonder why it is that some pieces are much loved, such as The Lark, or say, Chopin's Nocturnes, just for the sake of examples, yet other pieces are acquired tastes.
For me, The Lark is such perfection, I can't really decide which passage most presents itself, but suspect the finale, as one imagines one slipping from life. Many recordings of the Lark exist, but few really exceptional efforts. Ionas Brown's recording from over 40 years ago is still my favorite, but I must confess an interpretation by Julia Fischer was superb. The major problem is that too many performers rush the piece, and fail to understand that the drama and emotion lives as much, if not more so, in the pauses and cadences rather than simply the phrasing and hitting the right notes.
I recall that when I first heard Schubert's Death and the Maiden, the first movement was rather too violent. But the second, well, I felt as if I had been struck. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7daW-UBBdKs.
And interpretation is everything. Bach's Cello Suite is well known and much loves, especially No. 1: Prelude. However, I was never satisfied with rhe versions I had heard. They lacked gravitas and were often rushed, not respecting the internal emotional logic of the pieces. Then I heard this version. And I knew, to my taste it was the one:
Sometimes there is so much beauty in the world it is painful. To steal a line.
This morning I was listening to the Concert Program and the wireless played a short operatic piece I'd not heard for a while;
Words are superfluous.
Vale.
 
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Positron

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Nielsen's Helios Overture was written when he was staying in Athens. The music depicts the course of the Sun across the sky. A much less bombastic Sunrise than Richard Strauss's but no less majestic; a less pastoral Morning that Grieg's but the brightness is life-affirming.

 
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nonvir_1984

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Nielsen's Helios Overture was written when he was staying in Athens. The music depicts the course of the Sun across the sky. A much less bombastic Sunrise than Richard Strauss's but no less majestic; a less pastoral Morning that Grieg's but the brightness is life-affirming.

That is majestic. And superb. Thank you. I'd forgotten all about Nielsen and now feel very guilty.
Life is often so hectic that we do not have an opportunity to sense, to see the passage of time.
I may have noted this piece previously, I can't remember. When I first encountered it and knowing the story of its composition - the First War, the death of Rupert Brooke and then the death of the composer (F.S. Kelly) himself, in the trenches later, and the appalling loss of life that is war, I burst into tears. I'd just been through a difficult time, a very confronting time. And this. OMG.
 
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I'm glad that I picked up the double-CD set The Pilgrimage to Santiago by Phillip Pickett and the New London Ensemble, at a fire sale long before I had any serious interest in Early Music. Although this set has been re-issued, I doubt the new package contains the 10-page scholarly essay by Pickett himself.

Pickett and his band drew on a few sources, one of which was Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of over 400 songs complied by Alfonso el Sabio between 1250-1280. The song below, "Non e Gran Causa" ("It is No Wonder") is from that collection. It tells a folk legend of the Castile Region: a pilgrim travels to Santiago to pay homage to the sacred relics of St. James, but on his way he does some naughty things in an inn. His transgression gives the Devil a chance to get hold of him, and, disguised as St. James, the Devil convinces the pilgrim that he must cut off that sinful body part, then slit his own throat. The pilgrim obliged, and the Devil goes merrily with the poor man's soul. When St. James intercedes, the Devil argues that the man sin has damned him to hell. St. James tells the Devil that neither himself nor the Devil is worthy enough to judge, and the matter should be settled by the Holy Virgin herself. Mary absolves the pilgrim's transgression; he is restored to life, and stays pious till the end of his earthy life.


Fans of the Candadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt will recognize the melody as the very one she adapts for the vocalise piece "Santiago".
 

Positron

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Trois Gymnopédies. Erik Satie? How about Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks?


Sounds more Vaughan-Williams than French.
 
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Strine

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Trois Gymnopédies. Erik Satie? How about Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks?


Sounds more Vaughan-Williams than French.
Hicks was quite anglophile - not uncommon in Aussie composers of the first half of the c20th; Grainger was another instance. Harp and oboe were her favourites; oboe being popular with the English since day dot - even Shakespeare plays, e.g. Macbeth, make mention of "hautboys". One exception: Elgar notably preferred bassoon, and often gave the expressive lines oboe is spoiled with to its larger, more melancholy cousin, giving Elgar's orchestration the characteristically dark and sombre sound that set him apart from his contemporaries - Enigma Variations contains passionately masculine bassoon lines, with oboe stereotypically layered on top, but only as a gloss*. Elgar loved bassoon so much that he even played it as a hobby, making him probably the only major composer to have grappled with that capricious forest god of an instrument.

*You'd think those instruments would be paired more often, but Beethoven's treatment of woodwinds was always flutes with oboes or clarinets with bassoons (essentially for light or dark colour, respectively) and of course everyone in the Romantic took his cue. Mozart was much more experimental.

Speaking of English oboe, I'm a bit late to the RVW party, but his oboe concerto was easily the most important rep for the instrument of its century, at least in the Anglosphere (and you can bet Hicks was a big fan of it). It's a great concerto, very much in his style (i.e. nostalgic, image-heavy, and with that mawkishly sweet nostalgia). It explores the oboe's repertoire of characters, in a very romanticist lens (in Europe at this time, woodwind writing in general was more neoclassical and cerebral). The whole concerto is eminently listenable, with gorgeous interjections from the strings when the oboist is taking breaks, but the pinnacle of RVW English sweetness is naturally reserved for the end. It happens around 16min, when the oboe pensively and joyfully comments on the existing melodic material, and then launches into a sublimely tender and bittersweet G major theme, with breathtaking harmonic tension on the 2nds and 7ths and clinging resolutions into the relative minor. The low strings meanwhile are passionately responding before the entire strings launching into the melodic apotheosis of the entire concerto. The oboe then starts being silly - the British flippancy and reserve kicking in ("lol jk") - but the oboe then composes itself for a smiling resolution on a soaring high D.
 
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Strine

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I had Rachmaninoff filed away as a piano fetishist, but I heard this suite on the radio today and had to share. It's Russian Orthodox sacred music, and there's really not much to say about it. The entire suite is lovely, but this movement stands out. Being Russian choral music, the basses are expected to sing well below bass staff. The turn to major after the tenor solo (circa 2:07) is lovely, with the basses like organ pedals far beneath the floating, dreamy soprano line.

What really struck me, though, was the final phrase, when he returns to C minor, starting about 3:01 - when the "joyful light" fades into darkness. It's four bars of music, but I've heard it ripped off dozens of times without knowing it (it's not hard to see why; it has to be one of the most arrestingly beautiful passages he ever wrote). In the last four bars, the interplay of the inner voices is sublime; the 2nd tenor part in particular has a breathtaking fall in the second bar from Bb to F to Eb, with the latter two being reinforced by altos and first bass (the basses in a 7th chord, creating huge resonance) but those three notes are such beautiful voice leading that they draw prominence to themselves from within the texture. The inner voices move together further in the second-last bar, with a last, loving, fading refrain, with 1st bass and 2nd alto forcing the harmony into a sepulchral aug4 (effectively an Fm-maj6 in first inv) for the antecadence (their Ds also clashing with the droning soprano C), and then, with only one faint Eb mediant in the 2nd alto, we get a distorted plagal cadence wherein the third basses sing an incredible C2 and the "joyful light" dims to black. Sorry, that got a bit technical, but if you know your theory it's impressive writing. To be quite honest, I never gave Rachmaninoff enough artistic credit - this jewel of a song has opened my eyes.


 
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