Classical Music Thread -

Strine

And moth-like stars were flickereen out,
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No one is quite sure why Bohemian Baroque composer Zelenka gave this piece the title "Hipocondrie" (Hypochondria). Let's hope this mildly uplifting music cheer up those who thinks he might have (or indeed has) fallen ill due to covid-19.
We're of one mind: I was just listening to his wonderful double reed trio #5 this morning.
 
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Positron

Bovid-19. Codename: White Yak
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Penderecki died at the age of 86.

And yes there is now a recording of the last symphony he composed: Symphony No.6 "Chinese Poems". The setting of German translations of Chinese poems might recall Mahler, but the idiom of the work strikes me as post-Delius rather than post-Mahler: there is an Englishness in this music. Penderecki has meant his Sixth to be his "Pastoral Symphony" and it seems he did look to the English "pastoral" style.
 
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Positron

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So much talk has been wasted over "the future of classical music": record companies and concertizers want easy stuff, crowd-pleasers. Academics want works they can take apart and discuss in articles and books. And seasoned listeners, like myself, want something that isn't the same-old same-old. The talk has been wasted, because it remains just talk: when it comes to the rare modern masterpieces that can potentially satisfy all three crowds, we are not embracing them with any enthusiasm.

The piece I'm thinking about now is John Corigliano's Pied Piper Fantasy, for flute soloist (doubling as tin whistle) and orchestra. This is a work that I think should now pair with Peter and The Wolf in any CD "for children". It is a long work, almost 40 minutes, but even people with zero background in classical music will not be bored, the composer being so adept at the evocation of scenes and moods that the listener will be naturally drawn in the story. But the fact the music is easy to listen to doesn't mean it is unsophisticated, or that the composer lacks ambition. The opening movement, "Sunrise and the Piper's Song", makes it immediately obvious that Corigliano has no intention to condescend.


"Sunrise". You think Richard Strauss, Grieg and Beethoven, perhaps Nielsen (Helios Overture), Britten (Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes), and D'Indy (Jour d'été à la montagne) too. But Corigliano's sunrise is completely different: it is a dirty, suffocating miasma, musically an extremely dissonant, rhythmically irregular sound mass. You don't expect to hear such sound in music "for children", but of course it is exactly what the story orders -- this is exactly what one would feel walking in a rat-infested village, filled with rot and disease.

The piper himself, represented by the flute soloist, has music that is extremely dramatic. In the cadenza, for example, when the orchestra ("the Rats", which by the way are blessed with a wealth of unusual timbres, all the more notable because it isn't really a big orchestra) falls silence, you can almost hear his mental monologue, "Phew! That was hard but at least they're gone at last. I can finally catch a breath... but... something doesn't feel right.... everything is too quiet....."

Indeed, you can almost shake your head at Corigliano for being too blatant and picturesque, as in his use of faux-renaissance pomp and circumstance in depicting the haughty Burghers who deny the piper's reward, but it is all done with skill and is good fun. Something even more theatrical follows: watch the video to find out what it is.

What is, to me, another masterstroke is that the composer gives the work a very long coda. You would expect the music can end when the Piper has the kids under his spell and they go merrily backstage. But no, Corigliano wants you to feel the sadness of the despondent village. The gloomy mood of the opening "Sunrise" returns, but now as a mostly consonant dirge as the stage goes dark.

I guarantee it will be quite a while before someone writes another work that will give so much pleasure to such different groups of audience. And it is very disspiriting to see Amazon only lists two recordings of the work -- one by the original dedicatee James Galway, and one by the Kiwi flautist Alexa Still (which is the one I have). Can anyone interest Naxos (which is developing its Corigliano discog) in it?
 

Positron

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You may know Albert Einstein was an okay amateur violinist, but do you know that a composer, Bohuslav Martinů, actually wrote something for him?


Martinů is fascinated by the English (rather than the Italian) madrigals and gave many of his chamber works this title. What he saw in madrigals was not so much its formal structure as the freedom and independence of each vocal lines, and this is very evidence in the Five Madrigal Stanzas for violin and piano. The critic in Gramophone was very dismissive of this composition ("This rather mindless work, saved only by the charm of its strong Czech accent"). I don't find it mindless. It may be "salon music" but it is full of charm and life.

(BTW I just hit upon a trove of about 10 old Martinů CDs in the flea market! Which added to the other half-dozen Supraphon reissues I got a few months ago which I haven't yet unwrapped.)
 

Strine

And moth-like stars were flickereen out,
True & Honest Fan
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"Sunrise". You think Richard Strauss, Grieg and Beethoven, perhaps Nielsen (Helios Overture), Britten (Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes), and D'Indy (Jour d'été à la montagne) too.
For sunrises, I think of the Lever du Jour from Daphnis and Chloe, and although it's not explicitly a sunrise, the end of Gurrelieder (Sieht die Sonne).

I did like the eerie sunrise though. It was reminiscent of the opening of Mahler 1; evoking the impersonal, unsentimental hugeness of the natural world. The Rats is a great section; the crowing of the oboe reed is an underutilised sound effect that I'm always pleased to hear. This is definitely a large orchestra though; it's not a Strauss-sized one, but five percussionists, and five horns (with bell raises) are staggeringly heavy scoring decisions in a flute concerto.

The physical acting by the soloist would definitely create interest for the kids, too. I think as a piece for the young, though, there is a concision problem. It's not that it necessarily doesn't justify its length, it's just the narrative development is quite explicit and articulated, instead of symbolic and elliptical. None of the sections in Peter and the Wolf are more than a few minutes long, and they're quite heavily contrasted and broken up by narration. I would also have loved some alto flute by the soloist: I can't think of a more haunting instrument, and it would have suited this perfectly, but obviously that's just my personal taste. It seems conspicuously absent considering the varied and deft orchestration. Then again, it has very bad problems with projection, and in a big orchestra you'd struggle.

What I like most of all is the treatment of the flute. Flute has a great deal of repertoire, which is nice, if you're a flautist. But in American writing it's typecast very often as an eyelash-fluttering molto vibrato sugar stick. Seeing an earthy, evocative use of it like this is refreshing, and I frankly think it suits it more than Romantic-style expressive writing.
 

Positron

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Daniel Varsano's playing Satie's "Gnossienne #1" leads me on an autistic adventure of version comparison:


Listening to this I exclaimed, "Hey what the fuck are you doing with those fortissimos! Why do so many young pianists bang on the keyboard? Terrible: how come Sony reissue this so many times?" So when I look for reviews, I was quite surprised to see Varsano's Satie to be quite highly regarded. I don't have that much Satie in my collection; I have loads of Ravel and Debussy but I really don't have that much Satie. My go-to version has always been Ciccolini's digital cycle. And guess what? He also bangs; I just somehow never noticed it!

Turning to the much-maligned traversal by Reinbert de Leeuw. People rightly find his slow speed problematic, but he doesn't bang:
Though compared with the "bangers", this sounds positively elevator music.

Bill Quist's version was the one I grew up with. Listening to it after all these years, the quick tempo sounds almost comical. The speed has the benefit of keeping the melodic line taut, but the lack of timbal variety makes his version uninteresting.

Pascal Rogé -- I actually had the pleasure of listening to him play this music in concert -- does most thing right. Isn't that half-veiled piano tone fabulous? Yet, this time, what disturbes me is his pianissmo (1:45)!

Jean-Yves Thibaudet's cycle was met with a lukewarm reception. I'd say it is middle-of-the-road, more reticent than Rogé or Ciccolini, but the sonority is quite beautiful.

So what should I make of Varsano at the end? Well, when I take the disc for another spin, I'm stuck by the beautiful sonority and an almost Bach-like stateliness in his playing. Makes me wonder what would this music sound like under Angela Hewitt. So this disc is a keeper after all, but I think I'll always skip "Gnossienne #1".
 
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Positron

Bovid-19. Codename: White Yak
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From Russia with love. For July 4th this year I bring you Shostakovich's setting of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home", from his Eight British and American Folk Songs of 1944. The bass soloist is Segei Yakovenko. This is taken from Gennady Rozhdestvensky's 14-CD Shostakovich box, which apart from the complete symphonies is packed full with rarely-recorded stuff like this.

 
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