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Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The Legacy of Kings

Yesterday, while driving the highway north, I listened to a favourite album which comes out every year during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  It's a 2-CD reissue anthology of Christmas carols recorded at the world-famous chapel of King's College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.

The King's College Choir has led the famous Festival of Lessons and Carols service every year since 1928, and the service has been broadcast on the BBC (and in many countries around the world) -- every year since 1931.  These annual broadcasts draw audiences of untold millions of listeners.  The Choir has also made a number of recordings of their carol repertoire through the years, and the album I have at hand contains selections from several such recordings.

While the service of lessons and carols was created originally in Truro Cathedral in the 1880s, it can fairly be said that the annual King's broadcast has played a key role in popularizing the tradition of lessons and carols around the world.  In the process, these broadcasts have also circulated some wonderful music that had previously been known and heard only in England.

Listening to these selected numbers from various recordings all at once requires a slight degree of patience, as the dynamic level is apt to jump up or down from one track to the next.  Also, some of the pieces are more distantly recorded, so that the chapel's rich, resonant acoustic is more prominent.  Speaking of prominence, the chapel's magnificent organ is featured in many selections as well.

For North American listeners who have been brought up in churches such as the Anglican or United churches in Canada, some of these carols will be well known.  The recordings contain old friends found in the hymnals of many Christian denominations.  But the real treasure comes in the folk carols, some of which are widely known in Britain but far less familiar on this side of the ocean.

I've spent many delightful Christmas hours singing and playing traditional English carols, and yet this album still provided me with surprises and new carols to augment my Christmas traditions.

Throughout these two well-filled discs, the excellence of singing -- whether accompanied or a cappella -- can be taken for granted.  Not for nothing is the King's College Choir known as one of the leading choral bodies in the Church of England.  Likewise the excellence of the organ playing, in those numbers where it is used.

The second disc of the album concludes with a lovely performance of the Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  This work, for baritone and choir, includes several wonderful folk carols with passing references to other tunes.  It's heard here in the reduced version for strings and organ, and is as beautifully played and sung as all the other music.

If you're not familiar with the rich treasures of traditional English Christmas music, I'd urge you to hunt up a recording or two of this kind, or search online for performances from English choirs -- whether from King's or some other cathedral or college chapel.

And prepare to be enchanted.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Will the Real "Messiah" Please Stand Up?

This is another one of those occasional posts where I share some information about less-known aspects of very well-known works -- in this case, the oratorio Messiah, by Handel.  The information I'm going to be sharing here is well known to most musicians, but perhaps less so to the general public, so feel free to read skippingly or to skip reading freely.  

With Christmas time close upon us, the annual Messiah performances are also well underway in cities and towns, churches and concert halls, all over the globe.  Messiah must surely be the most widely known and most often performed major choral-orchestral work ever composed.  But right in that blanket statement is a huge catch.  Which Messiah?

The most unsimple fact is that there is no definitive or "final" version of Messiah from the composer's hand.  Handel was an impresario and performer as well as a composer, and he constantly revised various numbers in Messiah, as well as reviving former versions of some numbers.  One aria actually exists in no less than six alternative versions.  Not only are there different versions, but some solo numbers are transposed from one voice type to another, while an aria in one version becomes a duet or a  chorus, or a duet with chorus in another.

All these alternative versions were created by Handel to suit the resources, the players, and singers, available to him for each of his numerous performances.  They should not be taken as signs that the composer was dissatisfied with his former thoughts on the subject.  Indeed, Handel was such a monster of ego that it's doubtful whether he could ever have felt that his work was unsatisfactory, or anything less than perfect.

When I was growing up, we all knew what the correct text of Messiah was.  We were completely habituated to the order of the numbers, the voice types assigned to each, and all the rest.  Life was simple in those earlier days.

But the rapidly accelerating pace of musicological research re-shaped our thinking over the next few decades.  We now know that the version which we once thought of as definitive was assembled by the English editor Ebenezer Prout in 1902, while preparing his performing materials and vocal score for the Novello publishing house.  It was he who was responsible for selecting certain versions and rejecting others.

As the research and the authentic performance movement alike gained momentum, the whole question of "Which Messiah?" became harder and harder to answer.  New recordings and concerts alike introduced us to some of the alternative versions.  Orchestral sound became leaner, and choirs in many cases became smaller.  Some recordings endeavoured to reproduce the actual conditions of certain Handel-led performances which were clearly documented at the time.

Even with all this activity, it would take a considerable time to listen through enough recordings to let you hear all the alternatives that exist.  I must admit that I have not done so.  I know of some recorded versions that incorporate some of the alternatives as an appendix.  If anyone has gone the whole hog of recording every single possible version, I have yet to hear of it.

At any rate, here are a few thoughts on some of the alternatives which I have heard. 

"But who may abide" was originally written as a recitative for bass, then rewritten as a singularly dramatic aria for male alto (and there's another version of that aria, in a different key, for soprano as well).  While we usually hear the alto aria version, the traditional practice of having that version sung by a bass is simply bad tradition.  I have no ambition to jettison this gripping aria in favour of another bass recitative.

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion" exists in an alternate form, still as a soprano aria, but in 12/8 time with a delightful bouncing dance rhythm which I quite enjoy.

"He shall feed his flock" is familiar as an alto-soprano duet, but was actually originally a soprano aria throughout.  For me, the contrast of voices and the simple but inspired key change between them works much better.

The original version of "How beautiful are the feet" doesn't appeal to me as much.  In place of a simple and moving soprano aria, there's a shortened duet for soprano and alto leading into a chorus which keeps on repeating the words "glad tidings" and "Break forth into joy" ad infinitum and ad nauseam.  This was Handel's original setting of the text.  In this case, his later thoughts of a soprano aria (also transposed for alto on another occasion) are a great improvement.

The bass aria, "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?," is another dramatic showpiece.  The alternate version in which the line about the kings of the earth is delivered in a brief recitative is fine in its way, but it's a pity to lose the additional florid coloratura in the second half of the full-length aria.

As a final comment on this wonderful music, it always seems a shame to me that so many performances are given with "traditional" cuts.  Handel did not cut, even though he busily rewrote.  After many years of listening to recordings which include a complete sequence of movements, it always comes as a rude awakening to me when a live performance leaps over the middle chunk of Part 2, with its three splendid choral movements.  Even sadder, to my taste, is the regular omission of the soprano aria "If God be for us, who can be against us?," which is one of the greatest parts of the entire oratorio for the sheer beauty of the vocal writing.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

A Great Composer Has Fun!

Over the last couple of dull, rainy days, I pulled out a piece I hadn't listened to for a long time -- too long, really.  It's a masterly example of structure and organization, to be sure, and can be (and has been) carefully analyzed.  But it's an equally strong example of a composer having some fun and laying a few subtle jokes on his audience in the process. 

It's not as if he didn't warn us that legs would be pulled.  The Italian word scherzo means "joke", while "capriccio" suggests playfulness, quirkiness, and whimsicality (think of the derivative English word "caprice.")  Antonin Dvořák's Scherzo Capriccioso, Op. 66 is the kind of music that can put a smile on my face every time I hear it, and not just because the composer is pulling my leg.  The good humour and high spirits of this single-movement work are generated by its overflowing energy, quirky triple-time rhythms, skillful orchestration, and a whole series of beautiful and obstinately memorable melodies that many composers would give their right arm to have written.  

In its modest 12-minute length this piece wanders through an impressive assortment of keys, and these are not irresponsible modulations just for the sake of being different.  I won't get super-technical on the subject, but all the half-dozen different keys that Dvořák journeys through in the Scherzo Capriccioso are clearly related to one of two tonal centres, which in turn relate clearly to each other.  This is why you can feel like you're being taken on a whirlwind tour around the harmonic universe when you've really been safe at or near home the entire time.  The piece is an undoubted tour de force of harmonic flexibility and cunning.

Nor is this startling, because the composer wrote it in 1883 when he was a fully accomplished master of his art.  This work was written between his sixth and seventh symphonies.

So what happens in this Scherzo Capriccioso that makes it so entertaining?  It begins with a B flat major fanfare on horns in a rather odd rhythmic pattern.  After a few tentative dashes at exploiting this figure, the music builds up in a quick crescendo and the fanfare leads off into the main theme -- but in D flat major instead of B flat.  Go figure.  The main theme makes use of phrase-to-phrase switches of orchestration and alternating loud and soft phrases, but eventually makes its way to A flat (dominant of D flat) in preparation for the conventional second subject.

And what do we hear now?  Dvořák gives us a lush and sweeping waltz melody for the strings in -- wait for it -- G major!  Go figure again.  Best at this point to just stop worrying about the keys and the modulations and enjoy this masterly magic carpet ride.

After a few more incidents, the music goes back to the opening fanfare for a repeat of this entire exposition -- but of course a literal repeat would be out of place in such a scherzo.  Some sections get considerably extended and we also hear the first of several passages which highlight the liquid arpeggios of the harp (the frequent highlighting of flutes and harp is one reason for the unique sound palette of this work).

When the waltz dies away for the second time, we now move on to a kind of trio section, a slower song (but still in triple time) sung by the cor anglais.  It's not long, though, before other instruments join in, raising the music's emotional temperature again, and returning to the most robust and rumbustious statement yet of the first main theme.  Even more vigorous sequels follow, including one final recurrence of that gorgeous waltz, until the music dies away to a quiet level.

A horn intones the opening fanfare twice in a slow and mournful manner, and a cadenza for solo harp points the way to the final coda.  This energetic and resourceful crescendo to the emphatic final chords is marked by one final syncopated joke, making us feel momentarily as if half a beat got away from us somewhere along the line.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Lament For A Lost World

Some of the most emotional music ever composed has been inspired by feelings of grief and loss.  That is certainly true of the piece I want to tell about today.

Given the date of composition -- 1944-45 -- and the horrific destruction of the cities of Germany in the final years of the war, I have no trouble interpreting this work for strings as a lament, a threnody if you will, for the wholesale obliteration of centuries of rich cultural heritage and artistic beauty in the culminating firestorms of the war.

The odd thing is that the composer -- Richard Strauss -- may have somewhat covered his tracks by giving the piece the following decidedly unemotional title: Metamorphosen: Study For 23 Solo Strings.

No doubt many people have been fooled by this literary-sounding title, but I for one have no doubt that it is purely a smokescreen for what was really happening in this remarkable piece.  For one thing, the title leads us to expect metamorphosis or transformation yet none of the themes undergoes any significant transformation at all.  The composer's penchant for complex polyphony leads to ever-new and more complex combinations of themes, but the materials themselves remain for the most part unaltered.

Since the composer made no explicit statements, many different theories have been advanced as to just what Strauss meant in this work.  That debate, of course, assumes that he in fact "meant" something particular -- and knew what it was.  But there's no proof that he did.

Although the work as we know it was completed to a commission by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, Strauss had in fact been sketching out a work for a string septet before the commission came, and these sketches were amplified into the much larger ensemble work we now have.

Now, let's just park all of that information and listen to the music itself.

The most striking aspect of this half-hour work is that almost all the thematic material consists of melodic lines that move downwards.  Although the four-chord opening is a rising sequence, it at once leads into a descending scale passage.  The same result happens nearly every time a melodic line line leaps upwards -- almost at once it descends.  Add to this profusion of descending lines the predominantly minor tonalities, and the reasons for the music's profound feelings of loss and pain become clear.

The work opens in a slow tempo, with the strings playing low in their range -- creating a dark sound that will be often heard as the piece unfolds.  Also evident at once is the use of long, singing legato lines with phrase breaks few and far between.  The four repeated notes heard after just a few bars have been tagged as a homage to the famous four-note rhythm of Beethoven's Symphony # 5, but here are played at the speed of a dirge.  In any case, I find the equating of the theme with Beethoven rather far-fetched because only the first 3 notes of a 10-note melodic phrase imitate the Beethoven -- and those are played at about 1/4 of the speed of Beethoven's work (if even that fast).

At about the six-minute mark, a new theme (rising, in a major key) changes the landscape and the tempo as the music gets a little faster.  This lengthy central section contains much of the innovative recombining of melodies.  It also contains passages which are lighter in colour, in weight, and in mood -- due to major keys, smaller combinations of instruments, and quieter dynamics as well as quicker tempi.  Over a space of eight or nine minutes, the tempo continues to increase until an almost frenzied acceleration lifts the music to a high point of excitement.  Then: catastrophe.  Two massive octave-unison chords return us instantly to the slow dark world of the opening, but now played fortissimo with shattering impact.

From here on, there is less of the elaborate polyphony and more of a process where themes are restated in different keys, and different registers.  Gradually the music descends into the lower ranges of the instruments and grows quieter again.  At last, a double bass intones the Marcia funebre from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (# 3), which fits in perfect counterpoint with one of the descending themes we've heard so often -- the theme that begins with the four repeated notes.  The music then descends quietly, ending slowly in utter darkness at the lowest ranges of the instruments.

The significance of that Beethoven quotation was underlined by Strauss: he placed the phrase between quotation marks, and inscribed the words "In memoriam" above it.  Once again, as with the work as a whole, we'll never know exactly what his point or purpose was in doing so.  But in this instance, at least, it seems clear that he did have a point, and that the written note was a late addition when the work was almost complete.

Ever since I first heard Metamorphosen, many years ago (in a recording), I have always been captivated by the sounds Strauss conjured out of his string ensemble -- so different from any of the famous string works of English composers, for instance.  As time goes on, and I become still more familiar with the luminous darkness of this remarkable piece, I find it easier to believe that Strauss wrote it when his whole world-view was steeped in the depths of sorrow and loss.  

Curiously, listening to Metamorphosen doesn't make me feel sad.  Rather, it's always for me an uplifting experience, a kind of musical catharsis.  I think all of us have times in our lives when we need that kind of emotional relief and outlet.  

Even if you don't agree with my interpretation, I think you will find that Metamorphosen is a work of a rare beauty and quality that demand the greatest respect -- in a word, a masterpiece.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fairy Tale Epic Opera

One of the great under-valued masterpieces of the operatic world is a mysterious fairy tale set in an indeterminate, ancient land and centred upon the actions of a group of (almost all) nameless symbolic characters.  The elements of the story are both timeless and very much of the time in which it was created -- a feature which it shares with all fantasy literature and art.

Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The Woman Without a Shadow") by Richard Strauss, to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was co-created by the two artists, working in tandem, between 1911 and 1915-17. Its composition thus overlapped the years of the first world war.  The opera had a difficult genesis, and the first performances in 1919 were not successful.  With time, it has come to be better appreciated as a great example of the composer's musical genius.  Yet Die Frau remains relatively little-known by comparison with Salome, Elektra, and the ever-popular Der Rosenkavalier.  

There are two main reasons.  One is the work's deserved reputation for complexity and opacity of symbolism, the element which von Hofmannsthal was most at pains to incorporate.  The other is the extreme difficulty of casting, playing, singing, and staging the piece, which has confined live performances to few and very expensive productions in a handful of the world's greatest opera houses. 
The opera has no less than five demanding principal roles, all of which must be filled by singers with large, dramatic voices, able to be heard clearly over Strauss' rich, heavy orchestration.  All five have numerous passages at the highest extreme of their voice types -- even the rich mezzo-soprano role of the Nurse often rises above the stave.  

It would take far too much space to give a detailed synopsis of the complex story, so here's a quick little outline of a summary of a synopsis.  The Emperor of the Southeastern Isles has captured a beautiful gazelle which has turned into a woman, and he has married her.  But she is the daughter of the spirit world's ruler, Keikobad, and thus not human.  Keikobad (who never actually appears in the opera) has decreed that unless she becomes fully human by acquiring a shadow within 12 months, she will return to him and the Emperor will turn to stone.

The Nurse who cares for the Empress concocts a demonic plan to trick a mortal woman into selling her shadow to the Empress.  This woman, the Dyer's Wife, is out of love with her husband (Barak, the Dyer) and wishes not to bear children.  Selling her shadow will free her from having to do so.

After numerous plot complications, the two couples are put to the test in Keikobad's temple.  The Empress, in spite of seeing her husband already turning to stone, refuses to take the shadow from the Dyer's Wife, since the Dyer and his wife have reconciled.  Her refusal releases both couples, the Empress is granted a shadow, and the opera ends in full reconciliation, with the Voices of the Unborn Children having the final word.

Even with such a brief outline, it will be plain that there are many truly mysterious and indeed magical elements in the story.  Well, that is certainly within the province of fairy tales -- a realm in which this story unquestionably operates.  There's no getting around the fact that both Strauss and Hofmannsthal regarded child-bearing as the highest happiness of women.  Yes, it's a sexist concept.  And yet, the fashionable belief systems of time, place, and people are easily detected in fairy tales from all times and all cultures.  

This shouldn't mean that we set them aside on that account.  There is, after all, a great deal more to be said in this opera on such themes as patience, constancy, honesty, moderation, and caring towards others -- and by no means are these themes developed in relation only to characters of one gender.     

Richard Strauss clothed this epic tale in some of the most complex and inspired music of his entire career.  On the one hand there are moments of grandly dramatic power: the descent to earth of the Nurse and Empress in Act 1, the scene of the Empress dreaming in Act 2, the catastrophic destruction of Barak's home at the end of Act 2, the banishment of the Nurse to the realm of humanity in Act 3, and above all the climactic testing of the Empress -- a scene in which the singer, in extremity of emotion, has to erupt into a speaking voice instead of singing.  In the end, she cries out her final words:  "Ich... will... nicht!"  ("I will not!") as she refuses to take the shadow.

On  the other hand are such lyrical beauties as the temptation of the Dyer's Wife by a beautiful young man conjured up by the nurse, the watchmen's chorus at the end of Act 1, the singing of the Unborn Children in Act 2, the music which leads the Empress into the Temple in Act 3, and the final magical scene of reconciliation at the end of the opera.

The conjunction of all these elements results in perhaps the most powerful and moving of music dramas since Wagner.  I've never seen it staged, but certainly hope to at some time.  In the meantime, there are always the recordings.

The work has only been recorded in studio half a dozen times, while another dozen or so of live stage performances are available in audio or video form.  If you seek an audio recording, try to find the Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti.  It was the very first recording to present the 3 1/4 hour opera absolutely complete, with none of the numerous cuts traditionally used in the opera house (many of them sanctioned by the composer).  Solti waited for many years, and spread his recording sessions over the years 1989-1991, in order to have his dream cast: Julia Varady as the Empress, Hildegarde Behrens as the Dyer's Wife, Placido Domingo as the Emperor, and Jose van Dam as Barak the Dyer.  Less well known but no less powerful or dramatic is Reinhild Runkel as the demonic Nurse.  The recorded sound is also exemplary, with subtly varying sonic environments clearly delineating onstage and offstage singing and playing.  

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Peaceful Plucking

There's an essentially placid, gentle quality to the music-making of a classical guitar or lute.  Even as the player's fingers are racing up and down the fingerboard, the sounds that emerge always assume an innately soothing character.

It's no surprise, then, that I will turn to this kind of music when I want to have something relaxing and gentle to help me wind down after a difficult day.

A few months back I downloaded (from Naxos) a two-disc set of solo lute music by the Elizabethan English composer, John Dowland (I later discovered that there are two more discs from the same source awaiting my attention).  These pieces are, in the main, short dances or songs for solo voice and lute accompaniment .  Dowland very much followed the fashion of the time by infusing his texts and music with melancholy, sighing, weeping, and other such emotions.

But the result is by no means depressing.  In this purely instrumental collection, lutenist Nigel North maintains a sprightly sparkle in his playing that lifts the music beyond a mere wallow in despair.  In any case, some of the dances are more courtly by intention than personal -- which makes sense when you consider Dowland's years as court lutenist and composer to King Christian IV of Denmark and later to King James I of England.

At the heart of the collection is the cycle which he entitled Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans (the French spelling "pavane" is more commonly used today)The basis for this work is his earlier song Flow my teares.  It's probably one of the best-known tunes in all of Renaissance instrumental music, not least because a number of other composers have used it as a basis for theme-and-variations compositions.  

As well as the "seaven teares," Dowland's volume contains an additional 14 compositions including nine more upbeat galiards (galliard) and two almands (allemande).  These works are dedicated to various royal, noble, or wealthy (one presumes) patrons of Dowland's music.

The sound on these bargain discs is excellent, the lute very clear and present in a realistic soundspace, but not so close as to become clangorous.  Nigel North's playing, including his discreet and effective use of ornamentation, is a continual delight.  I realize that some people might find it a bit taxing to listen to the seven quite varied versions of the Lachrimae all in one go, as they are presented on the recording.  Apart from that the entire set is an excellent introduction to a distant and relatively little-known musical byway -- but a very rewarding one.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Medley of Greatest Hits

Not to worry, I didn't lose interest in this blog.  I just kept suffering from surplus lack of time!

Ironic that I'm back, and writing about another work in the same category and from the same composer as my last post!

But where King Olaf was written by the young Elgar during the years when he arrived at his maturity as a composer, The Music Makers came near the end of his most creative years.  Although it is an accomplished score, with many beautiful moments, it can hardly be called original.

The Music Makers, set to a poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy, is almost as much symbolic of the Edwardian age as the famous Pomp and Circumstance Marches.  The poem itself wavers back and forth between beauty of image and bombast of tone.  It doesn't impress me as very good poetry, but then I have never much enjoyed rhyming couplets -- much less four of them in a row based on the same two rhyme sounds!

But then consider the first stanza; I suspect that it was these deeply-felt themes that most inspired Elgar's composition.
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
 Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

And just for the record, this poem is apparently the origin of the phrase "movers and shakers."

The resulting work has a rather bits-and-pieces feel to many pages.  It hasn't travelled well, and is not even frequently performed or recorded.  Why then dredge it up?  The answer lies in Elgar's compositional method for this work, which brings me to my title.

Like Richard Strauss in Ein Heldenleben, Elgar drew heavily on many of his earlier scores for this one work.  Since this was not something he customarily did, it's fairly obvious that his intention in doing so was to underline musically the text references to the central role of the composer and of music in a truly complete world.  The quotations range from a short four bars of the final climax in the Symphony No. 2 to an entire section woven around and through the orchestral texture of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.

It's that glorious section based on Nimrod that alone, for me, makes it worthwhile to sit down and listen to The Music Makers again.  Well, that, and the intensely poetic setting of that first stanza which I quoted above.  Of course, it helps to have a truly first-rate recording -- not just first-rate in sound quality, but also in performance.  The central role of the female soloist is taken in my recording by Janet Baker.  If there was ever an artist who could make a second-rate piece of vocal music sound greater than it truly is, she was the one.  (She also performed the same magical alchemy on Elgar's earlier song cycle, Sea Pictures).