Friday, July 10, 2020

#ClassicsaDay #BlackLivesMatter Week 2

The Classics a Day team unanimously decided to make #BlackLivesMatter the theme for July. Classical music isn't immune to systemic racism. It's an art form that, like painting, sculpture, literature, or poetry, is a powerful form of expression for many voices. But some voices are heard more often than others.

If you'd like to learn more about composers of color, I recommend Music by Black Composers as a starting point.

06/06/20 Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960) Levee Dance

White was one of the foremost violinists of his generation, with career opportunities limited by race. Many of his works draw on African-American traditions.

06/07/20 Charles Lucien Lambert (1828-1896)

Lambert was born in New Orleans, a "free person of color." He enjoyed a successful career as a composer and pianist only after leaving the U.S. in 1854 for France.

06/08/20 Lucien-Léon Guillaume Lambert (1858-1945)

Lucien-Léon was the son of Charles Lambert and born in France. He had a successful career in France, Portugal, and Brazil. But not the U.S.

06/09/20 Adolphus Hailstork (1941 - ) Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed

Hailstork's 1978 composition was written in memory of Martin Lurther King, Jr. He called it "a graveside service for a great man."

06/10/20 Anthony R. Green - Fighting Spirit

Green calls himself a composer, performer, and social justice artist. He writes "when our work is blatantly ignored, disrespected, not studied, and not programmed, our voice is all we have."

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Jaromir Weinberger - Schwanda and beyond

Show of hands: how many played the Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper in their highs school or college band? Jaromir Weinberger's piece has made him a one-hit-wonder. An as with many composers, it does him something of a disservice.

It is true, I think, that in Schwanda the Bagpiper all the threads of Weinberger's style come together. This Bohemian composer was proud of his heritage, and the folk-like tunes of Schwanda show that.

Weinberger also understood musical drama and wrote effectively both for voice and orchestra. The symphonic selections included here effectively set the stage for the story to unfold.

Sections of this suite sound like Hollywood soundtracks -- save Weinberger's 1929 music predates those scores by at least ten years.

The Bohemian Songs and Dances were also folk-inspired, but here Weinberger writes in a more sophisticated language. These dances are quite charming and show Weinberger's skill as an orchestrator.

The Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Palz, directed by Karl-Heinz Steffens has a suitably big sound. Steffens leans into the folk qualities of the score. In the case of "Schwanda," it gives the music a seeming simplicity. For the dances, it adds an exotic element.

To my ears, the orchestra seemed recorded in a bit of a soft-focus; extreme high and low tones lacked definition. This blunted the impact of the orchestra, somewhat.

I can still recommend the album -- the repertoire is worth exploring. The recorded sound just seemed to lack sparkle.

Jaromir Weinberger: Orchestral Works from "Schawnda"
Bohemian Songs and Dances, I-VI; The Beloved Voices Overture
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Karl-Heinz Steffens, conductor

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Second volume of Auber opera overtures distinct improvement

Volume two of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber overtures builds on the strengths of the first. As before, maestro Dario Salvi and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice present several world premiere recordings -- including a violin concerto.

While I enjoyed the performances of the ensemble in volume one, I had some complaints about the quality of the recorded sound. The sound is much improved in volume two.

The ensemble has a clean, cohesive blend. It's a pleasant sound for pleasant music. And these overtures and entr'acte selections pleasantly tuneful and entertaining.

Not all of the works featured here are opera-comiques (as the French defined the genre). Léocadie, for example, involves a continually imperiled heroine. Even these selections are full of melody and good spirits.

For me, though, the standout track was the Violin Concerto in D major. The opening theme of this 1805 work seems to pre-echo Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony. Lyricism, rather than technique, seems to be Auber's focus.

Violinist Markéta Cepická plays with a clear, pure tone. Auber knew how to write a melody, and Markéta's phrasing makes it sing. Her playing in the upper register was particularly poignant and beautiful.

I don't think I've heard any music by Auber that wasn't related to opera. This concerto was a real treat -- and I hope future volumes include some non-operatic works. Really looking forward to Volume 3.

Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: Overtures, Volume 2 
Le Concert á la cour; Fiorella; Julie; Léocadie; Couvin; Violin Concerto 
Markéta Cepická, violin; Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice; Dario Salvi, conductor Naxos 8.574006

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Nikolay Myaskovsky symphonies demonstrate composer's growth

Nikolay Myaskovsky is considered the Father of the Russian Symphony and with good reason. He wrote his first symphony in 1908 after studying with Rimsky-Korsakov. His 27th (and final) symphony was completed in 1949. His works frequently performed both before the Revolution and after it.

For Mysaskovky, the creation of big themes worthy of symphonic treatment -- and their organization -- just seemed to come naturally. This release features his first symphony and his thirteenth.

Myyaskovksy's first symphony was a student work and he revised it in 1921. By that time, he had composed three other symphonies, and his style had matured.

The revised symphony is a well-crafted work. For the revised version (heard on this release), Myaskovsky tightened up the first and third movements, and significantly reworked the orchestration. Myaskovsky's harmonies reminded me somewhat of Scriabin's, and the form, especially of the first movement, seemed quite formal.

Symphony No. 13 in B-minor was written in 1933 and is quite a different work indeed. During the eleven years since his revision of Symphony No. 1, Myaskovsky grew as a composer. The work is in a single movement, organized in three sections. The andante-agitato molto-andante organization inverts the traditional fast-slow-fast organization of three-movement works.

The harmonies are quite dissonant (though Myaskovsky never completely abandons tonality). The chromatic melodies also have a "modernist" character to them. And it was around this time that Soviet authorities accused him of formalism. Myaskovsky would retreat from the experimental harmonies of Symphony No. 13, leaving it a hint of a direction he might have taken had he lived in the West.

The Ural Youth Symphony Orchestra does a fine job with these works. I thought the first symphony lacked a little energy overall. And the middle part of the thirteenth, "agigtato molte e tenebroso" could have used a little more orchestral fire in my opinion.

But maestro Alexander Rubin makes up for that with the intensity of outer movements of the thirteenth. The orchestra beautifully conveys the emotion of the third part, marked "andante nostalgico." So all in all, good performances of unusual repertoire -- a combination that works for me.

Nikolay Myaskovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 13
Ural Youth Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Rudin, conductor
Naxos 8.573988

Monday, July 06, 2020

Majestic recording of Johann Pachelbel Magnificat

To the general public, Johann Pachelbel is a one-hit-wonder. To his contemporaries in Germany, he was much more -- and recordings such as this help us understand why.

During his lifetime, Pachelbel was renowned as an organist and a composer. He was especially adept at counterpoint, something he passed on to his students. One of them was Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Sebastian's older brother.

This collection of Magnificats shows Pachelbel's facility for fugal writing, albeit different than what his pupil's younger brother would come up with decades later.

The Himlische Cantorey, directed by Jan Kobow has a fine ensemble sound. The choruses have clearly defined lines, throwing the counterpoint in sharp relief.

The instrumental forces used are an added bonus. In addition to organ and strings, we also hear brass and tympani. These are indeed majestic magnificats!

Also included is the Missa in D major. This is a Lutheran mass and only consists of a Kyrie Elison, Gloria, and Credo. Pachelbel adheres to the Protestant ideal of simplicity and straightforward expression. Nevertheless, individual voices weave effortlessly together in polyphonic perfection. But never so much as to obscure the text!

Most of Pachelbel's positions involved providing music for worship. This album helps provide a picture of what Pachelbel the church musician provided on a regular basis, and a welcome balance to the anomaly of the Canon.

Johann Pachelbel: Magnificat
Himlische Cantorey; Jan Kobow, director