"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross."
-- Sinclair Lewis
Sunday, December 26, 2004
[12/26/2010] "Brandenburg"s for the holidays, Part 1 (continued)
The Freiburgers give a highly adrenalized performance of the dazzling opening movement of the Second Brandenburg Concerto.
Before we proceed to the whole of the First Brandenburg, I thought we'd pause to listen one more time to the Menuet and Polacca. It's this last movement, by the way, that sets the First Concerto apart from the rest of this set of six Concerts avec plusieurs instruments (Concertos with several instruments) that Bach dedicated and sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg, clearly with the thought of showing off what he could do. (You never knew what a prosperous man of evident good musical taste might wish to make of to make of "what Bach could do." As it is, just by dedicating these concertos to the Margrave, Bach immortalized him.) As the opening work in the set, No. 1 was "supersized" for "wow" effect with this (extra) fourth movement.
One thing to remember in listening to this movement is the Baroque era habit of repeating individual sections and for building structures in A-B-A fashion, which is to say establishing a musical statement, providing a contrasting section, and repeating the original section. This is how a "normal" minuet-and-trio was structured: minuet, trio, repeat of minuet (with all the individual sections repeated). Here Bach expands the idea by working in the polacca with its trio, meanwhile continuing to repeat the minuet section.
In this performance, conducted by the fine violinist Josef Suk (who plays the violin solos in the earlier movements, the ones we're not hearing [ah, breaking development: check the "bonus" section below!]), Trio II -- taken at a deliciously, tantalizingly held-back pace -- comes at 6:05.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F, BWV 1046: iv. Menuetto (with Trio I); Polacca (with Trio II)
Ivan Séquardt, Liběna Séquardtová, and Jiří Vodňanský, oboes; Rudolf Beránek and Zdeněk Pok, horns; Suk Chamber Orchestra, Josef Suk, cond. Vanguard, recorded November 1989
NOW WITH A MINIMUM OF FURTHER ADO LET'S PROCEED TO OUR HALF-BRANDENBURG SET
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F, BWV 1046
For modern ears, trained to take their Baroque music quaintified into wisps of trivial nothingness, the Casals Brandenburgs probably sound stodgy and heavy-handed. But then, those modern tastes have no use for musical breadth and depth, wisdom and joy and reflection.
i. Allegro ii. Adagio; iii. Allegro iv. Menuetto (with Trio I); Polacca (with Trio II)
John Mack, Ronald Richards, and Peter Christ, oboes; Myron Bloom and Robert Johnson, horns; Donald MacCourt, bassoon; Alexander Schneider, violin; Rudolf Serkin, piano; Marlboro Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded 1964
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F, BWV 1047
If we had popularity ratings for the Brandenburgs, I expect that the Fifth would be a clear winner, and the Second would be runner-up. It's especially known for the heady high-trumpet part. There's so much sensational music packed in that I'm always startled to be reminded how short the piece actually is.
The Britten-conducted set of Brandenburgs, very different from the Casals, also seems to me one of the glories of recording history.
i. Allegro ii. Andante iii. Allegro assai
Richard Adeney, flute; Peter Graeme, oboe; David Mason, trumpet; Emanuel Hurwitz, violin; English Chamber Orchestra, Benjamin Britten, cond. Decca, recorded in The Maltings, Snape, December 1968
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048
One of life's great mysteries is why the Third Brandenburg has no middle movement, not even in the autograph manuscript, which has just two chords, marked "Adagio." All manner of theories have been advanced, and performance solutions attempted (often involving interpolation of a seemingly compatible Bach movement). It's possible that the composer intended some sort of keyboard improvisation here, or that he simply didn't intend there to be a "middle" movement.
I mentioned in connection with our hearing of Vivaldi that was crazy for Italian music generally (and Vivaldi in particular). I thought we might hear an Italian performance of this strings-only concerto -- written with three violin, viola, and cello parts in the first movement, but only violins and violas in the last, where the cellos are assigned to churn along with the continuo part.
i. Allegro ii. Adagio (two embellished chords); iii.Allegro
I Musici. Philips, recorded c1964
BONUS: A MORE "AUTHENTIC" FIRST BRANDENBURG
I don't think there's a "right" answer to the question of "authenticity" in Baroque performance. I do feel pretty strongly, though, that the notion that "more authentic," in terms of instruments and performance practices, automatically means "musically superior" is far more ridiculously untrue than any of its proponents imagine -- but then, these are people who tend not to be start with a great deal of imagination. That said, I think it's certainly valuable, especially in music of this inexhaustible richness, to hear a variety of approaches.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F, BWV 1046
i. Allegro ii. Adagio iii. Allegro iv. Menuetto (with Trio I); Polacca (with Trio II)
Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman, dir. Telarc, recorded Jan. 3-5, 1994
WELL, MAYBE ONE LAST FIRST BRANDENBURG
Okay, well, maybe one more performance of the First Brandenburg. I tantalized you above by pointing out that conductor Josef Suk plays the violin solos in the earlier movements, the ones we didn't hear, so I thought it would be only fair to let you hear the whole concerto.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F, BWV 1046
i. Allegro; ii. Adagio; iii. Allegro; iv. Menuetto (with Trio I); Polacca (with Trio II)
Ivan Séquardt, Liběna Séquardtová, and Jiří Vodňanský, oboes; Rudolf Beránek and Zdeněk Pok, horns; Suk Chamber Orchestra, Josef Suk, violin and cond. Vanguard, recorded November 1989
NEXT WEEK (PROBABLY) IN SUNDAY CLASSICS
We'll get there eventually, if not next week. Obviously we need to cover the remaining three Brandenburg Concertos, and I'm thinking that at that time perhaps it would be interesting to dip into the world of still-older-style Bach performance.
[12/25/2010] Christmas Day edition: In Berlioz's telling, unto us a child is saved (continued)
Some 15 years after the recording we just heard, conductor André Cluytens got to rerecord L'Enfance du Christ in stereo, this time with some imported soloists: Nicolai Gedda as the Narrator and Victoria de los Angeles as Mary. (Joseph was sung, not very happily, by bass-baritone Roger Soyer, whom we're going to hear in a moment as a really outstanding King Herod.) Here's Gedda singing the Opening Narration.
At that time Jesus had just been born in the manger; but no portent had yet made him known. Yet already the mighty trembled, already the weak had hope. Everyone waited ... Learn now, Christian folk, what hideous crime terror prompted then in the King of the Jews, and the heavenly counsel the Lord sent to Jesus’s parents in their lowly stable.
Nicolai Gedda (t), Narrator; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66
Scene 1: Nocturnal March; Scene, Centurion and Polydorus
The first scene proper we heard last year: a simultaneously eerie and goofy Nocturnal March that sets the stage for a dialogue in which a Roman centurion and a soldier who stands watch on King Herod's palace discuss the king's increasingly erratic behavior. To refresh our memory, here's the continuation of the Cluytens-EMI stereo L'Enfance.
A street in Jerusalem. A guardhouse; Roman soldiers on night patrol.
CENTURION: Who goes there? POLYDORUS: Rome. CENTURION: Advance! POLYDORUS: Halt! CENTURION: Polydorus! Corporal, I thought you were on Tiber’s banks by now. POLYDORUS: So I should be if Gallus, our precious Praetor, had only let me. But for no good reason he’s shut me up in this dreary city, watching its antics and keeping guard over a petty Jewish king’s sleepless nights. CENTURION: What’s Herod doing? POLYDORUS: He broods, quakes with fear, sees traitors on every side, and daily summons his Council; and from dusk to dawn has to be looked after: he’s getting on our nerves. CENTURION: Absurd despot! But off on your rounds now. POLYDORUS: Yes, I must. Good night! Jove’s curse on him! [The patrol resumes its march and moves off into the distance.]
Rémy Corazza (t), Centurion; Bernard Cottret (bs), Polydorus; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66
Scene 2, Herod's Aria
The scene switches to Herod's palace, where the king is haunted by persistent dreams of an imminent threat to his rule. He then claims -- to himself, mind you, since there's no one else around -- that this business of being a king is a misery, a horrible burden, when what he would really like to be doing is gamboling with goatherds out in the fields. It's as eloquent and heart-rending an outpouring as you can hear anywhere, and of course it's all total bullshit. The moment his soothsayers confirm the possibility of a threat to his reign, he instantly orders the massacre of the innocents, without hesitation or compunction.
We're going to hear Ernest Blanc sing this stunning aria first. Blanc had a lovely, plummy baritone (I've never heard the equal of his recorded performance of the High Priest in Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila), but he's handicapped here by the fact that while the writing does go high-ish, it's clearly written for a bass, not a baritone. Blanc might have been better used as the legitimately baritonelike Joseph, which was sung in this recording by bass-baritone Roger Soyer, whom we're going to hear in a moment, in a recording from roughly the same time, singing a stupendous Herod.
HÉRODE: That dream again! Again the child who is to cast me down. And not to know what to believe of this omen which threatens my glory and my existence!
O the wretchedness of kings! To reign, yet not to live! To mete out laws to all, yet long to follow the goatherd into the heart of the woods! Fathomless night holding the world deep sunk in sleep, to my tormented breast grant peace for one hour, and let thy shadows touch my gloom-pressed brow.
O the wretchedness of kings!, etc.
All effort’s useless! Sleep shuns me; and my vain complaining no swifter makes thy course, O endless night.
Ernest Blanc (b), Hérode; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66
TO RECAP . . .
Opening Narration; Scene 1, Nocturnal March and Dialogue, Centurion-Polydorus; Scene 2, Herod's Aria
Now let's hear the whole thing put together, in the recording conducted by Jean Martinon that was available here for a longtime on Nonesuch LPs. It's on the dry side acoustically, and interpretively it's on the spare side, but it's performed with real understanding and is on the whole quite decently cast. Overall it's still the most nearly satisfactory performance I've heard of this incredibly difficult piece. Is anyone aware of a CD issue of it?
Vanzo and Martinon give by a good margin the best performance I've heard of the Opening Narration, and in Herod's aria, as noted, we have bass-baritone Roger Soyer in his brief prime. Because Soyer went on singing so long after the juice drained out of the sound, people tend to forget how fine a voice this was at the outset. In collaboration with Martinon he gives one hell of a performance.
Alain Vanzo (t), Narrator; Robert Andreozzi (t), Centurion; Jean-Pierre Brossmann (b), Polydorus; Roger Soyer (bs-b), King Herod; French National Radio Orchestra, Jean Martinon, cond. Tono/Nonesuch, recorded in the mid-to-late '60s
THE SCENE CHANGES TO THAT STABLE IN BETHLEHEM
We're still in Part I, mind you, but these last scenes always seem to me to belong to the minuscule Part II, which consists of an Overture, the "Farewell of the Shepherds," and the Narrator's tale of the relative unproblematic first leg of the Holy Family's flight. I suppose, though, that these scenes really do belong to Part I, since they round out the events foretold in the Opening Narration: the "heavenly counsel" delivered in the humble stable to the parents of the infant Jésus.
After Herod's convocation soothsayers say the sooth that leads to the butchering of so many Judean infants (this of course is the monstrous crime the Narrator told us of, the one that was suggested to the king by terror), in the final scenes of Part II we meet the Holy Family holed up in their stable. The adoring parents are tending to their precious new son when angels deliver the celestial warning the Narrator also told us of, and Mary and Joseph accept that their only hope of saving little Jésus is to flee into the desert wilderness in the direction of Egypt.
Part I, Scene 5, The Stable in Bethlehem
MARY: O my dear son, give this fresh grass to these lambs that come bleating to thee; they are so gentle, let them take it. Don’t let them go hungry, my child. MARY, JOSEPH: Spread these flowers, too, about their straw. They are pleased with thy gifts, dear child; see how blithe they are, how they gambol, and how their mother turns towards thee her grateful gaze. MARY:Blessed be thou, my dear sweet child! JOSEPH: Blessed be thou, holy child!
Victoria de los Angeles (s), Mary; Roger Soyer (bs-b), Joseph; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66
This scene, although understandably placed by Berlioz at the end of Part I -- it does, after all, represent the completion of the events we were told of in the Opening Narration -- always seems to me to belong more properly to the ensuing, minuscule Part II, which consists of an Overture, the "Farewell of the Shepherds to the Holy Family," and the return of the Narrator to tell us of the successful first part of the Holy Family's journey.
Part I, Scene 6, The Angels' Warning
CHOIR OF UNSEEN ANGELS: Joseph! Mary! Hearken to us! MARY, JOSEPH: Spirits of life, can it be you? ANGELS: Thou must save thy son whom great danger threatens, Mary. MARY: O heavens! My son! ANGELS: Yes, you must go and leave no trace behind you; this very night you shall flee through the desert towards Egypt. MARY, JOSEPH: Obedient to your word, pure spirits of light, we shall flee with Jesus to the desert. But grant us, we humbly pray, wisdom and strength, so we shall save him. ANGELS: The power of heaven will keep from your path all fatal encounters. MARY, JOSEPH: Let us hasten to get ready. ANGELS: Hosanna! Hosanna!
Victoria de los Angeles (s), Mary; Roger Soyer (bs-b), Joseph; Choeurs René Duclos, Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66
Part II, Overture and "Farewell of the Shepherds to the Holy Family"
As always, Berlioz digs to the heart of the human situation, and the pain of separation here is palpable -- as long, as I suggested last year, as it's performed without sloppy sentimentality, which gets in the way of the real event.
SHEPHERDS: He is going far from the land where in the stable he was born; may his father and his mother always love him steadfastly; may he grow and prosper and be a good father in his turn.
If ever among the idolaters he should find misfortune, let him flee the unkind land and come back to live happily among us. May the shepherd’s lowly life be ever dear to his heart.
Dear child, may God bless thee, and God bless you, happy pair! May you never feel the cruel hand of injustice. May a good angel warn you of all dangers that hang over you.
Choeurs René Duclos, Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66
Here, then is a cobbled composite of the scenes of the Holy Family in the stable.
Part I, Scene 5-6, The Holy Family Receives the "Heavenly Counsel" Part II, Overture and "Farewell of the Shepherds to the Holy Family"
Jane Berbié (ms), Mary; Claude Calès (b), Joseph; French National Radio Chorus and Orchestra, jean Martinon, cond. Tono/Nonesuch, recorded in the mid-to-late '60s
The story of the Holy Family's flight into the desert spans Parts II and III. At first, things go well; then, not so well.
Part II, The Repose of the Holy Family
NARRATOR: The pilgrims having come to a place of fair aspect with bushy trees and fresh water in abundance, St Joseph said: ‘Stop! near this clear spring. After such long toil let us rest here.’ The child Jesus was asleep. Then Holy Mary, halting the ass, answered: ‘Look at this fair carpet of soft grass and flowers that the Lord spread in the desert for my son.' Then, having sat down in the shade of three green-leaved palm trees, while the ass browsed and the child slept, the holy travellers slumbered for a while, lulled by sweet dreams, and the angels of heaven, kneeling about them, worshipped the divine child.
Léopold Simoneau (t), Narrator; Choral Art Society, The Little Orchestra, Thomas Scherman, cond. BOMC Classics Record LIbrary, recorded c1957
Part III, The Arrival in Saïs
NARRATOR: For three days, despite the hot winds, they journeyed through the shifting sands. The holy family’s poor servant, the ass, had already fallen in the desert dust; and long before they saw a city’s walls, his master, would have died from exhaustion and thirst but for God’s help. Only holy Mary walked on serene and untroubled; and her sweet child’s fair locks and blessed head, resting against her breast, seemed to give her strength. But soon her feet stumbled ... How many times the couple stopped ... At length they came to Saïs, gasping and near to death. It was a city that had long been part of the Roman Empire, full of cruel folk, with haughty airs. Hear now of the grievous agony endured so long by the pilgrims in their search for food and shelter.
Léopold Simoneau (t), Narrator; The Little Orchestra, Thomas Scherman, cond. BOMC Classics Record LIbrary, recorded c1957
And here is a composite of the Narrator's account of the Holy Family's journey.
Part II, "The Repose of the Holy Family" Part III, "The Arrival in Saïs"
Alain Vanzo (t), Narrator; French National Radio Chorus and Orchestra, Jean Martinon, cond. Tono/Nonesuch, recorded in the mid-to-late '60s
Last year we dipped farther into L'Enfance, hearing how, at the point of death, the exiled Jewish family, its plight ignored or scorned by everyone else, is taken in unhesitatingly and restored to health by an Ishmaelite family whose supremely humane head of household turns out to be, like Joseph, a carpenter. I suppose you could figure that God steered the family to that Ishmaelite Father -- though of course you would have to say that God also steered the family to the verge of death in the desert. It might be better argued that a sense of human decency and connectedness which is represented by some people's image of God is what inspired the kindness and generosity of the people along the family's perilous journey rally to its support.
Now that's a spirit of Christmas I can get behind. Happy holidays to all!
[English translations of the text of L'Enfance are by David Cairns, from the 2007 LSO Live release of Sir Colin Davis's most recent recording of the piece.]
[12/24/2010] Christmas Eve edition: "Comfort ye" (continued)
Our not-such-a-mystery tenor (a bit older here!)
Here's what we're going to do. We have here first the recording we just heard on the other side of the click-through, labeled (1), along with another recording, the one labeled (2), which in fact we've also already heard, in last year's Messiah post -- at least the "Comfort ye" recitative; this year we hear the aria as well.
HANDEL: Messiah: Part I, Recitative and aria (tenor), "Comfort ye, my people" . . . "Every valley shall be exalted" [Nos. 1-2] (1)
(1) Jon Vickers, tenor; Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Ernest MacMillan, cond. RCA/EMI, recorded c1952 (2) Jon Vickers, tenor; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. (orch. Goossens). RCA/BMG, recorded 1959
MESSIAH THROUGH THE BASS'S EYES
The American bass-baritone Donald Gramm made so few recordings that I rather cherish this Messiah recorded for Book of the Month Club's Classics Record Library. (Yes, BOMC did stuff like this back then.) While much of this music could legitimately be treeated in more dynamic, proclamatory fashion than either Gramm or the lovely bass Franz Crass (in Karl Richter's German-language Messiah) does, I find the recitative "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth" and aria "The people who walk in darkness" spellbinding.
Part I, Recitative and aria (bass or alto), "Thus saith the Lord" . . . "But who may abide the day of His coming" [Nos. 4-5]
Recitative Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts: Yet once a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.
The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant whom ye delight in, behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.
Aria But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire. But who may abide &c.
Donald Gramm, bass-baritone; Zimbler Sinfonietta, Thompson Stone, cond. (Boston Handel and Haydn Society). BOMC Classics Record Library, recorded c1957 [in German] Franz Crass, bass (in the recitative); Marga Höffgen, contralto (in the aria); Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, cond. DG, recorded June 1964
Part I, Recitative and aria (bass), "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth" . . . "The people that walked in darkness" [Nos. 10-11]
Recitative For behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the people. But the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to Thy light and kings to the brightness of Thy rising.
Aria The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. And they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
Donald Gramm, bass-baritone; Zimbler Sinfonietta, Thompson Stone, cond. (Boston Handel and Haydn Society). BOMC Classics Record Library, recorded c1957 [in German] Franz Crass, bass; Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, cond. DG, recorded June 1964 Part II, Aria (bass), "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?" [No. 38]
Aria Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed.
Donald Gramm, bass-baritone; Zimbler Sinfonietta, Thompson Stone, cond. (Boston Handel and Haydn Society). BOMC Classics Record Library, recorded c1957 [in German] Franz Crass, bass; Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, cond. DG, recorded June 1964
Part III, Aria and recitative (bass), "Behold, I tell you a mystery" . . . "The trumpet shall sound" [Nos. 45-46]
Recitative Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
[I Corinthians 15:51-52]
Aria The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changèd.
[I Corinthians 15:53]
Donald Gramm, bass-baritone; Roger Voisin, trumpet; Zimbler Sinfonietta, Thompson Stone, cond. (Boston Handel and Haydn Society). BOMC Classics Record Library, recorded c1957 [in German] Franz Crass, bass; Maurice André, trumpet; Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, cond. DG, recorded June 1964
FOR ME MESSIAH ISN'T A RELIGIOUS WORK BUT IS "CHRISTIAN" IN ITS DEEP HUMANITY -- UNLIKE MODERN CRAP CHRISTIANITY
It's always pointed out how utterly atypical of Handel's huge output of oratorios Messiah. All the others are versions of stories of one sort or another drawn from the Old Testament, works that would probably have been staged in Handel's time if stage representation of biblical subjects had been allowed in England. Messiah has no plot, and draws on both the New and the Old Testament.
As I've already said, for me there's nothing notably religious about Messiah. It treats the deeply human values of Jesus in humanistic terms. Near the start of Part II we hear the longest and greatest musical number in Messiah, the alto aria "He was despisèd," and it's hard not to think that Jesus today would be the same reviled outsider today that the alto recalls.
Last year we heard a lovely performance by the Czech mezzo Marjana Lipovšek. Now we hear first the higher, lighter mezzo of the Australian Yvonne Minton, and then, in an appropriately more drawn-out performance, the deeper, more contralto-ish mezzo of the American Florence Quivar.
Part II, Aria (alto), "He was despisèd" [No. 21]
He was despisèd and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acqainted with grief.
He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; He hid not His face from shame and spitting.
Yvonne Minton, mezzo-soprano; English Chamber Orchestra, Johannes Somary, cond. Vanguard, recorded July 1970Florence Quivar, mezzo-soprano; Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis, cond. EMI, recorded c1986
AND HOW ELSE COULD WE CONCLUDE . . .
. . . but by going back to the climax of Part II for the ever-familiar and ever-rousing "Hallelujah Chorus" [No. 42]?
Hallelujah: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Hallelujah! The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah! King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah!
[Revelations 19:6; 11:15; 19:16]
Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded 1958-59
[12/19/2010] "Loose ends": From Russia with love - music by Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky (continued)
The Gergiev-Vienna Philharmonic Firebird from the 2000 Salzburg Festival continues through the ballet's rousing conclusion.
Again, the missing CD of the Richter-Wislocki-DG Rachmaninoff Second Concerto was only the first issue with that much-loved old Richter Rachmaninoff LP. Given Richter's broad tempos in the concerto (the three movements time out at 11:13, 11:54, and 11:39), DG really had no choice but to spread the concerto out over a side and a half, and for a filler Richter recorded six Rachmaninoff solo preludes, four from the Op. 23 set of 12 and two from the Op. 32 set. (Only later in life, and even then grudgingly and only partially, did Richter give in to the contemporary compulsion for recording entire sets of individual pieces. Like earlier generations of pianists, he preferred to pick particular pieces that suited his purposes for particular occasions.) And while the concerto recording is totally first-rate, the preludes are even better -- they're kind of breathtaking, if not actually mind-blowing. I'm sure they've turned up on CD (Richter remains a prime seller), I don't have them. So now I've dubbed them from my LP.
On the assumption (not always justified) that the sequence of the preludes on the LP reflected the pianist's own preference, I've retained that order here. And to provide some context I've done something terribly unfair, and worse still done it not only for the second time but for the second time to the same fine artist. Back when we sampled Grieg's Lyric Pieces, I drew heavily on the British pianist Peter Katin's lovely Unicorn-Kanchana recording of the complete series, partly for its ready availability but also because the performances are consistently fine. Then for some of the pieces I butted him up against Arthur Rubinstein, whose performances simply have that extra dimension of imagination and flair.
Now I'm doing it to Katin again, pitting him head-to-head against Richter, in characteristic Richteresque form, for no better reason than that I happen to have Katin's Rachmaninoff Preludes on CD, making for relatively easy access. Obvious place to hear the difference: the G minor Prelude, Op. 23, No. 5. There's nothing to complain of in Katin's performance, but in Richter's note the striding yet finely graded and shaded vigor of the Spanish-rhythmed opening section, and then the unquenchable yearning of the aching central section, and finally the ethereal realm into which he lifts the piece as it works itself out. Probably many, if not most, pianists would like to do much the same thing. What sets Richter apart is that he: (a) has imagined it in such vividness, depth, and finesse, and (b) has the pianistic command and strength of purpose to make all of this happen.
RACHMANINOFF: Preludes for Piano
Prelude in C, Op. 32, No. 1 Sviatoslav Richter, piano. DG, recorded 1959 Peter Katin, piano. Carlton/IMP, recorded 1972
Prelude in B-flat minor, Op. 32, No. 2 Sviatoslav Richter, piano. DG, recorded 1959 Peter Katin, piano. Carlton/IMP, recorded 1972
Prelude in B-flat, Op. 23, No. 2 Sviatoslav Richter, piano. DG, recorded 1959 Peter Katin, piano. Carlton/IMP, recorded 1972
Prelude in D, Op. 23, No. 4 Sviatoslav Richter, piano. DG, recorded 1959 Peter Katin, piano. Carlton/IMP, recorded 1972
Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5 Sviatoslav Richter, piano. DG, recorded 1959 Peter Katin, piano. Carlton/IMP, recorded 1972
Prelude in C minor, Op. 23, No. 7 Sviatoslav Richter, piano. DG, recorded 1959 Peter Katin, piano. Carlton/IMP, recorded 1972
A SORT-OF "WEST COAST" FIREBIRD
When I began thinking about what turned into our Dec. 5 Firebird post, I began by pulling recordings off the shelf to consider for use. The first two that I pulled probably went "missing," and didn't turn up again until well after the piece was finished and posted, when they reappeared sitting peacefully on top of a TV cable box. Talk about a clever hiding place!
What I thought we'd do is make another composite performance of the complete Firebird, as we did in the original post with Ernest Ansermet's 1955 recording with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (first half) and Robert Craft's MusicMasters recording (second half). So here are music director Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (first half) and former Los Angeles Philharmonic music director (now conductor laureate) Esa-Pekka Salonen, though the orchestra he's conducting is the Philharmonia, in 1998, before he became music director in Los Angeles (1992-2009).
STRAVINSKY: The Firebird [Again, the numbering within each of our "halves" of the ballet has no significance except to reflect the track points carried from the CDs.]
1. Introduction 2. Kashchei's Enchanted Garden 3. The Firebird enters, pursued by Ivan Tsarevich 4. The Firebird's Dance 5. Ivan Tsarevich captures the Firebird 6. The Firebird begs to be released; Entrance of the 13 Enchanted Princesses 7. The Princesses play with the golden apples (Scherzo) 8. Sudden appearance of Ivan Tsarevich 9. Khorovod (Round Dance) of the Princesses San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Feb. 25-28, 1998
10. Daybreak 11. Ivan Tsarevich, entering Kashchei's palace, sets off the Magic Carillon, thereby alerting Kashchei's Monster-Guardians, who capture him 12. Entrance of Kashchei the Immortal 13. Dialogue between Kashchei and Ivan Tsarevich 14. The Princesses plead for mercy 15. The Firebird enters 16. Dance of Kashchei's retinue under the Firebird's magic spell 17. Infernal Dance of Kashchei's subjects under the Firebird's magic spell 18. Berceuse of the Firebird 19. Kashchei awakens 20. Kashchei's death 21. Scene 2: Kashchei's spell is broken, his palace disappears, and the petrified knights return to life; General thanksgiving; The marriage and coronation of Prince Ivan and the Princess of Unearthly Beauty as tsar and tsarina Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond. Sony, recorded 1988