Saturday, January 29, 2011

[1/29/12] With the full symphony orchestra you can create a heckuva storm (continued)



J. STRAUSS II: Unter Donner und Blitzen (Amid Thunder and Lightning), Op. 324

This breathless little polka is understandably one of the Waltz King's best-loved works, but despite all that supposed thunder, the thing has never sounded very thundery or lightningy to me. Carlos Kleiber (sort of) conducts the Bavarian State Orchestra in Tokyo, May 1986.


If there's a wizard among orchestral wizards, surely it's Richard Strauss. I imagine his basic position to have been: If it can be done with an orchestra, I can do it. Sometimes he seems to have taken on just this sort of thing as a personal challenge. A "day in the life" at home? Can do -- the Symphonia domestica. An arduous mountain ascent and descent? Sure thing -- An Alpine Symphony.

Because the Alpine Symphony in particular is so expertly written, it's grand fun for the performers to perform, perhaps more fun (it has sometimes seemed to me) than for listeners. Still, when the performers are skilled enough and engaged enough, the results can be surprisingly persuasive. Curiously, Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan recorded the piece about a year apart, and I think the results --very different, I think you'll note -- occupy special places in these conductors' mammoth discographies. I had no idea when I grudgingly bought the Karajan that I would listen to it as often as I have.

In our Alpine adventure there is, not surprisingly, a fair amount of weather detail. Here, for example, is a wisp of a fragment that occurs late in the piece, after the climber has reached the summit. I should warn that since Strauss's symphonic "program" is continuous, fragments ripped out of context really sound it.

R. STRAUSS: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64: Mists rise; The sun gradually dims

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded 1979

Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded December 1980

A coupe of minutes later we're set up for one of the great musical storms. We can trust that Strauss was familiar with all those earlier efforts, and was surely confident that he could have his own say.

R. STRAUSS: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64: Calm before the storm; Thunderstorm, Descent; Sunset

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded 1979

Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded December 1980

Now we're going to hear the complete sequence, including the little in-between "Elegy" we haven't heard yet. Again, bear in mind that the Alpine Symphony is musically continuous. While the concertgoer would presumably be provided with a list of the section identifiers, there would be no artificial separations like our unwieldy track changes. Since the Telarc Alpine Symphnony indexes rather than tracks these points, in our format it comes out musically continuous, which for us effectively "takes the training wheels off" and lets us hear this sequence as the composer expected the whole Alpine Symphony to be heard.

(I might also note quickly that in our four recordings of this orchestral display piece we're hearing four of the world's preeminent Strauss orchestras. I've noted before when we've dipped into it that the extensive series of Strauss orchestral works by Rudolf Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden seems to me on all counts one of the most impressive projects in the history of orchestral recording -- though the CDs don't seem to me to have done it justice.)

R. STRAUSS: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64: Mists rise; The sun gradually dims; Elegy; Calm before the storm; Thunderstorm, Descent; Sunset

Staatskapelle Dresden, Rudolf Kempe, cond. EMI, recorded December 1972

Vienna Philharmonic, André Previn, cond. Telarc, recorded Nov. 22-24, 1989


We already heard in the earlier post two prime theatrical specimens: the violent opening scene of Verdi's Otello and the very different storm in Berlioz's Trojans which serves as the occasion for the, er, coming together of Dido and Aeneas.

Here's a storm we've heard before, in February 2010 as part of the Peer Gynt Suite No. 2. It had been composed with the large quantity of incidental music the composer provided for Ibsen's play, where it served as the prelude to Act V. (Which reminds me that one of these days we still have to do a post on Grieg's incidental music in theatrical context.)

GRIEG: Peer Gynt (incidental music): Prelude to Act V: Peer's Homeward Journey (Stormy Evening at Sea)
NARRATOR: Peer Gynt, by now a vigorous old man with hair gray as ice. Stormy crossing and homecoming.

Friedhelm Eberle, narrator; Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig), Kurt Masur, cond. Philips, recorded March 1988

Berlin Philharmonic, Jeffrey Tate, cond. EMI, recorded March 1990

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi, cond. DG, recorded June 1987

Straddling the line between "concert" and "stage" storm is the violent interlude Britten composed to bridge the two scenes of Act I of Peter Grimes, which has an important theatrical function but has taken on an active concert life as part of the understandably popular suite of Four Sea Interludes (with or without the Passacaglia) from Peter Grimes. (In the suite of interludes it's placed last, for fairly obvious reasons, I think.)

We've heard the 1973 Bernstein "Storm" Interlude before, in a November 2009 Britten post along with the other three interludes. I failed to point out then that Lenny had a history with Peter Grimes. In 1946, at age 28, he conducted the American premiere of the opera, at the Tanglewood Festival. The Sea Interludes were also on the program for his final concert, in August 1990 -- at Tanglewood. I thought we might hear that notably broader performance too. We lead off with a violently impassioned performance by an unexpected Brittenite, Carlo Maria Giulini (who was later asked by the composer to conduct his War Requiem).

BRITTEN: Peter Grimes, Op. 33: Act I: Storm Interlude: Presto con fuoco -- Molto animato -- Largamente -- Tempo I

Philharmonia Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. EMI, recorded c1963

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Mar. 8, 1973

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live at the Tanglewood Festival, Aug. 19, 1990

To really appreciate how Britten musicalizes this storm and how it's woven into the action of the opera, we need to back up a bit into Act I, Scene 1, as the approach of the storm is registered, and then listen a bit into Act II, as the storm batters "the Borough" -- on England's Suffolk coast -- at hurricane force. (We performed a similar exercise with the first interlude, "Dawn," which joins the Prologue and Act I, in our November 2009 Britten post.) We're only venturing about a minute into Scene 2, but that's long enough to appreciate how Britten handles the storm. As pretty much the whole of the Borough finds its way into the Boar inn, even though Auntie is trying to close for the night, each time the door opens the storm churns again in the orchestra until the storm refugees manage to get the door closed again.

BRITTEN: Peter Grimes, Op. 33, Act I Scene 1, The storm is here; Storm Interlude; Scene 2 beginning
ACT I, Scene 1 has taken place in the street in the Borough in front of the Moot Hall (where, in the Prologue, a coroner's inquest into the death of the fisherman Peter Grimes's young apprentice took place), the Boar inn (run by "Auntie"), and the shop of the apothecary Ned Keene, opposite breakwaters that run to the sea. Locals wandered in and out of the scene amid growing indications of an approaching storm. At this point the retired merchant captain Balstrode has been encouraging Grimes, still held responsible for the death of the boy despite being spared indictment at the inquest, to leave the Borough. Peter, imagining marrying the kindly schoolteacher Ellen Orford, resolves instead to stay.

CAPTAIN BALSTRODE: The storm, the storm is here, o come away!
PETER GRIMES: The storm is here, and I, and I shall stay!
[BALSTRODE leaves PETER and goes into the Boar. PETER alone -- gazing intently into the sea and approaching storm.]
What harbour shelters peace,
away from tidal waves, away from storms?
What harbour can embrace terrors and tragedies?
With her there'll be no quarrels,
with her the mood will stay
a harbour evermore,
where night is turned to day.

Storm Interlude

Scene 2
Inside the Boar, the same night. AUNTIE is admitting MRS. SEDLEY. The gale is now at hurricane force and they push the door shut with difficulty.

AUNTIE: Past time to close!
MRS. SEDLEY: He -- he -- he said half past ten.
MRS. SEDLEY: Mister Keene.
AUNTIE: Him and his women!
MRS. SEDLEY: You referring to me?
AUNTIE: Not at all, not at all!
What do you want?
MRS. SEDLEY: Room from the storm.
AUNTIE: That is the sort of weak politeness
makes a publican lose her clients.
Keep in the corner out of sight.
[BALSTRODE and some of the fishermen enter. They struggle with the door.]
CAPTAIN BALSTRODE: [Whistles] That's a bitch of a gale all right.
AUNTIE: Sh-h-h!
CAPTAIN BALSTRODE: Sorry, I didn't see you, Missis.
You'll give the regulars a surprise.
AUNTIE: She's meeting Ned.
AUNTIE: The quack! He's looking after her heart attack.
CAPTAIN BALSTRODE: Bring us a pint.
AUNTIE: It's closing time.
CAPTAIN BALSTRODE: You fearful old female, why should you mind?
AUNTIE: Th-e-e-e-e storm!
[BOB BOLES and some other fishermen and women enter. The wind howls through the door.]
BOB BOLES: Did you hear the tide has broken over the North Road?
[The window shutters blow open.]
CAPTAIN BALSTRODE: Get those shutters!

Donald Gramm (bs-b), Captain Balstrode; Jon Vickers (t), Peter Grimes; Lili Chookasian (c), Auntie; Jean Kraft (ms), Mrs. Sedley; Paul Franke (t), Bob Boles; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, John Pritchard, cond. Live performance, Dec. 10, 1977

Anthony Michaels-Moore (b), Captain Balstrode; Glenn Winslade (t), Peter Grimes; Jill Grove (c), Auntie; Catherine Wyn-Rogers (ms), Mrs. Sedley; Christopher Gillett (t), Bob Boles; London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, cond. LSO Live, recorded live in concert at the Barbican (London), January 2004


I'm not sure this storm serves any dramatic purpose -- I mean as a storm. As an interlude, it definitely allows the action time to percolate and set up the opera's grand climax. But as a storm specifically, well, it can provide the stage director with the opportunity to create some (usually hokey) visual effects.

I made two new files for this post, and the Naples and Bucharest ones, and then discovered that I'd already made one of the New York performance, which I don't think we actually heard -- I think that was for another post that's still to come. I really like the hammed-up Leinsdorf performance (I don't think Rossini necessarily meant this storm to be subtle), but I acknowledge that Varviso has as much fun with his straighter approach. Finally, there's a special breath-of-life quality to the Romanian Barber recording from which we hear the storm.

ROSSINI: The Barber of Seville:
Act II, The Storm

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded 1958

Orchestra Rossini of Naples, Silvio Varviso, cond. Decca, recorded c1964

Orchestra of the Romanian Opera, Bucharest, Mihai Brediceanu, cond. Electrecord/Vox, recorded 1960-61


Maybe next week. Or maybe the week after -- it's hard to say with scientific precision.



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At 12:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice set of storm examples, Ken!

As to digital vs analog, there are plenty of examples of lousy digital recordings to be had, and even worse examples of digital transfers from analog recordings. The Reiner recordings of the Strauss tone poems as well as La Mer attest to this. There have been more than one attempt to get it "right".

But I could never understand why the "living Presence" series is held in such awe. I found them to be overly emphasized in the high end and could not listen to them without some sort of equalization.

Maybe it's just my old KLH 6's that I treasure so much but I have a number of superb digital recordings that are so authentic, I feel, as in the case of certain piano works, I am at the keyboard.

When you can actually hear the timbre difference between adjacent notes on the keyboard, I count that as a significant advance.

Just my 2c worth.

At 5:49 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Fair enough.

I didn't really mean my "recordings" note to be an analog vs. digital thing, but I suppose that's one of the factors. To me, the overriding factor is that recording producers no longer seem to know or care what actual sound sounds like. I certainly can't say that I've heard many digital recordings that sound in the same galaxy as "authentic." (And of course "at the keyboard" is a singularly terrible place to hear the "authentic" sound of a piano.)

As for the Mercury recordings, I hadn't planned to say anything in this post until I listened to the MP3 versions of the Paray-Detroit Berlioz "Scene in the fields" and the Hanson-Eastman. What I hear is instrumental textures that sound like themselves and are beautifully and naturally in place. The next orchestral recording of the last 20 years that gives me any of those qualities will be the first.

Thanks for commenting!



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