Saturday, May 08, 2010

Sunday Classics preview: If you hear what tonight's musical selections have in common, you know our subject for tomorrow


Bonus! An actual prize! Win a CD of Sousa marches!

The musical joy of The Marriage of Figaro's Act I finale is stripped out of this singularly joyless rendering in the Unitel film directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and conducted by Karl Böhm, with Hermann Prey as Figaro, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the Count, Mirella Freni as Susanna, John van Kesteren as Don Basilio, and Maria Ewing as Cherubino.

There's nothing mysterious about the common thread between our musical selections, so I'm not sure this week's prize, a CD of Sousa marches performed very smartly by the Band of H.M. Royal Marines conducted by Lt. Col. G.A.C. Hoskins, M.V.O., L.R.A.M., R.M. (Prinicipal Director of Music, Royal Marines). I know that sounds made up, possibly by the Pythons. Sometimes the boys didn't have to go far to achieve parody, though -- real life came pre-self-parodied.

The prize could go for answering this question, or for picking up on the distinction between British and American Sousa performances hinted at below, or maybe just for making up a better question for this week's preview, which was supposed to be an easy one but instead has taken me an entire day -- an entire beautiful springlike day, to boot. Somebody's gonna win that damned CD!


(1) The Stars and Stripes Forever
(2) The Liberty Bell

Eastman Wind Ensemble, Donald Hunsberger, cond. Kem-Disc, recorded c1981

The Wallace Collection, John Wallace, cond. Nimbus, recorded c1987

In many years of listening to Sousa march performances, I've become increasingly persuaded that there's a fundamental difference between British and American performances. So wouldn't you know that now, when I would like that difference to be so blatant as to be unmistakable, it comes out as relatively subtle -- although less so in the case of The Liberty Bell, which any Monty Python will recognize immediately. In fact, the difference is certainly the reason why the Pythons originally thought Liberty Bell would suit their purposes.


MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro):
Act I finale, concluding with the aria "Non più andrai"

Le Nozze di Figaro: Act I finale

The hapless, hormonally overdrive young page Cherubino has developed the unfortunate habit of being in the company of young women on the estate who are also being seduced by the lord of the estate, Count Almaviva (whom we last encountered, in The Barber of Seville, as a romantic, idealistic young tenor seeking the hand of the lovely young Rosina, whom we will encounter again after the first intermission, now as the Countess Almaviva, having undergone one of the most heart-rending transformations in the annals of fictions). Figaro, now the Count's manservant, knows that his master is trying to delay his marriage to the Countess's personal maid, Susanna, on whom the Count has dallying designs (the "right" that he has given up, the infamous droit du seigneur, is the feudal lord's "right" to sleep with brides under his stewardship), and by way of speeding up the process has brought in a troupe of villagers to pay choral tribute to their lord. We're skipping over the first sounding of this choral tribute (we get to hear it down below) and picking up at the annoyed Count's response.

COUNT ALMAVIVA: What is this comedy?
FIGARO [softly to SUSANNA]: Now we're in the dance.
Back me up, my dear.
SUSANNA [softly to FIGARO]: I have no hope.
FIGARO [to the COUNT]: My lord, do not disdain
this deserved tribute
of our affection. Now that you've abolished
a right so unwelcome to anyone who falls in love.
COUNT: That right no longer exists. What do you want now?
FIGARO: This first fruit of your wisdom
we've gathered today to celebrate; our wedding
is already arranged; now it remains for you
to make sure that your gift
is turned over unstained, dressed in this
candid garment, symbol of honesty.
COUNT [to himself]: Diabolically clever!
So I have to finesse.
[aloud] I'm grateful, friends,
for such an honest expression.
but for this I don't deserve
either tributes or praise.
It's an unjust right,
and by abolishing it in my lands,
I merely restore the rights of nature and duty.
EVERYONE: Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah.
SUSANNA: What virtue!
FIGARO: What justice!
COUNT [to FIGARO and SUSANNA]: I promise you
that I'll perform the ceremony.
I just wish a brief indulgence, to be able -- in the company
of my most loyal subjects and with the richest ceremony --
to bring about your fullest happiness.
[to himself]: Marcellina has to turn up.
[aloud]: Leave me, friends.

strew flowers
before our
noble lord.
His great heart
preserves for you
an even more beautiful flower's
glorious innocence.
[The villagers exit.]

FIGARO: Hurrah!
FIGARO [to CHERUBINO]: And you're not applauding?
SUSANNA: The poor little thing is suffering
because the master is sending him away from the estate.
FIGARO: Ah, on such a lovely day!
SUSANNA: On a wedding day!
FIGARO: When everyone is praising you!
CHERUBINO [kneeling]: Forgive me, my lord . . .
COUNT: You don't deserve it.
SUSANNA: He's still a boy.
COUNT: Less so than you might think.
CHERUBINO: It's true, I did wrong, but never from my lips will --
COUNT [raising him]: Fine, fine, I pardon you.
In fact, I'll do more. There's a vacant posting
for an officer in my regiment.
I choose you. Leave at once. Farewell!
[The COUNT starts to leave. SUSANNA and FIGARO stop him.]
SUSANNA and FIGARO: Ah, just till tomorrow.
COUNT: No, he leaves at once.
CHERUBINO: I'm ready to obey you, my lord.
COUNT: Go, for the last time
embrace your Susanna.
[to himself] That blow was unexpected!
[The COUNT and BASILIO exit.
CHERUBINO embraces SUSANNA, who remains confused.]
FIGARO [to CHERUBINO]: Hey, captain, give me your hand.
[softly] I want to talk to you
before you leave.
[aloud, with feigned joy] Farewell, little Cherubino!
How your fate changes in a moment!

aria, "Non più andrai"
[Note: The translation of the aria is taken over straight -- apart from adding the major repetitions, and of course introducing typos -- from Lionel Salter's 1968 rendering of the opera; after the ridiculous amount of time I spent agonizing over this much of the scene, including getting the damned HTML coding more or less right, I'm plain out of gas.]

No more, you amorous butterfly,
Will you go fluttering round by night and day,
Disturbing the peace of every maid,
You pocket Narcissus, you Adonis of love.

No more will you have those fine feathers,
That light and dashing cap,
Those curls, those airs and graces,
That roseate womanish colour.

No more, you amorous butterfly,
Will you go fluttering round by night and day,
Disturbing the peace of every maid,
You pocket Narcissus, you Adonis of love.

You'll be among warriors, by Bacchus!
Long moustaches, knapsack tightly on,
Musket on your shoulder, sabre at your side,
Head erect and bold of visage,
A great helmet or a head-dress,
Lots of honour, little money,
And instead of the fandango,
Marching through the mud.

Over mountains, through valleys,
In snow and days of listless heat,
To the sound of blunderbusses,
Shells and cannons,
Whose shots make your ears sing
On every note.

No more, you amorous butterfly,
Will you go fluttering round by night and day,
Disturbing the peace of every maid,
You pocket Narcissus, you Adonis of love.

Cherubino, on to victory,
On to military glory!
Cherubino, on to victory,
On to military glory!

Ezio Pinza (bs), Figaro; John Brownlee (b), Count Almaviva; Bidù Sayao (s), Susanna; Alessio de Paolis (t), Don Basilio; Jarmila Novotna (s), Cherubino; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Ettore Panizza, cond. Live performance, March 9, 1940

Cesare Siepi (bs), Figaro; Frank Guarrera (b), Count Almaviva; Nadine Conner (s), Susanna; Alessio de Paolis (t), Don Basiliio; Mildred Miller (ms), Cherubino; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Fritz Stiedry, cond. Live performance, Jan. 15, 1955

Giorgio Tozzi (bs), Figaro; George London (bs-b), Count Almaviva; Hilde Gueden (s), Susanna; Norman Kelley (t), Don Basilio; Mildred Miller (ms), Cherubino; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. Live performance, Jan. 11, 1958

Walter Berry (bs-b), Figaro; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Count Almaviva; Erika Köth (s), Susanna; Julius Katona (t), Don Basilio; Edith Mathis (s), Cherubino; Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance from Tokyo, Oct. 23, 1963

It's the aria we're interested in here, but I wanted the run-up to it for two reasons: first, to establish the context makes this such a grand finale, as exhilarating as it is entertaining; but also to give you a sample of the real greatness of our first Figaro, Ezio Pinza. With both his Figaro and his Don Giovanni, you can listen to his recordings of the operas' musical numbers and he wipes away the competition, but you don't have a glimmering till you've heard his live performances, even though they capture him at later, vocally less splendiferous stages of his career than the jaw-dropping recordings of the '20s and early '30s. It's in the recitatives, which for so many singers are merely the monotonous conversational stuff that has to be gotten through to get to the musical numbers, that we hear in Pinza's performances not just a tonal refulgence but a warmth and rounded humanity that put him truly in a class by himself.

One note about our fourth performance above: Although it's sung in Italian, this is very much Figaro, and Mozart in general, in the Germanic tradition, with a preference for a higher-range (baritone or bass-baritone rather than bass) Figaro and a generally more exaggerated, almost lurching approach to (I almost said "assault on") the music. And there's no more, er, dramatic example than the Count of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which would later be immortalized in the Unitel film of the opera, also conducted by Karl Böhm, where Fischer-Dieskau is partnered by another very Germanic-style Mozart baritone, Hermann Prey, as Figaro. (In fairness, you may also hear in the first three performances a distinctly broad-humored American approach.)

With regard to Fischer-Dieskau's Count (of which he made at least three studio recordings, without resort to the countless live performances in circulation), even in the bits we hear here, I think we can hear what Conrad L. Osborne meant when he ventured that DFD is giving us his opinion of the character rather than portraying him. That said, I think our Figaro here, Walter Berry, has significantly better instincts about the music, though he's not terribly comfortable singing in Italian.

Finally, to make sure we're probably fixed on the aria, here's one last performance of "Non più andrai," just the aria:

José van Dam (bs-b), Figaro; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner, cond. Philips, recorded August 1985


By now you should have some idea of what we're going to be up to.


The current list is here.

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At 1:50 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

Keni, I KNOW these contests are going to be a big hit!

Naturally I don't have a CLUE what is common in England, but I WAS in marching bad and after being thrown off significantly by a search for a different woodwind clue, I got out my Jerry Lewis baton sticks and believe that it is the METER that is the winner here.

My Jerry Lewis baton sticks (with crooked big black glasses) were getting a much more 1-2 kind of meter on the American, and I was getting more of a 1-2-3-4 swing dancey thing (WHAT doesn't fit "bring out your dead?") on the English Monty Python theme song.

Teh google calls the American 1/2 thing cut time I guess, and Liberty Bell 6/8?

If I should by chance win this, in addition to being incredibly humbled, I am seriously considering donating this to the SMU (POOR SMU) Bush2 library and "Think Tank" WITH the required bag of pretzels for future mothers everywhere.
However just in case that is a really bad idea, I am sure that my father would love it. Amen.

At 1:59 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Great answer, Bil! That's going to be tough to beat, but let's see what develops.

In fact, though, I think you've described the difference I hear between British and American Sousa performances, less pronounced in my examples than in many others I've heard, but still there.


At 2:05 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

Oops, that is "libarary". Sorry.

At 12:07 PM, Anonymous JonJ said...

One difference I think I hear between the two sides of the Big Pond is that the Brits give Sousa a more concert-hall style, as though they hadn't ever marched to him (almost a Gilbert and Sullivan feel, perhaps), whereas the Yanks sound as though they had really marched to those strains at one time, though of course the Eastman Ensemble is not itself a marching band.

My experience with this repertoire comes from playing trombone in my high school band; this leads me to listen for that last high note (I seem to remember that it was an A) in the last repeat of the trombone obbligato in the S&SF. Sure enough, it wasn't really prominently blasted out in either performance, though these are professionals. I could never actually it it at all, myself.

At 12:21 PM, Anonymous JonJ said...

"Hit it," that is.

At 12:55 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

I would like to Thank Keni again for ALL this hard work, and ask that the Monty Python Defense League and supporters worldwide NOT send letters for this:

"goofy quality of the Python version, which always seems to me to suggest a Silly Walks sort of marching in which an army of John Cleeses might be strutting in circles, or crashing into one another."

I am sure that Keni means "goofy" as a term of affection and high respect as we all regard MP, same for teh "Silly Walks" reference ala sacred cow military dogma. Was there ever a corporate retreat that was not BETTER with Silly Walks as an IceBreaker?...I think not. Amen.

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Jacqrat said...

Yay, marching band! (trumpet, here) I also hear a swagger in the American performances that is missing in the English - so apropos to each culture. Very interesting, Ken!

At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

oops, my apologies, (clarinet/saxophone)...

Teh Monty Python Defense league defense is for the newer post ( HOW does Keni keep ALL this stuff straight? I can't even comment on the correct post?)

At 4:23 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

It's great to hear from all these ex-band players!



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