Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Classics: With the full symphony orchestra you can create a heckuva storm (aka: Musical storms, part 2)


There are funny storms too! Alexander Prior conducts the deliciously raging thunderstorm in Act II of Rossini's Barber of Seville at the Chuvash National Opera in the Volga River port of Cheboksary, capital of Russia's Chuvash Republic, November 2009. We've got some better performances coming up in the click-through.
As music lovers know, the hint of a distant storm from a few timpani rolls can be as evocative as the crepuscular waves portrayed by Constable. The ability of music both directly to mimic the sounds of the weather and indirectly to imply its subtler moods perhaps gives this medium more scope for dramatic expression than the visual arts and literature, which unavoidably are limited to more literal interpretations.
-- Karen L. Aplin and Paul D. Williams,
in "Meteorological phenomena in Western classical
orchestral music
," in the November issue of Weather

by Ken

Just for the record, the authors of the above-cited monograph hail from the Dept. of Physics, University of Oxford (Aplin), and the Dept. of Meteorology, University of Reading (Williams). If that gives you a gnawing bad feeling, trust it. When I discovered the piece, I thought at first it was a happy coincidence that such a piece had been published just as I was setting out to write about musical storms. Then I started reading the piece. And I was reminded why I rigorously avoided taking any academic classes that impinged on my love of music. If you were thinking there was bound to be some fun in such a piece, so was I. We were all wrong.

Anyway, we began listening to our storms imagined in music a couple of weeks ago, leading off with probably the most celebrated from the concert repertory, the sequence from Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony that includes his famous thunderstorm, and surely the most spectacular storm in the operatic repertory, the cataclysm that opens Verdi's Otello -- and nearly rings down the curtain on the opera when Otello's ship is nearly dragged under as it approaches the Cypriot shore. For good measure we threw in a less threatening operatic storm, the beautiful "Royal Hunt and Storm" sequence from Berlioz's epic opera The Trojans.

In Friday's preview we took a step back in time to hear what Vivaldi could do stormwise with just the modest baroque orchestras -- incorporating storm movements in three of the Four Seasons. Today we track what some composers have done with the increasingly resource-rich resources of the modern symphony orchestra.

One perhaps obvious observation is still worth observing: that there's not much point in doing a musical storm if you don't also provide a sort of musical "baseline" -- life as it was being carried on before the storm and as it continues afterward. Beethoven, for example, gave us his countryside peasants dancing merrily before the interruption of the weather event, and then the the merry-making that follows it. The storm itself is brief, but illustrates thrillingly the cleansing, purifying, and exhilarating effect a storm can have. Just to refresh our memory, why don't we listen again to the Klemperer recording with the slow "Peasants' Dance" that producer Walter Legge very likely never did get used to.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 (Pastoral):
iii. Merry gathering of the peasants: Allegro
iv. Thunderstorm: Allegro
v. Shepherd's song; Happy and grateful feelings after the storm: Allegretto

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded October 1957

I thought of including the "Scene in the fields" from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, which we listened to in June 2010), itself a clear hommage to Beethoven's thunderstorm. But the distant thunder near the end seems kind of incidental for our purposes. In that 2010 post you can hear a quite lovely performance of the movement by Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony.

Okay, you talked me into it; here's the Paray "Scene in the fields" again. Just as a reminder: The composer's program for the movement concludes: "The sun retires . . . distant noise of thunder . . . solitude . . . silence . . ."

BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14:
iii. Scène aux champs (Scene in the fields)

Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Paul Paray, cond. Mercury, recorded Nov. 28, 1959


Again, we've heard the Grand Canyon Suite in its entirely, in a July 2010 Fourth of July post. At this point in the piece we've witnessed an awesome musical "Sunrise" and the spooky "Painted Desert," ridden our burros "On the Trail," and watched the "Sunset." You never know when you may be caught in a cloudburst.

GROFÉ: Grand Canyon Suite:
v. Cloudburst

Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, Howard Hanson, cond. Mercury, recorded May 1958

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded Sept. 30, 1991

RECORDING NOTE: I know there's a resistance among many modern listeners to "old" recordings like these. It still seems to me that the recording art has gone mostly backward, not forward, since, say, the late '60s. If anyone has heard an orchestral recording made in the last 20 years remotely comparable in sonic beauty or believability to the 1958 and 1959 Mercury recordings we've just heard, I'd sure like to know what it is.


(And, oh yes, we've also got a storm-pretender from the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II.)


Preview: Tonight's musical selections should give you a good idea of Sunday's subject (January 13)
The thunderstorm movement from Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Otello's "Esultate" from Verdi's Otello
Stormy weather, part 1 (January 15)
Verdi's Otello, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, and Berlioz's Les Troyens, plus Lena Horne singing "Stormy Weather"
Preview: Given the resources at his disposal, Vivaldi's musical storms may be the most remarkable of all (January 27)
The three storm movements from Vivaldi's Four Seasons
With the full symphony orchestra you can create a heckuva storm (aka: Musical storms, part 2) (January 29)
Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (again), Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, Johann Strauss II's Amid Thunder and Lightning polka, Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony, Grieg's Peer Gynt incidental music, Britten's Peter Grimes, and Rossini's Barber of Seville
Preview: En route to more of our musical storms, we encounter perhaps the most eerily wonderful music I know (February 3)
The Preludes to Acts I and II of Wagner's Siegfried
Storms that set three great operatic scenes in motion (aka: Musical storms, part 3) (February 5)
The openings of Wagner's Die Walküre Act I and Siegfried Act III and of Act III of Puccini's La Bohème
Preview: En route to our final operatic storms, we hear two famous tenor tunes sung by a very famous tenor (February 24)
"La donna è mobile," the Quartet, and the Storm Scene from Act III of Rigoletto
Musical storms, part 4: We come to our raging storms from Janáček's Kátya Kabanová and Verdi's Rigoletto (February 26)
The storms from Act III of both operas, with a close-up look at how Verdi created the Rigoletto one -- plus the whole of Act III

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At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Very nice Keni

Pre cell phones/pagers ...soundz like Heavn.

PS the longer story here also is that I was finally writing a requested review on an experiential training product that I had used for many years, and after my itunes went back to the usual Kelly Clarkson, Pink Floyd, Traffic, Zappa, Quicksilver Messenger Service random mix...I stopped go back to this Keni classical stuff.
Excellent. Thx.

At 8:01 PM, Anonymous me said...

Timely article for me, as I was just listening to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony a few days ago.

Interesting. Thanks!


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