Spring is in the air, or at least that’s what the calendar tells us; there are plenty of people in the northern hemisphere who have been looking at mercury levels that don’t corroborate the fact that winter is supposed to be over.
The turning of the seasons has given many composers a handy framework for new compositions. Vivaldi’s set of four violin concertos needs no introduction (Naxos 8.550056). They set the trend for others to follow: the formula can be found, for example, in Glazunov’s ballet music (Marco Polo 8.223136), Tchaikovsky’s suite for piano (Naxos 8.550233), Haydn’s oratorio (Naxos 8.557600-01), Spohr’s symphonies (Marco Polo 8.223454) and even The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Naxos 8.572271), in which Piazzolla makes a number of cheeky references to Vivaldi’s originals in his vivid set of tango movements.
Spring is perhaps the season that carries the most excitement, with its rising sap and air of rejuvenation. Shakespeare caught the feeling in ‘When daffodils begin to peer’ from The Winter’s Tale. Here’s the opening stanza:
When daffodils begin to peer,
With hey! The doxy over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.
The Renaissance composer Anthony Holborne, a contemporary of Shakespeare, underlined the mood of this moment (Naxos 8.570708) in his setting of the words; music, of course, was an important element in the Bard’s works, given the absence of sets and lighting.
Daffodils have come to symbolise the fleeting freshness of spring. The English composer Arnold Bax used the image when he was infatuated with an aspiring pianist destined to become one of the finest keyboard players of her generation. Thirteen years his younger, Harriet Cohen was only nineteen when Bax dedicated a short piano piece to her. The maiden with the daffodil (Naxos 8.557769) is marked ‘Fresh and innocent”, probably an understatement of the passionate and convoluted affair he was to continue with her for over forty years.
May Day, the first day of the month, carries a number of associations – from national holidays to political protests. Those who studied at Oxford University, however, will remember it as the day when they rose (unusually) at dawn to go and hear the choir of Magdalen College continuing the time-honoured tradition of singing from the top of the college’s Great Tower to welcome the new season, before joining in (very unusually) with other traditional practices such as Morris dancing. That particular country jig also makes an appearance in the Courtly Dances from Britten’s opera Gloriana (Naxos 8.557196 track 6), while the tradition of choosing a May Queen is central to Britten’s earlier comic opera, Albert Herring (Naxos 8.660107-08). Maypole dancing can be found all over Western Europe, as reflected in Maypole Dance, one of Bartók’s 44 Duos for Violin (Naxos 8.550868) or Jacob Weinberg’s Klezmer-style The Maypole (Naxos 8.559403).
Not all associations with the month smack of such bucolic bliss, however. In Germany, witches are said to meet with the Devil on May 1, Walpurgisnacht, at the Brocken Peak. Joachim Raff used this bit of folklore as the basis of the second movement of his Eighth Symphony that is subtitled ‘The Sounds of Spring’ (Marco Polo 8.223362).
There are plentiful examples of such background music suitable for this special time of year; if you get through all the above and still want to feel under the seasonal weather, there’s always Bright Sheng’s Spring Dreams (Naxos 8.570601), Beethoven’s Spring Sonata for violin and piano (Naxos 8.550283) and Delius’ On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring (Naxos 8.557143). Not to mention, in the centenary year of its first performance, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Naxos 8.557508).
While it’s relatively easy to raise a smile with music that accompanies an amusing song or a comic dance, pieces that have no visual or literary add-ons rarely succeed in getting the giggles going. The finale of Haydn’s Joke string quartet (Naxos 8.550788) can raise a smile, at least on first hearing; similarly, those quirky moments in the scherzo from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 106, Hammerklavier (Idil Biret Archive 8.571269). After that, my list of examples thins out pretty quickly, having never been a fan of Leopold’s Mozart’s Toy Symphony.
A number of people on the fringes of the art, however, have made their name out of music’s rib-tickling potential, whether intentional or not. It was the sheer personality of Florence Foster Jenkins, certainly not her musical ability, that went on to inspire four plays about her life. Her singing voice had such little feeling for timing, intonation or the pronunciation of foreign languages that her recitals packed in disbelieving audiences and challenged critics to only allude to the truth, rather than get out the machete. It’s unclear whether she knew the full extent of her limitations or the honest opinion of her audiences, but her thick-skinned survival was certainly made easier with put-downs like: “People may say I can’t sing, but no-one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Murder on the High Cs (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120711) will tell you all you need to know about the Dire Diva, but make sure you are sitting down first.
Born in London in 1911, Anna Russell was a voice student at the capital’s Royal Academy of Music, but she went on to find fame more as a comedienne after moving to her mother’s native Canada in 1939; the therapeutic benefits of laughter are borne out by the fact that she lived until the grand old age of 94, dying in Australia in 2006. From her base in North America she went on to make her mark in burlesque, becoming hugely successful by trading off her deadpan humour, as can be heard in her famous recording of How to write your own Gilbert and Sullivan opera. But she is probably best remembered for her revisionary account of Wagner’s magnum opus in The Ring of the Nibelung (An Analysis), “the only opera on earth that comes in a giant economy package,” as Russell introduced it to her audience. The Rhinemaidens are dubbed “a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters,” Wotan chief of the Gods is “a totally crashing bore”, and Valhalla “a sort of celestial White House.” With alternating subterranean, earthly and heavenly scenarios in the plot, it earns Russell’s tag as “a vertical opera.” YouTube will oblige with the rest of her illustrated lecture.
Russell’s humour, however, only serves to sharpen the incomprehensibility of The Ring to many music lovers who wobble over the work’s huge story, contained in four operas that last a total of around 15 hours, which Wagner intended to be performed over three days. Such people would love to get more familiar with the iconic work, but baulk at the amount of narrative and musical undergrowth that stands in the way. Now, almost two hundred years to the day since Wagner was born, help is at hand. Naxos has developed an App (Wagner’s Ring Cycle) that will guide you through the threads of the storyline and the dozens of musical clues (leitmotifs) that continuously aid the listener in recognising who’s who, what’s what and where’s where.
The App contains a wealth of background information to the creation of The Ring, and has already attracted positive critical reaction, such as this comment from Charlotte Gardner in Sinfini Music:
“If you’re either looking to investigate this cornerstone of the operatic repertoire for the first time, or to increase an existing musical and historical understanding of it, then you’d be hard pushed to find a better way.”
As a closing thought, I wonder how many fans of The Ring are familiar with some other, less well-known Wagner operas. Do the following ring a bell?
Der Bärenhäuter (The Man in a Bear’s Skin, Marco Polo 8.223713-14)
Banadietrich (Marco Polo 8.223895-96)
Schwarzschwanenreich (The Kingdom of the Black Swan, Marco Polo 8.223777-78)
Bruder Lustig (Brother Lustig, Marco Polo 8.225245-47)
The con is that they were written by Siegfried Wagner, Richard’s son, composer, conductor and director of the Bayreuth Festival from 1908 until 1930, the year he died. While the subject matter continues his father’s exploration of the mysterious mediaeval world of German legend, Siegfried’s style is more in the tradition of his teacher, Engelbert Humperdinck. Let’s allow him the final word for today:
“I was given the name Siegfried by my parents, but I have riven in two no anvil, slain no dragon and stridden through no sea of flames. In spite of this, however, I hope that I am not completely unworthy of this name, since fear is not my failing.”
Vasily Petrenko’s Award-winning survey of the Shostakovich symphonies with the RLPO, now reaches the eighth instalment with the release of the epic ‘Leningrad’ Symphony.
Here he talks to Edward Seckerson about the work.
Catalogue No.: 8.573057
This month sees the much awaited release of the next installment in the cycle of Shostakovich symphonies recorded by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (Naxos 8.573057). The historical baggage carried by the Seventh Symphony, Leningrad, is well documented; the atmosphere of Stalinist repression and the horror of Russia’s war against Hitler ride the music in an array of emotions.
The work was an inspiration to those who were trapped in the appalling conditions of the German siege against Leningrad that ran from 1941 to 1944. That spirit of defiance has now made the unlikely journey through time and across musical genres to this year’s Ivor Novello Awards, Britain’s annual event that recognises and rewards excellence in song-writing and composition. A sample of the fourth movement of Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony underpins Ill Manors, which has been nominated for Best Contemporary Song. The hit was recorded by London rapper and songwriter, Ben Drew, aka Plan B, who found his equivalent inspiration for the song in the shocking social unrest that played out in the 2011 London riots. Shostakovich’s name is up there in the credits of contributing artists awaiting the announcement of the winners on May 16.
Fortunately, such cross-fertilisation between classical and popular music hasn’t always been born of strife. A bit of track-hopping reveals how some favourite classics have readily translated into easy listening and a wider audience.
Kismet, the 1953 Broadway production that won the Tony Award for Best Musical, mixes original numbers with adaptations of music by Borodin. Strangers in Paradise (Naxos 8.120847, track 8) has its roots in his Polovtsian Dances (Naxos 8.550051). Grieg’s music was similarly borrowed for the operetta Song of Norway: you can judge for yourself how well Freddy and his Fiddle (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120879, track 3) stands up against its original incarnation as the Norwegian Dance No. 2 (Naxos 8.556658).
Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat (Naxos 8.550360 track 6) morphed into Till the End of Time, a popular song from 1945 (CCLCDG1080, track 16); the following year, the Ronde des Princesses from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird (Naxos 8.550263) found its way into many people’s hearts and homes through Lauritz Melchior’s recording of Summer Moon (Naxos Historical 8.111239, track 17).
Returning to Vasily Petrenko, his success to date with the Shostakovich symphony cycle is in no doubt; there has been a plethora of positive critical comment, of which this reaction to Volume 5′s First and Third Symphonies from Steve Schwartz of ClassicalCDreview.com is typical:
“Gripping. Oh, dear Lord! These two accounts of early Shostakovich not only succeed in their own right, they stand among the very best ever.”
The accolades say as much about Petrenko’s bond with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as his understanding of the composer. He was appointed chief conductor in 2009, and one of his recent initiatives for audience-building has been to hold coffee concerts, held at noon and performed informally. It’s reported that a measure of their success has been that the Norwegian consul, the Archbishop of Liverpool and the city’s national treasure of a comedian, Ken Dodd, were all spotted in the audience at one performance. The idea, however, is not as modern as might seem.
When J. S. Bach was working in Leipzig between 1723 and his death in 1750, he diluted the focus on his duties at the choir school serving the St Thomas Church after ructions with the principal, instead putting more energy into the Friday evening secular music occasions held at Gottfried Zimmerman’s Coffee House. The conviviality of the venue appealed to performers and audience alike, and it is assumed that this is where Bach’s Coffee Cantata (Naxos 8.550641) was first performed. Written in the mid-1730s, it’s scored for soprano, tenor and bass, with flute, strings and basso continuo. The story-line involves a father trying to wean his daughter off her dependency on the black stuff, but ends with the trio telling us that coffee-drinking is indeed an addictive habit!
And so it seems to have continued, with the steamy liquid continuing to hook both consumers and composers. Pour yourself a cup, sit back and enjoy listening to some pieces that have taken inspiration from the brew:
Irving Berlin’s Let’s have another cup of coffee (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120842, track 10)
Ella Fitzgerald’s performance of Sonny Burke’s Black Coffee (Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120774, track 3)
Jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli’s take on Buddy G. de Silva’s You’re the cream in my coffee (Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120570, track 19)
and Alan Bullard’s Coffee and croissants (Naxos 8.572503, track 22) for recorder and strings, a chic waltz that will have you on the banks of the River Seine in a trice.
April 26 is World Intellectual Property Day, a good moment to reflect on the issue of people pinching musical ideas from other composers. Whilst imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, plagiarism isn’t. On the whole, however, classical musicians seem to have been rather well behaved on the subject.
Rosemary Brown was an English medium and near-novice musician who famously claimed to have communicated with the spirits of composers such as Liszt, Brahms and Chopin in the 1960s. She was suspected by some of pilfering and recycling their extant ideas when she produced a stream of compositions purportedly dictated to her from the other side. Remarkably, the sceptics never outshouted those who were happy to suspend disbelief and saw her more as a remarkable conduit than a poacher.
By the turn of the century it was a computer that was worming its way into the minds of the great masters to extract their ideas. EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence) is the musical software invented by the multi-talented American David Cope that has produced stylistic facsimiles of great composers, from Bach to Mahler, although the difference between computed and composed remains discernible – for now.
Copyright laws didn’t kick in until around 500 years after the 13th-century Latin hymn for the dead, Dies Irae, was penned, but whoever the composer of the plainsong tune was, he probably wishes he could have notched up an indulgence for every occasion it’s been performed subsequently.
While Berlioz used it in the demonic finale of his Symphonie Fantastique (Naxos 8.572886), written in 1830, the tune plays its calling card right from the start of Liszt’s Totentanz, originally written for piano and orchestra in 1849 (Naxos 8.570517) and subsequently re-worked for piano solo (Naxos 8.572491). The plainchant is still in demand today, as can be heard in the 5th movement of Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony (Naxos 8.559635), written in 1993.
Rachmaninov adopted the tune in a number of works, including his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Naxos 8.554477). The Paganini tune on which this ever popular work is built has in turn been borrowed by others, notably by Brahms in his two books of fiendishly difficult piano variations on the theme (Naxos 8.550350), and those for piano duet by Witold Lutoslawski (8.553423).
God Save the Queen, the British national anthem that dates back to c.1745, was brazenly co-opted by other countries as their own national song, including Russia, Prussia, Switzerland and even the United States, before The Star-Spangled Banner became the official anthem in 1931; hence the reason why Ives’ Variations on America (Naxos 8.570559) sounds as though it was born on the wrong side of the Atlantic.
Staying on the right side of decency, however, is self-plagiarism, which has been practised by some of the finest composers to produce moments (or movements) that can disorientate the listener. JS Bach excised the opening movement of one of his secular cantatas, Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! BWV 214 and transformed it note-for-note into Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage!, the opening movement of his Christmas Oratorio (Naxos 8.550428-30).
Mozart similarly recycled the Kyrie and Gloria from his Mass in C minor (Naxos 8.554421) to expedite the completion of Davide penitente (Naxos 8.570231), a commission he received from the Viennese Society of Musicians in 1785.
Over in London, Handel had wowed London audiences with the first entrance of the sorceress Armida in his opera Rinaldo in 1711 – the sound effects, sense of stagecraft and musical impact can be experienced on Naxos 8.660165-67, track 10. Armida then continues with the aria Molto voglio, molto spero. The piece had travelled well, having first been tried out by the title character in his opera Agrippina in Venice two years earlier.
A couple of centuries later, Mahler scattered a sense of déjà vu more liberally throughout his first four symphonies, making extensive use of themes from his song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Naxos Historical 8.111300) and his anthology of folk song settings in Des Knaben Wunderhorn: the song Das himmlische Leben permeates his Fourth Symphony, most noticeably in the last movement (Naxos 8.550527).
One of our new releases this month continues to remind us how Rachmaninov befriended that previously mentioned ancient melody, Dies Irae, right up to his later works. Keep your ears on alert for it while enjoying the performances of his Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances (Naxos 8.573051) by Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Leonard Slatkin enjoys close ties to Sergei Rachmaninov: his great-uncle brought the composer to the US and conducted the première of his second symphony. Slatkin tells Gail Wein about his recordings of Rachmaninov Symphonies with Detroit Symphony, and his life in Motor City.
Catalogue No.: Naxos 8.573051
Sergei Rachmaninov died in Beverly Hills in the US state of California in 1943. Maybe because of the city’s glitzy association with Hollywood and the composer’s often silver-screen romantic sounds, he carries a more modernistic persona than his actual life history supports.
This was a man who straddled generations and geographies: born in Russia in 1873; uprooted by the Russian Revolution in 1917; landed in the United States a year later.
Leonard Slatkin, currently conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, was born only ten months after Rachmaninov died, and his latest release continues the spirit of the great Russian master in two fine performances of works from his later years: the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances (Naxos 8.573051).
Rachmaninov considered his Third Symphony one of his finest works, but the First Symphony (Naxos 8.550806), writtensome forty years earlier in 1896, received such bad critical reaction that it sent him into a bout of depression from which he emerged only with some considerable difficulty. The critics at that time, however, made little comment about the poor quality of the performance. It is very strongly suspected that the conductor on that occasion, the composer Alexander Glazunov, was inebriated, which helped put the noose around both the première and Rachmaninov’s self-confidence. Glazunov was writing his own Sixth Symphony (Naxos 8.554293) at the same time and with the same hands as wielded the baton on that unfortunate occasion. Comparing the two works in that context is an interesting exercise.
Rachmaninov had already been knocked sideways in 1893 by the sudden death of Tchaikovsky, whom he knew personally; the more positive outcome on that occasion, however, was that his grief found heart-on-sleeve expression in the substantial Trio élégiaque No. 2 (Naxos 8.557423), headed “To the memory of a great artist,” that brims with challenging piano writing and radiant melodies.
When Rachmaninov eventually emerged from his depression following the initial failure of his First Symphony, it was the success of his Piano Concerto No. 2 that restored him. At any first rehearsal of the work, the orchestra’s front desk of second violins will be on the look-out for how the soloist will negotiate the work’s opening eight chords that have a wide spread of notes for the left hand. They require the player to stretch the interval of a tenth, which is not feasible for players with smaller hands; they have to split off the lowest note first to compensate. Rachmaninov had no such problem. He was a large man (with “a six-and-a-half foot scowl” as Stravinsky remarked) and had suitably large hands to control the notes.
So, it’s interesting – and maybe surprising – to listen to several versions of those opening bars and hear how the pianists take different approaches: playing the chords as a block; splitting off the lowest note; and applying a mixture of the two.
• Artur Rubinstein (Naxos Historical 8.111289)
• Jeno Jandó (Naxos 8.550117)
• William Kapell (Naxos Historical 8.110692)
• Sergei Rachmaninov (Naxos Historical 8.110601)
Like many composers of note, Rachmaninov wore the three hats of composer, conductor and performer throughout his life. During his years in America, however, which incorporated spells in Europe, his lifestyle depended more on performance than composition to pay the bills. Fortunately, we are able to re-live those times through a number of studio recordings that he made.
You can appreciate Rachmaninov’s virtuoso piano technique and distinctive tone both on the disc of his own works (Naxos Historical 8.111397) and another featuring music by Chopin, Schumann and Liszt (Naxos Historical 8.112020). He can also be heard as the soloist in his four piano concertos (Naxos Historical 8.110601 and 8.110602) and in the rôle of accompanist in violin sonatas performed by Fritz Kreisler (Naxos Historical 8.110968).
There’s also the opportunity to hear him conducting his Third Symphony (Naxos Historical 8.111357) before slipping into a comparison with our new release of the same work in Leonard Slatkin’s hands. Rachmaninov himself would surely have appreciated these latest developments in technology, technique and talent. Today’s critics did, hailing Slatkin’s first disc in the series that featured the Second Symphony performed by the Detroit Symphony:
“…here is a performance warmed by musicians who clearly love this symphony … hearing his performance one is convinced that his musicians are truly inside the music emotionally.” (BBC Music Magazine)
As a quick coda, let’s take a glimpse back to one of the first works that anointed Rachmaninov’s future as a composer and already bears the characteristic melancholy that was to colour much of his future output: the Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2 (Naxos Historical 8.111397, track 3). Written when he was only 19 years old, this recording demonstrates his goal of perfection in the recording studio – it was the 23rd take of the piece!
Although composers have often painted the atmospheres of exotic countries, the drama of historical events and the narrative of colourful stories into their works, a few of us in the Naxos office were left struggling to find examples that take physical monuments as their prime focus. Although there must be more, the only one that immediately sprang to mind was The Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition (Naxos 8.553249 track 21).
The subject arose following the release this month of our world première recordings of works by GRAMMY® Award-winning composer Michael Daugherty (Naxos 8.559749). Opening the disc is Mount Rushmore, a dramatic oratorio inspired by the monumental sculpture of four American presidents carved into the Black Hills of South Dakota: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Daugherty’s irresistible slabs of sound that permeate the work tally with the bold stone carvings they represent.
The work is followed on the disc by Radio City, continuing the physical thread by taking the noted entertainment complex located in the Rockefeller Centre in New York City as its title. It was from there that the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini made live broadcasts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra from 1937 to 1954, an episode in American cultural history which Daugherty’s symphonic fantasy captures.
“In the final movement of Radio City, I have composed music that captures Toscanini’s tempestuous temperament, his musical intensity, and the frenzied tempos of his performances,” Daugherty explains. The performance by the Pacific Symphony under Carl St Clair certainly achieves all of this and, if you want a bit of the ‘real thing’, check out Toscanini’s Radio City broadcast of Verdi’s Otello (Naxos Historical 8.111320-21), performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. It’s a particularly compelling experience, given that Toscanini himself played cello at the opera’s first performance at La Scala, Milan in 1887.
Ravel‘s Tombeau de Couperin might just fall into our definition of music for monuments, ‘tombeau’ being French for ‘tombstone’ and a generic term for pieces written to commemorate the death of someone of importance. It was a common form of composition in the 17th century and Ravel revived the practice as a memorial to friends of his who were killed in World War I. Subsequently re-scored for orchestra, its original version for piano solo can be heard in its entirety on Naxos 8.550254, while the great British pianist Phyllis Sellick, a young girl at the time of its composition who became known for her affinity with Ravel’s music, can be heard playing the Toccata from the work on Naxos Historical 8.111217.
Turning things on their head, there are monuments dotted around the world that commemorate the lives of composers, usually with a simple portrait sculpture of the subject, but few are as arresting as the structure built to commemorate Jean Sibelius‘ contribution to the music of Finland. Located in Helsinki’s Sibelius Park, the Sibelius Monument is a fascinating piece of abstract sculpture, made up of some 600 hollow steel pipes. You can take an audio-visual tour that combines music of Finland’s greatest composer with its stunning scenic landmarks on Nordic Landscapes, part of the Naxos Musical Journey series (Naxos DVD 2.110320).
What has proved to be one of the most exciting structures of the past half century, however, now with us in radio-wave spirit only, is the Voyager Spacecraft; launched in 1977, it’s now believed to be approaching the edge of the solar system. As 12 April is marked by the United Nations as the International Day of Human Space Flight, we thought we’d take a small liberty by highlighting this example of an unmanned venture on the same day.
No music was written specifically to mark Voyager’s mission, but a number of classical pieces are inextricably bound up with it in the form of on-board recordings that help represent the diversity of our civilisation’s culture, in the event that the craft ever connects with another.
If you would like to let your imagination roam to the frontiers of space with this music, follow the links to the pieces that were selected:
• J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, First Movement (Naxos 8.554607, track 5)
• J. S. Bach, Partita No. 3 in E major for violin solo, Gavotte en rondeau (Naxos 8.557563-64, disc 2, track 12)
• J. S. Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C (Naxos 8.550970-71 disc 1, track 1)
• Mozart, The Magic Flute, The Queen of the Night aria (Naxos 8.660030-31, disc 2, track 8)
• Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, Movement 1 (Naxos 8.550289, track 1)
• Beethoven, String quartet No. 13 in B flat, Op. 130, Cavatina (Naxos 8.554593, track 5)
• Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance (Naxos 8.557508, track 20)
* Radio City Music Hall credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia
Even the most prominent names in classical music grew from initial obscurity, with a combination of circumstances, opportunities and single-mindedness eventually releasing an artist’s light from under the bushel. Somewhere in all their life stories, however, is usually a person responsible for significantly promoting that individual’s genius, but whose contribution to the cause inevitably gets forgotten.
Closer to our time, history is kinder: to mention the name of manager George Martin in the same breath as The Beatles, for example, would raise few puzzled looks; Lang Lang and his dad are also a well-documented management casebook. Further back in time, memories get misty.
Among this month’s new releases, however, is the intriguing and illuminating story of how Gioachino Rossini got a leg-up into the Hall of Fame from a surprising source. Rossini’s refined world of bel canto opera might not have spawned such an extensive personal catalogue without the unlikely help of a roguish gambler called Domenico Barbaja. A casino mogul, an illiterate loudmouth and a cantankerous bully, he was also the most influential opera impresario of the 19th century. It was he who lured Rossini to the all-important opera scene in Naples in 1814, launching him onto the stellar path he was to follow for the rest of his creative life.
You can hear examples of the works both he and other significant opera composers wrote for Barbaja on this month’s new release Bel Canto Bully (Naxos 8.578237). Better still, you can put the music into the context provided by Philip Eisenbeiss’ new biography of Barbaja (Haus Publishing, ISBN 978-1-908323-25-5), for which this is the companion disc.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-86) could hardly be thought of as an impresario in the manner of Barbaja, but the influence he had on Richard Wagner was similar, his patronage providing him with the comfort zone in which creativity could blossom. Wagner’s most significant legacy from that arrangement came in Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), the 4-opera mythical saga which would have had a difficult birth without the financial and physical security that Ludwig’s support provided.
If you’ve never managed to fully grasp the narrative and musical complexity of The Ring, rest easy, because Naxos will be coming to your rescue next month with a handy aid to its appreciation, so watch this space… Meanwhile, if you’re new to the masterpieces, why not ease yourself into the experience by listening to the operas’ preludes and opening scenes?
Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) (Naxos 8.660170-71)
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) (Naxos Historical 8.110058-60)
Siegfried (Naxos 8.660175-78)
Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) (Naxos 8.112066-69)
Tchaikovsky similarly benefited from the patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a Russian railway magnate, whose financial support carried him through a number of his creative years. One of this month’s new releases is a recital of Tchaikovsky’s piano works (Naxos 8.573086) performed by Andrey Yaroshinsky in the Naxos Artist Laureate Series. As the winner of numerous international competitions, Yaroshinsky also reminds us of the extent to which performers’ careers continue to be managed in their early stages by the exposure arising from such competitive opportunities.
The 19th century also has interesting examples of composers promoting each other in a sort of pay-it-forward fashion. Robert Schumann played a significant part in encouraging the genius he recognised in the young Johannes Brahms, inviting him to co-write a work for the famous violinist, Joseph Joachim: Schumann asked Brahms (then only 20) and Albert Dietrich (a student of Schumann) to provide a movement each for the four-movement work, which has become known as the F-A-E Sonata. Fast forward to the three violin sonatas from Brahms’ mature years (Naxos 8.554828) and one can’t help thinking how different things might have been without that initial act of support on Schumann’s part.
Antonín Dvorák subsequently found himself on the receiving end of Brahms’ generosity, who both recommended the young Czech talent to the publisher, Simrock, and even undertook the menial task of proof-reading Dvorák’s scores later in life when he was away in America during the last years of the 19th century.
From that same era of Czech music, we can recommend another of this month’s new releases of orchestral music by Zdenek Fibich (Naxos 8.572985). Although Fibich never enjoyed the same celebrity status as compatriots Smetana and Dvorák, following his death in 1900 a group of his appreciative students made a concerted effort to redress the balance for audiences of the 20th century and beyond, right up to this disc. An example, in this case, of pay-it-back.
These thoughts appear around Good Friday, the day when Christians reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection three days later, on Easter Sunday. That’s also a red letter day for many youngsters who can then indulge in their symbolically related, but more secular passion for chocolate eggs.
The 72-hour period is typically observed by the faithful from a meditative standpoint, but not always from inside an ecclesiastical building, as in the case of Wagner’s opera Parsifal (Naxos Historical 8.110221-24), during which the legendary title hero experiences the Good Friday Spell in Act 3 (disc 4, track 7), when nature suddenly appears transfigured by love and the regaining of innocence. The cited performance is the first complete recording of Parsifal, made in 1951 at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth by a cast of distinguished soloists and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra under Hans Knappertsbusch – so it probably doesn’t get more religiously authentic than that.
Also connecting with the Easter theme is a new release this month of Penderecki’s Piano Concerto (Naxos 8.572696), featuring soloist Barry Douglas and the Warsaw Philharmonic conducted by Antoni Wit. It carries the subtitle Resurrection to reflect the hymn-like melody that gradually rises to the foreground before emerging with striking power at the work’s overwhelming climax, delivered by a huge orchestra that includes triple wind and a whole battery of percussion. A previous release in the series of Penderecki’s orchestral music includes his Horn Concerto (Naxos 8.572482), which received unreserved praise from some quarters:
“…the Horn Concerto of 2008 is drop-dead gorgeous…get this stunningly played and recorded disc, as well as the others in this important and worthy series…any of Antoni Wit’s Penderecki recordings for Naxos deserves recognition: they are uniformly superb.” (David Hurwitz – ClassicsToday.com)
Having passed away ten years ago this month at the grand age of 99, the spirit of Goffredo Petrassi rises again in this month’s new release of his music (Naxos 8.572411) including the Quattro inni sacri (Four Sacred Hymns), works he described as “music of today for the faithful of today.” The last in the set, Salvete Christi vulnera (Hail, wounds of Christ) is made particularly evocative by Petrassi’s skilful handling of the colours and textures weaving around the baritone’s powerful solo line.
For many, the approach to Easter just wouldn’t feel complete without hearing a performance of The Crucifixion, an oratorio by the English composer John Stainer. The work was written for St Marylebone Parish Church in London where it has been performed every Good Friday since its première in 1887. You can access a complete performance of the work by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge directed by Tim Brown on Naxos 8.557624.
Alternatively, you can just dip a toe into the work by listening to a single item, God so loved the world, which is included on another of this month’s new releases, Psalms and Motets for Reflection (Naxos 8.572540). The disc is a spiritual cocktail that not only combines choral elements from Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and mediæval traditions, but also draws on a mix of repertoire from around the world, ranging from German Johannes Eccard’s 16th-century When to the temple Mary went to the eddying lines of Scotsman James McMillan’s A New Song, written in 1997. The choir of St John’s, Elora is directed by Noel Edison.
All of which leads to our final new release (Naxos 8.573092) of sacred music composed by Mozart while in the service of Archbishop Colleredo at his court in Salzburg when still only 17 years old. The two short mass settings and Regina Coeli “lift the spirits and are a joy to perform,” in the words of Andrew Lucas, who directs the St Albans Cathedral Choir.
“It was therefore an easy decision to choose to record these examples of our core repertoire,” says Lucas, “and to have the luxury of performing with musicians using instruments from the classical period, who give a truer picture of balance, blend and colour of the instruments and voices in this truly exuberant music.
“I love these settings which, to me, already reveal Mozart’s greatness and are a foretaste of even greater things to come.”
Finally, if you have a spare 30 minutes for reflection, why not settle down and listen to the seasonal chorale preludes J. S. Bach wrote for use during Passiontide and Easter (Naxos 8.553032), as included in his Orgelbüchlein (The Little Organ Book).
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