Friday, April 22, 2011

Music for an Easter Vigil

En français:

In addition to my recent podcast on Agnus Dei, I wanted to share a few selections you can sample off the Web that are particularly meaningful to me, and that I routinely make a point to reflect to this time of year.

Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony

The Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler, known as the Resurrection, was written between 1888 and 1894, and first performed in 1895. Apart from the Eighth Symphony (his Symphony of A Thousand), this symphony was Mahler's most popular and successful work during his lifetime. It is his first major work that would eventually mark his lifelong view of the beauty of afterlife and resurrection.

Mahler was, no doubt, a very spiritual; man, and his music often reflects tragedy (as is the case of the “three hammer blows” of this Sixth Symphony emblematic of the death of his young daughter), hope and love. The story goes that Mahler chose to base the finale of this Symphony on Kloppstock’s “Resurrection Hymn” – to which he added his own words – after hearing it at the funeral of legendary conductor Hans von Bülow. The fourth movement (Urlicht) the “U” my musical alphabet podcast, and the fifth movement, the setting of the Resurrection Hymn, is powerful and moving.  Legendary Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester (who passed away last year) has been involved in nearly a dozen recordings of this work.Here is a LINK to the words of the Hymn. 

I own several versions of this symphony – my favourite is one by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia (1950’s). Klemperer was involved in the premiere, I believe, as an assistant conductor. Here's another version by Klemperer, this time from a live recording from the Holland Festival, Amsterdam, July 12, 1951, with the Concertgebouw orchestra and soloists Jo Vincent, soprano and Kathleen Ferrier, contralto:

Verdi’s Missa Da Requiem

I don't think that it's coincidence that Mozart and Verdi's Requiem masses are so popular - they are both opera composers, and have a flair for the dramatic. Verdi's Requiem is a particularly strong work, mainly due to its intensity. In a recent review of a concert performance, Claude Gingras of La Presse wrote:

Disparaged by purists as being too close to opera, Verdi's Requiem is nevertheless an extremely rich and compelling work, a real stroke of genius. A confident conductor can make the audience vibrate to the highest levels of emotion [...] 

The version in my collection is a 2001 recording marking the centenary of Verdi's death, conducted by Caudio Abbado featuring soprano Angela Gheorgiu, tenor Roberto Alagna, the Swedish Radio Chorus, the Eric Ericsson Chamber Choir and the Berlin Philharmonic. Abbado, like most conductors of his generation, has a strong track record as a Verdi operatic conductor, and it shows – letting himself get carried away by Verdi’s fiery music. It is a very dynamic performance, well worth the purchase if you like that sort of stuff.

I chose to share with you the performance commemorating the 50th anniversary of Verdi’s death, conducted by Arturo Toscanini in Carnegie Hall (before a capacity crowd and a nationwide radio audience which heard it via the NBC network).  Verdi is definitely a composer in Toscanini’s wheel house, and the performance is brisk and clear. Unlike Abbado’s Requiem, Toscanini stays painstakingly within the indications of the composer, which makes it different but no less enjoyable and moving. It is said that Toscanini probably performed the Requiem 30 times between 1902 and 1951, and that the 1951 Carnegie Hall performance wasn't his finest (most people point to his 1940 broadcast performance at the same venue with different soloists as being his finest recording of the work) but this is not too shabby nonetheless.

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms

Let’s make one thing clear – I am a HUGE Stravinsky fan. The name evokes neo-modern, minimalistic, hard to listen to music. I would suggest that there’s nothing further from the truth: Stravinsky was trained by some of the great names of the late romantic movement in Russian (Rimsky-Korsakiv comes to mind) and although his language is modern and (at times) dry, he is capable of very lyrical work. This 1930 symphony is a great example of that.

The Symphony incorporates choral settings of three psalms, and the final movement, woven around the words Laudate Dominum (Praise God) is pure genius. The version I have in my collection is one conducted by Stravinsky himself and the CBC Symphony (a re-branding of the Toronto Symphony) and the Elmer Iseler Singers in a version that was part of an ambitious Columbia Records initiative to record the “complete Stravinsky” for the composer’s 80th birthday in the early 1960’s. By his own admission, Stravinsky wasn’t a great conductor, but he was a great communicator, and a constant “tinkerer” – which drove the orchestra musicians bonkers! Stravinsky made several recordings with the CBC Symphony as part of this initiative, largely because of the high standards of the orchestra and their willingness to put up with his unique approach to music making.

The performance I chose is by Riccardo Muti at La Scala

I think you will love this music too… And Happy Easter!

[ITYWLTMT wishes to remind that embedded links and their content are provided here for musical enjoyment, and can be experienced on your PC without downloading required if you have access to the Internet. (Downloading files for use on your personal digital companion is generally possible, depending on the site.) Because we are not managing third-party web content, ITYWLTMT does not guarantee the currency of the link – all we can guarantee is that the link worked “as advertised” at the time of the original blog post. Please enjoy!]