Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Prokofiev - Dimitri Mitropoulos, New York Philharmonic ‎– Romeo And Juliet

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

As the All Music Guide says it:

In the early- and mid- twentieth century, the three major Tchaikovsky ballets -- Swan LakeThe Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker -- were viewed as the three greatest full-length ballets. Not surprisingly, they were also more popular by wide margins than all other works in the genre. By the latter quarter of the century, however, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet had entered the trio's select company and remains exceedingly popular today. [... It] is one of Prokofiev's supreme masterpieces and, via the three suites extracted from it, among his most often-played music.
Indeed, and I think I mentioned it in a post before, R & J was milked for all its worth - three orchestral suites and a set of 10 pieces for piano resulted from this great 4 act ballet. 

As we discussed a few weeks back in the case of Grieg's Peer Gynt, it is not uncommon for conductors to "mix and match" selections from the suites to form their own, and this is exactly what Dimitri Mitropoulos did for this one of his few stereo recordings with the New York Philharmonic, which he led first as co-conductor with Leopold Stokowski and became the sole music director in 1951, succeeded as the Philharmonic's conductor by a protégé, Leonard Bernstein. 

In addition to his orchestral career, Mitropoulos was an equally important force in the operatic repertoire. From 1954 until his death in 1960, he was the principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York as well as the Philharmonic's Music Director (although the Met did not officially use that title at the time.), probably the only man to have don so since Gustav Mahler.

Mitropoulos was noted as a champion of modern music, and his Prokofiev is full of colour and rich in dynamics. These readings stand out, and stand well the test of time.

Happy listening!

Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet (Ромео и Джульетта), Op. 64
Selections from suites op. 64bis & ter
1. The Montagues And Capulets Suite 2 N°1
2. Juliet The Little Girl Suite 2 N°2
3. Folk Dance Suite 1 N°1
4. Romeo And Mercutio Masked Suite 1 N°5
5. Balcony Scene Suite 1 N°6
6. Death Of Tybalt Suite 1 N°7
7. Romeo And Juliet Before Parking Suite 2 N°5
8. Friar Laurence Suite 2 N°3
9. Romeo At Juliet's Tomb Suite 2 N°7
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Dimitri Mitropoulos, conducting
Masterworks Portrait ‎– MP 38772
Format: Vinyl, LP, Stereo
Studio, 1958

Friday, August 19, 2016


No. 228 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast228

This week’s Blog and Podcast assembles “short” concertante works. As you would expect, “short:” is a subjective term – concertos can be “large” works – think of Brahms’ second piano concerto, or even Busoni’s monumental piano concerto at one end of the spectrum, and some of the hundreds of concerti by Antonio Vivaldi which last anywhere between 9 and 12 minutes at the other.

Nobody would ever think of calling any of Vivaldi’s gems a “short” work… The term “concertino” is proposed as a “diminutive” term and some of the works programmed this week – works by Québec’s André Mathieu and Germany’s Ferdinand David are about as long as those cute Vivaldi concerti. That doesn’t mean they don’t pack a mean punch!

Carl Maria von Weber composed two concerti for clarinet, and one concertino for clarinet and orchestra. This work is a “typical” Konzertstück – literally concert piece –laid out in a single continuous movement with distinct sections (fast-slow-fast) we have come to associate with a concerto.

Richard StraussDuett-Concertino, his last completed composition, is one of those works from his final years in which he sets aside the large orchestras and big Romantic gestures that served him so well in his great tone poems in favor of a more restrained, almost neo-classical style and a more transparent orchestral sound. Unlike Weber’s “short and sweet” concertino, this genial work in three movements has all the trappings of a double concerto (obvious reference to Brahms) so it is only diminutive in scale, not in length. Strauss told conductor Clemens Krauss that the work had a connection with Hans Christian Andersen's story The Swineherd, in which a prince (here, the bassoon) puts himself into position to woo a princess (the clarinet) by taking the job of a swineherd at her father's palace. But he also told his bassoonist friend Burghauser of a different scenario in which a dancing princess (the clarinet) is alarmed by the strange cavorting of a bear (the bassoon); when she finally dances with the bear, it is transformed into a prince.

Interplay was the second ballet that Jerome Robbins choreographed, after his huge success with Fancy Free. It debuted in 1945 for Billy Rose's Concert Varieties at the Ziegfeld Theater and entered the New York City Ballet repertory in 1952. Using the interplay of classical and vernacular choreography, Robbins experimented with choreographic patterns and the interactions of dancers in various formations. Originally titled American Concertette, Morton Gould's score, full of humor and jazzy orchestration, revels in the swingtime rhythms of the 1940s. At the center of Interplay is a bluesy pas de deux that stands in bold relief to the joyfully competitive spirit of the ballet.

To close the montage I programmed Saint-Saëns’s violin concerto no. 1, like Weber’s concedrtino, a short and sweet piece in one continuous movement with three distinct sections.

I think you will love this music too! 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Project 366 - The Orchestra: Symphonies and more

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.

The next few installments of our ongoing look at the Classical Repertoire considers the orchestra, as a natural, scaled-up, progression from chamber music. As we started to discuss in our earlier look at “team play”, the orchestra is a large musical ensemble, laid out in discrete sections of primarily string, wind and percussion instruments.

Sections of an Orchestra

The term orchestra derives from the Greek name for the area in front of an ancient stage reserved for the Greek chorus. Nothing much needs to be said about the orchestra as an ensemble, other than it has evolved through the last 500 years in size, scope and texture, going from so-called period instruments (some of which have fallen into obsolescence) to the instruments we recognize today. Gone are the viola de gamba and the oboe d’amore, and long-live the cello and the English horn!

Size and breath provide endless possibilities to orchestral composers – sometimes known as symphonists - and works typically found in the orchestral repertoire fall into three broad categories, along the lines of what we can hear at a typical subscription concert: symphonies, overtures, and concertos. The concerto (which literally means concert) is a form that has evolved quite a bit throughout music history, and I have chosen to look at concertos in an upcoming, separate installment of our project.

What is a Symphony?

Etymologically, the word symphony is derived from Greek, meaning "agreement or concord of sound", "concert of vocal or instrumental music". Not surprisingly, with such a broad meaning, the terms "overture", "symphony" and "sinfonia" were widely regarded as interchangeable up until the Romantic period.

In the sense of "sounding together," the term symphony begins to appear in the titles of some 16th- and 17th-century works. For most of the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia were used for a range of different compositions, including instrumental pieces, usually part of a larger work like an opera. The "Italian" style of symphony, often used as overture and entr'acte in opera houses, became a standard three-movement form: a fast movement, a slow movement, and another fast movement. 

Over the course of the 18th century it became the custom to write four-movement symphonies, following a pattern we refer to as the classical symphony:
  1. oopening sonata or allegro
  2. slow movement, such as adagio
  3. minuet or scherzo with trio
  4. allegro, rondo, or sonata
Variations on this pattern, like changing the order of the middle movements or adding a slow introduction to the first movement, aren’t uncommon.

The most important symphonists of the latter part of the 18th century are Haydn, who wrote at least 107 symphonies over the course of 36 years, and Mozart, with at least 47 symphonies in 24 years. The three-movement symphony died out slowly; about half of Haydn's first thirty symphonies are in three movements; and for the young Mozart, the three-movement symphony was the norm, perhaps under the influence of his friend Johann Christian Bach.

The symphony became a true work horse for composers, a “rite of passage” from also-ran to significance, probably starting with Beethoven, and from that point on to Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. In fact, Brahms First symphony was a work that had an excessively long gestation - there was an expectation from Brahms' friends and the public that he would continue "Beethoven's legacy" and produce a symphony of commensurate dignity and intellectual scope—an expectation that Brahms felt he could not fulfill easily in view of the monumental reputation of Beethoven. Early attempts at a symphony morphed into his piano concerto in D Minor and a good ten years later, probably in 1868 Brahms finally realized what would become the final structure of his first Symphony. The work would not premiere for 8 more years, in 1876.

Small Orchestral Works

Everything is relative – works come in all shapes and sizes, yet symphonies are viewed as “large orchestral works”. Indeed, some can be quite substantive, require a large complement of musicians, and can be lengthy, lasting sometimes close to an hour from beginning to end.

In the film Rhapsody in Blue, in clear abuse of poetic license, George Gershwin’s father on his death bed, hears a performance of the Cuban Overture and shows much satisfaction when the performance clocks past ten minutes in duration, declaring it “a major symphonic work” by virtue of crossing that arbitrary threshold.

What I take from that episode is that even if works aren’t coined to be “large”, they can still be terrific pieces of music, and cannot be merely dismissed as “filler” for a program. As I will try and illustrate, a whole class of works, from operatic preludes to ambitious symphonic poems, or even suites of disparate dances, can be just as significant in their content and message as the great symphonies of the orchestral repertoire.

It is common in orchestral concerts to program overtures, a term we intuitively apply to the instrumental introduction to a stage work. The term overture means a lot more than just that. In fact, the term was used interchangeably in the late baroque and early classical eras with sinfonia. In some of Verdi and Rossini’s operas, they actually identify the overtures as sinfonias! Some compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann which we often refer to as dance suites are also titled overtures!

It is sometimes customary for major orchestras to commission works from local composers. More often than not, these works are used at the start of a program, or after intermission.

During the early Romantic era, composers such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn began to use the term overture to refer to independent, self-contained instrumental, programmatic works. One of Beethoven’s attempts at overtures for his opera Fidelio (or Leonore) include an attempt that is viewed as so intricate and complex that it is often heard in concert only – you may know it as “Leonore No. 3”. Such works are precursors to a genre known as the tone poem (or symphonic poem), a form devised by Franz Liszt.  The distinction between the two genres was the freedom to mould the musical form according to external programmatic requirements. The symphonic poem became the preferred form for the more "progressive" composers, such as César Franck, Richard Strauss, Alexander Scriabin, and Arnold Schoenberg, while more conservative composers remained faithful to the overture. In the age when the symphonic poem had already become popular, Brahms wrote his Academic Festival Overture, as well as his Tragic Overture. Examples clearly influenced by the symphonic poem are Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and  his equally well-known Romeo and Juliet  - labelled a 'fantasy-overture'.

Exploring the orchestral repertoire - Some Listener Guides

Listener Guide #27 - "Curtain Raisers": We explore concert overtures – short pieces of music that launch orchestral concerts. A wide range of selections are proposed, including a few Slavic/Russian favourites. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #226 - 22 July 2016)

Listener Guide #28 - "Karl Bohm Conducts Haydn and Mozart" - Conductor Karl Böhm in Mozart’s great symphonies no. 40 and 41. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #227 - 5 Aug 2016)

Listener Guide #29 - "Karl Bohm Conducts Richard Strauss": This old favourite recording of mine, featuring Karl Böhm conducting four works by his friend and mentor Richard Strauss, including two of his oft-heard tone Poems: Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan. (Vinyl's Revenge #17 - 24 May 2016)

Listener Guide #30 - "Beethoven 2 by 4": This montage features two symphonies and two overtures by Beethoven. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #43 - 17 Feb, 2012)

Listener Guide #31 - "Symphonies in C": We take a look at three Symphonies in C by Haydn, Schubert and Bizet. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 159 - 6 June 2014)

Listener Guide #32 - "Brahms Fourth Symphony": Eugen Jochum conducts Brahms' Fourth symphony. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 89 - 25 Jan, 2013)

Listener Guide #33 - "Bruckner's Fifth": A “live” performance of Bruckner’s Tragic symphony from August 1951 at the Salzburg Festival featuring the Vienna Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler. (Once Upon the Internet #26 - 15 April 2014)

Listener Guide #34 - "Wagner overtures: Tannhäuser, Der Fliegende Holländer, Die Feen": THree Wagner overtures, from an early Digital recording by the Concertgebouw led by Netherlands native conductor Edo De Waart. (Vinyl's Revenge #2 - 21 Oct. 2014)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Two Schubert Symphonies

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

For the last few Once Upon the Internet posts in our monthly series, I shared some "complete" recordings I downloaded from now defunct sites. Today's share is from the old Public Domain Classicsite, but borrows from two separate recordings.

As I stated not so long ago on a post, when we think of Schubert, we think lieder and other intimate settings and not necessarily of symphonies. That having been said, Schubert did leave us 12 works (many of them fragmentary) that are in the symphonic form, and eight of hem (including the "Unfinished") are part of the repertoire, though some get performed mire often than others.

Among the more performed, we find the two symphonies in C Major - the sixth and ninth - are among my favourites. The sixth sometimes called "little" C Major to distinguish it from the more ambitious ninth is not "little"a t all. It is very much in the classical vein - in the form pioneered by Haydn and perfected by Mozart that Beethoven had set about shattering when Schubert was still a nursing infant.

That Franz Schubert, as a young man still learning his craft, was more influenced by the music of Haydn and Mozart than by the symphonies of Beethoven (just then reaching their stride) is readily apparent in his early orchestral works; the Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D. 417 (the "Tragic" Symphony, as Schubert called it), composed during the spring of 1816, is no exception. Despite the frequent comparisons made between this work and Beethoven's famous symphony in the same key, it is difficult to think of another symphonic work from the 1810s that more completely ignores Beethoven's special contributions to dramatic orchestral writing.

The performances I chose are in good hands - Igor Markevitch studied composition under Nadia Boulanger and in spite of relative success as a composer early on, he is best remembered as a conductor, best known for his performance of the Russian repertoire and twentieth century music. He had a quick temper, reflected in his music in sharp emotional shifts, yet the music was meticulously prepared and nearly always followed the composer's directions with exceptional care. In the late 1990s, his recordings came back into demand in re-release, and even his compositions were finding a small but interested market and were praised anew for their originality.

Sir Thomas Beecham, known as a promoter of classical music in Brutain and as an orchestra builder. In 1932, Beecham, dissatisfied with the standards of the orchestral scene, founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra, staffing it with the finest players. It quickly became a top-rank ensemble and successfully toured the Continent.

Both conductors are featured today in vintage recordings.

Happy Listening!

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No.4 in C Minor, D.417 ('Tragic')
Berliner Philharmoniker
Igor Markevitch, conducting

Symphony No.6 in C Major, D.589 ('Little C Major')
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Thomas Beecham, conducting.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Karl Böhm (1894–1981)

No. 227 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast227


Mozart composed his final three symphonies (nos. 39, 40 and 41) during the summer of 1788, in the space of about two months. Mozart wasn’t known to compose merely as an outlet for spontaneous inspiration, but rather for financial reasons – scholarly research shows that these symphonies were intended for so-called “Concerts in the Casino" in a new casino in the Spiegelgasse owned by Philipp Otto. Mozart even sent a pair of tickets for this series to his fellow mason Michael Puchberg, which probably never took place. Some suggest Mozart took the three symphonies on the tour he made to Germany the following year, which would further undermine the long-held notion that the composer never heard three of the greatest works in the symphonic literature performed.

One aspect of the symphonies upon which commentators reach universal agreement is their extraordinary diversity of character. Some, including the late Niklaus Harmnoncourt have even suggested the three symphonies are part of a larger triptych, a larger three-part mega-work.
Part of that argument is the specific flow of the G Minor symphony (no. 40), which doesn’t have an introduction to the first movement – in fact, we get right into the familiar 10-note motif which Mozart exploits in an elegant and memorable sonata. Some point to the finale being quite sbdued compared to the finale of the Jupiter symphony, no. 41.

This trio of symphonies – in fact, we could say this of the “last six” (nos. 35, 36, 38 completing the set) – can be viewed less as “classical” and more as “early romantic”, closer to the works of Schubert and Beethoven than those of Haydn and Hummel.

Symphonies 40 and 41 are often paired together on disc – makes sense when thinking of a single vinyl LP. The number of memorable (if notauthoritative) instances of that pairing is staggering, and includes alomost every major conductor and orchestra. Today’s pairing, Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic from April 1976, stands the test of time.

To complete the podcast, rather than add a random recording of the 39th symphony, I chose instead aa third Böhm/Vienna recording, this one of Haydn’s symphony no. 88.

I think you will love this music too.