Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pierre Boulez - Piano Music vol. 1.

Pierre Boulez is probably the last real avant-garde classic and one of biggest serial technique and generally new music masters. As a young man he was inspired by conclusions of New Vienna School. He was swayed especially by Arnold Schoenberg’s works. And before many others he understood serial music has only one chance to avoid closure in mathematic formulas. Looking for the way to unbind musical series, trying to move the musical potential contained in twelve-tone complicated by rhythmic or dynamic series. Building them as analogy and creating almost impossible to seize number of variants, he was trying to open musical form and make it universal container for emotions, for cosmopolitan-like acceptance of mutability.
The idea of music which can’t be useful for totalitarian propaganda was very important part of composers attitude. As many intellectualists in post-war Europe, he evoking fundamental question of how nazism could happen on the ground of European culture. And with fellow composers in Darmstadt School he was trying to create the style and methods which were able to became antidote for intellectual and emotional structures leading to totalitarian society and nationalistic frenzy. Important element of his anti-totalitarian style was aleatoric music, which should be understand as a technique of creating resultant output with incidental changes. The degree of changes is always the matter of compositor’s decision. From controlled to radical aleatorism there were many different solutions but idea was unquestionable, destroying transcendent position of composer, who in traditional European music was  like divine creator while director hold position of the tyrant. In works of aleatoric stream many composers – Boulez, Stockhausen, Lutosławski, Xenakis, Ligeti – were working on redefining position of composer as creator.

Pierre Boulez - Piano Music vol. 1. Charles Rosen

His Piano Works are both serial and aleatoric. As I pointed before there is no contradiction between them. Serial and punctual music were the steps in the same direction as the very next step approaching aleatoric music and controlled chance method. This gave music freedom in creating wider spaces. Sonatas performed by Charles Rosen create almost immediate climax of classical equilibrium between „what” and „how”. Structures are absolutely transparent, and the space between sounds makes listeners feel totally comfortable. And this makes Pierre Boulez classic of XX century.

Henryk Szeryng, LSO, Pierre Monteux – Brahms – Violin Concerto in D

   Among many great artists of XX century, in the midst of remarkable violinists Henryk Szeryng is still an exception. There are very few violinists with such precious tone, noble phrase and inspired musical authenticity. And there are few concertos only, where artist have the chance to lead full time dramatic dialog with orchestra while playing such captivating phrases. That is why Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto D-Major is the one we know in so many interpretations – this is just the obligatory position in repertoire of every active virtuoso. So we are at a great variety of master recordings from Jasha Heifetz, David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein to Anne-Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman and Hilary Hahn. One of the best is Henryk Szeryng’s 1959 recording with London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Pierre Monteux. This record is milestone of RCA catalogue. Published on vinyl recording was awarded Grand Prix du Disque.

Henryk Szeryng / LSO / Pierre Monteux – Brahms' Violin Concerto (1959)

   Henryk Szeryng was born 1918 in Żelazowa Wola, the birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin, He was descendant of Polish-Jewish family. His mother started teach him music when he was 5, and at age 7 he begin to play the violin. Most of his public performances and recording sessions he played on his own „Le Duc” by Guarneri del Gesù. He was also owner of the Stradivarius „King David” which he donated to the State of Israel.
   During the war, using his artistic position, Szeryng help prime minister of Polish government-in-exile to find place for settling in Mexico some 4 thousands Polish refugees. In 1946 in gesture of gratitude he became naturalized citizen of Mexico. In 1970 he was Mexico’s special advisor to UNESCO in Paris. His best recordings are the two completes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, Sonatas by Beethoven and Brahms recorded with pianist Arthur Rubinstein and three different recordings of Brahms’ Concerto in D – first two accompanied by London Symphony Orchestra with Pierre Monteaux from 1959 and with Antal Dorati from 1962 and third one from 1973 with Bernard Haitink leading Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Leonard Bernstein's Gershwin

Leonard Bernstein was „one of most prodigally talented and most successful musician in American history”, as Donald Henahan wrote twenty years ago in New York Times obituary. It is natural he made great bunch of époque recordings.  He recorded almost every position from great repertoire of classical and romantic period. Some of this repertoire more than once. Many great works of later composers owe him significant part of their fame. He is vivid part of 20th century music. Both as original composer and as the conductor. Also great pianist and  gifted  lecturer, TV-personality and educating animator. Man of so many talents who has the chance to fulfill his destiny. And as we know from many eye-witness relations, he was even better when off the record, doing music in private for friends, his improvisations and good societal aura were legendary.

Gershwin - Rhapsody in  Blue (1979)

George Gershwin was prodigy but in time he was growing, his talent was like cashiers check. He was new kind of worker, artist who has been producing popular melodies which can be merchandise as any other consuming goods. So he was producing popular songs and dreaming about great music and serious composition. Step by step he was heading towards this aim. Big step forward and the very first serious composition was Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. Gershwin wrote it for two pianos and Ferde Grofé arranged Gershwin's piece for jazz band as ordered by Paul Whiteman. Later this piece has been transcribed  for symphonic orchestra by the same Ferde Grofé. This work made Gershwin famous and rich.  He tried to learn composition. The same 1924 he traveled to Paris where he ask Nadia Boulanger to be her student. The legendary professor of dozens of composers rejected him saying she is afraid to kill most valuable part of his talent. He was trying to learn also from Henry Cowell, Wallingford Rieger and Arnold Schoenberg, but they refused his proposals. So Gershwin bought books on instrumentation and musical forms and learned himself everything he needed. After visit in Paris, he traveled to Vienna where he wrote symphonic poem An American in Paris. This time the orchestra score of this symphonic poem has been readied all by composer himself. It is clear George was learning faster than any student. His later works among many other were Piano concerto in F (1925) and folk opera Porgy an Bess (1935). When he died, aged 39, he was well known around the world as the first composer in American history. In fact he was either first nor unique, but this is not the question about facts. 

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on Hungaroton pressing (1980)

What is Gershwin’s music like when conducted by Bernstein? It’s not enough to say it’s good. This are probably the best interpretations ever! Bernstein’s piano performance is so much syncopated as it can be. One step more and he would lost the character of symphonic work. Both orchestras sound like musicians have jazz in their veins. Two of very few so good symphonic orchestras ever recorded. Columbia Symphony Orchestra in Rhapsody in Blue and New York Philharmonic Orchestra in An American in Paris. Both recordings produced for CBS in 1959 and copyrighted for edition in CBS Masterworks series in 1979. By the way, this is second edition I have, after one bought in Hungaroton license press (the photo of that old cover you can find here too). Absolutely classical rendition!  So the answer for the first question should be divided into two opposite questions. First: how would be Gershwin’s works without Bernstein? Not so well, it’s out of the question. And second: how would be Bernstein’s career without Gershwin? He would be still one of greatest directors in recorded history of music. In fact, we will never know if without Gershwin’s music in the second half of 20th century some jazz inspired compositions would be possible in shape we know. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess opened a new perspective before American music. One of best effects of this attitude was Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story.

Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (1985)

Maybe this note is too much personal. George Gershwin as Bernstein made him. Leonard Bernstein in Gershwin's music only. And everything else between this two great musicians. Today, on August 26th 2010, he would be 92. I am not sure if birthday of an artist should be occasion to think of his work. Great Lennie Bernstein! It is hard to write about him in any other way than as I know him in private. Indeed I did not. When I was child, my father pointed him as one of greatest artists of our times. And as a child I was not so sure about it. Great artists usually are like pieces of bronze, I thought. They do not smile to the public, they are not speaking to children and even not trying to show that serious music is not so serious as we like to believe. Especially, great artists tend not to show how simple it is to be an artist. Now I am smiling when I think, how unhappy were those counting to be future bronze monuments when hearing Bernstein's CBS programs. Maybe that was the reason he had addressed his best lectures about music to children. I feel I am one of them - even if my generation was more than decade later - and maybe this is why I can't write about him any other way than this.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn

After Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge third incarnation of Oldfield’s musical idea became Ommadawn – and this trilogy seems to be complete cycle. In September 1974 first succesful Oldfield’s composition was recorded in David Bedford’s orchestration. Mike Oldfield played guitars, but this version was convincing only for greatest fans. Bedford’s rearrangement makes guitar parts mainstream of musical narration and strengthen them in orchestral section. But rules of arranging for symphonic orchestra forced him to make this in academic manner. And this was the same as loosing most of the power of Oldfield’s ideas. Next year, on August, 28th Virgin Records had published The Orchestral Tubular Bells. Few days after premiere it was clear this record definitely was not able to reach the popularity levels of Oldfield’s prior recordings. In next few weeks Mike Oldfield in his home in Hergest Ridge recorded his third two-part composition Ommadawn. Released month later on October 21st this became third commercial success, reaching 4th UK Album Chart position.

Mike Oldfield - Ommadawn (1975)

In this recording for the third time Mike Oldfield did something phenomenal. Repeating uncomplicated melodic phrases in the minimalist way and using simple polyphonic effect to build structures where interfering tension between themes is able to focus the attention of listener. This gave this work a great narrative potential. Maybe it was not very inventing from the historian point of view, but it gave a chance for those who was not ready to decide. Especially this has happened in the crucial moment of collision between radical counter-culture and pop-cultural disco fashion trends.
Trying to resist against pop-music, producers decide to publish on 7" single final part of Ommadawn called The Horse Song and previously unreleased Oldfield's recording of In dulci jubilo. In later reeditions of Ommadawn LP these comes out interchaengably or In dulci jubilo was added as a bonus track.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mike Oldfield's Hergest Ridge

After becoming a prominent person of progressive rock scene Mike Oldfield continued his musical career composing material for new album. He found peaceful place suitable for creative working in country home near the border between England and Wales. One of recognizable points in this area was Hergest Ridge, the highest hill in England and this makes it the tittle hero of the new work. In spring 1974 he has recorded material for new album which had been premiered the same year on August 29th.
Just like composition of his debut album, this multi-thematic fantasy was divided into two parts – each one fill in the whole side of the album (side 1 - 21:40 and side 2 - 18:51). Comparing Hergest Ridge to Tubular Bells one have to notice improved orchestration and better economic of arrangement. Developing of this composition has been made not only in repetitions of the same material, like it was in Tubular Bells. Composer has reached his aim more by rearranging and variating rather basic motifs than themes.

Mike Oldfield - Hergest Ridge (1974)

Personnel was still based on multi-instrumental skills of composer who played on acoustic guitar, bass guitar, electric guitars; Farfisa, Gemini, and Lowrey organs; glockenspiel, gong, mandolin, nutcracker, sleigh bells, Spanish guitar, timpani, and tubular bells. His abilities were supported by Ted Hobart (trumpet), percussionists Chilli Charles (snare drum) and William Murray (cymbal), wind instruments Lindsay Cooper (oboe), Terry Oldfield (woodwinds)  and June Whiting (oboe). vocals of Sally Oldfield and Clodagh Simonds, choir London Sinfonietta Voices and strings conducted by David Bedford.
Recording session took place in The Manor, exactly the same country house studio as it was with first album. Branson’s studio was idea took just from experiences of krautrock artists and this has ideological meaning. Working off the city studios, living in the countryside, eating no meat looking for alternative point of view was complex attitude for big part of after war generation in late sixties and early seventies. Ringing on the basis of massive vocal section in finale of first part tubular bells make religious-like connection for emotions and whole nature.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells

Concentration of power in 20th century became devastating to the structures of traditional society. After decades and centuries of drawing creative ideas from the country, then creating more unified, universal output and selling this product back to the wide area, the very same procedure endangered possibilities of surviving of the traditional culture. Totalitarian state gave enough evidence that political power is not emanation of transcendental will but comes from subconscious fears and desires of the people. After the Holocaust most of the Europeans perceived the Holocaust as something that exceeded the human ability to understand and that it was not possible to re-experience such a traumatic event. Only little fraction of society noticed the connection between hierarchical social structures and modern rituals, between political and economic power and secular or religious institutions. Only few chose quiet rebellion against centralisation and mass culture. In many cases this became the pillar of counterculture. Creating alternative culture outside the centers, capitals or metropolises, living on countryside, practicing new age philosophy, vegetarian cuisine, world music or ecology – no matter if it’s anti-fur campaign or waste segregation, all this became the new style of life and manifestation of something much bigger than only a new manner. This was the direction chosen by young English composer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield.

Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells (1973)

After early musical experiences with popular music based on english folklore Mike Oldfield tried something more complex. He used possibilities of multitrack recorder and made his debut recording. For the first time in history of music complete orchestral composition was playing by one instrumentalist. New technology, modern studio and especially the Ampex 16-track tape recorder gave composer a chance to overdub parts and instruments and to build orchestral structures just by adding one layer after another. Freedom of building any structure he like was the liberation from the dictate of tradition. Maybe this is why two parts of composition remain untitled. For both sides of the record editor gave only credits and timing - side 1 composed by Mike Oldfield - 25:00, side 2 composed by Mike Oldfield - 23:50. Content of both sides is characterized on back cover by listings of instruments. Mike Oldfield used wide range of acoustic and electric guitars, fuzz guitar, speed guitar, bass guitar, even guitars sounding like bagpipes and mandolin-like guitar. The same with keyboard instruments, from Grand Piano and Glokenspiel through Farfisa Organ, Hammond Organ, Lowrey Organ to Honky Tonk Piano. Mike Oldfield played also assorted percussion instruments Concert Tympani and marked in italics Tubular Bells. There were also side men – Lindsay L. Cooper on oboe, Jon Fields with flutes, Steve Broughton on drums and vocalists Mundy Ellis and Sally Oldfield.
Debut Tubular Bells was much more than only a new album of popular music, it was a great creative attempt of taking advance in artistic discourse of post-war generation of Europeans. The structure of composition is based on folk and mediaeval models of musical construction where themes are repeated with small changes or in exact form but with changing one parameter – instrumentation, tempo, rhythm or key. Theme of characteristic, close to English folk tune melodic idiom and construction rules made Tubular Bells stylish try of fixing the connection between historical and contemporary mode of transposition folk culture into concert music. It was composer’s conscious choice. Modern technology promotes one musician to be an orchestra and any private room makes a concert hall. On back of the record cover editor placed few jokes about possibility of playing the record on old mono-equipment and handing old equipment to the nearest police station.