Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Warren Zevon – A Quiet Normal Life

There are many artists who are building on the basis of popular culture and in effect creating works totally opposing to popular culture ideas. Sometimes it looks like genre or style are coincidental elements due to primary tendency to put into question everything we know. They can play blues or jazz, sometimes piano rock, ballads or anything. Usually critics see them as rebels, bards or revolutionists but it is worth to ask if they are the only real artists. Between many bards of second half of the twentieth century well known person was Warren Zevon, songwriter and musician.
He was so much involved in American history and social problems he was barely known outside the USA, but even though in other countries he occupied position of rock’n’roll conscience. In punk rock era he was someone like Bob Dylan for flower-power generation. In musical setting he was closer to Lou Read than Leonard Cohen and in sharpness of political satire he is more like Frank Zappa than Tom Waits, he has rock sound but popular and country moods are still promoted to the highest level of his musical creativity. Warren Zevon was one of those talented songwriters and musicians who remain underestimated until is too late. He died in 2003 in his 57th. His output are 13 studio albums two live recordings and 6 compilations.

Warren Zevon – A Quiet Normal Life (1986)

In 1986 Elektra Records released Warren Zevon’s first compilation. Program of this album consist of the best songs from 1975-1982 period. One third of the set are the songs from 1978 album Excitable Boy. In cd version compilation has been extended by two more songs from this record which meant that the proportion is close to half of the greatest songs came from one edition. As well, album Excitable Boy could be included to greatest compilation entirely – it was biggest Zevon’s success, reaching in US market position of Platinum and promoting artist with his original style of writing and performing. Idea of this compilation was probably pure marketing decision of Electra/Asylum Records managers. Of course product has excellent quality and is representative for artist’s ideas.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Artur Rubinstein – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto C Minor

Composing his third concerto for piano, Beethoven was probably passing through the most difficult moments of his life. Advancing deafness and unstable disposition made him feel increasingly isolated. Extreme emotions are clearly readable in this work, from triumphant hope to the depths of despair. Composed in 1800, it was premiered three years later with the composer himself as a conductor and soloist. And still the three years period he had for corrections was not enough. According to memoirs Ignaz von Seyfried, the score was incomplete and soloist part was nearly empty. Almost entire piano part during the first preformance Beethoven played directly from his memory. It was probably the kind of work creator has to live with – reminiscences of Mozart’s Piano Concerto C Minor KV 491, which was long time inspiration for Beethoven, can be reason for such delay. Later composer scored his work and wrote his own cadenza to first movement. There were many alternative cadenzas wrote for this Concerto by Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Carl Czerny, Franz Liszt, Gabriel Fauré and  many others.
There are great recordings of this concerto – Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Bendel, Emil Gilels, Glenn Gould, Wilhelm Kempf, Sviatoslav Richter and Krystian Zimerman are the best of the best among pianists recorded Beethovens Third. Probably most esteemed and best known is Artur Rubinstein. His phenomenal and inspired performance of this concerto recorded with Symphony of the Air conducted by Joseph Krips was published in 1958 by RCA Victor Read Seal label.
The history of this orchestra is very interesting itself. In 1937 the NBC founded the orchestra for weekly transmissions. To train the orchestra board hired Artur Rodziński, conductor and orchestra builder. He trained NBC Symphony for Arturo Toscanini, Pierre Monteux and many guest artists. After Toscanini had retired NBC Symphony in 1954 was disbanded. Musicians tried to preserve the orchestra and called new ensemble Symphony of the Air. For the first season musicians hired for the leading conductor Leonard Bernstein and took part in his first television appearances. Orchestra remained active till 1963 recording and airing numerous great performances with Fritz Reiner, Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter, Kyrill Kondrashin, Thomas Beecham, and Josef Krips.

Artur Rubinstein – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto C Minor  (1958)

Artur Rubinstein was born in Łódź in 1887. As a four years old boy he was already a prodigious child. Since Joseph Joachim heard him playing piano, he became protégé of legendary romantic virtuoso. Later young pianist was studying in Warsaw and Berlin. After his debut in Berlin Philharmonic in 1900, Artur Rubinstein became student of Karl Heinrich Barth, who was pupil of Ferenc Liszt, who himself was pupil of Carl Czerny who in turn had been taught by Ludwig van Beethoven. Lineage connecting Rubinstein with Beethoven makes clear the mystery of his congenial interpretations. By the way, the same Barth’s class was attended by Wilhelm Kempff, who also was great interpreter of Beethoven’s works. 
For the first time Rubinstein recorded Concerto No 3 C Minor op. 37 in 1944 with NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. Then 14 years later Artur Rubinsteion recorded this Concerto with Symphony of the Air and Joseph Krips as a part of bigger undertaking of production series of albums with complete concerti cycle. And this recording is phenomenal documentation of artists possibilities in late fifties. It has romantic enthusiasm and classical calmness. Sometimes pianist sounds light and balanced the way more classical than other interpreters. In this case pianist and orchestra are united by superior idea of the work. And such classical connection is not a coincidence because Beethoven himself gave in Third Concerto some formal solutions known from decade earlier concertos composed by Mozart.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bob Dylan’s Street Legal

Bob Dylan is one of most creative persons of twentieth century popular music. It is hard to decide if he is rock, country, blues or gospel musician. But genre difficulties are too obvious to be discussed. It is even not easy to cut clearly if he is more musician or poet, singer or video artist. One can be sure he is phenomenon widely recognizable and deciding about the character of American culture. And like American culture in general, during the last half of the century Bob Dylan had changed his artistic style so many times, one can never be sure of his real direction or true identity. For many listeners even his religious conversions look like he was continuously experiencing his own dubieties or testing public tolerance for infidelity.
After being an icon of American song and poetry in middle of the seventies he started whole process of stylistic transition making his output more rock than folk music, although his 1976 album Desire is starting point of alternative country style. Two years later, in February 1978 he recorded Street Legal, an eighteenth studio album that marked turning point in his career. Maybe it was his answer for changes of show business and social reality in late seventies. It was so much more gospel and rock than any earlier records, and many said it was different from anything did by anybody before. Maybe this was a little bit exaggerating, but for sure there are many differences between music on Street Legal LP and anything Dylan did before.

Bob Dylan’s Street Legal  (1978)

Group playing with success on previous Dylan’s albums, here in 1978 became more flexible. Three electric guitars (Bob Dylan, Steven Soles and Billy Cross) had been strengthen by rhythm section with Ian Wallace on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass guitar and Bobbye Hall on percussion. Such core had been balanced by harmonic and melodic accompany of Alan Pasqua on keyboards, Steve Douglas on tenor and soprano saxophones and with three background vocal female singers (Carolyn Dennis, Jo Ann Harris, Helena Springs). In Is Your Love in Vain? sounds the trumpet by Steve Madaio. Female voices and saxophone made special setup for gospel fervent tune, what would have been common in next decade.
Listening to opening the A-side song Changing of the Guards we can see quite new face of Bob Dylan. Some reviewers see it as cynical self parody and for many it really is, especially those who were keen on Dylan’s recordings from sixties. From some other point of view the opening song of the album is a brave gesture of self-criticism. In this song he declares and in next it demonstrates that in the beginning of 1978 Dylan has still a lots of potentiality, after sixteen years of successful and brilliant career. From the beginning, the whole record has great musical impact. Songs, slightly different in emotional level, in instrumental setup are playing with conventions and raw harmonies. Rhythmic connections to country blues and stylistic elements of gospel makes them opening for new times. And whole album has its integral character and aura which is hard to leave behind.


This year Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday came and gone and probably nothing had happened. He is 70 now, but does it really mean anything more we know the date of his birth? Is he wiser than anytime before? Or more credibile? He was always kind of guy with no age, wise from the very beginning, enough brave to make some careless moves and responsible for his mistakes. From his first songs and exposures, it seemed he is a kind of overmature authoritative young poet who maybe wants to play a French existentialist or Russian dissident. But it was going on in America after Beat Generation when „beatnick” was still one of insulting tags. It is possible this is what made his career even more fighting, rebel and anty-system than two dozens of punk or grunge rockers.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bruno Walter – Mahler’s Fifth and Kindertotenlieder

Since Gustav Mahler was graduating from Vienna Conservatory, he was working with sequence of opera orchestras in Olomouc, Kassel, Leipzig, Prague and Budapest. Every engagement was successful and droves his career to higher positions. Great successes, he achieved as a director of Stadttheater Hamburg and then Hofoper in Vienna, didn’t protect him from attacks of anti-Semitic press. Doubts and accusations had escalated when Mahler begun his work as director of Vienna Philharmonic. Orchestra was displaying discontent of his habit to re-orchestrate well known works. Musicians protested because they had to learn their parts from the beginning. First chosen unanimously, than openly criticized for his artistic decisions, overworked and tired of attacks Mahler resigned off the function. But this decision didn’t help and he was still under attacks as the director of Hofoper. In October 1907 Mahler resigned and after farewell performance of his Second Symphony on November 24th, he left Vienna for New York. One month later 1st day of 1908 Mahler made his New York debut conducting Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Metropolitan Opera where he stayed for last three years of his life.
Despite not too much numerous catalogue his works has bad reception during his life and in next decades. Instrumental and structural requirements of his works were usually higher than most symphonic works in his times, so for years he was omitted, played only by few most professional and conscious conductors. Among them were Mahler’s assistants Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, as well as some prominent artists – Willem Mengelberg, Leopold Stokowski, and Henry Wood. But still Mahler’s music was not known to wider public. After Nazis recognized Mahler’s music as „degenerate”, it was totally banned in Germany and satellite countries. Rare presentations in Berlin (Symphony No 2) and in Amsterdam under German occupation (Symphonies 1st & 5th) had been performed by Jewish artists and for Jewish audience only.

Bruno Walter - Mahler's Fifth and Kindertotenlieder

Better times for Gustav Mahler’s legacy came after the war. Rediscovery of Mahler’s music was possible amid another thank to the new media and recording techniques. Unparalleled in history of mankind accessibility to the values of the culture changed the way of social understanding and participating. Once recorded, music had been played from gramophone records and radio auditions. But probably it was contemporary music what had served Mahler best. Better understanding the powers of modern symphonic orchestra and the meaning of the sound in formal setting were qualities extremely helpful for Mahler’s listeners. Later to the group of great conductors joined next generation of artists, Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado and many others. The better these new renditions were, the more impressive appeared older Bruno Walter’s recordings.
Bruno Walter has center position in history of Mahler’s heritage. In 1894 when Bruno Walter met Gustav Mahler for the first time, he was only 17 years old. Musical and creative personality of sixteen years older Mahler had to make a huge impression on novice conductor. In next years young artist was conducting assistant of the great composer. This fascination and even idolization resists for decades – Bruno Walter became the conductor strongly connected to Mahler’s work. He was spreading his promoter’s music by playing numerous premieres and working on piano transcriptions of Mahler’s compositions. And his recordings of Mahler’s works became one of legends in Twentieth Century recording history. And not only because we can believe Mahler’s himself would have conducted in closest way. Fifth Symphony recorded by Bruno Walter in 1947 has so many shadings and nuances it’s hard to catch simple pattern characteristic for this interpretation.
Highly narrative, dramatic and meaningful Symphony No 5 sounds with inevitable power of sound, but cycle of mourn songs about death of the children Mahler wrote to his own poems in many parts is even more soulfully profound and emotionally pronounced.  Fifth Symphony and legendary recording from 1949 of five song cycle Kindertotenlieder with great Kathleen Ferrier and Wienner Philharmoniker were published together as double LP album issued by Odyssey. It is unbelievable how vividly and transparently sound these recordings after 64 years.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bruno Walter – Gustav Mahler – Symphony No 2

Gustav Mahler is probably most important composer connecting separate worlds of romanticism and modernism, nineteenth century irrational trust in development and progress and twentieth century blend of pessimism and exalted emotionalism. His creative output was almost exclusively delimited to symphonic works and songs cycles. Exceptions in most cases are a student works, among them one opera and very few piano compositions. These compositions are predominantly lost even if some of them resist as a parts of symphonies or song cycles. Some of his early works composer later revised and included into new projects. Mahler’s major activity was conducting. For orchestras he led he was constantly rescoring historic compositions, and this can explain why list of his mature compositions is so short.
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor called „Resurrection” is undoubtedly one of highly valued Mahler’s masterworks. Since it’s premiere in 1895 it was recognizable and esteemed as a masterpiece of postromantic symphonic form. Five movements of this symphony were set with philosophic program, which Mahler confided to his friends. First movement based on Mahler’s earlier symphonic poem Totenfeier represents funeral rites and express query of life after death. There are still a lots of doubts about formal and constructive ideas or about composer’s intentions of the first movement. Second part, illustrative slow landler with two contrastive episodes, represents remembrance of past life. First two movements of Second Symphony are focused on past live.

Mahler's 2nd Symphony by Bruno Walter

Third movement opens totally new perspective of musical vision. First two movements are cancelled. Anything keeping us bounded with this life occurs false value. Foundation for biting sarcasm of third movement is satirical song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn cycle – Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt. The scherzo-like movement is designated by composer as In ruhig fliessender Bewegung but it has not much to do with joking spirit of scherzos. Its naïve serenity from bright enthusiasm turns into dark and depressive consciousness of defeat, like it was trying to convince listener that even under the mockery hides the nonsense of the world. The solution comes in fourth movement for which Mahler included the song „Urlicht” (Primeval Light) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which is straight confession of faith in redemption from God. Final movement comes as hymn in choral and orchestral setting. There are some construction analogies with Finale from Beethoven’s Ninth. Poetic text of this is poem Die Auferstehung by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock to which Mahler wrote alternative closing.
This work is extremely hard for interpretation and life performing. This is confirming by notable differences between various renditions. Recording of this work occurs even more difficult. Among few good records especially one is extraordinary. It is 1957 stereo recording made under baton of Bruno Walter for Columbia with New York Philharmonic, Emilia Cundari, Maureen Forrester and Westminster Choir directed by John Finley Williamson. Conductor of this performance was Mahler’s assistant so it is easy to believe his interpretation is as much close to composer’s intentions as it is possible. And perfect sound he achieved is so transparent, it makes polyphonic structures readable and clear. After more than half of the century this recording is still fresh and powerful vision of Mahler’s Second.