Monday, April 30, 2012

Christoph Von Dohnányi – Mendelssohn’s Complete Symphonies

As many early romantic composers, Felix Mendelssohn was remaining in the circle of classical forms and meanings of expression he used were related to this approach. Among many different forms, construction of symphony was most closely linked to classical idea of balance between form and essence. Mendelssohn was talented composer so among his rich and varied creative output special position have symphonies. He achieved outstanding results as composer in any of his five symphonies. He was also prolific composer of every romantic kind of musical form; he also made great contribution in cyclical forms like oratorios and cantatas – both religious and secular. He was also known from his activity for restoring the proper position of works by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Mendelssohn’s cycle of five full-scale symphonies is not homogenous work. First Symphony in C Minor he wrote in 1824 when he was 15 years old.  In fact, this moment he had cycle of twelve symphonies for string orchestra he wrote 2 years earlier, but this was only juvenile output. Next symphony Felix Mendelssohn wrote 5 years later for the 300th Anniversary of the Lutheran Church, but he was not satisfied with the result and didn’t allow publishing the score. This symphony is known as Reformations-Symphonie op. 107 or as Symphony No. 5 in D Minor.  Next two symphonies became very popular, these are Scottish Symphony op. 56 (No. 3 in A Minor) and Symphony No. 4 in A Major, widely known as Italienische. Last of his works in this form is Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major “Lobgesang” composed for Leipzig celebrations of 400th anniversary of printing press. Construction of this work has been derived from Beethoven’s idea of oratorio symphony what made it enjoyed considerable recognition. Mendelssohn defined the work as Symphonie-Kantate nach Worten der Heiligen Schrift. Sinfonia is part of actually three movements played attacca Allegro, Scherzo and Adagio. After 25 minutes of instrumental Sinfonia next 40 minutes is filled by 10 movements with two sopranos, tenor and choir. 

Christoph Von Dohnányi – Mendelssohn’s Complete Symphonies (1986)

One of best edition of Mendelssohn’s symphonies is album Sämtlichen Symphonien (Complete Symphonies) published is three-record set pressed in 1986 by Decca (No 6.35700) in Direct Metal Mastering technology. In addition to five symphonies publishers included some symphonic fragments playing role of encores. Performances featuring Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Christoph Von Dohnányi were made in the period of four years – in 1977 symphonies No. 1 and No. 5, in 1978 Symphony No. 2 , in 1979 Symphony No. 4, overtures “Die Hebriden” op. 26 and “Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt” op. 27 and in 1980 Symphony No. 3 and Kriegsmarsch der Priester op. 74. Symphony No. 2 features sopranos Sona Ghazarian and Edita Gruberova, tenor Werner Krenn, organist Josef Böck and Chor der Wiener Staatsoper.
In artistic and organizational sense this edition was tremendous undertaking and effect is really astonishing. The main advantage of complete publications is easy access to any of the works, playing the role of specific documentary. It happens that such projects also have artistic value, trying to capture the style of the composer in the context of changing formal solutions. Such is the case. Christoph Von Dohnányi is one of greatest conductors in last decades of 20th century. The fact he never became a celebrity means only he was too much work to do, to become media personality. He was working with many orchestras, but pinnacle of his career was eighteen years of leading Cleveland Orchestra. It was probably his most competitive work and outstanding achievement of this artist. His achievements were often overlooked by reviewers who still remember the founder of the Cleveland Orchestra, Georg Shell. From this period comes the saying “We give a great concert...and George Szell gets a great review”. But talking about Mendelssohn Complete Symphonies he can’t say so. These recordings were made before he worked for Cleveland Orchestra and remain one of artist’s great attainments.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mintz & Abbado play Mendelssohn and Bruch

Sometimes different works of different composers are related and complementary. Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor Op. 64 and Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor Op. 26 are such pair of works, thus often are connected in programs of many albums. Both are very popular in violin repertoire, both belong to German romanticism highlights and both are best known works of their composers. These works are similar to each other in many formal ideas and strong romantic lyricism. Of course the style of orchestration is different but it is worth to remember there was at least a 22 year gap between them. The economics of artistic meanings and methods of creating again are the same, making these works even closer than it can be expected. Both were composed with supervision of violin virtuosi. First was consulted with Ferdinand David, concertmaster of Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig who was also premiered the work. Second is connected with celebrated 19th century violinist Joseph Joachim who was serving with advice for Bruch and performed it as first. Max Bruch and Felix Mendelssohn, both where versatile composers with clear romantic attitude and classical discipline. From the immense wealth of recordings featuring these concertos one of the more obvious is the album released by DGG in 1981 (2531 304) with Israeli virtuoso Shlomo Mintz and Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado.

Shlomo Mintz / Claudio Abbado - Violinkonzerte (1981)

The great feature of this recording is excellent cooperation between soloist, conductor and orchestra. Confidence and mutual understanding between artists flourished with perfect balance of solo violin and orchestral parts. Mintz plays freely and lightly, with deep, saturated sound. Abbado is able to bring out the most subtle dynamic and articulation nuances. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of top class symphonic bands, gave here phenomenal performance. Orchestra plays with virtuoso perfection and with marvelous sound that is class for itself. Artists recorded more in forcomming years, three years later in 1984 Shlomo Mintz with Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Claudio Abbado recorded phenomenal renditions of both Violin Concertos by Serge Prokofiev.
This session was second time Abbado made recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto – for the first time he recorded this composition in 1973 with Nathan Milstein and Wiener Philharmoniker. In Bruch’s Concerto Abbado’s work is astonishing. Traditional renditions are more dramatic while Abbado’s idea leads rather to expressive emotionalism of more comprehensive musical rethorics. Sometimes he is very close to the ridge of overreaction but he is justified because thirty years after recording the sound and expression are still as fresh as they could be performed now. And this is amazing how much capacity found conductor for this emotions in Bruch’s and Mendelssohn’s classically balanced works. It was also the time of his great renditions of Mahler’s Symphonies with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with which he was recorded every year since 1978 and where in 1982 he became the principal guest conductor.
Shlomo Mintz’s performances are unbelieveably melodious. This compositions are enough melodically rich they do not need much more than clear sound and accurate performance. But Shlomo Mintz playing one of most beautiful sound ever, gave here samples of genuine sublimity and spirituality. His phrasing, his steady melody drawing gives listener feeling of strongest and the most common emotions. The question is how artist can be so mature in manifestation of his emotions when he is still so young. And this in fact does not refer solely to the performer. Mendelssohn started writing this Concerto when he was 29 years old. Max Bruch was 28 when composed his Violin Concerto No. 1. Maybe this is prerogative of romantic music or maybe we should redefine criteria of maturity, but it’s meaningful how often age has nothing to do with human powers.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Schneiderhan plays Mendelssohn and Bruch

Early Romanticism was the time of consolidating stylistic adjustments established by Mozart and Beethoven. One of the greatest composers of this era was Felix Mendelssohn who was often compared to Mozart since he was recognized as a child prodigy and in his early output strongly connected to Mozart’s style. In his childhood he wrote 12 String Symphonies and many other works. In later works, especially oratorios and choral compositions he was also searching for an inspiration in Bach’s musical ideas. He was active in many fields of music, teacher, conductor, performing artist, thus he was able to compose virtually in every form and for any kind of cast. This was pure romantic idea to connect forms and performing stuff in unusual manner. Mendelssohn’s Lieder Ohne Worte (Songs without Words), the great cycle of lyrical miniatures for solo piano became the source of inspiration for many romantic composers. 
The most famous symphonic work by Felix Mendelssohn is Violin Concerto E Minor, Op. 64. This is not the only concerto for violin by this composer. In 1951 Yehudi Menuhin rediscovered Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra D Minor written between 1821 and 1823, when composer was 12 to 14 years old. This virtuoso concerto sometimes is indicating as No 1. In Mendelssohn’s works one can find a whole series of concertos as well as numerous pieces in romantic forms, capriccios and concertinos for solo instrument and orchestra. Violin Concerto E-Minor is the last Mendelssohn’s orchestral composition and one of the best implementations of violin concerto form. There are many creative ideas composer followed writing this work. One is leading role of soloist in opening of the work and moving virtuoso cadenza before the recapitulation. To avoid applause between concert movements Mendelssohn abandon interruptions by connecting first two parts with single bassoon note developing into accompaniment for solo violin theme of Andante and third part starting attacca after fanfare-like short introduction. These are most visible novelties from formal classical point of view. Melody and harmonics of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto are full of new qualities and brilliant ideas.

Mendelssohn and Bruch played by Wolfgang Schneiderhan (1958)

One of many standard records of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto E Minor and Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor Op. 26 is album published in 1958 album of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (LPEM 19124) featuring Wolfgang Schneiderhan, violinist from Wienna who was active in DGG productions mainly in fifties. Album was joint edition of two 10-inch recordings published in fifties by the same label. Mendelssohn’s Concerto was recorded with Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Ferenc Fricsay and Bruch’s Concerto in G Minor was recorded with Bamberger Symphoniker under baton of Ferdinand Leitner. These recordings were the benchmark for performances in forthcoming years. Republished on 12-inch album these recordings were enough successful to have second DGG edition in 1961 and third license pressing by Heliodor label.
These mono recordings have a clear and deeply colorful sound.  Thanks to very good, perfectly trained orchestras and great conductors. Fricsay put the emphasis on classical phrasing energy and this is what let him to create almost transparent construction of Mendelssohn’s symphonism. Leitner is more emotional, trying to build some visions based on strong emotional contrasts. Considering technology of recording orchestra in these years, tutti sound surprisingly fresh. Both accompaniments are serving as good foundation for soloist. Wolfgang Schneiderhan was the kind of virtuoso towards to achieve technical perfection without breaking the rules or breaking conformity of style. His phrase is light and almost free of emotionalism, like he was trying to say there can be no more emotions than in notes alone. This is what makes his recordings maybe too much academic, but students don’t have doubts about its quality.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly

Roberta Flack achieved great successes in show business. Two times, year after year awarded with Grammy in category Record of the Year, and many other wins or nominations decide she is one of brightest stars of American song. To achieve this position she needed to join talent and everyday hard working. In her childhood she was trained in music and tending to be classical concert pianist. She studied on Howard University, but after sudden death of her father she was forced to take a job. She was working as teacher of music and English in Maryland, North Carolina and in Washington, D. C. The same time she was performing as pianist and vocalist and quietly becoming the sensitive interpreter and independent stage personality.
Successes did not have long to wait. In her student period she directed Howard University performance of Aida which was approved with standing ovation. But stunning career does not spoil her. She is deeply engaged in social issues. She is member of academic sororities, activist for education, human and civil rights. She is active in education and equal opportunities for children from poor and marginalized families. She works with Hyde Leadership Chart School in Bronx providing free music education to underprivileged students under name The Roberta Flack School of Music. She is also spokesperson for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly (1973)

Fifth album by Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly released on August 14, 1973 has been recorded in 2 years span from 1971 to 1973. This was her greatest success. Eight songs of clearly poetic mood and perfectly smooth arrangements became hallmark of the era. In her repertoire she was close to poetic songs of Leonard Cohen. She was singing some of his songs – on debut album it was Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye and on Killing Me Softly it was song closing the B-Side creative version of Susan. Flack’s connections with Leonard Cohen’s works are reasonable – this was the best moment in Cohen’s career and his songs perfectly fit to the worlds Roberta Flack was creating. The same with some other songwriters like Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel authors of title song or authoring duo Ralph MacDonald, William Salter, authors of hit song When You Smile. By the way, it’s amazing how much beauty and positive emotions could be included in the songs of that era.
Among many musicians recording material for this album, some were prominent jazz artists. Two double-bass players left their clear marks on this music – both known from Flack’s prior recordings – Ron Carter and Terry Plumeri who composed one of most beautiful songs on this album Conversation Love dedicated to Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Drummer Grady Tate, guitarist Eric Gale and conductors and arrangers Don Sebesky and Eumir Deodato were most active in the group of musicians who helped Roberta Flack to create this amazing record. In fact musical material of Killing Me Softly is no longer a jazz song, and definitely not a pop music, even considering its popularity. More careful judgment should classify most of the settings to the soul with elements of R&B and smooth jazz sound. But most of all this is highly personal, emotional and sincere artistic statement of Roberta Flack. If one wants to understand the spirit of the early seventies, Killing Me Softly as well as her debut First Take and any other album can be really helpful. Anybody who loves good song with poetic approach will find Roberta Flack’s recordings as simply indispensable.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Roberta Flack – First Take

Roberta Flack is one of most captivating personalities among jazz singers from late sixties to the present. Her flexible performing style and strong ideological stance made difficult to define artist’s position which is in fact somewhere on crossroads of jazz, R&B, folk and soul music. In her childhood she studied music and intended to be classical pianist. And she early gained enough professional proficiency, to be awarded with full music scholarship. As 15 years old pianist she became youngest student in the history of Howard University. But career of classical music virtuoso was not her destiny. Born in Black Mountain, North Carolina and raised in Arlington, Virginia, she was experiencing African-American music in Baptist Church where she heard Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke.
During studies in Howard University, she switched to vocal class and quickly she achieved first successes as singer and as conductor’s assistant in academic choir. In next few years she was trying to reconcile teaching and artistic activities, but her career has developed rapidly on the basis of popular music. Singing and playing in clubs on Washington, D.C. she became fairly well known and at that point Les McCann heard her. He planned next visit in summer 1968 and heard her performing in a benefit concert for the Ghetto Children’s Library. This was so much important and inspiring, he decided to arrange her audition for Joel Dorn, producer in Atlantic Records. On first studio audition she recorded 42 songs in 3 hours. Next 39 demo songs she recorded in November 1968. In ten hours session on February 24-26, 1969 Roberta Flack with group of jazz musicians recorded her debut album First Take.

Roberta Flack – First Take (1969)

Roberta Flack sings and plays piano interpreting songs in a way close to modern tradition of Billie Holliday. She sometimes giving some instrumental solo, but this is never as much important as the song. In some songs group is enlarged with strings and brass. The foundations of the group are bassist Ron Carter, John Pizzarelli playing guitars and Ray Lucas on drums. This cameral lineup made wide open space for vocals. And Roberta Flack knows how to seduce and control the listener’s ability to concentrate and feeling the music.
Sometimes she is subtle like Ella Fitzgerald, sometimes she moves towards the blues and jazz tradition in the way reminding some older Nina Simone’s songs. Passionate vocals and discreet piano is just one of the attitudes, it can deeply remain in memory but certainly it’s not the only one. Delighted with her music Les McCann wrote in linear notes “Roberta possesses, both as a singer and a pianist, that rare quality which carries the listener beyond every barrier as though it never existed, to that level at which all humans can truly hear”.
Listening to this album, it is clearly readable, how much she is seriously engaged, maybe sometimes angry and critical, but more often sustainable and secure of her rights and uncompromising on issues of minority rights. This attitude perfectly matched the dominant moods in academia and in the arts of late sixties, but in seventies became somewhat unfashionable. And Roberta Flack’s debut album was not really recognized until Clint Eastwood used her performance of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face as background for love scene in his movie Play Misty for Me. In 1973 this song won for Roberta Flack Grammy Record of the Year Award.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Georg Solti & Tatiana Troyanos in Bizet’s Carmen

Opera Carmen, last and undeniably the best work composed by Georges Bizet, occupies special place among romantic works and in whole opera repertoire. This work has such great number of advantages, it is hard to control by listeners or by performing artists. Thus Carmen in almost every rendition sounds fresh, sometimes surprising and always exerts a great influence on the emotions of the audience. It is also one of very few operas so difficult to shorten or reduce to assortment of arias and scenes. In fact whole Bizet’s opera can be seen as cycle of favorite scenes, and every fragment is full of musical ideas and coruscating with dramatic imaginary. Every scene, duo, aria or ensemble is like number one in opera hits ranking. The same quality of perfectly composed unity of great moments characterizes the whole work.
There a many great performances and recordings of Carmen and sometimes it is really hard to point the better one. And it is either not the question of quality, or the esthetical paradigm. People are constantly changing and so their systems of value. One moment we appreciate a heroine of subtle and chimerical, while the other we look for strong and firmly consequent woman. One time we need more actress performance, while in the next performance we are astonishing by the beautiful voice. This is why we are unable to point one and the best performance, even when our sympathies speak for themselves. One of best and often pointed by emotions is performance under the baton of Sir Georg Solti recorded July 1975 in London, in Henry Wood Hall for Decca. This performance has been published as complete set of records in 1976 (London Records OSA 13115) and in 1977 as one LP choice of Great Scenes & Arias (Decca SET 621).

Tatiana Troyanos as Carmen (1977)

Carmen is always featured role, so without any doubts name of singer playing Carmen should be the first in the program, and it is not surprising, the star of this rendition is Tatiana Troyanos. There are many listeners acknowledging this recording as legendary one and best from any point of view. There is also a bunch of great performances of other frontline characters. Don José is played by Placido Domingo who was gaining the fame of great dramatic tenor at the time. Micaela was sung by Kiri Te Kanawa who was one of most appreciated lyric sopranos for more than next two decades. José van Dam sings famous role of Escamillo and his triumphant entrance is as much musical as much suggestive. Highest level of professional efficiency under direction of Sir Georg Solti has been achieved in powerful performance by London Philharmonic Orchestra and great work of John Alldis Choir. Although this is not a rule, you may find that for the artist of this format is more natural to leave wider interpretation margin for the soloists.
Tatiana Troyanos appeared as Carmen and this was one of most perfectly sung and persuasively played role of this femme fatale ever. Her deep chest voice gave Carmen the kind of sound that can convince how much sensual and experienced woman she is. She knows what she needs, and she knows how to achieve it. In fragments where Carmen is haunted by emotions, she sounds brightly, singing in head voice register with perfectly light vibrato. In such moments she sounds like a girl. Unforgettable duets Troyanos-Domingo are dynamically changing along with developing storyline. They are cautious at the beginning, and gradually their relations are more and more passionately, ardent and dramatically dangerous in their difference. All emotions clearly displayed and shaped with profoundly musical sense. Absolutely five-star performance.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Carlos Saura's Carmen Soundtrack

In 1845 French writer Prosper Mérimée published novella Carmen telling the story of love, envy and crimes of passion. Thirty years later this story became the plot of widely recognized opera by Georges Bizet. Great success of the work fixed its position in culture of next century. Hundreds opera settings, dozens of ballet, dramatic and movie versions and thousands citations gave this work prominent position. The story is about Carmen, cigar factory worker and liberated woman, enchanting lover and independent person, and the story is in fact the perfect carrier of social criticism. Probably the best movie version of Carmen is film made in 1983 by Carlos Saura, Spanish director famous for his involvement in movies on dance and music subjects. It is significant, Saura’s debut was short film Flamenco made in 1955 when he was only 23 years old. 
After successful career of avant-garde filmmaker in sixties and seventies, Saura turn to his first fascination making movies with dance and about dance. His great achievement in eighties were movies started by Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding) a story joining poetry, dance and music in quasi-documentary narration about dance company working on flamenco adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s play. It was first unit of flamenco trilogy comprised Bodas de sangre (1981), Carmen (1983) and El amor brujo (1986). These three pictures focused on dance and choreography as essential elements of movie narration and became new standard in cinematic career of the dance. Next two decades Saura was developing his idea, creating his own style of musical film in Flamenco (1995), Tango (1998), Salomé (2002), Iberia (2005) Fados (2007) and many more. Carmen is the cornerstone of his creative output.

Soundtrack Carmen (1983)

The international success of Blood Wedding was best confirmation for the line of Saura’s artistic exploration. For his next movie he took story of similar dramatic potential and strong musical connection to the most famous opera related to flamenco music. Based on French novel and French opera spectacle shows profound sense of love and death. But Carmen was not just the second movie in this sequence; this film was quite different in its concept. Blood Wedding was based on contrasts between the story portrayed in spectacle and the life of working dance company. Carmen shows parallel emotions affecting the fate and interweaving events of play and playing company. The construction of the story within a story was known from the history of great literature and theatre. Of course it was also present in opera, where some ideas of short plays or music playing from inside the scene are traditional way of building the dramatic reliability. Carlos Saura adapted these foundations giving also some original improvements.
Production of flamenco dance and music version of Carmen was the first Saura’s project with choreographer Maria Pagès and musician Paco de Lucía. Artists became long time contributors in many Saura’s films. Main musical idea of this story is to connect dancers and drama characters to flamenco. Opposite to alive and vivid flamenco versions is original operatic rendition of Bizet’s score. Saura chose twenty years older, the 1963 recording from Grand Theatre de Geneve conducted by Thomas Schippers. This historic performance was bright of opera stars Regina Resnik as Carmen and Mario del Monaco as Don José. Next two presented in fragments choosen to Saura’s movie soundtrack were Tom Krause as Escamillo and Robert Geay as Zuniga. In this bright and famous recording participated L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR) and Le Chor du Grand Theatre de Geneve. And what is due the flamenco musicians and movie makers, soundtrack is well harmonized and sounds coherently. Both of the planes intermingle around one double-story line. Maybe this record is mainly for flamenco and opera enthusiasts, but the movie is one must be known.