Sunday, March 31, 2013

Charles Munch and BSO – Debussy’s La mer and Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole

   Between 1903 and 1905 Claude Debussy wrote three part symphonic work called La mer. The formal idea was so brave, it would allow composer to call this work symphony. But Debussy was very careful with historical forms and so he called his work: La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestra. This title shows how humble he was, deciding not to use the qualification to symphony or symphonic poem and limiting it to the “symphonic sketches”. In fact the foundation and fulfillment of the work was deeply rooted in symphonic orchestra coloristic possibilities, so the richness of the work was derived strictly from symphonic tradition, and this could be easily called impressionistic symphony. The more that the three movements have programmatic titles: From down till noon on the sea; Play of the waves; and Dialogue of the wind and the sea. The idea of impressionistic musical rendering of extra-musical narrative was to focus on human emotions and sensibility.
   Debussy was 43 years old when La mer was premiered October 15th, 1905 in Paris. Two years later, his younger colleague, often regarded as second great impressionist, Maurice Ravel composed his Rhapsodie espagnole. In the moment of his new orchestral work premiere, Ravel was 32 years old. These two composers are bound each other as two great pillars of impressionistic style. But they are so different, it is hard to formulate a definition of the style on the basis of common points in their music. Four-part Rhapsody is a kind of a suite including dances and musical scenes: Prélude à la nuit, Malagueña, Habanera and Feria. Stylizations on Spanish folklore and clear rhythms are main difference between Ravel and Debussy. He was contextually connected to romantic national schools and in his later works Ravel evolved towards more decided rhythmic structures what makes him even more independent composer.

Munch & BSO - Debussy - La mer, Ravel - Rapsodie espagnole (1958)

   What makes these works so strongly connected to impressionistic style in fine arts is attitude to coloristic issues. Lack of clear melodic component, undecided, somehow blurred shapes are corresponding with lack of black contours on canvas, the flickering of shredded rhythms is like pointyllistic technique in impressionistic paintings. But this kind of sound coloristic is typical mainly in some of Debussy’s orchestral music and in limited range of early Ravel’s works. The secret of Ravel’s style is his sensitivity to the color of the instruments and creative orchestrations of different instrumental settings in various harmonic and rhythmic contexts. His ingenuity in this area seemed to be unlimited. And so it is with interpretative possibilities of his works. Many perfect performances of impressionistic works, especially those of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were recorded in late 1950’s by Boston Symphony Orchestra under the button of Charles Munch.
As music director of Boston Symphony from 1949 to 1962, Charles Munch was famous for his premiere performances of modern and contemporary music. As a creative interpreter of impressionistic music by Debussy and Ravel, Munch gave Boston Symphony Orchestra strong impetus to the development. The result was the legendary excellence of orchestral sound. It’s worth to notice, he was also a war hero supporting the Resistance movement in occupied Paris. For these acts of courage he was honored just after the war in 1945 with highest French order Légion d'honneur. Many of his Boston recordings made in 50’s were published in various sets on vinyl and later on silver discs budget editions in 60’s and in 70’s. Two great works recorded for RCA in 1958 (La mer) and 1959 (Rhapsodie espagnole) were reissued in RCA Camden Classics Victrola (CCV 5039). These renditions make it perfectly clear, this was impressionism what gave the full power to the color in symphonic orchestra. Treated as a factor of musical form, impressionistic ideas pave the way for 20th century music.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Mahler – Symphony No. 1, The Budapest Version, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

   Gustav Mahler worked on his first symphony since 1884. First sketches to this composition were closer to symphonic poems than symphonic form. These fragments became basic material for composition he finished in years 1987-1988. Completed symphony was premiered 1989 in Budapest, though it was still titled Symphonic poem in two parts, where first part comprised three movements with second movement called Blumine (Flowering) or Bluminenkapitel, and second part was double movement. The premiered work was well received, but some critics had some doubts, so composer continued to work on formal issues of his first symphony.
   Next version was titled Titan (first time in 1993) and still including second movement Blumine. It is serenade written to Joseph Victor von Scheffel's poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen featuring gentle trumpet solo. After devastating critique this part was omitted in 1894 performance and two years later it was completely removed. There are some references to the style of Blumine part in other fragments of the symphony. In common opinion the definitive version is 1896 four movement setting in version published in 1899, and some of greatest conductors like Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti and Bernard Haitink refuse to perform earlier settings. Many conductors perform Blumine as an independent piece, fewer insert this serenade into later four-part setting as the second movement.

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 1, The Budapest Version (1982)

   Performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in Budapest Version are pretty unique, and even rarer are phonographic records. Only issue I know is 1982 recording made for Hungaroton (SLPX 12267-68) by Hungarian State Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer. Precise and well recorded performance shows this work as interesting. The Blumine part is quite interesting moment of quiet, slowly moving moment of time stopping before scherzo movement with strong folk tune type melodies and rhythm of landler-type theme. Alive and full of energy and best expectations is the sweet trio episode. A lot of positive energy will prepare next movement contrasting with ironic, grotesque march which subject is taken from popular student’s tune Frère Jacques. After this characteristic melody, comes short interlude with citation of last song from the cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. These works has some more common points.
   The cycle of songs, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, was the first Mahler’s cycle. It has been composed for voice with piano in years 1884-1885, the time of first sketches and projects of the symphony. In symphonic version the cycle has its premiere in 1896 in Berlin. In the Symphony No. 1 there are two references to Songs of a Wayfarer. Main theme of second song can be heard in first movement of First Symphony. Second one has been mentioned before. The album conducted by Iván Fischer features recording of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen cycle with Klára Takács, star of Budapest Opera House, featured also in series of very good recordings of romantic songs. The double album was part of ambitious and successful project of Hungarian artists.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Cole Porter Tribute – Red Hot + Blue

   When eighties were about to end with total collapse of Soviet bloc and with huge disgrace and infamy of republican establishment in US, there was one sure thing for any citizen – no politics, government or business was interested in relief to people struggling with AIDS epidemic but the people. Red Hot Organization established in 1989 in New York is one of first international institutions dedicated to raise donations for fighting with AIDS. The motto of the organization is to fight against AIDS through pop culture, especially by publishing compilation albums for AIDS relief and awareness. In next two decades they released more than dozen of compilation albums.
   The first compilation of Red Hot Organization became their greatest success. Along with Amnesty International, Greenpeace and few others, it was one of most famous compilations of these years. The secret can be the one source of all songs. Double LP album published by Chrysalis was compilation of songs written by one and only American author of songs who was author of lyrics and music. He can also be the patron of the modern LGBT movement. Many of his songs are versatile in gender attitude. And this compilation makes such promotion is an accomplished fact. It’s interesting most of the songs (18 out of 20) were promoted as music videos in television and opening song I’ve Got You Under My Skin by Neneh Cherry directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino became hit video in MTV and the SP was noted as 25 number in UK Singles Chart.

Cole Porter Tribute – Red Hot + Blue (1990)

   There are few performances aiming the historic style of old Cole Porter’s songs. Glamorous interpretation of Down in the Depths by Lisa Stansfield, cool and distant Annie Lennox singing Everytime We Say Goodbye or Sinead O’Connor interpreting You Are Something To Me. Also great rendition of So in Love by K. D. Lang is an old fashionable and sensitive performance of Cole Porter’s classic tune. In this group probably most stylish is After You Who performed by Jody Watley, but some are arranged in new style while still faithful to original intention. This is what one can say about Tom Waits’ rendition of It’s All Right With Me or about In the Still of the Night performed by The Neville Brothers.
   The different direction is affirmative and joyous, rocking and energizing like David Byrne’s performance of Don’t Fence Me In, or I Love Paris performed by Les Negresses Vertes. Some disco-like versions of Too Darn Hot made by Erasure, or even more disco version of From This Moment On executed by Jimmy Somerville, pop rock version of Night and Day by U2, rap version of I Got a Kick by The Jungle Brothers are just popular and easy to dance or listening. This variety gave the album position of meaningful and significant contribution in AIDS relief. With many videos in television, and good idea success was guaranteed. Some videos were made by famous directors, for example Tom Waits video was directed by Jim Jarmush, U2 by Wim Wenders, and David Byrne who directed his song himself. All were broadcasted by ABC as special feature. In effect album was sold in over a million copies giving the best possible start for Red Hot Organization. Three and a half star for good music and performance.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

   The ninth studio album by Pink Floyd is one of best records in history of progressive music, despite the fact so many believe that previous one The Dark Side of the Moon was unrivalled project in whole history of the genre. The recording sessions to this album ran in somewhat problematic moment of the band’s history. For the first time since their debut in 1967 fans have to wait more than a year for next album. In fact it was 30 months and this was not quite good time for the band. The success of The Dark Side of the Moon occurred to be rather overwhelming than liberating experience. Musicians were under permanent pressure of doing something that looked quite impossible. Tension exploded with differences in the band leading paradoxically to creative results. And new standards were the pretext to think about their achievements. No wonder the new album became a self-commentary to the position band had achieved.
   In the moment of their greatest success musicians had turned to Syd Barrett – the person who was founder and shinning personality in the beginnings of the band. He was an author of most Pink Floyd songs from beginning years, recorded four singles in 1967 and band’s debut album the same year. He also took part in sessions to second album A Saucerful of Secrets in 1968, but his erratic behavior, partly caused by heavy using of psychedelic drugs, especially LSD and poor mental state was the cause he has been replaced by guitarist David Gilmour.  But still musicians had this feeling they owe some part of their success to Syd Barrett, so the title Wish You Were Here is an apostrophe and whole record is a tribute to missing friend.

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975)

   First song Shine On You Crazy Diamond was elegiac lament over the absence of Syd Barrett. Developed on a grand scale, nine-part composition has been divided – first five are opening the first side of the album, last four are closing the second one – and it is a framework giving the meaning of higher level to the whole program. There are clear indications it was addressed to a specific recipient and this was Barrett himself. The title and composition of the album show it’s very private message starting with memories: “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun. Shine on you crazy diamond. Now there’s look in your eyes like black holes in the sky.” In last verse there is closing apostrophe: “Come on you boy child, you winner and loser, come on you miner for truth and delusion, and shine!” Such frame gives all texts deeper sense of recapitulation, maybe even closing the whole chapter in band’s history. The main song Shine On You Crazy Diamond is also the best formal and instrumental work with great Gilmour guitar, Wright keyboard and Dick Parry saxophone solos. Perfectly set and sung it remains one of best achievements in the history of Pink Floyd. Five stars for the overall quality and for place in popular culture.
   Three pieces inside such frame are continuing some ideas of this and previous album. In Welcome to the Machine band was experimenting with noise sounds giving perfect setting to mechanistic vision of modern life. In the first song on second side Have a Cigar Pink Floyd gave leading vocal to folk singer Roy Harper. This song is openly critical against recording industry. Both songs continue Pink Floyd’s soft criticism of society and culture of mass reproduction. It was gently involved and not too much political. The title song Wish You Were Here is moving ballad on missing, especially in context of the band recapping their own way. There is a story Syd Barrett appeared in studio when Pink Floyd was recording this album. He was overweight so they didn’t recognized him at first. Then they played Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Barrett said it “sounds a bit old”. He left without saying goodbye. Later he was seen on parking lot looking for somebody who could pick him home.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The XI International Chopin Piano Competition – Warsaw 1985

   Publishing sound chronicles was quite a good tradition of some festivals and competitions. It was always a chance to verify oneself the decisions of the jury, or to recheck it after days, months, even years, just to see how our ratings were connected to the mood of the moment. In some competitions the price was a chance of phonographic debut, while others were publishing chronicles day after day. One of such sets of recordings was published in 1985 during XI International Chopin Piano Competition. Seven volumes on vinyl LPs (Polskie Nagrania SX 2272-2278) even after years are a chance to observe the competitive performers and their live performances.
   It’s interesting how different are the assessments of the jury and producers of the sound chronicle. While the selection of performances was based on music critics’ choice, jury was working on statute regulations and in many points opinions were different. Triumphant of XI Competition was Russian pianist Stanislaw Bunin who won 1st Prize and two prizes for best polonaise and best performance of the concerto. 2nd Prize won Marc Laforêt (France), who won also Polish Radio Prize for best performance of Mazurkas. And the 3rd Prize won Krzysztof Jabłoński (Poland). Next prizes gone to Japanese Michie Koyama (4th), French Jean-Marc Luisada (5th), and Russian Tatyana Pikayzen (6th). The title of laureate won four pianists prized with distinction – Bulgarian Ludmil Angelov, Ilya Ivari from Tallinn, François Killian from France and Japanese Kayo Miki.
   First LP comprises four Scherzos played by Krzysztof Jabłoński (3rd prize), Yuval Fichman, Arthur Hart and Stanislaw Bunin (1st prize). Volume No. 2 comprises some nocturnes performed by Ludmil Angelov (distinction), François Killian (distinction), Rie Konishi, Roland Pontinen and etudes played by Jonathan Bass, Jean-Marc Bonn, Mototsugu Harada, Michie Koyama, Liu Yi-Fan, Noriko Ogawa, Rolf Plagge and Edward Zilberkant. The 3rd volume includes three ballades (played by Kemal Gekić, Rolf Plagge, Stanislaw Bunin) and Barcarolle F-sharp Major op.60 recorded by Krzysztof Jabłoński.

Sound Chronicle of Chopin Competition (1985)

   There’s characteristic feature of 4th volume. This is polonaises LP and among Krzysztof Jabłoński, Jean-Marc Bonn, Masahiro Saito and Kazuko Mimura the name of Stanislaw Bunin, the winner of the prize for best polonaise performance is missing. This shows that the level of competition was aligned. On 5th volume waltzes were played by Michie Koyama, Jean-Marc Luisada, Stanislaw Bunin and two sets of preludes by Stanislaw Bunin and Andrew Wilde. Volume 6th is the only one presenting exclusively one performer. It’s somehow like a consolation prize for Kemal Gekić whose performances include 4 Mazurkas Op. 30, Scherzo C-sharp Minor Op.39, Andante spianato and Great Polonaise E-flat Major Op. 22 and Nocturne B Major Op. 62 No. 1. His performances highly valued by public were probably too heavy in expression and maybe too much explicit. In some fragments his interpreting is just magic.
   The last volume consists of two short recitals of Jean-Marc Luisada (4 Mazurkas Op. 24, Fantasy F Minor Op. 49) and Krzysztof Jabłoński (3 Mazurkas Op. 59, Nocturne B Major Op. 9 No. 3 and two etudes). This shows the sound chronicle gives unique opportunity to hear some artists who were not prized. The fact one can hear their recordings almost thirty years later is quite a chance for these pianists. And the group presented here who didn’t receive any prize or distinction is impressive. There are Yuval Fichman from Canada, Liu Yi-Fan from China, Andrew Wilde from Great Britain and Roland Pontinen from Sweden. Jean-Marc Bonn from France and Rolf Plagge from Germany are presented twice. There are strong representations from Japan and USA. Japanese artists are Rie Konishi, Mototsugu Harada, Michie Koyama, Kazuko Mimura, Noriko Ogawa and Masahiro Saito. The three Americans presented here are Arthur Hart, Jonathan Bass and Edward Zilberkant. And artist featured by producers of the series who was completely omitted by jury, Kemal Gekić from Yugoslavia. He was quite a sensation and these recordings give us one more chance to judge.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Lorin Maazel – Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler

   The cycle of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies consists of ten symphonies (the 10th was completed from the sketches) and one unnumbered work in form of symphony Lied von der Erde. Whole cycle completes the separate chapter in the history of music. The first of Mahler’s orchestral works, Symphony No. 1 in D major is most traditional and probably the best known. Some later works, 5th, 2nd Resurrection or 8th Symphony of a Thousand are also well recognized but the level of performing requirements makes them rare events in weekly concert repertoire. In fact the 1st, sometimes called Titan is not easy too, but along with 4th or even 5th, it’s easier to follow for average listeners, so this symphony is performed most commonly.
   The first version idea of this work was a symphonic poem basing on novel Titan by Jean Paul. Four volumes of romantic story on education and getting mature gives Mahler the idea of instrumental work, but later he dropped this project. The title Titan was applied to prior versions of 1st Symphony, but after some changes in the structure of symphony, Mahler removed the title and broke any connections with literary prototype. In 1896 he introduced new version with no additional title, and without Blumine which was the second movement in first three versions. Thus the composition following traditional four-part symphonic construction was more coherent and compact.

Lorin Maazel – Mahler –  Symphony No. 1 (1980)

   The most important requirement for the good performance of Mahler's symphony is the precision and richness of orchestral sound. This is what really makes so interesting to follow different renditions with different orchestras. And it’s really hard to find a good orchestra or a conductor who didn’t try their powers in Mahler’s music. The orchestra of considered achievements with this repertoire is Orchestre National de France which over the decades was basis for many conductors and many interesting albums. And one of most deserved Mahler’s interpreters recording with this orchestra was Lorin Maazel’s rendition who in late seventies conducted performance recorded and published by CBS Masterworks.
   Maazel’s recording shows how open and deep can be Mahler’s First Symphony. Under the grey cover, the performance as the music itself is shimmering with colors. From soft, almost impressionistic nuances in pianissimo, to brave expressive phrases of chamber groups of instruments, from mysterious moments of expectations to the clarity of revelation. Perfectly set tempos and the sound of Parisian Orchestre National is what makes this performance so colorful. Wind instruments can work as a sample of sound capacity. Some romantic reminiscences in culmination of first part, in dancing fluency of scherzo (Ländler) and in inevitable marching continuity of third movement, orchestra is exploding with colors and emotions. The climax of narrative idea is the fourth movement which gives a chance for connecting various ideas. Four and half of highest star.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Frank Zappa • Apostrophe (’)


   Eighteenth Frank Zappa’s album – released March 22, 1974 and almost immediately placed on hit lists – remains his greatest commercial success. It had reached 10th position on Billboard Charts and gave artist his first Gold certified by the RIAA only two years later. No wonder listeners had accepted this album – on its semantic level these songs were threaten the cultural taboo melting sexual contents with some jokes and rebel attitude. Musical layer was highly energetic, rhythmic music – from hard rock to comedy, from rhythm & blues to fusion jazz – basically in mainstream of rock fusion. And it was well done, a way much better than many seriously progressive albums. Every genre presented here was connected and interacting with lyrics context.
   The material for the album was recorded in various sessions and studios in five year period since 1969. This resulted in doubles and triples in lineups. On the cover of the record one can find names of four casts of rhythm sections from various periods – four drummers (Jim Gordon, Johnny Guerin, Aynsley Dunbar, Ralph Humphrey) and four bass players (Jack Bruce, Tom Fowler, Frank Zappa and Erroneous what stands for Alex Dmochowski). Great keyboardist George Duke, playing percussion instruments Ruth Underwood whose marimba became hallmark of Zappa’s sound in mid-seventies, two great violinists Sugar Cane Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty, two saxophonists Ian Underwood and Napoleon Murphy Brock, trumpeter Sal Marquez, trombonist Bruce Fowler, nine back-up vocals, even five sound engineers, working in New York Electric Lady Studios, Inglewood Bolic and Hollywood Paramount Studios. Zappa was credited for lead vocals, guitars, production, arrangements and struggle with.

Frank Zappa - Apostrophe (1974)

   The album has been called Apostrophe (’) or A’POS! TRO’PHE(!) as in alternative spelling used on the label. What makes this album so exceptional is fusion of RnB, pop and rock with elements of utilitarian music known from media and associated with advertising jingle style. With seditious obscenity and much inkling suggesting there’s one more mask and deeper sense of the text layer it gave the feeling of revealing the hidden truth. Maybe Frank Zappa was not considered of all these flickering senses. The title of the album came from only instrumental piece. It is an instrumental jam and the fact Zappa gave this name for the whole album may suggest he was intended to turn to more intuitive forms. Although it sounded modern and strong, from intellectual point of view it was weakest fragment of the album.
   The intellectual and philosophical backgrounds of Zappa’s lyrics were unveiled in 1993 in The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play by Ben Watson. British author has shown Shakespeare and Platonic topics in Apostrophe (’). Brave comparison of Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow suite and King Lear is showing some parallels which are in fact archetypical values common to many cultures. Ban Watson’s dissertation is maybe first critical analysis of this album which for many reviewers was just loathsome and obscene. Zappa’s obscenity, then recognized as a part of sexual revolution, later occurred to be quite serious part of anti-establishment rebellion. His revolutionary and subversive attitude has strong impact for few generations of listeners.