Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Herbert von Karajan – Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz

   In the set of numerous compositions by Hector Berlioz, some may be less or more meaningful, many are really important in romantic culture, but one can be considered as the most influential work in early romantic era – together with Schubert’s Unfinished or Weber’s Freieschütz. The one of crucial meaning is his Symphonie fantastique op. 14, premiered in Paris December, 1830. This fork is still in symphonic form but uses totally new way of organizing musical narration divided into five movements. And the narrative idea is what makes this work so meaningful. Subtitled as Episode de la vie d’un artiste, the symphony is different in the structural setting of a programmatic work portraying particular moments from the life of romantic artist.
   The Fantastic Symphony by Hector Berlioz is both narrative and formally consequent. The same one can say about many other works, but in this case it comes with special features. Unlike many other works, especially baroque and classical programmatic music, this symphony is not so much illustrative or unambiguous. The program points the content of every scene but its representation in music is not so clear. In effect the whole work can be interpreted as if it was absolute and abstractive music. And there comes the problem of the relations between music and narration. This is also the main question artists interpreting Symphonie fantastique have to answer.

Karajan – Hector Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique (1975)

   The problem of a gap between literal meaning of musical motives and universal psychology of understanding musical suggestions is mainly a question of personal inclinations and artistic responsibility. Herbert von Karajan has solved this taking the side of interpreting skills and musical hermeneutics. He found numerous emotional and idiomatic motifs and elements of semantic meaning. These small particles create context making possible interpretation of any narrative element. It’s the question of the greatest talent and the highest level of professional skills to make it universally readable and universal but giving listener the feeling it is unequivocal.
   In 1975 rendition of Symphonie fantastique Karajan gives the feeling of almost literal reading of musical motives. Powerful sound and perfect articulation of the Berliner Philharmoniker gave him the best possible working space. Even so, his interpretation is emotional and deeply human. Love, desperate desire and fear, death wish and will for living, all contrary emotions are in dynamic conflict heading to culmination in dramatic conclusion. In Karajan rendition these narratives are integral part of the work, they are clear but never dominate or delimit the music itself. In closing part of 5th movement Ronde du Sabbat illustrative elements are probably strongest and Karajan decodes them in very readable manner. Once again orchestra has possibility to show full spectrum of expression with rhythmic and sound perfection.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Frank Zappa • Uncle Meat


   After the students' revolt in late 60’s, many hidden issues in politics, education, economics and social life came to light. The necessity of rebuilding some elements of culture became apparent. Some processes of fighting against injustice, segregation or unequal rights were taking place for decades; in sixties moving towards civil rights and social liberation were already quite well underway. With great expectations for the future, artists were trying to free social memory of cold war propaganda and imperial ideology. This was the perfect time to show the world the mirror and even most advanced artistic experiments were absorbed by more and more open society. But even then many noble idealists were unreasonably hopeful, escaping into naïve expectations, and the tragic existence on the edge was a final argument protecting them against absurdity.
   Frank Zappa was clearheaded rationalist from his very beginnings. He started with dual musical creation, from one side there was fusion music with some concepts of avant-garde compositions, elements of jazz, and from the other side with songs about popular culture being more sardonic than satirical or critical. Sometimes he was more composer, sometimes more lyricist and songwriter, sometimes just performer. His shows with Mothers of Invention became famous. One of most complex work were his musical movie projects giving him grounds for joining different musical elements and traditions. It is best feature of early Zappa’s works he was enough complex to be inspiring from every point of view. He was acting as a romantic composer using folk tunes and motifs to build advanced constructions, so he was using popular music and many other genres and artifacts to create his own, original, yet somehow decadent vision.

Frank Zappa & Mothers of Invention – Uncle Meat (1969)

   The sixth Frank Zappa album Uncle Meat was copyrighted in 1968 and released in March 1969. Surprisingly this album was selling much better than many other records with big “commercial potential” and Uncle Meat in short time reached the peak on 43rd position of US album chart. This was probably due to good reception of previous albums but in fact this double LP issue was perfectly produced and seemingly more indiscrete while heterogenic and complex. Under the title Uncle Meat printed with Old English typeface there was a subtitle stated: Most of the music from The Mother’s movie of the same name which we haven’t got enough money to finish yet. The material made for the movie Uncle Meat was reedited as a documentary in kind “making of” and published on videocassette in 1987. Also a CD edition was augmented with more than forty minutes of soundtrack excerpts (predominantly dialogues) and song Tengo Na Minchia Tanta recorded in 1982 with singer Massimo Bassoli.
   The original idea of Uncle Meat album looks as the perfect bunch of various ambitions. Sometime surrealistic lyrics were more readable in era of psychedelic rock but all spoken fragments were clearly taken from movie soundtrack. Experiments with tape, percussion and noise, modal scales and complex rhythms, multitrack recording, these entire elements make some fragments of this album can be quite a challenge for listeners with prejudices. What was avant-garde in sixties, today sounds as classical, well balanced concert music. Original and creative combination of traditional instruments and electronics, complex structures developed from simple melodic motifs, resignation of diatonic function in harmonics and the use of techniques of serialism, all this make the music of the Uncle Meat album one of most interesting documents of its time. Without fail it should be regarded as a serious composition. This is why the original album deserves five out of five stars.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rick Wakeman – The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

   Rick Wakeman as a musician, composer and songwriter is famous for his experiments with progressive rock forms, especially for combining rock bands with orchestral sound and extensively used electronic keyboard instruments. Born in 1949 artist is also remembered for his fruitful work with Yes group. He was one of most famous personalities of the band and played with Yes from 1971 to 1974 and from 1976 to 1980. The position of leading solo keyboardist in early seventies gave him the series of three solo albums he started to create in time of first period he was a member of Yes group and his solo success hastened the departure of the band.
   Wakeman gained an instant fame when January 23th, 1973 his first signed album The Six Wives of Henry VIII was released. The debut album has reached 7th position on UK chart, this was definitely the best time of concept albums. Next production Journey to the Centre of the Earth peaked in 1974 on 1st position in UK and 3rd in US and his third solo album The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table published next year reached 2nd position in UK, 21st in US, 6th in Norway and 18th in Australia. And these three albums are probably his best achievement as solo projects. Although the last of the three was recorded in time Wakeman was leaving Yes the whole cycle was linked to Yes as one of band members’ solo albums. It was also a great commercial success with 12 millions copies sold worldwide.

Rick Wakeman – The Myths and Legends of King Arthur... (1975)

   Recording his third solo project Rick Wakeman merged some qualities from previous solo albums. The idea of stylistic connection to English history with sounds and harmony was taken from The Six Wives of Henry VIII and some ideas connected to fantastic world of myths and legends were developed on base of motifs close to English folk and electronics in a way he was connecting electronics with symphonic orchestra in Journey to the Centre of the Earth album. Choirs are not quite English but they give some archaic basis for The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table while many fragments are lively and saltatory. This choir and plenty of orchestral instruments, some used only incidentally, others extensively, plus motivic repetition made this album sound a bit like some Mike Oldfield’s productions. Especially The Last Battle closing the program and longing for almost ten minutes makes such feeling.
   Although there were next big Rick Wakeman’s projects and soundtracks – Lisztomania in November the same 1975, No Earthly Connection in 1976 and Criminal Record in 1977 – The Myths and Legends of King Arthur… was last of three famous solo productions. The popularity of these three albums gave Wakeman the position of virtuoso of keyboard instruments and a fame of versatile composer. His later productions were not as much popular but always on highest professional and artistic level. With about 100 albums and more than 50 million copies sold, Wakeman’s solo career looks impressive. For later generations of one hit stars and celebrities known for being famous only this kind of excitement is probably too hard to understand.

Monday, April 22, 2013

George Szell – The Cleveland Orchestra – William Walton's Partita and Mahler's Tenth Symphony

   When in 1946 George Szell took the post of musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra, the artistic possibilities of famous band were far from ideal. For the orchestra still remembering good times of Artur Rodzinski and Erich Leinsdorf but weakened by the war limitations, critics and listeners had demanded decisive measures. Szell had to build the new orchestra, and he did it in ten years. Many musicians lost their jobs, while more others were hired. In effect he expanded and renewing orchestra in completely new manner. New Cleveland Orchestra was build gradually to have American type of powerful sound and European sensitivity of nuances and interpretative issues.
   In effect during the season of 1957/58 The Cleveland Orchestra was at the peak of its professional power. After the decade of building the team, exchanging musicians and expanding the group, there was virtually no symphonic work that could be too hard to play for this band. With more than a hundred handpicked musicians Szell was able to perform every symphonic composition with equal easiness. One of records giving a chance to observe the technical accuracy and artistic flexibility of the Cleveland Orchestra and conductor George Szell is the one presenting 20th century orchestral pieces by William Walton and Gustav Mahler, released in 1959 by EPIC (LC 3568).

George Szell – Walton – Partita, Mahler – Symphony No. 10 (1959)

   William Walton’s Partita is the result of polystylistic synthesis. It takes over some impressionistic ideas of orchestration colors and some technical solutions and neoclassic formal ideas of Prokofiev or Stravinsky. Neoclassicism is predominantly shown in construction of the work, which is planned as a three-part late 18. century sonatine form. Composed in London, November 28th, 1957, and dedicated for the Cleveland Orchestra it was premiered by the recipients in Cleveland in January 30th, 1958. Listening to this three part work makes it easy to understand why Partita was dedicated to the Cleveland Orchestra. The score of this composition demands absolute discipline in every parameter of the orchestral sound and for some bands it could be just difficult to perform.
   Walton’s Partita is orchestrated for different sets of orchestral instruments and in some fragments could be considered as a concert for virtuoso orchestra. First part Toccata (Brioso) shows some mobility and rhythmic agility giving surprising syncopated effects with constant movement of violins. In second movement Pastorale Siciliana (Andante comodo) melodic patterns are introduced by solo viola, than oboe, and raised by various wind instruments in reprise form. In Giga burlesca (Allegro gioviale) fast and highly energic melody with repetitions in small rhythmic values like in fast recitative gives orchestra one more chance for virtuoso passages.

Szell & Cleveland Orch. – William Walton – Partita (1958)

   The Tenth Symphony by Gustav Mahler was unfinished. The fragments, composed in 1910, remained unknown to 1924, when facsimile was published. Only two movements were progressed far enough to reconstruct a reliable score – first and third. This work was undertaken by Ernst Křenek and the same year premiered in Vienna. After war it was premiered in Erie Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fritz Mahler, who was composer’s cousin, and published in New York. Recorded by George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra it became a rarity in history of recorded music. According to Lewis M. Smoley (Gustav Mahler’s Symphonies: Critical Commentary on Recordings Since 1986. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996, p. 260) this is the only recording conjoining these two movements. He also qualified this performance of Symphony No. 10 as “one of the best versions ever recorded”. Undoubtedly the metaphysical aura of the Andante – Adagio movement is quite touchable and Intermezzo (Allegro moderato – Allegro non troppo), which in original bears the superscription Purgatorio, is as grotesque as consequent and compact. This rendition makes this music so much alive, it meets as a complete piece.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fritz Reiner, CSO – Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan

   Like almost every great artist of modern era, Richard Strauss was a versatile composer. By the contemporaries he was recognized to be the greatest composer of his times. His works include a lot of music with various purposes, vocal and instrumental, chamber and large cast, concert and theatrical. He is known for his operas, especially those defining musical modernism and expressionism – Salome and Electra – or later, neoclassical operas like Der Rosenkavalier or Ariadne auf Naxos. But he owes his fame to the cycle of 10 symphonic poems he wrote earlier in neo-romantic style. Although many Strauss orchestral works look as inconsistent, in the form of tone poem he found his vocation.
   The cycle of Strauss’ tone poems is the culmination in the romantic development of this form. Sixth tone poem by Richard Strauss called Also sprach Zarathustra op. 30 (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is the work of deep intellectual program, considered to be the example of the philosophical type of tone poem. Starting with prologue Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise) which is probably most famous fanfare in the history of symphonic music, and premiered in 1896 Also sprach Zarathustra is one of most famous tone poems ever composed. This popularity was not automatic, for decades this has a fame of hard to understand, uneasy listening. The starting fanfare and whole work became instant hit after Stanley Kubrick used fragment of this poem in soundtrack to his famous movie. After success of 2001: A Space Odyssey in public imagination this music has inextricably bounded with space representations.

Fritz Reiner – Strauss – Also sprach Zarathustra (1954)

   Question of philosophical program presented in this poem is not really solved. Subtitled as “freely composed after Friedrich Nietzsche” was classified as philosophical tone poem. But this was not quite justified. According to Richard Strauss own explanation, the composition was musical apotheosis of human development from its beginnings, through religious and scientific stages, to the moment of awaited overcome, liberation and raise of superman as in Nietzsche’s original. Composer also defined this poem as a musical homage to the great philosopher. In some fragments it is purely late romantic in melodic style and in emotional involvement, but Sonnenaufgang is already modern, overcoming the limitations of existing style. Organ pedal note C subcontra in unison with double basses and contrabassoon has its continuation in overtone three-note motiv C-G-C played by brass interrupted with timpani. Explained as the nature-motiv this characteristic and very powerfull idea became iconic in last decades of 20th century.

Fritz Reiner – Chicago Symph. Orch. – Also sprach Zarathustra (1954)

   Fritz Reiner recorded Also sprach Zarathustra three times, twice with Chicago Symphony Orchestra and once with Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 1956. He was entitled Richard Strauss friend from time they work together in Staatsoper Dresden in the beginnings of his career. He recorded also with Vienna Philharmonic two other Strauss’ tone poems: Death and Transfiguration and Till Eulenspiegel and with Chicago Symphony Orchestra Ein Heldenleben, Burleske and musical dramas Salome and Electra. After he took the post of the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, March 8th, 1954 he recorded Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra for RCA Victor for the first time in stereo. Released the same year record was one of the first RCA’s “sound spectaculars” and became praised as triumph of arts and science. Next recording was made in 1961 and with new technics of sound engineering.
   The performance of 1954 was pressed by RCA Victor Red Seal and coupled together with recorded two days earlier recording of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben op. 40 (registered in stereo March 6th, 1954) published in RCA Red Seal or with outstanding Don Juan op. 20 performance from (December 6th, 1954) published under Victrola label. The sound of the orchestra is alive and intense. Solo violin parts were played with perfection by John Weicher, the concertmaster of Chicago Symphony. Whole interpretation is melodious, but the levels of singing and dancing inspiration in fragment called Das Tanzlied breaks all the convenances. Conductor showed here this kind of proximity only personal friendship with composer can justify. And as emotional effect in this performance is congenial, Library of Congress has selected this famous recording to the National Recording Registry of historic recordings.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Jesse Sykes – Like, Love, Lust & The Open Halls of the Soul

   Folk rock has always been a niche genre, existing somewhere between straight rock and purely folk oriented projects. For some utilitarian reasons folk music was always better in connection with narrative songs like ballads or chanson. The equilibrium is the point occupied by some greatest personalities like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and others. Around them exists the whole spectrum of various bands from blues rock to country rock and from psychedelic to contemporary Christian music. Connections between them can be really strange, and sometimes this is the best way to achieve traditionally involved but still creative effect.
   One of such artists undoubtedly is Jesse Sykes known together with the band as Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter. The leader, Jesse Sykes, a singer and songwriter from Seattle is one of most interesting personalities in modern folk scene. She is the author of lyrics and music for most of the repertoire of the band. These are some purely poetic songs she sings with characteristic, deep voice. Probably this is the kind of singing that gave her the position of alternative country performer. And the best album in their discography is published Like, Love, Lust & The Open Halls of the Soul published by Southern Lord in 2007.

Jesse Sykes – Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul (2007)

   Considering artistic qualities of their records, especially this double LP album, it’s not easy to understand why Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter are virtually not known worldwide. Maybe the only Americana the rest of the world can accept are these iconic phenomena who are really override the circulation of the music scene. Singing with slightly husky voice, building distanced performances Jesse Sykes is still an artist waiting to be disclosed. Poetic, sometimes psychedelic lyrics she writes are clear visions of the individual and common issues. Thank to these features Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter are a brilliant example of crossover between psychedelic rock, folk rock and alternative country.

Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter – Like, Love, Lust

   Jesse Sykes has this kind of enchanting personality making every lecture a strong emotional experience, she sings with outstripped but expressive voice, sometimes reaching almost a whispering cry but never unambiguous, not explicit but clear. The second pillar of The Sweet Hereafter is guitarist Phil Wandscher who is also coauthoring with Jesse Sykes some songs. He is guitarist of great perfection and powerful sound. Musicians of the band are also Anne Marie Ruljancich, playing viola and singing, bassist Bill Herzog, drummer Eric Eagle and more than a dozen of other session musicians – between them one can find Wayne Horvitz playing Hammond B-3 on Like, Love, Lust and How Will We Know? There is also a choir of more than dozen voices in The Air Is Thin.

*   *   *

   I have to admit, when I put the heavy vanilla record on my turntable for the first time, I was just spellbound – with colors, with sound, with words, with softness and intensity of these songs. Few years later the charm still works and I am still deeply impressed. Everything here is natural and meaningful. And this is something what is giving Jesse Sykes’ songs this chilling factor. The songs of happiness and fears, poems about love and parting, words of wisdom and desire are a constant and natural motives in all cultures. Good metaphors are crossing the borders, becoming a universal vehicle for human thoughts and emotions. Is this starting or finishing point? There is no absolute answer for this question, maybe the child that follows us on that shadowless drive beneath the empty sky will help. Surely I hope it will.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Pete Seeger – We Shall Overcome

   Several times in human history, music engaged in the course of history especially in its turning points. Generally, it happened in many cases and different circumstances, but folk was the most engaged genre of all musical culture. Only a part of folk song is deeply engaged in social or political criticism, but in some occasions the protest song looks as the most significant part of whole folk music. One who was always associated with this part of musical culture, the one who was evoking anti establishment rebellion was Pete Seeger – the iconic person for many decades of American culture. Born in 1919 New York City Peter “Pete” Seeger (now he is 93 years old) is one of key figures of independent art movement and folk song. His lyrics and writings have been always strongly involved in politics and social issues.
   He started his musical carrier in 1940’s and shortly became well recognized person as a singer of popular folk tunes and member of The Weavers. He was probably first American folk musician with academic foundations, his father Charles Louis Seeger, Jr. was musicologist and founder of ethnomusicology, so he grew up in an environment that doesn't restrict his intellectual and emotional development with stereotyped approach to cultural and social issues. In 1950’s during McCarthyism he was blacklisted as other members of The Weavers. In early 60’s his version of We Shall Overcome became the anthem of American Civil Rights Movement. In fact, he was the one who changed original spiritual title line “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome” and popularized it as the anthem of all civil rights protesters. Pete Seeger is a legend of American folk music, connecting old masters Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie with modern folk stars like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and many others.

Pete Seeger – We Shall Overcome (1963) 

   The CBS album shows the atmosphere of cultural and political rebellion in 60’s. Recorded live June 8, 1963 in Carnegie Hall We Shall Overcome is the document of the era and nice example of deep interaction with audience. It provides the substantial characteristics of folk music, the perfect connection between lyrics, melody and performance, merging them into one message and fast and sincere reaction for songs. So Pete Seeger is never alone, he performs as a soloist but with strongly and expressly perceptible presence of the audience. He sings some classical protest songs combined with satire and social criticism. Some of them became famous for decades. Two classical songs by Bob Dylan Who Killed Davey Moore and A Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall, Woody Guthrie’s Mail Myself to You and Malvina Reynolds’ Little Boxes are only few examples of Seeger’s repertoire. Straight political sense is having Guantanamera forwarded by Pete Seeger with clear message or We Shall Overcome performed at the end of the program with audience choir.

That's What I Learned, Little Boxes, Who Killed Norma Jean... 

   The history of folk music is more social history than the history of the artistic solutions. Technical changes are natural part of this process but never run without social change. Since country musicians wandering from house to house, to bands with electric amplifiers playing for big audiences and later going back to acoustic instruments pretending to be traditional in satellite TV or in internet – every technology changes social behavior. Slow train is coming with all the seats occupied. On the other hand, folk music was always the root for many musical genres and the deepest well for great personalities and intellectual inspirations. And trying to bring together these perspectives, one have to admit every remembered and lost names, works, ideas interweave into whole music past, which should be seen as one of dimensions in all human history.