Thursday, July 31, 2014

Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich perform Rachmaninoff and Glinka

   Song is definitely a cultural phenomenon. It unites poetry, music and performance in one clear economic form. It is more than just a communiqué, it is an exposure comprising human processes: emotional and intellectual, private and social, natural and cultural. Song is present since ancient times, throughout history, to the present day. There were special moments, when song in various forms became particularly important, like late mediaeval canson or early baroque accompanied monody. Song is especially significant as a medium of rebellion and protest. Artistic song was also probably most characteristic musical form of romantic era. In 19th century European culture poetry was probably more popular than ever before, and musical elaboration of poems took prominent place in many social events. No wonder almost every composer was trying his potential in songs, song cycles, small forms for voice or even instrumental miniatures constructed as songs.
   Russian composers were especially creative in this field which was the result of great romance tradition giving song special place in repertoire and in collective memory. Russian culture until XVIII century was developing in isolation. In consequence of religious and cultural differences, Russian music was almost impenetrable from West European positions. The first Russian composer who became internationally recognized was Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857). He become famous for his operatic works, especially A Life for the Tzar (1936 original title Ivan Susanin) Ruslan and Lyudmila (1942) after poem by Alexander Pushkin. He was also author of chamber and orchestral compositions, with most popular symphonic piece Kamarinskaya (1848) and two Spanish Overtures (1845 and 1851). He composed also numerous artistic songs to romantic poems by Alexander Pushkin, Nestor von Kukolnik, Friedrich von Schiller and Adam Mickiewicz.

Galina Vishnevskaya  Songs by Rachmaninov and Glinka (1976)

   Romantic era was the time of great rise of culture in imperial Russia. During the one century Russian composers gained rated positions and become leading power in late romantic period. One of late romantic composers was Sergei Rachmaninoff, composer and pianist famous mainly for his four piano concertos and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He is remembered as brilliant pianist and his works are often present in virtuoso piano recitals, especially Preludes. His works comprise three operas, three symphonies, two string quartets, and series of choral works, many of them liturgical. And maybe the biggest amount of his works are compositions for voice with piano with famous Vocalise Op. 34 No. 14 (1912). He was composing songs to great Russian poetry, to lyrics of Ivan Bunin, Alexander Pushkin, Yakov Polonsky and Fyodor Tyutchev.
   Both composers, Glinka and Rachmaninoff are great masters of artistic song, and this part of their work was the subject of frequent renditions. One of the best is Deutsche Grammophon album with the recital of songs written by two romantic composers. Chronologic order was reversed and five Rachmaninoff songs were placed in side A of the record: Ночь печальна (Night is Mournful) Op. 26 No. 12, Не пой красавица (Beauty, Don’t Sing Anymore) Op. 4 No. 4, Музыка (Music) Op. 34 No. 8, Весенная вода (Spring Waters) Op. 14 No. 11 and Вокализ (Vocalise) Op. 34 No. 14. B side comprises 8 songs by Glinka: Сомнение (Doubt), Я помню чудное мгновение (I Remember the Wonderful Moment), Как сладко с тобой мне быть (How Sweet is to Be with You), К ней (To Her), Только узнал я тебя (I Just Found You), Венецианская Ночь (Night in Venice), Жаворонок (The Lark) and Баркарола (Barcarolle). This album of songs by Mikhail Glinka and Sergei Rachmaninoff was recorded in 1976. It is beautiful presentation of two Russian artists, singer Galina Vishnevskaya and famous cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich who was also perfect pianist and sophisticated accompanist. Four stars for poetic and musical features of repertoire and for the quality of performance.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Return to Forever – Romantic Warrior

   Since jazz and rock were genres of music growing on conflict with official culture, artists were always referring to traditions different than accepted in establishment culture. While American rock ensembles were almost strictly connected to rhythm and blues roots, some were just duplicated rock and roll patterns, but numerous European bands and musicians were looking for inspiration in more specific tradition. Interesting concept was flourished in England, Italy and France. Many musicians playing popular songs, folk rock and progressive rock were experimenting with different folk traditions. It was natural many of them had found folk music sources in mediaeval culture. In fact connections between mediaeval traditions and folk culture were as common as deep. And of course it has different effect in popular and in more ambitious genres of music. Popular and progressive bands like Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, Yes, King Crimson were building clearly European sound and whole artistic means, totally different than Jimmy Hendrix, Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears or Santana.
   During jazz-rock revolution many jazz musicians playing fusion were looking for possibilities of using different folk patterns. While John McLaughlin and his bands Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti were exploring far East traditions, Weather Report was mixing electric jazz sound with South American rhythms and sounds, Return to Forever found mediaeval musical idioms as perfect basis for building their creative music. In fact there was nothing like this before. Already in Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy musicians were building elevated emotions, one could consider them as religious. This attitude set the trend leading to perfect realization in Romantic Warrior album. Chick Corea and Return to Forever become one of most respected artists of seventies and Romantic Warrior was sold in half million copies.

Return to Forever – Romantic Warrior (1976)

   What’s interesting, especially if we notice Romantic Warrior is Return to Forever’s sixth studio album, this album is again an original work. And the first one in band’s discography published by Columbia Records. Interesting fact is this was the first time “featuring Chick Corea” reference has been omitted. It was probably decision of Columbia Records trying to reinforce the position of the band. Maybe after first five records Return to Forever was too explicitly associated with Chick Corea and managers wanted to show it more as an independent group than yet another Corea’s project. This is probable idea considering fact, every member of the quartet has on this album his own composition. But most interesting quality of Romantic Warrior is creative use of some mediaeval ideas. Themes played in unison and modality are clearly taken from mediaeval music. Tempos and virtuosity also can evoke some elements of old dance music.
   Selected sounds of electronic instruments give the effect of mystery, a context in which even acoustic piano or guitar sound differently than usual. Chock Corea is playing whole collection of keyboards instruments, marimba and percussion instruments. Stanley Clarke plays bass, Al DiMeola guitars and Lenny White drums and set of percussion. It is extremely interesting how jazz-rock connected to mediaeval motifs can be universal. Good example are solos in composition by Lenny White Sorcerres. Although guitar solos have clear rock feeling Al DiMeola’s discipline is perfectly jazzying. The same with Chick Corea’s accoustic piano solo which is both classic and jazz and somehow pop music. This shows the greatness of Retrun to Forever. This album demands four and half stars. Why not five? Only because there are few other Corea’s album which deserve full grade.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Christoph Willibald Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice


   When Christoph Willibald Gluck was born, the 2nd of July in 1714, Europe was still in the state of war, but the clash of arms was heard mainly on peripheries of the continent. It was breakthrough year in Great Nothern War of Russian-Polish-Danish coalition against Swedish domination on Baltic Sea region. After long siege Barcelona was taken and Spanish Succession War was about to end. Republic of Venice isolated in newly established European balance has been attacked by Ottoman Empire in what was later called the Small War. The state of permanent variability was enhanced by rapid changes in science and technologies. Old habits and regimes were in permanent collision with new ideas and the progress in science and humanities. The conflicts in first half of 18th century were principally the echoes of global crisis in 17th century and the best solution was to clear oversized systems of the values and to start entirely new ideological standpoint. This situation has strong influence on creating the classical music, art of classicism, philosophy and science of the Enlightment era.
   In 18th century opera was one of well established musical forms, with more than a century of history. The moment opera started in 1600 marked the beginning of new era, but in fact it was not clearly baroque form. Conceptually opera was build entirely on renaissance idea of synthesis of arts, but in first century of its development new form was under strong effect of baroque culture. Many composers of opera and dramma per musica were making numerous concessions to singers’ vanity and audience’s expectations. This led to dramatic weakness and caricaturally changed proportions of various components of opera. Some baroque composers tried to restore the idea of balanced elements from various fields of art, but the one who made the first real reform of opera was Christoph Willibald Gluck. He subordinated music to drama and restored dominant position of dramatic effect obtained by play, music and every other element. Even overture had its dramatic function. He also reinforced the position of the choir, and reduced difference between arias and recitatives. 

Grace Bumbry, Václav Neumann – Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice (1966)

   Christoph Willibald Gluck was one of the greatest opera composers ever. Thank to collaboration with librettist Raniero de’Calzabigi he was able to create works showing this form in new light. After about two dozens of traditional operatic works in Italian style, in 1762 he produced first opera of new type Orfeo ed Euridice. After Viennese premiere his reforms were poorly received. Paris was more ready to break with tradition and the work was acclaimed. His next operas Alceste (1767) Paride et Elena (1770), Iphigénie en Aulide (1774), Armide (1777) and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) became successful realizations of new operatic esthetics. This reform decided opera was able to survive and be well in the era of Enlightenment. Gluck was recognized opera composer but his instrumental music never become popular, although nine symphonies and eight trio sonatas complement the picture of his creative possibilities. He was also composing sacred works even if he did it very rarely. His small portfolio of religious works comprises De profundis clamavi for choir and orchestra and lost Miserere.
   Later works give composer appreciation but 250 years later Orfeo ed Euridice is the most popular opera by Gluck. This work is transitional form between opera in Italian style and new trends. Maybe this is what makes the work so flexible. There are dozens of great performances on vinyl and on digital media. One of old but still very clear is 1966 recording made in Heilandskirche in Leipzig. Published under Eterna label but in cooperation with Electrola, during next years this recording was frequently republished in various countries. Perfectly sung by Grace Bumbry (Orfeo), Anneliese Rothenberger (Euridice) and Ruth-Margaret Pütz (Amore) with Rundfunkchor Leipzig and Gevandhausorchester Leipzig under direction by Václav Neumann, this is great recording. In fact it still sounds fresh, and after almost half of the century this is clear exposure of quality rendition.