Sir Colin Davis: “Nimrod” from “Enigma Variations” (Elgar)

I am working on reviews of new-ish recordings of Edward Elgar’s two published symphonies, so, this video of Sir Colin Davis with an unidentified orchestra playing the slow variation from the “Enigma” Variations is timely. (My guess as to the identity of the orchestra is that it is the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, judging by the façade pipes of the organ. I also deduce that the movement was played as an encore… .) I was privileged to hear Davis conduct Elgar’s masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius twice, twenty-five years apart, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There is no question that Davis was one of the most important Elgar conductors of the modern era. His live “Enigma” Variations recording with the London Symphony is available on SACD for only $14.99; the CD is $9.99. The “Enigma” Variations is one of those pieces that should be part of everyone’s cultural awareness.

# # #

Sara Mingardo, Andris Nelsons, Lucerne Festival Orchestra: Brahms, Alto Rhapsody

Johannes Brahms’ Op. 53 Alto Rhapsody (1869) for female solo voice, male chorus, and orchestra neatly divides into three parts: Yearning, Striving, and Imploring Divine Aid.

Brahms wrote the Alto Rhapsody as a wedding present for Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter Julie. One cannot help but think that Brahms chose Goethe’s craggy text as a self-portrait hiding a declaration of love.

The Alto Rhapsody has always been very well-represented on recordings. My fave rave is Dagmar Pecková with Jirí Belohlávek and the Prague Philharmonia, in a 2-CD set that includes some very fine Wagner and Mahler. Above we have a very fine version featuring Italian contralto Sara Mingardo with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and (surprise, surprise) Andris Nelsons, rounding out our unofficial Andris Nelsons Brahms week here at The Tannhäuser Gate. This video is from a concert that includes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Serenade No. 2. The DVD is here and the Blu-Ray here.

# # #

The John Mayer Trio: “Axis: Bold as Love” (Jimi Hendrix)

I am a bit of two minds about this video. I’ve had a positive impression of John Mayer ever since I happened across his Room for Squares CD (Sony CK 85293), which I wrote about in Stereophile in 2003, thusly:

Rock singer-songwriter-guitarist Mayer is often compared to Dave Matthews, but for me
his combination of bedevilment over the fair sex, wry wordplay, smooth arrangements,
and low-key vocal delivery strongly calls to mind Michael Franks’ early work.

So, I start out predisposed to whatever John Mayer feels like doing at any time–even though I have not been wowed by all of it. Therefore, to hear him in the “Rock Power Trio” format with totally committed bass player and drummer is good, and to hear them cover one of Jimi Hendrix’ strongest self-penned numbers is even better. Continue Reading →

Keith Jarrett Trio “My Funny Valentine” (Rodgers and Hart)

According to pop-song authority Mark Steyn, there exist more than 100 recordings of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine“—by Chet Baker. Baker recorded the song as a trumpeter with Gerry Mulligan in 1952, re-recording it as a vocalist in 1954, a breakthrough performance that has been widely anthologized. I gather that for the remainder of Baker’s checkered career, audiences continued to demand it, because his last recording of it was in 1985.

The 1937 musical Babes in Arms (set in the imaginary town of Seaport, Rhode Island) is famous not only for “Valentine” (the name of the male romantic interest the song is sung to) but also the standards “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Where or When.” Less well known but equally significant is that the show included a “dream ballet” by George Balanchine.

The song starts in C minor, and in emotional tone is both pensive and a bit anxious. The girl knows that her guy is a bit of a ditz, but the idea of losing him upsets her no end—the climax comes on the words “Stay, Valentine, stay.” Standout versions include those by Anita O’Day; Miles Davis; and Bill Evans with Jim Hall. And, of course, Keith Jarrett, here with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock.

# # #

Gilad Hekselman Trio: “Eyes To See” (Hekselman)

I last featured Gilad Hekselman in some lovely electric-guitar J.S. Bach. Here he is now in a trio (Gilad Hekselman – guitar; Joe Martin – bass; Marcus Gilmore – drums; and special guest Jeff Ballard – drums), in a pensive modern mood, shot in pensive black-and-white. No need for much commentary from me; the lovely music making speaks for itself.

Gilad’s album Homes is here. Just buy it!

# # #

(A James Dean slideshow over) Thomas Stewart, “Wotan’s Farewell” from Die Walküre, Act 3 (von Karajan, 1967)

Richard Wagner is certainly a problematic character, historically, musically, and ethically. The short answer is that bad (or at least morally compromised) people can make great art. Wagner’s stated aim was to destroy the established order and to transform established social relationships. (That’s why Wagner’s personal behavior often involved sexual betrayals.) Wagner himself wrote:

I will destroy each phantom that has rule o’er men. I will destroy the dominion of one over many,
of the dead o’er the living, of matter over spirit; I will break the power of the mighty, of law, of property.

— (Richard Wagner: “The Revolution.” Printed in Volksblätter No. 14, Dresden, Sunday April 8, 1849.)

Ironically enough, Wagner’s stunning success as a composer of music dramas was quite dependent upon the generosity of the newly rich (who craved the social prestige that came from being associated with a celebrated composer), and later, the patronage of the nobility. So much for overthrowing the established order—at least in the real world. Continue Reading →

Morten Lauridsen, “O Magnum Mysterium” (Kings College Choir)

Not all the great music has already been written. Nor is it the case that in order to be great, music must have been written more than 100 years ago. A prime example is Morten Lauridsen’s Nativity motet “O Magnum Mysterium.” Yes, the overall style pays tribute to historical forms; but, there is a ray of modern light, as the composer explains here.

Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” is one of the most oft-performed classical compositions of the 20th century. The reasons why should become obvious upon listening.

Wishing all a Merry Christmas.

# # #

Gilad Hekselman: J.S. Bach, Invention No. 4

Hmm, I seem to be in a bit of a Bach groove, with my last couple of Music-Video Friday posts (here, and here).

From far out in left field, or at least, from NYC, here’s Israeli jazz-guitar virtuoso Gilad Hekselman, playing what appears to be a free transcription of J.S. Bach’s Two-Part Invention No. 4, BWV 775, in the violinistic key of D-minor. I say free transcription, because I think that, having to play both parts with only open strings or the frets reachable from one position at a time, he did not have available two extra fingers to play the long trill you might remember from the legendary Glenn Gould piano recording. I particularly like his non-frenetic tempo, and restrained dynamics. Gilad Hekselman‘s website is here.

# # #

Hélène Grimaud: Busoni, Chaconne for Piano in D minor (after J.S. Bach)

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a series of six works for solo violin. Three are sonatas. “Sonata” is a technical term that in its largest sense simply means a piece of music meant to be played rather than sung. The other three solo-violin works are partitas, which means that they are made up of parts or movements, usually dance forms.

Bach’s second solo-violin partita’s final movement, a set of variations on a bass line called a Chaconne, is as long as the other four put together. Early on, Bach’s solo-violin Chaconne took on a life of its own, both for being played (at times) without the other four movements, and in various transcriptions and arrangements.

Arrangements or transcriptions exist for orchestra, piano, organ, guitar, cello, and saxophone quartet. Ferruccio Busoni‘s version really amounts to a major re-working of the piece in an overheated fin-de-siècle keyboard-virtuoso aesthetic. The good news is that the architectural structure of the solo-violin piece is substantial enough and resilient enough that the result is musically valid—at least for most of us.

Here’s high-energy Hélène Grimaud in an electrifying live version. To cite just one example, the arpeggio variation that starts at about 6:04 is a marvel of precision and clarity. Arkivmusic.com lists recordings by 36 pianists. So if Ms. Grimaud is a bit too out there for you, there are lots of choices. If I had to choose one and only one, it would be one of Shura Cherkassky’s: either the historical EMI one (circa 1956), or the autumnal Nimbus one (1987).

# # #

Hansi Hinterseer – Hände zum Himmel

(Note: I guess this will have to serve as my belated Oktoberfest post.) Hans “Hansi” Hinterseer (born 2 February 1954) is an Austrian singer, actor, entertainer, and former alpine skier. In 1973 he won the overall giant slalom contest at the 1973 Alpine Skiing World Cup. He also won the silver medal at the world championship in 1974, and participated at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck.

Starting in 1994, Hinterseer reinvented himself as a singer in the Schlager genre. Schlager really has no exact translation in English… . It literally means “hits,” but the musical context is, not to put too fine a point on it, a backlash against the post-WWII inundation of European culture first by jazz and then by rock and roll. (Hardly the first, let alone the most, arguable assertion I have made over the past three decades!) Therefore, angst and rebellion are out, and homecoziness und romanze are in.

The above is Hansi & Co. singing and jumping around to what appears to be an inspirational song, and one must agree that the huge live audience appears, um, inspired.

Click on the link for a brief encore of what appears to be traditional Tyrolean music!

Continue Reading →