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.

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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.

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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.

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Happy Groundheifetz Day!

All children know that February 2 is the day that the Groundheifetz emerges from his burrow, and…

Well, as I said, everybody knows that.

I had a visceral bad reaction to most of the famous RCA stereo releases—on both sound and interpretative grounds—however, some of his early mono work is actually quite relaxed, and very musical (as well as collegial). Of that era, his Glazounov Concerto with Barbirolli and the LPO stands out.

So, Happy Birthday to a cultural icon—one whose name (as is the case with Einstein’s) is also a common noun.

As in, “He’s no Heifetz.”

Click the jump link for a 1949 Pabst Blue Ribbon magazine beer ad with Heifetz as a celebrity endorser. Continue Reading →

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!

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(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.

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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.

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David Leisner: J.S. Bach, Chaconne from solo-violin Partita No. 2 in d

My most recent Music-Video Friday feature was Hélène Grimaud’s live performance of Busoni’s Chaconne for Piano in D minor (after J.S. Bach). I expect no argument when I say that that piece was as much about Busoni as it was about Bach; and further, that Ms. Grimaud’s scintillating performance was more at home in the musical world of the Europe of 1890, than of 1720.

I last covered a David Leisner recording here (a program with cellist Zuill Bailey). David Leisner is a magnificent guitarist, as well as a composer of great feeling and integrity.

#Humblebrag: I played a large role in the production of the première recording (for a label other than JMR) of Leisner’s Sonata for Violin and Guitar, including suggesting a transcription of a Handel sonata for violin and keyboard as the opening piece, and writing the liner notes. I was tickled for us all when Stereophile magazine (this predated my employment there) designated that recording as a Recording of the Month. Continue Reading →