Julian Bream (who died today, age 87, in Wiltshire, England) grew up in a musical household, and certainly made the most of it. His father, a commercial artist, was a jazz guitarist who also played the piano. As a child, the young Julian would sit by the radio, trying to strum along on his father’s guitar. Lessons followed on both guitar and piano. Winning a piano competition at age 12 gave Julian entry into the Royal College of Music. He made his début recital on the guitar at age 13, and made his Wigmore Hall début at age 17. His father bought him a lute, which he taught himself to play. In 1960, he founded an original-instruments group with himself as lutenist, bringing Elizabethan music to widespread public awareness. England’s most important composers, Benjamin Britten, Sir William Walton, and Sir Michael Tippett wrote pieces for him, as did dozens of other composers.
Here he is in a video from 2003 (I believe), playing the penultimate and final movements of Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland. Britten’s Nocturnal is not so much a set of variations as an 18-minute reconstruction of a deconstructed “Come, Heavy Sleep,” by John Dowland.
In sharp contrast to the usual variation sets that start with the melody and get more complicated as they go on, Britten inverted that agenda. The piece starts with the variation most remote in character; each successive variation is closer to the original tune, and the work ends with Dowland’s original lute song (which was published in 1597). So, here we have the final variation, and then the statement of the melody.
There were giants in the earth in those days…
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“Well, the Welsh do sing, do they not?” I murmured to myself, upon starting to listen to this rather astonishing performance. And when he got to the embellished repeats… I was not speechless!
The YouTube identifies the young “treble” (here in the US, we say “boy soprano”) Cai Thomas as Welsh; and, as far as I know, Cai is a very Welsh given name; but he appears to live in Surrey. He started singing in a local church choir at age seven; at age 12, a Kickstarter campaign made Cai’s début CD possible.
I first learned of Cai from classical-music publicist Sarah Folger, who sent me an email about an Arvo Pärt single-track release (“Vater unser,” Arvo Pärt’s setting of the “Our Father”) that was recorded under pandemic lockdown conditions, with Cai in the UK, and pianist Julien Brocal in Brussels.
More on the Handel aria, and on the Pärt piece, after the jump. Continue Reading →
The Berlin Philharmonic has just made a really classy move: in view of the coronavirus pandemic, they have removed the paywall on their archived content. To put it another way, you can now binge-watch exceptional classical music performances for free.
While hunkering down under the electric blanket and waiting for the wine-store delivery person to arrive, one could do far worse in terms of internet browsing than to dive deeply into Gustav Mahler’s “Tragic” Sixth symphony. The orchestral playing is fabulous, and the sound quality is very very good. I was very pleased to see that Kirill Petrenko had opted for the authentic order of the inner movements; slow movement second, scherzo third. That performance was recorded January 25, 2020. More recommendations after the jump, as well as at least one comment. Continue Reading →
There are times when I think that a music-business story is “too good to fact-check,” and this is one of them. Young counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński agreed to substitute for an ensemble that could not appear for what Orliński believed would be the radio-only live broadcast of an outdoor afternoon concert in the south of France. The New Yorker picks up the story (after mentioning that Orliński was, on the day of the concert, nursing a mild hangover):
Orliński put on baggy shorts and beat-up sneakers, and rolled up the sleeves of a crumpled tattersall shirt: this was radio, after all, and it was ninety degrees outside. Only when he and his pianist, Alphonse Cémin, who was in shorts and flip-flops, arrived at the recording venue—a courtyard with a small audience—did they learn that the performance was also to be streamed on Facebook Live. It was too late for Orliński to change clothes, and so he sang just as he was—unshaved, and dressed as if ready for a day of sleeping it off under the Provençal plane trees.
This is obviously a superb job of singing; the YouTube view count of 4.7 million views is something I find very heartening. That’s in part because counter-tenors are in a way like harpsichords. In both cases, at times there seems to be a parity between the numbers of people who can enjoy the sound, and those who feel compelled to flee from it. And in that regard, I would have preferred a Baroque continuo rather than a Steinway grand (Vivaldi’s opera dates from 1724), but the piano accompaniment is very sensitive. And one must keep in mind that Orliński was substituting on less than 24 hours’ notice. (I do crack up every time I see the “page turner” reach up and touch the iPad.) Also, for an outdoor concert, what a lovely recording job! More, after the jump.
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Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere” (Have mercy on me, Lord) is one of the most famous pieces of Late-Renaissance polyphonic a cappella choral music. Either despite or perhaps because of its difficulty, it is also one of the most frequently-recorded pieces of sacred music. The linked-to Wiki gives an excellent overview, so I encourage you to read it. In an interesting historical synchronicity, the most often-cited date for Allegri’s composition of the “Miserere” is 1638, the same year in which Roger Williams (the English lawyer and divine; not the 1950s-1960s lounge pianist) co-founded The First Baptist Church in America. Which was about as distant as one could get (at least within European civilization) from the creation of the “Miserere,” both geographically and culturally.
Another famous synchronicity or at least connection is that while on a tour of Italy, the 14-year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited the Vatican and heard the “Miserere” on a Wednesday and wrote it down from memory. He returned on Friday to check his work. Given that the “Miserere” had been the “secret piece” of the Sistine Chapel choir, one might have feared for the young Mozart. But, in the event, Pope Clement XIV was a good sport about it, later summoning Mozart to receive the Order of the Golden Spur. It is through the young Mozart’s sharing his work with colleagues that the piece became known throughout Europe; Liszt and Mendelssohn both transcribed it.
There is no shortage of very good performances of this work, and quite a few great performances. I am posting this particular video because it is (by far) the best performance video I have seen; indeed, it is slugged as “A Film by Jon Coates.” The singing is truly extraordinary. However, the pedant within me wishes to point out that in view of what I call “Musical Pitch Inflation” over the past 400 years, I think the consensus of scholars today is that the actual pitch that the solo singer in Mozart’s time sang at the climaxes would, on a modern piano, be a High B, not a High C. And I for one would have no problem with an historically pitch-correct performance.
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This YouTube music video has been viewed more than 5 million times (and there have been more than 3,500 comments posted), both of which indicate that people find that this music engages their emotions to a remarkable extent. Of course, I am speaking in the context of a genre (sacred classical music) that is a subset of a genre (classical music) that is, at best, a minority enthusiasm. What is classical music’s market share today? One source pegs classical’s share of “total music album consumption” (whatever that is) for the year 2018 at (drum roll, please): 1%.
In stark contrast, US rock band One Republic’s official YouTube music video for their single “Counting Stars” has had 2.8 BILLION views. Sigh.
I refuse to take heart from the fact that there is a genre that is even less popular than classical music, in part because that poor tattered remnant is what is left of New Age. Point five of one percent (0.5%)! But I am sure that the music on the above video would warm many a New Age heart. I have previously written and said, many times, that Renaissance Polyphony was the original “New Age” music. (I know—the above is not from the Renaissance, and also it doesn’t really contain much in the way of polyphony—what’s going on is more like slow-moving harmonies; but the spirit is the same.)
I think that there are many well-known composers (but of course there are also many exceptions to this little rule of mine) whose best-known work or works are not representative of the majority of their output. Furthermore, I believe that the better-known the most famous work is, the more likely is the case that the famous work doesn’t provide a ghost of a clue to the greatness of that composer’s best works. The poster child for this syndrome (of course) is poor Maurice Ravel, whose Bolero is… what it is… . That said, listening to Bolero, you would never guess that the same guy could write all of Le tombeau de Couperin; Miroirs; Daphnis et Chloé Suite no. 2; and Ravel’s String Quartet.
The same goes for Edward Elgar. “Land of Hope and Glory” is the soundtrack to a kindergarten “graduation” from a Peanuts animated special, which I think is a sly allusion to the number of “real” graduations where it can be heard. But nowhere in evidence in “Land of Hope and Glory” is the greatness of Elgar’s cello concerto, or his violin concerto, or his two symphonies. To say nothing of The Dream of Gerontius.
By now you might have guessed where I have been going with this. Tchaikovsky’s Overture “1812”—and The Nutcracker—almost everyone has to agree, don’t sound like they came from the pen of the chap who wrote the music in the video above. In Tchaikovsky’s “Hymn of the Cherubim” there is no bombast and no sugary cuteness. The entire Liturgy is worth your hearing it. After the jump, I will tell you what I have been able to learn about the recording on this video, and offer buying (or streaming suggestions). Continue Reading →
I remember when The Left Banke’s one-hit-of-wonder-ness “Walk Away Renée” was all over AM radio in the summer of 1966 (peaking at No. 5).
Featuring a classical string quartet (two violins, a viola, and a cello), a harpsichord, and an alto-flute solo on the bridge, it’s fair to say that “Walk Away Renée” sounded like nothing else on the charts at that time. To put this song into its contemporary context, the Beatles’ US television appearances on the Ed Sullivan show had been in February of 1964. So, by June 1966, the “British Invasion” (of the US music industry) was in full swing.
Silly me; until I recently began researching, I had assumed that the members of the group The Left Banke were British. (Because of the fey or twee spelling of “Bank” as well as their mop-top hair and “mod” clothing… .) However, it turns out that they were New Yorkers.
“Walk Away Renée” interests me for at least three reasons. One, it fits into my continued ruminations on the “Paradoxical Pleasure” of listening to sad songs. Secondly, “Walk Away Renée” was one of the first hit songs in the “Baroque Pop” genre. Thirdly, ten years later (in 1976), “Walk Away Renée” inspired a rock song that still gets lots of airplay today. (More on that in due course.)
There have been cover versions of “Walk Away Renée” recorded by The Four Tops, Southside Johnny, Rickie Lee Jones, Herman’s Hermits, Marshall Crenshaw, Sylvie Vartan, Vonda Shepherd, Badly Drawn Boy, Billy Bragg, and Ann Savoy with Linda Ronstadt. Rolling Stone, the L’Osservatore Romano of the rock era, declared “Walk Away Renée” to be the 220th “Greatest Song of All Time.” Pretty good for a rather small-scale song principally written by “Mike Brown,” a very lovesick 16-year old.
More after the jump.
Here’s an opportunity to celebrate excellence in various disciplines, and the greatness of the human spirit!
Every now and then I stumble upon a musical performance that just fills me with so much joy, and then I hasten to pass the word on. What a talented young lady, and what a talented mother she has! Before watching this, I would have wagered that the phrase “sensitive bass-trombone playing” included a contradiction in terms; but what a pleasure to be proven wrong.
Here, Rita Payés sings (in Portuguese) and plays trombone, while her mother Elisabeth Roma does a sterling job of accompanying on classical guitar the 1966 Bossa Nova song “A Rita.” “A Rita” is a break-up song that was on singer Francisco “Chico” Buarque de Hollanda’s first LP. Chico’s sister Heloísa Maria Buarque de Hollanda, BTW, married João Gilberto. She made her recording début on the (criminally underappreciated) Stan Getz/João Gilberto LP from 1976 The Best of Two Worlds. BTW2, the charming family name Buarque de Hollanda (I believe) means “Dutch Boat.”
BTW3, all praise and honors to the technical crew on this music video. The sound is pristine–whoever placed the microphone to capture the sound from the back of the trombone bell certainly knew what he or she was about. A spot mic pointed inside the bell would have been a disaster. No editing, no autotune, 100% organic—WNTL? (What’s Not to Love?)
Ms. Payés has an eye-wateringly expensive DSD-only SACD out (Amazon’s price is $64.99, but there are a few CDs left on eBay). Will somebody please fill the right people in on hi-res downloads, please? That outing includes Rhode Island native Scott Hamilton. Circa 1976 I heard him at Joe’s Upstairs in downtown Providence. Scott’s band back then was called the Hamilton-Bates Blue Flames. I’ve never heard any Scott Hamilton project that was less than inspired, so I hope that wider circulation can be made possible.
In the meantime, please spread the word about this perfect little YouTube!
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EDIT AND APOLOGY: I goofed in reading too quickly and getting the idea that the eBay items were SACDs also. THEY ARE CDs. I wanted to get the blog post up quickly, and I made a mistake, and I apologize! I have changed the text above.
UPDATE: Acoustic Sounds now has the DSD-only SACD for $39.98. I have changed the link above to Acoustic Sounds, and here it is again.
The musical form I had the most commercial success in (as a classical-music record producer and label owner), was the string quartet. Granted, my remarkably successful string-quartet recordings consisted of quartet arrangements of sacred and traditional Christmas music. But those recordings are a lot more “classical” in character than “crossover” in character. In other words, no Frosty and no Rudolph. My three original JMR Arturo Delmoni & Friends Rejoice! A String Quartet Christmas CDs have been reissued by Steinway & Sons Recordings as a 3-CD set.
Whatever happens to me from here on out, evidence of my devotion to the string-quartet form will live on. That’s because I am the dedicatee of Morten Lauridsen’s (to-date) sole work in that genre, a transcription for string quartet of his chamber-choir chanson “Contre Qui, Rose.” “Contre Qui, Rose” is one of Lauridsen’s settings of Rainer Maria Rilke’s French-language poems. Lauridsen chose among the Rilke poems that mentioned roses for his 1993 cycle Les Chansons des Roses. The story continues after the jump link. Continue Reading →
Congratulations to Fedor Rudin! The Vienna State Opera has appointed him to fill one of their vacant co-concertmaster positions. I am tempted to say “Even better” that in parallel with that, he will be on probation for two years as an (I assume co-) concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic. (So, yes, I have a slight bias in favor of symphonic music.) But being a concertmaster of one of the world’s great opera companies is not small potatoes; and come to think of it, neither is being a concertmaster of one of the world’s great ballet companies (as is Arturo Delmoni, of the New York City Ballet).
Readers with long memories may recall that I published a guest editorial taking the Indianapolis Violin Competition to task for giving prizes to violinists who “played like competition winners.” Mr. Rudin’s selections by one of the world’s top opera companies and by one of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras makes me feel validated that I published an opinion piece that singled him out as someone who was unfairly denied advancement to the Final round.
So here we have a video clip from four years ago of Mr. Rudin playing Paganini’s legendarily difficult fifth Caprice, with a degree of smoothness I find rather mind-boggling. Interesting cultural note: Paganini’s fifth Caprice is beloved of “shred” guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen.
After the jump there are images from a public-domain score of the sheet music for Paganini’s Caprice No. 5. Continue Reading →