(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 →

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).

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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 →

Anita O’Day: Live at the Newport Jazz Festival 1958

Anita O’Day’s stage surname was Pig Latin for “Dough.” As in money, in that O’Day was always looking for it.

When I mentioned this factoid (factoid in the sense of true, but trivial) to my musically-astute friend, she cracked up, thinking that I meant the musical solfège syllable “Do,” as in “Do-re-mi, etc.” Well, that would have been wearing an insult as a badge of honor… . But, as one can discern from this segment from the documentary film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, O’Day had no trouble finding “Do.”

Dough, however, was another story, in that O’Day was a heroin addict. Heroin use very well might have contributed to this exuberant, bordering on manic, performance.

More, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Andris Nelsons, Lucerne Festival Orchestra – Lucerne Festival 2015 – Gustav Mahler

Wowzers. Gloriosky. Woober joobers. And any other archaic expressions of juvenile wonderment that in former days I would sprinkle into my Stereophile magazine columns for my own and John Atkinson’s amusement. This brief YouTube clip begins with baritone Matthias Goerne, really pulling the taffy of the middle section of one of Des Knaben Wunderhorn‘s most yearning songs, “Urlicht.” There is then a jump cut to a spectacularly energetic excerpt from Mahler’s Fifth. The teaser makes me want to acquire the DVD (Accentus 20354), and makes me even more wish that I had been in the audience at Lucerne in summer 2015 to hear Andris Nelsons conduct an all-Mahler program, cleverly arranged to culminate in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Because Mahler started writing that symphony using themes from a Wunderhorn song, “Der Tamboursg’sell.”

DVD boxshot and more musings, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Gordon Lightfoot “Talking In Your Sleep” BBC Live In Concert (1972)

Gordon Meredith Lightfoot (born 1938) is most often remembered for his improbable 1976 US #2 hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” even though the bad-romance song “Sundown” was his only US #1-charting single.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was inspired by a Newsweek item Lightfoot saw by chance while on tour about the loss of an iron-ore freighter in a severe storm on Lake Superior, with the loss of 29 lives. “Sundown” was about a bad-news girlfriend Lightfoot had the good luck to break up with: she later administered the fatal overdose to John Belushi.

Continue Reading →

Matt Monro: “On Days Like These” from “The Italian Job” (1969)

Matt Monro’s opening-credit song from the 1969 Michael Caine caper movie The Italian Job is a fine job of singing from a pop-music baritone who is almost unknown in the US, but whose recordings can withstand comparison with any of the Broadway-musical baritones of the older generation.

Monro (birth name Terence Edward Parsons) to my knowledge never sang on Broadway, but he regularly made hay during the 1960s in movie soundtracks—not only The Italian Job but also the James Bond series’ From Russia With Love (1963), and the title song from Born Free (1966).

The opening-credit song from The Italian Job (“On Days Like These”) is surprisingly sophisticated from a musical standpoint, given that the movie is about car chases, car crashes, and various forms of sexual innuendo and other low humor. Quincy Jones composed the music; Don Black (at that time or later, Munro’s manager) wrote the words. George Martin produced Monro’s recording.

The music is I think something that Gabriel Fauré might have thought twice about, before tossing out the manuscript paper it was written on—especially Jones’ stepwise chromaticism on the phrase “while your eyes played games with mine.” (Chromaticism, by the way, is simply a convenient technical term for employing notes not usually found in a piece or section’s home-key scale, in order to add more tonal color and interest.)

Long before there was a loosely-based sequel, The Italian Job remained famous for its profligate waste of stunt cars—cars that later on would be recognized as irreplaceable. However, viewing The Italian Job from a 21st-century perspective, there are so many jarring or cringe-inducing moments that one is tempted to say (just as is the case with the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s) that the soundtrack was the best thing.

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