This can serve for St. Valentine’s Day, and for President’s Day too!
Abraham Lincoln might have been a log-splitter who had been born in a log cabin; but, at some point in his adult life, Lincoln turned into a true opera lover. (Please remember, opera was what entertained people before movies came along.) In the month before he was murdered, Lincoln was at Ford’s Theater to hear Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (which had to have been sung in German, because there was no English-language performing version at the time).
More? Lincoln’s favorite opera was von Flotow’s Martha, which was performed as part of the festivities attending his second inauguration. Although German in language, Martha was French in style, with a setting and a plot entirely made up of English-Romantic story elements, such as the two bored upper-class girls who, on a lark, decide to enlist as hired servants. Yeah, right. Of course, one girl finds true love, fast. The upper-crusty beloved, of course, has agonies over his having fallen in love with a serving girl. But, how can our well-born heroine admit that she was an imposter? Or impostress?
Lincoln loved it. He most likely heard it in the original German, though Martha was such a wildfire hit that versions in French and Italian came quickly (with English a bit later). Even later, Enrico Caruso made parts of the Italian version popular hits on record from 1906 on.
More, after the jump. Continue Reading →
Letterpress art print © and courtesy of Zeichen Press.
The Gospel narrative doesn’t say that the number of wise men (or astrologers) from the East was three; that’s just an inference based upon the report that the Magis (however many of them there were) brought three gifts of gold, Frankincense, and myrrh.
Be that as it may, what has come down is a piously embellished story of three wise men, complete with names and capsule biographies.
So, to start my suggestions for Christmas (or other seasonal) gift-giving, here are three gifts: two boxed sets and one single recording, all of especial musical and sonic merit.
Details and sound samples after the jump! Continue Reading →
A String Quartet Christmas
Arturo Delmoni & Friends
Steinway & Sons Recordings 3-CD set 50001
(All volumes produced by John Marks and mastered by Bob Ludwig. Volume One recorded 1995 by David Hancock at the Church of the Holy Trinity, NYC; Volumes Two and Three recorded by Jerry Bruck at the Recital Hall of the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music in 1997 and Riverside Church NYC in 1998, respectively.)
I produced the three volumes that make up this set for my own micro-boutique/audiophile label John Marks Records, commonly known as JMR. The idea was to present traditional and sacred Christmas music in straightforward, un-gimmicky arrangements, recorded in orthodox stereo (so to speak) in an acoustically-appropriate space. In the case of Volume One, that was New York City’s Holy Trinity Church, a photo of which can be found after the jump, along with sound samples. Continue Reading →
(Recorded January 1987 by the BBC Transcription Unit in the Great Hall of University College School, London. Jillian White, producer; Campbell Hughes, engineer.)
Here’s what I wrote then, and I still feel the same way:
I received this recording as a Christmas present from violinist Arturo Delmoni. It quickly became an all-time family favorite, not only for its world-class singing and vocal ensemble (a young Mark Padmore is in the tenor section) but most of all for its consistently tranquil and gently enveloping sound-world—just like a lullaby, except more varied and musically interesting. (Arturo Delmoni, of course, knows something about Christmas music, in that he led the string quartet in the three Rejoice! A String-Quartet Christmas projects.)
More comments, and sound samples, after the jump. Continue Reading →
Velvet-voiced pop and jazz tenor Mel Tormé (1925-1999) and songwriter Bob Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” in less than an hour, one sweltering day during the summer of 1945. Tormé wrote the music, and collaborated on the lyrics. (That Tormé’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia did not stop Tormé from writing what is generally regarded as the most popular and beloved English-language Christmas song of the pop-music era.) Tormé had been a child-prodigy singer and drummer; he was also a composer and arranger.
Though revered as an interpreter of Great American Songbook songs, Tormé’s musical worldview included deep respect for classical composers Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger (talk about strange musical bedfellows). Rock and roll, he liked not so much. Tormé’s essential musical conservatism endeared him to Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner. (And if anyone out there needs a Media Studies, American Studies, or Musicology research topic, I nominate Hugh Hefner’s role in keeping jazz on life support in the US during the ascendancy of rock music.)
Over the course of time I have owned recordings of Brahms’ violin concerto by at least 14 different violinists. For a few of those violinists, I obtained recordings of more than one performance. And for one performance, David Oistrakh’s 1969 away game with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, I collected multiple formats (LP, CD, and SACD), including at least half a dozen different LP pressings ultimately (and however multifariously) derived from the same original master tape. (OK, call me a bit barmy.)
The violinists whose Brahms concerto performances I purchased and kept (rather than passed along or donated) ranged from Kreisler and Menuhin and Heifetz and Kremer to… Uto Ughi. To say the least, Cavalier Uto’s career in the US has not been, um, huge. From the violinists whose names were not household, my favorite recording was by Hermann Krebbers. Krebbers, who was perhaps as little-known in the US as Ughi, recorded the Brahms concerto with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1973.
Please click on the jump link to learn the relevance of all that to Alexander Kerr’s truly wonderful Barber concerto performance with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, as well as an embedded audio-only YouTube of Kerr’s Decca recording of a charming Shostakovich film-score number. Continue Reading →
Courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon; cover photo by Marco Borggreve.
The Emerson String Quartet: J.S. Bach, The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080
CD Deutsche Grammophon 474 495-2
(Streaming via Tidal; no hi-res download appears available.)
Recorded January and February 2003 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City. Da-Hong Seetoo, producer and engineer.
One of the bits of musical non-trivia that I have carted around me for ages is the fact that American composer Roy Harris (whose third symphony is for me the best example of mid-twentieth-century, typically exuberant American musical creativity) also, with collaborator M.D. Herter Norton transcribed for string quartet Bach’s The Art of the Fugue.
M.D. Herter Norton, by the way, was Margaret (also sometimes Mary; and, informally Polly) Dows Herter, who with her husband W.W. Norton founded the publishing firm that bears his name. (W.W. Norton is still a major publisher—if not the major publisher—of music-history texts and anthologies for college use in the English-speaking world.) Margaret Norton was a violinist, an independent scholar of music, and translator from the German of about a dozen volumes of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. She was very important in the early years of the American Musicological Society, as well as co-authoring, editing, or translating articles for the The Musical Quarterly.
After the jump, there is a scan of the cover of that score, from 1936. And generous sound samples. I think most music lovers will find this CD (or the stream from Tidal) extremely rewarding.
Lakshminarayana Subramaniam: Electric Modes
L. Subramaniam, electric violin; Viji Subramaniam, tambura; uncredited musicians, mridangam and ghatam.
2-CD set Water Lily Acoustics WLA-ES-5&6 (o.o.p.)
Recorded May 1987, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Santa Barbara; November 1987, Unitarian Church, Santa Barbara; and September 1990, First Presbyterian Church, Santa Barbara. L. Subramaniam and Kavichandran Alexander, producers; Kavichandran Alexander, engineer. (Available via streaming from Tidal; via streaming and MP3 downloads from Amazon; from iTunes; used CDs and LPs are found on eBay and Amazon.)
California’s audiophile label Water Lily Acoustics achieved the dream of most independent music producers by winning the Grammy award in 1994 for Ry Cooder and V.M. Bhatt’s A Meeting By the River. No question, that is a very worthwhile recording.
However, that said, if I had to pick one recording from the Water Lily catalog that was even more musically substantial, it would be L. Subramaniam’s Muddy Waters-inspired Electric Modes. The sound samples over the jump are rather mind-boggling. The original LPs and the CD reissue are long out of print, but through the magic of streaming services, this magnificent music is readily available.
Some background, and the rather stunning sound samples, after the jump. Continue Reading →
Morten Lauridsen: Lux Æterna and other works
Los Angeles Master Chorale and Sinfonia, Paul Salamunovich, conductor
CD Rubedo Canis Musica RCM 19705
Recorded June 1997 to January 1998, Sacred Heart Chapel, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles; Peter Rutenberg, producer; Fred Vogler, engineer.
This recording of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Æterna was nominated for the Grammy award in its category in 1999. A quick listen to the beginning will tell you why. (A Robert Shaw CD won the award, understandably as it was the year of his death.) Lux Æterna starts with a stroke of genius, and then goes on from strength to strength. The first thing you hear is one of the tallest yet emptiest chords in concert music—the string basses lay down a granite foundation while the high strings harmonize from, it seems, light-years away. And there is nothing in between.
That inspired gesture announces the work as hugely ambitious, while being completely self-assured. Lauridsen is making his personal statement about the meaning of human existence, and nothing less than that. Lux Æterna is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, and you are really missing out if you have not heard it.
Generous sound samples and more, after the jump. Continue Reading →
José Gallardo, piano; Friedemann Eichhorn, violin; Julius Berger, cello; José Bragato and Osvaldo Calo, arrangers; Peter Steiber and Sabine Fallerstein, producers; Angela Öztanil, engineer.
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was best known as a performer of his own modernized tango music. His instrument was an unusual concertina (button accordion) called the Bandoneón. The Bandoneón was originally designed (in Germany) as an inexpensive substitute for a church organ, providing chordal accompaniment to congregational hymn singing. That intended use dictated the inner logic of its workings. So the Bandoneon plays different notes from the same fingering, depending whether the bellows was being pushed together or pulled apart. That quirk makes Piazzolla’s brilliant solo work even more impressive… .
But Piazzolla was more than an electrifying live performer; he was a serious composer. The Hungarian classical pianist Bela Wilda, who introduced Piazzolla to Bach, himself had been a student of Rachmaninoff’s. Piazzolla briefly was a student of Nadia Boulanger’s (she sent him on his way, though, urging him to find his own path). Piazzolla spent five years studying orchestration with Alberto Ginistera. Piazzolla put that training to use over the rest of his life, eventually writing more than 60 film scores. That sensibility is what makes this very well recorded, infectiously listenable album a “must-buy.” Just buy it! Continue Reading →