Monday, February 27, 2012

Listening to Richter

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) is widely recognized as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. He was well known for the depth of his interpretations, virtuoso technique, extensive repertoire, and aversion to the recording studio.

He is one of the few great solo artists who was not a child prodigy, beginning formal studies at the Moscow Conservatory with Heinrich Neuhaus when he was 22. During Richter's audition for Neuhaus, the teacher apparently whispered to a fellow student 'this man's a genius'. Although Neuhaus taught many great pianists, including Emil Gilels and Radu Lupu, it is said that he considered Richter to be 'the genius pupil' for whom he had been waiting all his life.

While Richter enjoyed performing, his evaluation of his own performances was uncompromising. He played small venues throughout the Soviet Union, and he was known to repeat the entire program after the concert in an empty hall if he was unsatisfied with the performance.

He refused to record in the studio, arguing that each performance was whole, complete, and unique. His style was unabashedly romantic, and sometimes his experiments worked, and sometimes they did not. Richter's playing, at its best which was most of the time, was transcendental.

Richter's repertoire was vast, ranging from Handel and Bach to Szymanowski, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Britten, and Gershwin. His memoirs, recounted to the film maker Bruno Monsaingeon and published by Princeton as Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, make for fascinating reading. His comments on his contemporaries, sometimes judiciously edited by Monsaingeon, are both tart and insightful. His tale of the bizarre funeral of Joseph Stalin, at which he and other Soviet artists were commanded to perform, is almost surreal.

Richter was a genius. He saw the performer's role as trying to realize the composer's intentions as accurately and as fully as it was possible for him to do so. But that does not get to the core of his art, since he was guided by his own unique inspiration. He had no technical limitations, and he played only what he thought was worthy of his attention. If he could not get at the musical essence of a work, he would not play it publicly.

He brought a delicacy and warmth to the music of Schumann and Schubert that tempered his sometimes tempestuous passion. His Prokofiev is the stuff of legend. His collaborations with his admired colleague, the violinist David Oistrakh, are unique. Fortunately, Richter's recorded legacy is almost as vast as his repertoire.

Many of us at WTJU admire Richter's art and play his recordings. You can access archived shows for two weeks at the WTJU Show Archive.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork. I admit to being fascinated by the name before I became aware of his music. Dr. Hailstork, born in 1941, received his doctorate in composition from Michigan State University; before that, he studied at the Manhattan School of Music and also with Nadia Boulanger, among others. He is Professor of Music and Eminent Scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Dr. Hailstork is a versatile composer, having written numerous works for piano, organ, chamber ensembles, orchestra, band, solo voice and chorus. On my Sunday morning classical show, Classical Sunrise (6 to 9 AM) on 26 February 2012, I will be featuring a sampling of his works as part of WTJU’s Black History Week celebration.

One piece that I will play I find particularly appealing (including the title). It’s called “Ignis Fatuus,” a piano work that he composed in 1976, from a CD of the same name featuring the piano music of Dr. Hailstork.

In the liner notes, the composer informs us that the title means “foolish or mysterious fires” and that it refers to “the spontaneous ignition of gas over swampland.” Dr. Hailstork says that he is a fan of Ravel’s piano music, and the piece is certainly reminiscent of the evanescent quality of some of Ravel’s pieces, such as Miroirs. Dr. Hailstork describes the character of the piece more poetically: “These fire lights seem to flicker on and off, dancing and swirling in the dark of night, like ghostly presences.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A New Recording of The Eight Great Keyboard Suites of Georg Frederich Handel

Handel: Eight Great Keyboard Suites
Lisa Smirnova, piano

As far as I am concerned, the never-ending debate on the appropriateness of playing Baroque keyboard music on harpsichord or piano falls on deaf ears. The embellishment that the modern piano brings to Baroque music adds greatly to its enjoyment.

Throughout the years, a host of pianists such as Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff, Angela Hewitt, and Murray Perahia among others has contributed a rich collection of keyboard transcriptions of Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, and many other Baroque masters.

The eight keyboard suites (HWV 426-433) of Georg Frederich Handel have often been recorded on piano, but perhaps never better than on a new ECM recording by Russian-born pianist Lisa Smirnova. Smirnova, a longtime resident of Vienna, spent several years studying the suites before recording them this year.

Handel published the suites in 1720, because “Surrepticious and incorrect Copies of them had got Abroad.” Their beauty and energy have delighted audiences ever since. As Smirnova notes in the accompanying CD literature, Handel made full use of Italian, German, and French influences that he absorbed so flawlessly. And as with any of Handel’s instrumental music, the listener is rewarded with oratorical whispers just beneath the surface.

I would like to believe that the Russian heritage of Lisa Smirnova is partly responsible for both the technical brilliance of her playing but also her passion and energy. Much as Angela Hewitt has done recently with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Smirnova offers a complete body of work that is impossible to resist. I can predict that the keyboard suites of GF Handel played by Lisa Smirnova will soon be heard on WTJU.

 - John Delehanty, host of "Dawn's Early Light," heard Mondays 6-9am on WTJU.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Guilty Pleasures at the Operas

On Sunday, February 26, at 2 P.M. our Sunday Opera Matinee resumes after the conclusion of our Rock Marathon that achieved fundraising wonders for WTJU. We will be presenting Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier (1896), a perennial audience favorite.

Chenier is one of those operas that is beloved of audiences but deprecated by critics. Giordano (1867-1948) was possessed of limited compositional skills. But he knew a good story when he encountered one in the life of the Parisian poet and patriot André Chenier, who was a victim of the French Revolution. The background for the libretto by Luigi Illica could hardly be more compelling, and it lent itself to the operatic style known as verismo. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries composers such as Ponchielli, Mascagni, Puccini, and Giordano set their tales of dramatic, often violent confrontation in the gritty conflicts of ordinary people taken from daily life.

The vocal score features great moments for the three principal characters, the tenor Chenier, the soprano Maddalena, and the baritone Gérard. Un di all'azzuro spazio, La mamma morta, and Nemico della Patria are well known to all opera lovers. The rousing finale when Chenier and Maddalena go off to face the guillotine together, if sung by the right heroic voices, is guaranteed to bring any audience cheering to its feet as the final curtain falls.

Chenier is an irresistible role for tenors with big, Italianate voices. The role has been sung by the greats: Caruso, Tamagno, Pertile, Martinelli, Lauri-Volpi, Corelli, Tucker, del Monaco, Domingo, and Pavarotti, to name just a few. When paired with del Monaco, a young Renata Tebaldi was unforgettable as Maddalena.

Although somewhat out of fashion today (we hardly have the voices to do the principal roles justice), Chenier is among those operas like Faust, Adriana Lecouvreur, and Cavalleria Rusticana that will remain in the repertoire so long as opera audiences love great singing and a heavy dose of melodrama.

Tune in this Sunday. It may not be Mozart, but you will hear some great singing.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bruckner the Romantic

Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 4, 7 & 9
Philharmonia Festiva
Gerd Schaller, conductor
Live recording
Profil/Hannsler Classics

It has taken about a century for the symphonies of Austrian composer Anton Bruckner to enter the repertories of major orchestras. One of his champions is German conductor Gerd Schaller, most widely known in Germany as an opera conductor and founder and music director of the Ebracher Musiksommer Festival.

His recording with the Philharmonie Festiva of Bruckner's Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth Symphonies, with the fourth movement completed by William Carragan, has recently been released on the Profil/Hanssler Classic label.

The Philharmonie Festiva is comprised of leading musicians from Munich's three major orchestras–the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra. This new release is a wonder. Taking its place alongside Karajan's Bruckner, this recording is a monument to Bruckner's contribution to the orchestral repertoire.

All performances were recorded live in concert at the Ebracher Festival. The Fourth and Seventh were recorded in 2007 and 2008, while the Ninth was recorded in 2010. All three recorded performances are spacious, clear, and with great presence, although the engineering of the earlier performances has slightly more depth.

Musically, the performances can hardly be bettered. Schaller's interpretation reflects his theatrical experience. While dramatic, the performances are still direct and without affectation. The brass section takes center stage in any Bruckner work, and the Festiva's brass takes second place to no other orchestra's brasses. The sound of German brass has a characteristically dark sheen that takes the edge off the bright brassiness that is sometimes too piercing. The sound of the lower strings is deep and rich, augmented by the wonderful clarity and depth of the bass in Profil's recording.

Whether you are new to Bruckner's symphonies or one of the growing number of admirers of his music, this recording is not to be missed. If the angst-saturation of Mahler is not to your taste, then Bruckner's romanticism may be just the ticket.

Bruckner was a self-acknowledged heir of Wagner's, but he had his own voice. Bruckner revised his major works, often dozens of times, so his death in 1896 precluded the completion of his Ninth and last symphony. He left copious, if untidy notes, however, and Carragan's completion of the fourth movement is true to both the letter and spirit of Bruckner's intentions.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Roussel: The Spider's Banquet an Aural Feast

Roussel: Festin De L'Araignee
Padmâvatî – Suites 1 & 2
Royal Scottish National Orchestra; 
Stéphane Denève, conductor

Stéphane Denève and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conclude their survey of Roussel’s orchestral music with two important stage works: La festin de l’araignée, and the suites from the opera Padmâvatî. The previous four volumes from Naxos each focused on a  Roussel symphony, filling in with shorter orchestral works.

This time the centerpiece is his most popular ballet score, La festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Banquet). This 1912 ballet-pantomime depicts insect life in a garden (especially those trapped in the spider’s web). Its impressionistic score reminds me somewhat of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, only in sharper focus.

The performance features the complete score, and the 32-minute work moves along briskly. Denève and RSNO dig into the lush harmonies and sparkling orchestration with gusto. It’s easy to understand the popularity of the work based on their performance.

The remainder of the album is devoted to two orchestral suites Roussel extracted from his opera-ballet Padmâvatî. Based on a tragic Indian legend, the score is full of exotic color and melodies. As might be expected, the music is much more serious and dramatic than the lighthearted Spider’s Banquet. The orchestral suites are full of appealing music, though  it sometimes sounded to me like Mussorgsky with a French accent.

If you’ve been following Denève’s Roussel cycle, you’ll be happy to know this release makes a fine conclusion to the series. The ensemble and conductor turn in some fine performances that match the quality of those in the previous volumes.

If you’re not familiar with Roussel, this disc might be a good place to start. The Spider’s Banquet just may entice you into Roussel’s charming musical web.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Johannes Eccard: Sacred and Secular Works

Johannes Eccard: Sacred & Secular Works 
Opella Musica
Ensemble NOEMA
Gregor Meyer, director

Although not a household name, Johannes Eccard can hardly be called an obscure composer. Active during the latter half of the 16th century, Eccard's vocal music was held in high regard by other composers -- especially German composers, from Johann Sebastian Bach through Brahms. In his own lifetime, he was seen as the Protestant answer to Palestrina (and his music was considered just as good).

This new collection of Eccard's sacred and secular works justifies that assessment. Eccard studied with Orlando de Lassus. The secular works show Lassus' influence. Eccard sets his texts in a similar style, letting the nature of the words dictate the shape of the melody whenever possible.  And his polyphonic sacred works show the same facility for counterpoint as Lassus. The lines flow naturally, weaving in and out of each other creating marvelous patterns that sound neither academic nor contrived.

Also included are some of Eccard's works for the fledgling Protestant movement. His settings of the simple congregational hymn tunes show great imagination, while remaining true to the melody. Eccard's original hymns have simple, straight-forward patterns, but are written with rich harmonic possibilities for Eccard (and later on other composers) to explore.

Cudos to Gregor Meyer and his ensembles for presenting this music. Their performances are clean and unaffected, letting the structure of the music come through clearly. Listening to this recording, it's easy to understand why Bach closely studied Eccard's music.