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May 2014 - Posts

Is It Time To Rehabilitate Antonio Salieri ?

   Poor Antonio Salieri (1750- 1825 ) has gotten a bum rap in music history . For so long , he's been seen a mediocre composer with a pathological  envy of the divinely gifted Mozart , and  there have been long-standing but totally bogus rumors that he may have been guilty of causing the untimely death of his supposed rival in 1791 by  poisoning him .

   The enormous popularity of Milos Forman's  film Amadeus , which came out 30 years ago and was based on the play of the same name by Peter Schaeffer , hasn't   exactly done much for Salieri's reputation . In fact ,  the film, while  highly entertaining , makes mincemeat  of the historical facts and  also paints a highly misleading  picture of  Mozart .

    So just who was Antonio Salieri ?   Far from being a non-entity , he was one of the best known and respected composers of the 18th and early 19th century .  He was a prominent composer, conductor and teacher who was a pupil of none other than the great  opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, whose 300 th anniversary comes this year .  He was highly connected within the classical music world  of  his day ,  friend of  the most powerful aristocrats of Europe and  many of the most important composers of his day .  He knew Mozart well and  the two were on good terms .  Does this sound like a  mediocrity ? 

    Salieri was born in the Veneto region of Italy , that is the mainland area of Italy surrounding  Venice ,  and showed  great promise as a composer in his youth .  But he moved to  Vienna and spent  the rest of his life there while making frequent  trips around Europe , and became fluent in German . 

    Salieri was one of the leading opera composers of his day and wrote numerous stage works which were widely performed in his lifetime but which have been completely forgotten until  recent revivals , but  also composed  symphonies, concertos ,  choral works such ass  Masses and  Requiem etc . 

    Somehow , rumors  began to circulate  after Mozart  died in 1791 that he had poisoned him , but there is not one shred of evidence for this absurd accusation .  The film Amadeus portrayed him as being insanely envious of Mozart and obsessed with  his inferiority to his rival , and  shows him as an old man  living in an insane asylum many years later   constantly brooding over Mozart . 

    Interestingly ,  Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov , famous for his exotic orchestral suite "Scheherezade " , wrote a brief one act opera with  small orchestra  called "Mozart and Salieri ".  The two are the only characters apart from a  non-singing or speaking role for a violinist .  Salieri has invited Mozart to his home for dinner ,  and sure enough , by the end , we find that  Salieri has  poisoned  Mozart . The opera has been recorded a few times and you can see it on youtube with  English subtitles .  It's certainly interesting but not at all typical of the other Rimsky-Korsakov operas , which deal with  Russian history and folklore .

     You can also  see and hear recordings of some of Salieri's music  on youtube .  A few years ago, I took out a DVD of  a performance of  Salieri's opera "Falstaff " from my library, based on Shakespeare's  "The Merry Wives of Windsor ".  Verdi's  final opera  "Falstaff ", also based on the play, is of course far better known, and one of the greatest comic operas ever written .

     But I found the Salieri opera highly enjoyable , and would definitely recommend the  DVD , which was filmed at  the opera festival  in Schwetzingen, Germany , which specializes in reviving  obscure operas ,about 20 years ago .  The music is witty and vivacious , not at all the work of  a mediocrity . 

    The renowned Italian mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli  is an enthusiast for Salieri's music and has recorded a number of  arias and  othervocal works by him , and  recordings of his music are no longer  scarce .  So forget  the  movie Amadeus , entertaining as it is,  and give the music of  Antonio Salieri a chance !   You won't regret it .

Posted: May 13 2014, 09:01 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Major Orchestras Issuing Their Own Recordings - A Growing trend .

   The classical recordings industry isn't what it used to be . Gone are the days when the world's leading orchestras used to have recording contracts with such presitgious  classical labels as Deutsche Grammophon , Decca  , EMI Classics , R.C.A . and others and  produced a steady stream of  studio recordings and sometimes ones from  concerts under the world's most eminent conductors . Works ranging from  Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to  20th century repertoire .

   What happened ?  Classical recordings are very expensive to produce , and few of them sell  like the proverbial  hot cakes . Especially expensive in America  for some reason;  it costs less to produce classical recordings in Europe .  In the 1960s , when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic , Leonard Bernstein  made regular studio recordings of works he was conducting live for  what is now Sony Classical records , Columbia records at the time, later CBS records .  Most of these are still available, and still sell  well  by the standards of  classical recordings .

    His successor ,  French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez , now 89 years , continued to make recordings with the orchestra .   The Indian-born Zubin Mehta was next, but  the orchestra lost its contract .  The Philharmonic began to make recordings with  Deutsche Grammophon and then  Teldec records when the German  conductor  Kurt Masur took over ,  but  under  Lorin Maazel, who took over after Masur , the orchestra made exactly one recording ,  a new work by  American composer  John Adams .  And this was a live recording, not a studio one . 

   Now , under Alan Gilbert,  the Philharmonic has begun making live recordings of the six symphonies of the great Danish composer  Carl Nielsen (1865-1931 ) for a  Danish label .   During his more than 40 years with the Philadelphia orchestra ,  the Hungarian-born  Eugene Ormandy made hundreds of recordings of a wide repertoire for  Columbia, R.C.A. and later England's EMI and a couple of other labels ,many of which are still available .

    Other notable  conductor/orchestra/record label  teams  include  George Szell  and the Cleveland orchestra , Fritz Reiner and Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago symphony ,  Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston symphony for R.C.A . ,  Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic ,mostly for Decca ,  William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh symphony ,  and the Hungarian Antal  Dorati with several orchestras in Minneapolis , Washington, D.C. ,  Dallas and   Detroit ,  and so forth .

    Under the dynamic young French Canadian conductor  Yannick Nezet-Seguin ,  Deutsche Grammophon has  believe it or not,  just issued a studio ! recording of Stravinsky's  Rite of Spring for the centennial celebration of this  seminal  work with the Philadelphia orchestra .

    In Europe , Herbert von  Karajan made hundreds of recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic , which he led from 1954 to 1989, the year of his death .  No fewer than three sets of the nine Beethoven symphonies for example , plus and earlier one with the Philharmonia orchestra of London, not to be confused with the London Philharmonic .    Most of the Berlin recordings were for  Deutsche Grammophon , and some for EMI . Karajan also made numerous recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic , for  Decca and D.G. .

    The five  orchestras of London  , the London symphony, the Philharmonia , the London Philharmonic , the Royal Philharmonic and the B.B.C. symphony , have long been the most prolific  makers of recordings , under countless different conductors , famous and lesser known .

    These great orchestras still make recordings , but  they have been becoming  ever more scarce, and almost all  are from live concerts , usually with  sessions after concerts to  clean up any mistakes and flubs , which are inevitable live . 

    But within the past ten years or so , a number of leading orchestras have decided to form their own  recording  companies and  issue  recordings of  live performances  on their own .  One of the first was the London symphony orchestra , founded in 1904  as a self-governing  entity , and some of these  have become  classical  best sellers .  The late, great Sir Colin Davis , the L.S.O. chief conductor  at the time led an acclaimed series of live recordings of the music of the great 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz , who music he had long championed .   The L.S.O .  and  Sir Colin had already made renowned recordings of these Berlioz masterpieces years ago for the now defunct  Dutch label  Philips , but these were studio recordings .

    In America , the Chicago , Boston and San Francisco symphonies soon  began issuing their own recordings , under respectively Riccardo Muti, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink (Chicago ), James Levine (Boston ) and Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco ).  The Atlanta symphony under its current music director Robert Spano has just  released its first recordings on its own label , of Sibelius symphonies, and the Seattle symphony is about to  begin  its own recordings .

    The Royal Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam ,  the leading orchestra of the Netherlands had  made an enromlous number of recordings  for Philips , and a fair number for other labels such as Decca under  numerous distinguished conductors, such as  Willem Mengelberg and Bernard Haitink  , two of the most eminent Dutch conductors , as well  as  the Italian  Riccardo Chailly, who was the first non-Dutch music director of the orchestra , and now under its current head , Latvian maestro  Mariss Jansons , is issuing its own recordings .

   The Berlin Philharmonic , now led by the British maestro  Sir Simon Rattle , has just issued its first  recordings on its own , of the four  symphonies of  Robert Schumann .

    A number of  independent  classical labels such as  the budget label  Naxos ,  Chandos of England , and CPO of Germany , are still issuing  recordings  by a variety of different orchestras , including the  radio orchestras of Germany , which have long enjoyed generous  government support .  Naxos has issued recordings by  the Detroit , Baltimore, Nashville and other U.S. orchestras . (Yes, there is an excellent  symphony orchestra in Nashville, home of Country Western music !) .

    Is this a good trend ?  Will it  increase sales of  orchestral recordings ?  Will more and more orchestras begin to issue their own recordings ?  It's difficult to answer the first two questions , but  the trend seems to be growing , and most likely, more and more orchestras will  become free agents  .  It seems to be an eminently sensible move

Posted: May 12 2014, 09:46 PM by the horn | with no comments
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May 7 - Birthday Of Tchaikovsky And Brahms

   By coincidence ,  Johannes Brahms and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, two icons of  19th century classical music , were born on May 7th, respectively in 1833 and  1840 .  So I thought it might be interesting to compare both composers , who were very different indeed in  their musical  and aesthetic philosophies . 

   Both composers have long been extremely popular,  and the music of both has  caused considerable controversy .  Neither was very fond of the other's music , although they met a number of times and  got along well .  Both produced  beloved staples of the repertoire ; symphonies, concertos, chamber music , songs,  choral works, music for solo piano etc , but unlike Tchaikovsky , Brahms never wrote any operas .

    The music of both composers is  highly melodious and full of  warmth , but  the music of Brahms is  more austere and  restrained .  Tchaikovsky has been accused by more than a few prominent  critics and musicologists of writing cheap , sentimental  and  even vulgar works intended to appeal to the lowest common denominator, although this is anything but a fair accusation .  On the other hand , Brahms has  been accused of writing  dry , grayish and  labored music , lacking in freshness and  sponaneity , also an unfair accusation .

    Tchaikovsky's music probably has more immediate appeal  to  newcomers to classical music ; it is certainly more colorful  and  superficially exciting to the general public .  The supposed "sentimentality" of  Tchaikovsky's music  is probably  the fault of performers who  are guilty of  exaggerating  the  emotional qualities of his works . 

    Brahms wrote four symphonies ; Tchaikovsky six, although only the last three have been  performed often for some reason .  The German wrote two piano concertos, one for vioilin and one for  violin and cello .  Tchaikovsky completed two ; a third exists in torso form and only the first is  played with any frequency ,although the second deserves to be better known .  Tchaikovsky also wrote one violin concerto .

    Brahms also wrote  two concert overtures , The "Tragic" overture, and the "Academic Festival overture" , which uses  popular German university songs . It was written on the occaision of  the composer being awarded an honorary degree from the University of Breslau, formerly in Germany , but now in  Poland .

    Brahms was a strong believer in  "absolute " music, music with no programmatic  story behind it ; pure ,abstract music , but Tchakovsky wrote such well known  programmatic , descriptive works as the symphonic poems  "Romeo & Juliet,"" Francesca D Rimini ", based on  Dante's Inferno ,  and other orchestral works .  Thye programmatic symphony "Manfred " , based on a  poem of Byron , is not numbered among his six symphonies . 

    Tchaikovsky wrote three  ballet scores which  are frequently performed  in excerpt form at concerts,  the  famous "Nutcracker",  "Swan Lake" and  "Sleeping Beauty . "   His mist famous opera is  "Yevgeny Onegin " (Eugene Onegin ) , based on a long poetic drama by Pushkin about a  cynical bachelor who rejects the love of a  naive y0oung woman ,only to realize later  how much he loved her  now that she is married .  Another  remarkable opera is  Pique Dame ,(Queen of Spades ) also based on a story by Pushkin about a  troubled  soldier and  gambler who is obsessed with finding a  magical formula in gambling in order to win the love of a  beautiful , elusive  young woman of the aristocracy   , with disastrous results . 

    Tchaikovsky's other operas , such as  "The Maid of Orleans ", a fictionalized  opera about  Joan of Arc,  and others , are rarely performed outside of  Russia , and not even that often there . 

    The best known choral work by  Brahms is the "German Requiem ", which does not use the traditional Latin  Requiem text , but familiar passages in Martin Luther's German version on death and dying .  Unlike Verdi's  intensely dramatic ,almost operatic Requiem , the German Requiem is a gentle and reflective work , full of  consolation and resignation .

    Brahms was born to humble parents in a lower class section of Hamburg in 1933 ; his father was a  local musician who played the double bass and encouraged his son to  develope his talents as a budding young pianist and composer , and the young man acheived a considerable reputation as a pianist , attracting the attention of  the great Robert Schumann ( 1810-1856 ), who recognized his great talent .  Brahms moved from  dour maritime Hamburg to glamorous, cosmopolitan  Vienna , where he spent the rest of his life .He never married . 

    Tchaikovsky was the son of  a provincial Russian  government official , born in  the town of Votkinsk , far from Moscow and St.Petersburg ; he came from a fairly well off family and also showed  great talent in his youth ,  but Russia  did not as yet have the  developed and sophisticated  musical life of Germany , and he  studied  law ,  well as studying at the recently opened Moscow conservatoire .  He attracted the attention of a very wealthy woman who was the widow of  a  Russian tycoon, Nadezhda von Meck, who admired his music so much she provided him with generous support so he  would not have to seek employment in another field , as his contempraries Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov had done . 

    Curiously ,  the widow  insisted that the two never meet personally , and they never did .  Tchaikovsky was a gay man , which was hardly  acceptable in polite society at the time , and he   reluctantly entered into a brief sham marriage to a young woman who was infatuated with him .  This nearly drove the sensitive and rather neurotic composer to suicide , and the two were soon divorced .

    The death of Tchaikovsky in 1893 under mysterious circumstances 1893 has long been a  subject of discussion and speculation .  Apparently, he drank contaminated water during a cholera epidemic  and  died .  According to some stories, he was ordered to commit suicide by  certain individuals in  the Russian aristocracy because of an  affair with the nephew of  a prominent member of the Tsar's family, but  this has not  been confirmed .   Brahms died of natural causes in Vienna in 1897 , a year after the death of his close friend  Clara Schumann , widow of Robert and a well known pianist and composer in her own wright .  There has been speculation that the two may have been lovers , but this has not been confirmed .

    Tchaikovsky was prone to depression and  was frequently overcome by  homesickness on his frequent trips to  countries such as France, Italy , Germany etc, and visited  America in  1891 , conducting his music at the opening of Carnegie hall .  Brahms had a reputation of being  gruff and  curt with people , and according to one story which may or may not be true , he once left a party in Vienna  offering his apologies to anyone there he had not insulted !

    If you're new to classical music , there is a huge array of recordngs of  the music of these two  great composers available ,  by  so many great  classical musicians , living and dead , as well as plenty of DVDs .  A good place on the internet to get recommendations for these is . 




Posted: May 07 2014, 06:13 PM by the horn | with no comments
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