Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Today is Paul Dukas's 150th birthday, which seems as good an excuse as any to get back in to my long delayed listening project - Pieces to Hear Once a Year. And, of course, I mean The Sorcerer's Apprentice (sorry Mr Dukas).

This is one of those pieces buried in my consciousness to the point of just being a part of my makeup. From the opening swirls I know I'm being carried into a magical world which rapidly escalates into dramatic misadventure. The music sweeps as irrevocably as the enchanted broomstick and carries us along the story in such a catchy way we can't escape it. It moves from climax to almost silence in a heartbeat and we listen all the more attentively as we just have to know what's happening, then again begins the build.

The appeal of this piece is broad because it's accessible, fun and dramatic without being overbearing or heavy. Yes, it has become tied very closely to a particular mouse, but the music called to the animators and gave them such a vivid story to tell. And they told it beautifully.

Since it is his birthday, I will say, Dukas did write more than just The Sorcerer's Apprentice and his other works deserve exploring. I particularly enjoy his symphony which is similarly rolling and accessible with a charm to it. Right now I'm listening to Polyeucte, based on a Greek myth, and it's suitably tragic but again it doesn't overwhelm you with its drama or mood and is actually rich and beautiful.

Why these other pieces aren't better known I'll never understand. Give them a go.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Catch Up

It's been too long since I posted in here so I thought a quick entry to catch up then I'll try to return to my listening project.

Not much to catch up on of course, but there was the Classic 100 Swoon. As expected most of my nominations didn't make the voting list and only one made the countdown - Eliza's Aria by Elena Kats-Chernin. The upshot of the nominees missing out was I could vote for other things.

Swoons are very personal of course and it seems this year I sided with less popular pieces than usual. Selections from Grieg's Peer Gynt made it in to the top 50 which was good and not unexpected. I had to vote for them as they are probably my earliest swoons, particularly Solveig's Song which I was swooning too as a young teen just discovering music's real power.

My only other successful vote was for Faure's Pavane, another early love of mine, but it came in much lower than I expected. In fact, many of what I thought would be obvious choices only scraped into the countdown or ranked much lower than I imagined.

I had more luck in the second hundred but even there some absences seem quite glaring. Such is the nature of swoon, it's very divisive no matter how beautiful.

As I write this I'm listening to Shostakovich's String Quartet No 15 played by the Eder Quartet. It never entered my mind for the countdown, but there is no doubt if I stop typing and just listen I am transported. It takes me to a sad place, sometimes violent but generally it feels like the cold ruins of a city torn apart. Or, to quote the Smashing Pumpkins, "where the willow weeps and the whirlpool sleeps'.

Swoons are everywhere, beauty is lurking, waiting to be found. We only need to look.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Swoon Nominations

So nominations for the Classic 100 Swoon are closed and the big list will be put up soon. I nominated more than I can vote for and there were some more obvious choices I might vote for that I didn't need to nominate. Of course, last time I nominated things not one of my nominations made the voting list so it may not be an issue.

Anyway, here's a selection of what I nominated. I was impressed to see someone had already nominated one of Liadov's Eight Russin Folk Songs for Orchestra, the Hymn or Religious Song, so I just nominated the Lament. I also nominated The Enchanted Lake (which has a good chance of making the countdown I think, and The Magical Snuffbox - which unfortunately is called the Musical Snuffbox ... here's hoping they figure that out.

Sticking with great Russians, I also nominated Mussogsky's Dawn on the Moscow River from Khovashchina and The Old Castle from Pictures at an Exhibition. Slipped some Ippolitov-Ivanov in there two, the Introduction to Caucasian Sketches No 2 and At Rest and Nocturne from the Turkish Fragments - the second and third movements.

A Narnia Lullaby by Gregory-WIlliams was my most modern nomination, it has always captured me, every time I hear it I drift to another world. I don't have high hopes for it in the countdown however.

I was a little stunned when I found no Elena Kats-Chernin on the preliminary list when she has some remarkably beautiful Swoons. I put forth Eliza's Aria from the Wild Swans (which was one I thought would be there by default), and a couple of short pieces I find equally swoon worthy, including this amazing Bucharian Melody.

There were a few others I nominated but this is your lot for now.

PS Okay one more, there's a short solo piano piece by Mozart which I first heard on Gerard Willem's Reflections on Mozart album and it is pure swoon. All the genius of Mozart with a heart-wrenching beauty underlying it. This version is Mitsuko Uchida's rendition.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Swoon - A New Classic 100 Countdown

So ABC Classic FM has announced its next Classic 100 and it's Swoon! Now there's an exciting and potentially divisive theme for a countdown.

The only definition hinted at in the About page (found here) is 'a little parcel of rapture' and really there's not much more that can be said about it. It's music that carries you away for a while, let's you sit in quiet contemplation outside the hustle and bustle of the world around and within.

And that's going to change from person to person. I have many swoons in the 'pop' music world for instance that many voters in this countdown would consider horrific noise.

That said, I think over the years of Swooning on the ABC a certain nebulous 'feel' can be applied to the theme, but I still expect some way out choices. But there's some obvious favourites too. If Debussy's Clair de lune isn't in the top 10 for instance I'll post a video of me attempting to pirouette on YouTube. I also expect the adagio from Rodrigo's Concerto de Aranjuez, Faure's Pavane, Massenet's Meditation from Thais and of course Canteloube's darn Bailero (which I can't stand) to do well.

I'm hoping for some Australian entries. Koehne's Selfish Giant features in part in the old Swoon box set and is one of my favourites on there. I also think Kats-Chernin's Wild Swans, Edwards' Dawn Mantra and Sculthorpe's Left Bank Waltz (another from the old set) should be in there.

The more immediate question is what to nominate for the list ... watch this space. Expect Ippolitov-Ivanov and some Russians. And Mozart. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin ... dang it they all wrote good swoons.

The grey matter is twitching and the heart is looking forward to drifting in peace.

Monday, 12 January 2015

New Year, New Listening Project

I'm back. Thankfully the music never left.

I'm doing a new listening project and thought I'd write about it here. It's called Pieces I Must Heat at Least Once a Year. Describes itself really.

The first piece I listened to for it was Elgar's Cello Concerto because I heard a little bit of it on the radio and just wanted to listen to it in full. It's a piece I discovered on a whim. I was looking at a sales page on the ABC Shop online and there it was on an album by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. I knew I liked cello concertos and I didn't have much Elgar at the time so I thought, 'why not?'

The disc arrived, I ripped it (I wasn't listening to many CDs at the time) and put it on my mp3 player to listen to at work. So I was sitting at my desk, earphones in, and I hit play. Those first notes knocked me off my perch, then there was that falling phrase ... I was hooked.

The rest of the concerto, to me, is a journey away from and returning to that opening section. I couldn't say much about it to be honest. It's good, very good in fact, but that opening ... blows me away every time.

I think I bought the album the same year as the Classic 100 Music of the 20th Century on ABC Classic FM, so naturally I voted for the concerto among other things. At the time I thought I'd be helping push it up the rankings a bit - my ignorance apparently. It was a clear winner of the whole countdown and hardly in need of my help. I shouldn't have been surprised, it is a remarkable piece of work and that opening phrase does speak loudly of some of the pathos and melancholy of last century.

If you've not heard it, here is what many consider the best rendition of it (first movement anyway) by Jacqueline du Pre. It's amazing just to watch her.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Album review - Locatelli's Concerto Grossi Op 1, No 1-6

It's been a while since I posted and may be a while till I post again, it's a tough time at the moment. But I thought I would take this opportunity to post an review I wrote which I posted on Classicsonline. It''s for a Naxos recording of Locatelli's Concerto Grossi Op 1 No 1-6 performed by Capella Istropolitana conducted by Jaroslav Krcek.


Locatelli’s Concerto Grossi is a vivid collection of the moods of the violin that never loses the liveliness we can expect from a virtuosic player-composer. They’re not violin concertos of course, but they make heavy use of the string section and feature many violin solos and it’s these that really give the overall Opus its character and separate it from the better known Concerto Grossi of Handel and Corelli.

While they also make good use of the strings, Locatelli’s violin glides effortlessly over the whole and produces the feeling of each movement, from the lively opening of No 1 to the graceful beauty of No 5’s Largo where the violin works in concert with an organ.

The movements are constantly shifting as Locatelli paints a colourful abstract that never allows you to fall into complacency. The movement following the Largo of No 5 is a racing Allegro with the strings rolling along beside a harpsichord.
Even the structures of the individual concerto grosso are disparate so there’s no risk of falling into a formula. Most do start with a livelier movement, usually an Allegro – in fact, most movements are Allegros – but No 6 opens with an almost haunting Adagio before plunging into an Allegro where the strings are split into two refrains which work together at the end for a harmonious whole, underpinned along the way by the harpsichord.

This performance by Capella Istropolitana is smooth and fluid, ranging over the differing movements effortlessly so we can enjoy the journey and never feel jarred. It is a masterful display of some lesser known but very deserving Baroque.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A Look Back at the Classic 100 Baroque and Before

The Classic 100 Baroque and Before has come and gone, but what an enjoyable ride it was. It probably didn’t present too many surprises; JS Bach dominated the countdown, Handel followed and his Messiah came in at No 1; Vivaldi and Purcell did well and there were generally more Baroque pieces than Before. But, despite such broad things that were always going to happen, the countdown did reveal the sheer depth and breadth of early and Baroque music.

It could be argued the music was mostly the same but that’s said about every type of music by people who don’t appreciate it. In truth we had polyphony, plain chant, early opera and sacred and secular choral works; plus sonatas and concertos in several instruments in styles that showed more variety than might be assumed. How can you compare the power of an organ toccata with the gentle beauty of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas?

Which brings me to the discoveries of the countdown! No matter how well known many of the pieces in countdowns like this are, there are always some surprises and new encounters – at least for me. Biber’s Rosary Sonatas were one of the most exciting for me, they were amazingly evocative and got just as much, if not more, out of the violin than the flashier sonatas like Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’.

Another curious encounter was JS Bach’s ‘other’ Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the one called ‘Dorian’. It lacked the dramatic and powerful opening and wouldn’t have the same impact when being played by a mad genius or evil mastermind, but it made up for that with its rolling pace and friendlier melody. In some ways I would argue it’s the more accessible of the two works as the fugue is less complex, something some people find off-putting about organ music.

But what of the Before? There was some complaint on social media that it didn’t get a good enough look in because the Baroque overwhelmed it. And it certainly didn’t do as well overall. There was some, including two in the top 10, but Baroque music was much, much more prominent. Was this a failing of the countdown? Of the voting public? Or just the ABC for not programming it enough?

All those arguments got trotted out on social media as the countdown reached the end. Not just about early music either; the presence of Pachabel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the top 10 caused an inconsiderate amount of moaning on Twitter and apparently showed how ignorant people are and how ABC Classic FM needs to program “insert the complainant’s favourite composer here”. I found it quite ironic that the same people complaining that The Four Seasons are overplayed were very happy about the Messiah being No 1 – surely it’s hard to be more hackneyed than the Hallelujah Chorus.

Of course, in the end I believe it’s a combination of things. The programming informs what listeners know and like and what listeners know and like informs programming – it’s a circle just like all commercialised processes. And it’s beside the point. So the top spots were largely predictable, big deal, the event of the countdown attracts a lot of listeners who may not know much music beyond those ‘monumental’ pieces. It gives them a chance to hear the lesser known works like the ‘Dorian’ and Biber. And from there perhaps they’ll find the love of the music and seek out more. Only then will the ‘what the listeners like’ grow and that will help the programming grow in turn.

And that’s why I love Classic 100 countdowns. That and I get obsessive over lists and this gives me a chance to make a heap of them.

In conclusion, this was a splendid collection of music that celebrated some true ‘classics’ and introduced me to some beautiful works I hadn’t encountered before – and, as always, encouraged me to keep exploring this wonderful sound world. Get listening!