Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Sleigh Riding with Leroy Anderson

Around Christmas every year Leroy Anderson has his time to shine once more. Even if people don't know his name they'll know his Sleigh Ride and Christmas Festival. This year I decided I wanted to know what else he did. It turns out quite a lot and all with a wonderful sense of fun and invention.

You can find out about his biography on the official Leroy Anderson website, but the important point here was he was picked up by Arthur Fiedler as a skilful arranger and was then asked to write original works. Fiedler was head of the Boston Pops Orchestra at the time and Anderson became a key composer for the group.

Most of his works are orchestral miniatures just like Sleigh Ride, and also like that piece they make use of percussion and other instruments to suggest elements of sound associated with the piece. Sleigh Ride has the bells of the sleigh and the suggestion of the clip-clopping of the horse's hooves. This live video of John Williams conducting the BPO in it shows the clashing of two planks for effect.

The Syncopated Clock has the sound of the clock running as an underscore all through it and in The Waltzing Cat the string section does a wonderful 'meow' effect which is right up there with the braying donkey in Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. This video has Anderson explaining that effect and how he comes up with lyrics to his miniatures.

Anderson took this idea further in his piece Typewriter, which does have a typewriter as the solo instrument. To work out not only the tune, but the timing so it never ran out of paper or overshot the line, is an impressive piece of work.

He made one attempt at what would be called 'serious' classical music as opposed to the miniatures. That is his Piano Concerto in C, not a well-known piece by any means but apparently played fairly often (according to his official website). I've only listened to the first movement so far and it's a nice piece and worth some attention but I don't think it will ever become a front line concerto.

But for his invention and the sheer joy in his music Anderson deserves a lot of respect and I recommend exploring his work, even if it is just on YouTube which has a fair amount of it floating about. Enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Cracking Some Old Nuts


This is a day late but I was otherwise occupied yesterday I do apologise. However, yesterday was, as anyone who used Google will know, the 120th anniversary of the first performance of the ballet The Nutcracker. ABC Classics pointed out the interesting fact that it was actually December 6 according to the records but because Russia wasn't on the same calendar as we are now it translates as December 18. Ain't time fun?

The Nutcracker, unsurprisingly, was one of the first classical works I was aware of. I remember it was one of two pieces I played (I'm sure it was one dance) in the class band in infants school. I was one of the tambourines so I shook it on the red notes. It was a lot of fun. The other piece was a theme from Eine kleine nachtmusick.

So to honour this most famous (arguably) of ballets I thought I'd have a bit of a look at where it came from. The original story was by the wonderful storyteller ETA Hoffmann and was a novella called The Nutcracker and The Mouse King. I haven't read it yet but it's available on the Open Library with some beautiful illustrations from an 1853 edition (just hit the link in the title). That was published in 1816 and was followed by a watered-down version in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas pere.

It was that second version that was used for the ballet which further simplified the story, which did explain why the prince was a nutcracker in the first place. While we all know Tchaikovsky wrote the music, it's interesting to discover who wrote the libretto. That was Marius Petipa, a dancer and choreographer who started his long career in France, worked for a time in Madrid then worked with the Russian Imperial Ballet during its golden age and had a huge influence not only on that company but ballet itself. He revived numerous ballets from the first half of the century and created many more.

It turns out The Nutcracker was not one of his most successful works at first. The initial performance was widely deemed a failure, partly through choreography and also the abrupt shift from the 'real' world to the 'fantasy' world. The music was mostly appreciated however and Tchaikovsky arranged the suite we're all familiar with - plus another one we're not so familiar with. It wasn't until the 1960s that the ballet itself became popular with audiences.

Intriguingly, it is said that Pepita wrote very demanding and precise guidelines in the libretto which told Tchaikovsky not only key signatures but how many bars he was allowed per movement. These restrictions on his creativity rankled him somewhat so, if this true, he didn't enjoy writing the piece one bit. There's also a story that the adagio in the pas de deux was an answer to a friend's challenge that Tchaikovsky couldn't write a melody using the notes in a one octave scale in sequence. Another story is that he wrote a melancholy dance because his sister died during composition.

A final interesting aside, composition for the ballet was interrupted because Tchaikovsky had to go to the US to conduct the opening concert at Carnegie Hall. A Russian honouring the opening of an American music icon by his presence alone. There's an irony there, somewhere.

PS The above image I took from the Wikipedia article on the ballet which has a lot of information. It's an original sketch by the designer of the first performance, Konsatantin Ivanov.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Elena Kats-Chernin: A first look

Okay the year is getting on and things haven't been going to plan, so I may shrink the Australian Composer Survey for now, but it will be an ongoing thing I suspect. But I do want to do one more now, which may also become an ongoing thing since the composer in question is alive and kicking, not to mention quite prolific. Of current Australian composers I think she is my favourite. She has written a hauntingly beautiful ballet, works for string quartet, reimaginings of Bach and much more. She is of course Elena Kats-Chernin.

In a switch from Glanville-Hicks, Elena was born in Tashkent and moved to Australia; but like Peggy she also studied music in Europe. And just as Peggy appears to be popular in Germany, Elena has written music for German/French projects namely some silent film soundtracks.

Probably her most famous piece is Eliza's Aria from the ballet Wild Swans. There are numerous versions of this on YouTube and it's readily available one various ABC albums and others. Originally a wordless aria, she has arranged it for solo piano (performed here by the composer herself) and piano and violin too. It's a remarkable piece with its lilting ups and downs, which I imagine are a considerable challenge to sing. Despite its somewhat staccato nature it flows smoothly, I picture it like a gentle river with ripples. The first movement of her second piano concerto works in a similar fashion - I found it by accident while looking for Clocks, her first major composition but it didn't appear.

To finish for now and to give you an idea of her versatility I'll just mention these two videos. The first is a Bucharian Melody, which reminds me a little of Ippolitov-Ivanov, probably from similar geographic origins I imagine but I'd need to investigate more. It definitely has the feel of Eastern Europe, to me anyway. The second is her Russian Rag, one of her ragtime pieces, played here on a delightful array of instruments I'm not even going to try to guess what they all are.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

More Recordings Please - Peggy Glanville-Hicks

One of the first composers I learnt was Australian was Glanville-Hicks, a name I knew because one of her pieces was on the first of the Swoon CDs the ABC put out in the 90s and I played a lot. But it was only really this year that I found out anything about her, even the fact that her first name was Peggy. The fact that this is her centenary year is a nice bit of serendipity I guess.

For an Australian composer however, Peggy only just counts. She was born here and she died here, and she left a wonderful legacy for Australian composition with a Trust, but most of her training and career took place overseas. Sadly that's probably to be expected for the time.

Unfortunately too, it's not that easy to lay your hands on her music. Bits an pieces yes but compared to even some of the more obscure French composers I looked at earlier she is a veritable needle in a haystack. For instance, one of her most famous works - and the one represented on Swoon - is the Sinfonia da Pacifica, and it is on YouTube but only performed by the Community Women's Orchestra performing in a church hall in Oakland California. They do a good job but there's no mistaking they are a community orchestra. Where are the bigger recordings? The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra has made some but a quick search on the ABC Shop online shows they're not readily available - in that they don't even come up under a search.

Christopher Lawrence had Glanville-Hicks as his composer on the pedestal for the last week of Australian Music month. Several of the recordings were private. One of them was the celebrated inaugural recording of her opera Sappho which only happened this year and another was of another opera The Transposed Heads.

Classics Online has a few recordings of her in the NAXOS Archives section, one of which is unavailable in Australia, one is The Transposed Heads and the other has her Three Gymnopedies between two other works by composers I don't know at all. From the samples these are beautiful orchestral snippets. I think the TSO has done them too and I would love to find a copy.

Interestingly, the other YouTube video I have for her is of a Sonatina for Recorder - a delightful exploration of the instrument - performed by a German. This is interesting because the only other album I've found so far with a piece of her music on it is on a German label. So aside from what the TSO has done, it seems she has more of a name in Germany and the States than in her own country. This despite her generous legacy which supports middle career composers. Come on people.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

I'm Back

So I’m back, it’s been a long time but I’ve been working on NaNoWriMo so I didn’t have words to spare I’m afraid. Which means I’ve missed most of Australian Music Month, which is a pity after all the stuff I did on French composers. I will endeavour to have a look at some Aussies over the coming couple of weeks in the same way though.

I have to admit a lot of contemporary Australian classical music isn’t entirely to my tastes, possibly I just need to hear it more often. There are some pieces which have grown on me over time and that without them being heard all that often. So you never know, continued exposure to that style – I can’t define it specifically sorry – may help.

That said there are also some that I absolutely love and I look forward to exploring over the next few weeks. For now I’ll leave you with two short youtube videos – one Aussie and one not.

The Australian one is not what would usually be called classical music. It’s a song by a Melbourne duo called The Jane Austen Argument who fall into a delightfully vague genre called punk cabaret. I say vague because the bands that fit into it don’t fit anywhere, they just are, their music is what it is. And I think some of this duo’s songs do fall within the overarching umbrella of classical music, at least as much as other songs written by ‘classical’ composers. So here is one, for you delectation and consideration.

The second video I’m sharing simply because it is breathtaking in its beauty and its virtuosity. James Rhodes playing Felix Blumenfeld's Study for the Left Hand. I find James Rhodes to be a truly remarkable person and absolutely gifted pianist. He loves to play his piano and explore the music; just listen to him talk about this piece, it’s a real passion and it’s infectious. No pomposity, just a love of the music and a desire to share it with others.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Henri Duparc

It's been a while since I posted and I think the whole French music thing is moving on now, but I meant to write a bit of a post-countdown thing so here it is. Mostly I was interested in checking out some of the composers whose names kept coming up but whose music didn't make the countdown. From my viewpoint Henri Duparc was by far the most-mentioned no-show so let's start there.

Just a quick look on Wikipedia tells me a talented man ended up with a tragic life. A neurological condition stopped him from composing in his late 30s and sent him slowly blind. And in that tragic circumstance and who knows what else, he destroyed a lot of his work.

He was usually mentioned in terms of his songs and indeed the list only let you vote for songs he wrote. I confess to having no real interest in listening to them, but he did write some orchestral and piano music. Sadly a lot of this is lost, but there is his symphonic poem Lenore, based on a Gothic ballad about Death riding a lover to his grave - she thinking him a knight leading her to their marriage bed. While it conveys the haste of the ride and is dramatic and certainly a fine piece of music, it isn't quite as dark as its morbid subject matter would suggest. That said, it is very much a Romantic piece, and the sorrowful revelation, the slow and soft conclusion as Lenore learns of her lover's death and dies herself is quite chill and haunting.

There is also his Aux Etoiles, which seems to have had two lives at the least. It seems to be the only surviving part of a symphonic poem written in 1874, and the Entracte for an unpublished play, for which it seems to have been written in 1911, the same year he released a solo piano reduction of the work. Given this is all coming from Wiki which says he stopped writing in 1885, I assume the Entracte phase was a salvage job, 'here's something I wrote earlier that might suit'. That or there are two works with the same name by the same man, and Wiki is missing some vital information.

Whatever the case, it is sublimely beautiful. Aux Etoiles apparently translates to "To the Stars" and the gentle music does have the sense of floating in the eternity of space with the stars shining all around you. It's very evocative.

I said composers, but for now at least I think I'll leave it at just Duparc. Anything after that last piece is superfluous. Listen to it and swoon away.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 7

What a fantastic conclusion to a wonderful countdown. No real surprises in what made it in but the order was a little unexpected.

The Bolero started us off. It's quite a divisive piece, lots of lovers and almost as many haters. I went through a period of disliking it, I don't think I ever hated it though. But through avoidance for a time and monitoring how often I listen to it now I've come to enjoy it again. I wouldn't say I love it but I do like it. In a good performance the build of the music is actually a wondrous thing which demonstrates Ravel's mastery over an orchestra I think. And done well I do feel compelled to air-conduct the last bits.

Songs of the Auvergne, as belatedly predicted. I will say, hearing more than just the mandatory Baillero which is on so many compilations, not every song in the collection is as saccharine and dull as it is. But they still do nothing for me.

Berlioz's master work, the Symphonie Fantastique, on the other hand. Well, given my love of dramatic music I think I need say no more really. A truly monumental work and an absolute thrill to listen to.

One slight surprise was that Debussy's Prelude a l'apres d'un faun (which I think I've been calling a pavane for a couple of days, put that down to Faure fever) came in at only No 6. I thought it would be top five for sure and expected it may even have won. It is such an amazing piece, it conjures a dreamscape unlike any other, just as the poem it's based on says it should. And from all accounts it was a revolutionary and inspirational piece at its time, setting the mood for the whole century to follow.

I confess I don't really know The Pearl Fishers, and while I don't mind the famous duet from it, it's not one of those few opera songs which has managed to grow on me yet anyway.

Satie's Gymnopedies ... what can I say? Utter beauty on the keyboard. The first is one of those quintessential swoon moments that takes time and stuffs it in a bin for a while, there is only the music. The other two are almost equally as tranquil and it's great to hear them played together.

Not only did Faure's Requiem come third, it was also the third requiem in the countdown. It has neither the dark landscape or Durufle or the drama of Berlioz, but resonates the peace and rest the others offer in part all the way through. It is a positive requiem if we can say that, death as culmination of life, as the coming of peace.

The last of my votes at No 2! Very happy with that, Saint-Saens Symphony No 3. With the exciting opening movement, the lovely breeze blowing in the slow second movement and of course the surprise organ at the end. It has it all, a masterpiece of innovation within a classical form. I really didn't think it would do this well so now maybe I should've voted for the Danse Macabre but ultimately I'm very happy with the overall outcome.

Which of course left Bizet's Carmen to take out the top spot. Deemed too scandalous even for the French at the time, he never got to see it succeed, must be a surprise to him to know just how popular it is. In the suite form I love it, slightly exotic flavour, lots of action, wonderful rhythms, a total delight. In the opera form I'm less thrilled but in this one a number of the songs have grown on me and I enjoy it a lot. A fitting finale to what was a tumultuous and rich musical countdown.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 6

Happy to say most of the pieces in today's countdown were in my predictions of yesterday. I didn't pick Adam's carol O Holy Night or Widor's Organ Symphony No 5. I also had two Debussy Preludes where the countdown put the lot together as one entry. Bit annoyed about that actually, I agree they should be one entry like they were last year but on the voting page there was only about half of them and they were all listed as separate votes. So some fiddle-faddling has taken place there.

So not much in the way of discovery today. Coppelia was new for me and I enjoyed it a lot. Knowing the story it came from, ETA Hoffman's The Sandman, I felt it could have been a bit darker but it was certainly dramatic enough and anyone who reads this blog much will probably have noticed I do like dramatic music.

It was also great to hear the rest of the Suite Bergamasques. I know Clair de Lune deserves its place as a masterpiece and quintessential swoon, but the rest of the pieces in this work deserve to be heard more often too. Differing moods, all strongly represented and offering the pianist a wonderful experience I'm sure.

In my predictions I did forget Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, somewhat foolish or maybe just wishful thinking. I'm sorry but I just don't dig it. Probably just lacking in drama or something but I find it saccharine and dull. However, I expect they will come in fairly high. Which means I must accept the demise of Faure's Bereceuse and Poulenc's Sextet, which were both stretches I admit for personal favouritism. Actually, thinking about I don't think Ravel's Tzigane is a likely top 10 piece, not over his String Quartet and Piano Concerto ... so there's something else coming too.

A quick apology too - I meant Saint-Saens Organ Symphony not Concerto ... I voted for it so I do know that. Whoops.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 5

Two great symphonies in today's countdown. Franck's opened proceedings this morning and it was quite a journey I must say. From the brooding opening chords to the celebration of light at the conclusion. A real journey and good fun. And from that straight into Saint-Saens' second piano concerto which is simply brilliant in its shifts from light poetry to strong declamation then back to dancing instruments and all seamlessly. The second symphony was Bizet's which is a sheer joy to listen to.

Keeping with new pieces (for me), Chabrier's Espagna was a jolly jaunt with Spanish flair. Interesting just how many pieces were written by non-Spanish people inspired by the country. I love that Franck wrote his violin sonata as a wedding present for a violinist who managed to take the score and play it at the wedding. The slow movement seemed strangely sorrowful and I don't think the rest of the piece is entirely lovey-dovey but it's mostly celebratory, at least of violin playing. Overall I prefer the cello version but I prefer cello in general so that's to be expected.

Despite comments from the announcers about Faure being boring, I found his Cantique de Jean Racine to be one of those tranquil pieces you can really just stop the world and listen to.

And my wish from yesterday came true! Giselle came in, what a treat that was. Great story behind it, and the music really rocks along. Then a second ballet with Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe. I'd only heard the second suite before today which doesn't do the whole work justice. As a whole it weaves a spell that can't function as well when it's broken into pieces.

A few more operas made it in today. Interesting to note Offenbach used the can-can in his Orpheus in the Underworld as well as in Gaite Parisiene. Gounod's Faust was a bit different and quite nice. I love the Bacchanale from Samson et Delilah too, it's fantastic. But I'm still not an opera fan overall despite the beautiful music between the main singing. Sorry opera buffs.

From here it's tempting to start predicting the rest of the pieces to come in. So here it is - in no particular order - my predictions. Happy to be wrong.

1. Debussy – Suite de Bergamasque
2. Debussy – Pavane ... Faun
3. Debussy – Submerged Cathedral
4. Debussy – Girl with the Flaxen Hair
5. Debussy – La Mer
6. Ravel – Pavane for a Dead Princess
7. Ravel – Bolero
8. Ravel – String Quartet
9. Ravel – Piano Concerto
10. Faure – Pavane
11. Faure – Requiem
12. Delibes – Lakme
13. Delibes – Coppelia
14. Satie – Gymnopedies
15. Satie – Gnossiennes
16. Saint-Saens – Danse Macabre
17. Saint-Saens – Carnival of the Animals
18. Saint-Saens – Organ Concerto
19. Dukas – Sorcerer’s Apprentice
20. Bizet – Carmen
21. Bizet – Pearl Fishers
22. Bizet – L’Arlsienne
23. Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique
24. Massenet – Thais
25. Poulenc – Sextet
26. Offenbach – Tales of Hoffmann
27. Faure – Bereceuse, Op 16
28. Ravel – Tzigane

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 4

Second day in a row the countdown has opened with a choral work of Hector Berlioz I hadn’t heard before. The Requiem is huge and glorious in parts, although it lacks much of the emotional landscape of Durufle’s; maybe not the Gloria or the angelic reflections of the conclusion. In all I probably prefer the Te Deum from yesterday but hey. It was followed by a bit of his oratorio about the Childhood of Christ which was quite serene in general.

I hadn’t, and still haven’t apparently, heard the entire Turangalila symphony of Messian. It’s a strange work to be honest and I’m afraid I have to admit it really does sound like a ’50s B-grade SF/horror soundtrack. The alien monster, attacked by the marines but falls in love with the hero’s fiancĂ©e whose father is the scientist who first noticed the strange spacecraft …

I may have heard Marais’ The Bells of St Genevieve before but this was my first time really listening to it. The sense of rhythm and the rocking of the bells back and forth is very strong and quite enthralling in its way.

First time hearing Harolde in Italy all the way through too, that's a fun piece sort of a concerto with a plot. Only the second time I'd heard Saint-Saens' fifth piano concerto but it was on my favourite list from the first time. What a magical piece! It's not like any other concerto I can think of, evocative and mysterious.

Interestingly no operas today, although a few choral works and songs. No ballets in the countdown yet, so hope Adam's Giselle gets in and Delibes' Coppellia - I want to hear them in full. One of the expert guests today suggested Faure's Requiem and Pavane would both probably miss out ... I think he might be wrong about that somehow but we'll see.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 3

Today was light on opera, no complaints from me but there's some that will definitely still appear. Actually I expect Carmen to be a top 10, and Pearl Fishers and Lakme to be at least top 25. Interesting a couple of film scores got in too, both by Jarre. I remember the horror some musical snobs had when some soundtracks made it in last year. But hey, there's some awesome music written for movies and it deserves to be recognised.

Baroque made a few more appearances today which was good to hear. Interesting coincidence was the day opened with back to back Te Deums - Berlioz's and Charpentier's. The former I hadn't heard at all before and it was interesting to hear the way the organ and choir could achieve such a soft touch in the reflective passages. No surprises on the grand nature of the triumphant ones though.

Probably the most fun discovery for me was Offenbach's Gaite Parisiene which was a jolly romp for the most. A little bit last night of the Proms at times perhaps, but good to hear where the Can-Can came from in full. Also interesting to hear the barcarolle in context too, very different to most of the work as a whole but a pleasant respite, like a grand sunset after a busy day in Paris - or should that be a grand sunrise after a night of festivities?

Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is a dramatic one, very different to his jazzier concerto in G. There's a gentle passage toward the end which is utterly beautiful, took my breath away. Some lovely use of other instruments too. Debussy's Cello Concerto No 1 was an intriguing one too, not quite as smooth as some of his earlier works but still a strong composition, obviously. His String Quartet on the other hand was quite astounding, a strong and innovative take on the form.

I saw a few people were waiting for Durufle's Requiem, for me it was another first. Such a dark landscape is conjured by it, desolate yet beautiful, then the Sanctus brings some sort of light and hope. And the Agnes Dei lifts us up from the shattered ground and offers solace and rest. No wonder people were waiting.

Poulenc's Organ Concerto was dramatic certainly but I can't say it was entirely to my tastes. I didn't dislike it but didn't do anything for me.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 2

Day two saw a few more operas and the happy inclusion of some Baroque pieces. Berlioz maintained his lead but the others are catching up.

The important thing for this blog of course is the new pieces I discovered. There were quite a few, but special mention to Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. It was apparently written with a violin virtuoso in mind so there’s a concerto aspect and the violin does fly along with the orchestra. Some really lovely symphonic sounds in it too, definitely one I’ll want to hear again.

Another discovery was Gounod’s St Cecilia Mass. I missed some of the beginning of this one but caught most of it. The quieter passages are sublime, but I found some of the more, triumphant shall we say, parts a bit meh. Nice but I wasn’t blown away, very austere I feel. Saint-Saens' Cello Concerto No 1 however was another great work. I love cello music and it really gets to dance in that one.

Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano was a delightful piece with some wonderful flights of the flute and piano, with some sudden contrasts too. I’m hearing Poulenc in bursts and whenever I do I like him more. Even his choral Gloria, which I first heard in yesterday’s countdown, was an exciting work, but I prefer his chamber works so far.

So glad to hear Faure’s Sicilienne and to learn about its history. I had thought it was part of his Peleas and Melisande suite so when I saw the separate opus in the voting list I was a bit confused. Hearing that it actually started life as incidental music for a different play, was then resuscitated in a cello and piano arrangement before finally being used for the Maeterlinck play has cleared up my confusion. And the arrangement for cello and piano is beyond a doubt magnificent. As a side note my wife voted for that, she has good taste in music.

Addendum - So there's a wiki page about the countdown which is exciting. It also pointed out I miscounted and Debussy has pulled level with Berlioz. I expect he will have the most in the end.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day One

Well the first day of the countdown is finished and it's been quite a day. Seventeen pieces down, three operas, one choral work and the rest orchestral or instrumental. Berlioz has the early lead with Ravel and Franck close behind but obviously very early days for that.

Several discoveries for me, including I must confess Franck's Symphonic Variations which were very good. The best one though was a little Concertino for Flute by Cecile Chaminade. I said I hadn't been very thorough looking for women on the list and I totally missed Cecile, very glad she's now been brought to my attention.

What I find interesting, or disturbing, about these countdowns are people's reactions. For one thing I think it quite strange how often the presenters have to point out the pieces were voted for by listeners and it's not them picking the stuff. And I appreciate the passion people feel for their favourites and the disappointment when something they like doesn't get higher - my only vote to make it so far is Berlioz's Roman Carnival at 86, to me it's a definite higher listing. But there are some people out there who turn their comments on other listeners by voicing utter disgust that certain pieces have made it.

Last year it was particularly bad, with some implying that the main audience was clearly uneducated and/or utterly without taste or refinement because they didn't vote for more obscure composers. Music that is difficult to get into, while it has its place, is always going to struggle in popular countdowns. I just wish everyone could love the music and appreciate that they won't agree with it all and accept that their tastes may not be mainstream but that doesn't mean the mainstream is wrong.

Anyway, that is my rant. Beyond that the Classic 100 is great fun so far and I fully expect more discoveries and enjoyment along the way.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Boulanger Sisters

I decided it was time to have some women represented in this look at French composers. Let's face it, there aren't many well-known female composers in history, which is sad but can't be helped now. At least now we have the likes of Elena Kats-Chernin to mix things up.

Anyway, perusing the list of French composers from the old voting page I came across two women (I didn't look completely comprehensively so there may be more) and those two it turns out were sisters. Nadia and Lili Boulanger were born towards the end of the 19th century into a musical family. Their father, not very well-known himself, once won the Prix de Rome composition competition, very prestigious.

It seems the two were very close despite a seven year age difference and both were clearly musically talented from an early age. Lili, the youngest, was declared by Faure himself to be tone perfect at the age of two. Sadly she was not a healthy child or young woman and died far, far too young. In her short life however she wrote a considerable amount of music which has been judged, and I'd have to agree, to be far more mature than her early years would imply. She also won the Prix de Rome like her father.

Nadia had a long life and was a very influential figure in music for the first half of the 20th century. She had little regard for her own talents as a composer, despite being mostly alone in that impression, and made her greatest mark as a teacher and a conductor. As the former she taught a huge number of great composers and musicians, and as the latter she was a trailblazer, being the first woman to conduct major orchestras like the BBC and Boston Symphony Orchestras and the New York Philharmonic. She also conducted world premieres of some big names including Igor Stravinsky with whom she was good friends. For all that she wasn't really a feminist and apparently said women shouldn't be allowed to vote ... no-one's perfect.

Anyway, what's important here is the music. And through the timing of their lives the wonderful thing is we have access to Nadia not only conducting the music of Lili but also sometimes playing it. Lili wrote what I can only describe as a haunting Nocturne for cello and piano, and this performance has Nadia on the piano.

Her more famous works are Faust et Helene, a cantata, which was the Prix de Rome winner, and some settings of Psalms. As I've said I'm not huge on opera and while none of these are operas the cantata does have a similar style of singing. The music behind it however is again quite haunting and dramatic. Choral works are a bit harder for me to define and I take them on a case by case basis but don't expect much. However I did listen to the entire Psalm 130, just under half an hour, which I hadn't expected to do. It's understated but rich in tone and a subtle majesty, quite peaceful for the most with passages of darker shadings. The recording linked here is conducted by Nadia.

Nadia's own music is harder to track down. There's footage of her teaching which is interesting in a way, as much for her ideas and attitudes to music. I recommend a little YouTube search for her and seeing what she says about music. One piece I have found - not a voting option sadly - is a Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra. It's rather like a mini piano concerto and it's truly a beautiful piece.

Most of her works are songs or vocal settings and I haven't really explored them. The few others aren't the easiest things to find but there is this short video of a performance of her Three Pieces for Organ, here played in her own arrangement for cello and piano. There's an airy quality to them which is slightly fey and utterly compelling.

While there is a dearth of recordings - outside some appearance on 'recital' albums by various artists - the music of these two is rich and worth listening too. And the impact Nadia Boulanger had on the 20th century, in terms of classical music at least, is not to be underestimated.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Florent Schmitt

Florent Schmitt drew my attention because of his inclusion on an album with Debussy and Ravel's Piano Trios. The Joachim Trio included his short Tres Lent as a foil to the two more famous works. It's only three minutes but perfectly nice and it led me to wonder who he was.

It seems Schmitt is one of those figures who, while important and influential in his day, just didn't manage to compete with the bigger names in the long haul. This despite outliving Debussy by around 40 years and Ravel by almost 10. By then however his fame and influence were well in decline even though he did succeed Dukas at the Conservatoire. From what I can tell he suffered from a stigma of being a traditionalist, not entirely fairly, and was somewhat shunned for it. I suspect his anti-semitism, made famous in a scandal in 1933, and his support of the Vichy French during the war possibly have something to do with his decline in favour as well.

Personality aside what of his music? Most things seem to point to two major works, The Tragedy of Salome and a setting for Psalm 47. The first is a symphonic poem based on his earlier ballet and highlights his 'impressionism' and interest in the 'exotic'. It also caught the attention of Stravinsky and I can hear something in there that might draw him. I've only listened to part of it and it's nice with some fascinating instrumentation in bits, but nothing overly grand. The Psalm 47 is a pretty strong and dramatic setting but choral works aren't usually my thing - with some notable exceptions.

Far more impressive to my mind is the Piano Quintet. This is a highly dramatic piece which really uses the piano and the strings to build the tension by working in concert (literally I guess). The closing movement builds a rising sense of hope but just when you think it'll finish on a high note it peters back down and we have something of a deliberate anticlimax. The Dionysiaques for wind orchestra show off his 'orientalism' a bit more I think and have wonderful shifts from bold and dramatic to soft with pathos, creating a somewhat ominous atmosphere but a busy one.

To my mind, there's something there but, other than the Quintet and perhaps his shorter works, he's not someone I'll actively pursue.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

No Man's Apprentice - Paul Dukas


Okay so Paul Dukas is a fairly well-known French composer, but let's be honest he only reaches that status after the umpteenth time we ask ourselves "who wrote the Sorcerer's Apprentice again? Oh that's right Dukas. I wonder what else he wrote."

Turns out, quite a lot. He was contemporary with Claude Debussy, studying with him at the Conservatoire in Paris, and a highly learned individual. He made his name not only as a composer but also as a conductor, critic and teacher (his students included Messian and Rodrigo). He also walked a middle ground at a time when most French composers were split in two extremes, an older classical movement like Saint-Saens and the more avant-garde like Debussy. Dukas liked both schools and both sides influenced music that was consequently decidedly his own but also on its own so more apt for getting a little bit lost.

Even during his lifetime The Sorcerer's Apprentice achieved such success he became known as the guy who wrote it. For that, he came to hate it apparently; somewhat like Radiohead becoming "the band that did Creep" in the early 90s and refusing to play it for years. It didn't help probably that he was his own worst critic and actually burnt most of his compositions - so who knows how much more great music there could have been in the repertoire?

His Symphony in C is a dramatic work in three movements - in the tradition of Franck's - and definitely one worth listening to. The andante is decidedly Swoon worthy in its opening too.

One of his other major works was the ballet La Peri. This starts out very quietly before the dancers actually appear, and so it was lost to the audience who were still chatting thinking nothing was happening yet. To save this lovely intro from such neglect Dukas wrote a Fanfare to be played before La Peri, nice and loud to shut everyone up. I love that. (Note the youtube link to the ballet includes the Fanfare played a bit slower to the video of it by itself).

He also has a Villanelle which seems to be quite popular with French Horn players, at least ones who comment on YouTube, and it does give that instrument some delightful phrases. There's an overture to Polyeucte, which is a play by Corneille one of the leading playwrights in the French "Golden Age" which is to say the same time as Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson etc over the Channel. So this is the equivalent of all the 'overtures' written for Shakespeare's plays, and easily as enticing as many of them with some beautiful reed instrumentation to lure you in.

In short, Dukas has a lot to offer in a number of modes. His piano sonata in e-flat seems quite popular too but I haven't tried it yet. I will though. Luckily Chandos has a double album, The Essential Paul Dukas, which has most of what I've mentioned here - not the Villanelle. It's on my ever-growing Wishlist on Classicsonline but I don't intend to wait too long before getting it.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Glinka Album Review

If you follow this for long it will soon become apparent that I'm a big fan of Russian classical music. The father of that tradition is considered to be Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857) who brought Western classical ideas to traditional Russian music and greatly influenced later compatriot composers like Balakirev, Mussorgsky and eventually Tchaikovsky. How much so on each I don't know.

Despite that there's only one piece of his which gets much recognition these days, the overture to his second opera Ruslan and Lyudmilla. It is an exciting overture with an awesome timpani part, but I always figured there had to be some more great work. Then this album came up as a weekend special on classicsonline and I couldn't pass it up. It proves Glinka wrote quite a lot of wonderful music, definitely classical but also distinctly Russian, with shifting themes and moods that never leave you bored.

So I reviewed it and the following is what I submitted to classicsonline.


When the opening dramatic and brooding strings and horns of the Capriccio Brilliante give way to a lively fare with softer strings and floating winds, you know you’re in for something special. This album leaves us with no doubt why Mikhail Glinka is considered the father of Russian classical music, but it does raise the question of why we mostly only hear one overture of his when so much of his work is musically brilliant and, more importantly, such fun to listen to.

Every time you think the tune has settled into one mode, it will take a turn. Light strings in the Souvenir from Madrid are suddenly punctuated with stirring percussion, only to fall back to the strings before a brief almost plaintiff clarinet and a rousing combination of the three. Themes are established, intertwined and mixed with seeming ease, and the themes are undeniably Russian but wonderfully wrought into the Classical mode. There are foretellings of almost every Russian composer to follow in this music, but none more so than Tchaikovsky himself.

Vassily Sinaisky leads the BBC Philharmonic on this exploration of Glinka’s Russia and cuts a deft path through the shifts and changes. The drama is captured without overwhelming the quieter moments which ring with poignancy. This is hands-down a magnificent introduction to the music of a highly influential composer who has so much more to offer than the overture to Ruslan and Lyudmilla; although when it comes to that … well, it is a triumph no doubt.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

My Music of France Vote

Okay so my time was running out and I had to make some choices. As mentioned I did go with Faure's Pavane and Bizet's L'Arlesienne. The final choices for the rest were Satie's Gnossiennes, basically because I played them again and thought how could I not? Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture for fun and energy and Saint-Saens Organ Symphony for brilliance and because I'm trusting my dad to vote for the Danse Macabre.

I'm also relieved that my wife will be voting for Carnival of the Animals, Debussy's Suite Bergamasque and Prelude for the Afternoon of the Faun, and Satie's Gymnopedies. She's also thinking of Faure's Pavane but I'm trying to sway her to Ravel's Mother Goose Suite as I write this. Didn't work. Not to worry.

Bring on the countdown!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

French Epitome of Moustachios

One name that cropped up several times while reading about other French composer was Vincent d'Indy. He sounded quite important and influential but to be honest I'd not heard of him before. Back to the research.


Firstly, I just have to say he had a fantastic moustache, the ideal 19th century Frenchman. Which is fitting as he sounds like a very patriotic Parisian. His most famous work is the Symphony on French Mountain Air, with some folk tunes as a base, and it really has that mountain countryside feel. I guess a bit of a predecessor to Strauss's Alpine Symphony, but not as dramatic, probably more pastoral really. What's really interesting about it is it uses a piano, so it has some resemblance to a piano concerto, but the piano works with the orchestra in a much more integrated way. This should get played more - I hope people vote for it in the countdown.

The reason he keeps turning up however is his influence as a teacher. Along with a couple of others - and inspired by his admiration for his teacher, Cesar Franck - he founded a second music school in Paris, the Schola Cantorum de Paris. The famous Paris Conservatory had become almost entirely focused on opera, so even Franck essentially didn't fit there. d'Indy and his fellows were much more interested in orchestral work so the school provided that focus. He had many students who were successful composers in the late 19th/early 20th century, including Satie, Milhaud and it seems Cole Porter which is interesting.

He was a huge admirer of Wagner and there's some signs of that in his work - I'm told, but I can hear it in the brass section of the Symphony on French Mountain Air. He also seems to have been quite forward looking in his composition, so a pioneer of the 20th century revamp on Romanticism - there's no doubt his music still falls into that classification though. Take his symphonic variations, Istar for instance. I can't find any more info on the piece but I'm assuming it's inspired by the Assyro-Babylonian goddess of the same name, the one of love and war, but more her loving side.

Well worth exploring further and clearly an influential man even if he has become somewhat obscure now.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Importance of Listening to Ernest

The name Ernest Chausson rang bells in my mind but I couldn't think why so he's my next choice of French composers. Turns out I have very little reason to know the name, I have a couple of tracks by him on some compilation albums put out by the ABC, and not ones I'm overly familiar with. But I've done a little research and discovered an artistic soul.

He lived a cultured life and studied law because his father wanted him to, but he didn't follow that direction. He tried drawing, he tried writing, then he came to music and he found his calling. He studied under Massenet and Franck, was influenced by Wagner and hung out with artistic types including Faure, Debussy and Monet. Tragically he died after his bicycle hit a brick wall, he was only 44 and he left only a comparatively small collection of works.

Most of his stuff is in the vocal oeuvre and not really something I'm that into but it sounds nice enough. His biggest success these days seems to be his Poeme for violin which is a strong piece I would say fits pretty well into the Romantic style. Apparently he was asked for a concerto by a prominent violinist of the day but he replied that he did not feel equal to writing such a big piece and would write a smaller one instead. Self-doubt or modest truth we'll never know but the result is truly worth it. Interestingly though he did write some major works including a Symphony. I've only heard the third movement but it's strong dramatic stuff with a beautiful finish.

He also seems to have had a love for Arthurian legends. He wrote a symphonic poem on Vivianne fairly early in his career and towards the end an opera on Arthur himself. So an artistic and romantic soul, who drove himself on with a passion to write. He said he had periods where he felt an almost feverish need to write as there was not enough time - tragically prophetic sentiment, but it hints at the passion behind the work.

I will certainly pursue his orchestral and chamber works. And I have to say I feel like I've found a somewhat kindred spirit in this man, I'm touched to have learnt about him, as weird as that might sound.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Daniel Auber

So the next French composer to catch my fancy is Daniel Auber - yes the alphabet is a powerful influence on the order of things. I haven't forgotten Adolphe Adam either, I just skipped him cause that was weeks ago for me.

Auber was predominantly an opera composer and mainly wrote comic ones. From what little I can gather that fits his personality, a kind, witty man who was prominent in French society for much of the 19th century. Now it seems his music is reduced to fragments for the most part. Quick searches bring up overtures and arias as parts of compilation recordings. It looks like the operas get some performances but I don't think they're big on most companies' repertoires.

I'm not a huge fan of opera arias but I do love overtures and Auber seems to have written some good ones. The Bronze Horse seems to have been picked up by military bands now and the link on the Classic 100 voting page leads to a video recording of a live performance by one such band. It's good but fortunately there was another link on that page which leads to a full orchestral version - the BBC Philharmonic - and I'd recommend it. It's light, lively and engaging.

One interesting thing that's turned up in terms of the voting list is the option to vote for Masaniello and The Mute Girl of Portici - when they're the same opera. Guessing whoever collates the votes will be aware of that. The two youtube links are thankfully different, one of them however is a video of an LP being played and it has the sound quality you'd expect. There is another version of it I found - it being the overture by the way - which is still an LP but it was put up properly and does sound okay. It's here.

In all not a composer I'll be exploring too much, not being an opera fan per se, but I'm very glad to have found out about these overtures.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Discovering The Music of France - Alkan

Since ABC Classic FM is running the Classic 100 - The Music of France, I thought it'd be interesting to explore some of the French composers it's opening up. The great thing about the voting list is it has links to Wikipedia and YouTube performances of some of the pieces. So it's an easy way to discover new works.


I'm starting with Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) who was a virtuoso pianist and composer. I randomly chose his 12 Etudes in Major Keys for my first dip in the playlist and it's really quite something. I also have to recommend his Barcarolle and La Vision from his Esquisses, Op 63.

It seems he was somewhat of a recluse, in one of the only known photos of him he has his back to the camera, and not many people were in his circle. He was still highly respected by his contemporaries including Liszt, and his organ music was and is influential in French organ music.

There's something very enigmatic about him from the little I've sampled. His piano music is beautiful Romantic stuff but slightly 'different'. He did apparently try to avoid certain styles and keys and put things into somewhat bizarre keys to do so. And then there's his Funeral March for a Parrot, a strange piece with bassoon, oboes and voices with lyrics asking if the parrot was eaten.

A fascinating figure and one whose music I hope to sample more of.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

More Classic 100 Music of France Musings

So it’s getting to crunch time and I’m going to have to make some decisions. As I said in my first post I already know I’m voting for Faure’s Pavane; that was decided as soon as I knew the theme for the countdown. It’s such a beautiful piece and I’ve loved it for years, I even used it in the soundtrack to a short film I made in uni. So I not only love it, it has some personal attachment.

If I use the idea of significance I can probably also lock in Bizet’s L’Arlesienne. When I was in my late teens I bought a cheap CD with that and Carmen, because I knew of Carmen and thought it’d be good to have in a collection. But it was the Farandole from The Girl from Arles that really captured my attention and imagination. I used to play it a lot while writing my play for HSC Drama, a melodrama about a knight and an evil king. And it is great music.

Saint-Saens raises problems with this approach though. The Danse Macabre and Carnival of the Animals are both some of the earliest classical music I knew and loved, and the Organ Symphony is one of the first symphonies outside Mozart and Beethoven that I knew. I could vote for all three and be done with it, but that leaves so many others and I have this thing about spreading the love and not wanting to give one composer more than others – irrational it may be but I never claimed to be a slave to logic or reason.

Leaving those three to battle out my third pick, I have two picks left. As I said, I feel Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun is safe to do very well without me, but there is his Reverie and Nocturnes – and I’ve just discovered his first piano trio ... I’ve got to put a Berlioz in there too of course, his flair for the dramatic really captures my fancy. I’ve got that down to two, King Lear and The Roman Carnival Overture, the latter because I’ve loved it for a long time and the latter because as well as being good in itself, it’s King Lear, a play I have a near fetish about.

Which leaves Ravel’s string quartet and tzigane, Satie’s Gnossiennes, and of course Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice – another early love – to battle it out for the last pick. And even then there’s a mass of pieces I’m rooting for from the sidelines. And new discoveries waiting for me to indulge in which possibly deserve more attention.

I may have to take Classic FM’s tweeted challenge up and see if I can convince some other people to vote too, after all it’s more fun if you vote for something. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Busy Busoni - A Review

The following is a review I just submitted to Classicsonline of Busoni orchestral works, featuring the Clarinet Concertino, by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. It's on the NAXOS label and you can find it here.



Before seeing this album I only knew the name Busoni from a transcription of Bach on a James Rhodes album. I was lured in to this one however by the clarinet concertino – I collect clarinet concertos. I’m very glad I got it too, not just the one piece but the whole album.

Most of the pieces, like the Lustspielouverture and the Flute Divertimento, are lively classic fare with an infusion of something more modern than I’d expect. The whole album is very energetic, and captured beautifully in the recording which has clarity with all the instruments. There’s also a richness to the music and a constant sense of movement; it’s never boring.

It’s never more surprising though than the Rondo Arlecchinesco, which lives up to its zany namesake. Even after several listens the sudden entrance of the tenor is surprising.

And of course I have to talk about the Clarinet Concertino. What a delight! It’s not as robust and dramatic as the rest, allowing for a quieter moment which in itself is no bad thing, but the way the clarinet seems to drift over the other instruments as if they were the water and it the boat, is simply magic.

Welcome

Hello and welcome to Wandering Capriccio, the place where I share my love for classical music. I figure a little introduction is a good way to start. First of all, I’m an enthusiast, nothing more. I have no training beyond second grade clarinet. So don’t look for in-depth analysis here or hassle me out if I call something good that is ‘technically’ not up to some standard or other. I’m into the music for its beauty, its passion, its humour or its despair.

Why this blog? Because it’s fun and I like to share. I’ll post reviews of albums – which I mostly get from classicsonline – talk about events if there are any coming up I’m attending or whatnot, and share little factoids I may come across. I guess that’s what blogs are all about after all. And of course, I’ll share some music too, with links to youtube etc.

The big event at the moment, ABC Classic FM’s Classic 100 – The Music of France. I’ve been looking forward to this since last year’s finished, and once the initial list went online I’ve been contemplating my votes. I was working on the basis that it would be like last year’s voting and I could shortlist on the site, then cull it down to 10. So imagine my surprise to learn you can’t and you’re only allowed five votes! Turmoil is all I can say my response to that has been.

With 10 I figured I was fairly safe to include all three of the Saint-Saens I wanted to vote for (Organ Symphony; Danse Macabre; Carnival of the Animals), now I’m thinking it’ll have to be one. Same for Faure, which will have to be his Pavane because it’s one of my all time favourites. So that’s two gone, three to go and oh-so many options to fill them. It’s tough, so I’m trying to think which ones people will vote for anyway, so not worry about them, but that leaves the trick of ‘what if everyone assumes that?’ Imagine a French Classics countdown with no Debussy in the top five. But I’m feeling pretty confident my favourite of his, Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faun, will do well enough without me. So yes, I’m probably not voting for dear Claude, even in his sesquicentenary.

To make up for it here’s a version of his third Nocturne, the Sirens, conducted by Pierre Boulez.