Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Ten Musical Recordings I Love

The eminent composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, recording his music for “West Side Story,” in 1988.

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately, which I regret, though I am not burdened by so heavy a weight of guilt as this regret may normally imply, because I’ve nevertheless been exulting in the sublimities of aesthetic, moral, and intellectual achievements in the arts that are available to those who seek them out. In the time since my last post, I have seen two excellent movies — one on DVD (Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret) and one in theatres (James Gray’s The Lost City of Z) — and two truly great movies — one on DVD (Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited) and one online (Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory) — about which, hopefully, you’ll hear more in a short while.

In the time I would have spent writing about these wonders, however, I’ve been focusing on a few instances of musical greatness instead. My levels of enthusiasm had been stoked somewhat by the announcement of the relaunch of the local band, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and I spent much time going over different recordings of the pieces they would present in their special relaunch concert (the March from Act II of Verdi’s Aïda, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony), which led me to revisit a few other favourites. I was further excited by last week’s commemorations of Leonard Bernstein’s 99th birthday (including my own, on Facebook) and the kick-off of the Bernstein centenary. In the hope it would encourage discussion on the opportunities of musical appreciation and wonderment to avid listeners in South Africa, as well as on various composers, works, and recordings in particular, I present to readers here a list of some of the recordings I’ve been listening to keenly, obsessively, passionately, rapturously, and defencelessly.

It would stand to reason that my favourite recordings are of some of my favourite works; however, the selection doesn’t reflect my preferences for and tastes in particular composers’ works exactly. For example, Liszt’s famous piano sonata is most certainly one of my favourite pieces, and would undoubtedly appear in any top ten list I compiled; I’ve witnessed electrifying performances of it, but the only recording I’ve encountered is rather mediocre, and does not feature here. I’ve also included references to instances of each work mentioned being used in a film, since this is supposed to be a movie blog.

I hope you’ll include lists of your own in the comments, even of music of completely disparate styles, periods, and genres; or you could mention the pieces of music used in movies that you really enjoyed. These posts exist to share enthusiasms, and to learn about wonderful things that exist and that you didn’t know about before. Check out a few of my choices (most of which I bought on Google Play, and should probably be available on YouTube), and return the favour by directing me and other readers to your discovered marvels.

In no particular order:

J.S. Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232; Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt. (Warner, 2005)

When I first heard Bach’s great B minor Mass, one of the final works he completed before his death, the realisation overcame me that this was one of the momentous works in western art music history, and perhaps the greatest I had ever heard. Like Liszt’s piano sonata in the same key, it seems to me the kind of work that takes into account the development of the entire musical tradition that has come before it, and blasts open the doorway to the future. My reverence for it has not abated, only deepened, with each new hearing, and Harnoncourt’s recording of it with these Vienna singers and players is the best I’ve come across. Every movement brings an original perspective to both the religious Latin text and the music to which Bach set it, and achieves an aptly devotional beauty, with the exception of one: The “Sanctus,” near the end of the work, while still technically brilliant, is taken a little too fast for my taste, and the blissful droning triplets in the orchestra that echo the singers’ triplet parts don’t splash quite as joyously as I’ve heard in other recordings. But the orchestral sound is gloriously crisp and homogeneous throughout, and Harnoncourt’s singers (soloists and choir) are blessed with a memorably expressive range of timbres. They bring a special sort of majesty to the final “Dona nobis pacem” movement that closes the work. The only instance I can think of this work being used in a film is the comedic moment in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, when the protagonist’s daydreaming in his maths class is accompanied ironically by the “Crucifixus”.

C. Debussy: La Mer, L. 109; The Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez. (Deutsche Grammophon, 1995)

Debussy’s symphonic poem La Mer, composed a little over a hundred years ago, is so richly evocative and brazenly original a work that any competent rendition of it would be an excellent thing to hear. And, admittedly, I love all recordings of it that I’ve heard. In Boulez’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, he elicits a broad and distinctive array of tone colours from the orchestra; particularly memorable for me is the vibrato-rich sound from the cellos at their entry a little over halfway through the first movement, aptly bright and sunny for Debussy’s title — “De l’aube à midi sur la mer” (“From dawn to noon on the sea”) — followed soon afterwards by the woodwinds, and then the entire string section with the brass. The whole performance is buoyant in its typically French lightness and finesse; no cinematic appearances are necessary for this piece — many moments are so vivid and graphic I can practically see the movie playing in my mind as I listen to it.

W.A. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467; Friedrich Gulda, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Claudio Abbado. (Deutsche Grammophon, 1975)

“Mozart’s influence transcends history,” as Albert Einstein himself once said, and I find no desire to dispute that. Just about any of the later piano concertos would do as one of his finest works, but the C major concerto is the one I know the best and have listened to the most, and the Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda wrought something fittingly transcendent in this recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. His playing in the first movement is marked by a singular, superlative grace and elegance, overlaying a transparent framework on Mozart’s playful rebellious spirit with a paradoxically rapturous lightness. The real wildness comes out, fully unbridled, in the first movement’s cadenza, through bold dynamics, tempo fluctuations, and rapid scale passages. I’d never heard this cadenza before (and I have heard a number of the cadenzas often used in this concerto), and, upon looking it up online, found that Gulda had written it himself. Throughout the entire concerto, he takes brazen liberties in his solo part, adding inventive details and distinctive touches in ornamentation, while opening up a breathtakingly, beautifully round and nuanced sound from his instrument. I don’t remember this particular concerto being used in the film about Mozart’s life, Amadeus (though the 22nd piano concerto is used), but the second movement was famously played in the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan, which is now so well known that on a few of my compilation recordings the work is known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto.

G.F. Handel: Messiah, HWV 56; Les Arts Florissants, William Christie. (Harmonia Mundi, 1994)

Undoubtedly the most famous oratorio in history, Handel’s Messiah may just also be the greatest. What’s absolutely certain is that I’ve never heard a better recording of it than this by William Christie and the French Baroque musical ensemble he formed, Les Arts Florissants. It surpasses all other renditions, on a movement-by-movement basis, and brings a profound, inimitable, and unified beauty to the work as a whole. Christie is an expert on and specialist in Baroque music, and his sure command of the styles and ideas of Handel’s music gives him great freedom for interpretation and the evocation of heartfelt wonder. Clear attention is paid to the importance of the text, with not only the soloists and choir, but even the instrumentalists playing to match its contours and meanings. Each soloist possess an almost unbelievably exquisite and expressive timbre, and the choir manages to enunciate everything so clearly that even novice listeners wouldn’t need to read the text to know what they’re singing. Two movements in particular stand out: The aria “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” imparts a real sense of genuine comfort and solace, and the alto aria “He was despised” is heartbreakingly tender in its sorrow. That aria, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,” as well as the “Pastoral symphony” were both used in Manchester by the Sea to moving effect. The universally known “Hallelujah” chorus was played in Bridget Jones’s Diary, as well as a host of other movies I can’t recall at the moment.

L. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber. (Deutsche Grammophon, 1975)

I greatly admire Herbert von Karajan’s recording of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, which he did with the Berlin Philharmonic as part of an entire set of all nine symphonies, but I prefer the work of Kleiber here, who, incidentally, was offered Karajan’s post as musical director of the Berlin Philharmonic when Karajan retired. (He declined.) His recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic are highly regarded, and, when I looked it up online to find the label and year of the recording, I learned that I’m one of only many to count this recording among their favourites. The articulation of each phrase and motif here is acute and nuanced, and it brings out the magnificence and intellectual power of Beethoven’s work without diminishing its agility. The entire symphony is intensified with the ebb and flow of dramatic tension and resolution, which Kleiber obviously has a natural sense of. The second movement is elegant, the third anxiously anticipatory, and the fourth explosive in its triumph; the Viennese brass players exhibit awesome power in the finale. And, in the progression from each movement to the next, I could follow the famous development of Beethoven’s ubiquitous opening motif (the “dit-dit-dit-dah” that everybody knows), which is the ingenious component Beethoven used for his innovative symphonic form of inter-movemental unification. You can hear this theme in a number of popular films; the ones I recall offhand are Saturday Night Fever (in which the disco remix is played for dancers in a club), Immortal Beloved (the Beethoven bio-pic starring Gary Oldman), and Howards End, in which Helen Schlegel attends a lecture on music and meaning given by Simon Callow, who plays a piano transcription of the third movement. The novel Howards End opens Chapter Five with a memorable, extended description of a concert, rather than a lecture, that the characters attend in which the fifth symphony is played by an orchestra; E.M. Forster writes of the work that it “is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated the ear of man.” I can never quite gauge the irony of this passage.

J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988; Glenn Gould. (Columbia, 1955)

Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, released when he was only 23 years old, became an instant sensation worldwide, and catapulted him to pianistic stardom. Gould rarely re-recorded anything, but one of the last recordings he made, in 1981, was a new working of the Variations. I’ve not yet heard the 1981 recording, but I have heard parts of the recording made at a live concert in Vancouver in 1958 that Gould gave, and I have listened to the original 1955 recording at least half a dozen times in the last few weeks. The brilliance of Gould and this recording (beside his technical brilliances: the closely controlled sound, the rapid fingerwork, the precise articulation, and the expert balance of voices) is that it de-familiarises an exceedingly familiar work. His playing awakened me to the strangeness and originality of Bach’s composition, and his lively spontaneity gives the impression of the music being composed on the spot, with Bach handing each page to Gould at the piano to be played before the ink has even dried. The aria and most of the variations are played at breakneck speed, and there is much to learn and discover in other recordings by other pianists, who take far steadier and more contemplative tempi (I’ve read that his 1981 recording is remarkably slow), but Gould evokes an entire world of distinctive sounds, moods, and ideas. You can hear more conventional recordings of the aria and a few variations in films as diverse as Merchant-Ivory’s Maurice, The English Patient, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Before Sunrise. There’s no quicker way for a filmmaker to signify old-world cultural sophistication than to play Bach.

R. Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54; Christian Zacharias, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. (MD & G, 2001)

Schumann’s single piano concerto is my favourite piano concerto — perhaps I’m too overwhelmed for choice by Mozart’s output — and Zacharias highlights many of its greatest qualities in this recording, in which he plays the solo and also conducts. He takes the first movement at a briskly spirited speed, moulding elegant contours of the lyrical flow of the music. I saw a performance of this concerto at the beginning of last year in Pretoria where the orchestra began the first theme rather slowly, and the soloist entered even more slowly, with a tenderness that gave prominence to its glacial dignity and the intimacy of its emotions. Zacharias’s concerto is no less intimate, but it takes a completely different route to finding the right points of contact with Schumann’s deeply personal, even achingly emotional revelations. The interactions between him and the orchestra are spontaneous, with the ensemble exercising an especially responsive immediacy, perhaps because it’s a chamber orchestra, and perhaps because Zacharias is conducting. This concerto is the music that opens Lee Daniel’s The Butler in a concert at the White House.

W.A. Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492; Thomas Allen, Margaret Price, Kathleen Battle, Jorma Hynninen, Ann Murray, Kurt Rydl, Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Riccardo Muti. (Warner Classics, 2005)

As I explained to a friend recently, my hierarchy of operas can be given as: All of Mozart > All other operas. Unfortunately, there aren’t many opera productions staged in Gauteng, at any time of the year, and, when they are, local companies usually resort to the marginally more popular romantic works. This year, we’ve had Tosca at the State Theatre (which I saw), La bohème at the Joburg Theatre (which I saw), and La Traviata at the Brooklyn Theatre (which I missed). Gauteng Opera promises a production of Le nozze di Figaro in October on their website, but without committing to so much as a date or a venue. Until then, however, a large number of recordings of full operas are available to listeners here, and the one I have spent the most time playing and replaying is Riccardo Muti’s Figaro with the eminent Viennese opera ensemble and orchestra. Muti gives sure guidance and support to the singers, while simultaneously highlighting the elegant orchestration. The soloists are the best that could be asked for, each employing the grace and control required to perform Mozart well. You may recognise the duet “Sull’aria … che soave zeffiretto,” which was memorably played by Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption over the prison’s loudspeakers. A handful of numbers were featured in Amadeus, as the composition and production of the opera plays an important part in the drama of that film — my favourite moment is in the opera’s finale, as Salieri is listening from his box, ineffably moved, and his voiceover describes the countess’s part as the very music of true forgiveness (if I recall correctly, this is also the moment at which Emperor Joseph yawned). I also recall Figaro’s famous overture being played in Runaway Bride, and on Lionel Logue’s headphones while the Duke of York was reading Hamlet in The King’s Speech.

A. Dvořàk: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” B. 178; London Symphony Orchestra, Istvan Kertesz. (Decca, 1967)

Dvořàk famously gave this symphony the title “From the New World” because he wrote it while he was director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, in the 1890s. He claimed the influence of traditional Native American music and African-American spirituals, and composed the symphony after hearing students sing melodies and songs from these musical traditions. I find those influences evident in the work, as well as that of the music of his home country, now known as the Czech Republic. It is now one of the most popular of all symphonies — the League of American Orchestras reports that it’s the fifth most popular piece in the orchestral repertory, and Neil Armstrong took a recording of it with him on the Apollo 11 mission. I don’t think many readers would struggle to find out why it’s so popular once they listen to it, nor would it take dozens of listenings as well as performances of it in a student orchestra for any of you to come to love it (which is the background I have in this particular symphony). As with the Debussy, every recording I’ve heard is an admirable one; Kertesz and the London Symphony Orchestra achieve a particularly moving lyricism and triumphalism in their playing. The orchestra plays with a uniformly dazzling sound, often impressively full-bodied, and the instrumentalists display a range of beautiful timbres in the many small solos in this symphony. I can’t recall any movie in which the work is played, though there must be at least half a dozen mainstream movies that have used the beloved theme from the second movement.

G. Puccini: La bohème; Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Elizabeth Harwood, Rolando Panerai, Gianni Maffeo, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan. (Decca, 1973)

To my mind and ears, the effectiveness of Karajan’s great musical power is directly proportional to the Germanic late-romantic-ness of the work being played. He reigned over the major musical institutions of central Europe for most of the period between World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union, and what he elicits from the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics is invariably skilled, polished, agile, formidable, and imperative, but with a driving force that can sometimes elide the lightness that particular works and styles require. I’m not sure that Karajan’s Wagner performances could be paralleled, but I’ve heard a few of his recordings of Bach and Handel that were bold, brassy messes. His Beethoven symphonies are renowned musical achievements (and, pace Kleiber, every time I hear the second movement of the fifth symphony, I can’t get his swinging elbows out of my head that I once saw in a video of him conducting it), but his one recording of French impressionistic orchestral music was so distastefully heavy that the critic-composer Russell Platt was prompted to write that it “sounds like the background music to the occupation of Paris.” Where Karajan did create wonderful sounds was in performances and recordings of verismo operas, such as Puccini’s most popular, La bohème. Here, he conducts an all-star cast headed by Pavarotti — who deserved his wide fame and popularity for his big, bright sound, his intelligence, and his sincerity — and Mirella Freni — who is not as famous as she once was for her masterful precision. Karajan lingers over the marvels of the orchestral parts as well as those in the singing roles. My favourite moment in the otherwise tiresome film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement is when Robbie writes the two fateful letters, intercut with Cecilia getting ready for dinner, while his recording of La bohème is playing on his gramophone; it’s a charmingly insignificant anomaly, since the recording he plays is the famous one conducted by Thomas Beecham, which was only made in the 1950s, while the scene is set in the late 1930s.

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