Classical Music July/August

Hummel Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 85

I often lament at the lack of recognition the composer Hummel is given. Notable comments referring to my chosen Concerto as “very respectable” do little to assign this mighty work to its justified position. Let’s note a bit about the man’s pedigree: his teachers included Haydn, Clementi and Mozart while Beethoven, and Mendelssohn were among his pupils! “More scorned than acknowledged, Hummel unwittingly provided a means for other composer’s gain, a vital key to their musical character”. Chopin was certainly influenced by this great man, most notably in his two piano concertos.

It was written in 1816 and scored for piano, flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. The works is composed in traditional three movement form.

I love the blend of formality and virtuosity. The music is fresh and vivid and truly holds a new audience captive in awe and silence. At times Hummel astonishes his listeners with his flamboyance, stunning us and the pianist with near impossible demands. The final movement commences with a beautiful, graceful theme and changes into a fast and furious tarantella leaving the listener quite dazzled. Delightful.

My recommendation is as much about Stephen Hough’s stunning performance here in this recording, as the extraordinary composition. The soloist, Hough readily admits that learning these two concertos was like a baptism of fire. These are super-charged performances and this was the first ever recording to be produced on one disc. It will always remain one of my most treasured CDs.

Recommended recording:
Hummel Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 85 with Piano Concerto in B minor Op. 89

Stephen Hough – English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Bryden Thomson

Chandos Label, available from Amazon.co.uk

Classical Music May/June

Beethoven Symphony No 6 in F major “Pastoral”

Surely this is one of the best-loved of Beethoven’s symphonies. It is well documented just how much the great composer was passionately fond of nature and much of his music was an interpretation of Nature’s moods. Beethoven composed both his 5th and 6th symphonies in the years 1807/8 while staying at his customary summer residence in Heiligenstadt, a suburb of Vienna. In his time this would be a bustling village in the Viennese countryside, lying on the bank of the Danube. He would make lonely walks in this beautiful landscape, always taking his notebook, in which he would put down, in musical characters the thoughts that came to him from the sights and sounds around him. When listening to the Pastoral symphony it is easy to imagine the great composer inspired by this rural landscape.

The symphony has five movements, a departure for Beethoven from the four, typical of the Classical era. He annotated the beginning of each movement as follows:

1. Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country
2. Scene at the brook
3. Happy gathering of country folk
4. Thunderstorm
5. Shepherd’s song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

I think you will agree, as you listen to the second movement, that this is one of Beethoven’s most sublime, beautiful and evocative pieces of music. At the opening the strings play a subtle piece that suggests the flowing of water. Toward the end of the movement we are treated to sounds from three woodwind instruments that imitate bird calls, a nightingale – flute, quail – oboe and a cuckoo – clarinet. Quite special. The final movement (Allegretto) is regarded by many as finest music of the whole symphony, I’ll let listeners make up their own mind. It starts quietly and gradually builds up to a great crescendo showing off the full force of a great orchestra. It concludes with two emphatic F major chords.

Enjoy a clip of this lovely symphony on TouTube.  Try Toscanini’s  1st Movement

I will leave the concluding words to the biographer, Anton Schindler and I would implore any readers to listen to this symphony and ponder these appropriate words.

“As we walked along the pleasant grassy valley between Heiligenstadt and Grinzing, Beethoven frequently stopped and, filled with happy feelings of rapture, let his gaze wander over the beautiful landscape. Then he sat down in a field, leaning against an elm and asked me if any yellow-hammers were to be heard in the upper branches of these trees. But all was quiet. Thereupon he said, “this is where I composed the scene by the stream and the yellow-hammers up there and the quails, nightingales and cuckoos round about composed with me”.

Recommendations:

What a wide choice of recordings to choose from with the most famous orchestras and conductors of all time offering some wonderful performances. There are some marvellous box sets to choose from with all of the nine symphonies available.

I will stick my neck out and state that there are a number of performances that jump out and that I could not be without, they are:

Symphony No 6 and Schubert’s Symphony No 5 with the Wiener Philarmoniker, conducted by Karl Bohm. DG Originals 447 433-2

1. A box set with the Berlin Philarmoniker, conducted by Claudio Abbado. DG 469 000-2

2. Symphonies No 6 and 7 with the Hannover Band, conducted by Roy Goodman. Nimbus Records. This marvellous cycle is also available in a box set and features original instruments. A truly wonderful experience!

3. Symphonies No 5 and 6 with the Berlin Philarmoniker, conducted by Karajan in 1984.  DG 413 932-2

All these recordings are available from www.amazon.co.uk

Classical Music Choice Mar/Apr

Written by Dr. Helmut Frehse

The Four Last Songs (German: Vier Letzte Lieder) were the final completed works of Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949), ranking among the most haunting music ever written. The songs are “Frühling” (Spring), “September”, “Beim Schlafengehen” (Going to sleep) and “Im Abendrot” (In the glow of Sunset). There is no indication that Strauss conceived them as a unified set. The overall title Four Last Songs was provided by his friend Ernst Roth, the chief editor of Boosey & Hawkes, who put them into this order that most performances now follow.

At the end of 1946, Strauss read Eichendorff’s poem “Im Abendrot”, in which an aged couple look at the setting sun and ask, “Is that perhaps death?” The words matched precisely Strauss’ feelings of those years. The piece was completed by May 1948. During that time, a friend sent Strauss a volume of poems by Hermann Hesse. Strauss chose four verses to form a five-song cycle with the Eichendorff setting. The Hesse pieces were composed between July and September 1948, making them the final works that Strauss completed. He never finished the last of the Hesse songs. Strauss died quietly at his Garmisch home exactly one year later.

The settings are for a solo soprano voice given remarkable soaring melodies against a full orchestra, and all four songs have prominent horn parts. The combination of a beautiful vocal line with supportive brass accompaniment references Strauss’s own life: His wife was a famous soprano and his father a professional horn player.

Each of the magnificent Songs treats metaphorically the approach of death – through images of rebirth in spring, autumn, rest and sunset. In these moving creations, Strauss left what British musicologist Neville Cardus described as “the most consciously and most beautifully delivered ‘Abschied’ [‘farewell’] in all music.”

Towards the end of Im Abendrot, exactly as the soprano’s final intonation of “der Tod” (death) ceases, Strauss musically quotes his own tone poem Death and Transfiguration, written six decades earlier, as though bringing round full the cycle of his life’s work. The quoted phrase (known as the “transfiguration theme”) symbolizes the fulfillment of the soul into death.

The premiere of the work was given posthumously at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 22 May 1950 by Kirsten Flagstad accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Strauss had written the Songs, as is now accepted, for this great Wagnerian soprano.

Recommendations:

R. Strauss Four Last Songs with Jessye Norman and the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur

R. Strauss Four Last Songs, The Alpine Symphony with Anja Harteros and the Stadtskapelle Dresden conducted by Fabio Luisi

R. Strauss Four Last Songs with Renee Fleming and the Munchner Philarmoniker conducted by Christian Thielemann

All of the above are available from www.amazon.co.uk

As a taster have a look at You Tube and an interview and songs with Renee Fleming along with Christian Thielemann.

Winter Classical Music Choice

My recommendation for this period is a personal favourite, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (Chorfantasie) for piano, chorus and orchestra in C minor. Op. 80. This must rank as one of the most stirring pieces of music that is so typical of the grand master, Beethoven.

Surely one of the most remarkable concerts of Beethoven’s career took place on December 22nd, 1808. It was a benefit concert, performed in the Theater an der Wien (Vienna) featuring the premieres of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies as well as a portion of the C major Mass. To conclude this memorable concert programme, Beethoven chose a brilliant Finale, his Choral Fantasy, the great man played the piano piece – what a memory this must have been for all present.

This composition was written just prior to the above-mentioned concert and was expressly composed to fulfil this role. I must say that when playing this for my own guests, I also choose the piece to conclude the evening and most will shake their heads and say, “Wow, top that”! There are stark similarities between the choral parts of both the Fantasy and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Listen out in the former for “Lieb und Kraft” (love and strength) and compare with some choral sentiments from the 9th Symphony. The Fantasy opens with a slow but virtuosic 26-bar piano introduction and when choosing a version on CD I am very fussy about this opening introduction. The finale includes the solo piano introducing the choral theme and this is then followed by variations on the theme played by the flutes, clarinets and string soloists – a highly demanding part which is beautifully captured on DVD. The chorus enters with the sopranos and altos singing the main theme followed by the tenors and bases. The high point approaches as the entire chorus is joined by the orchestra in a tutti rendition. A presto coda with orchestra, chorus and piano brings the piece to a close and, if like me you have a passion for the music of Beethoven, you will feel moved to the very “core”.

This famous piece is generally coupled with another delightful composition, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (Tripelkonzert). As far as recommendations are concerned, I would suggest any of the following:

Triple Concerto/Choral Fantasia (Kegel, Dresdner PO, Rosel) by Beethoven, Capriccio Label – £13.78 from www.amazon.co.uk

Beethoven: Triple Concerto; Choral Fantasia by Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, Yo Yo Ma, Berlin Philarmoniker, EMI Label – £8.99 from www.amazon.co.uk

The EMI version is also available on DVD and is a splendid choice at £22.49 from Amazon

As an appetiser, I would have a look at the performance on You Tube with Lang Lang at the piano and Seiji Ozawa conducting – wonderful!

Classical Music Oct/Nov

Krommer Oboe Concerto in F Major op 37 and op 52

The Oboe Concerto must surely be one of the most beloved and sadly, all too rarely performed works in a concert. We frequently hear single movements performed on popular radio stations and thank goodness for that and the obvious exposure that results there from. The Oboe is a double reed musical instrument of the woodwind family and I am always fascinated by the importance of the reeds and their structure. The pitch (in concert C or A, for example) of the oboe is affected by the way in which the reed is made. Listening to an Oboe Concerto, by comparison to that composed for the clarinet or bassoon, brings an element of joy and a ‘voice’ that is clear and penetrating. More often than not we are treated to works by Albinoni and Marcello or perhaps the popular concerto by Mozart and these are indeed lovely works.  I would like to draw reader’s attention to two of my favourite works, written by the Czech composer, Franz Krommer. He was born in 1759, the year of Handel’s death and moved to Vienna in 1795. It seems that his relative obscurity (despite composing 9 symphonies and 9 violin concertos) has much to do with the natural eminence of his contemporaries, Beethoven and Mozart!

Whereas Mozart in his Oboe Concerto called for a smallish orchestra, Krommer has expanded on his requirements, adding flute, bassoons, trumpets and tympani to both of his works. I hope you will enjoy the rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment to the solo instrument in both pieces. There is an obvious change to the composition of the 2nd concerto, Op 52 and the first movement shows a force rather reminiscent of Beethoven. These are lovely works worthy of a prominent place in a collection of classical pieces for the Oboe.

My recommendation is: Hyperion’s CD performed by The London Mozart Players with Sarah Francis playing solo Oboe and Howard Shelley conducting.

The CD is available from www.amazon.co.uk

As a taster enjoy a performance of Krommer’s Oboe Concerto op. 37, 3rd movement on You Tube uploaded by J. H. Bernardo accompanied by a lovely picture!

Classical Music Aug/Sep

Franz Schubert:
Quintet for Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass in A Major, “The Trout”

If there are any readers of this regular slot who are a little wary of Chamber music, here’s the piece to introduce you to a marvellous genre of music. Schubert was a genius as a creator of songs and this piece is an interpretation of a song he composed, Die Forelle (The Trout) in 1817. He composed the A Major Quintet in 1819 when engaged to do so by Paumgartner. Schubert composed the work while holidaying with his friend Johann Vogl in Upper Austria. Perhaps we can picture the scene; glorious summer weather, fragrant pine forests, mountain air coupled with a rare bonus – it is said, the attentions of eight daughters of a local friend. No wonder he was cheerful in spirit! As you sit down and enjoy this happy piece of music, I am sure you will be able to picture that scene in Upper Austria nearly 200 years ago.

I experience an immediate lift with the pace of the first movement with its delightful and characteristic principal melody. It is followed by a slower movement which opens with the piano and a lovely melody in F major. The third movement, a scherzo and trio, is followed by the famous theme. The last movement is as delightful as the first and re-establishes the key of A major. The conclusion reminds us of the opening theme and the happy occasion when the piece was composed.

A closer look at Schubert’s work is essential for those of us who are most familiar with his masterful symphonies. In his boyhood he was most influenced by the music of Mozart but he looked up to Beethoven as the great master. In 1822 young Schubert dedicated a set of Variations to Beethoven. He wished to present them to the great man in person but was too shy to do so. He persuaded his publisher, Diabelli to accompany him. Beethoven was courteous but formal and was now totally deaf. He seemed pleased with the dedication and really liked the music and often played it to his nephew. Five years later, during his last illness, a collection of some sixty of Schubert’s songs was placed in Beethoven’s hands. He turned them over and over with sheer amazement and delight. “Truly Schubert has the divine fire”, he exclaimed and asked to meet the composer of such divine music. On a final visit to Beethoven’s bedside when suffering from his terminal illness, Schubert was overcome with emotion and two weeks later claimed the great privilege of being one of the torch-bearers at the great man’s funeral. Little was he to realise that, despite his own tender age of thirty, he would be soon to follow. It is hard to believe that the composer of this very special and happy piece of chamber music would pass away in the thirty-second year of his life. It was his wish to be buried near to Beethoven’s grave in the Wahringer Cemetrey near Vienna. What a remarkable musical heritage these two composers have left us!

Recommendations:

Schubert – Trout Quintet with the Amadeus Quartet and Emil Gilels, Piano. Deutsche Grammophon

Schubert – Trout Quintet with the Kodaly Quartet and Jeno Jando, Piano. Naxos

YouTube: F. Schubert – 1 Allegro Vivace (part 1), Matthias Kretzschme

Classical Music Choice – July

Rachmaninov, Symphony No. 2 in E minor

The composer finished this work and conducted its premiere in 1908. The symphony earned him the Glinka Award ten months later. Reflecting for a moment – it seems extraordinary that the great composer had little confidence in his own ability as a symphonist when he approached the composition of this symphony. Yet, it shows just how a truly gifted individual can take a dreadful knock when receiving unjust and unreasonable criticism. In 1897 he had composed his first symphony, conducted by Alexander Glazunov at its premiere and it was considered an utter disaster. Such was the nature of this criticism that it sent Rachmaninov into deep depression and he lacked confidence in writing. It was after the triumph of his second symphony that he regained his sense of self-worth as a symphonist. As I sit and listen to this massive work and reflect on the tumult this man was undergoing during its composition, it serves as a powerful reminder as to how we should treat one another and the thrill we can experience today, as a result of his full and eventual recovery from illness.

That this is a massive performance is reflected in its lasting 65 minutes. For this reason it has been subjected to many revisions that can reduce the piece from an hour to nearly 35 minutes. I will recommend recordings that honour the complete score. The symphony is scored for a full orchestra with 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel and strings. The first movement is simply amazing, full of mood changes and charged with emotion, by the time it comes to an end I feel emotionally drained! It is dramatically intense with two notable tunes, the second of which is very special, the development begins with a solo violin and ends with an oboe.

As in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – of which Rachmaninov said: “Nobody will ever write anything better than this” – (how right he was!), the busy second movement, a scherzo is full of vigour. If the opening movement is charged with emotion, goodness knows how to describe the slow movement. This movement is the core of the whole symphony and is surely one of the most famous movements ever to be composed. Please listen to this movement, along with the rest of the work, without distraction. Here, there is a beautiful rhapsody for solo clarinet, while the wind and strings provide a plaintive reply. The final movement is rather grand and sweeping, incorporating memories of the preceding movements.

Some modern-day critics have dismissed Rachmaninov as a symphonic  composer and commended him as a phenomenal pianist; I say, listen to and savour this monumental work, ponder over what may have been going through his mind as he sought to make a point to his critics and I’m sure you will agree he triumphed in a way that would have made Beethoven very, very proud.

Recommended recordings:

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, 1988, IMP/MCA Classics (complete with first movement repeat)
Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, 1973, EMI (complete)
Lorin Maazel conducting the Berliner Philarmoniker, 1983, Deutsche Grammophon (complete)
All are available from Amazon: www.amazon.co.uk

My Classical Music – June

Franz Lehar, Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow), lyrics by Victor Leon and Leo Stein.

Pontevedro in Paris or, “how much reality does an operetta need?”

1905 was the year of two great premieres, both focussing attention on women of exotic origins and real fascination. Richard Strauss’s Salome and Franz Lehar’s Lustige Witwe. They proceeded to conquer the entire known world. Lehar’s music can take the listener’s breath away because the unrelenting succession of the numbers, dance rhythms and tempos never gives the chance to draw a breath. How it came to be written makes an opera plot in its own right. “The action is set in Paris in the early years of the 20th Century, but its prehistory lies in the Balkan principality of Pontevedro. There, Count Danilo fell in love with a beautiful girl called Hanna, but she was poor and his uncle prevented their match. Hanna married the court banker, Glawari, who was elderly and very rich.he died soon after the wedding, leaving her his entire fortune. Danilo is now secretary at the Pontevedrin Embassy in Paris, and there his and hanna’s paths are about to cross again!”

Enjoy this fast-moving operetta as the plot is revealed.

I will recommend three performances that are available on CD, they are:

Franz Lehar, The Merry Widow, Highlights from Richard Bonynge’s Performing version, sung in English, with Joan Sutherland, Werner Krenn and Valerie Masterton. The National Philarmonic Orchestra and the Ambrosian Singers. This is the only recommended version with a full and very delightful overture. Available from: www.amazon.co.uk

Franz Lehar, Die Lustige Witwe, Lovro von Matacic with the Philarmonia Chorus and Orchestra. Sung in German, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda and Josef Knapp. Available from: www.amazon.co.uk

Franz Lehar, Die Lustige Witwe, John Eliot Gardiner with the Wiener Philarmoniker and the Monteverdi Choir, sung in German with Bryn Terfel, Barbara Bonney and Cheryl Studer. Available from: www.amazon.co.uk

My Classical Music, May

Having been born in the month of May, I somehow feel that this is a special month, deserving of a very special choice of music! Perhaps it will be of no surprise then, when I recommend Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor.

For many years this piece has been a firm favourite in our family but a few weeks ago I was to join my wife at a concert performance of this work at Edinburgh’s famous Usher Hall. I sat through this particular concerto, played by the mercurial, Stephen Hough, simply mesmerised by the virtuosity, balanced perfectly with romantic beauty. It was a very special experience.

Grieg wrote his only piano concerto during the summer of 1868 whilst recuperating in Denmark after a period of extreme exhaustion. One of his most defining moments was on the occasion of his second meeting with the great Franz Liszt in Rome. He recalls this meeting, “I had fortunately received the manuscript of my concerto from Leipzig and took it with me. A number of musicians were present. ‘Will you play?’ asked Liszt. I declined, for, as you know, I had never practiced it. Liszt took the manuscript, went to the piano and said to the assembled guests: ‘Very well, then, I will show you that I also cannot.’ Then he began. I admit that he took the first part too fast, but later on, when I had a chance to indicate the tempo, he played as only he can play. His demeanour is worth any price to see. In the Adagio and still more in the Finale he reached a climax, both in the playing and in the praise he bestowed. When all was over he handed me the manuscript and said in a peculiarly cordial tone ‘Keep steadily on, you have the ability and do not let them intimidate you!’

What an experience for the young Grieg. Whenever I hear this concerto I recall this thrilling encounter. This concerto is often compared to the piano concerto of Robert Schumann, the opening descending flourish on the piano is similar but, I have to say that the opening bars are simply impossible to confuse with any other piece of music.

My recommended disc is a performance by Murray Perahia with the Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, conducted by Sir Colin Davis on the Sony Classical Masters Label. I guarantee that readers of this recommendation will not be disappointed. The Grieg Piano Concerto is paired with Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor.

The disc is available on line from www.amazon.co.uk

My Classical Music, April

Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending

This is a delightfully relaxing piece of music consisting of a “romance” for violin and orchestra after a poem written by George Meredith. It was composed in 1914 but had to await its first performance in 1921.  For anyone who has had the pleasure of enjoying the wonderful display and song as a lark ascends from a typical English meadow, this piece of music will surely evoke some fond memories as it does with me.

Vaughan Williams was a British composer, a close associate of Holst and taught by, both Bruch (in Berlin) and Ravel (in Paris), what distinguished teachers! He was greatly influenced by English folk – music.  For me the transcending value of this piece comes from the time of its composition. It may well be the last piece of classical music to have been composed in the final days of piece in 1914. “Few works of such deceptive simplicity and brevity have so great a power to evoke the radiant innocence of a world that, even as Vaughan Williams put pen to paper, was on the brink of dissolution.

As Classic FM beams its popular brand of music to the listening nations, the most popular piece of classical music, as voted for by listeners at Easter, may well prove to be this very piece once more!

My recommended performance is one that brings us right up to date with the popular Scot, Nicola Benedetti playing the violin:

Source: London Philarmonic Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Litton – DG, available from Amazon UK