Monday, 30 June 2008
Performer: Susan Gritton, Paul Agnew, Robin Blaze, Gabrielli Consort and Players
Director: Paul McCreesh
Length: about 2 hours 40 minutes (3CDs)
We say goodbye to Handel, just after we have said goodbye to Bach, with this Oratorio by the master of Oratorios. Interestingly it is also quite a big departure for Handel oratorios, it is actually more similar in structure to Handel's operas than his previous oratorios.
The arias are longer, the choirs much less in evidence, everything is more dramatic and the story is more contained than for example the sprawling Messiah which took up the whole life and after-death of Christ.
It is also one of his most beautiful oratorios, never as bombastic as the previous two we have had on this list, it is much more restrained, but also much more dramatic in a smaller sense of the word. More melodramatic I should perhaps say. This is not to say that there aren't some pretty amazing choirs, but the real outstanding bits of the work are the extended da capo arias, as good as any from his operas. That being said it doesn't capture the grandiosity of his other oratorios.
There are two surviving quotes of Handel about Theodora. Morell quotes Handel as saying "The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story; and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one." Handel's colleague Burney took note when two musicians asked for free tickets for Messiah and Handel responded "Oh your servant, meine Herren! you are damnable dainty! you would not go to Theodora - there was room enough to dance there, when that was perform"!
Theodora was actually Handel's favorite of his oratorios. The composer himself ranked the final chorus of Act II, "He saw the lovely youth," "far beyond" "Hallelujah" in Messiah.
Duet Theodora and Didymus: "To thee, Thou glorious Son of Worth". :
Thursday, 26 June 2008
Title: Der Kunst der Fugue
Performer: Davitt Moroney
So Bach comes to an end, quite literally, with the Art of Fugue. Again I repeat my personal bias against harpsichord, but let's not let get that in the way of what is actually quite a great piece of music.
The work consists of a number of pieces all based on the same theme, which is repeated at the start of almost all of the pieces, and in this recording the pieces are ordered in order of complexity, so it just spirals out, and that is quite an interesting effect.
The we get to the last fugue, which just stops, this makes for the most poignant moment in the whole thing, frankly I think that interpreters which fade the track out or simply "complete" it are doing it a disservice. The track just stops because Bach, supreme baroque composer died, and that moment is something else. Moroney adds a "completed" version at the end of the recording which is frankly unnecessary. Well, we are well rid of the Harpsichord from now on, but are also unfortunately rid of Bach, I wish he could have gotten his hands on a piano.
In 2006, the Slovenian industrial rock group Laibach (part of the NSK collective) performed their interpretation of Kunst der Fuge in Leipzig, Germany, as part of the "Bach Week" celebrations, following in 2008 with a series of live performances across Europe and the issuing of an album.
Glenn Gould plays the last part of the last fugue on the piano:
Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Title: Musick For the Royal Fireworks
Performer: Kings's Consort
Director: Robert King
Wow, this is Handel at his most epic, particularly in his amazing overture, where he produces some of his most famous music, but also some of his most bombastic and catchy stuff. You just sing along with it throughout.
This recording is a particularly good one at bringing out the majesty of it all, Robert King throws away strings and sticks to the drums, brass and wind instruments which represent how it would have been originally played in all its glory.
This is like the last great explosion of Baroque pomp, now that the classical age is fast approaching, and you couldn't have much better than this, really. It is music that touches the little epic bone the we all have. An amazing recording for a truly astounding piece of work.
The performing musicians were in a specially constructed building which had been designed by Servandoni, a theatre designer. The music provided a background for the royal fireworks. However the display was not as successful as the music. The enormous wood building caught fire due to the fall of the bas relief of George II. However, the music had been performed publicly six days earlier, on 21 April 1749 when there was a full rehearsal of the music at Vauxhall Gardens. Over twelve thousand people, each paying 2s 6d, rushed for it, causing a three-hour traffic jam of carriages, after the main route to the area south of the river was closed (after the new London Bridge's central arch collapsed and it had to be closed). The work is in five movements.
A very young Robert King directs Music for the Royal Fireworks:
Tuesday, 24 June 2008
Title: Mass In B Minor
Performers: Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists
Director: John Eliot Gardiner
Length: 2 hours
If you enjoyed the choral parts of Bach's passions this is very much the place to go to next. The Mass in B minor is the corollary of Bach's choir work and goes all the way from tender to absolutely noisy.
As an advantage in relation to the passions, the Mass has no recitatives obviously, but it never quite reaches the levels of some of the choirs in Matthew's or the opening choir in John's Passion. Still, the whole of the mass is quite enjoyable.
The two Cds of this edition actually split the mass neatly into the Kyrie and Gloria in the first CD and the rest in the 2nd CD which was most certainly composed later. Still the highlight for me is the last movement of the Agnus Dei, a properly explosive end to the last Bach vocal composition recording on this list.
It is suggested that the piece belongs in the same category as the Art of Fugue as a summation of Bach's deep lifelong involvement in choral settings and theology. It is generally regarded as one of the supreme achievements of "classical" music. Alberto Basso summarises the work as follows: "The Mass in B minor is the consecration of a whole life: started in 1733 for 'diplomatic' reasons, it was finished in the very last years of Bach's life, when he had already gone blind. This monumental work is a synthesis of every stylistic and technical contribution the Cantor of Leipzig made to music. But it is also the most astounding spiritual encounter between the worlds of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross." It has been described in the 19th century by Hans Georg Nägeli as "The Greatest Artwork of All Times and All People." Even though it had never been performed, its importance was appreciated by some of Bach's greatest successors - by the beginning of the 19th century Forkel and Haydn possessed copies, and Beethoven made two attempts to acquire a score.
Collegium Vocale / Philippe Herreweghe, Et Ressurexit :
Sunday, 22 June 2008
Title: Judas Maccabaeus
Performer: King's Consort
Director: Robert King
Length: 2 hours 30 minutes
Handel is a master of Oratorios, after the amazing Messiah we get Judas Maccabaeus, another pretty good one. It is not, however, as good as Messiah, and of course it is not as immediately recognisable as a piece of music.
Still, there is plenty to like here, this is a much more warlike piece of music than Messiah, for obvious reasons, the theme lends itself to it. And that is quite good, but frankly it is only apparent in the second and third act, and it becomes a kind of bottom heavy piece. The first act, beautiful as it is, does not have the same "oomph" of the rest of the work.
We are fast approaching the end of the baroque, and this piece is very much a part of it, this is baroque taken to its pinnacle, much like the Messiah oratorio. Honestly if you only need one Handel oratorio go with Messiah, but if you want to explore further, this would be a good place to go.
"See, the Conqu'ring hero comes", from Judas Maccabaeus, became well-known later as the music was invariably played by brass bands at the opening of new railway lines and stations in Britain during the 19th century and is one of the movements in Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs.
O Lovely Peace:
Thursday, 19 June 2008
Title: Musikalisches Opfer
Performer: Musica Antiqua Koln
Director: Reinhard Goebel
Length: 50 minutes
This is an interesting late piece by Bach, the story goes that he was given a musical theme by Frederick the Great and told to make it in a 6 voice fugue. Bach was obviously being mocked, but instead of flipping Freddy the bird, he came back with this.
And this is a pretty interesting set of variations on the little theme provided by the Emperor. So I think he came out of it pretty well. As always Bach isn't a great innovator and the piece is quite backward looking, there is no inkling of the classical period here, but he does Baroque very well indeed.
Taken out of its historical content this piece would be more impressive than it ends up being, Bach is looking back, not forward, but in the process he manages to make some pretty lovely music, and a very imaginative set of variations.
Some of the canons of the Musical Offering are represented in the original score by not more than a short monodic melody of a few measures, with a more or less enigmatic inscription in Latin above the melody. These compositions are called the riddle fugues (or sometimes, more appropriately, the riddle canons). The performer(s) is/are supposed to interpret the music as a multi-part piece (a piece with several intertwining melodies), while solving the "riddle". Some of these riddles have been explained to have more than one possible "solution", although nowadays most printed editions of the score give a single, more or less "standard" solution of the riddle, so that interpreters can just play, without having to worry about the Latin, or the riddle.
One of these riddle canons, "in augmentationem" (i.e. augmentation, the length of the notes gets longer), is inscribed "Notulis crescentibus crescat Fortuna Regis" (may the fortunes of the king increase like the length of the notes), while a modulating canon which ends a tone higher than it starts is inscribed "Ascendenteque Modulationis ascendat Gloria Regis" (as the modulation rises, so may the King's glory).
Ricercar a 6:
Wednesday, 18 June 2008
Title: Prussian Sonatas, Wurttemberg Sonatas
Performer: Bob Von Asperen
Length: 2 hours 15 minutes (3 CDs)
CPE Bach shows us a marked difference from his fathers use of the keyboard, this is harpsichord really on the edges of the classical period, it is almost there, but still recognisably baroque, even if it is for the simple fact that it is being played on an harpsichord.
That being said, it is still not spectacularly fascinating, but it is quite good. His father isn't much of an innovator, but CPE is much more so. But it is still more harpsichord, and it is kind of driving me crazy, there is one more solo harpsichord recording on the list then we are done with it.
So, yeah it's a welcome development of keyboard music and a kind of essential composition for that, but still too dull to be a real highlight of this list, it is more modern but not as good as the Goldberg variations.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in Weimar, Germany.
When he was ten years old he entered the St. Thomas School at Leipzig, where his father had become cantor in 1723, and continued his education as a student of jurisprudence at the universities of Leipzig (1731) and of Frankfurt (Oder) (1735). In 1738, at the age of 24, he took his degree, but at once abandoned his prospects of a legal career and determined to devote himself to music.
A few months later (armed with a recommendation by Sylvius Leopold Weiss) he obtained an appointment in the service of Frederick II of Prussia ("Frederick the Great"), the then crown prince, and upon Frederick's accession in 1740 Carl Philipp became a member of the royal orchestra. He was by this time one of the foremost clavier-players in Europe, and his compositions, which date from 1731, include about thirty sonatas and concert pieces for harpsichord and clavichord.
In Berlin he continued to write numerous musical pieces for solo keyboard, including a series of character pieces- the so-called "Berlin Portraits" including La Caroline.
His reputation was established by the two sets of sonatas which he dedicated respectively to Frederick the Great and to the grand duke of Württemberg; in 1746 he was promoted to the post of chamber musician, and for twenty-two years shared with Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Johann Gottlieb Naumann the continued favour of the king.
A bizarre video of someone playing CPE Bach:
Sunday, 15 June 2008
Performers: Clare College Choir, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Director: René Jacobs
Length: 2 hours 20 minutes (2 CDs)
This has been my favourite baroque sacred music piece since I was a small child, I can sing through most of it (badly), and that is a testimony to how "catchy" the music is. This is Handel at his best, comparable to how good he was in Caesar, songs that stick with you with a great epic feel to them.
The concept of the thing is the story of Christ divided into three sections, the first one concerns the advent and birth of Christ, the second the Passion and the third has to do with revelation and second-coming. One of the best things about it is how Handel manages to change the emotional sound of the work to fit these three events.
One piece here is particularly well-known, the Hallelujah is one of the most famous pieces of choral music ever, but it has also been overused and loses its potency because of that, but the music here is indeed potent, and listening to the whole thing you get a perspective on the bits that you already know and are bound to discover some pearls. Jacobs recording emphasises the best aspects of the composition, this is a grandiose recording which suits the music perfectly. Highly Recommended.
In the summer of 1741 Handel, at the peak of his musical prowess but depressed and in debt, began setting Charles Jennens' Biblical libretto to music at his usual breakneck speed. In just 24 days, Messiah was complete. Like many of Handel's compositions, it borrows liberally from earlier works, both his own and those of others. Tradition has it that Handel wrote the piece while staying as a guest at Jennens' country house (Gopsall Hall) in Leicestershire, England, although no evidence exists to confirm this. It is thought that the work was completed inside a garden temple, the ruins of which have been preserved and can be visited.
It was premiered during the following season, in the spring of 1742, as part of a series of charity concerts in Neal's Music Hall on Fishamble Street near Dublin's Temple Bar district. Right up to the day of the premiere, Messiah was troubled by production difficulties and last-minute rearrangements of the score, and the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Jonathan Swift, placed some pressure on the premiere and had it cancelled entirely for a period. He demanded that it be retitled A Sacred Oratorio and that revenue from the concert be promised to local hospitals for the mentally ill. The premiere happened on 13 April at the Music Hall in Dublin, and Handel led the performance from the harpsichord with Matthew Dubourg conducting the orchestra. Dubourg was an Irish violinist, conductor and composer. He had worked with Handel as early as 1719 in London.
Glory of the lord:
Thursday, 12 June 2008
Title: Variations Goldberg BWV 988
Performer: Pierre Hantai
Length: 1 hour 18 minutes
The Goldberg Variations have for a long time been one of my favourite, if not my favourite piece by Bach. Weirdly enough I had never listened to them the way they were meant to be played: i.e. the Harpsichord, I had listened to several versions on the Piano and even Organ.
While I still prefer the sound of the piano to that of the harpsichord, I have to defer to historical correctness and the vision of Bach, and that was to have this music on the harpsichord, so even if it is an instrument that I am not a big fan of I understand, respect and agree with the decision to chose the best recording of it as being one on the harpsichord.
And it is a great recording, Hantai manages to drawn the best possible performance from his instrument, and the variations are such immediately attractive tracks that he could have been playing them on the spoons and it would still be great. If you don't know the variations this is the time to start knowing them. Get to it.
The tale of how the variations came to be composed comes from a biography of Bach written by Johann Nikolaus Forkel:
[For this work] we have to thank the instigation of the former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling, who often stopped in Leipzig and brought there with him the aforementioned Goldberg, in order to have him given musical instruction by Bach. The Count was often ill and had sleepless nights. At such times, Goldberg, who lived in his house, had to spend the night in an antechamber, so as to play for him during his insomnia. ... Once the Count mentioned in Bach's presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights. Bach thought himself best able to fulfill this wish by means of Variations, the writing of which he had until then considered an ungrateful task on account of the repeatedly similar harmonic foundation. But since at this time all his works were already models of art, such also these variations became under his hand. Yet he produced only a single work of this kind. Thereafter the Count always called them his variations. He never tired of them, and for a long time sleepless nights meant: 'Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.' Bach was perhaps never so rewarded for one of his works as for this. The Count presented him with a golden goblet filled with 100 louis-d'or. Nevertheless, even had the gift been a thousand times larger, their artistic value would not yet have been paid for.
Forkel wrote his biography in 1802, more than 60 years after the events related, and its accuracy has been questioned. The lack of dedication on the title page of the "Aria with Diverse Variations" also makes the tale of the commission unlikely. Goldberg's age at the time of publication (14 years) has also been cited as grounds for doubting Forkel's tale, although it must be said that he was known to be an accomplished keyboardist and sight-reader. In a recent book-length study, keyboardist and Bach scholar Peter Williams contends that the Forkel story is entirely spurious.
Pierre Hantai plays the Aria:
Wednesday, 11 June 2008
Title: Complete Keyboard sonatas Vol.5
Performer: Benjamin Firth
Length: 1 hours 12 minutes
This was a pretty amazing piece of music, the CD consists of a selection of some of Scarlatti's 555 sonatas, and they are all not only amazing but incredibly ahead of their time. Interestingly for this list, which prides itself on trying to be quite historically faithful and with good reason, these pieces are played on the piano. But then they sound so modern that it works, they sound like they were always meant for the piano, which they weren't.
Interestingly Scarlatti was quite isolated from the rest of the musical world, being in the Iberian Peninsula for most of his life, first in Portugal and then in Spain. Scarlatti started doing something that you would only hear about being done in a large extent with the Romantics: including inspirations of folk music in his piano compositions. This leads to some very unique and beautiful music. Scarlatti is very much beyond the constrictions of the Baroque period.
This has been the most exciting discovery lately on this list, the music is pretty amazing, it reminds me of Schubert at times, which is pretty much impossible but it is played in a sensitive way that really highlights Scarlatti's innovation and brilliance as a composer.
Only a small fraction of Scarlatti's compositions were published during his lifetime; Scarlatti himself seems to have overseen the publication in 1738 of the most famous collection, his 30 Essercizi ("Exercises"). These were rapturously received throughout Europe, and were championed by the foremost English writer on music of the eighteenth century, Dr. Charles Burney.
The many sonatas which were unpublished during Scarlatti's lifetime have appeared in print irregularly in the two and a half centuries since. Scarlatti has, however, attracted notable admirers, including Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Heinrich Schenker and Vladimir Horowitz. The Russian school of pianism has particularly championed the sonatas.
Scarlatti's 555 keyboard sonatas are single movements, mostly in binary form, and are almost all intended for the harpsichord (there are four for organ, and a few where Scarlatti suggests a small instrumental group). Modern pianoforte technique owes much to their influence. Some of them display harmonic audacity in their use of discords, and also unconventional modulations to remote keys.
Other distinctive attributes of Scarlatti's style are the following:
* The influence of Iberian (Portuguese and Spanish) folk music. An example is Scarlatti's use of the Phrygian mode and other tonal inflections more or less alien to European art music. Also some of Scarlatti's figurations and dissonances are guitar-like.
* A formal device in which each half of a sonata leads to a pivotal point, which the Scarlatti scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick termed "the crux", and which is sometimes underlined by a pause or fermata. Before the crux Scarlatti sonatas often contain their main thematic variety, and after the crux the music makes more use of repetitive figurations as it modulates away from the home key (in the first half) or back to the home key (in the second half).
Horowitz plays Sonata L.33 :
Monday, 9 June 2008
Title: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier 1 and 2
Performer: Gustav Leonhardt
Length: 4 hours 20 minutes (4 CDs in two separate boxes)
There are some pieces of art in all kinds of arts in which you can recognise the importance and greatness of the thing, while at the same time having a guttural aversion to it. Such is my case with the Well-Tempered Clavier.
Firstly, as I have said before, solo harpsichord is second only to the organ in boring me, of course some pieces are the exception and I frequently feel like listening to Rameau's Cyclopes. But this, despite its formal and technical innovation bores me. Particularly when you have to listen to 4 hours of it. It is best digested in small doses.
Still, Bach was not the first to compose Harpsichord pieces in all 24 possible notes but he was the first influential composer to do it and that makes this an impressive and more than that influential and extremely important work, definitely a piece of musical history being made here, and I recognise that... but then, it bores me.
Although the Well-Tempered Clavier was not the first pantonal (using all keys) composition, it was by far the most influential. Beethoven, who made remote modulations central to his music, was heavily influenced by the Well-Tempered Clavier, since performing it in concerts in his youth was part of his star attraction and reputation. The WTC (Well-Tempered Clavier) does not include very remote modulations but instead demonstrates the ability of a single instrument in tempered tuning to play in all 24 keys without having to be tuned to new fundamentals. Further reaching modulations to remote harmonic regions were mostly associated with later Romantic and post-Romantic music, ultimately leading to the functional extension in jazz harmony. The atonal system of the 20th century, although still taking the 12-tone chromatic scale (that Bach used) as a foundation, effectively did away with musical keys altogether.
Van Asperen's version:
Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Title: Concerti Grossi, Op.6
Performers: Academy Of Ancient Music
Director: Andrew Manze
Length: 2 hours 20 minutes
Despite all of Handel's musical brilliance nothing in this collection of Concerti Grossi leads me to think that Britain was not a bit of a backwater in musical terms at the time. These Concerti Grossi really show little evolution since the time of Corelli at the beginning of the century.
Handel's individual brilliance is however quite apparent here, but he does nothing much different, He keeps hanging to the old structure of concertos without following the much more current by this time Fast-Slow-Fast Vivaldian structure, but the concertos are saved by his capacity as a composer, there is some very beautiful music here.
Still nothing that will really blow anyone out of the water or which hasn't been done before. Handel is really quite a conservative composer, a brilliant one, but one that sticks to his formulas pretty well. The same can be seen in his operas, after Cesare, the most brilliant of all Opera Serias he goes on to reproduce the same formula less successfully ad infinitum with some slight changes along the way. These Concerti Grossi could easily have been composed 20 years earlier. Pleasant but not amazing.
Handel has generally been accorded high esteem by fellow composers, both in his own time and since. Bach apparently said "[Handel] is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach." Mozart is reputed to have said of him, "Handel understands effect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt", and to Beethoven he was "the master of us all". The latter emphasized above all the simplicity and popular appeal of Handel's music when he said, "Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means."
Concerto n.4 Overture:
Monday, 2 June 2008
Performers: The English Consort
Director/Soloist: Trevor Pinnock
Length: 3 hours 20 minutes (First 3 CDs of 5 CD box set)
We might have heard several of these 13 harpsichord concertos before in other ways on this list, in fact all but one concerto here are transcriptions from other works to fit the harpsichord concerto format. So you get bits from the Brandenburg Concertos and Violin Concertos as well as other works.
Interestingly Bach seems to extend the pieces for work with the harpsichord giving them a different dimension, both in length and in how it is played. It ends up being a superb collection of very interesting concerts, sometimes for 1 harpsichord but sometimes for 2, 3 or even and most spectacularly 4 harpsichords!
The performances are flawless in an early collection of period instrument music by Trevor Pinnock making the music exciting and accessible, unfortunately Bach did not compose so much secular music like this as he did sacred music, but he was a talented harpsichord composer indeed and with the addition of an orchestra of which he was a master you get some very good listening indeed.
From 1729 to 1741, Bach was director of the Collegium musicum in Leipzig, a student musical society, founded by Georg Philipp Telemann in 1703 and run before Bach by Balthasar Schott. The Collegium musicum often gave performances at Zimmermann's coffee-house. It was for these occasions that Bach produced his harpsichord concertos, among the first concertos for keyboard instrument ever written. It is thought that the multiple harpsichord concertos were heard earlier than those for one harpsichord, perhaps because his sons C. P. E. Bach and W. F. Bach (both excellent harpsichord players) were living at home until 1733 and 1734, respectively. It is likely that Johann Ludwig Krebs, who studied with Bach until 1735, also played harpsichord in the Collegium musicum.
The concertos for one harpsichord, BWV 1052-1059, survive in an autograph score (now in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek Berlin, Mus. ms. Bach P 234) which is not a fair copy but a draft, or working score, and has been dated to about 1738. Bach may of course have played the works much earlier, using the parts from an original melody-instrument concerto and extemporising a suitable harpsichord version while playing.
The works BWV 1052-1057 were intended as a set of six, shown in the manuscript in Bach's traditional manner beginning with 'J.J.' (Jesu Juva) and ending with 'Finis. S. D. Gl.' (Soli Deo Gloria). Aside from the Brandenburg concertos, it is the only such collection of concertos in Bach's oeuvre. The concerto BWV 1058 and fragment BWV 1059 are contained at the end of the score, and are an earlier attempt at a set of (headed J.J.) which was abandoned for one reason or another.
Bach's harpsichord concertos were, until recently, often underestimated by scholars, who did not have the convenience of hearing the benefits that historically informed performance has brought to works such as these; Albert Schweitzer wrote 'The transcriptions have often been prepared with almost unbelievable cursoriness and carelessness. Either time was pressing or he was bored by the matter.' Recent research has demonstrated quite the reverse to be true; he transferred solo parts to the harpsichord with typical skill and variety. Bach's interest in the harpsichord concerto form can be inferred from the fact that he arranged every suitable melody-instrument concerto as a harpsichord concerto, and while the harpsichord versions have been preserved the same is not true of the melody-instrument versions.
Here's the concerto for four harpsichords played on the piano... there were no pianos in Bach's time so it annoys me a bit, but it was the best video on youtube, although you can get most of the Pinnock versions there as well, only with no image: