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Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition
Alexander Scriabin
Poème No. 1, Op. 32
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The Scythian Suite
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the rocks beneath
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morgana
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Violin Sonata No. 2

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Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ is a ten movem...
Alexander Scriabin
Poème No. 1, Op. 32
Poème No. 1, Op. 32 comes from 1903, a testy and productive time fo...
William Bolcom
Violin Sonata No. 2
I. Summer DreamsII. Brutal, fastIII. AdagioIV. In Me...
Maurice Ravel
Sonata for Violin and Piano
As the Jazz Age swept America and Europe during the Roaring 20s, man...
Johannes Brahms
Scherzo in E-Flat Minor, Op. 4
A remarkable composition by the 18-year-old Brahms, Scherzo Op. 4 un...
Edvard Grieg
Ballade in G Minor, Op. 24
Grieg composed the Ballade shortly after the death of both parents i...
Mikhail Glinka
The Lark
The Lark, by Michail Glinka, trans. by Mily BalakirevTaken from the ...

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January 30, 2017.  Schubert, Mendelssohn and Nono.  Two great German composers – and two prodigies – were born this week, Franz Schubert, on January 31st of 1797, and Felix Mendelssohn, on February 3rd of 1809.  We’ve written about Schubert, a supreme melodist and one of Franz Schubertthe most creative composers of the 19th century, practically every year.  And last year, we wrote rather extensively about Mendelssohn.  So this year we’ll present some of their music and then turn to a lesser known talent.   Schubert is rightly famous for his songs.  He wrote several cycles, two of which, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, are considered the pinnacle of the German “lied.”  He also wrote numerous individual songs, and Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams) is one of them.  Very difficult because of its exceedingly long melodic lines, it’s beautifully sung here by Nicolai Gedda.  Gerald Moore is at the piano.  Mendelssohn also wrote songs, eight books of them, but his were "Songs without words."  Each book contains six short piano pieces, some very simple, some a bit more difficult, but all charming.  Here’s Op. 19 no. 4, played by almost everybody who ever studied the piano, but probably not as exquisitely as Daniel Barenboim does in this recording.  And slightly more challenging is Op.30 no. 2, here, also by Barenboim.

We just missed the birthday of Luigi Nono by one day – he was born January 29th of 1924 in Venice.  He studied composition in his hometown with Gian Francesco Malipiero from 1941 to 1945.  In 1946 he met Bruno Maderna, a modernist composer four years his senior, and they became friends for life. 

Maderna got in touch with the Darmstadt courses in 1949; in 1950 both he and Nono went there for the summer, with Nono attending classes by Edgar Varèse.  Nono continued going to Darmstadt for many years and from 1957 on he taught there every year.  Through their work at Darmstadt, Nono, Boulez and Stockhausen, all three under 30, became known as leaders of the European avant-garde music.  Politically active, Nono was involved in leftist causes.  He wrote many pieces for human voice (often accompanied by tape recordings) for which he used text by Karl Marx, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and other revolutionaries.  Obviously, that’s not what have made them interesting, his music did.  In 1971, on suggestion by Maurizio Pollini, Nono started working on a piece for piano and orchestra called Como una ola de fuerza y luz (Like a wave of strength and light).  While still working on it, he had learned of the death of his friend Luciano Cruz, the leader of The Revolutionary Left Movement in Chile.  (It’s not clear who killed Cruz but CIA reports suggest that it was a result of the rivalry on the Left during the Allende presidency).  Nono changed his plans and created a piece for orchestra, solo soprano, piano, a chorus recorded on tape and other pre-recorded sounds.  A complex composition, it demonstrates an amazing evolution of how we perceive the organized sound that we call music.  Written 140 years after Schubert and Mendelssohn’s songs, it completely abandons tonality and uses sound sources that were never considered before.  Even 46 years later, it’s not easy listening.  Still, it’s worth a try, even if in small dozes (the complete piece runs for about 30 minutes).  The sounds (and silences) of it, the juxtapositions of fury and serenity, are at times profound.  Here it is, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Bavarian Radio Orchestra.  Maurizio Pollini is on the piano, Slavka Taskova is the soprano.
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January 23, 2017.  Mozart – and Clementi.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27th of 1756.  Every year we consider different episodes from Mozart’s life, and last year we Wolfgang Amadeus Mozartwrote about his final years in Salzburg in the Archbishop Colloredo’s employ, a bitter resignation and his move to Vienna.   It was 1781, Mozart was 25 years old, and the success of his new opera Idomeneo was still fresh in his memory.  That was very important, as opera was then the most prestigious form of art, recognized as such in courts and palaces; a composer could write many wonderful symphonies and sonatas (and Mozart had already written 34 symphonies and many sonatas), but an opera could make his name.  But Mozart was then a freelancer, without a permanent position or salary.  In Vienna, he found several students, some among the nobility and that helped to pay the bills.  He also continued to compose; several of his piano and violin sonatas were written during that period, many dedicated to his pupil, Josepha von Auernhammer, who was madly in love with him.  He was also performing in many public and private halls, and was considered the best keyboard player in town. 

An unusual competition took place on the 24th of December, 1781, as Mozart confronted an unexpected rival.  Muzio Clementi, a composer and keyboard player, had recently arrived in Vienna.  He acquired his fame in London, and the Emperor Joseph II, an enlightened ruler and patron of arts, decided to have a competition between him and the local virtuoso.

Clementi, whose birthday we also mark this week, was born on January 23rd of 1752 in Rome.  He studied music as a child and by the age of 14 became the organist of the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso in Rome.  That very year, Peter Beckford, a wealthy Englishman, heard him play and was impressed.  He negotiated with Muzio’s father an arrangement under which he’d take Clementi to his estate, pay for his continued musical education and be entertained in return.  Muzio lived in Beckford’s estate for the following seven years, and it’s said that every day he spent eight hours playing the harpsichord.  He then moved to London, where he established himself as a performer and composer of keyboard sonatas.  In 1789 Clementi embarked on a European tour, which took him first to Paris, where he played for Marie Antoinette and then to Vienna.  The competition organized by Joseph II was a grand affair: Mozart and Clementi played in the presence of the court and the Emperor’s guests, Grand Duke Paul of Russia, the son of Empress Catherine the Great, who later became the Emperor of Russia, and his wife.  This episode reminds one of a competition between another German and Italian – Handel and Scarlatti –  organized by Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome in 1709.  Both Mozart and Clementi were asked to improvise, then sight-read sonatas of Paisiello and finish with selections from their own compositions.  No official verdict was delivered but the Emperor was very impressed, and continued speaking of it for a long time.  Apparently, the self-assured Mozart was taken aback by the quality of Clementi’s playing.   While Clementi was effusive in his praise of Mozart’s performance, Mozart was critical of Clementi, as he described the competition in aletter to his father.  It’s especially interesting considering that one of the pieces played by Clementi was his Sonata op. 24 no. 2, which Mozart later used as one of the themes for the overture to his opera The Magic Flute!  Here’s Clementi’s sonata in the performance by the pianist  Young-Ah Tak, and here – the overture to the Magic Flute.  Bernard Haitink conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

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January 16, 2017.  Tieleman Susato.  Last week we wrote about Metastasio, a poet and librettist who left an indelible mark on the history of opera; this week we turn to a publisher who was equally important in the development of Renaissance music.  Tielman Susato was born sometime Tielman Susatobetween 1510 and 1515, but where - we are also not sure, probably not far from Cologne, as he referred to himself as “Susato Agrippinus”: Agrippina, the wife of the emperor Claudius, was born in a Roman settlement on the Rhine that later became Cologne, and the Romans renamed it in her honor.  We do know that by 1529 Susato was living in Antwerp and working as a calligrapher.  A musician, he also joined the town band.  He played different wind instruments: the sackbut (an early trombone), the trumpet, flute and recorder.  In 1541 he joined two prominent Antwerp printers and eventually acquired the firm.  Somewhere around 1542 the firm published its’ first book of music: it was the first not just for Antwerp but for all of Northern Europe – as before that, the Italians dominated the trade. 

The history of music printing starts with the invention of the metal movable print by Johannes Gutenberg; his famous Bible was printed in 1450.  Gutenberg didn’t print music, though.  It was Ottaviano Petrucci who, about half a century after Gutenberg’s great invention, printed the first book of music sheets.  Petrucci used what is called the triple-impression method: on every sheet he would first print the staff lines, then the words and then the notes.  This process created a high-quality page but was very time-consuming.   In 1520 the single-impression method was developed: all components were printed together, and even though the results were messier, the single-impression method won over as it was much simpler and faster in production.  It was this single-impression technique that Susato used to print his first music book, Quatuor vocum musicae modulations, a collection of four-part motets by a dozen different composers, one of whom was Susato himself.

Sometime around 1544 Susato met the composer Jacob Clemens non Papa who had recently moved to Antwerp.  They became good friends and several years later Susato published Clemens’s most famous work: his setting of 150 psalms called Souterliedekens (Little Psalter Songs in Flemish).  Susato also published important books of music by Josquin des Prez andOrlando di Lasso.  For example, his 1545 Quatuor vocum musicae modulations, printed 24 years after Josquin’s death, is the first book, whether in manuscript form or in print, containing many of Josquin’s chansons.  

Susato was also quite a prolific composer, although not on the same level as some of the greats whose music he published.  His instrumental dances are pleasing.  Here, for example, is a Ronde from his collection of dance music usually called Dansereye (it’s performed by the ensemble New London Consort).  By the end of his life Susato moved to Sweden; there’s no record of him past 1570.  Susato, who was important in improving the printing technology (he developed new music fonts) should be especially remembered for making music more accessible to the people; he concentrated on publishing the music of his fellow Flemish composers, and that was exactly when Flemish music had reached its heights.  The composers he published were among the most important ones, whether they worked in Flanders, in Rome, or anywhere else in Europe.

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January 9, 2017.  Pietro Metastasio.  This week is a bit short on talent (one exception is Morton Feldman, who was born on January 12th of 1926;  we wrote about him two years ago).  On the other hand, the previous week was brimming with it.  Although we usually write about composers, a person who left a mark as significant as any of the greatest composers was a Pietro Metastasiopoet and librettist, Pietro Metastasio.  Metastasio wrote 27 librettos for opera seria, some of which were set many times by different composers (his La clemenza di Tito was used by 40 composers, from Antonio Caldara to Christoph Gluck, Josef Mysliveček and, finally, Mozart).  Altogether almost 400 composers had used Metastasio’s poetry to create musical pieces from operas and oratorios to cantatas and songs, among them, in addition to the ones mentioned above, Nicola Porpora, Baldassare Galuppi, George Frideric Handel, Johann Adolph Hasse (who set nearly all of Metastasio’s opera librettos), Paisiello and Meyerbeer.  Metastasio was born Pietro Trapassi in Rome on January 3rd of 1698.  His godfather was the famous patron of music and arts, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. As a child, Pietro developed an amazing ability to improvise in verse on any given subject.  During one of his public performances he was noticed by Giovanni Vincenzo Gravina, one of the founders of the Accademia degli Arcadi (the Academy of Arcadians), a famous literary and music society (Cardinal Ottoboni was also an Arcadian).  Gravin took young Pietro under his wing and later adopted him, changing his name to Metastasio, which was more or less a translation of his Italian name into Greek: as musicologist Richard Taruskin writes, “trapasso” means transit from one place to another, while “metastasis” means spread or transference.  Gravina sent Pietro to study Latin and law in Scalea,Calabria.  At the age of 12 Pietro translated the Illiad into Italian and at 14 he composed a tragedy.  He was 16 when Garvina died and left Metastasio 15,000 scudi, a considerable sum (translating values of 17th century currency is a very inexact science, but 15,000 scudi could be worth as much as $400,000 in current dollars.  That didn’t stop Metastasio from spending it all in just  two years!). 

He moved to Naples to practice law but he was much more interested in poetry.  Several of his poems were set to music by Nicola Porpora.  Around that time, he met Porpora’s pupil, the castrato Farinelli, who eventually became the most famous singer in all of Europe.  Metastasio and Farinelli remained friends for the rest of their lives.  Metastasio moved to Rome, got involved with the Accademia and found a patron in a famous soprano Marianna Bulgarelli.  Bulgarelli had a salon that was visited by all Roman luminaries of the time.  It’s there that he met Alessandro Scarlatti, Hasse, Pergolesi, Leonardo Vinci and Benedetto Marcello.  It was a very productive time for Metastasio: in about a year he wrote six libretti, including the famous Didone abbandonata, which was eventually used more than 50 times. 

In 1730 Metastasio was invited to Vienna to the court of Emperor Charles VI in the official position of the “Italian court poet.” It paid handsomely – 3, 000 florins, higher than the salary of the Kapellmeister.  The Emperor paid another 1,000 florins out of his personal purse.  Metastasio settled in Vienna in the summer of 1730.  He was 32 and had another 50 years in front of him (we’ll write about the second phase of his life another time).  Now we’ll present an aria from an opera written to one of his most popular librettos, Il re pastore (The Shepherd King).  It was written by Metastasio in 1751 and then used by Hasse, Gluck, Piccini, Galippi – and Mozart, who created a masterpiece.  Here’s Kiri Te Kanawa in L'amerò, sarò costante from Il re. The London Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

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January 2, 2017.  Happy New Year to all!  As we look forward to another year of great music, we’d like to remember some of the musicians who left us in 2016.  Pierre Boulez, a towering figure in classical music of the last 60 years, died on January 5th at the age of 90.  Boulez was a Pierre Boulezcomposer, conductor, writer, speaker, music organizer – he did it all.  A student of Olivier Messiaen, he started composing in the late 1940s.  He soon became one of the better-known proponents of serialism.  Together with his friends Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna, he was a central figure in the Darmstadt School, a hugely influential group of young modernist composers who attended summer courses in the German city.  He started conducting in the late 1950, initially specializing in modern music but eventually expanding his repertoire to cover large parts of orchestral literature; he became especially known for his interpretation of French music and, somewhat surprisingly, Gustav Mahler, esthetically his opposite.  In the late 70s, on a suggestion of President Pompidou, he organized an institute for musical research, the famous IRCAM.  IRCAM became a laboratory for new music, especially electronic.  Within it, Boulez organized his own ensemble, called Ensemble Intercontemporain, with which he toured around the world.  While at IRCAM, Boulez staged several important opera productions, from Wagner to Berg’s Lulu.  In the 1990s he returned to conducting, working with major orchestras: the Chicago Symphony, the London Symphony, the Cleveland, the Vienna Philharmonic and many others, maintaining an amazing schedule.  Health problems forced Boulez to slow down in the last 10 years of his life, but he continued making music almost till the end of his life.  His last composition was completed in 2006.  Boulez died in Baden-Baden and was buried there.

Two very important conductors of chamber orchestras died last year: Sir Neville Marriner on October 2nd (he was 92), and Nikolaus Harnoncourt – on March 5th; Harnoncourt was 86.   Neville Marriner, who started his music career as a violinist, was the founder of the world-famous Academy of St Martin in the Fields.  Working with that orchestra he became one of the most recorded conductors in modern history.  The Academy of St Martin in the Fields started in 1958 as a small ensemble without a conductor, but expanded to a chamber orchestra shortly after.  The violinist Iona Brown, who became the conductor of the Academy following Marriner, and Christopher Hogwood, who later organized his own Academy of Ancient Music, were early members of the group.  The Academy and other chamber orchestras that Marriner organized later, used modern instruments and modern interpretive approaches.  The orchestra’s recordings were technically brilliant, never ponderous and always a pleasure to listen to.  Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s approach was very different: he was one of the leaders of the “period,” or “historically informed” performances and his ensembles were one of the first to use period instruments.  Harnoncourt, a cellist, organized Concentus Musicus Wien in 1953.  He was then playing in the Vienna Symphony (Vienna’s “second orchestra”) and most musicians came from that orchestra.  Harnoncourt and his colleagues researched the repertoire and performance technique for four years before giving their first official concert in 1957.  During that time the musicians leaned to play different viols rather than modern violins, violas and cellos; Harnoncourt himself switched from the cello to viola da gamba.  The ensembled played rarely heard pieces, like operas of Monteverdi and Rameau and made first “authentic” recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  In an unusual feat, Concentus recorded all of Bach’s cantatas.  In his later years, Harnoncourt turned to amore standard repertoire and for several years worked with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.  He also conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and successfully staged several operas.

We’d also like to note the wonderful Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis, who died on November 6th at the age of 64.  A great virtuoso with a repertoire stretching from Bach to Kurtág, he was especially well known for his interpretation of the works of his compatriot, Béla Bartók: Kocsis recorded all of his solo piano works and piano concertos.  In 1983, together with Iván Fischer, Koscis founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and since 1997 lead the Hungarian National Philharmonic.  Koscis performed with all major orchestras and in 2013 received the Gramophone award for his recordings of Debussy.  

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December 26, 2016.  Christmas 2016.  Merry Christmas to all our listeners!  It's become a tradition to play excerpts from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio around this time.  The Oratorio was written for the Christmas Adoration of the Child, by Pinturicchioseason of 1734, when Bach was the Cantor of the Thomasschule and the most important musician in Leipzig.  The oratorio wasn’t completely original: it incorporated music from several previously written cantatas.  The text was supplied by Picander, a poet, librettist and a frequent Bach collaborator.  We've already played the complete Part I, which describes the birth of Jesus, the first movement (Sinfornia) of Part II (here) and the wonderful alto aria Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh (Sleep, my beloved, enjoy Your rest), here.   The Second part was written for the second day of Christmas, or December 26th and describes the Annunciation to the Shepherds.  On the day of the premier, it was actually performed twice: first, in the early morning of the 26th, in Thomaskirche, and in the afternoon – in the Nikolaikirche.  The second part incorporates music from two cantatas, BWV 213 Laßt uns sorgen and BWV 214, Tönet, ihr Pauken!  You can listen to the complete Part II of Christmas Oratorio here.  It runs for about 27 minutes.  John Eliot Gardiner conducts the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir.  Bernarda Fink is the alto, Christoph Genz is the tenor.

The fresco above, Adoration of the child with St. Jerome, is by Pinturicchio.  It’s located in the Della Rovere Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.  It was created in or around 1484, 150 years before the Oratorio.

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