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Our first opera of the evening began as a contest for young Italian opera composers in 1888. Pietro Mascagni heard about the competition with two months remaining in the submission period, and assembled Cavalleria rusticana (translation: “Rustic Chivalry”), with a libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci that was adapted from a play written by Giovanni Verga. It was hugely successful, and is credited as being one of the first operas in the verismo style. Its success allowed Mascagni to enjoy a successful composing career, although none of his later works saw the sort of wide-spread success that Cavalleria rusticana did.
Tonight’s recording features Agnes Baltsa, Plácido Domingo, Vera Baniewicz, Juan Pons, and Susanne Mentzer. Giuseppi Sinopoli leads the Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Opera House Chorus.
Our second opera of the evening is a 1735 composition by George Frideric Handel. Alcina uses a libretto written by Riccardo Broschi, which Handel acquired while on a trip to Italy. The opera was premiered on April 16, 1735. After a revival in 1738, it was not performed again until 1928. However, Joan Sutherland revived it in a production by Franco Zeffirelli in 1960, and then again in 1962 and 1969, and it has seen several revivals since then.
Tonight’s recording is a very well-regarded 2007 recording that features Joyce DiDonato, Maite Beaumont, Sonia Prina, Karina Gauvin, Kobie van Rensburg, Vito Priante, and Laura Cherici. Alan Curtis leads the baroque specialist orchestra Il Complesso Barocco
I was watching a video recording of the wonderful Led Zeppelin 2007 reunion (it is a shame that they haven’t put out an official release of that performance – it would easily be the DVD release of the decade), and I was struck by how truly progressive some of their later compositions were. Interesting mathematical constructions, interesting choice of chordal progressions, and some incredible drum parts by John Bonham that go beyond simple timekeeping and make their way into the general structure of the composition (ok, that counts under math, but oh well….). So my interest this evening is in an examination of some studio recordings from their later period (which I am defining as beginning with the fifth album, Houses of the Holy, from 1973). With that in mind, let us consider, in some closer detail, our Zep selections for the evening:
- Achilles Last Stand – A concert staple of theirs during their late era, which is well represented in the 2003 DVD set with a performance from the ’79 Knebworth shows. The song features some lovely mathematical drum parts from Bonham. The original can be found on 1976’s Presence.
- The Song Remains the Same
- The Rain Song – From Houses of the Holy, their fifth album, these two songs are found together, performed like a medley, on the live The Song Remains the Same release. There is a little more energy in the live rendition of Song Remains the Same (it is always fruitless to compare their recordings to their stage performances, as they were masters of the concert stage), but the two songs match up well together. Rain Song in particular is a lovely composition.
- In The Light – the album track that opens up side two of 1975’s Physical Graffiti, yet there is a familiarity to the medley that is eventually gotten to – a delicate chordal progression that sticks in your head (at least until you hear the next great Zep song).
- In My Time of Dying – Another song from Physical Graffiti which has an excellent representation on the 2003 DVD set, this time from the ’75 Earl’s Court performances. Here we see (or, rather, hear) the band blending the sort of exotic time-keeping that we’ve been discussing this evening with a vicious slide guitar workout from Jimmy Page.
- No Quarter – This song was used as the underpinning for the fantasy clip of John Paul Jones that was made for the Song Remains the Same release. You know the deal – each band member got some sort of dramatized feature that showed what they wanted to show, a very ’70’s thing But, if you go beyond the fantasy video clip, you find a wonderful performance of a wonderful song that was released on Houses of the Holy.
- Nobody’s Fault But Mine – this one can be seen in the Knebworth ’79 clip on the DVD. A great song on the ’76 Presence LP, with a highly mathematical drum part. Amazing.
*note* I could easily have inserted Kashmir into this set, with its mathematical bass-pedal arrangement. But I was going for songs that might be less familiar, yet worthy of a good listen. Ten Years Gone and The Wanton Song, both from Physical Graffiti, would also have been excellent additions.
After Led Zeppelin, we went to the music of Charlie Parker. The Bird, whose birthday comes on Wednesday, was possibly the greatest saxophonist who ever lived – ok, although I really don’t like to rank musicians (it is like comparing apples to oranges), Bird had this amazing talent that could not be hidden by his inconsistencies or the drug abuse which eventually killed him well before his time. This differentiates him from, say, John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, who worked incessantly to refine their craft. For various reasons Parker did not do this, and as a result his recordings were sporadic and his live performances are at times uneven. Yet, at the same time, that very fact makes the end result at times even more incredible, as the pure talent and ability that Parker possessed was truly at the genius level.
So, we start the birthday celebration with a few selected studio recordings. You will see some familiar names among his collaborators, most of which rank among the who’s who of jazz, and all of whom worked regularly with him. Musician listings are in the order of piano, bass and drums, with trumpet listed before the piano when present.
- Now’s The Time – from 1953, with Al Haig, Percy Heath (later of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and Max Roach.
- Mohawk – 1952, with Dizzy Gillespie (one of Parker’s best friends, and a frequent collaborator), Thelonious Monk (early in Monk’s career, before he was able to make a name for himself), Curley Russel and Buddy Rich (another one who played with Bird numerous times).
- K.C. Blues, with Miles Davis (1951, after Davis had made Birth of the Cool), Walter Bishop Jr., Teddy Kotick and Max Roach.
- Lover Man – with Red Rodney (another frequent collaborator, and one of Bird’s more regular touring partners; I had the pleasure of meeting Red Rodney in 1993), John Lewis (who also was part of the Modern Jazz Quartet), Ray Brown, and Kenny Clarke.
We then went to some of the recordings that Parker did with string sections. These recordings are important in they catch one of the few moments where Parker stepped forward and took risks, both with instrumental arrangements and with song selection. These recordings were done across several dates – 1949, with a string section led by Mitch Miller (those of a certain age will remember him from “Sing Along with Mitch“), then summer of 1950 with a section led by Joe Lipman. We heard Just Friends, April in Paris, Summertime (the George Gershwin masterpiece from Porgy and Bess), I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, and Laura (Parker’s rendition of a movie theme-song that had been featured as part of a classic film-noir movie with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney)
We then went to something from the superb “Complete Live Performances on Savoy” box set, which essentially can be referred to as the “Complete Royal Roost” set, plus a Carnegie Hall performance and a Chicago gig with a pick-up band. The real prize in the box set, of course, is that which comes from the Royal Roost. Parker participated in a number of live broadcasts from the legendary Royal Roost nightclub in New York City, which was one of the major be-bop performance venues during the late ’40s, a crucial time in jazz history (there are a number of other Royal Roost recordings in circulation, including an excellent set from Miles Davis with his Birth of the Cool group that has to be considered a true treasure). While many of the radio announcer intros are edited out in this latter-day compilation (I had an early copy years ago with the intros left in, and I truly enjoyed them), and the sound quality is good only when you consider that this is a recorded radio broadcast from 1949, the results might be considered the “Holy Grail” of Charlie Parker recordings. Tonight we heard a performance from 12/11/1948, with Miles Davis on trumpet, Al Haig on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, and Max Roach on drums: Groovin’ High, Big Foot, Ornithology, and Slow Boat to China.
Stanton Moore, “Let’s Go” from Flyin’ the Koop (Blue Thumb, 2002). The new New Orleans shuffle beat.
Herbie Mann, “Hold On (I’m Coming)” from Memphis Green (Atlantic, 1969). Record long popular with rock listeners. Memphis soul rhythm section backing the leader’s flute, Roy Ayers vibes, and twin guitars of Larry Coryell (first solo) and Sonny Sharrock (wild second solo).
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, “Dance of the Lobes” from Natural Inventions: Roots Strata (Atlantic, 1971). Raw with RRK playing multiple reeds at the same time and “tin can” rhythm.
Medeski, Martin & Wood, “Junkyard” from Radiolarians II (2009). WMW with more junkyard jazz.
Gato Barbieri, “Milonga Triste” from Chapter Four: Alive in New York (Impulse, 1975). Bold, romantic tenor sax. After this, it was onto “smooth jazz” stardom. But Gato’s early 70s stuff is the real deal.
Freddie Hubbard, “Far Away” from Breaking Point (Blue Note, 1964). Sophisticated mid-60s “new thing” modal jazz. James Spaulding, like Hubbard an Indianapolis cat, with great flute work.
Nil Petter Molvaer, “Song of Sand II” from Khmer (ECM, 1997). Spacy Scandinavian trumpet with electronica.
Tom Waits, “Heart Attack and Vine” from LP of same name (Elektra, 1980). Not much jazz singing at Pete’s. Too light and smooth. Prefer blues or Waits.
Yusef Lateef, “Blues for the Orient” from Eastern Sounds (Prestige, 1961), Exotic oboe sounds …. but still the blues.
Charlie Haden, “Hermitage” from Quartet West (Verve, 1987). The original Quartet West record, and one of the most sophisticated sounding records you’ll hear. Top shelf.
James Carter, “Odyssey” from In Carterian Fashion” (Atlantic, 1998). Saxist with a dangerous groove.
Our first opera this evening is a work by Louis Spohr. We don’t hear much about Louis Spohr now, but in his day he was a highly regarded composer, musician, author and conductor, and his work, along with that of composers such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann helped mark the turning point between Classicism and Romanticism. There are some other areas that you might not have expected in which his work impacts the larger scope of music history – he invented the violin chinrest and the orchestral rehearsal mark, and he was among the first conductors to use a baton.
Tonight’s opera is Faust, an opera Spohr wrote in 1813, using a libretto by Josef Karl Bernard that was not based on Goethe’s Faust, but rather on other Faustian plays and poems. The opera was premiered in 1816, with Carl Maria von Weber conducting. Spohr first wrote it as a Singspiel, but revised it in 1851 and turned it into a grand opera in three acts. This is the form that we hear tonight. The Bielefeld Opera revived the opera in 1993, and it is their recording that we will be hearing. Michael Vier, Eelco von Jordis, Diane Jennings, and Claudia Taha lead the cast. The Bielefeld Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir are directed by Geoffrey Moull.
Our second opera of the evening is a familiar standard done in a manner that we don’t hear too often anymore. Georges Bizet wrote Carmen between 1873 and 1875, one of the more notable French operas of the late 19th century, and we normally hear it in the original French. However, in years gone by, it was a fairly common practice to occasionally translate operas into other languages, especially locally spoken common languages like Italian or English. Some of these translations became such an accepted part of the repertoire that some operas have multiple critical editions that are in multiple languages (most notably, Sergei Prokofiev‘s Love for Three Oranges, which Prokofiev himself prepared in French, English and Russian language editions).
Now, tonight’s recording of Carmen is in Italian, and the sound quality is not all that great, as it is a 1949 live recording done as part of a failed movie project. But our interest in the recording lies primarily in the two stars. Ebe Stignani and Beniamino Gigli were two of the great Italian singers of the ‘30s and ‘40s. This recording catches both of them later in their careers, but it is still an interesting document of two of the great vocal talents of the 20th century. We also hear Gino Bechi, Gigli’s daughter Rina Gigli, Giulio Tomei, and Guido Mazzini. The Orchestra e Coro del Teatro del’Opera di Roma was under the baton of Vincenzo Bellezza.
Today, we celebrate the 150th birthday of Claude Debussy. Debussy’s importance in the larger historical scheme of music should not be underestimated, and is generally considered to be crucial to the movement of music from the Romanticism of the 19th century to the modernism of the 2oth. He was a brilliant pianist, and that brilliance easily informed his compositions, and can be easily heard today in his solo piano and his chanson compositions. But he also had a distinctively brilliant capacity for symphonic colors, using with great ease the tonal palette that the orchestra gave him. To me, Debussy’s importance in the scale of musical history is no less than that of Wagner’s, and the fact that Debussy’s impact extended far beyond the operatic world, and into the world of the practical musician (through his piano works, something that operatic superstars like Wagner or Puccini never did) increases his influence substantially.
Debussy was inspired by a livelong fascination for the sea when he began the writing process for La Mer in 1903. “I have always retained a passionate love for her. You will say that the ocean does not exactly wash the Burgundian hillsides… and my seascapes might be studio landscapes; but I have an endless store of memories and, to my mind, they are worth more than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought.” While the piece was not initially well-received, it eventually earned a place among Debussy’s most well-admired works, as it gives a full demonstration of his genius for orchestration, and his willingness to use what was then unusual and exotic chordal patterns. Tonight, we heard a lovely recording, a long-time favorite of mine from the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
After La Mer, we also heard, from the same recording, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Debussy was greatly inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé‘s L’après-midi d’un faune, written in 1865, but it would appear that Mallarmé did not like the idea of his poetry being set to music, at least at first. But we are told that Mallarmé appears to either have warmed to the idea, or was so struck by the music that Debussy wrote for the piece that his mind was changed. Debussy biographer Maurice Dumesnil quotes a letter from Mallarmé that states: “I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé.”
Jeux was the last work written by Debussy for orchestra. It was originally intended to be used for a ballet (it was initially described as a “poème dansé”) by the Ballet Russes and Serge Diaghilev (with Vaslav Nikinsky dancing lead, as depicted at right), and after some dispute about the ballet’s scenario, wrote it in August-September 1912. It was premiered on May 15, 1913, but it was not well received, and also had the bad fortune of being premiered a half-month before the legendarily controversial premiere of Igor Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring. Even if Jeux might be a bit (shall we say…) gentler than Rite of Spring, it was no less daring musically, and was just as demanding of the musicians playing it, with no fewer than 60 tempo changes. The scenario given by Diaghilev to Debussy described the scene thusly:
“The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace. But the spell is broken by another tennis ball thrown in mischievously by an unknown hand. Surprised and alarmed, the boy and girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.”
We earlier stated that Debussy was a brilliant pianist, who could have easily made a living doing concert performances – this brilliance came out in his piano music. His piano music comes to us in two forms – that which he wrote for solo piano, and his chansons, which he wrote for voice with piano. These chansons are of great interest, in that these works easily display the regard that he held for the French poets of his day (Paul Verlaine was a particular favorite), and they display the great care in which he set these works to music (note the affection shown by Mallarmé to Debussy’s setting of his work). Indeed, if we listen to some of his early songs, we get a glimpse into the development of his compositional technique. Tonight, we heard a set of songs that Debussy wrote between 1882 and 1884 for Marie-Blanche Vasnier, collectively known as the Vasnier Songbook. At the time he wrote the songs, Debussy was a student at the Paris Conservatoire, and was apparently quite infatuated with Mme. Vasnier, married though she was. He wrote at least 27 songs for her, of which we heard 12. Five of them are settings of Fête galantes by Verlaine, which seek to set to music the similarly named genre of eighteenth century painting (the term translates as “romantic festivities”, and largely consist of scenes of people amusing themselves in shady parks and country landscapes; such subjects also found their way into numerous Impressionist paintings). After the Verlaine, we heard a setting of a poem by Theophile Gautier, then six poems by Paul Bourget. All this comes from a 1995 recording by Dawn Upshaw, with James Levine (well known for his leadership of the Metropolitan Opera) accompanying on the piano.
We then heard a set of pieces for solo piano. We started with Debussy’s setting of Clair de Lune, from his Suite bergamasque. Debussy actually wrote several pieces with that same title, including one of the chansons from the Vasnier Songbook that we heard earlier (Clair de Lune is actually the title of a poem by Paul Verlaine that Debussy set to song), but they are all unrelated musically, although they may have shared some inspirational genesis. However, this rendition of Clair de Lune actually had the original title of “Promenade Sentimentale”, again taking after a poem by Verlaine. As Debussy began the piece around 1890 and completed it in 1905, it is unknown how much of the suite was written earlier and how much was written later. It is suggested that, as the original title refers to one of Verlaine’s earliest poems, that Debussy may have changed the title to reflect both Verlaine’s changing styles and his own.
After Clair de Lune, we closed the show with a set of six piano pieces that Debussy wrote for his daughter, Claude-Emma. Debussy wrote Children’s Corner between 1906 and 1908, with titles for the individual movements in English, and a mixture of English and American inspirations. It is considered among his more important piano works, and was set into an orchestral version by his friend André Caplet.
Tonight’s recording, as with the recording of Clair de Lune, was by Phillipe Entremont. Clair de Lune was dated 1959, while Children’s Corner dates from 1963.
- Classical: Debussy’s 150th Birthday Gets Little Notice (nytimes.com)
- Debussy’s Poetic Obsession Comes Alive in Natalie Dessay’s New Clair de Lune (wqxr.org)
- Claude Debussy and the Piano (wqxr.org)
- The Debussy Edition – review (guardian.co.uk)