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We have two works by Giuseppe Verdi for you tonight, and we’re going to start with one of his few sacred works, his Messa da Requiem. The work originated with the death of another great Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini. When he died in 1868, a group of Italian composers, including Verdi, got together at Verdi’s suggestion to compile a Requiem in Rossini’s honor. The music was prepared, with Verdi contributing the conclusion to the work, a Libera me. However, the performance of the work was cancelled just prior to its scheduled performance in November of 1869. A few years later, the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni passed away. Verdi was a fan of Manzoni, and decided to revise the Libera me that he had written in Rossini’s honor and use it as part of a Requiem for Manzoni. The completed work was premiered on 22 May 1874, with Verdi himself conducting. While it was not a part of the standard choral repertoire for a while, it has been performed regularly since the 1930s.
Tonight’s recording is a 1965 recording that is considered to be among the best available recordings of the Requiem. It features a great performance from the legendary Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson, along with Lili Chookasian, Carlo Bergonzi, and Ezio Flagello. Erich Leinsdorf leads Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Chorus Pro Musica.
Our second Verdi work of the evening is his longest opera. Verdi was commissioned by the Paris Opera to write Don Carlos in 1866. He completed the music that year, but the length of the piece was already at the point where, with a ballet to be added to conform with Paris Opera traditions, it was too long. He edited the opera down, but upon the beginning of rehearsals for its 1867 premiere, found that the opera as it then stood would run past midnight. So he made more changes, and this version was premiered in Paris on March 11, 1867. An Italian translation was premiered in London on June 4th of that same year. In the following years, Verdi made numerous edits and alterations, more than he did for any of his other works. The original edition, with 5 acts, runs in excess of four hours. Tonight’s version, which has only three acts, runs for about 3 hours and 15 minutes. However, in recent years, many performances of the opera have used the original French version and its initial Italian translation.
Tonight’s recording is from 1965, and features Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, Nicolai Ghiaurov (whom we heard last week in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and who again gives an excellent demonstration of his strong bass voice), the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Grace Bumpry, and Martti Talvela. Georg Solti directs the Royal Opera House Orchestra & Chorus.
We close the show this evening with a selection of songs written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. While Mozart is certainly well known for his larger scale works, he also wrote a number of art songs. In German, the art songs are referred to as “lied” (singular) or “lieder” (plural), and Mozart was, along with Beethoven, one of the early great practitioners of the form that was at that time only beginning to develop, in conjunction with the dawn of the Weimar Classicism period of German literature. Although he only wrote a few lied (as opposed to Franz Schubert, who wrote over 600), the songs that he wrote are quite notable for their quality, and are frequently performed in lieder recitals. Tonight we’ll hear:
- Das Veilchen, (“The Violet”), K. 476 – written on June 8, 1785, the only poem by the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that Mozart set to music. The song is only 65 bars in length, and Mozart added two stanzas of his own in a brief coda. The same poem was also set to music by numerous other composers, including Felix Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann.
- Dans un Bois Solitaire, K. 308 – Written in 1777 – 1778 for the daughter of a flutist in the Manheim orchestra, using a five verse text by Antoine Hodart de la Motte.
- Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling, K. 596 – written in 1791, using a text by Christian Adolf Overbeck. The title translates as “Longing for the Spring”, and serves as a cheerful glorification of various points of the season. The piece was actually written for children, but has achieved fame as a lied. The theme is reminiscent of his last piano concerto, but with differences.
Over the years, I’ve made it a practice of celebrating my birthday by programming in some selected favorite recordings and musical works, as a sort of “best of the Galaxy” edition. This is really only natural, as music is a big part of my overall mindset – I enjoy nothing more than celebrating a birthday with a few “ultimate” songs. Of course, such a list would be quite expansive, and would be prohibitive to play over the course of one show. So, while we’re not going to have an absolute “best of the Galaxy” lineup tonight, I will be making a few selections that could fit into such a list.
Now, while the first band we heard tonight wouldn’t necessarily fit into an “ultimate Galaxy” list, the songwriting here is definitely top-notch, and it is something that came to mind earlier in the week. Bread was formed by David Gates with the songwriting team of James Griffin and Robb Royer in 1969 (Griffin and Royer had that year won an Oscar for a song from Love and Other Strangers; the song was eventually given a well-known treatment by the Carpenters). As a combo, the three of them (eventually adding Mike Betts on drums) wrote some really interesting songs, largely between 1970 and 1973. While they had a number of big hits, we heard a few of their songs that may not be heard as often, yet remain worthy of a good listen: Look What You’ve Done, It Don’t Matter To Me, and The Last Time.
Any “best of the Galaxy” list would have to include some Johann Sebastian Bach, most notably some of his splendid organ works. Anytime I do something like this, it is especially hard to resist the temptation to include his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565. This is in spite of the fact that there is some scholarly dispute as to whether Bach actually wrote the work or not. As with most of his organ works, there is no surviving manuscript copy in Bach’s hand; the oldest surviving copy was copied by Johannes Ringk, who is noted for his copies of numerous famous works of the era by multiple composers; many of his copies are considered to be earliest surviving copies of numerous important works. Although this debate is interesting as far as the historical aspect, it is ultimately redundant for the purposes of this show – whether or not Bach wrote it, the music as it stands is pure brilliance, and is a sublime example of the beauty of the pipe organ (called “the King of Instruments” by some – I’m inclined to agree). We heard the great, late organist Gustav Leonhardt in a recording from ’72-’73.
After the Toccata, we also heard an absolutely splendid set of chorale partitas (song plus variations, 9 sections overall) based on the Lutheran chorale O Gott, du Frommer Gott (“Oh God, Thou Just God”), BWV 767. It is thought that Bach wrote this set during his teen years, probably from the period when he was studying at the Johanneskirche at Lünegurg. During this time period he was heavily influenced by Georg Böhm, and these partitas amply display such an influence. It is possible that Bach intended these partitas as a pedagogical exercise for himself, trying different techniques on a piece that was not intended for liturgical use. It is also possible that the piece wasn’t even intended for organ, as it does not utilize the foot pedal. However, many of Bach’s keyboard works are vague in terms of what keyboard the piece was intended for, and the piece as it stands is quite spectacular as a pipe organ piece. In any case, these are the sorts of details that are lost to time, and we are actually quite blessed that copies of these works have survived in written form (many of Bach’s known works are lost). As with the Toccata, we heard a Gustav Leonhardt recording from ’72-’73.
Consider this clip of the piece, performed here in its entirety by Gianluca Cesana.
Folks who have listened to the Galaxy regularly over the years know that I have a thing for vocal harmony. The Hollies were a group that made vocal harmony part of their calling card, both while Graham Nash was part of the group, and after he left to join David Crosby and Stephen Stills, and was replaced by Terry Sylvester. Of course, the Hollies were more than just their vocal harmonies – I find their guitar work to be compelling, and drummer Bobby Elliot ranks among my favorite drummers from that era. We heard three songs from The Hollies – Bus Stop, Dear Eloise, and The Air That I Breathe.
Any “best of the Galaxy” set would inevitably include some Rush. There are numerous Rush recordings that I could insert in here, and they just released their 20th album, Clockwork Angels, with a tour that hit St. Louis yesterday (I had wanted to go, but circumstances required otherwise). As I do not have the new album yet, we can go with the “classic Galaxy” approach with our selections: La Villa Strangiato (their legendary instrumental from Hemispheres), Natural Science (from Permanent Waves), and Cygnus X-1 (from A Farewell to Kings).
We closed the show with some Sigur Rós. As with the other things we’ve played this evening, there are a number of excellent selections that we could insert in here, making for a difficult choice. So we started with several songs from their 2005 album Takk (“thanks” in Icelandic), Takk/Glósóli(they sort of run together well), and Mílanó, before closing the show with a song from their 2002 album (), officially titled Untitled 2 (none of the songs on that album were given actual titles), but unofficially referred to as Fyrsta (Icelandic for “first”).
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Our first opera of the evening (which was originally to be the second, except for a technical glitch that forced me to rework tonight’s lineup) is a work by Christoph Willibald Gluck, and his first major reform opera. He wrote Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762 as part of an effort, along with other composers and dramatists, to get away from the opera seria trend, refocus operas on human drama and passion, and make the words and music to be of equal importance. His efforts were wildly successful, and he is seen as being a big influence on Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and Wagner, and on German opera in general, even though this actually qualifies as French opera. Variations on the plot used in Orfeo were also used in The Magic Flute, Fidelio, and even in Das Reingold. So it can be said that the opera that we are about to hear constitutes one of the major turning points in the history of opera.
Tonight’s recording is a 1993 recording that features Sylvia McNair (sop), Derek Lee Ragin (counter-tenor), and Cyndia Sieden (sop). The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists are directed by John Eliot Gardiner.
Our next opera is the only opera written by the great Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, and is considered to be one of his masterpieces. Mussorgsky began writing Boris Godunov in 1868, using a play by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin as its basis. He submitted it to the Russian censors in 1870. His original submission was rejected by the censors for various reasons, ostensibly because it did not have a major female role, so Mussorgsky engaged in a radical expansion, adding multiple scenes, a female lead, and expanding several other female roles. This second version was premiered on January 27, 1874 with great success. Although it left the standard repertory for a while after Mussorgsky’s death, the efforts of the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin resurrected it, and it has been performed regularly ever since. It is a showpiece for the great bass singers, with multiple lead bass roles, and also has numerous strong choral parts. Beyond the preeminence of the bass parts (and this is one of the great bass roles in the entire operatic repertoire), the real star of the show is Mussorgsky’s writing, as I have difficulty imagining any other operatic work that comes close to achieving the sort of regal, grand Russian style that Mussorgsky achieved here.
Earlier this year we played an archival recording from the 1920s that featured Feodor Chaliapin. Tonight we’re going to hear a 1972 live recording that features another one of the great historical basses, the Bulgarian Nicolai Giaurov, along with bass Mark Reshetin, Aleksandr Vedernikov, Ludovic Spiess, Ruza Baldani, and Antonin Grigoriev leading a large cast. The RAI Rome Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is directed by Boris Khaikin.
One of the really nice parts of having a radio program like the Galaxy is the ability to feature songs that one never really hears much through other radio stations. Tonight is one such night. We start with the Guess Who, a band that came out of Winipeg, Manitoba, back in the late ’60s/early ’70s. While they are easily best known for American Woman, their big #1 hit that was resurrected in 1999 and featured in one of the Austin Powers movies, they recorded a number of well constructed and well played songs that are worthy of a hearty listen. Several of these songs were written by singer/pianist Burton Cummings with their original lead guitarist Randy Bachman, who left the Guess Who to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive, while others were written with the late Kurt Winter, who was brought in after Bachman left the group. Tonight we heard No Time, No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature, American Woman, Hand Me Down World, Share the Land, and Hang On To Your Life.
We next heard a few songs from the Who. They did so many excellent songs that it can be difficult for me at times to choose. So we ran with a few selections from Who’s Next that I chose for their excellent songwriting and notable performances: Getting In Tune, Going Mobile, and Behind Blue Eyes. As we are using the Deluxe Edition, which includes a live set that they did in London during the recording of Who’s Next (when Pete Townsend had been planning for it to be a concept album, like Tommy), we also included a few excellent live cuts: Love Ain’t for Keeping (a song that was eventually issued as part of Who’s Next), Pure and Easy (which had been written to be a part of the concept album, but when the concept album idea was discarded, the song eventually was selected for omission from the album), and Young Man Blues, which had been a live staple of the band’s.
We concluded the show with a striking piece by the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. His Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) probably should have been his Ninth Symphony, but the extremely superstitious Mahler avoided numbering it as his Ninth because of “The Curse of the Ninth“, where death is associated with a composer’s Ninth Symphony (i.e. Beethoven). So he wrote the piece, and simply didn’t refer to it as a symphony. There were probably other issues underlying the situation, as Mahler deals with the subjects of life, parting, death and salvation in the work. Ironically, after completion of the work, he did write and complete his Ninth Symphony, but died while writing his Tenth. Tonight’s recording is an excellent recording from 2000 that features Wagnerians Ben Heppner (tenor) and Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano), with Lorin Maazel leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
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