WDBX Opera Overnight: Strauss, Handel

Theaterzettel zur Premiere der Richard-Strauss...

Playbill from the premiere of Salome, at the Dresden SemperOpera, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our first opera tonight is perhaps one of the more controversial operas in operatic history.  Salome was premiered in 1905, and within two years was banned in London and New York.  Of course, this should not be surprising, given the opera’s infamous Dance of the Seven Veils (which is a striptease, with many modern performers finishing the scene nude), and the finale in which Salome kisses the beheaded head of John the Baptist.  Yet the music is downright exquisite, a showpiece for strong-voice sopranos, and ranks among some of the most forward-looking music of the early 20th century.

Tonight’s recording is considered one of the best available recordings of the work, featuring the legendary soprano Birgit Nilsson and and Gerhard Stolze, along with Grace Hoffman and Eberhard Wächter leading a fine cast.  Sir Georg Solti leads the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Our next opera was financially considered one of George Frideric Handel’s greatest failures.  Ezio only received 5 performances when Handel premiered it in 1732, then fell from the repertoire and was not performed again until 1977 (a victim of the decline in popularity of the opera seria style).  Tonight’s performance is a 2009 recording with Ann Hallenberg, Karina Gauvin, Sonia Prina, Marianne Andersen, Anicio Giustiniani, Vito Priante; Il Complesso Barocco is conducted by Alan Curtis.

The Galaxy – What’s going on?

Cover of "What's Going on"

Cover of What’s Going on

I was browsing my selection of cable channels the other day when I happened upon a documentary on Motown‘s legendary group of sidemen, The Funk Brothers.  Listening to them discuss the ins and outs of their storied career inspired me to want to feature some of their work on tonight’s show.  Naturally, while there are numerous potential selections that I could have made, the choice seemed obvious to me: the album on which they got their first album jacket credit, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.  The musical crew shines from the get-go, with James Jamerson‘s thumping bass like a gleaming diamond.  Yet, by the end, the music itself is so mesmerizing that one almost forgets the different parts while focusing on the gorgeous whole.  The album as a whole is one of the great classic albums of the ’70s, and works well as a concept album, with a persistent theme from start to finish.  So, as with last week’s hearing of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, we heard the album (also a concept album) from start to finish:

  • What’s Going On
  • What’s Happening, Brother
  • Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)
  • Save The Children
  • God Is Love
  • Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
  • Right On
  • Wholy Holy
  • Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)

After that, we heard a few tracks from Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives.  These recordings, from February and June of 1926, are excellent examples of why Armstrong was so important to the development of jazz.  The recording also serves as a fine sampling of one of the few small combos of note during that time period (Armstrong singing and playing trumpet; Kid Ory on trombone; Johnny St. Cyr on banjo; Johnny Dodds on clarinet and saxophone; Lil Armstrong, Armstrong’s wife but also an instrumentalist of some note, on piano).  We heard:

  • Heebie Jeebies
  • Don’t Forget To Mess Around
  • I’m Gonna Gitcha
  • Droppin’ Shucks
  • Who’ Sit (Armstrong can also be heard playing slide whistle)

Next we heard some Jethro Tull.  While they made some marvelous recordings that certainly deserve time on this program, I find it hard to resist the allure of the recording of their Isle of Wight appearance from 1970.  This lineup was, to me, perhaps their most interesting lineup, with Clive Bunker and Glen Cornick playing well on drums and bass respectively (Cornick would leave shortly thereafter, prior to the recording of Aqualung, on which My God can be found).  We heard:

  • My Sunday Feeling
  • My God
  • With You There to Help Me

We also heard some live Hendrix, from Band of Gypsys: Live at the Fillmore East, the excellent Band of Gypsys remaster.  We heard Hear My Train A Comin’ and Machine Gun.

We closed out the set with some Deftones: You’ve Seen The Butcher, Lhabia, and Good Morning Beautiful.

WDBX Opera Overnight – Bellini, Prokofiev

Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835), the composer of ...

Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We began the evening with Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi.  This opera is based on a libretto by Felice Romani, who used the same source material that William Shakespeare used for Romeo and Juliet, and was written for the 1830 Carnival season in Venice. Bellini was only given a month and a half to compose the opera, which he accomplished in part because he recycled music from a previously unsuccessful opera of his, Zaira.

It is considered one of the finest examples of the bel canto singing style, of which Bellini (along with Gaetano Donizetti) was an early master.  Tonight’s recording was made in 1975, and features Janet Baker in the trouser role of Romeo, Beverly Sills (who was instrumental in the revival of the art of bel canto singing, along with Dame Joan Sutherland) as Juliet, along with Robert Lloyd, Nicolai Gedda, and Raimund Herincx.  Giuseppe Patane leads the New Philharmonia Orchestra and the John Aldis Choir.

English: Picture of Serguei Prokofiev with Ros...

English: Picture of Sergei Prokofiev with Mstislav Rostropovich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our second piece tonight is a piece by Sergei ProkofievBetrothal in a Monastery is a comedy (and quite an interesting musical comedy at that, with a distinct sense of musical whimsy that reminds one of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale) that Prokofiev began in 1940.  Prokofiev used a Russian libretto written by himself in collaboration with Mira Mendelson, whom he later married.  The work was interrupted by World War II, and was not premiered until November of 1946 at the Kirov Theater.

Tonight’s recording is from 1998, and features Anna Netrebko in one of her early starring roles, along with Evgeny Akimov, Larissa Diadkova, Alexander Gergalov, Nikolai Gassiev, Marianna Tarassova, and Sergey Aleksashkin.  Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra & Chorus is directed by Valery Gergiev.

The Galaxy – The bright side of the Moon

Living Colour in 013, Tilburg (Netherlands)

Living Colour in 013, Tilburg (Netherlands) (Photo credit: Mike Philippens)

We started the evening with some Living Colour.  They were a big inspiration to me back in the day, with their innate musicianship and difficult arrangements.  Their music eventually helped me formulate the musical philosophy that would eventually come to guide The Galaxy.  We heard:

  • Time’s Up (from Time’s Up, 1990)
  • Desperate People (from Vivid, 1988)
  • Information Overload (from Time’s Up, 1990)
  • Cult of Personality (from Vivid, 1988)
Le groupe Pink Floyd interprétant "Dark S...

Pink Floyd at Earl’s Court, 1973. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given the lunar activity that we’ve been enjoying the last few days, I figured that it might be appropriate, in a dark sort of way, to celebrate the occasion with Pink Floyd’s classic The Dark Side of the Moon, from 1972.  As I see this legendary album as being best heard as a contiguous whole, we heard the entire album, from start to finish:

  • Speak to Me
  • Breathe
  • On The Run
  • The Great Gig in the Sky
  • Money
  • Us and Them
  • Any Colour You Like
  • Brain Damage
  • Eclipse

The next set is comprised of another single album played in its entirety, this time by the great jazz composer and bassist, Charles Mingus.  Mingus wrote and recorded The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady at a crucial time in his musical career.  He had just switched recording labels, from Atlantic to Impulse!, and he was feeling a burst of artistic freedom like nothing he had ever felt previously.  As he himself stated in the album’s liner notes:

I feel no need to explain any further the music herewith other than to say throw all other records of mine away except maybe one other.  In intend to record it all over again on this label the way it was intended to sound.  This is the first time the compaly I have recorded with set out to help me give you, my audience, a clear picture of my musical ideas without that studio rush feeling.  Impulse went to great expense and patience to give me complete freedom…”

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Album cover for The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The result was, for 1963, relatively unprecedented in the jazz world.  By this point we were seeing avant garde excursions coming from players like Ornette Coleman (whom we heard last week) and Eric Dolphy (an occasional Mingus collaborator), and John Coltrane was getting deeper into his compositions.  We also had some rather lovely big band work from established bandleaders like Stan Kenton and Woody Herman.  But Mingus saw a world where elements of the avant garde could intersect with composed and arranged music.  Like Duke Ellington (with whom Mingus had worked, and of whom Mingus was a great admirer), Mingus wanted to write music with an expanded palette of sounds and colors, and with this album he was finally able to achieve just that.  His band consisted of the following:

  • Rolf Ericson, Richard Williams – trumpet
  • Quentin Jackson, trombone
  • Don Butterfield, tuba
  • Jerome Richardson, soprano and baritone saxes, flute
  • Dick Hafer, tenor sax and flute
  • Charlie Mariano, alto sax
  • Jaki Byard, piano
  • Jay Berliner, guitar
  • Mingus, bass, and piano in several places
  • Dannie Richmond, drums

The album, conceived as a single piece and written partially as a ballet, was broken into 4 tracks that actually comprise six different movements:

  • Track A – Solo Dancer, subtitled “Stop! Look! And Listen, Sinner Jim Whitney!”
  • Track B – Duet Solo Dancers, subtitled “Hearts Beat and Shades in Physical Embraces”
  • Track C – Group Dancers, subtitled “(Soul Fusion) Freewoman and Oh, This Freedom’s Slave Cries”
  • Mode D – Trio and Group Dancer, subtitled “Stop! Look! and Sing Songs of Revolutions!”;
  • Mode E – Single Solos and Group Dance, subtitled “Saint and Sinner Join in Merriment on Battle Front”;
  • Mode F – Group and Solo Dance, subtitled “Of Love, Pain and Passioned Revolt, then Farewell, My Beloved, ’til It’s Freedom Day”

Of course, the elaborate titles and subtitles are in keeping with Mingus’ long-established tradition of elaborately detailed song-titles, which he would continue over the following years.  Many critics consider this one of Mingus’ greatest albums, and some mark this as one of the great albums in jazz history.  Yet this also serves as a milepost for the sort of work that Mingus would engage in over the course of the following decade, which in my mind culminates with Let My Children Hear Music, in which Mingus used a big band augmented with a number of interesting instruments (from french horns to full string bass sections).  In those liner notes, Mingus spoke of his desire to “build tall buildings” in jazz.  That construction work actually started here.

For our final recording of the show, we heard a set of three pieces by Frederic Chopin:

  • Etude, Op. 10, No. 10 in A-flat
  • Etude, Op. 10, No. 12 in C-Minor, subtitled “Revolutionary”
  • Mazurka in C., Op. 24, No. 2

These come from a limited edition pressing of some rediscovered live recordings by the legendary Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, from his noted and memorable American tour, recorded on December 28, 1960.  As a resident of the Soviet Union, the Soviets had restricted his travel (like they did with many of their artists during the Cold War), and the numbers of his recordings available in the West were limited for the longest time, and those that existed were not always of the greatest quality.  But he was allowed to do a brief American tour in 1960, as part of a cultural exchange, and this culminated in this performance.  At one point there were bits and pieces from this concert that were released by Columbia in Japan, but the circulation was limited in Japan, owing in part to Richter’s own dissatisfaction with the recordings, which were done in mono.  Richter did approve of recordings done at concerts on 12/26 and 12/28, which were released by RCA.  This batch represents a remastering of the RCA recording, with the addition of additional material from that concert that was not originally released.  Unfortunately, it appears that the package is out of print, something I find to be sad, as it is good to remember this great talent.

Check out the live Spintron playlist!

WDBX Opera Overnight – Handel, Verdi, Praulens

Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy (1754)

Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy (1754) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israel in Egypt (HWV 54) is a biblical oratorio by the composer George Frideric Handel. Many historians believe the libretto was compiled by Handel’s collaborator Charles Jennens, and it is composed entirely of selected passages from the Hebrew Bible, mainly from Exodus and the Psalms.  Handel premiered it in April of 1739, one of a series of works that began with Alexander’s Feast in 1736, and which culminated in 1742’s Messiah.  Israel in Egypt came at a transition point for Handel, as the oratorios were so generally successful that he was using more choral parts and less soloists, with Part 1 of Israel in Egypt consisting entirely of choral parts.  Handel later moderated this practice, and he later made a revised version of Israel in Egypt in 1756, balancing the choral parts with solo parts, similar to what he had done with Messiah.  Tonight’s recording gives the listener both options, but we shall hear the original version, as Handel premiered it in 1739.  The recording is a truly excellent one, one of the 2013 Grammy nominees for Best Choral Recording (a well deserved nomination).  The Trinity Wall Street Church Choir and Orchestra are conducted by Julian Wachner.

Aida, one of Giuseppe Verdi‘s truly great works, was commissioned by an Ottoman governor of Egypt, and as such is set in Egypt during the Old Kingdom, and was premiered in Cairo, Egypt, in 1871.  Verdi did not write an overture for the opera, so it just dives right into the action.  It ranks as the 13th most performed opera worldwide, with more than 1,100 performances at the Met.  It was the first opera to be televised, has been made into several motion pictures, and the story was used as the basis for a musical by Elton John and Tim Rice.

Leontyne Price's Aida album cover (1962)

Leontyne Price’s Aida album cover (1962)

Tonight’s recording is a 1962 recording, featuring Leontyne Price, Jon Vickers, Robert Merrill, Rita Gorr, Franco RiccardiSir Georg Solti conducts the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro del’Opera di Roma.  The recording is not without some controversy, as some think that Solti was too bombastic with how he handled the orchestra, and that he took the opera into Wagnerian territory.  This is fairly natural, as Aida is probably the closest that Verdi came to Wagnerian proportions.  But many will argue that this may be one of the best Aida recordings available.

Our last piece this evening is a choral piece from the Danish composer Ugis Praulins.  The Nightingale is a 2010 composition that is based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen.  It was nominated for two 2013 Grammy Awards, for Best Choral Recording and for Best Contemporary Composition.  Michala Petri performs on recorder, with Stephen Layton leading the Danish National Vocal Ensemble.

The Galaxy – Exploring some edgy music

Historically, it is nights like tonight that I probably enjoy the most.  Nights when I find myself, for whatever reason (mood, inspiration, external events, pure happenstance), pushing the boundaries of my usual playlists and finding the more interesting, exotic material.  Over the course of the two hours of tonight’s show, I found myself wearing a perpetual smile, whilst sitting back and luxuriating in the moments of pure sound that filled the air this evening.

English: Ravi Shankar performs in Delhi with h...

English: Ravi Shankar performs in Delhi with his daughter Anoushka in March 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We started off with a recent recording by the great sitar master, Ravi Shankar.  This Raga Khamaj, from The Living Room Sessions Part 1 (there is also a Part 2 which was released last month), issued by Shankar’s private label East Meets West Music, is an absolutely serene, graceful piece of music.  Of course, given the skill of Ravi Shankar, even as he was well into his 90s, this is no surprise.  One doesn’t have to be Hindu to enjoy the meditative properties of his music – which is just as he had intended.  I am looking forward to hearing Part 2.

eighth blackbird

eighth blackbird

We then heard some selections from a rather interesting disc that I stumbled upon last week.  eighth blackbird (purposefully spelled in lowercase) is a Grammy-winning sextet from Chicago that specializes in new music by forward-looking composers.  From their 2012 album Meanwhile, we heard:

Frankie Yankovic

Frankie Yankovic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I am frequently given to enjoying wide musical contrasts, I followed this avant garde with some polka.  Not just any polka, but a performer long referred to a “The Polka King”.  Frankie Yankovic, from Cleveland, was a noted practitioner of the “Slovenian style” of polka.  He recorded over 200 polka recordings, and won the first ever Polka Grammy in 1986.  His stature was such that Weird Al Yankovic (no relation) played as a sideman on one of his last records (Weird Al is said to have stated that his parents had him learn accordion because “there should be at least one more accordion-playing Yankovic in the world”).  Yankovic died in 1998, aged 83.  From Frankie Yankovic and his Yanks, we heard Blue Skirt Waltz, Who Stole The Keeshka (a really fun song!), Hoop-Dee-Doo and Milwaukee Polka.

Of course, as I am given to wide degrees of contrast in my musical selections, we threw the gearshift into high gear with Free Jazz, A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet.  The double quartet is just as it sounds – two quartets playing side-by-side, using the stereophonic effect (a new thing in 1960) to help clarify the music.  From one side you hear the combo of Ornette Coleman (alto sax), Don Cherry (pocket trumpet), Scott La Faro (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums), while on the other side you hear Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Charlie Haden (bass), and Ed Blackwell (drums).  While the concept of two quartets playing simultaneously sounds chaotic, the experience is something different.  Upon a proper listen, one may find oneself redefining the term “musical chaos”, because this wasn’t chaos.

WDBX Opera Overnight – Mozart, Spohr

The Magic Flute – play bill of the first perfo...

The Magic Flute – play bill of the first performance on September 30, 1791 at Schikaneder’s Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re going to start the evening with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, The Magic Flute.  This opera was premiered in September of 1791, using a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, who also was the original Papageno.  Mozart had been involved with Schikaneder’s theatrical troupe since 1789, and constructed the opera so that it could be sung by both virtuosos and ordinary comic actors, with the notable exception being the Queen of the Night role, which was originated by Mozart’s sister in law Josepha Hofer and is noted for its difficulty, which includes a rare high F6 in the aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.  The opera is infused throughout with a number of Masonic elements, which should not be surprising as Schikaneder and Mozart were both in the same Masonic lodge.  It was an immediate success, and had already been performed 100 times by November of 1792.

Fritz Wunderlich as Tamino in Mozart's The Magic Flute

Fritz Wunderlich as Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Tonight’s recording is a 1964 edition that is considered among the best available recordings of the piece.  The great German tenor Fritz Wunderlich (in 1964 a star on the ascendency, before he was killed after falling down a flight of stairs, only 36 years old) stars as Tamino, along with Evelyn Lear (Pamina), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Papageno), Roberta Peters (Queen), Franz Crass (Sarastro), Lisa Otto (Papagena).  James King and Martti Talvela have small parts.   Karl Böhm directs the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Our next work is a piece 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 chin-rest and the orchestral rehearsal mark, and he was among the first conductors to use a baton.

Louis spohr

Louis spohr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

The official playlist can be found here.