WDBX Opera Overnight: Mussorgsky, Gluck

Young Mussorgsky as a cadet in the Preobrazhen...

Young Mussorgsky as a cadet in the Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Imperial Guard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our first opera of the evening 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, 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.

Tonight we’re going to hear a 1972 live recording that features another one of the great Russian basses, Nicolai Giaurov, along with Mark Reshetin, Aleksandr Vedernikov, Ludovic Spiess, Ruza Baldani, Antonin Grigoriev leading a large cast. The RAI Rome Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is directed by Boris Khaikin.

Gluck, detail of a portrait by Joseph Duplessi...

Gluck, detail of a portrait by Joseph Duplessis, dated 1775 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our second opera of the evening is a work by Christoph Willibald Gluck, and his first major reform opera.  He wrote Orfeo et 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

WDBX Opera Overnight: The Conclusion to Wagner’s Ring Cycle (officially, Part 4); Mussorgsky, Bizet

Deborah Voigt

Deborah Voigt, as Brünnhilde in a recent performance of Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Tonight, we reach the last portion of Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle, Der Ring des NibelungenGötterdämmerung, like last week’s Siegfried, was premiered on August 17, 1876, at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus as part of the first complete performance of the cycle.  The title is the German translation of the Old Norse phrase Ragnarök, which in Norse mythology referred to a prophesied war of the gods that would bring about the end of the world.  Of course, Wagner took liberties with the myth, as he did with much of the plot for the cycle.  This opera features the only time in the entire cycle that Wagner would use a chorus.  Wagner was also especially aggressive in his use of tonality – starting with act 3 of Siegfried, he transitioned from traditionally defined keys to something close to “key regions”, with a heightened use of dissonance and chromaticism.  His use of such techniques (which we also find in Tristan und Isolde) is considered a direct predecessor to the methods developed by Arnold Schoenberg, only Wagner’s work here preceded Schoenberg’s by a full 25 years.

1875 engraving of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre

1875 engraving of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight’s recording, as with the recordings that we have heard over the last three weeks, is from a legendary 1966 live recording at the Bayreuth Festival.  The cast is comprised of top-notch Wagnerians, led by Wolfgang Windgassen, Birgit Nilsson, Josef Greindl, Thomas Stewart, Ludmilla Dvoráková, Gustav Neidlinger, and Anja SiljaKarl Böhm directed the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

Português: Retrato por Repin, 1881

Portrait of Modest Mussorgsky, by Retrato por Repin, 1881 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our next piece of music is a song cycle by Modest Mussorgsky.  He wrote The Nursery (Russian: Детская, Detskaya, literally Children’s [Room]) between 1868 and 1872, using his own lyrics.  This was written right around the same time that he wrote his operatic masterpiece, Boris Godunov.  It is not sung very often in the West, due to the difficulties that come with singing in Russian, but it is widely considered to be one of the more important song cycles of the late 19th century.  We shall hear the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Alexandrina Milcheva singing, with Svetla Protich accompanying on the pianoforte.

For our final piece of the evening, we will hear a set of 5 songs by Georges Bizet, all written between 1866 and 1872.  The set includes two settings of poems by Victor Hugo, Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe and La coccinelle, a poem by Alphonse de Lamartine, Chant d’amour, a poem by Édouard Pailleron, Tarantelle, and a poem by Louis Delâtre, Ouvre ton cœur.  Cecilia Bartoli sings to the piano accompaniment of Myung-Whun Chung.

WDBX Opera Overnight – Gluck, Mussorgsky

Deutsch: Christoph Willibald Gluck eo:Dosiero:...

Christoph Willibald Gluck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: Modest Mussorgsky, 1865

English: Modest Mussorgsky, 1865 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Nicolai Ghiaurov, singing Boris Godunov, from a Russian website

Nicolai Ghiaurov, singing Boris Godunov, from a Russian website

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.

The Galaxy – I don’t know how you were inverted, but I hadn’t asked in the first place

English: The Beatles wave to fans after arrivi...

The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport, 7 Feb 1964. (Image via Wikipedia)

We start the evening with some Beatles – another timely mood piece.  Of course, it is easy to say “let’s play some Beatles!”, and quite a different thing to actually select the choicest cuts from that Beatle-side of beef.  This is how Beatles sets become so lengthy – I simply can’t resist them.  So we started with one of their high-quality album sides from ’63, It Won’t Be Long, which is found on With The Beatles.  We then went with something from Rubber Soul, You Won’t See Me.  Revolver was next with Here, There and Everywhere, and then we followed that with another Rubber Soul song, Girl,  We then heard a set from The White Album – Glass Onion, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Happiness is a Warm Gun, Martha My Dear, and finishing the set with I’m So Tired.

Modest Mussorgsky, 1874

Pictures at an Exhibition was written by Modest Moussorgsky in 1874 as a tribute to his friend Victor Hartmann, an artist and architect who also designed costumes and scenery for ballets, who had died from an aneurysm the year prior.  Moussorgsky and his friends had organized an art exhibit featuring Hartmann’s works, and the exhibit so inspired Moussorgsky that he wrote this piece in response.  The titles of the individual sections (Il vecchil castello, Tuileries, Bydlo, Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, Limoges Marches, The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, etc.) are all titles of Hartmann’s works that were featured at the exhibit.  Moussorgsky wrote the piece over the course of three weeks.  Eventually, the piece was used as the source of a number of orchestrations, including one by his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and another one by Maurice Ravel.  Both the orchestrations (especially that by Ravel) and the original piano piece are frequently performed, and the piano piece is considered a good showpiece for piano virtuosos.  Tonight’s recording is a 2002 recording by Evgeny Kissin.

It has been a while since I’ve been able to play a good Doors set, and the last few times I’ve done some Doors, it has all been live recordings.  So this time I went with some of their classics.  We started with The Crystal Ship (long a favorite of mine), then we heard Strange Days, Alabama Song (their excellent take on the song from Bertolt Brecht‘s Threepenny Opera), Five To One, and finished with Light My Fire.

English: Led Zeppelin, January 1975, Chicago

Led Zeppelin, January 1975, Chicago (Image via Wikipedia)

We finished tonight’s show with some live Led Zeppelin.  As great as they were in the studio, they were a truly extraordinary band on stage.  The live recordings that they have made available do not come without some controversy, as there are accusations that Jimmy Page stitched together the best parts of multiple performances, sometimes within the same song, in both live releases (The Song Remains The Same, and How The West Was Won).  My philosophy is to take these recordings at face value – whether they are pieced together or not, this is still some great stuff that displays a level of musicianship that was found nowhere else in the hard rock oeuvre.  From The Song Remains the Same (which received an excellent remastering a few years ago), we heard No Quarter (possibly their best live recorded song, in my opinion), The Song Remains The Same and The Rain Song.