Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique

I have only one recording of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), his most famous work the Symphonie Fantastique. It is one of the many re-releases of the RCA Victor "Living Stereo" recordings, this one featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch.

The work is a bit autobiographical. It seems that Berlioz had what for a while was a one-sided love affair with an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson. The symphony is a program work (for which he provided a script at its premiere). The first movement, entitled "Reveries; Passions" introduce the theme, an idee fixe, that represents throughout the symphony a beautiful woman loved by a lonely musician. In anguish over his own one-sided love, takes opium. What follows is a series of dreams. The dreams, in order of their appearance in the work, are as follows: "A Ball"; "Scene in the Country"; "March to the Scaffold"; and "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath."

The anguish felt by the artist must have also been felt by Berlioz, as for the longest time he knew only her face and name; they did not talk, nor even meet, for quite sometime. The work was completed before Berlioz and Smithson met. Those of us with a romantic streak would be happy to know that Hector did finally meet Harriet, and they fell in love and were even married. Those same romanticists would be disappointed to know that the marriage was a failure.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Composer vs. Performer

Which is more important – the composer or the performer?
Put another way, would you rather listen to a song that you really like sung by someone you don’t like? Or would you rather hear a singer that you like sing a song that you don’t like? Which is worse?
When putting together a classical music collection, should the emphasis be on the composers or the performers? Ideally, of course, you would like to have the best of both worlds. But that is not always going to be the case and everyone has different tastes.
Right now, I am putting most of my focus on the composers simply because I am not all that familiar with who the good performers are. I am beginning to recognize some names through sheer repetition – Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern, Itschak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, and so forth. And so if I am looking for a piece by Brahms and it is played by someone I recognize, I consider it a bonus.
I wonder if in the beginning people look to the composer first and as they become more experienced with the music they begin to favor certain performers and follow them regardless of who or what they are playing.
I think this is a phenomenon that is rather unique to classical music because it has so much of its history outside of the recording era.
Imagine for a minute that the Beatles had composed all of their songs before the recording era. What if we had all their songs, but none of their performances and had to rely on other people to play their songs for us. Does Elton John do the best version of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds? Does Aerosmith do the best version of Come Together?
That is what it is like with Beethoven, Mozart and most of the other classical icons. We have their music but no recording of them playing it. That used to be the norm, even when they were alive. But now we expect to hear the composer perform their own work in most cases. “Cover” versions are almost always considered inferior.
But in classical music we rely on cover versions of almost everything. So we make up for that by demanding that the performers adhere to the composition exactly like it was written and, in some cases, even use period instruments to recreate the sound that would have been made when the composer was alive.
Still, you can always hear subtle differences between performances. I got used to listening to one version of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and then when I ran out and bought a copy on CD years later was disappointed to find that it did not sound the same as I remembered. So I have acquired several more versions looking for just the right one.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Collecting Classical Music Part 2

After listening to the lecture course mentioned below, the first thing I had to do was go out and buy Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I had a copy somewhere on cassette, but could no longer play cassettes anywhere. I couldn't find a copy at the library or at Half-Price Books and so was forced to go to Barnes and Noble and buy a copy on some cheap label for $6. It's by the Orchestra "New Philharmony" of St. Petersburg by Alexander Titov. It seems decent enough.
Next, at Half-Price Books I found Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and Capriccio Italien performed by Vladimir Spivakov and the Berliner Philharmoniker after it was highly recommended by Professor Greenberg on the lecture series. Wow. I'd probably still be listening to it over and over again except that I then found Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 at the library. OMG. I almost can't stop listening to it because it is so good.
But I've got so much more music to listen to. I was forced to empty my iPod of anything but classical music and just a few choice jazz selections (I need a bigger iPod).
In Houston at another Half-Price Books store I found Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique by Vladimir Golschmann and Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Mozart Symphonies 40 and 41 by James Levine and the Wiener Philharmoniker.
Now everytime I go into a library or bookstore I come out with a few more prizes for my collection - 24 Caprices by Paganini performed by Itshak Perlman; Carnival of the Animals by Saint Saens; Greig Piano Concerto in A Minor and Peer Gynt Suite; Haydn Symphonies 94, 96, 100, 101, 103 and 104; Mahler Symphonies 1,2 and 6; and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Firebird Suite.

Collecting classical music Part 1

Just finished listening to The Teaching Company course "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music" which was lent to me by Robert.
So naturally I'm on a classical music kick. I've been raiding the local libraries and Half-Price Bookstores to try and round out my classical music collection on CD.
Fortunately, when Susan and I first got married in 1990 I joined the BMG Music Club and for about the first year and a half got their classical music selection every month. In retrospect, I wish I'd kept it up longer. But it gave me a pretty decent collection to start off with. The selections were all high quality recording labels of top artists performing works by the classical masters.
Here is a rundown of the CDs that I got in that manner:

Bach: The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould
Beethoven*Schumann Piano Quartets with James Laredo, YoYo Ma, Isaac Stern and Emanuel Ax
Ode to Freedom - Bernstein in Berlin - Beethoven Symphony No. 9
Bernstein the Final Concert - Beethoven Symphony No. 7; Britten Four Sea Interludes
Brahms Violin Concerto - Nigel Kennedy and the London Philharmonic - Klaus Tennstedt
Brahms Symphony No. 4 - Wiener Philharmoniker with Carlos Kleiber
YoYo Ma Concertos from the New World - Dvorak * Herbert: New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur
Handel: Watermusic and Royal Fireworks by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Holst: The Planets / Varese: Arcana - Leonard Slatkin, Philharmonia Orchestra
Debussy: Prelude a l'apres-midi d' un faune / Rhapsody for Saxophone / La Mer and Ravel: La Valse / Bolero - New York Philharmonic with Kurt Masur
Mozart: Concerto and Sonata for Two Pianos - Alicia DeLarrocha, Andre Previn The Orchestra of St. Lukes
Rachmaninoff * Prokofiev Cello Sonatas by Emanuel Ax and YoYo Ma
Rimsky Korsakov: Scheherazade - Royal Conertgebouw Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly
Saint Saens: Symphonie No. 3 "Organ" / Cypres et Lauriers - Michel Plasson and the Orchestra du Capitole de Toulouse
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C - San Francisco Symphony with Herbert Blomstedt
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 / Romeo and Juliet - Chicago Symphony Orchestra Daniel Barenboim
Verdi Ballet Music - The MET Orchestra James Levine
Schumann: Complete works for Piano and Orchestra - Murray Perahia and Berlin Philharmonic with Claudio Abbado

Not bad for having no clue about classical music and getting random stuff shipped to me every month about 15 years ago.