Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Beyond My Dream -- Music for Greek Plays

"Beyond My Dream" brings some early music of Ralph Vaughan Williams to light -- and gives us a hint of what might have been.

George Gilbert Murray published what were considered to be the definitive English translations of ancient Greek plays. And he had very definite ideas of how they should be staged -- including music.

He was not happy with settings of his translations by Granville Bantock and Gustav Holst. Murray wanted something that more closely followed the rhythm and stress patterns of the original Greek.

Enter graduate student Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was recommended to Murray by his friend Herbert Fisher -- who was also Vaughan Williams' brother in law.

Murray and Vaughan Williams worked together, developing three plays for performance. Along the way, famed dancer Isadora Duncan became involved. Her innovative dance techniques further inspired the young composer.

Unfortunately, the productions fell through, and the plays were never produced. Some of Vaughan Williams' music was heard in a concert performance, then filed away. Only recently did conductor Alan Tongue find it again and prepared it for performance

Not all of the music has survived, but there's enough to give the listener a sense of what RVW could have done. The Bacchae has but one selection: "Thou immaculate on high." Two selections survive from "Electra." "Iphigenia in Taurus" has five pieces, including the overture.

This music isn't the pastoral English style Vaughan Williams would later perfect. There's an indefinite modal quality to these works as if the music continually oscillates between tonalities. The phrasing is irregular, matching the declamation of the text without following English speech patterns.

To me, some of the selections sounded like prototypes of later spiritual works, such as "Pilgrim's Progress." Still, in these works, RVW's style doesn't sound fully gelled. And that's a good thing. It gives this music an other-worldly quality.

Whether you're a fan of RVW's music or not, I think there's quite a bit here to enjoy.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Beyond My Dream
Music for Greek Plays
Heather Lowe, mezzo-soprano, The Joyful Company of Singers; Britten Sinfonia; Alan Tongue, conductor
Albion Records ALBCD033

Friday, January 12, 2018

#ClassicsaDay #Opus1 Annotated List Week 2

I'm a regular contributor to the #ClassicsaDay Twitter feed. For January 2018, I decided to mark the first month of the new year with firsts. Each post features the first published work of a different composer.

Emphasis on the word "published," In some cases, the Opus 1 is the first mature work of the composer. Sometimes the work was written mid-career. A few are spurious, and a few were written quite late and simply assigned the Opus 1 designation.

Each work seems to have a story that's a little long for the typical tweet. So here they are. This is week two of the #ClassicsaDay #Opus1.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) - Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 1

Prokofiev's first published work seems not to be liked by anyone. Premiered by the composer in 1910, it was coldly received by critics. Prokofiev's style isn't fully formed in the work. His influences -- Tchaikovsky, Busoni, Rachmaninov -- lie close to the surface, making the piece at times sound derivative. Even Prokofiev wasn't entirely happy with the sonata. He dropped the second and third movements before publication, leaving the single somewhat formal first movement sonata-allegro.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) - Trio Sonatas for two violins and basso continuo, Op. 1

Vivaldi's first published works were hardly his earliest compositions. His Opus 1 Trio Sonatas were published in 1705 when he was 27. In the Baroque period, publication was often reserved for those works that might have broad appeal (and generate sales). The twelve trio sonatas of the Opus 1 set could be performed with two violins, flutes, oboes, or any combination thereof.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Der Erlkönig

Der Erlkönig is a poem by Gothe, set to music by Schubert in 1815. The poem tells the story of a man riding furiously through the night with his ailing son. The boy succumbs to the call of the Erlkönig (Elf King) that pursues them. The father reaches safety, but not before the boy dies. Schubert published this lied in 1815 as his Opus 1. He had already completed over 300 compositions. Though very demanding, the work is often performed and is considered one of Schubert's best lieder.

Lowell Liebermann (1961 - ) - Piano sonata No. 1, Op. 1

Like Brahms, Lowell Liebermann is both a talented pianist and composer. And also like Brahms, his first published work was a piano sonata. Liebermann premiered his Piano Sonata No. 1 in a Carnegie Hall performance. He was sixteen at the time. Liebermann's gone on to have a highly successful career. His flute concerto is considered a standard of the repertoire.

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)- Rondeau in C minor, Op. 1

Chopin's first published work was originally titled "Adieu à Varsovie" ("Farewell to Warsaw"). It was published when he was fifteen. Although it isn't the first piece he composed, the rondeau is often seen as a lesser work. Schumann wrote that "there is plenty of spirit in it and few difficulties."

Annotated List Week 1

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Vittoria Vittoria - beautiful restoration of 17th Century song

"Vittoria - Vittoria" is a DVD-Audio reissue of a 1997 release. Both the performances and sound quality are first-rate.

Richard Wistreich is a well-established performer of 16th and 17th Century repertoire. This release presents a selection of Italian and English songs from approximately the same time period.

Wistreich's bass voice has an extraordinary range. Some selections, such as Sigismondo d'India's "Che farai" plumb the depths of his register. Wistreich maintains control, even when his voice is in the basement.

Overall, Wistreich's performances are relatively straight-forward. His expressiveness is always in service of the text. It's never overly dramatic, though.

The ensemble is beautifully balanced against the voice. Great care was taken in the recording of this release. The current reissue is a transfer from the original master tapes to 192kHz/24 bit high-resolution audio.

If you have a choice, opt for the DVD-A disc. With a high-end audio system, you should hear all the subtleties of Witreeich's performances.

Vittoria Vittoria
A Recital of Seventeenth-Century Italian and English Songs
Richard Wistreich, voice; Robin Jeffrye, lute and chitarrone; Celia Harper, chamber organ; Erin Headley, lirone
Claudio CR3710-2