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Musical interlude

Further notes on recent listening to early 20th century and contemporary classical music.

As I believe I mentioned in my last episode, I've been listening to a lot of Schoenberg, particularly the early tonal music. At this point I've got four recordings of Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), which he composed in 1899 as a string sextet and then arranged for string orchestra in 1917 (which arrangement was revised in 1943.) I do really love the piece, but I didn't set out to acquire four recordings. The first recording I picked up was a string orchestra version, and then I decided I wanted a string sextet version. Once I'd gotten the sextet version, I noticed that there was a recording of the sextet by the Smithsonian Chamber Players, who play on period instruments from the Smithsonian's collection and were a favorite group of mine back when I was listening to a lot of classical era music in the '90s. The frosting on this particular cake was that the Smithsonian disk included a recording of the Chamber Symphony No 1, which was a transitional piece for Schoenberg, as he headed toward his break with traditional tonality. I thought it would be interesting to hear it performed on period instruments, and indeed on a first hearing I liked it better than the other recording I have, by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

As for my fourth recording of Transfigured Night, it was a byproduct (which I still haven't listened to) of picking up Karajan's recording, with the Berliner Philharmoniker, of Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, which is currently my other favorite piece by Schoenberg. It shares with Transfigured Night a dreamy, anguished, ecstatic, trembling, languid quality that I find very appealing and that sometimes reminds me of Debussy. In fact Schoenberg had been intending to write an opera adaptation of Maeterlinck's symbolist play, Pelléas et Mélisande, until he discovered in 1902 that Debussy had already premiered his opera version of the play, at which point Schoenberg settled on writing something of a tone poem that is sometimes described as an opera without words. (Maeterlinck's play also inspired incidental music by Sibelius and Faure, and I have recordings of these pieces as well. The play certainly resulted in some amazing music.)

The piece by Schoenberg that I recently picked up my first recording of is his String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor. ron_drummond will be interested to know that I picked up the recording by the Lark Quartet. The disk also includes a recording of the String Quartet No. 4 by Zemlinsky, who was the one person whom Schoenberg studied under. However, this is a much later composition that is apparently a response to Berg's atonal Lyric Suite, which I've also picked up but have only heard once. Anyway, I've only listened to the Schoenberg quartet a couple of times so far, and it hasn't made much of an impression on me. Can't go wrong with D Minor, though, can you? Well, Mozart and Schubert couldn't.

The major tonal work by Schoenberg that I've still to acquire is Gurrelieder -- a two-hour cantata for vocal soloists, choir, and massive Teutonic orchestra. It's one of those pinnacles of late Viennese romanticism, building off Mahler and Wagner. I've been trying to work my way up to it by listening to some Mahler, and I think I want to listen to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) before I tackle Gurrelieder. I've got my eye on a recording by the Smithsonian Chamber Players of an arrangement for chamber orchestra that was done by ... Arnold Schoenberg!

But I've also been listening to a couple of symphonies by Mahler (the Second and the Eighth), tone poems by Richard Strauss (who was the one who urged Schoenberg to write an opera based on the Maeterlinck play), and two string sextets by Brahms. The latter I acquired because Schoenberg is said to have been trying with Transfigured Night to build a bridge between the different tonal worlds of Brahms and Wagner, and because I discovered a recording by L'Archibudelli, who are another favorite period instrument ensemble from my earlier era of intensive classical listening.

So I am drowning in Viennese and otherwise Germanic late, hyper-chromatic romanticism, and I think I will be for a while. (I'm thinking I might give Wagner's Tristan und Isolde a try too.) Thus I haven't been listening to much contemporary classical lately, although one piece that I've been listening to, thanks to the kind offices of ron_drummond, is Daniel Catán's string sextet (also called Divertimento), which is one of only two chamber pieces that he composed. This is not a commercially available recording, but is a recording of two live performances by an ensemble called Pacific Serenades, whom Ron contacted via email and who very kindly sent him a CD-R. I've had a mixed response to the piece, which Catán apparently wanted to revise but was unable to before he died. It has some utterly glorious passages, however, and I continue to find his music extraordinarily beautiful. He is the reason I have started listening more intently to 20th and 21st century classical music.

Other than that I've also been listening to the Symphony No. 1 by Christopher Theofanidis, which premiered in 2009. I had previously heard Theofanadis' piece called Rainbow Body, and while I still don't know that I like his musical structures, I find his sonic terrain very rich and stirring. I've seen the argument that he belongs to a Copland-inspired line of American music, which I can sort of hear, although I don't know Copland's music well, in fact. He also seems indebted to film music, which is held against him in some quarters, but not by this film fan. He has also won a number of prizes and been nominated for a Grammy, which makes him a conservative figure from the avant gardist perspective. Well, my own taste seems to be fairly conservative on this front. Cf. Catán and his Puccini soup as well.

Finally, for now, I've discovered a blog called Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review, which if nothing else serves to remind me that I will never get caught up with everything that's going on out there. According to the front page: "Grego Applegate Edwards's Classical-Modern Music Review blogsite covers recent releases or re-issues of recordings that feature classical and concert music, primarily of the 20th and 21st Centuries, but earlier music as well when warranted. All styles of relevance will be addressed from Late-Romantic and Neo-Romantic through High-Modern, Avant Garde and Post-Modern styles. Chamber music, orchestral, choral, operatic, and electronic forms will be considered as well as music that combines a classical element with one or more other stylistic elements." It's endless, my Friends. There's a whole lot of new music going on, and everybody's writing a goddamned opera! (Latest opera viewed on DVD was Puccini's La fanciulla del West, which is the one that has echoes of Debussy. But enough, enough.)

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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
kalimac
Jun. 1st, 2013 04:01 am (UTC)
You're going deep into stuff I don't know and, based on that of its ilk I do know, don't want to. I would say "I've never heard Guerrelieder" in the same tone of voice with which I would recite "I've never seen a Purple Cow."

That blog reminds me of why I ceased subscribing to Fanfare: I don't want to be tempted to buy more CDs than I can afford.
randy_byers
Jun. 1st, 2013 04:25 am (UTC)
Ah well, we'll always have Finland. Or at least I think you're the one who turned me on to Sallinen and Rautavaara!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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