Friday, March 31, 2006


Richard Strauss: Don Juan

by Andrew Clements
Friday January 12, 2001
The Guardian

Don Juan was the work that made the 25-year-old Richard Strauss a star when it was first performed in Weimar in 1889 - and with good reason. An epoch-making score, it redefined the parameters of musical potential. No composer had previously used orchestral forces with such flamboyant audacity, and the history of sonority would never be quite the same again.

In his picture of the famous womaniser, Strauss also placed a hitherto unimagined emphasis on erotic hedonism, which remains startling more than a century later. The result has always been a firm favourite with players and audiences alike, though Don Juan is much more than a virtuoso musical porn show, and the whole thing can come adrift if conductors fail to probe its deeper ambiguities. Strauss took as his source an unfinished play by the deranged poet Nikolaus Lenau, in which the Don is very much portrayed as the prototype of the Nietzschean figures to whom Strauss was later drawn - an amoral being "beyond good and evil" whose sexual exploits form a psychological defence against his own destructive nihilism. A sense of jittery, existential danger needs to be added to the glamorous sexiness of it all if the piece is to succeed.
Several of Strauss's own performances survive, of which the finest - measured in speed but relentless in intensity - is his 1944 radio broadcast with the Vienna Philharmonic (Preiser). A similar spaciousness, rather than superficial glitter, pervades Wilhelm Furtwängler's majestic 1954 version with the same orchestra (EMI). The usually great Bruno Walter was never quite at his best in Strauss's music and his 1952 version with the New York Philharmonic (Sony) finds him occasionally ill at ease. Leopold Stokowski, ever the wizard when it comes to orchestral flamboyance, generates tremendous, visceral excitement.

Among the next generation of interpreters we find versions by Karajan (DG), Solti (Decca), Boehm (DG) and Rudolf Kempe (EMI), all great, all radically different. Karajan's lushness contrasts sharply with Solti's nervous edginess. Boehm is all romantic radiance and warmth, while Kempe, with the Dresden Staatskapelle on glorious form, is deeply humane, portraying the Don very much as a man whose emotions, though transitory, are sincere.
More recently we have Neeme Jarvi controversially and brilliantly turning the Don into a Sadean brute as part of his Chandos Strauss cycle with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Claudio Abbado, very fierce with the Vienna Philharmonic yet again (DG); and Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony, almost matchless when it comes to exposing Strauss's gorgeous palette of orchestral colour (Decca - the sound is astonishing).

But there's one version that towers above the rest, namely the 1954 RCA recording with the Chicago Symphony and Fritz Reiner. The work has never sounded quite so electrifyingly raunchy or so dangerous as it does here, while the downbeat ending is shockingly, devastatingly sad. The playing is stupendous and the whole thing knocks you sideways. It ranks among the most stunning performances ever committed to disc - an absolutely unmissable achievement.

Key recording: Fritz Reiner (RCA)

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

Sunday, March 26, 2006


Tchaikovsky: Instrumentation and nationalism

Tchaikovsky wrote this: Letter to Mme von Meck, Clarens, March 5 (17), 1878

You ask how I manage my instrumentation. I never compose in the abstract; that is to say, the musical thought never appears otherwise than in a suitable external form. In this way I invent the musical idea and instrumentation simultaneously. Thus I thought out the scherzo of our symphony [Fourth Symphony] at the moment of its composition---exactly as you heard it. It is inconceivable except as pizzicato. Were it played with the bow, it would lose all its charm and be a mere body without a soul.
As regards the Russian element in my works, I may tell you that not infrequently I begin a composition with the intention of introducing some folk melody into it. Sometimes it comes of its own accord, unbidden (as in the finale of our symphony). As to this national element in my work, its affinity with the folk songs in some melodies and harmonies comes from my having spent my childhood in the country, and, from my earliest years, having been impregnated with the characteristic beauty of our Russian folk music. I am passionately fond of the national element in all its varied expressions. In a word, I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word.

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Rimski-Korsakov: Formal Study

From a letter to Semyon Kruglikov, November 9, 1880 Nikolai Andreyevitch Rimski-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote:

One can learn by oneself; sometimes one needs advice, but one has also to learn, that is, one must not neglect harmony and counterpoint and the development of a good technique and a clean leading subject. All of us, myself and Borodin and Balakirev, but especially Cui and Moussorgsky, neglected this. I consider that I caught myself in time and made myself get down to work. Owing to such deficiencies in technique Balakirev writes little; Borodin, with difficulty; Cui sloppily; Moussorgsky, messily and often nonsensically; and all this constitutes the very regrettable specialty of the Russian school.

Like his colleagues in the "Big Five," Rimski-Korsakov was a musician by avocation, at least at the inception of his composing career. By profession he was a naval officer, following in the tradition of his family. His first large scale work, a Symphony in E-flat minor (Opus 1), was composed under Balakirev's influence and guidance, while he was still ignorant of even the names of chords and the elementary rules of part writing.

Unlike his colleagues, he devoted himself assiduously to the formal study of harmony, counterpoint and form, study which aroused cynicism in Moussorgsky (who dubbed it "routine, lifeless, and reactionary" and skepticism in Tchaikovsky (who spoke of "contrapuntal intricacies"). Nevertheless, it was this study which enabled him to revise and polish Moussorgsky's at times awkwardly written and often unfinished works after the latter's death, to orchestrate Dargomijsky's Stone Guest and with his pupil, Glazounov, to finish and orchestrate Borodin's Prince Igor.

Numbered among his many gifted students were Glazounov, Ipolitov-Ivanov, and Stravinsky.




Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), an outstanding and leading figure in the music of Russia, an eminent master of orchestral expression, a fervent devotee of Beauty in music, and preponderantly true to the spirit and idiom of his nation. His whole active life was devoted to the promotion of the musical art of his native land. Though not the oldest nor the first Russian master, there is something patriarchal in Rimsky-Korsakov's position; he is cited as the father of Russian school of orchestration; and, as teacher of many later celebrities, his strong and beneficent influence was far reaching.

In addition to his superb orchestral Suite Sheherazade (from the Arabian Nights), Op. 35, I would recommend his the Oriental Suite Antar ("Poet and beloved Hero of the Desert"), Op. 9 (1881). Both of these consist of four Movements, though the latter are not strictly analogous to those of the Symphony. In their character they show that, despite his devotion to Russian folk-lore and folk-song, he had a decided taste for the Oriental in music, and caught its idiom most successfully.

Antar is generally listed as Rimsky-Korsakov's Second "Symphony," though the title Suite is more accurate. The story runs thus: Antar rescues the Fairy Gul-Nazar (as a gazelle) from the pursuit of a giant bird. As a reward, she promises him three great Delights of Life: Revenge, Power, and Love. These episodes form the basis of the four Movements, of which the Finale is the best---the exceeding skillful combination of the Fairy-theme and an Oriental Dance.

The Symphonies of this master (not to mention the Suites) are three in number: the First, in E major (1865); the Second,in C, and a Symphonietta in A minor---all admirable, but not on a plane with the Suites.


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