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Edward Elgar

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc

Yesterday

Living the life of Pal Joey

Norman Lebrecht - Slipped discChicago pianist Lori Kaufman was among those who were present at Tanglewood’s farewell to Joseph Silverstein, much-loved concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and, later, music director of the Utah Symphony. Joey, who died last November, aged 83, Joey was always so much more than the sum of his titles. Lori writes: Over 700 close friends, family members and former students filled Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood Sunday night for a celebration of the life and gifts of Joseph Silverstein, whose abrupt passing last November left much of the music world bereft. Impeccably curated by Deborah and Bunny Silverstein, with the Boston Symphony, the evening could not have been a more perfect homage to the achievements of Mr. Silverstein and the impact he had on thousands of musicians of all ages. To start, twenty-six string players purposefully strode onstage and played the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s exuberant Serenade in C. Impeccably led by Utah Symphony concertmaster Ralph Matson, they performed standing up, as though to bear witness to the legacy that they gratefully bask in every day, many of them still section players in the Boston Symphony. Fred Sherry called Silverstein the “soul of the BSO,” and indeed, his influence on that orchestra and many others will reverberate for generations. Anthony Fogg, the BSO’s artistic administrator and director of Tanglewood, invited us to “applaud robustly” for the “music that Joey loved and cherished.” Words would not usurp what mattered most to one of the 20th century’s best musicians, so Fogg emphasized that this evening would be full of sounds that would remind us that “our lives were better in some way because of what he gave us.” Of course the program needed to begin with JS Bach. Silverstein’s recording of the solo sonatas is THE textbook Bach, studied closely by all young violinists. Joey dug deep into every period of violin playing, and his knowledge of the baroque period was unsurpassed. He could justify every bowing and phrasing with historical evidence, and yet still made us hear something new and fresh in each sonata and partita. Venerable pianists Peter Serkin and Richard Goode then appeared, and their regal performance of three choral preludes by Bach was a master class in four-hand playing. The most elusive of ensemble playing, four-hand music is fraught with sonic landmines around every clumsy corner and demands flawless shading ability and creative sound architecture. These two champions of chamber music voiced the counterpoint luminously, expertly, and with an elegance that is rarely heard today. Mr. Goode returned to the stage with Curtis Macomber and Fred Sherry to play one of Joey’s favorite movements of all time, the adagio from the Brahms B major trio. I am sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was fortunate to have Mr. Silverstein’s coaching on this piece. It was with this very trio that he taught me everything I needed to know about Brahms—- what his unique rhythmic gestures were about, how his eighth notes need to be fat and spread out as looooooong as possible, how his mezzo pianos differ from every other composer’s, how his movements always relate to each other, and how the pianist’s left hand can make or break a performance. Richard Goode is of course one of the few pianists who understands all of these things and his partners helped him send this piece right up to the heavens where it belongs. The radiant Elena Urioste had the prodigious task of presenting Estrellita. I had the honor of playing this piece with Joey and I’m certain that everyone in attendance had heard Joey play it, even multiple times. Kreisler was one of his most closely studied idols; he cherished those “encore” pieces and snuck them into a recital program whenever he could. Well, Elena got it exactly right, and thankfully her partner Garrick Ohlsson exhibited the color palette and sensitivity to perfectly support the mood of this wistful souvenir. The duo won gasps and murmurs of approval from the audience immediately upon the final arpeggiated chord. Next we got to hear a recording of Silverstein playing The Russian Dance from Swan Lake while photos of him flickered across a gigantic screen. Graciously, the organizers put aside his most famous photos and let us see many rare mementos of Joey rehearsing, kibitzing, or playfully telling someone off with a glint in his eye. Late Beethoven was essential to the message of the evening, and it was lovely to hear a set of Joe’s more recent trainees throw themselves into opus 130. The excellent Dover Quartet maintained that Mr Silverstein was “an inspiring presence whose guidance was critical to our development as musicians and colleagues,” and they clearly heeded his lessons well. They glued themselves to each other’s fingerboards and locked eyes with a Joey-worthy focus. Their mentor would have kvelled. Late Beethoven segued inevitably into Schubert. You can bet that Joey knew every note and every harmony of Schubert’s immense song catalog, as it informed his lyrical playing of his chamber music works and symphonies. Hilary Hahn played a demonically difficult Erlkönig transcription by Heinrich Ernst effortlessly. One of the many musicians who benefited practically since toddlerhood from his generous counsel, he treated her (and so many of us) like additional children to the three biological ones he already had. Hahn obviously inherited his unparalleled work ethic and stunned this audience with her poise and prodigious technique, always and only in service to the music. The second Schubert piece was also based on a lied, the beloved Trout movement of the eponymous quintet. On hand were some of Joey’s lifelong friends from his hometown of Detroit, the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, and the Curtis Institute. Ida Kavafian’s love shone through as she conjured the most profoundly poignant trout ever to have swum. This bucolic scene shifted from playful to philosophical in the able hands of Michael Ouzounian, Fred Sherry, Edgar Meyer, and Mr Ohlsson rounding out the stellar quintet. Between the two Schubert works, we got to hear from four special musicians who wanted very much to attend but sent adoring video messages instead. Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Silverstein drank from the same goblet in the elite club of top violinists, and they always shared a loving rivalry between them. To hear Perlman call Joey an “all around consummate musician” surprised nobody, and Zukerman was equally laudatory claiming “The command he had was second to none.” We then heard from longtime colleague Robert Levin, stuck in Stuttgart but wistfully wishing he was with us. I myself recall so many endearing moments of watching Levin onstage with Joey at Sarasota. An exceptionally erudite scholar, in addition to being a great pianist; for Levin to admit that he was humbled by Joey’s knowledge is telling, indeed. Smartly appreciative of not only their music-making but also their endless conversations, Levin may have had the best description of the night when he called Joey a “radiant humanist.” Joey delighted so much in sharing his knowledge that it made each of us feel like a treasured confidante. And his advice was always so true and so compassionate that it seemed like everything he said was direct from the Torah and deserved an “Amen.” We all found his words so glowing, so valuable, we treated the most random conversations as unforgettable commandments, such as his insistence that bagels needed to be “warmed,” not toasted. Finally, Andre Previn sent in a lengthy clip regaling us with stunned impressions of their long collaboration. Previn said what many of us saw firsthand, that he never met anyone as musically prepared or as thorough as Joey: “Why was he the greatest concertmaster in the world? Because he made everyone feel secure, he made the orchestra feel secure, and he made the conductor feel secure.” Previn sheepishly admitted that he is still passing off many of Joey’s genius bowings as his own (and he is probably not alone.) The final live performance of the night brought us full circle back to Brahms. I always felt as though Brahms was the pinnacle for Joey. Those who are serious about chamber music know that the best small ensemble performance ever recorded is the two viola quintets by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. It has attained cult- like status, and there are certain shifts that Joey did that are listened to and replayed and listened to again late at night at conservatories everywhere. I once asked Joey if there were any performances he wanted to do but never managed to, and he replied that his big regret was never having had the chance to play the Brahms concerto with George Szell. (Obviously that would have been the definitive recording.) On Sunday night, in honor of Joey’s unending love for Brahms, the universe’s pre-eminent duo gave the best performance ever of a violin piece with no violin in sight. Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax drew us in with a devoutly personal Adagio of the d minor violin sonata, cleverly transcribed for Mr Ma’s instrument. Yo-yo is the consummate communicator, always regaling listeners with charming anecdotes and galvanizing stories…. but on this night he had no words. He said everything he needed to say with the look on his face. But no musician could have ended the evening more conclusively than Joey himself – a brilliant video of his 1972 performance of the Elgar violin concerto with his beloved BSO conducted by Colin Davis. This was a recap of what everyone had alluded to: the incredible command of the instrument, the insatiable investigation of the composer’s style, the flawless phrasing, the “unorthodox” bowing that made the music sound even better than it was conceived, the warm communication (mainly via eyebrows) with his onstage colleagues, the expansive generosity towards his students, the magic that he worked at creating every morning of every day of his life when he would wake up and take out his violin. What came out especially Sunday night was how successful Joey was at each of these roles he inhabited: the perfect concertmaster, a stunning soloist, an all-knowing conductor, a dedicated teacher, a guru of chamber music, a voracious scholar, a treasured counselor to orchestras and soloists and young quartets, a loving father, a devoted husband, a compassionate friend, and an irreplaceable colleague. The Silverstein family has set up a fund to support violin master classes at Tanglewood. If you would like to honor Joey’s astonishing legacy and join in promoting his love of music, please send your gift (made out to the Boston Symphony Orchestra) to: Gifts to the Joseph Silverstein TMC Violin Master Class Fund Boston Symphony Orchestra Gifts Processing Department Symphony Hall 301 Massachusetts Avenue Boston, MA 02115 USA

Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc

July 25

Teenager steps in for tenor at major festival opening

Hours before the opening of the annual Three Choirs Festival on Saturday, the tenor James Oxley, soloist in Edward Elgar’s The Kingdom, lost his voice. In the heart of the English countryside, at Gloucester, artistic director Adrian Partington was faced with an urgent dilemma. No time to call anyone in from London. The soloist had to be local. Casting a knowing eye over his own cathedral choir, he called on one of his youngest singers to step up. Magnus Walker, who is 18, carried off the solos with aplomb. Adrian said afterwards: ‘I have five absolutely splendid tenors in Gloucester Cathedral choir, but after consideration I decided to ask Magnus to sing the role … primarily because his ambition is to be an operatic soloist, with a voice that as it develops will be big and dramatic; he is a natural performer who has no shyness and no fear… I rang him at 12.45 and he came straight over for a run-through with the piano; he is a very quick learner and by 2pm he was ready for the rehearsal on stage in Gloucester Cathedral with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Three Choirs Festival Chorus – and fellow soloists Claire Rutter (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) and Ashley Riches (bass).’




Classical iconoclast

July 24

Three Choirs Festival Gloucester Elgar Parry

The Three Choirs Festival 2016 launched in glory at Gloucester Cathedral with Parry's Jerusalem and Elgar's The Kingdom. The "Holy City and The Heavenly Kingdom", a brilliant pairing which expresses what the Three Choirs Festival represents.  For three hundred years, the Three Choirs Festival has stood not only for musical excellence but also for communion, in the deepest sense of the word, bringing people together in the celebration of a glorious ideal.   This wasn't the usual Jerusalem in its famous setting by Elgar but Parry's original, believed lost for decades until uncovered by Jeremy Dibble, whose 1992 biography of Parry restored Parry's status and reputation – essential reading.  Parry's orchestration isn't as lush as Elgar's, but the original is worth hearing for that very fact: Parry focuses on the questioning and on the irony in Blake's visionary poem. By setting the first verse for a single singer, Parry's setting emphasizes the provocative nature of Blake's conception. "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?".  In the full choral version, we get so carried away by crowd enthusiasm that we don't question. In Parry's version, however, Blake's irony is made more clear.  And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills?" Bluntly, the answer is "No" So much for simplistic certainties. We may not get the glorious flourishes of Elgar's orchestration, but we do get an insight into Parry. Please read my piece on Jerusalem HERE. In  Elgar's The Kingdom, the apostles are about to embark on their journey which still continues 2000 years later. For all the grandeur and vast forces involved, at its heart,  the piece is humble though assertive. The apostles are ordinary men serving a higher cause. Saints aren't superhuman beings but human beings inspired to do extraordinary things, inspired by faith and love. Elgar dreamed of writing a trilogy of oratorios examining the nature of Christianity as Jesus taught his followers, using the grand context of the Edwardian taste. In The Apostles, Jesus sets out his beliefs in simple, human terms. Judas doubts him and is confounded. In The Kingdom, the focus is more diffuse. The disciples are many and their story unfolds through a series of tableaux, impressive set pieces, but with less obvious human drama. The final part would have been titled The Last Judgement, when World and Time are destroyed and the faithful of all ages are raised from the dead, joining Jesus in Eternity. The sheer audacity of that vision may have stymied Elgar, much in the way that Sibelius's dreams for his eighth symphony inhibited realization. Fragments of The Last Judgement made their way into drafts for what was to be Elgar's third and final symphony, which we now know in Anthony Payne's performing version.  There are familiar themes from The Apostles in The Kingdom, so context helps. But the fact that the trilogy wasn't completed is in itself a refection on the fact the mission isn't complete and won't be until the End of Time, hopefully not in the foreseeable future, though things might not quite seem that way sometimes.  Please read  HERE about The Apostles at the Three Choirs in Worcester in 2014. The Kingdom unfolds in a dignified procession, a series of tableaux each savoured witha measured pace, the intervals between them providing pauses for contemplation.   Interestingly, The Kingdom focuses on female figures. Does this reflect Elgar's Catholicism, and his personal beliefs? The contralto has lovely passages, and the soprano has the glorious "The sun goeth down" and dialogues with the solo violin. At Gloucester Cathedral last night Adrian Partington conducted the combined choruses of the Three Choirs, the Philharmonia Orchestra with soloists Claire Rutter, Sarah Connolly, Ashley Riches, and the youthful Magnus Walker, replacing James Oxley at short notice.  I booked my tickets months ago, but unexpectedly couldn't attend. You'd think ticket returns would be as valuable as gold, but I was so fortunate to be able to give mine to very cherished friends, not Elgar aficionados, but good and decent people, who had a wonderful time. For me, sharing the gift of the Three Choirs is almost as good as being there! 

Classical iconoclast

July 20

Elgar Remastered unissued rarities released on SOMM

New from SOMM Records, specialists in British music, Elgar Remastered, valuable pressings from Sir Edward Elgar's personal library.It contains hitherto unheard discs, virtually the complete 1928 studio sessions of the Cello Concerto with Beatrice Harrison as well as many unused takes of major orchestral works and famous miniatures. Above the famous photograph of Elgar and Harrison in the studio in 1919.  Now you can hear them in a new, clean  remastering by Lani Spahr, using originals from the collection of  Arthur Reynolds, Chairman of the North American Branch of the Elgar Society, which has been described as an "Aladdin's Cave" of rare and unpublished material. Indeed, there are no less than eight versions of the Cello  Concerto in this set, from previously unissued takes and private recordings. Elgar was fascinated by recording technology and very much "hands on" in the studio, so this is an opportunity for Elgar devotees to study the process.  There are   detailed notes and musical examples by cellist Terry King, who compares the Cello Concerto's earlier 1919 recording with Beatrice Harrison to her later 1928 recording with some fascinating insights into each, regarding cuts by the composer, choice of tempi and differences in performance. Most of Elgar's early recordings are included, acoustically optimized   Some are well known, such as The Prelude to the Kingdom, but acoustically optimized, and some never before available, like the alternative takes of Symphony no 1 (never previously available)  and 2. Caractacus and the entire Violin Concerto. Many obscure rarities and miniatures are included, too, making this SOMM set a collector's treasure trove.  Elgar Remastered is now available for preorder direct from SOMM or on amazon. SOMM Records gives more detail of the remastering : "Reynolds' collection. This valuable collection included copies of all Elgar's recordings which he had conducted for HMV from 1914 to 1933. It all began when Lani persuaded the late Fred Maroth, owner of Music & Arts to allow him to prepare new transfers of Elgar's acoustic recordings riginally issued by Pearl on seven LPs, c. 1975 and later on CD. In Lani's view, while a valuable document, they left much to be desired considering the large advances in audio processing which had taken place in the intervening years. In 2011 Music & Arts issued Elgar conducts Elgar. The complete acoustic recordings 1914-1925 with Lani's transfers from Arthur's (and Elgar's) discs. In addition to the published HMV discs in Arthur's possession, there were also six sides of unpublished takes from the Wand of Youth Suites and these existed as test pressings that Elgar had kept" "After finishing the acoustic recordings (Spahr) asked Arthur if he could be allowed to digitise the electric recordings for archival purposes. Among the first group Lani brought to his studio was the 1928 recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto with Beatrice Harrison as soloist. Arthur had a set of published HMV discs with her signature plus several boxes of test pressings. From this he discovered that there was nearly a complete set of takes from the two sessions in which the Concerto was set down. Whilst excited at the prospect of issuing several different versions, all taken from alternative takes, Lani became confused with the matrix numbering. He discovered that for the same material indicated by a suffix number, (e.g. CRI 1754-2) there was another matrix number, CRI 1754-2A. After a cursory listen he found that both these seemed identical! It wasn't until he listened to the Naxos recording of Elgar's Enigma Variations, Cockaigne Overture etc. engineered by Mark Obert-Thorn that he came across a Bonus Track of the Cockaigne Overture in "Accidental Stereo". The explanatory note referred to the frequent habit of engineers having two turntables running during the cutting of wax recording master discs, presumably for back-up purposes and in several instances even two different microphones, one to feed each turntable. Without going into further detail here, (Spahr's booklet notes give full explanations), Lani discovered that various HMV sessions were possibly recorded with a completely separate microphone/cutter arrangement. " "We now not only have an insight into the sessions themselves but are also provided with astonishing sound, revealing a new depth not only to the existing issued recordings, but to new performances of various miniatures and, more importantly, the Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 1 assembled from previously unheard test pressings. We can only be thankful to Lani for his remarkable talent, tenacity and restless, searching spirit which allows us to appreciate anew these unique performances in sound unimaginable to Elgar and those who made the recordings more than 80 years ago."



Classical iconoclast

July 16

Dangerous ! BBC First Night of the Proms 2016

The Marseillaise on the First Night of the Proms 2016, a powerful start to the BBC Proms season, acknowledging the atrocities in France. Most of the Royal Albert Hall audience stood up in tribute.  Terrorism is a global issue even when perpetrators act alone. Nations united are stronger than nations alone. Perhaps that message is lost on some, and the BBC will get it in the neck from vested interests who'd like to replace public services with commercial control, who look for any excuse to accuse the BBC of "bias" real or imagined.  Tonight, the BBC placed humanity above political manipulation. The BBC is a more effective ambassador for British integrity than schemers and selfish policies ever could be. This First Night of the Proms was obviously planned ages ago, but we cannot but reflect on how it relates to current events.  Music doesn't exist in isolation, and we'd be much lesser people if we didn't care. Hate and division have always been part of the human condition. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote about implacable rivalries, and the pointless waste of young life.  Beautiful as it is, Tchaikovsky's Fantasy Overture ' Romeo and Juliet' would be nothing if we overlooked the tragedy behind  Especially niot after that Marseillaise and the images of dead bodies we've been seeing today. The image of Elgar as jingoist persists even though from what we know of the composer, the image is far from the truth. Elgar's Cello Concerto is anything but "pomp and circumstance";  it's poignant and deeply felt. It was written after the death of Alice, his wife and muse, but also after the end of the First World War, in which millions of others were killed, not only in war but through famines, epidemics and ethnic cleansing. In those circumstances victory could not but be tinged with sorrow, In any case 1914-1918 was the beginning of a much wider, global conflict that didn't end until 1945, and a radical new approach to ending conflict. Perhaps we should reflect more on the years of idealism after 1945 than on endless squabbles.  In this performance, with Sol Gabetta as soloist, I was particularly moved by the quieter moments, ie the lento, which "spoke" with more depth than a short movement usually gets. First Nights of the Proms often feature blockbusters, since their size suits the cavern that is the Royal Albert Hall. Prokofiev's Cantata Alexander Nevsky was ideal material, featuring as it does massed forces of a scale that the Soviet Union could produce when it needed to make major propaganda impact.  I've written extensively on Sergei Eisenstein's monumental film Alexander Nevsky and the role Prokofiev's music played in it. Please see HERE and HERE for more.  In this performance, Sakari Oramo, the BBC SO, the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC National Chorus of Wales and soloist Olga Borodina let rip with intense ferocity.  Perhaps a little on the wild side, but rightly so, because this is impassioned music.  The Russians under Alexander Nevsky were fighting for their very existence. In 1938, when the film was made, the irony of the plot was not lost.  The Soviet Union didn't trust the Nazis any more than Nevsky trusted the Crusaders.  Although the forces used in the Battle on the Ice were small by modern standards, the conflict was epic, a fight to the death with Nature itself creating havoc. Human history isn't pretty but if we don't learn, we're lost.

Edward Elgar
(1857 – 1934)

Sir Edward William Elgar (2 June 1857 – 23 February 1934) was an English composer, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. Among his best-known compositions are orchestral works including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies. He also composed choral works, including The Dream of Gerontius, chamber music and songs. Although Elgar is often regarded as a typically English composer, most of his musical influences were not from England but from continental Europe. He felt himself to be an outsider, not only musically, but socially. In musical circles dominated by academics, he was a self-taught composer; in Protestant Britain, his Roman Catholicism was regarded with suspicion in some quarters; and in the class-conscious society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, he was acutely sensitive about his humble origins even after he achieved recognition. After a series of moderately successful works his Enigma Variations (1899) became immediately popular in Britain and overseas. His later full-length religious choral works were well received but have not entered the regular repertory. The first of his Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901) is well-known in the UK and in the US. Elgar has been described as the first composer to take the gramophone seriously. Between 1914 and 1925, he conducted a series of recordings of his works. The introduction of the microphone in 1925 made far more accurate sound reproduction possible, and Elgar made new recordings of most of his major orchestral.



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