Wolfgang Sawallisch died Friday at the age of 89. I confess to have been working under the assumption that he had died years ago. Because conducting is often something that people at the highest levels do until they’re extremely fucking old (or extremely fucking dead in some cases), it’s unusual to think of a world-class maestro “retiring” to the Bavarian Alps and just chilling and playing piano and shit. But that’s exactly what Sawallisch did – his last major gig was with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which ended in 2003 and he retired “officially” in 2006 – something that, as I reflect upon that unbelievably relaxed cardigan/tie combo and wry smile, seems totally reasonable, ill health or otherwise. Continue reading
It’s possible you’ve heard of Mozart. He wrote some symphonies, some operas, some piano concerti and sonatas, some chamber music, and some choral music. He is the subject of a movie that won 8 Academy Awards (ironically, the Best Actor award included the actors playing Mozart and Salieri, and Salieri won. Proving that historical fact always gets the last laugh, F Murray Abraham would later star in a film called “Blood Monkey.”). Mozart rests firmly on the Mount Rushmore of music.
Gabriel Faure was the foremost French composer of his day, and served as the head of the Paris Conservatoire, where he taught Ravel, Enescu, and Boulanger among others. His music utilizes inventive harmonies and really sets the tone for Impressionism. Faure rests firmly on the Mount Rushmore of mustaches.
The Requiem Mass, or Mass for the Dead, is a liturgical setting from the Roman Missal used to commemorate the repose of the souls of the deceased. It is comprised of 12 sections, beginning with the Introit and concluding with the In paradisum. Not all musical settings of the Requiem Mass incorporate all 12 sections, and many switch the order of the sections around, including the two represented in this Showdown. Continue reading
When I was in grad school I did a theoretical analysis of the Symphony no. 11 by Dmitri Shostakovich, after being introduced to the piece by my conducting teacher. I became fascinated with and consumed by the piece because it is as intense as music gets and it has a theatricality (did I just make up that word?) that is unlike anything I have ever heard. As the cliche goes, a movie simply wouldn’t be as good if there were no music to underline the emotions at work, which is true. But now imagine music that is so vivid and so dynamic that were you to attempt to actually express the music in the form of a film, you would probably erase the power of the imagery at work in the score. That is the 11th.
Subtitled ‘The Year 1905′, it tells the story of the “Bloody Sunday” of 9 January 1905, when Russian troops massacred somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 unarmed, peaceful demonstrators outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The first movement, Winter Palace, sets the scene…cold, wintry, still, uneasy, charged. For 15 minutes, you are held completely gripped in this scene, waiting. It’s absolutely amazing. The second movement, 9 January, is a musical depiction of the massacre, complete with some trademark Shostakovich snare drumming, frantic strings and woodwinds, overpowering brass. It is completely relentless music, never losing intensity for 20 minutes, including a fugato that builds to one of the great climaxes in the repertoire. The third movement, In Memoriam, is exactly what it sounds like…a memorial to the victims. It is tremendously tragic, moving, and powerful. It all builds to the fourth movement, The Alarm, a ”look-the-fuck-out” message from the people to the Tsar that is a driving, forceful barrage, only interrupted by an extended, beautiful English Horn solo that precedes one of the coolest endings in all of music, with loud-ass chimes, 5/4 bars, D major chords, and repeated snare drum figures. If anyone has ever seen the movie “The Limey” you’ll recognize the following line that I always seem to conjure when hearing this movement:
You tell them I’m coming. Tell them I’m FUCKING COMING!
The menace, the threat, and the promise of this music was indeed fulfilled twelve years and one symphony later, in the 1917 revolution. The 11th is one of the great masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire…an absolute must-hear. The performance linked here is one of the best performances of this work I’ve heard…truly inspiring in its energy, scope, and power. Langree is not someone I was familiar with prior to this concert, but I will be seeking out more of his work based on this performance. I dare say that it is on a par with the great Russian masters’ readings that I discovered this music through…high praise. The Pittsburgh Symphony, as per usual, kicks serious ass.
The rest of the concert consisted of Mozart. The Masonic Funeral Music opened the concert, in another fine performance. A brief note from Dr. Bernhard Paumgartner, founding member of the Salzburg Festival and eminent Mozart biographer:
The Masonic Funeral Music holds a place all its own among Mozart’s works, not only for its form and homogeneity, for the ingenious choice of the instruments and their exquisite technical treatment, but also through the unique grouping of a solemn march around the fundamental element of a gregorian chorale. Mozart very accurately penned the Cantus Firmus on a separate leaf in order to avoid errors in the elaboration. According to Heimsoeth the first five bars of this melody (bar 25-29) are identical with the first Psalm tone with the first Difference after the Cologne Antiphonary. What follows is a local compilation of several Psalm tones for the ‘Miserere mei Deus’ — a Penitential psalm such as is frequently used for funerals in several places.
This music reminds me in all the good ways about the dark parts of Don Giovanni and the amazing musical atmospheres Mozart can create. While I don’t think it’s fair to say this music is neglected, it is fair to say that it should be performed more, because it is a fantastic work. A great way to set the tone for this concert.
Garrick Ohlsson joined the fray for a nicely crafted performance of the Piano Concerto no. 27. The music isn’t flashy, it isn’t always bright, but it shows a composer who has completely mastered every single aspect of writing a piano concerto. Unlike a lot of Mozart’s music, which was popular enough to be premiered on concerts featuring nothing but Mozart’s music, by this time his popularity had waned sufficiently to the point that it was premiered, at least according to legend, by Mozart on a concert featuring clarinettist Joseph Bahr (although it appears that it may actually have been premiered by one of Mozart’s students 3 months earlier). Regardless, the music stands up to anything else Mozart wrote. The performance here is worth hearing for Ohlsson’s sensitive playing, particularly the third movement, which sounds nicely (and, dare I say, “correctly”) understated, IMO.
Now, the technical info. It was recorded from WQED’s stream and converted to three 256K mp3 files and put into one RAR file. Download available from RapidShare here:
These concerts took place 6 & 8 June 2008 in Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh. Do enjoy this wonderful concert…it is absolutely worth every second.