At the summit, does time slow down?

Eine Alpensinfonie is one of the coolest pieces of music in the world. It’s super evocative, filled with typical Straussian majesty, and it has one of the most straightforward and easy to grasp narratives that a symphonic poem could ask for. While there are dozens of amazing spots found throughout the work, it’s somewhat self-evident that the baddest-ass part is when we make it to the top of the mountain. If Bruckner 9 is the music most likely to accompany the final battle between good and evil, then the summit music from Alpensinfonie is probably the most likely music to accompany a victory by the good guys. 

There are plenty of quality recordings of the piece, and many of them do the work justice. Of the readily available ones, I’m partial to the Marek Janowski/Pittsburgh Symphony recording, mostly because the Pittsburgh Symphony plays like they’re climbing the mountain so as to attack all of humankind with a great and wonderful noise. Most recordings take the summit music at a pretty similar clip, keeping things moving along at a moderate clip. 

One recording that I have, though, take their sweet time up there. Some years ago, the legendary Japanese maestro Takashi Asahina released a recording with some sort of pickup Japanese orchestra that billed itself as the “All-Japan Symphony Orchestra.” This recording is separate from the one he released with the Osaka Philharmonic, which is also excellent. Anyway, this All-Japan performance is mind-blowing to me, not the least of which reason is this insane experience at the summit. Asahina goes VERY slow through the entire section, and it feels completely different than any other recording I’ve heard. 

The link below is not to that performance, unfortunately. It’s to a performance that Asahina conducted with the NDR Hamburg back in 1990. The mountaintop music is about as slow as the All-Japan performance, though, which is the point of me writing this in the first place. The execution is pretty rough in the buildup to the climax, but once the climax hits, it’s pretty smooth sailing. I’m curious to hear your thoughts and opinions on the tempo. I love it, and I really think it changes the complexion of the entire piece. It’s definitely not for everyone, though.

Give it a listen and let me know what you think. If you just want to hear the summit music, cue it up to the neighborhood of the 22:50 mark and go from there. Happy climbing!

Asahina – Alpine Symphony

There’s a performance of The Star-Spangled Banner that tops Jimi at Woodstock, Marvin Gaye at the NBA All-Star Game, and even Whitney at Super Bowl XXV, and it took place at some sort of fund drive for a Christian broadcasting network based in Dallas

Is this cheesy? Lord yes. Is it also God damn glorious? Yup. That’s at least 50 dudes singing in rich, rich harmony and, most impressively, it’s crisp and together. Let’s break down why this should be surgically implanted into the brain of every American:

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Death and the Maiden’s New Clothes

It’s interesting to consider just how important a role the instrumentation and orchestration of a piece of music play in its overall aesthetic. I never gave it all that much thought. I knew there were some tremendously gifted orchestrators scattered throughout musical history like Rimsky-Korsakov and Berlioz and Haydn. I knew that many composers had authorized arrangements of their music in new orchestrations if they didn’t do it themselves. I knew that the character of a piece could change based on the instrumental colors it was dressed in. But rarely has the fundamental nature of a musical moment shifted so radically to my ears than when I ran across a version of the Schubert “Death and the Maiden” Quartet for full orchestra. Continue reading

Lorin Maazel’s musical legacy summed up in one performance

Lorin Maazel died today at the age of 84. He had been conducting since the age of 9 and conducted pretty much every single one of the best orchestras on the planet at one point or another. I will always have a soft spot for him because it was under his musical leadership that the groundwork for what would become my favorite orchestra of all, the last decade plus of the Pittsburgh Symphony, was laid.

My personal opinion of Maazel’s conducting isn’t entirely favorable, but like Leonard Bernstein before him he took risks that could at worst be called insane and at best be called insane but in a good way. The above performance highlights much of his strengths and weaknesses: the sense of drama, the beautifully rounded and rich sound, the bizarre and sudden shifts in tempo. I find his output uneven; sketchy Mahler and Bruckner, top-shelf Strauss, extremely underrated Sibelius. His recordings from the 1960’s were probably his best contribution to the medium, though those ’90’s Strauss discs with the Bavarian Radio Symphony are awesome, and in one of them he has neon blue hands on the cover (neon blue hands!).

Ultimately Maazel stands out as one of the few American conductors to reach the absolute apex in Europe, and maybe the only one besides Lenny depending on how stringent your criteria are. His legacy will most certainly live on in an extensive discography and a collection of photographs and videos in which he makes faces that I associate with the 1%. May he rest in peace.

Happy Easter, Christians!

Quoth the Wikipedia page of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture:

Rimsky-Korsakov always had a great interest in – and enjoyment of – liturgical themes and music, though he was himself a non-believer.

If you know anything about me at all, this seems like a pretty fitting tribute for this blog. Congratulations to all the faithful Christians around the world on the resurrection of your Lord and Savior. May your day be filled with joy and peace.


The most beautiful “my bad” in the world

It’s Holy Week for Christians around the world, a celebration and remembrance of the last days of Jesus Christ, prophet to some, Savior to others. There are many services, the most important of which are those for Maundy Thursday (last supper), Good Friday (crucifixion), and Easter (resurrection). On the nights prior to each of these services is the Tenebrae, a ceremony in which candles are extinguished while psalms are read, chanted, and sung. One of the psalms performed in these services (particularly those preceding Good Friday) is the Miserere, which translates to “have mercy.” This plea for mercy comes from a story, the kind of story that would implode Twitter if it happened today. Journey back with me to 1000 BC and then some… Continue reading