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


Something to listen to: Mahler Symphony no. 3 with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony

Gustav Mahler

What the radness tells me...

According to the statistics that the folks at WordPress maintain in regards to site traffic, the most popular single post on this blog outside of a Detroit Symphony rant is the uploaded performance of Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony no. 2.  I don’t know if the popularity (bear in mind when I use the word “popularity,” I mean it with a heavy dose of the word “relative” in front of it) of that performance is because of Mahler, or because of the performers (or both), but I’m glad people have heard it, because it’s a really fine performance.

The Pittsburgh Symphony and Maestro Honeck appear to in the midst of recording a Mahler cycle based off of their live concert performances.  Exton has already recorded and released the 1st and 4th, both receiving plenty of acclaim (I have yet to hear the 4th aside from the broadcast, but the 1st is arguably the best Mahler 1 out there).  I can only assume (hope?) the rest are forthcoming. Continue reading

Something to listen to: Mahler – Symphony no. 2 ‘Resurrection’ — Manfred Honeck conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

Anyone who would even entertain the notion of reading anything contained in this space knows enough about Mahler’s Second Symphony to make any possible explanation I may put forth essentially fruitless.  I could wax on about the epic funeral music of the 1st movement, and wax off about the apocalyptic finale, but we all know the story.  This piece is enormously popular, and we’ve all heard it at least once, or in some cases hundreds of times (I have a condition!).

Ever since the “Bernstein” revival of Mahler’s music, it has become a key component of every orchestra’s repertoire (you could make a reasonably compelling claim that it has even superceded Beethoven to become THE key component, but that’s a discussion for another dimension).  What does this mean?  That every conductor, band, and Forbes magazine regular has performed, recorded, or been interviewed about this music, often on more than one occasion.

Why, then, should we even bother listening to yet another interpretation of this warhorse?  Two reasons: Continue reading

Something To Listen To: Louis Langree & The Pittsburgh Symphony

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

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.

Something To Listen To: Lorin Maazel & The Pittsburgh Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony no. 7

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

Those who know me even a little bit know that I love Mahler.

Those who know me slightly better than that know that if I had a gun to my head asking which symphony I like most, I would say the Seventh, although I might just be saying that to save myself long enough to get home to listen to the Ninth.

Those who know me even better than that know that I love the Pittsburgh Symphony going back to the William Steinberg days on through until today.

And those who know my innermost secrets know I don’t really care all that much for Lorin Maazel, having in fact been made fun of by a musical friend of tremendous gifts for recommending his 1960’s Sibelius cycle (it was only $20 at the time!).

But I owe Lorin Maazel a few thanks.  He helped “re-put” the Pittsburgh Symphony on the musical map when he was Music Director in the ’80’s and 90’s after Andre Previn sort of…how shall I say it?…sucked balls for 8 years.  There are a small number of readily available nice recordings from his time there, the best probably being a raucous Saint- Saens “Organ” Symphony, and there’s even another Sibelius cycle for people to make fun of me for.

The recording included here is of the early vintage: October 1989.  The concert took place in Warsaw, Poland.  Let us all look back fondly at what a completely insane time that was…the Berlin Wall would come down in literally weeks and the Soviet Union was in the process of unraveling.  I can’t actually say that any of this has any particular bearing on this performance, but I just wanted to take a look back at the seminal world event of my childhood.

At any rate…on to the performance.

I’ll spare you the program notes on this work, as you could read them somewhere else written by someone much better than I.  In fact, you could read Phillip Huscher’s notes for the Chicago Symphony right here.  He is smarter than me.  We know this.  Suffice it to say, this piece is subtitled “Song of the Night,” a subtitle which Mahler never used or endorsed in any way, so you know it’s good.

This is music of darkness turning to light.  Night turning to day.  And everything that entails:  the march of night itself, those peaceful dreams, nightmares, and the oppression of the sun breaking in to save us or destroy us depending on your mattress quality.  There are two beautiful Nachtmusik movements (#s 2 & 4) that are neither Eine nor Kleine, but they are as lovely as anything Mahler ever wrote (and the 4th movement has guitar and mandolin in it).  The 3rd movement is marked schattenhaft, which means shadowy, and it probably the best musically descriptive direction for a movement I can imagine…perfectly applicable.

The brass player lurking deep inside me loves the Pittsburgh Symphony because of their brass section.  They have a brass quintet that has a Christmas CD affectionately referred to as “Angry Christmas.”  This same quintet has a CD of the Art of the Fugue that would make Bach roll over in his grave, consider exhuming himself, attempt to extract his own DNA, implant it into a cyborg-human hybrid, and live in the days of modern brass instruments.  It’s fucking incredible.  And my two favorite heroes are principal horn William Caballero and principal trumpet George Vosburgh (see comment below regarding principal trumpet possibilities from a PSO guy in the know), both of whom shine like Baby Jesus at your local pageant in this performance.

Maazel’s tempi are pretty much what you might expect out of Lorin Maazel.  I’ll leave it to those of you who know about Lorin Maazel to determine what you think that means.  This is not my favorite performance of this work, but it’s so splendidly Pittsburghian that I simply cannot help enjoy it.  Perhaps some of you will as well.

This performance was captured from WQED’s internet stream, which broadcasts at 56K.  I had initially converted it to a 192K mp3 file, but it had some blips in the sound, so it is now a lossless FLAC file, available at the following links in 4 parts:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

RapidShare is a great service…you can download for free, though it will take time if you don’t sign up for an account (which does cost, but is worth it).  It’s a simple process, and if you have the patience to wait and download the links over the course of a few hours, everything will be completely and utterly free to you, which is nice in these economic times, or when you’re a trillionaire like me.

There are a few tools you will need to listen to this, and these will come in handy if you ever want to listen to any performances from pretty much anyone that are available like this (it’s even legal or something!).  The first is a media player that plays FLAC files.  Get yourself a copy of VLC Media Player here…it’s free and incredibly useful…it plays literally anything I can think of.  Also, because the size of these performances tend to be large, the files need to be broken into parts, and I use a program called HJ-Split, which you can get here…it’s also free.

Wow, that was boring technical jargon.  This blog is about music.  Listen to it if you like!