Monthly Archives: July 2009

Camille Saint-Saëns, Paul Jeanjean

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (seven years and counting) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, August 1st, 2009, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Romance, op. 36 (1874). Ulrich Hübner, natural horn, Kölner Akademie, Michael Alexander Willens. Ars 38027. Tr 2
Saint-Saëns. Morceau de concert, op. 94 (1887). Ulrich Hübner, valve horn, Kölner Akademie, Michael Alexander Willens. Ars 38027. Tr 1
Saint-Saëns. Wedding Cake, Valse-Caprice, op. 76 (1885). Stephen Hough, piano, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo. Hyperion 67331. CD1 Tr 10.
Paul Jeanjean (1874-1928). Nocturne. Ulrich Hübner, valve horn, Kölner Akademie, Michael Alexander Willens. Ars 38027. Tr 5
Jeanjean. Romance. Ulrich Hübner, valve horn, Kölner Akademie, Michael Alexander Willens. Ars 38027. Tr 7
Saint-Saëns. Morceau de concert, op 62 (1880). Philippe Graffin, violin, The Ulster Orchestra, Thierry Fischer. Hyperion 67294. Tr 2

On this French program, we feature three solo instruments with orchestra … or is it four? Camille Saint-Saëns and Paul Jeanjean bring us pieces for violin solo, piano solo, and two different kinds of horns—with valves and without valves, the so-called “natural” horn.

The French horn is usually called just “horn” by orchestral musicians, but France does play a big part in its development. The natural horn is simply a coiled brass tube, the pitches being produced by changes in lip pressure at the mouthpiece and by changes in hand position in the bell at the other end. Interchangeable tubing was then invented to allow it to play in different keys. Players replaced these “crooks” as needed, but still, only a certain number of notes were available at any one time. In 1814 (by most accounts) the first valves were added, providing access to different lengths of tubing, and therefore more notes, without wrestling with any machinery. All modern horns use variations of this valved tubing design.

But the increase in notes comes at the price of a loss in character. Much of the appeal of the natural horn is the different quality of notes and keys. The modern instrument equalizes all of that, and 19th-century composers were quite aware of the issues, usually specifying the type of horn to be used. Richard Strauss loved the new horns, Brahms loved the old ones, and Gounod feared that the horn without its “natural” character would be just another trombone. (Let it here be stated that the Fleisher Collection is second to none in its appreciation of the trombone, and of the trombone-playing community, its friends, and its loved ones.)

saintsaens

Saint-Saëns

Well, thanks to Ulrich Hübner and this recording of the Saint-Saëns Romance, we can hear what the natural horn sounds like. Listen to how diverse and wild the colors of the different notes are! He plays the other works (including the two Jeanjean pieces, supplied for this recording by the Fleisher Collection) on a 19th-century piston-valved horn. Clarinetists know Paul Jeanjean from his many etudes, and while most of his works are for his instrument, he did take time off to write a Nocturne and Romance for horn-playing friends of his.

Other works by Saint-Saëns round out the program, bringing to mind what a versatile composer he is. He wrote masterfully in every idiom. At a time when the classical forms were seen as the special province of German composers, his many concertos are almost a political statement. The shorter works on our program are evidence of the clarity, precision, and balance that are the hallmark of Saint-Saëns in particular, and indeed, of all things French.

Entire Vespers on WPRB

Just got word that Marvin Rosen, the intrepid announcer over at WPRB in Princeton, will be airing the complete Vespers this Wednesday morning, July 22. (I say “intrepid” because Marvin knows—and plays—more under-the-radar repertoire than anyone I know.) I’m told that it will begin at about 9:50 am. WPRB is 103.3 FM in Princeton, N.J., and anyone can also listen on line here. I believe this is the premiere broadcast of Vespers in its entirety.

Top 100 Hot New Releases, Classical

With now a keen interest in the state of the recording industry, I was happy to read Joseph Dalton’s optimistic view of it in the current NewMusicBox. Many independent labels are staying the course and some are even increasing their output of CDs. New startups appear every year to fill a perceived need in the market, including Navona, the label Vespers is on. While no one seems to be making a killing, a lot of labels are plugging away.

New voices and new sounds appear every month. I’ve enjoyed getting to know some of them while preparing my weekly contemporary American radio show on WRTI, Now is the Time.

I’m also shamelessly interested in how Vespers is doing on Amazon.com, and I check all the time. Lame, yes, I know. Doubly so, because I really have no idea what the numbers mean. They don’t tell you how many CDs are sold, only the sales ranking, “updated hourly.” Vespers broke through at 100,000 plus (meaning 100,000 were selling more than me), jumped in one day to 27,000, then bounced all over. As far as I know it’s been as high as 3,000, as low as 90,000, and hovered between 7,000 and 20,000 for the longest time. As I write we’re at 47,008—pretty good, I think, as I look up and down at rankings for other CDs. The price moves with the ranking, too—very interesting—I wonder what algorithm drives that, and where the ratchet notches are.

Amazon listThen there are the lists, broken down by category, and while I guess the numbers are correct, the categories are simply fiction. I have dipped into the Top 100 of Hot New Releases in Classical (#59 on July 6th!), and that category makes sense, but usually to find Vespers in a list you have to look in more tightly defined ones. Just don’t expect the lists to make sense. I usually turn up in Hot New Releases / Classical / Historical Periods / Classical (c.1770–1830). Yes. I don’t know, either.

That “circa” slays me, by the way. I mean, relating it to a composer who’s still alive (that would be me, as of this writing), it’s only 200 years off—does the “circa” really matter? Yes, I know that Beethoven was born in 1770. Then why make it c.1770? And if c.1770, why not make the end of the period c.1827, when he died? Who died in 1830? If the question of my mortal existence is irrelevant, I should think that one would err, if err one must, by placing Vespers in the Renaissance category, c.1450–1600. Oh, I see, all the periods begin with “circa,” and none end in “circa.” Okay, that makes even less sense.

But really, it’s hilarious, especially when I see that Phil Kline, David Lang, and Steve Reich are in the same boat with me; so’s Bach. Some artists thrive in the c.1770-1830 period no matter what they perform, such as Yo-Yo Ma, Il Divo, Andre Rieu playing Strauss Jr., and Stile Antico singing Lassus. (I did write Amazon about it, and also asked them to add Piffaro, The Crossing, and Donald Nally as Performers; while they did add the names, they remained unmoved, apparently, by the appeal to my contemporaneity.)

But again, I don’t know what these numbers mean. If Amazon sells 50 copies of Vespers, how much does the ranking move? 100 points? 20,000? For a few days, every time I’d check the HNR/C/HP/C list, I was either #24 or #48. Hm. Oh, look, right now it’s #31, and hey, 14,093, glad I checked.

Well, I did admit to shamelessness. (Does admitting to shame mitigate it? I didn’t think so.) And there are so many other places it’s for sale, some of which I’ve listed here. I just really shouldn’t look anymore. It’s unseemly, isn’t it. Wait, has an hour gone by yet?

Vespers interview 3

Part 1 of the interview with Navona is here, Part 2 is here. My additional comments (now, four months after the interview) are in italics.

4. Would you describe your experience working with Piffaro and The Crossing?

They couldn’t have been nicer to work with, and from very early on, the process had a family feeling to it. To this I attribute the leadership of Joan, Bob, and Donald, who kept everything going smoothly. George handling the recording had a huge part in this, also. Sehr gemütlich!

I remain astonished by the preparation of all the musicians, and Donald’s handling of all the forces over the days of recording—almost exactly a year ago now.

5. Could one draw links between the Lutheran Reformation and this reformation of the Vespers?

Well, I never would’ve set myself the task of reforming the Vespers service—it certainly doesn’t need any help from me. But I hope there is a link to the Reformation, and the only way I know how to do that is to put myself completely in the service of the text. If I cannot respect the words and believe them I should not go anywhere near them. That goes for any text; I don’t know any other way to write and remain honest. Serve the text, submit to the text, then write what you want. That’s what the Reformation composers did—Walther, Crüger, and later, Schütz and Praetorius and others—so much of it unlike anything anyone else was doing at the time. I hope that they continue to reform me.

[I recently wrote the following to a friend and fellow composer, but it applies here. I hope I improved some of the grammar.]: I’m in love with all the words in Vespers. No review has yet mentioned the translations, but I spent hours on those, hours I should have been composing. And making them rhyme, too, what was I thinking! But it all starts there. In “Herr Christ,” there was no plan to take the voices up and drop them out one by one to leave a high soprano by herself. But the words are “thirst for you.” And “thirst for you” made that happen. Donald, by the way, got that right away. He let that hang, and waited a long, long time before starting the last verse. I never had to say anything, it was perfect. I never had to say a word.

I wasn’t trying to bring the Reformation into the 21st century, or the old into the new, or to shape my harmonic language—whatever that is—around ancient instruments. I would have frozen had I thought any of those things. The fact is, I’m in love with the chorales. There’s nothing like them anywhere. And so I set them. I’m in love with chant, and so I wrote some.

But it didn’t happen all at once. First I wrote “Herr Christ,” which goes to 16 voices. When that was done I thought, okay, I like that. But I hadn’t done a thing with instruments.

So I started “Wie schön.” And at first it didn’t go anywhere. I struggled with it and it finally dawned on me that I was trying to write Bach. So I pared it down, kept making it simpler, and rougher. I looked again at Luther’s composers, fellows like Johann Walther, not big names but full of heart and full of the spirit of that time. When I wrote the opening shawm fanfare echoes, so simple, I knew I had it. I put the theorbo in there because of “Zwingt die Saiten in Cythara”  and I thought I just want it to sound like a guitar, nothing more than that. A simple guitar and those simple shawms. That was the sound. And then the whole chorale blasted off. Only at that point did I know that I could write this thing.

Then I composed “Veni.” It took so long to get those recorder voicings just right, before the sackbut comes in. And there’s hardly anything going on, just fifths clunked against each other. But when that alto recorder D comes in and blooms, off-beat in the third bar, to me that’s one of the best spots in the whole Vespers because right there is when I knew that I had the right sound-world. That is Renaissance music right there. Piffaro saw it right away. I knew I had nailed it.

Veni.beginning


Anton Rubinstein

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (seven years and counting) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, July 4th, 2009, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894). Nero, Festival March (1875). Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra Bratislava, Michael Halász. Marco Polo 8.220451. Tr 9. 5:40.
Rubinstein. The Demon, operatic excerpts (1871). Slovak Philharmonic, Halász. 8.220451. Tr 5-6. 15:05.
Rubinstein. Feramors, operatic excerpts (1862). Slovak Philharmonic, Halász. 8.220451. Tr 1-4. 19:11.

It is fascinating to see how the musical language of a nation asserts itself. In America around 1850, William Henry Fry and George Frederick Bristow were declaring independence for an American art by supporting native composers and by writing works often inspired by national themes. The same thing was happening in Russia at exactly the same time, and among those taking up the cause in Russia was Anton Rubinstein. His work as educator, pianist, and composer would declare musical independence for his country forever.

RubinsteinHe was a child prodigy at the piano, which opened doors for him all the way to the royal family. He may have been the only pianist referred to as at least the equal of Franz Liszt. The thundering power, subtlety, and beautiful tone of his playing astonished everyone, including a young Rachmaninoff who would marvel to the end of his life at Rubinstein’s greatness. On his 1872-73 American tour, Rubinstein played 215 concerts in 239 days—sometimes three concerts in three cities in one day—and never tired. That he looked (and wore his hair) almost exactly like Beethoven added to his star-power.

In 1859, he created the Russian Musical Society, then in 1862, the great St. Petersburg Conservatory (where one of his students was Tchaikovsky). As if that were not enough, in 1866 he co-founded the Moscow Conservatory with his brother Nicolai. The purpose of all of this was to create a culture of music by Russians, for Russians. For the first time, a Russian student didn’t have to learn music theory in German.

Rubinstein established high standards, but his opinions sometimes ruffled feathers. He decried musical amateurism and railed against homegrown ditties, offending Russian nationalists who appropriated folk themes for their own pieces. Attacks against him became anti-Semitic in some quarters, as Rubinstein’s ancestors were Jewish, even though they had converted to Russian Orthodoxy. In spite of animosity from Balakirev, though, one of Rubinstein’s biggest recital hits was Balakirev’s Islamey.

All the while he wrote prodigious amounts of music. While the quality varies, his operatic music is particularly worthy of notice. The Demon, in fact, was the most-produced Russian opera of its time, save for Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. Tchaikovsky admired his music, and even the nationalists Balakirev and Borodin admitted that his compositions had real merit. His music is in the spirit of Mendelssohn and Schumann, but speaks in a voice that is only Anton Rubinstein’s. He changed the face of Russia with an educational system that continues to produce generations of musicians, and his playing and his compositions awoke Europe to the presence of a spirit, an independent country, a Russia, in the forefront of the classical music world.