Saturday, 22 September 2012

Florent Schmitt

Florent Schmitt drew my attention because of his inclusion on an album with Debussy and Ravel's Piano Trios. The Joachim Trio included his short Tres Lent as a foil to the two more famous works. It's only three minutes but perfectly nice and it led me to wonder who he was.

It seems Schmitt is one of those figures who, while important and influential in his day, just didn't manage to compete with the bigger names in the long haul. This despite outliving Debussy by around 40 years and Ravel by almost 10. By then however his fame and influence were well in decline even though he did succeed Dukas at the Conservatoire. From what I can tell he suffered from a stigma of being a traditionalist, not entirely fairly, and was somewhat shunned for it. I suspect his anti-semitism, made famous in a scandal in 1933, and his support of the Vichy French during the war possibly have something to do with his decline in favour as well.

Personality aside what of his music? Most things seem to point to two major works, The Tragedy of Salome and a setting for Psalm 47. The first is a symphonic poem based on his earlier ballet and highlights his 'impressionism' and interest in the 'exotic'. It also caught the attention of Stravinsky and I can hear something in there that might draw him. I've only listened to part of it and it's nice with some fascinating instrumentation in bits, but nothing overly grand. The Psalm 47 is a pretty strong and dramatic setting but choral works aren't usually my thing - with some notable exceptions.

Far more impressive to my mind is the Piano Quintet. This is a highly dramatic piece which really uses the piano and the strings to build the tension by working in concert (literally I guess). The closing movement builds a rising sense of hope but just when you think it'll finish on a high note it peters back down and we have something of a deliberate anticlimax. The Dionysiaques for wind orchestra show off his 'orientalism' a bit more I think and have wonderful shifts from bold and dramatic to soft with pathos, creating a somewhat ominous atmosphere but a busy one.

To my mind, there's something there but, other than the Quintet and perhaps his shorter works, he's not someone I'll actively pursue.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

No Man's Apprentice - Paul Dukas

Okay so Paul Dukas is a fairly well-known French composer, but let's be honest he only reaches that status after the umpteenth time we ask ourselves "who wrote the Sorcerer's Apprentice again? Oh that's right Dukas. I wonder what else he wrote."

Turns out, quite a lot. He was contemporary with Claude Debussy, studying with him at the Conservatoire in Paris, and a highly learned individual. He made his name not only as a composer but also as a conductor, critic and teacher (his students included Messian and Rodrigo). He also walked a middle ground at a time when most French composers were split in two extremes, an older classical movement like Saint-Saens and the more avant-garde like Debussy. Dukas liked both schools and both sides influenced music that was consequently decidedly his own but also on its own so more apt for getting a little bit lost.

Even during his lifetime The Sorcerer's Apprentice achieved such success he became known as the guy who wrote it. For that, he came to hate it apparently; somewhat like Radiohead becoming "the band that did Creep" in the early 90s and refusing to play it for years. It didn't help probably that he was his own worst critic and actually burnt most of his compositions - so who knows how much more great music there could have been in the repertoire?

His Symphony in C is a dramatic work in three movements - in the tradition of Franck's - and definitely one worth listening to. The andante is decidedly Swoon worthy in its opening too.

One of his other major works was the ballet La Peri. This starts out very quietly before the dancers actually appear, and so it was lost to the audience who were still chatting thinking nothing was happening yet. To save this lovely intro from such neglect Dukas wrote a Fanfare to be played before La Peri, nice and loud to shut everyone up. I love that. (Note the youtube link to the ballet includes the Fanfare played a bit slower to the video of it by itself).

He also has a Villanelle which seems to be quite popular with French Horn players, at least ones who comment on YouTube, and it does give that instrument some delightful phrases. There's an overture to Polyeucte, which is a play by Corneille one of the leading playwrights in the French "Golden Age" which is to say the same time as Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson etc over the Channel. So this is the equivalent of all the 'overtures' written for Shakespeare's plays, and easily as enticing as many of them with some beautiful reed instrumentation to lure you in.

In short, Dukas has a lot to offer in a number of modes. His piano sonata in e-flat seems quite popular too but I haven't tried it yet. I will though. Luckily Chandos has a double album, The Essential Paul Dukas, which has most of what I've mentioned here - not the Villanelle. It's on my ever-growing Wishlist on Classicsonline but I don't intend to wait too long before getting it.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Glinka Album Review

If you follow this for long it will soon become apparent that I'm a big fan of Russian classical music. The father of that tradition is considered to be Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857) who brought Western classical ideas to traditional Russian music and greatly influenced later compatriot composers like Balakirev, Mussorgsky and eventually Tchaikovsky. How much so on each I don't know.

Despite that there's only one piece of his which gets much recognition these days, the overture to his second opera Ruslan and Lyudmilla. It is an exciting overture with an awesome timpani part, but I always figured there had to be some more great work. Then this album came up as a weekend special on classicsonline and I couldn't pass it up. It proves Glinka wrote quite a lot of wonderful music, definitely classical but also distinctly Russian, with shifting themes and moods that never leave you bored.

So I reviewed it and the following is what I submitted to classicsonline.

When the opening dramatic and brooding strings and horns of the Capriccio Brilliante give way to a lively fare with softer strings and floating winds, you know you’re in for something special. This album leaves us with no doubt why Mikhail Glinka is considered the father of Russian classical music, but it does raise the question of why we mostly only hear one overture of his when so much of his work is musically brilliant and, more importantly, such fun to listen to.

Every time you think the tune has settled into one mode, it will take a turn. Light strings in the Souvenir from Madrid are suddenly punctuated with stirring percussion, only to fall back to the strings before a brief almost plaintiff clarinet and a rousing combination of the three. Themes are established, intertwined and mixed with seeming ease, and the themes are undeniably Russian but wonderfully wrought into the Classical mode. There are foretellings of almost every Russian composer to follow in this music, but none more so than Tchaikovsky himself.

Vassily Sinaisky leads the BBC Philharmonic on this exploration of Glinka’s Russia and cuts a deft path through the shifts and changes. The drama is captured without overwhelming the quieter moments which ring with poignancy. This is hands-down a magnificent introduction to the music of a highly influential composer who has so much more to offer than the overture to Ruslan and Lyudmilla; although when it comes to that … well, it is a triumph no doubt.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

My Music of France Vote

Okay so my time was running out and I had to make some choices. As mentioned I did go with Faure's Pavane and Bizet's L'Arlesienne. The final choices for the rest were Satie's Gnossiennes, basically because I played them again and thought how could I not? Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture for fun and energy and Saint-Saens Organ Symphony for brilliance and because I'm trusting my dad to vote for the Danse Macabre.

I'm also relieved that my wife will be voting for Carnival of the Animals, Debussy's Suite Bergamasque and Prelude for the Afternoon of the Faun, and Satie's Gymnopedies. She's also thinking of Faure's Pavane but I'm trying to sway her to Ravel's Mother Goose Suite as I write this. Didn't work. Not to worry.

Bring on the countdown!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

French Epitome of Moustachios

One name that cropped up several times while reading about other French composer was Vincent d'Indy. He sounded quite important and influential but to be honest I'd not heard of him before. Back to the research.

Firstly, I just have to say he had a fantastic moustache, the ideal 19th century Frenchman. Which is fitting as he sounds like a very patriotic Parisian. His most famous work is the Symphony on French Mountain Air, with some folk tunes as a base, and it really has that mountain countryside feel. I guess a bit of a predecessor to Strauss's Alpine Symphony, but not as dramatic, probably more pastoral really. What's really interesting about it is it uses a piano, so it has some resemblance to a piano concerto, but the piano works with the orchestra in a much more integrated way. This should get played more - I hope people vote for it in the countdown.

The reason he keeps turning up however is his influence as a teacher. Along with a couple of others - and inspired by his admiration for his teacher, Cesar Franck - he founded a second music school in Paris, the Schola Cantorum de Paris. The famous Paris Conservatory had become almost entirely focused on opera, so even Franck essentially didn't fit there. d'Indy and his fellows were much more interested in orchestral work so the school provided that focus. He had many students who were successful composers in the late 19th/early 20th century, including Satie, Milhaud and it seems Cole Porter which is interesting.

He was a huge admirer of Wagner and there's some signs of that in his work - I'm told, but I can hear it in the brass section of the Symphony on French Mountain Air. He also seems to have been quite forward looking in his composition, so a pioneer of the 20th century revamp on Romanticism - there's no doubt his music still falls into that classification though. Take his symphonic variations, Istar for instance. I can't find any more info on the piece but I'm assuming it's inspired by the Assyro-Babylonian goddess of the same name, the one of love and war, but more her loving side.

Well worth exploring further and clearly an influential man even if he has become somewhat obscure now.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Importance of Listening to Ernest

The name Ernest Chausson rang bells in my mind but I couldn't think why so he's my next choice of French composers. Turns out I have very little reason to know the name, I have a couple of tracks by him on some compilation albums put out by the ABC, and not ones I'm overly familiar with. But I've done a little research and discovered an artistic soul.

He lived a cultured life and studied law because his father wanted him to, but he didn't follow that direction. He tried drawing, he tried writing, then he came to music and he found his calling. He studied under Massenet and Franck, was influenced by Wagner and hung out with artistic types including Faure, Debussy and Monet. Tragically he died after his bicycle hit a brick wall, he was only 44 and he left only a comparatively small collection of works.

Most of his stuff is in the vocal oeuvre and not really something I'm that into but it sounds nice enough. His biggest success these days seems to be his Poeme for violin which is a strong piece I would say fits pretty well into the Romantic style. Apparently he was asked for a concerto by a prominent violinist of the day but he replied that he did not feel equal to writing such a big piece and would write a smaller one instead. Self-doubt or modest truth we'll never know but the result is truly worth it. Interestingly though he did write some major works including a Symphony. I've only heard the third movement but it's strong dramatic stuff with a beautiful finish.

He also seems to have had a love for Arthurian legends. He wrote a symphonic poem on Vivianne fairly early in his career and towards the end an opera on Arthur himself. So an artistic and romantic soul, who drove himself on with a passion to write. He said he had periods where he felt an almost feverish need to write as there was not enough time - tragically prophetic sentiment, but it hints at the passion behind the work.

I will certainly pursue his orchestral and chamber works. And I have to say I feel like I've found a somewhat kindred spirit in this man, I'm touched to have learnt about him, as weird as that might sound.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Daniel Auber

So the next French composer to catch my fancy is Daniel Auber - yes the alphabet is a powerful influence on the order of things. I haven't forgotten Adolphe Adam either, I just skipped him cause that was weeks ago for me.

Auber was predominantly an opera composer and mainly wrote comic ones. From what little I can gather that fits his personality, a kind, witty man who was prominent in French society for much of the 19th century. Now it seems his music is reduced to fragments for the most part. Quick searches bring up overtures and arias as parts of compilation recordings. It looks like the operas get some performances but I don't think they're big on most companies' repertoires.

I'm not a huge fan of opera arias but I do love overtures and Auber seems to have written some good ones. The Bronze Horse seems to have been picked up by military bands now and the link on the Classic 100 voting page leads to a video recording of a live performance by one such band. It's good but fortunately there was another link on that page which leads to a full orchestral version - the BBC Philharmonic - and I'd recommend it. It's light, lively and engaging.

One interesting thing that's turned up in terms of the voting list is the option to vote for Masaniello and The Mute Girl of Portici - when they're the same opera. Guessing whoever collates the votes will be aware of that. The two youtube links are thankfully different, one of them however is a video of an LP being played and it has the sound quality you'd expect. There is another version of it I found - it being the overture by the way - which is still an LP but it was put up properly and does sound okay. It's here.

In all not a composer I'll be exploring too much, not being an opera fan per se, but I'm very glad to have found out about these overtures.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Discovering The Music of France - Alkan

Since ABC Classic FM is running the Classic 100 - The Music of France, I thought it'd be interesting to explore some of the French composers it's opening up. The great thing about the voting list is it has links to Wikipedia and YouTube performances of some of the pieces. So it's an easy way to discover new works.

I'm starting with Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) who was a virtuoso pianist and composer. I randomly chose his 12 Etudes in Major Keys for my first dip in the playlist and it's really quite something. I also have to recommend his Barcarolle and La Vision from his Esquisses, Op 63.

It seems he was somewhat of a recluse, in one of the only known photos of him he has his back to the camera, and not many people were in his circle. He was still highly respected by his contemporaries including Liszt, and his organ music was and is influential in French organ music.

There's something very enigmatic about him from the little I've sampled. His piano music is beautiful Romantic stuff but slightly 'different'. He did apparently try to avoid certain styles and keys and put things into somewhat bizarre keys to do so. And then there's his Funeral March for a Parrot, a strange piece with bassoon, oboes and voices with lyrics asking if the parrot was eaten.

A fascinating figure and one whose music I hope to sample more of.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

More Classic 100 Music of France Musings

So it’s getting to crunch time and I’m going to have to make some decisions. As I said in my first post I already know I’m voting for Faure’s Pavane; that was decided as soon as I knew the theme for the countdown. It’s such a beautiful piece and I’ve loved it for years, I even used it in the soundtrack to a short film I made in uni. So I not only love it, it has some personal attachment.

If I use the idea of significance I can probably also lock in Bizet’s L’Arlesienne. When I was in my late teens I bought a cheap CD with that and Carmen, because I knew of Carmen and thought it’d be good to have in a collection. But it was the Farandole from The Girl from Arles that really captured my attention and imagination. I used to play it a lot while writing my play for HSC Drama, a melodrama about a knight and an evil king. And it is great music.

Saint-Saens raises problems with this approach though. The Danse Macabre and Carnival of the Animals are both some of the earliest classical music I knew and loved, and the Organ Symphony is one of the first symphonies outside Mozart and Beethoven that I knew. I could vote for all three and be done with it, but that leaves so many others and I have this thing about spreading the love and not wanting to give one composer more than others – irrational it may be but I never claimed to be a slave to logic or reason.

Leaving those three to battle out my third pick, I have two picks left. As I said, I feel Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun is safe to do very well without me, but there is his Reverie and Nocturnes – and I’ve just discovered his first piano trio ... I’ve got to put a Berlioz in there too of course, his flair for the dramatic really captures my fancy. I’ve got that down to two, King Lear and The Roman Carnival Overture, the latter because I’ve loved it for a long time and the latter because as well as being good in itself, it’s King Lear, a play I have a near fetish about.

Which leaves Ravel’s string quartet and tzigane, Satie’s Gnossiennes, and of course Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice – another early love – to battle it out for the last pick. And even then there’s a mass of pieces I’m rooting for from the sidelines. And new discoveries waiting for me to indulge in which possibly deserve more attention.

I may have to take Classic FM’s tweeted challenge up and see if I can convince some other people to vote too, after all it’s more fun if you vote for something. I’ll let you know how it goes.