Sunday, 28 October 2012

Henri Duparc

It's been a while since I posted and I think the whole French music thing is moving on now, but I meant to write a bit of a post-countdown thing so here it is. Mostly I was interested in checking out some of the composers whose names kept coming up but whose music didn't make the countdown. From my viewpoint Henri Duparc was by far the most-mentioned no-show so let's start there.

Just a quick look on Wikipedia tells me a talented man ended up with a tragic life. A neurological condition stopped him from composing in his late 30s and sent him slowly blind. And in that tragic circumstance and who knows what else, he destroyed a lot of his work.

He was usually mentioned in terms of his songs and indeed the list only let you vote for songs he wrote. I confess to having no real interest in listening to them, but he did write some orchestral and piano music. Sadly a lot of this is lost, but there is his symphonic poem Lenore, based on a Gothic ballad about Death riding a lover to his grave - she thinking him a knight leading her to their marriage bed. While it conveys the haste of the ride and is dramatic and certainly a fine piece of music, it isn't quite as dark as its morbid subject matter would suggest. That said, it is very much a Romantic piece, and the sorrowful revelation, the slow and soft conclusion as Lenore learns of her lover's death and dies herself is quite chill and haunting.

There is also his Aux Etoiles, which seems to have had two lives at the least. It seems to be the only surviving part of a symphonic poem written in 1874, and the Entracte for an unpublished play, for which it seems to have been written in 1911, the same year he released a solo piano reduction of the work. Given this is all coming from Wiki which says he stopped writing in 1885, I assume the Entracte phase was a salvage job, 'here's something I wrote earlier that might suit'. That or there are two works with the same name by the same man, and Wiki is missing some vital information.

Whatever the case, it is sublimely beautiful. Aux Etoiles apparently translates to "To the Stars" and the gentle music does have the sense of floating in the eternity of space with the stars shining all around you. It's very evocative.

I said composers, but for now at least I think I'll leave it at just Duparc. Anything after that last piece is superfluous. Listen to it and swoon away.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 7

What a fantastic conclusion to a wonderful countdown. No real surprises in what made it in but the order was a little unexpected.

The Bolero started us off. It's quite a divisive piece, lots of lovers and almost as many haters. I went through a period of disliking it, I don't think I ever hated it though. But through avoidance for a time and monitoring how often I listen to it now I've come to enjoy it again. I wouldn't say I love it but I do like it. In a good performance the build of the music is actually a wondrous thing which demonstrates Ravel's mastery over an orchestra I think. And done well I do feel compelled to air-conduct the last bits.

Songs of the Auvergne, as belatedly predicted. I will say, hearing more than just the mandatory Baillero which is on so many compilations, not every song in the collection is as saccharine and dull as it is. But they still do nothing for me.

Berlioz's master work, the Symphonie Fantastique, on the other hand. Well, given my love of dramatic music I think I need say no more really. A truly monumental work and an absolute thrill to listen to.

One slight surprise was that Debussy's Prelude a l'apres d'un faun (which I think I've been calling a pavane for a couple of days, put that down to Faure fever) came in at only No 6. I thought it would be top five for sure and expected it may even have won. It is such an amazing piece, it conjures a dreamscape unlike any other, just as the poem it's based on says it should. And from all accounts it was a revolutionary and inspirational piece at its time, setting the mood for the whole century to follow.

I confess I don't really know The Pearl Fishers, and while I don't mind the famous duet from it, it's not one of those few opera songs which has managed to grow on me yet anyway.

Satie's Gymnopedies ... what can I say? Utter beauty on the keyboard. The first is one of those quintessential swoon moments that takes time and stuffs it in a bin for a while, there is only the music. The other two are almost equally as tranquil and it's great to hear them played together.

Not only did Faure's Requiem come third, it was also the third requiem in the countdown. It has neither the dark landscape or Durufle or the drama of Berlioz, but resonates the peace and rest the others offer in part all the way through. It is a positive requiem if we can say that, death as culmination of life, as the coming of peace.

The last of my votes at No 2! Very happy with that, Saint-Saens Symphony No 3. With the exciting opening movement, the lovely breeze blowing in the slow second movement and of course the surprise organ at the end. It has it all, a masterpiece of innovation within a classical form. I really didn't think it would do this well so now maybe I should've voted for the Danse Macabre but ultimately I'm very happy with the overall outcome.

Which of course left Bizet's Carmen to take out the top spot. Deemed too scandalous even for the French at the time, he never got to see it succeed, must be a surprise to him to know just how popular it is. In the suite form I love it, slightly exotic flavour, lots of action, wonderful rhythms, a total delight. In the opera form I'm less thrilled but in this one a number of the songs have grown on me and I enjoy it a lot. A fitting finale to what was a tumultuous and rich musical countdown.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 6

Happy to say most of the pieces in today's countdown were in my predictions of yesterday. I didn't pick Adam's carol O Holy Night or Widor's Organ Symphony No 5. I also had two Debussy Preludes where the countdown put the lot together as one entry. Bit annoyed about that actually, I agree they should be one entry like they were last year but on the voting page there was only about half of them and they were all listed as separate votes. So some fiddle-faddling has taken place there.

So not much in the way of discovery today. Coppelia was new for me and I enjoyed it a lot. Knowing the story it came from, ETA Hoffman's The Sandman, I felt it could have been a bit darker but it was certainly dramatic enough and anyone who reads this blog much will probably have noticed I do like dramatic music.

It was also great to hear the rest of the Suite Bergamasques. I know Clair de Lune deserves its place as a masterpiece and quintessential swoon, but the rest of the pieces in this work deserve to be heard more often too. Differing moods, all strongly represented and offering the pianist a wonderful experience I'm sure.

In my predictions I did forget Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, somewhat foolish or maybe just wishful thinking. I'm sorry but I just don't dig it. Probably just lacking in drama or something but I find it saccharine and dull. However, I expect they will come in fairly high. Which means I must accept the demise of Faure's Bereceuse and Poulenc's Sextet, which were both stretches I admit for personal favouritism. Actually, thinking about I don't think Ravel's Tzigane is a likely top 10 piece, not over his String Quartet and Piano Concerto ... so there's something else coming too.

A quick apology too - I meant Saint-Saens Organ Symphony not Concerto ... I voted for it so I do know that. Whoops.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 5

Two great symphonies in today's countdown. Franck's opened proceedings this morning and it was quite a journey I must say. From the brooding opening chords to the celebration of light at the conclusion. A real journey and good fun. And from that straight into Saint-Saens' second piano concerto which is simply brilliant in its shifts from light poetry to strong declamation then back to dancing instruments and all seamlessly. The second symphony was Bizet's which is a sheer joy to listen to.

Keeping with new pieces (for me), Chabrier's Espagna was a jolly jaunt with Spanish flair. Interesting just how many pieces were written by non-Spanish people inspired by the country. I love that Franck wrote his violin sonata as a wedding present for a violinist who managed to take the score and play it at the wedding. The slow movement seemed strangely sorrowful and I don't think the rest of the piece is entirely lovey-dovey but it's mostly celebratory, at least of violin playing. Overall I prefer the cello version but I prefer cello in general so that's to be expected.

Despite comments from the announcers about Faure being boring, I found his Cantique de Jean Racine to be one of those tranquil pieces you can really just stop the world and listen to.

And my wish from yesterday came true! Giselle came in, what a treat that was. Great story behind it, and the music really rocks along. Then a second ballet with Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe. I'd only heard the second suite before today which doesn't do the whole work justice. As a whole it weaves a spell that can't function as well when it's broken into pieces.

A few more operas made it in today. Interesting to note Offenbach used the can-can in his Orpheus in the Underworld as well as in Gaite Parisiene. Gounod's Faust was a bit different and quite nice. I love the Bacchanale from Samson et Delilah too, it's fantastic. But I'm still not an opera fan overall despite the beautiful music between the main singing. Sorry opera buffs.

From here it's tempting to start predicting the rest of the pieces to come in. So here it is - in no particular order - my predictions. Happy to be wrong.

1. Debussy – Suite de Bergamasque
2. Debussy – Pavane ... Faun
3. Debussy – Submerged Cathedral
4. Debussy – Girl with the Flaxen Hair
5. Debussy – La Mer
6. Ravel – Pavane for a Dead Princess
7. Ravel – Bolero
8. Ravel – String Quartet
9. Ravel – Piano Concerto
10. Faure – Pavane
11. Faure – Requiem
12. Delibes – Lakme
13. Delibes – Coppelia
14. Satie – Gymnopedies
15. Satie – Gnossiennes
16. Saint-Saens – Danse Macabre
17. Saint-Saens – Carnival of the Animals
18. Saint-Saens – Organ Concerto
19. Dukas – Sorcerer’s Apprentice
20. Bizet – Carmen
21. Bizet – Pearl Fishers
22. Bizet – L’Arlsienne
23. Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique
24. Massenet – Thais
25. Poulenc – Sextet
26. Offenbach – Tales of Hoffmann
27. Faure – Bereceuse, Op 16
28. Ravel – Tzigane

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 4

Second day in a row the countdown has opened with a choral work of Hector Berlioz I hadn’t heard before. The Requiem is huge and glorious in parts, although it lacks much of the emotional landscape of Durufle’s; maybe not the Gloria or the angelic reflections of the conclusion. In all I probably prefer the Te Deum from yesterday but hey. It was followed by a bit of his oratorio about the Childhood of Christ which was quite serene in general.

I hadn’t, and still haven’t apparently, heard the entire Turangalila symphony of Messian. It’s a strange work to be honest and I’m afraid I have to admit it really does sound like a ’50s B-grade SF/horror soundtrack. The alien monster, attacked by the marines but falls in love with the hero’s fiancĂ©e whose father is the scientist who first noticed the strange spacecraft …

I may have heard Marais’ The Bells of St Genevieve before but this was my first time really listening to it. The sense of rhythm and the rocking of the bells back and forth is very strong and quite enthralling in its way.

First time hearing Harolde in Italy all the way through too, that's a fun piece sort of a concerto with a plot. Only the second time I'd heard Saint-Saens' fifth piano concerto but it was on my favourite list from the first time. What a magical piece! It's not like any other concerto I can think of, evocative and mysterious.

Interestingly no operas today, although a few choral works and songs. No ballets in the countdown yet, so hope Adam's Giselle gets in and Delibes' Coppellia - I want to hear them in full. One of the expert guests today suggested Faure's Requiem and Pavane would both probably miss out ... I think he might be wrong about that somehow but we'll see.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 3

Today was light on opera, no complaints from me but there's some that will definitely still appear. Actually I expect Carmen to be a top 10, and Pearl Fishers and Lakme to be at least top 25. Interesting a couple of film scores got in too, both by Jarre. I remember the horror some musical snobs had when some soundtracks made it in last year. But hey, there's some awesome music written for movies and it deserves to be recognised.

Baroque made a few more appearances today which was good to hear. Interesting coincidence was the day opened with back to back Te Deums - Berlioz's and Charpentier's. The former I hadn't heard at all before and it was interesting to hear the way the organ and choir could achieve such a soft touch in the reflective passages. No surprises on the grand nature of the triumphant ones though.

Probably the most fun discovery for me was Offenbach's Gaite Parisiene which was a jolly romp for the most. A little bit last night of the Proms at times perhaps, but good to hear where the Can-Can came from in full. Also interesting to hear the barcarolle in context too, very different to most of the work as a whole but a pleasant respite, like a grand sunset after a busy day in Paris - or should that be a grand sunrise after a night of festivities?

Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is a dramatic one, very different to his jazzier concerto in G. There's a gentle passage toward the end which is utterly beautiful, took my breath away. Some lovely use of other instruments too. Debussy's Cello Concerto No 1 was an intriguing one too, not quite as smooth as some of his earlier works but still a strong composition, obviously. His String Quartet on the other hand was quite astounding, a strong and innovative take on the form.

I saw a few people were waiting for Durufle's Requiem, for me it was another first. Such a dark landscape is conjured by it, desolate yet beautiful, then the Sanctus brings some sort of light and hope. And the Agnes Dei lifts us up from the shattered ground and offers solace and rest. No wonder people were waiting.

Poulenc's Organ Concerto was dramatic certainly but I can't say it was entirely to my tastes. I didn't dislike it but didn't do anything for me.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day 2

Day two saw a few more operas and the happy inclusion of some Baroque pieces. Berlioz maintained his lead but the others are catching up.

The important thing for this blog of course is the new pieces I discovered. There were quite a few, but special mention to Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. It was apparently written with a violin virtuoso in mind so there’s a concerto aspect and the violin does fly along with the orchestra. Some really lovely symphonic sounds in it too, definitely one I’ll want to hear again.

Another discovery was Gounod’s St Cecilia Mass. I missed some of the beginning of this one but caught most of it. The quieter passages are sublime, but I found some of the more, triumphant shall we say, parts a bit meh. Nice but I wasn’t blown away, very austere I feel. Saint-Saens' Cello Concerto No 1 however was another great work. I love cello music and it really gets to dance in that one.

Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano was a delightful piece with some wonderful flights of the flute and piano, with some sudden contrasts too. I’m hearing Poulenc in bursts and whenever I do I like him more. Even his choral Gloria, which I first heard in yesterday’s countdown, was an exciting work, but I prefer his chamber works so far.

So glad to hear Faure’s Sicilienne and to learn about its history. I had thought it was part of his Peleas and Melisande suite so when I saw the separate opus in the voting list I was a bit confused. Hearing that it actually started life as incidental music for a different play, was then resuscitated in a cello and piano arrangement before finally being used for the Maeterlinck play has cleared up my confusion. And the arrangement for cello and piano is beyond a doubt magnificent. As a side note my wife voted for that, she has good taste in music.

Addendum - So there's a wiki page about the countdown which is exciting. It also pointed out I miscounted and Debussy has pulled level with Berlioz. I expect he will have the most in the end.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Classic 100 Music of France - Day One

Well the first day of the countdown is finished and it's been quite a day. Seventeen pieces down, three operas, one choral work and the rest orchestral or instrumental. Berlioz has the early lead with Ravel and Franck close behind but obviously very early days for that.

Several discoveries for me, including I must confess Franck's Symphonic Variations which were very good. The best one though was a little Concertino for Flute by Cecile Chaminade. I said I hadn't been very thorough looking for women on the list and I totally missed Cecile, very glad she's now been brought to my attention.

What I find interesting, or disturbing, about these countdowns are people's reactions. For one thing I think it quite strange how often the presenters have to point out the pieces were voted for by listeners and it's not them picking the stuff. And I appreciate the passion people feel for their favourites and the disappointment when something they like doesn't get higher - my only vote to make it so far is Berlioz's Roman Carnival at 86, to me it's a definite higher listing. But there are some people out there who turn their comments on other listeners by voicing utter disgust that certain pieces have made it.

Last year it was particularly bad, with some implying that the main audience was clearly uneducated and/or utterly without taste or refinement because they didn't vote for more obscure composers. Music that is difficult to get into, while it has its place, is always going to struggle in popular countdowns. I just wish everyone could love the music and appreciate that they won't agree with it all and accept that their tastes may not be mainstream but that doesn't mean the mainstream is wrong.

Anyway, that is my rant. Beyond that the Classic 100 is great fun so far and I fully expect more discoveries and enjoyment along the way.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Boulanger Sisters

I decided it was time to have some women represented in this look at French composers. Let's face it, there aren't many well-known female composers in history, which is sad but can't be helped now. At least now we have the likes of Elena Kats-Chernin to mix things up.

Anyway, perusing the list of French composers from the old voting page I came across two women (I didn't look completely comprehensively so there may be more) and those two it turns out were sisters. Nadia and Lili Boulanger were born towards the end of the 19th century into a musical family. Their father, not very well-known himself, once won the Prix de Rome composition competition, very prestigious.

It seems the two were very close despite a seven year age difference and both were clearly musically talented from an early age. Lili, the youngest, was declared by Faure himself to be tone perfect at the age of two. Sadly she was not a healthy child or young woman and died far, far too young. In her short life however she wrote a considerable amount of music which has been judged, and I'd have to agree, to be far more mature than her early years would imply. She also won the Prix de Rome like her father.

Nadia had a long life and was a very influential figure in music for the first half of the 20th century. She had little regard for her own talents as a composer, despite being mostly alone in that impression, and made her greatest mark as a teacher and a conductor. As the former she taught a huge number of great composers and musicians, and as the latter she was a trailblazer, being the first woman to conduct major orchestras like the BBC and Boston Symphony Orchestras and the New York Philharmonic. She also conducted world premieres of some big names including Igor Stravinsky with whom she was good friends. For all that she wasn't really a feminist and apparently said women shouldn't be allowed to vote ... no-one's perfect.

Anyway, what's important here is the music. And through the timing of their lives the wonderful thing is we have access to Nadia not only conducting the music of Lili but also sometimes playing it. Lili wrote what I can only describe as a haunting Nocturne for cello and piano, and this performance has Nadia on the piano.

Her more famous works are Faust et Helene, a cantata, which was the Prix de Rome winner, and some settings of Psalms. As I've said I'm not huge on opera and while none of these are operas the cantata does have a similar style of singing. The music behind it however is again quite haunting and dramatic. Choral works are a bit harder for me to define and I take them on a case by case basis but don't expect much. However I did listen to the entire Psalm 130, just under half an hour, which I hadn't expected to do. It's understated but rich in tone and a subtle majesty, quite peaceful for the most with passages of darker shadings. The recording linked here is conducted by Nadia.

Nadia's own music is harder to track down. There's footage of her teaching which is interesting in a way, as much for her ideas and attitudes to music. I recommend a little YouTube search for her and seeing what she says about music. One piece I have found - not a voting option sadly - is a Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra. It's rather like a mini piano concerto and it's truly a beautiful piece.

Most of her works are songs or vocal settings and I haven't really explored them. The few others aren't the easiest things to find but there is this short video of a performance of her Three Pieces for Organ, here played in her own arrangement for cello and piano. There's an airy quality to them which is slightly fey and utterly compelling.

While there is a dearth of recordings - outside some appearance on 'recital' albums by various artists - the music of these two is rich and worth listening too. And the impact Nadia Boulanger had on the 20th century, in terms of classical music at least, is not to be underestimated.