What’s New for the 13th of March: Classical Music edition

I’m listening to Estampie, an early music ensemble perform ‘Bluomenrot’. If you recognize them from Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife, it’ll surprise you to learn that they actually exist and indeed are quite excellent. Though I do listen to a lot of music in the Celtic and Nordic traditions, I’ve very find of performers such as Hector Berlioz and Béla Bartók, even Russian composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky get played here.

So what I’ve rounded up this outing is some of the books and music we’ve reviewed that touch upon this music, though there are such works as Béla Bartók’s Yugoslav Folk Songs that are not quite about this music but which are worth noting here; a movie that is both enlightening about this music and entertaining as well; and perhaps a bit more if I decide to dig deep enough in the Archives.

Oh, and I should note we apparently had an orchestra here as this piece on it by the music librarian in the Sleeping Hedgehog dates from  the late 1860s: ‘Not too many people know that the pit orchestra of our theatre here in Kinrowan Hall is also a top notch orchestra on its own right. Oh yes, it really is. Maestro is our 42nd since the orchestra’s inception in or around 1694, that’s a bit hazy in the records. He’s a bit more tetchy than the last one, actually, but the music is all the better for it, I’m sure.’

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Berlioz’s Evenings with the Orchestra came about as a result of him being neither a widely recognized composer in his lifetime, or being generally accepted at all during his lifetime, as Kelly notes in his splendid review: ‘In order to remain solvent, Berlioz often had to turn to penning articles of criticism and commentary on music and cultural matters for the Paris publications of the day. By all accounts, Berlioz hated this work and the necessity of it, which is ironic given the quality of his writing, as evidenced in Evenings with the Orchestra.’

Robert found a rather different take on Berlioz in a couple of books about him — or actually, one about him, Michael Rose’s Berlioz Remembered, and one by him, The Musical Madhouse: ‘If the Paris of the 19th century was considered the cultural capital of the world, it was with good reason: of the major artistic and intellectual figures of the age, those who did not live there made a point of visiting with what frequency they could manage. And, in a city filled with high-profile cultural lions, one of those with the highest profile was Hector Berlioz.’

Robert also came across couple of books on a composer he considers sadly underrated: ‘Any genuine understanding of the role of Béla Bartók in twentieth century music is contingent on knowing about the cultural context in which he was formed — or in which he formed himself, as seems likely to be the case. The understanding is two-pronged, as Judit Frigyesi, in Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest and Peter Laki, in Bartók and His World, make clear.’

And digging around a bit more, Robert found yet another book, not about a composer but about a performer, namely Arnold Steinhardt’s Violin Dreams: ‘Arnold Steinhardt was for many years — since its beginnings in 1964 — the first violinist of the Guarnari String Quartet, one of the finest chamber music ensembles of the twentieth century. . . . His tale, cast as more of a memoir, almost a collage, rather than a straightforward autobiography, gives much more than the more or less expected events of a young musician’s life.

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Kelly looks at Amadeus:‘The film is not actually intended to be a historically-accurate portrayal of Mozart’s life, but in Shaffer’s words, “a fantasy on themes in Mozart’s life”.’ Read his excellently detailed review for a look at an extraordinary film!PSong is as much a part of Classical music as are tunes and so Ian looks at Medieval Baebes’ Worldes Blysse which he says is ‘All in all, an excellent album. ‘ read his review to see why these Baebes are much more than pretty faces which they certainly are.

My definition of Classical music includes Medieval forms, so let’s have Kelly tell us about his first review: ‘Sequentia, led by Benjamin Bagby, has been performing Medieval music for close to thirty years. Dialogos, led by Katarina Livljanic, has only been around ten years, but has earned considerable esteem among Medieval music afficionados during that time. These two groups recently pooled their musical abilities to create the album Chant Wars.’Now go read his reviews to see why the album is really, really wrong.

Talisman and their recording Music of Russian Princesses: From the Court of Catherine the Great also gets a look at from Kelly: ‘Formed in 2000 by soprano Anne Harley and guitarist Oleg Timofeyev (who is noted for his expertise in the Russian guitar tradition), Talisman is dedicated to the performance and promotion of Russia’s little-known Baroque and Classical era, roughly 1750-1850.’ Read his full review to see why there’s more to Russian classical music than most of us assume there is!

Majel looks at Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf covered by an odd mix of characters, to wit Gavin Friday & The Friday-Seezer Ensemble, and Bono’ of U2 fame: ‘For a piece of music, regardless of when it was written, to be considered truly timeless, it must stand up to any and all tests of style, genre and instrumentation; in short, anything a future arranger may throw at it. And while it may “work” with just about any instrument or orchestra, the trick is coming up with the right mix, the instruments and sounds that will most complement the piece while retaining its original character. The first requires a skilled composer; the second, a deft and sensitive interpreter. The latest version of Peter and the Wolf has the good fortune of both — two of the latter, in fact — but the musical aspect is only the beginning.’

Speaking of Bartók (and we were, just a minute ago, if you’ll remember), Robert takes a look at a rather staggering collection of his solo piano works: ‘A composer’s works for solo piano are in many ways equivalent to a painter’s drawings: they can range from sketches to major finished works, and allow us to explore an artist’s thinking in an intimate format — a chance, quite often, to be “present at the creation.” The solo piano works of Béla Bartók are no exception.’

As long as we’re on the subject of chamber music, how about Beethoven’s complete string quartets from the Wihan Quartet? ‘ I willingly confess to a weakness for chamber music: I feel toward a composer’s small-scale works much the way I do about works for solo piano or an artist’s drawings, although a string quartet is much more likely to be a “finished” piece, by necessity. But composers often put ideas into their chamber works that don’t make it into larger orchestral works. . . . By their very nature string quartets are intimate affairs, at least in the context of performance — they aren’t necessarily small-scale in concept at all.’

Robert brings us a look at some rather unexpected Beethoven, namely the nine symphonies on period instruments: ‘These recordings, however, have been more than entertaining — they’ve also given me some insights into Beethoven’s music that I don’t think I would ever have found any other way. Keep in mind that this music was written during the Napoleonic era, when the conventions of musical creation and performance were much different than they are now, and that, like everyone else, I come to Beethoven through the symphony orchestra as it exists today — which is to say, post-Brahms, post-Wagner, post-Mahler.’

Ready for more symphonies? I thought you might be. How about the complete symphonies of Gustav Mahler? ‘The thing about Mahler that strikes me on listening to Bernstein’s recordings is that the man caught the soul of a time that was, like the century that followed, poised on the edge, and it’s a soul that Bernstein understands very well.’

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To finish up for this week, let’s go back to those Beethoven quartets. If you read the review, you’ll remember that not only did the Wihan Quartet make sound recordings, they also included videos, such as this one. Enjoy.

About Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I’m the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library.

I’m a violinist too, so you’ll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.

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