Light relief - Krommer Clarinet Concertos

I sense that over the next few months we are going to be torn apart by politicians trying to persuade us that we should be in or out of Europe.  Big decision.  Whilst we make the decision we should have some light relief along the way and the clarinet concertos by Franz Krommer may go some way to providing this.  They are very easy, cheerful, upbeat pieces of music to listen to.  There isn't much to write about Franz Krammer which must mean that he led a normal  life and unlike many other composers he wasn't a tortured soul who suffered from demons or an awful illness.

Franz Krommer 1759-1831

Franz Krommer 1759-1831

Franz Krommer was a Czech composer from the late eighteenth century who was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart.  Initially he was taught music by his uncle until 1785 when he arrived in the Imperial City of Vienna as a 26 year old violinist.  Shortly after he arrived he picked up various position teaching music in aristocratic households until 1813 when he was appointed court composer to Emperor Francis II of Austria - the last Holy Roman Emperor.  

Kromer wrote over 300 works of which only a handful have survived including these clarinet concertos.   The recording I recommend has all three concertos, although two of them are concertos for two clarinets.  The composer clearly liked the key of Eb major which is the key that all three concertos are in.  These are very easy works to listen to as throughout the clarinets interplay with the orchestra in a continuous dialogue which makes it so satisfying and is what has ensured that these works are a staple of the clarinet repertoire.  In the concertos for two clarinets there are wonderful passages where the two instruments interweave with each other which gives the works so much colour.

Listen to the 3rd movement of the Clarinet Concerto in Eb major Op 91 - Alla Polacca - as the title suggests it takes on the rhythm of a dance.  YouTube   
Or try the Clarinet Concert in Eb Op 36 - third movement on YouTube         

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Posted on February 23, 2016 .

Schubert Lieder

Bryn Terfel     Photo: Warren Orchard

Bryn Terfel    
Photo: Warren Orchard

Before I start, listen to this on youTube.  I recently heard Bryn Terfel sing this Schubert lieder Litanei auf das Fest Allersen on the radio,  I was struck by the sheer beauty of the song as well as his voice.   I was put off Schubert lieder when I was a student, I seem to remember having to study one of his song cycles and thought it was heavy weather, then when I worked for a classical music agent I had to go to endless Schubert recitals and that was it, I have never listened to lieder since.  Having heard Terfel on the radio, I haven't stopped listening to Schubert lieder all week and I cannot recommend it more.  Personally I prefer them sung by a male voice and having  listened to a few recordings over the last week the one I recommend is sung by the great welsh baritone Bryn Terfel.  A lieder is quite simply a german, romantic song.

Schubert as good as invented the three minute song, a form very much still alive today.  He wrote over 600 of them which is astounding when he died tragically young aged 31.  His songs were meant to sound like up-market folk songs, instantly memorable and easy to understand.

Franz Schubert 1797 - 1828

Franz Schubert 1797 - 1828

For Schubert the birds, bees and trees all came into their own in his song writing and were used as a way to embody the pain of love that remained unmatched until the twentieth century.  Perhaps he was attracted to such poetic texts because his relationships were usually with women from a different class to his own and therefore fraught with restriction and inhibition.  Women are typically portrayed as unattainable, goddess-like or simple and uneducated.  What is extraordinary about his songs is that unlike most romantic composers he used such simple resources to express his emotions.

Schubert lieder are technically very difficult to sing furthermore both pianist and singer have to be totally in synch musically and emotionally as the piano part is of equal importance.  Over the years there have been some great Schubert lieder partnerships the most famous of which is Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore.

The recording I recommend is quite an old one (dreadful cover) but I love the warmth and depth in Bryn Terfel's voice, furthermore it contains many of Schubert's best known songs.  When first listening to lieder it can help to know a bit about what is going on, so here is an explanation to four songs on the recording:
Litanei auf das Fest Allersen is a poem with the message - when you depart from this world, rest in peace - "Rest in Peace, all Souls who have done with anxious torment".  Hence the hymn like melody with a beautiful lilting accompaniment to give a sense of peace.  Die Forelle or 'The Trout' (sung here by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) is one of Schuberts best known songs and sets a poem to music which tells the story of a trout being caught by a Fisherman.  It opens with the accompaniments rippling arpeggios (fiendishly difficult to play) coupled with a very simple melody all of which evoke the image of a fish swimming innocently through the stream.  Schubert captures the darker lines of the poem as the tune changes  becoming more sinister and the trout is finally caught.  An Die Musik is a hymn to the art of music, it's greatness and popularity are attributed to its harmonic simplicity, sweeping melody and a strong bass line that underpins the melody.  Finally An Sylvia (sung here by Dietrich Fisher Dieskau)is set to a german translation and comes from Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona,  another hugely popular song.

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Posted on February 3, 2016 .

Duets for the New Year

Emma Benson 

Emma Benson 

New Year is here which means it is time to take stock.  This means no alcohol, no chocolate, no cheese and smaller portions, all too ghastly for words and so far it hasn't gone too well.  It didn't help last night that I had a wonderful caterer on my radio show called Emma Benson from Mrs B's Kitchen, as well as playing her wonderful choice of music, we talked about food for an hour and by the end of the programme both myself and Jeremy, the technician were absolutely starving.  Kennet Radio.  

The Siege of Leningrad

The Siege of Leningrad

I watched a programme over Christmas called Leningrad and the Orchestra that defied Hitler.  It was a fascinating documentary on the 872 day siege of Leningrad, where the city was surrounded by the Germans and very little got in or out.  The result was that over 1 million people starved to death.  Shostakovich had written his Symphony No 7, miraculously the score was smuggled into Leningrad and they got together an orchestra of half-starved musicians who managed to find the strength to perform this huge work.  A speaker system was set up throughout the city and the performance was also played out to the Germans, many of whom, at this point, realised that they would never be able to break the will of the people of Leningrad.  If you didn't see the programme then you can see it on BBC iPlayer, I recommend it.  Click here.       

Let's start off with something light and easy for the New Year - here is a recent recording of piano duets by Mozart, Schubert and Stravinsky played by two of the greatest pianists of the day Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich.  Mozart wrote his Sonata in D major for 2 pianos K448 when he arrived in Vienna in 1781, at this point he had taken on some students and was particularly rude about one female student called Josepha Auernhammer, describing her to his father in a letter:  "She is as fat as a peasant wench, perspires so much that you feel like vomiting and walks about in such skimpy attire that you can read as clear as day: 'Please look here'".  However after eight months of lessons he was rather more generous and wrote "The young lady plays with charm".  He payed her the highest compliment by writing for her this sonata which treats both pianists as equal partners.  It was the only work he wrote for two pianos.  He and Auernhammer premiered the work in 1781 in the Auernhammer home.  Equally as delightful is the Schubert Variations on an Original Tune in Ab D813 which is considered to be amongst the composers finest works.  With a life of illness, Schubert felt he had found a sense of 'happiness and peace' after composing this work although it was to be short lived.  The final pieces are Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring) in a version for two pianos.  Here is a trailer for the album on YouTube.   Listen also to the 3rd movement of the Mozart Sonata on YouTube.   

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Posted on January 10, 2016 .

Favourite Carol

Henry Litolff 1818 - 1891

Henry Litolff 1818 - 1891

Goodness christmas is expensive, forget the turkey, we are going to be lucky to have cabbage soup,  The problem is that one does tend to buy oneself the odd present in the mix.  Carols and christmas songs are being played everywhere you care to listen and whether it is sung by The Pogues or Slade to a variety of choirs.  But my favourite carol of all is 'O Holy Night'.  The main problem with this carol is that it seems to be everybody's favourite and as such more often than not it is completely ruined by cross-over artists.  Without sounding like too much of a music snob or a purist I think it should be sung by a choir, so here it is sung beautifully by King's College Cambridge on YouTube.   

Should you have the need to escape over Christmas, then try listening to these piano works by Henry Litolff called Concerto Symphonique.  The recording I recommend by Peter Donohoe contains Nos 2 & 4.  It is very rare that these works are recorded as a whole because the Scherzo from No 4 has become well known as a stand alone piece and is often recorded as such.  Although the Scherzo is a fabulous piece, and a huge challenge for any pianist, the other movements should not be missed and if anyone needs convincing of the composer's pianist credentials, he was the dedicatee of Liszt's first piano concerto.  High praise!  Here is the Scherzo on YouTube.      

Peter Donohoe Photographer: Sussie Ahlberg

Peter Donohoe
Photographer: Sussie Ahlberg

Born in London in 1818 into a very poor family, Henry Litolff entered the workforce as a child.  He had the good fortune to work in a piano factory where he began to play the firm's instruments.  At the age of twelve he began studying under the eminent Ignaz Moscheles.  The tuition lasted until he was 17 at which point he eloped to France with his 16 year old bride.   He ended up having three divorces and four weddings with his last being at the age of 55 when his bride was 17, she lasted the course.  At the peak of his career he bowed to deafening applause but by the time he died he was all but forgotten about.  Posterity remembers him through a single work - the Scherzo from his Concerto Symphonique No 4 and it has never fallen out of fashion.

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Posted on December 13, 2015 .