Continuing the Easter theme: academicism is not a style I usually appreciate, but I remember clearly seeing this painting myself in 1999 in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, and being struck by the way the crucifixion is depicted only by the shadows cast as Christ's beloved ones leave the scene. The painting from 1868 is by Jean-Leon Gerome; more about him in the wikipedia article linked to below.
Even for an agnostic like myself, playing Bach's St. Matthew Passion at Easter is a must. I was delighted to find the complete passion on YouTube in a version I love: by Karl Richter, who takes it slower than more recent conductors. Over three hours, and a real treat.
The first themed post for the Easter weekend: the beautiful minimalist album cover of the soundtrack for the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ. A unique album in the impressive repertoire of Peter Gabriel. The art work is credited to James Bell.
Once more an overview of interesting links on topics related to the blog, that I encountered recently, but that will probably not make the blog as separate entries. The picture above is by my Flickr friend Auribins.
The Delineator was an American women's magazine of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which has featured before in my blog a couple of times already. This cover is an iconic Art Deco image, with a bit of cubism thrown in for good measure.
No, not family. Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996) is slowly gaining recognition as one of the better Soviet composers of the generation after Shostakovich and Prokofiev. His style is mainly tonal, but never outdated. He is a composer I am still exploring myself, and the Naxos disc I selected is not a bad place to start. The extensive piano concerto from 1971 is unlike any other I heard, including some flirts with minimalism (which was at the time just starting to gain ground in the USA), some highly melodic segments, but most importantly a stripped-down feeling, possibly a reaction to the heroic music in demand by the communist party. The short 1957 clarinet concerto is a real find, after the Nielsen and the Finzi my favourite of the 20th century. Melodic, wistful, with a breathtaking cadenza, and a delightful folksy finale. The CD concludes with the haunting 1974 cantata (actually a song cycle) for soprano and orchestra Signs of the Zodiac, with a surprising and effective role for a harpsichord. Excellent playing by the three soloists (Olga Solovieva, Anton Prischepa, and Yana Ivanilova, respectively) and the Russian Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra under Mynbayev, in an excellent recording. Warmly recommended to start exploring this rewarding composer.
I have been less on Flickr than usual this year so far, and the Flickr Favourites category suffered somewhat as a result. But here we go once more with another abstract by my Flickr friend Lorraine Kerr (caeciliametella). Rust on a pipe transformed into a fascinating image. As always, all rights retained by the creator.
This beautifully designed variation on the usual grand piano instrument was conceived by Studio Daniel Libeskind in collaboration with Schimmel Pianos. Its price tag is not too shabby: over 300,000 USD....
The recent release of the new David Bowie album The next day was quite an event - and the cover is quite special as well. Not special in a good way though, and I even considered running it under the Mixed Nuts category in my Potpourri blog. But at least, there is some method behind the madness of taking the old iconic Heroes cover and putting the big white square with text over it. The linked article gives designer Jonathan Barnbrook a chance to explain his reasons. I am still not convinced, but I thought it was an interesting read.
This is quite a different type of photo art. Korean artist Jiyen Lee has created a series of digital collages of people going up and down stairs, as seen from a bird's eye view. The results are fascinating images, with an almost abstract quality, and highly original (I improvised the title). Do click the link to see more examples. All rights retained by the artist, as usual.
Today is officially the first day of spring, even if the weather in the Netherlands is in complete denial of that fact. For the occasion, a beautiful vintage poster advertising sunny Monte Carlo with a bunch of spring flowers. The design is by Jean-Gabriel Domergue, dating back to 1955.
Yesterday I finished listening through the whole box of 14 CD's with Wagner's magnum opus, the four part opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, in the unsurpassed version by Sir Georg Solti. It was the first time in 15 years or so that I listened to any opera again, and it was a really worthwhile experience. The illustration above is the cycle's tragic heroine, the valkyrie Bruennhilde (also known as Brynhildr, or various other variations) as created in 1897 by G. Bussiere.
Yesterday it was announced that this year's prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture goes to Japanese grandmaster Toyo Ito. For the occasion, one of his recent works, completed in 2011. This is the Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture in Imabari (Japan), a daring but beautiful contrast of geometric shapes and nature. It is difficult to find further information on this building, the link I include is to the museum's web site.
One of the better paintings of my wife of a few years back, which I had not got around to posting yet. Very representative of her Shanghai Expressionism style, with the vivid colour scheme and the faceless faces. The title refers to one of her favourite movies.
The relatively new genre of Blood Metal, which combines death metal sounds with stage acts full of gore and blood, is definitely not everyone's taste. The dubious stage antics aside, one can judge the CD's issued by Blood Metal groups only on their musical merit of course. And it must be said that Temple Beth El from Stockholm have a lot to offer in this respect. Their third album, Delight of the blood, is positively different, showing considerable influences of progressive metal bands like their compatriots Opeth, in particular in the 12 minutes title track. Other outstanding tracks are their covers of songs originally by proto-BM heroes such as Alice Cooper (Raped and freezing) and Black Sabbath (Solitude). Recommended if you like death metal with a prog influence.
The idea of this little game is to create an album cover for an imaginary artist/group, as well as an imaginary review, following these instructions:
 The title: go to the random quotations site. The last four words of the very last quote of the page is the title of the album. The random quote that came up was by George Santayana: To knock a thing down, especially if it is cocked at an arrogant angle, is a deep delight of the blood.
 The illustration: pick a suitable one from my Flickr collection. My picture, Abstraction in red, can be found here on Flickr. The on-line editing was done with the programme On-line image editor, the font settings selected were Horro Hotel 160 Gold and Harrington Metallic Gold 55, respectively.
Note: this is a variation on the "Debut album game" that has been making its rounds around bulletin boards and blogs for some time now - the original version called for a random Flickr Explore photograph to be used as the cover. I have been trying to find out who had the original idea, but so far no success.
Before the purge of end 2008, one of the most popular topics of this blog was "Unusual concertos", classical concertos for all kinds of instruments and orchestra. I have decided to revive this, aiming for less familiar composers in general. In its original incarnation, I came to 40 different concertante instruments - aiming for 50+ this time.
The forty-sixth concerto deals with the cor anglais or English horn (image source), which confusingly is neither a horn nor English. This beautiful melancholic instrument (one of my personal favourites) is actually technically a member of the oboe family. Concertos for this instrument as so often have really started to appear in the 20th century. The most beautiful example of a cor anglais concerto is the one published in 1989 by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. The version I selected is played by Normunds Schnee and the Riga Philharmonic Orchestra under Rusmanis, available on a Conifer CD.
With the winter out-staying its welcome here already by several weeks, bringing us freezing nights and snow showers, a suitable vintage Vogue cover. This one is by Helen Dryden, one of the greatest illustrators of the era.
Chinese rugs are on the fuzzy borderline between arts and crafts - but the best are so great that I feature this site here. The linked web site is dedicated to these beautiful carpets, including plenty from my favourite Art Deco decades. Warmly recommended.
A band I had never heard of, but when I encountered this disturbing but fascinating cover on a blog, I was hooked. Never a hero is an alternative metal band from the UK, and this is their first album, released late last year. Unfortunately, I could find no further information about the cover design.
American Edward Steichen (1879-1973) is one of the all-time great photographers, who gained additional fame as art gallery and museum curator (Museum of Modern Art). In the twenties and thirties, Steichen was regarded as the best known and highest paid photographer in the world, being featured regularly in magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. Recently, a 1904 print of a pond in moonlight sold for almost 3 million dollars - a world record at the time. I have selected his 1935 portrait of model Margaret Horan, a great example of a master breaking conventional composition rules and coming up with an excellent shot. More on Steichen in the Wikipedia article linked to below.
The past few weeks I have been suffering from lack of inspiration on the photography front - the only shots I was reasonably satisfied with being a series of three pictures taken at the local market. This is my favourite, and the most popular of that small set. What makes it work in terms of composition is the diagonal divide.
Typically, this blog gets 300-500 views per day. Imagine my face when I checked yesterday and found that on 7 March it received over 10000 views! Almost all of those are on the Worth1000 post I made in January here, and as a result this one has now become my most viewed post by a very large margin (over 13000 and counting). It turns out that someone posted a cropped version of this image without the Worth1000 logo at the immensely popular Reddit site and Imgur site as "Another one of those perfect timing shots" - and one of the first comments at both sites countered this with the statement that it was photoshopped, linking to my blog post as evidence (why not to the Worth1000 where it came from?).
In recent years, UK singer Adele has grown to become one of the best selling artists in the world, fortunately proving that there is still room for acts with real musical substance nowadays. I think this cover of her major hit single Rolling in the deep is excellent in its simplicity - and it is a pity that I could not find more information about the designer/photographer. More about Adele on the linked wikipedia page.
Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the twentieth installment, I re-examine the orchestral works by Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937), one of the most famous French composers, taking my original CD's and a few I collected in more recent years.
Ouverture de feerie Sheherazade (1898)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1979, 15 min)
Not to be confused with the later gorgeous song cycle (his masterpiece imo), this is an early and rather obscure work - in fact it had been lost for many decades before resurfacing in the seventies. It is immediately identifiable as Ravel in spite of its unfamiliarity. It is also not a lost masterpiece, to be honest, and too long for its content. It warrants an occasional spin, but not more than that.
Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1986, 7 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1999, 7 min)
The Pavane for a dead (Spanish) princess is one of Ravel's most compelling works. It started as a piano work while he was still studying composition at the Conservatoire de Paris under Gabriel Faure, and was orchestrated eleven years later. The gorgeous lead melody, one of the most beautiful I have ever heard, is initially played by the horn in the orchestral version, an original and very effective choice. It is a work that in its honest simplicity can still choke me up after all these years.
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 8 min)
A boat on the ocean was originally one of the five piano pieces in the Miroirs suite, which was later orchestrated by Ravel. It is a beautiful maritime tone poem, painting a summer scene at the Mediterranean Sea in an almost Liszt-like style, and rivaling Debussy's La Mer in orchestral colours, if not in length.
Rapsodie Espagnole (1907/1908)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (CBS, 1972, 15 min)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Guilini (DG, 1980, 16 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 17 min)
Spain has influenced a number of Ravel's works, and the Spanish rhapsody perhaps most of all. Conceived as a piano suite, and orchestrated a year later. The slowish opening Prelude a la nuit with its haunting recurring four note theme and stunning orchestration is simply brilliant, the following short malaguena though feels a bit pedestrian in comparison. The Spanish theme continues with a slow habanera inspired by the sun caressing the landscape - a beautiful melodic movement. Ravel closes the composition festively with an upbeat Feria, which has great moments as well as more down-to-earth ones. All in all, a fascinating tone painting of Spain, rivaling the best of Spanish composers in this respect.
Daphnis et Chloe (1909)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 55 min)
Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Dutoit (Decca, 1981, 56 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1994, 57 min)
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 13 min)
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 18 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1986, 15 min)
Perhaps his most ambitious work, and generally considered one of his best: this extensive ballet for choir and symphony orchestra in three scenes. It is a perfect study of impressionism in music, as much as Ravel hated that term. Apart from the full ballet score, Ravel also extracted two suites (sometimes called symphonic fragments). The first, containing Nocturne, Interlude and Danse guerriere, is performed rarely. The second, containing Lever du Jour, Pantomime, and Danse generale, taken from the third scene, has become popular. Although I prefer to hear the whole work, these extended excerpts have considerable merit (especially the second one, which is the more coherent one, and has the most beautiful music of the ballet).
Ma mere l'oye (1908-1911)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 27 min)
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 30 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 28 min)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Guilini (DG, 1980, 18 min)
There are three versions of the Mother Goose fairy tales music: it started life as five pieces for piano (four hands), which Ravel orchestrated later in the form of a ballet, adding a new prelude and a dance on the theme of a spinning wheel, and changing the sequence of the movements. In the most familiar (and probably best) version, a suite for orchestra, these two additions have been eliminated, and the original sequence has been re-established. This is undoubtedly beautiful music, elegantly orchestrated - yet, in the end I find it less compelling than most of his output.
Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911/1912)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1974, 15 min)
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 18 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1994, 24 min)
This set of eight noble and sentimental waltzes were composed for piano, and orchestrated one year later. We are far from the Strauss family in mood, and in many ways they look forward to his later tone poem La valse. The highlight for me is the second waltz (assez lent), but the whole set definitely deserves the mark 'important'. It is remarkable how much variation Ravel creates in this set given the constraint of the waltz tempo.
Alborada del gracioso (1905/1918)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (CBS, 1972, 8 min)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1975, 8 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 8 min)
This Aubade of the fool was originally one of the five piano pieces in the Miroirs suite, which was later orchestrated by Ravel. After a boisterous opening, evoking Spanish fiesta atmosphere effectively, there is a tender farewell sequence, followed by more excitement. For some reason though it does not really appeal to me as much as most of his work.
Le tombeau de Couperin (1914/1919)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 17 min)
City of London Sinfonia/Hickox (Virgin, 1989, 17 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1999, 18 min)
The piano version of the grave of Couperin dates back to 1914, and the orchestration of four of its six movements followed five years later. In this work, Ravel looks back in some ways to 18th century French music, symbolized in the figure of Francois Couperin, without ever getting close to pastiche. The opening prelude is a vivid shimmering impressionist masterpiece, followed by a chromatic forlane dance that is as lively, but just a tad more down to earth. The pastoral menuet lets the oboe shine in a movement that sound the least modern of the four. The closing rigaudon begins and ends with an animated dance, enclosing a beautiful oboe melody. A beautiful set, wonderfully orchestrated.
La valse (1920)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1974, 12 min)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 13 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1994, 14 min)
This symphonic poem, originally conceived as a ballet, has been called the most unexpected of Ravel's works. Even though Ravel explicitly stated that it was not meant as a reflection of post-war central Europe, it is easy to make that link. It gives a vision of the glorious Austrian past, with fragments of waltzes by Strauss and Schubert, distorted as if we are looking to the past through the mists of time. We are constantly reminded by Ravel that the waltz originally is a dance associated with death as well, and not just courtisanes whirling away and having fun. A stunning composition.
Itzhak Perlman and New York Philharmonic/Mehta (DG, 1987, 10 min)
Originally composed for violin and piano, Ravel quickly created a version for violin and orchestra as well. The title, the French word for gypsy, refers to the general sound world, rather than specific gypsy melodies - Ravel used his own ideas throughout. It is a brilliant showpiece, in the fashion if not the style of the likes of Paganini and Sarasate - and echt Ravel. Not among the very best in his oeuvre, but definitely strong.
Fanfare Eventail de Jeanne (1927)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1979, 2 min)
An oddity: the music for the children ballet L'eventail de Jeanne (Jeanne's fan) was a co-production between ten of the most famous French composers of the day, each scoring one dance in classic form. Ravel's contribution is the opening Fanfare, which is fun, and fits the occasion - but is really too lightweight to be of any significance.
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1974, 15 min)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1979, 15 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 15 min)
The general crowd's favourite, even though it is disliked by many classical music lovers. Granted, it has been overexposed in popular culture, but taken by itself, I think it is an excellent and highly original piece of music. There is no development: the haunting theme gets repeated obstinately whilst the orchestra gets more and more colour, until the coda closes it off relentlessly.
Menuet antique (1895/1929)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1975, 6 min)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 7 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1999, 7 min)
The piano version and the orchestration are 34 years apart, spanning the complete career of Ravel. Conceived as a tribute to Chabrier, the piece sounds as archaic as the title indicates, and it lacks the usual brilliancy in its orchestration. That said, it may be far from his best, but it is still worth having.
Alicia de Larrocha and London Philharmonic Orchestra/Foster (Decca, 1974, 19 min)
Krystian Zimmerman and London Symphony Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1996, 18 min)
Like Prokofievs fourth, which was discussed in the previous installment, this one movement concerto for the left hand only was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Undoubtedly it is one of the important piano concertos of all time - regardless of how many hands. It is an energetic piece, reflecting the time it was conceived in many ways, with fantastic orchestral parts as well as superb piano lines, from melodious to percussive, and typical Ravel throughout. A fascinating concerto, absolutely essential.
Piano concerto in G major (1929)
Alicia de Larrocha and London Philharmonic Orchestra/Fruhbeck de Burgos (Decca, 1974, 24 min)
Krystian Zimmerman and Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1994, 22 min)
One of the last great piano concertos, for sure. Starting stunningly with a whiplash sound, the first movement is energetic, jazzy (in Ravel style), and beautiful. The introspective, gorgeous second movement, one of the most beautiful in the history of all concertos, is like a glimpse of heaven, and then the third brings us back on earth, with more jazz-influenced writing to enjoy, in what has been likened to a wall of sound. It is a roller coaster ride, exhilarating and all-consuming - and it makes you want to hit the repeat from start button for the whole concerto. The two piano concertos are completely different - and both indispensable. If I had to make a choice, I'd pick the one in G major, but is awfully close, and both are very, very close to hors concours.
Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:
Hors concours: None.
Essential: Pavane pour une infante defunte, Daphnis et Chloe, La valse, Piano concerto in D major [left hand], Piano concerto in G major.
Important: Valses nobles et sentimentales, Le tombeau de Couperin, Une barque sur l'ocean, Rapsodie Espagnole, Tzigane, Bolero.
Good to have: Ma mere l'oye, Alborada del gracioso, Menuet antique.
Not required: Ouverture de feerie Sheherazade, Fanfare Eventail de Jeanne.
About me: Dutchman, married to a beautiful and highly talented artist from Shanghai. Although my education (PhD chemistry) is very much associated with the left side of the brain, I like to use my right side for my hobbies: music, art, photography.
About this blog: I started this blog in August 2006, just wanting to share what I considered interesting pieces of visual art and music. I suffered from blogging blues for most of 2008, but making a fresh start in October of that year has done wonders for my inspiration. In case you did not notice, most posts end with a small symbol... just click that for the relevant link. All pictures in my blog are hosted on blogger - if some do not show up (the red cross syndrome) it is a blogger hiccup. Right click and selecting "show picture" should do the trick.
My other main blog: In December 2009 I started a parallel blog, Art's Potpourri, for subjects that I think are interesting, but not fitting for my main blog. A few other blogs have come and gone - I list them here for reference.
Most of the images used in this blog are either mine, or they are used with explicit permission of the creators. Some of the images are sourced on the internet and I consider them common use for a non-profit blog (such as album covers), or I use them with a link to the site of the creator/owner.
If you find a picture on this blog that you are the copyright owner of, and object against the use, please drop me an email and I will remove it.