Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Villa-Lobos, South America's finest

Without a doubt (for me), Brazil's Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is the best composer to have come from the continent of South America. His style is post-impressionist, combining local influences with stylistic elements from the European tradition, going back to Bach as a main source of inspiration. Probably his most famous composition is Bachianas Brasileiras (Brazilian Bachian-pieces), but as these come as a 3CD package, I have decided to go for a different recommendation. His guitar music is fabulous, and fits nicely on one CD. On the Naxos disc shown above, it is played magnificently by Norbert Kraft. A real treat, and a good introduction to this essential composer.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Golden Years

Last Saturday night, the wife and I watched the brilliant BBC documentary David Bowie - Five Years, full of fascinating footage and interviews with musicians who worked with him. For the occasion, a suitably titled Bowie classic from the seventies. Art Rock score: 8/10 (great song, I would put it on my MP3 player).

YouTube

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Stevedores in Arles

It is not often that you encounter a painting by a world famous artist that you have never seen before. It happened to me a few weeks ago with one of my favourites, Vincent van Gogh. He created this masterpiece in 1888, two years before his death - foreshadowing expressionism even more than most of his work. More about van Gogh in the Wikipedia article linked to below.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Gild

Due to the new Flickr "improvements", which is driving hordes of Flickrites away from the site (possibly including myself), this may well be one of the last shots featured in my blog under this heading. It is fitting then that it is a gorgeous abstract by one of my favourite Flickr friends, jenny downing. Hard to believe that this abstract masterpiece is actually a dusty platter on a table. Pure art. As usual, all rights retained by the creator.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Musical impression

This is a bit of an experiment. When we had a parade of marching bands through the street where we live recently, I took a lot of shots leaning out of the second floor window. Here are five of them, combined into one in Picasa, resulting in an impressionist view of the event. And for such an experimental shot, it got good reactions on Flickr.

Camera: Canon IXUS 115 HS, 12 Megapixels, handheld
Exposure: 0.16 sec (1/6)
Aperture: f/2.8
Focal Length: 5.0 mm
ISO Speed: 1600
Post-processing: Picasa 3.0

Flickr

Friday, May 10, 2013

Beautiful Friction

The latest album of the Fixx, one of the better synthesizer pop groups who started in the eighties, was released in 2012. The album cover is excellent, based on the art work of George Underwood, with whom they have worked before. A modern classic.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

121 Classical composers

Triggered by discussions at the Talk Classical forum about ranking classical composers. Here is my personal take, based on my own preference. I have opted for five tiers with each one containing three times as many as the one before - for a grand total of 121, with each name linked to their Wikipedia entry.

Hors concours (1):
Johann Sebastian Bach

The immortals (3):
Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Franz Schubert

The geniuses (9):
Claude Debussy, Antonin Dvorak, Felix Mendelssohn, Ernest John Moeran, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Maurice Ravel, Dmitri Shostakovitch, Jean Sibelius, Richard Wagner

The grandmasters (27):
William Alwyn, Samuel BarberArnold BaxLudwig van Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Benjamin Britten, Anton Bruckner, Frederic Chopin, Gabriel Faure, Edvard Grieg, Sofia Gubaidulina, Joseph Haydn, Modest Mussorgsky, Carl NielsenSergei ProkofievGiacomo Puccini, Joachim Raff, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Ottorino Respighi, Camille Saint-Saens, Aulis Sallinen, Richard Strauss, Josef Suk, Toru Takemitsu, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Peteris Vasks, Ralph Vaughan Williams

The masters (81):
John Adams, Kalevi Aho, Hugo Alfven, Anton Arensky, Malcolm Arnold, Kurt Atterberg, Grazina Bacewicz, Carl P.E. Bach, Granville Bantock, Amy Beach, Alban Berg, Luciano Berio, Max Bruch, Gavin Bryars, John Cage, Aaron Copland, Frederick Delius, Alphons Diepenbrock, Edward Elgar, George Enescu, John Field, Gerald Finzi, Cesar Franck, Luis de Freitas Branco, Robert Fuchs, George Gershwin, Philip Glass, Alexander Glazunov, Reinhold Gliere, Henryk Gorecki, Alexander Gretchaninov, Howard Hanson, Hamilton Harty, Paul Hindemith, Vagn Holmboe, Gustav Holst, Alan Hovhaness, Hans Huber, Johann Hummel, John Ireland, Giya Kancheli, Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, Charles KoechlinErich Korngold, Leopold Kozeluch, Jon Leifs, Douglas Lilburn, Franz Liszt, Sergei Lyupanov, James MacMillan, Bohuslav Martinu, Peter Maxwell Davies, Olivier Messiaen, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Goesta Nystroem, Arvo Part, Hans Pfitzner, Astor Piazzolla, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Max Reger, Steve Reich, Ferdinand Ries, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Christopher Rouse, Franz Schmidt, Alfred Schnittke, Robert Schumann, Peter Sculthorpe, Valentin Silvestrov, Bedrich Smetana, Louis Spohr, Charles Villiers Stanford, Igor Stravinsky, Karol Szymanowski, Eduard Tubin, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Antonio Vivaldi, Carl Maria von Weber, Charles-Marie Widor, Alexander von Zemlinsky

For the last tier, there were dozens of close calls, where other composers might have gotten in as well.

This list of 121 composers leaves several big names unmentioned - on purpose. A few examples:

The renaissance and baroque periods are not represented well (Victoria, Vivaldi, JS Bach), because in general I am less attracted to this music. Several big names of this period did not come even close to making the 121 cut, including Monteverdi, Palestrina, Purcell, Corelli, Telemann, and perhaps most surprisingly Handel, whose works simply do not appeal to me.

The classical and romantic period are very well represented and there are very few big names missing. The romantic opera composers are the most noted exception, in particular Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and even Verdi. Since I am currently finding a renewed interest in opera, that may change in the coming years. Outside opera, Wolf is perhaps the most surprising omission, since in general I love the Lieder genre that he is noted for.

The 20th (and 21st) century composers are reasonably well represented, including more than a handful who are still alive. Left out on purpose are big names like Bartok, Schoenberg, Webern, Xenakis and Stockhausen.

Of course, this list is not to be taken too seriously, since it is just my preference (be it one based on 25+ years of listening to classical music with a CD collection of several thousands). Still, if you like many of the composers listed here, you might want to sample the ones you do not know so well - chances are you will find something to like there!

link

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Victorian Portrait

Another one of those gorgeous model shoots that my Flickr friend andy_57 excels in. Victoria is one of the prettiest of all his models (and that is up against tough competition), and this capture of her is breath taking. Especially the eye contact, not always a good idea, is outstanding. As usual, all rights retained by the creator.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Brothers in arms


Today is the day that the people of the Netherlands remember those killed in armed conflicts through the ages (although emphasis is placed on WW2). For the occasion, one of the most beautiful songs and videos of the Dire Straits - very fitting. Art Rock score: 10/10 (brilliant masterpiece, one of 200 best songs of all time).

YouTube

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Wagner's operas

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 twenty-first installment, I re-examine the operas by Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883), one of the most famous German composers, taking my original CD's and quite a few I collected in more recent years. Given the nature of these works, and the effort involved (listening to over 50 CD's!), I will not give detailed comments, but refer to the wikipedia links, and my final judgement.

Die Feeen (1833)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk/Sawallisch (Orfeo, 1984, 2 h 45 min)
[Main soloists: Kurt Moll, Linda Gray, Kari Lovaas, Krisztina Laki, John Alexander]
The Fairies is Wagner's first opera, composed when he was 20 years old. It is very much in the mould of say Carl Maria von Weber, and the lack of musical originality explains why it never made it to the standard repertoire. It does foreshadow some of the later works in its subject themes. Really for completionists only (live recording).

Das Liebesverbot (1834)
Bayerischer Staatsorchester/Sawallisch (Orfeo, 1984, 2 h 35 min)
[Main soloists: Sabine Hass, Pamela Coburn, Robert Schunk, Hermann Prey, Kieth Engen]
The Ban on Love is an early work and only one of two comedies in the Wagner opera repertoire. It is not a lost masterpiece, in fact one could mistake it for a second-grade hybrid of Weber and Rossini, even though at times one gets glimpses of what a great independent composer Wagner would involve into. Like the first effort, this live recording is for completionists only (in fact, I think Die Feen is better than this one).

Rienzi (1840)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Hollreiser (EMI, 1976, 3 h 30 min)
[Main soloists: Rene Kollo, Siv Wennberg, Nikolaus Hillebrand, Janis Martim, Theo Adam]
This dramatic tale of rebellion in medieval Rome was Wagner's first big success, even though he denounced it later - it is rarely staged or recorded nowadays. The overture does get programmed separately and is indeed the most successful part of the opera, which follows the grand opera tradition of the time. Although better than its two predecessors, I still cannot rank this higher than "not required" - the jump in quality to the next one (one year later) is stunning.

Der fliegende Hollaender (1841)
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin/Sinopoli (DG, 1991, 2 h 15 min)
[Main soloists: Bernd Weikel, Cheryl Studer, Placido Domingo, Hans Sotin, Peter Seiffert]
ORF Symphony Orchestra and Budapest Radio Chorus/Steinberg (Naxos, 1998, 2 h 18 min)
[Main soloists: Alfred Muff, Ingrid Haubold, Erich Knodt, Peter Seiffert]
The Flying Dutchman, the story about the cursed sea captain doomed to sail forever, is the first of the 10 Wagner operas that are still considered standard repertoire in opera houses world wide. The Norwegian Sailors' song in act 3 (Steuermann, lass die Wacht!) has rightly become famous on its own. One of the important operas, no doubt. I have a slight preference for the Sinopoli version.

Tannhaeuser (1845/1861)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Solti (Decca, 1970, 3 h 7 min)
[Main soloists: Hans Sotin, Helga Dernesch, Rene Kollo, Victor Braun, Werner Hollweg]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sinopoli (DG, 1989, 3 h 16 min)
[Main soloists: Placido Domingo, Cheryl Studer, Agnes Baltsa, Matti Salminen, Andreas Schmidt]
One of the least performed of the big ten, but excerpts are often played in concerts and the overture is probably his best known tune after the Ride of the Valkyries. The other evergreen is the pilgrim's choir based on the same theme. Both Solti and Sinopoli choose the later Paris version to good effect, and for me both interpretations are great. An important opera, close to essential.

Lohengrin (1848)
Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk/Kubelik (DG, 1996, 3 h 43 min)
[Main soloists: James King, Gundula Janowitz, Gwyneth Jones, Thomas Stewart, Karl Ridderbusch]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Solti (Decca, 1987, 3 h 42 min)
[Main soloists: Placido Domingo, Jesse Norman, Eva Randova, Siegmund Nimsgern, Hans Sotin]
The tale of the Swan Knight Lohengrin is as romantic as they come, with some gorgeous music, especially in the preludes and the evergreen bridal choir. A cornerstone of the opera repertoire. I have a slight preference for the Kubelik version.

Der Ring der Nibelungen (1848-1874)
Wiener Philharmoniker (Decca, 1958-1965, 14 h 37 min)
[Main soloists: Wolfgang Windgassen, James King, Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Regine Crespin]
English National Opera Orchestra/Goodall (Chandos, 2001, 16 h 53 min)
[Main soloists: Derek Hammond-Stroud, Norman Bailey, Norman Welsby, Ann Howard, Gillian Knight]
Comprising of four full-length operas that are to be performed on four subsequent evenings: Rheingold, Die Walkuere, Siegfried and Goetterdaemmerung. No words are necessary to describe the importance of this epic work, one of the highlights in the history of occidental art. The legendary Solti recording is unsurpassed even after over 50 years, the Goodall version in English is a curiosity in comparison. Hors concours.

Tristan und Isolde (1858)
Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk/Bernstein (Philips, 1981, 4 h 26 min)
[Main soloists: Peter Hofmann, Hildegard Behrens, Yvonne Minton, Hans Sotin, Bernd Weikl]
Welsh National orchestra/Goodall (Decca, 1981, 4 h 19 min)
[Main soloists: John Mitchinson, Linda Gray, Philip Joll, Anne Wilkens, Gwynne Howell]
Widely regarded as one of his best works, on par or even exceeding the Ring trilogy - to be frank, as much as I like it, I still think it is not on that amazing level. In fact, I prefer Lohengrin and Parsifal over it as well. Still essential though. The Bernstein version is a clear favourite over the Goodall.

Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg (1867)
Staatskapelle Dresden/von Karajan (EMI, 1971, 4 h 26 min)
[Main soloists: Theo Adam, Karl Ridderbusch, Geraint Evans, Rene Kollo, Peter Schreier]
The Mastersingers of Nuremberg isWagner's only mature attempt at a comic opera - highly successful according to many, but it is simply not my cup of tea. Of course, it has lots of great moments, but I find it distinctly less attractive than the other nine of the top Wagner operas.

Parsifal (1882)
Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1984, 4 h 16 min)
[Main soloists: Peter Hofmann, Durja Vejsovic, Siegmund Nimsgern, Victor von Halem]
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1970, 3 h 39 min)
[Main soloists: James King, Karl Riddersbusch, Gwyneth Jones, Thomas Stewart, Franz Crass]
Perhaps the least accessible of the big ten, but for me one of the best. There is a distinct absence of "hits" in this opera, but it holds together very well, and the atmosphere throughout is fascinating. Primus inter pares for the Wagner operas that I rank as essential - with a preference for the Karajan version.


Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:
Hors concours: Der Ring der Nibelungen.
Essential: Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde.
Important: Der fliegende Hollaender, Tannhaeuser.
Good to have: Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg.
Not required: Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi.
Avoid: None.