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Category: opera

Dmitri Shostakovich – “Symphony No 5” in D minor, opus 47

hi-xvii-congress-of-the-cpsu-b-1934

     “Hi, XVII Congress of the CPSU (B) (1934) 

              Ilya Mashkov

__________

if I thought the Fourth would knock 
your socks of, stockings, the Fifth 
ought to leave you with, dare I say, 
nothing on but your awe, it is 
extraordinary, so settle in, pour 
yourself a glass of wine, or vodka 
if you want to bethnic, for a 
mesmerizing three-quarter hour

days only before the first performance
of Shostakovich’s new symphony, an 
article showed up in a leading Moscow
paper suggesting that it would be
Soviet artist’s creative response to 
justified criticism” in reference, of 
course, to Stalin’s displeasure with 
Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of 
Mtsensk, which had led to the 
cancellation of his Fourth Symphony,
read all about it here

disregard for Stalin’s opinion would
have meant certain execution in an
environment where the leader could
not be contradicted, the ruler wanted
uplifting tunes, the rule was Socialist
Realism, art to celebrate the Party

a similar thing was happening at the
same time in Germany, incidentally, 
with Hitler objecting to entartete 
Kunst“, the degenerate art that 
moderns were producing, Kirchner
KleeDix, for example, who were 
only painting, as Shostakovich was 
only composing, what they heard, 
saw, for which they were all 
persecuted


a few necessary words about the 
Fifth Symphony itself, if 
Shostakovich had been moving

toward dissonance, you’ll find the
Fifth particularly notable for its 
tonal melodies, however sometimes
astringent, more larger intervals, 
sevenths, octaves, than strident 
atonal conjunctions

and since Shostakovich had been 
strictly adhering to the two other
Classical conditions, of tempo and
repetition, this symphony might as
well be a Romantic composition

listen to Beethoven’s Fifth and 
compare, they sound nearly 
identical but for a 130 years
distance, the peremptory opening, 
loud, brash, bracing, followed 
quickly by a lull in intensity, four 
movements eachhorns blare in 
either military salvos, propensity 
toward dance rhythms, short, sweet 
solo moments for several assorted 
instruments, usually contemplative, 
piercingly personal – after a 
comparison, you’ll never see 
Beethoven’s Fifth in the same light 
again

Beethoven, however, though 
forceful, indeed thunderous, is 
more centred on the actual music, 
which is jubilant, celebratory, an
exultation, while Shostakovich by 
contrast, however equally martial, 
sounds the implacability, the 
ruthlessness of the fanfare, the 
parade, you can feel the iron step 
of the guard, their advance 
inexorable, this is unquestionably 
political statement, then again 
Beethoven didn’t live in France

 

it’s to be noted that both works
are products of a recent revolution,
the French, the Russian, and the 
imminence of a Terror, as well of
the return of an autocratic leader,
the Emperor Napoleon in the first 
instance, in the second, of course 
Stalin

it’s helpful to view the bombastic 
portions in Shostakovich, as the 
unassailable positions of the Party, 
the more melting moments and 
single voices as those of the 
oppressed proletariat, people up 
against the stringent requirements 
of an unforgiving state growing up 
all around them 

a return to strict Classical 
conditions, by the way, which is 
to say tunes”, might’ve been 
Shostakovich’s way of placating, 
however risky still, a dictator’s 
fearful edicts regarding 
permissible taste, that’s what 
you can do when you can speak  
the language


incidentally, the symphonies are  
either composer’s Fifth, perhaps 
not incidentally


R ! chard

psst: the applause at the first 
          performance, November 21, 
          1937, lasted over half an hour,
          people were crying, they’d 
          found a prophet  

          
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Dmitri Shostakovich – “Symphony No 4” in C minor, opus 43

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   “Portrait of Joseph Stalin (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili) (1936)

                   Pavel Filonov

                           _________

if you’ve been waiting for a Shostakovich 
to write home about among his early 
symphonies, here’s the one, his 
Symphony no 4 in C minor, opus 43 will
knock your socks off from its very 
opening gambit, have a seat, settle in, 
and get ready for an explosive hour

the Fourth was written in 1936, some 
years after the death of Lenin, and the 
instalment of Stalin as the supreme, 
and ruthless, authority, after several 
years throughout the Twenties of
maneuvering himself, cold-bloodedly,
into that position 

from Stalin, Death is the solution to 
all problems. No man – no problem.

fearing retribution after Stalin had 
criticized his recent opera, Lady 
Macbeth of Mtsensk“, Shostakovich 
cancelled the first performance of 
this new work, due to take place in 
December, ’36, others had already 
suffered internal exile or execution 
who had displeased the tyrant, a 
prelude to the infamous Great Terror

the Symphony was eventually played
in 1961, 25 years later, conducted by
no less than Kirill Kondrashin, who’d
partnered Van Cliburn a few years 
earlier in Cliburn’s conquest of Russia
but along with this time however the 
long-lived Leningrad Philharmonic 
Orchestra 

to a friend, I said, this is the biggest
thing since verily Beethoven, no one 
has so blown me away symphonically 
since then

he looked forward, he replied, to 
hearing it 

the Fourth Symphony has three distinct 
movements, to fit thus appropriately the 
definition of symphony, though the first 
and third have more than one section, 
something Shostakovich would have 
learned from already Beethoven, it gives 
the opportunity of experiencing a variety 
of emotions within one uninterrupted 
context, add several movements and 
you have a poignant, peripatetic musical 
journey, more intricate, psychologically 
complex, than many other even eminent
composers, Schubert, Chopin, 
Mendelssohn, even Brahms, for instance 

it’s helpful to think of film scores, and 
their multiple narrative incidents,
brimming with impassioned moments,   
however disparate, Shostakovich had 
already written several of them

let me point out that Shostakovich’s 
rhythms are entirely Classical, even 
folkloric in their essential aspects, 
everywhere sounds like a march, 
proud and bombastic, if not a 
veritable dance, peasants carousing,
courtiers waltzing, and repetition is
sufficiently present to not not 
recognize the essential music 
according to our most elementary
preconceptions

but the dissonances clash, as though 
somewhere the tune, despite its rigid 
rhythms, falls apart in execution, as 
though the participants had, I think,  
broken limbs, despite the indomitable 
Russian spirit

this is what Shostakovich is all about, 
you’ll hear him as we move along 
objecting, however surreptitiously,
cautiously, to the Soviet system, like 
Pasternak, like Solzhenitsyn, without 
ever, like them, leaving his country 
despite its manifest oppression, and 
despite the lure of Western accolades,
Nobel prizes, for instance, it was their 
home

and there is so much more to tell, but
first of all, listen

R ! chard 

  

on “Song to the Moon” – Antonin Dvořák

rising-moon-1964

   “Rising Moon (1964)

          Hans Hofmann

              __________

the moon was out last night, grand
upon the starlit evening, either 
waxing or waning, I’m not sure, but
not full, a gibbous moon, above the 
buildings that scrape, in my big city 
neighbourhood, in the very Cubist 
manner, the night sky, see above

I’d been listening to Renée Fleming
singing Dvořák‘s Song to the Moon
in my head since I’d seen her do it, 
on television, in a summer evening 
concert at Schönbrunn, Vienna, some
few days ago, sheit, had been utterly, 
sublimely, enchanting, I’m a Cancer, a
moon child, I speak to the moon

to the moon, I said, moon in the dark
heavens, who steal into every home
and hearth at night, find my beloved
and tell him what is in my heart, rapt 
as I was in the spell of my special
planet, my personal orb, and the 
enveloping Dvořákian magic, though 
there’s been no beloved lately, just 
trailings of the latest one who broke, 
of course, my heart, which gives more 
pathos, however, incidentally, to my 
singing, I’ve giddily gathered

at home, I found Renée Fleming doing 
the piece on the Internet, entirely as 
splendidly, earlier, at London’s Royal
Albert Hall, September, 2010

listen

R ! chard

Puccini on poets

cigarette-la-boheme-1879

                   “Cigarette La Bohême (1879) 

                             Théophile Steinlen

                                        ______

with a friend today over lunch I told 
her that we’d watched, my mom and 
I and a mutual friend, La Bohème“,  
an Australian production of it, Baz 
Luhrmann directing, a man we both 
knew, at my place last Sunday, we 
were all wowed by it, I extrapolated 

the only opera I’ve ever seen, she 
said, was La Bohème

where did you see it, I asked, and 
when  

with my first husband, she replied,
in Vienna 

was it wonderful, I inquired  

it was, she answered, I had on a 
long dress, my husband was in 
coat and, essentially, tails, we 
walked up a very long staircase, 
I  remember

coincidentally, the first time I’d 
seen “La Bohème was also in 
Vienna, I can’t remember the 
staircase, couldn’t remember what  
I wore, can’t even remember where 
I was sitting, what I remember, as
though through a telescope, darkly,  
was Mimi and Rodolphe looking for   
the key she’d lost, on their knees   
on the floor, in the dark cause her  
candle ‘d gone out, he’d put his out
surreptitiously too to  join her 

your little hand is so cold, he sings,
when he, unforgettably, finds it 

in this production, Rodolphe has  
found the key but conceals it 
from Mimi until she sees it in his 
eyes, he pretends to return it but 
instead manages to hold her 
hand 

your little hand is so cold, he 
sings, again unforgettably

there’s nothing to fear, he 
continues, the moon is out, let’s
get to know each other

who am I, he asks, to start the 
conversation, I am a poet, he 
declares, and proceeds to tell 
us what it is to be a poet 

you’ll be utterly enchanted

tell me about a world, I ask,  
without poets, tell me about  
a world without poetry 

where would we be without 
dreamers, I wonder, where would 
we be without dreams

watch here, and wonder

Richard

“Dido and Aeneas” – Henry Purcell

1024px-sir_nathaniel_dance-holland_-_the_meeting_of_dido_and_aeneas_-_google_art_project

         “The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas (1766)

                       Nathaniel Dance-Holland

                            _________________

despite difficulties with the presentation – 
a French production of an English opera 
supplying Spanish, I think, subtitles – this
Dido and  Aeneas is not only the best
version of it I’ve found, but one of the 
very best opera productions I’ve come
across, period

Dido is the queen of Carthage who, having 
fallen in love with Aeneas, a prince of Troy
bent on creating a new commemorative city, 
forsakes her very husband for this heroic 
suitor

Aeneas in turn will leave her, to follow his 
mission of founding Rome, Dido will not 
survive his departure 

ah, Belinda, I am pressed with torment not
to be confessed,  she cries, when she fears
her entanglement with so mighty a hero
will come to an unfortunate end, peace 
and I are strangers grown, she determines

figures in dark clothes in the production
are obviously up to no good, one most
evidently a sorceress, they cast a spell
on the fraught conjunction that the 
lovers cannot at all resist

away, away, Dido exclaims, enraged by
Aeneas’ mere hesitation, no, faithless
man, thy course pursue, she cries, for
’tis enough, no matter whate’er you 
now decree, that you had once the  
thought of leaving me, though Jove,
god of gods, had himself ordained that 
Aeneas pursue his original intention, 
to found the Eternal City, the Rome  
he would choose over her  

for Dido, there is no turning back

thy hand, Belinda, she of her trusted
confidante in those final moments 
requests, darkness shades me, on 
thy bosom let me rest, more I would 
but Death invades me, Death is now 
a welcome guest 

the asp has, in a metaphorical word, 
been cast

remember me, she thereupon moans 
and that for the very ages, remember, 
me, but, ah, forget my fate

last night I was Dido, watch, so can 
you

angels then appear, in the form of, 
granted, extras here, to accompany
her to a peaceful and immortal end,  
much as they did our own Princess 
Diana when she suffered a similar
misfortune

may they both inform our progress

Richard

psst: a spoken preamble is not part of the 
         original text, nor did I find it especially 
         pertinent, however splendidly it might
         have been executed

“Casta diva” – Vincenzo Bellini‏

fire-full-moon-1933(1).jpg!Large

         “Fire, Full Moon (1933)
 
          Paul Klee
 
          ______
 
 

a few nights ago the moon was full,
I’d gone up to the roof, one floor up
from my apartment, to the deck there,
complete with pool, barbecue area,
lounge chairs, there was no one, just
me, it was one o’clock in the morning,
my witching hour

I’ve been going there, lately, the air 
is fresh, crisp, it’s quiet, I can relax
there after a day of whatever
 
a perfect chair looks out onto the 
entire city, the bay in the distance, 
the harboured ships, Vancouver 
Island even further during the day
 
I looked at the moon, it stared 
nakedly back at me like a spotlight, 
but clouds got in the way, bubbling,
boiling peremptorily westwards 
before her, clouds on a mission
 
she monitored their march 
imperviously, imperially, implacably,
like a goddess
 
I slunk beneath her gaze, stretched, 
surrendered, slipped into lunar 
things, love, loves, truth, beauty,
purpose, meaning, memories
 
through much of it, I closed my eyes,
aware always she was watching me,
but wrapped in my own transcendental 
reveries
 
when I returned, I stretched again, 
listened for the words, the notes, 
of “Casta diva”, Bellini‘s anthem 
to the moon
 
Norma is a Druid princess, she is
the priestess of the moon, near the
beginning of the opera she makes 
her pitch, it’s her introduction, her 
first aria, a cavatina, well done it is 
unforgettable
 
chaste goddess, she sings, casta 
diva, who casts silver light upon 
these sacred trees, turn thy lovely 
face upon us, unclouded and 
unveiled
 
restrain, o goddess, these zealous 
spirits, I prayed, shed upon earth 
that peace that reigns in heaven 
 
but I couldn’t get the notes right, 
kept slipping into other arias,
though I brought to it my entire
attention, I was, only modestly, 
therefore, there, Norma, also only
softly
 
later I found signature 
performances on the Internet,
Joan Sutherland, a classic, 
Renée Fleming in a superb 
concert performance
 
shed upon earth that peace that 
reigns in heaven, they also cry
pray
 
 
Richard
 
psst: a cavatina is a short aria
 
 
 

“Easter Oratorio”, BWV 249 – Johann Sebastian Bach‏

ascension-of-jesus.jpg!Blog

 
                                    El Greco
 
                                      ______
 
 
                        for Martha and Chris, who still go to Easter 
                        Mass, and whom Martha calls therefore  
                        relics 
 
                        and for Staf and Annemie, who live in 
                        presently beleaguered Belgium, and 
                        who must, at this time of distress, 
                        need our prayers
 
 
having long ago lost track of the Christian
calendar, I only this week found out 
Sunday ‘d be Easter, therefore Friday
Good Friday, not that this would much 
change my daily routine, but it set me 
perusing pertinent art, I knew I could 
count on Bach for an oratorio, and sure 
enough I found it
 
an oratorio, as I earlier explained, is an
opera without sets or costumes, usually
associated with religious services, but 
Bach had one for every Sunday and 
every Christian feast day
 
after an instrumental introduction, 
reminiscent of Handel, I thought, 
Bach’s “Easter Oratorio” slips into a
lovely adagio, notable for its exquisite
oboe obligato, where the innocence 
and purity of that wind defines the 
movement
 
the ceremonial pomp of the earlier 
section then returns to include 
chorus expressing triumph, the 
realization that the Lamb of God 
has returned
 
but soon enough, Mary, the soprano 
of a quartet of singers, each of the 
four singing according to their own – 
alto, Mary Magdalene, tenor, Simon 
Peter, bass, John the Evangelist  
voices, and accompanied by an 
utterly transcendental transverse 
flute, sings 
 
      “My soul, the spice that embalms 
       you shall no longer be myrrh. Only
       a crown of laurels can soothe your 
       anxious longing.”  
 
and knocks your socks off 
 
 
this week at market, stuffing my 
organic red pepper and a bag of 
handcrafted chips, barbecued,
designer, into my bagat their 
express counter, collecting my 
coins, my receipt, my change 
purse, my wallet, and last but not 
least, of course, my self, I sensed 
something of mine drop, looked 
dutifully aroundcould find 
nothing, wondered, and made to 
go
 
excuse me, sir, I heard behind me, 
you dropped something
 
a little boy, an urchin, blond hair, 
blue eyes, right out of Charles 
Dickens, I thought, eight maybe,
nine, held out a quarter, apparently 
mine
 
why thank you, I replied, enchanted
 
and you know what, I asked, I’m 
going to give this back to you, and 
put the quarter back into his hand
 
the last time I did something like 
that, I saw an angel, I remembered
but that’s another story
 
thank you, he said back, gleaming
with the maturity of his interaction, 
though I’m not sure he wasn’t 
himself in fact also a very angel
 
 
later I thought I should’ve sent him 
for a crème brûlée, a piece of carrot 
cake, a pastry, or something, and 
berated myself for the paucity of 
my recompense
 
 
but there is a link to Easter in my 
tale, the idea of hope, revival, 
regeneration, in the possibility of
goodness reentering the world, a
task inherited by the children, and 
whom we must not lead astray
 
apart from its more traditional 
associations, for perhaps the less 
observant, people of other creeds 
and faiths, if Easter means anything 
still, or has ever, it is about just that, 
hope, revival, regeneration, nor must 
we ourselves betray those ideals   
 
happy Easter 
 
 
Richard

“Christmas Oratorio” – Johann Sebastian Bach‏

"Nativity" - Piero della Francesca

Nativity (1470 – 1475)

Piero della Francesca

__________

on the first day of Christmas, which
is to say December 25, 1734, the first
cantata of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio“,
“The Birth”, was presented at the
Nikolaikirche, or the Church of St
Nicholas
, in Leipzig

it was followed by five other cantatas,
each corresponding to its own
elaboration of the holy event

the Annunciation to the Shepherds, December 26, 1734
the Adoration of the Shepherds, December 27, 1734
the Circumcision – if you can believe it – and Naming of Jesus, January 1, 1735
the Journey of the Magi, January 2, 1735
and the Adoration of the Magi, January 6, 1735

the cantatas are usually played in
groups of three, or in their entirety,
to more easily accommodate too
either long, or short, performances
– the cantatas last only about 25
minutes – though Leipzig, and other
neighbouring communities might
still adhere to their more reverent
original position

an oratorio, of course, is an opera
without sets or costumes, usually
associated with religious services,
and, quite specifically, mostly, with
Bach’s, of whose manifestly prolific
output an astonishing 209 still
survive

a cantata is a work for voice and
instrumentation in several
movements, or contrasting musical
episodes, in Bach’s liturgical ones,
four voices, usually, cover the
ranges, soprano, alto, tenor and
bass, they tell the story, while the
choir stand in for the angels

this performance, conducted by the
eminent Nikolaus Harnoncourt, is
from the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig
itself, the Oratorio‘s very cradle,
its stunning altarpiece, flanked by
two mighty Christmas trees, is
glorious

incidentally the soprano and the
alto voices are taken over here by
cherubs, in the obvious guise of
prepubescents, you can tell by
their missing wings

their more stentorian counterparts,
tenor and bass, are aptly authoritative,
arresting, you’ll feel utterly blessed

here’s the text in English

Richard

psst: merry, incidentally, Christmas

 

December, 2015‏

"December" - Theodor Severin Kittelsen

December (1890)

Theodor Severin Kittelsen

__________

for Susan

several years ago, a friend of mine
invited me to a concert, Sir Edward
Elgar
‘s The Dream of Gerontius“,
to my mind, a double mountain to
cross, both English and ceremonial,
this is not music you can dance to,
nor even dream on, but music that
demands your allegiance, as well
as your attention

to my mind English music, nearly
an oxymoron, remained stagnant
from Purcell, 1659 to 1695, to the
Beatles
, 1960 to 1970, with very
few exceptions, never managing,
mostly, to hold, even, a tune

ceremonial music suffered much
from its rigid partisan bent,
whether political or religious, try
singing La Marseillaise or
The Stars and Stripes if you’re
not of those nations, you are
instantly sidelined, a mere
spectator, try How Great Thou
Art
at a party, however
inspirational

but the ticket was free, my friend
couldn’t think of anyone else she
could invite who’d enjoy the show,
she’d received the tickets in a
bundle

Gerontius, an old man – you’ll note
the Greek root, geron, as in
gerontology” – is dying, fears the
other side, friends comfort him and,
in particular, a priest sends him on
his way, that’s act one

act two, he’s on the other side,
wherein the dream of being on the
other side, should he still be alive,
or the actuality of being on the
other side, confront him, have I
died, he wonders

I could tell you something about
that

an angel appears to lead him to,
the programme boasted, no less
than God eventually, in a burst,
for the occasion, of musical
pyrotechnics

well, I wondered, let’s see what
they’re going to do with that

it was unforgettable, though my
friend was somewhat more
equivocal, perhaps not as intent,
quite yet, as I was, about meeting
her divine

in search of something lately to
commemorate the several recent
worldwide atrocities, I quickly
settled on the only work I could
think of, apart from anything,
of course, by Bruckner, to mourn
appropriately

I found this extraordinary production
from no less than London’s St Paul’s

though not an oratorio, according
to the composer’s strict intentions,
Elgar‘s The Dream of Gerontius“, a
concert piece, is played here in a
church, an Anglican, indeed,
cathedral, despite the flagrantly
Catholic story being told, Elgar had
converted to Catholicism, the piece
transcends, however, religions

an oratorio, incidentally – not to be
confused with Ontario, the Canadian
province – is an opera conceived
without sets or costumes, usually
associated with significant religious
occasions

the text of “Gerontius” is taken
from a poem of Cardinal John
Henry Newman
, 1801 to 1890,
a Catholic convert himself, only
recently beatified, as a matter
of fact, not yet, however, for
insufficiency of miracles, it
would appear, canonized

The Dream of Gerontius is
Cardinal Newman‘s retelling of
Dante‘s Divine Comedy“, our
original tour guide through
Purgatory, Heaven and Hell,
Newman‘s take on it is
particularly poignant, Elgar‘s
musical accompaniment not
any less

the conjunction of divine,
composer, sacred venue and
superior performers is an
extraordinary occasion,
despite, not least, a
scratchy recording, the
experience here is
profound

bring your solemnity

Richard

by the way: December is the end of
the year, 2016 is already act two, are
you ready to meet your own God/dess

the XVth International Tchaikovsky Competition‏

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

(1840 – 1893)

________

my musicologist friend alerted me to the
fact that since the 15th of this month, and
onwards till the 3rd of July, the XVth
International Tchaikovsky Competition
is
on, at which point I raced to my position,
got a front row seat, for you as well
should you decide to join me, at the gala
opening
, check it out, performed in the
Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory,
in, of course, Moscow, no less

you’ll be reminded of the monumentality
of Tchaikovsky, his melodic sense, his
emotional power, his subtlety

also Russia’s

the introductory “Capriccio”, conducted
by Vladimir Fedoseyev, is rousing,
probably the best you’ll ever hear, though
it should’ve been called “espagnol” rather
than “italien”, I’ve always thought, there’s
even a redoubtable tambourinist – how
Spanish is that – you’ll want to watch out
for, however far from Spain he might, in
his quenched enthusiasm, seem

Tchaikovsky’s “Mélodie”, op. 42, no. 3,
played in all innocence by a 14-year-old,
a cherub in the guise of already an angel,
follows

the concert suite from his “Nutcracker”,
mastered by a 13-year-old with the
command of a prodigy, after that

you’ll remember Daniil Trifonov from
the 13th Rubinstein Competition, which
he won, accompanying a soprano here,
but you’ll also see him bring down the
house with his last two movements of
Tchaikovsky’s iconic 1st Piano Concerto

why would they have left out the
thunderous, wonderful first, I wonder

Daniil also won the last Tchaikovsky
Competition, the 14th, also in 2011

most of the program is in Russian,
with some considerations for a
perhaps interested English audience,
thanks to Valery Georgiev, a conductor
of considerable note, not at all the
vagrant here that he seems

my musicologist, who speaks everything,
understands the Russian, but it’s not
difficult to understand, the message
is one of harmony and peace

the opposite of war is not peace, they
are saying, it’s art, and specifically
here music, these are here actions to
unite, beyond borders, beyond creeds,
beyond even transgressions

they signal out Van Cliburn, who plays
all, incidentally, of Tchaikovsky’s 1st

I signal out Eurovision, the Tchaikovsky
Competition
, now in its XVth year

watch

Richard