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Update January 2019

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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye



Charles Wuorinen. (Photo/Nina Roberts)

lDoes the name Bartolomeo Cristofori ring any bells? He’s the person that history credits with the invention of the piano. For years, harpsichord manufacturers had realized the limitations of their instruments. The main problem was that it had a rather limited dynamic range. Because of its mechanism it simply couldn’t play both softly and loudly.

Cristofori was the keeper of the musical instruments in the court of Prince Ferdinand de Medici of Florence and was the first to solve the harpsichord problem. During the twilight years of the 17th century he began work on a new instrument that we now call the piano, creating two additional keyboard instruments in the process. Cristofori’s pianos had a soft tone but the sound of the instrument was later improved by several industrial developments, notably the availability of high-quality steel that could be made into piano strings and the technical ability to cast immensely strong iron frames.

The piano as we know it emerged over a period of about twenty years and it could play a wide range of dynamics, from very soft to very loud. This feature is still reflected in its present-day full name, the pianoforte, which is derived by joining the two Italian words for “soft” (piano) and “loud” (forte). The piano could also play more notes because the iron frames were strong enough to add more strings.

Since the time of Cristofori, the piano has been surprisingly resilient and has found its way into more homes worldwide than probably any other instrument. Almost every major composer has written a piano concerto and this has continued into the twenty-first century. Interestingly, during the 20th century the piano became more frequently used as an orchestral instrument; a trend probably started by Stravinsky.

Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938): Flying to Kahani. Anne-Marie McDermott (pno), Orchestra of the League of Composers cond. Charles Wuorinen (Duration: 11:37; Video: 1080p HD)

This is a piano concerto in all but name. Charles Wuorinen is known to be somewhat dismissive of composers who still use “old-fashioned” tonality. Nevertheless, with well over two hundred compositions to his name Wuorinen (WOR-rih-nunn) is highly regarded among America’s senior composers. He began writing music at the age of five and during his life has won many awards for his compositions.

This evocatively-titled work is derived from Wuorinen’s 2004 opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  If this title sounds vaguely familiar, it comes from Salman Rushdie’s 1990 children’s book of the same name. Kahani is Earth’s undiscovered second moon. The eleven-year-old hero of the story Haroun Khalifa and his companion fly there with the assistance of a mechanical bird. On Kahani they arrive at a vast sea called the Ocean of the Streams of Story, the place from which all stories originate. It’s all magical stuff and to my ears at least, there’s magic in Wuorinen’s music too. If at first you find the musical language a bit daunting, stay with it and you might find that it becomes more approachable as the work gradually unfolds.

Incidentally, Charles Wuorinen’s third opera was based on the short story Brokeback Mountain by the American author and Pulitzer prizewinner Annie Proulx. As you might recall, the story was made into the tremendously successful 2005 movie by Taiwanese film director Ang Lee. Wuorinen’s opera of the same name was premiered in Madrid in 2014.

Narong Prangcharoen (b. 1973): Luminary - Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Christopher Janwong McKiggan (pno), Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Dariusz Mikulski (Duration: 29:28; Video: 1080p HD)

Narong Prangcharoen is currently the Dean of the College of Music, Mahidol University. He has won numerous awards for his compositions, notably the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Alexander Zemlinsky International Composition Competition Prize. Prangcharoen hails from Uttaradit province in Northern Thailand and studied both in Thailand and America. He earned his doctoral degree at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri Kansas City. In recent years he has established an international reputation and is recognized as one of Asia’s leading composers whose music has been performed by some of the world’s top orchestras.

Luminary was composed to honor the seventy-second birthday of pianist and teacher Bennett Lerner. It’s a tremendously exciting and rhythmic work, scored for large orchestra with a massive percussion section. Like the classical piano concerto, Luminary is cast in three main sections and opens with frenetic repeated notes and figurations on the solo piano interspersed with crashing orchestral chords. It becomes a musical exchange between the piano and the percussion and the raw energy is captivating. The middle section is a reflective peaceful movement with a strangely ethereal quality and the third movement returns dramatically to the high energy of the first movement. I thought I heard hints of traditional Thai ranat music in the thundering and virtuosic piano writing. This is compelling music, given a magnificent performance by the orchestral and the immensely talented soloist.

Touching the soul


Composer Richard Strauss.

There seems to a growing tendency amongst the great unwashed, especially the younger ones, to describe any piece of music as a “song”.  I have seen expressions such as “Beethoven Fifth Symphony is my favourite song.” This is linguistic nonsense of course and at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, a song is something that is sung, not played.

Songs written by classical composers (and here I use the word “classical” in its loosest sense) are fundamentally different from songs in popular and folk cultures. For a start art songs, as they’re often called, are nearly always written for voice and piano, but more importantly they’re musical settings of poems which previously existed in their own right. More often than not, art songs are intended for “a classical recital in a relatively formal social occasion”. The last bit is quoted from Wikipedia, because it rather neatly sums it all up and saves me the bother of coming up with a decent definition.

Although art songs had been written for centuries, notably by the Elizabethan composers John Dowland and Thomas Campion, the Great Age of Song occurred in Germany during the nineteenth century which is why the German word “lieder” (LEE-duh) is often used to describe them. The enormous flowering of Germanic romantic poetry provided perfect conditions for the art song to flourish. And flourish it did, especially in the hands of Franz Schubert who wrote over six hundred. Schubert also developed the idea of the song cycle - a collection of individual numbers loosely linked through some kind of non-musical idea. One of his most well-known Winterreise (Winter journey) springs to mind, a collection of twenty-four songs based on separate poems with a common theme.

The nineteenth century saw orchestral music becoming increasingly popular in Europe. This was partly because more orchestras were appearing in the burgeoning cities and others were slowly shifting from the royal courts to public concert halls. Some composers who had written song cycles for voice and piano arranged their work for voice and orchestra. Of course, the concept of voice with orchestra wasn’t particularly new because it was well-established in opera.   

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): Les Nuits d’Eté. Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Les Musiciens du Louvre cond. Marc Minkowski (Duration: c. 31:00; Video: 320p)

I’m guessing here, but I wouldn’t mind betting that this is probably the first example of a collection of songs for voice and orchestra, paving the way for the great works for voice and orchestra by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Summer Nights is a setting of six poems by the French poet and fiction writer Théophile Gautier. Berlioz originally composed the work for voices and piano but in 1856 he wrote the full orchestral score which is the version usually heard today. The music is charming, attractive and typically French.

If some of the woodwind instruments strike you as looking a bit odd, it’s because this orchestra uses period instruments. Founded in 1982 by its conductor Marc Minkowski, the ensemble seeks to get closer to the original sound by using original instruments whenever possible. What we hear on this excellent recording must be pretty close to what Berlioz had in mind and there’s a lightness of sound and touch that captures the essence of this delightful music.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949): “Im Abendrot” from Four Last Songs. Renée Fleming (sop), Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Christoph Eschenbach (Duration: 09:24; Video: 340p)

Richard Strauss had an enormously successful career as a composer of orchestral works and operas and he was a master orchestrator and conductor. In 1948, he became captivated by a poem by Josef von Eichendorff. It was entitled Im Abendrot (In the Evening Glow) and Strauss converted it into a song for voice and orchestra. Within five months it was followed three more which became known as the Four Last Songs, because they were written less than a year before his death. They contain some of the composer’s finest music, brilliant orchestral colours, a palette of rich sumptuous harmonies and glorious soaring melodies. The Four Last Songs were to be his epitaph.

His last wish was that they were to be given their first performance by the great soprano Kirsten Flagstad but Strauss died only eight months before his wish came true. The premier was in London’s Royal Albert Hall in May 1950 performed by Flagstad and accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra with the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting. The song Im Abendrot is radiantly lyrical, and must be one of Strauss’s finest creations. Someone once wrote that this remarkable work “touches the soul”. The last verse reads, “O vast, tranquil peace, so deep in the sunset! How weary we are of wandering…Is this perhaps death?” Anyone with dry eyes at the end of this emotionally-charged performance surely must have a heart of stone.

Mad about madrigals


Orlando Gibbons.

This afternoon the sky gradually turned grey and then almost black. A few unwelcome claps of thunder sent the dogs scuttling into their usual hiding-places. Almost exactly on cue the rain arrived in torrents, but at least it saved me watering the garden. I began to think of this time of year in The Old Country, and a melancholy time of year it was too. The clocks had dutifully been put back an hour and the grey, sullen days seemed depressingly shorter. It must have been especially bleak at this time of year in Britain’s Elizabethan era, which in case you have forgotten, was the second half of the sixteenth century.

This brief window in history is often described as England’s Golden Age. It was a renaissance in every sense of the word and saw the boundless flowering of poetry, music, theatre and literature. National pride expressed itself through classical ideals, international expansion and especially the naval triumph over the dastardly Spanish, who had been bitter rivals for years. It was an age of exploration and as the historian John Guy noted, “England was economically healthier, more expansive, and more optimistic…than at any time in a thousand years”. The Brits had never had it so good.

But all this must have been small comfort in late November if you lived in a draughty house with precious little lighting and heating. If there were enough candles to spare, you could read because thanks to the invention of the printing press, books were becoming more plentiful. You could play cards or as many women did, do a bit of embroidery. Or you could make music.

In her fascinating book Elizabeth’s London, Liza Picard writes that “anyone of reasonable education would be expected to sight-read and sing part-songs, sometimes accompanied by a lute or more instruments….Most men could play the lute (and) one was available to the waiting queue of customers in any barber’s shop to while away the time.” If you couldn’t play an instrument or read music, you would have been considered a dullard, a social misfit or both.

Printed music had become increasingly available and madrigal singing was a popular pastime in educated circles. The madrigal was a short unaccompanied song for several different voices. These part-songs were not religious, but settings of secular poetry and many composers tried to reflect the meaning of the words in the music.

Madrigals were produced in their thousands especially in Italy. In England, they became hugely popular after the publication of Nicholas Yonge’s Musica Transalpina in 1588, a collection of Italian madrigals complete with alternative English verses for those who couldn’t get their tongue around the original language. Madrigals were intended for home performance and private amusement and some of the top composers turned their attention to the genre. You see, there was money in it.

Thomas Morley (1557-1602): Now is the Month of Maying. The King’s Singers (Duration: 02:04; Video: 720p HD)

This is a madrigal in all but name. Strictly speaking, it’s a ballett which was a light-hearted rhythmic part-song often with a rustic or romantic theme and usually with a “fah-lah-lah” chorus. This one appeared in Morley’s 1595 publication First Book of Ballets for Five Voyces. The opening line sums up the tone of what’s to come: “Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing.” The text is full of deliciously bawdy double entendres and includes the line “Shall we play barley break?” which means roughly, “Let’s go for a roll in the hay.”

Thomas Morley also had a more serious side. He was one of the leading composers of the day and also wrote an important reference book entitled A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke. It’s still essential reading for those studying music of the renaissance. I have a copy here, and it is neither plain nor easy.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): The Silver Swanne. Ping Voices (Duration: 01:27; Video: 720p HD)

In 1612, Orlando Gibbons published his First Set of Madrigals and Motets, apt for Viols and Voyces. It consisted of twenty pieces, but notice how he cunningly implies in the title that they can be played or sung - a common marketing strategy at the time.

The first piece is the lyrical, bittersweet madrigal entitled The Silver Swanne. The lyrics tells of the swan which sang for the first time only when death was imminent. It’s not the merriest subject you might agree, but as well as romantic or erotic themes, madrigal composers loved doleful, melancholy subjects and reveled in thoughts of impending death, unrequited love, broken promises and other things that would send most people in search of a gin and tonic. And on reflection, I think I shall do just the same.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]


Touching the soul

Mad about madrigals