January 19, 2016
Sergej Rachmaninov (1873-1945) was part of the second wave of Russian composers after the “Mighty Five” and Tchaikovsky with a small amount of overlap from Tchaikovsky who arranged for a performance of his Aleko, a one act opera written as his graduation piece from the Moscow Observatory in 1889. In fact Tchaikovsky went so far as to feature the work with one of his Opera’s, quite a feather in the cap of the 16 year old. Tchaikovsky considered Rachmaninov to be his successor as both wrote in the traditional Germanic style unlike Scriabin who was born a year earlier and went in a completely different direction. Throughout his life Sergej spent his entire life in this very conservative mode. After the 1917 revolution Rachmaninov emigrated to Paris and finally to Hollywood, CA in 1935 where he wrote these last two works represented on this Oehms Classic CD. There are many recordings of both of these works as these are works that the public find accessible, easy on the ears, melodic, and the correct length for older vinyl recordings and the second half of a concert program. My first recordings were on the Vox/Turnabout label with a very young (so was I) Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony. If I remember correctly I had to return them to the record store to get platters that had a minimal amount of pops. With this recording today you’ll no longer be faced with this problem but will get a properly engineered CD with good sound quality
The 3rd Symphony in A minor, op. 44 was written in 1935 and Stokowski gave the premiere with the Philadelphia in November of 1936. The three movement work, while something of a change for Rachmaninov, being less stoic and offering more harmonics and improved instrumentation is still as Rachmaninov states “I am a Russian composer” and it indeed is shown in this work. The melancholy and yearning are all present in the first movement with a melodic theme my brain has remembered for over 40 years. The second movement is not unlike the second movement of the dances with it’s solo violin playing the main theme without the saxophone. An Andante of the first order that transforms itself into an Allegro. The final movement, the longest of the three with yet another lush theme that as it is being developed we hear a playful oboe and then a fugue. I like it! The finale is a rousing one with a full fff from the orchestra with an abrupt ending. The work according to the NY Times was acidic, an adjective which did not sit well with Sergej. He was extremely sensitive to criticism and in some ways it may have contributed to his smaller output. The adjective that I would use to describe the work is delightful.
The Symphonic Dances, op. 45 was his last work and if I could sum it up it’s a potpourri of some of his previous works. There are references to several of his works as well as Dies irae, a piece that he used in several of his other works, something that many composers used as a motif of death. The opening theme which is featured in the first movement is well orchestrated, the theme being passed from section to section. The second slower movement is featured as a saxophone solo with the winds providing the harmony. A very quiet soft section. The second movement features a theme that is performed by first a solo violin and then the woodwind section. The strings are sweeping and nicely flowing. The final movement an allegro vivace, begins quietly with the woodwinds but quickly moves into the Dies irae theme followed by a lively Spanish/Russian dance filled with orchestration that reminds me of Rimsky-Korsakov.
I like this recording because it offers the latest in digital technology and an orchestra and conductor who know how to perform and conduct this material. If you don’t have this work in your collection and you’re inclined toward orchestral works this is for you.
January 8, 2016
Victor Young (1900-1956) spent much of his entire life with a sweet band (singing strings was his trademark) and chief composer for Paramount Studios doing over 300 scores many with memorable tunes that when you left the theater you were humming it. When you looked at him with his slick black hair and rough complexion you would picture a chicago gangster/prize fighter who was in the illegal booze racket during the prohibition years. You certainly wouldn’t want to meet this cigar smoking man on a dark street. He was known to participate in marathon card poker games with Tiomkin and Steiner and seemingly had inexhaustible energy. The coveted Oscar eluded him for his entire life although he was nominated 22 times. His last film “Around the World in 80 Days” was given to him posthumously. My favorite song that he did for Hollywood and a jazz standard performed by my favorite jazz pianist Bill Evans Stella by Starlight was even nominated. It shows you how little Hollywood knows sometimes. The song is given first row treatment in the ample reconstruction of the film “Uninvited.”
The CD starts out with the main theme from “The Greatest Show on Earth ,” a circus march that would have made Sousa and Barnum proud. This is a tune to be played by marching bands in parades and sporting events.
“The Uninvited (1944),” a tale of a ghost and dark mansions gives Young ample opportunity to write underscore that is both playful and dark. Blended into the score is the wonderful Stella by Starlight theme which is nicely woven into the tracks by John Morgan and nicely performed by William Stromberg conducting the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. A short but wonderful track is The Village which takes you to Ireland for a brief but enchanting track. Another good underscore track is The Sobbing Ghost which is playful but also eerie and ends on a bright note with the Stella theme. The 24 minutes pass by very quickly.
“Gullivers Travels (1939),” also reconstructed by John Morgan was not a success at the box office but what does that have to do with score. Young came up with a fine offering of sentimental, melodramatic, and cartoon like music all with the trademark sound he did 300 times. The Prelude and the Storm offers stirring storm music, the main theme, and a bit of comic relief. The brass have a section where they earn their money with a bit of complicated playing.
“Bright Leaf (1952),” a film Young did for Warner Brothers about a tobacco farm starring Gary Cooper. As is the case with most scores Victor Young offers us a bright major key theme which is followed by a second theme written in harmony to the first one in Prelude-Welcome to Kingsmont. The six minute track also has a danger cue and a bit of frivolity, an excellent track. Sonia is yet a third theme that is light and delicate, a fine example of a theme for the lovely Lauren Bacall. Machine Montage is exactly what you think it might be depicting machines in machine sometimes at a frantic pace and mixed in with the main theme.Margaret is another sweet sentimental love about the character in the film who is cast aside for Sonia. Tobacco Montage is similiar to the machine track except there is quite a display of brass. Southern Vengeance has all sorts of things happening in the final six minute track.The Fie begins with strains of desperation and display. The Finale recaptures the memorable music that you heard in the beginning of the film.
The sound which was once special is little more than adequate today as digital quality has taken a leap forward. With the cost today of soundtracks this one coming in at $8.99 is quite a bargain. This release is identical to the Marco Polo #8.225063 which was released in 1998.
January 6, 2016
PENTATONE PTC5186514 SACD [78:00]
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) is to be classified in the second wave of Russian composers who wrote material in the early 20th century that had an impact on Russian classical music. He had the same piano teacher Nikolai Zverev as Rachmaninoff in their early teenage years and both went to the Moscow Conservatory studying counterpoint from Taneiev and composition with Alexander Arensky. Both went on to have extraordinary careers in completely different directions. While Rachmaninoff continued in the tradition of Tchaikovsky Scriabin at first wrote wonderful small pieces Chopin like for the piano and then wrote in a traditional sonata form which Copland praised Scriabin’s thematic material as “truly individual, truly inspired”, but criticized Scriabin for putting “this really new body of feeling into the strait-jacket of the old classical sonata-form, recapitulation and all”, calling this “one of the most extraordinary mistakes in all music.” His first symphony falls into this category having been written during the time period of 1899-1900. In 1903 Scriabin moved to Switzerland and this was when he composed his 4th Symphony “Poem of Ecstasy” which I reviewed https://sdtom.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/scriabin-symphonies-nos-3-4/ for LSO.
Symphony No. 1 in E major, op. 26 begins with a Lento a clarinet offering the theme until the strings takeover. One can hear the fluttering of flutes in harmony with the orchestra and a solo violin and clarinet with the orchestra in the background. Scriabin was a believer that the musical notes were tied into color and e major was red-purple which ties into the mood of the movement. The second movement allegro drammatico certainly lives up to it’s name with a melodrama rising up and down. One can very easily picture this in an opera as I’m reminded of Wagner. The third movement another lento is slowly played and quite moving offering a yearning feeling of hopelessness. The fourth movement, only four minutes, is titled vivace and it doesn’t disappoint. It is a lively dance of sorts that reminds you of something that Glazunov might have written. The fifth movement is titled allegro as Scriabin returns to the tempo of the third movement with less of an emphasis on the dramatic. The sixth and final movement begins with the flute, clarinet, and oboe offering the theme until the singing (mezzo-soprano and tenor) talks about the divine being and art coming together. It is quite moving.
Symphony No. 4 (The Poem of Ecstasy), op. 67 was written in 1908 in Brussels just before his return to Moscow. By now he was moving toward atonality and his color code of fifths played a prominent role. I’m reminded of Gustav Holst and his work “The Planets.” It is written in a sonata form the there are smaller melodic cells and it definitely has a feeling of not of this world. I prefer the trumpet of this recording to the one offered by the LSO.
This newly recorded work is in my opinion far superior to my previous CD recorded on the Naxos label with the Moscow Symphony conducted by Igor Golovschin. The sound is much brighter with excellent instrument separation. The Russian National Orchestra under the direction of Mikhail Pletnev do an extraordinary job on this CD.
January 3, 2016
“On Sunset Boulevard The Life and Times of Billy Wilder,” a book written by Ed Sikov, devotes over a chapter to the making of “The Lost Weekend,” a fictional novel by Charles Jackson, which is very much autobiographical. Jackson was not only alcoholic but addicted to pills (Seconal) as well and struggled with both for a good part of his life. In my opinion this would also have made a great story. Written in 1944 the book quickly became a hit and it was on a news stand that Wilder bought the book for his train ride and by the time he reached his destination he had already started writing the screenplay for it. As the story unfolds in the making of the picture Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration went right to work in tearing down the submitted screenplay and as a result the novel couldn’t be shot the way Wilder wanted. The homosexual passages and the hinting of prostitution all had to be taken out of the script. The ending of the book, a depressing one with no hope, had to be changed to a happy one to please the audience. There are numerous events connected to the making of the picture such as Milland attempting to be pinched because he looked so bad in front of Bellevue hospital and Wilder carrying on two affairs with Audrey Young and Doris Dowling while still married, and an offer from the liquor industry to buy the film for five million dollars quite a juggling act. The end result was multiple Oscars for Milland, screenplay, director, and picture of the year. Now let’s talk about the music.
A temp track of Gershwin type music with xylophones turned out to be a disaster when a preview was given in Santa Barbara so much so that the film was nearly abandoned. Enter Miklos Rozsa who had worked with Wilder on his last film “Double Indemnity” and not only was the problem solved but Miklos received an Oscar but lost out to another score he did “Spellbound.”
Rozsa offers three basic main themes which he uses throughout the entire film. The prelude is a brash dissonant which is introduced by the brass which gives way to the strings and the brass become harmony. The strings cry out with melodrama and if one is familiar with Rozsa the sound is the film noir one that became his trademark. It is a theme that you’ll remember after listening to this CD a couple of times The end of the track introduces a secondary theme, “New York Skyline” a tribute to the lure of New York. However, right at the end we hear a bit of the second theme, the best in the film in my opinion, which is a calling card that Ray Milland (Birnam) is wanting to drink. We hear the introduction of the electronic instrument the theremin a wailing sound intermixed with the clarinet giving it a whirling effect. This is a true leitmotif that will be present whenever there is drinking or the thought of it. The third theme is also a leitmotif that of the love and support that Helen (Jane Wyman) had for Don Birnam. It is the one calming influence in the turmoil he has created with desire to drink. Sometimes the solo gypsy style violin is used in c major to add the schmaltz necessary. The solo violin is also used with the drinking motif offering the melody as the swirling theremin provides the harmony. This was the second time that Rozsa used the instrument, the first film being “Spellbound.” The instrument would go on to have quite a following.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theremin There is also what I like to call the bat theme, a sequence when Birnam is in Bellevue and going through the withdrawal/delirium tremors. You’ll hear this on the “Nightmare” track along with some other material that critics of the time called a horror classic. Also included on the CD are 6 extra cues including material not used in the film. The liner notes written by Frank K. DeWald are researched and well written.
We now must come to the bad part of this CD release which is the terrible sound quality. Even with my mono speaker setup, which I use on these types of recordings, there was no improvement. I’m not blaming Intrada or their engineers at all just warning you that this is a archival recording some of which has been damaged.
Rozsa collectors are very happy as this is a step up from the Koch recording or the older Tony Thomas LP’s.