Monday, December 7, 2009

Carl Nielsen - The Four Temperaments

Nielsen titled his second symphony 'Four Temperaments' (Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine)inspired by a painting he saw at an inn depicting the four temperaments. He completed this symphony in 1902. His opus 16. These temperaments are primarily connected with people and their general condition. They reflect on divergent personalities of the players for whom he wrote it. However, the symphony should not be considered programmatic. This symphony is polytonal. It is dedicated to Feruccio Busoni. Michael Schonwandt delivers a capable reading with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Carl Nielsen - First Symphony in G Minor

Carl August Nielsen was a Danish violinist, conductor and composer. Born on 9th June 1865 and died on 3rd October 1931. His works are very well known in Denmark. Today, I heard his first symphony for the first time and it was impressive. He is admired for his symphonies. He also wrote concerti for violin, flute and clarinet. He appears on the Danish hundred-kroner note.
Nielsen first discovered music while experimenting with the sound and pitch he heard while striking logs in a pile of firewood behind his home. The songs his mother sang and the music at the wedding parties also influenced him. His father played the violin at such wedding parties.
His first symphony is in G Minor. It shows his individuality and progressive tonality. The first movement theme for the second violins, oboe and flute permeates throughout all the movements. He begins the work in one key and ends in another.
The performance I heard was by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and energetically interpreted by Michael Schonwandt. Beautiful symphony with a haunting first movement theme.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Shadow of a Doubt


Alfred Hitchcock considered this 1942 thriller to be his personal favourite among his films though I will rate 'Psycho' as his ultimate. Good script by Thornton Wilder. It was inspired by an actual case of a 1920s serial killer known as the 'Merry Widow Murderer'. Nobody narrates a tale like Hitchcock. This film will keep you glued to your seats. Superb acting by Joseph Cotten. Teresa Wright is good as Young Charlie. Good music by Dmitri Tiomkin with Franz Lehar's 'Die Lustige Witwe' (The Merry Widow) waltz as the centrepiece of the music score. This is a great film for all Hitchcock and classic mystery lovers.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bruckner Second


I got this as a classic bargain at Landmark for just Rs.150.00 and it is every bit value for money. It is a collector's dream come true bargain! I have only heard one other version before I picked this up few days back and that was Berliner under Herbert Von Karajan. This performance by the Suddeutscher Philharmonische under Hans Zanotelli goes one notch above Karajan. It is dreamy and well spaced out. The opening bars and the introduction of the beautiful theme is handled very sensitively by Zanotelli. The acoustics are nowhere near the Berliner recording but this performance has an ethereal quality and beats Karajan. The Adagio is beautiful and particularly the closing horn passages are very well interpreted. The Landler is electric and so is the finale. A great performance. This remains the definitive Bruckner Second.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Rene Goscinny _ A Genius behind Asterix and Iznogoud



We have all known about Asterix's adventures through the mind of Rene Goscinny. But few days back, I was introduced to his other masterpiece work by my wife, 'The Iznogoud' series with brilliant drawings by Jean Tabary. He created these series in 1962 and believe me, even today they seem as fresh as the desert sand they represent. Iznogoud is the "Is No Good" Vazir of Haroun Al Plassid somewhere in the bowels of Baghdad. His dream is "How to become the Caliph instead of the Caliph" and each adventure is as wicked and seam bursting as the other. It is a laugh riot with superb drawings and I am thoroughly enjoying each work of Goscinny on these series as I have done with the Asterix.
A section of the Muslim Community seems to get offended by the sharp cynicism of Goscinny in making fun of the Caliph and the Commander of the Faithful but these critics don't know their arse from their elbow and do not know how to accept reality and laugh at themselves. The British and the Dutch and the French have shown us the way in how to laugh at yourself and create a masterpiece in writing and art.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bruckner's Romantische



This is the definitive Bruckner Fourth. It has taken me 53 years to discover this.Those who have ears to hear will be convinced by Celibidache that this is the greatest performance of this symphony. There have been many fine recordings of this score particularly by Zubin Mehta, Otto Klemperer and Jesus Lopez Cobos but this will change your life. What tempi and what space! You owe it to yourself to acquaint yourself with this remarkable performance.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

John Constable




John Constable. 1776-1837. He is perhaps the greatest and most original of all British landscape artists. He is renowned especially for his views of the Stour Valley in Suffolk, Salisbury Cathedral, Hampstead Heath and the Stonehenge. He was brought up in the country. Today, his genius is acknowledged throughout the world but during his own lifetime, landscape painting was unfashionable and he was forced to struggle for recognition.
When he chose art as a profession, he left his Suffolk home to live permanently in London. He was born in East Bergholt in Suffolk on 11th June 1776. Most of his boyhood was spent around the Stour valley. His father, Golding Constable, was a wealthy corn merchant with two water mills and some ninety acres of farmland.
England's two greatest artists, Constable and Turner were students together as well as rivals at the Royal Academy.
One of the most important decisions an artist makes is where to stand when painting or sketching. The choice of viewpoint has a profound effect on the impact of the finished painting. Constable often stood high above the scenes he painted. The effect of the high position was to give an overview in which distant objects were clearly seen. When he adopted a lower viewpoint as with his 'Hay Wain',the distant objects were no longer clear but merged into the background. The effect is to involve us with the foreground scene and focus our attention on the main subject. A long viewpoint, like the 'Salisbury Cathedral' can also highlight the drama of the subject. It allows the soaring spire of the cathedral to be framed within an archway formed by the trees. In 'Stonehenge', the low viewpoint combined with a bare horizon means that much of the painting is taken up with the dark blue sky that is a background of mystery for the ancient stones.
His masterpiece is the 'Hay Wain'. He painted this in his London Studio during the winter of 1821 using his diary sketches and oil studies as reference material. He chose a landscape he knew well.He was anxious that the details should be accurate. His true subject is the day itself as he carefully studies the shifting summer clouds and the play of sunlight on the trees and meadows. Constable observed the sky with unusual care and made detailed oil studies often noting the exact time of day and the wind speed and direction.
One critic at the Paris Salon in 1824, on seeing his work, 'The Haymakers', remarked, "Look at these English pictures - the very dew is on the ground".
'Boatbuilding' done in 1815 is in Victoria and Albert Museum. The 'Hay Wain' is in the National Gallery."Salisbury Cathedral' in 1823, was commissioned by the Bishop of Salisbury himself.
While Constable was sketching in the depths of Suffolk, dramatic news was breaking in the outside world. The King of England had gone mad and power went to his fashionable son, the Prince Regent, Prince George. The Prime Minister, John Bellingham, was shot in parliament. The long war against Napoleon continued with disastrous consequences for the British economy. 1812 was a year of three-day weeks, riots and depression. Also, in this year, Edward Jenner pioneered the vaccination against small pox. This year was also the beginning of the end for Napoleon. General Kutuzov troubled him in Moscow and the severe winter blitz destroyed almost ninety percent of his army. A sequence of victories against the French armies in Spain brought Wellington to Madrid in the summer of 1812. Within another year, he would enter France itself and be the nemesis for Napoleon at Waterloo. Then in this year, there was war between Britain and the United States that was provoked by the British naval blockade of French ports. All these events did affect John Constable but he sought refuge in his art while the world he had once loved was literally going up in flames.He died at age 61 suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis.

Limelight


Chaplin's masterpiece talkie of 1952. In Black & White. What can I Say? I saw it for the first time today. Uptil now, I had always held 'The Great Dictator' as Chaplin's greatest. This film now takes that spot. It is Chaplin reflecting on his years as an entertainer. He stars as Calvero, a fading clown.He helps a paralyzed ballerina regain the use of her legs and achieve fame but at a great cost to himself.This film is famous for the teaming of Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Leading Lady, Claire Bloom, called it a fairy godfather story. It is frankly autobiographical like City Lights. It is also a sentimental love story. The final scene is heart wrenching as Terry is able to help Calvero enjoy one last triumphant moment with her success as a prima ballerina when he suddenly suffers a fatal heart attack. As his life is coming to an end, hers is rising in a lovely solo ballet that ends the film with the haunting beautiful melody written by Chaplin himself.
The music by Chaplin is magnificent. The main theme as well as the recollection elegy themes are beautiful. The flashback technique when he is going to sleep in the night reminiscing about his days of comedy and being in limelight as well as his fading success are so well captured. The high shots while the stage is being changed and the ballet shots are extremely innovative. I will have to give this film the best musical tag after Sound of Music and My Fair Lady and before Oliver and Wizard of Oz.
There may be an argument against this film as being silly, self-serving megalomania but I adore it. The dialogue delivery of Chaplin is excellent. It is indeed great to see him speak and speak so well and clear. There is one dialogue at the end with Claire Bloom when she wants him to marry her and settle down in the country when he replies that she is wasting her love on him and that his life is the theatre. When she reminds him that he hates theatre, he says " Yes, I hate theatre; I hate the sight of blood too, but it flows in my veins." This delivery hit me and the panache with which he says it is electric.
The film reveals many basic truths about humanity. Limelight is pure pathos with a little comedy. Chaplin will definitely make you cry in this film as he always does in many of his other films but I have seen his new best work and that is this.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Mahler's Death Symphony

I was listening to Mahler's Ninth yesterday ; Kirill Kondrashin and Moscow Philharmonic. Good account on a Melodiya pressing.
I want to share my Mahler symphonic titles with you all:
No.1 - Titan; No.2 - Resurrection; No.3 - Purgatorio; No. 4 - Angelic; No.5 - Fate; No. 6- Tragic; No.7- Nachtmusik; No.8 - Magnificent Symphony of a Thousand; Das Lied Von Der Erde; No.9 - Death; No.10- Farewell.
Gustav Mahler wrote his ninth symphony in 1908 but kept revising it till 1910. This symphony is a renunciation of life. Mahler was suffering from an incurable heart disease and was aware of the fact. He still continued with great inspiration to work on the symphony and that involved a lot of self sacrifice as he did earlier all his life.
He started work on the Ninth soon after completing Das Lied Von Der Erde - a symphony for singer soloists and orchestra that has a chronological place between the Eighth and the Ninth. Mahler did not want to designate Das Lied von der Erde as 'No. 9' frequently thinking about the fateful significance of the title of the 'Ninth' Symphony' which proved to be the last for Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner despite left over scores to move on. Dvorak also ended at nine but this is another story for in his lifetime he had only published five symphonies starting with No. 6 as No.1 and No.5 as No.2.For this reason, Das Lied von der Erde that was essentially Mahler's Ninth acquired a programmatic title and the one that subsequently followed it, while virtually being the tenth, was designated as the Ninth.
His tenth symhony notwithstanding, with finishing touches by Derryck Cooke , Mazzetti and Samale/Mazzucca, Mahler's Ninth became his symphonic swan song. I call it the 'Death' Symphony. He never saw it performed. The symphony was introduced after Mahler's death in 1912 with Bruno Walter conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Beethoven's Fate

Work had already begun on the C Minor Fifth by April 1804. It was completed by the beginning of 1808. The first performance took place in the Theater An Der Wien on 22nd December 1808.
This symphony is one of the most popular and well known compositions in all of European classical music. This is one of the most frequently played symphonies of all. It is in four movements: an opening sonata allegro con brio followed by an andante, a scherzo with trio and attaca to the finale.
This symphony has become popular due to the terse nature of the themes and because of the artistic unity of the work; also due to the fact to a large degree of Anton Schindler's oft-quoted story much after Beethoven's death that Beethoven described the opening of the first movement as "Thus Fate knocks at the door!". Ever since, this symphony has been supposed to portray the struggle with fate on both personal and universal terms.
While composing this symphony, Beethoven continuously interrupted this work to prepare others like Fidelio, Appassionata sonata, the Razumovsky string quartets, the violin concerto and the Fourth Piano Concerto.
Beethoven was in his mid thirties during this time and his personal life was troubled by increasing deafness. Even the world was troubled by the Napoleonic wars, political turmoil in Austria and the occupation of Vienna by Napoleon's troops in 1805.
The Fifth Symphony is scored for 23 first violins, 14 second violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, 4 double basses, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (B flat and C major), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 french horns (in E flat and C major), 2 trumpets, 3 trombones (alto, tenor and bass) and two pairs of timpani (tuned in G and C). A performance dictated by the tempi markings should last a minimum of thirty three minutes if the repeats are ignored in the first and last movements.
The Allegro Con Brio is ferocious. It begins by a distinctive four-note motif twice, allegorical to "fate knocking at the door". Hence I too call this symphony , "FATE". This motif appears frequently in popular culture too from disco to rock and roll; to appearance in films and TV. During the second world war, BBC used the four-note motif to inroduce its radio news broadcasts because the rhythm it denotes is the morse code letter 'V'.
Some conductors take this motif 'molto ritardando' with the fermata over the fourth note justifying this. Following the first bars, Beethoven uses imitations to expand the fate theme; these imitations forming a single, flowing melody. A very short fortissimo bridge is played by the french horns that takes place before a second theme is introduced. This second theme is in E Flat Major, the relative major to the home key and is lyrical. the codetta is again based on the four-note motif. The development section follows using modulation sequences and imitation including the short fortissimo bridge. During the recapitulation, there is a brief solo beautiful passage for the oboe in improvisatory style and the movement ends in a massive coda.
The Andante is delicate. It is in A Flat Major. It is lyrical in double variation form. Two themes are presented and varied in alternation. After these variations, there is a long coda. The first theme is a melody in unison by the violas and cellos with accompaniment by the double basses. The second theme is harmonic with support by clarinets, bassoons, first and second violins with a triplet arpeggio in the violas and double bass. This is followed up by a third theme with thirty-second notes in the violas and cellos with a counterphrase running in the flute, oboe and bassoon. Then, there is an interlude where the whole orchestra joins in a fortissimo leading to a series of crescendoes and a coda to close the movement.
When the scherzo arrives, we understand that the unity extends through the entire work. The second subject of the scherzo again beats out the hammering opening rhythm of the symphony in its first bars, this time on a single note. Such inner unity which enables a work of art to live must spring ultimately from the creative mind with a constant interplay between intuition and hard grinding work. This movement is in ternary form consisting of a scherzo and trio. It follows the traditional mould of classic symphonic third movements but breaks out of the minuet-trio hemisphere. Even with Beethoven's early works, the scherzo is followed by a contrasting trio section, a return of the scherzo and a coda. But this is so different that it towers over all scherzo-trios written before, with especially the strings pizzicato touch, an effect that was brilliantly mirrored again by Tchaikovsky in his F Minor Fourth. The usual classical symphonies as I told earlier employed the minuet and trio as the third movement; but Beethoven chose to use a new scherzo and trio form. The movement returns to the opening key of C Minor played by the cellos and double basses. It is reminiscent of the opening theme of the final movement of Mozart's G Minor Fortieth, though in a different key and range. This was discovered by Gustav Nottebohm when he examined Beethoven's sketchbook of the Fifth where 29 measures of Mozart's finale appear copied out by Beethoven at the side. Th opening theme is answered by a theme played by the clarinets, oboes and bassoons. The french horns loudly announce the main theme. The trio section is in C Major and is written contrapuntally. When the scherzo returns for the final time, it is performed by the strings pizzicato and marked 'piano'. The scherzo then contrasts this figure with the famous motif (3+1) from the first movement which takes command of the whole movement in transition... accelerando... attacca... to the Allegro
which begins triumphantly and exhilaratingly without interruption. This movement is in C Major and is significantly interspersed by a return to the hammering motif of the scherzo. The orchestra is here enriched with a piccolo, contrabassoon and three trombones. This is the transition from darkness to light. It is an unusual variant of sonata; at the end of the development section, the music halts on a dominant cadence played fortissimo. Then the music continues after a pause with a quiet reprise of the horn theme of the scherzo movement. The recapitulation is then introduced by a crescendo coming out of the last bars of the interpolated scherzo section just as the same music was introduced at the opening of the movement. Haydn, in his own style, had done this in his Forty Sixth Symphony in B Major. Maybe, Beethoven had kept that at the back of his mind. Peer influence does speak somewhere. Haydn had tutored Beethoven for a short while. This finale includes a long coda in which the main themes of the movement are played in temporally compressed form. As the crescendo builds, the tempo is increased to 'presto'. The symphony ends in a magnificent style with 29 bars of C Major chords played fortissimo.
Many noteworthy conductors have disappointed while recording this symphony - a long list includes Toscanini, Furtwangler, Solti, Zubin Mehta, Andre Previn,Otto Klemperer and Riccardo Muti to name a few. Two performances among many have made the grade - Herbert Von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic and it is the latter which is the definitive performance because Bernstein respects and honours the repeats in both the opening movement and the finale taking the symphony to a respectable thirty eight minutes in his 1961 performance.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Sea Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams


Ralph Vaughan Williams' First Symphony, a choral one. This is a good performance by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra and Choir.It is a remarkably evocative piece of music. The symphony is scored for a large choir, soprano, baritone and orchestra. It is the first complete choral symphony in that each movement is written for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra. The text is from Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass'. Bertrand Russell introduced Vaughan Williams to Walt Whitman's work while they were studying at Cambridge. The work was premiered at the Leeds Festival in 1910 with Vaughan Williams conducting.
The symphony begins with a trumpet fanfare, a thrilling silence before the chorus' entry. At first unaccompanied but later rejoined with a crash of cymbals.The treatment of the steamers is complete with chugging string playing and braying brass reflecting on the title, 'A song for all Seas, all Ships'. The second movement, Largo, is 'On the Beach at Night Alone'. It begins with a low wind-led orchestral introduction with plucking in the bass. Here, we imagine the poet under the stars deep in thought at the beach with quiet rhythm of the sedate waves. The third movement is the Scherzo ' Waves'. This movement is most directly concerned with the sea itself. The scherzo is repeated with increasing pitch and urgency driving us once more into unison to gather the vocal forces for a fanfare conclusion with large interval jumps and lot of percussion. The fourth movement, 'Explorers' is actually hinting at a Passage to India. Here, the emotional intensity is cranked up and the words and music combine most powerfully. The movement concludes after the choir fades away, the orchestra finishes with the double basses bowing like a distant fog horn. The ship sails out of our sight and out of our world. Andre Pevin's reading with the London Symphony dating back to 1970 still sounds good.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Herge - A classy writer with classy adventures!

We have seen the animated versions of Tin Tin many times but never paid attention to its creator. I was watching the 'Secret of the Unicorn' yesterday and it has inspired me to do some research on the creator of Tin Tin.
Georges Prosper Remi (nom-de-plume 'Herge' - pronounced Erzhe)was a Belgian, born on 22nd May 1907 (shares the same birthday with the famous German Composer Richard Wagner though Wagner was born in 1813). Herge was a comics writer and an artist. He kept the pen name with the reversal of his initials from Remi Georges , sounding RG or Erzhe in Belgique French. He wrote twenty four episodes of Tin Tin with the last, The Tin Tin and Alph Art being left unfinished when he died on 3rd March 1983. He was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2003.
He was born in Etterbeek in Brussels, Belgium. He displayed an early affinity for drawing. This famous Belgian grew up to be the most influential comic artist ever. He was a Boy Scout and that influenced his personality. In fact, the character Tin Tin was often compared with the stereotype of a boy scout. Herge started his writing career in a scouting magazine, 'Le Boy Scout Belge' with the character, Totor, a predecessor of Tin Tin. Herge's name will always be tied to Tin Tin. 'Le Bijoux de la Castafiore' was probably his best episode in the Tin Tin series.
The good news for movie connoisseurs is that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have teamed to bring Tin Tin Alive on the screen this year.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_s6UsIq1QB0

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rosemary's Baby - A Polanski Masterpiece



This is a brilliant horror movie. Polanski has done a great job. Horror films are usually associated with ghosts rattling chains, masked maniacs slashing flesh and vampires sucking blood. But Polanski has definitely got a unique touch here in this 1968 make. He has written the screenplay and directed this Ira Levin novel. A young couple move into a new apartment only to be surrounded by peculiar neighbours and when the wife becomes mysteriously pregnant, paranoia over the safety of her unborn child begins controlling her life. Mia Farrow is good as Rosemary Woodhouse. John Cassavetes is Guy Woodhouse who is a struggling actor; he makes a pact with the devil through witchcraft to offer his wife in delivering the satanic child through an old ritual in return for success in the field of theatre and films. Ruth Gordon picked up an oscar for her performance as Minnie Castevet, the neighbour. Krzysztof Komeda's music is effective and chilling. This is definitely not a film for expecting mothers. Polanski picked up an oscar for screenplay. This is one of the best horror films of all time.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

King of Kings: A Masterpiece made by a King





Art has been brought back to life. This great flm was released 89 years ago. Its visual quality is rare. It is as if you are witnessing the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. The scenes of crucifixion and its aftermath are chilling. The wind blown leaves and lightning flashes are breathtaking. The 1928 soundtrack, an excellent composition by Hugo Reisenfeld, includes a chorus of voices - screaming, wailing and moaning along with the action on the screen bringing this silent film to a new height. The earthquake scenes are remarkably effective. You can't beat the final two minutes of the film as Jesus leaves his disciples in a radiant glow to the lovely strains of 'Abide with Me.' Reisenfeld in his score has used flashes of Liszt's 'Les Preludes' and Wagner's 'Parsifal' themes. Then a modern skyline appears to a full chorus and orchestra rendition of'Rock of Ages.'
This film was made in 1927 and completed in 1928. H.B. Warner plays Jesus. Another noteworthy performance is by Rudolph Schildkraut playing Caiaphas. Cecil .B. DeMille is the master craftsman who basked in the spotlight continuously from the early silent period to the age of Cinemascope and stereophonic sound. For cinema as an art form, Demille returned it to the most primitive bread-and-circuses spectacle. He had an unshakeable cultural dominance and longevity with the big audience. The Ten Commandments in 1923 was his first biblical epic.
When Christ is risen, the film medium itself rejoices in a four minute blaze of early two-strip Technicolor. The great showstopper is inevitably the crucifixion. When Jesus breathes his last, the inkiest of storm clouds descend, lightning blazes and gigantic fissures in the earth swallow up half the studio of Central Casting. It is a stupendous exhibition by any standard. You can practically smell the sawdust and the greasepaint. This movie is a genuinely uplifting experience.