Monday, March 28, 2011

Rachmaninov's C Minor Piano Concerto

I have blogged earlier in the past few years on this great piano concerto. I had not posted the videos for readers to feel the music. My best rendition of this masterpiece is by Philippe Entremont playing with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. That is the greatest recording of this concerto. With all great regard to the Master himself, Entremont has paced the second movement in a way that even Rachmaninov would succumb to and weep. It is unfortunate that I could not access any video recordings of that performance.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elgar's Cello Concerto

Cello Concerto in E Minor. Op. 85
This was his last great work.
It was composed during the summer of 1919 at Elgar's cottage, 'Brinkwells', in Sussex. The premiere was on 27th October 1919 with Felix Salmond as the soloist and Elgar conducting the London Symphony at Queen's Hall. This performance was not well received. Frankly speaking, the audience did not know their elbow from their knee in appreciating a great work.
This concerto represents the disillusionment Elgar felt after the end of the first world war. This is also an introspective on death.
The Concerto opens with a solemn dramatic adagio recitative in the solo followed by a short cadenza . The violas then present the main theme that Elgar had composed while he was recuperating from a throat operation. The violas then pass the theme to the solo cello. The cello repeats it and then modifies it into a stronger, painful reinstatement. Then, the cello moves into a lighter-hearted and lyrical middle section moderato. The main theme is presented again as a transition and after an impassioned utterance, the movement whimpers before a pizzicato enters into the lento without a pause, later transforming into an allegro molto second movement which is a melancholy scherzo with orchestration of the greatest economy.
In the brief slow movement Adagio, there is still greater economy and solemnity; a continuous solo for the cello.
The finale Allegro Moderato which is a rondo where the excitement of the principal theme is broken by references to earlier themes and particularly to the mood of melancholy that makes this as one of Elgar's greatest works.
My favourite interpretation is the one by Sol Gabetta and the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra Copenhagen conducted by Mario Venzago. Another great version is the Jacqueline Du Pre with the London Symphony under Sir John Barbirolli.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Le Poeme du Feu

I have heard it twice today. I went back to it. I heard the Martha Argerich/Berlin/Abbado version though I am posting below the Vladimir Ashkenazy version for its brilliant visuals.
Aleksandr Scriabin's Le Poeme du Feu - Prometheus is a great impressionistic piece of music creation. He uses fourth-based harmonies. This composition was a hit when it was first premiered on 2nd March 1911 with Scriabin as the soloist in Moskva with Serge Koussevitzky conducting. Scriabin died early at the age of 43 in 1915. This work would have made Debussy, Ravel and Glazunov proud.
The work's harmonic structure is evolved from a tonal centre in a six-note complex of different fourths (c f# Bb e a d). Here, the sound makes you feel that space has become time. For Scriabin, the theft of fire was central to the Prometheus myth. This symphonic poem with a piano accompaniment and choir is representative of Prometheus with the central theme narrated by the trumpets. The music describes the flickering and shimmering permutations of fire through piano and woodwinds with tremolos on the strings. Scriabin felt that Prometheus is the bringer of light and through sound and colour he reaches for the stars themselves as aptly showed in these visuals.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Johannes Brahms: Serenade in D Major

I have heard this after almost thirty four years. It is still as fresh and the recording is superb.
Istvan Kertesz with the London Symphony. 1968.
Brahms composed his two orchestral serenades between 1857 and 1860.They were his first purely orchestral works to be published. The D Major Serenade was first intended to be a chamber work like an octet or a nonet. Then Brahms converted that to a work for small orchestra. He laid the orchestra out as fifteen strings, single woodwinds, two french horns, trumpet and timpani.
This Serenade respects musicians like Haydn, Beethoven and early symphonies of Schubert. The first movement that I have posted here pays homage to the finale of Haydn's D Major 'London' Symphony with its main theme and the 'drone' bass in open fifths by which it is supported and set for Brahms' favourite orchestral instrument, the french horn. Brahms had himself played the horn in his early days in Hamburg. The second subject is a string theme that breaks out into triplets. These triplets develop a third theme that brings back the exposition. The movement ends with a poetic coda where the flute takes over from the horn.
The second movement, Scherzo in D Minor, reminds us of the D Minor Piano Concerto and also of the scherzo of the B Flat Major Piano Concerto. The Adagio Non Troppo third movement in B Flat Major is rich and in sonata form and evokes memories of the 'Scene by the Brook' of Beethoven's 'Pastoral'. The fourth movement is a minuet with G Major and G Minor alternates. In this, we are reminded of the original instrumentation of the serenade. The fifth movement is the second Scherzo in D Major and is again dominated by the first french horn. This reminds us of the third movement of Beethoven's Second Symphony. It has a trio in D Major with a quaver motion in the accompaniment. The finale is a rondo which bounces a lot with a refrain and expansive subsidiary themes that ultimately find their way into the french horns and trumpet bringing the Serenade to its majestic close.
An Excellent reading by Kertesz. A great conductor with a great work. Purely Pastoral. The painting brings out the emotion perfectly in the video.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

For the Love of a Princess

A beautiful composition for the film Braveheart by James Horner with the London Symphony Orchestra. A truly haunting theme.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I heard this today for the first time. It is beautiful.
Sospiri for Strings, Harp and Organ. Op.70. Sir Edward Elgar.
Sospiri means elegiac sighs in Italian.
It was first performed in August 1914 and shows influence of the dark times during the first world war. Elgar's wife described this as " a breath of peace in a perturbed world." The Adagio is reminiscent of Gabriel Faure in its style. The main melody enters dissonantly over the harmony and its evolving wide intervals are really evocative of sighing. The long-held final cadence resigns this sensitive and expressive adagio to serenity.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Balakirev's First Symphony in C Major

Yesterday, I was hearing Balakirev's First Symphony in C Major performed by the USSR Symphony under Yevgeni Svetlanov.This 1971 recording rarely finds an able competitor in its nationalist reading by Svetlanov. We have Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic and Herbert Von Karajan with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London giving superb performances of this symphony but Svetlanov goes beyond them. His reading is strong, ferocious and aggressive.
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev was born into a poor clerk's family in Novgorod in 1837. He received his first lessons in music from his mother at the age of four. Balakirev's musical talents found a patron later in a nobleman, Alexander Oulibichev who had also written a biography of Wolfgang Mozart. Balakirev was first exposed to the music of Glinka, John Field and Chopin. Glinka encouraged Balakirev to pursue a career in music. Balakirev, after Glinka, is regarded as one of the 'Five' nationalist composers in Russia, the other four being Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Cesar Cui.
Balakirev started his first symphony in C major in 1867 but completed it in 1898 when it received its first performance. He incorporated a new Russian element in his expression somewhat religious in nature in the opening Adagio of this symphony. He places a lively scherzo and trio as the second movement that is followed by a beautiful sentimental melody in the slow movement with a characteristic fluidity to the flute and woodwinds and a Slavic occidental raspiness to the brass. This is very well brought out by the USSR Symphony under Svetlanov. The finale is a compendium of merry folk themes. At one point, you could hear the brass laughing when the symphony ends on a jubilant note. This is an excellent orchestral work by Balakirev and could be regarded as one of the cracker first symphonies to be written anywhere.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Iolanta: One of the greatest one-act lyric operas

I have recently got this recording set. What a great lyric opera I have missed earlier! There is absolutely no reason for its obscurity. It is sheer bad luck for Tchaikovsky. This opera received its first performance at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on 18th December 1892.
The action takes place in the mountains of Southern France in the fifteenth century. This is Tchaikovsky's last opera. His other operas are Voyevoda, Undina, Enchantress, Vakula the Smith, Cherevichki,Oprichnik, Mazeppa, Pique Dame, Maid of Orleans and Yevgeny Onegin besides this.
The Director of the Imperial Theater, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, commissioned Tchaikovsky to write a one-act opera and two-act ballet in 1891. The result was Iolanta and Casse-Noisette(the Nutcracker).
Tchaikovsky was inspired by the one act play by the Danish playwright, Henrik Hertz, in 1845 called 'King Rene's Daughter'. The subject fascinated him for its poetic quality. The librettist was his brother, Modeste. Modeste worked on the translation of the Hertz play in Moscow by Vladimir Zotov.
Both the opera and the ballet were admired by Tsar Nicholas who was in the audience. Even Gustav Mahler later championed Iolanta and made it a regular opera in his repertoire.
The story is about King Rene and his blind daughter Iolanta. She is cured by the miracle working Moorish doctor, Ibn Hakia, who succeeds only when he is assured that she really wishes to be cured. Iolanta is betrothed to Prince Robert who does not love her and he is in love with Mathilde. It is the knightly Vaudemont who takes a liking to Iolanta without knowing that she is blind. When he discovers her plight, he still accepts her and motivates her to see the beauty of the creation in this life. She begins to like him and agrees to get her condition cured by Ibn Hakia.
Tchaikovsky opens the prelude to this one-act opera with a score only for winds (which was run down by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov)and brass. A lovely effect is created followed by the introduction of harp and strings for the opening garden scene. The music is reminiscent of Handel (Xerxes), Brahms (second piano concerto Andante), Puccini's La Boheme and Wagner's Tristan Prelude. There is a touch of rococo style in the first few scenes. There is brilliant scoring and melodic interjection in the arias of Ibn Hakia, Robert, King Rene, Iolanta and her duet with Vaudemont. The opera concludes with a majestic contrapuntal scene including Iolanta, Ibn Hakia, King Rene, Vaudemont, Brigitta and Laura (Iolanta's friends), Bertrand (Doorkeeper), Martha ( his wife), Almeric (armour bearer to the King), Robert and chorus.
As I have mentioned earlier, I have heard this opera for the first time yesterday in this brilliant performance by the Kirov Opera and Orchestra under the splendid direction of Valery Gergiev. This is a superb production by Philips recorded in 1996. The recording is crisp and clear. An impressive CD set worthy of an addition to any opera lover's collecction and particularly of those who like the music of Tchaikovsky. This opera deserves more hearings than accorded presently in the universal operatic repertoire. This recording will deserve AAA and five star nod from me.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Cat From Hell

Stephen King's Short Story from his compilation, 'Just After Sunset'. AA.
The story is about a cat that comes from nowhere to take revenge for the atrocities committed on fifteen thousand cats in the name of an FDA approved experiment.
Halston is a hitman. He is sent by his contact to an old man in a wheelchair called Drogan.
"Who do you want hit?"
"Your victim is right behind you", says Drogan.
'Halston quickly grips the handle of the short-barrelled .45 hybrid that hung below his armpit in a spring-loaded holster that laid it in his palm at a touch. A moment later it was out and pointed at ... a cat.'
'For a moment Halston and the cat stared at each other.'
'Its face was an even split: half-black, half-white.'
"He's very friendly," Grogan said. "At first. Nice friendly pussy has killed three people in this household. That leaves only me. I am old, I am sick ... but I prefer to die in my own time."
"I can't believe this," Halston said. "You hired me to hit a cat?"
"Six thousand dollars. There will be another six when you bring me proof that the cat is dead".
Drogan is owner of Drogan Pharmaceuticals.
"In the four-year testing period which led to FDA approval of Tri-Gormal-G, about fifteen thousand cats ... uh, expired". 'Halston whistled. About four thousand cats a year. And now you think this one's back to get you, huh?'.
'Seven months ago there had been four of them here- Drogan, his sister Amanda, who at seventy-four was two years Drogan's elder, her lifelong friend Carolyn Broadmoor (of the Westchester Broadmoors,'Drogan said,'who was badly afflicted with emphysema and Dick Gage, a hired man who had been with the Drogan family for twenty years.Then the cat had come'.
'In mid-May, Gage had found Amanda Drogan lying at the foot of the main stairs in a litter of broken crockery and Little Friskies. Her eyes bulged sightlessly up at the ceiling. She had bled a great deal from the mouth and nose. They got to the head of the stairs and the cat got in front of her... tripped her...'.
'Carolyn Broadmoor was also attached to the cat. She had threatened to leave if he did, apparently.Near the end of June, she died in the night. The doctor seemed to take it as a matter of course... just came and wrote out the death certificate and that was the end of it'.
"Drogan, why don't you just have it put away? A vet would give it the gas for twenty dollars".
"On July third, I called Gage to this room and handed him a wicker basket... a picnic hamper sort of thing. Do you know what I mean? I told him to put the cat in it and take it to a vet in Milford and have it put to sleep. There was an accident on the turn-pike. The Lincoln was driven into a bridge abutment at better than sixty miles an hour. Dick Gage was killed instantly. When they found him, there were scratches on his face."
"And the cat came back?"
'Drogan nodded. "A week later. On the day Dick Gage was buried, as a matter of fact. Just like the old song says. The cat came back."
"It survived a car crash at sixty? Hard to believe."
"They say each one has nine lives. When it comes back.. that's when I started to wonder if it might not be a ... a ...."
"For want of a better word, yes. A sort of demon sent..."
"To punish you."
'Halston smiled humourlessly. He began to stroke the sleeping cat's head and shoulders and back very gently again."All right, I accept the contract. Do you want the body?"
"No. Kill it. Bury it. Bring me the tail. So I can throw it in the fire and watch it burn."
'The cat was in a double-thickness shopping bag, tied at the top with heavy twine. The bag was in the passenger bucket seat.'
'Strange hit, Halston thought and was surprised to find that he was taking it seriously as a hit. He would park off the road beside one of these November-barren fields and take it out of the bag and stroke it and then snap its neck and sever its tail with his pocket knife.. And he thought, the body - he'll bury it honourably saving it from the scavengers. I can save it from the maggots.'
'He was thinking these things as the cat moved through the night like a dark blue ghost and that was when the cat walked in front of his eyes, up on the dashboard, tail raised arrogantly, its black-and-white face turned toward him,its mouth seeming to grin at him.'
'And suddenly the road was gone, the Plymouth was running down into the ditch, thudding up and down on its shocks. Then, second impact. And darkness.'
'It seemed to be grinning like Alice's Cheshire had in Wonderland.His arms would not move. Halston did scream, his mouth yawning open, and that was when the cat changed direction and leaped at his face, leaped at his mouth. It rammed into his mouth, a furry projectile. He gagged on it. Its front claws pinwheeled, tattering his tongue like a piece of liver. The cat was forcing its way into his mouth, flattening its body, squirming,working itself further and further in. Somehow it had gotten its entire body into his mouth. Its strange, black-and-white face must be crammed into his very throat. Protruding from his open mouth was two inches of bushy tail .. half-black, half-white. It switched lazily back and forth. It disappeared.'
'Above Halston's navel, a ragged hole had been clawed in his flesh. Looking out was the gore-streaked black-and-white face of a cat, its eyes huge and glaring.'
'The cat forced its body out and stretched in obscene languor. Then it leaped out the open window. It seemed to be in a hurry noticed a reporter from the local paper. As if it had unfinished business.'

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


This short story, from the compilation of Stephen King's 'Just after Sunset', is the best story from the lot and deserves AAA. It begins with a letter from Sheila Bonsaint Le Claire writing to her crush from high school days, Charlie Keen. The letter is about her brother Johnny who died under mysterious circumstances recently and his death being labelled as an 'accidental death'. Johnny was a therapist and treating a patient known in the case study file as 'N' and Sheila suspects that there are forces working here beyond her comprehension.
One of the passages in her letters reveals 'It's as if the patients' woes are a kind of acid, eating away at the psychic defenses of their therapists". She encloses a case file from the therapist for Charlie to study. The deeper part of this is that not long before Johnny's death, his patient N dies of a fall in similar conditions echoing Johnny's death. Sheila warns Charlie to burn the case file soon after studying it.
N, the patient of Johnny, was 48 years old. He was a partner in a large Portland Maine accounting firm. He was divorced and father of two daughters. He had been suffering from insomnia since the past ten months. He had recently developed an obsessive compulsive disorder that was rapidly controlling and ruining his mental peace. For example, he used to tie his laces with the left tied at the top and the right at the bottom.
He was also obsessed with numbers. "When I load the dishwasher, I count plates. If there's an even number above ten in there, all is well. If not, I add the correct number of clean ones to make it right".
Johnny Bonsaint describes his patient N as pale man being pecked to pieces by invisible birds. N asks Johnny, "Have you ever read 'The Great God Pan' by Arthur Machen ? As it's the most terrifying story ever written!"
"But Doc, are you sure? Even if it puts you at risk of winding up like I am now?"
The place that is the centrepoint of the story in case is 'Ackerman's Field'.
"I am an accountant by trade, a photographer by inclination". "Reality is a mystery, Dr. Bonsaint, and the everyday texture of things is the cloth we draw over it to mask its brightness and darkness. I think we cover the faces of corpses for the same reason. We see the faces of the dead as a kind of gate. But there are places where the cloth gets ragged and reality is thin."
"I took another four shots which makes a total of nine, another bad number, although slightly better than five and when I lowered the camera and looked again with my naked eye, I saw the faces in the hills, leering and grinning and grunting. Some human, some bestial. I counted seven stones. But when I looked into the viewfinder again, there were eight. I started to feel dizzy and scared".
"The eighth stone fucking grinned at me and its teeth were heads. Living human heads".
"something spoke. Not English. Something that sounded like,'Cthun, cthun, deeyanna, deeyanna.. but then.. Christ,then it said my name. It said,'Cthun,N,; deeyanna, N. I think I screamed, but I'm not sure, because by then the wind had become a gale that was roaring in my ears".
' In the next session, I tell him that he looks better although this is far from true". 'He prints CTHUN in large capital letters. He shows it to me and when I nod, he tears the sheet to shreds, counts the shreds - to make sure the number is even, I suppose- and then deposits them in the wastebasket near the couch.'
'I could hear the wind that sometimes blows out of there, turning in its own private cyclone. and I knew it was coming. The thing with the helmet-head. He gestures again to the scraps in the wastebasket'.
"At least I'll get a break come winter. If I make it that far".
'I called his home number when I saw the obituary. Got C, the daughter who goes to school here in Maine. She knew who I was. Talked freely'.
Johnny Bonsaint makes notes: 'I am afraid but this fear is completely irrational. Back-trailing a patient' mental illness to its source is never comfortable. I stood at the chain, asking myself if I really wanted to do this- if I wanted to trespass, not just on land that wasn't mine but on an obsessive compulsive fantasy that had very likely killed its possessor'.
'I looked at the stones dead-on. Eight.' 'It's April Fool's and the fool is me. I woke from a dream of Ackerman's Field.'
'Took longer today to make 7 into 8.' 'There it was - the thing with the helmet head, born out of living insane darkness.''The screaming faces in the stones .. CTHUN'.
Johnny Bonsaint also ends up the same way as N, falling rom Ackerman's Field in the valley below and dying. There is a twist in the end when Charlie Keen receives another letter from Sheila saying.'There's nothing out there. Just some rocks. I saw with my own eyes. I swear there's nothing out there, so stay away'. Few days later, he reads another obituary in the paper,'Woman jumps from bridge, mimics brother's suicide.'
In the epilogue, Charlie Keen is writing a note to his secretary, Chrissy, asking her to cancel all appointments for the next week. He says, 'Two old friends, brother and sister have committed suicide under peculiar circumstances.. and in the same fucking place.. I don't mean to be a Philistine about it, but there might be a story in this. On obsessive compulsive disorder. Not as big a blip on radar as cancer, maybe, but sufferers will tell you it's still some mighty scary shit.'
This short storywill haunt your imagination.