Monday, October 31, 2011

Camille Saint-Saëns: Complete Works with Opus Number & A Little More

"He knows everything, but lacks inexperience." - Berlioz on Saint-Saëns.

This playlist covers Saint-Saëns's exceedingly long career, from 1851 to 1921. When he wrote his first symphony at 16, Chopin and Mendelssohn were still in their prime, by the time he composed his final work in 1921, Irving Berlin was writing All By Myself for jazz singers and Edgard Varèse had finished Amériques. The music world changed thoroughly, more than once, during Saint-Saëns's lifetime, but it's almost impossible to find any trace of those changes in his music. Maybe conservatism lifted Saint-Saëns from the ranks of greatest composers, but if you are tired of music that are rooted in existential angst, he is a perfect composer for you. In his best works, like the delightful piano concertos, he proves that perfect form and superlative craftsmanship can produce wonderful music without philosophy.

I compiled a playlist for his Opus 1-169, after this Wikipedia page. It also includes important works without opus number, like the two unnumbered symphonies and arguably his most famous work, The Carnival of the Animals, which was not published in full until after his death – reportedly because Saint-Saëns feared it would affect his reputation as a serious composer. The two symphonies are very enjoyable, a Mozartean elegance runs throughout the first one, and Symphony "Urbs Roma" is powered with a Schumannesque impulse, which can hardly be found in Saint-Saëns's mature works.

Here's the Spotify playlist: Camille Saint-Saëns: Complete Works with Opus Number (329 tracks, total time: 1 day). Works without opus number are integrated in their chronological places, so the whole playlist is in chronological order. Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. All tracks are available on Spotify UK, and all but a few minor works are available on Spotify USA.

Halloween Playlist: Music for the Zombie Apocalypse

Naxos released some digital only releases with boldly tasty titles like Bleeding Chunks of Wagner and Music for the Zombie Apocalypse. Read more about their newest adventure on this detailed LA Time article.

The playlist Naxos compiled for Zombie Apocalypse feature ten more tracks than the digital compilation, It is a weird but timely playlist that demonstrates the great range of Naxos's catalog, which offers a great sampling of music people both know (Fauré Requiem, Schnittke quartet etc, but presented in a new context) and don't know (beware, you will never forget the sound of a Gloria Coates symphony or Michael Gordon's Timber once you hear it, not just on Halloween).

Here's the Spotify playlist from Naxos: Music for the Zombie Apocalypse (30 tracks, total time: 2 hours). Read more about the compilation/playlist here on ZombieHub.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Hector Berlioz: Complete Chronological Catalogue

"With all his efforts to go stark mad he never once succeeds." - The well-tempered Mendelssohn on Hector Berlioz. Sounds mad, doesn't it? Here's more. Verdi: "(Berlioz) lacked the calm and what I may call the balance that produce complete works of art. He always went to extremes, even when he was doing admirable things." And Boulez: "There are awkward harmonies in Berlioz that make one scream."

The most extraordinary thing about those comments is, none of the commenters, and few music critics today deny Berlioz's greatness. Though Stravinsky said "Berlioz's reputation as an orchestrator has always seemed highly suspect to me", what Berlioz did for orchestration is probably as revolutionary as Stravinsky did for rhythm. Read extracts from Treatise on Instrumentation and Orchestration here, or get a free eBook on Google Books.

I guess part of the reason that Berlioz didn't enjoy a steady reputation in the music history is, not many historians before the age of gramophone had a chance to hear the real thing. Almost alone among major composers, Berlioz had virtually no keyboard skills, and produced no piano or chamber music that was increasingly demanded by the rising bourgeois (it was from Liszt's piano transcription of Symphonie Fantastique that most people got to know the work, even Schumann reviewed the work based on it). The only instrument that he played well was, well, the orchestra. Some of his important works call for huge orchestra forces, even by today's standard. As a result, his magnum opus Les Troyens was never staged in its entirety during his lifetime. In fact, the first production that "approximated the composer's original intentions" appeared as late as 1957. His Messe solennelle, completed when he was 20, is on par with the best works that a 20-year-old Mozart had done. And this work was not published or performed between 1827 and 1993. I doubt many music history books ever mentioned it.

I compiled a playlist after this chronological list (itself was after the Catalogue of the Works of Hector Berlioz by D. Kern Holoman). Gardiner's Messe solennelle is not available on Spotify USA, so I have to use another recording which sounds much less impressive. European users can find the Gardiner recording through the revised version of the Resurrexit, placed after La mort d'Orphée. Both Weimar and Paris version of Benvenuto Cellini are included. For the Requiem, I used the legendary live recording from Beecham's final Royal Albert Hall concert. Also check out the new recording from Paul Mccreesh for a sonically spectacular performance.

Here's the Spotify playlist: Hector Berlioz: Complete Chronological Catalogue (422 tracks, total time: 1day). Press Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view.

And, PBS is now offering full-length streaming of Keeping Score, watch Michael Tilson Thomas telling the story of Symphonie Fantastique here. His autobiography Memoirs of Hector Berlioz is also a great read (French version is free on Kindle), but beware, don't take his own words for granted. Berlioz wrote that he composed March to the Scaffold in one night (p.104). Well, he surely did, because he just copied it out from his unfinished work, Les francs-juges.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Erik Satie: Complete Chronological Catalogue

"I admire you: are you not the Great Stravinsky? I am but little Erik Satie." - Erik Satie, the measurer of sounds.

"You know your obsession for lists is approaching the realm of pathology when you starts to chronologize the works of Erik Satie" - This blogger, the maker of playlists.

Back in the time of CDs I used to own one Satie album, The Magic of Satie by French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Though it was one of my most played CDs, I never explored  more of his music, mainly because I thought he didn't write much else. Now, thanks to Spotify, I found that he produced more than 12 hours of music! Not including the 18-hour long Vexations.

I compiled a playlist after the chronological list on this Satie site, and included all the quality performances I could find on Spotify. The final result is a combination of no less than three dozens of Satie recordings. For the most famous piece Gymnopédies, I used a unusual interpretation by Reinbert de Leeuw, which lasts more than 16 minutes. I also included Debussy's orchestration of Gymnopédies No.1 & 3 (he thought the 2nd one did not lend itself to orchestration), and an orchestral version of Gymnopédie No.2 (it was wrongly assigned to Debussy on Naxos). Both the orchestral and piano version of Socrate are included.

Here's the Spotify playlist: Erik Satie: Complete Chronological Catalogue (302 tracks, total time: 12 hours) Press Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. Many tracks are currently unavailable on Spotify USA, still it works as a list of quality Satie recordings on Spotify.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Igor Stravinsky: Complete Chronological Catalogue

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Pablo Picasso of classical music. The lord of dance of the 1910s avant-garde. The guy who forced modernism into bed with Russian folk tunes. Who donned a face like a mask from Tarantino films in the 1920s, and indulged in a peculiar obsession with pianola. Who emerged to find Uncle Sam. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the 1940s, and who suddenly shifted gears to serialism and composed some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the mid 1950s. Ladies and gentlemen — Columbia recording artist Igor Stravinsky.

I made up the above parody from the introduction for Bob Dylan, who happens to be on the same label with Stravinsky. Somehow, the scene that Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the premiere of The Rite of Spring always reminds me of another incident at 1965's Newport folk festival, in which Pete Seeger almost chopped Dylan's microphone cables, had he find an axe.

A few things about the playlist. 1, It is after the chronological list on IMSLP, from 1902's Storm Cloud, to 1966's Requiem Canticles. Most works are available on Spotify, except for a few early works and miniatures. I've noticed the IMSLP list missed Mass (1948), please leave a comment if you find other works left out. 2, Stravinsky revised many early works, all different versions of important works are included here, as well as suites from the ballets, arranged by the composer. For The Firebird I used Stravinsky's recording of the original 1910 ballet, and three concert suites (1911, 1919 and 1945) conducted by Boulez (Sony called it Suite 1910) Bernstein and Chailly respectively. For Rite of Spring, I used Pierre Monteux's RCA recording of the original 1913 version (he also conducted the premiere of the work), and Ferenc Fricsay's DG recording of the revised 1947 version. Unfortunately Richard Craft's new Naxos recording of the 1967 edition (not really a revision) is not on Spotify yet. For Symphony of Psalms, I used two recordings by Stravinsky, one is the first ever recording of this work, recorded two months after its world premiere (from the EMI booklet: "The choir, throaty, full-blooded, darkly, inwardly passionate, sing with liturgical conviction and intensity in a memorable performance."), another is the 1960s Columbia studio recording of the revised 1948 version. 3, I used the recordings that are available on both side of the pond when possible.

Here's the Spotify playlist: Igor Stravinsky: Complete Chronological Catalogue (577 tracks, total time: 1 day) Press Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. Also check out this excellent Naxos audiobook about The Rite on Spotify. I wanted to recommend the 22-CD Stravinsky box-set to those who still buy CDs, then I found it's sold out. Well I'm glad that I got mine in time, and I'm even more glad that now I have Spotify. Enjoy.

Note: the picture above is from Stravinsky Foundation. For even more expressive portraits of him (and Marlene Dietrich), see corner portraits.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Maurice Ravel: Complete Chronological Catalogue

See this Wikipedia page for a list of compositions by Maurice Ravel, another French impressionism master, melodist and orchestrator of the highest order. The compositions are arranged by the catalogue numbers which were assigned by the musicologist Marcel Marnat according to their dates of composition.

I compiled a playlist accordingly. Just like the Debussy playlist, it features a dazzling series of pianists: Gieseking, Michelangeli, Argerich, Pogorelich and, my favourite interpreter of Ravel's piano works: Abbey Simon. For Boléro I used Boulez's 1970s recording on Sony. Others may prefer Munch's famous 1956 recording on RCA-Victor Living Stereo, but it sounds too fast to me. According to Ravel, it runs about 17 minutes when played at correct tempo. Boulez brought out the fierce quality in this deceptively straightforward piece, and his timing is almost identical to Ravel's own. In playlists like this, one of my main aims is to offer a list of great recordings of a particular composer, I recommend serious listeners to listen to the full albums, not just the playlists themselves. 

Here's the Spotify playlist: Maurice Ravel: Complete Chronological Catalogue (183 tracks, total time: 13 hours) All tracks are available on Spotify UK and USA. Press Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. More on Spotify: a new Music and Arts album of historic recordings conducted, supervised or approved by the composer, and a Naxos Classical Explained audiobook on Boléro and Mother Goose.

Over the next few days or weeks I will be posting a series of French composer playlists, and (warning: shameless teaser follows) the last one will be the greatest French composer of all time.

By the way, to help new visitors browsing, I added a drop-down menu for the site. Please take a look, your feedback is much appreciated.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Claude Debussy: Complete Works by Lesure Numbers

This is a list of compositions by French impressionist composer Claude Debussy, organized in chronological order, created by musicologist François Lesure in 1977. The catalogue was necessary because Debussy did not use opus numbers, except for his String Quartet (labeled Op.10).

I compiled a playlist according to the Lesure catalog, featuring some of the best recordings on Spotify: Uchida's Etudes, Michelangeli's Images, Zimmerman's Préludes, and Boulez's Pelléas et Mélisande (it's not available on Spotify USA, so I added another Naxos recording). The playlist starts a bit slow, the first indisputable masterpiece, the String Quartet, appears in the middle of the whole program, after dozens of songs and other miniatures (quite a few gems in those early works, like the charming Beau soir, encore favourite Fantoches, and the Prix de Rome pieces). After that, it's basically a cluster of monumental works.

Here's the Spotify playlist: Claude Debussy: Complete Works by Lesure Numbers (306 tracks, total time: 1 day) Press Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. Set it on random for Radio Debussy.

Debussy once said: "Music is a mysterious mathematical process whose elements are part of Infinity. ... There is nothing more musical than a sunset. " If you are new to this great composer, start from this wonderful compilation: Debussy at Dawn (judging by the mood of the album, it really be should titled Debussy at Dusk), also check out the audiobook that explains Pelléas et Mélisande in this Naxos playlist, and the Composer As Pianist playlist for historical recordings of Debussy plays Debussy. Lastly, Claude Debussy vs. Ricky Gervais.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jean Sibelius: Complete Works With Opus Number

""The people you think are radicals might really be conservatives – the people you think are conservatives might really be radical." - Morton Feldman in a lecture in Darmstadt, before he started to hum Sibelius's Fifth Symphony.

Jean Sibelius is arguably the greatest Nordic composer of all time. Largely thanks to outstanding Scandinavian labels like Ondine, Finlandia, and BIS, almost every note Sibelius ever wrote (and didn't burn) is available on Spotify. I compiled a playlist for all the works with opus number, as well as early version of the Violin Concerto, Symphony No.5 (in 4 movements) and Oceanides (Yale Version). I tried to feature as many excellent recordings as possible, but I don't know Sibelius that well to pick the "best" version for each work (is there such a thing as a definite recording of Sibelius symphony no. 2?) Please recommend any recording that you think deserves to be in this playlist, thanks.

Sibelius spent much time producing profitable chamber music for home use, salon music, occasional works for the stage and other incidental music, many of them do not bear opus number (hence not featured).

Here's the Spotify playlist: Jean Sibelius: Complete Works With Opus Number (500 tracks, total time: 1 day). Press Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. Put it on random when you crave for Radio Sibelius.

The last track of the playlist is a radio broadcast recording of Andante Festivo from January 1, 1939, with Sibelius conducting. It is the only recorded example of the composer interpreting one of his own works.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Carl Nielsen: Complete Works with Opus Number

Carl Nielsen in 1910
Spotify launches in Denmark today, the great news gave me the best reason to compile a playlist for the greatest Danish composer Carl Nielsen. I always wanted to explore more Nielsen, since his symphonies and clarinet concerto are spectacular.

The playlist includes all works assigned with opus numbers by the composer, and I tried to feature as many excellent recordings as possible. So you will see the six symphonies and four quartets by six different conductors and four ensembles respectively. The Symphony No.6 and flute concerto don't have an opus number, I put them at the end of the playlist. Please leave a comment if you want to suggest other important works without opus number, and I will add them.

Here's the Spotify playlist: Carl Nielsen: Complete Works with Opus Number (181 tracks, total time: 14 hours) Press Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. See list of works on this Wikipedia page.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Orchestral Arrangements of Famous Non-orchestral Works

This playlist is an answer to Piano Transcriptions of Famous Symphonic Works. It includes:

Debussy's 24 Préludes, orchestrated by Colin Matthews; Tchaikovsky's Mozartiana (orchestrations of Mozart piano pieces); Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, orchestrated by Harold Byrns (friend of Alma Mahler); Schubert Lieder orchestrated by Britten, Brahms, Reger, Berlioz, Liszt, Webern and Offenbach; Weber's Invitation to the Dance orchestrated by Berlioz. Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, orchestrated by Edmund Rubbra; Satie orchestrated by Debussy and Poulenc; Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy arranged for piano and orchestra by Liszt; Schumann's Fantasy in C major orchestrated by Hans Zender; Grieg's Lyric Pieces orchestrated by the composer; string orchestra arrangement of Beethoven's late quartets; and many other curiosities.

Here's the Spotify playlist: Orchestration As Adaptation (209 tracks, total time: 18 hours). Press Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. Recommendations are welcome.

Did I forget something? Oh yes, Pictures At An Exhibition, orchestrated by master colourist Ravel.