Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gioachino Rossini: Complete Operas & Other Works

"The point is... a person feels good listening to Rossini. All you feel like listening to Beethoven is going out and invading Poland. Ode to Joy indeed. The man didn't even have a sense of humor. I tell you... there is more of the Sublime in the snare-drum part of the La Gazza Ladra than in the whole Ninth Symphony."  -- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

"The first characteristic of Rossini's music is speed -- a speed which removes from the soul all the sombre emotions that are so powerfully evoked within us by the slow strains in Mozart. I find also in Rossini a cool freshness, which, measure by measure, makes us smile with delight." -- Stendhal , Life of Rossini

Happy 53rd birthday
This playlist collects Italian composer Gioachino Rossini's complete works.It starts with Giulini's classic recording of the overtures; then I put in the complete operas in chronological order, as listed here (most of his 39 operas are available on Spotify); after the last opera William Tell, composed when Rossini was only 37 and was going to live another 39 years, you can find all the sacred music, chamber music, songs, and some instrumental and piano pieces. For Petite Messe Solennelle (1863) I included two recordings: the original version played on Pleyels built in 1858 and 1869, and a harmonium from 1878; and the orchestrated version. At the end there is Chailly's Rossini Discoveries (now out of print), which features seven world premiere recordings of rarities.

Here's the Spotify playlist: Gioachino Rossini: Complete Operas & Other Works (1476 tracks, total time: 100 hours) Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. Most tracks are available on both Spotify Europe and USA. Also check out my previous Naxos Educational playlist for Opera Explained - The Barber Of Seville & Tancredi.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Spotify's New Feature: Gapless Playback

Today Spotify added gapless playback, probably the most wanted feature among classical fans. If your desktop hasn't been automatically updated, you can get the new version here.

A few examples to showcase this great new feature:

Stockhausen's monumental work for six vocalists and six microphones, Stimmung. Over 70 minutes long, in 51 tracks, now with no gaps in between!

Live albums sounds so much better without gaps. Check out the last three track from Grateful Dead's Europe '72 Vol. 2, one of the most exciting encores ever.

Concept albums are now presently properly too, from What's Going On to Deltron 3030, from The Ninth Wave (the second half of Hounds Of Love) to The Downward Spiral, all those annoying gaps are gone for good.

If the short pause between the third and fourth movement of Beethoven's fifth Symphony made you wanted to bang your head on the desk, rejoice now, those days are gone and gone forever. Listen to The Fifth, or any symphony smoothly as one whole piece of work now. If you don't know where to start, check out my previous post: ABC Classic FM's Classic 100 Symphony.

And yes operas! Finally you can listen to a Wagner piece as three hours of contentious music without interrupting of any kind (provided you've turned off the phone and Twitter). Go search for an opera, or pick up one from my Wagner, Puccini, Strauss, Britten or Mozart playlist.

Electronic music/DJ mixes also benefits greatly from this feature, follow @afront and check out his blog for tips on that. 

All album examples are linked to Spotify. Try it for yourself and look forward to your recommendations.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

W. H. Auden in Music

A verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate, it goes on to become. - W. H. Auden

"Much of his poetry is concerned with moral issues and evidences a strong political, social, and psychological context. While the teachings of Marx and Freud weighed heavily in his early work, they later gave way to religious and spiritual influences. Some critics have called Auden an “antiromantic”—a poet of analytical clarity who sought for order, for universal patterns of human existence. Auden’s poetry is considered versatile and inventive, ranging from the tersely epigrammatic to book-length verse, and incorporating a vast range of scientific knowledge." Poetry Foundation

To celebrated Auden's 105th birthday, I put together a playlist of music based on his poems and translations, including Auden songs from Barber, Britten (Fish in the Unruffled Lakes), Foss (We're Late), Henze, Rorem and many more; libretti, including The Rake's Progress and Elegy for Young Lovers; and compositions inspired by his writings, like Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety.I also included jazz pianist Andreas Schnermann's Tell Me The Truth About Love, which set 12 Auden poems to music.

Here's the Spotify playlist: W.H. Auden in Music (163 tracks, total time: 9 hours). Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. See song texts here. For further readings, I wholeheartedly recommend his prose collection: The Dyer's Hand, one of the best books on reading, writing, Shakespeare and music that I have read, and this blog post: W.H. Auden as Muse. You can also hear Auden reading his poems from this previous playlist.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke in Music

Music. The breathing of statues. Perhaps:  
The quiet of images. You, language where 
languages end. You, time  
standing straight from the direction  
of transpiring hearts.

"Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 –1926), was a Bohemian–Austrian poet. He is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language. His haunting images focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety: themes that tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets." - Wikipedia

"By sheer dint of prayer, I knew bread."
"Rilke's conservative forms, lyrical diction, rhyme and brevity are qualities that have historically commended themselves to the masters of the German lied, but prolific ones like Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner and Othmar Schoeck ignored Rilke and turned readily, among contemporary writers, to Hermann Hesse, whose purely poetic gifts were of a lesser order.

The modernists dabbled: Schoenberg, Berg and Webern each set a Rilke lyric or two, but with unmemorable or sometimes jarring results. Paul Hindemith made a cycle of "The Life of Mary" that many admire. But the list is very short.

Rilke is by far the most-read German poet in English translation; there are at least 12 translations of the sonnets alone, most of them still in print, and when the poet's name comes up in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," it isn't an obscure reference. Yet though there must have been some previous American or British settings of the sonnets, none has come my way." - NYT, A 'Musician' in Spite of Himself

Though the author is on record as having only contempt for musical settings of his work, many more Rilke settings were composed and recorded since the above 1992 NYT article; I collected more than 60 classical works for this playlist. Not all of them are masterpieces that are worthy of the original text; I put my favourite ones at the beginning: Morten Lauridsen's Chansons des Roses, Krenek's O Lacrymosa, and Lieberson's Rilke Songs. Other notable works include: Brad Mehldau's Love Sublime, Rautavaara's setting of the first Duino Elegies, three settings of Sonnets to Orpheus (by Rautavaara, Danielpour and Eric Moe), and four settings of Rilke's only major prose poem: The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke (by Earl Kim, Frank Martin, Viktor Ullmann and Paul von Klenau).

Here's the Spotify playlist: Rainer Maria Rilke in Music (336 tracks, total time: 20 hours) Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. See song texts here. For further readings, I recommend any good anthology with Letters to a Young Poet, and The Complete French Poems.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Spotify Hidden Feature: Playlist Search

I wrote about how to use advance search to look for classical music on Spotify before; Spotify's official site also offers various examples of wildcard searches. Today I discovered a hidden feature in Spotify's desktop app: playlist search.

Example 1: playlist:pitchfork

I browsed the five results in the first page, they are all quite popular (8k+ subscribers), but strangely, no playlists from Pitchfork's official account was shown in the first ten pages of results (even though this one has 35k+ subscribers). Apparently, the reason is, there's no "pitchfork" in the titles of those playlists.

Example 2: playlist:mozart

Here begins the confusion. It shows a list of seemingly random playlists - many of them have no subscribers at all. I am not going to browse through a list of playlists titled just Mozart unless I'm really bored, and I doubt many users will. I didn't see my Mozart Chronological Catalogue playlist (800+ subscribers) in the first 10 pages of results, and couldn't find anything when I searched for "Mozart catalogue".

Example 3: playlist:tom moon

My intention was to find out if other users could find my 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die Based on Tom Moon's Book playlist (1.7k+ subscribers) through playlist search. The answer is negative - it only shows dozens of playlists consist of only one album: Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever. This brings up another problem in Spotify: the unwanted one-album playlists.

Why would users create a playlist for a single album? Because they have to; there's simply no other way to save an album for further listening. Playlist management is always a weakness in Spotify, after a user created dozens or hundreds of playlists, it becomes really hard to look for or even remember what's in the library. Creating a "favourite albums" playlist partly solves the problem, but I think Spotify could add a simple function that vastly improves the user experience, for now I call it My Collection.

We create and subscribe to various playlists for rainy days, parties, holidays, etc., all tracks in those playlists go into our Spotify Library, but I think many of us also treasure the notion of a personal music collection, consists of only the albums/tracks we really think as "our music", i.e. those we would buy before music subscription comes into being. What I suggest is: add an "Add" button for tracks, albums and even artists, and show music added to My Collection is grid view, as in Devices (see image below).

I don't think it's the same as Starred tracks, which would become hard to browse after I added in hundreds of albums; it also cannot hold more than 10,000 tracks. For unknown reasons, users can no longer star an album in the latest version of Spotify.

This Collection function also creates useful stats for Spotify: how many users added a particular track/album to their collections; how many followed (added to collection) an artist. They can also add another handy function here: show new releases/newly added recordings from an artist to their Spotify followers as a unread (unheard?) count in their icons in the grid view. How many times did we stumble upon a promising release from an unknown band every year, and how do we keep track of their follow-ups? Why do I need a 3rd party service to tell me a new Radiohead or Leonard Cohen album has become available on Spotify? This function improves user experience, as well as offering the musicians a chance to gain loyalty, other than one-time exposure.

I think Spotify is still working on playlist search (hence the hidden-ness); hope it becomes a truly useful function soon.