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Classical-Music.com Free Download: ‘Allegro con brio’ from Amy Beach’s Piano Trio in A minor

Monte Piano Trio

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This week's free download is the 'Allegro con brio' from Amy Beach's 1938 Piano Trio in A minor, performed by the Monte Piano Trio. The recording, which includes works by Natalie Klouda and Clara Schumann, received a three-star review in the July issue of BBC Music Magazine. 

'Beach is at her best in passages of light, sinuous counterpoint,' writes Helen Wallace, 'It's as if she toyed with something dangerously Continental but lost heart.'

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Classical-Music.com Rattle on the cover

Classical-Music.com George Gershwin: He had rhythm, he had music…

George Gershwin

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Rhythmic and melodious, Gershwin’s music fuses popular elements from the American melting-pot: the flattened notes and syncopations of African-American blues and ragtime; Hispanic rhythms; the aching cadences of Hebrew chant. More classical ingredients range from the harmonies of Chopin, Liszt and Debussy to the sprightly patter of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Little of this frothy broth appeared in Gershwin’s first hit song ‘Swanee’ (1919), but the ordinary tune and simple lyrics went with a swing, especially when sung by Al Jolson. Five years later came the leap into the audacious with Rhapsody in Blue, composed for bandleader Paul Whiteman’s ‘Experiment in Modern Music’ concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall. Popular jazz collided with Lisztian rhetoric and a melody worthy of Tchaikovsky.

Most of the music world delighted in the odd mix, and wanted more. Gershwin obliged, and spent what remained of his life straddling the popular and classical divide with an ease no other American of his generation could match; Irving Berlin characterised him as ‘the only song-writer I know who became a composer’. At his death Gershwin was widely mourned, and he’s continued to be indispensable. 

Yet Gershwin’s output has numerous hidden corners. In some ways he’s been taken for granted, not least by academia. 

In 2006 music scholar Howard Pollack delivered George Gershwin: His Life and Work, 884 pages of objective research. But a hole remains in the lack of any critical edition of the scores. Rhapsody in Blue alone exists in multiple versions, each with its own anomalies or cuts. The recorded legacy is equally tangled, and many key recordings remain out of print, among them Houston City Opera’s 1976 Porgy and Bess (the most generally satisfying).

Corporate blindness and shaky finances have no doubt played a part. But might there perhaps be lingering high-brow suspicion of the chameleon Gershwin?

Peering down at his concert works in 1929, the American commentator Paul Rosenfeld found ‘second-hand ideas and ecstasies’, ‘brutal calculated effects’, and no structural solidity.

Britain’s Wilfrid Mellers made similar, if more gentle, remarks some 30 years later.

In the Rhapsody and its successors, linking material can indeed be weak, but the relationship between melodies and context is subtler than critics have suggested. And even when our heads might agree with their comments, our hearts don’t. We keep on listening, keep finding sustenance, keep humming the tunes.

At the back of this gibing lies the notion of Gershwin as a force of nature, someone who created magic from the sounds of New York but lacked the schooling to expand the magic further. This is distorting. His passions in classical music ranged widely, from Bach to Alban Berg.

Musical training may have been piecemeal, but he sought out tutors throughout his life. His piano teacher Charles Hambitzer was an early influence; Gershwin said he made him ‘harmony conscious’. In the 1930s, Joseph Schillinger helped lighten his orchestrations; he also, more controversially, proposed mathematical formulae as a means of controlling material. Gershwin requested help from 20th-century gods such as Ravel, Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger and Schoenberg (a tennis partner in Los Angeles). Henry Cowell and Wallingford Riegger, American experimentalists, also agreed; most others declined, not wishing to damage his natural gifts.

Debussy’s presence hovers round the harmonies of the placid Lullaby of 1919 for string quartet. The gestures of Italian verismo opera influence the 20-minute Blue Monday, doomed to one performance on Broadway in George White’s Scandals of 1922, though an important step toward Porgy and Bess. Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Chopin make their mark on Rhapsody in Blue, though not on its famous opening gambit, with the solo clarinet twiddling its notes then slithering and accelerating into the first theme.

Much of the Rhapsody’s colour range derives from its original orchestration by Ferde Grofé for Whiteman’s band. But the blue mood is embedded in Gershwin’s notes. The writer Carl Van Vechten told him he’d written ‘the foremost serious effort by an American composer’. An exaggeration then; an exaggeration now. Yet its passing fissures and banalities seem of no avail. Other American symphonic jazz from the 1920s belongs in a museum; only Rhapsody in Blue lives.

Despite the work’s success, Gershwin’s daily round continued unchanged. Always practical, he tailored his stage musicals to different star performers. The Broadway shows Lady Be Good! (1924) and Funny Face (1927) hung on the delightful pegs of Fred and Adele Astaire, crisply elegant dancers and singers.

His concert profile advanced alongside. In the Concerto in F for piano and orchestra (1925), the work’s abstract character emphasises its structural problems. But there’s still the lovely middle movement, a smoky, nocturnal beauty, featuring one of his most irresistible melodies.

Sections in the orchestral tone poem An American in Paris (1928) are more suavely knitted. Gershwin's complex personality seems ever reflected in his music’s brash energy, its innocent narcissism and braggadocio, also its lonely dark shadows.

His deepest longing was to create a full-length opera.

In 1926 after reading DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy he knew he had found his material. It took until 1934 for Gershwin to begin serious work on the story about Bess and the cripple Porgy, buffeted by fate in the black ghetto of Charleston’s Catfish Row. By then his dramatic skills had been strengthened through Strike Up the Band (1927), Of Thee I Sing (1931), and its darker sequel Let ’Em Eat Cake (1933): satirical musicals featuring big ensemble scenes, on the Gilbert and Sullivan model. Porgy and Bess, a work of much deeper emotions, added the easy flow of song, chorus and recitative found in Puccini. Further infusions came from African-American spirituals, and the modernities of Berg.

From its premiere in 1935, the opera had hurdles to overcome. Before opening night Gershwin consented to substantial cuts, only restored in full in 1976. Over time, changes in sensitivities and the social fabric have made the libretto’s broad characterisations susceptible to charges of racial stereotyping. But the big songs, topped by ‘Summertime’, remain unassailable, and Gershwin’s exuberantly dramatic effects often take one’s breath away.

 

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Classical-Music.com Classical voice types

Classical-Music.com Free Download: Jakob Lindberg plays Francesco da Milano’s Fantasia No. 22

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This week's free download is Francesco da Milano's Fantasia No. 22, performed on the lute by Jakob Lindberg. The recording from which this track comes – Italian Lute Virtuosi of the Renaissance – was Instrumental Choice in the February issue of BBC Music Magazine.

'There’s a sense of eavesdropping on a spontaneous yet eloquently-argued soliloquy,' writes Paul Riley. 'Colouring is subtle, conversational banter deftly managed, and Lindberg’s tempos always feel spot on, allowing the music to breathe.'

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Classical-Music.com Why should composers write for amateur musicians?

The People's Orchestra in Birmingham are one example of an amateur ensemble doin

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Have you ever been part of a concert in which all of the music was written by living composers? OK, if not a whole concert, maybe a first half? All right, maybe not a whole first half, but a significant piece in the programme? Or if not, how about a sliver of a work by a contemporary composer?

I’m guessing that the answer to at least the last of those questions is ‘yes’ if you’re a member of an amateur or professional orchestra, ensemble, choir, or chamber group, or if you’re part of the musical life of your community at school or university. But I’m pretty sure that it’s less likely that the answer to all of my first three questions is in the affirmative.

If so, that makes you part of a majority of music-makers in the country, for whom there is often an association between ‘contemporary music’ and ‘that’s not for me’ or ‘it’s too difficult to play’. Why has that happened? Why is there a gap between today’s composers and the repertoires of most of the musical ensembles in the country – which are not the professionals, but the amateur groups of all kinds who are the fabric of our musical life? It’s a situation that’s a historical anomaly in the wider course of the story of music. The clichés about the 18th and 19th centuries are largely true: markets for domestic and amateur music-making were driven by a desire for the new, in terms of what people wanted to play, with hundreds of composers only too happy to write for them. 

Music was new music, in other words, and it was a culture of participation, from the piano in the parlour to the organ at church, from the choral society in the assembly room to the orchestra in the concert hall. The newest symphonies, operas and chamber music by composers from Brahms to Tchaikovsky, Gounod to Wagner were performed by thousands of amateur music-makers who played and sang arrangements of operatic showstoppers and busked through symphonies from Haydn to Schumann.

That meant that composers were used to thinking of their audiences not as passive recipients of their music but as potential performers of their works – and that’s exactly what they were. Without the existence of countless amateur pianists who could play their music, there would not be much point in composers writing it or publishers printing it. Composers like Mozart or Brahms, Schumann or Schubert were not compromising their artistic standards in order to write music that people could play, or which they could aspire to play. There was a continuum of participation that connected composers with musicians of all levels, so there was no separation between the producers of musical works and their participative, engaged recipients, who weren’t so much an ‘audience’ as a community of music-makers.

Fast forward to today. Where has that connection gone? In certain contexts, there are ties that still bind composers to amateur performers – especially, perhaps, in choral music, where contemporary composers remain part of the lives of singers up and down the country. But in many situations, those threads have become gossamer-thin, if they exist at all. It’s the flip-side of the specialisation which has produced such brilliant composers and performers in our musical culture, in which professional composers are often trained to think that music that stretches the abilities of the finest virtuosos is what matters the most for their lives, their reputation, and for the art-form. In terms of not diluting their artistic vision, it’s not hard to see how this way of thinking has become the norm. But it is possible – and even more compositionally challenging – for composers to achieve a wider community of music-makers with their works: as Judith Weir has said, it’s one of her missions as the Master of the Queen’s Music that composers should be trained to write music that amateurs have access to as performers and participants, but which remains true to their essential creative voice.

And yet, in Britain especially, there is another history of music in the 20th and 21st centuries. In different but equally profound ways, our major composers – from Vaughan Williams to Holst, Tippett to Cornelius Cardew, Jonathan Dove to Judith Weir herself – have always reached out to communities of participants, writing music to engage amateurs as well as professionals, composing music designed to be ‘ours’, rather than ‘theirs’. Most powerfully, think of Britten in Aldeburgh, or Peter Maxwell Davies in Orkney, and their career-long catalogues of music for young people and whole communities. And thanks to another of the other great British contributions of the last few decades – the growth of education and outreach projects, and their symbiotic connection to our classical music institutions, as well as the place of composition and creativity on the National Curriculum – there is a wider movement to return our new musical culture to its fundamentally participative state. It’s that ethos that needs celebrating and putting back at the centre stage of our musical lives.

 

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Classical-Music.com Wagner’s operas

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After Richard Wagner, opera would never be the same again.

While struggling to give articulation to the extraordinary conception taking shape in his mind over the course of a quarter of a century, the composer was in no doubt about one thing: his ‘Artwork of the Future’, set out in his so-named essay of 1849, could not be performed as part of the ordinary programme of any existing theatre.

Not only were the demands on the singers and orchestral players of Der Ring des Nibelungen going to be way beyond the norm, but the audience itself needed to be prepared for the experience. Rather than coming to the performances after a tiring day in the workplace, people would set aside a period, as the Greeks did for their festivals, enabling them to contemplate at leisure what they were seeing and hearing. That principle is still enshrined at the Bayreuth Festival, where Wagner’s works continue to be performed today largely as he intended. 

Wagner’s works were revolutionary in other ways too. In place of the conventional melody and accompaniment that had until then characterised opera composition, he created a new way of setting the text (which he always wrote himself). Sometimes called a ‘musico-poetic synthesis’, this was a fusion of text and musical line that captured all the expressive nuances of the former in a setting that was neither recitative nor aria, but a kind of heightened arioso – somewhere between the two.

This in turn predicated a breakdown of the conventional operatic numbers – aria, duet, chorus and so on – in through-composed scenes that still retained elements of those forms but now organised in large-scale structures. Those structures were themselves shaped according to tonalities and networks of ‘leitmotifs’ – short motifs identified with specific objects (sword, spear, ring), characters, ideas or emotions.

• Read more: Wagner's leitmotifs

Wagner did not (quite) invent the notion of the leitmotif, but he did develop it as a structural principle and the technique has been imitated to a greater or lesser extent by virtually all subsequent composers of opera. Most operas since Wagner also unfold in through-composed scenes rather than self-contained numbers and a musico-poetic synthesis of some sort is also the norm. 

Orchestration is another sphere revolutionised by Wagner. In his own time and country, his nemesis Giacomo Meyerbeer was also pushing the boundaries of tradition as, in France, was Berlioz, but it was Wagner who first gave such instruments as the trumpet and bass clarinet consistently interesting parts, who had new instruments designed (Wagner tubas) and plucked others from obscurity, expanding the tonal resources and imaginative possibilities of the orchestra in the process. 

Quite apart from the voluptuous harmonies and rich textures of Wagner’s operas, what attracts many to them is their psychological subtlety and ideological complexity. The latter is often problematic – many scholars believe that Wagner’s anti-Semitism is evident in some of the works themselves as a kind of subtext – but there is an increasing realisation that the works do not necessarily have to be accepted on their own terms. Modern interpretations have found convincing ways of challenging ideologies that are no longer widely held. Wagner’s operas, with their deep truths and ambivalent significations, remain as enthralling, provocative and life-enhancing as ever.

 

Here, in chronological order, we explore the ten best known. Click on the title of each opera to find out more.

 

Der fliegende Holländer

Off the coast of Norway, a mysterious sailor and his equally mysterious ship appear. We learn that the sailor, the eponymous Dutchman, is fated to journey the seas for eternity – only if he finds unquestionable devotion from another, will the spell be broken. Senta, a local seamstress, is smitten. To prove her faithfulness, she makes the ultimate sacrifice.

 

Tannhäuser

In 13th-century Germany, Tannhäuser, a minstrel, descends from the magical, sensuous world of the Venusberg to the human realm of the Wartburg, from which he had previously departed in disgrace, and is reunited with his former lover, the pious Elisabeth. In a song contest overseen by the Landgrave, Tannhaüser shocks the assembled company with his unspiritual concept of love. Going on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution, he is told his cause is lost. However, Elisabeth’s suicide, and Tannhäuser’s reaction to it, offers redemption.

 

Lohengrin

When the Belgian duchy of Brabant is under threat from attack, help comes from a knight in shining armour, who arrives in a boat pulled by a swan. Elsa, daughter of the deceased Duke of Brabant, falls in love with him… but Telramund and Ortrud plan his downfall. On the night of their wedding,
Elsa is tricked into asking Lohengrin about the one thing he has forbidden: his identity. This leads to the knight returning to the land from where he came, but only after his swan has been transformed into Gottfried, Elsa’s long-lost brother.

 

Das Rheingold

At the bottom of the River Rhine, the dwarf Alberich steals the Rhine gold from the Rhinemaidens, who have revealed that whoever can create a ring from it will inherit the world. Meanwhile, up in the mountains, Wotan finds himself in trouble when he has to hand his daughter Freia over to the giants Fafner and Fasolt as the promised payment for building his castle. The giants agree to accept the Rhine gold in her place, so Wotan and his sidekick Loge head to Alberich’s cave to get it. They succeed but, alas, Alberich has cursed the ring and whoever should own it…

 

Die Walküre

Separated from his twin sister Sieglinde since childhood, Siegmund is reunited with her when sheltering from a storm at the house of her husband Hunding. They fall passionately in love. Hunding himself, though, realises that Siegmund once killed his brother, and challenges him to combat. Wotan, who is Siegmund’s father, sends the Valkyrie Brünnhilde to protect him, but then, on the order of his wife Fricka, changes his mind. Brünnhilde does so anyway. Siegmund loses when Wotan shatters his sword; Brünnhilde, meanwhile, is condemned by Wotan to lie in a magic sleep, surrounded by a ring of fire.

 

Tristan und Isolde

Sailing from Ireland to Cornwall, where Isolde is to marry King Marke, Tristan, who killed her previous fiancé, is persuaded to drink the elixir of death in atonement. Isolde drinks it too, wanting an end to her sorry life. This, though, is not the elixir of death but the elixir of love, Isolde’s maid Brangäne having switched the two bottles. Cue one of opera’s most famous love stories which ends with Tristan being struck by one of Marke’s men. Mortally wounded, Tristan goes to Brittany where Islode arrives as he breathes his last.

 

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

In 16th-century Nuremberg, the goldsmith Pogner causes a stir by announcing that he is to hold a song contest with the hand of his daughter, Eva, as first prize. Walther, a young knight who is in love with Eva, decides to take part, despite not belonging to the town’s guild of mastersingers. His effort is ruled out on technical grounds by Beckmesser, who also has his eye on Eva. Beckmesser’s own song gets sabotaged by Hans Sachs, the most famous mastersinger of all, who then helps Walther to win the contest.

 

Siegfried

Looked after since childhood by the dwarf Mime, Siegfried forges a new weapon from the shards of the sword of his father, Siegmund (see Die Walküre). After some intellectual high jinx between Mime and the Wanderer (Wotan), he is taken to slay the dragon Fafner and seize the hoard of gold that includes the Ring. Mime plans to poison Siegfried and grab the hoard himself, but when Siegfried finds out, he strikes him down. Siegfried in turn learns of Brünnhilde, whom he sets out to free from the flames.

 

Götterdämmerung

Siegfried is tricked by Hagen, son of Alberich, into drinking a potion that will make him forget his love for Brünnhilde. He then offers to use his power to win Brünnhilde for Hagen’s half-brother Gunther – all part of Hagen’s plan to grab the Ring, currently in her possession. Siegfried succeeds, puts the Ring on his own finger and is subsequently killed by Hagen. But when Hagen tries to remove the Ring he is resisted by Siegfried’s dead body. Brünnhilde takes the Ring back and rides with it into Siegfried’s funeral pyre to purify it. As the opera closes, the Rhine overflows its banks and the Rhinemaidens reclaim the Ring. All the while, up in Valhalla, Wotan has silently been waiting for the end of the gods to arrive…

 

Parsifal

Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, has been in constant pain and shame ever since losing the Holy Spear when led sensuously astray in the neighbouring realm of the conniving Klingsor. Retrieving the spear falls to the unwary, innocent Parsifal, who nearly succumbs to the same charms, courtesy of the alluring Kundry, but snaps to his senses. His journey to return to the Grail castle and cure Amfortas’s suffering takes many years, but the outcome is an exultant one.

 

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Classical-Music.com Free Download: ‘Behold the Sun!’ from Haydn’s ‘The Seasons’

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This week's free download is 'Behold the Sun!' from Haydn's The Seasons. Paul McCreesh leads the Gabrieli Consort, two choirs, and and a team of soloists including Carolyn Sampson, Jeremy Ovenden and Andrew Foster-Williams, who feature all on this track.

'McCreesh revels in Hydn's masterly skills,' writes George Hall. 'The choir's tone is full-bodied yet never heavy, the distinctive characters of the period instruments change with the seasons.'

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If you'd like to enjoy our free weekly download simply log in or sign up to our website.

Once you've done that, return to this page and you'll be able to see a 'Download Now' button on the picture above – simply click on it to download your free track.

If you experience any technical problems please email support@classical-music.com. Please reference 'Classical Music Free Download', and include details of the system you are using and your location. If you are unsure of what details to include please take a screenshot of this page.

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Classical-Music.com Q&A: Louise Alder

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How would you describe your experience at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World?

It was pretty intense, as you can imagine, but very rewarding as well. It was amazing to perform with the BBC orchestras and with my accompanist, Gary Matthewman, all week. I really enjoyed the first two rounds: my Song Prize and my Main Prize. However, there was something really special about the audience during my Main Prize. Their response was just electric, and I could really feel that they were on my side that night.

I also had to balance my time at the competition with my performance of Der Rosenkavalier with the Welsh National Opera. Luckily, I know Rosenkavalier quite well because I’ve sung it twice before, so I sort of knew how to pace myself. It was a matter of just taking rests when I could and making sure I didn’t speak very much.

 

How did performing at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World compare to performing at the Proms?

My performance of Fidelio this year was the third time I’ve performed in the Proms. I did Rosenkavalier there in 2014 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and I did Mozart’s C Minor Mass last year with the BBC Scottish Orchestra. I can’t describe what it’s like to perform at the Proms. I remember when I stepped out in 2014 and looked out at the Hall for the first time, and just thought “Oh my God!” However, the Cardiff audience and the Proms audience were very similar. You can tell they’re supporting you and you can feed off their energy, which is really liberating for a performer. That’s also why I love doing recital work so much, because there’s no pit in way – you’re directly in front of the audience.

 

What made you use Strauss’s music for a debut disc?

I love Strauss’s music – I feel he writes so characteristically for each of the people onstage, combining humour and pain and beauty into the music all at once. I came across the Rosenkavalier trio around 10 years ago when YouTube had just started up and I was at university in Edinburgh. I was browsing videos and happened to stumble across the final trio and the presentation of the rose. I completely fell in love. I started singing some Strauss songs including one that’s actually on the disk – Ständchen, the first Strauss song I ever learnt. I started to look at bits of Rosenkavalier, and then Glyndebourne offered me the chance to perform in it. Rosenkavalier has sort of followed me around ever since I did it for Glyndebourne. I’ve performed it for Frankfurt and for Vienna, and I’m going back to do one show for Glyndebourne next year, too.

 

What is the theme of the songs on your disk?

At first, we looked at doing whole opuses and complete sets, but soon I started looking at the poetry instead. I decided that the songs that were particularly good for me vocally would fit quite nicely into a story. We started to manipulate that idea and looked at what pieces we could add in for humorous numbers, faster numbers and more soft lyrical ones. There seemed to be a nice theme, a sort of woman’s journey through life and love. (It could be a man’s too, of course, but because I’m a woman I went with that!) I would love to do some recitals of the music from the disc, because I think they would work really well in that intimate kind of environment.

 

How involved was your accompanist, Joseph Middleton, in helping you put your disk together?

He’s actually the reason I actually won the Young British Soloists Competition, which is what financed the disk in the first place. He just messaged me one day and said “Do you fancy going for it?” I thought that would be wonderful to make a disk with him and have complete freedom of choice as to what I could choose to record. We talked about several different options, but in the end decided upon Strauss. We had done a recital of Strauss songs in the Leeds Lieder Festival before in November, so we took quite a few of the songs from that and recycled them.

 

What are the good and bad things about working with an accompanist in a recital setting?

It’s wonderful because you can really delve into both the poetry of the songs and the duo partnership you have with each other. It allows you to be freer than if you were working with an orchestra and a conductor, because in that situation there are so many more forces that need to come together. However, when it’s just a duo of the two of you, you can feel very naked and exposed – that in itself can be very exciting. In Cardiff, there were stark differences between the rounds with Gary and the rounds with the orchestra. With one other musician onstage, you can speak more directly to the audience and there’s a lot more flexibility, especially one that is so attuned to you as Gary and Joe are to me. I am lucky to have two fantastic recital partners.

 

Louise Alder's debut recording 'Through Life and Love' is available to purchase now on Amazon and iTunes.

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