Saturday, December 29, 2007

Some notes about "completions" of Franz Schubert's works

Recently, I replayed a few CD’s of the controversial “completions” of Franz Schubert’s symphonies, and I think they have a lot to recommend.

First, the most familiar controversy concerns the formal Symphony #8, the Unfinished. (In the old days of LP record collecting, how many LP’s were there that paired the Beethoven Fifth with the Schubert unfinished?) I think that the “completion,” by Brian Newbould, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner (the Academy of St. Martins in the Fields) on Philips actually works. The last two movements remain in B minor, which was a difficult key to orchestra until Tchaikovsky (and maybe Borodin). The finale is based on the Rosamunde Enre’acte, but the lively piece it actually works. I don’t like letting the final chord dissolve into pianissimo, however.

The Symphony #7 in the “courtly” key of E Major, D. 729, was complete as a piano score and Schubert started the orchestration. I have the Koch CD with the Brian Newbould orchestration and Gabriel Chumra conducting the Radio Symphony of Berlin. It sounds a little bit straight-jacked, and is closer to the world of the 5th and 6th than the 8th and “Great” C Major. There are, however, plenty of bumpkin-like harmonic modulations. (The 4th, in C Minor, the “Tragic”, has always worked for me and is an interesting work to compare to Beethoven’s famous work in the same key; Schubert arrives at triumph with a lot more subtlety in the same key.)

The Symphony #10 in D (D. 936) was also “completed” by Newbould as a three movement work. Belgian conductor Pierre Bartholome modified the score, making it bolder, and added a separate scherzo that fits well. The result (on the Ricercar label 023003, which I got in the mail from Records International in the late 1980s; the performance was recorded in 1983) is a most promising work. The first movement, Allegro Maestoso, is in the grand style of the Great and almost anticipates Bruckner (like a Bruckner Symphony -2, if the F minor is -1 and the D minor is 0). True, the development section is minimal (more like a slow middle section), but the Coda is like a second development and is rather Eroica Beethoven-like (this could have something to do with Bartholome) and the conclusion is brazen (indeed anticipating Bruckner). The B minor slow movement builds a Wunderhorn mood that anticipates the slow movement of Mahler’s First, although it has some of the harmonic mannerisms from the slow movement of the Unfinished (which, by the way, is taken too fast by most conductors). The added scherzo is athletic, and the finale sounds a little bit like a relaxing reprise, but again builds up at the very end.

The Piano Grand Duo (D 812) in C, a mature work in his late style, was orchestrated as the so-called "Gastein" Symphony", by Joseph Joachim and others.

Although Schubert (except for a cello piece) wrote almost no concertos, the Liszt orchestration of his C-major Fantasy is most effective and is effectively a Liszt-style piano concerto with sections played without pause, ending in grandiose C major. The piano solo original stretches the sonorous limits of the instrument, especially at the conclusion.

The epic film “Sunshine,” directed by Istvan Szabo and released by Paramount Classics in 2000, built a music score (adapted by Maurice Jarre) from Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor for two pianos, with great effect. Schubert's famous D minor quartet generates a political thriller set in South America, made in the 90s, "Death and the Maiden," directed by Roman Polanski, from Fine Line Features, and the character Paulina Escobar played by Sigourney Weaver makes an interesting comment about Schubert.

There are other important completions. Giacomo Puccini ‘s last opera Turandot was “completed” by Franco Alfano, and the thrilling choral conclusion recalls the end of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” Mahler’s Symphony #10 in F-sharp, although essentially complete as a sketch, was orchestrated by Deryck Cooke, and Eugene Ormandy made one of the first recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1960s, on Columbia, with a “Philadelphia” sound that helped make Columbia an industry leader in pre-CD vinyl days.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Opera, hymnology, and the "individualist" personality: Zemlinksy's TraumGorge

Well, I missed out on Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet live transmission (got sold out), but I had a sort of live event this weekend. Sunday, I found myself an accidental tourist at a 50th-plus wedding anniversary reception at a church, served a delicious lunch to be sure, but then expected to stay and pay homage to biological kinship relationships among people in an extended family that I did not know, when I am, as others who read my blogs know, incapable of creating such a family lineage myself. It was actually an uncomfortable position to be in, and maybe not appropriate. I will not name the family here, inasmuch as the gathering is “private” yet curiously very public. The individual and the social world around him come into interplay.

I did, wonder, though, what music has to say about this. There was a guest soloist from Europe, a tenor, and he sung “The Old Rugged Cross” in several variations which he improvised, the last variation nearly approaching twelve-tone music. It was interesting that an earthy old hymn, well liked in the African American community (it could almost fit in "Say Amen Somebody" (1982)), could amend itself to almost expressionistic treatment.

I often find singing repeated verses of the same hymn boring unless the organist/choirmaster varies the harmonies (don’t just transpose one key up). Some hymns, of the higher church variety, do get me going. They would include “All Creatures of our God and King” (the official Music Club Federation hymn when I took piano in the 1950s), “For All the Saints,” and the New Years Staple “O Lord Our Help in Ages Past.” Some of the better hymns are by “real” composers, not just Beethoven (the Ode to Joy), but Vaughn Williams, Stanford, and Perry. Mahler called the first movement of his Eight Symphony (“The Symphony of a Thousand”) a hymn (Veni, Creator Spiritus)

Of course, you expect these issues of personality to be dealt with in opera. So then I looked around for an opera that might simulate my social situation. I thought I could find it in Britten, or maybe in German or Viennese expressionism, in the post-romantic world following Strauss. I found here the 1988 Capriccio recording of Alexander Zemlinksy ‘s Der TraumGorge (“George the Dreamer”, liberetto by Leo Feld, in German) with Gerd Albrecht conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Josef Protschka as Gorge, Janis Martin as Princess Gertraud, and Pamle Coburn as Greta, composed around 1907, contemporaneous with mid and late Mahler. Zemlinsky (born in Vienna though the name sounds Russian), wrote in the post-romantic Viennese style that really does bridge Mahler to Schoenberg and Berg. The writing, while expressive, is often sinewy. He wrote six string quartets (in various forms that anticipate later experiments by Berg like the “Lyric Suite” but that seem to be inspired by late Beethoven), and the “Lyric Symphony” which is often compared to Maher’s “Das Lied von der Erde” as well as several other quasi-symphony pieces. This particular opera is interesting because the protagonist, George, a pastor’s son, has, in a psychological sense, fled the practical world for a bookish one based on his own ideas and fantasy. (Hence the title of the opera.) He is, in a sense, “the little professor,” with his head in the clouds (as if Keanu Reeves could play him). George leaves a real world financee for what seems to be an imaginary princess out of his imagination, but in the opera she comes into reality. He has to deal with the resentment of the townspeople workers, who will exploit him for their “political” agenda. Eventually she becomes real enough that he can protect her and make his life real. The concept of the opera seems to deal with the individual’s own moral outlook fighting the collectivistic, adaptive demands of the society around him (certainly anticipating Bolshevism). The music seems to center around the key of E, and has a couple of martial climaxes, in the epilogue tails off into a dream world, pianissimo, without even the sense of resolution (like Wagner would have provided) that the story itself is supposed to provide. Or does it?

A recent film that deals with this idea of imaginary loves coming to life is MGM's "Lars and the Real Girl" (see my movies blog 12/18).

Sunday, December 02, 2007

St. Olaf's College Christmas Festival Simulcast

Today (Sunday Dec. 2) I attended the St. Olaf College Christmas festival Simulcast at a Regal Cinemas auditorium in Arlington VA at 4 PM ($20). The festival was preceded by a short film documenting the history of the festival (back to 1912), with many black-and-white images of the college and the town of Northfield at different points during the last century. The live Simulcast (by satellite) was broadcast to 197 theaters around the country today. The sound did seem a bit constricted (with a trace of intermodulation distortion), especially in the a cappella numbers.

I attended the event on a Saturday night in 1999 when I was living in Minneapolis. Northfield is about 40 miles SE of Minneapolis, and you have to be drawn from a lottery to get a ticket. The event takes place in what seems like a large gym converted to an auditorium with about 12000 seats. The processional, that year a Lutheran hymn, was a tremendously moving experience. That year I remember some Vaughn Williams was played.

Today the concert started with an orchestral prelude “Messiah: Prince of Peace” from Trinity Canticles by Daniel Kallman. The piece is modern and somewhat impressionistic, mostly in slow tempos. Next the Prologue from Edward Elgar’s The Apostles were performed.

Other works from the standard classical choral repertoire included “For Unto Us a Child is Born from Handel ‘s Messiah; “How Lovely are the Messengers” from the oratorio St. Paul by Mendelssohn; an excerpt from In Terra Pax by Gerald Finzi; “And God Siad: One Day Shall Dawn from King David by Arthur Honegger; Nune Dimittis by Rene Clausen. The concert ended quietly with “Beautiful savior” adapted from a Silesian folk tune by F. Melius Christiansen.

The conductors were Anton Armstrong, Steven Amundson, Christopher Aspaas, and Sigrid Johnson. There was an entre’acte of Christmas carols including a rousing interpretation of “Joy to the World” as arranged by Steven Amundson. A major theme of this year's concert is "liberal arts in a time or war."

I like the idea that musical organizations (including the Met) have some of their broadcasts filmed in HD and then distributed to theaters for limited showings by a regular film distributor (say, Sony Pictures Classics).

Additional note:

A typical film from St. Olaf's film school is "Change Inside" (River's Edge Films, dir. Nathan Haustein) (the trick of putting a penny on a railroad track, and then finding real help inside a church service). Link is here. From the 2007 Insomnia Film Festival. The little film reminds me of the work of Jason Epperson and Will Bigham ("Lucky Penny") in Dreamworks 's "On the Lot" short film contest on Fox last summer.

Update: Feb. 6. 2008

The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC last Sunday (Feb 3) performed the anthem "The Glimpse of Glory" by David Ashley White. I believe this was performed by St. Olaf's at the 1999 concert that I went to. As a hymn, it seems to be popular in Lutheran churches and it was often sung at the Metropolitan Community Church in Minneapolis as a hymn. But it does not seem to appear in the Baptist hymnal. It has rich harmonies and modulations of post-romantic music. It is probably somewhat difficult for congregations to sing.

Picture: White House on World AIDS day (Dec. 1).

Second picture: Wikipedia attribution link for picture of St. Olaf's campus: