(Van VACTOR - Jan Václav VORÍSEK)

(Tallis - Toch)     (Wagner - Zimbalist)      contents
Moisei Vainberg, 20th-century Russian, faced two major obstacles. First, for reasons known best to themselves, the Soviet government disliked him, although I don't believe he was ever jailed, merely ignored. Second, he had the misfortune to compose while Shostakovich and Prokofiev were around. His idiom resembles that of Shostakovich, but he's more communicative -- fewer "alienation devices" than in Shostakovich, who, by the way, admired his music. He's as open as Sibelius, although much darker in mood. Everything I've heard has been great. Try the concerti for cello, flute, and trumpet or any of the symphonies.

Van Vactor
An American composer long resident at the University of Tennessee. His music ranges from the pedestrian to, at its best, a Peter Mennin neo-classicism. I recommend the tight Fantasia, Chaconne, and Allegro for orchestra and the Music for Woodwinds, a systematic exploration of all combinations within the standard woodwind quintet plus two double quintets. Mathematicians can work out the number of pieces. Each part is part is beautifully worked out.

A major 20th-century voice, he left only a little more than a dozen works, none of which you can call popular. He deals in planes of sound, very much like his disciple Frank Zappa. Amériques for orchestra and Density 21.5 for solo flute are probably Varèse at his best-known and most accessible. However, try Arcana, Ionisation, Écuatoriale, Intégrales, Offrandes, Octandre, and the masterful Poème électronique.

Vaughan Williams
A great figure. My favorite British composer. I read the Michael Kennedy critical biography with the reverence believing Christians give to Lives of the Saints. Everything he wrote (aside from juvenalia) interests and engages me profoundly. Not only one of the greatest melodist of all times, but a technician so masterful that he becomes a "poet" of form. A lot has been made of his "amateurish" technique (something he himself started), which simply doesn't hold up when you examine the scores. I never knew music could be that good. Undoubtedly, I've lost critical distance. It's real hard for me to pick works from all those that are little known and masterpieces and stay within reasonable length.

VOCAL AND CHORAL pieces: Ten Blake Songs for solo voice and oboe (written late) show off his ability to penetrate to the heart of great texts as well as his melodic genius. Three Shakespeare Songs for unaccompanied choir (with the profound "Cloud-capp'd towers"). Five Mystical Songs for baritone, chorus, and orchestra set religious lyrics of the metaphysical poet George Herbert and attain an ecstatic mysticism. Benedicite for chorus and orchestra combines festivity with an introspective middle section. Dona nobis pacem precurses the Britten War Requiem and is as powerful as anything in the later work. Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a minor piece, nevertheless captures the season. The Christmas cantata Hodie is a major piece which does the same. Mass in g for a cappella chorus is a masterpiece of the 20th century and in many ways the vocal equivalent of the Tallis fantasia. Merciless Beauty to rondeaus by Chaucer for high voice and string trio is a gem. Again, tunes that go to your "insidest insides." On Wenlock Edge for tenor and piano quintet Michael Kennedy called a new world of sound, comparable to Debussy's Images for orchestra. Certainly, they are the finest settings of A. E. Housman I know of. Sancta Civitas to sections of Revelations is my favorite VW large-scale work for chorus and orchestra. It has the power of a Mantegna crucifixion or a Michelangelo sculpture. Toward the Unknown Region, an early work, shows the influence of Parry and Elgar allied to a gift for word-painting not found in either. Five Tudor Portraits runs from '30s modernism to simple song to great dramatic depth, as a little girl mourns the death of her pet sparrow. Valiant-for-Truth sets Bunyan: I like no choral piece better than this. Serenade to Music for 16 soloists and orchestra is to me a practically perfect work, although I have no idea how he could have improved it. I've heard four of the five operas and love every one of them. The greatest artistic success is Riders to the Sea, which sets the complete Synge play. Pilgrim's Progress has more of the composer's soul. Hugh the Drover is probably the least successful dramatically but there's not one bad tune in it. My favorite, however, is the Falstaff opera Sir John in Love -- one tune after the other, each one more gorgeous than before. The finale, until it's heard, can't even be imagined, it's so wonderful.

CONCERTI. People think of VW as a "pastoral," even "bucolic" composer and mistake him mightily. This is a very sophisticated artist with a huge expressive range, and it shows up very clearly in the concerti. The violin concerto shows the lighter side of '20s neo-classicism and reminds me very much of Bach's double concerto in d. The oboe concerto is delicate and fresh as a windflower and justifies the "pastoral" label. The tuba concerto is an odd piece, as you might guess, with a split personality. "Rollicking" in the outer movements, with a gorgeous, romantic slow movement (who thought the tuba could do this?), it's emblematic for me of the basic dichotomy in VW's artistic personality: a reserved, meditative quality which covers great inner passions. The Romance for harmonica takes that instrument into Debussy faun territory. The piano concerto (and its 2-piano version) show VW at his most sophisticated and his most heroic, very close to the Fourth Symphony in its language, though slightly less intense, even humorous in spots. I don't know what a virtuoso would feel about the piano writing, but it sounds to me as meaty as the Tchaikovsky first, yet with a far surer hold on form.

CHAMBER MUSIC. Not all that much, but what there is of it is cherché. Phantasy Quintet re-enters the world of Elizabethan consort music. The first string quartet, though not at the same level of towering masterpiece, is a rather genial version of Ravel's. The second string quartet is more astringent and related stylistically to the Sixth Symphony. The violin sonata is a substantial contribution to the genre and very little played. I don't know why. The Suite for Pipes, for recorder consort, plays high, sophisticated fun.

ORCHESTRAL MUSIC. Five Variants on "Dives and Lazarus" for harp and strings are gorgeous and have not one wasted note in them. Concerto Grosso and Partita for Double String Orchestra are extremely sophisticated studies in syncopation as well as fantastic string writing. English Folk-Song Suite and Toccata Marziale, both for band, show his winning way with a folk song and his own version of neo-classicism, respectively. Flos campi for viola, wordless women's chorus, and chamber orchestra meditates on passages from the Song of Songs and reaches, appropriately, passionate climaxes. Lush music with a minimum of means; the bitonal opening used to be famous. One of his greatest instrumental pieces, Job, a Masque for Dancing, takes off from the Blake illustrations. The musical language foreshadows the Fourth Symphony. The "Aristophanic suite," The Wasps, is one of the earliest examples of VW breaking free from his teachers. It's great fun, should be popular as hell, and occasionally sneaks up on you with a surprising depth. The nine symphonies stand at the center of his achievement. VW is one of the great symphonists. 4, 5, and 6 get done all the time, but really try them all. No. 1, "The Sea," to magnificent texts by Walt Whitman, is that rare beast, a true choral symphony. It is an extended work for chorus which extends the Elgarian tradition in the first movement and then just takes off into new territory, and it is also a real symphony (sonata-allegro form etc., etc.). How he did this while keeping faith with the text is a mystery. No. 2, "London," is for me the most beautiful in sound, and his closest approach to French impressionism. I don't know why it isn't played more. No. 3, "Pastoral," is no Romantic wallow in nature or even a Beethoven country ramble. I hear the "mind" of nature in it. Kennedy believes it is his Requiem for the WWI dead. Nos. 7 and 8 exemplify the interest in new sounds that mark the last phase. In No. 7, the new sounds are used to deepen the emotion. No. 8, on the other hand, is like Haydn in a light mood; the last movement, with an extended section of tuned percussion, was inspired by a performance of Puccini's Turandot. After 25 years of listening, No. 9 remains an enigma to me. I haven't cracked it and I haven't given up.

A contemporary of Palestrina's, Victoria writes in a similar style, but with far greater intensity. This is the Spanish religious soul, and it's not surprising he knew St. Teresa of Avila. The man couldn't write a throwaway piece, so get anything. Like Lassus, he's a master of the motet, and several collections are available on CD. The Responsories for the Tenebrae is a shattering piece. Special favorite sections include "Caligaverunt oculi mei" and "Ecce quomodo moritur justus." Unlike Lassus, he's also a writer of great masses. Try the Officium defunctorum, Missa O magnum mysterium, and the Missa O quam gloriosam, both based on his own motets. To me, he's a Romantic born too early, so the more out of historical style the performances of his music, the better. I treasure George Malcolm's recording of the Responsories.

Brazil's best-known composer. Very large, uneven output. His music had a vogue in the '40s and '50s, which has died down. You don't hear people talking about his work any more, and that's a shame. Aside from "loose, baggy monsters" of pieces, there are also gems. He's as independent and voluble as Ives. Not known for his humility, before he left for a stay in Europe, he was asked, "With whom will you study?" "They will study with me," he answered. The Rudepoema for solo piano combines the barbarism of Bartók with snappy Latin rhythms. He is one of the great guitar composers Surprisingly, he actually played the instrument-- unlike Bach, Rodrigo, and Britten. The center of his achievement remain the series of Bachianas Brasileiras, in which he modestly implies that this is how Bach would have handled the Brazilian folk idiom. Not a lot of it reminds me of Bach (aside from some keyboard figurations in #3), but it's still highly imaginative, highly-colored music. The orchestration ranges from standard piano concerto (No. 3), to Impressionistic-modern (No. 2), to an acerbic duet for flute and bassoon (No. 6), to bold experiments (No. 5 for wordless soprano and cello ensemble -- he was also a cellist). No. 5 is his hit. Go figure.

John. An American composer, 20th-century Southern. I've heard only 3 pieces: Consort for piano and strings (essentially a piano quintet), the first string quartet, and his Symphony in D. All are extremely well-written in a kind of Piston-ish style, but they're a little warmer and more direct than most Piston. Both Ormandy and Robert Whitney recorded the symphony, which at one time looked like it would become an American classic.

When I was young and twenty, I avoided listening to Vivaldi, except for the famous Gloria, which I loved. I believed Dallapiccola, who made the crack that Vivaldi didn't write 3,000 concerti; he wrote the same concerto 3,000 times. It's a zinger, but not really accurate, as a listening to the complete collection Il Cimento (which CONTAINS the "Four Seasons") proved to me. The emotional range isn't wide, but the variety within that range seems inexhaustable. Really, try anything, but especially try the collections to savor this composer at his best. These include La Cetra, La Stravaganza, L'Estro Armonico, and the Concerti grossi, Op. 7. I especially like Scimone's performances. I do admit to fatigue as I slogged my way through all 38 bassoon concerti, but singly they're easy to take. Concerti are what get played, but Vivaldi was also known for sacred music, oratorio, and opera. I've never heard a Vivaldi opera. I have heard some of the large sacred pieces, including the oratorio Juditha triumphans. Handel it's not, but it's not nothing either. For Vivaldi fanatics, like me.

People have posted on this guy before. A Czech, roughly contemporary with Beethoven. His Symphony in D is wonderful and, mysteriously, little-known. It's one of the best symphonies outside the standard canon, miles ahead of the Cherubini symphony (nothing to sneeze at), and comes the closest to matching Beethoven and Schubert.

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