(Richard WAGNER - Efrem ZIMBALIST)

(Vactor - Vorísek) contents
Wagner, above all else a theater man, left very little music outside of the operas. That little generally doesn't measure up even to Rienzi. The instrumental Siegfried-Idyll is, however, one of his greatest works. To my mind, it's his only piece that points to the great symphonist we lost. Ernest Newman mentions that Wagner thought of writing a second symphony (the early Symphony in C's a pretty feckless affair) in this style, but Wagner died before he got around to it. We hear the Idyll all the time for either symphony orchestra (like the Berlin Philharmonic) or chamber orchestra (like the Academy of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields). Yet Wagner wrote originally for a very small ensemble. Very few have recorded this version. I can think only of Solti and Boulez. As such, it's a great piece of chamber music as well. For the Glenn Gould fanatics (I'm one), the pianist came out with a marvellous record of his piano transcriptions of Wagner. He included this piece as well as excerpts from the Ring and the Meistersinger Overture.
In the '30s, everyone regarded William Walton as the next unrivalled Greatest Living British Composer. Then came Britten. Still, Walton wrote great works, if not absolutely shattering ones. Belshazzar's Feast is a fantastic piece -- unique in choral literature -- even if it isn't the War Requiem. He slumped in the early 60s and never produced another major piece. Further, the British musical scene moved away from him and toward Britten, Tippett, and Davies, so that now very few know his works. The best thing he ever wrote remains his first symphony. The second was badly received at its première, but a subsequent performance led by George Szell reversed the critics. It doesn't Strive for Greatness, like the first. It's more lyrical and relaxed, sort of like a boating trip, rather than a mountain climb. I dislike so few things. Special favorites include the following. The Violin Concerto -- heartbreaking. The Cello Concerto experiments with orchestration. The opening is unforgettably exquisite and odd at the same time. The Viola Concerto sounds a bit like Hindemith (its first champion) and is probably, after the Violin Concerto, his most substantial. The Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra is very concentrated, vigorous writing, both for the orchestra and for the soloist. Variations on a Theme by Hindemith uses the Hindemith cello concerto's singing first theme from the second movement and builds a masterly set of variations, filled with an unorthodox wit. Johannesburg Festival Overture sparkles and fizzes in a way that most people instantly associate with Walton. The music for the Olivier Shakespeare films -- Hamlet, Henry V, and Richard III -- stands level with Prokofiev's film music, strong-sinewed and memorable. Walton also created a new religious music. Although to a Biblical text, Belshazzar lies outside this group. Outstanding works include the Gloria (take THAT, John Rutter!) and The Twelve (to an Auden text). Finally, for pure sophisticated charm, try the song cycle Anon. in Love, for tenor and guitar.
More from the neo-classical wing of American music. A composer of whom great things were expected, but somehow never arrived. He did win the Pulitzer for his opera on Miller's Crucible. I saw the première and liked it enormously. I've heard it several times since and the luster slightly dimmed. My problem comes down to why the need for an opera of The Crucible. Still, at my last count, he had come up with 6 symphonies, all fine. At his best, he has a big, outdoorsy quality, which his "hit," Jubilation Overture, exemplifies. Although ripped by professional critics (I'm a critic, but an amateur), his Piano Concerto I also enjoy. Bartók lite, but very attractive.
A miniaturist of genius. One of the great songwriters in English. A few have tried to revive more substantial works, like Serenade to Delius and The Curlew. These works seem second-hand goods to me -- not badly-written, just stodgy. The miniatures are another piece of candy altogether. Not a bad analogy, since the word that comes to mind as I listen is "delicious." Again, the songs matter, and their idiom is his own.
THE major influence on music after World War II, he wrote only slightly over 30 works. I don't claim to like everything, but what I don't like, I respect. Music extremely concentrated. I don't know how long his longest piece lasts, but the complete works, including arrangements, occupied 2 LPs. The orchestration alone wins me over. It shimmers. For a friendly intro to the music, try the arrangement of Bach's Ricercar (from the "Musical Offering"), if you can get it led by somebody other than Robert Craft, who misses the point completely. Craft emphasizes the changes in instrumentation and plays everything practically staccato. To me, Webern intends a continuous line, always changing color. For a sample of his own idiom, try the Variations for orchestra, my favorite of his works. Other highpoints include the Passacaglia (op. 1!), Five Movements for string quartet or string orchestra, 5 Pieces for orchestra, Das Augenlicht, and the 2 cantatas. Many of my profs used to say how necessary it was to analyze Webern's scores before you could enjoy them. It always seemed backwards to me. You analyzed because you enjoyed them. The first work I heard was the Variations. After 3 weeks of classroom analysis, I didn't love them more than I had at first, although I knew them better.
A great composer in a crowd of great Renaissance (and English Renaissance at that) composers. To me, the finest after William Byrd. What was in the water at that time, other than the stuff that could kill you? From the simultaneous clash of major and minor thirds comes great power. He appears at his best and most characteristic in music for 6 voices (he doesn't handle 2 and 3 voices all that well), and this gives great richness to the sound. He's a master of both sacred and secular. I don't know of anything other than independent anthems, madrigals (he contributed a stunner to The Triumphs of Oriana), and motets, so you most likely will find his music in Elizabethan and Jacobean miscellanies.
One of the redefiners of opera. Along with Strauss, a pioneer in getting libretti from major poets, rather than from hacks or nice guys. The Big Two works are Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) and the Threepenny Opera. The latter I prefer in Marc Blitzstein's sassy English translation rather than the original Brecht. After a European career cut short by WW II, he made his living at mostly mediocre musicals. Two striking exceptions to this harsh assessment are Street Scene and Lost in the Stars (his last completed work). Don't judge LitS by the Original Cast recording (hammy). The score's much better: maybe someone will record it. After Weill's death, his rep declined, mainly due to the bad-mouthing of Schoenberg and Webern. Why they hated him probably had less to do with the quality of the music and more with what they perceived as a sell-out. Their comments make absolutely no sense. Nevertheless, it took the early '70s to resurrect the music (David Drew's Kurt Weill in Europe and David Atherton with the London Sinfonietta doing heroes' work). The Violin Concerto has undergone a mini-boom. The major achievement remains in the theater with The Seven Deadly Sins, Berliner Requiem, Frauentanz (for mezzo and chamber group), Happy End (acknowledged as a major source of Guys and Dolls), The New Orpheus, Ozeanflug, and Silbersee. The exceptions to this pronouncement are two magnificent symphonies, both panned (Bruno Walter, however, liked the second) at their premières and still under-appreciated. In their poetic handling of form, they (particularly the second) remind me of Schubert. That he wrote no more than these is our significant loss.
Not Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the Victorians' drippy darling, but the older Samuel, a religious crazy and one of the early champions of J. S. Bach (the "Sebastian" was no coincidence). I have heard only 3 works, one a throwaway, one delightful, and one a masterpiece. The Symphony in D is charming and inventive, but it can't compete with Haydn. However, if you see a recording of the motet In exitu Israel, PICK IT UP. This is the finest motet between Bach and Brahms, and it may be better than a lot of Brahms. I wish I could hear more. If ever a work deserved the label "overlooked masterpiece," this is it.
Benjamin Britten's favorite madrigal composer. It's not hard to see why. The part writing is both elegant and beautiful. The sensitivity to text ranks with the best ever. He didn't leave much, just gems. Again, you will probably be able to find only fugitive pieces on anthology discs. Another contributor to the legendary Triumphs of Oriana collection.
Who? A Brit, at one time resident in the US, whom I've lost track of. CRI, however, released a work for solo singers and chamber ensemble called %Parephenalia: A Regalia of Madrigalia from "Chou and the South"% -- madrigals to texts by Ezra Pound. W-W has the gift of making the memorable musical gesture.
A composer's composer. Known during his lifetime mainly as a teacher, and certainly one of the best in New York, he really is a major composer whose work has been woefully under-represented on disk. In 1948, Aaron Copland wrote of Wolpe's "fiery inner logic" and "pounding natural force" that make for "fascinated listening." He also added, "It is a sad commentary on the state of our musical house that this man must create in comparative isolation. Wolpe is definitely someone to be discovered." Nearing 50 years later, this still applies. The most readily-available work is probably an old Columbia Masterworks recording of 10 Songs from the Hebrew, but I'd pick up anything.
A reviewer for High Fidelity, back in the days when it purported to review classical recordings, wrote, "What in the world does Ormandy see in the music of Richard Yardumian?" Yardumian's one of those poor shnooks caught between the "no music after 1900" and the "no music before 1975" know-nothings. Music criticism suffered during the '60s, unfortunately just the time when Yardumian's music began to be recognized by the general public. One of the few contemporary composers Ormandy could stand, he got his orchestral works recorded exclusively by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Because he lived in that city, the interest always seemed parochial. I love his music, absolutely individual and instantly recognizable. After an early Prokofiev-like Armenian Suite (delightful), he developed his own idiom, a new system of melody and harmony based on series of alternating major and minor thirds. Eventually (with one fudge), you get all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Of course, there is no 12-tone method but Schoenberg's, and the critics once again drubbed him for Aesthetic Presumption. Someday, they may get to the music. Despite the system that produced it, the music sounds "poly-modal" to me. Big ideas are at work here. Yardumian's favorite composer is Bach (good choice), and the music reflects this, not in the Stravinskian way, but kind of like Vaughan Williams. I guess I'm looking for the word "noble." Try the Cantus animae et cordis, Chorale-Prelude for orchestra, the Violin Concerto, Missa "Come Creator Spirit", the Passacaglia, Recitative, and Fugue for piano and orchestra (John Ogdon recorded this work twice), and the two symphonies. The story of Noah inspired the first. The second, subtitled "Psalms," features a contralto soloist and reworks an earlier setting of Psalm 130. Religious fervor and mysticism pervades almost all his music.
That's right, you heard right. Certainly the first real composer rock produced, although you may not think it much of a distinction. There's a home-made quality to Zappa's music -- this is no slick conservatory product -- and a real independence of thought. After all, how many people could have been influenced by doo-wop AND Edgar Varèse? Zappa's music is uneven. His chief fault is a fondness for building long solos over a single repeating bass line. Eventually, you would kill for a B section. But there's still plenty left where the music is fully worked out. Favorite albums: Absolutely Free, Freakout, Just Another Band from L. A., We're Only In It For The Money, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Jazz from Hell, Fillmore East, Orchestral Favorites, Roxy & Elsewhere, Sheik Yerbouti, The Perfect Stranger, You Are What You Is, and the London Symphony Orchestra album.
When I first heard the music of this baroque (in many senses of the word) composer, I immediately thought, "P.D.Q. Bach Lives!" At first I wasn't sure that Schickele wasn't having us all on. Nope, Zelenka is for real. Be prepared for a very quirky composer. Abrupt shifts and harmony centuries ahead of its time characterize the music. I prefer the instrumental works to the vocal and choral. There used to be a large multi-disc set of his music. If it's still around, try it.
Yep, Stu Bailey and that F.B.I. guy is a composer, and not a bad one at that. I've heard only one work, a Violin Sonata. Very attractive and very Prokofiev-like. There's got to be more music, and the sonata makes me want to hear it.

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