Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Schubert Top 10

In honor of Franz Schubert's birthday today I was thinking about what that gentleman from the Schubert Club asked me about what were my favorite Schubert songs.

He asked me that question as a comment. I had told him I would answer him and I never did.

I have not actually given my answer any thought but I can work on it off the top of my head.

1.) "Nahe das Geliebten." "The nearness of the beloved."

2.) "Der Jungling An Der Quelle." I love the shortness of this song, its singsong, hypnotic nature.

3.) "Normans Gesang." Loved this since I was a teenager, no secret. I link to it all the time. I love the youthful nature of the song, the horse galloping, the knight thinking of his lady.

4.) "Willkommen und Abschied." Oddly enough this is a latter-day favorite. I only discovered it a few months ago.

5.) All the songs in "Die Schoene Muellerin."

6.) "Totengrabers Heimweh." I love this image of the gravedigger wanting to follow the dead people into the grave. This is funny, this is kind of a wild slot. I could actually fill this with one out of 100 odd Schubert songs that just strike me as right on one day or another.

7.) "Der Wanderer." This one is for my friend Peter who would always sing the first line. You have to put the weight of the world in that first line!

8.) "Dithyrambe." I loved this song as a teenager about the gods who get you drunk. But it is not on YouTube.

Oh my gosh my golly! I found it! I cannot believe it. The singer is Georg Hann. I have never heard of him! But I love this recording. I am sitting here laughing. The recording sounds really old. I have not heard this song in 20 years. Too funny.

9.) "Das Lied Im Grunen."

10.) "Nacht und Traume."

11.) "Standchen." I am sorry, I love it!

12.) "Liebesbotschaft."

Oh, help me someone!

I just cannot stop! There are just so many. If I were smart I would just go ahead and name my Top 100. If I even could.

Happy birthday, Franz Schubert!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Oh, brother!

Tony Kunz is my big brother.

Too funny, to find a tribute to him on YouTube.

Go Tony!!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Elmore James and his strange legacy

Besides being Mozart's birthday, January 27 is, or was, the birthday of one of my favorite blues musicians, Elmore James.

Back in my blues days Elmore James was my favorite. I still love his raw sound.

Years ago I heard a rumor that Elmore James' son was an opera singer, having inherited the family pipes. I heard that from Shakin' Smith, the harmonica genius I used to be friends with, I mean back when he lived in Buffalo. Shake told me that Elmore James Jr. was an opera singer but he never wanted to talk about his father because his father had not been in his life. Something like that. This is years ago that I heard that story. I do not remember it exactly

Just now I took it upon myself to Google the situation. After all these years!

And lo and behold I did find an Elmore James who is an opera singer.

Elmore James the blues singer apparently had another son who is a blues singer and goes by the name Elmore James Jr. That is inevitable.

The Elmore James who is an opera singer does not go by Jr. And what references I can find of him, he does not mention that his father is the blues singer, if indeed it is. But come on, it has to be.

The New York Times praised an Elmore James as Leporello in "Don Giovanni" back in 1987.

And this same Elmore James seems to have appeared as Masetto in a Peter Sellars film version of "Don Giovanni" set in a ghetto. Alas, I cannot find a clip of him in that.

It has to be the blues singer's son. He inherited the voice.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Three cheers and a turntable

Great story in today's Wall Street Journal about the resurgence of vinyl, a favorite topic on this Web log.

I have to say that being in the newspaper business I take statistics with a grain of salt. Being told something like, "CD sales fell by 5 percent, whereas vinyl grew by 36 percent ..." I think, well, that could mean that there were 10 vinyl records sold last year, and now there were, I don't know, 14? (I am not too good at doing math before I am through with my coffee.)

It is very easy to get statistics to say what you want them to say.

But still. The story made good points, points that we have made on this Web log before, and will make again. For instance the album art. Isn't that a classic up above? I own that record. This is funny but doing a Google Images search on Mozart album covers it seemed I own most of them.

Also the way when you play a record you are "relatively engaged in the experience," as the writer put it. You cannot just push a button and go on with your life with the music in the background which is the way too often people listen to music in this day and age.

What I liked most about this story was it never had, as Pee-Wee Herman used to put it, the big But. As I read it I was bracing for a disclaimer like: "But the sales of vinyl or still overall very low..." or something like that, something that would ruin the moment. That never came.


On that up note we celebrate Mozart's birthday the old-fashioned digital way. I love this, the finale of the "Linz" Symphony. I love the theme that rolls out at 0:55.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Morning music

This morning I am driving in to work with a lot on my mind and I turn on the radio. And what do I hear but one of the suites from "Der Rosenkavalier."

And I am listening. And immediately I start kvetching to myself.

The performance is too herky-jerky. The tempos are too erratic. Phrases are exaggerated. The wrong things are brought out. It is not the way I like it. It is overengineered. Why are conductors always overengineering things?

That was when I suddenly came to my senses.

Who was overengineering things? Me.

Here I was facing this stressful day, and I was driving in to work, and "Rosenkavalier" ...

... was on the radio. It did not have to be. All of a sudden my day was touched by magic. So what if it wasn't perfect?

Why look that gift horse in the mouth?

That was not the performance I heard, by the way. I chose that clip because I liked the idea of its slideshow. The performance I heard ended when I pulled into my parking space. For the record it was conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

By that time all was forgiven.

You should never become so critical of music that you cannot enjoy it!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lieder of the pack

So a colleague of mine posts on Facebook this video of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau singing "Gute Nacht" from Schubert's "Die Winterreise," accompanied by pianist Al Brendel.

And naturally I have to pause in my work day and watch it.

Hahahahaa! I got more than I bargained on!

I get such a kick out of it when YouTube throws an ad up at you. "Your video will start in 10 seconds," you read.

You would not believe the ad they channeled at me, the Schubert fan seeking to watch "Gute Nacht."

It was a screaming ad for a movie concert by Van Halen!

Watching the video again the ad was different. This time it was for a trashy movie starring Rob Lowe.

What kind of robo-ad person would come up with that? What, do they think "Wintterreise" is some kind of kraft metal band?

You know what they say about Schubert, the wonder never ceases.

Friday, January 13, 2012

This day in history

A friend from church emailed me with a one-line message, that today is the day Stephen Foster died. I am lucky to have friends to tell me things like that! We love Stephen Foster here on this Web log.

Stephen Foster died Jan. 13, 1864.

Here he is on one of my favorite sites, Find a Grave. You can see a picture of his grave. It looks just like millions of other graves. Stephen Foster is buried in Pittsburgh.

I read that book about him called "Doo-Dah" that came out a few years ago. That is a terrible title! One of these days we should hash over what that book should have been called. But otherwise it is a good book. A lot of it was upsetting to me because although I had always been a Stephen Foster listener I had not known much about him.

It was surprising to me, because you associate so many of his songs with the south, that so much of his life was spent not far from where I live. There was some association with North East, Pa., which is right over the border from us. Foster spent some time there loafing, dodging school, something like that. If I remember right. I may be wrong. But I do remember mention of North East in addition to other towns I knew.

Another local connection for me was that Foster wrote a lot of his songs for Christy's Minstrels. Christy's Minstrels were from Buffalo.

Reading the book I actually cried when he died. I had known he died young but I did not know how bad things were, that he was this drunk, that he lived in the Bowery, that people laughed at him. You are used to fiction and I kept expecting things to get better.

It is said that the last song Stephen Foster wrote was "Beautiful Dreamer." Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the great Nelson Eddy.

Hahaha... my favorite comment, up at the top:

His diction is perfect. There are no singers like him . Thomas Hampson couldent carry his dirty underware. What a voice.

I love that comment! The spelling of "underware" is what makes it.

I also love how Nelson Eddy mentions the great pianist Leonard Pennario. Here I was just looking for a good performance of "Beautiful Dreamer" and I found this and play it, and I find Pennario is mentioned. I love that!

Here is a magnificent Hollywood treatment of Stephen Foster's death, starring the great Al Jolson. This is a day for greats! This is from the movie "Swanee River." Jolson is E.P. Christy of, yes, Buffalo's own Christy's Minstrels. Yes, I know this is highly politically incorrect. It is a miracle it is even on YouTube. But it is of its era, try to remember that. Plus, if you are making a historical movie, you try to be accurate. My guess is that they do a pretty good job of re-creating what a Civil War-era minstrel show was like. And this was 1939 so there were still people around who remembered.

I have to say I am starting to  love Al Jolson's voice. He is from this different era and I love what he does with a song, with the syllables of a song.

At the end it is sweet. He tells the crowd: "Everybody sing!


So we do not leave on a down note here is the magnificent "Camptown Races" from the same film.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

The goodbye guy

For some reason in the last couple of days I have become obsessed all over again with Schubert songs. I cannot stop listening to them. I think it started at work the other day when I had to listen to Werner Gura's new CD, "Willkommen und Abschied," for work-related reasons. And after that I could not stop!

It was like eating chocolate cake. You know, you keep shaving off another little bit.

That day it got to be a real problem. I got like this junkie, sneaking Schubert songs into my day, staring out the window and calling it work. I fell behind and had to stay late.

I should notify the Schubert Club!

Anyway. Up above is the song "Abschied," from "Schwanengesang." Werner Gura is singing it. I am getting to like Werner Gura because I like his quirky approach, also his pianist's quirky approach. The tempo of this song is a little fast for me but I do like how the pianist throws phrases at you in unexpected ways. I get the idea the two of them have a good feel for the music.

The idea behind "Abschied" is that a guy is leaving town and saying goodbye to everything, one thing at a time. He says goodbye to the cheery town, to the gardens, the trees, his girlfriend, the sun, as it sets, even the stars. The rhythm you are hearing is the trotting of his horse. Schubert loved to write the sound and feel of horses. That was his world. It is like the way blues musicians would work into their songs the sound of trains.

When the guy in "Abschied" says goodbye to his girlfriend he says, "But I will never turn my little horse around." That always gets at me.

The singer of Schubert's little song, is he cheery as he says goodbye, or is he brave? Also, the business about saying goodbye to the sun and the stars, and the weird and beautiful and unsettling key changes the song goes through -- that makes you wonder if the music is about something more than just leaving this little town. Schubert songs are like the paintings of the great masters. You can stand there and discuss them and look at them different ways.

Here is the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau version I am married to.

But this is what I am working up to. There is this hilarious video I found of this song.


My sister is a German teacher and I keep telling her about this video and saying she has to use it in her classes. She keeps coming up with excuses. Chicken! It is great.

The girl makes the video. I love how she just sits there. And the guy's voice. You know what, you cannot tell me Schubert's songs were not performed like that many times in his lifetime, by guys in bars. Surely they were. Probably on occasion by Schubert himself. They were like Leonard Cohen songs are now, is my guess.

OK, that's it for today. Look for me tomorrow. One word...


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The pianist 'of fire and ice'

It was poignant to read about the death of Alexis Weissenberg, the Bulgarian-French pianist. That is Weissenberg up above. I like his look, kind of like Rachmaninoff.

I wonder if the New York Times, which I just linked to, went too far in the very first sentence in calling him charismatic. People throw that word around too freely and the rest of the article does not back it up. But Weissenberg was a very interesting pianist -- I like the bit about the fire and ice.

There is this moving account on pianist Stephen Hough's Web log where Stephen Hough writes about meeting him and being impressed by how dapper Weissenberg was. He writes about looking at Weissenberg's cuffs, lapels, buttons, sleeves ... it's beautiful, try to find a few minutes to read it.

Anyway a few years ago he runs into Weissenberg again and by this time Weissenberg is "a crumpled body in a blanket in a wheelchair."

When I read that all I could think of was that Weissenberg had Parkinson's disease. Leonard Pennario, when I met him, was in a wheelchair and he had Parkinson's. Pennario somehow managed not to be pathetic in that situation but that was Pennario, he was a kind of weird superman. Anyway, Googling around, I found I was right, Weissenberg had been suffering from Parkinson's.

That is very sad. As people are always pointing out to me, Parkinson's is terrible for a pianist. And it is, in that you have to step down early, and people forget about you. And you cannot play, even for yourself.

Weissenberg had a wrenching childhood because during World War II he wound up in a concentration camp. Years ago I read about this and it stuck with me: It happened he had an accordion with him, and he would play Schubert on the accordion, and the guards apparently loved to listen to it. And one day one of the guards, a German guard, came to get Alexis and his family and thrust their possessions at them and spirited them away to a train to safety. The guard shoved them onto the train with their stuff and told them good luck.

A few years ago when I saw the movie "The Pianist" I thought about that. Weissenberg lived "The Pianist."

It is strange for us who are too young to remember World War II to imagine being caught up in a drama of that magnitude. So many people affected in so many different ways. We are spoiled, never having known something like that. That is why we have stuff like Occupy Wall Street going on. People do not know how good they have it.

I reviewed a CD by Alexis Weissenberg a few years ago and I looked up what I wrote.

 Alexis Weissenberg can raise arguments among piano fans. Some love his power and drama, and others find him occasionally icy and off-putting. In the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 2, he clearly revels -- if you can use so upbeat a word -- in the music's stormy, frightening nature. The Scherzo picks up exactly where the first left off. It's downright furious. 
    You get the sense that lyricism doesn't come easily to Weissenberg. But, in a way, that makes the tender interludes more touching. They sometimes seem so awkward. The heartbreaking section in the middle of the Funeral March sounds self-conscious, like a child playing. The Funeral March itself is, of course, almost unbearably terrifying and chilling. The two piano concertos clearly clip Weissenberg's wings. He has to conform to the orchestra, so his rage, if that's what we're hearing, isn't as evident. The slow movements are beautiful enough. One problem lies in the recording. From time to time, the orchestra sounds downright harsh. 
    It's refreshing, though, to hear a pianist who's original. "Fantasy on Polish National Airs" and "Krakowiak," two unexpected treats, help make this a good, complete glimpse of an engrossing artist. 

I really do not remember that CD set at all! I think I wrote that in a terrible hurry. The date it was printed was Nov. 7, 2007. I had just met Leonard and I was out the door and before I left I wrote a lot of things in a real hurry and this must have been one. By the time it was printed I was already in California.

I had no idea Weissenberg was in the same situation as Pennario -- in a wheelchair, suffering from Parkinson's.

Life is kind of strange sometimes.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Octave of Christmas Part 2

My little niece Barbara was playing her one-note piano and she was playing "Joy To the World." And it reminded me of something that has amazed me in the past. I should have thought of it a few days ago when I was reflecting on the Octave of Christmas.

"Joy To the World" is just one descending octave! Listen to it on this great square old Robert Shaw recording, up above. You know me, I love square old recordings, and Robert Shaw.

It is amazing what a little rhythm can do to just one octave.

Another classic example of octaves in music:

The great pas de deux from "The Nutcracker."

That was Tchaikovsky's last ballet, who knew that? I was thinking this Christmas season how enchanting it still is. The opening theme of the great pas de deux, it is just one plain old octave, descending. Tchaikovsky knew what to do with it. That is genius.

Tomorrow or the next day I will deal with octaves going up. I have two examples all ready to go.

It is a nice game to play with yourself when you are standing in a bank line or dropping off to sleep.