Sunday, October 3, 2021

Hugo Wolf and the road to Bethlehem

Today at church we celebrated the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. We did the Gospel reading you hear in Advent, about the angel Gabriel being sent to Nazareth to meet with Mary. I loved this because it is like jumping the gun on Christmas, and you know me, I am always up for that!

Back home, I found myself drawn back to my old obsession, Hugo Wolf's song "Nun wandre, Maria." It is about Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem. It is from Wolf's "Spanish Song Book."

As I love to repeat at great length, you can tell from the piano accompaniment how tired everyone is -- Mary, Joseph, and the donkey, all of them stumbling along toward Bethlehem.

There is this video I found that I do not believe I ever got to share. That is it at the top of this post.

I always wish that videos had translations, however if there were text it might have ruined this video. The artwork is just so lovely. A little primitive, a little grotesque, starting with that unusual angel. The face of the cow peering out of the darkness, that gets me. Whoever posted the video did not say what the artwork was. It appears to have been painted on wood. I would guess it was German or Dutch.

And the performance! I have never heard this song sung this slow. The tenor who is singing, too, he is startling. His name is Peter Anders.

I have never heard a singer sound like him!

He has such a beautiful voice and such control. I had never heard of him when I first heard this video -- which I did two years ago, because I see I left a comment. I still know nothing about him. In the description I was surprised to see he died a long time ago. The recording has been remastered very well, I am guessing, because it sounds so clear and not old.

One of these days I will have to go down the Internet rabbit hole and find out about Maestro Anders and discuss what I find out. But for now I just want to watch and listen to this. 

The painting, the music, the slow stumbling pace -- I was honestly tearing up.

So beautiful!!

Monday, August 16, 2021

Hail "Hail, Holy Queen"

Yesterday being the Feast of the Assumption, we got to end Mass with the great hymn "Hail, Holy Queen."

That was a thrill! This is one of the great Catholic melodies, up there with "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" and "Adeste Fideles." I should come up with a list and one of these days I will.

Meanwhile let us shine the spotlight on "Hail Holy Queen."

The text is attributed to Hermannus Contractus, better known as Blessed Hermann von Reichenau. He is the gentleman in the picture up above. And if you think his name was something, his father was Count Wolverad II von Altshausen.

About the melody, it is always referred to as German, but as I was just writing on my other Web log, you would almost think it was Irish. This hymn is a challenge. It starts low and then suddenly the chorus is about an octave higher. You have to be all in if you are going to get through it.

"Hail Holy Queen" had its moment of fame in pop culture for its treatment in "Sister Act." Wow, that is suddenly a long time ago! 


I personally like how the hymn was sounding before they ragged it, LOL. But I get a little nostalgic when they give the gospel treatment to these Latin phrases. Unless you go to a Latin Mass, you would never get the jokes now.

It is hard to find good renditions online of traditional Catholic hymns. A lot of the time you see something promising and you click on it, but then you hear that electric piano, and you go, Oh, no. Well, I am going to see what I can find.

That is a group called the Cathedral Singers. I personally prefer the hymn more rousing but that is me. Sometimes you have a piece of music that is just a sacred cow to you, you know? Pardon the Hindu reference, in this context. What I mean is when you have one of these sacred cows, it is hard to find a recording that is just right.

That is Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine Choir. I like the intro.

One thing I am seeing online is that it has apparently become a thing for school choir directors to have their choirs perform beautiful "Hail Holy Queen" in the "Sister Act" version. That is kind of a pain! Nothing against gospel music. I love gospel music. I have a lot of records and I was personal friends with Aretha Franklin, I will have you know. She was from Buffalo. The truth is thought that musical traditions are different. And people go out of their way to make this magnificent hymn sound stodgy and boring, in need of this intervention. 

They do not get it!

Singing this hymn at church is always a joy. I wish we had recorded our version from yesterday. This one gal in the choir, Philomena, she sang a descant at the end. It was so beautiful that I almost started to cry. But I could not because there were only a couple of us holding down the normal soprano line and the hymn was going full blast and it was all hands on deck.

Triumph, all ye cherubim!
Sing with us, ye Seraphim!
Heaven and earth resound the hymn!
Salve, salve, salve Regina!

What lyrics.

What a melody!

The greatest!!


Friday, March 5, 2021

The Tallis tune that sparked a fantasy


 Of course I love Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis"... who doesn't? But I never really thought about it. It is this ethereal music and whenever I have heard it I have concentrated on it, cleared away other distractions, paused to enjoy. But I never wondered where it came from, what melody inspired him.

I am sure this is not a state secret. CD notes I am sure explain it, and I probably have an LP or two in the house that tell you everything you need to know and then some, as we say here in Buffalo. 

But now I am kind of glad I did not find out that way. It is more fun to find it out backwards!

And I found out one day singing in the choir. We were working up some of the tunes Tallis wrote for Archbishop Parker's Psalter. Archbishop Parker was the Archbishop of Canterbury. And I am not being disrespectful writing "tune." I am being accurate. We were on the third tune and that was how it was identified, "Third Tune."

All of a sudden I heard this theme, this gently rocking melody you hear in the "Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis." Now I am going to sound jaded but I have to admit: my thought as I sang on was: I have heard this before. Someone ripped off Thomas Tallis.

Ha, ha! I could not explore the thought much because the lyrics took all my attention. It is not easy to sing the greatest hits of 1587. The words do not come naturally -- "Why fum'th in sight, the Gentiles' plight" begins this number, and it goes from there. It took until the next verse for it to come into focus .... a British composer, a British piece... Oh my goodness, "Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis"!

This was the theme!

Or the tune, to put it more accurately. It is the third in the set in the above video because that is what it is. And you will notice they are here performed by the Tallis Scholars. One day that will be me. I will be a Tallis scholar.

Until then I will rejoice in this bit of knowledge.

In this fantasy. In this .... tune.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Nightmare in the Library

 I have been wanting to get my Music Critic web log going again but it is hard to break a long silence, you know? You are always looking for something of Great Import.

Well. Yesterday I was working on my other blog and I found this post I had never published.

I had written it up several years ago one day and I kind of remember it, the way I remember everything I write. I think I published it for about two minutes and then pulled it down. I thought it would sound too negative or something. I thought it would hurt Andre Previn's feelings. He was -- is -- still among us. 

Isn't it odd, the last post I wrote, a few weeks ago, was about Andre Previn. Hmm. Well, back to this old post. In any case I thought better of it, for whatever reason.

Not now.

Now I just think it is funny!

Anyway, without further ado as we say in the music biz, here it is. I titled it "Nightmare in the Library." Take it away, Mary:

I was at the downtown library with my friend Melinda and she was checking out videos. So one thing I do when I have a few minutes to kill is, I go to the music section and wander around. As I wander I scan the shelves and periodically I pull out this book or that and check to see if Leonard Pennario is in it.

He almost never is. I do not hold my breath. It is a funny thing about Pennario, he is so forgotten and overlooked and under-appreciated. I have a kind of joke going with myself about that. I mean, when I pull out these books I never expect to find him in them. Once I was startled to find an interesting few paragraphs about him in a book about child prodigies. That will actually make it into my book. But I am so used to disappointment.

Yesterday I happened to see this moldy old biography of pianist and conductor Andre Previn.

I stopped. Pennario had made this record with Previn in the early '60s. It was Previn's first record and the record company set him up with Pennario to record Rachmaninoff's First and Fourth Piano Concertos. Record companies used to like to have new conductors record with Pennario because Pennario was so reliably great, plus he was such a pro. He would give the conductor no problems and make the conductor look good and the record would be beautiful and sell well.

Perhaps Previn would mention this episode, considering it was his first record and all. Were it not his first record I would figure he would not bother mentioning it because, as I said, no one mentions Pennario. But it was his first record. Anyway, I took the book off the shelf and opened it to check.

To my astonishment there he was, in the index. "Pennario, Leonard."

Wow! This was nice. I was getting over my cold and I still had that kind of wobbly feeling you get before you are quite healthy again. I needed a pick me-upper. I turned to the page. And you know what, I could not believe what I found.

This book was so snotty! 

The writer, who, I did not notice his name, sort of sniffed that Previn's first two records had been with pianists Leonard Pennario and Lorin Hollander. Annoyingly the book lumped them together, as if there were no difference. Then the writer went and described the Pennario recording sessions as "uneventful."

I mean, I am sorry that Pennario did not need his own special stool, you know?

Sorry that he was not drunk or zoned out on pills or wearing a big heavy overcoat or threatening to quit the concert stage. Sorry that he simply walked out and played incredibly. Sorry that he was courteous and easy to work with and did not give Previn a hard time or look like a bum or do anything else that would have given him worth in a journalist's eyes.

Well, maybe I had imagined the negative overtone. Perhaps this stupid writer had not realized that "uneventful" had a negative timbre. But no! The writer went on to quote Previn as saying that he did not think either of those first two records was any good. Previn said, "They showed that I could conduct and that soloists enjoyed working with me."

The nerve. The nerve!! The ego!! The nerve!!

Here by the grace of God you are teamed up with this magnificent musician, and that is what you have to say. Thanks a heap, Andre. Thanks a heap.

Here is a picture of Andre Previn who threw Leonard Pennario under the bus.

I do not normally rant like this but once in a while I allow myself the luxury. This is the kind of stuff I am up against.

The writer also dismissed the record as "standard repertoire." Actually, you know what, it was not. This record was, in its way, historic. This was the record that made Pennario the first pianist after Rachmaninoff to record all four concertos, in addition to the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Because the Second and the Third Concertos and the Rhapsody have always been big hits, but no, the First and the Fourth were not in the standard repertoire. They were not performed very often. They are beginning to gain ground now but even now, they are off the beaten track.

Oh, what am I carrying on for. Previn, Schmevin.

I have real work to do.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Julie Andrews, Andre Previn, and one wild Firestone album

Today I put up my Christmas tree and I am going to kick off an exploration of Christmas music.

Our pick today is Julie Andrews and Andre Previn teaming up for a Firestone classic!

Christmas is really a magical time of year when you listen to anything from the 1950s and '60s. This album, I know it inside out, from when I was a little kid. My brothers and sisters and I listened to it ALL THE TIME over the holiday season. This, and other Firestone records. They are all great. But I want to zero in today on this one.

Of course as kids we loved Julie Andrews. And we loved this record. I listened to it today as I assembled my, ahem, Kmart artificial tree, and put lights on it. It all came back to me. "Joy to the... joy to the .... Joy to the ... joy to the..." sang the Firestone Chorus at the beginning of "Joy To The World." We used to laugh ourselves silly over that.

 And we used to love Julie Andrews doing her number on "Deck the Halls" with harpsichord backing her up, and who knows what else.

These arrangements by Andre Previn!

That is what I am appreciating now!

As a kid, I do remember we liked this album. But his arrangements were over our head. Now I listen to them and I see what he is doing, and I love them. I know a little bit about Previn because Leonard Pennario worked with him. They did a great album of Rachmaninoff concertos. Here is the cover.

A couple of nice looking gentlemen there.

What do you know, that album dates to 1965, the same year as this Firestone album. That was a good year for Previn!

You can tell just by listening to his Christmas creations that Previn loved the heck out of Richard Strauss, who at the time was only recently deceased. He lifted stuff from "Rosenkavalier" for half the album. You hear the Presentation of the Rose in "Away in a Manger." And later you hear the famous waltzes. It might have been in "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" but I did not take notes, I was too tangled up in my Christmas lights. The point is, he does it so well. You would think it would be annoying but it is not.

He also gives you a lot of Handel. Even as kids we could recognize that. And he just throws in a lot of surprises and boldness and fun. As Julie Andrews is singing "Jingle Bells," the orchestra just breaks out in squalls all over the place. It is like unpredictable wild Buffalo weather. "Jingle Bells" ends the album. Julie Andrews soars up to some incredible high note on the last "sleigh." And then the orchestra blasts in with this big honk.

So much fun! Too sophisticated for kids maybe, but great for grown-ups, people into jazz and Handel and Richard Strauss. Previn is a great jazz pianist and we will have to get to that another day.

For now, grab this album and put it on your stereo, whether you are isolated or not. What a great mid-century creation it is.

It is a classic!

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Beethoven turns 250

 Today being Beethoven's 250th birthday, people are calling on me to make a statement.

 What do you say on such a momentous occasion?

Two hundred fifty years!!

Maybe what I will say as a statement is, I can name a few of the Beethoven creations that I love the best. I do love a lot of them. I have always had a kind of funny relationship with Beethoven. All my life I have loved Mozart -- Mozart is my top guy, but then I got more into piano, and I began playing Beethoven sonatas, and I could not stop. I just love them so much. And it brought me closer to Beethoven.

It is funny, thinking of Beethoven vs. Mozart. I read this beautiful book on Mozart several years ago by the British musicologist Paul Johnson. He spent some time dwelling on this topic, Mozart vs. Beethoven, which I liked about him. He said that they would go through history together, both magnifying the other.

That is true, I think!

They were so different. But I do not think you would have had Beethoven without Mozart. Imagine Beethoven going through life always up against this superman. I wrote about that once. It had to have made him who he was. Not Haydn, not Cherubini, not even Handel. Mozart. Imagine having to follow that act. Lucky you, Beethoven, to have been born when you were, on Dec. 16, 1770.

Things Beethoven wrote that I love:

The slow movement of the "Archduke" Trio.

The "Eroica Variations." They are better than the Diabelli variations, I think because they have a better theme to start with. The theme matters. I was lucky enough to learn to play these.

The Sonata in E, Op. 109. This was Leonard Pennario's favorite Beethoven sonata and it is mine too. That last movement! But the whole thing, really, is great. I love the first movement. There are moments that just get to me. There is this measure that sounds like jingling sleigh bells -- just haunting.

The "Appassionata" sonata, especially the slow movement. The second variation gets me. It sounds like a guitar accompaniment.

Of course the slow movements of the "Emperor" concerto and the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony. My dad said how he loved that Allegretto when he was a kid. I did too, and you know what, it grows up with you. You never have to shove it under the bed in shame the way you would have to shove away some pop album or other.

Of course I love the finale of the Ninth Symphony. My friend Margaret at church, she and I have a joke about it. At moments of stress we will say, "Freude schoener Gotterfunken, Tochter aus Jerusalem." As I write this there is a note from Margaret in my email inbox with that in the subject line. But really, I love it, how can you not.

Back to my list. The slow movement of the last string quartet. I got to know the quartets pretty intimately while working for The Buffalo News and covering the Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle. I got the scores and I studied them. And I love a lot of them. Some of them sound kind of studied and overengineered to me, to tell you the truth. But that must be me, not Beethoven. That last quartet is breathtaking. And the Razumovsky quartets with their Russian folk tunes, I love those. I love Russian music.

The song "The Flea." What, you don't know that? You should!

Lots of other piano sonatas. I should write a book, you know?

I think over the next week I will go out of my way to listen to Beethoven, celebrate his 250th.

He is looking good for his age!

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Dreaming of Brahms

I have been joking with my friends about this dream I had about one of my favorite musicians of all time, Johannes Brahms.

For better or worse this was the older, bearded Brahms ... 


... not the young version that Howard, the guy I married, always says somewhat snarkily looks like Clint Eastwood. That is the Clint Eastwood Brahms at the top of this post. I used him as click bait.

Anyway, I approached this older, bearded Brahms, and I asked him, "Herr Doktor Brahms, do you like to go out and hear live music?"

Herr Doktor Brahms said ja, jawohl.

I said, "Because my friends and I, we like to go out and hear music. If this Covid craziness ever ends and we are allowed to go out and hear live music again, would you like to go with us?"

And he said he would!

So I was really happy about that.

Of course then I awoke, and ... no Johannes Brahms, no plans to go out with him to hear live music.

I consoled myself by finding on YouTube that wonderful little recording we have of Brahms speaking.



Then he plays the piano. But you know what, I have never really heard the piano part. I just keep rewinding the speaking part. 

One day maybe I will get to the piano. But meanwhile, I listened to Brahms speak a few times. He says something to the effect of this is Herr Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms. I used to think it was in English but it is not.

It is so cool, the things you can find on YouTube.

So cool!