Wednesday, December 15, 2021

A Deep Dive into Firestone Christmas, Vol. 2

Let's discuss Christmas albums! I will start our discussion off with Vol 2 in the iconic Firestone series.

I listened to it by mistake while I was putting the lights on my Christmas tree!

The mistake was that it was in the wrong jacket. I thought I was listening to Vol. 4 ...

... but it ended up I was listening to Vol. 2.

When it ended I was thinking that's funny, I do not remember hearing Julie Andrews. But my Christmas tree lights were giving me grief so I forgot about it. Until just now. Now I have it all figured out.

So. All of us fans of Christmas music, we can all agree that the Firestone albums are without parallel. They featured these wonderful arrangements. They starred opera singers. Julie Andrews was a regular, and so was the great Jack Jones. They also had a certain sheen about them, these albums. They were bright and fun but at the same time they were reverent.

The Firestone album I remember most vividly from being a kid was the one featuring Julie Andrews and Jack Jones and these Richard Strauss-like arrangements by Andre Previn. This one that I listened to tonight, I do not remember. We must not have had it. 

But I had a great time with it!

One highlight was Brian Sullivan singing "Deck the Halls." Brian Sullivan has kind of fallen off the merry-go-round of history, but he was a great tenor in his day. An Irish Wagnerian tenor, you do not get better than that. The arrangement is creative and Sullivan just throws himself into it. Bravo to him. Tenors have to take it to the wall or it is no fun. 

He also sings a "We Three Kings" that is to be reckoned with. And "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." "To save us all from Satan's power when we had gone astray!" And "O tidings of comfort and joy!" Even the chorus is no match for him. Bravo, maestro!

"Adeste Fideles" ends with an orchestral flourish that made me think of Respighi's "The Pines of Rome."

The "Hallelujah Chorus" sounds a little off -- I think it is top-heavy, too many women and not enough men. That is just my guess. But still, all good. The performance of "Jingle Bells" cracked me up. The arrangement is so saucy, and you hear a chorus of laughing you can only assume is the Columbus Boys Choir. It really is a lot of fun.

The great mezzo soprano Rise Stevens sings a haunting "O Come O Come Emmanuel." This song is beautiful for a mezzo. It needs that kind of mood. She sings "Away in a Manger" too, accompanied by a wordless choir. Bring on those wordless choirs! And she joins Brian Sullivan in "Angels We Have Heard on High." Is this heaven?

Beautiful Rise Stevens -- 

-- her real name was Rise Gus Steenberg -- sang with the Metropolitan Opera for about 20 years beginning in 1938. She was 99 when she died, in 2013. How did she get a middle name like Gus? We will have to explore this question at some later date.

The opera singers and the chorus join in an overblown "Partridge in a Pear Tree." I do not mean to sound critical when calling it overblown. That song is allowed to be overblown. It's fun at the end when the orchestra suggests the lords a-leaping, the ladies dancing, and the drummers drumming.

There is an atmospheric "Carol of the Bells" that I thought was excellent. It starts and ends with churchbells and the bells chime along with the chorus. It is not overdone, just very pretty. Church bells actually have a supernatural power. They keep away evil. Knowing that adds to the my feeling for this song and this particular recording of it.

I mentioned that I did not grow up with this album. I did not remember it. However listening to it I found myself homesick for something I never knew. That era, when Christmas albums would feature Metropolitan Opera stars. When you heard those beautiful old religious carols from around the world. Before you went into a store, as I went into Big Lots a couple of weeks ago, and heard all these tuneless pop Christmas tunes you do not recognize or like.

It is great that these albums are on YouTube and we can listen to them there. But still. I think it is time tire stores began doing this kind of thing again, you know? We should go into Firestone and Goodyear and ask them to begin again to issue Christmas albums.

We should demand it!

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.