SCHWARTZ'S GUIDE TO UNDERRATED MASTERPIECES
(Vactor - Vorísek)
(Richard WAGNER - Efrem ZIMBALIST)
Wagner, above all else a theater man, left very little music outside of
the operas. That little generally doesn't measure up even to
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
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,
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
(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
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
The music for the Olivier Shakespeare films -- Hamlet, Henry
V, and Richard III -- stands level with
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.
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
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
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
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
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),
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
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
Bach (good choice), and
the music reflects this, not in the Stravinskian way, but kind of like
Williams. I guess I'm looking for the word "noble." Try the Cantus
animae et cordis, Chorale-Prelude for orchestra, the Violin
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
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
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:
Just Another Band from L. A.,
Only In It For The Money,
Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Jazz from
The Perfect Stranger,
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
got to be more music, and the sonata makes me want to hear it.
to author Steve Schwartz
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