SCHWARTZ'S GUIDE TO UNDERRATED MASTERPIECES
(Khachaturian - Lutoslawski)
(Orff - Purcell)
(Edward MAC DOWELL - Carl NIELSEN)
I admit I've never cared for him. I find him the epitome
of 19th-century gentility -- sort of a
the tunes. However, the Piano Concerto No. 2 is a
glorious exception. If Schumann had written another, this
would have been it.
Canadian composer, and therefore not known outside of
Canada (also not recorded outside of Canada). I've heard
only one work (I used to live outside Detroit), 2 Sketches
on French-Canadian Airs for string quartet. Canadians are
probably sick of this piece by now, but for the rest of
us, it's a lovely novelty. Post-Romantic.
A pioneer English woman composer and a student of
Her music belongs to the
Rubbra-Alwyn camp and
therefore has suffered the same sort of eclipse. The BBC
had been captured by post-Webernians,
who raised the
musical literacy of the country at the expense of shutting
out a slightly older generation (Britten
was the exception
to this rule). She's known mainly for her chamber works,
especially the string quartets. I would like to plug 3
orchestral pieces. Overture, "Proud Thames" is an English
version of The Moldau, which picks up color and momentum
from quiet beginnings. Serenata concertante for violin
and orchestra is intensely musical and gives the soloist
good opportunity for display. Symphony for double string
orchestra was influenced by the Brandenburgs in its
concern for counterpoint, but don't let that mislead you.
It's not really neo-classic: the influence is more
Vaughan Williams than Stravinsky.
Yeah, I know: is he really overlooked? Only relatively.
Excepting Das Lied von der Erde and Lieder eines fahrenden
Gesellen, the non-symphonies aren't recorded or programmed
as much. If you don't know these works, try 5 Ruckert-Lieder,
Kindertotenlieder (shattering), Das Klagende Lied
(Mahler described it as "the work in which I became Mahler;
strongly influenced Schoenberg's
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (magic; lives up to its title; try
for the Janet Baker-Geraint Evans classic recording), and
the early songs. Musical Heritage put out a neat disk
(so-so performances) of Mahler's rejected symphonic
movements, so you get to look inside the workshop.
Frank Martin was French-Swiss, so pronounce the name
"Frahnk Mar-TAN" (my apologies to all Francophones). To
my ear, he continues Honegger's
style. The work is of uniformly high quality.
He's a fine concerto writer. His
oratorios In terra pax (Christmas) and Golgotha (Easter)
try to come to modern terms with the monumental
Mass for 2 4-part choirs is an a capella
masterpiece, unknown even to choral mavens.
An entry I've dreaded. If I have one Favorite Composer, Martinu is probably
it. With the exception of early works, everything he wrote grabs my attention
from the opening bars. "Stravinsky
meets Dvorák" describes his music pretty well. He excells in chamber
music and concerti. He's one of the great modern symphonists. His choral and
theater works are superb. The Double Concerto for 2 pianos, timpani, and
strings is recorded all the time. A 20th-century masterpiece, it deserves
to be. Off the top of my head, try Three Czech Dances for 2 pianos,
Bergerettes for piano trio, Cello Concerto No. 2 (soaring),
Concerto for oboe (a delight), Piano Concerto No. 2
(powerful), Duo No. 2 for violin and cello (makes you think there
are more than two instruments playing), Études and Polkas for
piano solo, Intermezzo for orchestra, Nonet No. 2, the
piano quintet, the first piano quartet, the third piano trio, ALL the cello
sonatas, the Sonata for Flute (a classic piece), the
Piano Sonata, Symphony No. 4, Tre Ricercari, and
the vital Trio in F for flute, cello, and piano. Oh hell, buy anything.
I can't claim great familiarity. I know only two works:
Odessey and Chamber Music. The second piece comes across
as the work of a fine craftsman. Odessey overwhelms you
and I got the strong feeling that I was listening to a
masterpiece when I heard it. Now I know what the first
audience for Bartók's
Concerto for Orchestra must have felt.
George Bernard Shaw almost buried him. We're just
starting to come out from under the burden of Shaw's
criticism. To my mind,
Mendelssohn is one of the great
chamber composers. His emotional depth is not as great as
In many ways, his music works on
you like Mozart's: the pieces have
such artistic balance that this itself becomes moving. Try the piano
quartets, the cello sonatas (Gilbert &
Sullivan fans will recognize
a bit of "Trial by Jury"), and the String Quintet in B-flat.
Another neo-classic post-war American once known and
admired for his symphonies, now in eclipse. I've heard
quite a bit, and he seems to repeat himself a lot.
Stylistically close to Piston.
Try Symphony No. 3.
The joke around the conservatory used to be that the music
was "Menotti-nous." The critics' whipping-boy. He obviously derives
from Puccini (who himself was despised by critics until quite recently).
Andrew Porter once wrote that his melodies were "as cheap as Puccini's,"
as if writing like Puccini were an easy way out. A gift for melody is
not highly prized, and I believe it's because one can't analyze why it
works or what makes a good one. We also have the problem of Menotti's
libretti: Victor Hugo blood-and-thunder allied to Eurotrashian
metaphysics. But few complain about Verdi and
Tippett, who suffer equally in their
librettists. The music should remain paramount. I find it beautiful.
The operas in the
theater just plain work and he does have a genuine gift for comedy (when
he forgets his Message). Try Amelia al Ballo, the piano and
violin concerti, The Medium, The Telephone, The Unicorn,
The Gorgon, and The Manticore (a madrigal ballet; the
madrigals are gorgeous), The Saint of Bleeker Street (to me, his
greatest opera), Sebastian (complete ballet or suite), and the
exquisite Missa "O Pulchritudo."
It's hard to believe now, but Milhaud was once regarded as the greatest
composer of his generation (that honor is now
Poulenc's, most likely). Although
Création du monde and the Suite provençale
remain popular, his postwar work is little known.
Aaron Copland, once one of
his admirers, finally complained that it had been "a long time
since we had been shocked by ... Milhaud." He never shocked me,
but he did delight and move me. His huge output militates
against him becoming better known. I recommend Six Little
Symphonies (wonderful chamber pieces, easily fittable on
one CD with enough room left over for one by
profound choral work Deux Cités, the Concerto for
Percussion, all the work for 2 pianos (are you listening,
Leslie?), the gripping Château du feu, the harmonica suite
(I'd describe it as "rollicking," if the word had lost its
power to make you cringe), La Cheminée du Roi René
(a film score reworked for wind quintet filled with great tunes),
Les Choephores (a wild piece, heavy on the percussion),
Kentuckiana (a neat re-interpretation of Applachian folk
tunes), and the Suite française for band.
Another 'lost' Brit. Small output, due to self-criticism.
Some of his work I like enormously; some of it
seems too close to Delius (an influence he mercifully
outgrew). Try the vigorous Sinfonietta and the brooding
Symphony in g.
Douglas. An American composer who seemed to have a
career -- one honor after the other -- and who now has fallen
off the edge. His work was always compared to
although nobody sounds like Thomson except Thomson. So I can't
see why. I like his operas, especially The Devil and Daniel Webster
and The Ballad of Baby Doe. Very tuneful.
Anything. Twenty years ago, I went through his
composition text, A Plain and Easy Introduction to Music
(I might be mistaken about the title), and encountered the
most fiendish set of problems I've ever seen. His own
solutions are magnificent. An Elizabethan composer known
for a couple of madrigals to high-school choirs from
Bangor, Maine, to Honolulu, Hawaii. I repeat, get
anything. I still cherish a recording of his part-songs
by the old Deller Consort and David Munrow's recording of
the First Book of Consort Lessons for "broken"
You can always find something overlooked here. The choral
music, excepting the Requiem, is not well known. We've
all read that he wrote masses while in Salzburg, but how
many have you heard? Try K. 192 and 194. The "Great"
Mass in c, had he finished it, would have ranked with
Beethoven and surpassed
his own Requiem. I also treasure his Vespereae Solenne de
Confessore, but turns powerful and lyrical. I detect the
influence of Bach. For chamber music, try the 2-piano sonata in
D (wonderful), the Piano Sonata No. 12 (Horowitz did a superb
recording), and the String Quintet in g, similar in tone to the
Symphony No. 40 (old Ausgabe).
The songs, other than the Songs and Dances of Death cycle,
aren't well known, and he's one of the greatest song
writers who ever wrote. The drama of Boris Godunov in
miniature. Christoff once recorded the complete set,
which I heard in my college library, for Legge and EMI.
Abbado and the Chicago also recorded some obscure choral
music. The short cantata Joshua stood out.
A great symphonist, who, thanks mainly to Bernstein's
pioneering recording of the Fifth, has come into his
own. But there's more to Nielsen than his symphonies,
magnificent as they are. Try the Helios Overture, one
of those pieces that start out wonderfully and continue
to get better with each measure. It depicts a sunrise,
noon, and sunset. Never was an overture better named.
For chamber music, try the four string quartets, the
quintet, and the wind quintet, one of the milestones of
the literature. The clarinet and flute concerti have
become necessary parts of the instrumentalists'
repertoire. The Violin Concerto, a wonderful Romantic
work, has languished, waiting for some champion. I've
heard it with mediocre violinists and orchestras, and it
still makes an effect.
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