SCHWARTZ'S GUIDE TO UNDERRATED MASTERPIECES
(Tallis - Toch)
(Wagner - Zimbalist)
(Van VACTOR - Jan Václav VORÍSEK)
Moisei Vainberg, 20th-century Russian, faced two major obstacles.
First, for reasons known best to themselves, the Soviet government
disliked him, although I don't believe he was ever jailed, merely
ignored. Second, he had the misfortune to compose while
Prokofiev were around.
His idiom resembles that of Shostakovich, but he's more communicative
-- fewer "alienation devices" than in Shostakovich, who, by the
way, admired his music. He's as open as
Sibelius, although much darker
in mood. Everything I've heard has been great. Try the concerti
for cello, flute, and trumpet or any of the symphonies.
- Van Vactor
An American composer long resident at the University of Tennessee.
His music ranges from the pedestrian to, at its best, a
Peter Mennin neo-classicism.
I recommend the tight Fantasia, Chaconne, and Allegro for
orchestra and the Music for Woodwinds, a systematic exploration
of all combinations within the standard woodwind quintet plus two
double quintets. Mathematicians can work out the number of pieces.
Each part is part is beautifully worked out.
A major 20th-century voice, he left only a little more than a dozen
works, none of which you can call popular. He deals in planes of
sound, very much like his disciple Frank
Zappa. Amériques for orchestra and Density
21.5 for solo flute are probably Varèse at his best-known
and most accessible. However, try Arcana, Ionisation,
Écuatoriale, Intégrales, Offrandes,
Octandre, and the masterful Poème électronique.
- Vaughan Williams
A great figure. My favorite British composer. I read the Michael
Kennedy critical biography with the reverence believing Christians
give to Lives of the Saints. Everything he wrote (aside
from juvenalia) interests and engages me profoundly. Not only one
of the greatest melodist of all times, but a technician so masterful
that he becomes a "poet" of form. A lot has been made of his
"amateurish" technique (something he himself started), which simply
doesn't hold up when you examine the scores. I never knew music
could be that good. Undoubtedly, I've lost critical distance.
It's real hard for me to pick works from all those that are little
known and masterpieces and stay within reasonable length.
VOCAL AND CHORAL pieces: Ten Blake Songs for solo voice
and oboe (written late) show off his ability to penetrate to the
heart of great texts as well as his melodic genius. Three
Shakespeare Songs for unaccompanied choir (with the profound
"Cloud-capp'd towers"). Five Mystical Songs for baritone,
chorus, and orchestra set religious lyrics of the metaphysical poet
George Herbert and attain an ecstatic mysticism. Benedicite
for chorus and orchestra combines festivity with an introspective
middle section. Dona nobis pacem precurses the
Britten War Requiem
and is as powerful as anything in the later work. Fantasia on
Christmas Carols, a minor piece, nevertheless captures the
season. The Christmas cantata Hodie is a major piece which
does the same. Mass in g for a cappella chorus is a
masterpiece of the 20th century and in many ways the vocal equivalent
of the Tallis fantasia.
Merciless Beauty to rondeaus by Chaucer for high voice and
string trio is a gem. Again, tunes that go to your "insidest
insides." On Wenlock Edge for tenor and piano quintet Michael
Kennedy called a new world of sound, comparable to
Debussy's Images for
orchestra. Certainly, they are the finest settings of A. E.
Housman I know of. Sancta Civitas to sections of Revelations
is my favorite VW large-scale work for chorus and orchestra. It
has the power of a Mantegna crucifixion or a Michelangelo sculpture.
Toward the Unknown Region, an early work, shows the influence
of Parry and
Elgar allied to a gift for
word-painting not found in either. Five Tudor Portraits
runs from '30s modernism to simple song to great dramatic depth,
as a little girl mourns the death of her pet sparrow.
Valiant-for-Truth sets Bunyan: I like no choral piece better
than this. Serenade to Music for 16 soloists and orchestra
is to me a practically perfect work, although I have no idea how
he could have improved it. I've heard four of the five operas and
love every one of them. The greatest artistic success is Riders
to the Sea, which sets the complete Synge play. Pilgrim's
Progress has more of the composer's soul. Hugh the Drover
is probably the least successful dramatically but there's not one
bad tune in it. My favorite, however, is the Falstaff opera Sir
John in Love -- one tune after the other, each one more gorgeous
than before. The finale, until it's heard, can't even be imagined,
it's so wonderful.
CONCERTI. People think of VW as a "pastoral," even "bucolic"
composer and mistake him mightily. This is a very sophisticated
artist with a huge expressive range, and it shows up very clearly
in the concerti. The violin concerto shows the lighter side of
'20s neo-classicism and reminds me very much of
Bach's double concerto in d.
The oboe concerto is delicate and fresh as a windflower and justifies
the "pastoral" label. The tuba concerto is an odd piece, as you
might guess, with a split personality. "Rollicking" in the outer
movements, with a gorgeous, romantic slow movement (who thought
the tuba could do this?), it's emblematic for me of the basic
dichotomy in VW's artistic personality: a reserved, meditative
quality which covers great inner passions. The Romance for
harmonica takes that instrument into
Debussy faun territory.
The piano concerto (and its 2-piano version) show VW at his most
sophisticated and his most heroic, very close to the Fourth
Symphony in its language, though slightly less intense, even
humorous in spots. I don't know what a virtuoso would feel about
the piano writing, but it sounds to me as meaty as the
Tchaikovsky first, yet
with a far surer hold on form.
CHAMBER MUSIC. Not all that much, but what there is of it is
cherché. Phantasy Quintet re-enters the world of
Elizabethan consort music. The first string quartet, though not
at the same level of towering masterpiece, is a rather genial
version of Ravel's. The second
string quartet is more astringent and related stylistically to the
Sixth Symphony. The violin sonata is a substantial contribution
to the genre and very little played. I don't know why. The Suite
for Pipes, for recorder consort, plays high, sophisticated fun.
ORCHESTRAL MUSIC. Five Variants on "Dives and Lazarus" for
harp and strings are gorgeous and have not one wasted note in them.
Concerto Grosso and Partita for Double String Orchestra
are extremely sophisticated studies in syncopation as well as
fantastic string writing. English Folk-Song Suite and
Toccata Marziale, both for band, show his winning way with
a folk song and his own version of neo-classicism, respectively.
Flos campi for viola, wordless women's chorus, and chamber
orchestra meditates on passages from the Song of Songs and
reaches, appropriately, passionate climaxes. Lush music with a
minimum of means; the bitonal opening used to be famous. One of
his greatest instrumental pieces, Job, a Masque for Dancing,
takes off from the Blake illustrations. The musical language
foreshadows the Fourth Symphony. The "Aristophanic suite,"
The Wasps, is one of the earliest examples of VW breaking
free from his teachers. It's great fun, should be popular as hell,
and occasionally sneaks up on you with a surprising depth. The
nine symphonies stand at the center of his achievement. VW is one
of the great symphonists. 4, 5, and 6 get done all the time, but
really try them all. No. 1, "The Sea," to magnificent texts by
Walt Whitman, is that rare beast, a true choral symphony. It is
an extended work for chorus which extends the Elgarian tradition
in the first movement and then just takes off into new territory,
and it is also a real symphony (sonata-allegro form etc., etc.).
How he did this while keeping faith with the text is a mystery.
No. 2, "London," is for me the most beautiful in sound, and his
closest approach to French impressionism. I don't know why it
isn't played more. No. 3, "Pastoral," is no Romantic wallow in
nature or even a Beethoven country ramble. I hear the "mind" of
nature in it. Kennedy believes it is his Requiem for the WWI dead.
Nos. 7 and 8 exemplify the interest in new sounds that mark the
last phase. In No. 7, the new sounds are used to deepen the emotion.
No. 8, on the other hand, is like Haydn in a light mood; the last
movement, with an extended section of tuned percussion, was inspired
by a performance of Puccini's Turandot. After 25 years of
listening, No. 9 remains an enigma to me. I haven't cracked it
and I haven't given up.
A contemporary of Palestrina's,
Victoria writes in a similar
style, but with far greater intensity. This is the Spanish religious
soul, and it's not surprising he knew St. Teresa of Avila.
The man couldn't write a throwaway piece, so get anything. Like
Lassus, he's a master of the
motet, and several collections are available on CD. The Responsories
for the Tenebrae is a shattering piece. Special favorite
sections include "Caligaverunt oculi mei" and "Ecce quomodo moritur
justus." Unlike Lassus, he's also a writer of great masses. Try
the Officium defunctorum, Missa O magnum mysterium,
and the Missa O quam gloriosam, both based on his own
motets. To me, he's a Romantic born too early, so the more out of
historical style the performances of his music, the better. I
treasure George Malcolm's recording of the Responsories.
Brazil's best-known composer. Very large, uneven output. His
music had a vogue in the '40s and '50s, which has died down. You
don't hear people talking about his work any more, and that's a
shame. Aside from "loose, baggy monsters" of pieces, there are
also gems. He's as independent and voluble as
Ives. Not known for his
humility, before he left for a stay in Europe, he was asked, "With
whom will you study?" "They will study with me," he answered.
The Rudepoema for solo piano combines the barbarism of
Bartók with snappy
Latin rhythms. He is one of the great guitar composers Surprisingly,
he actually played the instrument-- unlike
Britten. The center of his
achievement remain the series of Bachianas Brasileiras, in
which he modestly implies that this is how Bach would have handled
the Brazilian folk idiom. Not a lot of it reminds me of Bach (aside
from some keyboard figurations in #3), but it's still highly
imaginative, highly-colored music. The orchestration ranges from
standard piano concerto (No. 3), to Impressionistic-modern
(No. 2), to an acerbic duet for flute and bassoon (No. 6),
to bold experiments (No. 5 for wordless soprano and cello
ensemble -- he was also a cellist). No. 5 is his hit. Go
John. An American composer, 20th-century Southern. I've heard
only 3 pieces: Consort for piano and strings (essentially
a piano quintet), the first string quartet, and his Symphony in
D. All are extremely well-written in a kind of
Piston-ish style, but they're
a little warmer and more direct than most Piston. Both Ormandy
and Robert Whitney recorded the symphony, which at one time looked
like it would become an American classic.
When I was young and twenty, I avoided listening to Vivaldi, except
for the famous Gloria, which I loved. I believed
Dallapiccola, who made
the crack that Vivaldi didn't write 3,000 concerti; he wrote the
same concerto 3,000 times. It's a zinger, but not really accurate,
as a listening to the complete collection Il Cimento (which
CONTAINS the "Four Seasons") proved to me. The emotional range
isn't wide, but the variety within that range seems inexhaustable.
Really, try anything, but especially try the collections to savor
this composer at his best. These include La Cetra, La
Stravaganza, L'Estro Armonico, and the Concerti
grossi, Op. 7. I especially like Scimone's performances.
I do admit to fatigue as I slogged my way through all 38 bassoon
concerti, but singly they're easy to take. Concerti are what get
played, but Vivaldi was also known for sacred music, oratorio, and
opera. I've never heard a Vivaldi opera. I have heard some of
the large sacred pieces, including the oratorio Juditha
triumphans. Handel it's
not, but it's not nothing either. For Vivaldi fanatics, like me.
People have posted on this guy before. A Czech, roughly contemporary
with Beethoven. His Symphony in D is wonderful and,
mysteriously, little-known. It's one of the best symphonies outside
the standard canon, miles ahead of the Cherubini symphony (nothing
to sneeze at), and comes the closest to matching
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