Revisiting assignments from voice lessons of years ago, and was reminded of the glories of Gluck, as interpreted by the wonderful Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza.

Sort of astonishing to me that this aria is often tackled by beginning classical voice students (certainly where I first encountered it). Granted, it’s a workout for even breath control, but finding the right expressive character, one of gentle ardor, is even more challenging.

And here is Angela Gheorghiu, who perhaps pushes it a little to much into Verdian pathos (and needs the music, seriously?), but has, despite her quirks, a surpassingly beautiful vocal line.

O del mio dolce ardor
Bramato oggetto,
L’aura che tu respiri,
Alfin respiro.

O vunque il guardo io giro,
Le tue vaghe sembianze
Amore in me dipinge:
Il mio pensier si finge
Le più liete speranze;
E nel desio che così
M’empie il petto
Cerco te, chiamo te, spero e sospiro.

I will look for someone who does it in 17th century style one of these days, until then, these true opera stars will have to do.

The Gluck Berlioz connection

Composers frequently find touchstones in earlier composers, but few seem to manifest as direct a lineage (or in some ways as surprising) as Hector Berlioz’ connection with the music Christoph Willibald Gluck, whom he venerated above all opera composers.

“There are two supreme gods in the art of music: Beethoven and Gluck. The former’s realm is that of infinite thought, the latter’s that of infinite passion; and though Beethoven is far above Gluck as a musician, there is so much of each in the other that these two Jupiters form a single god, and all we can do is to lose ourselves in admiration and respect for him.”

In his study and scholarship on the Gluck scores (already old-fashioned in Paris during Berlioz’s era),  a musical revolutionary composer found common cause with a master of classical equilibrium. Here is Gluck from Iphigenie en Tauride, Regine Crespin singing “Cette nuit … O toi qui prolongeas mes jours“) (Iphigenia always brought forth magic from him–he pretty much owns the doomed classical heroine fach.)

And then, from Berlioz’ The Trojans (as classical a theme as Gluck could have wished for), the duet for Dido and Aeneas that closes Act III. More doom, more beauty and radiance.) A performance with Susan Graham and Gregory Kunde.

“I assure you, dear sister, that the music in Les Troyens is something noble and elevated; it is also compelling and truthful, and if I am not much mistaken there are a number of novelties which will arrest the ears of musicians throughout Europe and perhaps make their hair stand on end. It seems to me that were Gluck to come back to life, he would say of me on hearing the work: “Here in truth is my son.” Hardly modest, you will say. But at least I am modest enough to admit to be lacking in modesty.”

Commonplace Book: Abbey Simon

Taking a break from the “Blogging 101” stuff to share an Abbey Simon track I encountered (or probably re-encountered) last night.

This is his performance of an arrangement from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. (The arrangement is more than a tad old-fashioned, but the piano sound–and the way he gets from phrase–gentle, golden, and singing).

And another lovely take on it–maybe even more haunting–gets a little of the operatic darkness too. Plus the bonus of being able to see the video of performer, Yuja Wang who, like many a great pianist, somehow barely seems to be moving her fingers from the top of the key to the bottom. (What did we do before ‘keyboard cam?’)

Wang’s power at the keyboard is astonishing–I’ve heard her live twice, and out comes this tiny person who thunders and sings through big pieces, for instance the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 with the high beams on, and the curves taken thrillingly fast, but with calm confidence. She’s incredibly strong, but what impresses is the delicacy. Going back to Simon, he was once asked “whether strength matters in piano technique?” and here are his reasonable words, applicable to other instruments and genres.

Abbey Simon:   I don’t think [muscle strength] comes into it.  You have to realize you don’t play a musical instrument with your fingers.  A musical instrument is played by the ears.  My own theory is that what sets apart the great artist from the competent one is that he hears differently.  When people say, “The sound of Rubinstein,” Rubenstein played the same old piano that everybody else played.  It was that he had a different conception of sound.  The miracle of Horowitz is not the octaves.  Conservatories are churning out people who can play octaves even faster than Horowitz can play them.  The miracle of Horowitz is the color, the ability to change color.  It’s all of those things, and those are things that are governed by the hearing.  The wonderful sound that Heifitz had is because Heifitz heard differently.  In addition to that brilliant ability, he heard things differently.  All of these great artists hear things.  They have an extra talent, an extra technique, and it’s the hearing technique because in the most elementary way our ears tell us we played a wrong note.  We have to practice so that we don’t play a wrong note.  From then on, it’s a constant refinement.  The ears demand refinementplay faster, play louder, play softer, do this or that; you didn’t phrase that nicely.  Some people’s ears become more sensitive and more demanding, and they’re the ones who are the great artists. 

Summer Gardens: Poetry

A few lines from the close of “A Summer Garden” by Louise Glück:

She sat on a bench, somewhat hidden by oak trees.
Far away, fear approached and departed;
from the train station came the sound it made.

The sky was pink and orange, older because the day was over.

There was no wind. The summer day
cast oak-shaped shadows on the green grass.

The ornamental kale at the
The ornamental kale at Hillwood in Washington DC (taken late summer 2014).

Beautiful Song: Gluck Transcription

Have been trawling the web for good pianists, in the hope to solve my long running technical annoyances in trying to play (a not very hard!) Chopin Nocturne (C-sharp minor, Op. Post). Not much practical help watching the greats for a duffer like me, I’m afraid, but certainly is enjoyable, as hopping through the wormhole of YouTube took me to a lot of wonderful piano playing.

As a result, here are a couple of treasures from that nosing around: two pianists playing a transcription of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from the opera “Orfeo ed Euridice.” First, the great Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes.

Novaes could play a melody in a way that made it a living sinuous thing, winding in and out of the other musical material in a 3-D way.  (I first discovered her ability to put this spin on melody via a really old cassette recording of the Chopin Nocturnes of hers I had. I got it at a drug store in Urbana-Champaign, IL, in 1989. Didn’t recognize her name, and the VOX label looked pretty sketchy. But it was only a quarter, I think.) It floored me–one of those cases where you hear something unexpected and you just have to listen over and over and over again, changed how I thought about what the piano could do. It actually could sing, that wasn’t just a piece of piano teacher rhetoric. I recall making the friend I was staying with drive me around in his Honda to listen to it in the car, as he didn’t have a cassette player at home and I wanted to hear it on something other than my Walkman. (For you kinder, that was an ancient predecessor to the i-thingie).

The next take on this is a young pianist, Yuja Wang.

Wang’s way with the melody is also restrained yet powerful; she’s able to pull back to a whisper (in contrast to a lot of young pianists who don’t actually play the “piano-forte,” but rather the “forte-forte” or maybe the “forte-fortissimo”). And her seemingly stress-free finger technique is just astonishing.

I never heard Novaes in person. But I have heard Wang live twice; once in Boston and once in DC. Worth hearing if you are a piano lover.

A bit about Gluck and that extraordinary melody: Gluck was an  18th century German composer, born in the era of Bach and Handel, but dying when Beethoven was a teenager. His operas (on the mythical subjects typical of his era) aimed to reform the repetitive and artificial formats then used, but, ironically, he was regarded as pretty old-fashioned in the 19th century (except by Berlioz).

That said, his melodies never went out of fashion and many arrangements were made for amateur or professional use. Now fully staged performances of his operas are no longer rare (although not exactly staples either). There was an Orfeo ed Euridice at New England Conservatory I caught last year. Radiant and antique in one moment, with flashes of desperate Verdi-like fire the next. It definitely was not a museum piece.

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