Friday, April 1, 2016

April 2016 - Featured Playlist: Different Keys

One of the first instruments most musicians learn to play (at least a little) is the piano. It has a huge range—both in pitch and in easily accessible repertoire, it has no shortage of qualified teachers and performance opportunities, and it is a staple of nearly every genre imaginable. However, the use of keyboard instruments in classical music is so much broader and well worth exploring.

The behemoth of the keyboard world is the mighty organ, with its diversity of colors and applications. The harpsichord is the granddaddy of the family; after virtually disappearing for centuries, it is finding renewed interest thanks to modern amplification. Lesser-known relatives like the celesta and microtonal piano have their advocates, and the period-instrument movement active in some classical circles has resurrected the clavichord, spinet, and other early keyboards. Here we have presented a playlist that proudly features many examples of these Different Keys.

To hear the playlist, access NML as usual, go to the Playlists section, and select the Playlist of the Month folder under the Themed Playlists tab. If you are on your institution's premises, you may also be able to access it if you CLICK HERE.

1. John Williams – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Hedwig’s Theme – Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” might have brought the celesta its greatest fame, but an entire generation now also associates it with their first exposure to the Harry Potter films. John Williams’ haunting melody is the theme for Harry’s trusty owl Hedwig, and when played by the celesta it perfectly captures the magic of the series.

2. Camille Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 3, “Organ”: II. Maestoso. Allegro. Più allegro. Molto allegro. Pesante -- Saint-Saëns seemed to know that he had reached the peak of his career with his third and final symphony, saying “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.” Franz Liszt died two months after its premier, and Saint-Saëns then dedicated it to his friend’s memory.

3. Francis Poulenc – Organ Concerto: IV. Allegro, molto agitato; V. Tres calme; VI. Allegro; VII. Largo - Poulenc had never composed for the organ before this work was commissioned, and he studied the music of Bach and Buxtehude to familiarize himself with the instrument. This Baroque influence can be heard in the piece, which was premiered privately with Maurice Duruflé on organ and Nadia Boulanger conducting.

4. Bohuslav Martinů – 2 Impromptus: No. 1 Allegretto – Martinů was a prolific composer of neo-classical music who was forced to flee Europe during World War Two because of his ties to the Czech resistance. He became noted for his use of the piano with the orchestra, though he also composed for the harpsichord. This pleasant work is performed by young harpsichord advocate Christopher D. Lewis.

5. Ottorino Respighi – Suite in G Major: I. Preludio – Respighi carved out for himself a niche that combined Baroque and Classical forms with some of the most colorful orchestrations ever created. Even limiting himself to strings and an organ, as he does in his Suite in G Major, he conjures up a buoyancy and sparkle that many other composers can’t with a full musical palette.

6. Joan Lippincott – Organ Concerto in D Major: I. Allegro – Princeton professor Dr. Joan Lippincott has arranged organ-obbligato passages from cantatas by J.S. Bach into concertos, with the selection here derived from BWV 169:I. Before anyone cries sacrilege for this, Bach himself often did the same thing, repurposing portions of past works for new use.

7. J.S. Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: Fugue – No organist gets very far without a thorough immersion into the music of J.S. Bach. His Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is arguably the most famous organ composition of all time, and on this recording it is tackled by acclaimed Bach specialist Masaaki Suzuki. If historical authenticity is a performance priority for you, this is a recording to consider.

8. Matthias Weckmann – Toccata in A Minor – Matthias Weckman was a German composer and organist of the Baroque Era. On this recording, his Toccata in A Minor is performed on the lute-harpsichord (or lautenwerck), an instrument that functions like a harpsichord but uses strings made of gut, rather than metal. This gives it a mellower tone that sounds not unlike a lute played with a pick.

9. François Couperin – Pièces de clavecin: Les barricades mistérieuses – The Couperin family was a major force in French Baroque music, with François Couperin earning the nickname “Couperin le Grand” as the greatest of them all. He composed many small works for harpsichord, which are collected into four volumes. The work selected here is one of the better-known pieces, and it is performed on the spinet, a miniature version of the harpsichord.

10. Domenico Cimarosa – Harpsichord Concerto in B-Flat Major: III. Aria – Domenico Cimarosa is primarily remembered for the whopping 80+ operas he composed during his lifetime, but he left behind some instrumental music as well, including a lovely concerto for harpsichord. Even in this genre the operatic bent is observed, as he chose to refer to its third movement as an aria.

11. George Frideric Handel – Organ Concerto in F Major, “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”: II. Allegro – Handel may be most beloved now for his oratorios, but he was ridiculously prolific in a wide variety of forms. He composed at least eighteen numbered organ concertos, with No. 13 called “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” in reference to the imitations of bird calls in its second movement.

12. Johann Gottfried Pratsch – Piano Sonata in C Major: I. Allegro molto con espressione – Pratsch was a Czech composer living in Russia during the Classical Era. Little of his music is known today, though this sonata, performed here on clavichord, makes one wish for more. He is best remembered for a collection of Russian folk tunes that influenced composers like Glazunov, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Weber, and Beethoven.  
13. C.P.E. Bach – Rondo in D Minor – The tangent piano is an extremely rare early keyboard instrument; today only around twenty are known to exist. It has a unique sound, with the higher notes sounding more like a piano and the lower notes more closely resembling a harpsichord. Its popularity was very short-lived, though some experts believe some of C.P.E. Bach’s works were composed for it.

14. Johann Adam Reincken – Fuga in G Minor – While not a great percentage of Reincken’s work has survived, he was known to be one of the best organists in Germany in his day. There also is enough evidence to indicate that he had a profound influence on J.S. Bach. One apocryphal story says that after hearing Bach improvise, Reincken declared, “I thought that this art was dead, but I see that it lives in you.”

15. Christos Hatzis – Overscript: III. Both (Left and Right) – Hatzis is a Greek-Canadian composer who here takes J.S. Bach’s Concerto in G Minor for Flute, Strings, and Basso Continuo and reworks it into what he calls “a palimpsest (an overwrite) of, and a musical commentary on” it. It’s an interesting example of how one can still find new dimensions to the Baroque master’s timeless work.

16. Vera Ivanova – Mbira (or In Cage with Adams) – In recent decades, composers have explored the use of microtones. Initially this required re-tuning pianos to different specifications, but recently available techniques have involved scrambling the map of the keyboard itself or placing sliders on the strings so that pitches can be manipulated on the fly. The result is a very warped sound, but in the right hands it can be enchanting.

17. Béla Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta: III. Adagio – Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is one of Bartók’s best-known works, and the third movement is a prime example of the “night music” style he often employed for slow movements. Here the celesta steps in to portray twinkling stars, dancing aurora, or any other mysterious beauty of the night your mind might conjure up.

18. John Cage – Suite for Toy Piano: IV. ---- – John Cage has built a career out of composing the unexpected, the conceptual, and the downright weird. His best-known work, 4’33”, consists of a musician sitting silently on stage for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, with the audience reactions and ambient noise making up the music. His Suite for Toy Piano, however, required actual composition, and it stretches the boundaries of this tiny keyboard.

19. Patricia Morehead – Tourbillon Galaxy – Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour picked up a Grammy nomination in 2014 for his album Toccatas, which featured works by contemporary American composers. One of these works, Tourbillon Galaxy, was composed by Patricia Morehead, who has been an active advocate for women composers in the American Midwest and beyond.

20. Jehan Alain – Fantasmagorie - Best known for his compositions for organ, Alain served as a dispatch motorcyclist in the French Army during World War II. He was killed on reconnaissance when he encountered a group of German soldiers on the road, but he managed to take down sixteen of them before he died. For his bravery, he was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Bonus Track: Olivier Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie: V. Joie du Sang des Étoiles – The ondes Martenot is a bit of a Frankenstein instrument, combining elements of the theremin with a keyboard and other electronics. It’s far enough outside the scope of this playlist to “officially” leave it out, but we’ve included this Messiaen track as a bonus. Messiaen composed for it a number of times, while in popular music, Radiohead and Yann Tiersen have used it extensively.

Each month, Naxos Music Library presents a themed playlist for our subscribers to enjoy. We know that a database of over 1.8 million tracks can be a bit daunting, so we'd like to highlight some of the amazing music that is available to you. Let it kickstart discovery!

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