Category: ABC Classic 100 20th Century


Another piece of music for the screen, this time from the British war film Dangerous Moonlight (1941). Running to only nine minutes in a single movement, it can barely be called a concerto, rather something of an epic miniature for piano and orchestra. Addinsell manages to fit a huge emotional variety into these nine minutes without the listener feeling at all rocked about by it. Nowhere is this contrast so great as between the tense, brooding entry and the beginning of the central theme.

It is undoubtedly this theme that makes the piece, giving it a popularity that has gone well beyond the life of the original black-and-white film. It first appears in the piano as a meditative, almost introverted solo, which grows gradually to encompass the orchestra. The focus shifts continually back and forth, giving the impression of the piano drifting in and out in a rather improvisatory manner. The show-stopping moment is without a doubt the lush violin melody soaring over the soloist’s flurries of chords in the piece’s final buildup.

It is said that Addinsell  modeled this piece on Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, and it is easy to hear the link. Miniature it may be, but this is a work that at once achieves intimacy and a majestic beauty.

For a glimpse of the film, have a look at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4cu1vtIVxo

The scene isn’t a full performance, rather (I think) the first time the piece is introduced as an American journalist and Polish officer meet for the first time in the ruins of Warsaw. Once again, quality isn’t fantastic.

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A more widely known composer this time, the Lieutenant Kije Suite by Sergei Prokofiev started out life as a film score. The story, based on a novella by one Yuri Tynyanov, goes that the fictitious Lieutenant Kije was created due to a copying error by one of the Russian army’s scribes. The Tsar then issues a ream of orders concerning the Lieutenant, and the admirals have no choice but to maintain the illusion of Kije’s existence. Following a pretend romance and wedding, the admirals finally proclaim that Kije has died and stage a  mock burial.

For those interested in the original film, it can be found here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5960899000870748608

Despite constant static, the orchestra’s sound comes through well, though the film itself is very much a period piece!

Outside Russia, however, the work is better known in its arrangement as a  jovial concert suite in five movements. Prokofiev’s orchestration is colourful and exciting, making full use of an extended orchestra to evoke the various elements of his story. Kije’s gentle romance, over-the-top wedding and sombre burial certainly come alive, even in a concert hall. The score is fresh and uplifting on the first listening, but not weighty enough to incite any real contemplation.

The fourth movement, Troika, is often used to accompany snow and Christmas scenes in television, no doubt because of its bouncy sleigh bells. There is the option of using a Baritone voice in the score (but usually a tenor saxophone gets the gig), and I’m quite partial to this recording of the Berlin Philharmonic that actually uses it! The voice adds another level of drama, and for me takes it one step close to the sound of Russian folk music.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yMBZhdzqrk

What a find! Ramirez’s Misa Criolla, probably his most famous work, is a 1964 setting of the mass in Spanish for soloist, chorus and orchestra. In terms of grandeur, it doesn’t compare with the famous masses and requiems of the late romantic and early twentieth century, but it doesn’t need to. Instead the work is personal and reflective, with the settings paying homage to Spanish dance and folk music. A rather daring work considering the subject matter, this was one of the first mass to diverge from the traditional Latin as a result of  the lifting of regulations by the Second Vatican Council.

The opening Kyrie is lullaby-like in its meditative motion and softly caressing melody. Occasional buoyant interjections do not break the serenity as much as remind us of it. The Gloria that follows is undoubtedly the work’s highlight, and at six minutes, feels very much the central movement around which the others revolve. It has a bit of everything: sublimely calm passages reminiscent of Gregorian Chant are interspersed with rhythmic quasi a-capella sections clearly inspired by the folk tradition. This vibrancy continues into the Credo and Sanctus, making using of choral ostinatos and a wide variety of textures to create the dramatic arc of the mass. The Agnus Dei takes a more reflective and sombre tone, but it is nevertheless beautiful in its simplicity. This mass is very much for the choir, the orchestra doesn’t get a mention beyond the accompanying line. However, Ramirez is very much a composer of song, and it is through this that the work’s effortless joy is achieved.

The project is simple:

In an attempt to write more about music, as well as to listen to a wider variety, I am going to aim to publish a handful of blogs a week on concerts I’ve attended or CDs/pieces that I’ve listened to. Mostly this is going to be music from the western art music tradition, what people would generally call ‘classical’, but I’m also out to surprise myself. Some works will be new to me (and probably to most people), so will not. For more common pieces, I’ll aim to review a specific recording, but with the more obscure repertoire I will focus on the piece itself. To start with, I’m setting myself the project of listening through all of ABC’s Classic FM’s ‘Top 100 20th Century’ list, which was voted on and compiled in 2011. Here goes!

Something of a jarring start to a ’20th century’ listening list, this opera is based on the visit of American president Richard Nixon to China in 1972. The action follows the footsteps of President and Mrs Nixon, along with Henry Kissinger, through the several days they spend as guests of Mao Tse-tung and his wife Chiang Ch’ing. Scene changes are rapid, and through the course of a banquet, visits and a ballet performance, each of the four main characters contemplates themselves and the world they have sought to achieve.

Premiered in 1978 by the Houston Grand Opera, Nixon in China was John Adams’s first foray into the genre. With the libretto of Alice Goodman (with whom Adams later collaborated on The Death of Klinghoffer), this work is both close to and far from Adam’s usual minimalist style. Isolated sections do often display a preference for repetition of figures and chords, but the overall effect is one of gradually shifting tension as sequences build and then are dissipated or usurped.

Far from being overly wound up with the politics of the situation, the opera’s success is that it paints the characters in entirely human lights, allowing the audience to laugh even as they grow to understand what drove them. While the edginess of dialogue can sometimes border on irritating, by far the best scenes are those exploring the characters’ inner worlds.

Listening to this work would certainly benefit from having a copy of the libretto handy, or indeed from finding videos of some of the key scenes. However, armed with just a little background knowledge, the opera is an intriguing and at times intensely rewarding listen.