OK, don’t have a dickie fit, I like a bit of classical music and this 2 CD set seemed like a bit of a bargain at only four squid. The first track is, not surprisingly, the Inspector Morse Theme written and conducted by Barrington Pheloung who also gets billing a number of other tracks. So a bit of a showcase for the boy Barrington!
Track 2 is Isolde Tristan Geliebte from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner, performed by Rudolf Kempe and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I&S is seen by many as the beginning of the move away from conventional harmony and tonality towards the modern atonal movement. Indeed, the very first chord of the opera is known as the “Tristan chord”, comprising the notes F, B, D# and G# and considered very bold at the time (similar chords are used by Radiohead, particularly on their Kid A album). This excerpt comes from the beginning of the second scene, at the moment when Tristan and Isolde, having arrived at Cornwall, begin their love duet.
Track 3 is the Overture from Der Freischutz [The Freeshooter] by Carl Maria Von Weber, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. An opera in three acts based on obscure Germanic folk legends; it is probably the first important German Romantic opera and was undoubtedly an inspiration to a young Wagner. The Overture sets the scene close to the countryside where the young ranger Max has to engage in a test of marksmanship in order to get the job of head ranger and win the hand of the head ranger’s daughter, Agatha.
Track 4, also by Weber and performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, is the Overture from Euryanthe. This opera is rarely performed due to the rather weak libretto, but the Overture itself is quite popular. The second thematic sequence in particular is familiar as Weber uses the British national anthem, God Save The Queen. As with most modern performances of the Overture it has been slowed from the original tempo, it should start very fast (minim = 92) and, for me, the result is a somewhat sluggish start although it does picks up towards the end.
Track 5 is the Symphonie Fantastique Opus 14 Allegro Agitato E Appassionato Assai by Hector Berlioz, here overseen by Mariss Jansons conducting, what sounds like, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but don’t quote me on that. This symphony is a piece of programme music which tells the story of an artist who poisons himself with opium in the depths of despair because of hopeless love. This takes place over five parts (instead of the more conventional four) and this track comes from the first, Rêveries - Passions, and is the second movement following the Largo. The artist (before taking the poison) sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. This woman takes the form of the melody which launches this first Allegro and constantly recurs in all the movements of the symphony. Over the course of about eight minutes, the artist (and we listeners) experiences a transition from a state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with outbursts of fury and jealousy, before returning to tenderness and tears.
Track 6 is one of the more popular pieces of classical music; The Ride Of The Walkyries from Die Walküre by Richard Wagner played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is the second of the four operas that comprise Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). The Ride comes as the prelude from Act III as the other Valkyries assemble on the summit of a mountain, each with a dead hero in her saddlebag. They are astonished when Brünnhilde arrives, with a living woman, begging them for help. With the opening bars you can almost hear the rush of air as the Valkyries swoop towards the mountain. Fantastic stuff and great for la-la-laing along to in the car.
Track 7 There Was A Mortal Who Is Now Above from The Dream Of Gerontius by Edward Elgar, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Popularly called just Gerontius, is an oratorio (Opus 38) in two parts composed by Edward Elgar in 1900, to text from the poem by Cardinal Newman. It relates the journey of a pious man's soul from his deathbed to his judgment before God and settling into Purgatory. There was a mortal... is a dialogue between the soul and an Angel that leads into a duet, the Angel reassuring the soul about his fate (they have just passed a company of demons), the soul singing of his new-found joy, but will he be able to see God? The Angel says he will, but warns that the flame of the Everlasting Love/Doth burn ere it transform. So they approach the gate to the House of Judgement. This passage is in triple time, providing a nice light and airy feel to the music. The vocals are in English although sometimes a little difficult to make out without a libretto.
Track 8 is the Andante movement from the Sonata In C Major (KV 545) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and played by the French pianist Jean-Bernard Pommier. Often nicknamed Sonata facile or Sonata semplice, whilst very well known today, it was not published in Mozart's lifetime, first appearing in print in 1805. The Andante movement is actually in the key of G major, the dominant key of C major. The music modulates in the middle of this movement to the parallel, G minor, and its relative Bb major. The movement then modulates to the tonic, and, after the main theme and development is heard again, the piece ends. Wolfie can do no wrong in my eyes, very distinctive, typical Mozart, and throughly enjoyable.
Track 9 is Vissi D'Arte from Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. Pretty much everyone will have heard of Tosca even if they haven’t heard the music itself, and this aria is probably the most popular piece from it. Tosca is a three act opera and Vissi D’Arte occurs in Act II where Tosca, following her attempted rape by Scarpia, finally collapses and asks the Lord the reason for all this cruelty against her; Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore, non feci mai male ad anima viva! – “I lived for art, I lived for love, I did no harm to any living soul!” The aria is delivered by the Italian soprano Mirella Freni who manages to impart an incredibly youthful quality to the character of Tosca (Mirella retired in 2005 at the age of 70!). A superb legato, excellent high notes and consistency in the middle range of the voice that marks Mirella out as one of the best.
Track 10 is an excerpt from the Adagio of Quintet In C by Franz Schubert. Written for a string quartet with an extra cello (hence quintet), taken from the ethereal second movement and communicating the sense of spiritual suspended animation that modern day minimalists strive for but usually fail to achieve. This is the second track to feature the talents of Mr Pheloung.
Finally, track 11 is the Presto movement from the String Quartet In C Major by Franz Joseph Haydn. Also known as Opus 76 number 3 and by the nickname Emperor, because in the second movement he uses the melody from Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser ("God Save Emperor Francis"), an anthem he wrote for Emperor Francis II. The same melody is known to modern listeners for its later use in the German national anthem, Deutschlandlied. The quartet consists of four movements and this piece is the Finale (part four, so not the actual anthem) presto in sonata form in C minor and C Major, here performed by the Alban Berg Quartet. The ABQ have their own distinctive style, notably in their interpretation of Beethoven’s work, but here too lifting the, what is normally fairly flat, outro to this particular composition.
And so, Desk Jockeys, we move onto Disc 2, thanks for staying with me...
We kick off with, not surprisingly, Track 1 Impromptu In A Flat Major, Opus 90 Number 4, D988 by Franz Schubert. The Impromptus are a series of eight pieces for solo piano composed in 1827. This Impromptu, nicknamed “the waterfall” is performed by the late pianist John Andrew Howard Ogdon. The piece actually begins in A-flat minor, though written as A-flat major with accidentals. The opening theme consists of cascading arpeggios (hence the “waterfall” connotation) followed by murmuring chordal responses. There is a subordinate theme, accompanied by the arpeggio figure, varied with triplets. In the central section, the arpeggios are replaced by a chordal accompaniment. This track is, frankly, a bit too twee for my taste.
Track 2 on the other hand is right up my street, Sonata In A Major (KV331) Alla Turca, Allegretto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and performed by Jean-Bernard Pommier. KV331 is a sonata in three movements. The last movement, Alla Turca, popularly known as the Turkish Rondo, is one of Mozart's best-known piano pieces. It imitates the sound of Turkish Janissary bands, the music of which was much in vogue at that time. Top stuff.
Track 3 is Sempre Libera from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. This is a three act opera about a “fallen woman”, Violetta Valery, a famed courtesan, who throws a lavish party at her Paris salon to celebrate her recovery from an illness. Whilst ill she was visited daily by Alfredo Germont who has become infatuated with her. Whilst she wonders if he could be the one for her, she concludes that she needs freedom to live her life, hence Sempre libera – "Always free". The aria is performed by the famed Catalan soprano, Victoria De Los Angeles, who died in 2005. Here she really seems to capture the desperate spirit of Violetta.
Track 4 is the Prelude from Cello Suite No 1 In G BWV1007 by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by French cellist Paul Tortelier. Paul died in 1990, there seems to be a lot of dead people performing on this compilation! The Prelude consists mainly of arpeggiated chords and is probably the best known movement from Bach’s entire set of cello suites. An excellent track.
Track 5 and we are back to the operatics with the Aria Der Holle Rache Kocht In Meinem Herzen from The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and sung by the Slovak coloratura soprano, Edita Gruberova. The Magic Flute is a two act opera which tells how Sarastro, the wise priest of Isis and Osiris, has taken Pamina to the temple for the purpose of releasing her from the influence of her mother, the Queen of the Night. The queen induces the young Prince Tamino to go in search of her daughter and free her from the power of Sarastro; Tamino accomplishes his end, but becomes the disciple of Sarastro, whose mildness and wisdom he has learned to admire. The prince and the princess are ultimately united. This extract comes from Act II Scene III when the Queen of the Night appears and gives Pamina a dagger with which to kill Sarastro, Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen – “The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart”. This is a particularly demanding aria which reaches a high F6, rare in opera, Edita pulls this off with ease in a fantastic performance.
Track 6 is Senza Mamma (Without your mother) from Suor Angelica by Giacomo Puccini. Suor Angelica is the second instalment in Puccini's triptych of one-act operas commonly known as Il trittico. The opera chronicles the fall, redemption, and final transfiguration of its central character, Sister Angelica, who has taken the veil in repentance for bearing a child out of wedlock. Angelica's aria Senza Mamma, one of the most poignant moments in any of Puccini's works, is a recital favourite and on this recording an opportunity to delight in the talents of soprano soloist Janis Kelly with the orchestra conducted by Barrington Pheloung. Top stuff.
Track 7 is the Laudate Dominum Part 5 from Vespers Solennes De Confesore K339 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted (I think by Barrington Pheloung) with Janis Kelly as the Soprano soloist. One of Mozart's most memorable and beautiful melodies is given to the soprano soloist, accompanied by strings and bassoon. The Laudate Dominum are actually the opening words of a Roman Catholic hymn. The first two sentences are taken from Psalm 117 (Hebrew numbering). The rest of the hymn is the Gloria Patri.
In the Gloria Patri the choir reiterates the same tune in four-part harmony. Their closing Amen becomes part of the accompanying texture for an elaborately decorated descant added by the Janis’ voice.
Track 8, also by Wolfie, is his Concerto For Piano Number 15 In B Flat Major K450. This was one of two concertos that Wolfgang managed to knock out in a single week. There are not many recordings of this particular one which has wonderful cadences and transitions all over the place, and some strange modulation in the first movement. There are also long and passionate segments and a delightful short development section. The piano is played, quite superbly, by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (died in 1995).
Track 9 is the Presto from String Quartet No .13 Grosse Fuge, Opus 130 by Ludwig Van Beethoven, here performed by the Alban Berg Quartett. This work is unusual among quartets in being written in six movements, and the Presto is the second. The Grosse Fuge itself is actually the sixth movement and comes in three parts: Overtura, Allegro, and Fuga. So this is the Presto, not the Grosse Fuge. That said this is amongst Beethoven finest works. The late quartets are considered his most transcendent pieces containing astonishing experiments in thematic development and musical form that laid the foundation for innovations in 20th Century string quartet writing, especially in the works of Bartok and Shostakovich. This is not easy listening. Although outstanding for its technical intricacies, it appears to be disharmonious and depressing, but take some time and after multiple listens the disharmonious chords start to "fill in the blanks", like the basic colours of a half-tone printer creating new colours, and the piece becomes a brilliant, intricate, and beautiful piece of art.
Track 10 is Hab' Mir's Gelobt from Der Rosenkavalier (The Cavalier of the Rose) a comic opera in three acts by Richard Strauss, the orchestra conducted by Mr Pheloung. The story centres on the shifting romantic attachments of four principal characters. It’s a bit like a Brian Rix farce, but after some rather convoluted plot twists, the two younger characters get it together. This except comes from Act III, about half way through, and three of the characters perform a Trio, i.e. big operatic singing by three people.
And finally, Track 11 which is Terzettino ‘Soave Sia Il Vento’ from Cosi Fan Tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and conducted by Pheloung again. Cosi is two act comedy opera that whilst acceptable in 18th century Vienna, was considered risqué throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The plot concerns Ferrando and Guglielmo who have a bet with old cynic Don Alfonso that their fiancées, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are faithful. Alfonso makes them pretend to leave Naples and return disguised as Albanians (why?!?). Despina, the sister's maid, works to help Alfonso prove his point about women's fickleness, and everyone falls in love with the wrong person, until all is put right and there's some moralising about forgiveness. This Trio occurs in Act I, as a the boat with the men sails off to sea, Alfonso and the sisters wish them safe travel Soave sia il vento - "May the wind be gentle". This is a popular piece having been used in a Mercedes advertisement and also the film Sunday, Bloody Sunday.