Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Piano Music of Scott Joplin (Part 2)

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

To complete our two-part survey of the piano music of Scott Joplin, I wanted to share tracks I downloaded from a still-active Public Domain site, LiberMusica.

In the first installment in this series I observed that the tempo on some of the ragtime tracks I unearthed years ago was, well, rather tame. My "go to" references for Joplin rags are the Dick Hyman/James Levine CD of Joplin's "Greatest Hits" (BMG) and the original soundtrack to the 1974 Motion Picture "The Sting", performed by Marvin Hamlisch (using Gunther Schuller's editions).

Joplin himself never made an audio recording as a pianist; however his playing is preserved on sevenpiano rolls. All seven were made between April and June 1916: six released under the Connorized label and the other roll, a recording of "Maple Leaf Rag" was recorded on the Uni-Record label in June 1916. It was recorded on better equipment than the Connorized rolls thus giving a truer record of Joplin's playing. (We note that at the time Joplin was suffering from the advanced symptoms of syphilis which would take his life 10 months later, so this recording is not a true record of his more youthful ability.)

These rolls are featured in the following YouTube playlist - with thanks to "Erik Satie".

It is therefore highly doubtful hat the performances provided in the so-called "Original piano rolls (1896-1917)" come from the playing of Joplin. Nonetheless, they are quite insightful and provide a better, more "authentic" tempo and playing style than the vast majority of the tracks I share last time. You can compare, as I highlight below the tracks that are "common" to both sets.


Scott JOPLIN (c.1868-1917)

  • The Entertainer (1902)
  • Pine Apple Rag (1908)
  • Reflection Rag (ca. 1907)
  • The "Rag Time Dance" (1902)
  • Sugar Cane (1908)
  • Combination March (1896)
  • Elite Syncopations (1902)
  • A Real Slow Drag (1911, Treemonisha:Act 3, no. 9)
  • Paragon Rag (1909)
  • Scott Joplin's New Rag (1912)
  • Solace (1909)
  • Paecherine Rag (1901)
  • Rose Leaf Rag (1907)
  • Swipesy Cake Walk (1900)
  • The Sycamore (1904)
  • Stoptime Rag (1910)
  • Silver Swan Rag (1914-18)
  • Original Rags (collab. with Charles Daniels, 1899)
  • Pleasant Moments. Rag-Time Waltz (1909)
  • Scott Joplin's Best Rag (Medley)

Piano Rolls (1896-1917)

Friday, November 25, 2016


No. 235 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages is this week's Friday Blog and Podcast. Mobile followers can listen to the montage on our Pod-O-Matic Channel, and desktop users can simply use the embedded player found on this page.

This week’s blog and podcasts aims to re-create a historic concert that took place at the Great Hall of Viennna’s Musikverein on March 31st, 1913.

On February 3, 1959, rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, together with pilot Roger Peterson. The event later became known as "The Day the Music Died", after singer-songwriter Don McLean so referred to it in his 1971 song "American Pie".

In many ways, March 31st 1913 is the day that Romantic Classical Music died – some would argue that occurred a few months later (on May 29th), at a performance of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris when Stravinsky’s seminal ballet music for The Rite of Spring was premiered.

The Skandalkonzert of March 31st 1913 (as it has been referred to since), was a concert of the Wiener Konzertverein conducted by Arnold Schoenberg . The audience, shocked by the expressionism and experimentalism of the music created by members of the emerging Second Viennese School, began rioting, and the concert was ended prematurely.

(A punch administered by concert organizer Erhard Buschbeck became the subject of a lawsuit, whereby operetta composer Oscar Straus, heard as a witness, testified it had been the most harmonious sound of the evening.)

Here is the program: 

As a contemporary reviewer points out, it is sometimes difficult to put yourself in the position of that original audience, especially when we compare some of this music to what came later. Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, for example, isn’t nearly as challenging as some of his other work – it has identifiable tunes and cadences making it more “accessible” than some of his more rigid 12-tone compositions.

If Schoenberg now seems more accessible, the intervening century has done nothing to reduce the shock of the new in the music of his pupil Anton Webern. His Six Pieces still sound staggeringly modern. He uses the instruments of the orchestra sparingly, like diamonds twinkling on a dark background, but the sheer sparseness of the writing is still perplexing to many 21st century ears. The central climax of the work, where an eerily disembodied percussion sound leads into an ear-splitting orchestral thunderbolt, still has the ability to stun. The performance I chose for the podcast (which uses the “revised” version for large orchestra) is conducted with great care by Hans Rosbaud.

The songs by Zemlinsky– like the Mahler set that was scheduled to close the program -  hang on to basic tonality, albeit distended beyond what most of his contemporaries would have recognized, and therefore the beautiful texture of his writing is always closer to the surface. This is the complete set of songs

Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, according to some the real source of the controversy in 1913, are much less extended than Webern’s Pieces, but in their own way they too have lost none of their strangeness and distance that must have so alienated their first audiences. Again, the complete set:


A few bars into the second song, the Viennese audience burst into laughter, annoying Schoenberg who turned around and said “I ask those who cannot be quiet, to leave the room.” And after the crowds refused to heed his request, said fampously “I'm against those who disturb, call the public authorities” quoted Die Zeit.

The donnybrook that followed the Berg lieder cut the program short – but not today, as we complete the podcast with the complete Mahler song cycle.

Schoenberg continued to champion the works of his contemporaries of the Second Viennese school, establishing the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (the Society for Private Musical Performances) in the Autumn of 1918 with the intention of making carefully rehearsed and comprehensible performances of newly composed music available to genuinely interested members of the musical public. In the three years between February 1919 and 5 December 1921, the society gave 353 performances of 154 works in a total of 117 concerts. The programs included works by Reger, Stravinsky, Bartók, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Webern, Berg, and many others – without any reports of riots!

I think you will love this music too!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

La Wally (Catalani)

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

From a flood to an avalanche!

This installment of OTF looks at Alfredo Catalani’s opera La Wally, in a recording I moined off the LiberMusicasite. More on the performance later in this post.

Unless you’re an above-average opera devotee, you probably know but a few things about La Wally. One is that the hero and heroine both die in an extremely-difficult-to-stage avalanche in the final scene. Another thing may be that this was a favorite opera of conductor Arturo Toscanini. In fact, he loved it so much he named his daughter after Wally (his other two children, Wanda and Walter, were given names that began with “Wa” for the same reason). Finally, this opera boasts a hugely famous aria for soprano, “Ebben, ne Andro Lontana?” a concert favorite of many sopranos.

La Wally is about a beautiful girl in a small German town. Wally (short for Walburga) reminds us of Minnie from Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West because she’s pure, pretty tough and all the men in town are in love with her. Wally is secretly in love with a man from another town named Giuseppe Hagenbach who is also her father Stromminger’s enemy.

As in most operas, impossible love is a complicated thing, and when circumstances make it possible for Wally to be with Hagenbach, he’s no longer available. After an episode Wally views as betrayal, she turns to a long-time suitor Gellner and insists that if he loves her he must kill Hagenbach.
The plot gets a little complicated from here – Gellner stalks Hagenbach and in the deep darkness of a winter night, he hurls him into a ravine. Wally, disturbed and guilt ridden, goes to save Hagenbach by repelling down a mountain. Later, she returns to the mountainside (most likely with suicide on her mind) and encounters Hagenbach, recovered from his injuries.

Finally, they profess their love to one another. Hagenbach goes to find a path down the mountains but as he calls for Wally, he sets off an avalanche sweeping him away to his death. Unable and unwilling to continue to safety, she cries “Here is the wife of Giuseppe!” and hurls herself down into the avalanche, killing herself.

La Wally was a hit when it had its La Scala premiere in 1892, but began a descent into obscurity - along with the rest of Catalani's works - soon after the composer's death the next year. In the days before CGI and multi-media, it would be quite a feat to mount an opera with such a climax - the avalanche plays such an important role in the denouement, it would be impossible not to create something that passes for one for a stage production. This probably explains why it’s not been performed much – in the United States, La Wally has been a rarity since the last Metropolitan Opera staging in 1909. But recordings pirated from Italian performances and a commercial set starring Renata Tebaldi have made it a cult classic, high on many an operaphile's list of unjustly neglected works.

The performance I am sharing today is of the live 1953 Opening Night at La Scala with Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco and Giangiacomo Guelfi (three immense voices in their prime; no wonder there was an avalanche!) as well as the Scala debut of Renata Scotto, all conducted by the excellent, late, lamented Carlo Maria Giulini. And God bless the Milanese who simply cannot contain themselves in the final scene and applaud the avalanche. 

Alfredo CATALANI (1854 –1893)
La Wally (1889-91)
opera in four acts, Italian libretto by Luigi Illica after Die Geier-Wally: Eine Geschichte aus den Tyroler Alpen(The Vulture Wally: A Story from the Tyrolean Alps), by Wilhelmine von Hillern

Renata Tebaldi, (Soprano; Wally)
Mario Del Monaco, (Tenor; Giuseppe Hagenbach)
Gian Giacomo Guelfi (Baritone; Vincenzo Gellner)
Renata Scotto, (Soprano; Walter)

Coro del Teatro alla Scala
(Vittore Veneziani, Chorus Master)
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
Carlo Maria Giulini, conducting
(Live performance: Milan, 7 Dec 1953)

Synopsis – http://www.opera-arias.com/catalani/la-wally/synopsis/
Libretto - http://www.opera-arias.com/catalani/la-wally/libretto/
Performance URL - http://www.liberliber.it/online/auto...lani/la-wally/

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Piano Music of Scott Joplin (Part 1)

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

This month has five Tuesdays and, as luck would have it, I happen to have some spare material to share. So here's the first of a two-part series, for your listening pleasure.

This week's installment of Once Upon the Internet brings in music from two source sites: the old MP3.COM and an Italian public domain site that is no longer active, vitaminc.it.

Back in the day, I amassed quite a few tracks from the piano music of the great African-American composer Scott Joplin, performed by a pair of (amateur?) pianists, Robert Daria and Dario Ronchi.

Ragtime is a musical genre that enjoyed its peak popularity between 1895 and 1918. Its cardinal trait is its syncopated, or "ragged", rhythm which takes me back to single-reel silent movies or Prohibition-era speakeasies. Scott Joplin became famous through the publication of the "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) and a string of ragtime hits, although he was later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados until the major ragtime revival in the early 1970s – spurred in part by New England Conservatory president Gunther Schuller, and Hollywood director George Roy Hill.

The MP3.COM verbiage, as I recall, claimed that the performances adhered strictly to the tempo indications. To my ear, that seems a bit hard to accept, as it is rather customary to treat “Allegro” differently in musical tradition X from that of musical tradition Y, simply because composers of a given tradition may view “fast” as others may view it as “faster still”.

Ragtime, unlike the minuet or the waltz, doesn’t strictly adhere to a metric pattern. Wikipedia points out that “it is rather a musical genre that uses an effect that can be applied to any meter. The defining characteristic of ragtime music is a specific type of syncopation in which melodic accents occur between metrical beats.” Joplin, known as the "King of Ragtime", called the effect "weird and intoxicating." He also used the term "swing" in describing how to play ragtime music: "Play slowly until you catch the swing..." The name swing later came to be applied to an early genre of jazz that developed from ragtime.

I own other recordings of these little gems, notably a CD recorded by jazz pianist Dick Hyman and (yes by “the”) James Levine, and the tempo they adopt is night and day compared to Ronchi/Daria: break-neck speed vs cautious restraint.

Today’s musical share includes 21 tracks - the Daria tracks appear to have been recorded using an electronic piano made to "sound" rickety. I find that a bit annoying at times, but he does perform less kn own tracks - waltzes, marches and two-steps - I hadn't heard much before. The Ronchi tracks are recorded on a regular acoustic piano, and have a crisper sound quality..

A lot like I did with Kirkpatrick’s recording of the Scarlatti sonatas a couple of years ago, for the sake of disclosure, I wanted to provide a clear warning about overindulging on these. Maybe it’s the recording quality (poor to fair, generally) or just the style, but this stuff can give you a tummy ache if you’re not careful. Pace yourselves!

Scott JOPLIN (ca. 1868–1917)

  • Bethena. A Concert Waltz (1905)
  • Binks Waltz (1905)
  • Leola. Two Step (1905)
  • Rosebud. Two-Step (1905)
  • Antoinette. March and Two-Step (1906)
  • Reflection Rag (ca. 1907)
  • The Nonpareil. A Rag & Two Step (1907)
  • Pine Apple Rag (1908)
  • School of Ragtime: Exercises (1908)
  • Pleasant Moments. Rag-Time Waltz (1909)
  • The Augustan Club Waltz (1901)
  • Cleopha. March and Two Step (1902)
  • The Crush Collision March (1896)
  • The Favorite. Ragtime Two Step (1904)
  • The Harmony Club Waltz (1896)
  • The "Rag Time Dance" (1902)

Robert Daria, piano (Downloaded from MP3.COM)

  • A Real Slow Drag (1911, Treemonisha:Act 3, no. 9)
  • Gladiolus Rag (1907)
  • I Want to See My Child (1911, Treemonisha:Act 3, no. 2)
  • Rose Leaf Rag (1907)
  • Searchlight Rag (1907)

Dario Ronchi, piano (Downloaded from vitaminic.it)