Sleeve notes

James' sleeve notes have been critically acclaimed.  Several examples of his recent work are the notes for:

Chabrier - Piano Works Regis RRC 1133

There is a famous colour drawing by Detaille of the composer Chabrier playing the piano. He sits with his back to the artist, top hat askew, swathed in a mustard-coloured greatcoat, wine bottles at his feet and musical notes cascading from the open piano lid. He was clearly a remarkable pianist and there are many affectionate tributes to his formidable technique from friends and fellow composers: 'Though his arms were too short.his fingers too thick, and his whole manner somewhat clumsy, he managed to achieve a degree of finesse and expression that very few great pianists have surpassed' (D'Indy). More in tune with the Detaille caricature are two affectionate descriptions: 'He would pound the piano with his hands, his elbows, his forehead, his stomach and his feet, extract from it the most fantastic sounds, attacking it like a whirlwind, forcing it to give out the most piercing clamour and only letting it go when the unfortunate instrument had no voice left and was staggering on its feet like a drunken man' (sadly anonymous); and 'one day Chabrier came and he played España for me. It sounded as if a hurricane had been let loose. He pounded and pounded the keyboard. It was summertime and the window was open. While he was playing I happened to look into the street. It was full of people and they were listening, fascinated. When Chabrier reached the last crashing chords, I swore to myself that I would never touch the piano again.Besides, Chabrier had broken several strings and put the piano out of action' (Mme Renoir).

Alexis Emmanuel Chabrier was born in Ambert in the Puy-de-Dôme departement of the Auvergne on 18 January 1841. His first piano teachers were two Spanish musicians, refugees from the recent Carlist wars. When Chabrier was eleven his family moved to Clermont-Ferrand and in 1856 they settled in Paris. Chabrier's father was a lawyer and seemed set on his son following in this profession, although, recognising the boy's talent for music, he arranged for Emmanuel to take lessons from Edouard Wolff, who had been a friend of Chopin. Chabrier however duly passed his law exams and entered the Civil Service, where he was to remain until 1880.

All of his spare time was spent making music and socialising with his many friends. Perhaps more than any other composer, Chabrier throughout his life mixed with others in the Arts and counted among his close friends fellow musicians D'Indy, Saint-Saens, Massenet, Messager, Faure, Duparc and Chausson; writers such as Verlaine, Zola, Mallarmé, Mendès, de L'Isle-Adam and Richepin; and the painters Manet, Renoir, Fantin-Letour, Degas, Sargent and Tissot. His collection of paintings was simply awesome and included Manet's Un bar aux Folies-Bergère and La rue Mosnier, Monet's beflagged La rue Saint-Denis, Sisley's La Seine au point du jour and Cezanne's Les Moissonneurs.

Chabrier took the momentous step of resigning from his post at the Ministry following an emotional visit to Munich to see Tristan und Isolde - it took just a few bars of music to have him exclaim tearfully to his neighbour that he had waited eighteen years to hear that A on the cellos. Until then his most successful work had been the operetta L'étoile which had seemed destined for a long run in 1877. The theatre management however took the piece off before the fiftieth performance to prevent Chabrier taking a share of the profits. Even allowing for the fact that his choice of librettists was dreadful, no one can deny that in his stage works Chabrier was extraordinarily unlucky: Gwendoline (1886) lasted just four performances before the management were declared bankrupt; the theatre was destroyed by fire after just three performances of Le roi malgré lui (1887); and Briséis (which contains some of his greatest music) lay incomplete at the time of his death in 1894.

Until his resignation from the Ministry, Chabrier had been regarded by the outside world as a gifted musical amateur. Chabrier and his wife took a holiday in Spain in 1882, during which time he noted down flamenco dance rhythms (and took great pleasure ogling the female dancer's backsides!). Upon his return he recreated these impressions in España, one of the most famous tributes to Spain. The success of this work made him internationally famous overnight. Despite the effort put into his operas, it seems that his real talent lay in composing shorter works, hence the continued success of España, the indescribably droll Joyeuse Marche, and the revival of interest in works for piano and the songs.

The earliest piano piece on this collection Impromptu (1872/3) was first given by Saint-Saens at the Societe Nationale de Musique on 27 January 1877 and was dedicated to Mme Manet. It sets itself apart from salon pieces by a delightful improvisational feel and its glittering and often unexpected harmonies.

In 1880, whilst on holiday at the seaside resort of Saint-Pair (near Granville), Chabrier composed his Pièces Pittoresques. He had earlier written of the inspiration that filled him upon visiting this coastline: 'all this poetry, painting, harmony, this panting and repeated rhythm of the waves .contains all that transports, paralyses, sets me on edge, ravishes me and fills me with joy'. These ten pieces are not directly inspired by the sea; however they possess a freshness and an ear for colour that make these works absolutely unique in the pianist's repertoire.

Chabrier's love of painting has already been mentioned and he was eager to translate this appreciation into his music: 'if one must handle only pearl-grey or canary-yellow, that is not enough for me, and there are 300 shades of pearl-grey in the Bon Marche catalogue alone. A little red, for God's sake! Down with being ordinary!' Both Alfred Cortot (in La musique française de piano 1932) and Poulenc (Emmanuel Chabrier 1961) discuss these short works enthusiastically and D'Indy, at their premiere in 1881, made the much quoted remark that those present had 'just heard something exceptional. This music links our own time to that of Couperin and Rameau'. For Poulenc Paysage portrayed a landscape where life was to be enjoyed. Writing about Mélancholie Cortot was moved to write that its 'nostalgic charm and discreet perfection' defied analysis. Ravel, another huge fan of Chabrier, saw the soul of Manet's Olympia in Méancholie. Tourbillon (Whirlwind) is precisely the type of piece Chabrier might be playing in Detaille's picture and, described as 'très 1880' by Poulenc, was used by Balanchine in 1932 for his ballet Cotillon. In Sous-bois one can hear in the constantly changing harmonies of the right-hand the rustling leaves. The weaving bass provides a more-or-less stable accompaniment. Mauresque was written before Chabrier's momentous visit to Spain but is nevertheless a colourful portrait of that country. It was compared by Poulenc to the Forlane movement from Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin. The following movement Idylle is well known outside the collection and is 'exquisite in every way' (D'Indy). Following this tender piece Danse villagoise, with a traditional trio-section, provides a rustic contrast and is perhaps the most conventional of the Pièces Pittoresques. (It is worth pointing out that the titles were not Chabrier's own, but were provided by his publishers). The elegant Improvisation demonstrates Chabrier's admiration for Schumann, a composer not in vogue during Chabrier's lifetime. Menuet pompeux, perhaps more familiar in Ravel's orchestration, despite some arresting harmonies, shows Chabrier looking backward rather than forward. The bouncy Scherzo-valse provides a spirited conclusion to this wonderful work and in its final bars once again calls to mind Detaille's picture. One of Chabrier's foremost champions, the conductor Felix Mottl, orchestrated Idylle, Danse villageoise, Sous-bois and Scherzo-valse to form the delightful Suite Pastorale.

D'Indy writes amusingly of an occasion when, whilst he was playing the Trois valses romatiques Chabrier took exception to his playing, finding it too straight-laced and lacking in dynamism, and proceeded to give his friend a lesson in playing à la Chabrier. The composer gave the waltzes informal titles as follows: The Woman of Pleasure, The Fat Frau and The Beautiful Jewess. Debussy hugely admired these pieces and Ravel had the honour of playing them with Ricardo Viñes to Chabrier shortly before the composer's death. Chabrier's playful character is amply demonstrated by the message in the form of an acrostic he sent to his publisher upon completion to make 'J'ai fait la troisième valse' [Geai (Jay) - fée (fairy) -La (note in the scale) - Troie (Troy) - Ziem (Venetian painter) - Vals (type of mineral water)]. The first performance was given by Chabrier playing alongside Messager in 1883 and they were later skilfully orchestrated by Mottl.

Kathryn Stott also includes five works published posthumously in 1897. Aubade was composed in 1883, and unsurprisingly since Chabrier had just returned from Spain, contains music of a Spanish inflection; Ballabile is a heavily ornamented waltz which opens vigorously and gradually runs out of steam; since Caprice contains reference to Wagner's Tristan it might be imagined that it was composed shortly after Chabrier's visit to Munich in 1880. Feuillet d'album, dedicated to its first interpreter Risler, is a tender waltz and Ronde champêtre is a rustic work, which though not as rumbustuous, is not dissimilar to Danse villageiose.

Chabrier's end was tragic. This supremely talented and likeable man suffered increasingly from mental and physical paralysis so that by the end he could scarcely recognise his own music. Many composers since, including Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Satie, Ibert and members of Les Six have freely and affectionately acknowledged their debt to him.

Kathryn Stott, one of the finest interpreters of French piano music, has also recorded a number of twentieth century works by British composers. Her acclaimed recording of Chopin's Nocturnes is also available on Regis (RRC 2034). Ms Stott is also the recipient of a Grammy award for her Piazzola collaboration with Yo Yo Ma.  Copyright James Murray 2002

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Hollywood Award Songs Forum FRC 6109

Almost all of the songs featured in this collection, despite being over fifty years old, will be familiar to listeners. Most were nominated for (and in some cases won) Academy Awards.

As Time Goes By is so much associated with the classic Warners film Casablanca that it might come as a shock to discover that it was actually composed by Herman Hupfeld (1894 - 1951) for the 1931 film Everybody's Welcome when it was performed by Oscar Shaw and Frances Williams. In that year it became a big hit for Rudy Vallee and as there was a musical publishers' strike at the time of Casablanca's release in 1942, Victor reissued the Vallee recording, when it became a hit once more. As it was not an original song, it was not eligible to be nominated for an Oscar.

Likewise, Singing In The Rain had been well-used before finding its way into perhaps the most famous of all musicals in 1952. Written in the very early days of screen musicals, it was sung first by Cliff 'Ukulele Ike' Edwards in Hollywood Revue of 1929 and then by Judy Garland in Little Nellie Kelly (1940).

Captain Carey, USA (also known as After Midnight), released in 1950, was a pretty undistinguished tale of an army officer (Alan Ladd) returning to Italy after the war to expose an informer. Mona Lisa however gave the film some notoriety by winning the Oscar for best song and Nat King Cole's recording sold over three million copies. In 1986 the song had a new lease of life when it was used as the title song for a British thriller starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson and Michael Caine.

Frank Loesser (who wrote Guys and Dolls) had been a famous lyricist before turning to composition. His song Baby It's Cold Outside won the Academy Award for best song in 1949, being performed in the film Neptune's Daughter first by Esther Williams and Riccardo Montalban, and later reprised by the comedy leads Betty Garrett and Red Skelton.

The title song from My Foolish Heart was also nominated in 1949. This film starred Susan Hayward as a woman whose marriage is breaking up, but she is unable to bring herself to tell her husband (Kent Smith) that he is not the father of her child.

1942 was a bumper year for film songs and in addition to As Time Goes By this CD includes other songs from that year's releases: The Fleet's In was a remake of a Clara Bow film in which a sailor on leave bets with his friends that he can kiss the owner of a nightclub. I Remember You (as sung by Dorothy Lamour and Helen O'Connell with Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra) gave us a reason to remember the film. Some years later Frank Ifield's rather different version made the charts.

Johnny Mercer provided some truly memorable lyrics and his partnership with Harold Arlen is unjustifiably neglected. Their song That Old Black Magic was first sung by Johnny Johnston and danced by Vera Zorina in one of the best all-star pictures made during the war: Paramount's Star Spangled Rhythm. This lovely song was another nomination for 1942.

Mercer teamed up with Hoagy Carmichael for the award winning In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, sung in the Capra 1951 film Here Comes The Groom by Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman. It is sung by Dean Martin in this recording and suits his laid-back style every bit as well as it did that of Crosby.

Golden Earrings (1947) is yet another film that is remembered solely for its theme song, sung here by the gorgeous Peggy Lee. The film itself starred Ray Milland and Marlene Dietrich - he was a British spy attempting to retrieve a poison gas formula out of Nazi Germany, she was a gypsy helping him!

Blue Velvet was a hit song long before its use in film, but gained another lease of life when it was used as the title song for David Lynch's 1986 cult film starring Kyle McLachlan, Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper.

Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer were in prime form for the 1943 film The Sky's the Limit in which Fred Astaire was surprisingly well paired with the eighteen-year old schoolgirl Joan Leslie. Not only did it feature the lovely nomination My Shining Hour but also the spectacular glass smashing song One For My Baby (And One More For The Road).

Westerns generally get a bad press nowadays. High Noon (1952) is one of the great exceptions and Gary Cooper deservedly won an Oscar for his performance as the marshall against the odds attempting to drive out the baddies. Dmitri Tiomkin also won an award for his score, including the song Do Not Forsake Me performed here, as in the film, by Tex Ritter.

Back to Arlen and Mercer for two contrasting Oscar song nominations: Accentuate the Positive from the 1944 film Here Come The Waves (starring Crosby with Betty Hutton) is a swingy sermon whilst Blues In The Night was the title song for a 1941 film about the life and times of a jazz band. Several artists made best-selling recordings of this song, including Jimmy Lunceford's orchestra, Dinah Shore, Jack Teagarden and this terrific version from Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman's Sextet. This is surely one of the greatest of American songs, although the tune is notoriously difficult to sing correctly. What a picture these two songwriters conjure up though!

Love Letters was the title song for a 1945 war film starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotton. The film may be largely forgotten, but the song was nominated for the Academy Award.

Cole Porter's stage shows far outshine his films. However during the war he composed some fine film songs including You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To, sung in the film Something For The Boys by Janet Blair and Don Ameche.

Hoagy Carmichael made a number of memorable appearances on the silver screen. In Canyon Passage (a 1946 film about the expansion of settlers into the Mid West starring Susan Hayward, Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy) he sang the Academy Award nominated Ole Buttermilk Sky.

Yet another Johnny Mercer hit song from 1942 was Dearly Beloved, set to music by Jerome Kern for the lovely Astaire/Rita Hayworth classic You Were Never Lovelier. This song almost succeeded in displacing Oh Promise Me as being America's favourite wedding tune (incidentally also memorably recorded by Richard Tauber).

Four years earlier, Mercer collaborated with Harry Warren to produce the score for Going Places, a curious musical film that starred Dick Powell but one in which that great crooner scarcely sang a note. Jeepers Creepers was the name of a horse in this film, Powell was its jockey and Louis Armstrong the groom! Another oddity was that Jeepers Creepers was kept in a stable labelled 'Lady Ellen'! Still, it's a great swing number.

Back to 1942 with another love song Moonlight Becomes You from the first (and for some, the best) 'Road' film: Road To Morocco. Strangely, this song was not even nominated for an Oscar, but then, as we have seen, 1942 was an exceptional year.

In The Toast of New Orleans (1950) Mario Lanza played a singer with the New Orleans Opera, coincidentally the one house where he appeared as a professional opera singer (1948 in Madam Butterfly). From this film comes the Oscar-nominated song Be My Love.

Deanna Durbin was another wonderfully gifted singer, who burst upon the scene as a teenager and made a number of delightful films as a young adult before retiring to France. In the 1947 film Something In The Wind she sings The Turntable Song and plays a DJ mistaken for her aunt.

Kurt Weill's wistful September Song stems from the 1938 show Knickerbocker Holiday and was originally sung by Walter Huston. A film of the show was made in 1944 with Charles Coburn and Nelson Eddy.

It seemed inevitable that the greatest screen tenor of the 1950s would play the greatest tenor of all time and Mario Lanza duly portrayed Enrico Caruso in The Great Caruso in 1951, from which comes The Loveliest Night Of The Year.

We close with one of the greatest of all film songs: Over The Rainbow from Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's classic 1939 score to The Wizard Of Oz. So many singers, from Ella Fitzgerald to Eva Cassidy, have recorded classic versions of the song, yet none have been able to imbue it with a similar frisson of innocent, hopeful sincerity as its first interpreter Judy Garland.
Copyright James Murray 2004

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La Traviata Regis RRC 2067

Verdi's opera of 1852 was based on the play La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas Jnr (1849), which was in turn based on his short novel of the same name which first appeared in 1848. The novel caused something of a sensation at the time since it took as its subject Dumas' affair with the glamorous courtesan Marie Duplessis who had died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-three. The affair lasted eleven months until Dumas, finding himself unable to support Duplessis in the style to which she had become accustomed, left her in August 1845. He then travelled abroad with his father (author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) and only heard of Duplessis' final illness when it was too late for him to do anything for her.

Marie Duplessis was born Alphonsine Plessis in Normandy in 1824. Her rough and unscrupulous father thought nothing of offering her to men and by the time she arrived in Paris in 1838 she was already experienced in the ways of the world. Her first influential lover was Agenor de Guiche (later Napoleon III's foreign minister), whose wealth enabled Duplessis to become one of the most fashionable women in Paris. Whilst under his protection she taught herself to read and write. Her next conquest was Comte Edouard de Perrigaux whom she later married in London shortly before her death. After Perrigaux, Duplessis came under the protection of an elderly Russian diplomat Count Stackelberg, whose interest in her derived from her uncanny resemblance to his late daughter. It was whilst Duplessis was with Stackelberg that she began her affair with Dumas. Following their split, Duplessis returned to her former life and entered into a passionate liaison with Liszt. However consumption made her increasingly frail, and therefore less attractive to customers. Her last public outing to the theatre in December 1846, a 'pale shadow of a woman', was in stark contrast to her previous appearances, when she had captivated the Jockey Club. She died two months later more or less friendless.

Dumas had attempted a reconciliation the previous October, but her reply, if any, has never surfaced. Once Dumas arrived back in France from his travels in mid-January 1847 he remained in Marseilles until word reached him of Duplessis' death. He attended the sale (or the preview) of her effects and is thought to have accompanied Perrigaux to the cemetery in order to have her body moved to a permanent site. Since Dumas had run up considerable debts it became imperative that he make some quick money. With this in mind Dumas wrote the novel less than six months after Duplessis' death. The idea of dramatising the novel followed shortly afterwards, although the censors prevented its staging until 1852. It is understood that Verdi, who was in Paris at the time, attended the first performance of the play.

There was much in the play which ran parallel to Verdi's personal life at that time: for some years he had been living openly with the retired opera singer Giuseppina Strepponi, who had created the role of Abigaille in Nabucco (1842). Verdi had been a widower for some years before their next meeting in Paris in 1847 but their obvious intimacy in Bussetto, Verdi's home since his schooldays, aroused hostility amongst the locals, especially from his in-laws. In December 1851 Verdi and Strepponi felt obliged to move to Paris, where gossip was likely to be less damaging to his career. Shortly after their arrival in Paris, Verdi received a 'stinging' letter from Antonio Barezzi, his father-in-law, criticising in no uncertain terms Verdi's wisdom in living with someone who had had a number of affairs and illegitimate children (Barezzi's son was even more forthright in his condemnation). Verdi in his reply threatened to leave Bussetto (he was by this time a substantial landowner) if Barezzi did not mind his own business. Barezzi heeded Verdi's warning, perhaps mindful of the bad publicity which would attach itself to Bussetto should Italy's premier composer have to take such drastic action, eventually becoming reconciled to Strepponi whom Verdi married in 1859.

Verdi, an unerring seeker of effective subjects, had already set something along similar lines: in 1850 he composed an opera telling of adultery and eventual forgiveness in a strict Protestant sect. With this opera, Stiffelio, Verdi encountered huge opposition from the censor. Verdi's score, which has only comparatively recently become accepted for the near masterpiece it is, is full of contrasts and quite unlike anything heard before that date. With Rigoletto (1851), a score at times similarly bleak and in other ways breaking with tradition, Verdi also had trouble with the censors, but he nevertheless had a great popular success. Il Trovatore (premiered in 1853) was more conventional and equally successful.

Whilst at work on Trovatore Verdi had written to his librettist Cammarano of his desire to work on 'another subject both simple and tender' should Trovatore fall by the wayside. It is not known whether Verdi had by that time read Dumas' novel but it seems difficult to equate this shocking contemporary tale with Verdi's letter. In any case it was not until some months following the premiere of the play version of La dame aux caméllias that Verdi purchased a copy of the playscript. Having done so, he had to work quickly at composing Traviata as he had promised a new work for the Teatro la Fenice in Venice for the carnival season of 1853. For a collaborator he turned to Francesco Maria Piave, his librettist for Stiffelio and Rigoletto, Cammarano having died during the composition of Trovatore.

The management at La Fenice approved the subject but insisted that the contemporary setting be changed to the beginning of the eighteenth century, a rather pointless demand since Dumas' play was also due to be staged in the city that season! Verdi experienced difficulty obtaining his preferred artistes for the premiere and blamed the lacklustre performance and consequent cool reception on these singers. The original Violetta, an unlikely looking consumptive Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, has received much of the blame. However it was she who was most consistently applauded at the premiere. Following this less-than-enthusiastic premiere on 6 March 1853 Verdi partially revised the score and fourteen months later it was given at a different opera house in Venice with singers more to Verdi's liking. This time it was a success and within a couple of years much of Europe and New York had succumbed to one of Verdi's finest and most effective scores.

It was common knowledge that Dumas' novel and subsequent play were based upon real events and people. However Marie Duplessis' name was changed to Marguerite Gauthier and Dumas himself became Armand Duval. In Verdi's opera Marguerite was named Violetta Valéry and Armand was changed to Alfredo Germont. It all three works several of Duplessis' lovers and friends were thinly disguised.

The Prelude begins with high divided strings playing a motif which also opens the final act depicting the icy grip of consumption upon Violetta. This changes to a slow, waltz-like tune anticipating her despair at her treatment by Germont père et fils.

The action begins at a party in Violetta's home in Paris. Gaston, one of Violetta's admirers, introduces Alfredo to the courtesan. It is not the first time they have met; previously Violetta had made fun of Alfredo's awkwardness. Gaston tells her however that during Violetta's recent illness, Alfredo came each day to ask after her. Alfredo is clearly smitten and leads the party with a drinking song Libiamo ne' lieto calice. His attention towards Violetta leads to tension among other admirers including the wealthy Baron Douphol. Following the song, Violetta leads the company in a dance but has to break off following a consumptive attack. Of the guests only Alfredo shows true concern and he soon declares his love Un di felice whilst at the same time attempting to persuade her to change her way of life. Once the guests have left Violetta finds it strange that anyone could fall in love with her È strano and wonders whether this ardent young man could possibly be her 'saviour' Ah, fors' è lui. She then decides the whole notion is too ridiculous and embarks upon an exhilarating paean of her life of pleasure Sempre libera. As Alfredo's declaration of love is heard offstage, she repeats her determination to continue life to the full.

Three months separate Acts One and Two, by which time Violetta has become Alfredo's mistress and they have set up house in the country. Alfredo sings of how his life has changed since he and Violetta have moved in together De miei bollenti spiriti. His present happiness is short-lived however as he is told by Violetta's maid Annina that her mistress has found it necessary to sell certain belongings. Alfredo rushes off to Paris to pay her debts himself. Violetta is agitated to find Alfredo has departed for Paris and her manservant introduces a stranger.

The stranger introduces himself as Alfredo's father. He has learned that Alfredo had planned to turn his inheritance over to Violetta but is surprised to hear of Violetta's own plans to sell her own possessions to settle her debts. In a softer tone he tells Violetta of the damage her liaison with Alfredo is doing to the Germont family, in particular to the marriage prospects of Alfredo's sister Pura siccome un angelo. Germont tells Violetta that she must renounce Alfredo forever. Violetta pleads with Germont, saying that Alfredo has all her love Non sapete quale affetto. Although becoming increasingly sympathetic Germont declares that as she is young and beautiful, she will soon find another lover Un di, quando le veneri. Violetta sees her whole world collapsing, but agrees to Germont's demands. In sacrificing her happiness, she will allow Germont's daughter to marry as planned. She only hopes to die at peace with the world Dite alla giovine. They decide that the best course of action is to have Alfredo believe that she has returned voluntarily to her former ways, but before he leaves Germont agrees to let Alfredo know eventually that Violetta loved him to the end.

Alfredo returns unexpectedly to find Violetta writing a letter (it is her farewell note). In her confusion she declares her undying love and leaves. Alfredo is expecting his father to call and awaits his arrival. Whilst waiting he learns that Violetta has left for Paris and Alfredo is delivered her letter. In despair Alfredo throws himself into his father's arms and Germont advises him to return to the family home in Provence Di Provenza il mar. But Alfredo already suspects Violetta of infidelity and against the advice of his father, rushes off to confront her.

Violetta's former friend Flora is giving a fancy dress party Chorus of gypsy girls and matadors but the ensuing confrontation between Alfredo and Violetta (who has arrived with Baron Douphol) soon takes centre stage. At the gaming table Alfredo wins huge sums of money. Douphol warns Violetta to ignore Alfredo but he himself finds it difficult to avoid Alfredo's taunts. Alfredo and Violetta find themselves alone and in their stilted conversation, during which Violetta begs Alfredo to leave before violence ensues, Alfredo mistakes her concern for an admission of her love for the Baron. In a fury he then publicly insults Violetta by hurling his winnings at her feet 'for services rendered'. Alfredo's father enters, witnessing his shameful behavior and the act closes in a moving ensemble during which all characters voice their conflicting sentiments.

The final act takes place in Violetta's bedroom the following February. The doctor and Annina are attempting to offer Violetta hope, but she knows that she will not recover. Whilst Annina is out of the house Violetta reads a letter from Germont in which he tells of Alfredo's duel with the Baron and Alfredo's subsequent flight. However, Germont states that now Alfredo knows the truth and is returning to ask Violetta's forgiveness. But he will be too late, cries Violetta Addio del passato. The sound of the Carnival revellers can be heard as Annina returns from her errand with Alfredo. As he and Violetta embrace it is clear that all is forgiven and they plan their future together Parigi, o cara. Violetta lacks the strength to move and the doctor is sent for. As Violetta bemoans her fate to die young, Alfredo entreats her not to give up hope Ah! Gran Dio! Morir si giovine. Germont arrives with the Doctor and Annina and gives Violetta a fatherly embrace. Violetta, appearing to gain strength, gives Alfredo a likeness of herself. The exertion however proves too much and she falls back, dead.

Maria Callas' career is so well documented that she requires little introduction. Born in 1923 in New York of Greek parents, she made her debut in 1940 in Suppé's Boccaccio and by the time of her Italian debut (Verona La Gioconda in 1947) had sung Beethoven's Leonore Fidelio, Isolde, Brünnhilde, Turandot and Kundry Parsifal! The conductor Tullio Serafin suggested a change of direction and over the next few years she concentrated on those roles for which she later became famous including Tosca, Elvira I Puritani, Violetta, Norma and Lady Macbeth. At times she played the typical diva and her stormy personal life was rarely out of the media. Her acting ability drew forth unanimous praise (audiences were however sharply divided over her voice) and at her death in 1977 the entire arts world mourned the passing of a great star.

Francesco Albanese was born in August 1912 and studied in Boston. Having returned to Italy he made his debut in Rome in Gluck's Alceste. He made his name in the tenore di grazia repertoire before taking on lyric tenor roles such as Rodolfo Bohème, Alfredo and French and German parts such as Faust, Julien in Charpentier's Louise and Max in Der Freischütz. He sang alongside Callas on a number of occasions including Armida (Maggio Musicale Fiorentino 1952), Traviata and Cherubini's Medea. His excellent diction and warm voice made him a superb interpreter of Italian and particularly Neapolitan song.

Ugo Savarese's (1912 - 1997) fine baritone can be heard on a number of recordings including Trovatore for Decca in which he can be heard alongside the young Mario Del Monaco. It might be said that the more declamatory roles suited his voice better and Savarese made a fine Gérard in Andrea Chenier and an even better Jack Rance in a performance of Puccini's Fanciulla del West recorded for Italian Radio in 1950.

Gabriele Santini (1886 - 1964) began his musical career in South America before becoming Toscanini's assistant at La Scala between 1925 - 9. For much of the remainder of his career he was based with the Rome Opera but guest conducted at a number of opera houses including Covent Garden and the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Santini made a number of excellent opera recordings besides this, including the classic Boccanegra and Don Carlo sets for HMV featuring Gobbi and Christoff.

Copyright James Murray 2003

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Paul Robeson - Songs of Struggle and others Regis RRC1229

Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976) once said: 'The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery.  I have made my choice.  I had no alternative'.  This statement, spoken during a rally for anti-fascist supporters in Spain, was inscribed on his gravestone.  Robeson's father made such a 'choice' as a fifteen year-old when he escaped from a North Carolina plantation in 1860;  he later attended university and became a minister in Princeton, New Jersey.  Although the congregations there were African-American, the churches were controlled by whites and Robeson's father lost his job having disagreed with the church authorities.  Paul Robeson's mother was a teacher who died tragically in a house fire when he was six years old.  All six Robeson children followed in their parents' footsteps to some degree, either as teachers, preachers, or by fighting 'for Freedom'.


Paul Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915 where he excelled both academically and in track and field, despite the endeavours of racists on campus.  For four years from 1919 Robeson attended Columbia Law School where he met and married Eslanda Goode (who became the first black woman to lead a pathology unit), but fell victim to bigotry in his first employment in a law firm when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.  In the meantime he had acted in several productions including a British tour with Mrs Patrick Campbell in Taboo (at which time he met Lawrence Brown, his accompanist in many recordings) and appeared in Plantation Revue alongside Florence Mills.


Robeson was described by Eugene O'Neill in 1923 as 'a young fellow with considerable experience, wonderful presence and voice, full of ambition and a damn fine man personally with real brains'.  O'Neill cast him in All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924 - 5) as Jim Harris, a black lawyer who marries a white woman, a scenario which predictably raised the blood pressure of Ku Klux Klan activists.  He next appeared as Brutus Jones in Emperor Jones, a role which brought him standing ovations in England.  Robeson's years of playing American football at the highest level gave him an imposingly powerful physique which allowed him to portray characters quite unlike the usual Negro stage and screen stereotype.  He was even considered by some to be a sex symbol:  one British critic wrote in 1931 'That Mr Robeson should be stripped to the waist is my first demand of any play in which he appears'.  In much of his work however Robeson was forced to play the stereotype, as in the British-made film Sanders Of The River.  The pinnacle of Robeson's stage and screen career was his performance as Othello first in the UK and then in the USA, about which a critic wrote 'No white man should ever dare to presume to play this role again' (Variety 1943).


In New York in 1925 Robeson appeared in a hugely over-subscribed concert in which he sang a mixture of spirituals and folk songs.  Many black Americans were perplexed by his decision to sing spirituals, as they felt that Robeson was drawing attention to a perceived backwardness.  However Robeson argued that the texts of the spirituals often spoke of the African-American's kinship with other minority groups: 'Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel? And why not every man?'.  Gradually his repertoire expanded to include both traditional songs from many different countries and also Songs of Struggle, most notably those composed by his friend Earl Robinson (1910 - 91). 


Robinson had moved to New York in 1934 where he joined the ambitious but ill-fated Federal Theater Project, an organisation which inter alia gave training and performing opportunities to minority groups.  Like Robeson, Robinson was blacklisted in the 1950s but was rediscovered in the following decade by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and others.  His Ballad for America, premiered via radio in 1939 by Robeson, reached a huge audience but perhaps his best known song was Joe Hill, composed in 1935 to Alfred Hayes' poem about the Swedish born labour and union martyr wrongfully convicted of murder and executed in 1915.  The song, as performed by Robeson, became a moving anthem for oppressed peoples the world over.  Robinson had studied composition with Hans Eisler, who had fled Nazi Germany and who provided the arrangement for The Peat-Bog Soldiers, a protest song performed by the inmates of Börgemoor, a concentration camp in Northern Germany.  Another radical artist with whom Robeson was associated was Marc Blitzstein (1905 - 64), whose opera The Cradle Will Rock, performed under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project, was considered by the US Congress in 1937 to be promoting communism and which was suppressed as a result.  Blitzstein's No For An Answer dates from 1940. 


Between 1927 and 1939 Robeson was mostly resident in the UK.  In his autobiography Here I Stand he acknowledged that although there were many who made capital from 'plundering the colonial peoples, there were also the many millions who earned their bread by honest toil.  And even as I grew to feel more Negro in spirit, or African as I put it then, I also came to feel a sense of oneness with the white working people whom I came to know and love'.  Robeson was especially popular with the Welsh mining community and often sang and addressed their meetings in Welsh.  This kinship was movingly caught in the 1939 film The Proud Valley.


In 1934 Robeson first visited the USSR at the invitation of film maker Sergei Eisenstein, where, impressed by the apparent racial equality he found there, he remarked that he 'walked for the first time as a human being'. Having returned to the USA from Britain in 1939 Robeson continued to campaign for workers' rights, and for social and racial justice to the extent that in 1943, when he was receiving accolades for Othello, he was secretly placed on the Custodial Detention List by the FBI (ie the list of those to be interned in the event of a national emergency).    Unaware of his surveillance by the FBI, Morehouse College decided to honour Robeson for his 'championing the cause of the common man' through his popularisation of 'the folk songs composed by the oppressed peoples of the earth'. 


Following the Second World War Robeson became increasingly concerned at the growing coldness between the USA and the Soviet Union.  Tales of black American soldiers being lynched whilst still in uniform resulted in Robeson petitioning President Truman in support of an anti-lynching law, warning him of potential civil unrest as blacks might take up arms in order to defend themselves.  He campaigned on behalf of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party activist, and received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.  At the Paris Peace Conference in 1949, Robeson gave an interview which became widely misquoted in the USA in which he stated that he found it 'unthinkable that American Negroes will go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations.against a country (the Soviet Union) which in one generation has raised our own people to the full dignity of mankind'.  This was reported back home as Robeson demanding that African-Americans should not fight for the USA.


Robeson had already performed in Peekskill, NY on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress; more concerts were booked for the late summer in 1949.  Locals resented being invaded by outsiders (they had already deterred a KKK rally with baseball bats) and War veterans groups, supported by the local press, planned counter demonstrations.  Amid high security around the site the concerts passed off peacefully; however the concert-goers and their cars were later pelted with rocks by right-wing protesters whilst police stood idly by.   


Shortly afterwards the House Un-American Activities Committee 'persuaded' three black Americans to testify against Robeson.  Despite strenuously denying membership of the Communist Party, his passport was revoked and he was unable to travel outside the USA until 1958.  The patience of the USA authorities was further tested in May 1952 when Robeson sang to an estimated forty thousand people on the US - Canadian border, the truck on which he stood having been parked one foot inside the US border.  That same year he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize by the Soviet government.  With performances now strictly controlled Robeson's income plummeted and his health suffered.


In 1960 Robeson visited Australasia, where he found time to give an impromptu lunchtime concert to construction workers at the unfinished Sydney Opera House and also campaigned on behalf of the aborigines.  The arduous tour exhausted him and thereafter he sang less in public but continued to write and speak with all his former passion.  Robeson died in Philadelphia in January 1976.  

Copyright James Murray September 2005

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Mozart - String Quartets K458 'Hunt' & K465 'Dissonance' Regis RRC1180

Wolfgang Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, returning briefly with his wife Constanze (whom he had married in August 1782) to Salzburg in 1783 to visit his father Leopold.  Several times thereafter Mozart attempted to persuade his father to come to Vienna in order that Leopold might get to know Constanze (of whom Leopold had initially been deeply suspicious) a little better.  Eventually Leopold agreed to travel to Vienna in early 1785, taking with him a young pupil, the fifteen year-old Heinrich Marchand, whose father Theobald had agreed to cover the expense of the journey by providing a carriage.


Leopold's arrival in Vienna on 11 February 1785 coincided with a typically hectic period in Mozart's life, and Leopold was given no time to recover from an exhausting journey in appalling weather:  that evening the first of six subscription concerts organised by his son took place at the Mehlgrube (a concert hall converted from the old flour hall in the Neue Markt) for which subscribers, including many titled admirers of Mozart's music, had each paid a gold sovereign.  The concerts were apparently well-attended and since Mozart hired the hall on each occasion for half a sovereign only one can easily imagine Leopold reconsidering his son's ability to manage his financial affairs.


The concert that first evening of the visit consisted of a couple of arias, symphonies and a 'new, superb piano concerto' (No 20 in D minor K466) which Mozart had only completed the preceding day and was still being copied as Leopold arrived!  Since this Piano Concerto is regarded by many as Mozart's finest and most advanced, we cannot dismiss Leopold's comments about the 'magnificent orchestra' as being pure hyperbole:  as there was no time for rehearsal of the Rondo, the orchestra must have sight read at least this part of the work during the performance, by all accounts rising superbly to the challenge to perform successfully such a complex work.


The following day (12 February 1785) Leopold participated in private performances of Wolfgang's three latest string quartets (K458, 464, 465).  The honoured guest on this occasion was Josef Haydn, whom the younger Mozart had first met in December 1781.  Afterwards Haydn told the proud father 'I tell you before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by reputation; he has taste and what is more the greatest possible knowledge of composition'.  Next day Leopold attended a concert of Mozart's music given at the Burgtheater at which the Emperor Joseph II was seen to doff his hat and cry out 'Bravo Mozart'.


It is not known at which point Mozart decided to dedicate to his friend Josef Haydn the three quartets played on 12 February.  Haydn, whose own string quartets had been for many years admired by Mozart, had composed a set of six quartets (Opus 33) in 1781 (which were published the following year) which in their way were considered to be ground-breaking.  The good-natured Haydn in his generous comments to Leopold was acknowledging the fact that his own efforts, which he himself had described as being composed in 'an entirely novel and special manner' had been stunningly superseded.


In 1782 Mozart began composing his own series of string quartets and on 26 April 1783 wrote to the Parisian publisher Jean-Georges Sieber offering to sell the six quartets for a minimum price of fifty Louis d'or.  At the time of this letter only the first Quartet (K387) had been completed and nothing came of his approach to Sieber.  The second and third Quartets of the set (K421, 428) were completed in June and July 1783 and we know from Alan Tyson's study of paper and watermarks published in 1987 that Mozart also began the 'Hunt' Quartet that summer.  There followed a gap of some sixteen months before that Quartet  (K458) was completed on 9 November 1784.  The fifth Quartet (K464) is dated 10 January 1785 and the final Quartet of the set (K465) was completed four days later.


The six String Quartets were published by the Viennese firm of Artaria in September 1785 with a lavish and heart-warming dedication from Mozart to his 'dear friend' Haydn: 'A father who had decided to send his children out into the world thought he should entrust them to the care and protection of a famous man who also happened to be his greatest friend.  Here then, oh famous man and greatest friend, are my six children.  They are the result of long and arduous labour, and yet some friends have assured me that one day I shall be rewarded by these children offering me some comfort.  On your last visit to the capital, dearest friend, you told me of your satisfaction with them and it is this praise which encourages me to commend them to you.  I hope that you will not find them unworthy of your favour.  May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Good Friend.  From now on, I surrender to you all my rights in them but would ask you to look leniently upon their defects which have remained hidden to the partial eye of their father.  Despite these defects I, who love you dearly, hope that our greatly valued friendship may be preserved.  I remain your most Sincere Friend, etc., W A Mozart.'


If Haydn found any such 'defects' in Mozart's six children, he kept such thoughts to himself.  Others however were bewildered by the brilliance and apparent ease of Mozart's writing, finding it all too much of a good thing:  fellow composer Dittersdorf was perplexed at the fact that one beautiful thought was replaced so quickly by another, greater one that one ran the risk of retaining not one of 'these beautiful melodies'.  Another writer found the quartets 'too highly seasoned, and whose palate can endure this for long?'.


The opening twenty-two bars of the String Quartet in C major K465 caused the greatest upset and gave the piece its nickname 'Dissonant'.  It was assumed that the publication contained mistakes that Mozart could not be bothered to correct.  Yet those who had access to Mozart's manuscript could see that this part was written down with very few corrections.  Haydn chose not to enter into the debate but said only that Mozart must have had his own very good reasons for composing such a strange sounding opening.

Generally speaking, Mozart lifted the String Quartet as a genre to a higher, more expressive plane;  Haydn as a fore-runner is certainly in evidence, especially in the minuets and finales but the deeply felt slow movements, especially the great Adagio movement of the 'Hunt' (so called because of the horn calls of the opening movement) clearly anticipate the profound quartets of Beethoven in the following century.


At the time of these 1979 recordings the Chilingirian String Quartet, founded in 1971, consisted of Levon Chilingirian and Mark Butler (violins), Nicholas Logie (viola) and Philip de Groote (cello).  In 1992 Charles Stewart joined as Second Violin and they most recently appointed the viola player Susie Meszaros.  Although based in Britain the Chilingirian Quartet tours the USA annually and have performed extensively in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the Far East, South America and Africa.  They are the Quartet in residence at the Royal College of Music and give concerts in all the major London venues and at numerous festivals throughout the world.  The Chilingirian Quartet have a huge repertoire and on their tours often feature lesser known works such as the quartets of Reger and Bruckner alongside Mozart (as on a recent tour of Germany) and they have performed a number of world premieres. 

Copyright James Murray May 2004

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Dame Janet Baker - Schumann / Brahms / Schubert Regis RRC1225

Janet Baker (born in Yorkshire in 1933) studied in London with Helena Isepp and Meriel St Clair and sang in the Leeds Philharmonic Choir and with the Ambrosian Singers before winning second prize in the Kathleen Ferrier Competition in 1956.  That year she sang her first solo role in opera (Rosa in Smetana's The Secret with the Oxford University Opera Club) and joined the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus.  Her prize-winning performance in the Ferrier Competition enabled Baker to continue her studies in Salzburg at the Mozarteum and in 1959 she was awarded the Queen's Prize by the Royal College of Music.  Other highlights of 1959 included her first appearance with the Handel Opera Society in Rodelinda and an engagement at the Wexford Festival.  The following year (1960) she gave her first concert at the Edinburgh Festival and consequently became known to an international audience.  She also sang an aria from Tippet's A Midsummer Marriage at the Proms in London which resulted in requests to perform in Berlin.  The Berlin critics clearly saw a star in the making and one wrote: 'Janet Baker is a great artist.everything she does is above criticism'.


In 1961 Janet Baker sang in Bach's St John Passion in Copenhagen and was invited back to Edinburgh to sing in Mahler's Second Symphony under Klemperer.  She also sang in the famed all-star St Matthew Passion recording under Klemperer, a mammoth undertaking that took over a year to record (November 1960 - November 1961).  Again with Klemperer and for the same label (Columbia) she recorded Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream alongside another singer at the beginning of an international career, Heather Harper.


Baker was now an international star:  1962 saw her performing again at the Edinburgh Festival, in Zurich and Norway.  She also began her long association with Benjamin Britten and the English Opera Group (a company founded in 1946 by Britten, Eric Crozier and John Piper) with whom she gave a number of outstanding performances (Purcell's Dido, Polly in Britten's arrangement of The Beggar's Opera and in 1964 Lucretia in their hugely successful Russian tour).  In the next few years Janet Baker gave further performances with the Handel Opera Society (Ariodante and Orlando). 


Despite her early recordings with Klemperer Baker's real breakthrough with the record-buying public came with the Barbirolli records of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius and Sea Pictures issued in 1965, as well as a recording of Verdi's Four Sacred Pieces with Giulini.  One of my favourite of her recordings from that period is also one of her least familiar, her rendition for DGG of Werner Egk's song cycle Le tentation de Saint Antoine made under the composer's direction in Munich in 1965.  This attractive work might well have been composed with Baker's voice in mind and each song, whether sensuous, comical or strident, is gloriously sung and perfectly articulated.  Also in 1965 Baker made one of her finest operatic recordings:  Rameau's Hippolyte et Aracie in which she sang the role of Phaedra.  In this recording Baker treated us to some wonderfully full-blooded singing, particularly in her 'exit scene' as she realises that she has caused the death of the hero.  Quite simply, with each of these recordings, here was a singer who one felt was incapable of giving a strictly routine performance.


In December 1966 Baker experienced one of her greatest triumphs when she made her New York debut.  That year she also performed her first principal role at Glyndebourne (having been a chorister in 1956 and 1958), singing Purcell's Dido.  She came to be much associated with this role (Alan Blyth in Opera wrote that her portrayal was 'mightily affecting') and recorded it twice, first in 1961 and then again in 1978.  Her next two roles at Glyndebourne had critics again competing for superlatives:  Diana in Cavalli's La Calisto (1970/1) presents a tough acting challenge, the singer being required to switch from the supposedly chaste but hopelessly romantic goddess besotted with her shepherd boy to the randy Jove disguised as Diana attempting to seduce the nymph Calisto (don't ask!).  Argo's recording, made during the second year of production is rightly considered to be a 'gramophone classic';  it is hard to imagine a more sensuous recording than that of Baker's duet with James Bowman which opens the second act.


In 1972 Glyndebourne presented another Raymond Leppard realisation:  Monteverdi's Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, again directed by Peter Hall and with exceptionally heavy but mechanically ingenious sets by John Bury.  Backstage the opera became known as Monteverdi's Flying Circus on account of the elaborate devices used to transport the deities on and off stage.  Baker as Penelope 'revealed all the dignity, resolution and sadness of a part that Monteverdi, by his musical characterisation, made one of the most sympathetic and convincing figures in the history of opera' (Spike Hughes Glyndebourne 1981).


Glyndebourne was by no means the only company to take advantage of Janet Baker's magnetic stage presence; Scottish Opera in 1967 mounted a revelatory production by Anthony Besch of Cosi fan tutte in which Janet Baker and Elisabeth Harwood played the two sisters.  Conrad Wilson, in his history of the company written in 1972, found Baker's the most 'complete and bewitching portrayal' who considering her association with darker music found 'her touch astonishingly light, her flair for comedy delightfully natural'.  In 1971 she played another lighter role, that of Octavian in Rosenkavalier about which Harold Rosenthal wrote that 'it was all of a piece - youthful, ardent and very, very moving'.  Having stated that he would be happy to travel across half Europe to see Baker in opera Rosenthal drew attention to 'that very personal quality of her voice (which) brings to this listener a lump in the throat' (Opera July 1971).  Also for Scottish Opera Baker sang Gluck's Orpheus and the Composer in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos.  But her greatest role for the company was surely Dido in Berlioz' Trojans (1969), a superlative performance that many found more moving than the Covent Garden production which opened later that year.  Conrad Wilson said of Baker that hers was a performance 'that was noble, passionate, deeply responsive to every note and inflection of the music'.


Baker had first sung at Covent Garden in 1966 as Hermia in Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream.  In September 1969 she deputised for an ailing Josephine Veasey in two performances of Trojans at Covent Garden.  Thereafter she appeared regularly at Covent Garden as Kate in Britten's Owen Wingrave (having created the part in the premiere on TV), Vitellia in Clemenza di Tito (I lost count of the number of times I saw this production!), Idamante in Idomeneo, Walton's Cressida and finally the title role in Gluck's Alceste.  With ENO she performed Monteverdi's Poppea, Handel's Julius Caesar, Charlotte in Massenet's Werther and in 1982, her final operatic season, Donizetti's Mary Stuart.  That summer she thrilled the lucky few in the most immensely moving Orfeo at Glyndebourne.


Janet Baker's concert career continued thereafter for a number of years.  In this area her repertoire was vast as was her discography.  It is become evident that Janet Baker's voice had a huge following and that there were many who, like Harold Rosenthal, would have travelled huge distances to hear her sing anything, be it a selection of Baroque arias, a group of English songs (of whatever period), German or French art song or something from the twentieth century.  Whatever the music, each item was attacked with an intensity which was akin to religious fervour.  This particular recital, first issued in 1966 by the budget label Saga, has over the years attracted many plaudits.  John Steane in his volume The Grand Tradition (1974) devoted half a page to this LP mentioning that 'it included performances which it would be hard to improve upon throughout the whole range of recording' whilst the writers of the Penguin Guide also wax lyrical saying that her singing was 'of a quality that you find only once or twice in a generation' finding the Brahms extracts 'beyond praise'.


Martin Isepp was born in Vienna in 1930, his mother being Helena Isepp who had taught Janet Baker.  Like many renowned vocal coaches he was also one of the very finest accompanists who collaborated with many of the greatest singers worldwide.  During the 1950s Isepp worked with the English Opera Group but the greater part of his career was spent on the music staff at Glyndebourne (1957 - 1993), where he was appointed Head of Music in 1978.  Isepp also held important posts with the Juilliard School and in Canada and Italy as well as with the National Opera Studio.  Over the years Isepp has been in constant demand at master-classes and as an adjudicator in competitions.  As a conductor he has led many performances not only at Glyndebourne and with GTO but also in New York, Washington, Canadian Opera and the Orchestre de Picardie.


Schumann composed his song-cycle Frauenliebe und Leben (Woman's Love and Life) in 1840 to texts by Adalbert von Chamisso, whose words make disquieting reading nowadays with their implied injunction that a wife should bend herself to her husband's will. 


Brahms' op 43 songs were published in 1868, a year in which he seems to have concentrated particularly heavily on vocal music, since his opp 46 - 49 songs (twenty five songs in all) are all thought to have been composed at that time.  However two songs heard here (Die Mainacht and Von ewiger Liebe) are thought to have been composed in 1866 and 1864 respectively.  Nachtigall dates from 1885 whilst Das Mädchen spricht followed a couple of years after.


Schubert's songs number several hundred and broadly were composed from c1815 to his death in 1828.  Those heard here are representative of each phase of his career with the lilting strophic serenade Minnelied dating from 1816.  Some sources date the little-known Die abgeblühte Linde as 1817 whilst others give its composition date late as 1821.  Its recitative-like opening suggests an operatic scena.  More familiar is the spritely Der Musensohn (December 1822).  The beautiful and serene Heimliches Lieben dates from September 1827.  

Copyright James Murray July 2005


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Shostakovich - Symphony No 13 'Babi Yar' Regis RRC1102

The power struggle following Stalin's death in 1953 eventually resulted in Nikita Khrushchev emerging as the most significant figure in the Soviet Union.  In 1956 he surprised delegates at the 20th Party Conference when he criticised the 'personality cult' surrounding Stalin (who had after all been regarded as akin to a god) and catalogued the immense damage that had been done to the Party.  This unprecedented attack on Stalin took some time to 'sink in' and in some regions, such as Georgia (Stalin's homeland), Khrushchev's pronouncements were met with downright hostility.  It was not until the 22nd Party Congress held in 1961 when Khrushchev repeated his accusations against Stalin and his collaborators that the populace seemed to accept the views of their current leader.

Khrushchev's speech in 1956 had been considered by intellectuals as presenting a green light for open criticism of the Stalinist era.  Certain books such as I G Ehrenburg's Thaw (in which the unquestioning loyalty of farm and factory managers to Stalin, the prostituting of artistic talent, and the terrorising of the Jews in the aftermath of the 'Doctor's Plot' were discussed) had already appeared, and in 1957 Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago was published in Italy.  In this novel Pasternak cast a somewhat critical eye at aspects of the 1917 revolution and was refused publication in the Soviet Union.  A similar fate apparently awaited Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich in 1962 until Khrushchev - who was certainly no intellectual but who had been privately incensed by the damaging publicity surrounding the Pasternak affair - personally ordered its publication.  Ivan Denisovich allowed the ordinary person to see the reality of Stalinist labour camps and from that time on criticism of Khrushchev's anti-Stalinist pronouncements became more muted.

As well as intellectuals various ethnic groups found the going rather easier post 1956.  During World War Two great swathes of the Jewish population had been murdered in occupied areas, and not just by Nazis.  Following the creation of the state of Israel (approved by the USSR) Stalin's suspicious mind led him to doubt the loyalty of the Soviet Jews and he conducted a campaign against the Zionists.  Stalin's death however did not lead to a relaxation of anti-Zionist measures and by the time of Khrushchev's ousting in 1964 most synagogues had been closed, together with Yiddish publishers, theatres and schools.  The composer Dmitri Shostakovich, although not Jewish, felt great sympathy for the Jewish people.  For some years he had included in his works certain trademarks such as might be heard in 'Klezmer' music (in much the same way as had Mahler in his phrasing and accompaniments) and had occasionally made use of Jewish folk melodies.  Among the works in which this 'Jewish sound' can be distinguished are Piano Trio No 2 (1943), Violin Concerto No 1 (1947/8), From Jewish Folk Poetry (1948), String Quartets Nos 4 and 8 (1949, 1960), 24 Preludes and Fugues (1951), the Cello Concerto No 1 (1959) and Symphony No 13 (1962).  In 1948 Shostakovich, who had barely escaped with his life during Stalin's purges during the 1930's, was again humiliated in public for 'formalist' and decadent tendencies.  For obvious reasons the 'Jewish' works composed during Stalin's lifetime were either premiered in private or held over until a more propitious era. 

In September 1961 the young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko published his poem Babi Yar in the 'Literaturnaya Gazeta'.  This brought him immediate fame but also made him a number of enemies.  Babi Yar was the site of a ravine near the Ukrainian city of Kiev where seventy thousand Jews had been shot by the Nazis in the autumn of 1941.  A furious riposte to Yevtushenko's poem appeared in the 'Literaturnaya Rossiya' that began 'What kind of a true Russian are you when you forget your own people?'  Its writer Alexey Markov insisted that many non-Jewish people had been massacred at Babi Yar, whilst many senior figures in the Party also criticised the text;  but Yevtushenko refused to alter his poem.  Shostakovich read the poem and shortly afterwards telephoned the poet asking his permission to set Babi Yar to music.  During the conversation it became clear that Shostakovich was requesting this permission de post facto having already done so.  At a meeting in Spring 1962 Yevtushenko gave him a copy of his latest collection of poems The Wave Of A Hand, having been moved to tears by the composer's play through of the Babi Yar movement.  From this publication Shostakovich selected three further poems Humour, In The Shop and Career and Yevtushenko added a fifth text Fears for Shostakovich's use in the new work.  This composition, the Symphony No 13, was completed by the end of July 1962.

Once word seeped out about Shostakovich's collaboration with Yevtushenko he too began to face fresh criticism:  having joined the Communist party in 1962 and been elected to chair important conferences about the future of Soviet music (both serious and light) doubts about his suitability for the post were aired.  One official was heard to say 'We let Shostakovich join the Party and then he goes and presents us with a symphony about Jews!'  In early August Shostakovich approached the esteemed conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky to premiere the symphony.  As Mravinsky had premiered many symphonic works by Shostakovich since the Fifth Symphony in 1937, he had no reason to doubt the conductor's acceptance.  The Ukranian bass Boris Gmirya was also approached.  Both Shostakovich and Yevtushenko, all too aware of the 'sensitive' nature of the Babi Yar movement, were at pains to assure Gmirya that any 'fall out' from performing the work would fall on the heads of the authors rather than the performers.  However Gmirya was equally assured by the Ukranian authorities that any performance of Babi Yar would be banned.  Accordingly Gmirya informed Shostakovich that he would be unable to collaborate further in the venture.  Shostakovich next turned to a colleague of his friend, the Bolshoy soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, Alexander Vedernikov, who too was frightened away.  Meanwhile Mravinsky had also refused to participate in the premiere with the lame excuse that he did not conduct choral music.  Since Mravinsky had premiered Shostakovich's cantata Song Of The Forests this seems ridiculous.  Another explanation put forward for Mravisky's decision to pull out of the venture is that his wife, a Party official, disliked Yevtushenko's poem and not unnaturally did not wish to see both her and her husband's careers blighted by a certain scandal.  Although Shostakovich and Mravinsky remained on speaking terms, the composer felt seriously let down by Mravinsky's apparent defection, and he turned instead to the younger conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic Kirill Kondrashin.

Kondrashin and Shostakovich next approached the bass Victor Nechipailo who agreed unconditionally to perform in the premiere.  As a precaution however they also secretly engaged a second singer, Vitaly Gromadsky, who would alternate with Nechipailo in subsequent performances of the symphony.  All went well until the day of the concert 18th December 1962.  A quarter of an hour before the dress rehearsal was due to begin, Nechipailo rang in to say that he had been suddenly asked to sing in Verdi's Don Carlo that night at the Bolshoy as the advertised singer had been taken ill.  It seemed fairly obvious that this was an eleventh hour attempt on the part of the authorities to sabotage Shostakovich's symphony.  Luckily Gromadsky had decided of his own accord to attend the rehearsal and he was able to step in.  During a break in the rehearsal Kondrashin was contacted by Georgi Popov who bizarrely asked a) after Kondrashin's health;  b) whether there was any reason to prevent him conducting that night;  c) whether he had any political doubts about the piece;  and d) could the symphony be performed without the first movement.  Kondrashin gave Popov unequivocal replies to the effect that come what may, the symphony would be performed in full.  At this point Popov gave way adding 'Do what you think is best'. 

warning shots had been fired across artistic bows on 1 December.  At the opening of an exhibition entitled '30 Years Of Moscow Art' Khrushchev had taken exception to the sculptors and painters exhibited therein calling them 'abstractionists and pederasts'.  On the night before the premiere he singled out Shostakovich at an artistic gathering shouting at him 'Your music is like jazz - it gives me a belly ache!'  At the same event Yevtushenko was criticised publicly by Ilyichyov who was Khrushchev's spokesman on ideological matters.

At the premiere the audience began to applaud enthusiastically after the opening Babi Yar movement, but Kondrashin, fearing that a popular demonstration might ultimately count against Shostakovich and Yevtushenko hurried the piece on.  The event was barely reported in the press and television crews (who were originally going to film the event) failed to appear.  In truth the authorities must have been perplexed about the music;  although its opus number comes immediately after the preceding Symphony No 12, stylistically the two works are totally dissimilar (his orchestration of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death actually came in between and the Babi Yar symphony is actually far closer in style to this piece).  A second performance was given two days later but before the third performance Yevtushenko caved in to pressure and rewrote some lines from Babi Yar, in effect agreeing that it was not just the Jews who were massacred in the ravine.  Shostakovich was not told in advance of the alterations and felt let down but subsequent performances in the Soviet Union over the next few years were few and far between.  A copy of the score was smuggled out of the USSR by Rostropovich and given to Eugene Ormandy who with the Philadelphia Orchestra championed the work in the USA.

Tolling bells open the first movement.  A massive funeral march in which huge sighs from the woodwind and bass chorus singing syllabically (as in Mussorgsky) small intervals.  The poet identifies himself with Jewish victims massacred in the ravine at Babi Yar, forced into slavery in ancient Egypt, with Jesus crucified and with Dreyfus (sentenced to life imprisonment in 1894 on shaky evidence and only pardoned twelve years later).  A vicious passage describes horrific acts of anti-Semitism by Russians followed by a moment of great stillness (possibly implying impassivity on the part of the Russian people as the poet appeals for moderation).  The core of the movement surrounds the fate of Anne Frank in which Shostakovich recalls the mood of the Fourth Symphony as the family's hiding place is discovered (marked ffff).  As the subject returns to the setting of the Babi Yar massacre, so does the funeral march featuring the dotted rhythmical beat of that most sinister of instruments, the bass clarinet.  The march reaches its height at the words 'let the Internationale thunder out when the last anti-Semite has been buried'.  In the coda the poet asserts that it is not in the true nature of Russians to be anti-Semitic since they have been victims as well (presumably a reference to their suffering under Stalin).

The second movement acts as the symphony's scherzo.  The poet tells how oppressive regimes have been unable to stamp out humour.  Superbly orchestrated, humour's cheekiness is depicted by piccolos, squeaky clarinets and solo violin;  the 'dark looks' of authority by growling tubas and trombones;  rowdy interludes illustrate the irrepressible cheeriness of the people.  Shostakovich recalls an earlier work Macpherson before his execution at the words 'Borotsa s nim delo trudnoye' (Fighting humour is tough work) and he anticipates the vocal style of his later collaboration with Yevtushenko The Execution of Stepan Razin with the frequent upward semitone slides.

The third movement describes the uncomplaining attitude of the women in the bread queues, women who 'have endured everything and will continue to endure everything'.  There is an undulating motif in the low strings that recurs often during the symphony and castanets and woodblock describe the rattling of their pots and pans as the women shuffle forwards.  Every movement is an effort.  In what could be said to form the emotive climax of the symphony the poet castigates the authorities for short changing these heroines.  At the movement's close the bass chorus splits for the only time in the work.

Movements 3 - 5 continue without a break, the dark colours of the third movement continuing into the fourth with a claustrophobic tuba solo reminiscent of Fafner's cave in Siegfried.  The monotonous tread of the chorus is zombie-like whilst the sudden jab as the soloist sings 'Ya ikh pomuju vo vlasti I sile.' (I remember the powerful and mighty fears at the court of the lie triumphant) acts like a nightmarish recall of memories too unpleasant to contemplate.  Mahlerian parade ground fanfares illustrate the helpless feeling of every sense being beaten out of the people and once again, as other fears are catalogued, the shadow of the Fourth Symphony looms large.  A deceptively cheerful marching song recalls the memory of the construction worker's in Stalin's time but this boils over into paranoia and the 'fears' come thick and fast culminating in the 'fear of trusting oneself too much'.  As the chorus returns to the zombie-like low G sharps, so does the undulating passage that transforms itself miraculously at the beginning of the final movement into a bittersweet melody, a sense of longing, of what might have been. 

Like the 'Humour' movement, the final movement appears at first hearing to be a strophic song with interludes based upon the bittersweet motif.  A jaunty bassoon motif reminiscent of an operatic drinking song introduces each verse and the interludes vary in tone from angry to the classically dainty (pizzicato strings).  Finally the tone becomes elegiac at the words 'Vse te, kto rvalis v stratosferu.' (All those who strove towards the stratosphere, the doctors who died from cholera, they were following careers!) and a divided strings rendition of the 'bittersweet' melody brings a moment of indescribable pathos.  As the work winds down the celesta plays its own variation of the motif and the chimes that are never far from the surface bring the work to a close.   

Rudolf Barshai (b1924) has been associated with the music of Shostakovich for many years.  He studied violin with Lev Zeitlin and viola with Borisovsky at the Moscow Conservatoire.  He was a founder member of the Moscow Philharmonic Quartet (renamed Borodin Quartet) and later joined the Tchaikovsky Quartet.  The Borodin Quartet often played the string quartets of Shostakovich in rehearsal for the composer, although he chose the more prestigious Beethoven Quartet to perform the premieres.  Having also studied conducting, Barshai formed the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1955 and in 1969 he premiered Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony, having assisted in instrumentation and other artistic matters.  He later arranged the Fourth and Eighth String Quartets for chamber orchestra, these being known as the Chamber Symphonies.  Barshai emigrated first to Israel in 1976 and then to Britain where from 1982 to 1988 he was Artistic Adviser to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  He has since often returned to give concerts in Russia.  This performance of the Thirteenth Symphony is taken from a complete cycle of Shostakovich Symphonies recorded in Koln in the 1990s.  

Copyright James Murray September 2002

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Shostakovich - Symphony No 4 Regis RRC1103

Much of Shostakovich's early music illustrated his attitude to the Revolution in Russia in 1917:  Symphonies 2 and 3, composed between 1927 and 1929, were subtitled To October and The First of May respectively;  the opera The Nose from the same period was a satire of pre-Revolutionary Russia after a short story by Gogol;  and the ballet The Golden Age (1929 - 1930) compared Soviet culture favourably to the decadent West.  In the 1930s Shostakovich became more introverted, identifying with subjects of a more personal character.  This new direction is most noticeable in his two largest scores of the decade:  the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (composed between 1930 and 1932 and premiered in 1934) and Symphony No 4 (composed 1934 - 1935 but not performed until 1961). 


The nineteenth century short story by Nikolai Leskov forms the basis of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District:  the central character Katerina Ismailova is bored with her situation but finds comfort and satisfaction in the arms of one of her husband's workers.  She and her lover murder her husband and father-in-law, are caught and punished.  They are sent to a labour camp where the lover finds another woman and Katerina, totally distraught, drowns both herself and her lover's new mistress.  Shostakovich empathised with Katerina more than Leskov had and made the real monsters within the piece those (including her husband) who bully her.  Lady Macbeth was premiered almost simultaneously in Leningrad and Moscow, and within two years had been seen in a number of countries outside the Soviet Union.  Its success led Shostakovich to consider a cycle of operas centred around either powerful or victimised women.  During the winter of 1935 - 36 a new production of Lady Macbeth was arranged at the Bolshoy in Moscow and Shostakovich, who had already begun work on a new symphony, was on hand to supervise rehearsals and the initial performances.  He was asked to be at the theatre on the evening of 26 January 1936, when the performance was to be attended by not only senior Party officials Zhdanov and Molotov, but also by Stalin himself.  At the end of the performance Shostakovich took a bow but it was noticed that these VIPs had already left.  Two days later an article entitled ominously 'Chaos instead of music' appeared in Pravda, denouncing the opera as degenerate:  'a deliberately discordant and chaotic stream of sound (that could) only whip up passion'.  The 'pornographic' elements of the score were given as the only reason for the work's success abroad.  Even more ominously the article carried the thinly veiled warning that in playing this 'meaningless game (the composer) might well come to a very bad end'.


At this time the Soviet Union was in the middle of Stalin's Second Five Year Plan.  Impossibly high targets had been set for the First Plan and where they had not been met, the fault was laid at the doors of untrained workers or wreckers (saboteurs).  Those areas not involved in the massive industrialisation programme prescribed for the entire country, eg housing, agriculture and transport, were starved of investment and resources.  Learning from their mistakes, the organisers of the Second Plan in 1933 set about consolidating their achievements and began to address these very areas of the economy.  Generally speaking living conditions improved, but Stalin's purging of the party of the 'intelligentsia' alienated many of his previous supporters.  The murder of Kirov, the popular mayor of Leningrad, in 1934 gave Stalin an excuse to purge the Party of further 'enemies of the people'.  Kirov had been seen as a possible successor (and therefore rival) to Stalin and it is now commonly thought that Stalin himself engineered his death.  The terror that ensued saw many millions of innocent lives lost as Stalin unleashed a ferocious campaign against non-Party activists, those suspected of foreign sympathies and those who were popular and influential (eg those in the armed forces).  A fevered atmosphere of denunciation and mistrust flourished, where enemies and rivals sought to curry favour and settle old scores.


It was against this background that Lady Macbeth was criticised in the Party broadsheet.  In 1934 Shostakovich's personal life had reached something of a crisis: his affair with a colleague on tour led to a separation from his wife which only ended when his wife announced that she was pregnant the following year.  Their first child was born in 1936 by which time Shostakovich was being shunned by the musical world.  In the atmosphere that prevailed in the Soviet Union, other less talented composers agreed with Pravda's pronouncements and very few people were willing to take a stand on Shostakovich's behalf.  Following the very public chastisement Shostakovich was able to do little except keep his head down and await further developments.  He completed his Fourth Symphony and in May 1936 played it through to three influential conductors:  Fritz Stiedry (a central European conductor who had fled Nazism and who was then music director of the Leningrad Philharmonic), Alexander Gauk (founder-conductor of the USSR Symphony Orchestra) and Otto Klemperer (who was visiting the USSR and whom Shostakovich hoped might present the work abroad).  All three musicians were astounded at what they heard:  Stiedry and Klemperer offered to present the symphony at the earliest opportunity whilst Gauk would naturally follow in due course. 


Towards the Autumn Stiedry began rehearsals in Leningrad and immediately ran into difficulties:  the players found the work impossible and Stiedry himself appeared unable to motivate them.  At the time much blame was accorded to Stiedry's musical shortcomings.  This however can be disproved following examination of his record as a conductor of modern 'difficult' music and his electrifying performances at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere.  Little is known about the lead up to Shostakovich's withdrawal of the score during rehearsals other than the fact that he and Stiedry did appear to be at odds with each other and that Stostakovich was 'spoken to' by the management of the Leningrad Philharmonic who had been contacted by important members of the Party.  Word of the work's character must have leaked out to the Party at some stage and there must have been some concern over the fact that the symphony failed to meet important parts of the Composer's Union criteria for an approved piece of music - it must move towards 'the victorious progressive principals of reality in all that is heroic, bright and beautiful'.  Had the premiere taken place on 11 December 1936, at which time Shostakovich was still persona non grata, it is easy to imagine that performers as well as the composer would have been the target of Party opprobrium.  In some ways it is surprising that the Fourth Symphony even reached the rehearsal stage!  Fellow composer Myaskovsky commented afterwards on the enforced cancellation:  'What a disgrace for us, his contemporaries'.


The stamping theme that opens the first movement has been likened by Ian MacDonald in The New Shostakovich (1990) to the megalomaniac shouts that greet a brutal dictator at a rally.  The quieter second theme might be the artist casting back his mind to more sympathetic times.  Once more the 'rally' thunders past, gradually fading into the distance.  An ear-splitting scream (of anguish, of pain, of fear?) introduces a passage of unbearable tension during which the image put forward by many commentators of the composer nervously awaiting the nocturnal 'knock at the door' is impossible to ignore.  Shostakovich was an imaginative and effective composer of film music (the cinema incidentally being Stalin's favourite medium) and once again MacDonald's description of the stabbing motifs being like the secret police torches flashing into dark corners during the search for incriminating evidence is extremely vivid.  In the fugue which follows, Stalin's chaotic terror machine is unleashed on the Soviet people:  the strings play a vicious game of tag in which the accusers find themselves accused.  The nightmare becomes more horrific yet as six grinding crescendos see a return to the 'rally' theme.  Exhaustion however sets in and the massive opening movement closes quietly with a violin solo, the composer perhaps mulling over his own and his country's horrific recent experience.


The shorter scherzo second movement is the most formal section of the symphony, its four-note figure recalling Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and its structure (ABABA) being easy to decipher.  There is however within its span considerable disruption as the wind and brass's three-note pattern successfully assault the strings' attempts at normality.  Unsettling ticking sounds (time running out for the composer?) close the movement.


One can only guess the identity of the soul being laid to rest in the Mahlerian funeral march that opens the last movement.  Before dying away a terrifying climax is reached.  Once again the tense nocturnal waiting theme is heard, now played in unison by the entire orchestra.  The disconcerting middle section begins with a long horn pedal note.  Groups of instruments led by the bassoon, trombone and piccolo chatter in an apparently trivial manner and the strings lead the orchestra in a waltz.  Suddenly the timpani introduce a massive reiteration of the funeral march which grinds onward in huge waves of sound.  Despite the volume (and this must be one of the loudest passages in music) the march is unable to resolve itself and instead it broods exhaustedly over a long throbbing pedal point.  As the symphony closes the only signs of life now remaining are a series of oscillations between E flat and G on the celesta.


Although Shostakovich continued to perform the work privately in a two piano version, it was not until the Kruschevian 'thaw' that an official interest was shown in his Fourth Symphony.  In 1958 Shostakovich finally contemplated a resurrection of his two forgotten masterpieces:  the Fourth Symphony received its belated triumphant premiere under Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic in 1961 whilst the revised Lady Macbeth, now renamed Katerina Ismailova, was performed worldwide the following year.  Critics noted that both works were undoubtedly among the most original scores of the twentieth century and that their invention and depth of feeling was in stark contrast to his Twelfth Symphony, also premiered at much the same time.  In 1973 the composer with reference to the symphony's original withdrawal stated that 'I didn't like the situation.  Fear was all around.  So I withdrew it'.


Rudolf Barshai (b1924) has been associated with the music of Shostakovich for many years.  He studied violin with Lev Zeitlin and viola with Borisovsky at the Moscow Conservatoire.  He was a founder member of the Moscow Philharmonic Quartet (renamed Borodin Quartet) and later joined the Tchaikovsky Quartet.  The Borodin Quartet often played the string quartets of Shostakovich in rehearsal for the composer, although he chose the more prestigious Beethoven Quartet to perform the premieres.  Having also studied conducting, Barshai formed the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1955 and in 1969 he premiered Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony, having assisted in instrumentation and other artistic matters.  He later arranged the Fourth and Eighth String Quartets for chamber orchestra, these being known as the Chamber Symphonies.  Barshai emigrated first to Israel in 1976 and then to Britain where from 1982 to 1988 he was Artistic Adviser to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  He has since often returned to give concerts in Russia.  This performance of the Fourth Symphony is taken from a complete cycle of Shostakovich Symphonies recorded in Köln in the 1990s.   Copyright James Murray August 2002

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Cosi fan tutte / Opera Arias Regis RRC3010

It is not known who commissioned Cosi fan tutte in 1789:  neither Mozart's nor his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte's correspondence reveal this fact, and indeed da Ponte's only comment about the opera is that it held 'the third place among the three sisters born of that most celebrated father of harmony'.  Mozart mentions the work in two letters to Michael Puchberg, inviting him to the rehearsal on New Year's Eve 1789 and the first orchestral rehearsal on 21 January 1790 (it appears that Haydn also attended the rehearsals).  Mozart's fee was 200 ducats (900 gulden), double that usually paid in Vienna for a new work, leading to the assumption that the commission came from Emperor Joseph II. 


However in April 1789 the Emperor had fallen seriously ill.  Austria was at war with Turkey, and on his return from the front in November the Emperor was again close to death.  Assuming work was already underway on the opera Mozart and da Ponte would have to ensure that the opera was staged before the Emperor died, since theatres would be closed for the lengthy period of official mourning.  The premiere took place on 26 January 1790;   Cosi had five performances before the Emperor died on 20 February.  It then received a further five performances between June and August, with a few revisions (including the initial addition of a baritone aria Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo K584 and its subsequent substitution for Non siate ritrosi).


It has been said that Mozart was not da Ponte's first choice of composer, but that he intended it for Salieri.  Mozart however was the only composer emotionally capable of handling such a work, having created in Don Giovanni a serial seducer whose fate is far more terrifying than anything previously been seen on the musical stage.


The only surviving account of the premiere of Cosi merely comments that the music was charming and the text amusing.  During the nineteenth century the opera was rarely performed.  The idea of testing a woman's fidelity in such a cold-hearted manner can be seen as somewhat distasteful, but one should recall that Cosi was written in the era of Laclos' Liaisons dangereuses and in the same century as Clarissa, Pamela and Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.         


The title of the opera itself is taken from Le nozze di Figaro;  during the first act trio sung by Susanna, Count Almaviva, and Don Basilio who chuckles that 'cosi fan tutte le belle' (that's what all the pretty girls are like).  His line of music at this point is repeated by the woodwind during the overture to Cosi fan tutte. 



Two officers Ferrando and Guglielmo are in a Naples coffee-house discussing their girlfriends with an older friend Don Alfonso (La mia Dorabella).  Don Alfonso cynically refuses to believe that their girls are in any way special and challenges his friends to bet on their fidelity (E la fede delle femmine).  In accepting the challenge Ferrando and Guglielmo must follow Don Alfonso's rules to the letter and the winner will receive one hundred zucchini.  To judge by the elaborate plans the two officers have for spending their winnings this is clearly a tidy sum (Une bella serenata)!


The scene changes to the house and garden of the two ladies in question: Fiordiligi, lover of Guglielmo and her sister Dorabella, who loves Ferrando. Whilst they are admiring their sweethearts' miniature portraits (Ah guarda, sorella), Don Alfonso enters to tell them that the officers have been called up.  Ferrando and Guglielmo arrive to bid their lovers a tender farewell as Don Alfonso can hardly contain his laughter (Sento, o Dio) and an offstage chorus cheer the troops on their way (Bella vita militar).  Don Alfonso and the ladies bid them a safe journey (Soave sia il vento).


Despina, Fiordiligi's and Dorabella's maid, is considerably more down-to-earth than her mistresses and cannot understand why they are so upset by the absence of the two officers;  Dorabella in particular is throwing a mighty diva strop (Smanie implacabili)!  Despina advises the sisters to take advantage of their boyfriends' absence to seek a little diversion as it is certain that Ferrando and Guglielmo will do the same (In uomini, in soldati)! The girls are appalled.  Don Alfonso finds Despina alone and, offering to pay her well, asks for her help in providing an introduction for a couple of his friends to Fiordiligi and Dorabella.  No sooner has Despina agreed than his two 'Albanian' friends appear (Alla bella Despinetta). They are of course Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise, although Despina does not know this, and they proceed to court each other's girlfriend.  The girls resist, Fiordiligi in a lengthy aria (Come scoglio) and as Guglielmo draws attention to his manly attributes, both sisters leave in a huff (Non siate ritrosi).  The officers are exuberant, convinced that they have won the bet, but Alfonso informs them that there is still a long way to go (E voi ridete?).  Ferrando sings of his love and leaves with Guglielmo (Un' aura amorosa) whilst Alfonso and Despina consider what to do next.


Fiordiligi and Dorabella mourn the departure of their loved ones (Ah, che tutto in un momento) but following a commotion offstage (Si mora, si si mora) the Albanians rush in, semi-restrained by Alfonso and swallow poison before the horrified gaze of the ladies.  Whilst Alfonso goes in search of a doctor the sisters helplessly attempt to revive the men, showing for the first time an interest in the men.  Alfonso returns with the doctor (Despina in disguise armed with a huge magnet Eccovi il medico), introducing 'him' as a friend of Dr Mesmer.  The magnet miraculously revives the Albanians (Dove son?) who resume their wooing with increased ardour (Dammi un bacio, o mio tesoro).  The sisters have difficulty holding them off.


As the Second Act begins and with a little encouragement from Despina (Una donna a quindici anni), Dorabella declares that she fancies the dark one (Guglielmo) whilst Fiordiligi is quite taken with the fair haired one Ferrando (Prenderò quell brunettino).   The Albanians serenade the sisters (Secondate, aurette amiche) and Alfonso and Despina encourage both couples, and leave them to it (La mano a me date).  Guglielmo offers Dorabella a little gold heart, in return getting Ferrando's miniature locket (Il core vi dono).  Ferrando has had no luck with Fiordiligi, and left alone, Fiordiligi determines to be strong (Ei parte.Per pieta).  The two officers meet and compare notes.  Ferrando tells Guglielmo that Fiordiligi has remained constant, but is livid when he sees Guglielmo has been given the locket (Donne mie, la fate a tante.Tradito, schernito).  He does not need much persuasion to redouble his wooing of Fiordiligi.


Dorabella admits that she now wishes to marry her Albanian (È amore un ladroncello).  Fiordiligi however tells her that she has decided to follow Guglielmo to the front.  Her decisiveness however soon passes as Ferrando turns on the charm (Fra gli amplessi), the entire seduction scene being witnessed by Guglielmo and Alfonso.  Both men feel betrayed, but Alfonso's advice is to marry the girls anyway:  all women are the same and sooner or later they will be unfaithful (Tutti accusan le donne).  Despina announces that the sisters will marry the Albanians.


The last scene opens as the wedding celebrations are beginning (Fate presto, o cari amici).  As the two couples toast their future, only Guglielmo seems out of sorts (E nel tuo, nel mio bicchiero).  Despina, now disguised as a notary, reads out the contracts for them to sign in a kind of legalese mumbo-jumbo (Augurandovi ogni bene).  Suddenly a drum roll announces the return of the officers!  The Albanians hide in another room and presently Ferrando and Guglielmo re-enter in their soldiers' uniforms (Sani e salvi).  They demand to know why the notary is present and the sisters' confusion mounts as the notary is revealed as Despina.  Alfonso then allows the soldiers to discover the marriage contracts (Giusto ciel! Voi qui scrivesti) and he blurts out the hiding-place of the Albanians.  With drawn swords Ferrando and Guglielmo enter the room where the Albanians were last seen and return obviously wearing part of their disguises (A voi s'inchina).  Both sisters and Despina furiously turn on Don Alfonso, who defends himself by saying that they will all have learned a good deal about themselves from this experience.  All six characters join together in singing that 'Happy is the man who lets himself be guided by reason' (Fortunato l'uom che prende).


This legendary performance of Cosi fan tutte was recorded by Columbia at the EMI Studio and at London's Kingsway Hall between 13 and 19 July 1954.  As a bonus to this complete recording of Cosi fan tutte several Mozart arias sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf are included.  From Don Giovanni can be heard Zerlina's two arias which are both sung to her fiancé Masetto, who suspects her of falling for Don Giovanni's manly charms.  In Batti, batti she anticipates rough treatment from Masetto, whilst Vedrai carino is her successful attempt to cheer Masetto following his savage beating by Don Giovanni.  Non mi dir is sung by Donna Anna to her fiancé Don Ottavio as she asks him to delay their wedding in order that she might mourn her father.  Schwarzkopf herself was a famous Donna Elvira;  Mi tradi, composed for the 1788 Vienna revival, sees her admitting that despite Don Giovanni's treatment of her, she loves him still. 


Schwarzkopf was also a renowned Countess Almaviva in Nozze di Figaro.  In Porgi amor which opens the second act, she laments the fact that her husband no longer finds her desirable.  It is difficult to imagine Schwarzkopf playing Cherubino on stage but here she sings the delectable Voi che sapete, a song that the perpetually lovesick boy has recently composed. 


For many years Idomeneo, despite containing some of his finest music, was not as popular as other Mozart operas.  Performed in Munich in 1934 , it was a famous Glyndebourne production in 1951 (and the recorded extracts that resulted), put this wonderful work on the map.  In Zeffiretti lusinghieri the Trojan princess Ilia confides to the gentle breezes her love for the Cretan prince Idamante. 

Copyright James Murray October 2005


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