In this issue: Georgs Pelēcis’ New Year’s Music performed by Timo Andres; Schumann’s “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” from Dichterliebe, Op. 48 performed by Suzanne Danco and Guido Agosti; Weill’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” performed by Anne Sofie von Otter and NDR-Sinfonieorchester Hamburg; Prokoviev’s Andante – Allegro from Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 performed by Martha Argerich and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France; Salif Keita’s “Tekere” performed by Salif Keita
Now, More Than Ever: Issue 51
In one of my favorite moments from the 1985 Merchant Ivory film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, the young, befuddled, and more than slightly distracted George Emerson (Julian Sands) climbs into the upper branches of an olive tree to voice—at the top of his lungs—his personal creed: “Beauty! Joy!” The author and filmmakers then wink at us as George takes an awkward tumble to the ground. But George recovers his wits and adheres to his creed, proceeding later to overwhelm young Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) with a passionate kiss in a sun-drenched Italian poppy field, a scene gloriously underscored by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s sublime performance of “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s La rondine.
Today, in these darkest days of winter—and during times when so much in our modern world dismays, unsettles, and threatens—it seems important that we often and intentionally reaffirm the power of the performing arts (“Beauty! Joy!”) to point us in a different and more positive direction, to acknowledge, as Forster reminds us in his novel, that “by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.” That sentiment was the driving inspiration behind today’s selections for Now, More Than Ever.
Georgs Pelēcis: New Year’s Music
Timo Andres, piano
We’ve already encountered two performances by the talented composer/pianist Timo Andres in these columns (Issue 12 and Issue 29), but given the timing, now would seem a fine opportunity to share Andres’ latest self-produced YouTube video, an altogether delightful piece by Georgs Pelēcis, the respected Latvian composer and musicologist. Pelēcis is an adherent of what has been named the “New Consonance,” which prizes euphony—the quality of being pleasing to the ear—above all else. Some hear Copland in this music, others Keith Jarrett or even George Winston (from the old Windham Hill Records days). I also think of the music of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, of which the composer is an accomplished scholar, as well as the meditative minimalism that has, in recent decades, come from the Baltics. (Think of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.) In Andres’ hands, the results are enchanting.
Schumann: “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” from Dichterliebe, Op. 48
Suzanne Danco, soprano Guido Agosti, piano
(This song, the fifteenth piece in Schumann’s cycle, begins at 19:34 and ends at 21:54.)
A few weeks ago, I talked with classical singer Julia Bullock in advance of her Cal Performances at Home streamed concert, which premiered last night and will be available for viewing through April 14. Julia’s utterly brilliant recital—don’t miss it!—includes a selection of five songs from Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (Op. 48), and she and I discussed the power this music possesses when performed by a female singer. (As Julia informed me, despite modern associations almost exclusively with male singers, the song cycle was conceived with the female voice in mind and dedicated to the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient.) Julia encouraged me to search out a mid-20th-century recording by the highly regarded Belgian soprano Suzanne Danco, described in her 2000 Guardian obituary as:
The epitome of the well-schooled, clear voiced soprano in the French tradition. She sang her wide repertory with impeccable taste, an unerring sense of the requisite style for the music, and was especially admired for her Mozart, which she sang internationally in the 1950s, her readings both thoughtful and well-groomed.
While Dichterliebe does go to some very dark places, this particular piece (the penultimate song in the cycle) paints a picture of the magical world of fairytales, contrasted with the narrator’s deep regret for being unable to access that beauty and joy on the other side of this failed love affair. And what impresses me most of all in this recording is the brightness and clarity of Danco’s singular voice. I only wish I could find some filmed recordings!
From olden tales it flings out
A beckoning white hand;
It sings out and it rings out
From an enchanted land
Where blossoms tall and slender
In the gold-lit eventide
Look up with eyes as tender
As the eyes of a loving bride –
Where all the trees have voices
And sing their choral chants,
And every rill rejoices
In music for the dance –
And songs of love are thronging
Such as you never heard
Till hearts with sweetest longing
Are wonder-sweetly stirred!
Ah, could I only go there
And free my heart of pain,
And banish all my woe there,
Be free and blest again!
Ah, land of bliss undying,
I see it oft in dreams.
When dawn comes, it goes flying
Like foam in the morning beams.
—Translation by Hal Draper
Weill: “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano NDR-Sinfonieorchester Hamburg John Eliot Gardner, conductor
I’ve also been thinking recently about the cabaret/art songs of Kurt Weill (of The Threepenny Opera and “Mack the Knife” fame), especially given Julia Bullock’s memorable set of four of them in her Cal Performances at Home recital. Close readers of these columns will know of my great admiration and affection for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. (See NMTE, Issue 11.) I’m a big fan of her 1994 recording of selected Weill works (including The Seven Deadly Sins) with conductor John Eliot Gardiner—a choice that caused more than a few to look up in surprise—and the NDR-Sinfonieorchester Hamburg (now the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester). Here’s one of my favorite cuts from that fine album; it’s as perfect a match of composer and performer as I can think of. This one is pure pleasure!
Prokoviev: Andante – Allegro from Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26
Martha Argerich, piano Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France Myung-Whun Chung, conductor
(This section, the concerto’s first movement, ends at 10:23, but if you have time, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the rest of this superb performance.)
Another favorite of mine making a third appearance in NMTE (see Issues 20and 29), Martha Argerich has a deep connection with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, so it’s a pleasure to share this pandemic-era performance (note the facemasks and the socially distanced orchestra members) of such a towering and virtuosic piece of music. The work has long held a privileged position in the pianist’s cherished repertoire, with public performances over decades receiving acclaim for what a Guardian critic, in a characteristic review, called “the brilliance and volatility of her playing, in which every detail has a meaningful shape, every fistful of notes a perfectly honed purpose.” As you watch her playing in this propulsive and muscular—but not rough—first movement, consider the fact that Argerich will turn 80 years old in July, something that, given her vitality and fleet fingers, seems difficult to believe. No wonder her name is among the first mentioned whenever this concerto is discussed.
Here, under the controlled and elegant direction of conductor Myung-Whun Chung (brother of violinist Kyung-Wha Chung and cellist Myung-Wha Chung and a fine pianist in his own right), the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France also makes fine contributions.
Salif Keita: “Tekere”
Salif Keita, performer
Beloved as the “Golden Voice of Africa,” the renowned Afro-pop singer/songwriter Salif Keita announced his retirement from recording in 2018, following a legendary career during which he redefined the music of the continent. A member of Mali’s Keita royal family (he was born a prince in the village of Djoliba), Salif—at an early age—was rejected by his family and shunned by the community because of his albinism, which many in the Mandinka culture have considered a sign of back luck. Moving to Paris in 1984, Keita began reaching larger audiences through his work with the Super Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs, with a thriving solo career and worldwide fame developing soon thereafter. Just last month, Keita decided to enter politics as a member of Mali’s transitional council, which will push for legislative reforms in the wake of a recent military coup and the suspension of parliament.
Keita has certainly been associated with more serious, thoughtful music, but he wrote the joyful and infectious “Tekere” (the title translates as “clap your hands”) soon after his relocation to Paris, in praise of out-and-out celebration. Mixing traditional African polyrhythms with syncopated dance grooves and nods to Zairean soukous music (and in the original studio recording, an ultra-tight R&B brass section), this is world music at its eclectic best.
Here’s a challenge. Try to sit on your hands while watching this one. Bet you can’t!