Monday, June 13, 2016

Brahms and Brahms and Bruckner

We found another used LP in very good condition--evidently played once to make a reel-to-reel recording, my husband thinks--of Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner. This performance was recorded in Orchestra Hall, Chicago in 1957 and the RCA Victor Living Stereo LP released in 1958. It still makes the lists of great performances/recordings of this symphony. The liner notes are by Irving Kolodin, one of the most powerful and influential critics of the 20th century (see this story from Opera News). I was just now listening to the third movement, the Poco allegretto, of which Kolodin says: "Many listeners date their earliest attraction to symphonic music from this appealing movement, with its serenely expressive cello melody, its attractive aural curves and vistas. What makes it the endlessly satisfying thing it is, however, are the subtleties which become apparent as acquaintance ripens. For all its Poco allegretto marking, it is a scherzo as Brahms conceived the term, in which the conventional return to the opening (after the trio) is replaced by a wonderfully elaborate new version of the beginning. Moreover, it is replete with refinements of orchestration--that art of which Brahms supposedly knew so little--in which nothing ever happens the same way twice."

Here is a picture of the record on the turntable, a 1970's Yamaha:

Here is a picture of the symbol the previous owner stamped on all his record labels and sleeves, according to the owner of the record store.

I've also been listening quite often--in my car as I drive to see my mother in a care home about twenty minutes away--this award-winning recording of motets by Brahms and Anton Bruckner from Tenebrae. You may watch and listen to a selection from the recording here.

The liner notes for this CD introduced me to a new term, Cecilian, referring to reforms that predated Pope St. Pius X's 1903 call for the return to Gregorian Chant and Renaissance polyphony in sacred music for the Holy Mass:

Bruckner’s mature motets were written during a period of reform of music for the Catholic Church. The revisionist trend gathered pace in 1866 when the German priest and composer, Franz Xaver Witt, launched a journal devoted to the cause of ‘improving’ church music. The following year, he set out his manifesto and dealt with the practicalities of delivering it. Witt condemned the ‘trashy church music’ favoured by Catholic parochial choirs and suggested a ‘churchly’ alternative, one rooted in the ‘true’ music of such past masters as Palestrina and in the melodic purity of Gregorian chant. Witt’s words inspired the foundation of the Allgemeine C├Ącilien-Verband (General Association of St Cecilia), or C├Ącilien Verein (Cecilian Society) as it became known. His brainchild, named for music’s patron saint, soon grew in stature, leading one overenthusiastic cleric to describe it by the mid-1880s as ‘a small world power’.

In many ways Bruckner’s motets respect Cecilian ideals. They were informed by chant and Palestrinian polyphony; they also served to heighten the intensity of ritual worship without drawing attention to their composer’s ingenuity. Locus iste, written for the inauguration of the votive chapel of Linz’s New Cathedral, was first performed on 29 October 1869 under the direction of Johann Baptist Burgstaller, a driving force of the Cecilian Movement in Upper Austria. Bruckner’s predominantly homophonic gradual amounts to a study in simplicity. Its text, from Genesis 28:16-17, concerns Jacob’s reflections after waking from the dream in which he saw a ladder rising from earth to heaven. The work’s bass line, rarely silent, unfolds as a metaphor for a sacred building’s sure foundations.

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