Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony: “Pure Spring Water”

The Sixth may be Jean Sibelius’ most enigmatic symphony. It doesn’t offer the kind of heroic and triumphant journey we experience in the Second and Fifth Symphonies, or the strange, brooding darkness of the Fourth. Instead, it drifts through a soundscape which is shimmering, austere, and mysterious. “The Sixth Symphony always reminds me of the scent of the first snow,” said Sibelius in 1943. On another occasion, the composer spoke of the …

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Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 852, Pieter-Jan Belder

The Dutch harpsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder considers Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major (No. 7 from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier) to be a significant emotional departure from the preceding pieces in the set. “When you get to this Prelude, you’re in another world,” he says. Indeed, from the opening bars a sublime, ever-rising conversation unfolds between two voices—one high, and the other low. This opens the door to an expansive chorale …

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Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “Autumn Gardens”: A Radiant Orchestral Soundscape

Autumn is a season of shimmering, radiant colors. Long shadows fall amid fading sunlight and a crisp chill seeps into the air. All of this can be felt in Autumn Gardens, a vibrant orchestral soundscape in three movements, written in 1999 by the Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016). The title refers to a passage from the libretto of Rautavaara’s 1990 chamber opera, The House of the Sun, “…like a butterfly in the garden of black …

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Joyful Sounds of Praise: Five Musical Settings of Psalm 150

Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in the firmament of His power. Praise Him for His mighty acts; praise Him according to His abundant greatness. Praise Him with the blast of the horn; praise Him with the psaltery and harp. Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with stringed instruments and the pipe. Praise Him with the loud-sounding cymbals; praise Him with the clanging cymbals. Let every thing that …

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The “Happy Ever After” Finale of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”

Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera within an opera. The 1916 work opens with a Prologue. At the home of the richest man in Vienna, preparations are underway for the premiere staging of the Composer’s new opera seria, Ariadne auf Naxos. Meanwhile, Zerbinetta and her burlesque comedy troupe are also on the evening’s program. Arguments break out over which performance should be presented first. Then, an unexpected announcement throws everything into chaos. The …

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New Release: Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

We explored Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor in a previous post featuring Bruno Walter’s 1959 studio recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. As a supplement to that classic recording, let’s listen to Manfred Honeck’s newly-released, Hybrid SACD album with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, recorded live in Heinz Hall. The ninth in an acclaimed series of Pittsburgh Live! recordings, this new album offers an amazing level of clarity that allows us …

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“Pretty Women”: The Marian McPartland Trio Meets Sondheim

“Pretty Women” comes near the end of the first act of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. On the surface, the song appears to capture an amiable barbershop conversation—as Craig Zadan writes, “a seemingly innocent yet passionate anthem to the virtues of womanhood.” Its comfortably gliding melody soars and then falls back into contentment. In context, it becomes spine chilling. It is Sweeney Todd’s calculating way of distracting Judge …

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