Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”: A Haunting Symmetry

From an intricately woven spider web, to the crystalline perfection of a snowflake, to the proportions of a sea shell, nature is filled with logical structures, pleasing mathematical ratios, and stunning symmetries. In the natural world, there is a sense that it could only be as it is. Nothing is wasted. The closer you look, the more you become aware of an infinite and awe-inspiring underlying order. Listening to Béla Bartók’s ghostly Music for …

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New Release: Víkingur Ólafsson Plays Bach

The music of J.S. Bach travels well. It is some of the most perfect and highly-ordered music ever written. Yet it’s also some of the most durable and versatile. These 300-year-old notes continue to come alive in new and exciting ways. We got a sense of this earlier in the month with violinist Hilary Hahn’s fiery, romantic approach to solo Bach, reminiscent of the free and distinctive interpretations of twentieth century artists like Kreisler, Heifetz, …

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George Crumb’s “Black Angels”: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land

Things were turned upside down. There were terrifying things in the air… they found their way into Black Angels. – George Crumb, 1990 Black Angels, a work for “electric string quartet” by American composer George Crumb (b. 1929), pulls us into a terrifying, nightmarish soundscape. Completed in March, 1970, the piece has been associated with the apocalyptic zeitgeist of the Vietnam era. Yet the strange, disturbing voices which haunt this music seem to transcend any one …

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Eight Pieces Based on the Dies Irae

Last week, we explored two pieces which bookend the musical output of Sergei Rachmaninov- the First Symphony, which Rachmaninov wrote at the age of 22, and the Symphonic Dances, his “last spark,” completed in 1940. The Dies irae, the ancient chant of the dead, emerges as a prominent presence in both works. It’s a motive that returns throughout Rachmaninov’s music with haunting regularity. We hear it in The Isle of the Dead, The Bells, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where it …

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Handel’s “Water Music”: Akademie für alte Musik Berlin

Handel’s festive Water Music springs to life with an infectious sense of joy and celebration in this January, 2016 live performance featuring the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. This has to be some of the most enduring and magical party music ever written. As I outlined in a previous post, this collection of three Baroque dance suites was written for King George I’s pleasure excursion up the Thames River on the evening of July …

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Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances”: Releasing Old Demons

There is a fascinating moment of emotional release near the end of the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  Completed in 1940 and dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, this was Rachmaninov’s final composition. This music, which Rachmaninov described as “my last spark,” stands as an extraordinary musical summation. It reflects on the past with wistful nostalgia, yet we also get the sense of a spirited and joyful march into the sunset. In …

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Bach’s Unopened Résumé: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

Right now, somewhere in the vast, interstellar expanse beyond the edge of our solar system, NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe, launched on September 5, 1977, continues to wander into the eternity of deep space. Onboard the small, brave craft is a Golden Record documenting the fragile existence of humanity on our pale blue dot in the cosmic sea. The opening musical track on the Golden Record is the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, performed by Karl Richter and the Munich …

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