Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sixth Symphony: A Communion With Nature

Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were completed in the same year of 1808, and were premiered at the same under-rehearsed, four-hour-long concert. Yet, the two works stand as diametric opposites. The Fifth Symphony takes a dynamic journey towards transcendence. It is filled with ferocious, crackling energy and a sense of heroic struggle. Set in the bucolic key of F major, the quieter Sixth Symphony inhabits the stable, enduring world of nature. Beethoven gave it the subtitle, …

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Leonidas Kavakos Plays Bach: Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Adagio and Fuga

The Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos describes J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (BWV 1001–1006) as “the most perfect music ever written.” The violin is an instrument which is usually associated with a single, singing melodic line. Yet Bach’s six suites open the door to a magical polyphonic world in which a single violin can create multiple voices. This counterpoint is especially vivid in the three fugues (included in the Sonatas) and the D …

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Bruckner’s Mass No. 3 in F Minor: Entering Symphonic Dimensions

Anton Bruckner’s mighty Mass No. 3 in F minor emerged at a pivotal moment in the composer’s life. In a way similar to the music which Beethoven composed following the Heiligenstadt Testament, it can be heard as a majestic expression of faith and gratitude. Beethoven’s contemplation and ultimate triumphant rejection of suicide in the face of progressive hearing loss is well known. A nervous breakdown in the spring of 1867 led to …

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Rachmaninov’s “The Rock”: An Homage to the Romantic Tone Poem

Sergei Rachmaninov was twenty years old when he composed the orchestral tone poem, The Rock, Op. 7 in the summer of 1893. It is music which looks back as much as forward. We hear Rachmaninov’s distinctive voice coming into focus. At the same time, this early work pays homage to an existing Russian Romantic tradition. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, to whom the piece was dedicated, Tchaikovsky, and Borodin is evident. At moments, The Rock develops with that …

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Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata No. 12 in D Minor, RV 63: Variations on “La Follia”

Antonio Vivaldi’s Twelve Trio Sonatas, Op. 1, published in 1705, conclude with a dazzling display of musical fireworks. The Sonata No. 12 in D minor, RV 63 unfolds in a single movement made up of twenty variations on La Follia. This theme, first recorded in Francisco de Salinas’ 1577 treatise, De musica libri septem, originated in Portuguese dance music. It was used by numerous composers throughout the Baroque period, including Jean-Baptiste Lully, Domenico Scarlatti, Purcell, …

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Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”: “No Word From Tom,” Dawn Upshaw

Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 opera, The Rake’s Progress, is a morality play with Faustian undertones. Its English-language libretto, written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, tells the story of Tom Rakewell, a man who abandons his fiancée, Anne Trulove, to pursue a life of gambling and debauchery in the brothels of eighteenth century London. Urged on by Nick Shadow, a shady character who turns out to be the Devil in disguise, Tom ends up …

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Schubert’s Piano Sonata No.21 in B-flat Major, Mitsuko Uchida

“The opening movement of the Sonata [No. 21] in B-flat Major goes beyond analysis,” writes the pianist Stephen Hough. “It is one of those occasions when the pen has to be set down on the desk, the body rested against the back of a chair, and a listener’s whole being surrendered to another sphere.” This was Franz Schubert’s last instrumental work. Completed in the autumn of 1828 during the final months of …

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