Remembering Peter Schreier: Three Transcendent Recordings

The German opera singer and conductor Peter Schreier passed away in Dresden on Christmas Day. He was 84. Schreier will be remembered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest lyric tenors. In addition to appearances at the world’s leading opera houses, he specialized in German Lieder (songs) and other concert repertoire. He drew acclaim for his numerous performances of the Evangelist roles in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Passion. A common thread runs through …

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Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades”: Lise Davidsen at the Met

Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is playing at the Metropolitan Opera through December 21. First performed at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1890, the three act opera tells a dark story of greed, obsession, and psychological breakdown. It is based on Alexander Pushkin’s novella of the same name. Yet the libretto by the composer’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky, alters the plot significantly, allowing the gambling addict Hermann to fall in love with Liza before descending into …

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Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony: A Journey from Darkness to Light

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor begins in the shadows. A halting melody emerges in the solo clarinet, shrouded in the gloom of the low strings. It’s a melody built on simple, repeating phrases—something akin to a lamenting Russian folksong. In fact, this theme seems to have developed out of a phrase from Mikhail Glinka’s 1836 tragic opera, A Life for the Tsar, accompanying the words, “turn not into sorrow.” The Fifth Symphony’s introduction …

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Mahler’s “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”), Jessye Norman

Urlicht (“Primal Light”) forms the fourth movement of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. It occupies a striking position in the five-movement work’s progression towards ultimate and lasting transcendence. Suddenly, for the first time in this “Resurrection Symphony,” we hear the solitary human voice—a darkly veiled alto imbued with human tragedy and lament. In a symphony rooted in C minor and E-flat major, suddenly we find ourselves in the remote, ethereal world of D-flat …

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Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor: “Free But Lonely”

Embedded in the four note motif which opens the first movement of Brahms’ String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 are the pitches F-A-E. These pitches form a musical cryptogram which corresponds to the phrase, “frei aber einsam,” (“free but lonely”), the personal motto of Brahms’ friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms offered his own twist on this motto with the phrase, “Frei aber froh” (“Free but happy”). This is another motif (F-A-F) which …

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Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1: Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim

We call it a “Cello Sonata,” but the official name Johannes Brahms gave this piece, completed in 1865, is “Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello.” To stress further the equality between the two instruments, Brahms specified that the piano “should be a partner—often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner—but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.” The E minor Sonata is dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher, an Austrian music …

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Late Beethoven Revelations: String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131

In his 1998 book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, the late literary critic Harold Bloom made the bold argument that Shakespeare “went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we continue to know it.” According to Bloom, Shakespeare’s complex and multifaceted characters “take human nature to some of its limits, without violating those limits” and open up “new modes of consciousness.” The drama that unfolds in the lines of …

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