Mahler’s Third Symphony: A Progression to the Divine

When Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius met in Helsinki in 1907, the two composers laid out radically contrasting conceptions of the symphony. Sibelius found beauty and ultimate meaning in the symphony’s “severity of form” and “profound logic.” “No!” Mahler replied. “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!”  No Mahler Symphony gives us a greater sense of this cosmic scale than the Third. Set in six movements, it remains the longest symphony in …

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“Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March”: Klaus Tennstedt and the LPO, Live in 1988

The final act of Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”), the last of the four operas that make up Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is about annihilation and renewal. The gods are brought down by their desire for absolute power. As Todd Sullivan writes in his program notes, The whole world of the gods crumbles in Act III of Götterdämmerung. The long-awaited hero, Siegfried (the misbegotten son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, twin offspring of the god Wotan), …

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Brahms’ Violin Concerto: Oistrakh, Klemperer, and the French National Radio Orchestra in 1960

This is one of those recordings that reminds us why David Oistrakh (1908-1974) is remembered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest musicians. The Soviet violinist’s 1960 studio recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Otto Klemperer and the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française makes us forget about violin technique. Instead, we’re left with pure music. Every phrase “sings” with the ultimate sincerity. My former teacher, the Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa, …

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Musical Cryptograms: Five Scores that Contain Hidden Messages

Imagine transmitting a secret message by using the pitches (from A to G) that are embedded in a musical score. It’s been the subject of mystery novels and television shows as well as Philip Thicknesse’s 1772 book, A Treatise on the Art of Deciphering, and of Writing in Cypher: with an Harmonic Alphabet. During the Second World War, codebreakers considered the possibility that German and Japanese spies might use musical notes as a …

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Brahms’ Third Symphony: “Free But Happy”

Three bold chords, rising in an expansive wind choir, set in motion Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major.  This powerful, attention-demanding proclamation flings open the door to a ferocious “con brio” first theme which seems to growl with intensity. Filled with wide, octave-exceeding leaps, it’s a theme which is always in motion, restlessly searching for a way forward, and veering continuously between major and minor. Rhythmically, it sets up our expectations, and then …

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Remembering Soprano Heather Harper

The British operatic soprano Heather Harper passed away on Monday at the age of 88. Born in Belfast, Harper came to international attention when she stepped in at ten days notice for the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral in 1962. (Galina Vishnevskaya, for whom the part was written, was denied permission by Soviet authorities on the grounds that Britten’s work was too “political.”) Harper went on to perform …

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New Release: András Schiff Plays Schubert Sonatas and Impromptus

Sir András Schiff’s new album takes us back to the sounds Schubert would have heard. The Hungarian-born British pianist performs on a fortepiano made around 1820 by Franz Brodmann. The instrument, once owned by Karl I, the last emperor of Austria-Hungary, is an early version of the piano. In the liner notes, Schiff writes, It is to me ideally suited to Schubert’s keyboard works. There is something quintessentially Viennese in its timbre, its …

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