Remembering Mariss Jansons: Five Great Recordings

The internationally renowned Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons passed away on Saturday. He was 76. For years, he had dealt with a long-term heart condition. Jansons will be remembered for his tireless energy and personal warmth, his legacy as an orchestra builder, and his powerful interpretations of the music of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Strauss, and Shostakovich, among other composers. He was born in Riga, Latvia amid the German occupation of the Second World War. His …

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Haydn’s Symphony No. 59, “The Fire”

Surprises lurk around every corner in Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 59 in A Major. Firmly fastened seatbelts are required for this exhilarating music filled with volatility, theatrical drama, and freewheeling innovation. Movements from Symphony No. 59 were used to accompany a performance of Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Großmann’s play, Die Feuersbrunst (“The Conflagration”), at the Esterházy palace in 1774. That is probably how the piece earned the nickname, the “Fire Symphony.” Yet …

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Mahler’s Sixth Symphony: The Hammer Blow of Fate

Gustav Mahler said, My Sixth will be asking riddles that can be solved only by a generation that has received and digested my first five. In fact, Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor remains an unsettling enigma. Completed in 1905 at one of the happiest times in the composer’s life (he had married Alma Schindler in 1902 and they already had two young daughters), the Sixth Symphony is Mahler’s most dark and …

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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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Melodic Siblings: Mozart’s “Dove Sono” and the “Coronation Mass”

It’s one of Mozart’s most serenely beautiful melodies, evoking quiet dignity, nostalgia, and underlying sadness. “Dove sono i bei momenti” is sung by the Countess in Act III of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Amid all of the craziness, scheming, and entanglements of this whirlwind “day of madness,” she pauses to lament her circumstances—loneliness, betrayal, and humiliation as a result of her husband’s serial infidelity. In the shifting stream of consciousness …

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Schumann’s Fourth Symphony: A Continuous Drama in Cyclic Form

Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor begins with a bold announcement in the form of a single, multi-octave-deep “A”. It’s a musical “call to order” which seems to establish the blank, open-ended canvas on which the Symphony will develop. The first brushstroke to fall on this canvas is a descending motif which is the seed out of which the entire Symphony grows. This is the famous “Clara Theme” we explored in …

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Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony: “The Celestial City”

The “Symphony of the Celestial City…” This is how biographer and classical music scholar Michael Kennedy poetically described Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5. Indeed, this music, completed in 1943 as the Second World War raged, moves into an alternate world of radiant light, quiet serenity, and sublime mystery. Following Vaughan Williams’ ferocious and dissonant Fourth Symphony, it returns to the eternal, pastoral reassurance of England’s metaphorical “green and pleasant” countryside. The term “Celestial …

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