Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” Piano Concerto: A Voyage to Exotic Lands

We often associate musical exoticism with Claude Debussy and other French impressionists. In this music, the Eastern sounds and scales of the Javanese gamelan, famously introduced at the 1889 Paris Exposition, waft into a colorful, new dreamscape. Yet tantalizing glimpses of this bold, new musical landscape emerge, surprisingly, in the Fifth Piano Concerto of another French composer, Camille Saint-Saëns. Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was born a generation before Debussy. The young, rebellious Debussy considered Saint-Saëns’ music to …

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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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Ruggiero Ricci: Five Great Recordings

You have to try for the impossible, just in order to make the possible possible. -Ruggiero Ricci Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012). Born near San Francisco to Italian immigrant parents, Ricci exploded onto the scene as a child prodigy, performing his first public concert in 1928 at the age of 10. At the age of 7, he began …

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New Release: Montreal Symphony’s “Danse Macabre” Celebrates the Supernatural

Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony have released a spooky new album on the Decca label just in time for Halloween. Danse Macabre features some well-known favorites as well as some surprises. Paul Dukas’ colorful tone poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is full of sparkling wizardry and adventure. This passage must have influenced John Williams’ film score for Star Wars. Also included is Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. (I offered a few thoughts on this ghoulish piece along with …

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