Summer Listening: Tchaikovsky Continued


Here is the entire Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture featured on this morning’s Summer Listening. Enjoy!

An unusual viol


The baryton is part of the viol family, but with a difference. Played between the legs like a cello, it has two sets of strings. The gut strings are strung like a normal cello, above the neck. But a second set of steel strings are behind and to the right of the neck. This allows the player to pluck them with the left hand’s thumb. The strings can be plucked to create a bass line with the melody, or they can be left alone to reverberate harmonically with the other strings.

The earliest barytons come from around the 1620’s but it was never a popular instrument. It is documented that the baryton was admired by King James. Walter Rowe was one of the first baryton players to be written about. Originally from England, Rowe ended up as the chief musician for the Marquis of Brandenburg. The fact that Rowe was from England had made many historians wonder if the Baryton was originally an English instrument.

The instrument’s popularity peaked in the 1700’s because of one man. Prince Nicholas Esterhazy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire played the unusual instrument. And in the Esterhazy’s employ as kapellmeister was Joseph Haydn. The prince reprimanded Haydn in 1765 for not composing enough for his employer’s favorite instrument. Haydn’s baryton composition output greatly increased to the point where he wrote almost 200 works for the prince.

The baryton quickly fell out of favor by the end of the 1700’s. It doesn’t appear that Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who replaced Haydn as Kapellmeister at the Esterhazy palace, composed music for the prince’s instrument. This may be part of the reason Hummel was ultimately dismissed from his post.

The baryton experienced a revival in the 1960’s due to the “historically-informed” performances that began to emerge. John Hsu was a major proponent of the baryton and brought Haydn’s unusual trios back into the limelight.

Enjoy this performance by Baryton Trio Valkkoog of the Trio No. 97 by Haydn. Notice when the baryton performer plucks the back strings with his thumb at about the half-way through the composition and at the end.

New Schubert Recording


Violinist Tasmin Little and pianist Piers Lane have performed and recorded together for many years. They continue their fruitful musical partnership with a new 2-CD release featuring the chamber works by Franz Schubert.

British-born Tasmin Little has been on the international stage for two decades and stays very busy. Beside this 2-CD Schubert set, her most recent releases for Chandos include a disc of British orchestral works including Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, Moeran’s Violin Concerto and pieces by Delius, Elgar and Holst with the BBC Philharmonic and Sir Andrew Davis, a British Violin Sonatas disc of works by Ferguson, Britten and Walton with Piers Lane, a French Violin Sonatas disc of sonatas by Lekeu, Ravel and Fauré with Martin Roscoe.

Australian-born pianist Piers Lane has an active solo career along with long-standing partnerships with Little, clarinetist Michael Collins and the Goldner String Quartet. He has created original programming for BBC Radio 3, including a popular series called “The Piano.”

Schubert wrote a great deal of chamber works because he was able to get them performed (Many of his orchestral works remained unplayed during his short lifetime). The 3 sonatas, Op. 137, or “sonatinas” as they were called when published, were written in the spring of 1816. The Rondeau brilliant and Fantasie were written during the last year of Schubert’s life. The two works were written for the young Czech violinist, Josef Slavik, who was described by Chopin as a second Paganini.

By the time Schubert’s sonata for piano and arpeggione was published, the instrument it was written for was long forgotten. The arpeggione is a fretted instrument with six strings tuned exactly like a classical guitar and held vertically between the knees. Contemporary performances are usually played with guitar, cello or other lower-stringed instruments.

The 2-CD set from Chandos recordings consist of the 4 sonatas for violin and piano, the sonata for piano and arpeggione (played with cello by Tim Hughes), the Rondeau brillant, Op.70, The Fantasie, Op. 159 and the Adagio for piano, violin and cello.

Watch a performance with an actual arpeggione.

Tuba or Not Tuba?


Some music sources call the ophicleide (OFF-eh-clide) an “obsolete bass brass instrument which was replaced by the tuba.” Factually that is correct, but to totally equate the two brass instruments would be doing a disservice to the neglected ophicleide.

First invented in the early 1800’s as a replacement for the difficult-to-perform serpent, the ophicleide added the feature of keys (the name is the Greek equivalent of “Keyed Serpent”). The new instrument was welcomed into orchestras quickly by composers because it provided a satisfactory low brass sound. Musicians still found the new instrument difficult to master.

The ophicleide was first written for in an 1819 opera by Gaspare Spontini. Other composers followed, including Felix Mendelssohn with the oratorio Elias and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was perhaps most famously used in the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Verdi and Wagner were among later composers who wrote for it.

When the tuba was invented, it overshadowed the ophicleide. The tuba was easier to play and more reliable an instrument. However, some musicians say that to two instruments aren’t completely interchangeable. There are subtle tones in the lower notes that, when played quietly, are more sublime in the older instrument. The ophicleide can, at times, sound like a euphonium, a trombone, a tuba, and as one YouTube commenter stated, “It sounds like a bassoon had a baby with a French horn.”

When the tuba was invented in the mid 1800’s, its popularity grew quickly. Richard Wagner was introduced to a tuba made by Adolphe Sax and was entranced. He had just started writing Das Rheigold and included the tuba in the famous “Entrance of the gods Into Valhalla”. Meanwhile, Berlioz favored the tuba over the ophicleide due to its “impressively noble” tones. He returned to his older musical scores and replace the parts he wrote for the ophilcleide with the new instrument. The ophicleide quickly lost the favor of composers and musicians alike.

Hear what is possible with the ophilcleide in the capable hands of musician Wibart Patrick:

Korngold Violin Concerto:Summer Listening


Born in 1897 in former Austria/Hungary, Erich Korngold became an American citizen in 1943 and resided in California. He is remembered for his composition of film scores in the 1930s/40s and was the first composer to receive and Oscar. After WWII, Korngold turned his focus to writing music for the concert hall. He wrote his violin concerto, dedicated to Alma Mahler, the widow of his childhood mentor Gustav Mahler. Its positive public approval and premiere and recordings by Jascha Heifetz made it a quick addition to the standard violin repertoire.

Here is Korngold’s Violin Concerto played beautifully by violinist Stefan Jackiw, and the Orquesta Sinfonica de RTVE conducted by Carlos Kalmar.

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