REVIEW POTPOURRI – Soprano: Mirella Freni

Mirella Freni

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Soprano: Mirella Freni

On Sunday February 9, the soprano Mirella Freni died from the combination of strokes and a degenerative disease she had been suffering for a number of years. I have been a fan of her records ever since first hearing one of her singing a Verdi aria over 50 years ago while still in high school. Her good looks, the power and beauty of her vocal chords and the magnificent acting she brought to bear in her various stage roles set her apart from the other sopranos (to take nothing away from the great ones among them such as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Virginia Zeani, Victoria de los Angeles etcs.).

She and tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) were born in the same town, Modena, Italy, about six months apart. Their mothers worked in the same cigar factory, were friends themselves, and, because of the toxins from their jobs, gave their babies to the same wet nurse. Pavarotti later happily attributed Freni’s beautiful rosy cheeks to her getting more of that nutritious milk from their nurse.

Pavarotti’s 1965 La Scala debut in Puccini’s La Boheme under conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) had him paired with Freni. As I write this column, I am listening to the YouTube of the 1974 recording of the opera that all three of them did for London records, which I highly recommend as a beginner’s set. For those who want more Freni recommendations, I will simply state I have never heard a Freni recording, with or without Pavarotti, I didn’t like and leave it at that, especially with so many examples of her on YouTube.

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess delayed and recorded Met February 15 link at Waterville Opera House!

I first saw George Gershwin’s 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess, in 1977 through a touring Houston Grand Opera production at Boston’s Opera House, one that has been preserved on an RCA Victor set. The composer (1898-1937) called it a folk opera and explained his reasoning in a 1935 New York Times article:

Porgy and Bess is a folk tale. Its people naturally would sing folk music. When I first began work on the music, I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece. Therefore, I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs. But they are still folk music-and therefore being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess became a folk opera.

The Met production starred Eric Owens as Porgy, Angel Blue as Bess, and a fine supporting cast. Mention should be made of Alfred Walker as Bess’s evil ex-boyfriend, Crown; Frederick Ballentine as the unsavory drug dealer, Sportin’ Life; Latonia Moore as the righteous woman of prayer for everybody, Serena; Denyce Graves as the feisty cookshop owner, Maria, etcs.

The opera contains the old favorites Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So, Bess You Is My Woman Now, I Got Plenty Of Nuthin’, I’m On My Way, and several other less known but equally good musical numbers.

The very gifted David Robertson conducted a magnificent performance and all visual aspects of the staging were very good.

The next live Met link is George Frederick Handel’s opera, Agrippina, on leap year, February 29.

REVIEW POTPOURRI: The great pianists Peter and Rudolf Serkin

Peter and Rudolf Serkin

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

The great pianists Peter and Rudolf Serkin

Peter Serkin (1947-2020) and his father, Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991), achieved fame as classical pianists of immense distinction. I saw each of them perform twice in concert and found their musicianship quite special for different reasons. Before writing about Peter, who died recently of pancreatic cancer, I will share experiences of his father.

My first encounter with Rudolf Serkin was via a 1960 Columbia Masterworks recording of the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which my mother bought as a member of the Columbia Record Club in Terre Haute, Indiana. The piece, written in 1881, more than 20 years after the composer’s 1st Concerto, is filled with grandeur, passion, beauty and knuckle-busting virtuosity – just the sort of music Rudolf Serkin reveled in.

He dove into it with full-fledged commitment and joy, ripped into its furies ferociously and coaxed its more poetic moments, especially in its tender 3rd movement Andante with the solo cello passages, as though his own life depended on it.

I saw him perform twice at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1974. He was a small man with small fingers that he had to relentlessly train to span octaves, unlike pianists with larger hands who met those technical challenges more easily. And he was a joy to watch; he would sing with his hands and body, jump up and down on the piano stool during the more dramatic passages and hum constantly.

One concert was a pension fund one with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa and featured the Brahms 1st Concerto which, as far as I was concerned, he played better than anyone else. (It happens to be my favorite piano concerto, I have well over 80 recordings of it including the four different ones that Serkin did and each one of them has at least something good.)

The second concert was an all-Beethoven recital with the 1st and 32nd Piano Sonatas and Diabelli Variations. That Sunday afternoon, Symphony Hall was packed and I was one of several seated on the stage.

Peter was a taller man, he had bigger hands and he conveyed a more relaxed manner at the keyboard. He also favored different repertoire from his father and performed much 20th century music, unlike the 18th and 19th century composers that drew the elder Serkin’s attention. But the son did record six Mozart Concertos, Beethoven’s transcription of his Violin Concerto and a recording of the Brahms 1st Concerto, which is among those I haven’t heard yet.

I saw him play the Ravel Piano Concerto with the Washington D.C. Symphony under Christian Badea at its Kennedy Center, in 1979, and a double bill of the Mozart 16th Concerto and Igor Stravinsky Capriccio for Piano and Winds with the late Sergiu Comissiona conducting the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall, in 1987, during the years I lived in that city. He was the personification of cool, calm and collected at the keyboard and played beautifully.

A couple of asides. Rudolf Serkin once announced that he was taking a winter sabbatical to study the Haydn String Quartets. When asked by friends why, he replied, “Because they are beautiful.”

Meanwhile, Peter listened to such rock bands as the Grateful Dead and would retreat to the Cave in his house which contained his record collection of over 3,000 LPs.

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Shostakovich

Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar”

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) based his 13th Symphony on the poem, ‘Babi Yar,’ by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017). Babi Yar is the ravine near Kiev, Ukraine, where over 34,000 Jewish men, women and children were murdered by Nazi Einsatzgruppen death squads during late September 1941. However, poet Yevtushenko used the massacre as a jumping off point in his denunciation of the anti-Semitism that had continued to exist in Russia.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Meanwhile, Shostakovich had read Babi Yar and other poems by the author and used it and four others – Humour, In the Store, Fears and Career – as sub-titles for each of the four movements in this Symphony, which he completed in the summer of 1962; movements 2 – 5 were finished in six weeks. It lasts just over an hour and is scored for bass male singer, chorus of basses, three flutes, piccolo, three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, E flat clarinet, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contra bassoon, four French horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, tympani, triangle, castanets, whip, woodblocks, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, bells, tam tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, two harps, celesta, piano and full string contingent of violins, violas, cellos and double basses.

When Shostakovich finished the work, he sang the entire Symphony for Yevtushenko in a private meeting, accompanying himself on the piano. The poet later wrote, “If I were able to write music, I would have written it the way Shostakovich did. His music made the poem greater, more meaningful, and powerful….In a word, it became a better poem.”

Shostakovich commented most tellingly about the anti-Semitism that continued to exist in Russia that was alluded to in an earlier paragraph:

“People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.”

The composer also shared his feelings about Yevtushenko’s writing and its underlying themes:

“Morality is a sister of conscience. And perhaps God is with Yevtushenko when he speaks of conscience. Every morning in place of prayers, I re-read or repeat by memory two poems by Yevtushenko – Career and Boots.” (Time and space do not allow room to print them here.)

Needless to say, the fact that this Symphony was in preparation caused a firestorm among the Soviet leadership, with Nikita Kruschchev going ballistic (and the October ’62 Cuban missile crisis just a few short months later). But the concert took place and caused an absolute sensation. Three or four more followed and then it was suppressed. One of Shostakovich’s greatest interpreters, and close friend, Yevgeny Mravinsky, bowed out for unknown reasons so the great conductor, Kirill Kondrashin, stepped to the podium and his performances were released on LPs. There were several years of waiting but the score was eventually smuggled to the west where it received its American premier and first recording in January 1970, from bass soloist Tom Krause and Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Symphony has received a number of distinguished recordings during the last 50 years and some of them can be heard on YouTube, including those of Kondrashin, Ormandy, Haitink, and Barshai, which I recommend highly.

The February 1 Met Opera Porgy and Bess of George Gershwin has been postponed by the Waterville Opera House until February 15 due to another event held there. I heard the broadcast on the radio, via the WQXR radio station computer link, and plan to see it then!

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Gilbert and Sullivan Weekend

Sir William Gilbert (left) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (right).

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Gilbert and Sullivan Weekend

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company; London, 430144-4, cassette, selections recorded between 1959 and 1973.

Playwright Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) began a collaboration that produced 14 comic operas from 1871 to 1896, several of which are still produced often around the world. They were noted for the combination of Gilbert’s witty lyrics and Sullivan’s melodies. The story lines involved thinly-veiled satires on the customs and attitudes of 19th century English society and the then-reigning and wonderful Queen Victoria was one of their biggest fans.

Sir Richard D’Oyly Carte

The premieres and long runs were bankrolled by businessman, Sir Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901) who founded the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which has produced many stagings and recordings of the Gilbert and Sullivan works, still doing so to this day. The company established the state of the art Savoy Theatre, in London.

Gilbert and Sullivan themselves were micro-managing perfectionists who had the right balance of strictness and wit to get everybody’s best performances, having little tolerance for prima donnas and sloppiness of detail .

The selections on the above cassette come from H.M.S. Pinafore, the Mikado, Yeomen of the Guard, Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, and the Gondoliers, and feature at least two examples of the team’s famous patter songs, which demand tongue-twisting singing- Pinafore’s I Am the Monarch of the Sea and Penzance’s I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General, both of them sung by the very gifted John Reed (1916-2010), who is joined by soprano Elizabeth Harwood (1938-1990) in a special favorite of mine, the Yeoman of the Guard’s I Have a Song to Sing, O!

I can’t finish without offering a few quotes from G & S:

H.M.S. Pinafore – “What, never? No, never! What, never ? Well, hardly ever!”

Pirates of Penzance – “I don’t think much of our profession but, contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest!”

Princess Ida – “Darwinian man, though well-behaved, at best is only a monkey shaved.”

“Man is nature’s sole mistake.”

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Les Majorettes De Shawinigan

PHOTO : RADIO-CANADA

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Les Majorettes De Shawinigan

MG-4853; 45 vinyl record, release date unknown.

This record came into my possession because of its inclusion in boxes of records doomed otherwise to the dumpster. It doesn’t have the name of any record label, just the listed catalog number, and features the enthusiastic pounding notes of a marching band of majorettes playing woodwinds, brass and percussion.

Their concert consists of Johnny Mercer’s Autumn Leaves, Artie Shaw’s Begin the Beguine, Glenn Miller’s In the Mood and Franz von Suppe’s Poet and Peasant Overture; the tunes might be recognized if the titles aren’t. This recording session may also have been paid for by the school sponsoring the band, if not from donations of folks in the community, with the 45 rpm aimed at families and friends of the musicians.

What drew my interest was not so much the listening experience as the name of Shawinigan, which is a city in the Province of Québec, on a set of natural falls along the Ste. Maurice River. It is 248-miles northwest from our Waterville and 90 miles southwest of Québec City and has been a major industrial hub in the Québec province since the late 1890s, when it attracted the interest of two wealthy entrepreneurs, themselves gentlemen of historical interest and worthy of digression for a couple of paragraphs.

The first, John Edward Aldred (1864-1945), was president of Baltimore Gas and Electric and the owner of a vast estate in Nassau County, Long Island, New York, which is listed as a historical site, because of its exquisitely sculpted grounds by the famous Olmsted brothers (that family’s firm was involved in the design of Acadia National Park and those in the cities of both Portlands, in Maine and Oregon, and in Shawinigan’s own parks). That estate is now a monastery.

The second individual was Hubert Biermans (1864-1953), the Dutch-born director of the Belgo-Canadian Paper and Pulp Company, who also amassed a fortune with his involvement in this firm, based in Brussels, Belgium, and its projects in other parts of the world such as Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo. He owned several homes and spent much time during his last years on the island of Monaco.

Both saw potential in the hydroelectricity that could be generated by the falls and spear-headed the establishment of a power grid infrastructure, through a Montréal firm, for Shawinigan’s economic future. They were proved right. The paper, electrical power, and different chemical and textile industries boomed.

Allowing for downturns during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the gradual dwindling of industry starting in the 1960s through the ‘80s, the quality of life was high, jobs were plentiful and the wages among the best in Canada. Shawinigan was the first Canadian city to see the installation of electrical streetlights.

During the 1950s, there was a proliferation of independently-owned men-only bars and taverns that prevailed until the early ‘80s, when women broke that gender barrier.

Another source of income since the early 1900s has been the city’s hospitality industry due to tourism and it has received major boosts and construction of tourist attractions in the last 30 years from the Canadian government.

I noticed the absence of any books on the city’s own history and on Aldred and Biermans, and hope that some talented historians and/or biographers might get attracted to them as subjects.

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: The Rainy Day

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Rainy Day

Maine’s own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow achieved in one poem, very simply titled “The Rainy Day,” a harrowing depiction of the gray days we all face in more ways than meteorological:

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Because of his belief in the hope of eternity, Long­fellow did call for his readers to “cease” weeping and came close to being predictable and stupidly cheerful in “Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.”

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Respighi: Fountains of Rome; Pines of Rome

by Peter Cates

Respighi: Fountains of Rome/Pines of Rome

Franz Andre conducting the Belgian National Radio Orchestra; Telefunken TC-8002, vinyl budget-priced LP from the late 1950s.

Ottorino Respighi

For people starting to listen to classical music, I would more readily recommend the Respighi Pines and Fountains of Rome over most Beethoven and Brahms Symphonies. These two pieces have the most colorful sounds, the loveliest strands of melody, and a very vivid sense of location.

The fountains are four spread around the historical city and musically evoked at different times of day, while four different rows of Rome’s magnificent pine trees are treated the same. The Fountains were premiered in 1916 during World War I, while the Pines received their debut in 1924. Both demand extraordinary virtuosity from a full symphony orchestra but have become immensely popular, receiving numerous recordings since then.

Franz André

I have several different ones but, for some mysterious reason, was particularly drawn to Franz Andre (1893-1975), who was arguably the most prominent and busiest conductor in Belgium’s cultural life for almost 40 years, yet not that well-known in the United States. He delivered exceptionally exciting renditions that stand alongside those of Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa, to mention a few. Several of Andre’s recordings of other works can be heard on YouTube but not the Respighis. However, E-bay and other vendors have copies of the LP for sale.

Some facts about the composer, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1956) – He had a fascination with languages as well as music and collected dictionaries.

He took piano under his father’s tutelage but was quite undisciplined in his habits. However, his father was startled one day to find his son playing the very difficult piano work, Symphonic Etudes, with total mastery.

He suffered from narcolepsy and would suddenly and frequently fall asleep.

He married one of his composition students in 1919 when she was 25 and he was 40. She outlived him by 60 years and died at 102, in 1996.

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Movie: The Highwaymen (2019)

Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner in Netflix’s The Highwaymen (2019).

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

The Highwaymen

starring Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kim Dickens, William Sadler, Kathy Bates etc.; 2019 film. Can be seen on Netflix.

One of the more disturbing elements of cinema, and contributing a little to society’s desensitizing during the last 50 years, has been the stylizing of violence with humor, sophistication, exquisite cinematography etc.

Arthur Penn’s 1968 Bonnie and Clyde, with its transformation of these two cold-blooded killers into likable Robin Hood media stars, could arguably be considered a starting point. Since then, movie audiences have been subjected to such viewing experiences as Marathon Man, Nightmare on Elm Street, Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bills and such cable series as The Sopranos, and Dexter.

Now maybe things have come a little full circle with The Highwaymen. Starring Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson and a most distinguished supporting cast, this film depicts the historical pursuit and awarding of ultimate justice to the pair by former Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault. It was released this past March 15 to cinemas only for two weeks and then to Netflix on March 29.

Kim Dickens

The film begins with Bonnie and Clyde helping a few of their associates escape from the Eastham, Texas, Prison Farm, thus spurring Governor Ma Ferguson to reluctantly agree to calling in two “retired” Rangers Hamer and Gault to pursue the gang. It tracks the parallel, and often contentious, investigations between the two men and other forces of law, including J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. It also dramatizes their own inner personal issues and relationship with each other most vividly. And the close calls with the gang itself, particularly one high speed chase in a very dusty newly-plowed field, driving around in circles!

Two other performances stand out – Kim Dickens as Hamer’s wife, Gladys, pleading with her husband to return safely to her after it is all over and William Sadler as Clyde Barrow’s father, Henry, who talks about the kid his son used to be before he changed his character. Finally, the cinematography of the southwest Texas landscape that I got to know, during my 16 years of living in Houston, was very evocative in its spacious vistas and details .

Highly recommended!

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Handel’s Messiah, Frank De Vol and The Irishman

Martin Scorsese (Credit: Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Handel’s Messiah

Donald Neuen conducting the Eastman Chorale and Philharmonia, Word, SPCN 7-01-892910, three lps, recorded 1984 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

Donald Neuen

Handel’s Messiah has been recorded numerous times with choirs and orchestras ranging from huge to very small. I have a number of these sets and found at least something good in each of them, because, like so many other masterpieces, it is infinitely and inexhaustibly rich in its musical and spiritual content.

Donald Neuen, still living in his early 80s, worked with the great choirmaster Robert Shaw, taught at Eastman School of Music and UCLA, and led choral groups and workshops all over the country.

For this recording, Neuen took the unusual step of rotating eight different soloists for various arias instead of the usual quartet of soprano, contralto, tenor and bass. This approach gave an extra freshness to this performance with different singers on various numbers. The bass Thomas Paul’s Thus Saith The Lord was quite the nice dynamic contrast to baritone James Courtney’s The Trumpet Shall Sound.

Both the performance and recording make this one of the better Messiahs and it can be recommended, along with ones conducted by Eugene Ormandy, Sir Thomas Beecham, William Christie, Harry Christopher, Neuen’s colleague Robert Shaw and several others. It is also available through various internet outlets and tracks can be auditioned on youtube.

Frank De Vol

and the Rainbow Strings

The Old Sweet Songs of Christmas; Columbia CL 1543, lp, recorded 1960.

Frank De Vol

Frank De Vol (1911-1999) was not only an arranger/conductor for Capitol, Columbia and other record labels, but also appeared in films and on TV as an actor. Fans of Martin Mull’s very funny short-lived late ‘70s series, America 2-Night, might remember De Vol as the poker-faced bandleader Happy Kyne.

The album contains 26 famous Christmas carols and popular songs in sweet string arrangements bordering on the syrupy and best taken in small doses.

The Irishman

The new Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman, is 210 minutes of swiftly moving drama starring Robert De Niro as a ‘house painter’ (pseudonym for hitman) for mobster businessmen, Joe Pesci, as one of the bosses and Al Pacino as Teamsters leader, Jimmy Hoffa. Each of the three gentlemen delivers the kind of performance in which every glance and movement of the character he plays communicates. And every other detail of this brilliant and, of course, violent movie repays close study.

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Some Christmas music!

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Some Christmas music!

Bing Crosby-Merry Christmas; Decca DL 8128, mono vinyl LP, released 1955 and consisting of selections recorded 1942-51.

Decades before the term came into use, Bing Crosby (1903-1977) was a true ‘multimedia star’ with his very many successful records, radio shows and films. His major talent was being one of the finest singers who ever lived and who influenced so many other major singers who came after him.

Bing Crosby

I was exposed to his singing very early in childhood but my appreciation of the depths of his talent didn’t kick in until after I was 50. And practically every record of his that I have heard has quality.

What stood out was simply the following. Crosby knew how to use the microphone, to connect with the listener and to convey the heartbeat of whatever he sang, whether it was Lecuona’s sweetly hypnotic Siboney, the old standards Home on the Range and Galway Bay, a Cole Porter or Gershwin number, and World War II’s patriotically wistful A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.

The history of this album in its different releases, from the original 1942 Decca 78 of Irving Berlin’s megahit, White Christmas, to a 2014 re-packaging, is covered with exhaustive fascination in the Wiki piece, Bing Crosby Merry Christmas; Crosby’s recording of that song alone has sold 50 million copies. The album’s mere 15 million sold copies is second only to Elvis Presley’s Christmas album.

Carol Richards

The above mono edition is a pink label Decca with very clean surfaces and the most natural sound , and I speak as one with the least interest in different masterings of the same record.

In addition to White Christmas, 11 choice selections are presented here – the seasonal hymns Silent Night, Adeste Fideles and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen;Faith of Our Fathers, which he made his own; I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Jingle Bells, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas, Christmas in Killarney, Mele Kaliki­maka and my special favorite, the best rendition of Silver Bells that I have ever heard that he recorded in the exquisitely honed harmonizing with Carol Richards on July 8, 1950.