AMOEBA HOLLYWOOD CLASSICAL NEWS
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Iconic Classical Artists
There are certain artists who are great and iconic figures in the Classical genre. Through a combination of skill and charisma, these artists have stood out above others. The Artists who are noted below are historical figures with no offense intended to the living. These figures of the past have had their greatness settled by the verdict of time and have left us substantial recorded documentation of their art. This is not intended as a comprehensive list; rather, it's a starting point for the curious.
Arturo Toscanini – (1867-1957) The most celebrated conductor of the first part of the Twentieth Century. Known for his great precision and fidelity to the composer's intentions, he led the NBC Symphony Orchestra for 17 years before his retirement in 1954.
Wilhelm Furtwangler- (1886- 1954) Great German conductor, a romantic and a mystic. For many years the director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Along with Toscanini he is considered the greatest 20th Century conductor.
Herbert von Karajan - (1908- 1989) Austrian conductor and the most celebrated conductor of the last half of the Twentieth Century. Combined elements of Toscanini’s and Furtwangler’s style. Director of the Berlin Philharmonic after Furtwangler.
Leonard Bernstein – (1918- 1990) Composer, conductor, and the director of the New York Philharmonic; the greatest classical musician America has produced.
Artur Rubinstein - (1887-1982) Great Polish pianist, the foremost performer of Chopin. In America from the Forties on.
Vladimir Horowitz - (1903-1989) Greatly celebrated Russian pianist, perhaps the most famous pianist of the 20th century, and known for his spectacular technique.
Sviatoslav Richter - (1915- 1998) Russian pianist of prodigious ability. A mysterious man who had a huge repertoire and whom many consider the great pianist of the past Century.
Jascha Heifitz - (1901- 1987) Very famous Lithuanian/American violinist who was considered the greatest technician among instrumentalists.
David Oistrakh - (1908 – 1974) Greatly loved Russian violinist who was the antipode of Heifitz, with warm and spacious performances of the violin repertoire.
Pau Casals -(1876- 1973) Spanish cellist/conductor with tone of the great musicians of the past. Also known for his stand against Spanish Fascism.
Glenn Gould- (1932-1982) Canadian pianist of phenomenal musicianship who was famed for his Bach and abandoned public performing the last 20 years to concentrate on recordings and films.
Enrico Caruso- (1873- 1921) Very famous and great Italian tenor whose recordings still sell and amaze 100 years after they were recorded.
Feodor Chaliapin - (1873 – 1938) Renowned Russian basso with a magnificent voice and physical presence. A great actor, he appeared in films as well.
Maria Callas - (1923- 1977) Greek/American and the greatest and most controversial of opera singers from last half of the past century. Was also a suburb actress.
Luciano Pavarotti - (1935- 2007) Italian tenor, most loved of singers, whose fame surpasses even Caruso.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau - (b. 1925) We will break our rule and nominate this living but retired German baritone as the premiere singer of the German song repertoire. Has made more recordings then any other singer.
Opera Starter Kit
Opera is a truly unique art form – one that has taken a great deal of abuse from its critics, a lot of ribbing from the uninitiated, and one which bewilders many – yet many are also captivated by it and can’t get enough. People come to opera in different ways: some (like me) love it immediately; some might think that they hate it for years and then, one day, they’ll hear a certain passage or “song” in a movie or TV commercial and suddenly they’re hooked.
And it’s easy to see why. Although at first the form might seem artificial and absurd (after all, people don’t sing to each other, they speak; they don’t stand in one place emoting for minutes at a time; they don’t engage in many of the histrionics traditionally associated with this art form) but once you learn to accept it on its own terms, it can really knock you for a loop. It might be an acquired taste for some, but those who do acquire it usually find that they can’t turn back.
To the 21st century mind the operatic art form might seem to be an anachronism – even the style of singing now seems to us unnatural and over-stylized – yet more and more newbies are drawn to opera every day. It’s not an art form just for the over 80 set – it’s a marvelous amalgam of drama, music, and visual art that can really move and elevate when it’s at its best. The list below is designed not so much for the person who has never experienced opera before, but for those who have just begun to get their toes wet and want to explore. It’s not a “typical” beginners list. There are popular operas on this list, yes, but I’ve decided to choose one opera from each of the major opera composers (Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini and Wagner), as well as one French opera (a popular stand-by that’s really as good as any opera can get), and one “modern” work (which might surprise a few). For each I’ve included one recommended recording as well as two or three alternatives.
Mozart: Don Giovanni
It’s really hard to go wrong with Mozart. Just about any of his operas (even the ones he wrote as a child and as an adolescent) is enjoyable, tuneful, and charming. It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking Mozart – unless they just don’t like music, period. But as with all composers, some of Mozart’s works are better than others, so it’s good to know where to start.
Don Giovanni (1787) is considered by many to be, if not the greatest, at least one of Mozart’s greatest works, and I think few would dispute this. It has a wonderful libretto (written by Lorenzo da Ponte) based on the legendary Spanish anti-hero Don Juan, which includes a superb mixture of comedy, pathos, deep drama and even terror. And Mozart applied all his artistic skill to the text – like all of his mature operas, every note is a gem.
My own personal favorite recording is the one released on EMI in 1959, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. Not only does it contain a nearly perfect cast, headed by Dame Joan Sutherland, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Eberhard Wächter, but Giulini’s conducting is spot on, and the active spontaneity of a live performance is really caught in the studio, a rarity indeed.
For those who would prefer a newer recording (although the fine stereo sound of the 1959 set sounds wonderful to my ears) – there are two very good (and inexpensive) alternatives. The Barenboim recording, made in the 70’s and also issued on EMI (recently reissued in their budget “Classics For Pleasure” series) is seriously underrated. It doesn’t have a stellar cast, but the artists are all in top form and the price can’t be beat.
For the authenticity minded, Rene Jacobs’ masterful recording on Harmonia Mundi couldn’t be recommended highly enough. Jacobs has spent years studying 18th century performance practice and his reading is revelatory (the orchestra plays on instruments of the period), but the recording is really one for connoisseurs and probably not for the beginner.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was the king of Italian opera through the last half of the 19th century, and many consider him to be the best opera composer who ever lived (excluding Mozart, who wrote in other forms as well as opera, unlike the other composers on this list). When faced with such a vast array of fine works (he wrote 28 operas, of which about a dozen are acknowledged masterpieces of the form) it’s hard to choose just one, but I think Rigoletto is a fine starting point. It was Verdi’s first great opera, has a masterful libretto (based on a play by Victor Hugo) and the title character is one of the most fascinating in all opera. Secondly, it has a magnificent score which is not only tuneful but brilliantly constructed and orchestrated – so by all counts it’s really top rate.
My own personal favorite recording is the one made by Richard Bonynge in the early 1970’s. It features his wife, the justly legendary Dame Joan Sutherland, in the main female role (which is not the title role, by the way). This was Sutherland’s second recording of the opera, but her voice is just as marvelous in this recording as it was in her earlier one from the 60’s, and here her co-stars are superior. Starring in the title role is the incomparable Sherill Milnes, whose velvety baritone voice and firm conception of the character brings it to life. In the main tenor role is a young Luciano Pavarotti and he sounds glorious. A real winner all the way.
Since this recording, despite its age, is still full price, those wanting a more economical alternative might decide to go for the Sir Georg Solti recording on RCA. Recently re-issued in RCA’s budget “Opera Masterworks” series, the recording is highly affordable and features a fine cast headed by Robert Merrill (at one time one of the MET’s biggest superstars). Alfredo Kraus is no bad shakes either, though he’s not as well known to the general public as Pavarotti, and Anna Moffo provides a gorgeously sung Gilda. Unfortunately, for those who want a modern, digital recording, I can think of no recent recording which even comes close to these two.
So far this list has not included one French opera, and that’s probably because all the “primary” opera composers generally recognized as the greatest are Italian, German or Austrian. It’s funny that so few French operas are die-hard favorites, but there is one which has become a repertoire staple: if any opera in the repertoire deserves its popularity it certainly is Carmen by Georges Bizet. Not only is Carmen chock full of delicious (and recognizable) tunes, it also has a truly dramatic plot, with very real characters with whom the audience can readily sympathize, and has a score that’s completely integrated in this plot – no number is there simply for show – everything helps tell the story. If “Carmen” is done well, it can be a riveting experience, even if the viewer is very familiar with it.
Carmen was my first opera (which I why I often recommend it to people as their first opera), and the first recording I heard of it was the one by Sir Thomas Beecham on EMI, featuring Victoria de los Angeles, so I have a certain bias toward this recording, yet I still think it to be one of the best on record. Although recorded in 1959, the sound is still very, very good. At first glance, the fragility of de los Angeles’ voice might seem to be unsuitable for the role of Carmen (and, in fact, the role was written for a mezzo, not a high soprano, and probably should be performed that way) but de los Angeles shines and glimmers in a way that few other interpreters of the role have matched. Her supporting cast, including the incomparable Nicolai Gedda, is top rate, but the real star of the show is Beecham, who knows the intricacies of this score like no one else.
If you’re looking for a more economical choice, then Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos’ recording might be the way to go. Grace Bumbry is truly magnificent in this recording, as is John Vickers. The recording is now available as a budget-priced two CD set, so it is highly affordable. The recording is also unique in that it tries to re-create what was actually heard on opening night, before Bizet made some cuts in the score, so it includes music not found on many other recordings.
Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Again, Puccini, being one of the greatest and most popular opera composers, must be represented here, but it’s difficult to choose just one work. La Boheme is certainly his best known, but its episodic plot might deter the beginner, and the music might be a little over-familiar; also I really don’t think it’s his best work. Madama Butterfly is, I think, a better choice, because it truly succeeds as a unity of music and drama, the music is ravishing, the story heart-breaking, and the leading role really meaty and compelling. It also clearly demonstrates Puccini’s strengths at word setting and atmospheric orchestration better than any of his earlier operas.
My favorite Butterfly is the recording conducted by Sir John Barbirolli and featuring Renata Scotto. Scotto recorded the role twice, but her first (which this is) is decidedly better than her second and shows the scope of her art as a dramatic singer. Barbirolli knows exactly what to emphasize in the score. Bergonzi is an exquisite Pinkerton and Pavarotti fans will definitely want to hear Karajan’s second recording of this opera which, I think, is better than his first (with Callas). The second Karajan not only features Pavarotti in his prime, but also the stunning Butterfly of Mirella Freni. The only thing this recording has going against it is its high price – it is on 3 CDs when it could easily have fit on two, and is still full price, even though it dates from the mid 70’s. Those who are interested in this recording primarily for Pavarotti might do just as well to buy the single disc of highlights – as Pinkerton hardly appears in the opera’s second act.
AMOEBA SAN FRANCISCO CLASSICAL NEWS
Now On Sale!
John Adams Portrait: Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà / Louise Bessette
Following on the heels of her best-selling Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt portraits, Canadian violinist Dubeau tackles the iconic Berkeley minimalist. On sale for $14.98 until March 25. Buy here.
New Recordings by Bay Area Artists
Ives/Brant: A Concord Symphony / Copland: Organ Symphony - Paul Jacobs / Michael Tilson Thomas / San Francisco Symphony
Experience the excitement of Henry Brant's gargantuan arrangement of Charles Ives' notoriously difficult Concord Sonata. Masterfully conducted by Ives-specialist Thomas, this is quite possibly one of the San Francisco Symphony's finest recordings. Buy here.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 / Piano Concerto No. 4 - Emanuel Ax / Michael Tilson Thomas / San Francisco Symphony
Do you need another recording of these icons of classical repertoire? When they are performed with as much finesse and beauty as this, then the answer is unequivocally...yes! Buy here.
Sound the Bells! American Premières for Brass - The Bay Brass
The Bay Brass was founded in 1995 and is composed of players from the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. This recording features exceptional works by Michael Tilson Thomas, John Williams and Morten Lauridsen, among others.
Blow ‘Em Out!
We have hundreds of classical clearance CDs at new low prices ranging from a $1.00 to $3.99. A wide range of classical CDs are available: symphonic, instrumental, opera, and 20th century/avant-garde.
Attention Classical Vinyl Lovers
We have expanded our classical LP box-set section; come browse our huge selection of operas and orchestral music!
Spend Wednesday Mornings with Amoeba
Did you know that Amoeba San Francisco plays classical music every Wednesday from 10:30 to 12:30? We highlight brand new releases as well as some of our personal favorites. Come browse our amazing inventory of new and used classical music in a relaxing atmosphere.
Recommended New Releases
Franck / Grieg / Janácek: Violin Sonatas - Vadim Repin / Nikolai Lugansky
C. Gounod: Roméo et Juliette - Björling / Sayão / Emil Cooper / Metropolitan Opera
Cleopatra: Handel arias from Giulio Cesare - Natalie Dessay / Emmanuelle Haïm / Le Concert d'Astrée
C. Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine - Christina Pluhar / L'Arpeggiata
W.A. Mozart: Requiem / Maurerische Trauermusik - Jordi Savall / La Capella Reial de Catalunya / Le Concert des Nations (reissue on SACD)
G. Pierné: Piano Concerto, etc. - Jean-Efflam Bavouzet / Juanjo Mena / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
G. Puccini: Tosca - Price / Corelli / MacNeil / Kurt Adler / Metropolitan Opera
S. Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto 2 / Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - Yuja Wang / Claudio Abbado / Mahler Chamber Orchestra
D. Scarlatti - Alexandre Tharaud plays Scarlatti
Tchaikovsky & Shakespeare - Gustavo Dudamel / Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
A. Vivaldi: Ercule Sul Termodonte - Villazón / Genaux / Fabio Biondi / Europa Galante
Diva Divo: Opera Arias - Joyce DiDonato / Ono / Lyon National Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Resonances - Hélène Grimaud
Uniko - Kronos Quartet / Kimmo Pohjonen / Samuli Kosminen
El Cant de la Sibil-la: Catalunya - Montserrat Figueras / Jordi Savall / La Capella Reial de Catalunya (reissue on SACD)
A Worcester Ladymass - Trio Mediaeval