Tag Archives: France

[172] Emmanuel Chabrier – Le Roi Malgre Lui

3 Sep

This could go a couple of different ways. I’m sick as a dog as I press play on this French Opera – will the cold meds enhance what I’m hearing, or is it all going to be too much effort?

[Note. This blog was written months ago, before the world paused. I’m fine today]

Once again, here is a recording that I can’t successfully listen to without constantly fiddling with the volume – it’s either too quiet to make anything out, or far too loud. I think that I might be enjoying the crisp orchestration and the clarity of the solo voices, but the chorus (at least through my generic speakers) sounds mushy and the quieter passages fade into inaudibility.

Which is a shame because the tunes that do peek through are lively and engaging, demanding proper attention. And it is the energy which continues to be the most noticeable quality of this recording as it plays and plays. I find that, although I do not know the particular words and melodies, there is a familiarity about the whole which is comfortable and comforting. Listening to an opera without following – or even attempting to follow – the plot is perhaps not fair to the music in question, but in this case I catch myself admiring passages, moments, without a clue or a care as to what they’re all making such a fuss about.

In all, everything I hear makes me want to pay attention more than I am, to lend all of my faculties to the structure and technique on display, not just the passing glance that at times is the lot of an unknown recording. A good sign for the longevity, for the likelihood of a recommendation.

The longer I listen, the longer I am struck by a thought. Is this so familiar, so agreeable, because this is the light operatic style that my first theatrical loves, Gilbert and Sullivan, were aping in English in the 1800s?

In the end this is an odd one. It is not inspiring me to run out and discover more Chabriet. It is not even certain that I will ever listen to “Le Roi Malgre Lui” again. Yet I have spent a number of pleasant hours in the company of these sounds, and I cannot say that it was time wasted.

I could ask more of the music I give my time to, but I have on occasion certainly also received less.

Next Week: Manu Chao – Clandestino

Owned before blogging? No (14 of 172 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No (23 of 172 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes (144 of 172 = 84%)

[98] Georges Bizet – Carmen

20 Feb

People just love Carmen – both the character and the Opera.

Conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham

Conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham

I challenge you to try to listen to this “Overture” and not hum along.

There are so many lively and familiar tunes here, so much passion, so much fun.  It’s an enormous, captivating stew of inventive melody and expressive storytelling.

And that’s just the highlights, the stuff everybody already has ingrained into their pop culture psyches.  Continuing to listen closely to the sections which aren’t as immediately recognizable, there is still the constant revelation of creativity and effervescence.

The leading melodies are crisp and punchy, and only enhanced by the wall of sound choral vocals, the orchestral flourishes that keep a listener on the edge of your seat, anticipating the next moment that will bring a smile to your face.

The one knock leveled against this particular recording chosen by Tom Moon is the narrative recitative, added in place of the original straight dialog after Bizet’s death.  But for me it just means that there is more of this rewarding masterpiece to listen to before starting over from that “Overture” yet again.

If you haven’t seen or heard Carmen beyond “Habanera” or “Toreador” in a while, do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in this slice of musical bliss.

Next Week:  Bjork – Homogenic

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 98 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? Yes. (15 of 98 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (80 of 98 = 82%)

[91] Hector Berlioz – Les Troyens

2 Jan

Color me arbitrary.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the  Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique

Despite long moments of soul-searching and of intellectual reflection, I am unable to explain to myself – let alone anyone else – why one recording instantly captivates where another by the same composer provokes an instant and opposite reaction.

From the opening notes of this huge and sweeping Opera, I am caught up in the vigor and excitement of the piece which quickly coalesces into an enormous choral refrain.

I enjoy the first two minutes of this more than any moment of the Symphonie Fantastique, and it only seems to get better from there.

At once intimate and powerful, the chorus gives way to soloists who each give their all for the performance.

In a coming together of desire and instruction, Moon has selected an audio-visual rather than strictly audio version on this occasion so I do not have the feeling that I have articulated on previous Operatic selections that I am somehow missing out.

But although watching this BBC production clearly helps me to follow the plot, I feel certain that this time I would be enjoying these tunes and performances just as much without the moving pictures.

Of course, I’ll never know.

Experiencing the heightened emotion and the melodrama played perfectly straight, I am reminded how much I have loved my every moment on those few occasions when I have visited the opera.  Both the music and the spectacle are big and beautiful and impossible to tear your attention from.

I may default to Musical Theater, but I am regularly reminded – every time I attend anything else, in fact – that the Theater is my love,  not just one facet of her, be it straight plays, opera or even good improv.

But back to Troy.

The music throughout is clear and crisp and gorgeous, easily accessible, effortlessly enjoyable.  There is always a flourish from the orchestra, lightening the dense intensity of the vocals, particularly heavy through the first two acts.  These embellishments buoy the whole, highlight and magnify the massive emotions being displayed.

No theme outstays its welcome, yet each is carefully established, introducing itself into the listener’s awareness until it becomes a certainty that a phrase or beat must return at some point over the following hours.

And again, I am at an utter loss as to why Les Troyens effortlessly appeals whereas Symphonie Fantastique was incapable of doing so.

Despite my High School French and helpful subtitles, it is not the plot which holds my attention – indeed I find myself allowing the somewhat familiar Greek myths pass me by without fully engaging.  The spectacle and grandeur are breathtaking, but it could as easily be a story-free Classical piece and I would enjoy it as much.

Perhaps this is the result of the extra step of remove, the bedroom setting in which I am watching my TV rather than the majesty of the Metropolitan Opera House.  Or perhaps I tune out plot in person, too.

I do not recall, and in all honesty do not care . . .

Next Week:  Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim – West Side Story

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 91 = 10%)
Heard before blogging? No. (12 of 91 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (73 of 91 = 80%)

[90] Hector Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique

26 Dec

I love melody.  I’m not sure how fully I realized this fact until I dug down into the reasons that I found myself unmoved by this Romantic classic.

John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique

John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique

I was fascinated by the backstory – a composer smitten with an actress in her role as Shakespeare’s Ophelia wooing with extravagant song – and the fact that the moral of the story is, “be careful what you wish for.”  I was intrigued to hear the period instrumentation, to explore the “program notes” provided at the premier.

I was excited to hear this piece until the very moment the music began.

I have found myself completely unable to engage, and once again I was not immediately clear why.  The orchestration is familiar, the performances crisp and energetic, and still I find nothing to cling to.  It takes me very many listens to realize at least part of the problem.

There is nothing I can hum along with.

While I am certain others (starting with my very own guest blogger) will disagree, I fail to discover a memorable moment.  This would make for a difficult hour of listening if I only played through one time.

By the sixth or seventh hour I’m just sick of it.

There are notes being played, and they seem to be in pleasing enough combinations.  There are solo sections and wall of sound harmonies.  And after weeks of listening, if I heard a section on the radio or in a store tomorrow, I would not recognize it as Berlioz, let alone as the Symphonie Fantastique . . .

It is an odd thing to admit, and may reflect more of failing on my part than on that of Berlioz, but it is true nonetheless.

Perhaps he can win me over next week.

Next Week:  Hector Berlioz – Les Troyens

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 90 = 10%)
Heard before blogging? No. (12 of 90 = 13%)
Recommend? No. (72 of 90 = 80%)


Guest Blogger Rebecca Safeer: Hector Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique

22 Dec

I love having guest bloggers to provide a different style, a different view on the recordings we are exploring.  This week I am pleased to introduce Rebecca Safeer, who stopped by my office every day during the summer to hear what I was listening to that day . . .


My first reaction to this piece was, “Wow, this is long.”  And it is.  The piece is a little under 50 minutes long.  And that is how many times I probably listened to it.  

Over the past two months the count on my iTunes is at 45.  And after listening to a piece that much I can tell you that it is an amazing piece of music.  At first I didn’t like how long the piece was but I continued to listen to it in its entirety until I appreciated every part of it.   

Symphonie Fantastique is a piece of music from the Romantic period.  During the Romantic period (from about 1800 to about 1910) music was written with an emphasis on color.  The color that a piece of music shows is based on its instrumentation and the range at which those instruments are used.  During this time there was also the discovery of writing what is called program music.  This means that instead of writing a piece of music to show off all you can do with an orchestra or an ensemble, you wrote music based on a story or a theme.   

Berlioz does both of those things perfectly with his Symphonie Fantastique.  You can tell right from the beginning that the score is supposed to be accompanied by some type of story.  Berlioz envisioned a tale of an artist.  And each of the five movements are meant to be the development of this theme and to show various episodes in the life of the artist. 

There are many different sounds in this piece.  There are parts in which it feels like you are at a ballet and you could be floating on a cloud whilst listening to this peaceful music.  Then there are sections with a call and response between the higher instruments and the lower instruments.  However the best part about this piece is how the emotions of the artist that Berlioz is trying to convey come through by listening to the arrangement of the score.  You can feel the pain and suffering through the excitement build up by the horns and the timpani.  You can hear the love and freedom of the waltz theme when you hear the harmonies between the violins.  You can hear the triumph with the beautiful sound of the french horn. 

I absolutely love this piece.  Thanks to Avri for letting me be a guest blogger.  I really enjoyed listening to and learning about this recording.


Rebecca studied Spanish Language and Literature at Stony Brook University.  She has studied music since 4th grade and graduated with a music minor.   

While studying in Barcelona, Spain she kept a blog which can be read here

Rebecca teaches middle school science and is proud to see many of her students’ experiments integrate science and music.

[37] Johann Sebastian Bach – Complete Sonatas & Partitas For Solo Violin

20 Dec

It amazes me that these complex rhythms and melodies (and at times even harmonies) are the work of a single instrument, a single performer.

Arthur Grumiaux

Arthur Grumiaux











For all the sprightly acrobatics of The Brandenburg Concertos, Bach manages to cram even more complexity into these compositions. Whereas The Brandenburg provided a wall of sound to wallow in, these Sonatas and Partitas in contrast have only a pinprick, usually only a single note, to focus on at any moment.

The music here demands attention.

The level of skill required of anyone attempting to play these passages is daunting. To play them as flawlessly as Arthur Grumiaux does here is a phenomenal achievement, even before discovering that some of the notation, as originally written by Bach, appears physically impossible!

Just the level of endurance required to complete the variations (aptly called “Doubles”) of Partita #1 in B minor is mind-boggling.

Despite the obvious technically acumen on display, the music still manages to hit an occasional emotional chord, as in the opening of Sonata #2 in A minor when an overwhelming melancholy cuts through the ears and into the heart.

Or at least it did for me.

After the pace quickens again, the fast flowing melodies – played so cleanly on what is essentially a single note instrument – are breathtaking. So when chords and harmonies are sketched, or on occasion outright played, it takes the listener to another level.

Although intellectually this is all wonderful stuff – precise, purposeful, impressive – it is not exactly *fun*. I am unsure how often I will choose to listen again in future.

But listening to the entire two hours of music in one sitting, the sound begins to take on an otherworldly quality. The whole is somehow outside of the everyday.

If that’s not reason to hear it at least once in a lifetime, I don’t know what is.

Owned before blogging? No. (2 of 37. 5%)
Heard before blogging? No. (4 of 37. 11%)
Recommend? Yes. (31 of 37. 84%)

Next Week: Johann Sebastian Bach – The Well Tempered Clavier Book 1


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