Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Music to Hear! Great Compositions Inspired by the Bard

Sonnet VIII

Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly,
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy;
Why lov'st thou that which thou receiv'st not gladly
Or else receiv'st with pleasure thine annoy? 
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds
By Unions married do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee who confounds
In singleness the part that thou should'st bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechless song being many seeming one,
Sings this to thee: thou single wilt prove none.

As the world marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death on 23 April, 1616, I thought it apropos to highlight a few interesting musical works inspired by the Bard. Of course, Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet  will be on everyone's list--and there are dozens of fine recordings of each from Sir Thomas Beecham and Andre Previn to Claudio Abbado and Charles Dutoit--but I've opted for a few slightly-more off-the-beaten-track choices, especially things I think more adventuresome listeners might enjoy discovering.

Gustav Holst: At the Boar's Head  Op. 42 (chamber opera)

With a libretto by the composer based on scenes from  Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2,  Holst's charming, if somewhat uneven, 1925 chamber opera is a delightful rarity that ought to be better known.

Warner Classics 50999 9 68929 2 (2009)

Gerald Finzi: Love's Labours Lost (incidental music)

As to be expected, Finzi's incidental score for Love's Labours Lost is hauntingly beautiful, lyrical, melancholy, and memorable.

Nimbus NI 5665 (2001)

Igor Stravinsky: Three Songs from William Shakespeare (1953)
for mezzo soprano, flute, clarinet, and viola

These marvelous, minimalist 'anti-settings' from the composer's early foray into serialism, continue to fascinate. The colorfully complex interplay of the vocal soloist and the accompanying trio is an understated wonder to hear.

Deutsche Gramophone 1660 502 (2012)

Benjamin Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Britten's treatment of A Midsummer Night's Dream may be more about atmosphere than story, but saying so in no way denigrates its manifold beauties. This gossamer, light-spangled score is as delicate as a fairy's wing, but the music also captures Shakespeare's wondrous sense of lyric levity and bathos.

Virgin (Erato) 50999 6406212 (2010 re-issue)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music and Shakespeare Songs for Chorus

Vaughan Williams returned to Shakespeare for inspiration throughout his life, from the enigmatic, ghostly  finale of the Sixth Symphony--obliquely referencing Prospero's "we are such stuff as dreams are made of" from The Tempest-- to his setting of the same words in the Three Shakespeare Songs for Chorus from 1951, to the lithe and languorous strains of the Serenade to Music, based on one of the most famous passages from The Merchant of Venice.

Telarc 80676 (2007)

Verdi: Falstaff

Verdi's final operatic statement--and his only comic opera-- brilliantly captures the ebullient, colorful--and occasionally off-color--spirit of its title character.

Deutsche Gramophone 875 202 (2007 re-issue)

Sibelius: The Tempest (incidental music)

One of Sibelius' last great works, the two suites derived from his incidental music for a 1926 Danish production of The Tempest are, in many ways, like nothing else he ever composed. Highly imaginative, colorful, and engaging, this music invokes the elements as deftly as Prospero wielding his own weird and terrifying enchantments.

Hänssler Classics CD 98 353 (2000)

Berlioz: Béatrice et Bénédict

Another work of old age, Berlioz' magnificent opera based on Much Ado About Nothing, though certainly less-well-known than his Romeo et Juliet, is, nonetheless, an uncharacteristically sunny masterpiece, and a sheer delight from beginning to end.

Philips (Duo) 475 221 (2003)

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (ballet)

Prokofiev's 1935 ballet score ingeniously conveys the tragedy and tenderness, poignancy and drama of this immortal tale of star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet is rightfully considered an essential part of the standard repertory today.

RCA (Red Seal) 59424 (2004)

Alfred Reed: Othello

This symphonic poem for band is highly effective in its dramatic impact. Well worth a listen, along with Reed's other Shakespeare-inspired compositions.

Klavier Records 11151 (2005)

Purcell: The Tempest

Lovely music with a goodly dose of Restoration-era silliness, taking its share of liberties with Shakespeare's original, yet endearing in its own right all the same.

Erato 2292 45555-2 (1992)

Walton: Richard III (film score)

Of all Walton's wonderful scores composed for Laurence Olivier's Shakesperare films, Richard III from 1953 has always struck me as the most singularly effective, from the opening fanfare of the overture to the marvelously broad march theme, and soaring neo-romantic melodies, every note conveys purpose and power, even--and especially--when heard 'out of context' beyond the film. While I dearly love Walton's scores for Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), Richard III is the one that I would probably take with me to that proverbial desert isle.

Chandos CHAN 10435 (2007)

Patrick Doyle: Henry V (film score)

Patrick Doyle's score for Kenneth Banagh's glorious 1988 film production of Henry V is a masterpiece of small gestures and soaring melodies. Doyle's ecstatic setting of the Non Nobis Domine, heard following the climactic battle of Agincourt, elucidates and deepens one of the most moving and poignant moments in all cinema. Unforgettable!

EMI CDC 7 49919 2 (1989)

Shostakovich: Hamlet (film score)

Grigori Kosintzev's 1964 Russian-language production of Hamlet (in a translation by Boris Pasternak) was highly influential far beyond the realm of Soviet cinema, inspiring the likes of John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh. Shostakovich's dark, brooding, creepy score is certainly an element of the film's success.

Naxos 8.557446 (2004)

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