The December 2014 edition of Looking Back to Bookspan’s “101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers” explores the music of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Ravel.
The piece is so popular at classical concerts for young people that the chances are pretty good that “Peter and the Wolf” was your introduction to classical music, or at least, your first exposure to the music of Sergei Prokofiev. Either way, it is a fine way to begin a life-long enjoyment of a great art form and a great composer. Martin Bookspan, who at age 11 was in the Boston Symphony Orchestra audience when the work made its debut in this country, relates why “Peter and the Wolf” has become so popular: “Prokofiev created some unforgettable melodies to accompany the animal adventures, and the marriage of narrative text and music is masterful. Even more important, however, are the universal truths of the plot, making the work appropriate to many levels of human experience.” My own experience with those unforgettable melodies was so compelling that it wasn’t until early adulthood that I was finally able to hear other compositions by Prokofiev and not be reminded of “Peter and the Wolf.”
Just one of Bookspan’s vintage recordings of “Peter and the Wolf” seems to be available, and only as an MP3 download: conductor Skitch Henderson, with Beatrice Lillie providing a delightfully quirky narration. My suggested modern recording is from conductor Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, with narration by the pop singer known as Sting. Even though the recording was made in 1991 I believe you will find it fresh and enjoyable, and it includes a work that is the perfect transition for your enjoyment of other compositions by Prokofiev: his Symphony No. 1 nicknamed “Classical.”
Prokofiev composed his Symphony Number Five during a single month in the summer of 1944. He described it as “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.” Despite the fact the symphony was created in the dark, final days of World War Two, it is, indeed, an uplifting and inspiring work.
Martin Bookspan’s recommended recording is a 1964 performance from conductor Ernest Ansermet and the Suisse Romande Orchestra. It is part of a generous double-CD set reissued by ArkivMusic that also features Prokofiev’s colorful music for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. For a modern recording I’d choose conductor Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The interpretation of the Symphony Number Five is quite good, the sonic qualities are excellent, and the disc is rounded out with an equally fine performance of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite. The Kijé Suite itself can be considered an important work for your expanded collection of classical masterpieces.
Just prior to the beginning of the twentieth century a young Sergei Rachmaninoff was at an emotional low following the disastrous premiere of his first symphony. That fiasco combined with problems in his personal life led to a two-year period of clinical depression during which he wrote no music. Through hypnotherapy Rachmaninoff emerged from his creative doubt and drought with one of his most-loved compositions, his Piano Concerto Number Two.
Vladimir Ashkenazy has recorded Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number Two on several occasions. Bookspan recommends the Ashkenazy reading made in 1963 in collaboration with conductor Kyril Kondrashin. It remains available as a London/Decca Legends reissue. For a newer recording, you can’t go wrong with the complete Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos recorded by Stephen Hough, live performances made with conductor Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The Hough set is, in a word, indispensible.
Martin Bookspan, along with countless other critics and writers, considers Van Cliburn’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number Three to be one of the best ever made. Though the 1950s sound quality is certainly inferior to modern standards, in its reissue as part of a seven-disc set of great concertos played by Cliburn it is a bargain way to obtain these wonderful and important performances. The afore mentioned Hough recordings of the complete Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos provide a great modern choice, and for an unparalleled live performance of the “Rach 3” alone, select the magnificent recording made by Martha Argerich with conductor Riccardo Chailly.
The twin pillars of the classical music style known as “Impressionism” are Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Elegance and instrumental color are defining elements in Ravel’s music and his works are some of the most important of the early twentieth century. Martin Bookspan relates how another iconic composer from that time period, Igor Stravinsky, once wrote that Ravel’s ballet score Daphnis and Chloé was not only his best work, “but also one of the most beautiful products of All French Music.” It is this ravishing music by Ravel that Bookspan selects as one of his “101 Masterpieces.”
The performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé made in 1955 by conductor Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is not only a recommended choice of Bookspan’s, it is also my favorite above even the modern versions. The Munch years as music director (1949-1962) yielded some of the best recordings ever made by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. If pressed to select a modern version of this irresistible music, I think you will find conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier’s four CD-set of Ravel’s complete orchestral music to be a great addition to your collection, and you’ll then have access to fine performances of Ravel’s other orchestral treasures.
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