Somehow, I’ve managed to continue my fool’s errand of listening to my entire iTunes library in alphabetical order by artist/composer. Last I checked in, I was at the tail end of the B’s; I’m now just about to make it to E, and with my sojourn in the D’s almost done, I have an apology to make and old friend to praise.
First, the apology. People who know me musically know that I’m not a fan of bel canto operatic repertoire, pretty much at all. I liken listening to, or even watching, bel canto to eating whipped cream. Nothing wrong with whipped cream, but there just isn’t much there for me — I generally go for savory over sweet to begin with. Compound that with the fact that a composer like Bellini is generally considered more ‘serious’ and worthy of note than one like Offenbach, and we’re really in business. And lest it sound like I’m just prejudiced, I did listen to Bellini’s La sonnambula with as open a mind as I could muster, and finished it not feeling much of anything at all.
Then I listened to Anna Bolena.
I knew something was up when the “Sinfonia” started, and by the middle of the first act, I was completely hooked. The music is charming, yes, but there’s an understated beauty to it, and it just sounds like there’s a lot more variety and depth to anything I heard in La sonnambula. There are shades of Mozart, too, which I always appreciate. In short, I may have been a little too harsh on bel canto — I won’t make it to Rossini for a couple of months, though, so we’ll see what happens. Here are Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca singing “Va’, infelice, e teso reca” in Vienna last year:
And finally, the old friend. Full disclosure: though I was a classical piano student for a good decade or so growing up, classical music and I had a bit of a messy falling out after I stopped taking lessons. It wasn’t until my college choir performed Handel’s Israel in Egypt several years ago that I truly learned that classical music was just as vibrant, humorous, and soul-achingly beautify — if not more so — than any other music out there. After that performance, I embarked on a huge catch-up session, listening to as much classical music as I could from my college’s library. One day, early on in the project, I came upon a CD of music by Erno von Dohnanyi. I lived in Cleveland as a child and knew Christoph von Dohnanyi’s name well, and, after finding out the two were related, checked the CD out immediately. On it was his Konzertstuck for Cello (which is wonderful), as well as his Variations on a Nursery Theme.
Never before has a piece of music so accurately captured what I love about art before. It begins with a stormy, Wagnerian introduction, so sturm und drang it almost feels like a parody… which, of course, it is. After the thunder rumbles off to the distance, a razor-sharp blast from the orchestra signals the start of the theme: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. What follows is a set of a dozen variations, each lampooning a composer active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both Strausses get a variation, as well as Wagner, Saint-Saëns, and Brahms. It also contains an incredibly virtuosic piano part that swirls and dances around the orchestra as it plays Dohnanyi’s twisted version of a Music History lecture. I could go on for ages about this piece, but suffice it to say that it is one of my oldest favorites, and will continue to be for quite some time. Here is Zoltán Kocsis playing the variations: