Sunday, 15 November 2009

Moments of Magic Number 4

Stella By Starlight (written by Victor Young) - Percy Faith and his Orchestra

Stella By Starlight is one of the most beloved jazz standards of all time. Quirky, bouncy interpretations by the likes of Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald have ensured that the song is kept on the exclusive playlists in the underground jazz parlors of the world, as well as in the minds of many a jazz enthusiast.
However, this 'song' started life without lyrics. It was, to begin with, merely an instrumental theme in a Ray Milland feature called 'The Uninvited.' The popularity of the 'theme' encouraged an official 'song' release and in 1946 Ned Washington penned the now famous, if slightly peculiar, lyrics for what was intended to be a big band standard.

This 1960s orchestration by the legendary Percy Faith is far closer to the original 'spirit' of the piece than any of the charming interpretations since. It is extraordinarily lush and melodramatic, something which adds to rather than detracting from the quality of the piece. The soaring romance of the strings requires this kind of tear-jerking sensitivity; the light echo at the tail end of this piece is an excellent example.

This sample picks up at the end of the second, vigorous repeat of the refrain and fades out into a beautiful violin and cello duo, with trademark Faith vibrato that brings to mind a tearful scene from a black and white movie romance, with the high echo following taking the melody up from the depths and bass of the repeated refrain to a subtle and celestial ending that slows mournfully.

The shame is, music of this calibre of arrangement is largely ignored today. It is considered to be schmaltzy, weepy and indulgently saccharine. I do not share this view. There is magic and wonderful skill in this interpretation; it is gorgeous and indulgent but it is not the lesser for it. It takes those fabulous falling chords and wrings an exquisite and startingly melodic flourish. A perfect ending to a rather perfect tune.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Moments of Magic Number 3

'Larghetto' from Symphony No. 1 by S. Rachmaninov

One of my favourite composers, Sergei Rachmaninov was one of the greatest musicians of the 19th and 20th centuries. A virtuoso pianist with enormous hands, the aristocratic and rather diffident Russian is probably most famous for his Second and Third piano concerti; less vaunted are his symphonic works.
Indeed, this 'moment of magic' is actually from a piece that Rachmaninov effectively disowned due to a disastrous premiere and savage critique, courtesy of Cesar Cui. Apparently, the conductor was drunk and stumbled clumsily through this work, his Symphony No.1, which resulted in Rachmaninov leaving the performance before the close and descending into a deep depression that was to prove to be a creative prelude of titanic importance. He stopped writing for years, but when he finally composed again he produced one of the greatest piano concertos in the history of music: his Piano Concerto No. 2

This sequence is from the 'Larghetto', the slow, beautiful poem sequence of the symphony. I love the elegance and tenderness of this passage. It evokes a hazy, dreamlike recreation of an impossibly idealistic past. Rachmaninov, ever the nostalgic, was often dreaming of a 'finer' time. His era was tainted with civil unrest, revolution and war; shadows which he turned from as he dreamed of the past and perfect summer days on his family's estate. Nothing is more romantic than Rachmaninov. This sequence reveals his mighty talent; some of it is reminiscent of a Borodin nocturne and it certainly has a little dash of Tchaikovsky's ponderous majesty but the feeling generated by this Rachmaninov melody is unique. That there should be such depth of feeling, such strength of imagination, such wonder in the mind of a 24 year old man is incredible. This is classic Russian romance; effortlessly beautiful.