Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.
Instead of flowers which fade, or chocolates which rapidly disappear, why not offer the love of your life a beautiful, lasting, romantic compact disc or two for Valentine's day?
Love, of course, is the theme of much popular music and classical opera. So, at first glance, you would think that music based on any one of the most famous love stories would make a great gift: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Pelléas and Mélisande, Daphnis and Chloé, or Orpheus and Euridice. But would they?
Problem with this love music as Valentine's gifts is that they all mix amour with mort (as in mortician). Only Orpheus ends happily, but even Orpheus begins with the death of his wife, Euridice, who he then mourns throughout the entire story. And she dies not just once, but twice - the second time when Orpheus breaks his pledge not to look at her on the special trip to Hades he is granted to find her.
Then, too, Euridice doesn't come out of this story looking too great either. She seems particularly ungrateful when Orpheus shows up to save her. Orpheus refuses at first to give her a hug and a squeeze, having been told that if he does so, she'll immediately be taken from him forever. When he finally gives in, Euridice dies on the spot, but is restored to life again the moment Orpheus attempts suicide.
Perhaps a simple Valentine's card would be more appropriate. But, on the other hand, the early opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck is one of the most beautiful ever written, and there are lots of orchestral excerpts to choose from if you don't want your loved one to read the libretto on Feb. 14.
The complete, original Vienna version of 1762, with additions composed for the revised Paris production of 1774, is available on Vanguard Classics (OVC 4039/40). It is sung in Italian so your love-recipient is less likely to understand it. This adeptly remastered CD reissue from an analog original features Maureen Forrester and Teresa Stich-Randall with the Choir and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.
There are at least six CDs currently available of the most famous excerpt from Orpheus and Euridice, the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits." Your decision depends largely on what other music you want on the same disc. I wish there were a CD on the market devoted entirely to orchestral highlights from Gluck, but I haven't seen one. Nevertheless, if the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" is not now in your collection, it should be. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces ever written, and has certainly withstood the test of time!
The suite to Pelléas and Mélisande by Gabriel Fauré would make a wonderful gift for any other occasion. The suite's "Sicilienne," includes one of my favorite tunes. The recording I have, with Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Argo 410 552-2), also include's Fauré's gorgeous Pavane, Op. 50.
If I had to spend the rest of my life on an electrified desert island with running water, proper toilet facilities, a fully-equipped kitchen, and an incredible stereo system but with just one compact disc, I might well choose Herbert Von Karajan's performance of the Prélude and Liebestod (Love-Death) music from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. This Deutsche Grammophon CD (413 754-2) with the Berlin Philharmonic is superb, and yet I wouldn't choose it as a Valentine's Day offering. This is more appropriate music for suicides, and, indeed, was used in just that way at the end of the classic French film Les Cousins.
Good competition for incredibly beautiful, but tragic, romantic orchestral love music comes from Tchaikovsky, of course, and his Romeo and Juliet - Fantasy Overture. I'm very pleased with my recording featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti (London 417 400-2). Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet ballet is also a must for every serious collector of lovemusick. I particularly enjoy the excerpts from Suites 1 and 2 performed by Yoel Levi and the Cleveland Orchestra on Telarc (CD-80089).
Some say Ravel's Daphnis and Chloé is his masterpiece. It certainly is an example of orchestration at its most colorful, and musical impressionism at its most impressionistic, but I think Ravel's better melodies are in some of his other works. My preferred recording is with the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Daniel Barenboim (DGG 400 061-2).
If you get away from "he and she" titles, the chances improve for finding love music without deadly endings. For example, there's Donizetti's opera, The Elixir of Love, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, Aspects of Love, and Augusta Holmes's orchestral tone poem, Night and Love. There's also the romantic, melodious music to the film Love Story by Francis Lai, but there we go with mortuary conclusions again. And, for those who find human bonding too precarious, there is always Prokofiev's suite, Love for Three Oranges.
However, my best picks for appropriate classical music to give to your beloved this Feb. 14 are: My Favorite Love Songs with Luciano Pavarotti, Renata Tebaldi and Marilyn Horne (London 443 599-2); Joseph Suk's charming, little-known piano piece, Love Song (Supraphon 10 3895-2); Brahms' lively, life-affirming Liebeslieder (Lovesong) Waltzes (Nonesuch 79008-2) and, in first place, the lyrical, romantic Songs of Edvard Grieg, superbly sung by Anne Sofie von Otter (DGG D 174269). This last album includes my favorite Grieg song, Jeg elsker Dig (I Love You), with words by Hans Christian Andersen.
I don't think there is anything about death or dying in that piece, but, then again, "Jeg elsker Dig" are the only words I understand in Norwegian.
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