Masterpieces embody spring

Classics: As the weather warms, the works of Beethoven, Copland and others convey nature's inspiration and charm.

March 09, 2000|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A nasty rumor has it that snow still sits on the ground at one of Columbia's Town Center parking garages. Not to worry, my meter reads spring. It's in the 70s outside, I just paid for two sessions of summer camp and the Orioles are on the radio. What else am I supposed to think?

So, as this most life-affirming of all seasons rolls around, my thoughts turn not just to love and baseball but to some of the most glorious classical music ever written. Truly, springtime has inspired more than its share of creative genius.

"Spring has come, and joyfully the birds welcome it with cheerful song; and the streams at the breath of zephyrs flow swiftly with sweet murmurings," says a not very good sonnet thought to have been written by the Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. But while Vivaldi wasn't much of a poet, the music he appended to this sonnet is one of the most popular pieces ever composed. It is "La Primavera," the Spring Concerto from his "Four Seasons."

What a unique evocation of the joys of the new season this music provides. The violin, string orchestra and harpsichord continuo combine to describe chirping birds, murmuring brooks, frolicking nymphs and shepherds, and the thunder and lightning of a sudden spring rain. "La Primavera" is, of course, the prelude to three other concertos, each conveying seasonal delights of its own.

Nearly every violinist you can think of has recorded Vivaldi's greatest hit, so your options are numerous. Three good ones: violinist Nils-Erik Spark with the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble on Bis; Neville Marriner's amiable account with violinist Alan Loveday on Penguin Classics; and Salvatore Accardo's tour de force for Philips on which each "Season" is played on a different Stradivarius fiddle.

Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 is called the "Pastoral," so it isn't explicitly named for the season at hand. But with movement titles such as "Awakening of Cheerful Feelings Upon Arrival in the Country," "Scenes By the Brook," "Merry Gathering of Country Folk" and "Shepherd's Song," who's going to quibble? Beethoven was never more amiable than in this fresh, delightful, spring-like affair.

The 6th of all 6ths comes from Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony on Sony. No one ever did it better, and it comes with a magnificent Beethoven 4th to boot.

To Robert Schumann, one of the greats of the Romantic Era, the spring season was a "Call of Awakening," and the opening measures of his 1st Symphony subtitled (what else?) "Spring" do just that. Schumann doesn't paint seasonal pictures, but the spirit of joy and renewal he found in springtime appears in all corners of the piece.

Classy sets of the Schumann symphonies come from Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI), George Szell (Sony) and Paul Paray (Mercury). I like Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, too (Deutsche Grammophon), but that's not a unanimous choice, I'll warn you.

The 20th century's finest "Spring Symphony" comes from England's Benjamin Britten, who adds a choir and soloist to the orchestra for interludes such as "Out on the lawn I lie in bed" (W.H. Auden) and a concluding "Sumer is icumen in" that is ripping good fun. Richard Hickox (Chandos) and John Eliot Gardiner (DG) do it best.

Springtime meets up with our national character in "Appalachian Spring," Aaron Copland's quintessentially American ballet score that describes a pioneer celebration around a Pennsylvania farmhouse in the early 19th century. The highlight of the score is Copland's set of variations on the Shaker tune, "Simple Gifts," and when the grand theme is stated majestically at the end you're going to want Leonard Bernstein on hand to do the honors (Sony-Bernstein Century).

Ancient pagan rituals of spring inspired sounds so cacophonous and jarring from Igor Stravinsky that his ballet score, "Le Sacre de Printemps," provoked music history's most famous riot at a Parisian opera house some 87 years ago. These days, of course, "The Rite of Spring" is standard repertory, but it's nothing close to old hat when performed by the likes of Riccardo Muti (EMI) or the composer himself on Sony.

To calm yourself after the bruising "Le Sacre," may I suggest a glass of white wine and Johann Strauss' "Voices of Spring" waltz. It's that time of year.

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