Archive for the ‘ Classical Music ’ Category

Two tangos

A classic one: when we were whole:

Astor Piazzolla’s Vuelvo al Sur:


A tango for our time:

Alfred Schnittke’s Tango in a Madhouse:





Vivaldi is 340 years old today

Long live the Red Priest.

Vivaldi’s importance is not simply (?) because he wrote music which ranks among the most sublime ever composed. But also because he ignited Bach (who learned of him through scores from Italy) into creating one of the greatest achievements of our species. Bach had already mastered German counterpoint (an art form that probably surpasses the iambic pentameter for its intellectual possibilities). With Vivaldi’s rhythmic propulsion and harmonic simplification, Bach was able to forge the basis for German art music, a form that lasted for more than a quarter of a millennium and remains one of the summits of human achievements. Here is what Bach first did with his encounter with Vivaldi:

But Bach over the years could marinate Vivaldi, and it would the influences would turn into something as unbelievable as this:


No, We Can’t

“We can’t stop the wars, make the old younger again, or lower the price of bread!”

Mahler, Berio, Boulez, Beckett.

“Keep going!”

Sinfonia by Luciano Berio:



Haydn and Brendel

A Four-Handed Halloween Rag

The third of the four rag suite Garden of Eden, composed by American William Bolcom to chart our fall, is entitled “The Serpent’s Kiss”—the very moment that Death and his fellow demons entered our world. The piece, performed by Amélie Fortin and Marie-Christine Poirier, is as elegant and seductive as the Prince of Darkness himself. Otherwise, why would we have fallen for it?


Suzuki conducts Fasch, Hasse and Bach, Sunday October 9

Mourning in Dresden at Juilliard with Suzuki

For those in the New York City area tomorrow, Sunday, October 9, and interested in German Baroque music, you can do no better than attending the concert at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, entitled Mourning in Dresden, directed by Masaaki Suzuki. I was able to see this evening the performance at Yale’s Battell Chapel in New Haven, and so I can attest that the concert is a moving and perfectly executed performance of two great Baroque choral masterpieces.

Suzuki has been at residence at Yale Music School for several years now, and there is really no one who can meld talented voices together to achieve the near celestial sound that can be gotten from German Baroque music, particular Bach’s. And with Yale’s Schola Cantorum he has one of the best young choral ensembles one could hope for. They are combined with Juilliard’s period instrument ensemble, Juilliard415. Suzuki leads them for superb performances of Hasse’s Miserere in C Minor and Bach’s Trauerode.

The concert begins, however, with a woodwind concerto: Fasch’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Flutes, Two Oboes, Two Violins, Two Bassoons and Basso Continuo. The piece is a well composed and elegant secular chamber piece by one of Bach’s contemporaries, Johann Friedrich Fasch. Fasch in fact had studied in Leipzig, and even applied for the position that Bach was awarded at the Thomaskirke there. Fasch, like Bach around the same time, was struck by the instrumental music of Vivaldi and this concerto shows that influence. It is elegant, follows the fast-slow-fast requirements of the genre, but retains that underlying haunted sadness that remained in Protestant German music even in the middle of the eighteenth century. The soloists are quite good and Suzuki has so incorporated into his being the particular rhythmic flow (for lack of an academic expression) of German Baroque music that one can appreciate the elegance while also understanding the seriousness of the endeavor.

Hasse himself was probably even more influenced by the Italians than Fasch. He spent much of his early career in Naples and even studied with Alessandro Scarlatti. It was by marriage he returned to Germany, having been appointed Kapellmeister at the Dresden court. While there, he met and became friends with Bach. There he composed the Miserere, which reveals all the eclectic influences from his international experiences. The work was instantly acclaimed. It was written at the time that other other “sacred” pieces (such as Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) were incorporating the influences of Italian opera, but this piece hews closely to choral style of the late Barorque in Germany.

It is of course Bach’s Trauerode that makes this concert worth going out of one’s way to attend. The work is a funeral cantata, Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (“Let, Princess, let yet one more ray”), BWV 198, on the death of the Electress of Saxony, Christiane Eberhardine.  This was not a simple commission for Bach. The princess was beloved by her subjects, for having refused to convert to Catholicism, even though her husband did in order to vie for additional realms in Poland and Lithuania. The Lutheran population of Saxony regarded her as a saint, and the University of Leipsiz commissioned both the text and musical score for her public commemoration. The text, by Johann Christoph Gottsched, is secular (it mainly details the sorrow of her subjects, considered geographically), unlike the near poetical simplicity of Luther’s biblical translations that Bach weekly set to music in Leipzig. But perhaps that caused Bach to redouble his musical prowess for the sake of the great Lutheran heroine. It is one of the great choral works of Bach, a piece so brilliant, that only the likes of Suzuki coud make its execution seem both flawless and effortless. But the work is both steeped in the Germanic past and hinting at the new. To me, the work always seemed as though it were in part looking forward to the classical norms of block instrumental writing. At the same time it employed vocal soloists to perform in old time recitatives and arias  with particular groupings of instruments to highlight special voicings. Suzuki makes the whole thing work as a whole. And his tempo (rather on the faster side) and dynamics (exciting but under control) make the piece seem both modern (that is, not hidebound) and profound (that is, not swept up in modern “cleverness”). One is alway struck by the instrumental and then choral attacks in the first movement. They cause one’s heart to beat faster.

Bach of course was particularly adept at both vocal and instrumental colors and combined them in interesting ways. Early on the set pieces of his cantatas reveled in demonstrating the virtuosity. By the time of the Trauerode Bach was secure enough to use his tonal color magic without calling attention to itself. And this is seen in the cello choir backing the alto soloist, the flute and oboe backing to the tenor and the bass voice with pure basso continuo. By the way, the basso continuo of Juilliard415 consists of organ, harpsichord, double bass and two theorbos. This is a luxury one doesn’t usually get to enjoy. And speaking of luxuries, the Hasse performance uses the talents of young countertenor Bradley Sharpe to good advantage. All of the vocal soloists are worth noting: Soprano Adde Sterrett in the Hasse and Natasha Schnur in the Bach piece; mezzo Adele Gravowski in Truaerode; tenors James Reese in the Hasse ad Daniel McGrew in the Bach and baritone Matt Sullivan in both works.

In order to get the word out in time I will truncate my usually overly long critiques. If I have missed something (or misstated it), I’m happy to have any comments. One thing I know I will not be contradicted on, this is a performance well worth attending.


Beethoven’s deafness and his Ghost trio

In 1808 Beethoven was 38 and his deafness was well advanced. Maybe I am not the only one who conceived his disability in an idealized way: the Titan of music could slay the demon that made it impossible to hear his own genius. The reality was both more grim and more pathetic. Composer and violinist Louis Spohr was in Beethoven’s house at a rehearsal for Beethoven’s most recent piano trio, one that would be published as Opus 70 no. 1. It would be the seventh of his 10 published piano trios. Spohr recorded in his diary how the rehearsal went:

It was not an enjoyable experience. To begin with, the piano was terribly out of tune, a fact which troubled Beethoven not at all, as he could not hear it. Furthermore, little or nothing remained of the brilliant technique which used to be so admired. In the loud passages the poor deaf man hammered away at the notes smudging whole groups of them, and one lost all sense of the melody unless one could follow the score. I felt deeply moved by the tragedy of it all. Beethoven’s almost continual melancholy was no longer a mystery to me.

Beethoven did not give up public performance altogether for another three years. Perhaps the combination of his loyal friends protecting him and his prickly personality warding off his critics kept him from the knowledge that his playing was unprofessional. Maybe his he did not care what the public thought. At least something of that attitude was necessary to allow him to explore a musical terrain that most of his listeners were uncomfortable with.

The Trio in D he was practicing that night is at the beginning of the later explorations. The two statements in the first two movements are not developed traditionally, one after the other, before they are allowed to interact. Instead, they appear almost simultaneously, something that in the day would seem something like disorder. But Beethoven would continue picking at the rules that governed musical development in Vienna until in the end, in his final quarters, there would be nothing left, or at least nothing that Hadyn would recognize. More startling is the extreme slowness of the middle movement. It is the dirge-tempo that that gave the trio its nickname, “Ghost.” Roger Fiske writes of this movement:

To get even a moderate amount of movement into his music, Beethoven has to resort to large numbers of hemi-demi-semiquavers which give the pages a forbidding appearance. This need not deter the listener, who can here enjoy one of Beethoven’s darkest movements; he is aiming at Gothic gloom on the grandest possible scale and achieving it with tremendous power.”

Hear for yourself in a live performance by Isaac Stern (violin), Emanuel Ax (piano) and Yo-Yo Ma (cello):

The second movement begins around the 6 minute mark.


Quotation from Roger Fiske from Robertson, Alec (ed.), Chamber Music (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1957), p. 102.