Archive for the ‘ Classical Music ’ Category

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?

 

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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.

Note

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

Pierre Boulez, RIP

March 25, 1925 – January 5, 2016

 

 

Le marteau sans maître

for alto voice, alto flute, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba,
percussion and viola
(1953–55)

Text by René Char

L’Artisanat fureux

La roulotte rouge au bord du clou
Et cadavre dans le panier
Et chevaux de labours dans le fer à cheval
Je rêve la tête sur la pointe de mon couteau le Pérou

Translation by Pierre Boulez

The Furious Craftsman

The red caravan at the edge of the prison
And corpse in the basket
And work horses in the horseshoe
I dream the head on the point of my knife Peru.

Bourreux de solitude

Le pas s’est élongé le marcheur s’est tu
Sur le cadran de l’Imitation
Le Balancier lance sa change de granit rèflexe

Hangman of Solitude

The step has receded the walker is silent
On the dial of the imitation
The Pendulum thrusts its load of reflex granite

Bel édifice et les pressentiments

J’écoute marcher dans mes jambes
La mer morte vagues par-dessus tête
Enfant la jetée-promenade savage
Homme l’illusion imitée
Des yeux purs dans les bois
Cherchent enpleurant la tête habitable

Beautiful Building and the Premotions

I hear walking in my legs
The dead sea waves over my head

Child the wild promenade-pier
Man the imitated illusion

Pure eyes in the woods
Seek weeping ithe head to live in

 

Four Seasons in Buenos Aires by Piazzolla

America’s Greatest Composer

In a few days it will be 40 years since Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington passed. (He died on May 24, 1974. He didn’t get to live to see Nixon resign.)

There is nothing magical about these anniversaries, of course. It only occurred to me because I have been thinking about the state of American music for a couple of days. I won’t reveal my thoughts here, for fear of being dismissed as an old crank. But I can suggest that it would be difficult for anyone to make the case that someone other than the Duke can claim the title of America’s greatest composer.

There’s no doubt that Carter, Wuorinen, Babbit, Varese and Ives made important music that we will study for years to come. But America has never produced art music, in the European tradition, as a natural matter. In terms of vital, organic and innovative music, America has only produced jazz and blue grass. Blue grass, however, has never been written in a wide enough variety of forms to be considered a serious art form. Jazz, however, has had quite a number of original composers, something of a perceived anomaly for a music mostly known for improvisation covering pop music. It is true that it is difficult to isolate a jazz “composer” (such as, for example, Monk, Gillespie, Mingus and Coltrane) from an “arranger” (such as Henderson, Basie and Evans). But there is no doubt where Duke Ellington stands on that divide. For more than forty years he produced one marvel after another, which he not only wrote, but arranged and conducted.

It’s difficult to pick a period that best displays his genius. But “periods” he certainly has, as assuredly as Picasso did. From the “Jungle Music” of his Cotton Club days, to the “classicist” of the 30s and 40s (with the Carnegie Hall music), during which time he had the outstanding performers Ben Webster on sax and Jimmy Blanton on bass, which RCA Victor used to sell its compilation of Ellington recordings. The ’50s were a difficult time for Big Bands but Ellington used it to write one of his most startling pieces, “Satin Doll,” which was never better interpreted than by his own quirky original piano treatment. The 60s saw him attempt “serious” compositions/arrangements with suites (including a version of the “Nutcracker”) that did not stack up to his earlier efforts. But at the same time he was exploring the avant-garde. Possibly the best of these efforts was Money Jungle with Coltrane and Mingus. The efforts of the 60s paid off with a renaissance in the 70s, when he himself was in his 70s. And it was listening to an album from that period that got me thinking in this vein. The album was Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

That album ostensibly offers a “fusion” with what Ellington calls “oriental” music. You can safely ignore the Duke’s explanation; in fact it’s somewhat embarrassing to listen to. I have never understood the thinking of the A&R flacks at Columbia Records, who seemed to relish self-indulgent and often patronizing blather. But once you get past the first 10 seconds or so of this album, you will find the music undeniably superb. Admittedly, the effects are largely owing to block orchestral forces and the open voicings of the brass at climaxes. But pitting block forces was the mainstay of someone as orthodox in Germanic art music as Bruckner. And if you object to open voicings, then you probably have no interest in big band jazz anyway.

That said, if you have a half hour, it could be spent in many worse ways than listening to Afro-Eurasian Eclipse:

This is why they continue to play art music

Martha Argerich, Evgeny Kissin, James Levine, Mikhail Pletnev are the soloists in this performance of Bach’s Concerto for four keyboards in A minor, BWV 1065, at the Verbier Festival on July 22, 2003. The chamber orchestra included Sarah Chang, Gidon Kremer, Mischa Maisky and Boris Pergamenschikow.

 

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!