Category: Classical

#425 HUGO WOLF VERBORGENHEIT

#425

HUGO WOLF

VERBORGENHEIT

BARBARA BONNEY, SOPRANO
GEOFFREY PARSONS, PIANO

Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) was the Austrian composer of the late Romantic era who is primarily remembered for his art songs. He had a troubled life, and composed in periods of white-hot intensity during which he would work on a single song for 2 or 3 days continuously with no sleep until it was perfect.

These days-long stretches occurred mostly in the years 1888 and 1889, when he was in his late twenties. During his brief life, his creativity was frequently interrupted by prolonged bouts of depression. He wrote his last song in 1898, before suffering a mental collapse. He gradually lost his mind to insanity, dying in 1903 at the age of 43.

He was a fervid follower of Richard Wagner in his style of composition, which put him at enmity with the followers of Brahms—Wagner and Brahms being the two musical “camps” that young composers, and refined society as a whole, fell in with. Wolf’s music was mercilessly vilified in the musical press by the Brahms crowd, and equally cheered by the Wagnerians. Wolf’s music was all about color and passion—there could never be enough for him.

Wolf would write seven groupings of songs: Liederstrauss, Mörike-Lieder, Eichendorff-Lieder, Goethe-Lieder, Dem Vaterland, Spanisches Liederbuch, Italienisches Liederbuch, and Michelangelo Lieder.

“Verborgenheit” is from the second set, the Morike-Lieder, a collection of 53 songs that became Wolf’s acceptance as a major composer for voice. Eduard Mörike was the author of poetic idylls and delightful fairytales, a “bucolic, charmingly inadequate and ineffectual country clergyman and a nature poet par excellence with an engaging sense of humor” (per a Hyperion description). His poems inspired Wolf to write some of his most popular, enduring, and endearing songs, among which is “Verborgenheit. All 53 of these songs were written in the year 1888, an astonishingly productive year.

For Wolf lovers, “Verborgenheit” is at or near the top of a long list of loved songs. Here is the text in English:

Let, O world, O let me be!
Do not tempt with gifts of love,
Let this heart keep to itself
Its rapture, its pain!

I do not know why I grieve,
It is unknown sorrow;
Always through a veil of tears
I see the sun’s beloved light.
Often, I am lost in thought,
And bright joy flashes
Through the oppressive gloom,
Bringing rapture to my breast.

Let, O world, O let me be!
Do not tempt with gifts of love,
Let this heart keep to itself
Its rapture, its pain!

*****

About the performers:

Barbara Bonney (b. 1956) is an American operatic lyric soprano. She has also been an active solo recitalist. One of the most interesting things about Bonney is that she grew up playing cello, on which she was quite accomplished. She only switched over to voice when she was in her early twenties, studying at the University of Salzburg.

Geoffrey Parsons (1929-1995) was an Australian pianist who primarily accompanied singers. After the death of the great Gerald Moore, he was generally considered to be the world’s finest and most sensitive accompanist.

Pictures: Wolf, Morike, Bonney, Parsons.

*****
Friends, this will be my last post for a while. Happy listening.

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#424 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA IN A-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 26

#424

BEETHOVEN

PIANO SONATA IN A-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 26

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

Continuing our Beethoven Sonata survey…

Beethoven wrote the A-flat Major sonata in 1801 when he was 31 shortly after he composed his first symphony. The calmness of this sonata and the exuberance of the first symphony would seem to indicate that Beethoven was experiencing a peaceful time in his young life. The sonata was published in 1802.

When pianists think of Opus 26, they immediately think of its unusual form. Of the four movements, not one is actually in sonata form, the prevailing formal structure involving the development of two themes in a tightly regulated harmonic scheme. Each one of the movements, rather, is like a separate character piece. The pianist Angela Hewitt likens the sonata to a divertimento, which was a loosely gathered set of pieces that have no thematic relationship to each other.

The theme and five variations of the first movement are comforting, almost “religious,” as Beethoven’s prodigy Carl Czerny regarded them. The sparkle of the second movement scherzo is followed by a surprise funeral march third movement. Very ambiguously—and with no explanation—Beethoven subtitled this third movement, a “funeral march on the death of a hero.”

Chopin regarded the Opus 26 sonata as his favorite Beethoven sonata, playing it often and teaching it. (It would have been a relatively “new” work at the time, written just 30 years previously.) It seems likely that the part of the sonata that Chopin was most attracted to was the third movement funeral march. His own second sonata has a slow movement funeral march, which has become the most famous funeral march in all of classical music.

The fourth movement is very much like an etude, with running sixteenth notes throughout. Hewitt speculates that Beethoven was influenced into writing such an etude-like piece by his recent acquaintance with John Baptist Cramer, the transplanted German living in England who wrote many similar etudes for the purpose of finger development.

My personal feeling about not only Opus 26, but the sonatas of this period of Beethoven’s life—his late 20’s and early 30’s—is that his etude-like movements such as this one are really very much FUN to play. In Opus 26, Beethoven omits a flashy brilliant conclusion in favor of simply fading away.

As always—Richard Goode’s playing of Beethoven is exemplary.

Let me parenthetically say, in this post, that we are approaching the half-way point in the sonatas. I do hope that, in addition to reading and listening to these Beethoven sonatas here in Facebook, you’ll take the time at some point to visit my music-i-love.com site and click on the BEETHOVEN SONATAS on the right-hand side, which will allow you, should you desire, to listen to all the sonatas chronologically as Beethoven wrote them or in any other way that suits you. As I’ve mentioned before, the Beethoven Sonatas–along with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier–are considered to be the CENTRAL, indispensable portions of the entire piano repertoire.

Movement timings:

1st mov’t 0:00
2nd mov’t 7:39
3rd mov’t 10:17
4th mov’t 15:57

Pics: young Beethoven; John Baptist Cramer; theme of variations first movement.

 

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#422 PALESTRINA MISSA PAPAE MARCELLI: CREDO

#422

PALESTRINA

MISSA PAPAE MARCELLI: CREDO

TALLIS SCHOLARS
PETER PHILLIPS, DIRECTOR

Slowly but surely, we are continuing our way through the five movements of Palestrina’s heavenly Pope Marcellus Mass with the third, and longest, movement, the Credo. Previously, I’ve posted the Kyrie (MIL #79) and the Gloria (MIL #396).

It is ironic that the work that is regarded as Palestrina’s greatest [which, for reference, would mean a 10 on the 1-to-10 scale, while the rest of his output would be in the 9.5 arena] was written in honor of a newly elected pope—Marcellus II—who reigned for a mere three weeks. Marcellus had a weak constitution and he succumbed to illness shortly after being named pope.

The texture of the entire mass—all five movements—is six voice polyphony. You may remember that Palestrina was THE musical voice of the Counter-Reformation. One of the paths the Catholic Church was taking in order to become a more real day-to-day part of parishioners’ lives was by making the texts of the musical portions of the mass more intelligible, more direct. Abandoning the melismatic weaving in and out of vocal lines, which had become traditional, in favor of a simpler homophonic declamatory text, Palestrina became the musical gateway for Catholics to hear and better understand what it was they professed to believe.

The centrally-located CREDO movement—always the third of a mass’s five movements—is most often also the longest movement. It is central because of the importance of its text to all Christians, and it is long because it includes the entire text of the Nicene Creed.

The Nicene Creed was a text that came out of the Second Ecumenical Council in 325 AD. In Nicea (in present day northwestern Turkey), this important meeting of church elders laid the foundations of Catholic belief for centuries to follow. Included in its deliberations was a universal statement of belief, which became known as the Nicene Creed. Here is that text:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

*****

Certainly, the aural beauty of Palestrina’s writing—always aided by the acoustics of whatever church it is being performed in—can—and did—go a long way in simultaneously comforting and educating congregants. From a musician’s perspective, of course, the text could be anything. It is the music that is gorgeous.

Enjoy.

Pics: Palestrina; Pope Marcellus II; St. Peter’s Square, Vatican; interior of Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore at the Vatican where Palestrina’s works would have been heard.

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#421 SAINT-SAENS PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN G MINOR, OPUS 22

#421

SAINT-SAENS

PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN G MINOR, OPUS 22

FIRST and THIRD MOVEMENTS

VERDA ERMAN, PIANO
ISTANBUL STATE SYMPHONY
NEZIH SECKIN, CONDUCTOR

Back to 1868…like being in a time machine…

French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) was a genius. Because he was a musical prodigy, a career in music seemed inevitable—and that is exactly what occurred. In his long lifetime, Saint-Saens became one of the best-known and most-performed musicians alive. But he also distinguished himself in the study of French literature, Latin and Greek, theology, mathematics, philosophy, archaeology and astronomy. He was particularly drawn to astronomy. He could have made a career in any of these fields.

As a musician, Saint-Saens was primarily a composer, but he was also the organist at the magnificent church La Madeleine, the church of the Empire (where, among others, the memorial services of Chopin and Faure were held). His teaching career at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris was brief by choice—just five years—but it was substantial enough to hand down a revered legacy to his student Faure and Faure’s student, Ravel, both of whom regarded Saint-Saens as a genius of the highest order.

*****

Saint-Saens wrote five piano concertos. In a previous posting, we heard Saint-Saens Fifth Piano Concerto (Music I Love # 244), nicknamed the “Egyptian” after its exotic second movement. The “Egyptian” does not get played that often, although in recent years French pianist Jean Ives-Thibaudet has become a vigorous champion of the work. One hears much more often the Second and Fourth Concertos. And, of all five concertos, there is no real question that the one with the most immediate audience appeal is #2. Saint-Saens wrote it in three weeks (!) when he was a young 33 years old.

The outer movements of the concerto, in particular, are replete with the fireworks that one would expect from a composer who is also a magnificent virtuoso pianist. The first movement is dramatic and serious, the third movement light as air, but both require impressive technical abilities.

*****

Anyone reading my posts from the outset in 2017 will see that I have been delving deeper and deeper into Turkish music—music both modern and ancient, instruments both familiar and not so familiar, and performers both popular and classical. Obviously, being married to a first-rate Turkish musician—as well as having an extraordinary sister-in-law pianist—there have been some inevitable pro-Turkish musical influences on me. But Tiraje has never been one to push onto anyone her preferences or opinions (on anything). So, although she has always pointed out Turkish musical artistry to me, I find that I am only now hungrily asking her opinion about this and that music, this or that performer, and so on.

*****

Verda Erman

There is no lack of great modern classical Turkish musicians, and perhaps that is most true concerning pianists. One of the pianists that Tiraje has introduced me to recently is Verda Erman, a pianist with both amazing technical and interpretive abilities. I am posting her playing today because it is so noteworthy.

Verda Erman became a State Artist in 1971, the year the honorary title was created (a title also held by Tiraje’s siter, Meral). She toured extensively around the world as a guest musician after 1971. She enjoyed successful tenures in Belgrade, Paris, Montreal and Bucharest. Pianist Rudolf Serkin invited her to the Marlboro Music School and Festival in the U.S. state of Vermont. She continued to perform with the Turkish Presidential Symphony Orchestra as piano soloist on the orchestra’s European tours. Erman’s death in 2014 from leukemia was a real blow to the world of Turkish classical music.

In today’s links, you will hear that Verda Erman’s abilities are not quite matched by the Istanbul Symphony, good as that orchestra is. Nor is the balance between soloist and orchestra ideal. Nevertheless, from a pianistic perspective, this is an outstanding Saint-Saens Second, one of the best I have ever heard.

For me, listening to Erman’s playing is like being in a time machine. How easy it is to imagine, while hearing Erman’s playing, that you are actually there in the hall as the young Saint-Saens premiered his concerto, with the great Anton Rubinstein conducting. This is amazing playing of an amazing work.

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#418 RACHMANINOFF TWO ETUDES-TABLEAUX

#418

RACHMANINOFF

ETUDE-TABLEAUX IN E-FLAT MINOR OPUS 39, NO. 5
ALEXEI SULTANOV, PIANO

ETUDE-TABLEAUX IN E-FLAT MAJOR OPUS 33, NO. 7
SERGEI RACHMANINOFF, PIANO

I’ve had occasion to write about the Rachmaninoff Preludes in previous posts. They are 24 pieces, one in each major and each minor key, covering a vast amount of emotional territory, each one of which has very exacting technical demands for the performer. At least half a dozen of these are of the “greatest hit” variety, works that are firmly entrenched in the fingers of most pianists and in the aural memories of millions of listeners.

Also among Rachmaninoff’s works for piano are two books of Etudes-Tableaux, his Opus 33 and 39, a total of 17 etudes. Almost without exception, the technical challenges of the etudes-tableaux are a cut above the preludes. These are virtuoso pieces.

Rachmaninoff wrote the eight etudes that comprise the Opus 33 etudes in 1911 at the age of 38; he wrote the nine etudes that comprise Opus 39 in 1917.

I thought it might be interesting to contrast two of them, one in the most tragic of keys—E-flat minor, from Opus 39—and one in the most triumphant—E-flat major, from Opus 33. The links I have chosen are pretty extraordinary.

*****

Although it may be difficult for present-day music lovers to understand, being accepted as a serious composer—a composer with musical ideas that had depth and “meaning”—however that is defined—was an uphill climb for Rachmaninoff. Much of his early piano music was regarded as being for the salon. A typical representation of the place Rachmaninoff held in Russian society prior to the 1917 Revolution is shown in the movie Doctor Zhivago in a scene where Rachmaninoff is playing his music in a salon in Zhivago’s in-laws apartment. (In the scene, Zhivago and his father-in-law leave the house-recital to go outside for a smoke, the inference being that coming and going from a salon recital was a barometer of how meaningless the event was.)

But Rachmaninoff’s etudes-tableaux were absolutely meant for the concert stage, and made it clear that Rachmaninoff was a contender.

*****

Opus 39, no. 5, E-flat minor

Several years ago, the British classical music magazine Gramophone published an excellent article on Rachmaninoff, written by Bryce Morrison, from which I am quoting:

“The sticking, and now tipping, point surely lies in Rachmaninov’s unapologetic emotionalism, a quality dear to the Russian soul but one viewed with suspicion and even distaste by a more academic and circumspect mentality. Rachmaninov is now no longer exclusive to Russia but is performed by pianists of virtually every nationality – even the French have erased their once snobbish disdain. Yet if Rachmaninov’s Romantic rhetoric and deep-dyed melancholy are central to Russia, it must be said that even Sviatoslav Richter, Rachmaninov pianist par excellence, shied away from the emotional storms of Op 39 No 5, declaring, ‘Although I love listening to it I try to avoid playing such music as it makes me feel completely naked emotionally. But if you decide to perform it, be good enough to undress.’

If proof of Rachmaninov’s stature were needed it would surely be provided by the Etudes-tableaux, Op 39, his second book of studies and a notable advance in richness and complexity on the earlier but very attractive Op 33 set. Completed in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution and the time of the composer’s enforced exile, they mirror a dark and clouded ecstasy…”

This E-flat minor etude has become, over the past century, a measuring stick of the technical prowess of many, many piano competition contestants. The turbulence of its storm and the darkness of its melody involve audiences from its first notes.

Alexei Sultanov was a Russian pianist from Uzbekistan. His story is pretty tragic. At the age of 19, he won the eighth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He was the youngest competitor in the competition. Part of the Cliburn prize involves performances around the world along with career management opportunity. Sultanov did not need to prove himself further after this win, but he made headlines again in 1995 at the International Chopin Competition. The jury awarded no grand prize, but offered Sultanov second prize, an award he rejected, feeling he should have won—a verdict that many others held—he was certainly the people’s choice.

In 1996, at the age of 27, he suffered what turned out to be his first stroke. He was diagnosed with blood clots in the brain. He suffered a second stroke onstage while performing in Tokyo. A third stroke in 2001 left him only able to play piano while in a wheelchair. Another stroke finally killed him in 2005.

This particular performance is from the 1989 Cliburn competition, which he won.

*****

Etude Opus 33, no. 7 (The Fair)

I remember the first time I heard this etude was in a piano competition I was involved in. It was performed by a girl I knew—who ultimately won the contest—and as soon as I heard her last notes, I knew I had to learn the piece. What starts out sounding like a military march turns, by the last page, into a wonderful cascade of showering sounds. It is a great encore piece.

The moniker “tableaux” was an indication—from the composer himself—that he had been inspired by certain things—paintings, people, events, and so on—for the composition of each piece. He purposefully kept these associations to himself—like Chopin, he was dead-set against the idea of forcing upon listeners extra-musical associations. Nevertheless, when he was asked to allow the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi to orchestrate five of his etudes-tableaux, Rachmaninoff shared with Respighi certain information about the etudes. This particular etude reminded Rachmaninoff of a festive fair—and it certainly sounds that way.

This link is absolutely fascinating. First of all, it is of Rachmaninoff himself playing. It is yet another of Zenph Studios re-creations of original performances, taken from piano rolls, transferred with microscopic precision to a Yamaha Disclavier, and then—via their own software—superimposed with a colorful visual image of the work as it is played, with important notes given a larger appearance and different colors than less-important notes, and with time values accordingly indicated by size. The clip is both aurally and visually mesmerizing.

Two etudes-tableaux of Rachmaninoff…

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#417 BACH CELLO SUITE NO. 1 IN G MAJOR, BWV 1007

#417

BACH

CELLO SUITE NO. 1 IN G MAJOR, BWV 1007

YO-YO MA, CELLO

Austere comfort…

I first encountered the Bach Cello Suites in the late 1980’s when I was in one of those I-know-this-is-important-music-that-I-am-just-not-familiar-with-so-what-am-I-waiting-for moods. I had a pretty clear idea of what I was about to hear, but I did not realize the size of the dose of musical profundity I was going to experience.

You may recall from Music I Love #318, the Bach B-flat Major Partita for keyboard, that I mentioned a few things about the baroque suite. A suite—which also went by other names such as “partita”—was a grouping of stylized dances—pieces not meant to be danced to, but reminiscent of dances that had been, or were, known to audiences of the time. Typically, these dances could include an allemande, a courante, a sarabande, a minuet, a bourree, a gavotte, and a gigue. Suites could include all of these dances or just a few. In his virtuoso suites for solo keyboard, violin, and cello, Bach would also include an introductory Prelude, which was often—because of its position and length—the most substantial piece of his suites.

So I knew, from reading about them, that Bach’s cello suites were landmark—monumental, even—works for cello. I knew they had lain in obscurity for nearly 200 years until the 20th century cellist Pablo Casals brought them to public attention. I knew that, in writing for the solo cello, Bach had created textures that would make it seem to the listener that multiple musical lines were occurring—that he effectively wrote counterpoint for cello. I had even read the famous quotation from Wilfred Mellers Man and His Music that in the cello suites, Bach had, in his monophonic cello music, “created a dance of God.”

But I had not listened to a single note of the cello suites until I was in my late 30’s. And so the first notes of a cello suite I heard were the first notes of the first suite in G major in the set of complete cello suites played by a relatively young Yo-Yo-Ma.

I found—and still find—the music to have dual qualities—austere yet comforting. Like hearing a comforting voice from afar while you are crossing a lonely space. That is still my reaction to them. They draw you in and keep your attention, note by note.

In the G Major Suite, the Prelude has, over the decades since Casals, become the most recognizable piece in the suite. But make no mistake, Bach draws the listener “into” every movement, one after another.

Pablo Casals, the Spanish cellist who is considered one of greatest cellists of all time, was in a thrift shop at the age of 13 when he found a very old score of the cello suites. Subsequently, he learned them and performed all six suites in public his whole life. But it was not until he was 60 years old that he recorded them. Their popularity skyrocketed, as the whole world of art music became aware of their existence.

The Cello Suites are a central part of every serious cellist’s repertoire today. Every great cellist has recorded them. Two cellists—Yo-Yo Ma and Janos Starker—won Best Instrumental Soloist Grammys for their respective recordings of the suites.

Just to give a little context and chronology to where these works appear in Bach’s output: I’ve posted a number of his Cantatas in MIL, the vast majority of which were written after Bach settled in Leipzig in 1723—where he remained for the rest of his life, and where his duties were, primarily, wrapped up with the Lutheran Church. The BWV numbers given to these cantatas—which start at #1 and proceed upwards—would give the idea to the uninitiated that these were Bach’s first works. But such is not the case. The BWV (Bach Werke Verzeichnis) catalog simply lists works by category with no regard for chronology. The Cello Suites—numbered BWV 1007-1012—actually predate Bach’s time in Leipzig when he lived and worked in Kothen, and could spend considerably more time writing instrumental, secular music. The G Major suite dates from 1717, when Bach was 32 years old.

*****

The performance I am linking to is one I find quite amazing. Once again, this is a performance in Royal Albert Hall in London. Royal Albert Hall seats 5300 people and has a 150 year history of hosting the very best performers in every musical genre. When Tiraje and I saw Royal Albert Hall, we were blown away by its size, its majesty, and its incredible history—all well documented in photos along the corridors which ring the outside of the performance space.

To confidently come out into the middle of its stage, in front of a full house, and melt into your own world of sound creation for an extended period of time—to hold an audience captive with your every note—with perfect intonation and grace—all of which Ma does here—is…well, I’m at a loss for words. Astonishing? Amazing? Admirable?

This is a great performance. I hope everyone will enjoy it.

0:12 Prelude
2:42 Allemande
7:02 Courante
9:47 Sarabande
12:33 Menuet I & II
16:04 Gigue

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#416 LUIGI DALLAPICCOLA QUADERNO MUSICALE DI ANNALIBERA (ANNALIBERA’S MUSICAL NOTEBOOK)

#416

LUIGI DALLAPICCOLA

QUADERNO MUSICALE DI ANNALIBERA (ANNALIBERA’S MUSICAL NOTEBOOK)

CIRO LONGOBARDI, PIANO

Twelve-tone beauty–not an oxymoron…

First off, let me apologize for all the references in my posts about my college years, whether at Juilliard in New York or at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. I can imagine that they get tedious. Other musicians though, I know, can relate to their collegiate years as being, for them personally, like the blooming of a flower or maybe the process of metamorphosis in butterflies, a time of intense and rapid and exciting and unanticipated growth.

And so it was for me. For me, maybe even more so than other pianists I knew because—whether by nature or choice or the narrow scope of my music education prior to college—I was a musical conservative. As I entered Juilliard, I considered most music of the 20th century to be an aberration—a large and continuous but nevertheless real aberration, a mistake. Bela Bartok, for me—one of the pillars of 20th century music whose works will live on as long as music is performed—was a bridge too far for my consideration. You get the idea.

With my head firmly buried in the sand, I entered into my collegiate years. I would love to say that my “conversion” to openmindedness—and to seriously understand that music has its own evolution—was something that happened spontaneously. But it actually took some time.

By the time I was in my doctoral studies, I was no longer so stuck in this conservatism—no longer exercising that knee-jerk rejection to music that was in some way “different.” While at CCM, one of my required courses was Modern Piano Music—or some such title, I actually forget what the class was called—for all grad student piano majors. It was taught by Jeanne Kirstein, a woman with a lovely personality, a pianist with a national reputation as a modern music champion, and who looked (in my retrospective remembrance) like a less severe version of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s U.N. ambassador.

Although my stance toward the modern had softened somewhat, I let her know that I was hardly a proponent of serialism—the system of music composition devised by Arnold Schonberg in the 1920’s.

Serialism is one of the larger sub-topics in all of 20th century music. In a single post like this, laying out the particulars of serial music is neither necessary or possible, but the foundational fundamentals are important to know with regard to the Dallapiccola, so bear with me.

Serial music, in its initial and purist form, is music composition in which the form of a piece relies on the arbitrary arrangement of the twelve different pitches within the octave, C-C sharp-D and so on up to B, as a basis for a composition. These twelve tones can appear in any order the composer desires, so long as no pitch is repeated. That particular arrangement is then referred to as the “row” for the piece. The intervallic arrangement of the “row” can be then be inverted or the notes of the row can appear in reverse order (“retrograde”), and the composer is free to create chords using combinations of these pitches as the work progresses.

This is the briefest possible explanation of 12-tone music. Some musicians—like pianist and fellow composer Artur Schnabel—hailed 12-tone serialism as the greatest “spiritual breakthrough” in the history of music. Many others lamented it as being the death of art music. As it no longer relied on—indeed, it completely abandoned—harmony as it had been known, it was a totally different kind of music. “Atonal” music—with no harmonic centers, no aural markers or boundaries–seemed—again, not to all, but to many, including myself—to have taken a very wrong path.

The great Leonard Bernstein had written in his Joy of Music book that traditional harmony such as had been in existence for centuries was the NATURAL evolution of music and that he expected it to NEVER go away, regardless how long humanity existed. Serialism—12-tone music—seemed to put a dagger in the heart of that kind of philosophy.

From our perch here in 2019, I think it is correct to say that serialism will ultimately be regarded as a lengthy but temporary phenomenon in art music.

*****

But to return to my Dallapiccola. So, I had let Jeanne Kirstein know about my aversion to twelve tone music. She said she would like for me to learn Luigi Dallapiccola’s Quaderna Musicale di Annalibera, a twelve-tone work, and play it for the class. I begrudgingly accepted the assignment. And I was very glad I did. Kirstein was very encouraging to me, telling me that, in spite of my predisposition against the work, I had given an exemplary performance and that I ought to consider going down that very broad road—which certainly had room for me–of modern piano music.

*****

The Quaderno is a work written by the Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola in 1952 as an “exercise book” (quaderno) and dedicated to his 8-year old daughter Annalibera. It is a work that, to my ears and I think in the ears of many other musicians, makes serialism not just palatable, but enjoyable.

The work is comprised of eleven brief pieces. I could list their names here, but they are all essentially musical terms that have no bearing on the emotional content of each piece. The work, in total, is dense but includes enough references to traditional harmony—as when, say, three pitches of a recognizable major or minor chord appear simultaneously or in quick succession—to help listeners—like I was, anyway—relate.

I am certain—very certain—that this piece will not appeal to the majority of my readers. But I do think that the Quaderno contains beauties that are there for us to behold if we allow ourselves to step “outside the box”—and that it will definitely make its mark in some listeners’ imaginations.

*****

Ciro Longobardi is one of the most highly revered pianists of 20th and 21st century piano music. He and his Ensemble Dissonanzen perform all over the world. He is professor of piano at the Conservatorio G. Martucci in Salerno, and has also taught at the Manhattan School of Music and the University of Chicago.

Pictures are Dallapiccola, and Dallapiccola with his daughter Annalibera.

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#413 SCRIABIN ETUDE IN B-FLAT MINOR, OPUS 8, NO. 11

#413

SCRIABIN

ETUDE IN B-FLAT MINOR, OPUS 8, NO. 11

The etudes of Scriabin hold a special place in my heart. Back in the day, I did my doctoral thesis on the Scriabin Etudes. My choosing them to write about and to play was an outgrowth of the love I had acquired for Scriabin in my undergrad years, listening to as much of him as possible as well as reading everything I could find about him. (Faubion Bowers 2-volume biography of him being at the top of any Scriabin must-reads list.)

I have to say that it was also Scriabin’s non-musical life—the way he thought, the things he thought ABOUT—and the way these things—his mysticism, his theosophical leanings, his grandiosity, his friendships, his fascination with color and synesthesia—the way these things were ultimately reflected in his music that held my constant attention.

When I return to Scriabin again in these posts, I’ll be talking about his five symphonies, each one of which I find compelling. But Scriabin, in spite of his substantial output of orchestral music, will always be associated with the piano.

As an extremely sensitive and impressionable young boy, Scriabin slept with the Chopin Nocturnes under his pillow. So strong was his identification with Chopin that the vast majority of his compositions for piano bear the same titles as Chopin’s work—Nocturnes, Preludes, Etudes, Mazurkas, and so on.

Scriabin had a relatively brief life, dying at the age of 43. Those who write about composers invariably divide a composer’s work into three periods regardless how long the composer actually lived, and this holds true for Scriabin as well. A more accurate accounting of his works, I feel, would be to divide them in half: the first half ending with the Fifth Piano Sonata, the second half with the Tenth.

Nevertheless, when thinking about the Etudes, they do indeed to have a threefold feel. The first set of 12, Opus 8, were written in 1894, and are as close to Chopin as any of his Etudes would be.

The second set of 8, Opus 42, were written in 1903, and reflect what many would consider to be Scriabin’s “beautiful” period—my term actually, but what I mean is that the piano music of these years was harmonically rich, gorgeous, and rhythmically challenging. Cross-rhythms—the apposition of groupings of, say, five notes per beat in the right hand against groupings of two or three in the left hand—were an intrinsic part of Scriabin’s style. They give a kaleidoscopic effect to all his piano works.

The three etudes of Opus 65, written in 1912, are of a completely different order —one might say Scriabin had left earth altogether by then. The first of these etudes is written entirely in parallel 7ths, the second one in parallel 9ths, the 3rd in parallel 11ths. Since he was no longer thinking harmonically in the traditional sense, these etudes produce what, to our unaccustomed ears, seem like dissonance upon dissonance.

*****

I’m mentioning these highlights of the etudes in their entirety to give context to the one I am posting today—Opus 8, no. 11. The Opus 8 etudes—most of which are etudes in the literal sense, meaning they challenge the player in some area of his technique, often requiring virtuosity—also contain several piercingly tender works that would fall more into the category of lyric pieces. One of these, and one of my favorites, is #11 in B-flat Minor.

As I said, there is a strong Chopinesque streak that runs through Scriabin’s early works. It is as though we are hearing Chopin through another genius’s ears. When Scriabin would combine the melancholy he identified with in Chopin with an unavoidable Russianness—he was, after all, Russian through and through—the result is a piece like this etude. It is a deeply soulful work—as though one is remembering sad events from long ago—comprised of unending melody in a harmonic framework that is always, however slowly, moving ahead.

I woke up today hearing this piece in my mind’s ear. I’ve been playing it recently, and I guess that’s why. It is the kind of work that stays with you forever.

I looked through many performances on YouTube until I found one that I think best reflects what Scriabin was after, both in tempo choice and phrasing. Gordon Fergus-Thompson, a British pianist, has obviously lived with this piece his whole life, and we are the beneficiaries of that.

Pics: a young Scriabin, pianist Gordon Fergus-Thompson.

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#412 BRAHMS NANIE, OPUS 82

#412

BRAHMS

NANIE, OPUS 82

ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONAIRRE ET ROMANTIQUE
MONTEVERDI CHOIR
JOHN ELIOT GARDINER, CONDUCTOR

One of Brahms’ good friends in Vienna was the painter Anselm Feuerbach. Feuerbach was to painting what Brahms was to music composition—meaning they had the same classically-rooted inclinations. When, in 1880, Feuerbach died, Brahms was moved to write a work in his memory. They had been close, and nearly the same age. Feuerbach’s death was unexpected. The work that Brahms wrote as a memorial to Feuerbach is Nanie. Nanie means “a funeral song,” which is derived from the Roman goddess of funerary lamentation, Nenia.

*****

My parents-in-law, years ago, had a summer home on the Black Sea, a modest stucco house in which one could enjoy the fresh air and hear the waves of the nearby sea. On our first visit to the house, which was actually still under construction, I strolled out onto the porch, in the mid-day sun, to listen to some music on my Walkman. I put in a newly-purchased cassette—I had brought along a number of them to discover while on vacation—and started to listen to it as I walked around the porch. The first sounds I heard were heavenly.

It was Nanie, which opens with a blanket of orchestral serenity and the presence of an always-comforting oboe. When the chorus enters, it was almost an afterthought, a surprise.

But of course, it is a most beautiful “afterthought,” for the chorus is the centerpiece of the work. In some ways, in Nanie, the chorus is like a Greek chorus, intoning words that lament not the passing of Brahms’ friend, but the ever-present reality of death in our world. Brahms used the text to Schiller’s “Nanie,” which begins with the lament: EVEN THE BEAUTIFUL MUST PERISH!

In a similar way to Brahms’ approach to musically commenting on death, which we heard in the German Requiem (Music I Love #104-107), so we hear here an acquiescence to the inevitable, a surrendering to our common fate. Nanie is a work of comfort, meant to console the living.

As a measure of Brahms creativity, it is impressive that Brahms could compose Nanie—along with his Academic Festival Overture and Tragic Overture—all substantial (and wonderful) compositions—as peripheral works to the composition of the monumental second piano concerto, which we recently listened to (MIL #406)–all composed in the same 18-month period.

John Eliot Gardiner offers here a heartfelt, sympathetic performance of Nanie.

Pics: Nenia, goddess of funerary lamentation; Anselm Feuerbach, painter, in a self-portrait.

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#410 CHOPIN PRELUDE IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 28, NO. 19

#410

CHOPIN

PRELUDE IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 28, NO. 19

EVGENY KISSIN, PIANO

I have mentioned in other posts of selected Chopin Preludes how the composition of these 24 gems came about—the disastrous trip that Chopin and George Sand made to Majorca in order to restore his health but which ended up nearly killing him—the shunning of the two, who were not married, by the local populace—the tiny piano that he had hauled up to a deserted farmhouse where they had to reside while the unending torrential rains poured down and upon which he composed the Preludes—etc.

All of these exquisite pieces are short. The longest, the one in D-flat Major (nicknamed the “Raindrop”), is just four and a half minutes long. Many of the Preludes are not much more than a minute long.

But these are pretty special minutes.

In writing 24 Preludes, Chopin covered every major and minor key—12 major, 12 minor. The arrangement of the 24 published preludes involved going around the circle of fifths and concurrently placing the relative Minor key after each Major key: C Major—A minor; G Major—E minor; etc. In writing such brief pieces, it is as though Chopin cut through every possible extraneous thought and cut right to the core of his creative imaginings. Listening to each one is like walking through a door into a stunningly beautiful landscape. They take your breath away.

In my prior postings—of the D-flat Major, A major, and A-flat major—I suppose it became evident that I have a preference for the major key preludes—the odd-numbered ones. Number 19 in E-flat is one of those. I think you will find that giving a minute of your day to this work is a very profitable time investment.

Another obvious choice in many of my piano postings involves the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, whose playing here is so crystalline, so evocative of Chopin’s beautiful soul.

*****

Just as an aside: Chopin, as you know, died young, at the age of 39. He had suffered—greatly—with “consumption”—which modern-day medicine has retroactively labeled tuberculosis—from his late teens. Aside from his music, it was the other leitmotif of his life—EVERYTHING in his life had to be planned around it. The photo of Chopin in this Prelude clip—which is only one of two actual photographs taken of Chopin—was taken two months before he died. One can almost feel the pain he was in, looking 15 years older than his actual age. In the entire history of piano music, it is one of the standout photos.

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