Category: Orchestral/Choral/Chamber

#307 RAVEL PIANO TRIO IN A MINOR

#307

RAVEL

PIANO TRIO IN A MINOR
FIRST MOVEMENT: MODERE

TRIO RAFALE:
MAKIE WIEDERKEHR, PIANO
DANIEL MELLER, VIOLIN
FLURIN CUONZ, CELLO

The chamber music literature is rich with wonderful piano trios—works written for piano, violin, and cello. When I posted the first trio by Joaquin Turina (MIL #170), I mentioned that I had been fortunate enough to play for many years in the Sinclair Trio, comprised of Jaroslav Holesovsky violin, Jane Katsuyama cello, and myself on piano. Our weekly rehearsals and frequent performances were definitely a highlight of my musical life.

I would not have formed the trio if I had not already had a passion for the sounds of the piano trio. The combination surely is one greatest examples of e pluribus unum—“out of many”—in this case, three—“one” to be found in music. I don’t recall exactly what motivated me, as a high schooler, to start checking out LP’s of piano trios from the Dayton Public Library. But I certainly remember playing those LP’s on the record player at the foot of my bed. I loved them all, but none more than the Ravel Trio.

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Of the piano trios that have become mainstream literature, there are some relatively easy trios to learn and play—say, by Mozart, whose piano trios are regarded as the first in which the three instruments are treated equally, not dominated by the piano. Then there are piano trios that are somewhat more difficult, say, by Mendelssohn and Schubert. And then there are some very challenging trios, which require a significant time investment both in the practice room and in rehearsal—the Brahms and Rachmaninoff trios, and perhaps the biggest challenge, the Ravel Trio.

Ravel wrote his Trio in August and September of 1914 in a supercharged effort to finish the work before going off to do his part in World War I. He wrote in a white heat, accomplishing in five weeks what would have normally taken him five months of intense work. The end result is a marvelous work that instantly captures one’s attention from its first notes.

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Piano trios have been, historically, very traditional works. By that I mean they were not used as vehicles for formal innovation—very often, they assumed the same form as the piano sonata: a first movement in sonata form, a last movement often a rondo, and two movements in between, one a scherzo and trio, the other one slow and lyrical. A listing of major composers who wrote piano trios—in addition to those I’ve already cited—would include Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Smetana, Debussy, Anton Arensky, and Dmitri Shostakovich. The piano trio repertoire is vast, fruitful, and worth investigating.

There have been, and continue to be, many well-known performers who made playing piano trios a substantial part of their musical and performing life: the Borodin Trio, the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, the Ax-Kim-Ma Trio, the Trio Fontenay, the Suk Trio, the Rubinstein-Heifetz-Piatagorsky Trio—and many more. But with the increasing size of the middle class in the nineteenth century—which collectively observed the unstated dictum of “a piano in every home”—home music-making also provided a ripe opportunity for the transcription of many works for piano trio to be played by musical amateurs. A prime example of this was Beethoven, who transcribed his first two symphonies for piano trio!

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Maurice Ravel was born in southern France, in the very southwestern corner, in a town called Ciboure—in Basque country. In a culture that pre-dated both the Spanish and the French, and which overlapped those lands, Ravel grew up. It was impossible for him NOT to have Basque influences in his life, and therefore in his music. Such an influence pervades the first movement of his only piano trio, which utilizes a melancholy fourteen-note melody throughout.

A particular challenge for the composer of piano trios is making the cello part audible enough to counterbalance that of the higher pitched violin as well as the enormous piano, which can easily—in the hands of an insensitive player—overwhelm both stringed instruments. Ravel addressed this problem by writing for the extreme ranges—the lowest to highest notes—of all three instruments, while employing all manner of trills, glissandos, tremolos and the like, devices aimed at prolonging sound and showing with clarity the presence of each instrument.

There are dozens of Ravel Trios on YouTube. I think this one, by the Trio Rafale, is wonderful. Their tempo choices are particularly fine. Tempo choices can sometimes be very wide for a given work, with no harm done—certain facets of a work may show more clearly at a faster tempo, others at a slower one. But, as is sometimes the case, tempo choices are absolutely critical to the successful conveyance of a composer’s intentions. Just half a metronome notch too fast and a piece is ruined, as though the performers had no clues and had taken no time to get in touch—so to speak—with the composer’s mind. Half a metronome notch too slow and a piece can sound maudlin and dull. I was beginning to despair, when going through all of YouTube’s Ravel Trios,that I would not find one that was spot-on in conveying Ravel—as opposed to conveying the individual personalities of each player. Finally, I found this one, which is—to me—ideal.

The Trio Rafale was new to me. The players were students at the Hochschule der Künste in Zurich when they got together by chance, in 2008, to perform a chamber music concert—which included the Ravel Trio. They have stayed together ever since, winning major chamber music competitions and performing all over Europe and the world. They have just released their fourth CD. This particular clip comes from a performance in Osaka, Japan, where the Trio had just won the Osaka International Chamber Music Competition.  “Rafale” means a “gust of wind.”

The first movement ends at 9:40. Each of the four movements is wonderful, and I hope some listeners will find the time to listen to the work in its entirety, which is about 30 minutes long. You will certainly not regret it.
But, at the very least, I hope you will listen to the first movement.

Trying to describe in words what I feel when listening to this music—or trying to describe what I think YOU will feel—are both futile endeavors. I always remember that famous Victor Hugo quote about music, which pretty much sums up the futility of describing music in words: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to remain silent.”

Maybe it’s this very quality about music that keeps drawing us to it, like moths to a flame—except we never get burnt.

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#303 POULENC CONCERTO FOR TWO PIANOS IN D MINOR, FP 61

#303

POULENC

CONCERTO FOR TWO PIANOS IN D MINOR, FP 61

LUCAS AND ARTHUR JUSSEN, PIANOS
STEPHANE DENEVE, CONDUCTOR
ROYAL CONCERTGEBOUW ORCHESTRA

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a distinguished French composer. He grew up in Paris, the son of a wealthy manufacturer. The two sides of his personality—one religious, one light-hearted—were facets of his personality that he attributed to his father and mother, respectively. These two sides of his temperament were compositionally evident during his entire life.

Since his father forbade him to formally study music—he was expected to go into the family business—Poulenc was largely self-taught. After the deaths of his parents in the 1920’s, he became a protégé of Eric Satie, the well-known and eccentric composer who became the mentor of “Les Six”—“The Six”, a group of young composers whose compositions were a reaction against the chromaticism of Wagner and the impressionism of Debussy. Of these six—Auric, Honegger, Durey, Milhaud, Tallifierre (the only woman in the group), and Poulenc—Poulenc would emerge as the one whose compositions found a lasting place in the choral, vocal, and pianistic repertoire.

You may remember, in a previous post (#293, Ravel’s Pavane) that I mentioned the Princess de Polignac, whose Parisian salon concerts and personal financial largesse assisted many a composer and writer in establishing their careers. The Princess commissioned Poulenc to write a concerto for two pianos, which is today’s post.

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Two-piano concertos occupy a unique place in the piano repertoire, for several reasons:

Logistically, they require two (preferably excellent) pianos for performance. This is not a hugely limiting factor—many orchestras, even smaller ones, can finance the rental of instruments. And of course, in larger cities, orchestras very often have two excellent pianos always at hand. But–the availability of two instruments is always the initial consideration that executive directors of orchestras—or whoever has the responsibility for such decisions—must consider.

For composers, writing a concerto for two pianos is quite challenging. It is difficult enough to write emotionally expansive, technically challenging works for two pianos by themselves, with no orchestra involved. Adding in a full orchestra with which the two pianists “converse” and interweave is quite a task—far larger than, say, writing a concerto for a single piano.

Finally, and most importantly, two piano concertos require two excellent pianists who have adequate—bountiful, really—time to rehearse with each other, who know each other’s playing and personalities as well as they know their own. It is not coincidental that most two-piano teams are brothers or sisters or husband-wife. Victor Babin and Vitya Vronsky, Robert and Gaby Casadesus, John and Richard Contiguglia, Misha and Cipa Dichter, Josef and Rosina Lhevinne, Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold, Alfons and Aloys Kontarsy, Katia and Marielle Labeque, Guher and Suher Pekinel, and, in today’s link, the outstanding brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen—all have had that intimate knowledge necessary to know precisely, confidently and with no doubts, exactly what their partner was going to do at a given moment.

There have been many other great pianist collaborations who were NOT related, of course—Marta Argerich and Nelson Friere, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andre Previn, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia, and so on—but these are, by and large, exceptions to the rule.

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Because of these few but necessary “requirements”, there have only been a dozen or so two-piano concertos to permanently enter the concert repertoire—with those by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Vaughan Williams, and Poulenc being the most often performed.

Poulenc composed his Two Piano Concerto in 1932 at the age of 33. It is the climax of Poulenc’s early period, and remains a beloved work in the piano concerto repertoire. It is written in the three traditional movements, fast-slow-fast. The outer movements are brimming with energy. The middle movement is a purposeful homage to Mozart, as can very easily be heard in its opening notes—a mesmerizingly ethereal movement indeed. Poulenc had recently visited the 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Paris, where he was enchanted with the sounds of the Balinese gamelan—echoes of which are heard in the concerto. Likewise, as with Ravel in his G Major Concerto, one can hear a 1920’s-style jazz influence in the concerto.

Lucas and Arthur Jussen are Dutch brothers—not twins. Lucas is now 25, Arthur 22. The energy, absolute unity, and emotional penetration they display in all their performances (and recordings) qualifies them as being one of the best piano duos of the 21st century. They are products of noted pianists Maria Joao Pires and Lang Lang who, individually, taught and coached the brothers.

This is a superb performance of the Poulenc Two Piano Concerto. Enjoy.

1st movement

2nd movement

3rd movement

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#301 TCHAIKOVSKY SERENADE FOR STRINGS, OPUS 48, FIRST MOVEMENT

#301

TCHAIKOVSKY

SERENADE FOR STRINGS, OPUS 48
FIRST MOVEMENT

A FAR CRY CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Hello, everyone, I’m back from a break, ready to share more music I love.

In this five-week interim, I’ve gone back and read my previous posts to see if they were any threads or directions that I started out on but did not complete. There were—no surprise to me—a number of them, which I will address in the coming months—filling in gaps in composers’ lives and commenting on works that I obliquely mentioned in order to come back to later. And of course, I won’t neglect the “series” I’ve started—the Bach Cantatas, Beethoven Sonatas, Mozart Concertos, Beatles albums, and so on.

Several friends have encouraged me to be even more personal in my writing—relating how and why the music I write about came to mean something to me in the first place. I guess doing so only makes sense!

Finally, many of my posts have been rather lengthy, perhaps too much so. I will try to rein myself in, but I cannot make any promises! As my friends know, I do become loquacious when I am excited about something.

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I’ve made a few observations about myself during this break, the most pertinent having to do with my initial impetus for starting Music I Love a year ago. The two facts I mentioned at that time are still simple and pertinent:

• We all have a decreasing amount of time left in our lives.

I am 66, soon to be 67. Not that an obvious point like this needs underscoring—what could be more obvious?—but it was reinforced for me yesterday when a good friend and musical colleague, Randall Paul—who held a similar position to the one I held for many years, chairing a music department—his was Wright State—suddenly died. Randy was younger than me, very vital, always happy, always giving of himself. Life is too short, and we are seldom prepared for its end, whether our own or others’.

• I would like to give something of myself—to my friends, to the world—while I still have the time. Music in the only thing I have worth sharing, and sharing makes me feel good.

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My pace in this next year may not be quite as fast as it has been when I was posting every day. I am still teaching 15 students and holding a master class every week. And at home, I’m doing all the things that home ownership requires in terms of upkeep. But posting music I love has become a necessity—an enjoyable one—an integral part of my life. As long as I can, I will keep sharing. It would be hard for me to imagine “running out” of music I love. 

So, here starts my next year of posts. 
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I have previously mentioned spending a great deal of time in the Juilliard listening room, a spacious room in the emerald-green carpeted music library on the fifth (and top) floor of Juilliard. I was intent, particularly in my first student years in New York, with musically educating myself. My fellow freshmen colleagues were all so much more sophisticated and musically knowledgeable than I was. They all seemed to be 18 going on 35, very focused on their upcoming careers and intimately familiar with all the great music. This was probably even truer of the orchestral players than it was for pianists. I had catching up to do!

What a pleasure that “catching up” activity was! These were the LP days, of course, and I listened to one after another, night after night. What a world that listening opened up for me!

And one of the most pleasant surprises in this library listening would occur when I started listening to something and IMMEDIATELY would be taken over by it. How many times this happened! Where had THIS been my whole life?

One of those memories is the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. The four-movement work was composed by Tchaikovsky in 1880 when he was 40 years old. Each of its movements is quite felicitous, and by singling out the first movement, I intend no slight to the others.

But the forceful beauty of the first movement catches one off-guard and holds your attention. Tchaikovsky said he intended this first movement to be an imitation of Mozart—whom he passionately loved. He advises, in the score, that the more players in this strings-only chamber work, the better—the closer it would come to being “like Mozart.”

A Far Cry is a Boston-based chamber orchestra. They are, to put it mildly, extremely impressive, playing by memory and completely in sync with each other—an army of generals. This is best kind of performance, where listening to the music and observing the performance are equally compelling.

 

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#297 BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY #6 IN F MAJOR, OPUS 68 (“PASTORAL” SYMPHONY)

#297

BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY #6 IN F MAJOR, OPUS 68

FIRST MOVEMENT

VIENNA PHILHARMONIC
LEONARD BERNSTEIN, CONDUCTOR

The first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony—which is subtitled a “pastoral” symphony, intending to bring to mind a walk in the country and a bonding with nature at its most felicitous—is certainly one of my favorite works of Beethoven. You may already know that Beethoven—especially as his hearing loss grew more acute, and he was feeling more and more isolated within himself—took to taking long walks in the Viennese countryside. A direct result of these walks was his sixth symphony, which has five movements—not three or even four—each one of which has a description given by the composer, having to do with some aspect of nature:

1st mov’t Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside

2nd mov’t Scene by the brook

3rd mov’t Merry gathering of country folk

4th mov’t Thunderstorm

5th mov’t Shepherd’s song—cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

I first heard the Sixth Symphony—and all the other Beethoven symphonies—when I purchased, as a teenager, the complete set of Beethoven Symphonies performed by the NBC Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Truthfully, I probably played each one a hundred times in my high school years. One of my favorite movements from all nine symphonies is this one. Can there be a Beethoven work so full of repose and serenity as the first movement of the Sixth Symphony?

Soylent Green…

I have another strong association with the movement, other than just repeatedly—hedonistically—enjoying the music, ever since I was a young man. Perhaps like me, you have also seen Soylent Green, the 1973 movie starring Charleton Heston and Edward G. Robinson (in his last film)? It was a post-apocalyptic movie in which the earth, in the year 2022 (!), is experiencing a permanent greenhouse effect, pollution is rampant, resources all over the earth are depleted, and euthanasia has become the standard and accepted policy to deal with an overpopulated earth. There is a euthanasia scene—Edward G. Robinson has reached the age at which he is required to go to a particular station in order to be euthanized. Each person has some control over what they see and hear as they die in a drug-administered death. Edward G. Robinson’s character hears, as he dies, the first movement of the Beethoven Sixth Symphony (as well as a couple of other selections—Tchaikovsky and Grieg—“light classical” was his music request) while simultaneously watching fields of flowers and other scenes of nature. It is a very moving scene—especially on the big screen—and its effect in the movie is underscored by the contrast, in the rest of the movie, with continual darkness and shadows. The way the world used to be—back in the 20th century and earlier—is now only seen in movie projections. The scene is not something one forgets the beauty of. The use of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in the movie was pure genius.

And of course—movies aside—the music stands alone as yet another great Beethovenian monument…

This performance by Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic is a fine one.

Here also is the Soylent Green clip, for anyone interested. Unfortunately, the colors in this clip are not as vivid as they were in the movie! Beethoven starts at 2:39.

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#295 RICHARD WAGNER RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES

#295

RICHARD WAGNER

RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES

BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
DANIEL BARENBOIM, CONDUCTOR

UNCITED PERFORMERS FROM “APOCALYPSE NOW”

I once read, at least thirty years ago, that of all historical figures, the only person to have had more books written about himself than Richard Wagner was Jesus Christ. I don’t know where I read that statistic. I believe my reading it pre-dated my owning my first computer, so I would have no record of it other than the memory. And I don’t know how accurate the statement was. All I know is that it stuck in my head. I do know that quick checks online reveal that many thousands of books have been written about him, not only in German and English, but in other languages as well.

So it is with a little trepidation that I am posting my first post of Wagner.

He was just a composer, how could there possibly have been—why does there continue to be—so much interest in him?—I can hear a fictitious student ask. Obviously, he was more than just a composer, he was intellectually brilliant and a force of nature temperamentally. Compositionally, he WAS in fact second only to Beethoven in his influence on the course of art music—and some would say that is a reversal of the true order.

With Wagner, we’re not dealing with an ordinary man and we’re not dealing with an ordinary composer—even among the great ones.

I always try to create a balance in my posts between offering information about a composer—his life, and how the details of his life impacted the composition of certain works—and offering some information about a particular work in question. With Wagner, that simply can’t be done in a single post. There’s just too much information. Here are some basics, in no particular order, starting with a couple of that you may already remember from your high school world history class:

• Wagner (1813-1883) is continually—and correctly—identified with anti-semitism. His life and his music were later closely identified with Hitler and Nazism.

• He proudly claimed to be the most Germanic of all composers, embodying in his music the very essence of the German people, Germanic history, and Germanic legend.

• His life was as tumultuous as can be imagined, characterized by political exile, turbulent love affairs, and extreme debt while living in opulent circumstances, often provided by others. He was regarded and acknowledged to be the great genius of his time, so it was considered an honor for those with deep pockets—especially King Ludwig II of Bavaria—to support him.

• His reputation as a composer is as a creator of operas. When one thinks of Wagner, one thinks of opera. His concept of opera, known as the Gesamtkunstwerk, revolutionized the form. A Gesamtkunstwerk was a “total work of art,” encompassing not only musical, but poetic, visual, and dramatic arts all rolled into one experience. He combined these elements into the four operas comprising his Der Ring des Nibelungen—the Ring of the Nibelung. In Wagner’s vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, music was subservient to the drama—the verbal (sung) ideas and the stories they were depicting were the vehicles for the music, not vice versa. Wagner purposefully did not call himself a composer of operas, but of dramas.

• Wagner had his own opera house built at Bayreuth, Germany—built for the sole presentation of his operas, which continues to the present day. Hundreds of thousands of Wagner-lovers—a special category of music lovers, in my mind—have flocked to Bayreuth to hear Wagner operas every summer since the 1880’s. If one heard, at a typical Bayreuth Festival, only the four operas of The Ring, this would entail four days of concert attendance—people plan vacations around the Bayreuth Festival.

• Wagner’s operas number thirteen. Most are lengthy. They range in duration from Das Reingold at two hours and forty minutes to four hours and thiry-five minutes for Die Meistersinger. Attending a Wagner opera often means an earlier start time and later end time for a single performance.

• Musically, Wagner’s music became a pivotal point, a hinge, in the history of music—not just art music. His use of chromaticism and quickly changing tonal centers led to a reconsideration of the way musical form had been regarded and utilized. There would have been no Mahler or Bruckner—or essentially any twentieth century composition—as we now know it, anyway—without Wagner. Tristan and Isolde, a love story based on the Arthurian story, is perhaps Wagner’s most-loved opera with the general public, and is often cited as THE work on which this hinge first moved.

• Wagner’s wife, Cosima, had been both the married wife of the famed conductor Hans von Bulow and the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt when Wagner started a relationship with her. She gave birth to their daughter, Isolde, while still married to von Bulow.

• Both Wagner and Cosima were prolific writers. The strongest literary and philosophical influence on Wagner had been Arthur Schopenhauer, in whose works he identified with a deeply pessimistic view of humanity. Throughout his life, Wagner called his acquaintance with the writings of Schopenhauer the most important event of his life.
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These bulleted items are, as you might imagine, only the barest, thinnest outline of this man who became so pivotal in the history of music and the history of Germany—and by extension of both, the history of the western world. And, as is always the case, there is no need to know any of this to appreciate his music. Which brings up my next point.

It will come as no surprise, even to those who know no more about Wagner than what I have just written, that Wagner is a complex personality—regarded by some as despicable, and equally by others as admirable. His life exemplifies the truth—if we hadn’t grasped it already—that we will often find goodness and evil residing in great men, sometimes in equal proportion, just as can be seen as a general characteristic of all people. Part of the experience of growing up—it was certainly part of MY growing up experience—listening to great performances of great music written by great composers—is the gradual, but continual, realization that many of these men had flaws, some them pretty serious. Separating, in one’s mind, a man’s behavior from his abilities is an ongoing—and inevitable—part of music appreciation.
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Wagner’s Ring cycle included, as its second opera, Die Walkure—a story that was based on Norse mythology. In Norse mythology, a valkyrie is one in a group of female figures—goddesses—who decides which soldiers die in battle and which live. Die Walküre’s best-known excerpt is the “Ride of the Valkyries”. It is one of a handful of Wagnerian works that have become part of our everyday life, tunes that we recognize but often don’t know why.

But many readers may indeed know why you know this music. You may remember Francis Ford Coppola’s movie “Apocalpyse Now,” one of a number of Vietnam films that came out in the decade after America’s involvement in the war had ended. In it were displayed many horrors of the war, including a particularly brutal American helicopter attack on an innocent Vietnamese village. If you remember this scene, you also remember the music that accompanied it was The Ride of the Valkyries. I’m including a link to that to jog your memories.

Barenboim’s performance with the Berlin Philharmonic is quite exhilarating.

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#290 MONTEVERDI MAGNIFICAT

#290

MONTEVERDI

MAGNIFICAT

MONTEVERDI CHOIR
ENGLISH BAROQUE SOLOISTS
JOHN ELIOT GARDINER, CONDUCTOR

Images: Monteverdi–The Visitation, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1491–St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Claudio Monteverdi was the first truly significant composer of the Baroque era. Indeed, his life (1567-1643) overlaps the Renaissance with the Baroque in the same way that his music represents the last of the best of the Renaissance and the first of the best of the Baroque–the last great pillar of one musical era and the first great pillar of the next. His music is regarded as the great “hinge” between musical eras.

Monteverdi was born in Cremona. His life’s work was accomplished in two localities—in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo from 1590-1613, and at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice from 1613 till his death. He composed both sacred and secular music, was—for all intents—the first composer of opera (with his L’Orfeo), and was an astute defender of what became known as the “seconda pratica” or “stile moderno”—a style of composition that looked to the future, with its basso continuo style, as opposed to the past which had been rooted in Franco-Flemish polyphony.

In truth, though, Monteverdi was a master of both styles, and the prima pratica—the “first practice”—is more evident in this Magnifcat than the seconda.

In the Christian religion, the Magnificat is a highly regarded hymn, supposedly spontaneously uttered by Mary, the mother of Jesus, upon the visit of her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. It is a canticle—that is, a hymn not taken from the Psalms—and it appears in only one of the gospels, that of Luke.

The text, in modern English, is as follows:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his humble servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed,
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen. Alleluia.

The number of composers, both great and not-as-great, who composed musical settings for this text is quite impressive. It is, in fact, almost a who’s who of musical genius: Dunstable, Dufay, Binchois, Josquin, Taverner, Willaert, Tallis, Byrd, Victoria, Gabrieli, Praetorius, Monteverdi, Gibbons, Schutz, Buxtehude, Charpentier, Pachelbel, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach, Salieri, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Gounod, Franck, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Walton, Persichetti, Penderecki, and Rutter. These are just the “mountain peak” names of composers who wrote Magnificats. One can only guess, in hindsight, that composers may have regarded the writing of a Magnificat (usually, composers wrote only one) as some kind of rite of passage.

Musical settings of the Magnificat became, over time, a fixture in the Vespers—or evening—service within the Catholic Church. (Of course, prior to the Reformation, there was ONLY the Catholic Church; nevertheless, Magnificats were composed after the 16th century for Protestant consumption as well.) Claudio Monteverdi composed his Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) in 1610. Historically, Monteverdi would fall right in the middle of all these illustrious Magnificat composers. He had not left Mantua yet to become the maestro di capella at St. Mark’s—the most prestigious musical position in the Catholic world—so his Vespers became the crowning achievement of his years at the court of Mantua.

Indeed, Monteverdi’s Vespers was the greatest work of religious music before Bach. It is an outstanding, and lengthy (at 90 minutes), work. Monteverdi actually wrote TWO Magnificats for performance within his Vespers; they occur one after the other at the conclusion of the Vespers. The one I am linking to is the second one, the one that makes it onto “best-of” music appreciation listening lists. In his Vespers, Monteverdi links the past—all the movements of the Vespers including the two Magnificats are based on Gregorian Chant—with the future—a distinct veering away from modality to what we now regard as traditional functional harmony.

It has been conjectured that Monteverdi may have written the Vespers as a kind of “audition” work in his application to become St. Mark’s music director. We’ll never know. But John Eliot Gardiner assumed as much in his making of this legendary 1990 recording of the Vespers. It was recorded at St. Mark’s with its marvelous acoustics.

As always—one need not know ANY of this to appreciate every note of Monteverdi’s Magnificat. A sensitive soul and a curious spirit are all that is really required. The choral writing here is spectacular.

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#283 BACH CANTATA #26, BWV 26 ACH WIE FLUCHTIG, ACH WIE NICHTIG

#283

BACH

CANTATA #26, BWV 26

ACH WIE FLUCHTIG, ACH WIE NICHTIG
(AH, HOW FLEETING, AH HOW INSIGNIFICANT)

ALL MOVEMENTS (6)

Written 1724

BACH-COLLEGIUM STUTTGART (Movements 1-5)
HELMUTH RILLING, CONDUCTOR
ARLEEN AUGER, SOPRANO
DORIS SOFFEL, MEZZO-SOPRANO
ADALBERT KRAUS, TENOR
PHILIPPE HUTTENLOCHER, BASS

MUNICH BACH CHOIR AND ORCHESTRA (Movement 6)
KARL RICHTER, CONDUCTOR

Going from bubblegum pop yesterday to this Bach Cantata today is a little mind-blowing in its degree of change even for me–as though one was pedaling a bicycle down an alley and suddenly came to a clearing of endless vistas, verdant vegetation and blue skies.

When I first started posting the Bach Cantatas last August, I said that I would be presenting my “favorite” movement from each cantata, the one that I presumed would be THE hook for each cantata to lure listeners into listening to each cantata in its entirety.

I don’t know whether that has happened. I hope so.

But I have also had some times—Cantata #4 Christ Lag In Todesbanden and Cantata #202 Weichet Nur, Betrubte Schatten (the wedding cantata), for instance—where I simply felt I had to offer up every movement of those cantatas because they were not only all equally great, but each movement could in fact be one of those “hooks”. And so, once again, I am breaking my own self-imposed rule with Cantata #26.

This is a spectacular cantata. Bach wrote it in 1724, while his employment in Leipzig was only in its second year (of what would turn out to be twenty-seven). As you can gather from the English translation of the title, the textual theme of the cantata is the transience of human life, how fleeting it is, and how insignificant man is in relation to the eternal. Bach wrote the cantata in six movements, involving four soloists, the choir, and an orchestra which included a horn, flute, and three oboes.

MOV’T 1 (2:28)
ACH WIE FLUCHTIG, ACH WIE NICHTIG
(Ah, how fleeting, ah how insignificant)[

You may recall that in a “chorale” cantata, one hears a melody—often written by one of Bach’s Lutheran forebears, including, most notably Martin Luther himself—one hears a melody sung in long notes in one of the choral parts, with the others weaving around it or supporting it in some way underneath. In this movement, you will hear the sopranos singing this melody.

In this opening, the strings, and all orchestra members, play with astonishing vitality, followed by an equally adept chorus. The energy Bach displays in this movement is the very definition of forward motion, of music that is being propelled along. The abrupt suddenness of the end of the movement is indicative of the brevity of man’s time on earth.

I very much like Rilling’s recording of this because of the extreme energy he extracts from it, so I am linking to it. Unfortunately, the homemade videos that were uploaded along with Rilling’s recording have nothing—at all—to do with the music or with Bach. I would advise simply listening to the music and not get distracted by the videos.

MOV’T 2 (5:25)
SO SCHNELL EIN RAUSCHEND WASSER SCHEIST
(As quickly as rushing water)

Once again, we are reminded that in Leipzig, Bach must have had at his disposal—or at least, available—very fine singers. One would not write movements like this, requiring GREAT vocal skill, if singers were not actually available to serve as conduits for his music. In this recording, Adalbert Kraus is simply amazing. He and the flute and the violin are, in turn, supposed to bring to mind the “rushing water”—which they do.

MOV’T 3 (1:00)
“DIE FREUDE WIRD ZUR TRAURIGKEIT
(Joy becomes sadness)

The text here laments the obvious—that all of the works of mankind in general and of every man and woman individually are extinguished like a flame at death—like a flower that is here today, gone tomorrow. Again, Bach writes coloratura—quickly moving notes—this time for the alto. Such an impressive (and too brief!) recitative sung by Doris Soffel.

MOV’T 4 (4:33)
AN IRDISCHE SCHATZE DAS HERZE ZU HANGERN
(To hang one’s heart on earthly treasures)

A trio of oboes accompanies the bass soloist in yet another astonishing example of vocal virtuosity. Imaginative commentators hear this movement as a bizarre musical depiction of the underworld, a mock sarcastic dance of the dead. Personally, I think you have to have, a priori, a Christian (and Lutheran) lens to hear such a thing. But whatever one imagines—or, if one simply hears the music as music—this is a most entertaining movement.

MOV’T 5 (0:48)
DIE HOCHSTE HERRLICHKEIT UND PRACHT
(The highest glory and magnificence)

The text in this brief but very beautiful recitative—sung once again by Arleen Auger—says, once again, the obvious—that even the highest and most exalted earthly ruler is quite forgotten after his death. I have remarked before how very interesting Bach’s recitatives are—full of melodic and harmonic interest. Recitatives—solo vocal parts with sparse accompaniment—in this case, a quiet organ and string bass—usually just move the “action” along until the next aria is sung. Cantatas—and operas—very often alternate recitative and aria throughout an entire performance. Bach’s recitatives are different than most because they constantly involve the listener, they pull the listener in. They are equally important to his arias.

MOV’T 6 (1:00)
ACH WIE FLUCHTIG, ACH WIE NICHTIG
(How fleeting, how insignificant)

Although Rilling’s final movement, the 4-part chorale which ends all of the cantatas, is perfectly fine, I don’t think it captures the majesty of the music as well as Karl Richter’s, so I’m linking to it here. How easy it is to imagine oneself in Bach’s St. Thomas Church, with its red arches spanning the enormously high ceiling, and the reverberant acoustics propelling the sound upwards and backwards from the altar! This is a very impressive chorale movement.

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#279 BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY #7 IN A MAJOR, OPUS 92 – SECOND MOVEMENT

#279

BEETHOVEN

SYMPHONY #7 IN A MAJOR, OPUS 92
SECOND MOVEMENT – ALLEGRETTO

VIENNA PHILHARMONIC
LEONARD BERNSTEIN, CONDUCTOR

Music as therapy…

One of the advantages of becoming familiar with a lot of music is that, at various moments in your life, certain works come rushing from your subconscious to the surface of your mind to comfort you, or to match your mood, or to lift your mood—the library of music in your head becomes your therapeutic medicine shelf, without your having to lift a finger. Maybe you have experienced this.

I think I have mentioned somewhere along the way that I am a student of history. Few things—really, only music itself—have held a firmer grip on my mind for my entire life. I was in high school when I discovered I had this intense interest. It seemed to me then, at 16, and also now, fifty years later, that the primary descriptive word for what has happened over the course of history is “tragic.” One could say that this kind of thinking is pessimistic or cynical. But to me, I feel like the primary lens to view history is one of tragedy. For me, it’s just being realistic.

In particular, I’m always aware of the fact that history has been, and still is, a never-ending succession of wars. Different explanations are put forth as to why men go to war. Debates continually occur about how THIS war was a just war but THAT war was not. Very often one observes that the two sides of a given conflict are praying to the same god—and if not, they are certainly praying to THEIR god.

In the end, what is plainly observable is that, regardless of why or how, war has continually happened. It IS the thread—or maybe I should say the strong rope—running throughout mankind’s history. Millions upon millions of men have died, and the resulting sadness and heartbreak for the countless people who were left to cope when the war du jour ends is just immeasurable. The cheapness of life and the legitimacy of their cause are the common philosophical links among all the rulers—then and now—who send men (and in our time, women) to their deaths.

There are other points of view about history that I am not blind to. The genius of mankind, the impressive accomplishments of every successive civilization, the amazing things that have been discovered—in hundreds of disciplines—about our world and the universe. Those things are all like lights in the wilderness for us. The arts in particular keep our heads above water, and keep despair an arm’s length away.

My reading over the past few years has been focused on the continuing power struggles in western Europe from 1000 to 1600 and, most recently, on the history of the Ottoman empire. It is difficult to come away from a study of these things without being continually stunned at just how many people have died in war—and, of course, of disease or starvation. And these time periods are just a slice of the totality of history.

What do any of my thoughts along these lines have to do with music, the actual subject of Music I Love?

Well, I found it interesting, especially over the past few days, as these depressing thoughts would come over me, that I found the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony coming into clearer and clearer focus in my mind’s ear. Not only does this music match my mood, but also simultaneously lifts me out of it. I have no idea how this can happen. It is as though the music takes on the role of one’s own personal empath.

Beethoven wrote his Seventh Symphony in 1812. The juxtaposition of the symphony’s first movement—maybe the cheeriest thing he ever wrote—with the second movement—a calm surveying of a bleak emotional landscape—is one of the most amazing things in all of the nine symphonies.

I will post the Seventh Symphony again, in its entirety, at a later time. I am sorry to have made this post one of those that is mostly about me. But my intention, as I hope everyone knows—even in these unintentionally exhibitionistic posts—is to point to certain works of music. Right now, I just want to share this very deep work, the second movement of the Beethoven Seventh.

This video of the Vienna Philharmonic and Bernstein is a little dated, being from 1978. But the interpretation—and especially Bernstein’s tempo—are so agreeable to me that I had to make it the one to offer you.

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#278 BACH AIR ON THE G STRING

#278

BACH

AIR ON THE G STRING

VOICES OF MUSIC

DETROIT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
LEONARD SLATKIN, CONDUCTOR

There are some works of classical music that have made their way so far into the consciousness of western society that a vast cross-section of people are familiar with their tunes—Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and Brahms Lullaby, for instance. Included in these tunes would have to be Bach’s “Air on the G String.” My initial acquaintance with the melody occurred in my teens when I would listen to the only classical music available on radio where I lived: “The Classics” on WHIO-FM, an hour-long program every weeknight. It used the Air as its theme song. It would be years before I discovered who wrote the tune—I just knew I loved it from the first time I heard it.

Bach wrote four Orchestral Suites. A suite—whether for orchestra or solo instrument—was a group of 5-8 pieces, meant to be played as a unit, and which were titled after various dances that were popular, or had been popular, in the time period—the Gavotte, the Bouree, the Courante, the Minuet, the Gigue, and so on. These were what we call “stylized” dances—they were not intended to actually be danced to, but rather were reminiscences, or musical representations, of what these certain dances were like—in the same way that one would not actually dance to Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz.

Many of Bach’s contemporaries really liked this particular form—the suite for ensemble. Telemann, for instance, wrote well over 100 of these orchestral overtures, and others came close to that number as well. Bach did not seem to favor the form. He only wrote four orchestral suites, and unlike his suites for solo instruments, he did not group them together for publication.

However—they ARE Bach, and therefore, they ARE great music.

The third one of these suites, written in D major—all five of its movements are in D—was written in 1730 when Bach was 45. The second movement was entitled “Air”. An air was a song-like, lyrical composition. The suite to which the Air belongs is written for brass instruments, strings, and harpsichord. In Bach’s second movement—the Air—only the strings play; the other instruments are silent. The violin and viola part interweave with one another throughout the composition.

Bach did NOT give the movement the title “Air on the G String.” This came about in the late 1800’s when a German violinist named August Wilhelmj arranged the entire movement: first he transposed the movement from D Major to C Major, then transposed the first violin part down a further octave so that the entire melody could be played on the violin’s lowest string—the G String. In the score, Wilhelmj wrote in “on the G string”—hence, the movement became known, in his version, as the “Air on the G String.” These days, that playing direction—to only play on one string—is not often followed. And, the work has blossomed out to be played in arrangements for sometimes small and sometimes large string orchestras.

I have mentioned in other posts about some musicians’ preference for “period” or “early” or “original” instruments when playing music written before, say, 1825—the idea being that, to be pure to the score—and to replicate the sound that Bach (in this instance) actually would have heard—one must use authentic instruments of the time—or usually, replications of such instruments. Consequently, one finds entire sets of compositions—by Bach or Mozart or whoever—represented on recordings in both their “period” instrument sound and their modern instrument sound. My feeling is there is no right nor wrong to this—whatever you prefer is what you prefer. Or maybe you enjoy both, as I often do.

I’m therefore presenting two versions of the Air on the G String here—one with a small ensemble of “original” instruments—not Wilhelmj’s version—and the other by a larger, modern string orchestra in the version that we most often hear. You decide.

The calm mood established by Bach in this Air is wonderful regardless of the version one prefers.

The original instruments version is performed by the Voices of Music, an early music ensemble based in San Francisco.

Images are Bach and August Wilhelmj.

Original instruments

Modern instruments (Wilhelmj version)

Detroit Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting

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#281 HAYDN PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR

#281

HAYDN

PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR

SIN A MA, PIANO
MUSIC HIGH SCHOOL SCHLOSS BELVEDERE WEIMAR
JOAN PAGES VALLS, CONDUCTOR

In the same way that many musicians automatically and immediately think of Bach and Handel when they think “Baroque”—those two composers towering over the multitude of other composers who lived during the late baroque era—we often think of just three names when thinking of the “Classical” era—Mozart, Beethoven, and Franz Joseph Haydn.

Of these three, Haydn would be the grand old master. He was Beethoven’s teacher during Beethoven’s critical twenties. And he was an older and helpful colleague to Mozart, for whom he had the greatest admiration. His largess of spirit was demonstrated when he told Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang’s father), “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute. He has taste and what is more, the greatest skill in composition.”

Haydn had stumbled into what many consider an idyllic life for a composer, becoming court composer at Esterhazy when he was 28 years old. The Esterhazy family was one of the richest in all of the Hapsburg empire. They had multiple palaces throughout Hungary, and lived, essentially, as royalty. Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, for whom Haydn was employed, was a music lover. Music played an unusually prominent place in his life and his affections. At the Eisenstadt palace—where Haydn was to be employed for the rest of his life–the prince had a glasshouse converted into a theatre in the palace park—just one performance venue that Haydn could choose from.

During Haydn’s years in the prince’s employ, his reputation as a first-rate composer, conductor, and teacher became well-known all over Europe. The prince had no problem with allowing Haydn to write works that were to be played elsewhere (most prominently, in London) and to go there to conduct them.

Haydn’s duties were to 1) continually compose works for performance in the palace theatre(s), 2) hire and fire all court musicians, 3) take care of all instruments—there was an in-house orchestra for which Haydn could compose, 4) archive all the music scores, and of course, 5) to perform and conduct. In his contracts, it was also stipulated that Haydn should know his place—that even though he was the third highest paid individual in the entire palace—indicating the value that the prince placed on him—he was still in fact a servant, and needed to dress and behave accordingly!

At Esterhazy, among the voluminous compositions that Haydn was to write were 52 piano sonatas and about a dozen piano concertos. The harpsichord was still the keyboard instrument of choice when Haydn began his work at Esterhazy, but by the time he composed his final piano concerto (this one, in D Major), the performer was given the choice of harpsichord or fortepiano. The concerto has become the most popular of all his keyboard concertos. It is a delightful work.

I have two memories associated with this concerto. It was the first piano concerto I ever learned. I would have been ten years old. I am certain my playing was not as refined as Sin A Ma’s in the exquisite performance I am linking to. But I always considered myself lucky to have had THIS piece be my entry into the world of piano concertos!

And secondly, I have mentioned my hobby—at one point, an obsession—of listening to shortwave radio broadcasts. About thirty years ago, I was tuning around the dial one night and came upon a particular frequency that I knew was used by Radio Austria. They were playing the most beautiful, heavenly piano concerto—articulately played, energetic, communicative, fun!—WHO and WHAT was this? For whatever reason, in that moment, I was hearing the Haydn D Major for the first time—however it came about, I had no idea what I was listening to. It would be, I suppose, meeting someone on the street that you hadn’t seen for a long time—but who you also hadn’t thought of for a long time—and only after engaging in conversation for a minute did you realize who you were talking with. It was a full thirty seconds before I realized what I was hearing—but those thirty seconds were so delightful that I’ve not forgotten them to this day.

Well, a long and self-indulgent story, sorry.

There are a number of fine Haydn D Majors on YouTube. I’m posting this one, though, not only because it features a young player, but because I think she captures the essence of Haydn better than the other versions I have heard. This was the first prize performance for Sin A Ma, a young Korean pianist, in the fourth international Franz Liszt competition for Young Pianists. She is really superb. She makes it easy for me to visualize Haydn himself playing this with his Esterhazy musicians. I have to say, I am also very impressed with this orchestra, comprised of young players from a Weimar performing arts high school!

Images are Haydn and the music hall at Esterhazy.

Movement timings:
1st movt – 0:00
2nd movt—8:42
3rd movt—15:50

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