Charles Ives: Trio for Violin, Cello, & Piano The Van Baerle Trio

Charles Ives (1874 – 1954)

First, a little background. I was introduced to Ives’ Piano Trio two years ago, in May 2016, while I was working on my blog post about Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2. It’s part of the miracle of YouTube that, when you watch one video, links to other, related videos magically appear next to it. Both the Mendelssohn and Ives trios had been recorded by The Van Baerle Trio, and at some point, I clicked on the link to their performance of the Ives. Listening to the mournful opening duet between the cello and piano, I felt like I was listening to two unrelated pieces. The logic of the work eluded me, and one or two minutes into it, I decided that the Ives trio was not for me, and closed the video.

Isn’t that often the way with new music? We hear something new, and it doesn’t sound like anything we know and understand. In fact, it sounds very different. Our expectations are upset, and we may feel cheated, even angry. How much better – and wiser – would it be to acknowledge that the composer has understood something we do not, indeed, should not be expected to understand on first hearing.

What if we could learn to take a certain amount on faith – faith in the composer, in the performer, or in the music lover who introduced the piece to us. How much more music might wind up enriching our lives if we withheld judgment on it long enough to give it a second, or even a third hearing?

If, in short, we gave it a chance.

That is exactly how I came to love this trio. Such was my enthusiasm for The Van Baerle Trio (Hannes Minnaar – piano, Maria Milstein – violin, and Gideon den Herder – cello) and their performance of the Mendelssohn trio, that I recently decided to watch their video of the Ives trio again. I tried to listen with fresh ears, and to my delight, out of the apparent chaos of three seemingly unrelated voices there emerged the most glorious and uplifting music. I listened to it from beginning to end with tears streaming down my face, and realized at once that I had made a discovery of lasting importance.

It was a discovery I am eager to share with you, dear reader. I hope you too will give it a chance.

Our friends at Wikipedia have given us the following description of this remarkable work:

The Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano is a work by the American composer Charles Ives. According to Charles Ives’ wife, the three movements of the piano trio are a reflection of Ives’ college days at Yale. He started writing the piece in 1904, 6 years after graduation, and completed it in 1911. It was written c. 1909–10 and significantly revised in 1914–15. The piano trio consists of three movements:

1. Moderato [0:00]
2. TSIAJ (“This scherzo is a joke”) Presto [4:50]
3. Moderato con moto [11:04]

The first movement is the same 27 measures repeated three times, though the violin is silent for the first, the cello for the second, and all three instruments join for the third. Though the separate duets seem full enough on their own, yet all together sound amazingly and uncharacteristically consonant.

The second movement, TSIAJ, employs polytonality, timbral contrast, and quotation for a downright humorous effect. Fragments of American folk songs are intertwined throughout the movement, although often grotesquely altered with respect to rhythm, pitch, and harmonic connotation. Folk songs appearing in the scherzo include “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, “The Campbells Are Coming”, “Long, Long Ago”, “Hold the Fort”. and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”, among many others… And although the composer himself acknowledged that the entire movement was a joke, it well characterizes the unique and novel musical world that only Ives had discovered.

The lyricism of the final movement of the piano trio contrasts strongly with the variegated montage of tunes in TSIAJ. Sweeping lyrical melodies alternate with lighter syncopated sections after the opening introduction and violin recitative. Nonetheless, Ives continues with his borrowing habits – quoting music that he had originally written for the Yale Glee Club (though it was rejected) in the lyrical violin-cello canon in bars 91–125. The coda quotes Thomas Hastings’ “Rock of Ages” in the cello, ending the movement with Ives’ characteristic rooting in American folk and popular music.

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Published in: on May 31, 2018 at 4:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 83 Pianist – Glenn Gould

Sergei Prokofiev

In 1939, Prokofiev began work on his 6th, 7th, and 8th piano sonatas, which would come to be known as his “War Sonatas” and which would turn out to be three of his best known and most important works for solo piano. He worked on them simultane­ously, setting one aside when inspiration flagged and turning to one of the others. The Sixth was completed in 1940 and the Seventh in ’42, and both were given their premiere by Sviatoslav Richter. The Eighth was finished in 1944, and was premiered by Emil Gilels.

The following description of the Seventh was written by Robert Cummings for allmusic.com.

This is the middle panel in Prokofiev’s grand trilogy of works called War Sonatas. It is the most popular of the three and, at about 16 or 17 minutes, the shortest as well. The first movement, marked Allegro inquieto, opens with a dark, menacing theme whose militaristic vehemence seizes the expressive reins at times with insistent bass chords that hammer out a crushing rhythm. The listener immediately senses a connection to war and struggle in this lively but conflicted opening. A lyrical second theme introduces gentler music, but does not break the dark mood. In the development section, a tense buildup constructed mainly on the first theme leads to a powerful climax, after which the music gradually becomes more tranquil, the second theme being reprised in a gloomy ethereality. A brief, rhythmic coda follows, its lively springiness seeming to sputter and stagger as it reaches the finish line.

The second movement is marked Andante caloroso and features a consoling main theme whose gently rocking lilt and overripe textures convey an almost decadent sense, as if its beauty is beginning to decay. Some listeners hear it as a kind of dark salon-like creation in its perfume-drenched melancholy and quasi-pop catchiness. The middle section turns intense and climaxes in a tolling-bell passage that eventually gives way to a reprise of the main theme.

The Precipitato finale is the most famous and dramatic movement of the three. Cast in an ABCBA structure, it opens with a driving main theme whose rhythmic jazzy elements convey a frenetic, fight-for-dear-life sense. The second theme maintains the perpetual-motion drive, but now the feeling of desperation takes on an insistent, if less harried manner, before yielding to the ensuing idea, which rises from the bass regions to turn almost subdued in the upper ranges. After the second theme reappears the main theme returns for a crashing, dissonant but ultimately triumphant conclusion in a blaze of dazzling virtuosic writing.

Glenn Gould (1932-1982) occupies a unique place in the annals of 20th century pianism. His recorded legacy is enormous, and includes almost all of Bach’s solo keyboard works. His role in bringing them into the concert mainstream cannot be overstated.  His stage presence and mannerisms were off-putting, however, and his interpretations consistently outraged many listeners. Today, thirty-five years after his death, his name continues to spawn controversy. For many, Gould could do no wrong, while others – equally vocal – regularly castigate him for what they see as the unpardonable liberties he took with the printed score.

Gould himself articulated the philosophy behind his controversial interpretations as follows:

If there’s any excuse at all for making a record, it’s to do it differently, to approach the work from a totally re-creative point of view … to perform this particular work as it has never been heard before. And if one can’t do that, I would say, abandon it, forget about it, move on to something else.

It was not a philosophy that would endear him to everyone, but I think Gould makes a valid point. Why would you record Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, for example, which has been recorded more often, perhaps, than any other sonata in the piano literature, if you have nothing new to say in it?

The Seventh was the first of Prokofiev’s sonatas that I came to know, thanks to a recording by Vladimir Horowitz that was one of my first records. Perhaps because I had heard it so often and knew it so well, my passion for it cooled over the years. When I inaugu­rated this blog, it was the Sixth and Eighth sonatas that I was eager to share, not the Seventh. It wasn’t until I discovered Gould’s performance, which was like none I had ever heard before, that my enthusiasm for this sonata was rekindled.

I think Gould would be gratified.

Published in: on April 30, 2018 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ravel: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano with Anne Akiko Meyers, Violinist and Anton Nel, Pianist

Ravel began writing his second violin sonata in 1923, and worked on it off and on for four years. He completed it in 1927, and dedicated it to his friend, violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange. Ravel himself was the pianist at the premiere, which took place in Paris in May 1927 with none other than George Enescu taking the violin part. It was to be the last piece of chamber music Ravel would ever write.

The first movement is peaceful and reflective, with more than a hint of melancholy. The entire movement is wonderfully inventive, and the last few bars, beginning at about 7:15 in the video below, are exquisitely lovely.

The second movement, marked “Blues”, is the most daring of the three movements. It is bold and brash, full of unexpected accents and sensual slides. Ravel commented on it as follows during his trip to the United States in 1928:

To my mind, the ‘blues’ is one of your greatest musical assets, truly American despite earlier contributory influences from Africa and Spain. Musicians have asked me how I came to write ‘blues’ as the second movement of my recently completed sonata for violin and piano…. While I adopted this popular form of your music, I venture to say that nevertheless it is French music, Ravel’s music, that I have written. Indeed, these popular forms are but the materials of construction, and the work of art appears only on mature conception where no detail has been left to chance.

The third movement reminds me of nothing so much as a race, right down to the starter’s traditional, “On your mark… Get set… Go!”  The violin explodes off the starting block at measure 15 and sets a blistering pace that continues unabated all the way to the finish line.

This video features an absolutely brilliant performance by Anne Akiko Meyers on violin and Anton Nel on piano. It was recorded in October 2012 at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas. I was especially struck by the audio presence and true-to-life sound of both the violin and piano. Kudos to the sound engineer!

The tempo indications and the start times of the three movements are as follows:

1. Allegretto (0:00)
2. Blues. Moderato (7:55)
3. Perpetuum mobile. Allegro (13:44)

Published in: on February 28, 2018 at 4:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Maurice Ravel: Boléro (or) A Grown-Up’s Guide to the Orchestra

Maurice Ravel

First, a word about the subtitle. A Grown-Up’s Guide to the Orchestra was my idea obviously, not Ravel’s, inspired by Britten’s Young Person’s Guide which I featured here last month. Having done my best in that post to introduce young people to the orchestra, I feel duty-bound to do the same for grown-ups, and can think of no better way than through Ravel’s Boléro, which shares at least this much in common with Britten’s famous work: both feature the instruments of the orchestra, either in extended solo passages or together with other instruments, in ways designed to showcase their unique voices and character. To be sure, Britten approaches this objective in a more comprehensive, methodical fashion, but his aims were both musical and didactic, while Ravel’s were strictly musical.

Music historian, university professor, and author Betsy Schwarm wrote the following description of Boléro, to which I have added some time stamps from the video below.

Boléro is a one-movement orchestral work composed by Maurice Ravel, known for beginning softly and ending, according to the composer’s instructions, as loudly as possible. Commissioned by the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, Boléro was first performed at the Paris Opéra on November 22, 1928, with a dance choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. The work has been featured in many films since its creation, and was an integral part of the plot in Blake Edwards’ 1979 film “10”, starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek.

Initially, Rubinstein asked Ravel to create for her a work with Spanish character, suggesting that he – a highly skilled orchestrator who six years earlier had reworked Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – might adapt for orchestra some piano pieces by the Spaniard Isaac Albéniz. But after some consideration, Ravel instead wrote his own original composition, a piece he called Boléro – though some observed that the rhythms were more like those of the fandango and seguidilla than the bolero. At its debut Rubinstein herself took the solo role of a sultry café dancer enticing her masculine audience, whose growing excitement is reflected in the work’s signature crescendo.

Boléro is a set of 18 variations on an original two-part theme – or perhaps, more properly speaking, 18 orchestrations of that theme – for the theme itself does not change, though the instruments do. After an opening rhythm on the snare drum (a rhythm that continues unabated throughout the work, and which always makes me think of castanets – DR), the piece proceeds as follows:

  1. [0:40] solo flute (in the instrument’s low range)
  2. [1:30] solo clarinet (also low in the range)
  3. [2:20] solo bassoon (high in its range)
  4. [3:10] solo E-flat clarinet (smaller and higher in pitch than the standard B-flat clarinet)
  5. [4:00] solo oboe d’amore (between the oboe and the English horn in pitch and tone)
  6. [4:50] muted trumpet and flute (the flute floating like overtones parallel to the trumpet’s line)
  7. [5:40] solo tenor saxophone (an unusual inclusion in an orchestra, but Ravel liked jazz)
  8. [6:30] solo soprano saxophone (a small, straight, high-pitched saxophone)
  9. [7:20] French horn and celesta (the bell-like tones of the latter parallel to the horn’s line)
  10. [8:08] quartet composed of clarinet and three double-reeds (a combination organlike in timbre)
  11. [8:58] solo trombone (replete with sensuously sliding passages)
  12. [9:49] high woodwinds (growing more strident in tone)

With variation 13 [10:38], the strings finally emerge from their background role to take the lead for the remaining variations. The crescendo continues to build; the drumbeat persists, becoming ever more prominent. Before long, trumpet accents are added, contributing to the intensity until, in the final moments, the full orchestra is tossed into the mix – trombones, cymbals, and all – bringing the piece to an exultant, if abrupt, conclusion.

Notes by Betsy Schwarm

In this video, Valery Gergiev (pronounced va-ler-y ger-gyev) leads the London Symphony Orchestra. You will notice that Gergiev doesn’t conduct with a baton, as most conductors do, nor with his bare hands, as he does in my post of his performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird. “But what,” I hear you ask, “is with the toothpick?” I confess, I don’t know why he conducts with a toothpick. Some have suggested that he uses it as a protest against those who have criticised him for not using a baton when he conducts, just his hands. Others have said that he began using a toothpick after his baton flew into the orchestra or the audience. Still others have postulated that using a toothpick requires the musicians to watch the conductor more attentively. I haven’t found a definitive answer, which may have to wait until Gergiev himself addresses this question.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this extraordinary performance of one of Ravel’s many masterpieces.

Published in: on December 31, 2017 at 5:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Benjamin Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Benjamin Britten

Once again, the gift-giving season is upon us, and once again, I have a special treat for young viewers: Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which is subtitled, “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell”.

I can’t think of a better way to introduce young people – or people of any age, for that matter – to the wonders of the symphony orchestra. The Young Person’s Guide is a masterpiece. I’m especially pleased with the attached video. The audio quality is superb, and the many close-ups make it easy to associate each of the instruments with its particular sound.

This is a short video – only 17 minutes – and I encourage parents of young children to watch it with them. In it, the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne is conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. I’ve added time indicators to the description below to help match up the various instruments of the orchestra with their appearance in the video.

The following description of The Young Person’s Guide was written by the noted American music critic, Richard Freed.

In 1945, just after the premiere of his opera Peter Grimes, Britten was asked by the British Ministry of Education to compose the music for a film to be called “Instruments of the Orchestra”, designed to acquaint young people with the characters of the various instruments and instrumental choirs that make up the modern orchestra. He went to work on this assignment early the following year, turning to the variation form that figures so prominently in his catalogue of works and taking his theme in this case from the rondeau Henry Purcell composed in 1695 for a play by Mrs. Aphra Behn called “Abdelazer” or “The Moor’s Revenge”.

For the film version, a spoken text, to introduce the respective variations and instruments, was written by Eric Crozier, who was to provide Britten in the next few years with librettos for three operas and the cantata “Saint Nicolas”. Some six weeks after the concert premiere, in the fall of 1946, the film had its first showing in London; within a year or so The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was well on the way to establishing itself as the most widely known work composed by an Englishman since Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance Marches” and, like those marches, a stunning showpiece for the virtuoso orchestra.

The theme itself is given a full workout before the sequence of variations begins. It is stated first by the full orchestra [0:05], then given to the woodwinds [0:27], then to the brass [0:50], then (in slightly varied shape) to the strings and harp [1:10], and finally declaimed rhythmically by the percussion [1:27] before being restated by the orchestra at full strength [1:43]. The various choirs having been thus introduced, we proceed to the chain of variations, 13 in number, in which the individual instruments are spotlighted.

Each of the variations reflects a different character: some tender, some slightly sardonic, some mysterious, some straightforwardly humorous, all charged with great originality and wit, in the following sequence: flutes and piccolo, with harp accompaniment [2:01]; oboes [2:34]; clarinets [3:35]; bassoons [4:20]; violins [5:11]; violas [5:44]; cellos [6:45]; double basses [7:55]; harp [8:54]; horns [9:44]; trumpets [10:34]; trombones and tuba [11:02]; percussion [12:15]. The timpani begin the final variation, and provide a ritornello between the appearances of the other instruments: bass drum with cymbals [12:31], tambourine with triangle [12:43], snare drum with wood block [12:55], xylophone [13:06], castanets with gong [13:18], and finally, the whip [13:33]. The entire percussion section then celebrates the end of the chain of variations, subsiding to permit the xylophone to lead into the fugue.

In this final section, Britten puts his fragmented orchestra back together in the grandest style, beginning with the piccolo [14:11], moving through the other instruments and choirs, and concluding with a glorious proclamation of the original Purcell theme by the brass as the woodwinds and strings exult in the fugue theme and the percussion link the two in a festive frame.

Notes by Richard Freed

Published in: on November 30, 2017 at 4:27 pm  Comments (1)  
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Beethoven: Piano Trio Op. 97 “Archduke” The Istomin/Stern/Rose Trio

Ludwig van Beethoven

Of the seven trios that Beethoven wrote for piano, violin, and cello, it is the seventh, the “Archduke”, that is the best known.  Composer and author Kathy Henkel, who writes regularly for the LA Philharmonic web­site, wrote a short article about the “Archduke”, which you can read here in its entirely.  Here is a brief excerpt:

It was in the summertime of 1810 that Beethoven began sketching what would become his final and finest piano trio.  Earlier that year, he had harbored serious thoughts of marrying his doctor’s lovely 18-year-old niece, Therese Malfatti.  When his hopes were dashed, the composer slunk off to Baden for a few months, where he nursed his wounds and distracted himself by jotting down plans for a string quartet and a piano trio.  On his return to Vienna in October, he completed the quartet – his striking Op. 95, “Serioso.”  The piano trio itself was written in a flurry of inspiration from March 3 to 26 the following year.  It completed a decade of awesome creativity which had begun with the “Eroica” Symphony.  Coming at the end of this so-called “heroic” decade, the “Archduke” Trio represented the full bloom and the crowning achievement of the composer’s Middle Period.  It is music of sweeping grandeur for a trio of virtuosos.

Indeed, it was just such a trio of virtuosos – Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern, and Leonard Rose – who joined forces in 1961 to form the Istomin/Stern/Rose Trio, featured in the video below.  All three enjoyed long and distinguished careers as solo artists.  Their collaboration would continue for 23 years – until the death of Leonard Rose in 1984 – and they received a Grammy Award in 1971 for their recording of the complete Beethoven piano trios.

The noted Beethoven authority John Suchet has written movingly about the premiere of the “Archduke” trio:

The most beautiful of all Beethoven’s Piano Trios, and one that holds a poignant place in his life.  At its first public performance Beethoven insisted on playing the piano part, although his hearing was now (1814) seriously defective.  The composer and violinist Louis Spohr reported:

It was not a good performance.  In the first place the piano was badly out of tune, which was of little concern to Beethoven because he could not hear it.  Secondly, on account of his deafness, there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired.  In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys till the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible.  I was deeply saddened at so harsh a fate.  It is a great misfor­tune for anyone to be deaf, but how can a musician endure it without giving way to despair?  From now on Beethoven’s continual melancholy was no longer a riddle to me.

Beethoven knew it too.  Apart from one more performance a few weeks later, he never performed in public again.  Listen to the glorious slow movement [at 21:15 in the video below] of the Archduke Trio knowing that, and it will carry a whole new meaning.

The tempo indications of the four movements, and their start times in the video below, are as follows:

1. Allegro moderato – 0:00
2. Scherzo (Allegro) – 13:52
3. Andante cantabile ma però con moto – 21:15
4. Allegro moderato – 34:26

Published in: on August 31, 2017 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Albéniz: Iberia – Recorded Live in Concert by Alicia de Larrocha

Isaac Albéniz

On March 2, 1980, a remarkable recital took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall.  The pianist was Alicia de Larrocha (1923-2009), and the program consisted entirely of music by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909): the twelve pieces of the Iberia suite and, as an encore, Navarra.  Just how remarkable this program was can be gathered from remarks about Iberia made by Harold Schonberg in his 1963 book, The Great Pianists:

In the last three years of his life [Albéniz] set to work on a series of complicated piano pieces, and with them was assured of immortality.  They were published in four books under the title of Iberia.

Nothing in Albéniz’ previous work had led anybody to expect from him music of this complexity, muscularity and difficulty.  His friend, the fine French pianist Blanche Selva, read the manuscript and was appalled.  “It is unplayable,” she said – a remark echoed by many later pianists who have struggled with Triana, Fête-Dieu à Seville and El Puerto.  Albéniz reassured Selva.  “You will play it,” he said.  She eventually did.  But those twelve pieces in Iberia are reserved only for superior pianists.

In the same book, Schonberg also writes, albeit briefly, about Alicia de Larrocha:

The most impressive Spanish pianist to have emerged after the war is Alicia de Larrocha, a tiny woman who tosses off things like the Albéniz Iberia and Granados Goyescas as though they were basic Czerny.

Though this is an obvious case of poetic license – nobody tosses off Iberia and Goyescas as though they were basic Czerny – it’s clear that Alicia de Larrocha had an exceptional technique, even in an age in which the exceptional seems to have become the rule.

Her London recital was reviewed by Frank Barker of The Guardian, who wrote of it as follows:

It was a rare treat to have a piano recital devoted to Iberia in its entirety, all 12 of the masterly impressions of Spanish scenes with which Albéniz finally proved himself a composer of real international stature.  Not only did he prompt Debussy to declare that “music has never achieved such diversified and colourful impressions”; he also exploited the expressive potential of the piano as delicately yet surely as did Chopin in his different time and place.

Alicia de Larrocha, one of the few great pianists of our time who carries thoroughly professional dedication to the composer to the point of self-effacement, proved herself the ideal interpreter.

She adjusted with deceptive artistic ease to the essential spirit of each pianistic impression, gently dreamy in the opening Evocation, powerful in the pealing of bells during the Corpus Christi procession in Seville [Fête-Dieu à Seville], vibrantly brooding in El Albaicin, arguably the most evocative of all these impressions and one which will make anyone who has penetrated the gypsy quarter of Granada hold his breath.

Alicia de Larrocha’s unfailingly poetic realisation of each individual scene merits a whole page of praise, but let me just salute her for bringing Iberia to life in a performance to be cherished.

The recital was also reviewed by Joan Chissell, who wrote, “Since all 12 pieces were equally evocative (and incidentally all were played from memory with quite astonishing accuracy) it seems almost invidious to pick out one rather than another.”  Just the same, I want to mention a few of my favorite movements – and moments – from this magnificent work.  I have loved the first movement, Evocación, almost from the first time I heard it.  It has always felt to me like an invitation – a welcome – to the suite as a whole, and evokes in me feelings of sadness, perhaps, or some undefinable melancholy.  El Puerto, on the other hand, is a cheerful, extroverted companion to the introspective Evocación.  Finally, in Fête-dieu à Seville, we have one of my favorite passages in the entire work, from 12:20 to 14:16 in the attached video, which conveys to me a peace that is almost otherworldly.

Albéniz’ great achievement in Iberia, it seems to me, was to create a suite of pieces so evocative of Spain that, after listening to it, you feel as though you’ve been there.

This recital is almost an hour and a half long, but there’s no need to listen to it all in one sitting.  If time is an issue, you can listen to Iberia one book at a time.  The titles of the twelve movements, and their start times in the attached video, are as follows:

Book I                                       Book III
Evocación 0:07                       El Albaicín 41:40
El Puerto 5:42                         El Polo 48:54
Fête-dieu à Seville 9:55         Lavapiés 56:00

Book II                                      Book IV
Rondeña 19:11                         Málaga 1:03:00
Almería 26:32                         Jerez 1:07:53
Triana 36:14                            Eritaña 1:17:14

Encore: Navarra 1:22:59

 

Published in: on July 31, 2017 at 8:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Schubert: Wanderer Fantasy in C major Pianist – Evgeny Kissin

Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder (Click to enlarge.)

This month I am excited to present one of the landmarks of the piano repertoire, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy.  I was introduced to the Wanderer many years ago, in a recording by Sviatoslav Richter for Angel Records, where it is paired with the Sonata in A major, D 664.  I still have that record, and have reproduced here a portion of the liner notes by Robin Golding.

The “WANDERER” FANTASY – so called because it uses, in its slow movement, the tune of Schubert’s own song of that name – occupies a unique position in Schubert’s work, and indeed in musical history, in using a “motto” theme to link its separate movements.  It was, of course, this same device that Liszt was to develop in his concertos and in the B minor Sonata, and from which Wagner was to evolve the principle of the Leitmotif.  No wonder that Liszt was sufficiently interested in this Fantasy (and, no doubt, by the patently “orchestral” quality of much of the piano writing) to make an arrangement of it as a concerto for piano and orchestra.  Schubert’s original dates from November 1822, a few days after he began writing out the full score of the “Unfinished” Symphony.

As we have seen, the Wanderer tune appears in full in the C sharp minor Adagio, where it is the subject of seven continuous (and often very brilliant) variations.  It is the theme’s characteristic hammering rhythm that really binds the other movements together.  The opening Allegro is permeated by it; formally the movement is more like a Rondo than a regular sonata-form structure, the explosive discussion of the principal theme twice giving way to more lyrical episodes deriving from it.  After the Adagio comes a dynamic Scherzo in A flat in which the rhythmic figure is transformed into triple time, with a song-like Trio in D flat whose material is derived from the first movement’s second episode.  The Finale begins fugally, with the theme once more in common time, but before long develops into a free and highly virtuosic peroration on the Wanderer tune.  Schubert himself was no great virtuoso at the keyboard, and it is said that he once stopped playing in the middle of the last movement and exclaimed: “Let the devil play it!”

As Golding mentions, it is Schubert’s own song, “Der Wanderer”, that gives its name to this piece and that serves as the theme of the Adagio section, which begins at 6:12 in the video below.  The interested reader can hear the song in its original version by clicking here.

In this video, we hear a stunning performance by a young Evgeny Kissin.  The tempo markings of the four movements, and their start times, are as follows:

I.  Allegro con Fuoco – 0:01
II.  Adagio – 6:12
III.  Presto – 13:41
IV.  Allegro – 18:10

I invite you now to embark on a journey through strange and wonderful lands, and to share Schubert’s joy as, at 19:20 or so (maybe not until 19:50), his Wanderer reaches his destination.

Published in: on June 30, 2017 at 5:09 pm  Comments (1)  
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Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man

“When I speak of the gifted listener, I am thinking of the nonmusician primarily, of the listener who intends to retain his amateur status.  It is the thought of just such a listener that excites the composer in me.”

– Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Of all of Aaron Copland’s compositions, Fanfare for the Common Man is almost certainly the one most people would recognize.  Once heard, it is impossible to forget.  In his autobiography, Copland 1900 Through 1942 (co-authored by Vivian Perlis), Copland writes as follows about the genesis of this uncommon work:

Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, had written to me at the end of August [1942] about an idea he wanted to put into action for the 1942-43 concert season.  During World War I he had asked British composers for a fanfare to begin each orchestral concert.  It had been so successful that he thought to repeat the procedure in World War II with American composers.

In fact, Goossens went on to request fanfares from 17 composers, including Walter Piston, Darius Milhaud, and Virgil Thomson, and even wrote one himself, but Copland’s is the only one that has remained in the active repertoire.

Additional information about this piece is provided on the Library of Congress website:

“Fanfare for the Common Man” was certainly Copland’s best known concert opener… Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, originally had in mind a fanfare “… for Soldiers, or for Airmen or Sailors” and planned to open his 1942 concert season with it.

Aaron Copland later wrote, “The challenge was to compose a traditional fanfare, direct and powerful, yet with a contemporary sound.”  To the ultimate delight of audiences Copland managed to weave musical complexity with popular style.  He worked slowly and deliberately, however, and the piece was not ready until a full month after the proposed premier.

To Goossens’ surprise Copland titled the piece “Fanfare for the Common Man” (although his sketches show he also experimented with other titles such as “Fanfare for a Solemn Ceremony” and “Fanfare for Four Freedoms”).  Fortunately Goossens loved the work, despite his puzzlement over the title, and decided with Copland to preview it on March 12, 1943.  As income taxes were to be paid on March 15 that year, they both felt it was an opportune moment to honor the common man.  Copland later wrote, “Since that occasion, ‘Fanfare’ has been played by many and varied ensembles, ranging from the U.S. Air Force Band to the popular Emerson, Lake, and Palmer group… I confess that I prefer ‘Fanfare’ in the original version, and I later used it in the final movement of my Third Symphony.”

I can well understand Goossens’ puzzlement over Copland’s title.  Far from suggesting a common man, this fanfare embodies all the nobility and majesty that we might expect in a fanfare for a king, an emperor, or some other august personage.  I can easily imagine Copland wracking his brain for the title that best suited his music, and that he decided on “Fanfare for the Common Man” because, though happy to honor the common soldier, sail0r, and airman, he did not want to give his fanfare a title that might be seen as glorifying war.

In this video, we hear the New York Philharmonic conducted by James Levine in a live performance at Carnegie Hall.  Two things stand out as especially noteworthy about this performance.  The first is the extraordinary unison of the four trumpets at the beginning of the piece.  Except for the volume of their sound, we might easily imagine that we are hearing not four trumpets, but one.  The second is the concentration and precision of the timpanist, Roland Kohloff, principal timpanist of the New York Philharmonic for 32 years.  In one of the comments that accompany the YouTube video of this performance, Kohloff’s daughter, Jami Grassi, wrote the following tribute to her father:

So, maybe I dare to say, or not, the timpanist is my father, Roland Kohloff.  He never cared whether there was a camera on him or not, performing for one person or a million.  He just loved to play music.  Student of Saul Goodman’s, my uncle.  Musicians who play from and with heart make expressions with their faces and their bodies, conductors included.  All I hear when I listen to this is the beauty of each individual’s musicianship collectively playing together in this beautiful moment.  Most of these musicians, as my father, are no longer on this earth, but they leave a legacy through their perfor-
mance and with their families who love them.  For me, this is simply watching my papa play with his heart and his soul and I get to watch this and remember him forever.  I Love This.

Lowell Liebermann: Gargoyles, Op. 29 Pianist – Yuja Wang

There is good and bad music of all kinds being written at all times, and the musical fascists that would impose their own stylistic prejudices on the public are the people who are striking a real blow to the health of our musical culture. – Lowell Liebermann

Lowell Liebermann (photo: Christian Steiner)

After attending the concert given by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang in Seattle last month, (you can read my review here) I spent some time exploring the many videos of Yuja Wang available online.  I discovered many I hadn’t seen before, and was especially taken with her performance of “Gargoyles” by Lowell Liebermann.  I had never heard of Liebermann, and was singularly happy to discover a contemporary composer whose music I really liked, an enthusiasm I think you will share after watching the video below.

The following biographical sketch of Liebermann and description of Gargoyles were written by Joseph Stevenson for allmusic.com.

Gargoyles is a colorful and engaging set of four piano pieces resembling concert etudes by one of America’s most promising young composers of its day.  He has since gone on to fulfill that promise.  Lowell Liebermann was born on George Washington’s birthday (February 22) in 1961 in New York City.  He began studying piano at eight and composition at 14, and received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the Juilliard School of Music.  His composition teachers included David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti.  He wrote this piano set two years after finishing his doctorate.  In the 1990s he went on to write acclaimed symphonies and concertos for such soloists as flutist James Galway and Stephen Hough.  He is among the generation of American composers who left the old twelve-tone system behind and rediscovered the vitality of an extended use of tonality, freely using all the chromatic notes but generally remaining in contact with a sense of tonal center.

As a longtime devotee of art and architecture, Liebermann joins many in being bemused by gargoyles, the representations of fantastic monsters that often embellish churches and other old buildings and are said to have been placed there to scare away evil spirits.  The title “Gargoyles” refers to the general mood of the set — which is eerie and mysterious throughout and often scary and threatening — but the individual pieces do not depict any particular real or imagined gargoyles.  The piano style is rather similar to that of Sergei Prokofiev, although the harmonies are a bit more densely chromatic.  Altogether the piece runs about ten minutes.

The first movement, Presto, is a devilish work at rapid speed with wide leaps, double notes, and quick, disorienting changes in touch and loudness.  The whole effect is unsettled.  The following Adagio semplice, ma con molto rubato, is a very Romantic piece in mood (though the harmonies remain more modern), with repeated figures in the bass and a legato melody in octaves.  Even more flowing and beautiful is the third movement, Allegro moderato.  Here a melody is embedded in a flowing, wave-like figure that both hands share.  The finale is another movement at a flat-out tempo, Presto feroce.  It is ferocious, a taxing and grotesque dance in the venerable Italian tarantella rhythm.

Joseph Stevenson

When I first heard this piece, I was struck primarily by its technical demands, and by the seemingly effortless way in which Yuja Wang surmounts them.  There’s something almost nonchalant about her virtuosity.  (If I were a pianist, I might say, “unfair”.)  With each successive hearing, Gargoyles feels more unified to me, and I become aware of different aspects of its structure.  I’m looking forward to listening to more of Liebermann’s work, much of which is available on YouTube.

If you would like to know more about Lowell Liebermann, I encourage you to watch this interview with him, hosted by Zsolt Bognár for Living the Classical Life.  You may also want to read this fascinating essay from newmusicbox.org.  In it, Liebermann talks at length about his own music and influences, as well as the state of contemporary classical music.

The following video is taken from an April 2013 recital in Tokyo’s Toppan Hall.  The tempo markings and start times of the four movements are as follows:

0:18  I. Presto
2:00  II. Adagio semplice, ma con molto rubato
4:24  III. Allegro moderato
6:45  IV. Presto feroce

Published in: on March 31, 2017 at 4:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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