Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor Pianist – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

chopin

Frédéric Chopin

In 1963, when I was beginning to explore the world of classical music, there was no internet and, obviously, no YouTube.  CD’s were still twenty years in the future.  Long-playing, vinyl records were our primary means of discovering new music, and there was a wealth of them for us to choose from.  I well remember browsing through my local record store searching for the one record (perhaps two) that insisted on going home with me, and the sense of anticipation with which I placed it on the family turntable for the first time.

I was introduced to Chopin’s second piano sonata in just this way, through Vladimir Horowitz’ 1962 recording for Columbia Records, which also includes works by Schumann, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt.  In the liner notes to that recording, Thomas Frost quotes Horowitz as follows:

“All these pieces have been with me a long time.  The Chopin sonata I played first in ’22 or ’23.  It’s been a good friend throughout my career.  You know the story they tell – Chopin was asked if the finale was a ‘light wind over the grave’ and he said, ‘No, just gossiping between two hands.’  He was a moody man, Chopin.  But I think this idea of a final sigh or a ghostly wind over the grave is a good one.  Perhaps he meant that.”

In the same liner notes, Neville Cardus elaborates on the Chopin sonata as follows:

Schumann’s often-quoted remark about the B-flat Minor Sonata – “Chopin has simply bound together four of his most reckless children” – is taken to task by most modern critics, who feel that the work, despite its unclassical form, is a completely logical entity.  In his work on Chopin, Herbert Weinstock has written, “I have heard the sonata played so that it sounded like four separate pieces; the fault was the pianist’s… But I have heard it played…with the complete, overall, four-movement structural and aesthetic-emotional unity of a Mozart piano concerto or Beethoven piano sonata… Calling the B-flat Minor a sonata was neither caprice nor jest; it is a sonata by Chopin.”  Mr. Weinstock further feels that, “had Chopin written little else, it would entitle him to a position as peer of the greatest artistic creators.”

I was introduced to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) in the same way, through his 1957 recording for Angel Records of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4.  Harold Schonberg, in The Great Pianists (1963), has this to say about Michelangeli:

If there is an Italian school, it is represented by the puzzling and redoubtable figure of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the most important Italian pianist after Busoni (if Busoni be considered Italian).  Purely as a playing machine, Michelangeli is a legend to his colleagues, who put him in the Horowitz class as a super-virtuoso.  Some of his playing is startling in its sheer pianistic polish and perfection.  His fingers can no more hit a wrong note or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired.  In addition he is a complete master of tonal application, as evidenced in his performance of Gaspard de la Nuit.  By any standards this is one of the triumphs of modern pianism…

Fortunately for all of us, Michelangeli’s artistry is well represented on YouTube, in both video and audio-only clips.  The interested reader will find not only his performances of the Ravel and Rachmaninoff concertos that captivated me, and the Gaspard mentioned by Schonberg, but also much by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, and many others.

The following video is taken from a 1962 documentary devoted to Michelangeli that includes nearly two hours of Chopin’s music.  The four movements of this sonata, and their start times in the video, are as follows:

I. Grave; Doppio movimento – 0:30
II. Scherzo – 8:42
III. Marche funèbre; Lento – 16:13
IV. Presto – 25:43

Published in: on January 31, 2017 at 5:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Pianist – Maria João Pires

Mozart in 1777, the year this concerto was composed, by an unknown artist.

Mozart in 1777, the year this concerto was composed, by an unknown artist.

Three months ago, in my post of September 30, I linked to a video of pianist Maria João Pires expecting to play one Mozart concerto, only to discover that the conductor had a completely different one in mind.  That Ms. Pires was able to recover from the shock and play the second concerto – without the score – speaks volumes about her memory, and her presence of mind as well.

Having listened to her magnificent performance of the “surprise” concerto, I now want to present Ms. Pires performing the concerto she was expecting to play that day: Mozart’s Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, now called the “Jenamy”.  But first, a word about its subtitle, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The work has long been known as the Jeunehomme Concerto. [In fact, that’s how I referred to it in September. – DR]  Théodore de Wyzéwa and Georges de Saint-Foix claimed that Mozart wrote the piece for a French pianist ‘Jeunehomme’ visiting Salzburg.  This name is however incorrect; in 2004 Michael Lorenz demonstrated that the name was actually Victoire Jenamy (1749–1812), a daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre, a dancer who was one of Mozart’s friends.  Mozart had made Victoire Jenamy’s acquaintance during his stay in Vienna in 1773.

The interested reader will find much more information online from Michael Lorenz about discovering the correct subtitle for this concerto, but more interesting to me is what he has to say about the piece itself:

Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 271 “Jenamy” can be described as a miracle of musical originality.  In the mastership of its orchestration, its stupendous innovative energy and its effect, despite limited instrumental means, this piece has absolutely no precedent.  It is Mozart’s first great composition, “his Eroica” as Alfred Einstein put it, “which he later would match, but never surpass.”

I can add little to that, except to say that this concerto is a joy from beginning to end.  Listening to it, I am struck over and over by the charm and elegance of the first movement, the surpassing tenderness of the second, and the jaunty exuberance of the third, which seems to go on and on in an ecstasy of imagination.  I’m especially grateful for the glorious sound in the attached video, in which John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The three movements of the concerto, and their start times in the video, are as follows:

1. Allegro – 0:09
2. Andantino – 10:43
3. Rondo (Presto); Menuetto (Cantabile) – 22:06

Published in: on December 31, 2016 at 12:25 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , ,

Saint-Saëns: The Carnival of the Animals With Verses by Ogden Nash

Camille Saint-Saëns by Alberto Rossi

Camille Saint-Saëns by Alberto Rossi

Long before I began writing this blog, I knew that one of the best, longest-lasting gifts one can give a child is an appreciation – a feeling – for classical music.  With that in mind, for the past few years during the gift-giving season, I have featured several videos especially for children: two short films by Andrew Rangell, an awe-inspiring performance of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy by the ten-year-old Sarah Chang, and last year, a performance of Prokofiev’s beloved Peter and the Wolf.  I have every intention of continuing that tradition, and this year, I want to share a piece of music that was given to me as a child: Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals.

Saint-Saëns, who lived from 1835 to 1921, composed the Carnival in 1886, but, concerned that such a lighthearted work might harm his reputation as a serious composer, allowed only private performances of it during his lifetime.  Its public premiere took place in 1922, and it quickly became one of his best-loved works.

carnivalIn the late 1940s, Goddard Lieberman of Columbia Records and conductor Andre Kostelanetz had the inspired idea of adding poetry to Saint-Saëns’ score.  Ogden Nash was their first and only choice as poet, as was Noël Coward as speaker for the projected recording.  The result of this collaboration was released in 1950, and I was introduced to The Carnival of the Animals not long afterward.  I still have that record, by the way.  It may have played a large role in my love of poetry as well as classical music.

In the video that follows, Andre Kostelanetz conducts the New York Philharmonic.  Leonid Hambro and Jascha Zayde are the piano soloists, Julius Baker is the flute soloist on “The Birds”, and Frank Miller is the cellist on “The Swan”.

Incidentally, while I don’t speak French myself, I understand that the correct (that is to say, Saint-Saëns’ own) pronunciation of his name, is “sa(n) sonce”.

Introduction

Camille St. Saëns was wracked with pains
When people addressed him as “Saint Sains.”
He held the human race to blame
Because it could not pronounce his name.
So he turned with metronome and fife
To glorify other forms of life.
Be quiet, please, for here begins
His salute to feathers, furs, and fins.

Royal March of the Lion

The lion is the king of beasts
And husband of the lioness.
Gazelles and things on which he feasts
Address him as Your Highoness.
There are those who admire that roar of his
In the African jungles and veldts,
But I think, wherever a lion is,
I’d rather be somewhere else.

Hens and Roosters

The rooster is a roistering hoodlum,
His battle cry is cock-a-doodlum.
Hands in pockets, cap over eye,
He whistles at pullets passing by.

Wild Jackass

Have ever you harked to the jackass wild
Which scientists call the onager?
It sounds like the laugh of an idiot child
Or a hepcat on a harmoniger.
But do not sneer at the jackass wild,
There is method in his heehaw,
For with maidenly blush and accent mild,
The jenny-ass answers, shee-haw.

Tortoises

Come crown my brow with leaves of myrtle,
I know the tortoise is a turtle.
Come carve my name in stone immortal,
I know the turtoise is a tortle.
I know to my profound despair
I bet on one to beat a hare.
I also know I’m now a pauper
Because of its tortley, turtley, torpor.

The Elephant

Elephants are useful friends,
Equipped with handles at both ends.
They have a wrinkled moth-proof hide;
Their teeth are upside down, outside.
If you think the elephant preposterous,
You’ve probably never seen a rhinosterous.

Kangaroos

The kangaroo can jump incredible.
He has to jump because he’s edible.
I could not eat a kangaroo
But many fine Australians do.
Those with cookbooks as well as boomerangs
Prefer him in tasty kangaroo meringues.

The Aquarium

Some fish are minnows,
Some are whales.
People like dimples,
Fish like scales.
Some fish are slim,
And some are round.
They don’t get cold,
They don’t get drowned.
But every fish wife
Fears for her fish.
What we call mermaids
And they call merfish.

Mules

In the world of mules,
There are no rules.

The Cuckoo in the Depth of the Woods
(For some reason, this verse has been omitted
from the recording linked to above.)

Cuckoos lead bohemian lives,
They fail as husbands and as wives.
Therefore, they cynically disparage
Everybody else’s marriage.

The Birds

Puccini was Latin, and Wagner Teutonic,
And birds are incurably philharmonic.
Suburban yards and rural vistas
Are filled with avian Andrews Sisters.
The skylark sings a roundelay,
The crow sings “The Road to Mandalay.”
The nightingale sings a lullaby,
And the seagull sings a gullaby.
That’s what shepherds listened to in Arcadia
Before somebody invented the radia.

Pianists

Some claim that pianists are human,
And quote the case of Mr. Truman.
St. Saëns, upon the other hand,
Considered them a scurvy band.
Ape-like they are, he said, and simian,
Instead of normal men and wimian.

Fossils

At midnight in the museum hall,
The fossils gathered for a ball.
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
Amid the mastodonic wassail,
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
Cheer up, sad world, he said, and winked.
It’s kind of fun to be extinct.

The Swan

The swan can swim while sitting down.
For pure conceit he takes the crown.
He looks in the mirror over and over,
And claims to have never heard of Pavlova.

Finale

Now we reach the grand finale,
Animale, carnivale.
Noises new to sea and land
Issue from the skillful band.
All the strings contort their features,
Imitating crawly creatures.
All the brasses look like mumps
From blowing umpah umpah umps.
In outdoing Barnum and Bailey and Ringling,
St. Saëns has done a miraculous thingling.

Published in: on November 30, 2016 at 9:53 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht

Arnold Schönberg by Gareth Southwell

Arnold Schönberg by Gareth Southwell

In my post of January 2012, which featured the Berg piano sonata in a performance by Marc-Andre Hamelin, I wrote that I had never counted any music by Berg, Webern, or Schoenberg among my favorites.  The lone exception was Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, which I fell in love with during my college days, courtesy of a 1967 London LP featuring Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I was captivated at once by the drama and romanticism of Schoenberg’s score, and the hold it exercised on me then has only grown stronger with the passage of time.

Fifty years later, the music of Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg is largely terra incognita for me, and Verklärte Nacht is still my only favorite.  Now, however, I’m looking forward to exploring more of Schoenberg’s output, particularly his violin concerto and the symphonic poem Pelléas und Mélisande.  Who knows what we might see in future installments of this blog?

The following notes were written by the contemporary American composer, Kathy Henkel, for a performance of Verklärte Nacht by the LA Philharmonic.

Arnold Schoenberg was 25 when he dashed off Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) in a flurry of inspiration during a three-week period in September of 1899.  At the time, he was vacationing in the scenic Austrian countryside near the mountain resort of Semmering.  His first large-scale work was also one of the most passionate pieces he ever penned.  As such, it remained close to the composer’s heart throughout his life.

In both its original setting as a string sextet and the later arrangement for string orchestra made in 1917, [revised again in 1943 – DR] Verklärte Nacht enjoys a reputation as one of Schoenberg’s most popular works.  Nonetheless, this sensuous score suffered the fate of many of his creations — getting off to a rocky start with the public.  Although its lush Post-Romantic sounds are perfectly accessible to today’s ears, the piece was greeted with hisses and horrified gasps at its premiere in Vienna on March 18, 1902.  Several aspects of the work provoked this reaction.

Though composers had attached programmatic ideas to chamber music in the past, no one had ever applied the symphonic scope that Schoenberg brought to his Op. 4 when he wedded the tone-poem concept of Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss to a work for small string ensemble.  The subversive infiltration of Wagnerian harmonies into such an intimate musical setting was likewise unsettling.  Further fueling the controversy was the shockingly erotic poem (by turn-of-the-century standards, anyway) that gave its title to the piece and served as Schoenberg’s programmatic inspiration.

From a collection published in 1896, entitled Weib und Welt (Woman and the World), Richard Dehmel’s poem chronicles a poignant conversation between a man and a woman as they walk through the moonlit woods on a cold, clear winter night.  Tormented by guilt, the woman confesses that, wishing to fulfill herself through motherhood, she had become pregnant by another man before meeting and falling in love with her companion.  She ends with a heart-rending lament: “Now life has taken revenge, for I have met you — ah, you.”  As the woman stumbles tearfully on in silence, the man considers the situation, then speaks: “Let the child you carry not burden your soul.”  He assures her that because their love is so strong, the unborn child will become his.  Redeemed by his love and forgiveness, her world-weary heart is lightened.  They embrace, “their breaths joined in the air as they kiss” — and as they continue their walk, the night takes on a transfigured aura.

Played without break, the music mirrors the five sections of the poem: an introduction, which sets the scene in the shadowy forest; the woman’s depressed trudge and anguished confession; the man’s deep-toned, comforting forgiveness; the enraptured love duet in an optimistic major mode; and the ethereal apotheosis, representing the “transfigured night” itself.  The first part of the score hovers around a despairing and anxious D minor.  Then, the second section evolves through a more hopeful D major, as the scene and music pass from dark to light, from guilt to forgiveness.  Throughout this process, Schoenberg continuously transforms themes and motifs to render an intensely expressive musical depiction of the powerful human drama of Dehmel’s poem.

After hearing the Vienna premiere, Dehmel himself wrote to Schoenberg: “I had intended to follow the motives of my text in your composition, but soon forgot to do so, I was so enthralled by the music.”  And indeed, the music completely holds the listener’s imagination as Schoenberg’s magical score travels the road from the first line of Dehmel’s poem to the last: “Two people walk through bleak, cold woods… Two people walk through exalted, shining night.”

Notes by Kathy Henkel

In this video, we hear the New England Conservatory Chamber Orchestra, playing without a conductor, in a live performance from 2013.  I think the darkened stage creates just the right atmosphere for a performance of Transfigured Night.

Published in: on October 31, 2016 at 1:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor Pianist – Maria João Pires

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Imagine for a moment that you are an internationally renowned concert pianist and that you have been engaged to play a Mozart concerto with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.  Your first run-through with the orchestra is taking place not in the privacy of an empty concert hall, but at a lunchtime concert before the Amsterdam public.  Confident in your preparation and years of experience, you take your seat at the piano.  The conductor raises his baton, gives the downbeat, and the orchestra begins to play… the wrong concerto!

That’s the sort of thing nightmares are made of, but it’s exactly what happened to Maria João Pires at a 1999 concert conducted by Riccardo Chailly.  She was expecting to play Mozart’s Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, known as the “Jeunehomme”, but there was a miscommunication somewhere, and the orchestra launched into the Concerto No. 20 in D minor instead.  Pires’ shock and dismay – and her remarkable recovery – were captured by a documentary film crew in this unforgettable clip:

This video was my introduction to this extraordinary work, and watching it, I was captivated by Pires and her playing.  Certainly, the drama of her plight intensifies the drama of the beginning of this concerto, which is described elsewhere by Chailly as evoking “a feeling of nowhere, loneliness, and despair.”  I couldn’t wait to hear the whole piece, and was delighted to find the video below, in which Pires plays with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Boulez.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this blog has been the new music I have been exposed to while writing it, and the extent to which that music has enriched my life.  Nowhere is this more true than in the concerto presented here.  I wrote in 2011 about how, with Mozart, I often feel like I’m on the outside looking in at a party to which everyone has been invited except me.  I’m happy, and in some sense humbled, to report that with this concerto, the door to that party may finally have opened.  I already have more Mozart in mind for future posts.

A note about the cadenzas: Numerous composers have written cadenzas for this concerto, including Brahms, Busoni, and Beethoven, who played this concerto himself and who wrote the two cadenzas performed here.  They are, incidentally, the only cadenzas Beethoven ever wrote for a concerto composed by someone else.  Pires had some interesting things to say about them in an interview with Wesley Horner:

Wesley Horner: Beethoven wrote the cadenzas that you will perform.

Maria João Pires: This is the important thing about this concerto for me.  I think Beethoven wrote the cadenzas because he chose this as his favorite concerto for sure.  It became so much of what he himself could identify with.  The character of this concerto is so dark and strong and full of energy – very much like Beethoven.  So I think the cadenzas are wonderful.

Wesley Horner: How does it change the concerto to have these cadenzas written by Beethoven?

Maria João Pires: It gives a support to the concerto.  Beethoven could see exactly the character of the concerto.  He loved it because he could also feel it himself, and he wrote the cadenzas that make it strong, this dark side.

Wesley Horner: And he was still able to perform at that point.

Maria João Pires: Exactly, yes, yes.

In the video that follows, the first movement cadenza begins at 11:38, and the third movement cadenza at 29:00.

Published in: on September 30, 2016 at 12:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Nielsen: Symphony No. 3: “Espansiva”

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen wrote his Symphony No. 3 during the years 1910-1911, at the same time, incidentally, that he was writing the Violin Concerto that I featured on this blog in December 2014.  The premiere of both works took place in Copenhagen on February 28, 1912, with Nielsen conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra.  The subtitle, “Espansiva”, is Nielsen’s own, and is taken from the tempo indication of the first movement, “Allegro espansivo”.  According to the English composer and musicologist, Robert Simpson, the term “espansiva” refers to “the outward growth of the mind’s scope and the expansion of life that comes from it.”

Nielsen himself described this symphony in program notes he wrote for a performance in Stockholm in 1931:

The work is the result of many kinds of forces.  The first movement was meant as a gust of energy and life-affirmation blown out into the wide world, which we human beings would not only like to get to know in its multiplicity of activities, but also to conquer and make our own.  The second movement is the absolute opposite: the purest idyll, and when the human voices are heard at last, it is only to underscore the peaceful mood that one could imagine in Paradise before the Fall of our First Parents, Adam and Eve.  The third movement is a thing that cannot really be described, because both evil and good are manifested without any real settling of the issue.  By contrast, the Finale is perfectly straightforward: a hymn to work and the healthy activity of everyday life.  Not a gushing homage to life, but a certain expansive happiness about being able to participate in the work of life and the day and to see activity and ability manifested on all sides around us.

Significantly, Nielsen goes on to say:

I must be permitted to emphasize that my remarks must in no way be viewed as a program.  The art of music cannot express anything at all conceptual, and [my] remarks… must therefore be conceived as a private matter between the music and myself.

What a wonderful, joyful work this is!  Nielsen’s individuality is immediately apparent – just listen to the dramatic opening chords – as are the grandeur of his conceptions and the exuberance and lyricism of his themes.  Especially moving to me are the wordless solo voices in the second movement.  By the end of the video, you may well want to check the schedule of your local orchestra, just to see if they will be performing this symphony anytime soon.

I have to comment on the brilliant editing in the attached video, which manages to capture the different sections of the orchestra, as well as a succession of soloists, at exactly the right moment.  The many close-ups impart such an intimacy to the video that, by the end of the symphony, I feel like I’m on a first-name basis with the principal oboist.  (Her name, by the way, is Eva Steinaa, and she has almost single-handedly taught me to love the oboe.)  The video also captures the joy of the conductor, Michael Schönwandt, as he leads the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in what is clearly a labor of love for everyone concerned.

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

I. Allegro espansivo (0:43)
II. Andante pastorale (with Denise Beck, soprano and Lars Møller, baritone) (12:18)
III. Allegretto un poco (22:03)
IV. Finale: Allegro (28:08)

Published in: on August 31, 2016 at 4:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor The Van Baerle Trio

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

In my recent post featuring Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Festival Easter Overture, I spoke of composers whose music has been largely under-appreciated, at least by me.  Certainly Rimsky-Korsakov is one such composer; Felix Mendelssohn is another.

Apart from his Violin Concerto and a few of his Songs Without Words, I know almost nothing by Mendelssohn.  I’m not sure how he escaped my attention.  Perhaps it was because history has assigned him a place just below the summit of classical music’s Mount Olympus, and I was unduly influenced by that verdict.  Or perhaps it was because his music occupied such a small place – if any at all – in the repertoires of two of my favorite pianists, Van Cliburn and Vladimir Horowitz.

In any case, I’ve recently begun to explore the Mendelssohn oeuvre, especially his chamber music, and I feel like I have stumbled upon a gold mine. A case in point is the Piano Trio No. 2 presented here, which I recently heard for the first time on Seattle’s KING-FM.  Written in 1845, just two years before Mendelssohn’s untimely death, this trio was the last of his chamber works published during his lifetime.

Having listened to it many times now, I find myself simply in awe of Mendelssohn’s achievement in this piece.  The first movement opens ominously, imparting a sense of turbulence and foreboding. The second movement is of surpassing sweetness, and the third conveys a feeling of unalloyed cheerfulness.  A noteworthy feature of the fourth movement is the inclusion of the melody of a sixteenth-century chorale known as “Praise to You, Jesus Christ”, a tune churchgoers (and former churchgoers) may recognize as the Doxology.  The first appearance of this melody (at 23:18) lends a solemnity to this movement, while its final, triumphant re-entrance (at 26:10) is an expression of unqualified joy.

I’m also in awe of this performance by the Van Baerle Trio, which is comprised of pianist Hannes Minnaar, violinist Maria Milstein, and cellist Gideon den Herder.  Their performance combines uncommon technical precision with a passion worthy of this extraordinary work.  The name, incidentally, was taken from Van Baerle Street in Amsterdam, the location of the conservatory where the three of them met as students.

Published in: on May 31, 2016 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta

janacek

Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček (pronounced LAY-oash yah-NAH-chek) was born on July 3, 1854 in Hukvaldy in the Czech Republic.  He showed a talent for music early on, but following his graduation from the Prague Organ School in 1875, he labored for many years in relative anonymity as a music teacher and choirmaster in Brno.  He was almost 50 before his first major work, the opera Jenufa, was performed, and 62 before he became really well known.  In the last 12 years of his life, however, he turned out masterpieces with astonishing frequency, including the symphonic poem Taras Bulba, the opera The Cunning Little Vixen, and the Sinfonietta presented here.  He died in 1928 at age 74, an inspiration to late-bloomers everywhere.

Regarding the Sinfonietta, we learn from Wikipedia that…

The work is typical of Janáček’s tight construction, the material of each movement deriving from the opening motif.  It features several variants based on Janáček’s original fanfare.  The first movement is scored only for brass and percussion.  The second movement begins with a rapid ostinato from the wind, but later has a more lyrical episode.  The third begins quietly in the strings, but is interrupted by a stern figure in the trombones, leading to another fast dance-like passage.  In the fourth movement, Janáček celebrates the newly liberated Czechoslovakia with a joyous trumpet fanfare.  The finale begins in the key of E-flat minor with a calm retrograde version of the opening melody.  However, this quickly moves into a triumphant finale, the return of the opening fanfare decorated with swirling figures in the strings and wind.

I was introduced to this piece through a 1966 recording featuring the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell.  While the orchestral writing is brilliant throughout, the majestic, triumphal fanfares in the first and last movements especially made a lasting impression.  Truly a glorious introduction to Janáček.

In this extraordinary live recording from the 2011 London Proms, we hear the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester, England conducted by Sir Mark Elder.  The tempo indications for the five movements, together with their subtitles and start times in the video below, are as follows:

  • I. Allegretto — Allegro maestoso (Fanfare) (0:06)
  • II. Andante — Allegretto (The Castle, Brno) (2:26)
  • III. Moderato (The Queen’s Monastery, Brno) (9:05)
  • IV. Allegretto (The Street Leading to the Castle) (14:51)
  • V. Andante con moto (The Town Hall, Brno) (18:13)

Published in: on April 30, 2016 at 12:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

The Russian Easter Festival Overture by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is yet one more example of music I heard for the first time on KING-FM, Seattle’s sole surviving classical music station.  I listen to KING-FM almost every weekday, and though their daily music schedule is always posted online, I never check ahead of time to see what I’m likely to hear.  Thus, every piece is a surprise, and though I’m familiar with a lot of what they program, I’m continually exposed to music I never heard before.  Much of that music was written by composers I never heard of, or if I have, whose music is largely under-appreciated, at least by me.

Time and again, that music has enriched my life in a way that only lovers of classical music can understand.  My first impulse when I hear such a piece – one that grabs me by the vitals and says, “Pay attention, Derrick; you need to listen to this” – is to look it up on YouTube and listen to it again.  My second is to share it with readers of this blog, in the hope that it might enrich their lives as it has mine.

One such piece is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, which is known in Russia as The Bright Holiday.  Written in 1887-88, I heard it for the first time last year.  Though I was struck at once by its vitality and melodic richness – and soon after by the brilliance of its orchestration – I waited for the better part of a year to share it with you during the Easter season for which it was written.

The following description is taken from Rimsky-Korsakov’s own analysis, as it appears in his autobiography, My Musical Life:

During the summer of 1888 I finished The Bright Holiday, an Easter Overture on themes from the Obikhod [a collection of Russian Orthodox Church music].  The lengthy, slow introduction on the theme, ‘Let God Arise!’, alternating with the ecclesiastical theme, ‘An Angel Cried’, appeared to me in the beginning as Isaiah’s prophecy of the resurrection of Christ.  The gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the holy sepulchre that had shone with ineffable light at the moment of the resurrection…

The beginning of the Allegro, ‘Let them also that hate Him flee before Him’, leads to the holiday mood of the Orthodox church service on Christ’s matins.  The solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel is then displaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, dance-like tolling of the bells, alternating with an evocation of the sexton’s rapid reading and the chant of the priest’s reading the glad tidings of the Evangel.  The Obikhod theme, ‘Christ is risen’, which is the subsidiary part of the Overture, appears amid the trumpet-blasts and bell-tolling, constituting a triumphant coda.

In this Overture were thus combined reminiscences of the ancient prophecy, of the gospel narrative, and also a general picture of the Easter service with its pagan merrymaking…  The legendary and heathen side of the holiday, the transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merrymaking on Easter Sunday morning, is what I was eager to reproduce in my Overture.

You too can enjoy KING-FM, no matter where in the world you are.  If you are beyond the reach of their broadcast signal, you can listen through your computer or smart phone any time of day or night.  But now, it’s time to sit back, turn your speakers up or put your headphones on, and enjoy the Russian Easter Festival Overture as Dmitri Kitajenko and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov put the Danish National Symphony Orchestra through its paces.

Published in: on March 31, 2016 at 5:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Johann Sebastian Bach (and Bach-Busoni): Chaconne in D minor; Jascha Heifetz, Violin and Hélène Grimaud, Piano

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s Chaconne in D minor occupies a place of honor as the fifth and final movement of his Partita No. 2 for solo violin.  It also has a life of its own as a stand-alone composition, both in its original scoring and in numerous transcriptions for other instruments and ensembles.

The great Yehudi Menuhin called the Chaconne “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”, and Johannes Brahms, who wrote his own transcription of it for piano left-hand, said of it:

On one stave, for a small instrument, Bach writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.  If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

In this video from 1970, we hear the original version of the Chaconne, as performed by the legendary Jascha Heifetz.

In 1892, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), the prolific Italian composer, pianist, and conductor, wrote what has become the most famous transcription of the Chaconne.  His arrangement, for solo piano, was described by Anthony Tommasini, music critic for the N.Y. Times, as follows:

Ferruccio Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni

“This 15-minute score, composed in 1892, is no mere transcription, but Mr. Busoni’s visionary re-conception of the music.  He reveals the implications of Bach’s keenly dramatic piece, a set of variations on the stern theme in the manner of a chaconne (an early Baroque dance in triple meter).  The piano writing is thick with counterpoint, outbursts of octaves, long stretches of chromatically unstable chords and elaborate figurations that spin Bach’s notes into keyboard-spanning passagework.”

John Mortensen, professor of piano at Cedarville University, had this to say about the Busoni transcription:

Busoni’s arrangement draws upon the power, resonance, and polyphonic capabilities of the piano to elucidate ideas which Bach outlined on the violin.  Bach’s violin piece is the book; Busoni’s transcription is the movie.  The compositional integrity of the original is strong enough that it transcends musical style, working just as well as Busoni’s extroverted, demonstrative Romantic work.

In the video that follows, Busoni’s transcription is performed by the wonderful Hélène Grimaud, whom I have featured twice before on this blog in concertos by Beethoven and Brahms.

 

Published in: on February 28, 2016 at 1:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,