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

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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.

Published in: on May 29, 2017 at 7:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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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  
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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)  
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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  
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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  
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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  
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