Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta


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  
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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  
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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  
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Movie Review: “Pulp Fiction”

The truth is, you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo, I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” – Jules Winnfield

PulpFictionThere are undoubtedly people somewhere in the world, even here in the USA, who have never seen Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.  There may even be some who, having heard about the violence and language in the movie, have made it a point not to watch it.  But no one can consider himself a true cinephile if he hasn’t seen Tarantino’s breakthrough movie from 1994, any more than if he has never seen CasablancaPsycho, or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Pulp Fiction is just such a landmark film.  Following hard on the heels of Tarantino’s first effort, Reservoir Dogs – maybe the best first film since John Huston’s The Maltese FalconPulp Fiction premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it walked away with the prestigious Palme d’Or.  Later that year it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and snagged the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, an honor that comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Tarantino’s masterful handling of dialog.

In the twenty-plus years since, Pulp Fiction has spawned more critical analysis (and out-and-out speculation) than any other film of its era I can think of.  It is not my intention to add to that analysis here; I just want to share my enthusiasm for this movie, and to encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a try.

So, what is it about?  Briefly, Pulp Fiction tells four interrelated stories, beginning with the story of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, two small-time thieves we meet in the first scene.  Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) have decided that robbing bars, liquor stores, and gas stations, their primary stock in trade, has become too risky.  “Restaurants, on the other hand,” theorizes Pumpkin, “you catch with their pants down.  They’re not expecting to get robbed, not as expecting anyway.”  Inspired by this reasoning, the two of them decide to rob the coffee shop where they have just finished their breakfast.

The second story concerns Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), two loquacious denizens of L.A.’s underworld on a mission to retrieve a mysterious briefcase belonging to their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).

Their mission is successful, after a fashion, and when they deliver the briefcase to Marsellus, we meet Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a boxer to whom Marsellus is offering good money to throw an upcoming fight.

Butch and his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) are the main characters in Story No. 3.  They are looking forward to a major change in their fortunes, one that could mean a move to Mexico or Bora Bora.

Finally, we have the story of Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s wife.  Marsellus has asked Vincent to take his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out for the evening while he, Marsellus, is out of town.  Despite some initial awkwardness, their dinner goes very well, as does the dance contest that follows.  But, to paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, “The evening ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

These four stories are woven together in masterful fashion by Tarantino, and sequenced in a way that continues to challenge viewers more than twenty years after the film’s release.  Every single member of the cast delivers a performance that stands the test of repeated viewings, but three deserve special mention: Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are simply extraordinary, and Bruce Willis will never give a fuller, more subtle, or more credible performance.

I have some parting questions for those who have already seen Pulp Fiction.  What happens to all these people after the events of the film?  For example, what happens to Jules Winnfield after he renounces the gangster life and decides to just “walk the earth”?  Whom does he meet, and what adventures does he have?  What happens to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny after they leave the Hawthorne Grill?  If I had been in Pumpkin’s place during his confrontation with Jules, I might have felt as Jules does after the events in Brett’s apartment: like I had dodged a bullet.  Does Pumpkin feel the same need that Jules felt to take his life in a completely different direction?

I know these are unanswerable questions, but I think about them anyway, which strikes me as a testament of sorts to Tarantino’s uncanny ability to bring his characters to life.  I invite the reader to share his or her thoughts on these or other pulpy matters in the Comments section below.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on January 31, 2016 at 5:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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Stravinsky: The Firebird

The Firebird by  Lev Lominago

The Firebird by Lev Lominago

Has there ever been a more fruitful collaboration than the one between Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, and composer Igor Stravinsky?  Between 1910 and 1923, they brought to life no fewer than five ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Pulcinella, and Les NocesPetrushka and The Rite of Spring have already appeared on this blog, and one day I may decide to feature Pulcinella and Les Noces as well.  Today, however, I want to go back to the beginning, to The Firebird, the first collaboration between these two and Stravinsky’s first work of lasting importance.

Stravinsky began composing The Firebird in the fall of 1909 in response to a commission from Diaghilev, who was eager for a new work for the upcoming season of his Ballets Russes.  He completed it in April 1910, and it premiered in Paris on June 25.  That premiere was a resounding success; indeed, I can’t imagine anyone not being swept away by the combination of Stravinsky’s dramatic score and the dancers of the Ballets Russes.

The story of The Firebird has been nicely summarized by Phillip Huscher, Program Annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as follows:

Fokine’s adaptation of the fairy tale pits the Firebird, a good fairy, against the ogre Kashchei, whose soul is preserved as an egg in a casket.  A young prince, Ivan Tsarevich, wanders into Kashchei’s magic garden in pursuit of the Firebird.  When he captures her, she pleads for her release and gives him one of her feathers, whose magic will protect him from harm.  He then meets thirteen princesses, all under Kashchei’s spell, and falls in love with one of them.  When he tries to follow them into the magic garden, a great carillon sounds an alarm and he is captured.  Kashchei is about to turn Ivan to stone when the prince waves the feather; the Firebird appears.  Her lullaby puts Kashchei to sleep, and she then reveals the secret of his immortality.  Ivan opens the casket and smashes the egg, killing Kashchei.  The captive princesses are freed, and Ivan and his beloved princess are betrothed.

My own introduction to The Firebird was a 1962 recording by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stravinsky himself.  In the liner notes to that record, Stravinsky writes at length about the origins of The Firebird, and gives his own assessment of its strengths and weaknesses:

Though the orchestral body of the Firebird was wastefully large, I was more proud of some of the orchestration than of the music itself.  The trombone glissandi in the Kastchei scene produced the biggest sensation with the audience, of course, but this effect was not original with me – Rimsky had used trombone slides, I think in Mlada, and Schoenberg in his tone poem Pelléas und Mélisande, to site earlier but less popular examples.  For me the most striking effect in the Firebird was the natural-harmonic string glissando [at 1:56 in the video below] which the bass chord touches off like a Catherine’s wheel.  I was delighted to have discovered this, and I remember my excitement in demonstrating it to Rimsky’s violinist and cellist sons.  I remember, too, Richard Strauss’s astonishment when he heard it two years later in Berlin.

This video, recorded at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, goes a long way toward capturing the excitement and presence of a live performance.  Visually, if not aurally, we have the best seat in the house.  The many close-ups of the soloists in the Vienna Philharmonic reveal a thousand small details that we might otherwise miss, and make it easy to appreciate Stravinsky’s pride in his orchestration.  We see firsthand the concentration on the faces of the musicians and the extraordinary involvement of the conductor, Valery Gergiev, who, conducting without a baton, seems to employ a sign language all his own.

Published in: on December 31, 2015 at 2:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Sergei Prokofiev: “Peter and the Wolf” Narrated by Itzhak Perlman

Peter and the WolfAfter eighteen years of self-imposed exile in Europe and America, Prokofiev returned to his native Russia in 1936.  Shortly afterward, he was approached by Natalia Satz, director of the Moscow Musical Theater for Children, with a proposal to write a play that would introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra.  Prokofiev embraced the idea wholeheartedly.  He wrote the music to “Peter and the Wolf” in just one week, and orchestrated it the next.  He dedicated the work to Ms. Satz, and it was introduced to the public in May 1936.

I don’t remember my own introduction to “Peter and the Wolf”, but my brother Mort informs me that in 1952, when I was but four years old, he was given a set of 78 rpm records of “Peter” that quickly became one of his favorites.  That recording of “Peter and the Wolf” may well have been the first classical music I ever heard, and may have fostered not only my love of Prokofiev, but of classical music as a whole.

If so, then I owe a great debt to “Peter”, one I will attempt to repay here.  Through this post, I hope to continue to introduce young people to the instruments of the symphony orchestra, to Prokofiev, and the world of classical music.

This video has everything!  First, of course, there is Prokofiev’s magical score.  Who can forget the optimism of Peter’s theme, the menace of the Wolf, the grumpy Grandfather, cheery Bird, stealthy Cat, and plaintive Duck?  We also have Jörg Müller’s loving illustrations.  Children will learn not only the instruments’ distinctive voices, but also what they look like.  And for the music student, we even have the musical notation for each of the characters’ themes.

The narration in this video is by the great violinist Itzhak Perlman, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is led by Zubin Mehta.  Share it with your children, or grandchildren!

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor The New York Philharmonic Orchestra Leonard Bernstein, Conductor

Shostakovich (L) and Leonard Bernstein in 1959.

Shostakovich (L) and Leonard Bernstein in 1959.

In 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich, who had been the pride of the Soviet Union ever since the premiere of his First Symphony ten years earlier, suffered a dramatic fall from grace.  In January of that year, Joseph Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”, and, as the saying goes, he was not amused.  Within days, a devastating polemic – some say penned by Stalin himself – appeared in Pravda denouncing both the opera and its composer.  Overnight, Shostakovich went from the darling of Soviet music to composer non grata and in fear for his life, as this occurred during the Great Purge, when official disfavor could quickly get one exiled to Siberia, or worse.

Shostakovich’s response to this criticism took the form of his 5th Symphony, which he composed in 1937.  This symphony is more accessible than “Lady Macbeth”, and both its public and critical reception were overwhelmingly positive.  Shostakovich was restored to official favor, at least for the time being, but ever since, critical opinion has been divided on whether in the 5th Symphony he acquiesced to political pressure, or only appeared to, while in fact composing a veiled protest against the totalitarian regime under which he labored.  Much of the controversy concerns the triumphal 4th movement: Does it convey real rejoicing or is the rejoicing meant to be seen as forced?

It’s impossible to know for certain what was in Shostakovich’s mind when he wrote this symphony.  I like what Herbert Glass, long-time music critic of the L.A. Times, wrote about it:

One can ramble on forever about the meaning and intent of the Fifth Symphony – and whether or not it is entirely straight-faced, or disingenuous, or self-serving, although there can be no doubt that the first and third movements are profoundly serious.  What it ultimately comes down to is that, without disregarding the harmonic language of the 20th century, Shostakovich succeeded here in recalling the grandeur and the weight of the late-Romantic statements of Borodin and Tchaikovsky, without for a moment sounding like those composers.

Personally, I don’t detect even a hint of irony in the 4th movement, which is as unequivocal an expression of triumph as any piece of music I know.  I’m inclined to take Shostakovich at his word when he writes in his preface to the score, “The theme of my Symphony is the stabilization of a personality.  At the center of this composition – conceived lyrically from beginning to end – I saw a man with all his experiences.  The finale resolves the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements into optimism and the joy of living.”

Perhaps Zoya Leybin, violinist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and former citizen of the Soviet Union, put it best.  She said, “Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – to me it’s a mirror which represents the life and the era in which he lived.  He was the messenger, and I think his music is a hymn to all of us who lived, survived, and passed on.”

Like so many other pieces I’ve featured on this blog, I was introduced to this symphony during my student days, through the famous 1959 recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.  In the video that follows, we again hear Bernstein and the New York Phil, but twenty years later, in a compelling performance from 1979.  The tempo indications and start times for the four movements are as follows:

Moderato (00:21)
Allegretto (18:12)
Largo (23:32)
Allegro non troppo (40:04)

Published in: on October 31, 2015 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Béla Bartók: Piano Sonata Sz. 80 (1926) Pianist – Zoltán Kocsis

Béla Bartók by Maxine Frost

Béla Bartók by Maxine Frost

Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945.  He composed his lone piano sonata in 1926, a banner year for Bartók which also saw the composition of his Out of Doors suite, Nine Little Pieces, and First Piano Concerto.  Bartók himself gave the first performance of his sonata in Budapest in December 1926, and it has since become a staple of the pianist’s repertoire.

I was introduced to Bartók’s sonata by my friend, pianist Andrew Rangell, in the high and far-off times when we both were students at the University of Colorado.  Andy owned a recording of István Nádas, one of Bartok’s countrymen, playing this and three other 20th century sonatas, and I was immediately captivated by the excitement and power of the piece.

Andy has gone on to forge a long and distinguished career for himself as a performer and recording artist, and in 2013 he released his own recording of this work on the Steinway & Sons label.  The CD is entitled “A Folk Song Runs Through It”, and features works of Janáček, Kodály, and Bartók.  I have reproduced below the liner notes relating to the Bartók sonata.

Bartók’s only sonata for piano is, like the two violin-piano sonatas of several years earlier, a radical departure from his overtly folk-based pieces of the previous decade.  The opening movement is cast clearly in sonata-allegro form.  It is dominated by machine-like energy, percussive, propulsive, filled with irregular phrases and brutal punctuations.  The themes of the exposition can feel overpowering, but subtle distinctions are certainly present: the second theme group is more relaxed and more charming than the insistent opening theme; the closing theme is more festive.  Wit animates the short development, and the truncated sotto voce recapitulation is wonderfully understated.  A stretto variation of the opening theme leads to the headlong coda and its explosive closing glissando.

The second movement, in ternary form, opens with a frozen, grief-stricken theme: a single pitch, and a single chord – both repeated insistently in a ritual of alternation.  A second theme, of plangent, widely-spaced chords, introduces a four-note diatonic scale.  Part A develops both themes in a bare polyphonic texture.  Part B is a single sustained event: a slow-growing, chromatic, and chordal crescendo over a pedal-tone, which lends great power to the return of the opening material, now altered and foreshortened.  At the end, the lamenting single note of the opening leads to an abrupt and inconclusive closing chord, a poignant, enigmatic halt.

The finale opens with an unequivocal burst of folk dance, a theme which will return often, with marvelous decorations including the suggested twitterings of a bird in variations 5 and 7.  Interruptions cleverly dramatize each new iteration of the theme.  Unlike the first movement juggernaut, this movement is filled with capricious shifts of tempo.  A final variant of the theme reminds this listener of “Good King Wenceslas” and builds to a brief coda: brisk and precipitous!

Notes by Andrew Rangell

This video features Zoltán Kocsis (pronounced KO-cheesh), yet another Hungarian, in a performance at La Roque d’Anthéron in 2002.  If this is the first time you’ve heard this sonata, and if it should happen to seem unduly dissonant or disjointed – or any other ‘dis’ for that matter – I hope you will listen again.  You can take my word for it: after just two or three hearings, it will begin to make the most compelling kind of sense.

My thanks to the multi-talented Maxine Frost for the caricature of Bartók.  You can see more of Maxine’s artwork by clicking here.

Published in: on September 30, 2015 at 8:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 8 Pianist – Evgeny Kissin

Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 by Hilda Wiener

Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 by Hilda Wiener

One of the most frequently read articles on this blog has been my interview with Lola Astanova, which I posted in October 2009.  At the end of that interview, I posed the following request: “If I were to select a few pieces that I would most like to hear you play, I would choose Scriabin’s Etude Op. 42, No. 5, Prokofiev’s 6th and 8th sonatas, and the sonata by Samuel Barber.  Is there any hope for me?”

It was not an idle request; all four of those pieces are special to me.  The only one I have not yet featured on this blog is Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8, which has been a favorite of mine ever since I heard Vladimir Ashkenazy perform it in Denver more than forty years ago.  I hadn’t found a performance of it online that I wanted to share until I discovered the video of Evgeny Kissin presented below.

The third of his three “War Sonatas”, Prokofiev began work on the 8th in 1939 but didn’t complete it until 1944, when it was given its premiere by Emil Gilels.  It is, in a word, a monumental work, impossible to appreciate fully after just one hearing.  Even the great Sviatoslav Richter needed to hear it twice before gaining a clear sense of its importance.  He said of it, “After a single hearing, it was clear that this was a remarkable work, but when I was asked whether I planned to play it myself, I was at a loss for an answer… After the second hearing, I was firmly resolved to learn the piece.”

Richter goes on to say, “Of all Prokofiev’s sonatas, this is the richest.  It has a complex inner life, profound and full of contrasts.  At times it seems to grow numb, as if abandoning itself to the relentless march of time.  If it is sometimes inaccessible, this is because of its richness, like a tree that is heavy with fruit.  It remains one of my three favorite works, alongside the Fourth and Ninth Sonatas…” – from Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon

The Eighth reminds me of a Russian novel.  Epic in its scope, it steadfastly refuses to be hurried.  The first movement, marked Andante dolce (sweetly), is contemplative – almost improvisational – and deeply affecting.  The second movement, marked Andante sognando (dreamily), is one of Prokofiev’s most lyrical creations, while the concluding Vivace – rhythmically compelling, fearsomely difficult – is music of great joy, marked by the playfulness that is so characteristic of Prokofiev.

This extraordinary performance by Evgeny Kissin was recorded at the Verbier Festival of 2009.  One has the feeling that Kissin approaches this work with great humility, even reverence.  At its conclusion we feel honored to have been present, even if only via video.

Published in: on August 31, 2015 at 6:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Samuel Barber: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Pianist – Albert Tiu

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981)

Barber began writing his lone piano concerto in March of 1960.  By the end of the year, he had completed the first two movements, but he didn’t finish the third movement until just two weeks before the premiere, in September 1962.  Whatever his struggles with procrastination may have been, Barber wrote a magnificent concerto.  He received his second Pulitzer Prize for it in 1963.  The first was in 1958 for his opera Vanessa.

The soloist at the premiere was the late John Browning, who ultimately made two recordings of this concerto.  The first was in 1964 with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and it was that record that served as my introduction to this piece.  The liner notes to that album, which I still have, include the following description that Barber wrote for the premiere:

“The Concerto begins with a solo for piano in recitative style in which three themes or figures are announced, the first declamatory, the second and third rhythmic.  The orchestra interrupts, piu mosso, to sing the impassioned main theme, not before stated.  All this material is now embroidered more quietly and occasionally whimsically by piano and orchestra until the tempo slackens (doppio meno mosso) and the oboe introduces a second lyric section.  A development along symphonic lines leads to a cadenza for soloist, and a recapitulation with fortissimo ending.

“The second movement (Canzona) is song-like in character, the flute being the principal soloist.  The piano enters with the same material which is subsequently sung by muted strings, to the accompaniment of piano figurations.

“The last movement (Allegro molto in 5/8), after several fortissimo repeated chords by the orchestra, plunges headlong into an ostinato bass figure for piano, over which several themes are tossed.  There are two contrasting sections (one ‘un pochettino meno’ for clarinet solo, and one for three flutes, muted trombones and harp, ‘con grazia’) where the fast tempo relents, but the ostinato figure keeps insistently reappearing, mostly by the piano protagonist, and the 5/8 meter is never changed.

I would particularly like to draw your attention to the beautiful second movement, which to me is the embodiment of the word ‘wistful’.

This video was recorded in 2002 during the final round of the first Helsinki International Maj Lind Piano Competition.  The Finnish Radio Orchestra is conducted by Hannu Lintu.  The pianist, Albert Tiu, a native of the Philippines, finished in fifth place in that competition, and considering the all-around brilliance of his performance, I can’t help but wonder about the top four finishers.  They must all be phenomenal.  For the record, they were Alberto Nosè (Italy), Kotaro Fukuma (Japan), Pierre Mancinelli (France), and Juho Pohjonen (Finland).

First Movement

Second and Third Movements

Published in: on July 31, 2015 at 4:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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