Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Liszt - Héroïde funèbre

Europe at the time of Franz Liszt's early adulthood was a Europe of revolution. In July, 1830 the Paris Revolution, also known as The Three Glorious Days caused the abdication of French King Charles X and brought about the ascent of Louis-Philippe from the House Of Orleans as the new constitutional monarch.

Liszt was not yet 20 years old at the time, but the event inspired him to sketch out a Revolution Symphony in five movements. It wasn't until 20 years later when Liszt took the first movement sketch of the symphony and reworked it into a symphonic poem.  Revolution spread across most countries in Europe in 1848, including Paris and Liszt's native Hungary.

March 15, 1848 was the day that a group of Hungarians rioted in Pest-Buda demanding political autonomy for Hungary from Austria.  Emperor Ferdinand promised Hungary a constitution, an elected parliament, and the end of censorship. The new government, led by ministers Szechenyi and Kossuth, imposed the Magyar language on all the other nationalities in Hungary. This angered many people, and uprisings followed. Austria took back Hungary after one and a half years of fighting when Russian Tsar Nicholas I marched into Hungary with over 300,000 troops.

Hungary was placed under brutal martial law, with the Austrian government restored to its original position.  Liszt's final inspiration to complete the work was to commemorate the execution in 1849 of thirteen Hungarian generals who had led the revolution, but he still left a very short musical quotation from the French national anthem La Marseillaise from the original work in it, perhaps as a tribute to France, his adopted country early in his adulthood.

Liszt wrote a long preface to the work when it was published that dealt with the price paid when violence is part of revolution and the consequences the use of  violence has on human progress.  It is as if  Héroïde funèbre is a funeral oration for the victims of revolutionary violence, no matter what flag they were carrying.  Some of Liszt's preface:

De Maistre remarks that over thousands of years it is hard to find any during which, by rare exception, peace reigned on earth - which otherwise resembles an arena where people fight each other as did the gladiators in former times, and where the most valiant salute Destiny as the master and Providence as their judge, before entering the lists. In these wars and carnages that succeed one another like sinister games, whatever the colors of the flags which rise courageous and proud against each other, over both camps they flutter soaked in heroic blood and inexhaustible tears. 

Liszt also had this to say about dying for one's country:

I would be the first to answer the call to arms, to give my blood and not tremble before the guillotine, if it were the guillotine that could give the world peace and mankind happiness. But who believes that? We are concerned with bringing peace to the world in which the individual is justly treated by society.

The first version of this piece was published in 1850, with the music written by Liszt but orchestrated by his protege Joachim Raff (as were other of the symphonic poems), as Liszt was still learning the craft of orchestration. But the piece was thoroughly revised and re-orchestrated by Liszt himself in 1854 and 1857.

This was not the only funeral music Liszt wrote. In his set of piano pieces called Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses the seventh piece named Funérailles is dedicated to those who fell in the Hungarian uprising, perhaps the same thirteen generals who led it.  And the Hungarian Rhapsody #5 in E minor is subtitled Héroïde élégiaque.   The creative artist in Liszt tried to deal with the death and destruction brought on by people rising up against oppression in the best ways he knew how - he performed many concerts and gave all the proceeds to charities that helped the victims of aggression, and he gave honor and tribute to the fallen through his music.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Arthur Rubinstein - Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2

Arthur Rubinstein (1887 - 1982) was a Polish pianist and one of the great virtuosos of the 20th century. He was declared a child prodigy at the age of four and had perfect pitch. By the age of thirteen he had already made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic.

He toured all over the world during his long life. There may have been other pianists that could play a certain piece or composer with more insight, but everything Rubinstein played was rock-solid in interpretation and technique. His tone was golden, he was incapable of producing a harsh tone from the piano. His repertoire was huge. For example, he could perform in short notice 27 different piano concertos.  He was also an excellent chamber music musician.

He made recordings from 1928 to about 1976, with most of his recordings being done for RCA. all of his RCA recordings have been issued on music CD, the entire set contains 94 CD's and runs to 106 hours. He concertized until his eyesight failed him and he retired in 1976 at age eighty-nine. His last concert was in Wigmore Hall in London where he had first played nearly seventy years previously.

Rubinstein is most well known for his Chopin performances. Rubinstein was one of the first pianists early in the 20th century to play Chopin as the music was written. That's not to say he played it coldly and analytically, but Rubinstein purposefully rid himself of the excesses in performance and interpretation that had become somewhat of a tradition in Chopin's music.  There is no better player of Chopin's 2nd sonata than Rubinstein. He plays with expression and passion that totally serves the music.

Chopin's 2nd sonata confused music lovers when it was first published in 1837.  Schumann said it lacked cohesion and Chopin "simply bound together four of his most unruly children."   The sonata is in 4 movements and follows the layout of Beethoven's  Piano Sonata #12, which was one of Chopin's favorite Beethoven sonatas. The sonata opens with what some have called a tribute to Beethoven, as it is very similar to Beethoven's opening of his final piano sonata, Opus 111 in C minor, another favorite of Chopin.  The second movement is a scherzo, the third movement is the famous Funeral March. The enigmatic final Presto movement has been subject to many interpretations. In the preface to the American edition of the sonatas James Huneker  quotes from Karol Mikuli,  the editor of the sonatas and one of Chopin's pupils, that Chopin said of this movement, "The left hand and right hand are gossiping after the March". Arthur Rubinstein himself said of the movement that, "One  hears the winds of night sweeping over churchyard graves, the dust blowing and the dust that remains."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tchaikovsky - Piano Trio 'In Memory Of A Great Artist'

Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840 -1893)  refused to write a piano trio for his benefactor Nadezhda von Meck, saying in a letter to her in 1880,  "You ask why I have never written a trio. Forgive me, dear friend; I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me ... I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend..."

But upon the death of close friend and mentor Nicolai Rubinstein who had died in March of 1881, Tchaikovsky seems to have had a change of heart. He ended up writing a piano trio and subtitling it 'In Memory Of A Great Artist' in tribute to his friend.  It was the only piano trio he ever wrote.

The work went through several versions with the final version being completed in February 1882.  A private performance was held at the Moscow Conservatory on March 23, 1882, the one year anniversary of Nicolai Rubinstein's death, but Tchaikovsky was in Italy.  he heard the trio in another private performance in April, after which he made some revisions to the work.

The trio is in two proper movements, although the 2nd movement contains two distinct sections. For a chamber work it is rather long and takes about three quarters of an hour to perform. The piano part is some of the most difficult music Tchaikovsky wrote for the piano, including the piano concertos.

The first movement is full of dark, funereal music. The second movement is a set of variations that segues into a Finale that is some of the most tragic, emotional music ever written by Tchaikovsky, and for a composer known for his emotionally-charged music, that is saying quite a lot.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor ' In Memory Of A Great Artist ' :

Friday, November 18, 2011

Parry - Piano Concerto in F-sharp Major

Hubert Parry (1848 -1918) was an English composer, teacher and music historian.  He came from an upper middle class family and as such went to school at Eton.  Although he excelled in music while at Eton (as well as sports) his father demanded that he study for a different career, so when he went to Oxford he didn't study music but law and history.

He worked as an insurance underwriter at Lloyd's of London from 1870 to 1877, all the while continuing his studies in music. He tried to obtain lessons from Brahms, but he was not available. Parry ended up taking lessons from Edward Dannreuther , a pianist and writer. Parry's compositions began to be known by the public and he was also hired on as a music scholar in 1875 by George Grove as an assistant editor for the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians to which he contributed 123 articles.   He was appointed professor of composition and musical history at  the Royal College of Music in 1883. He became director of the  College in 1900 and worked in that capacity until his death.

The Piano Concerto in F-sharp Major was one of Parry's first major works. He began the work in 1878 and completed it in 1879.  It was premiered in 1880 with his own teacher Dannreuther as soloist.  It got rave reviews but some considered it avante garde.  Parry went on to write much vocal music, five symphonies and other pieces, plus books on music and music history.

Parry thought that German music and traditions to be the standard, so with the oncoming World War he felt confident that the English and Germans would not fight each other. Of course he was sadly wrong, and had to watch his musical world become yet another victim of the war. Parry had suffered from heart disease for many years and when he contracted the Spanish flu during the 1918 pandemic, it took his life.

Parry wrote only one piano concerto. It is an interesting piece, not least of all to think that it was at one time considered avante garde.  It is very well written, with a piano part that calls for the skill of a virtuoso.  It is one of the many neglected pieces in the repertoire that could use an occasional hearing.

Boismortier - Bassoon Concerto

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier was a French musician who was one of the first composers who had no patrons. In a time where a composer had to rely on the service of a royal court or church to make a living. Boismortier not only didn't have a patron, but he became wealthy on the sales of his published works. He obtained a royal license to engrave music in 1724, and went on to publish over 100 pieces of music.

Boismortier got his education from a composer of motets that lived in the area of France he grew up in. In adult life he married the daughter of a rich goldsmith and moved to Paris with his wife in to compose and engrave music.  He was the first French composer to write a concerto for solo instrument, and wrote in many different forms for instruments and voices.  Later in life he became a theorist and wrote instruction manuals for the flute and viola.

He had a knack for composing works thgat pleased the public thus he became a very popular composer. His compositions for voice alone sold enough copies to make him a wealthy man. That he was as much criticized as applauded is evident by what was written by Jean-Benjamin de la Borde, a music theorist and Boismortier contemporary. From his Essay On Ancient And Modern Music (1780):

"Boismortier lived in a time when people wanted music to be easy and pleasant to listen to. This skillful musician made the most of this fashionable taste and composed a multitude of airs and duos for flute, violin, oboe, musette, hurdy gurdy... He was very successful in this, but unfortunately he wasted too many harmonies, some of which were peppered with pleasant outbursts.  He so abused his talent and numerous  clients that one of them once said:

"Happy is he, Good Sir Boismortier, whose prolific quill,
Each month with almost no pain conceives a new ditty at will"

In reply to his critics, Boismortier would say, "I'm earning money". This musician was pleasant, ingenious and good company." 

The Bassoon Concerto is in D major and was included in a collection of 5 sonatas. In all 6 works in the collection the solo instrument can be either cello, viola da gamba or bassoon, an example of how music in his time was written to be multi-purpose, something that Boismortier was more than happy to do as it would increase his sales. The concerto is in three movements: 

Boismortier knew the current trends and what was popular and didn't much care what his critics had to say as long as the public kept buying his music. He may not have been a composer that plumbed the depths of emotion in his works, but he was something of a trailblazer, a free lance musician in a time when that was unheard of.   

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rachmaninoff - Five Preludes For Piano

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 - 1943)  was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the 20th century.  He had a phenomenal memory, learned new pieces exceedingly fast, and had technique to spare. As if that wasn't enough, he was also a top-notch conductor and composer.

A lot of his output was music for the piano. Among some of his best compositions are the preludes for solo piano. His first prelude was in a set of five pieces called Morceaux de Fantaisie (French for Fantasy Pieces) composed when he was fresh out of the Conservatory at age nineteen.

The Prelude in C-sharp Minor, the second piece in this Opus 3 set, is the infamous prelude that was so immensely popular that Rachmaninoff had to play it at almost every concert he gave. He came to detest the piece, not least of all because when it was published copyright laws at the time didn't provide the composer with any royalties. The fact that this piece grew to be so popular and was played so many times without the payment of any royalties always stuck in Rachmaninoff's craw. He composed another set of ten preludes, Opus 23, in 1903 and another set of thirteen, Opus 32 in 1910 to complete the set of twenty four.

Rachmaninoff's preludes are fascinating pieces, each one a masterwork. They are full of technical difficulties, fistfuls of notes, large chords for both hands sometimes written over 4 music staves. But they are more than tests of a pianist's technique and endurance. They are also a test of the pianist's musicality.

As with all sets of pieces like this, people always have their favorites. I have chosen the five preludes out of the set that I like the best. But they are surely all worth listening to. The ones in the video are:

Prelude in B-flat Major - Maestoso - Opus 23, No.2
Prelude in D minor - Tempo di Menuett - Opus 23, No.3
Prelude in G Minor - Alla Marcia - Opus 23, No.5
Prelude in B Minor - Lento - Opus 32, No.10
Prelude in G-sharp Minor - Allegro - Opus 32, No.12:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Franck - Le Chasseur Maudit (The Accursed Hunter)

Cesar Franck (1822 - 1890) wrote this brilliantly orchestrated tone poem in 1882.  The title is taken from a poem written by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger that was titled Der Wilde Jäger. The tone poem, while written in one continuous movement, is in four distinct sections:
  • Sunday Morning Call To Worship
  • The Hunt
  • The Curse
  • The Demon's Chase
The story synopsis:

The church bells call the faithful to worship on a bright and sunny Sunday morning, but an arrogant German count decided he will go hunting instead. He ignored the church bells and the chants, mounted his horse as he blew his hunting horn to begin the hunt, and whipped the peasants that got in his way.  After he got into the woods and hunted for a while, he realized he was lost.  A mysterious voice speaks to him and tells him that he is cursed to be chased forever by demons in the forest for his blasphemy.  Through night and day the wild ride goes on, and doesn't stop when the hunter and his horse fall into the abyss. They are lifted airborne with the demons still hot in their pursuit. 

Franck's Le Chasseur Maudit (The Accursed Hunter):

Arensky - Fantasia On Russian Folk Songs For Piano And Orchestra

Anton Arensky (1861 - 1906) was a Russian composer, pianist and teacher. Arensky as a child was musically precocious and had composed many songs and pieces for the piano by the age of nine.  He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. After his graduation he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory where one of his students was Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Arensky is best known for his chamber music, especially the Piano Trio in D minor, but he composed music in many other forms. His Fantasia On Russian Folk Songs For Piano And Orchestra is based on two songs from a collection of Russian folk songs compiled by the ethno-musicologist Ivan Ryabinin.  The first theme is in E minor. Tchaikovsky's music was a large influence on Arensky as his treatment of the first theme is rhapsodic. The second theme is like a march, and while it too is in a minor key, it is of a different character than the first.

After the second theme is played through, the first them returns and is varied. The gradually lightens in texture and grows quiet. The piano by itself utters the first theme one more time, and the piece ends quietly with the piano and a pizzicato chord by the low strings.

Arensky was somewhat of an enigmatic man. He never married, had few friends and struggled with alcoholism most of his life. He was also a compulsive gambler. He died of tuberculosis when he was 44 years old.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tartini - Violin Sonata in G Minor 'Devil's Trill'

Giuseppe Tartini (1692 - 1770) was an Italian composer and violinist. He was an influential violin teacher as well as player and composer. He started a very popular violin school that attracted students from all over Europe. He is also one of the first persons known to have owned a violin made by Stradivarius.

He composed almost exclusively for the violin with over 135 violin concertos and many violin sonatas. By far his best known work is the Sonata in G minor for Violin and Basso Continuo, known as 'The Devil's Trill' because of the double stop trills used in the work.  Tartini himself told the story about falling asleep one night and being visited by the Devil:

"One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and - I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the "Devil's Trill", but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me."

Tartini's Violin Sonata in G minor 'Devil's Trill'

Monday, November 14, 2011

Beethoven - String Quartet No. 1

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) composed his first string quartets, six of them comprising his opus 18, between 1798 and 1800.  The first quartet in F major wasn't the first one composed, but Beethoven placed it as the first one, perhaps because he thought it was the best of the six. Beethoven had given the original quartet to a friend, but two years later he did a thorough revision of the work.

Beethoven wrote these first six quartets while Joseph Haydn was still alive.  Haydn was the acknowledged master of the string quartet, and along with Mozart he had taken the form to a new level. Beethoven was flexing his musical muscle and showing with his first quartet that the form still had possibilities.

The quartet begins with a statement of the first movement's major theme in unison by all four instruments. The theme goes through some dramatic development in the middle section of the movement. The second movement has been compared to the tomb scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. some say Beethoven himself did the comparison, some say the friend that he gave the first version of the quartet to said it. Regardless of who said it, the movement is a passionate, dramatic one. The Scherzo and Finale are both short movements and help to balance out the first two long movements.

Beethoven went on to compose a total of sixteen string quartets over a span of 26 years.  He became a master of the form and used it for some of his most profound and beautiful music.

Howlin' Wolf Sings The Blues

Howlin' Wolf  a.k.a. Chester Arthur Burnett (1910 -1976) was an influential blues singer, harmonica and guitar player. Born in Mississippi, he farmed and learned guitar and harmonica from other musicians in the area. After he served in the Army during the Second World War, he became a local celebrity in the south, playing with various other blues men. He was finally signed to a recording contract by Chess Records in 1951 and moved to Chicago, IL.

One of his biggest hits in the 1950's was Smokestack Lightnin', here being sung by the Wolf while on a blues tour of Britian in 1964:

At Chess Records, Willie Dixon wrote songs for Wolf that turned out to be some of his most popular. "Back Door Man" was one of these songs:

Wolf continued touring and recording throughout the 1950's and 1960's with his own band and his long-time lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin.  Here they are with Sunnyland Slim in a video taken from the American Folk Blues tour of 1964 with Wolf singing the song "Shake For Me":

In the late 1960's and early 1970's Wolf's health declined. He had several heart attacks and his kidneys were badly damaged in an auto accident in 1970. He succumbed to kidney failure in 1976.

In his prime Howlin' Wolf was a huge man, 6' 6", over 300 hundred pounds and his voice was just as big.  Sam Phillips was the first to sign Wolf to a contract and he commented,  "When I heard him, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies'. He was about six foot six, with the biggest feet I've ever seen on a human being. Big Foot Chester is one name they used to call him. He would sit there with those feet planted wide apart, playing nothing but the French harp, and I tell you, the greatest show you could see today would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what would it be worth to see the fervor in that man's face when he sang. His eyes would light up and you'd see the veins on his neck, and buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul."

Howlin' Wolf singing and Hubert Sumlin on lead guitar Moving from one of his last albums in the 1970's:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Froberger - Suite No. 26 In B Minor

Johann Jakob Froberger (1616 - 1667) was a German composer, keyboard and organ virtuoso.  He helped to develop the keyboard suite of dances and influenced many composers, including J.S. Bach.

Froberger's father was Kapellmeister  of the court in Württemberg. He got his first instruction in music from his father who also had a large (for the time) library of music with over 100 pieces in it. Young Froberger had this music at his disposal growing up, as did three other brothers who all became musicians.

Froberger became court organist in Vienna, Austria in 1637. While there, he received leave to go to Rome to study with Frescobaldi. He stayed for three years in Italy, went back to Vienna and made several trips back and forth. He also traveled widely in Europe, visiting London, Paris, Brussels and other areas. Because of these travels, he was able to absorb different styles of music in different parts of Europe and incorporated them in his music.

Only two of his pieces were published in his lifetime, but he became famous because of hand written copies of his music that circulated  He not only wrote keyboard suites, but pieces for organ and highly personal programmatic pieces. He actually did not originate the keyboard Suite of dances, as dances had been organized into suites in France long before him. What he did do was develop this form and the standards for it.

The Suite #26 in B Minor consists of 4 dances. There is still some question as to the order of the dances, sbut in the recording attached the four dances in order are:

Allemande -  The allemande originated in the 16th century as a duple metre dance of moderate tempo, derived from dances supposed to be favored in Germany at the time. It was usually the first movement in the suite.
Gigue - A lively baroque dance originating from the British jig. Many times it is the final movement in the suite, but here it is placed 2nd.
Courante - n a Baroque dance suite, an Italian or French courante typically comes between the allemande and the sarabande, making it the second or third movement.
Sarabande - A dance in triple metre. The second and third beats of each measure are often tied, giving the dance a distinctive rhythm of quarter notes and eighth notes in alternation. The quarters are said to corresponded with dragging steps in the dance.

Froberger's Suite In B Minor : 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jacob Gade - Tango 'Jalousie'

Jacob Gade (1879 - 1963) was a Danish violinist and composer of orchestral popular music. He's remembered for only one composition, Tango Jalousie, (or Jealousy ).  He was appointed the conductor of a large theater orchestra in 1921 that accompanied silent movies. He wrote the tango in 1925 to accompany a movie titled , "Don Q, Son Of Zorro".  It was a popular song, but it wasn't until  Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra made the first recording of it in 1935 when it became an international hit.  Gade was able to retire on the royalties and compose music as he chose, although Arthur Fieldler said that Gade showed him a symphony that he wrote and Fiedler said it was one of the worst pieces of music he ever saw.

Jalousie has been used in over 100 movies and is still a popular tango today. The piece earns a sizable amount of royalties which are used to fund the Jacob Gade prize awarded to the most promising young musician in Denmark.

Gade's Tango Jalousie:

Rossini - Overture To ' La Cenerentola' (Cinderella)

Gioachino Rossini (1792- 1868)  had his first big opera 'hit' with The Barber Of Seville in 1816.  It ended up being his most successful and popular opera of his career.  He followed up on this success with the writing of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) the following year. It was as big of a success as 'Barber' had been, and Rossini was an international star from then on.

Rossini met Beethoven in 1822 in Vienna. Beethoven by that time was deaf and somewhat of a recluse. Beethoven told Rossini, " Ah, Rossini. So you’re the composer of The Barber of Seville. I congratulate you. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to write anything else but opera buffa; any other style would do violence to your nature.”

He wrote a total of 20 operas between the years 1815-1823 and he wrote his 38th and final opera , William Tell, in 1829 when he was 38 years old.  He was known to write very fast and was not above 'borrowing' music from his other operas to use in a new one.  He wrote the entire opera La Cenerentola in three weeks, he bragged he wrote The Barber Of Seville in twelve days. After his retirement from writing opera, he continued to compose sporadically and collected these odd compositions in volumes he called 'Sins Of My Old Age'.

The Overture To La Cenerentola  follows Rossini's usual practice and of course includes his trademark crescendo for full orchestra. Rossini used this so often in his overtures that contemporaries gave him the nickname 'Signor Crescendo'.

Rossini's Overture To La Cenerentola (Cinderella)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Cziffra Plays Liszt

Georges Cziffra (1921 - 1994) was a Hungarian virtuoso pianist.  His father was a cimbalom player that played in cafes and cabarets in the Paris area. He was a child prodigy and first learned to play the piano by watching his sister take lessons.  He would learn songs by ear after his parents would whistle or sing the music to him.

By the time he was five he had attracted the attention of a traveling circus which hired him to improvise and play tunes suggested by the audience. He did this for only a few weeks, but this association with the circus caused some critics to question his musical upbringing.  But Cziffra had a well-rounded musical education as he was admitted to the Franz Liszt Academy at the age of nine, the youngest student ever admitted in the history of the institution. He was also allowed to take part in master classes that were usually reserved for older students.

In 1942 he was called up to fight in the Second World War. His unit was sent to the Russian Front under orders of the Nazis and he was captured by Russian partisans and held captive for two years. He eventually escaped, was brought back into the military on the side of the Nazis and became a tank commander.  He was went through denazification and began to play piano in cafes.

Cziffra attempted an escape from Soviet-controlled Hungary and was a prisoner doing forced labor and undergoing torture from 1950-1953.  He finally left the country for a concert in Vienna on the eve of the Hungarian Revolt in 1956 and never went back to Hungary.  He wore a heavy leather wristband on his right forearm to help support ligaments in his right arm that had been injured under torture during his imprisonment.

Cziffra was one of the top virtuoso pianists of the 20th century who was known for his interpretations of Liszt's music. He was not only Hungarian like Liszt, but he was also of Gypsy extraction. There was evidently no technical problems for him at the keyboard. He throws off the most difficult music with ease. Case in point is the following video of his performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody #6.  In the world of the Hungarian Rhapsodies that is full of technical difficulties, Number 6 stands out for the repeating octaves in the final section of the work which makes keeping tempo increasingly difficult the longer the piece goes.  Cziffra throws the octaves off as easily as if he were playing single notes and seems to actually increase the tempo without losing clarity:

Next Cziffra plays Etude #3 'la Campanella' of Liszt's Paganini Etudes.  This etude was inspired by the third movement theme of Paganini's  Violin Concerto #2

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor K. 491

Whenever Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a piece in a minor key, he always had something profound to say. The two symphonies in G minor (No. 25 and No.40), the Piano Quartet in G minor, and the two piano concertos in D minor and C minor are all dramatic works.   The Concerto No. 24 in C minor is one of Mozart's masterpieces. It was admired, studied and possibly performed by Beethoven. Indeed, Beethoven's own 3rd Piano Concerto not only uses the same key, but the opening theme in the first movement resembles Mozart's initial theme.  There is a story that while Beethoven and the pianist J.B. Cramer were listening to this concerto being performed in Vienna, Beethoven said, "We shall never be able to do anything like this!"

Mozart used an orchestra larger than for any of his other piano concertos to that time. The autograph score shows many erasers and corrections, quite uncharacteristic of Mozart as many of his autograph scores were fairly pristine. This concerto was written at the same time Mozart was writing his opera The Marriage Of Figaro. He was the soloist in the first performance of the concerto in 1786, two weeks after he completed it.  The concerto is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro - The first movement opens with a quiet, sinister theme that is developed into a roar carried by the rest of the orchestra and piano. Although the theme is in C minor, Mozart uses all the tones in the chromatic scale in it:

TThere are two secondary themes that help to give some relief to the tension, but the movement is dominated by the opening theme. The drama and tension of most of the movement may lead the listener to be prepared for a stormy end to the movement but the music quietly and abruptly ends.

II. Andante - Music that is in contrast to the turbulence of the previous movement. Mozart was one of the great composers for wind instruments and it shows in this movement as there are extended passages for wind ensemble. There is a feeling to this music akin to what Mozart wrote in some of his serenades, as the piano and winds take turns with the gentle thematic material. The music reverts back to the beginning of the movement and gently winds down to a restful conclusion.

III. Allegro - Presto - Instead of ending the concerto with a movement in the usual rondo form in a lighter mood and a major key, the third movement begins with a theme in C minor that is the basis for a masterful set of variations:

The eight variations contrast one another in mood until the last variation shifts to 6/8 time with an ominous rhythmic lilt that leads to the resounding final chord.

The great French writer André Gide said about Mozart that he speaks in whispers while the public tends to hear only shouts.  Comparing Mozart to Beethoven, that is perhaps true. But the 'whispers' in this concerto are dramatic, prophetic of things to come from other composers.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Beethoven - Symphony No. 4

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770- 1827) composed the 4th Symphony in the summer of 1806 and it premiered in 1807 at the home of  Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz.  The work is more in the style of Beethoven's first two symphonies, especially when compared to the third (Eroica) written just before it. Beethoven seemed to have to keep variety in his writing, as many times a complex, major work like the Eroica would be followed by something in a different style. The fourth is such a work, and as the 8th symphony stands between the two giant 7th and 9th symphonies, so too the 4th symphony stands between the two giant 3rd and 5th symphonies.

Beethoven begins the 4th symphony with a dark  and mysterious slow introduction that is in marked contrast to the music of the rest of the first movement.  The second movement is taken at an andante pace, with sweet tunes being punctuated by rather rough burst from the orchestra. The third movement has the qualities of both a scherzo and minuet. The last movement is taken at a quick pace, rather like the types of fast finales preferred by Haydn.

To the listener of Beethoven's time, even this symphony that is perhaps 'tamer' than what he wrote in the 3rd symphony, was still something unique. As a critic of the time wrote, 
"That the composer follows an individual path in his works can be seen again in this work; just how far this path is the correct one, and not a deviation, may be decided by others. To me the great master seems here, as in several of his recent works, now and then excessively bizarre, and thus, even for knowledgeable friends of art, easily incomprehensible and forbidding."
It seems as though Beethoven was ever baffling his listeners, so unalike were his works. Now that we have so much time since they have been written, and so many opportunities to hear the works much more often than anyone did in Beethoven's time,  our ears have no doubt had a chance to 'get used' to Beethoven's uniqueness. And it is not so much that familiarity breeds contempt, but that it breeds complacency. The uniqueness and power of Beethoven's music is still there, if we can manage to actively listen to it, learn from it, and question what we think we know about it.  The music certainly deserves and warrants it.  There is really nothing like a Beethoven Symphony.  Even another Beethoven symphony, for they all are worlds unto themselves. That certainly includes the 4th.

Frescobaldi - Variations 'la Frescobalda'

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583 - 1643) was an Italian organist, keyboardist and composer whose compositions exerted a great deal of influence on musicians like J.S. Bach. He was the organist at St. Peter's Basilica for over thirty years.

He was one of the first composers of his time to specialize in composing for the keyboard. He did write some music for voice, but the vast majority of his output was for keyboard.  In Frescobaldi's time,  keyboard music could be played on organ, harpsichord, or clavichord.  Unlike many composers of the time, Frescobaldi published many of his works which lead them to be well-known in the musical world of the time. He was an innovator in his composing, his playing and even in the ways he notated his music (which lead to the modern method of notation) and was so acknowledged by his contemporaries.

One of the compositions he printed was also the very first known instance of a set of variations on an original theme, the 'la Frescobalda' variations.  Any variations previously were on folk songs or popular melodies.  Frescobaldi states his theme (or 'aria' ) at the beginning, and there are four variations on it. In the recording below, the performer follows the practice sometimes done in Frescobaldi's time, of playing a reprise of the original theme after the last variation.

Frescobaldi's Variations On An Original Theme 'la Frescobalda' :

Monday, November 7, 2011

Glazunov - The Seasons

Alexander Glazunov (1865 - 1936) was a Russian composer, music teacher and conductor. He was a child prodigy and was taught privately by Rimsky-Korsakov, who said Glazunov's musical progress did not increase day by day but hour by hour.   He began composing at age eleven and wrote his first symphony at age 16 in 1881 and it was premiered one year later.

Glazunov became a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1899 and went on to be director of the institution from 1905 until 1930.   After the Russian Revolution, Glazunov refused luxurious accommodations for himself from the new regime for the sake of the conservatory and the students there.  He took a personal interest in many of the students welfare because of the hard times after the revolution. One of the many students he taught and helped was Dmitri Shostakovich.  He remained in Russia until 1928, when he went on tour as a conductor and lecturer in Europe and the United States. He never went back to Russia but settled in France, dying there in 1936.

The Seasons was a ballet written by Glazunov in 1899. It is written in one act and four scenes and was choreographed by Marius Petipa. It was premiered in 1900 in St. Petersburg.  Glazunov uses a large orchestra for music that shows his talent for orchestral color and gift for melody. It is written in a lighter, more lyrical style than his symphonies and remains one of his more accessible and  popular compositions.

The Synopsis for the ballet:
Tableau 1A winter landscape
Winter is surrounded by his companions: Hoar-frost, Ice, Hail and Snow, who amuse themselves with a band of snowflakes. Two gnomes enter, and soon light a fire that causes all assembled to vanish.

Tableau 2A landscape covered with flowers
Spring dances with Zephyr, flower fairies, and enchanted birds. Upon feeling the heat of the sun, the assembly takes flight.

Tableau 3A landscape of flowing fields of wheat
Cornflowers and poppies revel in the light and warmth of the sun. They take rest after their exertion. Now Naiads appear, who bring water to refresh the growth, and the Spirit of Corn dances in thanksgiving. Satyrs and Fauns enter playing their pipes, and attempt to carry off the Spirit of the Corn, but she is rescued by the wind of Zephyr.

Tableau 4A landscape in Autumn
The Seasons take part in a glorious dance (the well-known "autumn bacchanale") while leaves from autumn trees rain upon their merriment.

ApotheosisThe Sable sky
Constellations of stars sparkle above the earth.

Glazunov's The Seasons : 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Pfitzner - String Quartet in D Minor

Hans Pfitzner (1869 - 1949) was a German composer best known for his operas.  His music was highly regarded by Mahler and Richard Strauss, although neither of them liked Pfitzner personally.

He was appointed to a moderately prestigious post of opera director and head of the conservatory in Strasbourg in 1908 when he was 40 years old.  After the First World War, France annexed Strasbourg and Pfitzner lost his job and livelihood at the age of 50.  This event hardened his already coarse personality and his elitism. He became a outspoken opponent of any modern trends in music.

His life during the Second World War was one of complacency on the one hand, and a cooperative spirit with the Nazis when he wanted something.  He worked with Jewish musicians in the early part of the Nazi era, but used anti semite invective when it suited his purpose.  It was all to no avail, as he eventually fell out of favor with the Nazis and towards the end of the war was homeless and suffered from mental illness. After the war he was denazified and given a pension, performance bans for his music were lifted and he was given a place to live in an old folks home in Vienna Austria.

He wrote 4 string quartets with his String Quartet in D minor No. 1 being written when he was 17 years old.

Pfiztner's String Quartet In D Minor:

J. S. Bach - Cantata Actus Tragicus 'Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit' BWV 106

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) wrote over 300 sacred cantatas for services in the Lutheran Church, about 195 survive. It is known that he composed three complete sets of cantatas consisting of one for every Sunday of the year and one for every church holiday. They are written for almost every kind and blend of instrumental groupings imagined, from solo cantatas to cantatas with a large performing group.

Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, (God's time is the very best time) also known as Actus Tragicus was written for performance at a funeral, possibly for one of Bach's uncles. It is composed for the unusual combination of continuo, two viola da gambas,  two alto recorders,  bass viol, Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass soloists, and choir.  The instrumentation of this cantata gives a nod to the sound of the music of Bach's predecessors.

The viola da gamba is a type of viol, a stringed instrument used in the Renaissance and Baroque era. It is similar to a cello, except it generally has six strings and frets like a guitar.  It is strung with gut strings and has a more mellow sound than  cello. 

The recorder is a type of whistle flute made of wood that was also popular in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. It was especially associated with music of a pastoral nature.

This cantata is thought to be an early work, written when Bach was twenty two years old. It remains one of his popular cantatas, not least of all because of the short instrumental Sonatina for recorders, viols and continuo that opens the work.
The text is a combination of bible passages and excerpts from Lutheran Church Chorales that would have been familiar to the church congregations where the cantatas were given.

The cantata is in 4 parts:
1st Part - A gently moving instrumental sonatina.

2nd Part - 
a) Chorus - God's time is the best of all times. In Him we live, move and are, as long as He wills.In Him we die at the appointed time, when He wills. (Acts 17:28)
b) Tenor solo - Ah, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, so that we might become wise. (Psalm 90:12)
c) Bass solo - Put your house in order; for you will die and not remain alive! (Isaiah 38:1)
d)Chorus and soprano -
Chorus - It is the ancient law: human, you must die! (Ecclesiasticus 14:17)
Soprano - Yes, come, Lord Jesus! (Revelations 22:20)

3rd Part - 
a)Alto aria - Into Your hands I commit my spirit, You have redeemed me, Lord, faithful God. (Psalm 31:6)
b) Bass aria and alto chorus
Bass - Today you will be with Me in Paradise. (Luke 23:43)
Chorus - With peace and joy I depart in God's will,
My heart and mind are comforted, calm, and quiet.
As God had promised me: death has become my sleep. (Taken from Chorale Mit Fried und Freud, by Martin Luther)

4th Part Chorus -
Glory, praise, honor, and majesty
be prepared for You, God the Father and the Son,
for the Holy Spirit by name!
The divine power makes us victorious through Jesus Christ, Amen. (Taken from chorales In dich hab' ich gehoffet, Herr, by Adam Reusner, and Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt, by Johann Leon )

Bax - Symphony No. 6

Arnold Bax (1883 - 1953) was an English composer and poet who had a restless intellect that caused him to read voraciously. He developed a strong affinity for Ireland through the works of W.B Yeats the Irish poet and playwright. Bax visited Ireland for extended stays and the countryside and ocean side inspired him to write music that reflected his love for the country and the people. But Ireland was not his only influence.  Norwegian and Russian music also influenced his compositions.

His orchestral music is complex and colorful with more than a hint of impressionism in it. He composed 7 symphonies, many tone poems, and other pieces for orchestra as well as chamber, choral, and solo piano music. He was a fine pianist, but very rarely was on the concert platform.

His Symphony No.6 was written in 1935 and premiered later that same year. It was Bax's favorite symphony. Formally it is in three movements, but there are two sections in the opening movement and three in the final movement. The symphonic music of Bax shows his skill with the orchestra and use of materials as well as good, original material to begin with.

I. Moderato - Allegro con fuoco -  The symphony begins in C-sharp minor with the bass trombone playing an ostinato figure:
The woodwinds play dissonant chords over the bass trombone. This dissonant introduction continues and expands until the strings play a declaiming motive that is punctuated with percussion and brass until it segues directly to the first theme of the movement, which is based on material heard in the introduction. The music comes to a brief pause before the first theme continues. A section of transition leads to a second lyrical theme first heard in the flutes. The first theme returns and is developed. Tension increases until a full-blooded rendition of the first theme in the brass blares out from the orchestra. The music grows softer and the second theme returns. The tempo picks up speed as material from the first theme gathers momentum and ends the movement in a resounding thump.

II. Lento molto espressivo - The themes of this movement are related to the material already heard in the first movement. An interesting variant appears over a steady beating accompaniment a little over halfway through the movement. The movement winds down to a gently quiet ending.

III.  The last movement is in three sections:
a) Introduction (Lento moderato) -  A solo clarinet plays material that will be heard later in the movement. The strings enter with a variant of the clarinet theme that builds in intensity. Other woodwinds enter and play another motive until transitional material segues into the scherzo section.
b) Scherzo & Trio (Allegro vivace - Andante semplice) -  The opening theme of the scherzo is a variant of the clarinet theme heard in the introduction. Other snippets of music resemble motives heard in previous movements. The trio moves gently through the orchestra, primarily in the strings. The scherzo returns with a vengeance and slowly builds to an impressive climax. The music slowly winds down and segues to the last section.
c) Epilogue (Lento) - A solo horn plays the clarinet theme over a delicate accompaniment of divided and muted solo strings, as well as the harp. The music slowly throbs with previous motives in colorful but subdued instrumentation. The music turns mysterious as it gradually dies away until it comes to rest in the key of C major.

Paganini- Caprice No.24 For Solo Violin

Nicolò Paganini (1782 - 1840) was an Italian violinist, guitarist and composer. Paganini was perhaps one of the greatest violinists that ever lived. He expanded violin technique far beyond what was thought possible in his time. His influence was not only brought to bear on technique, but his compositions inspired many other composers.

Paganini studied under many violin teachers but his progress was so swift that he outgrew them. He held a few minor court posts before he went on concert tour of Italy.  He continued touring Italy until he gave a concert in Milan, Italy in 1813 where he drew a lot of attention, not only from his playing but his womanizing and gambling also.  He gained in notoriety so much that he began touring Europe in 1828 to wild acclaim. He continued tours of Europe and England until he quit concertizing in 1834 due to poor health.

He was a rare combination of genuine artist and showman as he would do animal imitations with his violin, play an entire piece on one string, and other stunts that pleased the crowds and made some think he was a charlatan. But he was a serious musician and composer as his compositions show. Paganini's prowess with the violin was so great that there were rumors that he had made a pact with the devil to be able to play so magnificently. This rumor persisted even after his death, in nice, France as he was denied a Catholic burial because of his being in league with the devil.  After four years and an appeal to the Pope, the body was allowed to be shipped to Genoa, Italy but it still was not buried until 1876 in Parma, Italy26 years after his death.

His 24 Caprices For Solo Violin , Opus One, were written between 1802 and 1817. They were published in 1819.

Each one of the 24 exploits a specific technical issue, so they are actually etudes for the violin.  Except the Caprice #24. This caprice throws a myriad of technical problems at the player as a summing up of all that has gone before with the other twenty three. It is a set of variations on an original theme that has inspired many other musicians to write their own set of variations on it, including Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Liszt and many others. His compositions remain a paragon of violin technique and musicality even after so many years past his death.

Paganini's Caprice #24 For Solo Violin:

Friday, November 4, 2011

Liadov - Eight Russian Folksongs

Anatoly Liadov (1855 - 1914) was a Russian composer and pianist who was born into a musical family, as his father was a conductor. He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and later became a professor where he taught  Sergei Prokofiev among others.

He studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, was expelled for absenteeism, only to be readmitted later.  He became friends with Tchaikovsky and knew Mussorgsky and the rest of The Five and shared with them an interest in music based on Russian folksong, legend and history.

Liadov had neither the temperament or inclination to compose any large-scale works. The attempts he made at these were never finished. His talent was with the musical miniature, as many of his compositions were piano miniatures. The few orchestra works he wrote were mostly brief tone poems. He was a master of counterpoint, and a brilliant orchestrator, but his composing method was very slow and methodical.

Eight Russian Folksongs Opus 58 was written in 1906 and are true to form with his nature of composition. The eight songs take about 15 minutes to play and show his brilliance with orchestration and inventiveness. The skill he used in setting these eight pieces does make you wonder what he could have accomplished if he had been more ambitious.

The Eight Songs are:
  1. Religious Chant. Moderato
  2. Christmas Carol 'Kolyada'. Allegretto
  3. Plaintive Song. Andante
  4. Humorous Song 'I Danced With The Gnat'./Allegretto
  5. Legend Of The Birds. Allegretto
  6. Cradle Song. Moderato
  7. Round Dance. Allegro
  8. Village Dance Song. Vivo
Liadov's Eight Russian Folksongs for orchestra: 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Penderecki - Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima

Krzysztof Penderecki (born 1933) is a Polish composer and conductor.  He was a member of the avant-garde music movement in the 1960's.  The composition that brought him to international attention was Threnody : To The Victims of Hiroshima for 52 stringed instruments. He wrote the piece in 1960 as an exercise in writing for strings treated with unconventional scoring and performing techniques. He originally named the piece 8'37".  But in Penderecki's own words, “[The piece] existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way. When Jan Krenz recorded it and I could listen to an actual performance, I was struck with the emotional charge of the work. I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity, to those“digits”. I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims."

 The work is written in unconventional notation and calls for the players to slap the sides of their instruments, play behind the bridge and to play in quarter tones. The overall effect is indeed disconcerting. It is by no means an easy piece to listen to, but it brings forth the horrors of the atomic bomb blast in what some may not call music, but it certainly is powerful and cannot be ignored.

Penderecki has since moved away from the avant-garde into the realm of more traditional music with rich harmonies and compositions based on tonality. He does revert back to his avant-garde style to good effect within some of his more recent compositions.

Penderecki's Threnody To The Victims Of  Hiroshima: