Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Beethoven - String Quartet No. 11 'Quartetto Serioso'

Chamber music by its very nature is a more intimate form of music. While in modern times it is played in concert halls, it was originally meant for more private performance in homes and smaller recital halls. In the 19th century before recordings, music making in the home was a form of entertainment shared by many.  The string quartet was a popular form of chamber music, and many composers tried their hand at it sooner or later.

While Haydn didn't necessarily invent the string quartet, he certainly helped codify it as a form. Mozart took his lead from Haydn and contributed his genius to the quartet also.  These were the two composers that loomed over Beethoven when he was composing his first set of six quartets, Opus 18. As was Beethoven's way, he seldom stayed very long in any niche with his compositions. That's not to say he  had no style, but that it could be broad and encompass quite different ideas. The String Quartet No. 11 is one of his giant-step compositions that is quite different from his other string quartets in form and feeling.

Beethoven always showed his originality, even in his first quartets, but he also worked hard to have them conform somewhat to the form as devised by Haydn. He managed to straddle the two extremes of originality and conformity with his first six quartets. His next three quartets, the so-called Rasumovsky Quartets of opus 59 show his development in his craft and the gap between creative originality and tradition grew wider. His next quartet, No. 10  nicknamed 'The Harp' because the strings play pizzacato a lot in the first movement follows the trend. The 11th got its nickname from the tempo indication of the third movement, allegro assai vivace ma serioso.  The overall feeling of the quartet is indeed serious, and there are some surprises along the way.

The 11th was composed in 1810 but did not have its first performance until 1814.  The first movement opens with the four strings playing the first theme loudly in unison, somewhat of a surprise as to the suddenness of the beginning and the downright harshness of it. The second theme is sweeter in nature in the beginning, but there also outbursts within it. An experienced listener who is hearing this quartet for the first time would be expecting to hear the exposition repeated as the style of the times dictated, but Beethoven has no repeat signs and the music jumps right into the development and recapitulation. The first movement is very short, usually less than five minutes, which in itself is a break from the traditional long first movements. Beethoven boiled down the contents of the first movement to the essence of expression.

The second movement is in song form and leads into the third movement, a scherzo of the most 'serious' kind. The finale goes through a gentle beginning, a spirited rondo movement proper and ends up with all things, a fast, upbeat, short coda that ends the work. This rather 'happy' musics appearance in an otherwise quite serious work can be interpreted in a number of ways. Perhaps Beethoven felt the need to lighten the mood before the end of the quartet, or perhaps he was just playing with the emotions of the listener as he used to do when he improvised on the piano by playing something heavy and then something light at the end.

This quartet is like a conversation between four people, a spirited conversation to be sure, but a conversation and not an argument. What the subject matter of the conversation is in words is anybodies guess. But that conversational quality of chamber music in general and the string quartet in particular, is what's so attractive about it. This quartet with its condensed first movement, surprises that run throughout and the way it ends keeps it somewhat of an enigma. But that too makes it attractive to the ear. And when regard is given for the quartets that come after this one, the great late quartets of Beethoven, we realize that we have heard only the beginning of his genius in the form.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Haydn - Symphony No. 103 'Drum Roll'

Joseph Haydn began his career as a composer just as the Baroque era of music was winding down. He was one of the composers of the time that was exploring different techniques and sounds for musical expression. In his years as a composer there was a steady increase in complexity and richness in his music. His two trips to London, England enriched his technique even further. The set of twelve symphonies he wrote for his London visits are the culmination of his symphonic style. Indeed, Haydn wrote no more symphonies after his 104th, the last in the London series. Maybe Haydn himself realized that he had reached as far as he could go in the form.

But the London symphonies are not merely more difficult and rich. They are surely that, but they are also more  accessible to the listener. Haydn not only could compose learned and valid 'classical' music, but music that  was popular. The Symphony 103 is a good example.

The symphony earns its nickname from the drum roll for timpani that opens the introduction to the first movement.  It is slow and solemn,  and after a few bars leads into the first theme which is the opposite of the introduction as the tempo quickens and the mood lightens. The music of the introduction appears once again near the end of the movement and is whisked off by the first theme and horns.  The second movement is in variation form. There are two contrasting themes, the first in C minor, the second in C major, so this is actually a double variation. Each tune is heard in succession in variations.  The third movement is a Minuet with a heavy accent on the first beat which gives it more of an impression of a peasant dance than a refined, courtly dance. The last movement begins with a call from the horns, a pause, and the music proper begins. The horn call motif is heard throughout the movement, and it comes to a close.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Alkan - Selections From 48 Esquisses For Piano

The name Charles Alkan conjures up piano pieces of staggering difficulty,  immense length and  musical depth. And rightly so, with his Concerto For Solo Piano and other works that display a musical mind capable of creating colossal tapestries of complexity. But Alkan also had another side to his genius, that of a miniaturist. The Esquisses are an excellent example of Alkan's ability to have his musical say in much shorter pieces.

The title translates as 'sketches' and the set contains 49 sketches of tremendous variety and mood. Many of the pieces are also playable by pianists with a less than concert hall technique. They are a perfect introduction to the diversity of Alkan's musical thought. Most of the sketches are short, some very short.  The entire set of 49 sketches (the title says there are 48, but there are 49) can be played in about 75 minutes, so that averages out to about a minute and a half for each piece. Alkan's shifting moods are dealt with as they arise, and when the mood has run its course the piece stops.  The entire set makes for a good listen, but I've narrowed it down to eight of my favorites from the set:

  • No.4 Les Cloches (The Bells) -  The piano begins with the tolling of bells that continues throughout.
  • No. 10 Increpatio (rebuke, harsh criticism) - The piano's harsh opinion. About what, we don't know. 
  • No. 16 Fantasia -  A rippling right hand runs a sprint, and the piece ends quickly.
  • No. 18 - Liedchen (ditty) - A simple song.
  • No.32 - Minuetto - Not really a minuet, but at the tempo of a minuet. The beginning is sad, with a middle section in a faster tempo and lighter mood.
  • No. 37 Scherzettino -  A piece played very fast.
  • No. 45 - Les Diablotins (little devils) - A short church chorale is interrupted by the demons. Each time the chorale is heard it is responded to , until the diablotin has the final word. 
  • No. 49 Laus Deo (praise God) - A solemn, slow,  beginning that reminds the ear of different pitched bells tolling together gives way to a more  reverent hymn. The bells return at the end.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Litolff - Concerto Symphonique No. 5

Living a complicated lifestyle evidently was a part of Litolff's personality. He traveled Europe on concert tours, got married and divorced, spent time in prison, had to escape from Germany after he participated in the revolution of 1848, married a widow of a music publisher and managed the publishing firm into a successful venture, settled in Paris, was a piano teacher and conductor, was married four times - the last to a woman seventeen years old when he was 57 years old, was afflicted with rheumatism in later life but still continued to compose.  It was a life filled with hard work, travel, romance, hardship, depression and physical pain in later years.

Composing was evidently part of Litolff's personality also, as he composed throughout his life, sometimes amid thunderous turmoil. The Concerto Symphonique No. 5  is his Opus 123 and was written in 1869. He died in 1891, 22 years later and continued composing, mostly operas,  up until the end.

The Concerto Symphonique No. 5  has some differences from the previous ones. For one thing, the other Concerto Symphonique's are not by any means easy to play, but the fifth is even more demanding.  The fifth never achieved the popularity of the others. In the other works the scherzo is the second movement, in the fifth it is placed third.  Overall, the general feeling of the fifth is a little more serious, somewhat more complicated.

The work opens with a long orchestral section before the piano joins in in the give-and-take style that Litolff used in all the concertos. The second movement is a slow, lyrical song. The third movement is the most diabolical sounding scherzo Litolff ever wrote.  The fourth movement's cadenza is written out and is a fugue derived from part of the theme that opens the movement.

Litolff and Liszt knew and admired each other's music, and each ones music influenced the other. The concertos of Litolff show the influence of Liszt in structure and harmonic language, and the fact that Liszt dedicated  his first piano concerto to Litolff can be meant as a tribute to his influence. For a musician that composed so much and was friends with and admired by such other composers as Liszt and Berlioz, the four Concerto Symphoniques  are really the only pieces available on recordings, and only one recording of each one at that. Litolff's most popular piece of music is the scherzo from the Concerto Symphonique No. 4  which is available in a few recordings. It would be a good thing to be able to hear more of this composer's music, in the concert hall and on recordings.

Litolff - Concerto Symphonique No. 5

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Moscheles - Recollections Of Ireland

Ignaz Moscheles was a virtuoso pianist and composer that was good friends with Beethoven, mentor and friend to Mendelssohn and close associate with other Jewish musicians of the time like Anton Rubinstein, Joseph Joachim, and Ferdinand Hiller.  It was Moscheles who lead the counter-offensive when Richard Wagner wrote his antisemitic pamphlet 'Jewry In Music'

It seems Moscheles knew most all of the pianists of his time, and his honest and easy going disposition helped him to become friends with even some of the more modern (for his time) pianist like Liszt and Chopin.  Moscheles was born in 1794 and was fairly set in his ways technically when the music of Chopin and Liszt came to the fore. He tried diligently to play and relate to the music, but he had been taught the old school of playing and composing. With curved fingers that did most of the work at the keyboard, Moscheles couldn't really grasp the importance of using the arm and shoulder in playing the new works. As progress in composition goes, so goes the technique to be able to play it.  But to his credit he tried to keep an open mind and held his criticism to a minimum. It was his nature to be able to understand that he was indeed of the old school, and he tried to keep the things he thought were good about that in modern music.

Moscheles was very popular in England in the 1820's, and spent three weeks in Ireland in early 1826.. It was after this three week sojourn when he returned home that he wrote  Recollections Of Ireland. The work perhaps had its beginnings in improvisations on Irish melodies he played for audiences while in Ireland. He gave the first performance of the work in London later in 1826.

The work consists of four parts:
1. Fantasia - The orchestra begins with music that seems slightly familiar, the piano enters and expands upon these ideas.
2. Groves Of Blarney -  A gentle, sweet rendering of the tune evolves into glistening variations on the tune.
3. Garry Owen -  Originally an Irish drinking song that was made popular by the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. Moscheles varies the repetitions of the tune and it leads directly to the last movement.
4. St. Patrick's Day -  Moscheles sets the tune for the piano only, then the orchestra enters with a short episode and both join in for a variation of the tune.  Moscheles combines the tunes, and has the Groves Of Blarney enter for one last rendition and the melodies weave in and out before the joyful conclusion.

This music may not be a classic that plumbs the depths, but Moscheles didn't intend it to be. He intended it to be a pleasant diversion for piano and orchestra, kind of a tonal postcard of his visit to Ireland. To my mind, it accomplishes everything he wanted, and it deserves a place in the repertoire.

Moscheles Recollections Of Ireland

Friday, January 20, 2012

Alkan - Impromptu For Pedal Piano

Was Charles Alkan really a mystery as the pianist Ronald Smith (a champion of Alkan's works) called him in the title to his biography of the composer  Alkan the Enigma?  There is an essay by Stephanie McCallum, herself a pianist and champion of Alkan's works in her own right, that discusses the possibility that Alkan suffered from a form of autism or a mental illness. The fact that Alkan went into seclusion about 1848 after a brilliant start to his career as a composer and performer does beg the question.  There are words by Alkan himself in a letter:

“I’m becoming daily more and more misanthropic and misogynous…nothing worthwhile, good or useful to do… no one to devote myself to. My situation makes me horridly sad and wretched. Even musical production has lost its attraction for me for I can’t see the point or goal”.

Those are words of a man who is cognizant enough to recognize what is happening to him, while at the same time not knowing why. Depression, Asperger's Syndrome, Schizophrenia,  are all possibilities but it will most likely remain speculation. Alkan did begin giving a few recitals later in life, but essentially remained a recluse.

There is no doubting the genius of Alkan as a performer. There is ample evidence through witnesses that heard him play. Liszt himself said that Alkan had the finest technique he had ever seen. And we have the proof of his genius as a composer with the music he wrote, which is much more available in print and recordings than ever before.  And no matter what the reason for his turning away from society, there is also no doubt that he was original to the point of being eccentric in some of his compositions. The Impromptu for pedal piano is a case in point.

If a music lover knows anything about Alkan or his music, it usually is that he was a pianist and wrote piano music. But he also could play the violin and was a virtuoso of the pedal piano. The pedal piano resembles a regular piano but with the addition of an entire piano played by the means of foot pedals, like the pedals of an organ.  Alkan wrote a substantial amount of music for this instrument. The pedal piano was in vogue for a short time in the 19th century. Robert Schumann also wrote music for it.   The pedal piano is now a rare instrument and much of Alkan's music written for it has been transcribed for the organ.

The Impromptu is based on Martin Luther's hymn 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God',  a somewhat odd choice for a Jewish musician to make.  It was written in the late 1860's and is possibly the last piece he wrote for the pedal piano. Ronald Smith has written that the piece, while written in one continuous movement is actually in four distinct sections. The work begins as a passacaglia, with the hymn tune serving as the continual bass melody, the second section is a scherzo, the third a siciliano and the fourth a fugue.  So it is far from being what an impromptu implies. It is a highly structured set of variations, imaginative in form and sound. Like the man himself,  the impromptu is a complicated mixture of genius, eccentricity, power and mystery.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Paderewski - Piano Concerto in A Minor

Paderewski wanted to be known as a composer as much as a piano virtuoso, perhaps even more so.  He had scant little time to compose after his premieres in Vienna and Paris as his popularity skyrocketed.

Paderewski's career began in fits and starts with studying composition off and on in Warsaw and Germany. He was accepted as a pupil of the greatest piano pedagogue of the era, Theodore Leschetizky when Paderewski was 24 years old. Leschetizky lamented that Paderewski had begun serious study far too late to develop a concert technique, but Paderweski practiced non-stop to try and make up for lost time. He practiced so much that Leschetizky worried about him ruining his health with so much practice.  But Paderewski persevered, and became a piano virtuoso known around the world.
Paderweski was the most popular and most well-known of any pianist of his time. The adulation audiences gave him bordered on hysteria and he loved to play for them, sometimes giving so many encores that the encores took as long as the recital.

He traveled extensively and became a very rich man, so rich that many times he would refuse payment for a concert. He was also the second Prime Minister of Poland after World War One. He was not only a fine pianist but an excellent public speaker.

Paderweski finished composing and orchestrating the piano concerto in 1889 and it was premiered in 1890 in Vienna. Paderewski wanted to play the premiere himself, but he acquiesced to a request from Anna Essipoff (a brilliant pianist, student and wife of Leschetisky) to play the premiere.  Essipoff had played other pieces of Paderewski in her recitals and wanted to premiere this work also. The orchestra was conducted by Hans Richter, one of the great conductors of the era. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro - The work opens with a loud statement by the orchestra by way of introduction. The first theme is played quickly after with woodwinds and strings. The piano enters and takes up the theme. After the theme is expanded, a second theme is played solo by the piano. After the expansion of the second theme the development section begins with the first theme. After a solo for timpani the soloist plays a short cadenza and the development section continues. Paderewski follows traditional sonata form as he brings back both themes in the recapitulation with the customary key changes in the secondary material. A cadenza follows the recapitulation, after which a short coda brings the movement to a virtuosic close.

II. Romanza: Andante -  Paderewski finished the orchestration of the concerto while he was in Paris, and in a move that he later admitted was presumptuous, he took the completed score to the apartment of Camille Saint-Saëns for his opinion. The two composers had previously met when Paderewski played Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 4 In C Minor.  After initially grumbling about being disturbed, Saint-Saëns read through the score while Paderewski played it on the piano. The entire concerto pleased Saint-Saëns, but it was the second movement that he asked to be repeated. Saint-Saëns advised Paderweski to not change a thing in the work, that it would be a crowd pleaser. It was in this second movement, in what can arguably called the heart of the concerto, where Paderewski comes closest to the passion and beauty of his country man's music, Chopin. The theme is first played gently by the woodwinds, and when the piano enters it plays its own rendition of it. After sections that are as light as tender chamber music, the theme grows in passion and depth until it gradually fades away at the end.

III. Allegro molto vivace - The final movement begins with  a stomping Polish dance that has plenty of opportunity for the soloist to show their stuff. It is followed by a more reverent theme in the orchestra that is ornamented by the piano in its own version. These two themes comprise most of the movement as they are altered and elaborated on each time they are played. A grand coda whips up the virtuosity as the music races to the finish.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ippolitov-Ivanov - Caucasian Sketches Suite No. 2 'Iveria'

Ippolitov-Ivanov is not too well-known to most music lovers. His Caucasian Sketches Suite No. 1 is probably his best known work, at least the piece 'Procession Of  The Sardar' from the suite.  He composed a second suite of Caucasian Sketches that are just as tuneful and interesting as the first, but it is not heard on recordings or in the concert hall.

Ippolitov-Ivanov spent eleven years in the Caucasus region of Georgia and developed an interest in the folk music and culture of the area. He received a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory in 1894, and after he moved to Moscow he wrote the first Caucasian Sketches suite and also wrote a book about Georgian Folk Songs.

The 2nd suite has four movements:
I. Introduction : Lamentation Of Princess Ketevana - Princess Ketevana was a daughter of a ruling prince, a member of the Georgian nobility in the early 17th century.  She was wed to a ruler called David that died 6 months later. As queen she did many things for the people of Georgia.  She was threatened by many usurpers to the throne and when she refused to convert to Islam under threat of torture and death, she was in fact tortured and died a horrible death. Her story became part of Georgian folk lore.

II. Berceuse - A lullaby with an oriental sound to it.

III. Lesghinka - A folk dance that gets more frantic as it goes.

IV. Georgian March - A rousing march, perhaps for the military.

Ippolitov-Ivanov's music is rich in the culture and sound of the Georgia he came to know during his time there. A culture markedly different from his own Russian background,  it inspired him to write some very good music. Perhaps not the 'deepest' music ever written, but it is highly listenable and very well orchestrated. It wouldn't hurt for both of the Caucasian Sketches suites to be heard in their entirety more often.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bruckner - Symphony No. 4 'Romantic'

Of all Bruckner's symphonies (9 official, 11 if you include numbers 0 and 00) the 4th is the only one that Bruckner himself gave a subtitle to, 'Romantic'.  Bruckner did have a 'program' for this symphony, dealing with medieval German life and hunters with their horns and such. Whether that is actually what he meant with the subtitle is anybody's guess, for it isn't known for sure if Bruckner had all of this in mind before he composed it, while he composed it or after he composed it.  Personally, I don't see Bruckner as a writer of program music like Liszt, where a subject outside of music is the inspiration for a composition. I think it is another of Bruckner's attempts to try and appeal to an audience and increase the chance to get his music heard.

The 4th is one of Bruckner's most popular works since its premiere in 1881 conducted by Hans Richter. This performance is of the 1880 version, the third of seven versions of this symphony. Bruckner rewrote movements, substituted new movements for old, made cuts and additions to this symphony from the original edition in 1874 to the final revision in 1888. If all that isn't confusing enough, Gustav Mahler made his own edition of the symphony in the late 19th century which was heavily cut and re-orchestrated.  The edition used in the following recording is the Nowak edition based on the 1886 edition.

The symphony begins with a single horn playing over tremolo strings. This is the main theme of the movement and is heard throughout. The brass section especially the horns are prominent in this movement. The second movement is song-like and different than a typical Brucknerian slow movement. The third movement is ushered in like the beginning of the first with tremolo strings but this time with horns and the other brass. In Bruckner's program, this movement represents hunters , the hunt and in the trio a peaceful song while the hunters eat after the hunt. The fourth movement begins yet again with string tremolos, but with a plodding accompaniment in the bass strings and a distant melody heard in the horns.

A few words about the conductor of the following recording of the 4th, George Solti.  Solti was born in Hungary and was a fine pianist in his youth. He heard a performance of Beethoven's 5th symphony and decided hne wanted to be a conductor when he was 14 years old. He studied at the Franz Liszt Academy under Bela Bartok and others.  He came up the ranks in the opera house until he conducted his first opera in 1938 at the Budapest Opera house. When Hitler annexed Austria that same year,  the Hungarian government became very pro-Hitler and anti-semitism ran rampant. Solti being Jewish fled the country and moved to Switzerland where he earned a living as a pianist.  He won the Geneva International Piano Competition but had to wait until the end of the war to get back to conducting.

He held numerous positions with many different orchestras through the years but is best known for his tenure with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1969 to 1991. He was the first conductor to record Wagner's The Ring Of The Niebelungen in its entirety in a studio. He was a much-recorded conductor and still holds the record for the number of Grammy Awards won by a conductor with 31. Solti died in 1997.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Vivaldi - Concerto For Sopranino Recorder

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741) was an Italian violinist, priest and composer.  He was born in Venice and was afflicted with what is thought to have been asthma his whole life.  Because of this, he did not learn to play any wind instruments but he did become a virtuoso violinist.

His works were very well known in the Baroque era. Bach knew of him and his works and transcribed some of the violin concertos for keyboard.  His reputation and fame stems from his time working at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy), one of four homes for abandoned and orphaned children in Venice.  He was responsible for teaching the orphaned girls the basics of music and an instrument. The orphaned boys were trained in a craft and had to leave when they were fifteen, but the girls who became proficient on an instrument or their voice could stay and become part of the orchestra.

Shortly after Vivaldi began his work there, the all-girl orchestra became renown in Europe for their excellence of performance. The majority of Vivaldi's 500 concertos were written for this orchestra and players. Naturally enough for a virtuoso violinist composer, over 200 of the concertos are for solo violin and strings. But there are also concertos for bassoon, cello, oboe,  mandolin, lute, flute, recorder, and other instruments plus concertos written for two or more instruments.  These concertos attest to  the variety of the orchestra present and the quality of musicians Vivaldi produced.  Besides the concertos, Vivaldi also composed over 40 operas, almost a hundred sonatas and various religious choral works.

The recorder is a fipple flute. It is a different instrument altogether from the transverse flute, although sometimes in Baroque music the two can be interchanged. A fipple flute has a whistle mouthpiece attached to a straight body with finger holes. The tone of the recorder is softer, and thus is not a good instrument to use in a full orchestra as it would be drowned out. But for the Baroque ensemble which more often than not was what we would recognize as a chamber ensemble, it works very well. There are many sizes of recorder, from the Contra Bass that is over six feet long to the tiny Garklein only 6 inches long. The sopranino recorder is between a soprano and garklein in size at about 9 inches.  Its tone can be somewhat shrill due to the high pitch, but as the following recording attests, in the hands of a master player can run with the best of them.

Vivaldi's concertos are show pieces for his soloist. Many of the accompaniments are basic, although he does manage to keep a lot of interest between soloist and the other strings. The sopranino concerto is in the typical three movements of the time, with the opening movement being a rather fast Allegro. The second movement is a gently rocking Adagio that shows Vivaldi was quite capable of writing a beautiful tune. The last movement is an Allegro molto that has the recorder and strings playing to a rousing close.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Respighi - Pines Of Rome

Ottorino Respighi  (1879 - 1936) was born in Italy and was a composer, musicologist and conductor. He learned piano and violin from his father and went on to study violin, viola and composition at the school in Bologna, Italy.  After his schooling he accepted an offer to be principle violist at St. Petersburg in the Russian Imperial Theater's Italian Opera season. While there he studied orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov.  He also spent time in Germany before accepting a position as teacher of composition in Rome where he spent the rest of his life.

Pines of Rome is one part of Respighi's Roman trilogy, the other tone poems being Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals. Pines of Rome is a symphonic poem in four sections that represent different places in Rome:

The Pines of the Villa Borghese - The tone poem opens with a flurry of activity in the orchestra as Respighi paints a tonal picture of children raucously playing (and getting into the inevitable squabble) among the pine groves of the Borghese gardens in Rome.
Pines near a catacomb - The orchestras low pitched instruments give the impression of the deep catacombs, complete with the chanting of priests.
The Pines of the Janiculum -  On the second highest hill of Rome, the legendary home of the two-faced god Janus, a nightingale is heard singing.  This is the first composition known that asks for a real recording of a bird call.  It is to be played at the indicated place in the score, and a specific recording is mentioned in the score.
The Pines of the Appian Way -  The Appian Way is a road that was begun in 3112 B.C.E. and still exists. Respighi paints a tonal picture of the road at sun rise in the fog, and slowly in the distance can be heard the marching of a Roman Legion making its way up the road.  As it gets nearer, the music gets louder and more forceful. The composer asks for the ancient buccina in the score, a trumpet used in Roman times. The music continues growing and finally with trumpets blaring and an all around splendid racket, the tone poem comes to a close.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Paganini - Violin Concerto No. 4

The modern day equivalent of the mania that Paganini (and Liszt) experienced would be the attention rock stars receive. Paganini was a brilliant violinist that almost single-handedly  transformed violin technique, but he was also a great showman.  The clothes he wore on stage, the 'tricks' he did with the violin such as imitating barn yard animals, and the mystique brought about by the legend that he gained his playing skills by trading his soul to the devil, all added to the general clamor and hysteria of audiences that heard him.

But there was more to the man than a brilliant violinist and charismatic stage presence. He was a very good composer with a gift for melody. Both Berlioz and Rossini admired his compositions. But Paganini's attitude toward his music did not do much for its popularity. Paganini didn't publish any of his violin concertos in his lifetime. He guarded his compositions closely, only letting the orchestra see the music the day of the concert at rehearsal and the performance, then he would at the end of the concert gather up all the parts and take them with him. He basically wrote the concertos for his use and his use only.

In an age that saw music as a very current event, Paganini constantly needed something different for his concerts. Paganini's orchestra can sometimes seem like nothing more than an accompaniment, but after all, they were written to showcase his violin playing.  Also, Paganini was not a piano player as so many other composers were. He could play the violin, viola and the guitar. Berlioz also played the guitar, and this no doubt influenced Paganini as it did Berlioz. Composer/pianists tend to favor harmonies as laid out on the keyboard while composer/guitar players would favor harmonies spread further apart because of the nature of the instrument. The guitar is also capable of a great deal of tone color depending on which string is used to play a given note.

The 4th Violin concerto begins with the usual orchestral exposition of the main themes of the movement. The opening theme is dramatic and grabs our attention. The second theme is more lyrical and light, and Italian in mood. The violin enters, and the fireworks begin and go throughout the movement. The second movement is a quasi-opera in its drama. The third movement has the violin utter the first theme to the accompaniment of a triangle. The orchestra dances, the violin joins in the dance and takes a few steps of its own before the concerto's brilliant ending.

To anyone familiar with Paganini's First and Second Violin Concertos,  some similarities are obvious.  But the reason audiences came to his concerts was to hear the greatest violinist of the age. Paganini knew what the crowd wanted, and he gave it to them. If it was in a form already familiar to them, all the better to be able to concentrate on his playing.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Busoni - Piano Concerto in C Major

Ferruccino Busoni (1866 - 1924) was an Italian virtuoso pianist, writer, teacher, composer and conductor. He was a child prodigy and had his first public recital at the age of seven.  He conducted one of his own compositions for choir when he was twelve. He wrote most of his compositions for the piano,  but he also wrote some pieces for voice and opera. He was also an active transciber and arranger and transcribed many of Bach's organ pieces for solo piano and also transcribed Bach's Chaconne For Solo Violin for piano.  He also transcribed pieces for piano and orchestra and four-hand piano.  Throughout his adult life he traveled around the world giving recitals and concerts, including extended tour of North America. While Italian, he made his home base at Berlin late in his life.  He was much better known as a pianist and conductor than composer throughout his life.

The Piano Concerto In C Major  is Busoni's masterpiece and culmination of his first period as a composer.  His compositions after the concerto saw him condense his ideas and compose works in a different tone and form. But there's nothing about the concerto that is condensed. It is in five movements, takes over an hour to perform, is written for a huge orchestra with male chorus.  Concertos for solo instrument and orchestra tend to fall within two categories. Concertos such as the traditional Classic Concerto pits the soloist at odds with the orchestra, with the conflict coming in varying degrees according to the composer and nature of the work.  The other type  places the piano as another member of the orchestra, a work for orchestra with piano obbligato.  Henri Litollf's Concerto Symphoniques fall in this category. Busoni's concerto is of the orchestra with piano obbligato type.

The piano is hardly silent at all through the entire work, and the music places extreme demands on the soloist technically, physically, and musically.  The orchestra part is no less demanding for the players and conductor. Due to its length and level of difficulty, the concerto has always been on the periphery of the repertoire. After the premiere of the work in 1904 with Busoni as soloist, his students were pretty much the only advocates for the work.  In the late 1950's the pianist John Ogdon championed the piece and it is occasionally performed, more rarely recorded.  Ogdon made a recording of it that is held to be definitive by many.

Busoni sketched a picture that symbolized the aspects of his concerto. He had an artist refine the picture and had it published with the score.  Busoni himself wrote about this pictorial representation of his work in a letter to his wife:

'It is the idea of my piano concerto in one picture
and it is represented by architecture, landscape and
symbolism. The three buildings are the first, third and
fifth movements. In between come the two 'living' ones;
Scherzo and Tarantelle; the first, a nature-play,
represented by a miraculous flower and bird; the second
by Vesuvius and cypress trees. The sun rises over the
entrance; a seal is fastened to the door of the end
building. The winged being quite at the end is taken
from Oehlenschläger's chorus and represents mysticism
in nature.'

Adam Oehlenschläger was the Dutch poet and playwright that wrote the text that Busoni set to music in the last movement of the work. Busoni originally was writing an 'evening of music' based on the poet's drama Alladin, Or The Magic Lamp.  He never completed the work, but he did compose music for the final scene in the cave of the play. This is what eventually made its way into the concerto's last movement. As strange as it may seem to the casual listener to hear a men's chorus sing praises to Allah in a concerto written by an Italian composer, Busoni thought the words and the music conveyed the serenity he wanted to evoke in the final movement.  Busoni had used some of the themes from the music he did write for Alladin in the first movement, and the inclusion of the music and words in the finale rounded off the work to Busoni's satisfaction, regardless of how it may appear to others.

The work is divided into 5 main sections, with further divisions in the third movement:

I. Prologo E Introito (prologue and introduction)- The orchestra introduces the music, the piano enters and clangs its way up and down the keyboard playing chords.
II. Pezzo Giocoso (playful piece) -   This movement is something like a strange scherzo and begins lightly,  and turns into a strange dance. A Neapolitan sailor song is quoted,  the movement ends strangely and quietly.
III Pezzo Serioso (serious piece) - Made up of four parts:
  • Introductio (introduction) - A lamentation, ending with the piano and orchestra playing very softly.
  • Prima Pars (main part) -  The dirge continues with momentary light showing through the darkness.
  • Altera Pars (altered part) -  As the title suggests, the theme is altered  and extended.
  • Ultima Pars (final part) -  This entire movement and its four parts can be looked at as a preparation for the choral finale. 
IV All' Italiana (Tarantella) -  The Tarantella is an Italian dance that folklore says is caused by the bite of the Tarantula spider. A wild dance for the soloist and orchestra.
V Cantico - A beginning that's slow and solemn gives way to reminisces of other themes heard previously that lead up to the male choir's singing:
(English translation)
The Pillars of Rock begin to make soft and gentle music

Lift up your hearts to the Power Eternal,
Draw ye to Allah nigh, witness his work.
Earth has its share of rejoicing and sorrow,
Firm the foundations that hold up the world.
Thousands and thousands of years march relentlessly,
Show forth in silence His glory, His might,
Flashing immaculate, splendid and fast they stand,
Time cannot shake them, yea time without end.

Hearts flamed in ecstasy, hearts turned to dust again,
Playfully life and death staked each his claim,
Yet in mute readiness patiently tarrying,
Splendid and mighty both, for evermore.
Lift up your hearts to the Power Eternal,
Draw ye to Allah nigh, witness his work.
Fully regenerate now is the world of yore,
Praising its Maker e'en unto the end.

This concerto is so large and vast, it is like a world unto itself.  It may always be on the edge of the repertoire, any performance of it will no doubt be an event over and above the normal concert fare. It is a mysterious, incredible creation of a profound musical mind.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Ippolitov-Ivanov - Caucasian Sketches Suite

Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859 - 1935) was a Russian composer, teacher and conductor. He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. His first appointment was music director and conductor at Tbilisi, capital city of the country of Georgia, south of Russia.  He held that position for seven years. He later became the director of the Conservatory in Moscow in 1905 and held that post until 1924.  He managed to stay independent for the most part and didn't get involved in the cultural dust-ups that occurred in the arts after the Russian Revolution.

The Caucasian Sketches of Ippolitov-Ivanov refer to the region of the Caucasus Mountains region of  Eurasia, specifically the country that is called Georgia.  It is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world as a result of many factors. Bordering the Black Sea, the area was a major trade route.  It was first influenced by the Roman Empire, and after its demise was much influenced by the Eastern Roman Empire.  Despite a close relationship with Russia, the 18th century saw invasions from Persia and Turkey and their subsequent additions to the culture.  The entire Causcasus region shares in Georgia's diversity and as such the people of the region and Georgia don't fit into any of the major ethnic categories of Europe or Asia.  Of course this diversity spills over into the arts and in the musical world leads to music that can sound European one moment, exotic and oriental the next.

Ippolitov-Ivanov was influenced greatly by the diversity he witnessed at Tbilisi during his years there. He even went back in later years to help reorganize the Conservatory there. He wrote two sets of Caucasian Sketches, the first one in 1894. He uses folk tunes of the region with brilliant use of the orchestra. The Suite consists of 4 separate 'sketches':

1. In A Mountain Pass -  A musical painting of the mountains in the region.
2. In A Village - The English horn is used to play an exotic tune in imitation of the native zurna of the region.
3. In a Mosque - Although Georgia is predominantly Orthodox now, it is one of the few places in the world where an Islamic Mosque and a Christian Church stand side by side in Tbilisi.
4. Procession Of The Sardar - Sardar is a Persian word that means leader.

Ippolitov-Ivanov wrote music in many genres, but most of his output was for voice,  chorus or orchestra. He carried on the tradition of orchestration that he learned from Rimsky-Korsakov as his music for orchestra is brilliantly and imaginatively orchestrated.  His music is mostly forgotten, with only the 'Procession of The Sardar' from this suite played occasionally.