Monday, March 26, 2012

Paganini - Violin Concerto No. 5

Say the name Paganini to a modern music lover and the first impression would most likely be of a virtuoso violinist dazzling the the early 19th century audiences with his 'tricks of the trade'. To be sure, Paganini was a great showman who did barnyard imitations on his violin and other things to please the crowd. But he was much more than a showman. He was also consummate musician in the best sense of the term.  With no technical barriers to hinder his musical expression, he could give wing to his musical imagination and touch the hearts of such outstanding musicians as Schumann, Chopin and Schubert.  The slow movements of his violin concertos were less about the fireworks and more about the passionate musician Paganini could be. His tone could be heart-rending, and he could play as if he were an angel.

Many composers used the piano as an aid to composition in one way or the other. Paganini was not proficient on the piano. The instrument he used as a compositional aid was the guitar. This no doubt shows in his handling of the orchestra. And after all, his primary motive was to showcase the violin with a accompaniment that was as non-instrusive as possible.

The 5th Violin Concerto was written towards the end of his career, and only the solo part exists. The orchestral parts have been reconstructed from the solo part and are a very fair representation of how the concerto could have sounded. The reconstruction was done in 1959 by Frederico Mompellio and follows Paganini's style very well.

Like most of Paganini's concertos, the 5th is very operatic in nature. The first movement is the longest of all three, and it is written in the sonata form mold so prevalent in first movements of the era. After a drum roll and a few chords to get our attention,  the movement begins with a long orchestral introduction of the primary themes, with the first being borrowed from some of his other compositions.  The oboe is entrusted with a theme of its own later in the introduction and the orchestra repeats it which leads to the repeating of the primary theme. There is a rousing cadence and the theme is taken over by the violin. The music shifts back and for the from major to minor keys, and of course the violin is the 'star' of the concerto.   The violin plays with a simpler passion in the second movement as it decorates the music while subduing the technical fireworks.  The finale is a Paganini rondo as much as any he ever wrote as the tune keeps returning, is decorated, is spattered out with remarkable virtuosity in places and is gently stated in others. It is the perfect vehicle to show a violinist's technique and musicality. That is exactly what Paganini wrote it to do.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Goedicke - Koncertstück For Piano And Orchestra

During the Soviet reign of Russia, many composers and other artists got into trouble with the authorities because they refused to kow-tow to  'official' Soviet ideals about art.  These Soviet 'ideals' didn't reflect an actual aesthetic of art as much as what the big shots in charge liked or didn't like.  Sometimes it had nothing to do with the art of the accused, but everything to do with how well the powers that be thought they could control the person in question. Especially if, for whatever reason, the artist was disliked, it was likely to spell their doom.

After the Russian revolution of 1917, some notable artists did leave the country. In music, the names of Rachmaninoff the composer/pianist, Horowitz the pianist and Chaliapin, the Bass singer come to mind. Others chose to stay, some were done away with, some like Shostaskovich lived the rest of their lives in fear. But there were those who didn't get into trouble, mostly by not making waves.  Russian's a big country, and if a composer chose to remain somewhat anonymous, or didn't cause official displeasure at any rate.  Alexander Goedicke appears to have been a survivor, for he lived until 1957, the year he turned 80 years old.  He was much better known in Eastern Europe as a composer and performer on the piano and organ. He was well regarded for his interpretations of J.S. Bach's organ works.

Although Goedicke was a  professor at the Moscow Conservatory,  he had no formal training as a composer. He studied piano performance at the conservatory, but managed to win the Anton Rubinstein prize in  composition in 1900 when he was 23 years old.  He wrote 3 symphonies, concertos, many piano pieces, operas and other pieces, nearly a hundred opus numbers worth. He is mostly remembered for his Concert Etude for Trumpet.

The Koncertstück is a Romantic piece, steeped in the same harmonies and musical world as the music of Rachmaninoff and Glazunov. It opens with a gentle horn call, which is taken up by the soloist. The piano part is highly decorative. The main theme is finally heard in the piano, a melody that is big and strong, very Russian in character in my opinion. Another theme is stated by the orchestra, very similar to the preceding one. This is expanded by soloist and orchestra, snatches of preceding motifs are played. The piano decorates the orchestral renditions until the recapitulation of the first theme appears.  Bits and pieces of the second theme (and others) are heard, and after a  short cadenza, themes combine and play against each other until the finale begins with thundering chords in the piano and a noble theme heard in the brass. The piano writing is brilliant, the orchestra states its business with the piano grandly summing up and the piece comes to a close.

This piece is more than enough to whet my appetite to hear more of Goedicke's music.  Sadly, not much of it has been recorded and some that has been recorded is out of print.

Goedicke - Koncertstück For Piano And Orchestra

Monday, March 12, 2012

Liszt - Dante Symphony - Inferno

The full title of Liszt's work is A Symphony to Dante's Divine Comedy.  Liszt began sketching themes for this work as early as 1840. He worked on fragments of it until he laid it aside. In 1855 he took up the work again and completed almost all of it by the end of 1856.  Liszt played the piano version of the work to Wagner, who praised it but suggested some changes.

Liszt had originally conceived the work in three movements, Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.  Wagner talked Liszt out of writing a symphonic work that portrayed paradise, as he thought no composer could do paradise justice. Liszt agreed, and retained the first two movements and added a Magnificat  in place of the Paradise movement.  The first performance was held in Dresden in 1857 with Liszt conducting, and it was a disaster. Lack of rehearsal was the cause, but Liszt didn't give up on the work and conducted it again in 1858.

The work has not been one of Liszt's most popular. It is an innovative work, as most of Liszt's compositions, and makes use of different forms, musical scales and harmonies. Along with his Faust Symphony (finished in 1854) these two works are more like groups of related tone poems than symphonies, at least in structure. The Faust Symphony to me is a more balanced work, the three sections having much more in common with each other in material and length. The Dante Symphony's strongest movement to me is the first one, Inferno.  The second movement is also very good, but the very short Magnificat that follows it tends to throw the last two thirds of the work out of balance to my ear. That doesn't mean the Magnificat isn't good, it most certainly is and is very innovative in Liszt's use of the whole tone scale. Perhaps if Liszt had kept to his original plan for a Paradise movement the work many have been even better.

Inferno begins with a depiction of the gates of hell itself with a slow introduction for brass. Liszt repeats the motif 4 times, each time slightly varied and the first three lines and the ninth line written on the gates of hell are written over the notes in the score:

Through me is the way to the sorrowful city,
Through me is the way to eternal sorrow,
Through me is the way among the lost people.
Abandon all hope you who enter here.

There is a chant recited by the trumpets and horns, the tempo quickens and the music makes a rapid descent that depicts Dante and Virgil descending into hell. As Dante goes through the circles of hell, the music evolves into waves of noise, violence and borderline hysteria, probably one reason why this work is none too popular; Liszt's depiction of hell gets pretty noisy in places.  After the second circle of hell, Liszt takers part of a previously heard motif and relates the story of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, two lovers that were contemporaries of Dante, who wrote their story into his Divine Comedy.  The pair were murdered by Francesca's husband (who was also Paolo's brother) before they could repent of their sin, thus they are doomed to hell for eternity, clutching each other in their misery.  Francesca tells Dante the tale before they are swept along the torrents of hell with the other lost souls, and Dante faints.  Liszt's music depicts the heartache and passion of the story in music that is in vivid contrast to what has gone before.

After what amounts to the lengthy interlude of the telling of the story of Francesca da Rimini,  Dante and Virgil resume their journey and the music returns to the inquietude of the beginning.  Snatches of music that has been heard before return, in a twisted recapitulation of the beginning. It isn't until these are heard that we realize Liszt has used his own version of sonata form for this movement.  The music picks up momentum as it hurtles through the circles of hell until the final horrible vision of Satan himself is seen chewing on the bodies of the damned.  The music builds into a loud, shrill climax, then with five chords the bottom falls out and the music ends.

I first hear this symphony more than thirty years ago, and Inferno has been one of my favorite pieces ever since, and it made me a ‘fan’ of Liszt. It was my introduction to Liszt besides the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 I heard Bugs Bunny play in the old cartoons. The power of the piece, the sheer visceral reaction from the loudness of the beginning and end coupled with the tenderness of the middle Francesca da Rimini section still sends chills up the back of my neck. And I do admit that it is the Inferno movement I listen to the most. The other two movements seem anti-climatic to me.  I do better to listen to them without the first part .

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Respighi - The Birds

Respighi was a musicologist as well as a composer, and he used the music of the past as inspiration for some of his compositions. The Birds is a suite of pieces that are based on various 18th century composers.  It is an attempt to depict (somewhat stylized) bird songs of the Dove, Hen, Nightingale and Cuckoo.  The composer uses the woodwind section of the orchestra for the bird imitations to good effect.  Respighi conducted the premiere of the work in Brazil in 1928.

The Birds consists of 5 movements - 
I. Prelude -  This prelude acts as a mini-overture for the rest of the work. The first-heard melody in the prelude is based on an opera aria by the Italian composer Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710) , who was not only a composer but a virtuoso keyboardist, perhaps the greatest keyboard player of his generation.  He wrote operas, cantatas, many works for voice, and music for keyboard. He was an outstanding teacher and may have taught Domenico Scarlatti. He may have been the first composer to write three-movement sonatas for keyboard.  After this melody, there is a medley of the bird songs that comprise the rest of the work, and the Pasquini melody returns again to finish the prelude.

II. The Dove -  This movement is based on the music of French composer and lutenist Jacques de Gallot (ca.1625-1700). A solo oboe plays gently with the accompaniment of harp and strings. Trills in the strings imitate the flutter of wings while the melody is given to clarinet, then the solo violin.

III. The Hen - This is based on the music of the French harpsichordist, composer and theorist  Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).  Rameau's music is seldom heard in the concert hall, but he was one of the great musicians of the Baroque era and the history of music in general. It was Rameau who codified what had been going on for a hundred years in music,  basing music on harmony instead of counterpoint. He was the culmination of the Baroque era in France, much like J.S. Bach was in Germany. The music starts with the clucking of a hen and before it is over the entire hen house is a stir.

IV. The Nightingale - The only thing known about the next melody is that it originated in England in the 18th century. Respighi orchestrates the gentle melody with the appropriate winds, and even has the solo horn gently sing the melody.

V. The Cuckoo - Another melody from Pasquini, this one from a harpsichord piece. The woodwinds imitate the cuckoo, the melody from the prelude is heard once again to round off the piece and the work is finished.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 5 'Emperor'

Composers have always been the leading force in music as far as innovation of techniques and improvements in instruments. That is not to discount the role that interpretive musicians play, but it seems to me that the innovations created by composers in the music they write forces in music notation, harmony, melody, rhythm, instrumental technique and even in the instruments themselves.  The piano is a good case in point.

The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian master harpsichord builder, in about 1700.  The forerunner of the piano was the clavichord, an instrument that was capable of dynamic shading but wasn't sufficiently loud enough for concert use. The harpsichord was the instrument of choice in concert, and it could be made to play loud enough, but the variety of dynamics was also limited.  Enter Cristofori's pianoforte, (soft and loud), but this too was too delicate in tone for concert use. It took many improvements in the original before the birth of the massive concert grand piano we all know today.

The piano of Beethoven's time was closer to the original of Cristofori's than the modern piano. There were different makers and each one had their strengths and weaknesses, but they were all similar in that except for the strings and tuning pins, they were entirely made of wood. The wooden frames of Beethoven's pianos could not withstand the string tension of a modern grand, thus they did not have the sonority, volume,  or the durability. A strong player like Beethoven was forever breaking strings and hammers. That's not to say the instruments weren't expressive. Modern reproductions have shown how beautiful they could sound, but their voices were smaller. They could not be heard over a full orchestra, hence composition techniques resorted to a kind of 'call and answer' technique where the orchestra would state the main themes, then the piano would enter either solo or with a low volume accompaniment from the orchestra.

This compositional technique can be heard in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 at the very beginning.  The first movement begins with a loud chord from the orchestra that is answered by a piano cadenza. This happens three times before the exposition of the movement actually begins, and parts of the cadenzas are heard throughout the movement.  Beethoven had already placed a cadenza for the solo piano at the beginning of the 4th Piano Concerto , but in the 5th piano concerto the cadenzas are of a more dramatic nature.  After the orchestral exposition the soloist has his say about them. The themes are explored further in the development section and when the traditional place for a cadenza appears during the recapitulation, Beethoven makes it clear that there is to be no extemporizing by the soloist by writing as much in the score.  The entire first movement is dramatic and Beethoven at his most majestic. Beethoven also has the piano and orchestra play at the same time more frequently.  The entire concerto is almost written for a piano that didn't exist in Beethoven's time, for the coming of the iron-framed piano and resultant higher string tension and brilliance (not to mention volume) was years in the future.

The second movement is a beautiful Adagio, in direct contrast to the heroic first movement. The second movement segues right into a  rondo finale that is full of energy.  The theme of the rondo is heard repeatedly and developed along the way until a short duet between piano and timpani leads to the ending flourishes of piano and orchestra.

Beethoven's music in general and this concerto in particular is a good example of how a composer's talent, insight, ingenuity and creativity can change their art in many ways. The piano was never the same after Beethoven. It couldn't be. Beethoven demanded so much from his instruments and players that they both had to evolve and learn new ways and methods to express the music that he wrote.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Schumann - Konzertstück For Four Horns And Orchestra

The modern orchestral horn had as its ancestor the valveless 'natural' horn that was used in the military and in hunting to signal the troops or hunters. The valveless horn has a limited range as changes in pitch can only be produced by lip pressure and inserting or removing the hand from the bell of the instrument. Inserting the hand in the bell of the instrument to change pitch was somewhat of a compromise as the tone quality of the instrument changed.  The first uses of the horn in the orchestra took into account its limitations and the parts written for them were fairly elementary - the notes of the triad chords, mostly the tonic.  The instrument could play in other keys, but that involved inserting or removing an extra length of tubing. These extra lengths of tubing were called 'crooks' and the composers that used the horn early on would write for the horn crooked in a specific key for an entire piece or movement, depending on the notes needed. Later on, composers would ask players to change the key of their horns within a movement, but this took time and had to be taken into consideration.

The valved horn was invented about 1815 and had advantages over the natural horn. It was a fully chromatic instrument, therefore crooks were no longer necessary and the hand in the bell technique was no longer used for pitch change. But as with all new things, it took time to be accepted. Despite the problems of the natural horn, some preferred its tone to the valved counterpart. Even in 1849 when Schumann wrote the Konzertstück For Four Horns And Orchestra it was not assured that orchestras used valved horns. Schumann himself wrote for a pair of valved horns and a pair of natural horns in the work, but four valved horns are usually used in a modern performance.

This work is seldom played, perhaps because it calls for four virtuoso horn players.

The work is in three movements with the 2nd and 3rd played without pause:
I. Lebhaft (Lively)  -  The orchestra begins with two loud chords, and the horn quartet comes in and plays a fanfare. The horns seldom have a rest as they have a spirited dialogue with the orchestra. Schumann was fond of the horn and utilizes all the qualities of expressivity of the instrument in this movement, from tenderness to forcefulness.

II. Romanze - The soft and gentle chords of the horns are the feature if this short movement, which leads directly to...

III. Sehr lebhaft (Very lively) - A return to the mood of the first movement as Schumann has the soloist imitate each other until they come together in a fine statement of horn harmony. The dialogue continues until the finale, when the orchestra and the horns join together and close the work.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sweelinck - Variations on Est-ce Mars

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was a Dutch organist and composer. His father was also an organist. The family moved to Amsterdam shortly after Jan's birth, and his father took the position of organist at the Oude Kirk (Old Church) there. Jan also was organist at the same church after the death of his father.  Sweelinck was one of the first major keyboard players in Europe, and he helped establish the Northern German school of organ playing as exemplified by J.S. Bach.

He was one of the first organists to play fugues by giving the subject first, and have the other voices follow in succession. He also extended the use of the organ pedals and was one of the first to use the pedals for the voice in a fugue. He was also a very good teacher as many of his keyboard works were written for his students. His influence was widespread, as his music was known in England. He had earned the nickname 'The Orpheus Of Amsterdam' and the city fathers would bring guests from the surrounding area to hear him play.

He evidently spent his entire life in Amsterdam, but his expertise on organs was in high demand so he traveled inspecting and testing organs and giving advice on their construction.  After the Calvinist Reformation of the church in Amsterdam, organ music was no longer allowed during church service. Sweelinck would give impromptu recitals on the organ an hour before and an hour after church services. These impromptu recitals were very popular, as Sweelinck would play the popular tunes of the day and then improvise variations on the tune.

Sweelinck left about 70 compositions for keyboard, and a glimpse of his powers as an improviser can be heard in these pieces. The Variations on Est-ce Mars is one such example. The tune is French and was well-known at the time. The first line of the song roughly translates to: "Is that Mars, the great god of battles, that I see?" The words may not mean much to modern ears, but Sweelinck shows his imagination and skill in the seven variations on the tune.

As with all music that is so old, there are performance practices of the time that we know little about, if anything at all. Without knowing how these pieces were actually performed, especially in a time where improvisation was much more prevalent, any modern performance may be but an approximation. Be that as it may, the music of Sweelinck and other composers of so long ago can still be listened to and appreciated, especially if a sensitive musician is playing the music.  Music can be a powerful form of expression and can bridge the centuries.