Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sarasate - Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) For Violin And Orchestra

A few years ago I purchased an inexpensive violin with the intent of learning to play it. Not expecting any kind of virtuosity, I thought I could learn enough to perhaps play in an amateur string quartet or something like that. I knew it would take time and be a lot of work, but I've been playing the piano for a long time and figured a different instrument would be a good change of pace.  The sounds that I produced would be accompanied by caterwauling from the stray cats in the neighborhood,  my fingers ached from pushing on the strings, my arm just didn't work very well as I tried to play on one string at a time.  While I'm not a quitter by any means, common sense told me I was not cut out to play the violin. But all was not lost. The violin hangs above my piano, next to a copy of a Renoir painting. It looks very nice there, and except taking it down for an occasional dusting, there it shall stay.

But there was also an added bonus from my attempts to play the fiddle. I can really appreciate how difficult it is to play the instrument after trying (in vain) to coax out more than a squawk from it myself. When I hear a piece like the Sarasate Gypsy Airs played by a virtuoso (and no one other than a virtuoso could come close to doing it justice) I marvel at the agility, reflexes, musical ear, talent and hard work that is required.

Sarasate was one of the top violin virtuosos of his time, and composed his Gypsy Airs in 1878 and premiered the piece the same year.   It is based on the music of the Roma, or Gypsy people. Many composers wrote pieces based on this type of music including Liszt, Brahms and Dvořák.

Zigeunerweisen is in one movement, and consists of two dance melodies preceded by an introduction. There are four tempo changes in the piece:
I.  Moderato - A dramatic, slow introduction begins with the orchestra with the violin entering. The violin restates the opening, with virtuosic flourishes.
II. Lento - The first theme is a sad, highly decorated tune played while the orchestra gently accompanies.
III. Un poco più lento - The muted violin continues to play the same sad melody.
IV. Allegro molto vivace - The tempo suddenly increases dramatically along with the volume with the beginning of the second theme  The violin crackles with energy as Sarasate has the violin play a manic friss, the rapid section of the traditional Csárdás dance.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hummel - Piano Concerto In A minor

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in 1778 and died in 1837 and is acknowledged to be one of the composers of transition from the Classical model of music represented by Mozart to the beginnings of the Romantic movement.  His musical education was achieved by studying with teachers that included Haydn, Clementi,  Mozart and Beethoven. He was one of the great piano virtuosos of his time, as well as a composer and teacher.  Among his students were Mendelssohn, Henselt and other notable composers and pianists.

Hummel's music had a lasting effect on his contemporaries. Chopin had two of Hummel's piano concertos in his repertoire, and used them as models for his own piano concertos.  Schumann was also influenced by Hummel's second piano concerto. It was the first concerto Schumann studied with his teacher Friedrich Wieck (father of the piano virtuoso and future wife of Schumann, Clara). Schumann used the concerto as a model for his own Piano Concerto in A Minor.

There's not a better way to illustrate Hummel's shift in style of composition than to compare his early attempts at concerto writing with his 2nd in A minor. The Piano Concertino in G, written in 1799 (a transcription of an earlier concerto for mandolin), is generally reminiscent of Mozart's concertos in style and content. The 2nd concerto is more dramatic, has a form more like Beethoven with a more complex part for orchestra. The piano writing for the second concerto is strictly for the virtuoso, with brilliant runs, trills and passages in thirds for both hands.  The 2nd Piano concert is in the traditional three movements:

I. Allegro moderato - The orchestral introduction is Beethoven-like in length,  and Hummel shows his mastery of orchestral writing throughout. The piano enters and dazzles with piano writing that shows how great a virtuoso Hummel was, as he premiered this concerto in Vienna shortly after its composition in 1816.

 II. Larghetto - A short movement, the forerunner of the great slow movements to come in the Chopin concertos. The piano plays a sweet, tastefully decorated nocturne-like melody while the orchestra gently accompanies.

 III. Rondo: Allegro moderato -  The piano is the star of the finale, with glittering finger work the increases in complexity as melodies are tossed about between orchestra and piano until the work closes with a rousing flourish.

It is quite ironic that a composer such as Hummel, a harbinger of the Romantic movement that was so influential for so many composers, was for many years subject to gross neglect. At the end of his life he was considered somewhat old-fashioned by the leaders of the "New Music". Such is the fate of some who have led the way, only to be bypassed by the rapid change in taste and convention.  For whatever the reasons,  Hummel's music is now beginning to be heard more often, at least in recordings. It deserves to be heard, if nothing else as a break from the 'warhorses' of the repertoire. The relative handful of concertos that are played most often  most assuredly deserve their place in the repertoire, but music such as Hummel's can give them a needed rest on occasion.