Sunday, October 21, 2012

Alkan - Overture From '12 Etudes In The Minor Keys'

Charles Valentine Alkan's music reflects his remarkable virtuosity on the piano. His mastery of the piano was equal to one of the greatest pianists that ever lived, Franz Liszt.  And while there is very little (if any) of Liszt's piano music that can be called 'easy', it applies even more dramatically to Alkan's.  The Alkan specialist Ronald Smith called the '12 Etudes In The Minor Keys Opus 39' Alkan's Frankenstein Monster because it grew into a set of monstrously difficult pieces both technically and musically.

But amid the difficulty lies a depth of musical feeling and expression that is Romantic to its core. They are true etudes in the Chopin sense in that they are expressions of a very talented, musical mind. The complexities are part of the effect of the music, not an end in themselves. That not every musician can 'bring off' Alkan's compositions is no doubt true. No musician can do justice to all composers. But the pianist that has a virtuoso's technique that is used for the sake of music expression, can reveal to the listener a composer of great power, tenderness and originality.

The 'Overture' of Opus 39 is the eleventh etude. Like etudes 4-7 (the 'Symphony For Piano
) and etudes 8-10 (The 'Concerto For Piano Solo') number eleven is orchestral in feeling and writing. It begins with rapid minor chords in both hands with the bass punctuating the tonality in octaves. There is a slight slackening of the intensity, and the rapid chords come forth once again.  The music winds down to winds down to a pensive calmness. Once more the rumbling octaves in the bass quietly remind the listener of the beginning, then a section of very tender melody in the major comes to the fore and is expanded and varied. The next section is impassioned music that vaguely reminds my ear of the opening in feeling. It segues into a rippling statement of octaves in the right hand. This sections ends with chords and octaves up and down the keyboard until the music turns more quiet and ominous, then builds back to the octaves and chords. It alternates between the two until it reaches the last statement of the quiet and ominous. This leads to the coda, a brilliant theme in the major that rounds off the work.

Jack Gibbons
The pianist that wishes to tackle this piece is met with difficulties galore. Rapid octaves, leaps, chords that are a handful of notes, a dynamic range from a roar to a whisper and back again. Any pianist that can play this piece with musical expression is more than a virtuoso pianist, they are also a master musician.  The pianist in the accompanying video is Jack Gibbons, and English pianist of the highest order. He began playing Alkan early in his career, and was the first pianist to record the entire Opus 39 set digitally in 1995. He was also the first pianist to perform all twelve of the etudes in the set in a live concert, a practically superhuman feat. Gibbons also plays other composers, notably Chopin and Gershwin , and is a composer in his own right.

Gibbons was involved in a near fatal auto accident in 2001 with a subsequent long recovery. There was some question whether he would be able to play the piano again, but he returned to piano playing and gave the first performance in Carnegie Hall of Alkan's Symphony For Piano Solo in 2007. He continues to give recitals and appears as soloist with orchestras, along with composing.  He is one of my favorite pianists, and his recovery from his accident is an inspirational story.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Copland - Grohg - Ballet In One Act

Aaron Copland spent a few years studying in Paris in the early 1920's with renown teacher Nadia Boulanger,  a female teacher of higher music instruction. Not only was it rare for a female to be a teacher of advanced music, but Copland found that she had an encyclopedic knowledge of music from Bach to Stravinsky. She was also a fine composer in her own right and one of the very few (if not the first) females to conduct major orchestras. Copland thrived under her tutelage, and extended his studies with her to three years instead of the one year he originally planned.

Grohg, Ballet In One Act is a product of his early compositions in Paris and the first work that he orchestrated.  Boulanger suggested Copland write a ballet because of the popularity of Stravinsky's ballets commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his  Ballet Russe.  Copland took as his inspiration the German silent movie Nosferatu, a vampire film based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. Copland asked the writer-director Harold Clurman to write a scenario for the ballet. Clurman's scenario deals with a sorcerer that brings corpses to life to dance for his pleasure.

Copland went on to temper his early dissonant writing in his later popular ballets Billy The Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring, but Grohg has dissonance and elements of American jazz, keeping with Copland's earlier style.  As Copland was not commissioned to write the work, the only performance it got was a four-handed piano version privately played by Copland and Boulanger. The score was revised in 1932, but remained unperformed until the 1932 revision was found in the Library of Congress. The work was first performed in 1992.

The work is played without pause but is divided into six sections:

1) Introduction, Cortège and Entrance of Grohg - A slow introduction, followed by the bearers of coffins. Copland brings the dance of the coffin bearers to a climax as Grohg the Sorcerer enters and the dancers pay homage to the sorcerer.

2) Dance Of The Adolescent -  Grohg revives the corpse of an adolescent who becomes terrified by Grohg. The adolescent is struck down by the sorcerer.

3) Dance Of The Opium Eater - Grohg next revives the corpse of an opium addict. The addict dances to a jazzy tune, and Grohg has pity on the addict and removes the magic that brought him back to life.

4) Dance Of The Streetwalker - The corpse of a streetwalker is revived and she does a dance that impassions Grohg. He tries to embrace her, there is a struggle.

5) Grohg Imagines The Corpses Are Mocking Him -  Grohg begins to hallucinate and imagines the corpses are mocking him. He joins in the dance of the corpses. Chaos ensues, and Grohg hoists the Streetwalker over his head and throws her into the crowd.

6) Illumination And Disappearance of Grohg - The stage turns dark save for a light focused on Grohg's head, and he slowly disappears to music that echos back to the beginning.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Paganini - Violin Concerto No. 3 In E Major

Paganini began making his reputation as early as 1813 before he toured Europe. His reputation was made in tours of his native country of Italy.  His First Violin Concerto was the only one of his own that he performed until he made serious plans to tour Europe in the 1820's.  He rapidly composed two more violin concertos for his planned tour, Number Two in B minor and Number Three in E Major.

Paganini began his European tour in Vienna in 1828 and performed these three concertos to great acclaim. Paganini would distribute the orchestral parts of the concertos only at the last minute and always played his solo part from memory. In those days before copyright, music was constantly being 'pirated' by music publishers with the composer getting nothing in return for their work. Paganini amassed a large fortune from his concert tours, not least of all because he was so secretive with his music.

All three of these concertos follow the same general plan of three movements, as do contemporary works of the genre.  These concertos are Italianate in style, like the music of Paganini's countrymen Rossini and Donizetti. The middle slow movements of the concertos are like short operatic scenes for violin and orchestra, while the first and last movements are more involved.  As Paganini was the violin virtuoso of his age, the solo violin parts ask for a brilliant technique that covers all aspects of violin playing. They are still demanding works to play nearly 200 years after their composition, so it's no wonder that Paganini caused such a furor with his playing of them. The music world had never seen or heard the likes of Paganini before.

Violin Concerto No. Three begins with an introduction for orchestra, as do the first two concertos.  The orchestra then proceeds with the exposition of the first movement. Paganini's orchestration is colorful, straightforward and competent, but with a difference in timbre perhaps caused by Paganini using the guitar as his preferred instrument for composing. Berlioz also played the guitar, and his orchestrations have a slightly different sound also. The violin enters and immediately takes center stage as the orchestra takes its role as accompaniment.  The solo violin expands on the themes earlier stated by the orchestra until a place for a cadenza is reached, after which the orchestra brings the movement to a close.

The 2nd movement is a sweet aria for violin and pizzicato strings with the woodwinds adding pastel colors.

The 3rd movement is a Rondo in the tempo of a polonaise, a Polish dance.  The violin dialogues with the orchestra in different episodes between repeats of the main theme. Paganini uses left-hand pizzicati, flying bow work, double stops, harmonics, the whole gamut of  pyrotechnics for the violin until the work comes to a close.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mahler - Symphony No. 2 'Resurrection'

Mahler was most well-known in his lifetime as a conductor of opera and orchestral works. He did most of his compositional work on his summer holidays from his conducting duties.  All of his symphonies show an intimate knowledge of the orchestra gained by his experience as a conductor.

Mahler's 2nd Symphony was his most popular work in his lifetime, and was a favorite of Mahler himself. It remains his most popular work to this day. It is written for a  huge orchestra (parts of which play offstage) with a large percussion section, two soloists, a mixed choir and organ.  It premiered in 1895 in Berlin and was conducted by the composer. It is in five movements:

1st Movement - Allegro maestoso 
The first movement of Mahler's 2nd Symphony was originally intended as a symphonic poem written in 1888 entitled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites) and reflects Mahler's life-long struggle with the meaning of life and the mysteries of death. When Mahler played the piano score of the work to Hans von Bülow his mentor,  he labeled it as incomprehensible.  Mahler set the work aside until 1893 when he completed the middle movements on his summer vacation from his conducting duties, but the finale continued to give him problems until the death of von Bülow in 1894. When Mahler attended the funeral of von Bülow he was inspired by a choral work sung at the services and finished the symphony shortly after.

Hans von Bülow
While the funeral march in the third movement of his first symphony is a sardonic parody of the tune Frère Jacques (also known as Brüder Martin in German and  Are You Sleeping? in English), the funeral music in the first movement of the 2nd Symphony very different. It is brutal in places, tender and longing in others, and has a different feeling to it all together.

The movement is in a modified sonata form and some of the material used in the development section of the movement is used later in the symphony. Mahler's instructions called for a five-minute pause between the first and second movements, but this is seldom done in current performances.

2nd movement - Andante moderato 
A German Ländler, a dance popular in Southern Germany and Austria. A much-needed respite from the seriousness of the first movement, but it isn't exactly brimming with sunshine and Tyrolean joy.

3rd Movement - In ruhig fließender Bewegung (With Quietly Flowing movement)
A scherzo in all but name, this movement is an adaption of one of Mahler's songs, St. Anthony Preaches To The Fishes set to the folk poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn  Near the end of the movment there is a climax for orchestra that Mahler called a death shriek. 

4th Movement - Urlicht (Primeval Light) 
Another movement originally written to a Das Knaben Wunderhorn poem, scored for Alto voice and orchestra.  There are no less than 15 time signature changes in the short movement, which to my ears lends a restlessness to the music that serves as an introduction to the huge final movement. The poem as translated from The Knaben Wunderhorn
Primeval Light 
O red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!
5th Movement - Im Tempo des Scherzos (In the tempo of the scherzo) 
A sprawling movement that last roughly thirty minutes and is in two sections, the first section for orchestra alone, the second for chorus, soloists and orchestra..  The first section begins with a restating of the 'death shriek' heard at the climax of the third movement. A procession of time changes, key changes and mood swings, plus music played by horns and percussion that are off stage,  leads to what amounts to the development section of this first part, which is in a very free type of sonata form. This development section begins with two tremendous percussion crescendos that lead to what Mahler called 'The March Of The Dead'.   The orchestra is answered by the offstage brass, themes bound in and out of the frantic march until the choral section of the movement begins quietly.

Tee rest of the movement is guided by the text sung by soloists (alto and soprano) and chorus. The music grows in intensity and volume, with bells and organ joining the chorus and orchestra full strength for the final 'resurrection' of the dead that have gone before.  Ecstatic and almost overwhelmed, the orchestra ends in a glory of sound and  emotion. Mahler himself said of the ending "The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it."

The text for the final section by Friedrich Klopstock the German poet, and Mahler himself.
Rise again, yea,
thou wilt rise again,
My dust, after a short rest!
 Immortal life! Immortal life
 He who called thee will grant thee.
 To bloom again thou art sown!
The Lord of the Harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us who died.
-Friedrich Klopstock
Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
Nothing is lost with thee!
Thine is what thou hast desired,
What thou hast loved for,
what thou hast fought for! 
Oh believe, thou were not born in vain!
Hast not lived in vain, suffered in vain! 
What has come into being must perish,
What perished must rise again.

Cease from trembling!
Prepare thyself to live! 
Oh Pain, thou piercer of all things,
From thee have I been wrested!
Oh Death, thou master of all things,
Now art thou mastered!
With wings which I have won,
 In love's fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light to which no eye has soared. 
With wings, which I have won,
I shall soar upwards I shall die, to live! 
Rise again, yea,
thou wilt rise again,
My heart, in the twinkling of an eye!
What thou hast fought for Shall lead thee to God!
-Gustav Mahler
When Mahler was asked about the negativity generated by his music, he calmly replied "My time will come."  Mahler was a bellwether that helped usher in the modern world, for better or worse. Among the deterrents to his music was anti-semitism of the 20th century and the fact that Mahler's music is not 'easy' to perform (or even listen to on occasion). But as with all great music, there is something in it that speaks to many, regardless of their musical education or expertise. He is a composer that was as much a philosopher as anything else. His 'words' are musical notes, his 'books' are his symphonies.  His time has indeed come, and shows no sign of slacking off.