Thursday, August 31, 2017

Alkan - Souvenirs: Trois Morceaux Dans le Genre Pathétique, Opus 15

Charles Alkan's set of piano pieces titled Souvenirs: Trois Morceaux Dans le Genre Pathétique, Opus 15  (Three Pieces In The Pathetic Style) was published in 1837. Alkan's music was not generally reviewed in any of the music periodicals of the time outside of his native France, and it is to those French publications that musicologists and researchers must look for any contemporary views of his music. Even those are rather sparse, owing in some part to his reclusive nature in later years. These three pieces are an exception, as Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt made their opinions known.

Schumann's review appeared in 1838 in  Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the periodical that he edited and wrote for. Schumann did not like the work at all. Some of the things he wrote concerning it:
One finds oneself... gripped by the lack of art and real we find little more than frailty and vulgarity devoid of imagination. The studies have titles... and are distinguished throughout theior fifty pages by a deluge of notes and a lack of even the slightest indication of performance markings.... We may choose to protect talent when it loses its way, but there has to be some kind of demonstration of musicianship... if even that becomes questionable then we are forced to turn our backs, unmoved.
Very strong words, with even more negativity in the rest of the review.  Schumann was correct about one thing though; there is not a hint of any performance markings in the first edition. No slurs, tempo or dynamic symbols at all.  Alkan dedicated the work to Franz Liszt, who he became acquainted with when they lived in Paris. Whether that had anything to do with the omission of any performing markings isn't known.

The review by Liszt of the work is markedly different than Schumann's. Liszt did take Alkan to task in some of the aspects, but for the most part was happy with the work. That they were dedicated to him probably didn't hurt either:
The caprices of M. Alkan, after reading and re-reading them many times, show themselves to be distinguished compositions...and are likely to... invoke great interest with musicians.
1. Amie-moi (Love me) -  The French word pathétique in the title of this work is usually translated as pathetic, which has a multitude of meanings. When used in musical works, it has the meaning of music which touches the feelings or excites emotions and passions, especially that which awakens tender emotions, such as pity, sorrow, love, etc.  The titles that Alkan gave to each movement give a clue as to the underlying emotions of the music. The first piece begins in the key of seven flates, A-flat minor. It is similar in feeling to the music of Alkan's friend Chopin. The music slowly grows intense as more and more notes pile into measures until the climax is reached. After the climax, the music returns to the opening themes until there is a shift to A-flat major. The piece ends gently with an arpeggio up the keyboard.

2. Le vent (The wind) -  
Written in B minor, this piece opens with a sad melody in the left hand as the righthand plays chromatic runs of notes in simulation of the wind. The hands change roles, and then back again before a central section in D major appears. When the central section is over, chromatic scales for both hands lead up to a varied repeat of the opening material. This was one of Alkan's most well-known pieces for a time, indeed, it was the only piece of Alkan's that was performed with any kind of regularity. The piece continues with an extended trill and chromatic runs in both hands until it ends with a B major chord.

3. Morte (Death) -  Written in E-flat minor, the music opens deep in the bass end of the piano until the ancient Dies Irae hymn is heard. The hymn continues in thick chords and is transformed into a kind of introduction to a slow, sad theme first heard in single notes that become full chords. It grows in intensity until it reaches a short climax, where upon a solemn but persistent B-flat punctuates the theme. The music grows in intensity (and difficulty) and a theme in the major creeps in for a bit. but things go back to impassioned as the ending is relentlessly pursued until a long pause is reached. The Dies Irae returns. The opening of theme of the first piece in the set also returns for a short repeat. A trill in the left hand deep in the bass turns into chromatic runs as in the second piece in the set. The right hand traverses the keyboard slowly as the left handed trill resumes. Two resounding, loud sixteenth note chords end this longest piece of the set, in E-flat minor.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Albéniz - Iberia

The music of Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz evolved from early pieces composed in a European Romantic salon style, to music quintessentially Spanish. Albéniz used the characteristics of native music that was a melting pot of stylistic influences that began with the Islamic Moors in the 8th century. Added to the mix was music of the Romani people (Gypsies) that led to Flamenco, as well as other influences. This in turn lead to different styles of music according to the different areas of Spain.

It is interesting to note that although Albéniz was Spanish by birth and culture, he chose to live many years of his adult life outside of the country due to the backwardness and conservatism of Spain at the time. When he lived in Paris, Albéniz came under the influence of French music. His own compositions become more complex structurally, rhythmically and harmonically. The tonal palettes of Debussy inspired him and he managed to use all of these influences in combination with extreme technical demands on the pianist. For most of his life Albéniz was a virtuoso performer on the piano, and the pieces of Iberia are some of  the most difficult works in the repertoire. It is not only the technical difficulties by themselves. Rhythmic complexities contribute to the gymnastics of the player as well as a huge range of dynamics. The culmination of his life as a composer came in 1905-1909 when he composed the 12 pieces of Iberia, his suite for solo piano. It is a rare pianist that can do justice to all twelve of the pieces.  Albéniz died in May of 1909 from kidney disease.

Iberia is written in a series of four books with three pieces per book:

Book One:
1) Evocación -  Albéniz chose to live outside of Spain, but that didn't mean he wasn't nostalgic for his homeland. This first piece begins with his reminisces of Spain and its music. The title of it tells the tale, for the word evocation means the act of bringing or recalling a feeling, memory, or image to the conscious mind. It is in the rare key of A-flat minor (seven flats) and has a short section in A-flat major. There are sections that sound similar in spirit to Debussy, probably by intention, as there is a Debussian dreamlike quality to the music. The dynamic range of this piece runs from fortississimo (fff) to a barely audible pianississississimo (ppppp)

2) El Puerto - This piece depicts a bustling port city and is in the style of a zapateado, a flamenco dance of Spain that is in 6/8 time. Albéniz also throws in some examples of guitar strumming for good effect. The piecce ands very quietly.

3) Fête-dieu à Seville - Also known as El Corpus Christi en Sevilla, this is a short tone poem that evokes the procession of a statue of the Virgin Mary (as well as other statuary) down the streets of Seville in celebration of the Body of Christ, an event that has been occurring in the town since the 15th century. After some rapid strumming notes begin the piece, a march ensues. The music becomes more impassioned (and on the written page utilizes three staves instead of the usual two) until a middle section of more tranquil music begins. This middle section  is in the feeling of a Spanish religious song, a saeta. The march returns, builds to a climax and transforms into a dance. The end of the piece turns tranquil and introspective and ends quietly.

Book Two:

4) Rondeña - Ostensibly named after a dance from the city of Ronda in Andalusia. The distinction of this piece is the horizontal hemiola that is heard throughout most of the piece by the alternating time signatures of 6/8 and 3/4.

5) Almería - Another piece that takes its title from the name of a city in Andalusia. This time vertical hemiola is used by Albéniz as the left hand is generally in 6/8 time while the left drifts in and out of 3/4 time. Again Albéniz utilizes three staves of music in some sections, which while making the music look more complicated actually helps the performer realize the composer's intentions with more clarity, that is, after the performer gets accustomed to reading three staves instead of two! There are some interesting dissonances before the music comes to a quiet close.

6) Triana - Named after the section of Seville where gypsies live, the music lives up to its namesake by imitating the slapping of hands and stamping of feet of flamenco.

Book Three:
7) El Albaicín - This piece is also named after a gypsy section of town, this time the town is Granada. It begins quietly with an imitation of flamenco guitar that leads to the main theme of the piece. This theme alternates with more docile melodies. The main theme grows more animated and dissonant each time it returns. The piece ends with a final repetition of the main theme.

8) El Polo - Polo is a type of flamenco song with one particular song being the most well known.  Albéniz does not quote the well known song. He very seldom quoted other music. He understood the styles of different types of music in Spain and incorporated the style into his original material. The rhythm heard at the beginning runs throughout the piece.

9) Lavapiés - Named for an area in the city of Madrid. At one time Lavapiés was a seamy part of town that was noisy and full of shady activity. The music is loud and dissonant in reflection of the area.

Book Four:
10) Málaga - The title refers to the province of  Málaga, whose capital is also Málaga. It is located in the southern portion of Spain. The music has a great deal of rhythmic freedom. There is a basic theme that appears between differing episodes, but the changing rhythmic pulses and dissonances (that are more like fattened harmony than jarring) keeps things interesting.

11) Jerez - A city in Spain whose history goes back to Roman times. The town name was taken from the Arabic name of the town during Moorish rule. The town is known for the production the fortified wine sherry, which got its name from the town. The music switches time signatures frequently, and uses the rare time signature of 1/4,  with 2/4 and 3/4, giving it an authentic feeling of flamenco metric freedom.

12) Eritaña - The final piece depicts an evening in a tavern (that is also the name of the piece) on the outskirts of Seville. The inn was renown for the flamenco entertainment that took place there. Once again Albéniz mirrors the steps of the dance with the strumming of guitars in this finale of the most Spanish of piano works.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Sibelius - 6 Impromptus For Piano, Opus 5

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is most well known for his music for orchestra. The seven symphonies he composed from 1900-1924 remain in the repertoire of many modern orchestras and have had a profound effect on composers.  But he wrote music in many other genres as well, including music for solo piano.

Most of his solo piano works are in sets, like the six Impromptus of opus 5. Sibelius wrote music for solo piano throughout his composing career, and the fact that it isn't very well known is no reflection of the quality of it. The popularity and grandeur of his symphonies tend to outshine them. Sibelius was a fine piano composer, and while not a virtuoso pianist,( his instrument of choice was the violin) he could play the instrument very well, as commented upon by his contemporaries. His skill at improvising on the instrument was good, as commented on by his pupil and friend Georg von Wendt:
When Sibelius was improvising it was important for him to get a few glasses of, say, a Burgundy, one that he was very fond of, because he was a violinist and his technical shortcomings as a pianist produced a certain performance threshold. When that was overcome, no one could have guessed that this Jean Sibelius who was improvising was not an eminent pianist. These wonderful fantasias kept a hold on you from the first note to the last chord and it was as if the listeners were intoxicated. It is a great pity that they were never written down. Those who heard Sibelius improvise in the 1890s, at the time when he was doing it the most, were able to enjoy the greatest beauty that contemporary music can offer. (Text from the Sibelius website.)
 The opus 5 set was published in 1893, about the time of his set of orchestral tone poems  Kullervo and the Karelia Suite. Sibelius wrote his piano music at a time when a composer could earn extra money by writing salon pieces for piano. sound recording was still in its infancy, so many people learned to play the piano for entertainment. Sibelius' music for piano is well written, and very musical. Some of it looks quite simple, but there are hidden beauties in these miniatures.

1. Moderato, in G Minor -  The first impromptu is but one page long, and consists of 2 sections. The first section is eight bars long and played in slow block chords. The next section is marked Thema and has a simple melody played on top of chords. The atmosphere is funereal, with no let up in the sorrow.
2. Lento - Vivace, in G Minor -  The music starts with a slow introduction, then the music turns into a lively folk dance. There are episodes when the music changes to G major, but for the most part G minor prevails. A good example of how the character of a key can change, as the first two impromptus are in the same key, yet the effect is quite different.

3. Moderato (alla marcia), in A Minor - Sibelius instructions are to play this piece as a march. There is a quiet middle section in F major before the rhythmic march begins again.

4. Andantino, in E Minor - This is a slow piece, with an underlying minor key solemnity.  The music remains in a melancholy mood throughout. Volume increases as the piece comes to an end.
5. Vivace, in B Minor - This impromptu glitters and shimmers with music that sounds almost Debussian as it goes up and down the keyboard with alternating hands. As in the previous pieces, the minor key dominates. The music sparkles, but there is a mood of melancholy to it as well.
 6. Commodo, in E Major -  The longest impromptu of the set as well as he only one written in a major key, but the music does shift to E minor in the second section. The entire piece is to be repeated, a test of a pianists musicianship. If the repeat is played as the first time through, this piece could become boring.  A beautiful miniature, simple in structure, like a jewel that a good pianist can make glow with a soft luster. The piece ends in soft E minor chords.