Monday, November 30, 2015

July 28, 2009: One accompanist, two soloists

When I read that pianist Hillary Nordwell, violist Alexa Beattie, and soprano Ann Moss would be giving a Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary's Cathedral, I had hoped that I would again hear them as a trio, as I had when they performed song settings by Vartan Aghababian last May at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  This was not to be the case:  In the first half of the program, Nordwell accompanied Moss in songs by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn.  This was followed by a performance of Johannes Brahms' F minor viola sonata, Opus 120, Number 1 (originally composed for clarinet).

In the absence of more thorough program notes giving the dates for the specific songs, one would assume a chronological ordering that placed Mendelssohn between Schubert and Schumann;  but the ordering Moss selected (as above) was more appropriate.  The Schubert selections ("Im Frühling," "Heidenröslein," and "Ganymed") provided an excellent sense of the composer's inclinations for the provocative, not only in his choice of texts but also through settings that shift between following those texts and opposing them (usually through rhythmic variety).  From that point of view, one could listen to the Schumann selections ("Die Lotosblume," "Der Nußbaum," and "Jasminenstrauch") as appreciations of Schubert's technique while taking his approach to the next level.  The Mendelssohn settings ("Frage," "Frühlingsglaube," "Ferne," and "Die Liebende Schreibt"), on the other hand, were not part of this "exchange," directed more at capturing the moment of the text than in adventurous explorations of that moment.  Moss approached all of these songs sensitively;  and she and Nordwell found the right "chemistry" to give each composer his respective due.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the chemistry between Beattie and Nordwell in the performance of the Brahms viola sonata.  Much of the problem was a matter of balance.  Using a full stick for the piano lid provided the right balance for Moss' soprano voice, but Beattie's viola sound was more subtle.  I have always found this particularly appropriate in the first movement, whose use of short phrases gives the sense of the solo instrument trying to find its voice, eventually settling securely into that voice in the final Vivace movement.  In the initial clarinet version of this sonata, that effect could probably have been achieved with the lid fully raised;  but in this setting there was the slightly uncomfortable feeling of the viola trying to inject itself into a piano sonata, which hardly represented Brahms' composition in the sort of light intended for it.  Sadly, this is not the first time I have been disappointed with Nordwell's approach to Brahms, having had a similar experience with her presentation of his Opus 78 violin sonata in a Eusebius Duo performance two years ago.

July 26, 2009: Virtual Proms

As Janos Gereben pointed out on San Francisco Classical Voice, the BBC Proms season has begun;  and this summer the concerts are available for "virtual listening" through BBC Radio 3 and the BBC iPlayer Web site.  Between my personal interest in Gustav Mahler and the fact that, following the Opening Week offerings, the San Francisco Symphony will begin its season with a three-week Mahler 09 Festival, I decided that it would be appropriate to begin my own virtual attendance of the Proms with the fifth concert in the series, which took place on July 20 and featured Bernard Haitink conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in a performance of Mahler's ninth symphony.  Since this is a symphony that Michael Tilson Thomas has conducted in two recent San Francisco Symphony seasons, it seemed like a good way to get the listening skills in shape for the coming Festival.

Stylistically, Haitink differs significantly from Thomas.  While Thomas tends to take a highly visceral (but still faithful) approach to the scores (a quality that I have found absent in the recent LSO Live CD recordings, on which the conductor is Valery Gergiev), Haitink is more austere.  It is a tribute to the quality of the technology the BBC is using that one can appreciate his subtle gradations of soft dynamics even in audio streamed over the Internet.  This is evident from the very beginning of the symphony, in which all the gestures are kept at a subdued level until the first crescendo seems to build itself beyond the endurance of human breath.  Thomas' approach to this crescendo is just as intense, but Haitink magnifies the tension by narrowing his dynamic range until it emerges far more radically than Thomas did.

My only regret is that this is an audio-only feed.  (The above image is a static photograph.)  I have seen Haitink conduct Mahler only once, about 25 years ago when the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam performed the seventh symphony in Carnegie Hall;  and watching him certainly helped me to negotiate the complexities of that particular symphony (as did watching the two decidedly different readings of this symphony by Thomas in recent San Francisco Symphony seasons).  The good news is that one can watch Haitink conduct this seventh symphony in the current archives of the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall;  but, where the ninth is concerned, we must content ourselves with the BBC's audio quality to grasp Haitink's approach.  Fortunately, that quality is more than adequate for a virtual concert experience;  and I have every reason to believe that it will be the same for all other Proms broadcasts this season.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

July 25, 2009: Midsummer Mozart Festival, Program II

Last night George Cleve presented the second and final program of this year's Midsummer Mozart Festival at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  Two concertos again formed the central portion of the program, flanked on either side by a major symphony, each from a different period from the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  The program proceeded in roughly chronological order.
This means that the evening began with the K. 201 (186a) A major symphony, composed by the teenaged Mozart in 1774.  This was his first significant effort in the four-movement symphonic form, departing from the three-movement convention of most of his earlier symphonies.  It also has one of the most challenging openings, demanding an understated downward octave leap as its first gesture.  I have heard this opening fumble in both directions, either coming on too strong to defeat the piano dynamic or so understated that it is barely audible.  These days it is the sort of composition that thrives better in a studio where the equipment can do all the work.  However, Cleve had no trouble finding that middle ground from which the music makes its presence known with the subtlety that the score demands:

Once Mozart establishes his introduction, the teenaged show-off kid takes over;  and he uses the four movements of the symphony to explore a diverse palette of inventive gestures.  It is almost as if he decided to "play" the orchestra with the same virtuosity he brought to his keyboard performances;  and both Cleve and his orchestra were there, right on top of things, each time Mozart pulled a new rabbit out of the hat.

The remainder of the program brought us to the later period of Mozart's life, beginning with his 1784 F major piano concerto, K. 459, later called "Coronation" when it was performed for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II, who was also honored with La Clemenza di Tito, whose overture began last week's Festival concert[Correction added after initial release:  The title "Coronation" was applied to the D major K. 537 concerto, which, like K. 459, was performed on the occasion of Leopold's coronation.  I discovered this error through Jerry Kuderna's review of this concert for San Francisco Classical Voice.]  While the program promised another encounter with a Fazioli piano, the instrument was clearly marked as a Steinway;  but soloist Seymour Lipkin commanded such a light touch from his instrument to remind us all that the pianist always matters more than the piano.  Last week we had younger keyboard performers offering us the music of a younger Mozart;  this week we had a pianist with far more extensive experience approaching Mozart's penultimate piano concerto with all the youthful energy of his earlier works.

The intermission was followed by the third of Mozart's four horn concertos, K. 447 in E-flat major (although there is some debate as to when this concerto was actually written).  The soloist was David Sprung, principal horn in the Festival orchestra.  Here again we have a playful Mozart writing for a horn virtuoso he knew well, Joseph Leutgeb.  As was the case with last week's flute concerto, the flamboyance of Mozart's solo piano work may have been missing;  but he knew how to rise to the technical skills of his soloist.  This is definitely a showy piece of work, and Sprung deftly negotiated Mozart's technical demands to bring the horn the attention it deserves.

The evening (and Festival) concluded, appropriately enough, with Mozart's final symphony, the C major K. 551, later given the name "Jupiter."  This required the most orchestral resources of the evening, supporting the strings with one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, and timpani.  As was the case with last week's "Haffner" symphony, this is a work of extensive harmonic and contrapuntal imagination, climaxing with some of Mozart's richest counterpoint in the coda of the final movement.  Cleve and his ensemble delivered all of this detail with both clarity and energy, bring everything to an exhilarating conclusion.

In addition to the works listed on the program, the horn concerto was preceded by a Mozart rarity, the fragment of a concert aria for soprano, strings, and two horns, "Die neugeborne Ros' entzückt."  This work has a Köchel catalog entry of K.365a (Anh.11a), but cannot be viewed through the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe Web site.  The autograph was discovered in 1996 and consists only of a fragment;  and Cleve decided to perform this fragment, without any subsequent editing to flesh it out, with soprano Deborah Berioli, thus providing an element of novelty to those who thought the offerings on the program were too familiar.

July 23, 2009: First impressions of Classical TV

The Great Recession Project on has run its course.  However, I would assume that there are still many readers who are watching their budgets very closely when it comes to buying concert tickets;  and I feel that, regardless of economic conditions, there is a lot to be said for using the Internet to stay connected to the global concert scene.  The more opportunities we take to attend concerts in the physical world, the better will be the listening skills we bring to the concerts we attend in the physical world.  Therefore, I shall try to continue releasing information about such cyberspace opportunities;  and, as time allows, I hope to offer review treatments similar to those I give to concerts here in San Francisco.  From that point of view, I wish to draw upon a press release I received yesterday announcing the launch of a new virtual concert service:

[begin press release]

NEW YORK, NY – July 23, 2009 – On July 23rd, Classical TV announces the launch of a website with the mission to offer no less than the greatest performing arts online—a library of full-length videos of opera, ballet, drama, jazz, pop and documentaries available for streaming online to home computer and entertainment systems. The site offers both an exclusive library of videos of performing arts events available for unlimited free streaming along with frequent pay-per-view special events: hot-ticket current season performances from the world's great opera houses, theaters, and concert halls for $4.99 or $9.99 for a 72-hour pass.

Unparalleled Library of Exclusive Content, Unprecedented Access to Everyone

Classical TV currently features over 250 hours of free content out of the 1200 hours of material it has acquired and is regularly adding to the site. These include performances from the world’s most prestigious stages such as New York's Metropolitan Opera House, St. Petersburg's Mariinsky (Kirov) Theater, Chatelet Theatre Paris, the Salzburg Festival and many others. Artists featured include Plácido Domingo, Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Roberto Alagna, Martha Argerich, Pierre Boulez, Lionel Hampton and many more.

This rich collection of material ranges from classic performers of the mid-20th century like Maria Callas to highlights from the current season such as Doctor Atomic offered as a high definition stream from the Metropolitan Opera. In addition to these bright stars and famed performing arts venues, Classical TV offers up treasures from the archives that have rarely been seen but are now available to a worldwide audience. Never before has this material been so widely available, on-demand, to worldwide audiences at little or no cost.

New pay-per-view performances will be offered at least once each week. Upcoming special events at, priced at $4.99 or $9.99, include high definition streams from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2008-2009 season such as La Sonnambula with Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay, and Thaïs with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson plus Eugene Onegin from the Bolshoi Opera, Giselle from Dutch National Ballet, Peer Gynt from the Zurich Opera and much more.

Editorial Content from Renowned Arts Journalists

Classical TV also offers a wealth of lively and informative exclusive editorial content including feature articles, topical playlists, insider columns, and cultural news that give fresh insights into the world of classical performance and context for Classical TV’s vast library. Classical TV's roster of commentators includes some of the most respected cultural journalists including David Shengold, Vivien Schweitzer, Claudia La Rocco, Glenn Kurtz and Robert J. Hughes (whose Classical TV blog Hughes Views offers his unique perspective on the latest news from the current cultural scene).

Classical TV Offers Viewers Pay-per-View Content Free on Special Launch Weekends

To celebrate the launch, Classical TV will invite viewers to experience the site by offering limited-time free access to the Opening Gala of the 2009 Salzburg Festival, exclusively available from Classical TV. This concert – featuring the Vienna Philharmonic led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt performing waltzes and polkas by Josef Strauss and Schubert’s Eighth Symphony – will usually be available on the site for $9.99 for a 72-hour stream. From July 30th to August 1st, viewers will have free front-row access to this performance from the world’s most prestigious classical music festival just days after the event takes place in Vienna’s Great Festival Hall.

In the months of August and September, Classical TV will continue to offer limited-time free access to two special presentations showcasing the breadth and depth of its pay-per-view library. From August 13th-16th viewers will be able to access an exclusive free preview of the Best of the Montreux: Three Legends. This production offers classic performances from the world renowned Jazz Festival by Nina Simone (from 1976), Johnny Cash (1994) and Ray Charles (1997). Pavarotti – The Duets: The Best of Pavarotti and Friends will be available free from September 3rd-7th and features the celebrated tenor performing with Elton John, Bono, Andrea Bocelli, Sting, Mariah Carey, and Celine Dion. These performances are highlights from the series of United Nations charity concerts Pavarotti held each year in his home town of Modena, Italy to benefit War Child, and victims of war and civil unrest in Bosnia, Guatemala, Kosovo, and Iraq. Normally $9.99 each for a 72 hour stream, both of these presentations will be offered to viewers free on these Classical TV launch weekends.

[end press release]

To supplement the above "official" announcement, I should state that I have already made my first serious visit to the Classical TV home page.  There is a lot to explore;  and, at first blush, it seemed much easier to find the for-fee items than the free ones.  However, as the I Ching teaches, perseverance furthers;  and I was delighted to discover in the Classical Music Video category a free offering of four works by Edgard Varèse conducted by Pierre Boulez.  Given how difficult it is to find any performances of Varèse's music, let alone hear recordings of his work on the radio, I was duly impressed with my discovery and dropped everything to view the program.

On the whole it was a highly instructive listening experience.  I knew two of the works, "Octandre" and "Ionisation," very well, not just from recordings but from studying the scores.  I also remember a particularly exhilarating performance of "Octandre" by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center from the days when I lived in the New York area.  The other works on the program, "Offrandes" and "Amériques," I knew only from recordings.  In addition this was my first opportunity to examine closely the work of Pierre Boulez as a conductor in two different settings.  "Amériques" was performed by the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, while the remaining works were performed by his own Ensemble InterContemporain.

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming in the way Classical TV handled this material was that the Program Notes hyperlink did not work.  The music was preceded by a ten-minute background piece on Varèse, but it was no substitute for a good set of notes such as those we expect to find in a San Francisco Symphony program book.  Thus, anyone getting a first taste of Varèse from this video might find him perplexing.  However, the cameras do a good job of guiding the ear through both his structures and the instrumental combinations he uses to achieve his highly characteristic sonorities.

Watching Boulez also involves a bit of a learning curve.  The first impression is that all of his effort goes into using his right arm to beat time according to a rigidly steady pulse.  However, this is a conductor who recognizes the importance of knowing where the climaxes are and making sure that they are recognized as such.  As James Oestreich reported in The New York Times, this is his strategy for conducting the massive symphonies of Gustav Mahler;  and he takes the same approach to these much shorter works by Varèse.  Once one recognizes this strategy, one begins to observe how he uses almost all of the rest of his body to communicate this fundamental understanding of how those climaxes are situated.  This is most evident in "Amériques," which is the longest work on the program;  but it comes into play just as much in the chamber ensemble performances of the three shorter compositions.

So, whatever quibbles I may have with this particular package that Classical TV has made available, I certainly cannot argue with either the price or the quality of the performance.  I also observed that the entire production came from RM Associates, a name I remember from the programs I used to watch on the Ovation Channel before it went out of business.  Perhaps Laura Battle was right when she argued in the Financial Times that cyberspace may be a game-changer for the very nature of the business of classical music performance.  Cyberspace may turn out to be more than a viable alternative for those who are particularly budget-minded;  it may become a primary resource for those serious about their listening experiences, regardless of how generous their budgetary resources may be.

July 21, 2009: 1810?

In the history of European music, 1810 is a relatively interesting year.  It is the year in which Ludwig van Beethoven composed the incidental music for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play Egmont.  More significantly, it is the year of his F minor Opus 95 string quartet, which some regard as the last of his "middle" quartets.  From a more popular point of view, it is also the year of "Für Elise."  Finally, it is the year of the first entries in Otto Erich Deutsch's thematic catalog of the music of Franz Schubert.  It is a year that can easily be remembered for more than Napoleonic Wars.

It also happens to be the year in which both Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann were born.  While this was ultimately little more than historical accident, it was the justification for Tien Hsieh entitling her Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary's Cathedral "Celebrating 1810."  Chopin was represented by his B major nocturne, Opus 62, Number 1, and his four Opus 33 mazurkas;  and for Schumann she played the six Opus 20 "Humoreske."  One would have thought that Chopin and Schumann would have made better partners than her coupling of Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms for the InterHarmony International Music Festival, but this turned out not to be the case.  Opus 20 was composed in 1839 when Schumann was at his most energetic to the point of being manic.  (It is also the year of the "Faschingsschwank aus Wien.")  Hsieh approached her performance with that sense of manic energy;  and, while it may have bordered on the reckless from time to time, it was definitely the right match for Schumann's spirit.  However, it was not the right match for her Chopin selections;  and there was a strong impression that she really did not know how to approach those five works.  The performances thus came out as rather detached interpretations by a performer who would have preferred to be somewhere else, perhaps playing more Schumann.  Schumann did reappear in her encore, Franz Liszt's transcription of his "Widmung" song, which had been on her InterHarmony Festival program.  From my point of view, this encore indicated that the accident of birth should have been ignored, allowing Schumann to be better partnered with Liszt.

July 20, 2009: Virtual Mozart

It has been a while since I paid a visit to the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall;  but, since this is the time of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, it seemed like an appropriate occasion to experience this particular ensemble's treatment of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  As I reviewed the Concert Hall Archives, however, I realized that the Berlin repertoire is now so diverse that there are few opportunities to hear Mozart.  Nevertheless, there is an all-Mozart program conducted by Trevor Pinnock that was recorded on October 10, 2008 that should satisfy just about any need for a "Mozart fix."  The soloist is pianist Maria João Pires performing the K. 271 E-flat major piano concerto, flanked on either side by a G minor symphony.  The program opened with the K 183 symphony and concluded with K. 550, making for a tonal plan for the entire concert that makes a non-standard diagonal "round trip" on Arnold Schoenberg's "map" of tonal progressions.

When I wrote about the Fazioili pianos used in this year's Midsummer Mozart Festival, I was particularly taken by how accommodating they were to the light touch necessary for  the K. 365 two-piano concerto.  Pires showed equal command of that light touch on the usual "industrial strength" Steinway (which, on the basis of the camera angles, is my best guess at the piano that was used), as well as an awareness of every instrument in the reduced orchestra that Pinnock had selected.  Mozart covered a broad range of emotional dispositions in this concerto, covering the playful, the accommodating, and even the meditative.  Soloist, conductor, and ensemble followed him down all of these paths, displaying each of them to the audience in their proper light, so to speak.  Pires also drew upon an infrequently-heard cadenza (her own?) for the final movement, whose seriousness enhanced the comic side of the "minuet interruption" towards the end of the movement.  This work preceded the two-piano concerto by about two years and offers some of the first impressions of Mozart pursuing some adventuresome experiments with his work.

Both G minor symphonies approach their forward movement with a sense of urgency but in markedly different ways.  Pinnock applied several interesting strategies to highlight those differences.  Much of his attention in the early symphony seems to have been directed towards changing the articulation of passages that the notation indicated as simple repetition.  In the later symphony, on the other hand, Mozart keeps pulling out differentiating factors with awe-inspiring rapidity;  so it was up to Pinnock to make sure we could hear all of his tricks with the utmost clarity.  One of my music teachers use to emphasize that the hardest part of the K. 550 symphony is the first measure, with the onset of its almost hesitant theme.  Pinnock decided to emphasize the clarity of the accompaniment (which is a straightforward pulse), using it as a well-defined framework from which the theme emerges as a new voice.  Anyone familiar with the vocal repertoire knows that this strategy makes perfect sense;  but how many conductors take such a "vocal" approach to Mozart's best-known symphony?

In all fairness I should observe that none of these works will be on the second program of the Midsummer Mozart Festival.  Nevertheless, my general axiom still holds:  The best way to listen to Mozart is to take all opportunities to listen to Mozart.  This "virtual program" will do much to orient the ears to the repertoire of the Festival simply by providing a framework for the next set of offerings.  The virtual may never replace the physical, but it can certainly enhance appreciation of the physical.

July 18, 2009: Midsummer Mozart Festival, Program I

The first program of this year's Midsummer Mozart Festival, under the direction of George Cleve, was presented last night in San Francisco at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  The offerings consisted of two concertos embraced by an opening overture and a concluding symphony.  This was the Festival orchestra's first appearance in the Conservatory Concert Hall, and the setting was as conducive to them as it has been in the past to Symphony Parnassus.

The overture was from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's final opera, La Clemenza di Tito, K. 621.  The opera was composed as part of the festivities surrounding the coronation of the Austrian Emperor Leopold II;  and this may explain why, after his many ventures into new approaches to musical drama, Mozart settled back on the traditional formality of an opera seria, drawing upon a libretto by Pietro Metastasio.  The overture, however, anticipates a higher sense of drama than one usually expects from Metastasio.  Energy bursts forth with the intensity of the more verismo Don Giovanni (K. 527).  The action that ensures after the curtain rises on the first act may not be as intense as the midnight-seduction-gone-wrong of the earlier opera;  but this later overture definitely gets the juices flowing.

In this case, however, the metaphorical curtain rose on the concerto for two pianos in E-flat major, K. 365 (also listed as K. 316a).  This was composed in Salzburg in 1779 for performance by Mozart and his sister Nannerl.  Brother and sister had already established a reputation for playing four-hand piano music in a variety of European salon settings;  and the spirit of those four-hand works lives on in this larger-scale concerto, as does the tradition of it being a "sibling act."  Katia and Marielle Labèque have performed it with the San Francisco Symphony;  and last night it was performed by the Korean sisters, Yong Jean and Yong Sung Park.  Also featured were two Fazioli pianos, provided courtesy of Piedmont Pianos in Oakland.

For those unfamiliar with this brand, Fazioli is the latest in the line of "elite" pianos.  Among the instruments distinguishing features, the Piedmont advertisement in the program book observes:
At the heart of each FAZIOLI piano is a soundboard made from the same red spruce trees from the Val di Fiemme region in Italy that Antonius Stradivarius used for his legendary violins.
One may debate whether or not what is good for a violin is also good for a piano, but these were definitely suitable instruments for the occasion.  The Park sisters approached the music with a light touch, absolutely necessary to keep one instrument from overshadowing the other;  and the Faziolis delivered that light sound with crystal clarity.  There was also a uniformity of sonority across the two instruments.  It is unlikely that the two instruments played by the Mozarts had similar uniformity;  but, if this concerto was intended as an escalation of four-hand music to concerto form, there is good reason to assume that Mozart had such uniformity in mind.  This may well have been one of those cases where modern technology could do better justice to the music than more "authentic" instruments.

The second concerto on the program was the G major flute concerto, K. 313 (285c).  This was composed shortly before the two-piano concerto while Mozart was in Mannheim.  Some of Mozart's most interesting sonorities come from the wind family, and this concerto is no exception.  The string parts are supplemented by only two oboes and two horns, giving the soloist opportunities to blend with the orchestra winds to achieve some striking colorations.  At the same time Mozart has not skimped on opportunities for virtuosity, even if the cadenzas do not go to the sorts of lengths that Mozart allowed himself in his piano concertos.  The soloist for the evening was Maria Tamburrino, principal flute in the Festival orchestra.  Her familiarity with the ensemble may be one explanation for that excellent blend of sonorities that distinguished the performance.

The evening concluded with one of the more familiar of Mozart's symphonies, his D major "Haffner," K. 385.  As with the opening overture, Cleve provided a crisp and energetic reading from which all the details of Mozart's harmonies and counterpoint emerged in a clear light.  As a result, the familiar took on the freshness of originality, coming to even the most seasoned ears as if for the first time.  The drive of the final Presto movement was truly energizing, fortifying those of us who had to walk home through the Van Ness Wind Tunnel!

July 14, 2009: Commemorating Bastille Day with pre-Revolution composers

The Bastille Day program for the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral was rather anomalous.  Of the six compositions, all by French composers, four definitely pre-dated the French Revolution;  and the one that may have been written after the Revolution was by a composer who fled France in 1790 (figuring that would be the best way to keep his head on his shoulders).  Thus, the only real "celebration" of Bastille Day involved a sort-of fantasy on "La Marseillaise" (which was not composed until 1792), somewhat in the style of a "battle composition" depicting the Revolutionary struggle.  This all added up to a rather weak ensemble of celebratory gestures.

Equally weak was the performing ensemble, consisting of Katherine Heater, harpsichord, Heidi Wilcox, violin, and Farley Pearce, playing the earlier works on viola da gamba and the later ones on cello.  There was very little to stimulate the ear in any of the performances.  Indeed, in a somewhat counter-revolutionary fashion, the music most closely resembled all that tedious baryton music that Joseph Haydn had to compose to keep his royal patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, happy.  At best this was a painful reminder that those who put the most energy behind the French Revolution cared little for music and that any composer of repute during the Reign of Terror was probably destined to fall to the guillotine.

July 13. 2009: Bringing chamber music to the world

When I first wrote about the EMI box of complete recordings by the cellist Pablo Casals, it was partly in recognition that the first two discs in the box documented the first time that the solo cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1007–1012) had been recorded in their entirety.  Thus, even though the recordings were made in a studio, they provided an excellent "listening context" for the performances of Mstislav Rostropovich recorded in Vézelay Abbey and included in his Complete EMI Recordings box.  However, if those recordings created the first opportunity for a "global audience" for those suites in the late thirties, a decade earlier EMI provided what was probably the first opportunity for the entire genre of chamber music.  Between 1926 and 1928, Casals joined with pianist Alfred Cortot and violinist Jacques Thibaud to prepare studio recordings of five piano trios by (in chronological order) Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, and Robert Schumann.  While it is unclear whether or not Bach ever intended any of his suites to be performed before an audience, it is almost certain that all of these trios where never intended to be performed beyond the intimate setting of a drawing room (what I have called "The Spirit of the Schubertiad") among intimate acquaintances (of the host if not of any of the performers).  Thus, for most listeners the chamber music genre was far less familiar than that of the symphony orchestra concert, opera, or even vocal recital.

Most likely this was at least partially a matter of technology.  The amplitude of a symphony orchestra or opera company is far greater than that of a piano trio, and the first technologies for registering the vibrations of sounds were extremely limited.  As to the solo voice, it is true that Enrico Caruso made his first recordings in 1902;  but he had a voice that could register itself in the most remote regions of the uppermost balcony in any opera house.  Any technology that could hear Thomas Edison recite "Mary had a Little Lamb" would respond to Caruso's voice!

I am not familiar enough with the history of recording technologies to assess the quality of equipment in Kingsway Hall in London in 1926, but I do know that Casals first started playing trios with Cortot and Thibaud in 1905 and that they continued as a trio until 1934.  Thus, for those (like the members of the Beaux Arts Trio) who have expressed skepticism over "star soloists" coming together to play a chamber music recital and then going off on their separate touring ways, I find it reasonable to grant that, while all three of them had distinguished solo careers, when Casals, Cortot, and Thibaud came together, they played as a "real" piano trio.  From this point of view, I cannot imagine anyone better to serve as "ambassadors" for the chamber music genre for a worldwide audience, most of whom may never have heard a piano trio.

One way of appreciating their impact is that just about any community of music lovers today would regard all five of these trios as warhorses.  It is easy to imagine that, through these recordings, music students around the world were first exposed to the sound of the "Archduke" trio and developed a craving to make that sound themselves.  Today we have audiences as familiar with the "Archduke" as they are with Beethoven's fifth symphony.

It is thus hard to overestimate the importance of these historical recordings;  and I would go so far as to say that, even today, they can provide a powerful "listening context," not only for those still unfamiliar with the chamber music genre but also for those familiar with current and recent piano trio ensembles.  Furthermore, EMI now has two opportunities to experience this "listening context."  In addition to the aforementioned Casals box, there is also a set of 3 CDs (illustrated above) devoted strictly to Casals, Cortot, and Thibaud (which, for good measure, also includes the 1929 recording of Johannes Brahms' A minor double concerto, Opus 102, with Thibaud and Casals as soloists and Cortot conducting the Orquestra Pau Casals).  Even those with budget limitations are in a good position to appreciate what may well be the dawn of public consciousness of chamber music.

July 12, 2009: The InterHarmony students have the last word

The InterHarmony International Music Festival at San Francisco State University concluded yesterday afternoon with a concert by an orchestra consisting (almost?) entirely of Festival students, featuring solo performances by three members of the faculty, and conducted by Sidney Harth.  Festival Director Misha Quint performed Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Opus 33 "Variations on a Rococo Theme;"  and this was the only work on the program that required winds in the orchestral accompaniment.  My guess is that the wind players were not Festival students, and some of the lesser wind parts were actually covered by string players.  As usual, Quint was right at home with Tchaikovsky's technical demands and blended well with the orchestra, which still captured the spirit of Tchaikovsky's sonorities even with the substitutions for some of the wind parts.

The other soloists were violinists Jassen Todorov and David Yonan, who played the concerto for two violins in A minor from Antonio Vivaldi's L'estro Armonico, Opus 3, Number 8.  We are used to the familiarity of the "Vivaldi sound;"  but this performance brought out contrapuntal intricacies in lines that weave among each other, not only from the soloists but also from the orchestral accompaniment.  Listening to this interpretation, one could appreciate why the work made such an impression on Johann Sebastian Bach that he prepared is own transcription of it for organ (BWV 593).

The program opened with the G major concerto grosso by George Frideric Handel, the first from his Opus 6 collection of twelve.  Harth conducted this with a good sense of pace, keeping the music moving forward without falling into a steady "sewing machine" tempo but, instead, using subtle decelerations to delimit major phrases.  As with the Vivaldi, there was an effective blend of the ensemble with the solo voices, now coming from within the ensemble.  More problematic, however, was the performance of two works by Jean Sibelius, his C major romance (Opus 42) and the canzonetta written as incidental music for Arvid Järnefelt's play Kuolema.  These are both short works, but they involve complex harmonies with sophisticated voice-leading demands and ambiguous rhythmic patterns.  I suspect that the students were not yet up to the task of seriously listening to music at this level, although they were perfectly at home with the more straightforward harmonic language of Sibelius' "Andante Festivo."

The afternoon concluded with several encore pieces, listed in the program as "Just for fun."  These included a string orchestra arrangement of that ever-popular final caprice of Niccolò Paganini's 24 Caprices, transcriptions of two short pieces by Georges Bizet, and (not listed on the program) "Bess, You Is My Woman," from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in an arrangement probably based on the one Jascha Heifetz used for his solo encores.  Harth introduced the Gershwin with a remark about a meeting of minds between old-timers and today's youth.  It made me realize that those of us more attuned to Steve Riffkin's string quartet arrangement of Jimi Hendrix' "Purple Haze" are now "old-timers;"  but Harth did not strike me as the sort of conductor willing to cut loose with that once-popular Kronos Quartet encore!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

July 10, 2009: Beethoven favorites

The title for last night's installment of the Summer & the Symphony series at Davies Symphony Hall was "my classic Beethoven" (capitalization as in the program), probably as a move to attract a large enthusiastic audience.  Both audience and enthusiasm were present for the occasion, as was conductor James Gaffigan, leading the San Francisco Symphony and pianist Jeremy Denk in a program of favorite works by Ludwig van Beethoven that were not, in the technical sense of the word, "classical" but provided a full evening of stimulating listening opportunities.  What struck me the most about the program itself was how narrow a period of time it covered.  Having emerged from the historical scope of the full cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas, it was interesting to encounter a program that narrowed in on a single decade, covering, specifically, the years 1801, 1807, and 1809 (which is where the technicality comes in, since by this time Beethoven had put most of the "classic" traditions behind him).

1801 was represented by Beethoven's fifth symphony, Opus 67 in C minor, probably the most venerable of the warhorses in the Beethoven stable.  It is hard to imagine anyone in the audience who was not familiar with this music, so the challenge to performing it was very much a matter of appealing to that familiarity while making the case that there was more to the concert experience than listening to a recording yet another time.  Gaffigan rose to this challenge by eschewing any outré approaches and instead going for the jugular with the edge-of-your-seat tension of forward-moving drive.  Since this was the only work following the intermission, he had plenty of time to take all repeats and, where the final movement was concerned, kicked the tempo up a bit for the second iteration.  Even for those who know this music in their sleep, this reading was well worth the listen.

1807 was the year in which Beethoven prepared a concert overture for a performance of the play Coriolan by Heinrich Joseph von Collin.  In his notes for the program book, Michael Steinberg quoted Alexander Wheelock Thayer, whose biography of Beethoven is almost always by my side when I have to write about his music.  Thayer observed that "the admirable adaptation of the overture to the play is duly appreciated by those only who have read Collin's almost forgotten work."  Since I have not seen any of Collin's texts, I am in a poor position to judge this remark;  but on other occasions I have observed that Beethoven's sense of drama seldom seems to be matched by an equally acute sense of text.  Thus, one can treat this as a "dramatic" overture without hanging it on any specific "drama" (as also seems to be the case with the "Tragic Overture" of Johannes Brahms).  In this spirit Gaffigan could apply the same strategy of finding the tension in the music and engaging that tension as his motivating force, thus obviating the need for any familiarity with a work that is probably even less known today than it was in Thayer's time.

The latest work on the program was the fifth piano concerto, Opus 73 in E-flat major ("Emperor").  The soloist was preceded by some enthusiastic advance work on the San Francisco Symphony Social Network, emphasizing his recent decision to couple Charles Ives' second piano sonata ("Concord, Mass., 1840-1860") with Beethoven's Opus 106 ("Hammerklavier") on a single program.  Neither of these works can be performed effectively without an acute sense of listening, and it was satisfying to see that Denk brought that same sense of listening to this more accessible concerto.  This listening was applied to not only the shaping of his solo work but also the ongoing alignment with Gaffigan's shaping of the orchestra.  As was the case with the C minor symphony, familiar as the music may have been, this was a performance in which every note signified for the entire ensemble;  and, again, the result was ear-opening, regardless of familiarity.  This may not have been a particularly "classic" Beethoven;  but it was a delightful reminder that we should always make time to listen to Beethoven!

July 8, 2009: A voice for every instrument

The final Faculty Chamber Music Concert of the InterHarmony International Music Festival at San Francisco State University offered sonatas for violin, viola, and cello, concluding with a piano trio.

The evening began with violinist David Yonan performing Claude Debussy's 1917 sonata in G minor, accompanied by pianist Leslie Amper.  For those who heard Sarah Hong perform Debussy's 1915 cello sonata at the end of last month, Yonan's offering provided a useful complement.  If the earlier work may have provided a programmatic opportunity for Debussy to twit Arnold Schoenberg, the target of the later work could well be the very concept of sonata (which, in his essays, probably annoyed Debussy more than Schoenberg did).  From a rhetorical point of view, the violin sonata is more like the poetry of Debussy's time, seeking new modes of expression through capabilities of language previously unexplored, than like a sonata.  Much of it gives the sense of a free-associating dramatic monologue, almost wandering in and out of different topics.  Yonan caught this "monologue spirit:" nicely, while effortlessly taking on Debussy's demands, many of which had more to do with sonorities than with thematic content.  Debussy may have been frustrated with the sonata tradition, but he took his work too seriously to make the sonata an object of ridicule.  Yonan served as an excellent representative of Debussy's seriousness of purpose.

Festival Director Misha Quint followed Yonan with a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's 1934 cello sonata in D minor (Opus 40), accompanied by pianist Dmitriy Cogan.  While Debussy's sonata was one of his last works, Shostakovich composed this sonata at a time when he had begun to find his voice and was still free to exercise it.  By way of context, 1934 was also the year of the first performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, completed in 1932, which would lead to his first denunciation by the Soviet government for being both too formalist and too vulgar at the same time.  (The Wikipedia entry for Shostakovich suggests that Stalin himself may have been behind this denunciation.)  The sonata certainly lacks the opera's vulgarity, but it still reveals Shostakovich's sardonic approach to taking conventional idioms and distorting them into almost embarrassing clichés.  While the work begins with what sounds like a nostalgic longing for the chamber music of Gabriel Fauré (an example of which Quint had performed at his recital to open the Festival), Shostakovich wastes little time in hurling into the sharp contrasts of his present, usually making it clear that he did not see this as a change for the better.  However, as he had done with his Fauré performance, Quint let the music speak for itself;  and, for all of its sharp edges, it spoke very eloquently indeed.

After the intermission the viola offering was presented by Claudia Lasareff-Mironoff, and the sonata she performed was unaccompanied.  It was the United States premiere of a 2008 sonata by the South African composer Peter Klatzow.  As had been the case with the Debussy sonata, its three movements were concerned more with setting moods, this time stated explicitly in their titles (Stillness and disruption, Fear, Release and resolution).  The sonata was written in memory of the Russian violist Oleg Alexseyev, who had emigrated to South Africa in the nineties and died in a plane crash in 2007.  The movement titles suggest a program somewhat in the spirit of Richard Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration;"  but the music is more connotative than denotative.  Lasareff-Mironoff approached the moods of Klatzow's movements with a clarity of expression, but it is difficult to say much about this sonata on the basis of a single listening.  It definitely deserves more performances, and hopefully it will come to the attention of the many excellent violists we have in the Bay Area.

Before the concluding piano trio Yonan treated the audience to a "preemptive" encore in the form of a set of variations on an original theme composed in 1870 by Henryk Wieniawski (his Opus 15).  In many ways Wieniawski offered a late nineteenth-century reaction to the technical demands concocted by Niccolò Paganini and the over-the-top embellishments of Franz Liszt.  One might almost accuse Yonan of trying to recover the spotlight from Tien Hsieh after her dazzling Liszt performances at the first Faculty Chamber Music Concert.  If this was the case, he was hardly mean-spirited about it, simply demonstrating that violinists can jump through flaming hoops as well as pianists without trying to overstate his case.  (I almost chose the verb "overplay;"  but, to a great extent, overplaying is the name of the game that both Liszt and Wieniawski were engaging!)

The piano trio that concluded the evening was Sergei Rachmaninoff's first effort in this genre.  It was composed in 1892, after he had met Pyotr Tchaikovsky in Moscow and before Tchaikovsky's death in 1893.  The Wikipedia entry for Rachmaninoff describes Tchaikovsky as "an important mentor;"  and it is clear that this trio is the work of a faithful student eager to please.  Its single G minor movement is very much a reflection on the opening movement of Tchaikovsky's own A minor trio (Opus 50), although Rachmaninoff wastes no time in taking his reflections down paths Tchaikovsky would not have considered.  Yonan and Quint joined with Hsieh to perform this work of a student still finding his voice with both respect and love (whatever Tolstoy may have suggested about the incompatibility of these attitudes in Anna Karenina).  The composition definitely provides insights into Rachmaninoff's more mature efforts, and there was great value in this ensemble offering historical insight into this work.

As I had suggested after the first Faculty Concert, these recitals were particularly valuable to the Festival students for providing opportunities to learn to listen;  and the opportunities offered by this final event in the series were both satisfying and rewarding.

Monday, November 23, 2015

July 7, 2009: Reversing the flow of history

When it comes to the analysis of music, there is a special place in my heart for Donald Francis Tovey.  By today's standards he is likely to be viewed as more gentleman than scholar, but he still took an interesting approach to his work that bears reflection.  When others were trying to figure out the right magnifying glass for examining individual compositions, Tovey took a more evolutionary approach.  Here is how I summarized his work recently on my blog:
Tovey, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with the physiology of a particular species as he is with how that species evolved. This is most evident in the "Music" entry that he prepared for the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Tracing the history of music from the Ancient Greeks to the beginning of the twentieth century, he saw an evolutionary progression through which composers expand their compositions to work with longer and longer durations of time.
Tovey probably would have enjoyed today's recital by violinist Kay Stern and pianist Joan Nagano in the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral as a real brain teaser.  Each work on the program involved compositions of increasing duration, but the chronological ordering of those compositions was reversed!

Thus, the program began with a collection of four miniatures in the form of a suite from the incidental music that Erich Wolfgang Korngold composed for a staging of William Shakespeare's play Much Ado About Nothing.  These compositions have more to do with setting the mood for episodes from the play, rather than depicting elements of the narrative, although the march movement is basically a character sketch of the "clown figures," Dogberry and Verges.  The suite was followed by Robert Schumann's first violin sonata in A minor (Opus 105).  As the high opus number suggests, this sonata was composed about two years before Schumann's death;  and, while the younger Schumann had put considerable effort into integrating the elements of a multiple-movement composition (such as his fourth symphony), each of the three movements of this sonata tend to stand as individual works.

This "progress" from the twentieth through the nineteenth century concluded with the longest offering coming from the Baroque period;  or at least that is what we have been led to assume.  The work in question was a chaconne in G minor by Tommaso Vitali, who preceded Johann Sebastian Bach by about twenty years.  However, the authenticity of the work has been called into question by many musicologists, most notably Wolfgang Reich, who published a paper on the subject in 1965.  Whether or not the work is authentic, it certainly reflects the Baroque style of an elaborate set of variations over a continuo ground bass.  (The recording that Jascha Heifetz made of this chaconne used an organ, rather than a piano, for this continuo.)  Since we know as little about when this work was composed as we do about who actually composed it, we have no idea if it was influenced by the "model" chaconne that concluded Bach's D minor partita for solo violin (BWV 1004);  but the "chaconne in question" lacks the larger architecture of Bach's three-part structure, simply playing out a chain of technically challenging variations, rather in the same way that John Coltrane would play out his improvisations at great length.

All three "stations" on this "reverse path through history" were played with capability and understanding by Stern and Nagano.  For both Korngold and Schumann the emphasis was on mood, even if the approach to achieving the mood by each of these composers was significantly different from that of the other.  The chaconne, on the other hand, was presented with the display of virtuosity that it deserved, whatever its provenance may turn out to be once the musicologists have resolved their differences over it.  The duo then offered an encore, which offered similar virtuosity in a more affable light, the czardas composed in the early twentieth century by Vittorio Monti.  In spite of the fact that the composer was an Italian who spent much of his professional life in Paris, this has become the composition associated with "Hungarian gypsy" music;  and Stern offered it with all the gypsy spirit that it required, sending us all back onto the streets of Chinatown with a bit of rhythm in our steps.

July 6, 2009: Doing justice to both Liszt and Brahms

In the preparation of concert programs Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms rarely make good partners.  As I have observed on my blog, Brahms had a "tendency to invoke the adjective 'Lisztich' when talking about excessive bad taste," perhaps insinuating that Liszt was never more than an "entertainer" in the pejorative sense of that word explored by SF Classical Music Examiner Scott Foglesong on Saturday.  Brahms was also the target of some rather vicious adjectives.  The novelist Romain Rolland, in the first volume of his Jean-Christophe trilogy, even turned Brahms' invented adjective on its head:
There are "Brahmins" who think to find in their God the breath of old men of genius:  they love Beethoven in Brahms.
Thus, it is rare to find a pianist with a repertoire that gives a "fair shake" to both Liszt and Brahms.

Tien Hsieh is such a pianist.  In a Noontime Concerts™ recital she gave two years ago, she explored several of Liszt's many approaches to transcription, as well as the first of his "Mephisto" waltzes.  This summer she is on the faculty of the InterHarmony International Music Festival;  and, in the first Faculty Chamber Music Concert yesterday afternoon, she gave a very "fair shake" indeed to Brahms, while continuing her pursuit of the Liszt repertoire.  That pursuit included a continuing interest in his transcriptions, this time focusing on songs including one of Franz Schubert ("Der Müller und der Bach," from Die Schöne Müllerin) and two by Robert Schumann ("Frülingsnacht" from Liederkreis and "Widmung").  This was followed by Liszt's "Rhapsodie Espagnole;"  and, if one ever wanted to make a case for Liszt-as-entertainer, this would provide excellent evidence.  Liszt composed it in 1845 while touring Spain (although it was not published until 1863);  and, as I wrote on my blog the last time I heard it performed, he "was clearly making a play for local appeal."  He thus subjected two "local favorites," "La Folía" (the theme that Sergei Rachmaninoff mistakenly attributed to Arcangelo Corelli) and "Jota Aragonesa," to the usual "Liszt treatment" of (really) extended flamboyant embellishment, just the sort of thing to get the audience to leap to its feet in hysterical applause and cheers.

Hsieh is not as flamboyant as Liszt, but her delivery is solid.  She has a clear sense of the difference between the embellishing and the embellished, so she can honor all of Liszt's elaborate excursions without losing sight of the point of departure for each of them.  She also deals admirably with his radical shifts in dynamics, thus getting all of the musical expression out of the piano that Liszt probably intended without giving any attention to any excessive display of physical show.  In short, she approaches the keyboard with a psychological disposition that can give as much justice to Brahms as to Liszt.

Her Brahms selection was his first piano quartet (Opus 25), for which she was joined by faculty members David Yonan (violin), Claudia Lasareff-Mironoff (viola), and Misha Quint (cello).  While Brahms probably gave little thought to mass audience appeal while composing this work, he still revealed a few of his own ways of going over the top, even if any thoughts of entertainment never reached beyond the performers themselves.  The middle section of his ternary-form andante movement turns out to be a parade, which approaches from a distance but eventually overwhelms the ear with its march rhythm.  However, this jolt is nothing compared to the "alla Zingarese" concluding rondo, which may be the closest Brahms ever came to orgiastic impressions.  This is wild music, and the members of the quartet threw themselves into it with all of the abandon that its spirit demands.

In this program of opposition of Liszt and Brahms, the only real loser was Ludwig van Beethoven.  The performance of his Opus 70, Number 1 ("Ghost") piano trio by violinist Shirley Givens, cellist Harry Wimmer, and pianist Eduard Laurel was incoherent and, in too many passages, just plain out of tune.  It may be that these performers had inadequate time to rehearse, but it was too apparent that they were never seriously listening to each other.  Given the impetuous energy of the first movement, the evocative sonorities of the second, and yet another taste of Beethoven's wit in the third, this is a composition that deserved a much better performance, particularly for an audience consisting heavily of students just beginning to learn to listen to Beethoven.

Somewhat less in the shadows was Hsieh's performance of the San Francisco Premiere of a 2008 elegy for solo piano by Glen Cortese.  In many respects this was a composition in the spirit of the seven elegies composed by Ferruccio Busoni (entry 249 in Jürgen Kindermann's catalog).  However, there is also a strong sense of that "American sound" that Nadia Boulanger cultivated in so many of her American students during much of the twentieth century.  Hsieh approached this music with the same energy and respect she had given to Liszt and Brahms, but it felt somewhat out of place.  I would certainly be interested in hearing more of Cortese's work, but it may require a more conducive setting than that of yesterday's concert.

July 4, 2009: Reproducing history

Many of my contributions to the "Great Recession" series of articles have addressed "the concert experience through recordings;"  and I gave considerable attention to the "economic value" of listening to performances by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich through the Complete EMI Recordings box of 25 CDs, which included many recordings from Rostropovich's Russian years made in concerts before live audiences.  EMI has just released a similar box of complete recordings by the cellist Pablo Casals.  This is a more modest collection of only 9 CDs;  and it appears as if all recordings were made in studio, rather than before a "live" audience.  Nevertheless, these sessions date from a time when recording had not yet become the technology-driven process of crafting an artifact from a myriad of takes, often made over the course of several days.  Thus, given how few recordings of Casals are available and given that Casals himself took satisfaction in these recordings, this collection may, in many ways, be preferable to (and more economical than) the two boxes of live recordings from the Festivals at Prades made available from the Music & Arts Program label (Volume 1 and Volume 2).  Most importantly, the emphasis in the EMI collection is strictly on Casals, rather than all the other performers who came to Prades.

Of particular interest from a comparative point of view are the two EMI CDs of the six unaccompanied cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1007–1012).  Unlike the Rostropovich recordings, made over the course of a sustained visit to Vézelay Abbey in March of 1991, the Casals recordings were made between November 25, 1936 and June 19, 1939.  The second and third suites were recorded in 1936 at the Abbey Road Studios in London, and the remaining suites were recorded at an unspecified location in Paris.  (By way of a footnote, this was the first time that the suites had been recorded in their entirety.)  While, as I have previously observed, the Rostropovich recordings provide an interesting perspective on the relationship between a soloist and the nature of the physical setting, the Casals recordings deal more with the relationship between the soloist and the music, with the setting abstracted out of the picture, so to speak.

If there is any disadvantage to the Casals collection, it is that each sonata is performed only once.  We know from Bernard Greenhouse's recollections of his studies with Casals that Casals took an improvisatory approach to performing Bach.  On the other hand we have the opportunity to appreciate an important episode from those recollections, as documented in Nicolas Delbanco's book, The Beaux Arts Trio.  Here is Delbanco's transcription of his interview with Greenhouse:
I was studying the Bach D Minor Suite and he demanded that I become an absolute copy. At one point I did very gingerly suggest that I would only turn out to be a poor copy of Pablo Casals, and he said to me, "Don't worry about that. Because I'm seventy years old, and I will be gone soon, and people won't remember my playing but they will hear yours." It turned out of course that he lived till the ripe old age of ninety-seven. But that was his way of teaching. …
And after several weeks of working on that one suite of Bach's, finally, the two of us could sit down and perform and play all the same fingerings and bowings and all of the phrasings alike. And I really had become a copy of the Master. It was as if that room had stereophonic sound—two cellos producing at once. And at that point, when I had been able to accomplish this, he said to me, "Fine. Now just sit. Put your cello down and listen to the D Minor Suite." And he played through the piece and changed every bowing and every fingering and every phrasing and all the emphasis within the phrase. I sat there, absolutely with my mouth open, listening to a performance which was heavenly, absolutely beautiful. And when he finished he turned to me with a broad grin on his face, and he said, "Now you've learned how to improvise in Bach. From now on you study Bach this way."
When I analyzed this text on my blog this past January, I concluded that Casals believed that one could not improvise on a composition until one had learned to listen to that composition.  If one aspires to perform these suites, one probably cannot apply Casals' method of imitation strictly on the basis of recordings:  Greenhouse had to study all of Casals' physical processes associated with the sounds that resulted.  However, those of us who aspire to be no more than informed listeners can definitely acquire a sense of what it means to listen to Bach, particularly when we now have the opportunity to experience the Casals approach side-by-side with that of Rostropovich.

There are many other listening experiences that reside in the CDs of this new Casals collection;  but, given the importance of the Bach suites in the cello repertoire, I feel that these two CDs deserve particular attention!

July 2, 2009: Music history from the standpoint of a cello

The concert series for the InterHarmony International Music Festival at San Francisco State University began last night with a recital by its Director, the Russian cellist Misha Quint.  Taking the position that students attending this festival will be served as much by listening experiences as by technique classes, he compiled a program that stretched from the middle of the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth.  Because of its family resemblance to so many bowed string instruments, little can be gained from trying to fix a date for the cello's "origin."  However, the earliest manual on the theory and practice of cello performance was published by Michel Corrette in 1741;  so the middle of the eighteenth century is a good place to begin a "historical journey."  That beginning was represented by a 1744 sonata by Pietro Locatelli.  Locatelli was a virtuoso violinist;  and, if we are to believe his Wikipedia entry, this was his only sonata for cello.  The composition makes technical demands that probably parallel the demands of his violin composition, set in the Galante style that provided a transition between the contrapuntal and harmonic richness of Johann Sebastian Bach and the "classical" expressiveness of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  (Several of Bach's sons, most notably Johann Christian, were proponents of this style.)  The style is very gestural, intervening between Bach's motivic approach and Mozart's richer melodic language;  and Quint demonstrated that a command of gesture provided the key to surmounting Locatelli's technical demands.

The Locatelli sonata was coupled, in the first half of the program, with Gabriel Fauré's 1880 C minor elegy (Opus 24) at the other end of the "historical journey."  We have progressed from Galante structures to the ternary form of short nineteenth-century compositions.  In Fauré's case the form was approached through relatively simple melodies set within a rich harmonic context.  The elegiac connotation suggests a highly emotional stance;  but Quint understood that, through "fidelity to the text," all emotion would rise from the music itself.  The contrast between Locatelli and Fauré thus makes for a sharp distinction, providing the festival students with a strong sense of how far music could progress over one-and-a-half centuries.

The second half of the program filled in the gap between these two extremes with two sharply different representatives of the early eighteenth century.  In this case the emphasis of virtuosity came from another violinist, Niccolò Paganini.  His 1807 set of variations (preceded by an adagio introduction) on the aria "Dal tuo stellato soglio," from Gioachino Rossini's Moses opera was composed for violin;  but, because the entire work is played on a single string, it is equally suitable for cello.  Paganini composed as one who had quickly mastered all of the technical demands set forth by Locatelli and was then driven to raise the bar as high as he could.  This set of variations is all fireworks (and all on that one string), using the violin to pave the way for the virtuosic extravagances that would later be the bread and butter of Franz Liszt's piano music.  Quint's performance was capable and calm, the still center in the eye of the hurricane, once again attending to a faithful execution through which the music would speak for itself.

Paganini was coupled with Schubert through one of the latter's best-known sonatas, usually performed on cello but written in 1824 (D. 821) for the arpeggione, described in its Wikipedia entry as "a six-stringed musical instrument, fretted and tuned like a guitar, but bowed like a cello."  This is a late work but not one from that remarkable final year of Schubert's life.  By way of historical context, 1824 is the year in which Schubert began work on his D minor D. 810 "Der Tod und das Mädchen" string quartet (which took him almost two years to complete);  and it is also the year of his C major ("Grand Duo") sonata for four hands at one piano (D. 812).  Schubert was clearly exploring the capabilities of the arpeggione;  but he was also cultivating that structural sophistication that makes his late works, particularly the extended ones, so interesting.  However, when Schubert goes to those "heavenly" lengths, the challenge for the performers is to make those durations endurable (so to speak).  Quint approached the work with a clear understanding of the whole, through which he could convey the sense that the music was always moving forward to its final goal.  The result was, again, as much a lesson in listening as an opportunity to enjoy a highly-skilled performance.

It is hard to imagine a cello's perspective of music history that does not include the most famous (notorious?) cello solo of the nineteenth century.  This is, of course, the depiction of the swan from Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals suite.  Quint saved this for his encore, leaving us with a sense of the cello at its most lyric.  If this recital is representative of the Faculty Chamber Music Concerts that will be coming up on Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening, then the InterHarmony International Music Festival will be one of San Francisco's greatest assets for the month of July!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

June 30, 2009: Mozart chamber music for piano and strings

The final preview event for the Midsummer Mozart Festival in the programs for the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral presented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through two examples of his chamber music at its sunniest.  These were compositions for piano and two (the B-flat major piano trio, K. 502) and three (the E-flat major piano quartet, K. 493) strings, both of which were composed in Vienna in the same calendar year, 1786.  The ensemble consisted of (yet again!) pianist Miles Graber, violinist Mariya Borozina, cellist Eric Sung, and violist Caroline Lee.

For all the ways in which these two compositions are "proximal" (in both time and instrumentation), they offer a perfect demonstration of how Mozart could find diversity in "surface level similarity."  K. 493 is, in many respects, almost like a "concerto for piano and very small orchestra" (a phrase I have previously applied to Johannes Brahms' approach to the piano quartet ensemble).  K. 502, on the other hand, is somewhat like a conversation with a multiplicity of conversants beyond the number of instruments.  Thus, while both violin and cello are given ample solo turns, they also play together as a single "contrapuntal instrument."  Similarly, the piano offers both accompanied melody and counterpoint, in addition to contributing as a continuo for the entire ensemble (including itself?).  Thus the two works, placed side by side, turn out to offer radically different listening experiences, emphasizing once again that even the most seasoned listeners never seem to run out of reasons for listening to Mozart.  Could there have been a better way to end the preview offerings in preparation for the Midsummer Mozart concerts themselves, which will begin in two weeks?

June 27, 2009: A fortuitous collaboration

Summer Music West is the summer "semester" for the Preparatory Division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  It provides an opportunity for "conservatory students of the future," whose ages range between 8 and 18, to prepare performances before audiences.  Most of the performances are of chamber music, although one evening is devoted to original compositions.  Where vocal students tend to focus on opera and art song, Summer Music West has arranged a collaboration with Lamplighters Music Theatre, San Francisco's own Gilbert and Sullivan company;  and the result is a program of scenes from the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, rather than that of grand opera.  Those unfamiliar with Lamplighters should note that Joshua Kosman cited them when he reviewed the San Francisco Symphony semi-staged production of Iolanthe.  He emphasized "just how difficult Gilbert and Sullivan's Savoy operettas are to pull off," adding parenthetically "the Lamplighters do the trick regularly, with less musical prowess [than the San Francisco Symphony] but greater verve."

Verve was in abundant supply at this afternoon's Gilbert and Sullivan Scenes performance in the Conservatory Concert Hall.  42 students aged between 10 and 18 worked with the Lamplighters production team for two weeks to prepare scenes from seven of the operettas, including two scenes from the almost-never-performed Utopia Limited.  All of them rose to the task with a stage presence that was always compelling enough to override voices not yet fully trained for Sullivan's demands.  In some cases, however, the quality of voice was up there with the acting skills, most significantly the part of Mabel in Pirates of Penzance as sung by Rose Frazier, whose resume already includes performing with the San Francisco Opera in Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetter's Daughter and Pocket Opera in Jacques Offenbach's La Belle Hélène.

The event also emphasized my personal regret at how hard it is these days to enjoy a regular diet of Gilbert and Sullivan.  Whatever misgivings (often leading to quarrels) Sullivan may have had about these collaborations not being "elevated" enough (was "Onward, Christian Soldiers" more elevated?), his sense of counterpoint is unfailingly uncanny;  and I have to believe that there are any number of satirical references to music history that almost always fly by without notice.  For his part Gilbert came up with some of the best instances of light verse, obliging the listener to hang on every word.  The tragedy is that Gilbert also demands a breadth of literary context that is probably lacking in more and more listeners.  Nevertheless, there always seem to be opportunities for contemporary references to sneak through the somewhat archaic settings.  Anyone who knows the real message behind Patience would have been sure to find it relevant to the recent attention given to the recent death of a pop singer who could also command cult-like audience attention.

By way of a personal disclaimer, I have to confess that any excerpt from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is my personal version of Marcel Proust's tasting that madeleine dipped in tea.  I cannot remember how young I was when I first started hearing those songs, but I know that much of my learning to read came from following (and singing along with) the words in the Modern Library edition of the scripts for all of those operettas.  Unless I am mistaken, the first time I saw singing and acting taking place together on a stage was in a production of The Mikado.  I cannot listen to any of that repertoire without unlocking a flood of memories.  Meanwhile, I see that Lamplighters will be producing Patience in January;  so I probably owe it to myself to see more of their work.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

June 27, 2009: "Golden years" of French masters

"French Masters' Golden Years" was the title of the program cellist Sarah Hong prepared for her recital in the Old First Concerts series, at the Old First Church, last night.  Those "golden years" basically covered the first two decades of the twentieth century, thus fitting very comfortably into that period of French history captured in Marcel Proust's cycle of seven novels, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.  The "masters" represented by the recital were (in the chronological order of the compositions performed) Ernest Chausson, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, and Gabriel Fauré (also represented by an encore).

For Proust the violin played a pivotal role in the unfolding of his plot, particularly in the form of a violin sonata by the fictional composer Vinteuil.  However, there are many ways in which the richer and darker character of the cello is more suitable to Proust's settings that embody both the elegance and the decadence of his age.  Proust dealt with these contrasting characteristics with abundant irony, and that sense of irony is very much present in Debussy's 1915 cello sonata.  Debussy had considered titling this sonata "Pierrot fâché avec la lune" [Pierrot annoyed with the moon];  and the program notes (which did not get this title quite right) speculated that the work may have been inspired by Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, composed three years earlier.  Debussy certainly matches Schoenberg irony for irony and does so without ever leaving the sphere of conventional tonality.  Thus, it could be that Debussy was also "defending the old ways," leading me to suggest on my blog that a better title for the work might have been "Debussy fâché avec Schoenberg!"

This sonata was the first of three chamber music sonatas that Debussy composed near the end of his life.  Two years later, Fauré, now in his seventies, composed the first of two of his own cello sonatas (Opus 109).  When the San Francisco Symphony performed the music of both of these composers on the same program last April, I described Fauré "as an impressionist in contrast with a more fauvist Debussy."  From this point of view, Fauré's sonata begins with what sounds like a deliberate venture into fauvism (provoked by Debussy's earlier sonata?), while the remaining two movements almost seem to reconcile the opposing styles.  None of Debussy's fâcherie is present, however, nor is there any edge of irony.  Rather, there may have been a few hints of nostalgic reflection.  Some of that reflection may have been reinforced by the decision to perform a transcription (probably by Pablo Casals) of one of his early songs, "Après un Rêve," Opus 7, Number 1, as an encore.

Chronologically, Ravel's A minor piano trio predates both of these sonatas.  Indeed, it was completed in September of 1914;  and Ravel had apparently worked quickly to finish the work in order to be available to enlist in the army.  (World War I had broken out in August.)  The trio is dedicated to André Gedalge, who was not only Ravel's counterpoint teacher but also the author of a text that is still accepted as a leading authority on the composition of fugue.  That dedication is most manifest in the passacaglia of the third movement, which weaves material from earlier movements into its successive elaborations on an eight-bar bass line.

For the performance of this trio, Hong and her accompanist, Makiko Ooka, were joined by violinist Fumino Ando.  They found an excellent balance between Ravel's technical demands and the high level of expressiveness in each of his four movements (as Hong had done in her performances of the two sonatas).  For all the haste of his effort, the resulting trio is Ravel at his most stimulating;  and the energy of the three performers added exhilaration to the stimulation.  The one "quiet moment" of the evening came when Hong chose to perform Chausson's Opus 39 "pièce," very much a reflection on the short ternary-form compositions of nineteenth-century German chamber music.  It was composed in 1899, the year of Chausson's death and is very much a farewell to nineteenth-century values as those "golden years" of the rest of Hong's program were about to begin.  If the best concert programs are the ones that introduce us to music history without being pedantic, then last night's recital was definitely one of those programs.