Friday, April 24, 2015

The Amernet Quartet and "Jewish Voices"

Amernet Quartet
Saturday's performance, concluding the official season of Market Square Concerts, brings the Amernet String Quartet to the Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg for a program entitled “Jewish Voices” in observance of the 70th Anniversary of the End of World War II.

The concert is at 8:00 but there is a pre-concert talk with this program, given by Dr. Truman Bullard at 7:15.

Though Felix Mendelssohn may seem the odd-man-out for music relating to the Second World War, his music – whether or not it showed any influences of Jewish themes – was banned in Nazi Germany. Even though his father had Felix and his older sister Fanny baptized in the officially sanctioned Lutheran Church in Prussia when they were still children, his Jewish origins dogged him throughout his career, winning him the enmity of the anti-Semitic Wagner and producing vociferous demonstrations against his appearances on several occasions throughout Germany. While he had composed the oratorio Elijah, he had also composed one on St. Paul, converted on the Road to Damascus. At the end of his life, he was working on a third oratorio, Christus, left incomplete. His symphonies may have evoked landscapes of Scotland and Italy, but in the 5th (actually one of his earlier symphonies) he quoted Luther's “Ein feste Burg” as part of the symphony known as “The Reformation.”

Mendelssohn in 1847
His last quartet – his last completed major work – was a dramatic outpouring of his personal loss following the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, who'd died suddenly in 1847 of a stroke before Felix had returned home from the English premiere of Elijah. He was unable to cope with the loss, canceling plans for further performances of his latest masterpiece. During a trip to Switzerland, hopefully to revitalize his nerves, he composed his F Minor Quartet which he dubbed “a requiem for Fanny.”

(Follow this link to hear the Amernet Quartet perform the work's first movement.)

Highly Romantic in sound and passion, this is far removed from the elfin delights we often associate with his name – masterpieces like the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture or the scherzo from the Octet for Strings, both written when he was still in his mid-teens – but nothing if not genuine in its intensity and various stages of grief.

A month after it was given a private performance in Mendelssohn's Leipzig home, the composer died following a series of strokes at the age of 38.

Despite Mendelssohn's enduring fame as one of the leading composers of the 19th Century, his statue in front of the Leipzig Gewandhaus was removed by the Nazis in 1936 and only replaced in 2008. The Mendelssohn Scholarship for students at the Leipzig Conservatory which he founded was discontinued in 1934, then re-instated in 1963.

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Erwin Schulhoff
In 1913 and 1918, the winner of this Mendelssohn Scholarship was a young Czech named Erwin Schulhoff, a Jew born in Prague in 1894, first for piano and the second time for composition. He had received early encouragement from no less than Antonin Dvořák and studied in Vienna and Leipzig where his studies were interrupted by World War I. He served at the Russian Front in the Austro-Hungarian Army and after having been wounded, found himself in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp at the end of the war.

Afterwards, he became interested in the popular music of the day, a man in his 20s inspired by jazz. American critic Olin Downes wrote of Schulhoff's “Five Pieces for String Quartet” at the Salzburg Festival in 1924:

“These pieces attempted only to charm or entertain. They had spontaneous humor, sentiment, a fluent and admirable technic [sic]. The idiom has enough modern pepper in it to constantly stimulate the ear; but the music is not forced, any more than it is portentous. A young composer of talent disported himself in these pieces, and his audience was duly grateful. Not all composers, old or young, have the good sense not to take themselves, now and again, too seriously.”

Here's the 3rd piece, a Czech folk dance, performed by the Kontras Quartet:

...and the sultry Tango, (No. 4), performed by the Cypress Quartet:

Between his style and his Jewish heritage, not to mention his leftist politics, Schulhoff and his music were quickly labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi regime. Returning to Prague, his Communist sympathies began getting him in trouble there, as well. By the time the Nazis invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, he had composed his highly discordant Symphony No. 5 (performed by the Harrisburg Symphony several seasons ago) to convince the Soviet Union to accept his application for a visa which was finally approved in 1941. Unfortunately, Schulhoff was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis before he could leave Prague.

On April 29th, 1945 – 70 years ago next Wednesday – American troops liberated the concentration camp at Dachau though others had been already liberated – among them, Buchenwald by the Americans on April 11th, Auschwitz by the Soviets on January 27th, 1945. The first had been found by the Soviet troops advancing through Poland at Majdanek on July 23rd, 1944, but all of this was too late for Erwin Schulhoff who died of tuberculosis in the camp at Weissenburg in Bavaria on August 18th, 1942.

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Dmitri Shostakovich (l) & Mieczyslaw Weinberg (r)
Of the four works on the Amernet Quartet's performance, the quartets by Shostakovich (written in 1949) and Mieczyslaw Weinberg (in 1945) are closely connected, biographically. And to understand either of them, we need to be aware of two aspects of life in the Soviet Union – the role of the artist in society and what is usually labeled “The Jewish Question.”

Let's begin with Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 4 in D Major – a title that sounds abstract and uncomplicated enough. It's in four movements, the first built on folk-like tunes over almost bagpipe-like drones and the last using Jewish folksongs absorbed into the fabric (rather than being stated as one might in, say, a “suite of Jewish folk tunes”).

Here is the recording by the Fitzwilliam Quartet accompanied by the musical score:

Having run afoul of Stalin's government (or more specifically, Stalin himself) with his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District which provoked a terrifying backlash in the press (the famous “Muddle instead of Music” review), Dmitri Shostakovich, then a rising star in the Soviet musical firmament not yet 30 years old, chose to pull his 4th Symphony before its premiere would make things worse and, instead, compose a new symphony - his 5th - which someone else described as “A Soviet Artist's Artistic Reply to Just Criticism.” This managed to rehabilitate the composer in a country where official recognition was a matter of success or failure.

But it happened again.

Andrei Zhdanov, bureaucrat
Andrei Zhdanov, Chairman of the “Supreme Soviet” (a primary governing body within the Soviet Union), had been Stalin's cultural minister in the mid-1940s, devising various artistic policies regarding what he considered “proper” for Soviet Art and trying to eradicate foreign influences. Folksong was considered a good source of material as it appealed to The People – and keep in mind Soviet Culture was an ideological one, not an ethnic one. With this policy, Zhdanov was then able to censor any artist – composer, writer, painter, poet – who disagreed with him.

In January, 1948, Zhdanov issued something of a “Decree against Formalism” which condemned various composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian among others, for being too entrenched in the principals of Western Music, writing things like symphonies that were apolitical and all about abstract form rather than symphonic poems extolling the virtues of Soviet Men and Women.

As a result, these composers' works were banned in performance and it was unlikely anyone would commission new works from them; without performance fees coming in from their publishers, eventually their sources of income would dry up. They were forced to publicly recant their “artistic crimes” before the Soviet Composers' Union. But instead of writing “an artistic reply to just criticism” this time, Shostakovich continued to compose what he wanted, putting it aside for eventual publication, assuming this too would pass. Otherwise, he made a precarious living writing music for films and official music for the Communist Party (of which he was not yet officially a member, by the way).

Shostakovich & Copland, NYC 1949
Curiously, Stalin himself called Shostakovich to inform him he was being sent to an international arts and peace conference in New York City representing the Soviet Union, but the composer wondered how someone shunned by the government could represent that government on the international stage. While he was able to get a little flexibility in certain works of his being performed again, he still was forced to read a prepared speech which he was unable to finish reading (replaced by someone with a rich radio baritone voice).

The perception in the West was, as a result, that Shostakovich was a “tool of the government” and nothing more than a party hack. Later that year, he was “commissioned” to write The Song of the Forest in praise of Stalin (“the great gardener”) and his reforestation project. While we in the West call this "propaganda," perhaps Soviet citizens considered this "patriotic music."

In that sense, it's interesting to see this informal photograph of Shostakovich, the representative of Soviet Communist Art, apparently arguing with Aaron Copland, the creator of "The Great American Sound," taken in New York during that international conference. Once a member of the American Communist Party in the '30s, Copland would be brought before the House Committee for Un-American Activities by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. However, appalled at Stalin's persecution of Shostakovich, Copland had already begun divesting himself of his political affiliations by then.

At the same time he was working on The Song of the Forests, Shostakovich was composing his String Quartet No. 4 in D Major, a work he knew would never be performed under his current situation.

But his 1st Violin Concerto (he was in the midst of the cadenza movement when Zhdanov's decree was delivered) and several other works including much if not all of his 10th Symphony, went into that same desk drawer for later.

Another thing we need to understand is the Soviet attitude toward the Jews. While, compared to the Nazi policy, Stalin's Soviet Union attracted many leftist, Jewish intellectuals who needed to leave Germany before the war – as Erwin Schulhoff had tried to do. While a few sentences would hardly do the complexity of the situation justice, Stalin's policy in 1931 was to condemn anti-semitism, but by 1936 and the start of the Great Purge, many of those targeted by Stalin for “anti-Soviet crimes” were also Jewish though several historians are careful to point out they were not targeted because of their ethnicity.

In the following years, Jews were frequently persecuted along with many other factions in Soviet society. And proximity could often prove its own dilemma. Because Shostakovich was a friend of a general and had dinner with him, discussing artistic issues, the composer was brought in for interrogation after the general was implicated in a plot to overthrow Stalin. In fact, Shostakovich was prepared to be arrested at any moment and imprisoned, only to be reprieved when he arrived for his next interrogation to discover the agent interrogating him had himself been arrested! (All this while he was writing his 5th Symphony!)

After the war, however, despite seeming government support for Jewish cultural organizations, leading Jewish intellectuals and artists were being labeled “rootless cosmopolitans” and were accused in the press of “bourgeois Jewish nationalism.” The director of the Moscow Yiddish Theater, Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered (it turned out later by order of Stalin) – he was a friend of Shostakovich's and also Mieczyslaw Weinberg's father-in-law. Shortly after Mikhoels' murder, Soviet agents began following Weinberg himself.

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Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Mieczyslaw Weinberg – pronounced "myeh-CHEE-swoff", his first name also appears in Hebraic form, Moisie; his last name is often transliterated from the Russian spelling, Vainberg – was a Jew born in Poland who lost his entire family in the Łodz Ghetto. After the 2nd World War began, he went to Moscow where he met Shostakovich. Even though the 20-year-old conservatory graduate never officially studied with Shostakovich, the recenbtly rehabilitated composer was certainly his major mentor. “It was as if I had been born anew,” Weinberg later wrote.

In 1944, Weinberg composed a piano quintet (which you can hear at “Stuart & Friends” with Stuart Malina and Peter Sirotin among the performers on May 5th at HACC's Rose Lehrman Center) – Shostakovich had written his own quintet in 1940. While Shostakovich's Quintet is of course one of the great works of the chamber music repertoire, here is Weinberg, rarely heard in this country at all and it seems we have a mini-festival here in Harrisburg with your chance to hear two of his works, composed within a year of each other, in the span of ten days.

1945 was a busy year for Weinberg: he composed both his 4th & 5th Quartets as well as a few sonatas, several songs and piano pieces that year.

Given everything that's available on YouTube, I was unable to find any performance of the 5th Quartet which the Amernet will be performing here. But to give you an idea of what you'll be hearing, here is an audio recording with “Quartet Danel” in an Italian production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's String Quartet No. 4, written earlier that same year.

If you only have time for one movement, I recommend the 3rd, 18:04 – 27:45, a slow march, or at least the last few minutes before it ends.

When Shostakovich's music was banned following the 1948 decree by Zhdanov and he was “removed” from the Conservatory in Moscow, Weinberg's works were not banned though he was almost completely ignored by the Soviet musical establishment. At this time, he could only earn money by writing for the theater and the circus.

After Shostakovich and Weinberg initially met, “they had declared a law that each would play for the other his latest music” and Weinberg's wife recalled how, once receiving a telephone call from Shostakovich, Weinberg went over to hear Shostakovich's latest Quartet – No. 8, which he told him was his musical autobiography. Weinberg “returned home shaken by the power of this music.”

Shostakovich dedicated his own 10th Quartet to his friend Moisei Weinberg in 1964 – he always “loved and valued his music” yet barely had the strength to attend the premiere of Weinberg's opera “The Madonna & the Soldier” in Leningrad during the last months of his life in 1975. Weinberg (often referred to by the nickname “Metak”) had been one of Shostakovich's close friends during the dark, lonely years following the Zhdanov decree in January, 1948.

At the time Weinberg's father-in-law had been murdered, without knowing the circumstances of Stalin's involvement, Shostakovich, despite his own political problems, went to the Weinberg's flat to offer his condolences; shortly afterward, he quietly loaned some cash to him to help his family get through these difficult times even though he would have very little income of his own, now.

In September, 1948, on his 42nd birthday, Shostakovich invited several friends (including Weinberg) to hear his latest work, a series of “simple Jewish songs.” Given the current “anti-Cosmopolitan” policy of the Stalin Regime (another buzzword for “Jew”), Weinberg's wife realized this was not just a new work but “voiced what we dared not ever express in conversation. It was an open protest by Shostakovich against the hounding of the Jews in this last five-year plan of Stalin's.”

It had not been the first (nor the last) time Shostakovich had used Jewish themes – his 2nd Piano Trio was written in 1944 as news of the Holocaust was reaching Moscow, with the diabolic scherzo's Jewish theme inspired by the image of Jews being forced to dance on their own freshly dug graves before being executed by Nazi soldiers.

Also in 1948, a writer of a book about “Yiddish Folksongs” fell into disfavor with the government and was being threatened with arrest. Shostakovich hid him in his Moscow flat until he was able to help get the arrest warrant rescinded.

At one point, later in life, he supposedly told Semyon Volkov, the author of the much disputed Testimony purporting to be proof of Shostakovich's inner thoughts,

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“Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it, it’s multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be… Jews became a symbol for me. All of man’s defenselessness was concentrated in them. After the war, I tried to convey that feeling in my music. It was a bad time for Jews then. In fact, it’s always a bad time for them.”
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And by extension, then, a bad time for him...

Shostakovich composed his 4th String Quartet the following year, employing (among other influences) Jewish folk-song or its “ethos,” especially in the lengthy last movement. Given the Zhdanov Decree and its aftermath, it was unlikely this work would ever be performed. When the Borodin Quartet “auditioned” the work for the Cultural Ministry, they did not explain any of the music's details.

“There is a story,” the cellist recalls in Elizabeth Wilson's biography of Shostakovich, “that we had to play the quartet twice on this occasion: once in our genuine interpretation and a second time 'optimistically,' to convince the authorities of its socialist content. It's a pretty invention, but [the story] is not true: you cannot lie in music.”

While the minister, trying to help Shostakovich out with a little money, agreed to pay for the quartet (an after-the-fact commission), it still was not publicly performed until after Stalin's death in 1953.

In February, 1953, Weinberg was arrested on charges of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism" as a part of the so-called “Doctor's Plot” when several prominent Moscow doctors (mostly Jewish) were accused of plotting to kill Soviet officials. Shostakovich wrote to Lavrenti Beria, chief of police, on Weinberg's behalf (and told his friend he would look after Weinberg's daughter if his wife wеre also arrested). As it turned out, Weinberg was saved only by Stalin's death the following month.

After that, Weinberg continued living in Moscow where he was busy as both a composer and a pianist. He and Shostakovich lived near one another, sharing ideas on a regular basis. Perhaps because of the admiration which Shostakovich frequently expressed for them, many of Weinberg's works were taken up by some of Russia's foremost performers and conductors. But they are still largely unknown abroad.
Weinberg, suffering from Crohn's Disease, died in 1996, having completed his last symphony, No. 21 “Kaddish,” five years earlier and his 17th String Quartet four years before that. His opera, The Passenger, written in the mid-50s, wasn't premiered until ten years after his death.

The fact that much of his music “sounds a lot like Shostakovich” has not helped Weinberg's music. Of course, if we listen to more than just Mozart and Haydn from the 1780s and '90s, we'd know there was a common language among composers who seem to be imitating Haydn, and certainly there are fingerprints of both in Beethoven's early music. There is a whole school of composers in Vienna in the late-19th Century who sound like recycled Brahms, and one could say the same of a number of other German composers and the English and even American students who'd studied with them.

Shostakovich was undoubtedly a major personal as well as musical influence on Weinberg, but to quote Alexander Ivashkin's comment, how composers such as Weinberg damaged not only their own reputations, but that of Shostakovich as well – "these works only served to kill off Shostakovich's music, to cover it over with a scab of numerous and bad copies" – seems a tad harsh.

One more indignity in a world full of challenges.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, March 26, 2015

No Strings Attached: Music Not Originally for Saxophones

Not the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet
Today is March 26th – and on this date in 1827, Ludwig van Beethoven died without ever having known the saxophone existed. That could be the main reason he never wrote for it.

This Saturday, March 28th, at 8pm, Market Square Concerts presents the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet at Whitaker Center, performing a program that is not quite what it seems: it's called “No Strings Attached. ” 

The program includes works originally for strings but arranged for four saxophones including the “American Quartet” by Antonin Dvořák, composed during his stay in the United States, especially during a delightful summer holiday in Spillville, Iowa; Shostakovich's autobiographical 8th String Quartet, written during a post-war visit to the bombed-out city of Dresden, Germany; Barber's “Adagio for Strings” originally for String Quartet and best known as a work for string orchestra though it has been arranged by the composer for choir (his Agnus Dei) and by others for organ, clarinet choir and band (so why not saxophones, right?); and a suite for string orchestra Edvard Grieg composed in 1884 and originally called “From Holberg's Time,” intended to reflect musical styles from the era of a Danish playwright born two centuries earlier.

For example, here's the “Preludium” to Grieg's “Holberg Suite.”

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Notice the rapid repeated notes and the pizzicato (or “plucked”) notes in the lower strings, especially in the basses at 0:20.

What, you might ask, does that opening sound like played by four saxophones?

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This is a quartet of students from the University of Michigan, all students of the legendary saxophonist and teacher, Donald Sinta. In fact, the young man playing the soprano saxophone (the one that doesn't look like your typical curvy saxophone) is Dan Graser, now a member of the quartet named for their teacher.

Here they are, the real Donald Sinta Quartet, playing a movement of Alexander Glazunov's Saxophone Quartet written in 1932:
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If you consider the saxophone wasn't invented until 1840, 13 years too late for Beethoven, it still doesn't explain why the instrument never caught on with the likes of, say, Brahms or Tchaikovsky, Wagner or Verdi. After all, the clarinet was a fairly new addition to the classical orchestra, available even before Vivaldi used it a few times before the 1720s, but Haydn didn't use it until he was writing his 99th Symphony in London in 1795, almost four years after Mozart died. It was Mozart who wrote such incredible clarinet parts in the orchestra for several of his Viennese piano concertos. And then he wrote a trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano plus two of the most amazing works in the repertoire, his Clarinet Quintet and the Clarinet Concerto.

“So, what's the story, here?” you might wonder.

While the instruments were around, good and reliable instrumentalists were not except, perhaps, in dance bands of the day. It was Mozart's friend Anton Stadler, an exceptional clarinetist, who inspired him to write parts for the instrument if he knew he could hire him for the concerts. Haydn was less adventuresome, perhaps unaware there were any good clarinetists in London for his first visit there in 1791. But on his second visit, suddenly there are clarinet parts – even though they're fairly conservative as far as any solos go.

Of course, soon, there were more clarinetists around – and good ones, too – and the clarinet became an indispensable part of the symphony orchestra.

Why not the saxophone?

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It was one of many projects a Belgian instrument-maker named Adolphe Sax was working on (actually, he was born Antoine-Joseph Sax but everybody called him Adolphe). He didn't patent his invention until June 28th, 1846. By that time, he'd moved to Paris where he also continued working on another musical invention of his, the Saxhorn, which he managed to get to the patent office in 1845.

While the Saxhorn proved very popular with military bands across Europe before it wound up on the Island of Misfit Instruments along with the ophicleide and the sarussaphone – the instrument manages to survive in the modern-day euphonium – Mr. Sax's fame rests primarily on this combination brass-and-woodwind instrument he began exhibiting in Paris in 1844, the saxophone.

It's a woodwind made of brass or a brass instrument with a single-reed mouthpiece and a key system like a clarinet. But he called it a saxophone rather than, say, a saxinet because wind instruments, regardless of their being made of wood or brass, are technically aerophones. (And frankly, saxinet just sounds... I dunno... gimmicky.)

Now, when you consider the first surviving saxophone concerto and saxophone quartet by someone we'd consider a mainstream composer were composed by Alexander Glazunov in 1934 and 1932 respectively – not counting Claude Debussy's little-known and unfortunately brief “2nd Rhapsody” which he began for saxophone and orchestra in 1901 for an asthmatic amateur saxophone player from America and only finished in 1908 (it still wasn't orchestrated and performed until a year after Debussy's death in 1918) – there may be a reason you don't hear much in the way of 19th Century repertoire for the instrument.

Even though Brahms may have known of its existence – one wonders – he never met a saxophonist who inspired him like the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, bringing him out of retirement to compose a Clarinet Trio, a Clarinet Quintet and two Clarinet Sonatas all late in his career – one can only imagine!

But there had been a friend of Sax's from his Brussels conservatory days who decided to take his friend's invention on as a cause. Violinist Jean-Baptiste Singelée wrote, apparently, twelve concertos (with piano) and other “competition pieces” for conservatory students of the saxophone. In 1857, he even composed his “Premier Quatour pour les Saxophones,” the first known Saxophone Quartet.

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For some reason, this performance drops the slow introduction of the 1st movement and then plays the 3rd movement, a scherzo. (You can hear the entire quartet, here.) 

Being a violinist, he tends to write for the ensemble much as one would write for a string quartet, though I don't think the Juilliard String Quartet is going to be adding a transcription of Singelée's Saxophone Quartet to their repertoire because, frankly, they have enough stuff to choose from.

Saxophone players, alas, do not.

Like many successful composers in their days, M. Singelée is forgotten today except possibly by saxophonists and saxophonistas. I had never heard of him before and noticed he did not even appear in my 1982 edition of Grove's Dictionary between “Singapore: Music traditions in (see Malaysia and South-East Asia)” and “Singende Säge (Ger) see Saw, musical.”

Which is a shame, because the music is certainly pleasant to listen to, well-crafted, and typical of the era it was written in. One wonders if M. Singelée wrote more than a First Quartet?

So what do saxophonists do?

Like any players of instruments lacking traditional concert-fare repertoire by the Top 40 Classical Composers, they steal.

We like to call it “transcribing.”

The challenge, of course, is to transform the sound from the variety of sonorities a string quartet can produce – the pizzicato line from the opening of the “Holberg Suite,” for instance – to something comparable for the saxophone.

One of the biggest problems, of course, is phrasing. A string player just saws the bow back and forth without needing to breathe. A wind player, on the other hand, would keel over trying to play long melodic lines like that without catching a breath.

So they develop a trick – certainly a skill – called “circular breathing” in which they can continue to exhale air they've already breathed in while taking in more air through the nose. To say this works like a bag-pipe would only give you the wrong sound-image, but yeah...

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Here are video-clip samples of the original string versions of complete works the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quintet will be performing on their program entitled “No Strings Attached.”

This is the 1st Movement of the Dvořák String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, the “American” – played by frequent visitors to Central PA over the past nearly 20 years, the Cypress Quartet:

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The 8th Quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich written in just 3 days in 1960 while working on film music for a Soviet documentary about the World War II bombing of Dresden: here is a live performance by the legendary Borodin Quartet.

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This is a harrowing work, almost the complete opposite of the holiday-spirited Dvořák, from the opening four-note motive which is the composer's musical signature – DSCH or the notes translated into German: D, S=E-flat, C, H=B-natural (in German, his initials Д Ш would be spelled out D-Sch) – to the evocations of Jewish folk-songs quoted from his equally harrowing 2nd Piano Trio, not to mention its range of emotions from violent climaxes to the icy resignation at the end.

Keep in mind, it was dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war.” His son has said it would have read “totalitarianism” and that the composer considered himself such a victim, giving the DSCH motive even deeper emotions. A friend of Shostakovich's said the composer considered this his musical epitaph (in fact, the DSCH motive appears on his tombstone) and that he had considered committing suicide around the time: not only had he finally (reluctantly) joined the Communist Party, he had just started experiencing symptoms of an extreme “muscular weakness” which would eventually be diagnosed as “Lou Gehrig's Disease” which would kill him in 1975.

For many of us – at least those of us “of a certain age” – Barber's Adagio for Strings became the National Mourning Piece following its broadcast during the hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It was originally the middle movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, but looking over some of the young composer's scores, conductor Arturo Toscanini said “You know, this would make a great string orchestra piece.” Here is the original quartet version, once again with the Cypress Quartet:

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Since its use in the film Platoon, it has also become familiar to a whole new generation of listeners as “The Theme from Platoon,” associations Samuel Barber could hardly have imagined when he composed this piece when he was in his mid-20s. On September 19, 1936, Barber wrote to the cellist of the Curtis Quartet who were to premiere the work, "I have just finished the slow movement of my quartet today—it is a knockout!"

And now for the Happy Ending: if anything could be called “Smiles of a Summer Night,” it could be this piece, tossed off by the Norwegian Edvard Grieg to celebrate the Bicentennial of the birth of the Danish playwright, Ludvig Holberg. Here's the final movement, the Rigaudon, perhaps more Norwegian country fiddling than Baroque dance:

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Incidentally, Grieg originally composed the entire suite for piano and then arranged it for strings the following year. So... why not the saxophone?

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Trio Solisti & Jon Manasse with Music for Anybody Ready for Spring

There's only a little over a week till Daylight Savings Time and, more importantly, just three weeks till the First Day of Spring. For many of us, that's a reason to celebrate.

And what better way to celebrate than hearing Trio Solisti play Astor Piazzolla's “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” this weekend at HACC's Rose Lehrman Arts Center?

Along with other “jazz-inspired” works by Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud, not to forget Joaquin Turina's rarely heard Piano Trio No. 2 – and a collection of songs from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Can “Summertime” be far behind?

Join us Saturday night at 8pm and keep thinking positive thoughts in this cold weather that the impending snow storm stays on course for later on Sunday...

The trio was formed in 2001 and has visited Market Square Concerts on a number of occasions, usually with programs that could be described as “innovative” or “eclectic.” One performance I remember especially was hearing them play Paul Moravec's recent “Tempest Fantasy,” written for them, which they played here with clarinetist David Krakauer. That work received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2004.

a spring-like pose
This time, the trio – now with pianist Adam Neiman – will be joined by clarinetist Jon Manasse who'll play the Clarinet Sonata by Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud's Suite for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano as well as the Gershwin song collection. In addition to being a soloist and recitalist, Manasse has been principal clarinetist for the Mostly Mozart Orchestra and the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York and also teaches at the Eastman School of Music and his alma mater, Juilliard.

The program opens with a work that's not heard that often, though it's one of Joaquín Turina's better-known works: the 2nd Piano Trio which he completed in 1933.

Turina left his native Seville when he was 20 and, after studying in Madrid, emigrated to Paris following his parents' deaths, where he studied at the famous Schola Cantorum, taking lessons with Vincent D'Indy who had been student of César Franck's. Turina's first published work was a Piano Quintet from 1907 which is full of the influences of Franck and his circle. Another influence at the time was the day's leading contemporary composer, Claude Debussy.

When Turina's Franckian piano quintet was premiered, his friend and fellow Spaniard Isaac Albéniz recommended he look for his voice in Spanish folk music, especially that of his native Andalusia. It was advice he decided to take.

Joaquin Turina
Along with his fellow ex-pat Manuel de Falla, Turina left Paris at the start of World War I and returned to Madrid where he would soon become one of the most highly regarded Spanish composers. His 1st Piano Trio (officially, his first published one) received the National Music Prize in 1926 and by 1930 he was a professor of composition at the Madrid Conservatory.

Earlier this season, I spoke about the concurrence of works heard on the first program of the season with the years leading up to the 1st World War whose centennial observance began last fall. The season concludes with works associated with the 2nd World War and the Holocaust.

Spanish history of Turina's time may be a little vague to many Americans who know the Civil War mainly through the works of American novelist, Ernest Hemingway. But in 1931, the Spanish king Alfonso XIII fled the country and a republic was declared. The Civil War didn't officially begin until 1936 and was viewed in hindsight as a “dress-rehearsal” for World War II. Though the political divide was increasingly complex, the socialists of the Spanish republic were backed by Stalin's Soviet Union and the opposing fascists under General Francisco Franco were backed by Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Perhaps the most famous statement of the political and moral struggle of the war came in Pablo Picasso's painting, Guernica, a response to the fascist bombing of a Basque village in 1937.

The war ended in 1939 with Franco taking power in April. The 2nd World War began five months later. Franco remained in power until his death in 1975.

During the years before the Civil War, Turina and his family were in “disfavor” with the Republic, a time when many Catholic churches across Spain were being torched by supporters of the Republic's constitution which was hostile to established religion. As it is rather blandly stated in Grove's Dictionary, Turina himself “was persecuted by the republicans during the civil war,” other sources indicate he was “protected” as a “worker of the British Consulate” in Madrid.

This was a period when thousands of Spanish citizens were executed by various military factions – estimates range from 37,843 to as high as 238,000 – including, most famously, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, whose death was forbidden to be mentioned during Franco's regime.

After the Civil War, Turina's prestige increased and he became a frequently honored figure, receiving the Grand Cross of Alfonso the Wise.

And yet, that once and future chaos seems far removed from the Three Nocturnes he began working on in the early-1930s which eventually became his Piano Trio No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 76.

Here is a recording of its first movement with the Damocles Trio:

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Les Six is a label given to a band of composers writing in Paris during the heady years of the 1920s, their music primarily a reaction against the Impressionism of Debussy (who had recently died) and the overt seriousness of the Wagner-inspired late-19th Century world of Franck and D'Indy. Like the Russian Five (a.k.a. “The Mighty Handful”), they were an uneven bunch – most people would never know music of the fifth of the Five, Cesar Cui – and the French Six soon went their own ways, regardless of whatever one thinks they might have had in common.

In fact, Darius Milhaud explained that critic Henri Collet “chose six names absolutely arbitrarily, those of Auric, Durey, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and me simply because we knew each other and we were pals and appeared on the same musical programmes, no matter if our temperaments and personalities weren't at all the same! Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself, Mediterranean lyricism!”

While their leader seemed to be the iconoclast Jean Cocteau, it was more a “circle of friends” than a “school of thought.” Of the Six, we hardly know anything of Louis Durey, the first to break ranks. During World War II, he fought with the French Resistance. A communist, he later set texts by Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong to music. Yet it was his initial suggestion that he and five of his friends publish a collection of short piano pieces together in 1920 that gave rise to this whole Les Six Thing. In 1921, he had already refused to be involved in a similar collaborative effort, the ballet inspired by Cocteau called “The Wedding at the Eiffel Tower.”

If you've ever heard the famous torch song “Moulin rouge” (actually, “Where is your heart?” from the film score), you've heard at least something by Georges Auric. Germaine Taillefaire who should be better-known than she is, created a sensation not just with the music she composed but by the fact she was also a woman. Artur Honegger may be best known for his oratorio, Le roi David, which, considering it was written in 1921, or even the railway-inspired tone-poem, Pacific 231, have little to do with the sound of his colleagues.

But Les Deux might have remained with Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud who, however separately, kept the youthful vigor of their origins alive in much of what they would later compose.

Self-taught because his parents intended him for a career in business but then coming under the influence of that great Parisian iconoclast Erik Satie, Poulenc described himself as a “Vulgarian” who wrote in a light-hearted style to the end of his life. However, in 1936, following an unexpected religious awakening following the death of a friend in a violent car accident and his visit to a famous religious shrine shortly afterward, he began composing with a new-found seriousness that, following dramatic choral works during the Nazi occupation setting words of Resistance poets, culminated in his intensely dramatic opera, The Dialogue of the Carmelites of 1957.

Still, he never lost sight of the essence of what drove his music. He was always a “melodist” whether the tunes were jaunty, naughty, or deeply felt. He was satisfied to maintain a vocabulary of traditional harmonies that earned him the enmity of the younger generation following World War II who saw him as an old-fashioned and frivolous relic.

He might evoke the past or the new-fangled sound of jazz. His love of Mozart opens the slow movement of his Concerto for Two Pianos, written in 1932, but it quickly moves off into a style that is decidedly his own. There are, as well, tinges of jazz by way of Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto, premiered only a few months earlier, not to mention the appearance of the Balinese gamelan which he'd first heard the year before.

To hear his Clarinet Sonata, then, it's hard to imagine it was written 30 years later, in 1962, when he was 63. In fact, considering what we normally think of as “contemporary music” from the mid-20th Century, it doesn't sound possible.

Here's the complete sonata with clarinetist Martin Fröst and pianist Marc-André Hamelin:

As it turned out, it was one of his last completed works. It had been commissioned by Benny Goodman (perhaps you've heard of him?) who had planned to premiere it at Carnegie Hall with the composer at the piano. But Poulenc suffered a sudden heart attack on January 30th, 1963, and died. The premiere eventually took place with Leonard Bernstein at the piano.

Francis Poulenc
Of Poulenc's new sonata, New York Times critic Harold Schonberg (no relation to Arnold) wrote,

"Poulenc was not a 'big' composer, for his emotional range was too restricted. But what he did, he did perfectly, and his music shows remarkable finish, style and refinement.... The sonata... is typical Poulenc. In the first movement, skittish thematic elements are broken up by a broadly melodic middle section. The slow movement is one of those melting, long-phrased and unabashed sentimental affairs that nobody but Poulenc could carry off. Weakest of the three movements is the finale, which races along but has little immediacy. Here Poulenc's inspiration seems to have run out."

This last movement, considering the movement that preceded it, combines a jazzy element – perhaps suitable for jazz-great Goodman – with one of Poulenc's beloved clownish themes, the middle-aged smile of an old Vulgarian.

Though his last completed work was a companion oboe sonata, it might be good to realize that, during what turned out to be the last months, he had recently completed a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra of some 25 minutes' length, the “Seven Responses for Tenebrae,” composed specifically for the opening of New York City's Lincoln Center.

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If Albéniz suggested Turina should study the folk music of Spain, and Erik Satie opened up a whole new world to young Poulenc, Darius Milhaud discovered a major influence during his travels.

Growing up in Provence, Milhaud spent most of World War I working as a secretary for the French poet Paul Claudel who was also the French Ambassador to Brazil. Returning to France after the war, Milhaud composed a series of piano pieces, Saudades do Brasil, based on Brazilian popular music, and the surrealist and jazzy ballet, Le boeuf sur le toit (“The Ox on the Roof”), inspired by a Brazilian Carnaval tune.

In 1922, after hearing “American jazz” which was then all the rage in Paris, Milhaud made a special trip to the United States to hear it live in its natural habitat – the streets of Harlem. This initial impact of this experience was his most famous work, the ballet Le creation du monde premiered in 1923, which, in addition to outright jazz rhythms and harmonies, even replaces the viola of the orchestra's string section with a saxophone! It is usually called the first example of “symphonic jazz.”

Professor Milhaud
Another work usually given that title – George Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue” – was premiered on February 12, 1924.

The “Suite for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano” bears the seemingly high opus number of 157b (he was in his mid-40s) and was composed in 1936 – again, that year: the start of the Spanish Civil War, three years after Turina composed his piano trio; the year of Poulenc's religious awakening; and, as we'll soon find out, a year after Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess. Milhaud's suite was originally composed as incidental music for a play by Jean Anouihl, “The Traveler without Baggage,” about a veteran of World War I who suffers from amnesia.

Jean-Marc Fessard (clarinet), Frédéric Pélassy (violin), Eliane Reyes (piano) play Milhaud's suite in this YouTube video with accompanying score:

It opens with what can only be called a sassy Overture, reminiscent of Stravinsky's take on the classical past. The middle movements bring to mind other stylistic reminiscences, while the longer final movement, after a somber introduction, includes a reference to “For He's a Jolly Good Fellow” with a contrasting theme that no doubt had its origins somewhere in Brazil.

Not only was Milhaud influenced by jazz and popular music – as a teacher, he influenced jazz and popular music through his students Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach. In fact, Brubeck named one of his sons Darius, after his teacher. Bachrach said Milhaud told him, "Don't be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle. Don't ever feel discomfited by a melody."

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Piazzolla with bandoneon
1935 was a major year in the life of Argentine composer, Astor Piazzolla, only if at the time his father thought the teenager was too young to go on tour with the legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel and his orchestra. A good thing, it turned out: Gardel was killed in a tragic plane crash that wiped out his entire orchestra. As Piazzolla would joke later, if his father had not objected, he would be playing the harp, now, not the bandoneon.

The bandoneon is an accordion-like instrument that is primarily associated with the Argentine tango and Piazzolla, listening to his parents recordings of tangos, began playing one when he was 8 after his father spotted one in a pawn shop. At the time, they were living in Greenwich Village, having left Argentina when the boy was 4. Later, he would study with a pianist who'd studied with Rachmaninoff who taught Piazzolla to play Bach on his bandoneon. In 1934, he met Gardel who invited him to join his band – the following year, his father didn't allow him to go on that ill-fated tour.

The following year, the family returned to Argentina when Piazzolla began finding jobs playing in various tango orchestras, moving to Buenos Aires to follow his dream, soon making enough money he could follow the pianist Arthur Rubinstein's advice – he had heard him in one of the clubs – to study with the composer Alberto Ginastera. Soon, he was studying scores of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, studying and listening to classical music by day and playing in the tango clubs by night.

In 1953, Ginastera convinced Piazzolla to submit an orchestral work for a competition – several people in the audience objected to the orchestra having not one but two bandoneons in it – and he won a scholarship from the French embassy to go to Paris and study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger who had been a teacher and major influence on many American composers from Aaron Copland to Elliott Carter - and briefly, George Gershwin. While there, he played a number of his “serious” compositions for her but only reluctantly played her one of his tangos.

Suddenly, she became very excited. “There,” she said, “there is the real Piazzolla!” Or something to that effect. At any rate, she encouraged him to focus more on writing tangos than trying to write symphonic works inspired by Bach.

And so Astor Piazzolla became known as the King of the Tango.

While he learned valuable technique from his studies of classical music – including counterpoint with Boulanger – I don't think he wrote anything that wasn't a tango after he left Paris.

Over a period of five years, Piazzolla composed four separate pieces, each one describing a different season as experienced in Buenos Aires, originally scored for violin (doubling on viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneon. Summer was composed in 1965 originally as incidental music for a play. Autumn was written in 1969 and Spring and Winter were both finalized in 1970. Though not intended as a suite, he performed them that way a few times.

Since then, they have been performed in a variety of arrangements for a variety of combinations. One, by Leonid Desyatnikov for violin and string orchestra, even adds bits of Vivaldi's “Four Seasons” to make an association that was not Piazzolla's intention.

Here are three of the “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” from the Trio Solisti's earlier recording with pianist Jon Klibonoff on the Bridge label. For some reason, I was unable to locate their “Winter” movement on YouTube, so instead I included a recording of Piazzolla performing the piece himself with the original orchestration.


WINTER (with Piazzolla's recording):

SPRING (which can't come soon enough):


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If this is a program of classical composers who were inspired by jazz – for the most part – George Gershwin is a jazz composer inspired by classical music.

As a boy growing up in the Yiddish Theater District of the Lower East Side, Gershwin showed no interest in music till he was 10 and heard a friend's violin recital. When his parents had gotten a piano so older brother Ira could take lessons, it turned out to be George (much to Ira's relief) who was interested in playing it.

Coming up with his own tunes almost immediately, and mentored by Charles Hambitzer, the pianist in the “Beethoven Orchestra” in New York who also introduced him to classical music, George was then taken to Rubin Goldmark to study composition. Goldmark was not only the nephew of then famous European composer, Karl Goldmark, he had studied with Antonin Dvořák at the National Conservatory in the 1890s.

Gershwin began as a “Tin Pan Alley” song-plugger who wrote his own songs, then put together revues for New York's Broadway and then, one day, was approached by Paul Whiteman to write a “classical piece” for piano and jazz band for a concert of “symphonic jazz” he was giving in February of 1924. With everything else going on in his life at the time, Gershwin forgot all about it.

Then one night in early January, while George was playing billiard with some friends, his brother Ira noticed an article in the paper that mentioned Paul Whiteman's concert. “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto,” it read, and mentioned that other works were being contributed by Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert among others.

George Gershwin
Doing some serious woodshedding, Gershwin began his “jazz concerto,” outlining it on a train ride a few days later from New York to Boston, and gave it to Ferde Grofé to orchestrate it for him, since he'd never written for anything more than a standard jazz band. The work was completed on February 4th on premiered on February 12th with the composer as the soloist. In the original sketch it was called “American Rhapsody.” But after Ira visited an art gallery where several of Whistler's paintings had titles like “Nocturne in Black and Gold” or “Arrangement in Gray and Black” (the one we know better as “Whistler's Mother”), he suggested calling it... “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The next year, the now busier-and-more-popular-than-ever Gershwin was in Paris on tour where he took a few lessons with Nadia Boulanger and met, among others, Maurice Ravel a fan. There's the famous exchange about Gershwin wanting to study with Ravel: “Why would you want to become a second-class Ravel when you can be a first-class Gershwin?” There is also the quip, possibly apocryphal, that when Ravel asked Gershwin how much money he made in a year, Ravel responded “Perhaps I should study with you!”

And so, in the early-30s, Gershwin decided to write an opera. He and Ira chose the story of Porgy and Bess, set on Catfish Row in the port of Charleston, SC. When the work was premiered in 1935, no one quite knew what to make of this “folk opera,” as the composer called it: was it an opera or, given the popular sound of its “arias,” a Broadway musical? Yet it had a fugue in it, a passacaglia, it had polyrhythmic and polytonal passages, as well as atonal passages and even a tone-row. To our amazement, it was actually composed to a fairly rigid compositional system Gershwin studied created by Joseph Schillinger, a composer and theorist originally from Kharkiv, Russia (now Ukraine) – which is also the home of Market Square Concerts' artistic director Peter Sirotin.

Yet for all its fame today, Porgy and Bess was, in the midst of the Great Depression, a box-office flop. Two years later, the composer died following surgery for a previously undiagnosed brain tumor at the age of 38.

Trio Solisti and Jon Manasse will perform a “song-book” of tunes from Porgy and Bess to close this weekend's concert. Now, one hardly needs historical background or theoretical analysis of George Gershwin's music – regardless of Mr. Schillinger – to appreciate his music, but given the winter we've had, let's close with one of his most famous:

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Baráti plays Bach, Ysaÿe & Bartók - 'Twas the Night Before Carnegie Hall...

Kristóf Baráti will be playing a Stradivarius violin made in 1703, known as the “Lady Harmsworth,” when he performs at Temple Ohev Sholom tonight at Market Square Concerts' first program of the new year. Last season, violinist Ray Chen played the 1702 Strad known as the “Lord Newlands,” so Harrisburg, as off the beaten path as we might be, is getting to hear some pretty amazing instruments – as well as some amazing musicians.

And Kristóf Baráti will be making his official Carnegie Hall debut on January 21st. This is his first tour of the United States – earlier concerts took him to Boston and Washington D.C. before arriving in Harrisburg – and though he may not be a familiar name to American concertgoers, several performers I know have been spreading the word.

Here is Stephen Brookes' Washington Post review - “In a Violinist's High-Wire Act, Virtuoso Kristóf Baráti Transfixes,” from his performance Sunday at the Phillips Collective:

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“...Béla Bartók’s Sonata for solo violin... opens with a chaconne[-]like movement — and Baráti turned in a reading that was almost painful in its intensity of feeling. The work pushes the violin to the limits with a wildly inventive palette of sounds, and its often wrenching emotional landscape (it was written in 1944) make it a work not for the faint of heart. But Baráti played it with such insight and understanding that the audience erupted in a sustained standing ovation at the end, bringing him back for an encore, Paganini’s Caprice No. 1.”
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Baráti may be too young yet to be called a “violinist's violinist,” but you'll understand this once you hear his impeccable intonation and the flawless technique behind seemingly effortless performances. There are few violinists performing today who can just stand there and play without the physically distracting over-emoting that too many music lovers assume to be the necessary norm. If a performer's job is to make it look easy, he makes it look so effortlessly easy!

His program in these concerts consists of three different composers – two of the six solo sonatas by Belgian violinist and composer, Eugene Ysaÿe; the Partita in D Minor by Bach; and the Sonata for Solo Violin that was one of the last completed works by Bela Bartók. Both Ysaÿe and Bartók in the first half of the 20th Century were specifically inspired by Bach's works from the early 18th Century, and such a program, if not daunting enough to a performer, is a collection of some of the greatest challenges possible for a violinist – and, at that, a lone violinist.

Here is Kristóf Baráti playing the D Minor Partita of Johann Sebastian Bach, recorded at the Moscow Conservatory in January of 2008, on a program of all six sonatas and partitas:





Chaconne: Part 1

Chaconne: Part 2

As Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann about the Chaconne (which he arranged for piano, left hand only): “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

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Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe composed his six sonatas for solo violin in 1920 and dedicated each one to a different colleague. In this program, Barati plays the 2nd and 3rd Sonatas, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud and fellow-composer Georges Enescu respectively. Like Bach, Ysaÿe created in these six works a compendium of violin technique for his own era.

Ysaÿe: Sonata No. 2, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud: 1st Movement “Obsession
2nd Movement “Malinconia
3rd Movement “Danse des ombres; Sarabande” (Dance of the Shadows)
4th Movement “Les furies

(These video clips on YouTube did not permit embedding the file, here, so my apologies for including only the links...)

Julian Haylock of The Strad reviewed Barati's recent release of the Ysaÿe Sonatas, available on Brilliant Classics:

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"Kristóf Baráti is recorded with exemplary presence in a seductively enveloping acoustic – it feels as though the young Hungarian violinist is standing in the room with you, and the range of dynamics and articulation he encompasses is remarkable. Tapping into his instrument’s natural resonances, cleanly defined by exceptionally strong finger-falls (with occasional fingerboard resonance), the gives the effect of a pure, open sound being gently coaxed and cajoled rather than forced out of the instrument. Little wonder, then, that his mentor Eduard Wulfson is a former pupil of both Nathan Milstein and Henryk Szeryng.

Baráti’s dazzling range of bow strokes and ear-ringing intonation combine throughout to create the impression of technical challenges arising directly out of the music’s expressive core rather than mere hurdles to be overcome. In the opening ‘Obsession’ of the Second Sonata he employs an exciting slight kick to his staccatos and multiple-stopping reminiscent of the young Shlomo Mintz. But what makes this a truly exceptional disc is Baráti’s interpretative vision – movements that in even the most skilled of hands often sound expressively one-dimensional here emerge as deeply compelling emotional narratives. He even makes the moto perpetuo semiquavers that crown the ‘Fritz Kreisler’ Sonata no.4 dance free of musical gravity, with an enchanting sense of every note floating on air. A highly distinguished release."
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That said, this next video clip is not the best recording – made in a small gallery space and simply recorded – and it has the challenges many live performances may have (at one point, somebody manages to knock over something with considerable but unruffling clatter) yet it will give you more than an idea what to expect when Barati performs the brief 3rd Sonata which Ysaÿe dedicated to Enescu.

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Unlike Bach and Ysaÿe, Bela Bartók was not a violinist but he was inspired by hearing Yehudi Menuhin playing Bach and was commissioned to write this sonata for Menuhin. Bartók was living in the United States during the War and completed this in 1944 while he was undergoing treatment for what had not yet been diagnosed as leukemia. This sonata is technically his last completed work – he continued working on the 3rd Piano Concerto, a surprise for his wife (only the last few measures remained to be orchestrated). while sketching the new Viola Concerto but officially finished neither work.

Like the Bach Sonatas which included a second-movement fugue, Bartók writes a fearsome fugue preceded by a chaconne-like movement based on something like a Hungarian folk-song (much of Bartók's thematic material is based on folk song, real or “imaginary”).

1st Movement, Tempo di Ciaccone

2nd Movement, Fugue

3rd Movement, Melodia

4th Movement, Presto

So, given you've had a chance to hear – and in some cases, see – these recordings of Kristóf Baráti playing everything on tonight's Market Square Concerts' program, why would you not want to go hear him live?

The performance is at Temple Ohev Sholom at 2345 N. Front Street – plenty of free parking and presumably the weather should hold out (not too cold and the snow looks like it'll hold off till the next day).

And what will Baráti be doing the day after he's performed here in Harrisburg?

Finding out just how much practice it takes to get to Carnegie Hall!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Music for Cold Weather: Schumann & Tchaikovsky to Warm the Soul

The Avalon Quartet
With the return of the Polar Vortex this week, what better antidote than the heat of great Romantic music, especially two of the most popular 19th Century composers best known for their melodic gifts and rich harmonies. So prepare yourself for the cold with a generous helping of Robert Schumann and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky this Saturday (the 15th) at 8pm at Market Square Church!

If you attended any of the Summermusic concerts this past season (remember those wonderful warm temperatures), you've already heard the cellist of the quartet, Cheng-Hou Lee. This time, he'll be joined by his colleagues, violinists Blaise Magniere and Marie Wang, and violist Anthony Devroye of the Avalon Quartet to offer the third of Schumann's three quartets (all written in a seven-week period when he was 32) and the first of Tchaikovsky's three quartets (written when he was 31, though he'd jotted down the melody of the famous second movement, the Andante cantabile, two years earlier).

It’s often difficult finding decent performances (much less recordings) on-line to post as examples, here, but I've been able to solve the problem by using two different quartets with two different approaches to Schumann's style.

The British-based Doric Quartet played Schumann's 2nd Quartet here two years ago. The 2nd & 4th Movements, here, are from a performance last year at London's great Wigmore Hall (and yes, there's a new violist since their appearance in Harrisburg).

I've chosen the Ysaÿe Quartet of France for the 1st and 3rd Movements, finding this 2012 performance recorded in Paris.

Ysaye Quartet – 1st Mvmt

Doric Quartet - 2nd Mvmt

Ysaye Quartet – 3rd Mvmt

Doric Quartet - 4th Mvmt

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For the Tchaikovsky, similar rules apply, but I found four different performances, not all with the best recording sound, but since the Avalon Quartet is performing at Market Square Church, how can I not use their video of the Tchaikovsky first movement recorded in a church at a 2010 performance?

Based on a folk-song Tchaikovsky overheard – whistled, so the story goes, by a house-painter at his sister's estate in Ukraine – the second movement of this quartet has taken on a life of its own in various arrangements. Here's the original version in a stunning performance by the Borodin Quartet.

The third movement – a scherzo that would be difficult to tap your foot to (unless you're Russian) – is performed by the Kontras Quartet, based in Chicago, and recorded here in a 2010 concert in North Carolina. Not the best sound, but I like their energy.

Of course, Russian music played by a Russian quartet would be the best and while I could've found a couple of different recordings of the entire quartet in a single clip, I liked the idea of sampling different approaches, here. But I have to end with another performance by the Borodin Quartet, itself one of the best and most long-lived quartets in Russia and the Soviet Union. Here's the finale with an appropriately wintry scene to accompany the audio.

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In the past, I’ve written a great deal about Robert Schumann’s life and his Year of Chamber Music – you can read this post which is primarily about the Piano Quintet but which will give you the biographical background to that summer when he composed all three of the Op.41 String Quartets as well as the Piano Quintet and Quartet, all between June and November.

Better known at the time as a writer about music than a composer of it, Schumann had recently complained about the fate of the string quartet genre, how, the glory days of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, no one of the next generation had written string quartets of any comparable value.

It’s important to realize, given the easily jumbled chronology of the music we’re familiar with in the concert hall or on recordings, that Schumann was writing this about 15 years after Beethoven’s death (and the Late Quartets were generally unknown and largely unpopular with the typical concert-going audiences of the day – more on that, later) but also about 10 years before he met a young composer named Johannes Brahms (when Schumann composed his quartets, Brahms was still only 9 years old).

Only Felix Mendelssohn wrote quartets during the period between Beethoven’s and Schubert’s deaths and Schumann’s article which have endured in the repertoire: the first two were written when he was 18-20; the three quartets of Op.44 were composed when he was 28-29.

It’s not unusual, then, to see Schumann sitting down to write some string quartets to see how he would fare – and then dedicating them to his friend and colleague, Felix Mendelssohn.

In the spring of 1842, Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of her day, had returned home after a long tour. Plans for an American tour were receding and Robert was glad to have his wife home with him as housewife, mother and hostess rather than concert artist. It was a time they had both begun studying string quartets by Mozart and Haydn when Robert decided to put into practice what he had learned.

By June 2nd, he was sketching “quartet essays” and two days later began the 1st String Quartet. On the 11th, he began the 2nd Quartet even before the first one was finished. In between the 2nd and the 3rd Quartet, not begun until July 8th, he wrote a scathing article about Clara’s ex-boyfriend Carl Banck and his new composition (it was so nasty, Schumann did not include it later when he re-published most of his articles) and also ended up in a libel case which netted him a 6-day jail sentence which was commuted to “a five thaler fine” (I don’t know what the equivalent of the standard German unit of currency would’ve been, but an 1841 thaler recently sold on E-bay for $270). The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first.

We often talk a lot about Schumann’s “split personality,” not that he was schizophrenic in the medical sense or that he was any different from any artist who might be 50/50 Right-Brained/Left-Brained, as we might think of it today. Like the ancient Greek philosophers writing dialogues between teacher and student, Schumann often wrote articles or reviews from the viewpoints or with direct conversations from characters he named Florestan and Eusebius, among others. Florestan was the free and happy one and Eusebius the more pensive and dreamy. You can figure out which side of his nature is behind the music in each of the movements of this quartet, written at white heat in the summer of his Chamber Music Year.

After this he would write a number of other chamber works including, almost back-to-back, the Piano Quintet and the Piano Quartet. People often say Schumann might have lived longer had he been treated for his illness but one has to wonder what impact a healthy life might have had on his music – first of all, would he have had the manic energy to tackle so many works in a single genre all at one time over the span of a few months? He might have been like many of his contemporaries, composers he wrote about and even championed, who were talented and perhaps even popular or at least well respected but, from our standpoint today, completely forgotten.

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Tchaikovsky (undated)
Of course, when it comes to the emotional world of the Romantic Era, there are probably few souls more tortured than Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky and for more reasons than the fact that Russian music in general always strikes us as so sad.

When I was teaching a course in Russian Music, Art and History at the University of Connecticut in the late-70s, I had a chance to talk to a famous Soviet anthropologist visiting our campus who spoke primarily about how the Soviet government was trying to create a unified Soviet culture out of the various ethnic elements that made up the Soviet Union, making the distinction that while Shostakovich was a Russian composer, Aram Khachaturian was an Armenian (not a Russian) even though we in the West would consider them both “Russian Composers” rather than “Soviet Composers.” Anyway, I had the chance to ask her about folk music across this vast country and finally, humorously, asked the question so many Americans think if not ask: “what makes Russian music so sad?”

She thought for a moment as if this had never occurred to her, and then said, “I don't know – long winters?”

Tchaikovsky was something of a late bloomer, keeping in mind they had no music schools in Russia when he was growing up and what musical life existed in the capitals of St. Petersburg and Moscow were either imported – many Italian composers, for instance, were enticed to move to Russia and write operas and even church music for the imperial court – or entirely within the realm of amateurs. It wasn't until 1862 that Russia had its first music school, founded by the pianist and composer, Anton Rubinstein (a cosmopolitan figure and rival of Liszt's, he once quipped “to the Germans, I am a Russian; to the Russians I am a German; and to everyone, I am a Jew”, but as a pianist and conductor, a force of nature who told his students “Beethoven's music must never be studied – it must be reincarnated”).

At any rate, one of the school's first students was a young lawyer named Tchaikovsky who had always wanted to study music (against his father's wishes) but there was no way he could do what other would-be composers did: travel to Germany to study.

(Keep in mind, the United States didn't have a music school until Harvard choirmaster and organist John Knowles Paine convinced his colleagues to let him offer music courses for credit – and he became a one-man music department in the early-1870s.)

So, listening to this string quartet that Tchaikovsky composed in 1871 when he was 31 years old, forget the drama of the last three symphonies (especially the Pathetique) or even the bombast of the Piano Concerto (No. 1, as if most people even know he wrote two more) but remember that piano concerto was only four years away and the 4th Symphony, six.

It's quite possible, when he wrote his 1st Symphony at the age of 26, the year after he graduated, he hadn't even heard a Beethoven symphony in those days before the Internet and recordings. As soon as he graduated, Tchaikovsky was hired by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolai, another amazing pianist, to teach at the soon-to-opened music school he founded in Moscow where, basically, Tchaikovsky felt he was a few pages ahead of his students in the harmony class he was teaching. Still, it kept him from going back to being a law clerk to make a living. He continued teaching there until 1878 after Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow and a generous fan, offered him a stipend so he could devote all his time to composing.

While fame came slowly to the developing composer – keep in mind Schubert had died at the age of 31 – Tchaikovsky had written dances, piano pieces and songs as well as operas (which, though a large work, was still a collection of shorter elements that could be the equivalent of songs, dances and short orchestral interludes). So in a way, his first string quartet is only his second attempt at a large-scale and largely Western-style work, as far as the form is concerned. Even that first symphony, known as “Winter Dreams,” was revised before its delayed premiere took place in 1868 and it wasn't published until 1873, two years after the string quartet. The version we usually hear today (if we hear it) is a further revision made and premiered in 1883, five years before he finished his 5th Symphony.

In 1866, in the midst of working on this symphony which did not progress smoothly, he had a nervous breakdown. Three months before that, he wrote to one of his brothers,

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“My nerves are altogether shaken. The causes are: (1) the symphony, which does not sound satisfactory; (2) Rubinstein and Tarnovksy [Nikolai Rubinstein, his roommate, and Konstantin Tarnovsky, a mutual friend] have discovered I am easily startled and amuse themselves by giving me all manner of shocks all day long; (3) I cannot shake off the conviction I shall not live long and shall leave my symphony unfinished. I long for the summer and for Kamenka [their sister's house in Ukraine] as for the Promised Land, and hope to find rest and peace and to forget all my troubles there... I hate mankind in the mass, and I should be very delighted to retire into some wilderness with very few inhabitants.”
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The House at Kamenka
Whether he found the necessary rest and peace at Kamenka that summer or not, we can only imagine, but one thing he did find at one of his visits there three years later was a beautiful and simple tune with a fairly silly text – “Vanya sat on a divan, drinking, thinking of his sweetheart” – a Russian folk-song sung by a gardener or house-painter at his sister's estate (other sources say a baker). Two years later, he would use this for the slow movement of his 1st String Quartet, the famous Andante cantabile.

Now, this movement is very simple – a very straight-forward setting of the tune with simple harmonies and textures, a slightly contrasting (and original) second theme before the main tune returns. It does not win technical points – Colin Mason, in his article on Tchaikovsky's chamber music in Gerald Abraham's collection, “The Music of Tchaikovsky” (1946) calls it “feeble” and feels that Tchaikovsky “wastes” the tune in this “less interesting” movement, compared to the much better crafted movements of the rest of the quartet even though he admits it would probably be forgotten if it weren't for its “popular slow movement.” Of course, the fact that it's “popular” will rankle any academicians butt, but I digress...

But there is more to this quartet than this “simple” slow movement. Some writers feel it is the best of the three quartets because it is the most consistent. Keep in mind the young, inexperienced composer, fresh from college, basically, had begun by writing a symphony when the few Russian composers around weren't writing symphonies (except Anton Rubinstein who, by this time, had written only half his six symphonies). As a student of Rubinstein's, Tchaikovsky was probably more aware of Mendelssohn's quartets than Beethoven's, but since very few people today would even be aware that Rubinstein had written 10 string quartets himself, it's impossible to say how much of an influence they may have been on the evolving composer.

Grove's Dictionary has this to say about it, though: “a number of [Tchaikovsky's] compositions, especially the weaker ones, show the influence of his former master: his attitude to songs and piano music, for instance, was very similar to Rubinstein's. But in addition, certain passages of Tatyana's music in Tchaikovsky's Onyegin are derived from similar passages in Rubinstein's The Demon allotted to Tamara, who is, however, a puppet-like figure beside Tchaikovsky's incomparable heroine.”

Nikolai & Anton Rubinstein
Likewise, Grove's assessment of Rubinstein's output as a composer seems to bear out in the public awareness of his music today: his larger-scale works often showed “signs of haste,” good ideas that could be developed in a “trivial manner” that revealed “his fatal facility as a note-spinner.” He felt his name on the title page was enough to generate interest in selling his music. Out of six massive symphonies, five piano concertos suitable for a giant of the keyboard plus some 20 works for the stage, in addition to a lot of chamber music for various combinations and tons of songs and what are generally dismissed as “salon pieces” for the piano, he is primarily remembered today for only two early works, piano pieces like the “Melody in F” and the “Angelic Dream” from the collection of 24 pieces, Kammenoy Ostrow (The Stone Island).

Anton's younger brother Nikolai, was himself an exceptional pianist, “more detached and analytical” than Anton. He was however more of a champion of Tchaikovsky and his music than the teacher, despite Nikolai's infamous attack on the 1st Piano Concerto (written just four years after this string quartet) and it was Nikolai's death in 1881 that brought forth the Piano Trio in which Tchaikovsky poured out – at great length – his grief.

It may have been Rubinstein's cosmopolitan world with its Germanic training that tempered Tchaikovsky's innate Russianness and made him an object of concern to the Nationalist School of The Mighty Handful, the famous “Russian Five” of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Mussorgsky, Borodin and... oh yes, Cesar Cui who championed Russian folk-song as the root of Russian music (taking their cue from Glinka in the earlier generation, generally considered the first “native-born” Russian composer of any stature – as Stravinsky would later say, his “Kamarinskaya” was the acorn from which the might oak of Russian music grew – here it is, performed by a student orchestra in Peter Sirotin's hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine. Peter tells me his father used to conduct this orchestra in the 1980s and he played his first chamber music concert with Beethoven's Op.12 Sonata in that hall in 1986!)

Even though Balakirev famously gave Tchaikovsky the complete outline and thematic profile for his first successful orchestral work, the overture Romeo and Juliet which was premiered (in its first version – we, primarily, know the third version today) the year before he composed this string quartet. There were various hopes and attempts to “convert” Tchaikovsky to the Nationalist Cause but he was too much his teacher's student to fall completely under their sway. Even though he frequently used Russian folk-songs and dances in his symphonies, his popularity was always suspect by the Five. But that is more a story for the future.

Right now, think of Tchaikovsky, aged 31, only five years after he made the decision to give up his day-job as a law clerk in the Ministry of Justice to become a professional composer.

- Dick Strawser