Friday, January 22, 2016

SATURDAY'S CONCERT HAS BEEN POSTPONED...

You could call it "cancelled" as far as this weekend is concerned -- but due to the winter storm, the performance by the Enso Quartet for Saturday Night at Whitaker Center has been postponed.

The new performance date is Wednesday, April 6th at 7:30pm at Market Square Presbyterian Church with a pre-concert talk at 6:45.

We'll have more information on the website, on Facebook and the blog in the near future. A notice will be sent to all ticket-holders as well.

We apologize for the inconvenience. Stay warm and stay safe!

Regards,
Peter Sirotin & Ya-Ting Chang
Market Square Concerts Co-Directors

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Celebrating 100 Years of Alberto Ginastera: His String Quartet No. 1

***UPDATE: SATURDAY'S CONCERT HAS BEEN CANCELLED and will be RESCHEDULED for APRIL 6th (more information TBA)***

This weekend's concert with the Enso Quartet may be overshadowed by the weather forecast (if not the weather) but since the program opens with the 1st Quartet by the Argentine composer, Alberto Ginastera, let's remember that, in Buenos Aires, it is summer...

The program is scheduled for Saturday night at 8:00 in Harrisburg's Whitaker Center – preceded by a pre-concert talk I'll be offering in the hall at 7:15. In addition to the Ginastera will be an “evocation of the night” by French composer, Henri Dutilleux, called Ainsi la nuit; and then, more familiar turf on the second half of the concert with the third of Beethoven's “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59 No. 3 in C Major.

And the Enso Quartet received a Grammy nomination for their recording of all three String Quartets by Alberto Ginastera for the Naxos label. For us, they will perform the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 20.

Nick Barnard, reviewing the disc in 2009 for MusicWeb International, wrote:
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"I have enjoyed the music of Ginastera greatly before I heard this disc but I consider this a revelation—showing as it does a range and compositional technique of which, in my ignorance, I was previously unaware. I find it hard to believe that these magnificent pieces could be performed better than they are here by the Enso Quartet—seek out this group, they are clearly bound for greatness. One little foot-note; a particular quality of the ensemble that struck me as I listened was their tonal unanimity so how interesting to read that they play on a set of matched modern instruments made by London-based maker Nigel Harris: clearly magnificent instruments played to within an inch of their lives by superb musicians. If I could give this disc a standing ovation of one in my front room after listening to it I would!

"String quartet playing of jaw-dropping prowess revealing masterpieces of the 20th century quartet literature."

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In this earlier post, you can read more about the Beethoven's quartet that concludes the program and the people behind it, especially Count Andrei Razumovsky who'd asked Beethoven to write three quartets for him – and hear a performance of the complete quartet by the Orion Quartet.

In this and in a future post, it's an introduction to the two 20th Century works on the program, written by composers whose centennial anniversaries are being observed this year – Alberto Ginastera born in Buenos Aires on April 11th, 1916; and Henri Dutilleux, born in Angers, France, on January 22nd, 1916.

Though Ginastera died in 1983, only three years ago I could classify Dutilleux as “one of my favorite living composers” – he died on May 22nd, 2013, at the age of 97.

It's true Dutilleux's quartet-piece may be older than some people in the audience, composed 40 years ago, but it is probably still a new piece to most of those attending (or planning on attending) this concert – in the sense it “hasn't been heard before” or is, probably like the composer, unfamiliar. Even Ginastera, regarded as a major composer of the 20th Century, may not be that familiar to American listeners except to those in the major cities.

Writing or talking about music in the context of the composer's “catalogue,” those works he or she's produced in a lifetime, is easier with Beethoven: when I say “the Razumovsky Quartets were written in the same year he was working on the 4th and 5th Symphonies, the 4th Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto,” chances are the average concert-goer has heard these pieces – and so you get an idea of what this particular piece is within the scope of his creative life, perhaps even his biography.

With Ginastera and Dutilleux, I should give you detailed biographies of both composers and play representative works from various stages in their careers so you'd get an idea where these particular pieces fit in. And while neither would fill a biography like Jan Swafford's recently published Beethoven: Anguish & Triumph which, at 1,054 pages, weighs in around four pounds, it's more than a blog post or two and a half-hour talk can realistically provide.

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Alberto Ginastera's cat reacts to a particularly spicy chord
How many Argentine composers other than Alberto Ginastera can you name? Surely, he didn't spring up, like Minerva, fully formed from the beginning of musical time in that Latin American nation?

Born to a Catalan father and an Italian mother, Ginastera was already studying piano, theory and composition at the age of 12 in the “Williams Conservatory,” founded by the Argentine-born composer Alberto Williams in 1893 (he had studied with Cesar Franck in Paris). While a senior in 1937, Ginastera composed a ballet, Panambí (which one reviewer in 1998 described as “a seductive work that sounds like Ravel on growth hormones”) that, after a suite was premiered at Argentina's major concert hall, Teatro Colón, established his national reputation. When the full ballet was staged for the first time in 1940, Ginastera won several national and local prizes for music.

The next year, the young composer met Aaron Copland, then on a Latin American tour with the American Ballet Caravan (they'd produced Copland's ballet, Billy the Kid). On the strength of Panambí, the company's director, Lincoln Kirstein, commissioned Ginastera to compose a ballet for them which would become Estancia. A suite of four dances from the ballet – about the life of the gauchos on a ranch in the Pampas (basically) – remains one of his most frequently performed works, and the “Danza final” (a malambo) remains his greatest hit.

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Here's Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in the Final Dance at a British Proms concert:

It doesn't get much “faster and louder” – how can you not have a standing ovation after that?! (For a somewhat cheesier performance, here's another video with the same ensemble but you can forgive them their enthusiasm when you listen to the excitement and see how much fun they're having in the process: remember, most of these performers came through “The System” in Venezuela and many were destined for lives on crime- and drug-ridden streets). 
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Unfortunately, the American dance company folded and was unable to produce Estancia, so a collection of four dances from the ballet was premiered in 1943 (the ballet itself wasn't staged at the Teatro Colón until 1953!) but the composer received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to study in America, a trip that had to be postponed because of the war. In 1941, he had already been appointed a professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires and also the “chair of music” at the General San Martín Military School, a post he was dismissed from when Juan Perón came to power. That December (1945), he and his family moved to the United States where he studied with Copland and heard some of his music performed by the League of American Composers in New York City and by the Pan-American Union in Washington, DC.

Returning to Argentina as his international reputation grew, he helped establish a local league of composers that became the Argentine division of the International Society for Contemporary Music (known as ISCM) in 1948. He also became the director of the Conservatory in La Plata (just outside Buenos Aires), and from this year on, he would make frequent trips to Europe as a representative of Argentine music.

I mention these events in detail because it was in 1948 that he composed the 1st String Quartet on the program.

It's important to realize that, looking back on his career, Ginastera himself would later say this quartet marked the dividing line between his early style and his “second” period. He was now 32 – think of Beethoven who, at 30, was moving into what is universally called his “Middle Period” following his first set of quartets and the 1st Symphony – and what Ginastera called his “objective nationalism” with its strong influence of “creole music” like Estancia, with its overt use of gaucho folk-songs and dance rhythms.

This new 2nd Period he called his “subjective nationalism,” where, while elements of folk music are still in evidence, it's not nearly so explicit and often more like what other composers might be doing internationally but with an Argentine accent.

For one thing, this reflects what Bela Bartók had done in his own musical development, after he started quoting elements of folk music and then absorbing it into his more abstract style, what he often called “imaginary folksong.” The fingerprints of the folk style were present but the melodic and rhythmic materials were original, significant building-blocks of many of his major works, especially the 3rd, 4th, and 5th String Quartets.

Ginastera w/Students
Other aspects of the international style were absorbed into Ginastera's evolving language: he would use serialism (which most composers were using in one way or another in the 1950s) but not in any especially doctrinaire manner, influenced more by Berg and the expressionist atonality of Schoenberg than the rigorous approach of Webern and, particularly, Boulez (who even worked with serializing rhythms and dynamics as well as pitch). He would use polytonality – the presence of different layers of tonality but each strand in a different key – and “micro-tonality” (the use of quarter-tones) as well as elements of chance (the “aleatoric” music of John Cage, for instance). Above all, even though he was still disposed to “traditional forms” like the sonata or variations, he would “revitalize” them in his own, often different ways.

His music always had a rhythmic drive – often ferocious as you can hear in the Final Dance from Estancia – and he was above all fascinated by instrumental color, preferring to find new colors from combinations of standard instruments rather than using electronics. It was not unusual for his music to move along like a kaleidoscope of "sound-images" though with an underlying core of what constituted Ginastera's own “voice” so a casual listener might not notice the diversity. In other words, subjectivity aside, despite its technical variety, it would sound entirely consistent.

Keeping in mind that “dissonance” is technically a sound that implies the need for resolution – as a Dominant 7th Chord in Haydn is still technically a dissonance needing to resolve to a tonic chord – Ginastera's use of dissonance is often more a matter of color or rhythm (in a sense) than just the idea of creating harsh sounds. You can hear this in the aggressive opening of the 1st Quartet - which in the process generates a lot of the music's drive.

Here is the Cuarteto Latinoamericano with Ginastera's String Quartet No. 1, complete in one audio-clip:


Just listening to the first few minutes of the opening, this is not your grandfather's collection of folksy dance tunes! Even the tempo indication – Allegro violento ed agitato (Violently Fast and Agitated) – lets you know he's aiming right between the eyes.

While the contrasts are between different types of violence and agitation in the first movement, mostly in the sense of rhythmic propulsion with a savage folkloric theme of limited scope over hammered, crunching chords, the second movement, beginning at 4:25, brings in an aspect of “magic” with its element of the supernatural (that old black magic), more than a Disney-style sense of fantasy, but with contrasts between the colors of playing close to the bridge (the glassy sounds at 4:35 and again at 7:00), the plucked strings against the hypnotically repeated perpetual motion on a single tone that expands at 6:00, which itself contrasts with the odd scurrying passages, not to forget the col legno passage at 7:18 where the players tap on the strings with the wooden backs of the bow rather than the bow-hairs! So much color and so much variety in just a few minutes.

The long slow movement, beginning at 8:00 – a contrast in length as well as tempo after two brief and concentrated fast movements (one violent, one eerily mysterious) – again brings Bartók to mind, his famous brand of “night music” where, rather than the romantic moonlit nocturnes of Chopin, we hear the sounds of nature complete with insects and other strange noises we're not sure of and, on occasion, even frogs (Bartók's son Peter, in his memoir, My Father, describes how the composer was fascinated by the sounds of the night at his uncle's farm, especially the frogs). The music slowly unfolds in simple intervals creating long sustained chords, full of silences and anticipation with fragments of melodies slow to evolve. These chords are based on (or comparable to) the tunings one might expect from a guitar. And the expansiveness is something one might experience alone under the stars of the great Pampas of rural Argentina.

The final movement – a dance – begins at 16:25 and is marked allegramente rustico or “cheerfully rustic,” the closest thing Ginastera has created to an overt folk-dance in this quartet, especially in its contrasting 5/8 sections. And while four string players might “kill” to be able to create the kind of “louder/faster” frenzy a huge orchestra can bring to, say, the conclusion of Estancia, there are ways of building to a sonorous and rhythmically exciting end.

Alberto Ginastera
In the end, Ginastera has created a string quartet – something so associated with European cuklture and its history of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms (and Bartók) – that is at home on any world stage and brings with it echoes of his homeland, letting everyone else know that, yes, there is music in Argentina – and it sounds like this.

There is much more to Ginastera's music in the 35 years he continued to compose – interestingly, in the last years of his life, he talked about how his music was becoming less aggressive, returning not so much to the folk music of his past but to the folk music before his past.

“This change is taking the form of a kind of reversion, a going back to the primitive America of the Mayas, the Aztecs, and the Incas. This influence in my music I feel as not folkloric, but – how to say it? – as a kind of metaphysical inspiration. In a way, what I have done is a reconstitution of the transcendental aspect of the ancient pre-Columbian world.”

So with his first quartet, we hear a composer, now in his 30s, reaching out to create a style that synthesizes the national and the personal – that will, by the time he is in his late-60s, return to find deeper roots to inspire him but to continue evolving an individual voice.

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If you are not familiar with the music of Alberto Ginastera, a Centennial Year is a good opportunity (if not just an excuse) to explore some of the other pieces he's composed. One of the first works of his I'd heard, back when it was still quite new, was a recording of his opera Bomarzo, written for the Washington National Opera but which, if you read most of the reviews about it, seemed to be only about sex (and what college student wouldn't find that an attention-grabber?). I used to listen to it so often, I soon had the music memorized even if the sexual aspects of the production (which, of course, I couldn't see) had little impact on me, so fascinating was the music and its psychological impact on the story. And even though I hadn't heard it in the last 20 years or so, finding it on-line recently, I was amazed how much of it came back to me like an old familiar friend who hadn't aged at all.

Read the synopsis first and if you can find a recording somewhere with the libretto (it is sung in Spanish and the only performance I can find on-line has subtitles in Italian with a very distracting film superimposed on the recording though much of it seems to follow the action), that would be even better. But speaking of “black magic,” that opening is one of the creepiest sounds I've ever heard...!

Also in college, back in the late-60s, I found a recording of his 1st Piano Concerto in the music library. By the time I'd gotten to the last movement, I was sitting there under the headsets, my eyes wide open and my head bobbing to its furious rhythms when someone tapped me on the shoulder to make sure I wasn't having a fit or something. “No,” I said, handing him the headset, “listen to this!”


João-Carlos Martins, piano; Boston Symphony/Erich Leinsdorf – still the most hair-razing performance I've ever heard of it!

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We'll save Henri Dutilleux and his nocturne, Ainsi la nuit, for another post.

Dick Strawser


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Beethoven's 3rd "Razumovsky" Quartet: And What *IS* a "Razumovsky," Anyway?

***UPDATE: SATURDAY'S CONCERT HAS BEEN CANCELLED and WILL BE RESCHEDULED for APRIL 6th***

Okay, let's not think about the weather forecasts – let's concentrate on the music the Enso Quartet will be playing Saturday night at 8:00 at Harrisburg's Whitaker Center with Market Square Concerts' January program.

The concert, dedicated to the memory of long-time board member and area arts activist Dorothy Anderson, will open with two 20th Century works – the first quartet by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (written in 1948) and a “study of the night” written in 1976 by French composer Henri Dutilleux he called “Ainsi la nuit” (which roughly translates as “Thus, the night”). This year marks the centennial anniversary of both their births. Then, on the second half of the program, there's one of the most popular of Beethoven's quartets, the third of the set of three “Razumovsky” Quartets completed over the summer of 1806.

I'll be doing a pre-concert talk in the hall starting at 7:15 focusing primarily about the “newness” of all these pieces – though these days, no one's probably “afraid” of one of Beethoven's masterpieces. If anything, this and the B-flat Quartet (with the “Grosse Fuge”) are probably the most frequently experienced of his quartets, and compared to Op. 130, the C Major Quartet, Op.59 No. 3 is like falling off the proverbial log.

Here's a performance of the complete quartet (in one clip) with the Orion Quartet recorded at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2008.
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Beethoven in 1806
In Mozart and Haydn's day, it was typical for composers to produce sets of quartets (and other works: think of Vivaldi's concertos published by the dozen) usually six or three in a group and each one designed to be a different “solution” to the question “how does one write a string quartet?” Sometime in 1805, Beethoven was asked to provide one of the great arts patrons of his day, the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky, with a set of three - hence the quartets' nickname (for those of you wondering what a “Razumovsky” is, see below).

We don't know exactly when this request was made or if, as Beethoven wrote to his publish in July of 1806, he'd already finished one of the three by then, but Jan Swafford, in his recent (and excellent) biography, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, mentions specifically he began work on them the day after his brother Carl's wedding to Johanna Reiss, a prophetic event considering how much time would be spent while he was writing the Late Quartets dealing with legal issues over the guardianship of his nephew following his brother's death.

If that's true, it means Beethoven composed all three of the Op. 59 quartets between May 26th and September 6th, 1806, when he again wrote to his publishers and said they were done.

While three months might seem sufficient time to write three string quartets, remember Beethoven was also composing the 4th Symphony, the 4th Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto during that same summer vacation, not to mention revisions on his opera Leonore (not yet called Fidelio) complete with two new overtures for it (the 2nd & 3rd Leonore Overtures) and other works that same year! Any composer would be delighted to have produced such masterpieces during a lifetime – but in one year?

Part of the “premise” for the quartets was Razumovsky's request to include in each of them “a Russian theme.” Some say Beethoven suggested this as a tribute to his patron but it doesn't seem typical of Beethoven to offer such a “musical device.” And, anyway, there is no outwardly Russian theme in the 3rd Quartet, the C Major. In the 2nd, Beethoven made use of an old folksong called “Slava!” (“Rejoice”) which has become more famous to Western ears through Mussorgsky's using it in the Coronation Scene of his opera Boris Godunov, first composed in the late-1860s, where it doesn't stand out as a quotation. By that, I mean Mussorgsky's music is so authentically Russian, no Westerner would notice this is an old folk-song. With Beethoven, so (if anything) authentically German, the sound of its incorporation within his style sticks out like a sore thumb and in fact the way he uses it, it almost sounds like he's deliberately having fun with it or even making fun of it, turning it into that most academic of formats and so antithetical to folk-song, the fugue – then especially when the tonic/dominant cadence gets so carried away, it sounds like its beating up on it and chasing it out the door. Perhaps by the time he got to the 3rd Quartet, he'd thought, “enough.”

The expansive opening movement, following a very enigmatic introduction – harking back, most likely, to Mozart's “Dissonant” Quartet, also in C Major – is more compact than the other quartets' but on the whole more approachable, too, as if he's letting listeners baffled by the first two off the hook with this one (or so it might seem).

As one of the early reviews said, "Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven string quartets, dedicated to the Russian ambassador Count Razumovsky, are also attracting the attention of all connoisseurs. The conception is profound and the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended." Perhaps the comparative tunefulness of the Third's opening brought a sigh of relief?

The second movement (beginning c.8:45), however, could have something Slavic about it – again, more likely Beethoven's impression of something Slavic – in the mood of the theme though its most memorable feature is the cello's steady pizzicato, almost like a tolling bell – and Russians did love their bells. That hasn't kept other writers from hearing something Spanish or even more exotic in it.

The third movement (beginning c.18:38), rather than being a typical scherzo, is more of a throwback to the graceful days of Mozart and Haydn, the previous generation, a minuet marked “grazioso.” But this sets up the finale more perfectly than a typical Beethoven scherzo possibly could.

And yet, this was even more of a throw-back, this time to the highly contrapuntal days of Bach and Handel of the 1740s or so when Fugue was king. (In Beethoven's day, Bach was little known, at least to the general public; Beethoven admitted more than once Handel was one of his favorite composers). The finale starts off with a vigorous (!) fugue and this dense and busy texture – a perpetual motion, at that – dominates the movement to the point it no longer sounds like an academic and old-fashioned dry-as-dust fugue, the kind of thing all students learn to compose but then probably shouldn't. While it's very different from the Great Fugue that originally ended the Op. 130 Quartet, it's still a marvelous show-case of compositional craft combined with musical ingenuity.

Ignaz Schuppanzigh
These quartets were composed with specific players in mind: the members of a string quartet led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, perhaps the best or at least the best known violinist in Vienna at the time. And this is an important distinction.

Before, Mozart or Haydn – or any number of those other composers the typical American audience is unaware of who were their contemporaries – wrote for what is called “the amateur market.” In the days before ipods and CD-players turning us into passive listeners, people were actively involved in making their own music and it was typical to assume the intended audience for a new string quartet was essentially the four people who played it and maybe their friends and family who sat in the parlor listening to them. (Think Schubert growing up in a household where his older brother played 1st Violin, he would play 2nd Violin and then Viola when another brother became proficient enough to play 2nd, and their father played Cello.)

Even given the level of playing available at a time before “amateur” became a pejorative term, how Beethoven wrote these new string quartets was something new. Not only was the playing level above the average amateur string-player, it required dedicated practice and rehearsal time and also expected more of its listeners. These were, essentially, the first professional string quartets on a “symphonic” scale – and intended for public performance.

And the level of technical challenge for the players led Schuppanzigh, on at least one occasion, to complain about a particular passage: “how do you expect me to play that?!”

While Beethoven's response is famous (and translated variously), we don't know what specific passage, much less piece, it was Schuppanzigh was referring to.

“What do I care for you and your damned fiddle when the spirit moves me?”

No aristocratically employed composer in Haydn's time would have gotten away with that...

The idea of “chamber music concerts” was also something new at the time. Before, an aristocrat might have some “house musicians” who would perform for their guests. Some even had “house orchestras” though now an orchestra like the one Haydn conducted at Prince Esterhazy's was a rare luxury: given the early-19th Century economy, it was more likely the musicians would double as house-servants and staff.

(Imagine the downstairs world of Downton Abbey doubling as a small orchestra to entertain at the Granthams' dinner-parties – what instruments, exactly, do you think Carson, Mrs. Padmore or Thomas might play?)

But Schuppanzigh had created a professional quartet in 1804 (the cellist had once been Haydn's principal cellist back in the day of Prince Esterhazy's employment) and though their public concert-series only lasted through 1808 – it is assumed (and it's odd no one knows this for sure) Beethoven's Op. 59 Quartets where first heard during their 1807-1808 Season – it was an important ground-breaking event in the evolution of “modern music.”

These works were not conceived as amateur music-making but for professional musicians to play for a preferably paying audience. We have begun making the bridge between aristocratic patronage and the free-lance, professional musician.

Count Razumovsky hired Schuppanzigh to form a “house quartet” for him in 1808, intending it to be “the finest quartet in Europe.” It was then that the Count's new quartet played his new Quartets rather frequently at his palace, one imagines.

Speaking of amateur, the Count was a talented violinist himself – being an aristocrat, he was, technically, an amateur, no matter how well he played – and he enjoyed “sitting in” with his quartet to play 2nd Violin. On those occasions he preferred to sit back and listen (and one wonders if he was capable of playing the 2nd Violin parts in Beethoven's newest works), a fellow named Louis Sina played instead (talk about playing 2nd fiddle...). You might wonder if the Count could hold his own in “the finest quartet in Europe,” but then would his employees say, “excuse me, your lordship, but maybe you should sit this one out and let Mr. Sina play?”

It's quite possible if Ignatz Schuppanzigh hadn't existed, the quartets Beethoven wrote for the Count might have been very different. In a way, the violinist is almost as responsible as the patron was in bringing these three masterpieces about. Something to consider...

By the way, there were only two musicians in Vienna who played in the premiere of every Beethoven symphony between 1800 and 1825 – one was Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

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So who was this guy named Razumovsky?

Andrei Razumovsky, 1776
Count Andrei Kirilovich Razumovsky was the Russian ambassador to the Imperial court in Vienna, beginning in 1792 after serving in lesser diplomatic posts in Naples, Copenhagen and Stockholm. His father had been Hetman in the Ukraine and had amassed a fortune, building splendid palaces in his country estate in Baturyn and in the capital, St. Petersburg (more about him and his brother, below).

Officially the ambassador only until 1807 when he retired, Razumovsky served as Chief Negotiator for the Russian Empire during the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), recreating Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, ending a generation of constant warfare that ranged across Europe from Spain to Moscow. For his services in this last diplomatic role, Tsar Alexander I gave him the title of Prince.

Today, he is best known as a friend and patron of Beethoven's who commissioned him to write three string quartets. The count was, as I mentioned, a capable amateur violinist and frequently played 2nd Violin in his own ensemble. After all, he'd played quartets under Haydn's tutoring in the 1790s but when Razumovsky asked Beethoven about lessons in composing string quartets in 1800, Beethoven, who'd just completed his Op. 18 quartets, declined and sent him to Aloys Förster who had been Beethoven's own mentor in the craft.

Called “an enemy of the [French] Revolution but a good friend of the fair sex,” Razumovsky had, as one person described it, the “pinched and malevolent face of a Russian police interrogator.” His manners were impeccable and he “radiated pride in all things: his birth, his rank and his honor, in his bearing [and] in his speech.”

Along with two other of Beethoven's aristocratic patrons – Prince Lichnowsky and Prince Lobkowitz – Count (and later Prince) Razumovsky was one of the most extravagant princes “in a city full of the breed” (as Jan Swafford puts it so delightfully in his recent biography). The palace he built on an imposing hill overlooking a Viennese suburb – finished in 1808 – had a roof garden, a vast library, an art gallery as well as a hall just for the sculptures of Canova, one of the leading artists of the day, to say nothing of a fine music room.

Here, Beethoven was “cock-of-the-walk,” walking confidently through its halls and lording it over Viennese musical society as performer and seeming composer-in-residence. Unlike he relationships with Lichnowsky and Lobkowitz, Beethoven seemed to get on almost placidly with Razumovsky.In addition to these quartets, Beethoven also dedicated his 5th and 6th Symphonies to the count.

But on New Year's Eve, the last day of 1814 when the Congress of Vienna was in full swing (in so many ways), the Count was holding a lavish dinner with both the Austrian and the Russian emperors in attendance along with some 700 guests when, as Swafford describes it:

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“...a baking oven overheated unnoticed and fire got into the heating system. As the guests were eating, the palace erupted in flames... By the time all the fire engines of Vienna arrived along with thousands of Viennese, who enjoyed a good fire, there was nothing to be done. Gone were three blocks of mansion, the great stables and riding school, the chapel, the carpets and tapestries, the old-master paintings, the hall of sculptures by Canova. Razumovsky was found sitting stunned on a bench on his grounds, wrapped in sables and wearing a velvet cap.”
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an older Andrei Razumovsky
Despite the offer of a loan of 700,000 florins from the tsar (remember Mozart, in 1787, considered 2,000 florins a good year's income), Razumovsky never rebuilt his palace and he became something of a recluse, living in near-seclusion until his death in 1836, almost nine years after Beethoven died. Shortly after the fire, he was forced to disband Schuppanzigh's quartet.

It's interesting to note that Countess Lulu von Thürheim, Razumovsky's sister-in-law, kept a kind of tell-all diary about life in Vienna at the time, giving us much daily information about life with the Count and his friends without ever making reference to his musical interests. The name of Beethoven is hardly mentioned.

And yet, if it weren't for these three quartets, Count Razumovsky would probably be forgotten except to historical experts: he certainly got more than he bargained for when he asked Beethoven to write them for him!

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For all his wealth, however, Andrei Kirilovich Razumovsky was a descendant of Ukrainian cossacks – his uncle Alexei was born to a peasant family named Rozum in 1709 and he was a shepherd boy who had a pleasant singing voice. He sang bass in the local church choir where the local sexton taught him to read and write. Then, in 1731, a colonel named Vishnevsky was traveling through the area on his way back to the court of the Empress Anna (niece of the late tsar, Peter I, known as “Peter the Great”) and, impressed by the young man's vocal abilities, took him back to the imperial capital to become a member of the palace chapel choir.

So, how did the nephew of a former Cossack shepherd become the wealthiest man in Vienna who commissioned Beethoven to compose three string quartets for him?

Alexei Razumovsky
In 1732, Alexei Razumovsky's musical abilities caught the ear of Princess Elizabeth (Elizaveta Petrovna), the daughter of Peter the Great and cousin of Empress Anna, who would become Empress herself in 1741. When Alexei lost his voice, he was made an official court bandura player and later a manager of one of Elizabeth's mansions. During the brief reign of the infant Ivan VI, he became a favorite of Elizabeth's and named a knight (Kammerjunker in the old Prussian ranks copied by the Russian court). He was also instrumental in the palace coup that overthrew the child-tsar's regent to proclaim Elizabeth the official ruler. After her accession, he became a chamberlain and “general-lieutenant” and, after her coronation, a “court marshal” (different than what it sounds like in English...) meaning he was in charge of, among other things, organizing and supervising the imperial household. If there was any doubt as to his courtly authority, let's just say his bedrooms were adjacent to the unmarried Empress'. (He was, consequently, nicknamed “The Emperor of the Night.”) Several sources indicated she had secretly married him - morganatically, however, meaning he was not officially her consort nor would any children they might have be legal heirs to the Russian throne.

Kiril Razumovsky, 1758
Even though he was not politically involved in the Empress' court, he had influence. When he was made a Count in 1744 – and the Empress even went on a holiday with him which took them back to his native village where she met his family (imagine that homecoming!) – Alexei suggested restoring the old position of “hetman,” leader of Ukraine's Cossacks, a title which dated back to the 16th Century and which had previously been discredited and discontinued by the Empress' father.

To this position, then, the Empress later named Count Alexei's younger brother, Kiril, born in 1728, shortly before Alexei went off to pursue a career as a singer in the court chapel. Still in his teens and attending a German university, Kiril was named President of the Russian Academy of Sciences and, in 1750, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossack's autonomous region known as the “Zaporozhian Host” which he continued to hold until 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great dissolved the post (and the Host's autonomy), making Razumovsky a Field-Marshall instead. He would die in January, 1803, in his palace at Baturyn, the old Zaporozhian capital, at the age of 74.

Kiril Razumovsky's Palace, Baturyn
Count Andrei Kirilovich Razumovsky, Beethoven's patron, was born in 1752, when his father was Hetman, the second of five sons. When his father died, Count Razumovsky became one of the wealthiest men in Europe and lived the opulent lifestyle in Vienna, building his own grand palace there – at least until that disastrous New Year's Eve party in 1814. Little is known about the remaining 21 years of his life.

It intrigues me, though, considering how conscious the aristocracy usually is of family lineage and heritage, that Count Razumovsky, for all his wealth and charm, was accepted by the aristocratic families of Vienna who must have known, after all, his father had been born a peasant who achieved his social position all because his uncle had a pleasant bass voice and became Empress Elizabeth's “Emperor of the Night.”

Well, never underestimate the possibilities of a good musical education, I guess...

Dick Strawser

Friday, November 6, 2015

Canellakis & Brown: The Adventure Continues, Rachmaninoff Edition


Michael Brown & Nicholas Canellakis
If you're just tuning in to these posts about the Canellakis-Brown Duo's performance Saturday night at 8:00 at Market Square Church, I've also written about the first half of the program in this earlier post. Since I didn't want to turn that one into a marathon, I kept the Rachmaninoff Sonata that's on the second half of the program for... well, I guess last – second, anyway.

It's a good year for lovers of Russian music in Harrisburg – there was Rachmaninoff's rarely heard 1st Piano Sonata and Scriabin's Op. 11 Preludes with Peter Orth last month (read about that program of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff here), Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto in the opening concert of the season with the Harrisburg Symphony, continuing in January with Market Square Concerts' Artist Director and Harrisburg Symphony's Concertmaster, Peter Sirotin, playing the Glazunov Violin Concerto, with Stravinsky's Petrushka in February, Zuill Bailley returning in March for Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto, and to end the season in May, an all-Russian program with Shostakovich's 1st Symphony, Kabalevsky's suite “The Comedians,” and Ann Schein returning for Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto!

When I was teaching a course in “Russian and East European Art and Folk Music with a Historical and Cultural Perspective” (or “Russian Music” as it appeared in the curriculum) back in the late-1970s, a guest of the University of Connecticut's Slavic Center was one of the foremost anthropologists of the then Soviet Union and I asked her the question I most often get asked by Americans about Russian music: “Why is Russian music so sad?” thinking “finally, I can ask a real Russian this question!” I awaited the definitive answer like someone hoping for the latest news from the Kardashians.

She thought a while and said, “I don't really know – perhaps it's the long winters?”

Having spent three years of my life living in Rochester NY where locals say they have two seasons, Winter and the 4th of July, this, oddly enough, resonated with me.

Of course, if you figure how much time you have to spend indoors during a Russian winter between the cold and the snow and how you have to entertain yourself during that time, no wonder they write long gloomy novels and sad or wistful melodies, almost exclusively in dark minor keys with those tonal inflections that make it sound “uniquely Russian” with a soulfulness that examines what's left after the wind has stripped away everything else.


Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Hsin-Bei Lee, piano: Rachmaninoff Sonata in G Minor for Cello & Piano – Andante

The slow movement of Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata is a case-in-point even if the very opening of the first movement may seem more like someone facing up to an impending winter. (Not that I want to point out that, despite summer-like temperatures at the beginning of November, winter, whatever it may bring, is lurking just around some not-too-distant corner...)

Rachmaninoff
When we think of Rachmaninoff the composer, we see a man whose face looks like it was carved in granite (Stravinsky famously described him as a six-and-a-half-foot scowl). One of the little musical motives that keeps cropping up in so many of his pieces is the infamous Dies irae from the Latin Mass for the Dead, the “Day of Judgment.” He wrote a symphonic poem called “The Isle of the Dead.” I mean, this man must have been a laugh-riot to hang out with.

The one thing that saddens me even more is realizing that Nick Canellakis will never be able to film one of his conversations with Sergei Rachmaninoff.

But keep in mind that we're lucky to have this music at all, following the nuclear winter of his 1st Symphony's disastrous premiere when he had recently graduated from the conservatory. The dramatic failure of this work which he'd spent so much time and love on sent him into a period of depression – understandably, he was reluctant to compose anything – and then he went to see one of those new-fangled psychiatrists, Nikolai Dahl, who, through some imaginative and supportive therapy that reportedly included a bit of confidence-building hypnosis, managed to bring him out of these creative doldrums to compose his 2nd Piano Concerto which became one of those Greatest Hits. Its melodies even became the stuff of pop songs and the style would permeate the Hollywood Sound.

That symphony – originally inscribed with a biblical quote shared with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord” – was composed in 1895 and premiered the following year (and never performed again in Rachmaninoff's lifetime).

The 2nd Piano Concerto was begun late in the summer of 1900 and completed the following spring, then premiered that November with the composer as the soloist. It was then published as his Op. 18.

The Cello Sonata was completed shortly after the concerto's premiere and itself performed on December 2nd, 1901, again with the composer at the piano. And published as his Op. 19.

So while the 2nd Piano Concerto was the break-through piece following four years of creative and personal depression, the Sonata was the work that proved he had fully recuperated. Given the works he would go on to compose, one might call that the “best vengeance.”

Keep in mind, when Rachmaninoff wrote this sonata, he was 28 years old.

Here is the legendary Russian cellist Natalia Gutman and pianist Viacheslav Poprugin


(Why Rachmaninoff practically stopped composing after leaving Russia in 1917 is beyond the scope of this post: not only is it another post, it could easily be another book...)

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Rachmaninoff also didn't like to refer to it as a “Cello Sonata.” To him, it should be the “Sonata for Cello and Piano” because he felt both instruments were equal, the piano not being just an accompaniment. And considering he wrote the piano part for himself, it is not something pianists who aren't confident being soloists tackle lightly.

Here's something to keep in mind, listening to this program: Robert Schumann was a pianist (and married to one of the greatest pianists of the 19th Century, Clara Schumann); Felix Mendelssohn was a pianist; Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest pianists of the first half of the 20th Century; Janáček was, perhaps, an indifferent pianist who never tried making a career of it but he was an organist and a teacher of organ in his local conservatory in Brno, Moravia.

And Michael Brown, whose “Two Movements for Cello and Piano” is on the first half of the program, is also, obviously, a pianist.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that none of these composers were cellists...

Anyway, the role of an instrumental performer (one of those terms that seems to imply pianos are not instruments) usually requires the presence of a piano to make something more or less complete, as it were. You know, the “solo instrument” plays the melody while the accompanist thubs away boom-chucking the harmony.

And I hate to bust all those great violinists who play Beethoven Violin Sonatas with “an accompanist.” In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, the common description of such works was “Sonata for Piano and Violin” – even though it boggles the minds of listeners today, they were considered piano sonatas with the accompaniment of a violin. Go figure...

While I should point out you're going to be listening to the Canellakis-Brown Duo and not “Nicholas Canellakis, cellist (and we had to be pay extra so he could bring along his pianist),” here's another of those tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek Conversations with Nick Canellakis and the great pianist Emanuel Ax – who, by the way, recorded the Rachmaninoff Sonata with the equally great but incredibly better known Yo-Yo Ma which still remains one of the best recordings of the work out there.



There was a friend of mine, a pianist, from my days in New York City where I attempted to spend two years as a free-lance starving musician – let's call her Dora Matte – who had a totally obsequious view of her role as a pianist collaborating with other musicians. She saw herself as what they might call today a “Pianist with Benefits,” I guess – you know, “I get his coffee, I pick up his dry-cleaning before the concert, I walk the dog while he practices,” that kind of thing. And of course “I do whatever he tells me to do about interpretation, dynamics, tempo – the works.”

Listen to the old Heifetz recordings of the Beethoven sonatas with pianist Brooks Smith and hear violin noodlings during those “accompanimental passages” in the audio foreground while the piano playing the melody sounds like it's off somewhere in the wings, its sound being picked up only by the “soloist's” mike.

Now, Brooks Smith was an incredible pianist and teacher – he taught “accompanying” as a degree program at the Eastman School of Music when I was there, and friends of mine raved about the insights he would drop during a lesson (nothing about dry-cleaning, however).

When I say someone is a “fine accompanist,” I usually mean the pianist has the ability of a mind-reader to anticipate what the instrumentalist or vocalist is going to do (especially vocalists) – making those fine nuances of phrasing, quick turns in the tempo, matching dynamics in the build of a crescendo or the sudden change of a dramatic subito piano.

And, ironically, this is a real challenge even when playing the simplest of accompaniments, those boom-chucky mechanical harmonizations where you could just go along [boom-chuckboom-chuckboom-chuck] once you've set up the pattern, but that would put the “soloist” in a straight-jacket when, really, they just want to wallow in rubato, that stretching and pulling of the beat for emotion's sake, giving them time to toss the head back and roll their eyes.

A child could play some of those accompaniments – it's unfortunate that a lot of pianists sound like children when they're playing them, but I digress...

And that's not going to fly in something like the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata - I mean, the Sonata for Cello and Piano.

Today, most pianists who play sonatas with other musicians prefer to be called “collaborative artists” which some other instrumental musicians like to think of as another of those “politically correct” terms (“imagine, next they'll be wanting equal pay!”).

Rachmaninoff rarely ever “accompanied” another musician – he was primarily a soloist either playing concertos with orchestra or solo piano recitals. He did, on numerous occasions, play with the great violinist, Fritz Kreisler, who was a phenomenal musician if a little care-free in his practicing. One wonders how the stone-faced Russian Rachmaninoff and the ebullient Viennese Kreisler ever got along.

One famous story has it that, in the midst of one of those Beethoven sonatas, Kreisler had a memory slip and forgot where he was. He sidled up to Rachmaninoff, leaned over and whispered “where are we?”

Rachmaninoff, without missing a beat, said “Carnegie Hall.”


So, don't forget - the Canellakis-Brown Duo with cellist Nicholas Canellakis and pianist Michael Brown live at Market Square Church, Saturday Nov. 7th at 8pm, playing not only the Rachmaninoff Sonata but works by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Janáček and also Michael Brown as well as a Bulgarian Folk Dance (dancers not included).

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Canellakis-Brown Duo: Nick and Michael's Excellent Adventure

Canellakis-Brown Duo (Serious Pose) credit, Beowulf Sheehan
[tap tap tap] Testing - One. Two. Three. Is this thing on? [tap tap]

Okay. So, I'm really excited to get a chance to hear these guys Nick Canellakis and Michael Brown on Saturday night at Market Square Church because they're really great musicians for one thing – plus they'll be playing some great Romantic music by SchumMendelRacháček, some Bulgarian Folk Music and even something written by the pianist himself – but they're also, like, web celebrities!

And having spent too many years in radio arguing about how somebody's name should be pronounced, I know how important it is to be right-ish. So here's it is, straight from the cellist's mouth:


Their program is really eclectic which is a word commentators like me resort to using when they can't figure out why these pieces belong on the same program except there's a lot of variety, it's all great music and I bet they probably have a lot of fun playing it.

This post is about the works on the first half of the program. You can read the Rachmaninoff post, here.

Robert Schumann wrote most of his chamber music during 1842, his very busy “Year of Chamber Music,” but the “Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70” wasn't one of them. He wrote this one a few years later, after all those string quartets, the piano quintet and quartet and some other things that don't get played as much (do they?) and besides, he originally wrote it for horn and piano, by the way. Apparently, Schumann's publisher didn't think it would sell very well, so he directed that the horn part could be played by either a violin or a cello (can you say “Brahms Viola Sonatas”?).

Schumann's Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70” with Mischa Maisky, cello, and Marta Argerich, piano:


The year was 1849 – picture it, Dresden (where Schumann and his family were living) was in flames and composer Richard Wagner was one of the rabble-rousers and I'm not talking about his music (he would later be charged with treason once the revolution was put down). There's a story about how Schumann was composing a piano piece while you could hear gunfire down the street – this was for his “Album for the Young,” such innocent music! Finally, they decided they had to get out of town: walking out through the back garden gate, Schumann (leaving with Clara and their 7-year-old daughter) barely avoided being forcibly drafted. They caught a train and then walked several miles to a friend's house about 13 miles south of Dresden. But get this: while Schumann was composing the “Spring Song” from his “Album for the Young” that evening, Clara, with two other women, walked back to Dresden to retrieve the other three children (aged 6, 4 and 1) left behind with neighbors, then after arriving home at 3am, turned around and walked all the way back (this, while Clara was seven months pregnant).

Cool story, but it has nothing to do with the music of this “Adagio and Allegro” which was completed in four days in February, about ten weeks earlier.

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The next piece on the program is an old favorite of mine, one I accompanied my Eastman roommate in back in the early-'70s (before he found himself in the Cleveland Orchestra cello section) – Leoš Janáček's Pohádka.

Now, speaking of how-to-pronounce-things, let's start with the “funny marks” and the fact the á here is not a stress accent as most English-speakers would assume. In Czech, words are usually (if not always) accented on the first syllable, so it's LAY-ōsh YAH-nah-check (without the á, it would be YAH-nuh-check which could make a big difference to someone who's Czech), and the title of this little piece for cello and piano is pronounced “POH-hahd-kuh.” Literally, it means “A Tale” in the sense of a fairy tale which is how it's usually translated.



Leos Janacek: Pohadka (Fairy Tale), David Finckel and Wu Han from David Finckel and Wu Han on Vimeo.

Sometimes it's called a “Sonata for Cello and Piano” but that's not an appropriate use of the term. Yes, it's a three-movement piece and yes, there's a sonata-like balance to the movements which have some similarities of moods and motives. The first two are kind of like versions of the same ideas – both are marked “Andante” (a walking tempo) but the second one has a brighter mood and comes off more like a scherzo. The lively third movement is, one would imagine, the “happy ending,” even though at the end it sounds like the story-teller is trying not to wake the child who's finally fallen asleep.

If the composer hadn't given it a “figurative” title, he could also have called it “Three Pieces for Cello and Piano.” Bor-ing...

So, what's the fairy tale? It was inspired by some vast epic poem by the Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky who died in 1852. I can't find any information about “The Tale of Tsar Berendey,” but it was apparently inspired by the same fairy tales that gave rise to a play about the Snow Maiden which inspired Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, Snegúrochka – and involves lots of magical transformations, mostly to avoid capture by somebody presumably evil. Somebody changes into a bee, a fish and, if I remember correctly, a church? Got me...

Whatever that has to do with this piece of music, I think it's best just to think of it as a “piece in the mood of a fairy tale.” Which may be why Janáček called it “A Tale” rather than “The Story of Tsar Berendey and the Princess Who Turned Right into a Church.” (ba dum bump).

So, what's it about? It's about 12 minutes or so.

Janáček was fascinated by the “tonal inflections” of the spoken voice and he often wrote down normal speaking – once, a minister's sermon – as if it were sung recitative (or "recitation") for an opera. This gave his “sung speech” a very natural flow and rhythm to it (and which must be hell for his translators). You can hear this, in a way, in the instrumental melodic lines here – they're not really tunes but doesn't it sound like someone talking to you, telling you a story? And then there's the opening's “Once upon a time” image and all the repetitions as if trying to get your attention before settling into the tale.

Curiously, for such a short piece, Janáček spent a lot of time finishing it. He wrote the “first version” in 1910 (he was 56) when it was intended to be part of a larger work. Then two years later he added a fourth movement which was supposed to represent the Tsarina singing a lullaby but in 1923 (he was now 68) he decided to delete this, return to the original three movements, and revise some spots along the way before it was premiered that spring.

It was also performed in London a few years later for his first appearance there: he wrote home to Kamila Stösslová (now there's a long story!), how his “nice music” was “just made for these calm Englishmen. They eat a lot here!”

Five days later, the concert at Wigmore Hall included his wind sextet “Mladi,” the 1st String Quartet (the one inspired by Tolstoy's short story, The Kreutzer Sonata), the Violin Sonata and Pohádka and it took place just after a General Strike was called so there was no publicity, no public transportation and the few people in the audience were those who could walk to the concert or who owned cars. There were also no reviews. (Been there, done that...)

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An even more lyrical interlude, next, with two pieces by Felix Mendelssohn, very short in the manner of those “character pieces” so popular in the mid-19th Century whether they have fanciful titles like the Romantic Schumann gave his (think "Blind Man's Bluff" or "Dream's Confusions") or abstract titles like the Neo-Classical Mendelssohn gave his. (By the way, Schumann dubbed his friend Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the 19th Century.”) You're probably not going to come up with stories to go along with something called “Assai tranquillo” (very tranquil) but you might wonder what the implied words could be to a “Song without Words.”

There are eight “books” of Songs without Words for solo piano that Mendelssohn published during his career, each book containing six “songs.” These were primarily geared to the amateur market and a big fan was Queen Victoria who enjoyed playing many of them. A few of them have fanciful titles like “Venetian Gondola Song” or the ever-popular “Spring Song,” but this one for cello and piano (which was published after Mendelssohn's death – apparently he didn't give it its title, either) is unrelated to the piano pieces. I just like telling you about those piano pieces.

Now, Mendelssohn was one of the great prodigies in music and perhaps one of its happiest, though that didn't keep him from dying at the age of 38 (Mozart only made it to 35). He was a brilliant pianist (his sister, Fanny, was considered by those who had a chance to hear her as more brilliant – she was also a very fine composer except in those days being a “woman composer” was more than just frowned upon, speaking of long stories...) and as a child Felix also played the violin. His brother Paul who decided to go into the family banking business (one of the reasons Felix could afford to be happy) was also a credible amateur cellist. It would be a good guess these pieces were originally composed for him to play at some family musicale.

Here's Steven Isserlis and Melvyn Tan (playing a piano from Mendelssohn's time)


and here's... well... somebody playing the Op. 109 Song without Words (perhaps the Sine Nomine Duo?)


And it probably took you longer to read all that than it did to listen to both pieces.

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So we could get all technical about that “eclectic” programming and say the program is beautifully shaped according to the key scheme, for all you theory geeks, starting with Schumann in A-flat, Janáček in a whole lot of flats (like six of them) but sounding more like he's in D-flat Major at the beginning (making the Schumann's A-flat the dominant of the Janáček's opening) though he never really settles down in any one key for very long but ends up finally in G-flat Major. Then there's Mendelssohn in B Minor (which if the Janáček were in F-sharp Major instead of G-flat would be another dominant-to-tonic relationship) and then to the D Major of the second Mendelssohn piece, the relative major of B Minor.

If you didn't get that, it'll just sound really nice, one after the other. Trust me.

Now, next on the program is a work by the pianist, Michael Brown, who, obviously, must also be a composer. He might not be great with titles because I think you could come up with something more interesting than “Two Movements for Cello and Piano.” Of course, lots of composers like Schubert and also Schoenberg wrote piano pieces called “Klavierstücke” which means “Piano Pieces.” Not very imaginative, but hey...

But the first movement of Brown's “Two Movements” is titled “Improvisation” and the second one is called “Dance.” So, what's wrong with “Improvisation and Dance”? Anyway, it got a pretty good review in the New York Times when it was premiered in late-August last year:

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'Michael Brown’s impressive “Two Movements for Cello and Piano” is the product of a confident young composer with a talent for precision. The first, “Improvisation,” is deliberately free of structure, and leaves the cellist (Nicholas Canellakis) to struggle fruitlessly. “Dance” was inspired by Bach’s gigues, and if it drops their characteristic rhythms, it keeps and develops a keen propulsion, despite quirky interruptions. Mr. Brown’s music looked forward, while David Del Tredici's “The Last Violin,” written for Bargemusic’s director, Mark Peskanov, was charmingly Schumannesque.'
(David Allen, New York Times, Aug. 28th, 2014)
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Here's an earlier piece Michael Brown wrote in 2009 called “5 AM (after Allen Ginsburg)” with the composer at the piano and cellist Nick Canellakis:


And here's the first of those “Conversations with Nick Canellakis” with guest Michael Brown, talking about his also being a composer:


I suspect leaving "the cellist to struggle fruitlessly" is the composer's pay-back for being second banana in all these videos.

By the way, in all seriousness, Michael Brown won a 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant which is a big deal for a young classical artist. Check out this post from 2012 when he first appeared on the Market Square Concerts series as a solo pianist, playing Beethoven and Schubert sonatas. I usually don't do reviews, but I was just so amazed by his performance (and since no one in this town bothers to review classical music programs other than the symphony), I just had to do it.

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That brings us to – wait, how many pieces are we talking about on this program? Anyway, this one ends the first half of the program. Don't worry, many of them are pretty short, so it's not a marathon.

Classical music is generally considered “concert music,” what “cultured people” listen to dressed up in their evening finery in big fancy concert halls listening to music performed by people dressed like penguins. We talk of edification, spiritual enlightenment and sometimes, peripherally, enjoyment and even, running the risk of losing our elitist credentials, entertainment.

Folk music is what the peasants come up with to amuse themselves.

When a classical composer like Mikhail Glinka introduced some Russian folk songs into his operas, the good people of St. Petersburg said that was stuff their coachmen would listen to, not them. It was not considered “nice.”

But then, by the mid-19th Century, composers who were not German, French or Italian began trying to figure out how to sound different from the Germans, French or Italians who dominated the concert halls, people like Smetana and Dvořák in what is now the Czech Republic, Rimsky-Korsakoff and friends in Russia, and eventually Bartók and Kodály in Hungary in the early-20th Century. They “discovered” the folk music of their own ethnic heritage and gradually moved from arranging it for classical instruments to incorporating it into their own “serious” music, eventually moving on from actual quotations of it to writing original melodies imitating it.

You could call this the “Let Me Sing You the Song of My People” Movement.

Granted, there have not been a lot of composers from Bulgaria who've made it big in modern concert halls, but the Hungarian Bela Bartók was one composer who found its folk music fascinating. Compared to almost any other European folk culture, it has easily the most complex metric (or rhythmic) structure: instead of being able to march to something in 4/4 or waltz to something in 3/4, Bulgarians dance to something in seemingly ever-shifting groups of 2s and 3s, like the folk dance that Nick Canellakis arranged for him and Michael to perform in concert. Called “Gankino Horo,” the “Horo” is the type of dance and it basically means “Ganka's Dance” and Ganka can dance to something in 2+2+3+2+2 which is really 11/8 divided into 5 not always equal beats, right? Yeah, easy for you...



It's real toe-tapping music if you don't dislocate your toe in the process of trying to figure out where the beat is.

If you don't believe me, here's a dance group from Northern Bulgaria dancing... Gankino Horo!


Now, you try it!

(Disclaimer: I used to play those Nonesuch “Explorer Series” recordings of Bulgarian folk music for my percussionist roommate when I was teaching at UConn in the mid-'70s and enjoyed watching him respond to the beat but then go nuts trying to figure it out only to have it change to something completely different by the time he thought he got it. And he called himself a rock drummer...)

Here's another one they've posted on YouTube which I'll include just because it so fu... darn cool: another Horo, this is labeled simply “Wild Bulgarian Folk Dance.” Yeah.



And then there's Rachmaninoff on the second half.

Since this post is becoming a marathon, I'm going to save that for another one, so check back in, soon.

Again, the concert is this Saturday at 8pm at Market Square Church on the Square in downtown Harrisburg.

Come get your chamber groove on!

No? Well, how would you say it, then...?

Oh, okay...

(aaaand fade...)

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- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Opening the Season with Peter Orth: Scriabin & Rachmaninoff, Together Again

Peter Orth
34 years ago, Peter Orth gave the very first recital in a new concert series founded by Lucy Miller Murray being given at Market Square Presbyterian Church – and for want of a name, they decided to call it Market Square Concerts. 

Peter Orth, who's come back several times since then, returns to open our 34th Season on Saturday, October 10th, at Market Square Presbyterian Church with an all-Russian program of romantic masters – actually, a program consisting of two giants of the Russian piano world: Alexander Scriabin with his 24 Preludes, Op. 11; and Sergei Rachmaninoff with his rarely heard Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor.

Writing in The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini spoke about the tenderness and fervor of Orth's playing, describing it as “one long arc of inspiration.” In The New York Sun, Fred Kirshnit commented that “the experience seemed like one continuous essay in profundity... a commanding presence... for sheer excitement, he is difficult to surpass.”

The concert begins at 8:00 but Dr. Truman Bullard will be giving a pre-concert talk beginning at 7:15.

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When he was 10, Alexander Scriabin began to study with a well-known piano teacher in Moscow, Nikolai Zverev, who also taught at the Moscow Conservatory.

When he was 12, Sergei Rachmaninoff left St. Petersburg to study with Zverev as well, upon the advice of his mother's cousin Alexander Siloti, a pianist who had studied with the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, but at the time was in Weimar, Germany, studying with Franz Liszt.

Not that Zverev is “Ground Zero” for Peter Orth's program, but he is certainly a common denominator. Zverev himself, growing up in an aristocratic family, began his career as a civil servant which bored him and so he continued to study the piano and make it something of a career, even though he was never well-known as a performer. He took on students by audition, took no money from them, and they all lived in his house where their lessons as well as their practicing went according to strict schedules (you did not quit practicing until your three hours were up, or else). Rachmaninoff said he learned Brahms' immense set of “24 Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel” in three days.

Zverev had studied with Anton von Henselt, a German pianist who had settled in St. Petersburg in 1838 where he became Imperial Court Pianist. After studying with Johann Nepomuck Hummel (who in turn, to follow the begats, had studied with Mozart), Henselt was recognized as a specialist in the music of Chopin. Franz Liszt thought enough of his legato playing technique that he told his students to “learn the secrets of Henselt's hands,” adding later, “I could have had velvet paws like Henselt if I wanted to.”

Henselt is basically the founder of what became known as the “Russian School of Piano Playing,” and even though he had ceased to play in public after the late-1840s – supposedly a victim of extreme stage-fright – his sound was a major influence on the young Rachmaninoff.

Professor Zverev & his Students
In this photograph from the late-1880s, Nikolai Zverev sits in the center of several of his students. In the front row, first on the left in the cadet uniform, is Alexander Scriabin; the tall guy standing behind his teacher, second from the right in the back row, is Sergei Rachmaninoff.

At the time, neither student had serious thoughts of becoming anything other than a pianist, yet there was a guest at one of Zverev's weekly Sunday open-houses who was also a major influence on Rachmaninoff. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky was, of course, one of the great names of Russian music and in the 1880s one of the major figures in Moscow (most of the Nationalists of the Mighty Handful or Russian Five lived in St. Petersburg). And so when, like any would-be concert pianist who was expected to write his own music, Rachmaninoff's early efforts won supportive praise from Tchaikovsky, he began to take his creative side more seriously.

In the late-1880s, Scriabin was already composing numerous short pieces under the influence of Chopin – preludes, etudes primarily but also mazurkas, waltzes, and impromptus, all titles found in Chopin's output. The 4th Prelude of the set Op. 11 was composed in 1888 when he was 16. The rest of them would be added later, most of them in 1896, 24 in all, one in each major and minor key – just like the set of 24 Preludes that Chopin wrote between 1835 and 1839.

Scriabin, 1892
For Scriabin, continuing his studies at the Moscow Conservatory where he studied piano with Vasily Safonov, theory and composition with Anton Arensky and counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev (these last two, major names in the generation after Tchaikovsky), it was something different that made him take composition seriously. Arenksy considered him a “scatterbrain” (consequently, Scriabin did not complete his composition degree) but when challenged by an even better pianist, Josef Lhevinne (who graduated at the top of their class, ahead of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin), intense practicing to improve his technique resulted in Scriabin injuring his right hand – the doctors said he would never be able to play again.

So, like Robert Schumann before him, Scriabin decided he had better work more seriously on his composing and completed his first large-scale work, a piano sonata he said was “a cry against God, against Fate” with its devastating funeral march of a finale.

He also composed a few short pieces specifically for the left hand and worked assiduously at improving his left-hand technique, much in evidence in his later music, often the bane of many a pianist trying to master his style. Eventually, he regained use of his right hand and gave a debut recital in 1894, including some of his own works. The publisher Belyayev, an advocate for Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov among others, heard this program and offered to publish Scriabin's music, taking him on a concert tour of Russia and Western Europe.

Because of Scriabin's slight frame and fragile health, more than one critic in Paris was reminded of Chopin physically, not just musically. Another critic wrote he had “an exquisite nature equally great as composer and pianist, an enlightened philosopher, all nerve and holy flame.”

By 1895, Scriabin completed a set of 12 Etudes, Op. 8, and the following year, the last thirteen preludes to make up a set of twenty-four which became his Op. 11. These were not written in “key order” the way they are published (the way Chopin organized his own Preludes, Op. 28). Spanning eight years' time, they range in mood, tempo and technical difficulty to create a great variety.

Here are two of these preludes – No. 13 in G-flat Major (composed in Moscow, 1896) performed by Scriabin himself from a Welte piano-roll recorded in 1910; and No. 8 in F-sharp Minor (composed in Paris, 1896) performed by Rachmaninoff recorded in 1929.





Of these YouTube clips, you could listen to either Mikhail Pletnev or to Evgenny Zarafiants whose playing I'm not familiar with, play all 24 preludes – the second has the benefit of showing you the score.





Rachmaninoff, meanwhile, graduated from the Conservatory in 1892, winning the “great gold medal” in composition for his opera, Aleko which was deemed such a success, the Bolshoi Opera agreed to produce it with Fyodor Chaliapin.

At 19, he was now a “free artist.”

On September 26th that year, he played a prelude of his own, a little something called the “Prelude in C-sharp Minor” (perhaps you've heard of it?). Its popularity would haunt him the rest of his life.

Rachmaninoff at Ivanovka, 1897
By the time Scriabin was putting the finishing touches on his Op. 11 Preludes in 1896, Rachmaninoff had been working on his first symphony over the past two years. Premiered in 1897, its reception – “If there were a conservatory in Hell,” Cesar Cui's review leading the attack – must be one of the most painful debuts in the history of music, as far as any composer who would go on to be regarded eventually as a great composer.

How bad was it? Well, Rachmaninoff needed to undergo psychoanalysis to regain his confidence so that by 1900 he was finally composing again – and not just any piece, but his Second Piano Concerto, perhaps one of the most beloved piano concertos out there, one so full of gorgeous tunes and incredible writing, it's hard to imagine three years earlier, its composer was ready to give up.

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Since Scriabin had already written the piece we're going to hear on this program, it's unnecessary for this post to go into detail about music he wrote later. While some listeners unfamiliar with his history – and what an unusual history it is – might be put off by the reputation his later music would earn, there is a mystical, spiritual quality that is only hinted at in this music composed before he was in his mid-20s. That he died at the age of 43 is another one of those tragedies, considering the direction his music was headed in could easily have changed the course of 20th Century music as much as Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok were to do.

But all that – and the revolutions that overthrew the world that nurtured both composers – was in the future.

Meanwhile, Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto began making a name for him in The West where, curiously, Tchaikovsky's music had paved the way as “what Russian music should sound like,” “an art in tonal purples and blacks,” an impression also helped by the reputation of great Russian novelists of the late-19th Century, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. It appeared, now, that young Rachmaninoff would follow in these same tragic footsteps.

As revolution began to fester in Russia – 1905 was an especially bad year for strikes and riots (not to mention the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War) – Rachmaninoff tried to avoid politics yet, as a conductor at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow where everyone from the orchestra, the choir, the ballet dancers to the stage-hands were embroiled in the hot topics of the day concerning social and political reform, he could not be unaffected by it. Several theaters were closed for fear of bombs and someone shouting “down with the monarchy” in the midst of a performance of Glinka's classic opera, A Life for the Tsar was enough to turn everything “into a battlefield with hats, coats, umbrellas and galoshes flying through the air.”

Rachmaninoff, 1910
Unhappy with the situation at work, its distractions on his time to compose, and concerned for the safety of his new family, Rachmaninoff decided to leave Russia temporarily in 1906 and, like Tchaikovsky before him when the going got personally rough, went to Italy. Considering the impact leaving Russia behind in 1917 would later have on him, how did this separation from his homeland affect him?

Despite his physical appearance and stoic expression, Rachmaninoff was a mask in many ways (Stravinsky would later describe him as "a six-and-a-half-foot scowl"). He made a rare confession to a friend: “I am a most ordinary and uninteresting man” - “there is no critic in the world who is more doubtful about me than myself” - “if ever I had faith in myself, that was a long time ago, in my youth.” In a letter from 1912 he wrote, “I am afraid of everything – mice, rats, beetles, oxen, murderers. I am frightened when a strong wind blows and howls in the chimney, when I hear raindrops on the window pain; I am afraid of the darkness...”

Suddenly, in Italy he was faced with decisions about what to do when an offer for an American concert tour arrived. He wrote, you “could not possibly understand what tortures I live through when I realize that this question has to be answered by me and me alone. The trouble is that I am just incapable of making any decision by myself. My hands tremble!”

Instead, he decided to go to Dresden and stayed there for the next three winters, going back to Russia to spend the summers at his family's beloved country estate, Ivanovka.

Scriabin, 1903
Scriabin, too, had left Russia for a variety of reasons in 1903, after resigning his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory and because his interest in religious and philosophical mysticism drove him to seek new lands and ideas while he was writing his Third Symphony, The Divine Poem. He took his family to Switzerland but there he decided to leave his wife and four children and go to Paris with his mistress, Tatiana Schlözer. In 1906, Scriabin went to America for a concert tour where The Divine Poem was performed in New York by his old teacher, Safonov. But with the news of Scriabin's treatment of his wife and the arrival of Tatiana not long after, there was a scandal about his “traveling with a woman who was not his wife!” Warned in the middle of the night that “serious unpleasantness” was imminent, Scriabin and Tatiana fled New York on a steamer for Paris the next day though there was never any indication the Department of Immigration was seriously going to arrest them for “moral turpitude.”

Scriabin & Tatiana, Brussels 1909
Back in Paris with only 30 francs left in his pocket, Scriabin set about writing The Poem of Ecstasy and played it for Diaghilev and the visiting Rimsky-Korsakov who felt the “unhealthy eroticism” meant Scriabin was “half out of his mind already.”

In 1909, then, he decided to return to Moscow where he found himself and his music at the center of controversy with “unrestrained agitation and enthusiasm.” He was being hailed as a leader of the avant-garde – curiously, Rachmaninoff was now being regarded as an old-fashioned conservative after Moscow, once a traditionalist cultural back-water compared to the cosmopolitan Window on Europe of St. Petersburg, had become the center for everything new.

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So here is Rachmaninoff in Dresden finding intellectual stimulation as well as sufficient isolation to compose – as he wrote to a friend, “We live here like hermits: we see nobody, we know nobody, and we go nowhere. I work a great deal” – and it was here he composed his 2nd Symphony, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (inspired by a painting of the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin he saw during a side-trip to Paris in 1907), an opera he eventually abandoned, the 3rd Piano Concerto which he would premiere in New York City in 1909 – and his 1st Piano Sonata, the one on Peter Orth's program with Market Square Concerts.

Keep in mind the context of the time – separation from Russia, uncertainty of the future, and his own dark fears. Though there is no published program behind the music of this piano sonata, it began as sketches for a setting of Faust, Goethe's drama about the man who sells his soul to the devil in return for earthly success and happiness. (How could that not resonate with an artist like Rachmaninoff?) Like Liszt's “Faust Symphony,” the work was intended to be three movements, one for each of the main characters – Faust himself in the first movement, Gretchen in the slow movement, and Mephistopheles the Devil in the finale. However, shortly after he began writing the sonata, he abandoned the program though it would be difficult for listeners to ignore the natures of each movement's character in the final work.

Composing the sonata was not an easy task: he had doubts about using the form (though you might think writing a symphony at the same time, essentially a “sonata for orchestra,” would be more formidable); he even had doubts about the length. By the time he went to Paris in May of 1907 – he agreed to play the concerts organized there by Diaghilev (who hated his music) only because he needed the money – he had finished just the 2nd movement of the sonata. After the Paris concert, he returned briefly to Ivanovka, stopping in Moscow to play through a rough draft of the sonata for friends who did not particularly care for it. One of them, however, Konstantin Igumnov, said he would be interested in playing it.

Rachmaninoff completed the sonata in April, 1908 – all 45 minutes of it – and Igumnov premiered it in Moscow that October where it was not a success. Unfortunately, Rimsky-Korsakov had just died in June and suddenly all eyes were on Rachmaninoff as the “Next Great Hope” for Russian Music. It was a little more of a burden than Rachmaninoff or his music needed at the time and the sonata in particular, found “dry” and “repetitive,” failed to please. Even though Rachmaninoff cut 110 measures from the score, shortening it to a more manageable 35 minutes or so, the work has never caught on and is still one of his less-heard large-scale works.

If you've heard any of Rachmaninoff's music, you're probably aware of his fixation with the Dies irae motive from the ancient chant for the Catholic Mass for the Dead's “Day of Wrath.” Not only does he use it to chilling effect outright in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini where it seems to have no thematic relevance, as well as numerous other works where its appearance brings with it a chill of the memento mori, an ever-present reminder of death, it's also a major feature of The Isle of the Dead where it makes perfect programmatic sense. This sonata, written around the same time as the tone poem, also employs the Dies Irae motive but only in outline, suggesting it more than using it as a theme. In fact, the finale of the sonata has no significant “thematic profile” as such, even with its reminiscences of the first movement, but is a furious toccata permeated with this very dark yet simple fragment from the 13th Century laden with centuries of anxiety and dread.

In this version (with original Gregorian chant notation) you need only listen to the first ten seconds:



You could listen to either of these YouTube clips depending on whether you want to watch a pianist perform in concert or, again, follow along with the score while listening to a transfer from an LP. The first is Boris Berezovsky; the second is the legendary John Ogdon.





Even though Rachmaninoff didn't stay in town for the premiere, he eventually returned to his estate at Ivanovka where in late-September, 1909, he completed the Third Piano Concerto, performing it for the first time himself in New York City a month later, part of the American tour he finally decided to accept – because, he told friends, he needed money to buy a new car.

(By the way, Ann Schein returns to Harrisburg in May, 2016, to play Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony.)

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While we'll never know what music lost with the death of Alexander Scriabin one hundred years ago, it is quite possible, given the evolution of his musical style, he might have become a leading voice in the development of 20th Century Music, especially atonal music, whether or not he would have pursued a path similar to Schoenberg's. But in 1909 when he returned to Moscow and when Rachmaninoff, his old school friend, also returned to Moscow the following year and became conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic Concerts, the rivalry between New Music and the Old Romanticism was inevitable, largely due to the press and the former bassist-turned-conductor Sergei Koussevitsky who championed the new style with his own rival orchestra. Rachmaninoff, who tried to remain aloof from the hoped-for fray, however performed Scriabin's music – his earlier music, I would imagine. Following Scriabin's death in 1915, Rachmaninoff gave a concert tour through Russia where he played only music by Scriabin despite requests for him to play some of his own works.

Then came the Revolutions – first, the February Revolution which overthrew the Tsar to form a provisional government with democratic reforms which was in turn overthrown by the Bolsheviks in November, 1917. With that, the country that Rachmaninoff and Scriabin had grown up in disappeared and with it the culture that had nourished them and their art. Many of his compatriots, especially those among the landed gentry, fled to Paris or Berlin, eventually London or America. Hurriedly arranging a quick concert appearance in Stockholm, Rachmaninoff took his family by train to the Finnish border and left with very little of his worldly belongings, never to return.

But that is a chapter for another program.

Dick Strawser