Monday, January 26, 2009

Cabbages & Turnips Couldn't Keep Me Away

After some brain-numbing cold weather and too few days of what may pass for the January Thaw, it was great to see a good turn-out at Whitaker Center for Matthew Bengtson’s recital on Sunday afternoon, the first concert of the new year for Market Square Concerts.

(Pictured are Market Square Concerts director Ellen Hughes with composer Jeremy Gill and pianist Matthew Bengtson.)

The program was neatly divided into two halves, starting with an emotional work from the end of the 19th Century in Alexander Scriabin’s first piano sonata, followed by works of the more recent end of the 20th Century (and start of the present century) before going back 260 years to a work that is often considered intimidating even, sometimes, to the initiated (though its reputation outweighs the actual experience).

For people who like to avoid something unfamiliar, this would be a challenging approach to building a program: where’s my Beethoven and Mozart? For those who fear anything written past 1900, at least there was Bach even if the Goldberg Variations can have a reputation as a daunting mountain climb. For those tired of the “same old/same old,” it was a refreshing way to explore both the unfamiliar and one of the great masterpieces, infrequently heard live or not, in something that promised more than just a chance to come in out of the cold.

More pianists today may be playing Scriabin’s sonatas than before – his shorter works find themselves more frequently grouped together in place of or in contrast to similar pieces by his idol Chopin or his colleague Rachmaninoff – but the 1st is not likely to fall prey to over-exposure. It might be closer to Chopin in sound and closer to Rachmaninoff in spirit than some of the later sonatas which quickly begin to push the limits on both what the piano can do and what a sonata can be, yet every time I hear it, it always amazes me how early Scriabin had found his voice, in the year he had turned 20, no matter how far afield he would later go. The motor-like build up of rage that permeates the third movement, marked “Presto” but hardly the typical scherzo, breaks off suddenly as it build up to what could become a terrifying climax, then collapses into the funereal last movement. Using only a limited register of the keyboard to create a shattering response, this is the emotional out-come of a hand-injury that seemed likely to destroy the young composer’s hopes for a concert career. Small wonder than Scriabin himself only ever played the sonata once in public.

There is a stylistic trait in some of Scriabin’s later music – I’m thinking especially of one of his late works, Vers la flamme (from 1914) – that unhinge the piano from not only traditional virtuosic gestures (you can watch Vladimir Horowitz, getting down to shirtsleeves, play it here) but also from traditional harmonic gestures with chords built on intervals other than those that create standard chords and they way they would normally move (you can follow Horowitz’s performance here with the score).

Two of the short pieces by Luciano Berio which Bengtson played next explore the piano as a percussion instrument, creating a variety of sounds similarly freed from the previous century’s standard-operating-procedure – the Scriabin-like sound-world most clearly in the “Air-Piano” piece with its quick repeated notes and wispy roulades of sounds spinning off in different directions (here’s a performance you can watch that will give you an idea - not even close, btw, to “Air-Guitar”).

The different layers of sound – like the melody-plus-accompaniment (and possibly plus-inner-harmony) of Beethoven or Brahms that we heard in the Scriabin and then refracted in the Berio may be more challenging for the listener to define in the space-shifting world of Elliott Carter.

Composer Jeremy Gill, whose work on the program was a “sequel” of sorts to Carter’s “90+,” also served economically as both guest commentator and page-turner, explaining how Carter created this brief five-minute world out of 90 different accented pitches around which others flow or contrast. Since the work was written to celebrate the 90th birthday of fellow composer Goffredo Petrassi, this play on 90 continued the way most renditions of “Happy Birthday” conclude: “and many moooooore!” So Carter creates a pattern that he then directs the pianist to repeat “at will,” extending birthday wishes with a series of musical pluses, + + + +...

In the work that Gill wrote to honor Carter on his then-impending 100th Birthday, he took this final figure from “90+” as a starting point and wrote a series of fragments of maybe four minutes’ length, total, each one inscribed by lines from the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

Carter himself is an inveterate punster when it comes to titles and dedications. A solo violin piece for Robert Mann of the original Juilliard Quartet is based on the notes D and E – in Italian, Re and Mi – or R.M., the dedicatee’s initials which also finds it way into the title, “Rhapsodic Musings.” A short birthday tribute to composer and conductor Oliver Knussen is called “Au quai” which would be pronounced “O.K.,” the dedicatee’s initials, okay? So poet Eliot for composer Elliott in Gill’s fragments is not a misprint.

Surprisingly, the first sound Gill spins off from Carter’s “many more” is what might seem a pretty banal C Major chord, as if he’s tweaking one of the most rigorous non-tonal composers of the 20th Century. But if you look at the raw material Carter utilizes to create his sound-world, you can divide and subdivide them into various combinations of notes, some of which might well include standard chords from the past. Gill explained that, in the past, composers may have found inspiration in limited options but today, a young composer can pick and choose not just from the present-day world and the immediate past but also going back centuries and into different lands all together. It made me think also of the comment Schoenberg once made to his students, this creator of a sound-world that seemingly rejected everything C Major stood for, by saying “there is still a lot of great music that can be written in C Major.” As the end can also be found in the beginning – the first fragment’s epigram is “In my end is my beginning”; the last’s, “But our beginnings never know our ends” (I’m thinking also of a song by 14th Century composer Guillaume de Machaut) – Gill ends his piece with another C Major chord. In between, he creates brief – too brief, for me – rhapsodies (barely long enough to be musings) on a tonality, a texture, a sonority, an accented beat.

One of the more fascinating sounds he creates use “sympathetic vibrations” with the overtones of a piano’s strings.

Overall, I was sorry they weren’t either longer or more developed. He quipped that it was taking longer to explain the pieces than it did to play them. It was also a nice touch to pause only briefly between Carter’s ending and Gill’s beginning to catch the quotation, though some people around me may not have been aware we had moved on to the next piece.

Bengtson described the three etudes by Gy├Ârgy Ligeti – concluding the first set of six – as jazz-inspired pieces. I had landed on a quote used in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of them describing the inspirational process from the realm of African music and not just the common ground African music and American jazz might share. Even though you might be hard pressed to hear overt quotations from either realm, what a composer absorbs into his own voice is often very personal, if only the result of a response, “wow, I like that – how can I do that ‘my way’?” That became more obvious when Bengtson described the second etude as jazz pianist “Bill Evans playing a Chopin Nocturne.”

Here, the pianist took the time to dissect different aspects of the etudes – particularly the rhythmic complexities of the last of the set, with its descending figures in three and four different “tempos” – which helped listeners make better sense out of them when he put them back together for the performance. At the end, a lot of people responded to it as if he had been playing Chopin himself, finding a comfort level in what others might dismiss as noise when really it was only unfamiliar.

I was surprised to look at my watch and see the second half of this concert was going to begin at 5:27. Having started a little past 4:00, a first half of short fragments almost 90 minutes long implied the second half – one work of 32 small components – might make for a long second half. The Goldberg Variations - which I posted about here and here - have been known to clock in in excess of an hour or more, after all.

But once I realized Bengtson had chosen a less languid tempo than I had become accustomed to for the Aria and was not going to be taking the repeats, it was ironic that his Bach was shorter than the combined sound-bytes on the first half: in all, the second half took about 37 minutes.

For anyone who equates quantity with quality, Glenn Gould’s later recording takes 51 minutes in 1970 as opposed to the 38 minutes of his 1955 debut recording. By comparison, Simone Dinnerstein’s hypnotic recording (one of my personal favorites) takes over 78 minutes. And yet, it’s the same piece of music.

In addition to not taking the repeats, Bengtson’s approach was more “classically” minded than other, more “romanticized” recordings or performances you may be familiar with. This may be due to his also playing the harpsichord which has its own sound-world and could not possibly sustain the tempos many modern pianists (on a nine-foot concert grand) may choose to superimpose on Bach’s music (because they can). It makes the argument that “historically informed performers” would apply to music that has been stretched beyond recognition by a more modern, more emotional preference for slower tempos. Though Bach doesn’t give us specific tempos for each variation, the question is not how fast he played them but how he played them fast.

Still, after the last variation's quotation of a popular song (unrecognized by us, these days) with the line “Cabbages and Turnips have kept me away,” the return of the Aria at the very end was still a moment of magic.

He brought it neatly around, then, with an encore by Scriabin, the first of his Op. 3 Mazurkas, the end-in-the-beginning aspect aside, but I wouldn’t have minded if he played all of the Variations again, not because I expect someone to take all the repeats but just because it’s so wonderful to savor this music in a live performance.

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By the way, for those of you who may be reading one of my post-concert posts for the first time, I’m not trying to be a critic. I dislike being one and would prefer to leave that to those who are either trained for it or by inclination are capable of dealing with it. I prefer writing about the experience of the performance rather than whether those notes in the left-hand were as clean as they should’ve been and so forth. It amused me to find this article on-line this morning, so I’d like to quote one paragraph from it:
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[Tom] Moon, a 20-year veteran of the Philadelphia Inquirer before he left to write his new book, “1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die,” believes the biggest difference between old reviews and reviews now is that in the past, the critic’s job was to give readers a deeper sense of the work. But blogs’ rise has led to what Moon calls a “megaphone” culture. “People think that their own reaction is more important than the work itself,” he says. “It’s a lazy way to write.”
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Instead, I prefer writing what one friend described as “essays about the concert-experience,” another friend accusing me of trying to revive the feuilleton, whatever that is.

And, to quote Lord Chesterfield’s comment to his son, “If I had more time, I would have written less.”

-- Dr. Dick

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