Monday, February 23, 2009

Ravel, Enescu & Brahms This Weekend with Maria Bachmann

This Saturday evening’s performance with Market Square Concerts features 2/3's of one of the most famous piano trios in the chamber music world today, Trio Solisti. Violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Jon Klibonoff (see photo below, right) will be playing great sonatas by Johannes Brahms, Maurice Ravel and George Enescu plus the World Premiere of a brand new work by Philip Glass (you can read more about Glass’s Violin Sonata in my previous post). It all takes place at Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg, Saturday at 8:00.

Maria had also played a recital at Gretna Music this past August which I wrote about on my other blog. Joined by pianist Natalie Zhu for that concert, she’ll be playing two of those works this weekend – the Enescu and the Brahms 3rd Sonatas. For those who attended that concert, she also played a sonata by Ravel but not “the” Ravel Sonata – that one was a very early work that had only recently been rediscovered. This weekend, she plays Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G Major, easily one of the best (and most fun) sonatas in the 20th Century repertoire.

Perhaps the main reason it’s so well known is the unexpected 2nd movement, the famous “Blues” Movement. (Here is a performance from YouTube just as an example.) Ravel was quite capable of having fun with flashes of jazz or finding inspiration in folk music from around the world, in particular the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia.

Ravel met George Gershwin presumably around the time he'd completed the Violin Sonata. Gershwin’s “American in Paris” was premiered the next year, in 1928. (Incidentally, 1928 was the same year - thinking of Philip Glass and his use of repetition - Ravel composed Bolero.) Gershwin and Ravel met again during Ravel’s American Tour of 1928 (see photo: Ravel is at the piano and Gershwin is standing on the far right) when they went to hear jazz in some of the clubs in Harlem. This four-month tour also took Ravel to New Orleans. It would be interesting to think how this might have affected the sonata if he’d written it after his American tour.

It hardly sounds like it took him four years to write this sonata, especially the whirlwind of a finale, one of those perpetual motion movements. The first movement is more “classically” oriented – leaner textures, sparer harmonies, in general more abstract than the emotional style we associate with “romantic” music. But there’s also a passage that must have raised some eyebrows among Ravel’s old teachers: though he’d been expelled from the Conservatory more for his failing to win any prizes in the competitions rather than as a “bad student,” he was considered a little too radical for the conservative tastes of the day. One of the things harmony students are forbidden to indulge in is the writing of “parallel fifths,” considered bad form in Mozart’s day and still worth getting the red pencil out in harmony classes today. Well, during one passage of his Violin Sonata's first movement, Ravel writes not one or two consecutive “parallel fifths” but 34 of them! After that, who needed the taste of Blues in the 2nd movement to realize Ravel was not one to bide by the rules!

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The violinist who premiered Ravel’s Violin Sonata was George Enescu, better known today as a composer of music inspired by the folk music of his native Romania though he was one of the finest violinists of his day. Ravel was 22 when he first met the newly arrived Enescu who was about 16 at the time. Enescu’s 3rd Sonata, “after the popular Romanian character” as its subtitle translates literally, was written almost 30 years later, in 1926, the same time Ravel was working on his own sonata. Enescu’s is a work that could only have been written by a virtuoso violinist who seemed to be using every trick in his arsenal to the greatest effect.

It’s a dynamite piano part as well and music that is so over-the-top that it has to be played just as over-the-top to make it work. Fortunately, Maria Bachmann and her pianist at Gretna Music, Natalie Zhu, went all out. While I didn’t think there was much beyond the surface brilliance – and all the special effects imitating gypsy fiddlers and Eastern European folk styles (written, incidentally, around the same time Bartok was integrating similar effects into his own style) – they played it with the commitment as if it’s one of the great sonatas. And maybe it is: one thing, at least, is the question “why isn’t it heard more often?” Not because it’s not a great sonata but maybe because it’s so freakin’ hard to bring off with the right pizzazz?

For people who love Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsodies (at least the first one gets played a lot), it’s not a big step to this piece except for the lack of big memorable tunes. I think the impact of the piece is more significant than whether you can hum the tunes. The second movement is full of those “night music” sounds familiar to listeners of Bartok – the repeated single notes in the piano not unlike the sounds of tree frogs and cicadas going on outside the Gretna Playhouse, the kaleidoscopic wisps of phrases in the violin here and there, not to mention all the different colorings created by bowing techniques, harmonics, bending the pitches by quarter-tones or playing with the mute – creating a canvas of beauty beyond the merely hummable.

(You may frequently find Enescu's name spelled in the French style, Georges Enesco, since he spent a great deal of his career living in Paris. It seems the original Romanian form of his name meant something not terribly suitable for mixed company in French and so it was re-spelled with a less scatalogical o...)

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The last of Brahms’ violin sonatas, written when he was in his mid-50s and close to “retirement,” is the most dramatic of his sonatas and certainly the most symphonic. It was sketched right after the premiere of his 4th Symphony (which pro-Brahmsian critic Hanslick called “a dark well”), during the same summer he composed his 2nd Violin Sonata (bright, sunny and song-like), the 2nd Cello Sonata and the C Minor Piano Trio, all, basically, positive works (as one friend said of the trio, “better than any photograph, for it shows your real self”).

The next year, when Brahms had turned thoroughly gray, suddenly aging, he sent the now-finished 3rd Violin Sonata to Clara Schumann, herself troubled with problems of age and illness, compounded by one family tragedy after another. She liked especially the third movement, the modest little scherzo, which she wrote was “like a beautiful girl sweetly frolicking with her lover – then suddenly in the middle of it all, a flash of deep passion, only to make way for sweet dalliance once more.”

Brahms responded that, going over the score at his desk and thinking of the “sonata flowing gently and dreamily beneath your fingers,” “in my thoughts [I] wandered gently with you through the maze of organ-points [in the first movement], with you still beside me, and I know no greater pleasure than this, to sit at your side or, as now, to walk beside you.” While they played piano duets frequently during their long friendship, perhaps there was something of a “sweet dalliance” that they both, in their increasing age, remembered fondly? For the past year, they had been negotiating the return of their letters to each other: Brahms sent his off without rereading them but Clara, reading them again, was unable to bring herself to part with them.

There is nothing “autumnal” about this sonata, an adjective usually attached to these last years’ works. As an example, here’s the dramatic last movement in a performance I found on YouTube with violinist Sergei Khachatryan and his sister, pianist Lusine Khachatryan.

Balance is always a problem with Brahms’ piano parts, by the way. An exceptional pianist despite his lack of interest in rehearsing, Brahms wrote monster piano parts for his sonatas and chamber music and it would not be difficult for a pianist with the chops to play this music to swamp some poor hapless string player. There’s a famous story about Brahms rehearsing one of his cello sonatas with a less than adequate musician: in desperation, the struggling cellist stopped to mention cautiously he thought he was working too hard to be heard over the piano. Brahms replied “Yes, and I can still hear you!”

(The famous photograph above with Johann Strauss Jr. on the left and Johannes Brahms on the right was taken in 1894, six years after Brahms completed his D Minor Violin Sonata. Strauss is actually eight years older than Brahms.)

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(And on a completely different note, for a less than factual story about Brahms and Robert Schumann, check out my collection of stories at “Stravinsky’s Tavern,” when the comedy team of Schumann and Brahms entertained a tough crowd with their classic routine, “Who’s on First?)

- Dr. Dick

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