Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Calefax Is Back: the Reed Quintet that Plays Schumann & Strauss

Who: Calefax, the Reed Quintet
What: Music by Robert Schumann, Richard Strauss, Alexander Scriabin, and Steve Reich
When: Saturday, April 23rd, 2016, at 8pm
Where: Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg (parking in the adjacent garage)
Why: Because they're just freakin' amazing, no matter what they're playing!

If you missed them here before or have not already seen this video from one of those TED-talks, meet Calefax – a reed quintet consisting of an oboist, a clarinetist, a bass clarinetist, a saxophonist and a bassoonist – not your standard Wind Quintet (fixed at flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and... a horn which is technically a brass instrument, but hey...).

There is not a lot of repertoire for a group like Calefax – probably none, originally – so they have commissioned scads of new works by living composers and done their own arrangements so they can include dead ones on their programs. You can read about their previous appearance with Market Square Concerts in 2014, here, when they included Bach's “Goldberg Variations” on the program, one of the most memorable performances of the piece I'd heard in any context.

Cover of Waldszenen
While a program by Calefax playing works for piano by Schumann and Scriabin, for large orchestra by Richard Strauss and... well, let's save the description for later of Steve Reich's “New York Counterpoint” for later - you can read a post about the second half of the program, here - the immediate interest perhaps is more in their arrangements of the music they'll perform rather than the historical background of the pieces in their original form. Still, the music is the music.

The program opens with a collection of pieces for solo piano called “Forest Scenes” or Waldszenen (or Waldscenen, same thing) by Robert Schumann, what we call “character pieces,” or short, simply constructed pieces that either suggest a story or an image through evocative music and equally evocative titles.

After an introduction titled not very imaginatively “Entrance” (because every journey, no matter how long, begins with a single step), we meet a “Hunter on the Lookout,” see some “Lonely Flowers,” tiptoe past a “Haunted Palace,” are relieved to find a “Friendly Landscape” with a “Wayside Inn,” where we listen to a “Prophet-Bird” and hear a “Hunting Song,” then say “Farewell.”

Here is one of those “videos-with-score” so you can follow along of the complete set. Maria-João Pires is the pianist:

Now, here is how four of those “scenes” will sound when played by Calefax: in this selection, they play the first two (up to 3:02 in the previous video), the “Friendly Landscape” (beginning at 7:56 in the score-video) and end with the “Hunting Song” (beginning at 13:58 in the score-video). At Market Square Church they will perform the complete collection.

= = = = = = =

In 1838 – two years before he and his future wife Clara could finally get married (it's a long story) – Robert Schumann wrote “thirty small droll things” he intended to publish as Kindergeschichten or “Children's Tales.” Instead, he chose only thirteen of them and decided to call them Kinderszenen or “Scenes from Childhood” as it's usually translated. The most famous of these pieces is undoubtedly one of his best known melodies, “Träumerei” or “Dreaming”.

Schumann in 1850
Fast-forward to 1848 – the Schumann's have now been married eight years, he has been suffering from a “nervous disorder” often referred to as “manic/depressive” or “bi-polar,” leading to states of near-paralysis when he can barely function and of near-euphoria when he can't compose fast enough. In this higher states of creative concentration, he might compose, say, four symphonic works in 1841, two of which became published symphonies (No. 1 and No. 4 – it's a long story) or in 1842, three string quartets, his piano quartet and the piano quintet all in a few months, each bout of “manic creative energy” followed by “lows” perhaps brought on by “creative exhaustion.”

But the “low” experienced in 1844 was especially deep and debilitating. Yet, when he came out of it, he made a “robust sketch” of his complete 2nd Symphony in about 16 days. If you'd heard the Harrisburg Symphony perform this overall cheerful work last weekend – you can read about it, here – you would be excused if you thought this came from a very happy time in his life.

By 1848, during a stretch that have been noted by writers as “good years,” Schumann worked on several large-scale works, most notably (but not so successfully) his only opera, Genoveva which was remarkable, stylistically, for introducing a kind of endless melodic line in the voice to replace the convention of “recitative” which he felt interrupted the music's flow. When we think of this, we think of Wagner: didn't Wagner invent that? He's certainly given credit for it, most notably in the Ring operas and Tristan. But where was Wagner in 1848, when Schumann wrote Genoveva? Curiously, he completed Lohengrin, the last of his “middle-period operas” which still include vestiges of recitative in 1848 and didn't start composing the Ring until 1853.

More importantly, Wagner, then officially the conductor of the Dresden Opera, and Schumann were both living in Dresden at the same time and, given how small the arts community was, he soon became acquainted with Wagner (whose career was essentially just beginning) through Ferdinand Hiller (a composer who at the time was perhaps better known than either of them though now completely overlooked). Schumann, though not yet regarded as he is now, was better known as one of the great writers-on-music though definitely more famous as the husband of one of the greatest pianists of the day.

When Wagner premiered Tannhäuser in Dresden in October, 1845, Schumann, having formed a “poor opinion” of it from the score Wagner had given him, waited until the following month to see the opera and then “radically changed his view.”

Schumann expressed confusion over Wagner's aesthetic ideas in his next opera, Lohengrin, but not long afterwards, the political turmoil in Dresden (the ever-outspoken Wagner, on the losing side, ended up being exiled or face execution for treason – that, too, as befitting the composer, is a long story) separated them as Wagner fled to Switzerland and Schumann moved to Düsseldorf in 1850.

One could argue Genoveva wasn't staged until 1850 and then in Leipzig, and ran for only three performances, so Wagner, by then in exile in Switzerland, could hardly have seen it. But how likely is it that Schumann (writing an opera) spent his time in Dreseden between 1845 and 1849 talking to Wagner (the local opera conductor, also writing an opera and who'd given him a score to Tannhäuser) about their favorite sports teams?

After completing Genoveva in August, 1848, and beginning the very next day on music for Lord Byron's Manfred (not just the overture) – he took two weeks off in September to write “Album for the Young” (Op. 68), the first seven pieces given as a 7th birthday present to his eldest child, Marie – and then completing the Manfred music in late November, Schumann, still on a creative “high,” wrote a chorus-and-orchestra piece for Advent and a piano duet, “Pictures from the East.” Then, after Christmas, came Waldszenen, completed nine days later.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

When Schumann first published “Kinderszenen,” he added titles like “Knight on the Rocking Horse,” “Frightening” or “The Poet Falls Asleep” after the music had been completed and said they were “nothing more than delicate hints for execution and interpretation.”

But “fanciful titles” had been part of his earlier piano music – Carnaval with its evocations of a costume party where he introduces his then girlfriend (Ernestine von Fricken) as well as his piano-teacher's daughter (and future wife) and a young composer named Chopin – and it fits the genre we have come to call “character pieces.”

Schumann, the son of a book-seller and would-be author, had always been drawn to things literary, especially the stories of E.T.A. Hoffman, then all the rage (his Kreisleriana was inspired by Hoffman's character Kreisler).

And so, now 38 years old, Schumann evokes his woodland scenes with titles like “Lonely Flowers,” “Hunter on the Lookout,” “Friendly Landscape” or (the companion to Kinderszenen's “Frightening”) “Haunted Palace,” complete with a spooky poem. These may evoke images – musical paintings – but perhaps “Wayside Inn” and certainly the most famous of the pieces, “Vogel als Prophet” (“Prophet-bird”) suggest tales, even with the disappearance of the bird mid-phrase.

About those titles, Schumann once wrote, “The titles for pieces of music, since they again have come into favor in our day, have been censured here and there, and it has been said that 'good music needs no sign-post.' Certainly not, but neither does a title rob it of its value; and the composer, by adding one, at least prevents a complete misunderstanding of the character of his music. What is important is that such a verbal heading should be significant and apt. It may be considered the test of the general level of the composer's education.”

(It's interesting to remember that Mahler, writing his first three symphonies between 1884 and 1896, often included such poetic titles to the various movements, then removing them and, on occasion, re-including them before finally deciding, given the “favor of the day,” against them.)

Composed deep in winter, between December 29th 1848 and January 6th, 1849, these evocations of the woods might be “reminiscences of the forest,” but keep in mind, to German Romantics of the 19th Century – and beyond – the forest was not always an idyllic place: how many of the scariest fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm take place in the woods?

It's interesting to note that Clara Schumann who rarely played in public without including something by her husband on the program, never included “Haunted Castle” in her performances of Waldszenen. That should tell you something...

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Strauss in 1894
Though Schumann only wrote one opera – it's reception proved so devastating, he decided not to spend the time writing another one – there were a few other possible subjects he considered: curiously, considering where Wagner was at the time, one of those stories was the Nibelungenlied, the ancient legends that inspired Wagner's Ring and another old German legend mentioned in his sketchbooks (I'd be curious about the exact date of this entry), Lohengrin.

Another old German story he thought about was Till Eulenspiegel, the 14th Century prankster best known through the music of Richard Strauss's tone poem, completed in 1895.

The original story is quickly told: we are introduced to the rogue, Till, who pulls various pranks on various townspeople, is arrested and tried for his pains and is not only found guilty but is also executed! It would seem his spirit has the last laugh.

Here's Gustavo Dudamel & the Berlin Philharmonic w/3-minute highlight, one of the “big moments” in a piece full of orchestral colors and climaxes, for those who just want a refresher:

(for the curious, by comparison to Dudamel's more extroverted style, check out the first few minutes of this odd film, recording specifically to capture the composer himself conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1944. Granted, it's to celebrate his 80th birthday (compare that to the photograph taken the year he began writing the piece, 50 years earlier) but at times you think he's going to check his watch to see how much longer till the next break...)

Or, if you prefer, here's the complete tone poem with the Danish Radio Symphony conducted by Thomas Dausgaard:

Still, if we're talking about squeezing this huge orchestra into an ensemble of five players like Calefax, how exactly do you do that?

But wait, it's already been done...

Here is Till Eulenspiegel, Einmal Anders! (“Till Eulenspiegel, another way”), Franz Hasenöhrl's claim to fame, performed by five Curtis students – Not a reduction of the complete piece but distilling it (so to speak) to its essence - as if one more prank.

Join us Saturday night to find out how Calefax solves this... conundrum (as if Eulenspiegel wasn't enough of a prankster, himself...)

- Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment