Monday, February 18, 2019

WQXR/Carnegie Hall: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Performs Beethoven and Strauss

On Friday evening WQXR, New York City's classical music station, broadcast a live concert from Carnegie Hall that featured the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, led by Daniel Harding, a conductor better known in Europe than America who has been rumored as a possible replacement for Daniele Gatti, the orchestra's former chief conductor who was abruptly fired last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

The program opened with the New York premiere of a short work by Guillaume Connesson entitled Eiréné after the Greek goddess of peace.  The single movement work, roughly ten minutes in length, consisted of three themes that the composer, quoted in the program notes, described as follows:
"The first is sinuous and caressing, with ambiguous chromaticism. The second theme—a joyful, spring-like call motif in the Indian Shri mode—symbolizes the awakening of nature, and its dotted rhythm is full of naive joy. The third theme is of a vocal nature, a hymn to newfound peace that still carries past sufferings."
Eiréné, a 2018 commission from the Royal Concertgebouw, began with bell sounds reminiscent of Arvo Pärt's tintinnabular style before mixing uneasily with a neo-romantic string section and then ending with a film score finale.

A quarter centuy ago, one could not go through a season without hearing at least two performances of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 (1809-1811). With its rousing martial music, the concerto made a fitting end to the composer's middle "heroic" period and was long considered one of his greatest works. In the past several years, however, this same piece, perhaps because it has become overfamiliar, has not been played nearly as often. I have only heard it a handful of times in the past few seasons. Another reason for its absence in concert halls, however, may be that its grand heroic sound is no longer a good fit for the anxious times in which we now live.

In many ways the concerto is a throwback to Beethoven's early "classical" period when he was still heavily under the influence of Mozart and Haydn. Like the Symphony No. 8, written only a year later, the concerto adheres closely to the classical formula. It is in the traditional three fast-slow-fast movements and ends with a rondo. One is tempted to think that Beethoven, about to enter his late period, wanted to revisit the forms he had employed in his youth in order to demonstrate how much better he could handle them at the height of his powers. The fact that the work was written for Beethoven's most important patron, Archduke Rudolf, who played it at its private premiere, may at least partially account for its martial air.

The soloist at Wednesday's performance was Pierre-Laurent Aimard.  His playing was very crisp with each note clearly articulated.  Pianist and orchestra worked extremely well together and managed to create between them an original and striking rendition of a timeless classic.  For an encore Mr. Aimard performed the scherzo from Strauss's Piano Sonata in B minor, Op. 5.

After intermission the program ended with a performance of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1898). I have to admit that I have never cared for the majority of Strauss's tone poems, least of all the present work. To my mind, the best one word description for it would be "vainglorious." It's significant that it was composed only a year after the death of Brahms when Strauss suddenly found himself by default the most prominent composer in Europe. He must have felt then, at only age 34, that he had finally arrived and that his place in musical history was secure. No wonder then that the piece is so self-referential. According to Wikipedia, "the work contains more than thirty quotations from Strauss's earlier works..." If there were any remaining doubt as to the identity of the unnamed hero, a remark quoted in the Carnegie Hall's program notes should be sufficient to dispell it:
"I don’t see why I shouldn’t compose a symphony about myself,” he [Strauss] told Romain Rolland (after issuing initial disclaimers); “I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander."
At the same time, Strauss's unbounded egotism was merely a reflection of the complacency within his own country. Germany, finally united by Bismarck, was at the turn of the twentieth century the economic and cultural powerhouse of Europe. It was filled with dreams of conquest and empire as it rushed headlong toward the cataclysm waiting to engulf it. It's noteworthy that Strauss never again composed a tone poem following the end of World War I. After 1918 neither Strauss nor Germany would ever again be the same.

The Royal Concertgebouw is a world class orchestra that benefited Wednesday evening from excellent conducting.  Before this concert I had never even heard Mr. Harding's name, but based on the orchestra's performance I think he well deserves the position of chief conductor.

The archived performance is currently available for listening on WQXR's website.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Juilliard Piano Recital: Rachmaninoff and Brahms

On Wednesday afternoon I went to Paul Hall to hear a one-hour recital given by Juilliard's Piano Performance Forum.  The program featured only two works, one each by Rachmaninoff and Brahms.

The recital began with a performance by Chaeyoung Park of Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36 (1913, rev. 1931).  When listening to Rachmaninoff's music, one can't help feeling that he belonged to another era.  Living in exile in Los Angeles, he was an aristocrat with far less connection to twentieth century America than to Czarist Russia, the last traces of which had long since disappeared.  In an age dominated by modernism, even though he was only a year older than Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff clung unapologetically throughout his career to the nineteenth century Romanticism of his mentor Tchaikovsky.  It was Rachmaninoff's genuine devotion to this tradition that makes his music so appealing and refutes those critics who would consider him nothing more than an anachronism.  As Rachmaninoff himself put it, a composer's music should reflect "the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books which have influenced him, the pictures he loves."  And Rachmaninoff was as good as his word.  In his music Romanticism is still the vital force it had been in the previous century, and nowhere more so than in the present sonata.  The listener has only to hear the dramatic opening of the first movement to know where the composer's heart lies.  Still another Romantic element is the use of bells throughout the work - Rachmaninoff composed the sonata at the same time as The Bells, Op. 35 - and most noticeably in its closing bars.

The sonata exists in at least three versions.  While the original 1913 version was well received at its premiere, Rachmaninoff decided to make changes.  It may have been that he still lacked confidence in his own judgment after the disastrous premiere years before of his Symphony No. 1, but in any event he "streamlined" the sonata by removing many of the more difficult passages and in so doing shortened it by about five minutes.  Then in 1940 Vladimir Horowitz, with the composer's permission, prepared a third version that incorporated elements of both the 1913 and the 1931.  I have a recording of Horowitz performing this version, and to my mind it's the most satisfactory.  Judging solely by the length of the performance, that played at Wednesday's recital was the 1931.

The second and final work, performed by Sylvia Jiang, was Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24 (1861).  One does not usually associate Brahms with Baroque music, but the nineteenth century composer actually made a deep study of earlier musical forms in order to improve his own compositions.  The Op. 24 is the finest product of his research and he himself regarded it as such at the time of its composition.  Starting from a simple theme from Handel's Harpsichord Suite No. 1 in B-flat major, HWV 434, Brahms concentrated on the bass line in order to find within it new melodies not previously expressed rather than simply composing variations on the melodies already written out by Handel.  In this way, the variations can actually be viewed as original pieces authored by Brahms himself that nevertheless remain absolutely faithful to their source.  Not only was Brahms seeking inspiration in a work from the Baroque era, but the musical forms he employed in his variations - such as a siciliana and a canon, not to mention the fugue - also derived from that same period.  The irony was that the very concept of a theme and variations, so central to Beethoven's oeuvre, was by the mid-nineteenth century itself considered an outdated form.  Few composers other than Brahms were working in that genre.  It may have been the composer's veneration for Beethoven that caused Brahms to turn it in the first place.  At any rate, he gave it new life, both here and even more famously in his later Variations on a Theme by Haydn.  

Friday, February 8, 2019

Carnegie Hall Announces 2019 - 2020 Season

Last week Carnegie Hall announced its scheduled concerts and recitals for the 2019 - 2020 season and began processing renewal requests from current subscribers.  Various incentives - a complimentary cd featuring Daniil Trifonov performing Rachmaninoff Concerti Nos. 2 and 4 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and a chance to win a free subscription - are offered to those who renew before February 15th.

The upcoming season should be particularly exciting as the Hall will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth.  There will be many opportunities to hear the immortal composer's music throughout the coming months.

The season's "Perspective" artists will feature several outstanding musicians.  Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato will appear in several recitals including a performance of Schubert's Winterreise as well as a rendtion of Berlioz's La mort de Cléopâtre with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; African vocalist Angélique Kidjo will sing in several concerts including one that celebrates her homeland Benin's independence; conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner will lead the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in several concerts of Beethoven's symphonies; and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin will take the helm of three orchestras including the Met Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

It's not possible to list all the wonderful events that will be taking place every week of the season, so I'll only mention those that I am most looking forward to attending.  In no particular order, these include soprano Diana Damrau singing Strauss's Four Last Songs with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; pianist Mitsuko Uchida performing Mozart's Concerti Nos. 17 and 22 with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra; pianist Sir András Schiff performing Beethoven sonatas; conductor Daniel Barenboim leading the Vienna Philharmonic on Mahler No. 9; conductor Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony on Mahler No. 6; and Harry Bicket leading the English Concert in a concert performance of Handel's Rodelinda.  For me, though, the true highlight of the season will come in April when conductor Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony in a concert performance of Act III of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde with a cast that features renowned tenor Jonas Kaufmann.

With so much great music on hand, I strongly urge anyone with a love of classical music to attend as many of these events as possible.  I've already renewed all the four series to which I currently subscribe.  Subscriptions should be offered to the general public sometime in March while individual tickets will go on sale in the latter part of August.  Contact Carnegie Hall for details.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Jupiter Players Perform Mozart, Gernsheim and Schumann

On Monday afternoon I went for the first time in almost a year to Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street to hear a chamber music recital given by the Jupiter Players.  The two hour performance featured works by Mozart, Friedrich Gernsheim and Schumann that showcased the talents of the two guest artists, Miriam Fried, violin, and Drew Petersen, piano.

The program opened with Mozart's Piano Trio in E-flat major, K. 498 (1786) for piano, clarinet and viola.  Long after Mozart's death, the work was given the nickname Kegelstatt by the music's publishers who most likely confused it with the K. 487 composed a month earlier on whose score Mozart had noted that it had been written while playing skittles.  Since it made for a good story, the unlikely name stuck.  Far more important is the work's place to the clarinet repertoire.  At the time, the clarinet was a relatively new instrument.  Haydn only began to make use of it in 1793 when he composed his Symphony No. 99 in preparation for his second London tour.  Probably he viewed it as a novelty that would delight English audiences.  The clarinet might not have made so prominent an appearance in Mozart's later work if it hadn't been for his friendship with Anton Stadler, a dissolute character who was nevertheless the world's first true clarinet virtuoso performing on an instrument of his own design.  As it is, the trio is the first work written for this particular combination of instruments.  The occasion was a private performance at the home of Mozart's friend Nikolaus von Jacquin to whose daughter Mozart had dedicated the work.  The musicians were most likely said daughter Franziska Jacquin on piano, Stadler playing clarinet and Mozart himself performing the viola part.  The composer did not shortchange his friends.  This is one of his finest chamber works and contains several interesting features from the highly unusual use of an andante as an opening movement to the seven part rondo that closes the piece.

The next work was Gernsheim's String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 31 (1875).  In the mid-nineteenth century Gernsheim was a highly respected composer and educator as well as a conductor and concert pianist.  Unfortunately, his Jewish ancestry as well as the occasional choice of Jewish subject matter in his music (e.g., the Symphony No. 3 inspired the Biblical account of Miriam) earned the posthumous ire of the Nazis in their campaign against entartete musik.  His works were banned and all references to him removed from German musical histories.  Like much of Gernsheim's music, the present quartet clearly shows the influence of Brahms but it nevertheless possesses its own highly original and distinctive style.  Gernsheim was a brilliant composer and it would be a shame if the obscurity to which the Nazis condemned his works were allowed to continue.

After intermission, the program closed with a performance of Schumann's Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major Op. 80 (1847).  Both the composser's first two piano trios were composed some five years after his famous Piano Quintet and Piano Quartet and it may have been that he wanted to experiment further with the combination of keyboard and strings.  The Op. 80, in particular, is a self-consciously innovative work characterized by unusual shifts in key and dense contrapuntal writing in both the first and second movements.  At the same time the quotation from his song Dein Bildnis wunderselig, the second of his Liederkreis, Op 39, in the first movement as well as the long lyrical melody that opens the second slow movement combine to make the music much more appealing to the audience than one would expect.  Although when writing for piano and strings Schumann normally gave much greater weight to the piano part, he here surprises the listener by having the strings alone announce the work's opening theme.

This was probably the best program the Jupiter Players have offered in quite some time.  The musicianship of both guest artists and ensemble players was of the highest order.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Art Book Review: New Worlds

The great problem with the Neue Galerie publication New Worlds is its subtitle, "German and Austrian Art 1890 - 1940."  The wording would lead one to believe that this is a comprehensive survey of developments in the art of those two countries from roughly the Vienna Secession to the outbreak of World War II.  Would that this were the case.  Instead, the book is actually a museum catalog, the Neue Galerie's first, that treats only those artists represented in the museum's collection and reproduces only the artworks actually owned by the Neue Galerie.  This inevitably leads to a skewed perspective on modern German art as a number of important artists have not yet found their way into the museum's collection.  Käthe Kollwitz, for example, is universally regarded as a major Expressionist (see my 2/5/2018 post) and yet she might just as well never have existed for all the mention she's given in this study.  On the other hand, a balanced evaluation of the artists who are included is hampered by the paucity of artworks taken from their various oeuvres. Examples include Max Pechstein, a co-founder of  Die Brücke, and Franz Marc, a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter, essays on each of whom are illustrated by only one work apiece.  Although several female artists are discussed in the final section of the book dealing with applied arts, only one woman merits inclusion in the fine arts section - Gabriele Münter, another founding member of Der Blaue Reiter and the partner of Wassily Kandinsky.

Fine artists are grouped together according to the movements they best represent, e.g., Vienna Succession, Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter, Bauhaus.  A short essay is devoted to each artist.  Although these essays have been authored by a number of different scholars, each follows the same format.  There is a brief biography that usually contains significantly less information than can be found in the corresponding Wikipedia article, a short discussion on the evolution of the artist's style that inevitably ends with his inclusion in the infamous 1937 Munich Entartete Kunst exhibit (here, of course, a badge of honor), and finally an overview of the artist's reception in the United States.  Considering that many German artists never set foot in this country, the last is somewhat perplexing.  There can be no doubt, however, that the catalog editors see this as an essential point.  Driving the point home, at some 31 pages, is "The Myths of Expressionism in America," by far the longest essay in the book.

The final third of New Worlds is devoted to an examination of German applied arts during the period under discussion.  This is divided into two sections: "Viennese Decorative Arts around 1900" and "Applied Arts and Architecture in Germany, 1890's to 1930."  Here the format changes.  Each section is prefaced by a short essay that is then followed by copious illustrations that are in turn followed by artist and architect biographies.  The longer of the two is the first, dealing primarily with the Vienna Secession, while the second is dominated by the contributions of the Bauhaus.  Again, emphasis is placed on the connection to America as the discussion, and for that matter the book itself, concludes with the essay "Moments in the Reception of Early Twentieth-Century German and Austrian Decorative Arts in the United States."

I would never recommend New Worlds to someone seeking an encyclopedic study of modern German art.  Nevertheless, the book does contain some useful information that may be of genuine interest to those who already possess some knowledge of the subject.  It might be particularly valuable to those planning a visit to the Neue Galerie on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Orchestra Now Performs Lyadov, Stravinsky, Ravel and Mussorgsky

On Sunday afternoon I went to Symphony Space on upper Broadway to hear the Orchestra Now, led by its resident conductor Zachary Schwartzman, perform a program of works that all had some relationship, no matter how tenuous, to the Ballets Russes

The concert opened with Anatoly Lyadov's The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62 (1909).  Oddly enough, Lyadov is most famous for what he did not compose.  Based on the testimony of his colleagues, he had to have been the laziest and least productive of all the major Russian composers; eventually he became something of a legend for his inability to see through to completion the majority of the musical projects on which he had embarked.  The most famous example, of course, was his fiasco with the Ballets Russes.  Commissioned by Diaghilev to write the original score for The Firebird, Lyadov so endlessly procrastinated that finally Diaghilev, in exasperation, fired him and handed the commission to Stravinsky for whom it proved a breakthrough success.  Though there's no evidence Lyadov ever actually accepted Diaghilev's commission, the story well illustrates the composer's character.  He never managed to complete a full length work (the present piece is only about 7 minutes long) and his complete oeuvre is astonishingly limited.  As for The Enchanted Lake itself, it is an abbreviated tone poem, described by the composer as a "fairy tale scene," that is almost somnolent in character.  That's not to suggest, however, that it's at all unpleasant to hear.  Actually, its gentleness and hushed sense of unreality place it firmly in the tradition of Russian Romanticism.

The next work was a suite taken from Stravinsky's Firebird itself.  As mentioned above, the ballet was the then unknown composer's first commission from the Ballets Russes.  The story had already been developed by Alexandre Benois and choreographer Michel Fokine by the time Stravinsky commenced work on the score.  This was in fact the company's first original score and its success led directly to Stravinsky's later engagements on Petrushka (1911) and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913).  As an early work, The Firebird represents an intermediate period in Stravinsky's career when he had not yet completely freed himself from the Russian Romantic tradition - the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov can easily be distinguished throughout - but was already moving forward in the modernist vein that would become much more apparent in the works immediately following it.

The suite chosen for performance, the 1945, was the last of the three the composer extracted from his ballet.  Of them all, I much prefer the first, the 1910, which is the most faithful to its source. In contrast, the 1945 suite contains orchestral revisions that alter the character of the piece.  To my mind, however, none of the three really does justice to the original work from which they are drawn.

After intermission, the program continued with Ravel's La valse (1919-1920).  Though the piece was originally conceived as a tribute to Johann Strauss and the gaiety of pre-war Vienna, it took on another meaning - no matter how vehemently Ravel may have denied it - when the work finally came to be written in 1919 at a time when Europe was still reeling from the cataclysmic effects of four years of war.  The halcyon days of the Belle Époque that had initially inspired the work seemed impossibly distant from this new vantage point and were looked back upon not so much with nostalgia as with a sense that they had all along been unreal, a veneer thinly covering the strife and discontent that were eventually to rise to the surface and plunge the continent into four years of madness.  Though the piece, which in actuality contains a series of waltzes, begins pleasantly enough, a sense of something not quite right soon makes itself felt, and the work ends with a death-like coda that sounds as if a music box had burst a spring and ended on a false note.  Nevertheless, Ravel himself described the piece as follows:
"Flashes of lightning in turbulent clouds reveal a couple waltzing.  One by one the clouds vanish; a huge ballroom filled by a circling mass is revealed.  The scene gradually becomes illuminated.  The light of chandeliers bursts forth.  An imperial court about 1855."
It was La Valse that ended Ravel's association with the Ballets Russes.  Although Diaghiliev admitted the work was a masterpiece, he then went on to claim that it was not a ballet but "a portrait of ballet."  Ravel was understandably insulted and broke off all contact with the impresario.  So upset was the composer that when he met Diaghilev again years later he wouldn't even shake his hand, an act that led the latter to challenge him to a duel.  One can't blame Ravel for his indignation.  This was one of his finest creations and even today one of his most popular works.

The concert ended with a performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).  Most listeners are familiar with this work through Ravel's superb 1922 orchestration (that performed at this concert), but Mussorgsky originally composed it as a virtuoso piano piece.  As such, it was intended as a tribute to the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann who died of an aneurysm at only age 39,  Like Mussorgsky and the other composers who made up "the Five," Hartmann had been an strong advocate of promoting nationalist themes in Russian art and this had formed the basis of the pair's close friendship.  Upon Hartmann's death, an exhibit of his artwork was staged in Saint Petersburg as a memorial to him.  It was while viewing the exhibit that Mussorgsky hit upon the concept of a musical representation of a viewer passing through the exhibit and pausing to look at one Hartmann picture after another.  Ironically, most of the original artwork has since been lost and it is only through Mussorgsky's music that these paintings now exist.  The music itself is much more powerful in the original piano version; it has a rawness and a hard edge that has been subsumed in Ravel's elegant transcription.

The Orchestra Now is a "training orchestra" made up of graduate students working toward an advanced degree at Bard College. The group was founded by Bard President Leon Botstein who is also Music Director of the American Symphony Orchestra.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Juilliard Wind Orchestra Performs Raff and Schoenberg

This week's entry in Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series was a one-hour concert given by the school's Wind Orchestra.  It was an interesting program that featured symphonic works for chamber orchestra by two strkingly different German composers - Joachim Raff and Arnold Schoenberg.

The concert opened with Raff's Sinfonietta in F major, Op. 188 (1873), scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns.  As a composer, Raff is a perfect example of how capriciously tastes change.  Promoted by Mendelssohn, praised by Schumann, and befriended by von Bulow, Raff was by the time of his death in 1882 one of Germany's best known composers.  In contrast, he has today been almost entirely forgotten.  Judging at least by the present piece, that present lack of recognition is unjust.  The four-movement Sinfonietta is, despite its spare instrumentation, a full fledged symphony requiring the direction of a conductor.  Lasting roughly twenty minutes, the Sinfonietta is most often, particularly in the brief final movement, very lively and spritely; even the third movement larghetto in C major does not have the extremely slow tempo one would expect from such a marking but was instead more reminiscent of a Mozartian andante.


The next and final work was Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op. 9 (1906), for which the winds were joined onstage by a string quartet and double bass.  It's impossible to mention this piece without noting that it was made forever famous by the riot that broke out when it was conducted by the composer at the 1913 Skandalkonzert held in Vienna's venerable Musikverein.  Whether or not the melee was as intense as shown in the above newspaper illustration from the April 6, 1913 edition of Die Zeit, the commotion certainly indicated well enough the difficulties faced by the Second Viennese School in having its music accepted by the city's conservative audiences.  (Apparently, this particular audience was even more incensed by Alban Berg's Orchestral Songs than it was by Schoenberg's Kammersymphonie.)

The Chamber Symphony, a single movement work divided into five sections, was composed before Schoenberg had fully developed his twelve-tone system; but the work nevertheless marked an important step forward in the evolution of his music as it made use of both quartal harmony and the technique of developing variation.

This was an excellent concert that allowed me to hear fine renditions of two infrequently performed pieces, here expertly conducted by Juilliard faculty member Alan Kay.  The performance of the Kammersymphonie, in particular, was better than that which I would have expected of a far more experienced professional ensemble.  Thankfully, Wednesday's audience was much more appreciative of the high level of musicianship than that which attended the infamous Skandalkonzert.