Friday, April 28, 2017

Juilliard Lab Orchestra: Britten and Brahms

Earlier this week I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the a performance, part of the Wednesdays at One series, given by the Juilliard Lab Orchestra.  The orchestra was led by four different conductors, each of whom took turns conducting one movement apiece on each of the program's two four-movement works.  The conductors, in order of appearance, were Gregor A. Mayrhofer, Jesse Brault, Benjamin Hochman and Jane H. Kim.

The first piece was Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a (1945).  The opera was one of Britten's greatest successes.  Originally conceived while he and his partner Peter Pears were living in California as conscientious objectors to World War II, its story was taken from a narrative poem by George Crabbe that told of a villainous sea captain who murdered his apprentices.  Crabbe was a native of Aldeburgh, a town on England's Suffolk coast that was not coincidentally also the birthplace of Britten, and set his poem there.  Reading it made both Britten and Pears decide it was time to return England where they immediately set about drafting the opera to a libretto by Montagu Slater.  The character of Grimes underwent a transformation as the work progressed and metamorphosed into a much more complex individual, a loner who stands against a society that wishes to destroy him because it cannot understand him.  In that sense Grimes stood in for both Britten and Pears who felt ostracized not only as conscientious objectors but also as homosexuals.  The four interludes (selected from a total of six) had been written for no other reason than to fill the time needed to make backstage scene changes, but in themselves they surprisingly caught very well the entire spirit of the project.  Titled "Dawn," "Sunday morning," "Moonlight" and "Storm," they formed a suite that was almost symphonic in breadth exactly as if Britten had composed them as an independent tone poem.

The second and final work on the program was Brahms's Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883).  This was the shortest of Brahms's four symphonies and in some ways the most straightforward.  Built around the musical motto F-A-F (for frei aber froh, "free but happy"), it was composed in only four months.  Perhaps what was most striking about the work was its lack of drama.  By the time it was written, Brahms was no longer laboring, as he had in the Symphony No. 1, to produce a work that could stand beside Beethoven's.  Here there was none of the earlier symphony's turmoil and, significantly, all the movements ended quietly with no overwhelming crescendo of sound.  Although still only age 50 at the time he composed it, Brahms was already winding down in his aspirations.  Regarded as Europe's greatest living composer (his foremost rival Wagner had died only a few months before), he had little left to prove.  This work strikes the listener above all else simply as a well crafted piece of music.  It's tightly knit and cohesive and goes about its business without any pretentious airs, the work of a master fully confident in his abilities.

Like Juilliard's other musical groups, the Lab Orchestra, under the direction of Alan Gilbert, is a professional level ensemble that yesterday gave a fully satisfying performance of two complex pieces.  Without the aid of an experienced conductor and with a necessarily high rate of turnover among the orchestra's musicians, the quality of its performance was nonetheless impeccable and set a standard that should be the envy of many more established chamber orchestras.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Juilliard415 Performs Haydn, Telemann, Fasch and Beethoven

Yesterday, I went to Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West to hear the last of the four annual recitals the Juilliard415 stages at that venue.  As theirs is a two-year graduate program, I imagine this was one of the final opportunities some members of the ensemble will have to perform together before graduation next month.  They made the most of the occasion with a 90 minute performance that featured a number of works from the entire length of the eighteenth century.

The program opened with Haydn's Divertimento a sei in C major, Hob. II/11 (1765) subtitled Der Geburtstag ("The Birthday") for flute, oboe, two violins, cello and Viennese bass.  For some reason, the otherwise excellent program notes failed to note the occasion for which this piece was given its sobriquet.  Haydn had already taken up his position as Kapellmeister to the Esterházy family by the date of its composition, so it can be assumed the piece was written to commemorate the birthday of a family member if not of Prince Paul Anton himself.  It's not an entirely original work - the theme of the finale is based on the second movement of Haydn's Symphony No.14 in A major, Hob. I:14 (1761-1763) - but it nonetheless affords the listener an opportunity to hear this great composer at a very early point in his career long before he had established himself as the father of both the symphony and the string quartet.

The next set of musicians to take the stage (there were 26 in all) performed two short works - the Trio Sonata in F major, Op. 9, No. 6 (1772) by Carl Friedrich Abel followed by yet another Trio Sonata in F major, this a much earlier work from 1718 by Georg Philipp Telemann.  Both pieces were arranged for violin, cello and theorbo.  The trio sonata, first developed by Corelli in the seventeenth century, was the defining genre of the Baroque era and in hearing these two pieces one was better able to understand how composers developed it in the eighteenth.  Its use by Telemann, friend of both J.S. Bach and Handel and one of the best known composers of his time, was particularly instructive in its departure from the four-movement Corellian model.  At the time he wrote it, Telemann was still living in Frankfurt and had recently married for the second time.  He was extremely productive during his period and seems in works such as this to be deliberately striving to create an oeuvre of the broadest popular appeal.

Afterwards, another group of musicians performed the Divertimento in G minor by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello here arranged for violin, bassoon and harpsichord.  Brescianello was Italian by birth but held a number of positions in Germany.  He is perhaps best remembered for his quarrel with Reinhard Keiser over the directorship of the Stuttgart Opera.  Brescianello was never particularly successful as a composer and the present Divertimento was probably the weakest piece at yesterday's recital.

The program then returned to Telemann's music for a performance of the Quartet No. 1 in D major  from Nouveaux quatuors (1738) for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord.  This was one of what are now known as the Paris Quartets, written on the occasion of the composer's visit to that city at the invitation of several French musicians.  Telemann was by now one of the most famous composers in Europe and at least part of his fame may have been due to the galant style of his compositions.  Rather than the slow/fast/slow/fast four-movement style of Corelli, Telemann adopted a much looser structure marked by such directions as soave and tendrement and incorporating dance movements as well.  Although the present performance made use of a cello, Telemann also produced an alternative score that employed a viola da gamba in its place.  This is especially notable in that the cello at points was given an independent role rather than simply forming part of the continuo.

Next was the Sonata for Violin, Oboe, Bassoon and Continuo (i.e., bass, theorbo and harpsichord) by Johann Friedrich Fasch.  Though highly esteemed by Bach, Fasch has been all but forgotten today.  That is due largely to the fact that he never published any of his work during his lifetime while the greater part of it was subsequently lost.  Written in Corelli's slow/fast/slow/fast four-movement style mentioned above, the present piece is notable for the unusual combination of instruments used in its composition.  

The recital then ended with a performance of the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in G major, Op. 18, No. 2 (1799), certainly one of the last works to have been composed in the eighteenth century and not actually published until the nineteenth.  With this piece, the program moved from the Baroque well into the Classical period.  It provided a nice symmetry for the recital as a whole which opened with an early Divertimento by Haydn - who, until the composition of his Op. 20, also referred to his string quartets by the same term - to the first set of quartets composed by his most famous student.  Though the Op. 18 pieces seem fairly tame compared to what Beethoven would later produce, these quartets belong to another world altogether than that in which Haydn composed his Divertimento only 34 years before.  These works are also significant for giving, in the La malinconia section of the No. 6, the first indication of the direction the composer would take as he moved toward his middle period.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven

Yesterday's 1:00 p.m. chamber music recital at Morse Hall was fairly brief, only a about an hour in length, but featured two major works by Beethoven taken from different periods in his career.

The program opened with the Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808).  Not nearly as famous as its companion piece, the "Ghost," the No. 2 is nevertheless a major work.  At the time he wrote it, Beethoven was at the height of his powers and so confident in his abilities that he no longer worried himself over comparisons to his predecessors.  He could instead afford to pay an appreciative tribute in this work to his old teacher Haydn.  The trio's opening, for example, in its use of a slow introduction followed by a lively allegro hearkens back to Haydn's Symphony No. 103, the "Drumroll," also in the key of E-flat major, while the double variation in the second movement allegretto mimics the use of that same device in the symphony's second movement andante.  But Beethoven then proceeds to dazzle his audience with audacious innovations that demonstrate he owes nothing to anyone.  This can best be seen in the recapitulation of the opening movement's first theme, introduced in D-flat major by the cello only to be immediately taken up by the piano in E-flat major, a correction so swift and drastic it seems more a coup d'etat.  But it is when comparing the present piece to Haydn's own piano trios that the differences between the two composers can best be appreciated.  Although Haydn composed some forty-five trios, many of them of the highest quality, he invariably assigned the most importance to the piano part and used the strings primarily as accompaniment.  In so doing, he was following the tradition of the Baroque trio sonata, in which one or two instruments are given prominence as "soloists" while the others, generally harpsichord and cello, are used as continuo.  In contrast, Beethoven here gives all three instruments major roles in working out his musical ideas.  As a result, this work is necessarily more complex and better balanced than the trios of Haydn.  The interaction among the three instruments imbues the trio with greater depths of expression than would otherwise be possible.

The trio was performed by Chener Yuan, violin, Yifei Li, cello, and Jiaxin Min, piano, and was coached by Natasha Brofsky.

After a brief intermission, the program closed with the Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 30, No. 1 (1801-1802),  This is a generally unassuming piece of music - and is for that very reason the least often performed of the three Op. 30 sonatas - but is all the same noteworthy for its date of composition.  All three of the Op. 30 sonatas were completed in the summer of 1802 while Beethoven was residing in Heiligenstadt, then a sleepy village on the outskirts of Vienna.  It was here that he penned his famous Testament in which he rejected the notion of suicide and determined instead to continue on as a composer until he had exhausted his creativity.  This, of course, is the very essence of Romanticism as the tragic hero embraces his fate and at the same time seeks to overcome it.  It also marks the beginning of the composer's middle period in the course of which he would produce only three years later the revolutionary Symphony No. 3, the Eroica.  Little of this drama, however, is to be heard in the present violin sonata.  In fact, the middle movement adagio is one of the loveliest and most serene Beethoven ever composed.  Even more to the point, Beethoven removed the virtuosic rondo with which he had originally intended to conclude the work (he would later use it for the closing of the Sonata No. 9, the "Kreutzer") and inserted in its place a playful set of variations, a form of ending he did not often employ at this point in his career.  One has to wonder if he were not perhaps trying to distance himself from the tumult of his personal life by immersing himself in writing a work that was so deliberately low key as this.  

The musicians were Rannveig Sarc, violin, and Minjung Jung, piano; they were coached by Laurie Smukler and Jonathan Feldman.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Roger Norrington Conducts Mozart

On Thursday evening I walked down to Carnegie Hall to hear a performance of an all-Mozart program given by the Orchestra of St. Luke's under the baton of guest conductor Roger Norrington.  Though the orchestra is based in New York City, this was the first time I'd heard one of its concerts in several seasons.  As for Mr. Norrington, I don't think I've seen him on the podium since the 1980's, and I'm not quite sure why that's the case.  I've always had a great respect of his abilities and own several of his recordings of which my favorite is Early Romantic Overtures with the London Classical Players.  He remains the acknowledged leader of the period instruments movement as well as a renowned authority on Mozart and several other eighteenth and nineteenth century composers.

The program opened with the Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major, K. 319 (1779).  It's a generally lighthearted work that belies the composer's unhappiness at the time he wrote it.  Recently returned from a trip to Mannheim, Munich and Paris, in the course of which he had not only been unable to find work but had lost his mother, Mozart was desperately unhappy in Salzburg, a backward provincial town where he was kept firmly under the thumb of his tyrannical patron Archbishop Colloredo.  What's even more striking is that Mozart only added the dark and gloomy third movement when he was preparing to have the work published in 1785.  He was by then in Vienna, newly married and enjoying great popularity as an artist.  The only explanation I can think of is that he felt the symphony to be too lightweight in its original three movement format and decided to add the menuetto and trio to give it more substance.

The next work was the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 (1785) and featured British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor as soloist.  At the time Mozart composed the K. 466 he was at the height of his popularity in Vienna.  The concerto is actually the first of a several written for a highly remunerative series of subscription concerts.  In 1785, he would write two more, the K. 467 in C major (actually composed the same month as the K. 466) and the K. 482 in E-flat major, while in the following year he would pen the K. 488 in A major, the K. 491 in C minor, and the K. 503 in C major.  Taken together, all of them masterpieces of the genre, these constitute one of Mozart's greatest achievements as a composer.  Of them all, however, the K. 466 was the only one whose popularity was to endure into the nineteenth century's Romantic era.  It's easy to see why this would be the case.  Despite Mozart's new found prosperity, it's a stormy work whose dark musings could not fail to appeal to the Romantic temperament.  This is especially true of the finale, a tempestuous episode that moves from the home key of D minor to G minor before at last finding resolution in the key of D major, a change so abrupt it reminds one of the sun suddenly appearing as the storm clouds that have obscured it finally break.

This was the first time I'd seen Mr. Grosvenor perform - he's only age 24 - and the concerto certainly served as a great introduction to his considerable talents.  I was also intrigued by the way the stage was set up for his performance.  His Steinway, minus its cover, was put at right angles to the edge of the stage so that he had his back to the audience.  Mr. Norrington then seated himself directly behind the piano so that he faced both the pianist and audience.  The orchestra meanwhile was placed in a semicircle about the piano.  I'm not sure why this was done or what advantage it presented.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to perform the final work on the program, the Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425 (1783), nicknamed the "Linz" for the city in which was written.  Not that Mozart had planned beforehand to have one of his symphonies performed there.  Finding himself unexpectedly a guest of a local nobleman, one Count Thun, while returning to Vienna from Salzburg, Mozart was caught unawares when the the Count expressed a wish to give a concert of his music and was thus forced by necessity to compose an entire symphony in only four days.  There's nothing in the work, though, to indicate the haste with which it was written.  Along with the No. 38, written two years later, it lays the groundwork for the final three great symphonies.  Especially notable is the use of trumpets and percussion in the slow movement.

Before the concert began, Mr. Norrington addressed the audience for several minutes regarding historically informed performances.  His argument was that the music should be played in a  manner the composer would have expected and preferably on instruments that were familiar to him.  I don't necessarily agree with this.  I believe the music should conform to the standards of the era in which is played.  In this way the music is open to new interpretations that are just as valid as those that prevailed at the time it was composed.  Moreover, I feel that if Mozart were alive to today he would eagerly make use of the modern era's large scale orchestras.  He only wrote for smaller orchestras because that was all he had available to him.  And I'm sure Mozart would have jumped at the chance to play piano on a modern Steinway in place of the rickety fortepiano he actually owned.  What musician wouldn't?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Juilliard Piano Recital: Beethoven, Carter, Dorman and Mussorgsky

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to a recital at Paul Hall sponsored by Juilliard's Piano Performance Forum.  There were only three pianists on hand and the performance of works by Beethoven, Elliott Carter, Avner Dorman, and Mussorgsky lasted little more than an hour.

The first musician to take the stage was Qi Kong who proceeded to play Beethoven's next to last piano sonata, the A-flat major, Op. 110 (1821-1822).  This piece is not played nearly so often as the final sonata, the Op. 111, but it is nevertheless one of the composer's greatest masterpieces and one of the finest compositions ever written for solo piano.  At the heart of it is the third movement, marked adagio, ma non troppo, in which Beethoven, seriously ill at the time, confronts his own mortality in a gloomy meditative passage filled with despair; its dark character hovers over the final movement that follows without pause.  The ending builds slowly to an affirmative climax in which the composer strives to overcome the insurmountable difficulties facing him and resolves to move forward whatever the cost.  Though filled with hope, this resolution is, however, not quite convincing.  The knowledge of death, no matter how bravely faced, lingers on.

The next musician was Qi Xu who performed works by two twenty-first century composers, Elliot Carter and Avner Dorman.  First was Carter's Caténaires (2006).  It's hard to believe that Carter was already 98 years old when he wrote this piece.  It's certainly not the work of an old man.  Carter himself wrote of it:
"When Pierre – Laurent Aimard, who performs so eloquently, asked me to write a piece for him, I became obsessed with the idea of a fast one line piece with no chords. It became a continuous chain of notes using different spacings, accents, and colorings, to produce a wide variety of expression."
The second piece was Dorman's Sonata No. 5.  I had not previously been familiar with any of Dorman's oeuvre though the composer, who holds a doctorate from Juilliard, is obviously quite highly regarded both here and in his native Israel.  His works have been performed by any number of major orchestras.  The present sonata must be a fairly recent piece as the Wikipedia listing of Dorman's works goes only so far as the Sonata No. 4 to which it assigns a composition date of 2011.  As it is, it proves a powerful modernist composition that bears little resemblance to the (somewhat) traditional Beethoven sonata performed earlier but that works very well when paired with the Carter piece.  These two works were for me the most interesting of the recital and I thought Qi Xu gave an excellent performance of both.

The final, and longest, performance was given by Hechengzi Li who played Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).  Most listeners are familiar with this work through Ravel's superb orchestration, but Mussorgsky originally composed it as the virtuoso piano piece performed here.  It was intended as a tribute to the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann who died of an aneurysm at only age 39,  Like Mussorgsky and other members of "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 the work as a musical representation of a viewer passing through the show 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.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Met Opera: Aida

I went on Saturday to the Met Opera to hear the matinee performance of Aida, the opera Verdi had originally been commissioned to write for the opening of Cairo's Khedivial Opera House in 1869.  In the event, the opera was not actually performed there until 1871.  The delay was caused by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War; the hostilities made it impossible to safely ship Aida's costumes and sets to Egypt in time for the opening night festivities and Rigoletto was substituted in its place.  Although Aida had not been commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, as is often thought, the opera house itself had been built to commemorate the occasion.

Ever since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, that country had loomed large in the imagination of Europe and initiated what Said was in the twentieth century to term "Orientalism."  Idealized Mideastern settings became commonplace in French art as could be seen in the works of such prominent artists as Delacroix, Ingres and Gérôme. Verdi himself, however, was largely immune to this sentiment.  While he appreciated the commercial value of setting an opera in an exotic locale, he made no attempt to incorporate elements of Mideastern music in his score, as Mozart had done in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and never strayed far from the traditions of Italian opera when composing Aida.

Verdi had been paid handsomely to provide an overpowering spectacle in the tradition of grand opera.  He had already had great success in this genre as early as 1855 with Les vêpres siciliennes and more recently with Don Carlos in 1867, but one senses that Verdi was never entirely comfortable with such extravaganzas.  His forte had always been the composition of music that relentlessly drove the drama forward without the distractions, such as the mandatory second act ballet, that were an inevitable component of grand opera.  As a result, Aida is something of a hybrid.  While it does loosely follow the strictures of grand opera, particularly in the final scene of Act II that is almost entirely given  over to the triumphal march at the gates of Thebes, the storyline itself is on a much more personal level.  The libretto, written by Antonio Ghislanzoni who had previously worked with Verdi on the second version of La forza del destino, limited itself to only a handful of characters and concerned itself with their individual fates far more than with that of ancient Egypt.  (In that regard, it's notable that the libretto described the setting only as "ancient Egypt," an indication that the opera was not to be interpreted as a historical drama.)  At bottom was the standard love triangle involving Aida, Amneris, and Radamès carefully worked out over the course of four acts.  In other words, it was an intimate love story placed in a monumental setting.

Aida is one of the "bread and butter" works in the Met repertory, an opera that always plays to a packed house whose audience has all too often come not so much for the music as to be dazzled by the sumptuous 1988 Sonja Frisell production.  Sadly, the foreknowledge of a sellout often leads to a lack of attention in casting.  This is not always fatal.  Sometimes a little known conductor and cast can work together to create a memorable performance. Unfortunately, that did not occur on Saturday afternoon.  The talent was little more than adequate.  Conductor Daniele Rustioni, who made his Met debut with this production, was too lacking in experience to handle a work of this scope.  Krassimira Stoyanova as Aida, Violeta Urmana as Amneris, and Riccardo Massi as Radamès all tried their best but did not really catch fire until the final act; their closing trio was quite moving.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Steinway Hall: Paul Lewis

As a subscriber to Carnegie Hall, I was invited to a highly unusual event on Wednesday evening at Steinway Hall.  Since I'd never before been to the piano maker's new venue on Sixth Avenue and was moreover extremely interested in hearing the featured performance by virtuoso pianist Paul Lewis, I eagerly accepted.the invitation.

The evening began with complimentary wine and champagne immediately followed by Mr. Lewis's performance.  In the event, he only played for roughly a half hour but even so had time enough to give brilliant renditions of both Chopin's Waltz in A minor, Op. 34, No. 2, and Bach's Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825.  Before beginning, Mr. Lewis gave the titles of the works (there was no printed program) and mentioned that he felt it worked well to follow a piece in A minor with one in B-flat major, only a semitone distant.

It was a very intimate setting - the "hall" is not much larger than a private screening room and has unquestionably the best acoustics I've encountered in any size venue - that enabled the audience to follow the pianist closely and, in particular, the movement of his hands.  There was nothing at all flashy in Mr. Lewis's style, just a minute attention to detail that allowed him to phrase each passage perfectly so that each note was fully audible.  His interpretation of the Bach partita was especially rewarding.  One was able to appreciate the complexity of Bach's music and the manner in which he was able to structure the Baroque dance forms into a coherent whole.

Fascinating as Mr. Lewis's performance was, the most interesting part of the evening followed immediately after as Steinway used the occasion to introduce its newest product, evocatively named "Spirio."  Believe it or not, this was nothing more or less than the venerable player piano reimagined for the digital age.  But unlike the old uprights threading a perforated paper roll, there was nothing about this version that was at all mechanical.  To begin the demonstration, Paul Lewis took a seat in the audience as the piano on which he had performed repeated on its own the gigue that had closed the Bach partita.  The effect was amazing - I literally could not tell the difference between the live performance and the recorded.  It sounded exactly the same, note for note.  And that, of course, was the whole point.  One can now have a piano in one's living room that recreates a given pianist's performance precisely as he or she played it right down to that individual's distinctive touch on the keys.  Instead of hearing a recording, one listens to a live acoustic performance.

To drive the point home, a projector screen was lowered and an antique newsreel was then shown of George Gershwin performing "I've Got Rhythm" on solo piano.  The newsreel's scratchy mono soundtrack was turned off while the piano played the tune in perfect sync with the video.  It was the closest one could ever hope to come to actually hearing Gershwin play live.

I'm not sure how successful Spirio will prove for Steinway - how many can after all afford the price of a Steinway piano even without the additional cost of the playback technology? - but it's certainly a wonderful innovation for anyone wishing to liven up their next party with a live piano recital.  I was informed by a Steinway rep that there is now a repertoire of some two thousand prerecorded pieces available to the purchaser.  But I was also told that the piano is unable to record music played upon it.  If a pianist wishes to have a recording of his own musicianship for playback, it's necessary to go to a special studio to have that done.

Perhaps acknowledging that Spirio is not for everyone, Steinway was considerate enough to give departing guests a gift bag that included a CD of Paul Lewis performing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Schumann's Fantasie in C major.  Listening to it might not be quite as gratifying as hearing Mr. Lewis - or his piano - play live, but it's definitely the next best thing.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Franck and Dvořák

Yesterday was a beautiful day in New York City with temperatures rising into the mid-60's amid plentiful sunshine.  After having spent several hours in Central Park, I walked to Juilliard to hear a Sunday afternoon performance of chamber music at Morse Hall.  The program featured works by two turn of the century composers, César Franck and Antonin Dvořák.

The recital began with Franck's Violin Sonata in A major (1886).  It was performed by Wei Lu, violin, and Zhu Wang, piano, and coached by Matti Raekallio and Nicholas Mann.  For some reason, I've heard more of Franck's music than usual the past few weeks - both his Quintet and Trio and now this sonata for violin and piano.  Of the three works, the sonata is by far the best.  Written as a wedding present for the violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe, the sonata is a late work composed only four years before Franck's death at age 68 and represents his best claim to immortality.  For once Franck was able to go beyond a merely felicitous style to create something of substance.  And not only in the violin part.  The piano part is complex and demanding and is often assigned its own themes to be played alongside those of the violin.  Part of the originality of the work lies in the unusual placement of the movements.  One would normally expect the stormy second movement allegro to be placed first and the softer first movement allegretto (originally envisioned by Franck at an even slower tempo before being persuaded by Ysaÿe to liven it up) to follow behind.  Even so, the two most interesting movements are the third, a recitivo-fantasia with two contrasting themes, and the fourth, an allegretto that is actually a canon whose joyful ending is entirely appropriate to the occasion for which it was written.  The work also has extra-musical significance to students of literature.  It was a great favorite of Marcel Proust and is thought by some critics to have been one of the sources of the fictitious Vinteuil Sonata described in À la recherche du temps perdu.

After intermission, the recital ended with a performance of Dvořák's Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 (1887).  The musicians were Mitsuro Yonezaki and Jasmine Lin, violins, Frida Oliver, viola, Jonathan Lien, cello, and Yilun Xu, piano; they were coached by Jonathan Feldman.  I had heard this piece performed in January at Juilliard's Chamberfest and had had a chance then to compare it to the other two great nineteenth century piano quintets, the Schumann Op. 44 and the Brahms Op. 34, that were also performed at the festival.  After having heard all three, I decided that the Dvořák quintet was fully the equal of the other two.  Although all three were imbued by the spirit of Romanticism, the Dvořák work stood out for its inclusion of folk sources, most notably in the use of dumky music in the second movement and a furiant dance tune in the third.  Dvořák had previously written, fifteen years before, another piano quintet, also in A major, and had first planned only to revise that youthful work.  The distance Dvořák had moved in the interim, though, made that infeasible.  He had simply matured too greatly as a composer to be able to reach back that far.  He had previously destroyed the score of the Op. 5, so dissatisfied had he been with it, and now he abandoned it once again.  In its place, he came up with an entirely new piece that stood head and shoulders above its predecessor.  Here he was able to seamlessly blend the Romantic Classicism he had learned from Brahms with the Bohemian folk tunes that were his heritage and come up with a lively goodnatured masterpiece.  If one movement stands out, it's the second movement where Dvořák took full advantage of the wild emotional swings of the dumka to move from a quiet and almost tragic mood to one filled with good cheer.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Beethoven, Glière and Rimsky-Korsakov

On Monday afternoon I went to hear the Jupiter Players give another of their chamber recitals at St. Stephen's Church on West 65th Street.  On this occasion the program featured the works of Beethoven, Glière and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The recital began with an early work by Beethoven, the Twelve Variations on a Russian Dance in A major, WoO 71 (1796-1797) for solo piano.  When Beethoven first arrived in Vienna he tried to build his reputation and audience by performing at his recitals variations on popular tunes, sometimes working extemporaneously after having encouraged the audience to call out requests.  He never held these pieces in high enough esteem to assign opus numbers to them, but he did have them published whenever there was an opportunity to make money from them.  The present theme and variations, dedicated to Countess Anna Margarete von Browne. wife of one of Beethoven's most important early patrons, is just such a work.  The theme was taken from a ballet entitled Das Waldmädchen ("The Forest Maiden"), authored by Paul Wranitzky, that had just completed a successful run at Vienna's Kärntnertor Theater.  Wranitzky was a significant composer - his 1789 opera Oberon was the inspiration for Mozart's Die Zauberflöte - but the thème russe chosen by Beethoven was actually written by the violinist Giovanni Giornovichi (a/k/a Ivan Mane Jarnović) who no doubt heard it during the three years he spent in St. Petersburg in the employ of Catherine the Great.  The theme is pleasant enough if rather short, only five measures in length, and the variations Beethoven composed on it are attractive; but this is only a playful minor work that displays little of the composer's genius.  It was given an excellent performance at this recital by guest artist Michael Brown.

After the Beethoven came a brief piece by Reinhold Glière, his Impromptu Op. 35 No. 9 (1908) for bassoon and piano.  Of German-Polish descent, Glière is best known as the teacher of Sergei Prokofiev but he was also a prolific composer who emphasized Russian nationalism in his music and thus survived the Stalinist purges without incident.  To me, the piano and bassoon made strange bedfellows, but guest artist Frank Morelli carried off the bassoon part very well.

The next work was Rimsky-Korsakov's Quintet in B flat major (1876) for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon.  The piece was written as a competition submission but failed to win.  Perhaps the best description of the work is that given by the composer in his 1909 autobiography, Chronicle of My Musical Life:
"The First Movement, Allegro con brio, in the classical style of Beethoven. The Second Movement, Andante, contained a good fugato for the wind instruments with a very free accompaniment in the piano. In the finale, Allegretto vivace, I wrote in rondo form. Of interest is the middle section where I wrote cadenzas for the flute, the clarinet and the horn to be played in turns. Each was in the character of the instrument and each was interrupted by the bassoon entering by octave leaps."
To me, the work was something of a hybrid.  As Rimsky-Korsakov noted, the first movement was in the Classical tradition, a very unusual choice for this composer, while the second movement was filled with the spirit of Russian nationalism.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of another work for winds - flute, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, bass trombone, and serpent (this last a keyed brass instrument whose name derives from its strange curvilinear shape) .  Entitled Grand Serenade, this piece was actually a transcription by Bernhard Crusell, a highly regarded Finnish composer, of Beethoven’s famous Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20 (1799).  The Septet, based in turn on Mozart's string trio, K. 563 in the same key, was during the composer's lifetime easily the most popular of his works, so much so that in later years he begrudged it this position because he felt it drew attention from the much greater works of the middle and late periods.  Its six movements are certainly pleasant to hear, but at bottom the piece is really no more than a divertimento, a lighthearted air that here worked perfectly as a serenade.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Mitsuko Uchida Performs Mozart, Widmann and Schumann

On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear a solo recital by the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida.  The program featured well known pieces by Mozart and Schumann as well as the New York premiere of a new work by the German composer/clarientist Jörg Widmann that had been co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and written expressly for Ms. Uchida.

The program opened with Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545 (1788), commonly known as the Sonate facile since Mozart had marked it in his catalog as "for beginners" and used it primarily as a pedagogical tool.  It does not follow from Mozart's description, however, that the work is simplistic or any less deserving of respect than the composer's other sonatas.  Like any late work by Mozart, it possesses more than its share of musical ideas.  In the first movement, for example, Mozart anticipates Schubert by having the recapitulation begin in the subdominant key (F major).

The next work on the program was Schumann's Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838).  The 1830's were Schumann's heyday as a composer of solo piano works as he tried his utmost to impress his future wife, the virtuoso performer Clara Wieck.  Kreisleriana was only one of several such compositions he produced during this period, but it is among the most important and Schumann himself considered it his finest in this genre.  The title is taken from the character Johannes Kreisler who appeared in several stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a highly imaginative writer of fantastic stories as well as an extremely perceptive music critic.  As depicted by Hoffmann, Kreisler was moody to the point of bipolarity and, though a musical genius, not particularly successful through the faults of his character.  There can't be any doubt that Schumann saw a great deal of himself in Kreisler, just as Hoffman had, and the music he wrote in this piece accordingly swings back and forth wildly in mood.  While on the one hand the use of the Kreisler motif allowed Schumann the freedom to place side by side movements that otherwise would have been too different in character to fit easily together, on the other hand the juxtaposition of these same dissimilar sections can be viewed as an early portent of psychological problems that were to plague Schumann sixteen years later and lead to his complete mental collapse.

After intermission, the program resumed with Widmann's Sonatina facile (2016).  The piece takes as its point of departure, of course, the Mozart sonata played in the first half of the recital.  And there are definite correspondences, such as the fact that each of the three movements - allegro, andante, rondo -has its counterpart in the earlier piece.  But here the resemblance is more ironic than literal.  In fact, Mr. Widmann often seems to be deliberately distancing himself as far as possible from the source of his inspiration rather than attempting to find parallels within it.  There is little chance a listener could confuse this dissonant work with Mozart's K. 545.  In the end, the Mozart acts as little more than an excuse for an imaginative flight of fancy.  Despite the structural similarities, Widmann's work has to be considered on its own merits and at times the fifteen minute piece seemed to struggle to find its own identity.

The final work on the program was Schumann's Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17 (1836), the piece I've always considered the composer's single greatest work for solo piano.  I'm certainly not alone in that evaluation - critics now almost universally agree that this is one of the greatest products of the Romantic era.  This consensus is all the more remarkable when one bears in mind the work's convoluted history.  Schumann began by composing a short piece, entitled Ruines, that he intended as still another tribute to his beloved Clara.  Appropriately enough, it contained a quotation from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, the 1816 song cycle in which the master expressed with unparalleled intensity his longing for his distant beloved.  It was only afterwards, when solicited for a contribution to a planned memorial to Beethoven in his hometown of Bonn, that Schumann  decided to write a longer work of which Ruines would ultimately become the first movement.  The resulting collage was not initially a success and the Fantasie was rejected by two publishers before Schumann arrived at a final version that incorporated a number of revisions. Part of the problem may have been the work's dissimilarity to the traditional Classical piano sonata. One important difference was the unusual placement of the adagio as the final movement. But this movement, marked Langsam getragen, durchweg leise zu halten ("Slow and solemn; to be kept soft throughout"), is by far the strongest of the three and provides a perfect hushed ending to the work.

Mitsuko Uchida is quite simply one of the finest pianists now active.  I've always felt her forte to be the works of Mozart and Schubert, and her choice of the Sonate facile to open the recital set the tone perfectly for the remainder of the evening.  She managed to find depths of expression in this simple piece of which I'd never previously been aware.  Likewise, Ms. Uchida's interpretations of the two Schumann works. particularly the Fantasie, were flawless and deeply satisfying.  This was probably the best recital I've attended this season.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Kim and Schumann

Earlier this week, I walked down to Lincoln Center to  to hear a forty minute recital of chamber music, one of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series, at Alice Tully Hall.  There were only two pieces on the program and both were performed by the Kahlo Piano Quartet, part of the Honors Chamber Music program.  The ensemble consisted of Rannveig Sarc, violin, Lisa Sung, viola, Clara Abel, cello, and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, piano.

The program opened with a new piece of music, entitled coexistence, by Byung Gu Kim.  The work had won the most recent Gena Raps Piano Chamber Music Prize and this performance was actually its world premiere.  I wish I could say more about this composition, but unfortunately no information was given in the program notes nor was I able to find any material online concerning it.  Adding to the difficulty was its short length - it lasted only twelve minutes and was over almost before it began.  I can say that, despite its brevity, it was divided into four sections performed without pause.  These were: 1a, ritual; 1b, gamelan; 2a, compulsion; and 2b, fixation.  Of these, it's the title "gamelan" that stands out, but I failed to hear in this quartet any influence of the Indonesian percussive music to which the term refers (though I have to admit my knowledge in this area is sketchy at best).  Instead, the piece, filled with dissonance, sounded entirely modernist.

The second and final work on the program was Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47. The work was written in 1842, the year that Schumann, following his usual practice of immersing himself in a particular genre, devoted to the composition of chamber music. It was in this same year that he wrote the Piano Quintet, Op. 44, also in the key of E-flat major. I've heard both these popular works performed several times over the past few months - the present ensemble played the Quintet at an earlier recital in January - and have had time to better appreciate the differences between them. The Quartet was completed immediately after the Quintet - Schumann may actually have worked on both at the same time - and at first I thought the composer might have been attempting in the Quartet to further develop the musical ideas he had conceived in the earlier work. Now, though, I'm more inclined to the view that both works are fully self-contained and instead represent two different approaches to the difficult task of integrating the piano with string instruments in a chamber work. Tchaikovsky was later to face this same problem when he began considering the composition of a piano trio; he wrote at the time to his patron Nadezhda von Meck:
"I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend ... it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings."
While this is something of an overstatement - Tchaikovsky's trio, when he finally overcame his reservations and completed it, is one of the masterpieces of the chamber repertoire - it nevertheless underlines the dilemma faced by any composer of such a work. In Schumann's case, the difficulties he faced in composing the Quintet were all the greater in that he had no real precedents to guide him. Schumann more or less created a new musical form with the Quintet and in so doing paved the way for the piano quintets of Brahms and Dvořák.

How then do the Quartet and Quintet differ from one another? As one might expect from the inclusion of an additional instrument, the Quintet has a larger sound, at times striving for an orchestral effect. It is clearly a work intended to be played in a concert hall to a full audience, and in fact it had its public premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The first movement, marked allegro brillante, is in the heroic mold as it boldly proclaims the main theme while the opening of the final movement is decidedly percussive as it builds to a dramatic conclusion in the form of a double fugue. In between, there's an additional element of drama in the second movement funeral march that hearkens back to Beethoven. In contrast to all this, the Quartet is much more intimate in nature, the type of work meant to be performed among friends in the privacy of a drawing room. The scherzo, unusually placed as the second movement, is quite playful while the third movement andante is filled with a Romantic yearning reminiscent of Schubert's piano works, particularly the E-flat major Trio. The final movement again contains contrapuntal writing but, though marked vivace, here the effect is more intellectual than visceral. In short, the two works complement one another perfectly and I don't believe it's possible to fully appreciate the one without having heard the other.

I was very glad to have heard the Quartet at this recital as I had a ticket for the following evening to Carnegie Hall to see the great pianist Mitsuko Uchida perform two Schumann pieces for solo piano, Kreisleriana and the Fantasie in C major.  I felt that hearing so many works by the same artist would give me greater insight into his style as a composer. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Handel, Mendelssohn and Beethoven

Now that Juilliard is entering the second half of the spring term, its Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals at Morse Hall have once again resumed.  That which I attended this past weekend featured major works by Handel, Mendelssohn and Beethoven.

The program opened with a Handel Trio Sonata in G minor, HWV 393 originally for two violins and continuo but here performed by two basses (Szu Ting Chen and Nicholas Kleinman) and piano (Jiaying Ding) under the coaching of Eugene Levinson.  The unusual instrumentation of all lower register instruments created a much different sound than that I've come to associate with the trio sonatas I've heard performed by the Juilliard415.  In those recitals, played on period instruments, there are normally two higher register instruments, e.g., violins, plus harpsichord and cello as continuo.  

It was only after the performance that I learned there is a question as to the authenticity of this Handel work.  According to the Wikipedia article on trio sonatas:
"The attribution to Handel of a set of trios for two oboes and continuo is false, and the authenticity of the three trios HWV 393, 394, and 395 is doubtful or uncertain."
There is no similar comment, however, on the IMSLP website which assigns to the work a composition date circa 1719 and a first publication date of 1733.  Handel would then have been living in London and at the peak of his fame.  It's entirely possible others' works were attributed to him by unscrupulous publishers seeking to increase sales.

The next work on the program was Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 (1827) performed by Hannah Tarley and Yeri Roh, violins, Erica Gailing, viola, Kevin Mills, cello, and coached by Sylvia Rosenberg.  It's no coincidence that this piece was composed in the same year as Beethoven's Op. 131.  Though Beethoven's late quartets had not yet come to be appreciated as the masterpieces they were, and for that matter would not be for many years to come, Mendelssohn was already able, at only age 18, to discern the greatness within them.  He studied the scores and then implemented a number of elements from them, including their cyclic structure, in this his first quartet (the Quartet No. 1 in E flat major was actually written two years later though published first).  It is surprising then that Mendelssohn's work, a conscious tribute to a beloved master, sounds so utterly different from anything Beethoven himself ever composed.  Instead, the Quartet No. 2 is one of the most lyrical pieces ever written, an expression of passionate longing that perfectly typifies the Romantic temperament.  One has to remember that Mendelssohn, however precocious a craftsman he may have been, was at the same time still a teenager.  It's obvious listening to the work that he was in love at the time he wrote it.  Whether this was an actual full blown love affair or a momentary infatuation is beside the point.  The work, which incorporates in its score the title of his song Ist es wahr?, is thoroughly sentimental in character and it is really this that makes it so appealing to listeners today.  It represents one of those rare occasions when Mendelssohn put aside his carefully cultivated genteel persona and allowed his audience a glimpse of the individual who stood behind it.

After a ten minute intermission, the program concluded with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1 (1808). The musicians were Strauss Shi and Manami Mizumoto, violins, Meagan Turner, viola, and Keith Williams, cello; the coach was violinist Daniel Phillips of the Orion Quartet.  Although the instrument with which Beethoven is most often associated is the piano, he was also a competent string player.  His first position, in fact, had been as a violist with the Bonn court orchestra.  Bearing this in mind, one can argue that Beethoven's most profound musical works, those in which he sounded the depths of the human spirit, were not the piano sonatas nor even the symphonies but rather his string quartets.  I've always felt, for example, that the greatest work of the early period was the Op. 18, No. 6 with the La Malinconia section in the final movement.  It was here that Beethoven first attempted to sublimate the despair he felt at his approaching deafness and thus anticipated the great masterpieces of the middle period.  Several years passed before the composer again returned to the string quartet genre in the present piece, the first of the "Razumovsky Quartets," and it's at once apparent that a vast transformation has taken place in Beethoven's mastery of the form.  While the Op. 18 quartets were written very much in the shadow of both Haydn and Mozart, those of the Op. 59 are the works of a master fully confident in his own powers and owing nothing to anyone.  Together with the Op. 74 written a year later, the Razumovsky Quartets prepare the way for the late quartets.  But they are also exceptionally important in their own right and together constitute some of the greatest works of the chamber repertoire.

The innovations Beethoven was to bring to the string quartet form are immediately apparent in the first movement of the Quartet No. 7.  It begins with the first theme played by the cello alone and progresses almost randomly through several bars before finally arriving at the home key of F major.  The theme is then handed from one instrument to the next, to be taken apart and examined before suddenly reappearing whole once again.  But there is no repeat of the exposition, as one would normally expect, but instead a further development of the material that culminates in a double fugue.  In the second movement scherzo, Beethoven continues to dazzle the listener with the movement's insistent rhythm and the lack of a traditional trio.  The third movement is perhaps the most perplexing - dark and funereal in a grand manner as if mourning a personal loss.  It is only in the genial final movement that Beethoven appears to relax the tension with a Russian theme doubtlessly intended to please the work's aristocratic dedicatee.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Idomeneo

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear a rare performance of an opera seria, Mozart's Idomeneo, conducted by the company's Music Director Emeritus James Levine.  It was Mr. Levine who first brought this opera to the Met when it premiered there in 1982 and he has been a champion of the work ever since.

The great irony behind Idomeneo is that its composer, who with this work brought opera seria to its greatest heights, was the same who would a few years later put an effective end to the genre with the first of his Da Ponte operas, Le nozze di Figaro.  The present work was premiered in 1781, pursuant to a commission from the Elector Karl Theodor, at a court carnival in Munich.  Though Western Europe was already in a state of unrest as a result of the principles set forth by the Enlightenment (in Germany referred to as Aufklärung), few who attended that first performance could have foretold that in only a few years the French Revolution would have put a violent finish to Europe's status quo.  Still less could they have known that when the French monarchy fell an entire way of life would disappear with it, including such aristocratic pastimes as attending opera seria.  Even the very office of Elector that had existed for almost a millennium and was now embodied by Karl Theodor would vanish once Napoleon had put an end once and for all to the Holy Roman Empire.

If one quality characterized opera seria it was its deliberate rejection of the real world in favor of an idealized  mythical past.  The libretti, written by such renowned poets as Metastasio, dealt with subjects taken from classical antiquity or Greek mythology with protagonists who were invariably of noble birth.  There were no tragic endings because the spirit of the genre mandated that the virtuous be rewarded and the wicked punished.  The music itself was a holdover of Baroque forms as could be heard in recitatives that were accompanied by the traditional continuo of cello and harpsichord.  As for the arias, opera seria was distinguished by the prominence given to castrati singers who were given at least one major role in each production.

Though some musical reforms had already been accomplished as early as the 1760's by composers such as Gluck, the form given Mozart for his first major opera followed the archaic Metastasian model right down to the deus ex machina ending.  The librettist, Giambattista Varesco, was the Salzburg court chaplain and as thoroughly conservative as one would expect of a man in his position.  Admitting to Mozart that he had "not the slightest knowledge or experience of the theatre," Varesco worked from a French text that was already some seventy years old by the time he set about adapting it.

Six years then before he began his collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte, a far more innovative and congenial collaborator (even if one of Metastasio's greatest admirers), Mozart faced the challenge of breathing life into a moribund musical drama whose plot must already have appeared to his audience hopelessly out of date.  In order to accomplish this, Mozart constantly demanded changes from Varesco to the extent that the latter insisted on publishing his original libretto separately.  As Varesco had stayed behind in Salzburg rather than travel to Munich, Mozart's father was enlisted as an intermediary between the two and sought to be as diplomatic as possible in persuading Varesco to alter the libretto whenever necessary to suit the music.  The correspondence between Mozart and his father has survived and provides a great deal of insight into the musical problems the composer faced.  Though he was still only age 25 and relatively inexperienced, Mozart showed in his letters a profound understanding of the dynamics involved in successfully staging a full length opera.

One advantage Mozart possessed was the presence in Munich of the superb Mannheim Orchestra, at the time unquestionably the finest ensemble in Europe.  As a result, he was able to make use of clarinets in his orchestration and had available trombones and horns to mark the power of the final scene at the temple.  Beyond this, he was able to employ at least some of the innovations Gluck had introduced - Mozart had attended performances of Gluck's operas while visiting Paris - to overcome the stiff formality of opera seria.

In the end, Mozart created a masterpiece, a work that overcame the limitations of the form in which it was written to create characters who breathe and feel and who are above all able to attract the sympathies of the audience.  Idomeneo not only stands on its own as a great opera but looks ahead to the far more advanced works Mozart was only shortly thereafter to create with Da Ponte.  And that's what makes seeing this work so exciting.   

Saturday afternoon's performance was superb.  James Levine has demonstrated over and over again that he is the one of the world's foremost interpreters of Mozart, and he did so again on this occasion as he brought to life the composer's first great operatic masterpiece.  He was supported by a fine cast.  Matthew Polenzani stood out in the title role but it was Elza van den Heever, whom I can't remember ever having heard before, who stole the show in her final Act III aria as Elettra.

The original 1982 production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle has stood the test of time very well.  Though it's monochromatic coloring makes it appear drab, it's workmanlike and much less ostentatious than more recent Met productions.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

William Blake

Perhaps no British literary figure is so hard to classify as William Blake.  For one thing, he was a much a visual artist as a poet and it's impossible to study the one aspect of his art independently of the other.  Then again, there is the deliberate veil of ambiguity - in the manner of his self-assumed role of prophet - that he placed over almost all his works, which ranged from the children's Songs of Innocence to the theological opus The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  While the period in which he lived coincided with the Romantic era and his work sometimes exhibited that movement's preoccupations, he had little in common with the great Romantic poets and no association with any of them.  To the extent he was known at all to his contemporaries, he was viewed as eccentric to the point of madness.

The large format study simply entitled William Blake, edited by  Robin Hamlyn, Marilyn Butler, Michael Phillips, was originally published to accompany a 2000-2001 exhibit at London's Tate Gallery and accordingly concentrates on the visual work while at the same time seeking to place it in the context of his writings.  It begins with two short essays by Peter Ackroyd and Marilyn Butler and is then divided into four parts that deal respectively with his interest in the Gothic ("One of the Gothic Artists"), the development of his visionary art in the 1790's ("The Furnace of Lambeth's Vale"), the outline of his personal mythology ("Chambers of the Imagination") and finally an overview of his illustrated books ("Many Formidable Works").

Blake began his career as an engraver's apprentice and part of his training required him to spend long hours at the British museum making copies of masterpieces from classical antiquity.  He became expert at the etching process, a detailed description of which is included at the beginning of the second section, and managed to produce with this method vividly colored "illuminated prints."  Blake did not limit himself to this medium, however, and many of the illustrations he completed are in the form of watercolors or pen and ink.  As for painting in oils, he identified that with the Renaissance rather than with the Gothic period to which he was most drawn and so did not make use of them.

Blake was an extreme individualist and, as such, determinedly at odds with almost all forms of organized religion.  This can be seen clearly in his illustrations of Dante's Divine Comedy.  For example, Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo are shown embracing in the light of the sun rather than suffering in hell as Dante depicted them.  Blake's outspoken views on religion and personal freedom put him in danger of imprisonment during the time of the French Revolution when the English government under William Pitt clamped down on any form of expression that might conceivably be considered seditious.  Print shops were especially singled out as sources of objectionable material.  Blake had already in 1780 taken part in a mob attack on Newgate Prison.  In 1803 he was accused by a soldier of assault and of having cursed the king.  He was eventually exonerated at trial.

The real draw of this book, published by Abrams, is the excellent quality of the reproductions.  No matter what one may think of Blake, there is no denying the compelling quality of his artwork.  Perhaps because he stood so far outside the margins of his own era, his work speaks more directly to the modern sensibility than most of that produced in the early nineteenth century.  The visionary aspect is so imaginative that his illustrations at times appear to belong to the realm of science fiction (e.g., "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun").  At the same time, they possess a deep psychological penetration and occasionally operate on an almost existential level.

One curious feature of the book is that, although descriptions of all the works shown in the exhibit are included, many of the artworks themselves are not.  No explanation is given for their absence.  The Foreword mentions that the show was reduced in size when it traveled from the Tate to the Metropolitan Museum and perhaps the missing illustrations are those that were not included in the New York show.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Dvořák Piano Trios

Yesterday afternoon I walked down to Juilliard to hear a faculty recital at Morse Hall that featured Laurie Smukler, violin, Joel Krosnick, cello, and guest artist Ieva Jokubaviciute, piano, in a performance of two Dvořák piano trios.

The program opened with the Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65 (1883).  Though not so well known as the No. 4, this trio represents one of the composer's greatest achievements in chamber music.  It was written a few years after Dvořák had won the 1877 Austrian Prize and had, with the assistance of Brahms and Hanslick, established an international reputation following the publication of the Slavonic Dances.  In light of this, one would have expected to find Dvořák in a cheerful if not exultant mood.  But not in this work.  It is instead, as the use of minor key would indicate, one of the composer's darker and more serious works.  This is particularly true of the third movement adagio in which some have heard a lament for Dvořák's recently deceased mother. Or it may be that things were not progressing as smoothly in Dvořák's career as they appear in retrospect.  In the same year the trio was composed, Dvořák's violin concerto was premiered in Prague but not by his close friend the virtuoso Joseph Joachim who had expressed reservations regarding it.  Meanwhile, the Vienna Philharmonic, in a spiteful show of nationalism, had rebelled against its leader Hans Richter and had refused to premiere the Symphony No. 6.  In any event, the trio, especially in its outer movements, was one of those works that most clearly showed the influence of Brahms.  But no matter how deep a reverence Dvořák felt for his mentor, he never blindly followed the Classical structure Brahms espoused in his own work.  For example, in the second movement scherzo, where the composer's Bohemian roots are most evident, Dvořák did not include any repeats as the form traditionally calls for but instead skillfully inserted in their place slight variations on the preceding material that created in the listener's mind the illusion of a repeat.  

The second and final work was the Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90 (1891), nicknamed the "Dumky" for the Slavic musical form that appears throughout the work.  If in the No. 3 Dvořák had appeared to vacillate between the Bohemian music that had inspired his earliest efforts and the Classical Romanticism of Brahms, he had by the time the No. 4 came to be composed some eight years later managed to reconcile the two.  In the No. 4, Dvořák can be seen returning to his roots with this unapologetic celebration of the dumka and by extension the entire Slavic folk tradition.  The dumka itself is characterized by wild swings between despair and exuberance, and Dvořák made full use of its bipolar nature in all six movements of the trio.  As the composer phrased it:
"It will be both happy and sad. In some places it will be like a melancholic song, elsewhere like a merry dance; but, all told, the style will be lighter or, if I might put it another way, more popular, in short, so that it will appeal to both higher and lower echelons."
And Dvořák certainly did succeed in creating here one of his most popular works.  Its general character is lighthearted and it seems as if a weight had been lifted from the composer's shoulders as he prepared to embark on his journey to New York.  More importantly, in this final piano trio he reaffirmed his belief in the value of folk sources, an interest he would pursue further in the music he wrote in America.

One could not have asked for a better performance of these Dvořák trios than that given yesterday.  All three musicians were consummate professionals who played the music with both precision and feeling.  This was a truly excellent chamber recital that helped one better appreciate the extent of Dvořák's genius.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Richard Goode Performs Bach

On Wednesday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the pianist Richard Goode perform works by J.S. Bach, universally regarded as the greatest composer of the Baroque era.  

The recital began with a series of selections from Book II of Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier.  These were, in order performed, the Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp Minor, BWV 883, the Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 884, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 889, and the Prelude and Fugue in B Major, BWV 892.

Perhaps no other musical work has had so profound an influence on both composers and musicians as has the WTC.  In the Classical era, when Bach and his works had been largely forgotten, Haydn was among the first to recognize its importance and to study it intensely.  Both Mozart and Beethoven owned copies of the score and made use of its exercises to perfect their own contrapuntal writing.  One can see in the last movement of the former's Symphony No. 41 and in the latter's Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, how deeply these two composers applied themselves to mastering its lessons.

The WTC, whose confusing title has to do with a particular method of tuning keyboards, was written in two parts, the first in 1722 and the second in 1742.  Both were used primarily for pedagogical purposes while at the same time serving as a vehicle intended to showcase the composer's mastery of counterpoint.  In a certain sense, both parts, known as Books I and II, overlapped one another as each presented exercises for all 24 major and minor keys.  In fact, some of the those that appeared in Book I were used again in Book II but transcribed for different keys than in the original.  Chopin later adapted this same idea in the composition of his Preludes, Op. 28 which were again written for all the major and minor keys.  While Bach intended the work for the use of his students, and indeed required them to write out all the preludes and fugues in their own hand, each is technically challenging and can only be attempted by an exceptionally skilled pianist.

The first half of the recital then concluded with a rendition of Bach's Partita No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830 (1730).  The work is a suite of seven dance airs, the last of a series that were published individually over a six year period and then gathered into a single publication entitled Clavier-Übung I ("Keyboard Exercises I") in 1731.  If for no other reason, the collection is notable for having been the first published during Bach's lifetime.  Bach was then, at age 45, hardly an old man but this series marked his third and final set of keyboard suites, following the English Suites (1715) and the French Suites (1722-1725).  They were also the most technically difficult of the three to perform.  While suites of dance airs were a staple of Baroque music, this final set of partitas, most especially the No. 6, have much greater depth than one would ordinarily expect of such a work.  There is a sense throughout of strong emotion held rigorously in check.  This can be sensed at once in the opening Toccata that is at once the longest movement in any of the six partitas and at the same time one of the most profound in its subtle shifts of mood.  At the heart of the work is the Sarabande, on its surface a calm and slightly old fashioned sounding air but underneath filled with dark longings that do not easily correspond with the modern image of Baroque music or, for that matter, of Bach himself.

In the second half of the recital, Mr. Goode was scheduled to perform a number of short works by Chopin.  Unfortunately, due to a prior commitment, I was unable to stay for this portion of the unusually long program.  I was quite happy, however, to have heard nearly an hour of Bach's immortal music played by so fine a musician as Mr. Goode.  I've heard him many times over the years and have always been impressed, not only by his impressive technique, but also by the deep feeling and understanding he evidences toward the music in all his performances.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Reicha, Beethoven, Schumann and Franck

I've been so busy the past few months that I haven't been able to attend nearly as many performances by the Jupiter Players as I would have liked.  That's a shame because this is really a first class ensemble even if the programs offered are often somewhat obscure.  That given on Monday afternoon at Good Shepherd Church, however, consisted of works by relatively well known composers - Anton Reicha, BeethovenSchumann and César Franck - though two of the pieces were youthful attempts written at the very beginning of their respective composers' careers and a third was a transcription of a work far more familiar in its original form.

If one wishes to become better acquainted with Beethoven's early works there's no better place to start than the Piano Quartet in C Major, WoO 36, No. 3 (1785).  Written when Beethoven was only 15 years old, the three quartets that make up WoO 36 - the only examples of this genre Beethoven ever composed (the Op. 16b is an arrangement of a quartet written for piano and winds) - provide a fascinating glimpse into the manner in which Beethoven first set about becoming a composer.  All three quartets were inspired by Mozart violin sonatas, the C major by the K. 296, and Beethoven made free use of the ideas contained within them, including their use of a three movement structure.  Passages from the C major were in turn reworked ten years later, Ferdinand Ries's protestations to the contrary, and then inserted into the Op. 2 piano sonatas.  Still, one has to bear in mind that the C major is really only a student work.  At the time Beethoven wrote the quartet he was at the very beginning of his career and the piece's primary value is the insight it affords the listener regarding the direction this precocious teenager would pursue in his later work.

The piece that followed, Reicha's 18 variationen und fantaisie on "Se vuol ballare" from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Op. 51 (1804) for flute, violin and cello, was a very enjoyable work to hear.  At the time he wrote it, Reicha was still a struggling composer attempting to find success in Vienna where he became a close friend of Beethoven.  Anticipating his later career as an instructor at the Paris Conservatory, Reicha had completed during this period two major musical works, one on a new method of composing fugues, incorporating within it the use of polyrhythm, and another on the art of variations from which the present work was derived.  In it, Reicha had an opportunity to further develop the ideas he had advanced in L'Art de varier without becoming overly pedantic.  Whatever its pedagogical purpose, the trio was more mellifluous than much of Reicha's music, though that may have been largely due to the beauty of the aria that formed its source material.

The next work was Schumann's famous Kinderszenen ("Scenes of Childhood"), Op. 15 (1838), here transcribed for string quartet by Benjamin Godard, a French composer active in the second half of the nineteenth century.  I had only last month attended a performance at Juilliard where I heard the music in its original form for solo piano.  In my post describing that performance I had noted that a distinguishing feature of Schumann's piano music was its programmatic content.  His evocation of childhood might also indicate, I felt, a retreat from the problems of his present life to a more idyllic time and thus represent an early symptom of the mental breakdown that was to occur sixteen years later.  In any event, the thirteen short movements that make up the piece are as sensitive a description of childhood as one could wish.

At the time Godard completed the transcription there was a very good reason for his having done so.  In the days before radio and phonograph recordings, musical pieces were often arranged for other instruments so that they could be played at home or in informal gatherings by amateur musicians and thus, not incidentally, increase the publisher's sales figures.  This transcription is largely successful in capturing the beauty of Schumann's music and it was certainly expertly performed at this recital; nevertheless, I still strongly prefer hearing the piece in its original form for solo piano which was, after all, how Schumann intended it to be played.

After intermission, the program closed with Franck's Piano Trio in F-sharp minor, Op. 1. No. 1 (1840).  Franck was only age 18 and still a student at the Paris Conservatory when he started on this work and his lack of experience as a composer is evident throughout.  The work is to a large extent a by the book, academic exercise written in the heavy handed style one would expect of a fledgling composer.  There's a paucity of musical ideas; themes are repeated over and over, one feels, because Franck was unable to come up with any new ones.  Not surprisingly, the criticisms most often leveled against it are "plodding" and "monotonous"; these, however, do not take into account the lyricism that is present throughout the piece and that would characterize Franck's later music.

Franck has never been one of my favorite composers - like many French artists, he routinely produced work that often seems a triumph of style over substance - but this was actually the second time I'd heard his music within a month.  In February, I was at a Juilliard recital when the same pianist, Drew Petersen, performed the keyboard part on the scandalous Quintet.  That was a much more polished work than this but utterly lacking in emotional discipline.  Still, it was interesting to compare the the two works written almost forty years apart to better understand how Franck's style evolved over the years.

After not having attended any Jupiter recitals for some time, I was reminded on Monday afternoon what a fine group of musicians this is.  Of the regular company, flutist Barry Crawford stood out during the performance of the Reicha trio while violinist Lisa Shihoten and cellist David Requiro were excellent on strings in all the pieces on which they played.  The two guest artists, violinist Francisco Fullana and pianist Drew Petersen, were both superb musicians one would normally expect to encounter only in much larger and prestigious venues.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Japanese Art Dealers Exhibit

I went on Saturday to the annual exhibit given by New York City's Japanese Art Dealers Association (JADA) at the Ukrainian Center on Fifth Avenue.  Although the show took up only three galleries, it was an excellent opportunity to view masterworks of Japanese art in a tastefully arranged setting.

A good portion of the exhibit was given over to the display of ceramics and lacquerware.  Of the former, one of the more interesting pieces was not actually Japanese at all but rather an import from seventeenth century China.  Shaped in the form of a pouch, this hanging flower vase was an example of kosometsuke, a type of porcelain with cobalt blue underglaze that was manufactured in the town of Jingdezhen specifically for a Japanese market.  Also known as tenkei for the late Ming dynasty Emperor Tanqi, kosometsuke was fired in unofficial kilns as government regulation broke down in the unsettled times preceding the fall of the Ming to the Manchu conquerors of the successor Qing dynasty.  Perhaps due to the lack of government oversight as well as the fact that it was intended for export, kosometsuke was atypical of Chinese ceramics in its homely informality, an attribute that makes it much more accessible to the modern viewer.  

Of the lacquerware, the piece I found most intriguing was a fan shaped stacked box from the Meiji era.  Consisting of black and gold lacquer on a wood base with gold and silver trimming, the box was all the more elegant for the simplicity of its design.  

For me, the most interesting objects at the exhibit were the paintings, including several on large folding screens.  Certainly the most arresting of these artworks was The Fury of Priest Raigō (c. 1875-1885) by Kobayashi Kiyochika, a ukiyo-e artist who normally specialized in works that depicted the ever increasing Westernization of Japan.  In this hanging scroll done in ink and color on silk, however, he painted a scene from a classic legend of the Heian period in which a proud monk became enraged when the Emperor Shirakawa refused to grant a request; the monk then unleashed a terrible curse upon the unfortunate ruler.  Kiyochika's fellow Meiji ukiyo-e artist Yoshitoshi also illustrated this same tale in an 1891 woodblock print but chose to show the curse itself in the form of an army of rats, led by Raigō in semi-human form, infesting Mii Temple and devouring its prized collection of sacred scrolls.  In contrast, Kiyochika chose to depict the dramatic moment Raigō uttered his fateful curse.  The viewer's attention is captured as much by the flowing strokes that make up the painting as by the terrifying expression worn by the nearly deranged monk.

There were two other paintings I thought worth special mention.  The first was The Illustrated Life of Shinran (1699), the Heian era monk who founded the Jōdo Shinshū school of Pure Land Buddhsim, by an unknown Edo artist in the form of four large hanging scrolls.  This was an intricate and highly detailed work that illustrated one after the other all the major episodes of Shinran's life.  The second painting was a huge hanging scroll by Mochizuki Gyokkei entitled Sparrows and Waterfall (1851).  In this work, the monochromatic grey rendering of the water falling at the base of the falls contrasted strongly with the bright coloring of the birds flying before it.

Several large folding screens dominated the walls of one gallery.  Scattered Fans by an unknown Edo artist was a delightful rendering of handheld fans thrown randomly against a black background.  Bright gold fans mixed easily with those that seemed to reproduce scenes from antique monochromatic Chinese paintings.  Another screen was much more modern in design but just as compelling.  This was Hokuetsu no ama ("Divers of Hokuetsu") painted in 1940 by Shinsui Tanaka.  It was described in a mailing from the Erik Thomsen Gallery as "an over-sized folding screen measuring over seven feet in height, depicting a group of hardy female free-divers on Japan's northwestern coast, the monumental, life-size composition emphasizing the women's famous toughness and independent spirit."  The colorful modern rendering was quite striking when applied to the traditional folding screen format.

Unfortunately, the exhibit only lasts three days and is scheduled to close today, March 13, 2017.