Monday, October 23, 2017

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Laurie Smukler, Joel Krosnick and Robert McDonald with Qing Jiang

Although Juilliard's faculty members are known primarily for their superb skills as educators, many are also numbered among the world's finest musicians.  On Friday evening at Morse Hall, I was lucky enough to hear a recital given by several such gifted individuals.  Featured were Laurie Smukler, violin, Joel Krosnick, cello, Robert McDonald, piano, and guest artist Qing Jiang, piano.  Together they performed three major works from the chamber repertoire, two of them by well known composers and a third by a composer whose work truly deserves to be heard more often.

The program opened with a pair of violin sonatas performed by Laurie Smukler with Robert McDonald providing accompaniment on piano.  The first was Leoš Janáček 's Sonata for Violin and Piano (1914).  Listening to it, it's hard to believe this is the work of a 60 year old man, so dynamic does it sound. Than again, Janáček was the quintessential late bloomer; his most important works were not written until the 1920's when he was already 70 years old.  The sonata itself was begun in 1914 but was initially rejected by Jaroslav Kocián, the Czech violinist originally scheduled to premiere it, and was not finally completed until 1921.  The intervening seven years were a critical period in Janáček's career.  First came the outbreak of World War I in the course of which, the patriotic composer hoped, Russia would free the Czechs from their Austrian overlords.  (According to a dissertation by Danijela Žezelj-Gualdi, "Janáček insisted on the most agitated rendering of the high piano tremolo over the final appearance of the chorale-like theme in the last movement [of the sonata], explaining that it signified 'the Russian armies entering Hungary.'")  It was also during this period that Janáček received his first real artistic recognition when the (revised) opera Jenůfa premiered in Prague in 1916 and the noted critic Max Brod agreed to translate it into German.

One of the most interesting features of the Janáček sonata is its relation to Czech folk music, a source of inspiration previously tapped by Dvořák.  Anticipating Bartók's ethnomusicological recordings, Janáček had in 1885 journeyed through the Czech countryside collecting his country's folk songs.  These had a deep impact on his music.  Again quoting Žezelj-Gualdi's dissertation:
"Janáček’s musical language reflects the constant inspiration he had from Czech folk music.  He based his compositions on tonal harmony but in a less standardized way than that used by many of his contemporaries. He did not cite folk songs explicitly in the Violin Sonata, but his use of short and repetitive themes, modal harmonies, ostinato patterns, improvisational passage work, three-note motives, and modified traditional structural forms can be traced back to folk music."
The second sonata was Beethoven's Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, Op. 96 (1812).  This was the tenth and last of the composer's violin sonatas and is also customarily acknowledged as the final work of his middle period.  While perhaps not so well known as the Sonata No. 9, the "Kreutzer," the Op. 96 is to my ear a far more accomplished work.  If Beethoven's middle period had been characterized by the Romantic hero's struggle against fearsome odds (i.e., his deafness) to achieve his destiny, by 1812 Beethoven had nothing left to prove.  He had won the contest on his own terms and was now acknowledged as great a master as Haydn and Mozart before him.  The composer could now experience some sense of peace within himself before moving on to the works of his late period.  In the words of critic Sydney Finkelstein, "the mood [of Op. 96] is one of gentle lyricism, with but glimpses of the profound depths of experience and conquest of pain that had made possible the achievement of this serenity."  This newfound tranquility can be found throughout the work but is most apparent in the slow second movement marked adagio espressivo.

While Ms. Smukler's playing on both sonatas was superb, it was the pianism of Robert McDonald that most interested me. I've noted over the years that the finest Juilliard pianists are invariably students of Mr. McDonald, and this was a rare opportunity for me to hear him take his own turn at the keyboard.  Not surprisingly, his performance on both pieces was masterful.

After a brief intermission, the recital concluded with Laurie Smukler, Joel Krosnick and Qing Jiang performing Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 24 (1945).  Before beginning the piece, Mr. Krosnick briefly addressed the audience regarding the composer's life and work.  Although Weinberg is now considered a major Soviet composer, his life was far from easy - his parents and sister were killed in the Holocaust, his father-in-law Solomon Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin, and he himself was arrested for his alleged association with the "Doctors' plot." Even though Weinberg spent most of his career laboring in obscurity, a victime of Stalin's anti-Semitism, he was a prolific composer whose works were championed by his close friend Shostakovich who also exerted a great deal of influence on the development of his music.  The present four-movement trio was a highly dramatic work.  It veered without pause from the mournful Larghetto that closed the first movement to the pounding rhythms of the Tocatta that opened the second.  Perhaps the finest passage was the third movement Poem in which was distilled, or so at least it seemed, all the suffering Weinberg had experienced during his lifetime.  Throughout the work, great weight was given to the strings while the piano, expertly played by Qing Jiang, remained silent for comparatively long intervals.  I came away from the performance knowing I had just heard a true masterpiece.  It's tragic that the works of so great a composer are not more often performed.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Juilliard415 Performs Couperin, Telemann, Rameau and Lully

On Tuesday afternoon I went to Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West to hear the first of four recitals of Baroque chamber music given each school year by the Juilliard415 ensemble.  During the course of each semester the Juilliard musicians focus on the music of one given country or geographical area; for the fall term they are concentrating on the music of eighteenth century France.  Accordingly, the program featured works by a number of that country's composers as well as one German whose works had a profound impact on the development of French music.

The recital began with François Couperin's Dances from L'Espagnole, taken from Les Nations (1726), here arranged for flute, oboe, two violins, viola da gamba and harpsichord.  It was in Italy that the Baroque musical era truly began in the early seventeenth century, and few figures were as key to its development as Arcangelo Corelli who more or less invented on his own such basic forms as the sonata and concerto.  Couperin was one of the few French musicians who possessed enough insight to recognize the importance of Corelli's achievement and to build upon it.  It was Couperin who introduced the trio sonata form to French audiences in his L'apothéose de Corelli.  Going even further, he sought to reconcile the wildly divergent styles of Italian and French music in a series of works he entitled Les goûts réunis.  It's somewhat ironic then that Couperin should have been chosen by Ravel as a symbol of French nationalism in Le Tombeau de Couperin.

The next work consisted of three selections - Overture, Sarabande and Chaconne - from  Jean-Marie Leclair's dance suite Première Récréation de musique d'une exécution facile (1737) arranged for two violins, cello and harpsichord.  Leclair was a somewhat hotheaded character and in 1737, the year this work was composed, he left France for the Netherlands after having resigned his position as ordinaire de la musique following an argument.  It might have been better for him if he had stayed away from France.  He was stabbed to death in Paris in 1758.

Following the Leclair was Jacques-Martin Hotteterre's Trio Sonata in E minor, Op. 3, No. 4 taken from Sonates en trio, livre 1, Op. 3 (1712) arranged for oboe, violin, bassoon and theorbo.  Hotteterre was nicknamed le Romain for his enthusiastic embrace of Italian music.  Though he actually only lived in Rome for two years, his exposure to Corelli's music while there had a lasting influence on his style of composition.  In his own time, however, Hotteterre was most famous as a virtuoso flutist.  As author of the first instruction manual for that instrument, L'Art de préluder sur la flûte traversière, and as composer of numerous works that featured woodwind instruments, he exerted enormous influence on the development of the flute repertoire.

So far, all the composers featured had been French, but the next work was by the German composer Georg Philipp Telemann, his Concerto à 4, TWV 43:G1 taken from Quadri (1730) arranged for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord.  Telemann was the odd man out at Tuesday's recital - the only non-French composer to be featured.  At the end of the performance I asked Robert Mealy, the program director, why his music had been included.  Mr. Mealy explained that Telemann's music had been extremely popular in France and had exerted a great deal of influence on French music.  Part of the reason for Telemann's popularity may have been due to the fact that he consciously strove in the six Quadri for an international style - two of the concertos were in the German style, two in the Italian and two in the French.  This internationalism was not surprising since Telemann had written the Quadri in anticipation of his visit to Paris, the only occasion on which he traveled outside Germany, that in the event did not occur until 1737.

Next on the program was a work by one of the best known French composers, Jean-Philippe Rameau.  The piece chosen was Premier Concert from Pièces de clavecin en concert (1747) arranged for flute, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord.  Although by the time this piece was written Rameau had become more famous as a composer of opera than of instrumental music, he was still the conductor of a private orchestra and wrote prolifically for the harpsichord.  Rameau's music was extremely innovative, and this actually made him a figure of controversy for those who thought he had betrayed the traditions set forth by Lully.

Rameau's predecessor, composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, was featured next.  The selections were taken from his music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) arranged for two violins, viola, cello and violone.  A great deal of Lully's importance derives from his association with Louis XIV who made him first royal composer of instrumental music and then director of the royal violin orchestra.  Such patronage from an absolute monarch made Lully the most influential composer in France.  His position at court also led to his collaboration with Molière not only at court but also at the playwright's theater in Paris.  It was at the premiere of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme that Lully achieved his apotheosis when he danced the part of the mufti in the last act cérémonie des Turcs.

The program concluded with Louis-Gabriel Guillemain's Sonata III in D minor from Six sonates en quatuors ou conversations galantes (1743) arranged for flute, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord.  Guillemain was not nearly so important a composer as Couperin, Rameau and Lully, and I'm not quite sure why his music was chosen to end the recital.  Though competent as both a violinist and composer, his greatest achievement seems to have been drinking himself to death.

Tuesday's recital lasted a full hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission.  The high quality of the musicianship made it a feast for those with an interest in Baroque music which I feel is best heard when played, as it was on this occasion, on actual period instruments.  This is really the only way one can appreciate the music in the same manner as the seventeenth and eighteenth century audiences who first heard it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Hummel, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Neiman

On Monday afternoon I went to Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street to hear another performance by the Jupiter Players.  The program on this occasion highlighted the works of composers who were also in their day well known pianists.  These included Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Chopin as well as contemporary composer Adam Neiman who, as pianist, was also the featured guest artist.

The program opened with Hummel's Grand rondo brillant in G Major Op. 126, for flute and piano (1834).  Hummel is one of those musical figures who, during their day, stood at the center of European culture and exerted great influence on the next generation of musicians and composers but who then, at their deaths, were almost immediately forgotten, their repuations allowed to slide into obscurity.  A contemporary of Beethoven, Hummel studied with many of the same teachers - Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Joseph Haydn, and Antonio Salieri - after first having been a pupil of  both Mozart and Muzio Clementi.  In turn, Hummel exerted considerable influence on the early Romantics.  Schubert dedicated his final three piano sonatas to Hummel (although the dedicatee was changed posthumously to Schumann by Schubert's publisher); Liszt studied piano under Hummel's pupil Carl Czerny; and Chopin may have been inspired to compose his Preludes after having heard Hummel's own Op. 67.  The present piece was a late composition written only three years before Hummel's death in Weimar where he had in his last years become close friends with Goethe.

The next work was Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in E-flat major (1847), titled "Carnival in Pest," as transcribed by the composer for piano, violin and cello.  Like the other Rhapsodies, the work was originally conceived as a virtuoso piece for solo piano and incorporated the folk music of Liszt's homeland.  In this case, the themes used were among those the composer had heard while visiting an actual carnival several years earlier.  Bartók was later to praise the piece as a "work of perfect authenticity," and what better judge than he?  Usually, I strongly prefer to hear works in their original instrumentation rather than in transcription.  This piece, however, definitely seemed to benefit by the addition of strings, most notably in those sections where the folk influence was strongest.  It was really the violin that best captured the carnival spirit.

The first half of the recital concluded with Rachmaninoff's Two Morceaux de salon Op. 6 for piano and violin (1893).  Although these two pieces were written fairly early in Rachmaninoff's career, as the low opus number indicates, they are nevertheless extremely accomplished works.  This is worth mentioning because they preceded by only two years the Symphony No. 1, whose disastrous premiere in 1897 precipitated a psychological crisis that caused the composer to lose all confidence in his ability.  Though only miniatures, the Morceaux reveal a composer fully in command of his material.  Rachmaninoff was, of course, one of the greatest twentieth century pianists; but in these pieces greater weight is given to the violin, played here exceptionally well by Stefan Milenkovich.  The titles of the two movements provide a fairly accurate indication of the music contained within them.  The first is called Romance while the second is labeled Danses tziganes 'Danse hongroise.'  The latter was a decidedly appropriate selection to follow Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody.

After intermission, the program continued with Adam Neiman's Trio for piano, violin and clarinet  (2017).  In his introductory remarks, Mr. Neiman mentioned that the ten-minute piece had been commissioned by a Midwest music festival for exactly that length of time and that combination of instruments.  The work was to be sandwiched between two Brahms works, and the festival organizers wanted a piece that "bridged the gap" between the younger and more passionate Brahms and his older and more philosophical persona.  As for the style of the trio, Mr. Neiman - who is often referred to as a neo-Romantic - described it as "unapologetically tonal and melodic."  And that it was.  Perhaps for that reason it was much more enjoyable than most contemporary music I've heard recently.  It proved to be an extremely accomplished work.  Surprisingly, considering Mr. Neiman is best known as a pianist, and a good one at that, great weight was given to the strings throughout the work while the piano remained "a constant and subdued presence."

The recital concluded with a performance of Chopin's Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8 (1828-1829).  This early work is something of an anomaly in the composer's oeuvre that seems far removed from the Romantic miniatures for solo piano that would characterize his later work and win him fame.  Part of the reason for this is that Chopin was still a student in Warsaw at the time the trio was completed, a pupil of the composer Józef Elsner, and the work was at least partly in the nature of an assignment.  Its structure and tone are Classical rather than Romantic and hearken back to Beethoven (as well as Hummel).  Some critics have even heard in the adagio sostenuto the influence of Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 in C minor.  Nevertheless, the tone of the work, particularly in the slow movement, is unabashedly Romantic, an indication that even at this early point in his career Chopin was fully able to imbue his music with the force of his personality.  If there's any problem with the piece it's Chopin's lack of experience in composing for strings.  Even though he had assistance in writing those parts, there is never any of the interplay among the strings and piano that one finds in the work of more experienced chamber music composers.   Nevertheless, the work was well received at its premiere and deserves to be heard more often today.  In his usual hyperbolic style, Schumann wrote of it: "Is it not as noble as one could possibly imagine? Dreamier than any poet has ever sung?"

Monday, October 16, 2017

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Die Zauberflöte

On Saturday afternoon, I walked down to the Met Opera to hear my first oprea of the season, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.  It seemed appropriate that I should begin the season with an opera conducted by Music Director Emeritus James Levine whose work on the podium has guided my understanding of opera since I first developed an interest in the genre more than thirty years ago.  To my mind, no one has a deeper knowledge of Mozart's music than Maestro Levine, and without his insightful leadership of the Met Orchestra I doubt I would have the appreciation of these operas I now possess.

Die Zauberflöte was, of course, the composer's final opera. Technically, though, it isn't opera at all but singspiel, a form of German musical theater that features both singing and spoken dialogue.  Mozart was thoroughly familiar with the genre.  He had already enjoyed great success immediately following his arrival in Vienna with Die Entführung aus dem Serail, a lighthearted comedy set in Turkey.  In between the two works, Mozart had concentrated on Italian opera, first with the opera seria Idomeneo and then with the three majestic Da Ponte operas.  Returning to singspiel did, however, present the composer with one major problem.  The use of spoken dialogue in place of recitatives meant that he could not use his music to drive the action forward as he had so successfully done in the Da Ponte operas.

Mozart's renewed interest in singspiel had been prompted by his involvement with a local theatrical troupe led by Emanuel Schikaneder who was to become one of the most noted impresarios of his era.  Not that this was Schikaneder's only connection with Die Zauberflöte.  He was also the librettist, stage manager, and even played the role of Papageno in the original production.  Mozart and Schikaneder had first met while the former was still living in Salzburg, and the acquaintance was again taken up when Mozart became friends in Vienna with Benedikt Schack, a singer associated with the troupe who was to play the first Tamino.

Perhaps the most important link between Mozart and Schikaneder was that they were both Freemasons.  This is critical to an understanding of Die Zauberflöte because the work is in a very real sense one long allegory meant to illustrate the beliefs and rites of the organization.  These references are sometimes made explicit as, for example, in the second scene of Act II when Tamino and Papageno arrive at the Temple of Ordeal and are sworn to silence after having been warned of the dangers they face.  This obviously parallels an actual Masonic initiation practice.  For some reason, Mozart's association with Freemasonry is often downplayed, but it's central to any understanding of the action onstage.  Mozart placed a great deal of importance on his membership in the Freemasons and made many friendships through it that were to have a huge impact on his life and work.  Though the plot of Die Zauberflöte often appears comic to the point of slapstick, to Mozart it was a highly serious project involving his deepest personal beliefs.  As Jan Swafford points out in the Met's program notes:
"The Masonic allegory is so pervasive in Die Zauberflöte that some critics believe that the opera's central message was to proclaim the importance of the Masonic order in a time when it was under increasing pressure from the throne."
If there's any consolation to be found in Mozart's untimely death, it's that he at least died knowing his final work had been a success.  He conducted the premiere at the Theater auf der Wieden on September 30, 1791 and returned almost nightly thereafter in the company of friends to enjoy the applause and calls for encores.  In October, he wrote to his wife:
"But what always gives me the most pleasure is the silent approval! You can see how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed."
Less than three months after the opera had opened, Mozart was dead.

Saturday's performance was as gratifying as one could wish.  James Levine, as ususal, did an excellent job conducting the lengthy work while well supported by a cast that, though it contained no big names, worked flawlessly together as an ensemble.  Praise is rightfully due Golda Schultz as Pamina, Charles Castronovo as Tamino, Markus Werba as Papageno, and René Pape as Sarastro.  Meanwhile, Kathryn Lewek as Queen of the Night brought down the house with her Act II aria Der Hölle Rache.

The production by Julie Taymor (who also designed the costumes and puppets), though fanciful, was fairly restrained.  Special effects were not allowed to become distractions, and the revolving set kept the action moving at a brisk pace.

N.B.  There are two different versions of this opera in repertory at the Met.  Die Zauberflöte is Mozart's original work sung in German while The Magic Flute is an edited version, usually staged during the holiday period, that is sung in English.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Music Among Friends" Perform Beethoven

On Sunday evening I went to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear a group with which I had previously been unfamiliar perform an all-Beethoven program.  Calling itself "Music Among Friends," the ensemble consisted of three extremely talented musicians - violinist Jessica Fellows, cellist Ariana Nelson, and pianist Jerome Rosen.  Ms. Fellows and Ms. Nelson both hold MM degrees from Juilliard while Mr. Rosen, a graduate of Curtis, is also a violinist and has regularly performed with several major orchestras.

The program opened with the Violin Sonata in D major, Op. 12, No. 1 (1798).  Although as a performer Beethoven achieved fame for his pianism, he was also thoroughly conversant with the string instruments and in fact began his career as a violist with the Bonn court orchestra.  More importantly, when he first arrived in Vienna he studied violin with Ignaz Schuppanzigh, one of the preeminent musicians of the day.  (He also studied vocal composition with Antonio Salieri to whom the three Op. 12 sonatas are dedicated.)  It may have been the association with Schuppanzigh that prompted Beethoven to write these early works in the hope the virtuoso might perform them in recital.  Though they adhere closely to the three movement classical structure formulated by Haydn, they are at the same time innovative in the weight given the violin part.  If the sonatas were not well received when first performed, it may have been because Beethoven was trying too hard and put too much effort into them.  The first movement of the present piece contains three distinct themes, and such an abundance of material may have confused early listeners as much as the composer's penchant for exploring distantly related keys within the same movement.

The next work was the Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 (1808).  Written ten years after the Op. 12 sonatas, the Op. 69 was composed well into Beethoven's middle period at roughly the same time as the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 and the Choral Fantasy.  The composer was long past his apprenticeship to Haydn by this point and yet the sonata retains the classical three movement structure and is far more genial than the bulk of Beethoven's output during this period.  The adagio cantabile that opens the final movement is among the loveliest passages Beethoven would compose.  The work is revolutionary, however, in the importance given the cello itself.  From the opening bars that are played by the cello without accompaniment, it is apparent that the instrument has come into its own with this work.  Long relegated to the role of continuo in the Baroque era, the cello is here treated for the first time as a solo instrument.

After intermission, the recital concluded with Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97 (1811) nicknamed the "Archduke" for its dedication to the composer's patron, Archduke Rudolph.  This was the last and finest of Beethoven's piano trios and is almost symphonic in its breadth.  Beyond that, its first performances were notable for having been the last occasions on which the composer appeared in public as a pianist.  It's difficult to imagine how painful it must have been for Beethoven, who had once been the foremost virtuoso in Vienna, to have realized that his ability at the keyboard was irretrievably lost.  Louis Spohr, who was present at the premiere, somewhat unkindly described the state in which Beethoven's encroaching deafness had left him:
"On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate."
Though written toward the end of the composer's middle period, the trio already looked ahead to the masterpieces of the late period. This is most evident in the elaborate set of variations that make up the slow third movement. It sometimes seems Beethoven's entire career was determined by his deafness. Just as his despair at the loss of his hearing had marked the beginning of his middle period, so its advancement to the point he could no longer play the piano propelled him forward into his late period in which he appeared to have thought more in terms of pure music than of composing for individual instruments.

One of the great advantages to living on the Upper West Side is that on practically any night of the week one can literally wander into a church or other informal venue and hear performances of the highest quality.  On this occasion the musicians displayed not only great expertise on their chosen instruments but also a deep understanding of Beethoven's oeuvre.  It was an evening well spent.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Lara Lev

Early Saturday evening, while the New York Film Festival was playing next door at Alice Tully, I went to Paul Hall to hear a recital by Lara Lev, a member of the Juilliard pre-college faculty.  I had previously heard Ms. Lev in recital in 2013 at this same venue and had been extremely impressed by her command of her chosen instrument.  At both that earlier recital and the one given Saturday evening, it was apparent that the violinist had deliberately chosen a program that presented great technical difficulties for even the most accomplished musicians.  The present one-hour performance accordingly featured an eclectic selection of works by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Béla BartókIgor Stravinsky, J.S. Bach, and George Rochberg.

The program opened with music from the Baroque era - Biber's Passacaglia in G minor, known as the "Guardian Angel," for solo violin (c. 1645).  This piece concludes the Rosary Sonatas (as the title page was missing from Biber's autograph, these works have also come to be known as the Mystery Sonatas), a series of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo that together with the Passacaglia are considered the composer's masterpiece.  Though not so well known today as his contemporaries Bach and Vivaldi, Biber was one of the great composers of the Baroque era as well as a virtuoso violinist.  I've heard a number of his works performed on period instruments at Juilliard415 recitals and have been astonished at how modern his music sounds.  The Passacaglia is one of his most innovative works.  Employing standard violin tuning rather than the scodatura used in the sonatas themselves, Biber created here one of the milestones of the violin repertoire.  As a 2005 dissertation by Yu-Chi Wang states:
"Biber used high positions and polyphonic writing to explore idiomatic and virtuosic writing for violin. His work created new demands on the violinists’ technique and were more difficult than either Corelli’s compositions or Teleman’s twelve Fantasias, which were written decades after the Passacaglia. The use of chords in Passacaglia creates resonant acoustics, and the use of running notes reveals a brilliant violinistic virtuosity. Biber’s counterpoint played on a single violin was also a breakthrough in violin technique. Davitt Moroney asserts that Biber’s Passacaglia was the most important precursor of J. S. Bach’s six unaccompaneid violin works. The Passacaglia was constructed of twelve sections with an introduction and a coda. Each section has a different length. The excitement of this piece arises from its construction out of sections which alternately feature chords and arpeggios, set in an increasingly intense rhythmic texture."
Moving from the Baroque to the twentieth century, Ms. Lev next performed the Tempo di ciaccona, the first movement of Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117 (1944).  Ms. Lev had previously performed the sonata in its entirety at her 2013 recital, and I was sorry on this occasion not to have heard the full work once again.  Inspired of course by Bach's great Ciaccona (itself performed later at this recital), the movement is not technically a chaconne though there are obvious stylistyic similarities to the Baroque form.  It contains three separate themes and relies heavily, as do the majority of Bartók's compositions, on Hungarian folk music.  The entire work was written while Bartók was convalescing from leukemia in North Carolina at roughly the same time he was composing the Piano Concerto No. 3.  It was the piano that was Bartók's instrument of choice - his skills as a performer were at the virtuoso level - and I doubt very much that he would ever have composed a piece for solo violin if he had not been commissioned to so by Yehudi Menuhin.  Although the sonata is an important and striking work, it never in my opinion quite rises to the heights attained by Bartók's greatest piano compositions. Still, it must be borne in mind that at thet time he wrote the sonata, the composer was desperately ill and had only roughly another year to live.

It was also in 1944, the same year that Bartók wrote his sonata, that Stravinsky composed his Elegie, the only work he ever created for solo viola.  As the program for this recital noted, the work was "composed in memory of Alphonse Onnou, violinist and founder of the Pro-Arte String Quartet in Brussels 1912."  The best short description of this composition is probably that furnished by Eric Walter White, author of Stravinsky, The Composer and His Works (2nd ed., 1979):
"This Elegy for unaccompanied viola (which may also be played a fifth higher by an unaccompanied violin) is a two-part invention in ternary form....The first section is a kind of chant played above a simple flowing accompaniment. The middle section is skillfully written to give the impression of a fugue....At the climax the fugal subject is answered by its inversion at a distance of a single bar. (A single bar) forms a bridge leading to the recapitulation of the first section with an altered cadence in the last four bars. The viola (or violin) plays con sordino (with mute) throughout." 
Following the Stravinsky, Ms. Lev returned to the Baroque era to perform what any number of musicians have agreed is the greatest work written for solo violin, Bach's Ciaccona, the fifth and final movement of his Partita in D minor, BWV 1004 (1717-1720).  I had heard last month at a Jupiter Players recital this same movement in Brahms's famous transcription for piano but had not enjoyed it nearly so much as in its original form for violin.  Still, its worth quoting Brahms's thoughts on the Ciaccona if only to give an indication of the impact it has had on musicians since its rediscovery in the early nineteenth century (it was first published in 1802).
"On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."
The recital ended with a selections from the 1970 Caprice Variations for Unaccompanied Violin by George Rochberg, a composer with whose work I had previously been unfamilar.  The full piece is made up of fifty-one variations of which eleven quote from the works of other composers (i.e., Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler and Webern). Those performed at this recital consisted of eleven selections from both the quoting and non-quoting variations.  In borrowing from the works of earlier composers, Rochberg joined a select group of twentieth century composers, the most notable of whom was Alfred Schnittke who set forth the rationale for this usage in his 1971 essay "Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music."  I'd refer those seeking an in-depth analysis of the Variations as a whole to an exhaustive 2014 dissertation written by Hojin Kim at Florida State University that is currently available online.  For me, what was most interesting was that the piece was written in the latter part of Rochberg's career following the tragic death of his son Paul in 1964.  It was then that he rejected the serialist techniques that had formed the basis of his earlier music.  Rochberg apparently felt that serialism was too abstract a system to offer him any consolation in his time of sorrow and so turned to tonalism, the music that had traditionally offered a more profound link to the emotions.  He wrote:
"After Paul died, that absolutely made it necessary for me to wash my hands of the whole thing [serialism]... Music is the sound of the human heart, shaped and guided by the mind. It is the sounding of the human consciousness in all of its possible states of being."
Attending this recital was a rewarding experience both for the well thought out programming and for the high level of musicianship. It greatly enlarged my knowledge of the solo violin repertoire.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Sobeck, Mozart, Suk and Dvořák

On Monday afternoon, I went to Good Shepherd Church on West 66th to hear another Jupiter Players recital, this one consisting entirely of the music of Bohemian composers, among them Johann Sobeck, Johann Nepomuk Wendt (as transcriber of Mozart), Josef Suk and Antonín Dvořák.

The program opened with Sobeck's Duo Concertant on Themes from Mozart's Don Giovanni, Op. 5 (n.d., published 1880) for clarinet and horn with piano accompaniment.  To call this brief piece "obscure" would be to indulge in understatement.  When I attempted to research it, I could find literally nothing on it aside from its date of publication.  Nor on the composer either, for that matter, other than that he was a gifted clarinetist who composed exclusively for his own instrument.  It consisted of five movemnts that were skillfully arranged and highly enjoyable if only because Sobeck wisely chose so magnificent a source to draw upon.

Continuing along with little known adapations of Mozart's music, the first half of the program concluded with Wendt's arrangement of selections from Le Nozze di Figaro.  Wendt was not only a contemporary of Mozart but, as director of Joseph II's court Harmonie (i.e., wind band), pretty much outranked him in prestige.  His specialty consisted in the arrangement for winds of popular operas of the day.  He must have had a strong predilection for Mozart's music.  In addition to Figaro, Wendt created adaptations of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Così fan tutte, Die Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni.  It should be noted that while Wendt's original transcription of Figaro was scored for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns, that performed at this recital called for flute, violin, viola and cello.  Why Wendt should have chosen to complete a second transcription that would not be playable by his Harmonie is unknown.  Most likely, Joseph II specifically requested it for some occasion at court.  In any event, the arrangement was excellent and captured very well the spirit of Mozart's sublime music.  It consisted of arrangements of the Overture and six of the best known arias.

After intermission, the musicians returned onstage to perform  the fourth movement in B-flat major of Suk's String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 (1896, fourth movment revised 1915).  Suk was not a particularly successful composer, but he did have the sense to marry well.  It was primarily through the intervention of his father-in-law, Antonín Dvořák himself, that Suk's quartet was published in the first place, this after the older composer had informed his publisher Simrock that the work was "the best that I know by him [Suk]."  Interestingly, the fourth movement, that played here, has a history all its own.  As one source states:
"Suk re-wrote the fourth movement twenty years after its completion because he was dissatisfied with the original version. Despite his use of the same thematic material, the new version differs so substantially that this movement is frequently performed on its own."
That being the case, it's probably better to view the movement as a work entire in itself rather than as an excerpt from a traditional four-movement quartet.

After intermission, the recital concluded with a performance of Dvořák's Piano Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 23 (1875).  The work was written shortly after the composer had won the Austrian Prize for the first time and was already on the brink of international fame.  It's not as often performed as the Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major written some fifteen years later, but it's nevertheless a delightful work that conveys very well the composer's Romantic inclinations and even at times hints at the sweeping melodies that were to characterize the much later String Quartet No. 12.  Though the Op. 23, especially in the final movement, sometimes displays the awkwardness of an artist still struggling to perfect his craft, it also demonstrates an early mastery of technique.  This can be heard in the nearly seamless integration of the piano and strings that allows them to speak with one voice rather than play against one another.  Beyond that, the second movement theme and variations, though simple enough, especially when compared with the Symphonic Variations written only two years later, stand out for their depth of feeling.  Some critics have seen in them the influence of Schubert's variations in the second movement of his Quartet No. 14; but Dvořák's variations, while admittedly tinged with melancholy, are not nearly so dark as Schubert's.  One could say that Dvořák still envisions the possiblity of deliverance, while for Schubert nothing awaits but annihilation.

As is usually the case at Jupiter recitals, the musicianship on Monday afternoon was superb.  Guest artists Drew Petersen, piano, and Mark Kaplan, violin, were both highly convincing when collaborating on the Dvořák quartet.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Met Museum: World War I and the Visual Arts

The Met Museum is marking the centennial of the First World War with a major exhibit entitled World War I and the Visual Arts.  The show's title to the contrary, there is little here of the traditional arts, i.e., painting and sculpture.  That's entirely appropriate, though, since the conflict had a lasting impact on virtually all forms of cultural expression.  The same early twentieth century technology that produced new types of weaponry also enabled new artistic media.  This was signified in the visual arts by the increased use of photography and those graphic arts that most readily lent themselves to mass reproduction, such as propaganda posters and even postcards.

The show has been allocated three large galleries that contain so many works among them that I had to view the exhibit twice in order to properly appreciate it.  The three are divided so that the first deals with the outbreak of the war, the second with its progress, and the third with its aftermath.  Taken together, they give the viewer some sense of what it must have been like to have lived through four years of hell.  When it began, most assumed the war would only last a few months.  Few could have imagined when the armies first mobilized in August 1914 that the world into which they had been born was about to vanish forever.  The works on view document artists' dawning awareness of the immensity of the conflict and the savagery with which it was fought.

As one would expect, it is in the first gallery that one finds images emphasizing patriotism and the glories of war.  In 1914, many, including a large number of artists, saw the war in a positive light as a means to achieve a lasting peace and a better world.  This optimism was particularly true of the Italian Futurists who glorified the mechanized weaponry that made the war so deadly and created casualties on a scale never before encountered.  The Futurists are represented here by several works by Gino Severini whose carefully constructed semi-abstract monochromes, such as Train in the City (charcoal, 1915), convey no hint of death.  But then there are graphic works by the British artist Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson that, while using Futurist techniques, show endless columns of troops marching blindly to their destruction.  Typical of these are Returning to the Trenches and Column on the March (both drypoints, 1916).  Other works, such as Pyotr Adolfovitch Otsup's photographs of Tsar Nicholas II reviewing his troops, are unintentionally poignant.  Only a short while after they were taken, the Tsar was overthrown and eventually murdered along with his family.

It is only in the second gallery that artists appear to have become fully cognizant of the war's horrors.  There are works here too by Nevinson, but in his lithograph Banking at 4,000 Feet and his drypoint That Cursed Wood, both from 1917, he has left far behind the Futurist effects he had previously employed.  In a like manner the great French painter Pierre Bonnard, one of the original Les Nabis, shows the devastation war brings to the civilian population in Dans la somme, village en ruines (colored chalks and watercolor, 1916), a scene echoed in Edward Steichen's 1918 aerial photograph of the bombed village of Vaux.  Perhaps the most horrific image, though, is George Bellows's 1918 lithograph entitled Bacchanale from War that depicts rampaging German soldiers callously bayoneting women and children in an unnamed village.  Ironically, Bellows had been against American participation in the war until informed of these German atrocities.

The final gallery that deals with the war's aftermath is dominated by German art.  This only makes sense since it was in Germany, riddled by unemployment and rampant inflation, that the war's aftereffects were most keenly felt.  Artists whose work is displayed here include George Grosz (War Drawing, ink on paper, 1917), Max Beckmann (Hell, eleven transfer lithographs, 1918-1919), Erich Heckel (Wounded Sailor, woodcut, 1915), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Umbra vitae, woodcut book illustrations, 1924), and Käthe Kollwitz (Gefallen, lithograph, 1920).

The exhibit concludes with a one of the greatest masterpieces of modern German art - Otto Dix's Der Krieg ("The War"), a set of fifty-one etchings that take up an entire gallery wall.  Dix was the only major German artist to have served through all four years of the war, and these etchings, so reminiscent of Goya's The Disasters of War in both style and execution, sum up the artist's ghastly remembrance of his time on the Western front.  They are unquestionably the most powerful works to have come out of the war and are among the most potent anti-war statements of all time.  One cannot view them without being completely overwhelmed by the lasting tragedy of this "war to end all wars."

The exhibit continues through January 7, 2018.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Juilliard: Bachauer Award Recital

On Tuesday evening I went to Juilliard's Paul Hall to hear the Gina Bachauer Award Recital.  Featured were the two Juilliard pianists who had won this year's annual competition - Chaeyoung Park, a BM candidate, and Yun-chin Zhou, an MM candidate.  Both are students of Robert McDonald.  Together they gave a one-hour performance of works by Bach/Siloti, Bartók, Liszt and William Bolcom, none of which had previously been familiar to me.

The program, hosted by WQXR's Bob Sherman, began with Chaeyoung Park performing J.S. Bach's Prelude in B Minor as arranged by Alexander Siloti.  The source for this brief work was actually the composer's Prelude in E Minor, BWV 855a, an early version of that found in The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I (1722).  Siloti, a student of Liszt and a cousin of Rachmaninoff, was himself a major musician and conductor in pre-Revolutionary Russia to whom Arensky, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky all dedicated works.  In 1918, no doubt seeing the writing on the wall, Siloti fled his homeland, even after having been named Intendant of the Mariinsky Theater, and ended up as a teacher at Juilliard.  He was known for the excellence of his transcriptions, and the present piece is generally considered to be the finest of these.  In it, he lowered the key by an ocatve, reversed the roles of each hand, and included a repeat of the entire work that contained within it a "hidden" melody for the left hand.  These changes completely altered the character of Bach's prelude to bring it within the tradition of Russian Romanticism.  It was an splendid choice with which to begin the recital.

The next piece was Bartók's Out of Doors, Sz. 81 (1926), for me the highlight of the entire recital.  Unusually for the composer, each of the piece's five movements was assigned a title.  Of these, the first, "With Drums and Pipes," was based on a traditional Hungarian folk song.  Bartók, in the company of Kodály, had spent years at the turn of the twentieth century recording Hungarian and Romanian folk music and in so doing had become one of the world's first ethnomusicologists. Bartók's researches formed the basis of his own modernist music, and this passage was an excellent example of his process of assimiliation.  The work's most interesting movement, though, was unquestionably the fourth, "The Night's Music."  Bartók often played this separately from the other movements and at one time had intended to record it.  The composer's night music was one of the most distinctive of his musical innovations.  He used the term to describe slow passages in which he sought to portray the sounds of nature at night, albeit in an unconventional manner that could sometimes be unnerving, as in The Miraculous Mandarin completed only a few years before Out of Doors.  In this piece it had indeed an unsettling effect, and yet at the same time it possessed a mesmerizing quality that held the audience transfixed.

Yun-chin Zhou then took the stage to perform Liszt's Réminiscences de Norma, S.394 (1841).  The composer was famous for his transcriptions of operatic masterpieces, particularly those of Wagner, and here he chose one of Bellini's most successful works.  This was not  a transcription in the technical sense, however, as much as it was a reimagining of the entire opera achieved by recasting seven of its themes for piano in a thoroughly Romantic manner, a technique Liszt also employed in his Réminiscences de Don Juan completed the same year.  As with most of Liszt's works for piano, the Réminiscences de Norma was intended to challenge the virtuosity of even the most experienced pianists.  To my mind, though, it did not have the depth of Liszt's transcriptions of Wagner no matter how brilliant its sound.

The progam concluded with both musicians returning to the stage to play together the first and last movements of Bolcom's Recuerdos for Two Pianos (1991), a work originally commissioned for a 1991 two-piano competition.  Bolcom is an extremely eclectic composer, forever reinterpreting his sources in his own idiom much the same as Bartók did when absorbing his homeland's folk music.  Recuerdos consisted of three movements, each of them inspired by a different composer - Ernesto Nazareth, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Ramón Delgado Palacios - whose singular styles provided stepping off points for Bolcom's invention.  Chôro was a dance piece deeply influenced by Nazareth's Brazilian tangos but at the same time interwoven with American ragtime.  It provided a marked contrast to Palacios's eighteenth century Valse Venezolano.  With its strong Latin flavoring, the piece bore little resemblance to the Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss.  The music of both these South American composers provided a solid base for Bolcom to build upon.  His music has invariably been highly accessible and enjoyable and here overflowed with rhythm and energy.

The Bachauer Award Recital has always been the occasion I mark as the beginning of the classical music season.  Hearing the performances of two such fine pianists as Chaeyoung Park and Yun-chin Zhou helped me once again realize the importance classical music holds in my life.

Tuesday's recital will be broadcast on WQXR's Young Artists Showcase on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, at 9:00 p.m. and should be archived on the station's website for some time thereafter.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Met Museum: Gilded Age Drawings

Tucked away in the Met Museum's American Wing is an excellent show of drawings from the Gilded Age, a period that stretched roughly from the close of the Civil War to the 1890's when the country entered the Progressive Age and the United States took its place among the world powers.  One cannot help experiencing a sense of nostalgia in viewing these works from a supposedly simpler time in our nation's history.

It should be noted at the outset that many of the works on view are generic landscapes and studies that, while decorative, are of little artistic interest.  There are, however, enough works by major nineteenth century artists to more than compensate for these.

No artist is so well represented at this exhibit as Thomas Eakins who could well be considered the father of American Realism.  Several of his most important works are on display.  First and foremost is the iconic 1877 The Dancing Lesson, the only work from the exhibit to be featured on the museum's website.  The watercolor depicts three figures - a seated banjo player, a child first learning to dance, and a third male figure who stands watching the child.  Significantly, all three are Afro-Americans whose depiction in artworks, other than as racial stereotypes, even in the late nineteenth century was still extremely controversial.  Other watercolors by Eakins include The Pathetic Song (1881), John Biglin in a Single Scull (1873), and Young Girl Meditating, also known as Fifty Years Ago (1877).  By far the most interesting piece, however, is the monochromatic rendering in India ink of Eakins's most famous painting, The Gross Clinic (1875).  The huge (8' x 6.5') oil on canvas was rejected by Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition because it showed in photorealistic detail an actual surgical operation in progress.  The content was deemed unseemly and the painting consigned to, or more properly hidden in, an army hospital where none but the staff could view it.  Eakins, understandably upset, wanted to ensure that his work was not lost altogether and so made the drawing for purposes of accurate reproduction in print form.

Other major artists shown at the exhibit include James McNeill Whistler (Lady in Gray, watercolor and gouache, 1883), Winslow Homer (Inside the Bar, watercolor, 1883 and Boys in a Dory, watercolor and gouache with graphite underdrawing, 1873), and Louis Comfort Tiffany (Louise Tiffany Reading, pastel, 1888).  There are also on view two pieces by John Singer Sargent (In the Generalife, watercolor with wax crayon, 1912, and Two Soldiers at Arras, watercolor, 1917) even though both are twentieth century works executed long after the close of the Gilded Age.

For me, the most interesting part of the exhibit consisted of works by lesser known American artists.  Snow Scene (c. 1890-1900), a watercolor by Bruce Crane was a strikingly modern looking piece while The Green Cushion (c. 1895), a watercolor with gouache and graphite by Irving Ramsey Wiles, was in its languor the very epitome of the Gilded Age aesthetic.  One startling anachronism was New York from a Seaplane (1919), a pastel by Everett L. Warner.  By far the most intriguing works shown, though, were two watercolors with gouache by John La Farge - Nocturne (1885) and Strange Thing Little Kiosai saw in the River (1897).  The artist, a native of New York City and graduate of Fordham University, was not only a painter, but also a writer and a worker in stained glass.  A journey to Japan in 1886 in the company of Henry Adams had a lasting influence on his art that can clearly be seen in the above two works.  Nocturne is low key study of a flower seen at night that is shrouded in mystery.  Strange Thing is an even more explicit acknowledgement of the Japanese connection.  It is based on an episode in the life of the Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyōsai who as a child found a head floating in the river, painted it, and then returned it to the river for "reburial."  La Farge's watercolor is a dream-like vision of the disembodied head floating in the river.  It's easily the best thing to be seen at the Met's current show.

The exhibit continues through December 10, 2017.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Gershwin, Stravinsky, Martinů, Poulenc, and Kapustin

After having attended the Jupiter Players' first recital of the season only last week, I went on Monday to hear the company's next performance, this one featuring twentieth century music by George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky, Bohuslav Martinů, Francis Poulenc, and Nikolaï Kapustin.  The program's title, Jazzing It Up, was highly appropriate considering the works performed, almost all of which blurred the line between jazz and progressive classical music.

The program opened with Gershwin's Three Preludes (1926).  Though Gershwin's original score was for solo piano, the version performed here was an arrangement by Charles Neidich for clarinet and piano.  The work refelcts Gershwin's ambition to be taken seriously as a classical composer.  Though he had gained international recognition with Rhapsody in Blue, written two years earlier, he was still viewed primarily as a composer of Broadway show tunes.   Accordingly, he came up with the idea of a complete set of 24 preludes in the grand manner Chopin, but the number was gradually reduced, first to seven, then to five, and finally to three.  It is the second movement in C-sharp minor, marked andante con moto e poco rubato, that is the longest and most interesting.  Gershwin himself described it as “a sort of blues lullaby.”

The next work was Stravinsky's L’histoire du soldat (“The Soldier’s Tale”) (1919) for for violin, clarinet, and piano.  The piece started as "a theatrical work 'to be read, played, and danced' (lue, jouée et dansée) by three actors and one or several dancers, accompanied by a septet of instruments." The present suite, also from 1919, represents an abridgement not only of content but of instrumentation as well.  Although Stravinsky later claimed to have been influenced by jazz when composing the piece, it's doubtful that he had actually had an opportunity to hear any real jazz in post-World War I Europe.  His knowledge came instead from reading sheet music.  The piece is therefore more what Stravinsky thought jazz should sound like than what it actually did.  This gives the music an even more idiosyncratic character than it might otherwise have.

The first half of the program concluded with one of my favorite twentieth century chamber pieces, Martinů's delightful La revue de cuisine (1927) for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello and piano.  The work was actually written as a ballet, one of three Martinů composed that year.  Even without the dancers, the suite that was adapted from the ballet is a witty sophisticated piece whose instrumenation allows it to mimic the sound of the great 1920's Paris jazz/ragtime bands.  The use of a clarinet is particularly effective in the Charleston segment.

After intermission, the musicians returned to perform Poulenc's incidental music for Jean Anouilh's 1940 stage play Léocadia.  When first staged in Paris, the play was a critical success but is now largely forgotten.  It was a actually a play within a play in which the protagonist's aunt sought to recreate the past (shades of Proust) for him in order to demonstrate its illusory quality when compared to real life.  For the premiere, Poulenc wrote one of his most famous songs, Les Chemins de l’amour, which he dedicated to the show's star Yvonne Printemps.  It was given an excellent cabaret-like rendition at this performance by ensemble member Gina Cuffari.

The final piece on the program was Kapustin's Piano Quintet, Op. 89 (1998).  The Russian composer, who's now in his 80's, has become increasingly popular over the past few years, especially among those with an interest in "third stream" music.  Kapustin does not quite fit the mould for this genre, however, since he deliberately eschews all forms of improvisation in his work.  As he himself put it:
"I was never a jazz musician. I never tried to be a real jazz pianist, but I had to do it because of the composing. I’m not interested in improvisation–and what is a jazz musician without improvisation? All my improvisation is written, of course, and they become much better; it improved them."
In spite of this, Kapustin spent a great deal of his career, most notably in the 1950's, as a pianist touring the Soviet Union with jazz bands.  As a composer, he has sought to implement the jazz idiom in classical forms such as the present quintet and has been remarkably successful in doing so.  As far as technique is concerned, one pianist, Leslie De'Ath, has commented that: "... everything Kapustin writes feels technically like an etude – such are the demands made upon the body and the intellect."  The composer is also a virtuoso pianist, though he no longer performs in public, and his music is a challenge to the abilities of any musician.

Though not so well attended as last week's recital, this was one of the company's most successful programs.  It was helped a great deal in this regard by the high caliber of the musicianship, both that of the ensemble players and the two guest artists, pianist Qi Kong and Israeli violinist Kobi Malkin, both of whom faced extraordinary technical difficulties in the material performed.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Coming NYC Classical Music Season 2017-2018

It's almost time for the new classical music scene to begin in New York City.  After my summer respite, I'm very much looking forward to attending events at the Met Opera, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.  I'm fortunate enough to live within walking distance of these venues and do my best to take advantage of the wealth of resources so close at hand.  As the world outside New York City is increasingly overtaken by anti-intellectualism and xenophobia, it's more important than ever that we all do what we can to preserve our cultural heritage.

First, I'll be attending eight operas on my subscription to the Met.  The series begins with a performance of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte conducted by Music Director Emeritus James Levine.  To my mind, no other conductor has consistently demonstrated such a deep understanding of Mozart's genius as he.  Over the years, Maestro Levine has been my guide not only to the great Da Ponte operas but also to less frequently performed works.  In past seasons these included productions of Idomeneo and Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Although he has stepped down from his position as Music Director, Maestro Levine will still be leading a number of performances this coming season and will be paying particular attention to Verdi's works, including the Requiem, Il Trovatore, and Luisa Miller, the last featuring the great Plácido Domingo in yet another of his autumnal baritone roles.  In addition to these masterpieces, I'll also be seeing two works by Massenet - Thaïs and Cendrillon.  I've always considered Massenet an underappreciated composer and so am greatly looking forward to hearing these.  Rounding out the season, I'll be also be attending performances of Cavaleria Rusticana/Pagliacci and Strauss's Elektra, the last conducted by the Met's new Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

At Carnegie Hall, the emphasis will be on orchestral performances.  Perhaps the most intriguing of these will come in March when Kirill Petrenko, the new Music Director of the Berliner Philharmoniker, will lead the Bayerisches Staatsorchester in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony and Brahms's Double Concerto.  Other noteworthy performances will include Zubin Mehta leading the Israel Philharmonic in Mahler's No. 3, Gustavo Dudamel conducting Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique with the Vienna Philharmonic, Ricardo Muti leading the Chicago Symphony in Stravinsky's Scherzo fantastique, Andris Nelsons conducting Act II of Tristan with the Boston Symphony, and Daniil Trifonov at the piano with the Kremerata Baltica in an all-Chopin program.  I've also renewed my subscription to the Met Orchestra's three end of season performances, perhaps the most exciting of which will be the final evening when James Levine will lead Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate and Mahler's No. 4.  But not all the performances I'll attend at Carnegie Hall will be orchestral.  Later in the season, I'll also hear both Mitsuko Uchida and András Schiff in solo piano recitals at Stern Auditorium.

I'll be hearing still more orchestral performances at David Geffen Hall as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series.  This is actually one of the best orchestral series available anywhere, but for some reason it doesn't receive the attention it deserves.  Not only will I hear Iván Fischer lead the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 and Gustavo Dudamel conduct Beethoven's No. 9 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but I'll also see Simon Rattle, in his New York debut as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, conduct two concerts devoted entirely to Mahler's music.  In the first he'll lead the orchestra in the composer's Symphony No. 9 and in the second Das Lied von der Erde.

In addition to all these, I also hope to attend any number of chamber music recitals given by the Jupiter Players and the immensely talented musicians at the Juilliard School.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Liebermann, Pärt and Brahms

On Monday afternoon, I went to hear the Jupiter Players' first chamber music recital of the season at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 65th Street.  As this was 9/11 and a day of remembrance in New York City, the theme of the recital was Homage.  The performance featured works appropriate to the occasion by Lowell Liebermann, Arvo Pärt and Brahms and included no less than two adaptations of the music of J.S. Bach.

The program opened with Liebermann's Fantasy on a Fugue of J. S. Bach (1989) for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano.  The work is based on Fugue 24 in B minor from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-893, Vol. 1 (1722).  With the winds playing so prominent a part, the Fantasy has much the character of a serenade and, like a great deal of Liebermann's oeuvre, a definite neo-Romantic flavor.  I had only just heard in recital a week earlier the same composer's Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 28, written the same year as the Fantasy, and it was intriguing to compare how differently Liebermann approached each piece.  The Fantasy was a much more restrained work and was at times almost plaintive in character.

The next work was Pärt's Fratres (“Brothers”) (1977).  One of Pärt's best known works, Fratres was composed without fixed instrumentation and so exists in any number of arrangements.  That with which I'm most familiar is for twelve cellos, but on Monday the piece was performed by violin and piano, one of the earliest and most common versions.  The music is minimalist and consists entirely of variations on a simple six-bar theme, but for all that it is a haunting and moving work, one of the earliest triumphs of the composer's tintinnabulist style.

Following the first installment of Pärt's music came Brahms's Chaconne in D minor for left hand piano (1877-1878).  The piece is a transcription of the final movement of Bach's Violin Partita No. 2, BWV 1004 (1720).  The movement is among Bach's greatest achievements and perhaps the most famous piece for solo violin in Western music. It has been transcribed many times since its first publication in 1820 and there have even been piano accompaniments written for it by both Schumann and Mendelssohn.  When it came Brahms's turn, he rhapsodized over Bach's original creation in a letter to Clara Schumann, claiming it to be "a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings."  In preparing his transcription, he not surprisingly remained devoutly faithful to the original and strove to recreate as far as possible the sound of the violin itself.  He was later criticized for this unswerving allegiance by, among others, Paul Wittgenstein who in his own transcription for the left hand added a true bass line instead of merely setting the piece one octave lower.  As Wittgenstein had lost his right hand in combat in World War I, he had no choice but to set the work for the left hand only.  Brahms's insistence that his transcription be played with the left hand alone is more difficult to understand and is only partially explained by his comment to Clara:
"There is only one way in which I can secure undiluted joy from this piece, though on a small and only approximate scale, and that is when I play it with the left hand alone."
While Brahms's passion for Bach's music is highly laudable, the Chaconne sounds far better when played on violin, as Bach had intended.  The piano transcription, no matter how well played, is heavier and soars not nearly so high.  This is not surprising since the piano is after all a percussive instrument.  Some notes reverberate uncomfortably at points where there should be only silence..

The first half of the recital concluded with Pärt's Da pacem Domine (“Give peace, O Lord”) (2004-2006).  The work, commissioned by Jordi Savall for a peace conference held in Barcelona, takes as its text a Gregorian chant, a form of medieval plainsong, and was originally written for four-part choir or for four soloists singing a cappella while at this recital it was performed by string quartet.  The liturgical quality inherent in Pärt's tintinnabulist style imparts to his music a distinctively mystical "new age" sound, and I think that it is this that accounts for a large part of his current popularity.

After intermission, the program concluded with Brahms's String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18 (1860).  Brahms composed his two string sextets only a few years apart - the No. 2 in G major, Op. 36 was completed in 1864 - but what's curious is that both came long before his first Op. 51 string quartets in 1873.  One would think that writing for four parts would be much easier than for six and that the quartets should therefore have logically preceded the sextets.  One clue to this unusual chronology may lie in both forms' antecedents.  Before Brahms completed the Op. 18, the nineteenth century repertoire contained almost no examples of this instrumentation other than Louis Spohr's Op. 140 in C major composed some twelve years earlier.  On the other hand, the string quartet was already a venerable tradition by the time Brahms first came to the genre.  Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert had all composed quartets that ranked among their finest creations.  One can take it as a certainty that Brahms, who famously claimed to have heard the footsteps of Beethoven behind him when writing his First Symphony, was more than a little intimidated by the magnificence of these masterpieces.  In fact, Brahms is thought to have destroyed some twenty previous attempts before allowing the two Op. 51 quartets to be published.  He faced no such problems, however, with the sextets whose textures are actually much closer to the divertimenti of the Classical period than to the formal structures already established for the quartet genre.  Even if a bit derivative - witness the debt to Beethoven in the third movement and to Schubert in the fourth - the Op. 18 is still an important early work by a major composer.

This was one of the Jupiter ensemble's more successful programs.  It moved easily between the present day and the Romantic period with a nod to the Baroque era along the way.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Neue Galerie: Richard Gerstl

Richard Gerstl is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of twentieth century German art.  Dead in 1908 at only age 25 after having first destroyed a good bit of his art beforehand, he is survived by (at least according to his Wikipedia biography) only sixty-six paintings and eight drawings, hardly a huge legacy by any standard.  It was only in 1931, some twenty-three years after his death, that Gerstl was given his first one-man show by Otto Kallir in Vienna.  The current exhibit at the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue is his first in this country.

If one reason Gerstl has been overlooked is the paucity of his oeuvre, another, at least in Vienna, was the scandal surrounding his name.  In fact, through his association with the Second Viennese School, the artist is today far better known to music lovers than to art critics.  The facts, as far as can be made out, are these: In 1907, Gerstl - who, though a non-musician himself, had a passionate interest in classical music - became friends with Arnold Schoenberg and his brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky, two of the most prominent composers of the day; and he eventually moved into the same building where they were then living. Gerstl instructed the talented Schoenberg in painting while the latter saw parallels in Gerstl's artistic breakthroughs and his own achievements in music as he composed the revolutionary Second String Quartet.  Gerstl and Schoenberg's wife Mathilde, Zemlinsky's sister, also became close friends and then lovers until finally caught in the act by Schoenberg himself.  Mathilde then left husband and children behind to flee Vienna with Gerstl, but Schoenberg soon followed and managed to convince Mathilde to return to Vienna with him.  Gerstl too returned to Vienna but was unable to endure the scandal he had created.  One evening, after having been refused admittance to a concert staged by Schoenberg's students, he returned home, destroyed as much of his art as he could lay his hands on, and then committed suicide by both hanging and stabbing himself to death.  It doesn't get much more lurid than that.

All this melodrama makes it difficult to separate the man from the artist, and it's only in recent years that  Gerstl's reputation has taken on greater resonance as critics have gradually come to see in his work one of the first great flowerings of the Expressionist movement.  Commentary at the present exhibit goes so far as to state that Gerstl's portraits represent a bridge between those of Klimt and Schiele.  Additionally, Gerstl was among the first to adapt van Gogh's signature paint-laden brushstrokes to the service of Expressionism.

The exhibit takes up the entire third floor of the museum and is divided into five galleries.  The first is given over to Gerstl's self portraits as well as paintings of the artist's family and several photographs taken of the artist himself.  The gallery is dominated by the large semi-nude self-portrait completed in 1902-1903.  It's a visionary work and could be considered the artist's first mature masterpiece.

The second gallery is devoted to portraits completed by Gerstl in the years before his death.  Among them is a piece entitled Mother and Daughter (1906) notable for the wide-eyed expression with which both sitters view the painter.  Another work that stands out is the 1906 portrait of Smaragda Berg, sister of the composer Alban Berg.  And, inevitably, there are several portraits of Mathilde.   In that completed in 1907 where her features can be most clearly seen it's interesting that Gerstl made no attempt to idealize his subject.  What we see here is a rather plain woman dressed in the voluminous fashions of her time and possessing no apparent sexual allure.

The third gallery (actually a long narrow hallway) features works by Schoenberg.  A page of an autograph score is hung beside Schiele's portrait and several artworks on paper completed by the composer in an Expressionist vein.  The most noteworthy of these is entitled Vision.  If it is indeed a portrait of Mathilde, it shows her as a monstrous figure.

The fourth gallery (actually a walk-in storage closet) contains mostly works on paper, principally self-portraits, by both Gerstl and Schoenberg, the most notable of which is the latter's 1910 Gaze.  But pride of place is here given to Gerstl's 1908 Seated Female Nude.  The work is unfinished and the face left blank, so that it's impossible to state with certainty whether or not the sitter was Mathilde.

The fifth gallery is devoted to works completed in the final year of Gerstl's life.  There are several landscapes with heavy impasto brushwork that stand in sharp contrast to those completed by Klimt of the same bucolic Viennese suburbs but in a markedly pointillist style.  In addition, there is a Nude in Garden, Mathilde in Garden, and a group portrait of the entire Schoenberg family.  In all these, the Expressionist method has been carried so far that it's difficult to make out any individual features.  The intent here seems to be a complete break with prior academic and Secessionist styles in an absolute refutation of all typical norms of beauty.  But the real focus of attention in this gallery are two self-portraits.  The Nude Self-Portrait stands in contrast to the earlier semi-nude seen in Gallery No. 1.  There's no modesty here as Gerstl reveals himself fully to the viewer and none of the calm detachment that characterized the artist's expression in the first painting.  The other work, Self-Portrait Laughing, shows the artist with a maniacal smile that hints more than a little of madness.

All in all, this is a very well thought out show that makes a strong case for Gerstl as a major Expressionist artist.  It deserves to be seen by anyone with a serious interest in twentieth century German art.

The exhibit continues through September 25, 2017.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Cosmopolitan Symphony Orchestra Performs Arensky, Liebermann and Chausson

First of all, to clear up any misunderstanding, the performance given on Sunday afternoon at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street was not a symphonic concert at all but rather a chamber music recital, and a very good one at that.  I'm not sure from whence the ensemble, the Cosmopolitan Symphony Orchestra, derived its name but it consisted, at least on Sunday, of only seven musicians - William Hobbs, piano; Eric Grossman, Abigail Kralik, Renee Grossman Matthews, violins; Colette Grossman Abel, viola; and Clara Abel and Nathanael Matthews, cellos.  Together they played a full program that featured one well known work by Anton Arensky and two less familiar pieces by Lowell Liebermann and Ernest Chausson.

The recital began with Arensky's Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (1894).  Thanks to the variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky - taken from that composer's Sixteen Songs for Children, Op. 54, No. 5 - in the second movement, this is by far Arensky's best known work.  He intended it as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, who had died only a few months previously of cholera, and so the work has overall a dark character that is only enhanced by the use of a minor key and by the unusual instrumentation - violin, viola, and two cellos - that emphasizes the lower tonal registers.  The somber nature of the work is apparent immediately in the first movement whose opening theme takes as its source a funeral chant from the Russian Orthodox liturgy; the same theme then reappears as a coda at the end of the seven variations in the second movement.  And the work's elegiac character is again emphasized in the final movement whose theme is derived from still another liturgical source, the Requiem mass.  Even the Tchaikovsky song "Legend" (adapted from the 1857 poem "Roses and Thorns" by Richard Henry Stoddard) that provides the theme upon which the variations are based contains an oblique reference to Jesus's crucifixion and so by extension to the suffering Tchaikovsky endured during his life.  Underlying the entire work is a strain of Russian Romanticism that makes it a quite fitting tribute to Tchaikovsky, himself the leading proponent of that school of music.

The next work was Liebermann's Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 28 (1989), a piece with which I had previously been unfamiliar.  Before this, I had known the composer primarily through his eleven nocturnes for solo piano, a series I hold in the highest esteem.  The present work, originally commissioned by the Spoleto Festival, does not possess the neo-Romantic character of the nocturnes but is instead a well thought out piece of modern music that pays particular attention to the solo violin part, played exceptionally well here by Eric Grossman, while the piano and string quartet stand in for orchestra.  The music is extremely inventive throughout and occasionally displays an uneasy tension that gives rise to bursts of nervous energy in the violin part, but for all that the work is easily accessible.  At the conclusion of Sunday's performance the composer, who had been sitting in the audience, rose to take a brief bow.

After intermission, the program ended with Chausson's Concerto in D major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 21 (1889).  This was one of the composer's first major successes, and it's easy to understand why.  As in Debussy's late chamber works, the concerto seeks to instill a sense of nationalism in French music, at the time heavily under the influence of Wagner, by casting a backward glance to past glories.  This is accomplished through the adaptation of Baroque dance forms - a sicilienne in the second movement and a gigue in the fourth - while giving the whole a melodic warmth.  If the work has a flaw, it's that it's weighted too heavily on the violin and piano parts and at times becomes almost a dialogue between those two instruments while leaving the quartet with little to do.  The concerto was dedicated, as were several other works by Chausson, to the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe who undertook the solo part at the 1892 premiere in Brussels .  

At the conclusion of the recital, I had an opportunity to speak briefly with Mr. Liebermann.  Noting the highly distinctive instrumentation used in both the two final pieces, I asked the composer if there were any connection between his work and Chausson's.  He answered that at the time of the Spoleto commission, the festival had already programmed the Chausson concerto and had explicitly requested from him a work using the same combination of instruments.  Both concertos were in fact performed at the festival with Joshua Bell taking the solo violin part on each and Jean-Yves Thibaudet the piano part.  Mr. Liebermann added that he had deliberately timed the piece so that it could be included on a CD recording together with the Chausson.  In the end, though, the Chausson was paired with the Ravel Piano Trio, an indication perhaps that the recording company (London) did not want to risk releasing an album comprised of two relatively unknown pieces.