Monday, February 27, 2017

WQXR Broadcast: Vienna Philharmonic Perform Brahms, Bartók and Schubert #8

On Saturday evening WQXR, New York's classical music, station broadcast another concert live from Carnegie Hall.  On this occasion, the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst, performed works by Brahms, Schubert and Bartók.  I had been particularly interested in hearing this concert as I would be going the next afternoon to Carnegie Hall to hear the same ensemble perform a different program, but one that also included a Schubert symphony.

The program opened with Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1854-1858) featuring Rudolf Buchbinder as soloist.  Even in his youth, Brahms was among the most deliberate of composers and at the same time his harshest critic.  It's not surprising then that he should have vacillated over his first major orchestral work.  He began work on it in 1854 shortly after having met the Schumanns.  His first planned it as a a sonata for two pianos and then considered turning it into a symphony (in the event, his First Symphony would not be completed until 1876, some twenty years later).  As he worked on the projected symphony, Brahms, unsure of his abilities at orchestration, sought advice from his much more experienced friend Julius Otto Grimm as well as his lifelong associate Joseph Joachim.  In the end, Brahms scrapped the idea of a symphony, discarded the second and third movements he had already drafted, and decided the music would be most suitable to a concerto.  As a result of all this, the resulting piece is somewhat unwieldy and, with a performance time of almost fifty minutes, unusually long.  Its initial reception was predictably harsh when the work premiered in Hanover in 1859 and then five days later in Leipzig with Brahms himself as soloist.  This was not easy for an artist as sensitive as Brahms to bear and he later wrote to Joachim, "I am only experimenting and feeling my way, all the same, the hissing was rather too much."  Even today, this is not an easy work to like no matter how much one admires the effort Brahms put into its composition.  In the first movement especially it strives too hard the overwhelm the listener with its loud symphonic orchestration.  The most attractive part of the work is the second movement that Brahms referred to as a "gentle portrait" of Clara.

The next work was Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (1822) famously known as the "Unfinished."  Unfortunately, the greatness of this work is too often overshadowed by arguments concerning the missing final movement.  Personally, I think that because Schubert had such facility as a composer - it sometimes seems masterpieces flowed one after the other from his pen as if from a fountain - he simply put the work aside when he encountered a problem formulating its ending and moved on to the next work.  Rather than endlessly theorizing over the symphony's incomplete form, it might be better to instead concentrate on its departure from Classicism, for surely better than any other work it announced Romanticism's triumphant arrival in music.  This is especially true of the second movement, marked andante con moto, that contains some of the most beautiful music Schubert ever composed.  Written about the same time as Schubert was diagnosed with syphilis - in the nineteenth century a veritable death sentence - the music may reflect the depth of the composer's feelings as he was forced to confront his own mortality while only age 25.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to perform what for me was the highlight of the concert, Bartók's concert suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19 (1922).  Most concert suites are arranged by their composers after the original works from which they derived had achieved success.  Of this piece, the opposite was true.  So brutal and horrific was the full ballet that it was banned in Germany after its premiere in Cologne, and Bartók found it highly difficult to find other venues that would agree to produce it.  Not only was the plot, taken from a story by the composer's compatriot Melchior Lengyel, truly disturbing in recounting the tale of a victim lured to his death by a prostitute, but the accompanying music was itself appropriately dark and brutal.  At the time of its first performances, it was compared to Stravinsky's "barbaric" ballet music for Le Sacre du printemps.  For those seeking solace in classical music after having just experienced the horrors of World War I it was too much.  Of course, it is exactly the sense of horror expressed so well by the music that makes it attractive to modern audiences.  Filled with dissonance and making use of virtually every modernist technique Bartók could lay his hands on, this is really the soundtrack of a nightmare and, along with the equally dark Bluebeard's Castle, one of the composer's greatest achievements.  It celebrates a world that has grown seriously out of joint and given over to mindless violence and in so doing explores the deepest recesses of the unconscious mind.

The Vienna Philharmonic is unquestionably one of the world's greatest orchestras, but I was not overwhelmed by this performance. That may be because the program seemed somewhat haphazard.  There was really no unifying theme that held these disparate works together.

The archived broadcast is already available for listening on WQXR's website.

Friday, February 24, 2017

WQXR Broadcast: Jonathan Biss and the Brentano String Quartet

Yesterday evening WQXR, New York City's classical music station, broadcast a live concert from Carnegie Hall that featured pianist Jonathan Biss and the Brentano String Quartet - Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins; Misha Amory, viola; and Nina Lee, cello - alternating in performance of works that spanned the interval from the Renaissance through the Classical to the close of the Romantic period.  The theme that held them together was that all are late works composed near the end of the respective artists' lives.  Solo works for piano were played side by side with chamber pieces in an unusual recital format.  

The program opened with Schumann's Fünf Gesänge der Frühe, Op. 133 (1853) for solo piano.  Translated as "Songs of Dawn," this five-movement work was composed long after Schumann's great outpouring of solo piano pieces in the 1830's and was in fact one of his final compositions in any genre.  As with all Schumann's late works, the question arises as to how deeply influenced were these short pieces by the composer's rapidly declining mental health.  They are definitely more difficult to appreciate than his earlier piano works - they twist and turn as Schumann struggles to cogently express his thoughts and feelings.  His wife Clara described them as "very original as always but hard to understand, their tone is so very strange."  One can sense the trepidation in her voice as she thus considers them.  But I think it would be entirely unfair to dismiss these pieces simply as the products of a disordered mind.  Their intricacy can just as well be seen as the work of a highly developed artistic sensibility seeking new forms of expression.  In an on-air interview, Jonathan Biss suggested that one reason these pieces are so seldom performed is that they are static and show no signs of progression and thus are unsettling to the audience.  Be that as it may, they are well composed and follow traditional forms and possess a haunting beauty that remains with the listener long after the last notes have died away.

The Brentano Quartet then took the stage.  For their first piece, they reached back to the sixteenth century to perform several pieces by the aristocratic Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo.  All five were taken from the sixth and final book of the composer's  collection of madrigals and were titled as follows: "Deh, come invan sospiro"; "Beltà poi che t'assenti"; "Resta di darmi noia"; "Già piansi nel dolore"; and "Moro, lasso, al mio duolo."  Listening to these works, one is first struck by their modernity.  Gesualdo was well aware of this himself and, fearing that audiences of his time would be unable to understand them, actually withheld them from publication for fifteen years.  Only the prospect of unauthorized editions eventually led him to make them public.  Strangely enough, as with Schumann, one must again ponder whether the advanced aspects of these works, including unresolved dissonances and sudden tonal shifts, were at least partially due to their composer's mental instability.  For whatever his ability as a composer, Gesualdo was a thoroughly twisted human being who indulged in sickeningly violent behavior and was guilty of murdering his own wife along with her paramour and then mutilating their corpses. It's most likely that only Gesualdo's standing as a member of the nobility saved him from punishment for this gruesome crime of passion.  None of this, though, should detract from the listener's appreciation of the madrigals which anticipate by centuries some of the hallmarks of what we consider modern music.  Originally written for five voices, they lent themselves very well to this transcription by Bruce Adolphe for four strings.

Brahms's Klavierstücke, Op. 118 (1893), consisting of six miniatures for solo piano, closed the first half of the program.  The Op. 118 is, of course, another late work and one can hear in it a certain nostalgia and wistfulness; it's as if the composer were pausing to take a look back before attempting to distill within it all that he had learned of music.  This is a quiet and reflective work with no virtuoso turns afforded the pianist, and that may be one reason it is not that often performed in recital.  The brief pieces are organized according to their own internal logic.  After the first intermezzo in A minor, the pieces follow a ternary (ABA) form as well as a set key sequence.  The titles are somewhat arbitrary and seem to have been chosen more for their suggestive power than anything else.  Brahms was above all a Romantic and this autumnal work is suffused with the spirit of a wanderer who has at last reached the end of his journey,  The Op. 118 is a subdued masterpiece by a great composer at the height of his powers who wishes to offer his audience one last testament before fading into silence.

After intermission Brentano Quartet, now joined by violist Hsin-Yun Huang, returned to close the program with a performance of Mozart's String Quintet No. 6 in E-flat Major, K. 614 (1791).  Any late work by Mozart is to be treasured, but most especially this final viola quintet completed only months before the composer's untimely death and representing his last major chamber work.  Paradoxically, the quintet is, on the surface at least, one of Mozart's most lighthearted and carefree pieces.  It was written at approximately the same time as Die Zauberflöte and Mozart was likely much too busy with work to be mindful of his own mortality.  Even if he were experiencing some problems with his health he was, after all, only 35 years old.  As it was, the work was only published posthumously along with his previous quintet, the K. 593 in D major.  Filled with virtuoso flourishes such as the set of variations in the andante and the brilliant contrapuntal writing in the final movement, the K. 614 leaves the listener lost in admiration for Mozart's genius and wondering what he might have accomplished had he lived longer.

This was a well thought out program with fine performances by all involved.  I was particularly impressed by the level of pianist Biss's musicianship on the solo pieces.

The archived broadcast is now available for listening on WQXR's website.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Juilliard Wind Orchestra Performs Mozart and Dvořák

Yesterday I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear a performance, one of the Wednesdays at One series, given by the Juilliard Wind Orchestra.  The ensemble is unusual if only because the orchestral repertoire for all-wind instruments is so limited.  One genre that capitalizes on this instrumentation, however, is the serenade and on this occasion the audience was treated to two of the finest examples of this form..

The program opened with Mozart's Serenade for Winds in C Minor, K. 388/384a (1782) for two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons.  What's most notable in this piece is the composer's use of a minor key.  Mozart was particularly sensitive in his selection of home keys and usually reserved the use of minor keys to works that had great personal significance to him and in which were expressed sorrowful or tragic emotions.  Such an understanding would not seem to fit with the present piece.  Serenades were traditionally viewed in Mozart's time as divertimenti, casual entertainments that carried with them no great emotional baggage.  It must be remembered, however, that Mozart had at the time of the Serenades's composition only recently arrived in Vienna from Salzburg and was eager to make a positive impression on his new audience.  Vienna had already become, thanks largely to the presence of such artists as Haydn, one of the foremost musical centers in Europe and its denizens were far more sophisticated listeners than their counterparts in Salzburg which in comparison was something of a cultural backwater.  Seen in this light, it's understandable that Mozart would have been inclined to expend more effort on his earliest efforts in his new home than might otherwise have been the case.  He certainly was careful to include in the Serenade elements that highlighted his abilities.  For example, the third movement menuet is actually a canon displaced by one bar.  And the final movement is a set of variations, a technique at which Mozart excelled.  That the composer himself saw in the Serenade profound depths of expression appropriate to a more serious genre may be inferred from the fact that five years later he reworked it into one of his greatest chamber pieces, the String Quintet, K. 406/516b.  Additionally, Mozart may have had a specific goal in mind for his Serenade.  Emperor Joseph II, a true musical connoisseur on whose favor any Viennese composer's success depended, had recently established a wind band at court and the newly arrived composer was very likely hoping that his work would find a place in its repertoire.  Whatever Mozart's motives in composing so accomplished a work, the beneficiaries of his industry are the audience who are presented with a much more complex and fulfilling work than they would normally expect of this genre.

The second and final work was Dvořák's Serenade for Winds in D minor, Op. 44 (1878) for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and three horns.  There was also an "ad lib" part for contrabassoon, an instrument not always readily available to local orchestras and not included at this performance, and Dvořák later added parts for a cello and double bass.  The work is significant for having been written immediately before the composer's first major success, the Slavonic Dances, when he was on the cusp of achieving international fame thanks to the efforts of Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick.  Brahms was particularly enthusiastic about the Serenade and the following year commended it to his close friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, writing:
"I hope you will enjoy it [the Serenade] as much as I do...It would be difficult to discover a finer, more refreshing impression of really abundant and charming creative talent. Have it played to you; I feel sure the players will enjoy doing it!"
Although the work hearkens back the Classical serenades of Mozart, such as the K. 388 performed earlier, and is generally lighthearted in nature in spite of its use of a minor key, it has an entirely different character from the Classical Viennese serenade due to its incorporation of Bohemian folk sources.  The folk tradition had afforded Dvořák his earliest inspiration and he was to remain true to it for the remainder of his career even if its presence were sometimes overlaid by more conventional West European musical forms.  In that sense, the present piece is noteworthy as an example of Dvořák's early style before coming more directly under the influence of Brahms.  The folk sources are here most readily apparent in the second movement, marked minuetto but actually embodying traditional Czech dance forms.

This was a very enjoyable concert.  While the tone of the works performed may have been casual, they nevertheless represented masterpieces by two great composers at the height of their powers and were thoroughly rewarding to hear.  Conductor Nathan Hughes did an excellent job in pulling it all together.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Juilliard415 Performs Biber, C.P.E. Bach and Haydn

Yesterday afternoon, the Baroque musical ensemble Juilliard415 gave the first of two full length recitals that it will perform this spring at Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West.  Happily, the group is this term focusing on the music of seventeenth and eighteenth century Germany.  A number of that period's most prominent composers were accordingly featured in yesterday's program alongside several whose reputations have not fared so well over the course of time.

The recital began with Heinrich von Biber's Partita No. 1 in D minor from Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa (1696).  It is sometimes difficult to think of Biber as a Baroque composer so modern do his works sound.  Generally acknowledged as the greatest violin virtuoso of the seventeenth century, Biber's compositions for the instrument broke new ground in their use of multiple stops, polyphony and scordatura.  His own abilities as a performer allowed him to achieve finger positions his contemporaries found impossible to emulate.  In addition, he added programmatic content to several of his compositions, most notably the Mystery Sonatas that were only rediscovered and published in the early twentieth century.  The partita performed here for two violins, cello, violone and theorbo was typical of his work both for its advanced tuning techniques and for the technical demands it placed on the violinists.

The next set of musicians to take the stage performed two sonatas for two violins, cello and theorbo from Sonatae à 2, 3, 4 e 5 strometi da arco et altri (1682) by Johann Rosenmüller, a composer with whom I had been totally unfamiliar.  Although born in Germany and employed as an organist at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig where J.S. Bach later served as music director, Rosenmüller was forced to flee to Italy after having been imprisoned for homosexuality.  It was in Venice, where he worked as a teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà, the same where Vivaldi later served, that Rosenmüller composed the bulk of his music before finally returning to Germany.  As a result, his compositions are in some ways more characteristic of the Italian Baroque than of the German.  The two sonatas performed here differ from one another in that in the first, the Sonata seconda à 2 in E minor, the cello forms part of the basso continuo while in the second, the Sonata quarta à 3 in C major, the cello takes its place as a solo instrument.

Another composer previously unknown to me was Jan Dismas Zelenka whose Sonata for two oboes, bassoon and basso continuo, No 4, in G minor, ZWV 181/4, taken from Sei Sonate à due Hautbois, Violino et Basson con Basso Continuo, was next performed.  In this case, at least, there was some reason for the composer's obscurity.  Zelenka, though Bohemian by birth, spent most of his career at the Dresden court where he held the title of church composer.  As the court forbade the copying of musical manuscripts, much of Zelenka's output remained unknown until it was brought to light in the mid-nineteenth century by fellow Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.

Continuing the roster of Baroque composers little known to non-musicians, there followed a Sonata for Flute, Violin, Bassoon and Continuo in D major, FaWV N:D1 by Johann Friedrich Fasch.  Although Fasch held several positions relating to music, including Kapellmeister in the town of Zerbst, he is perhaps best remembered for having turned down the position of music director at St. Thomas School in Leipzig, which position was then awarded to J.S. Bach.  Although none of his music was published during his lifetime, Fasch was held in high esteem by his contemporaries, including Bach and Telemann, and at least one twentieth century musicologist has seen in his work a bridge between the Baroque and the Classical.

The recital returned to more familiar ground with a Trio Sonata in A major, Wq. 146, H. 570 (1731, rev. 1747) by C.P.E. Bach, second surviving son of the immortal J.S.  Although he lived well into the Classical period, the younger Bach was one of the last great German Baroque composers, the standard bearer of his father's music.  The genre of the trio sonata was already by the time this piece was written a venerable tradition that had originated with Corelli in the late seventeenth century and had then been further developed by the composer's father.  The present piece was in the established instrumentation of two solo instruments, here flute and violin, with cello and harpsichord providing the basso continuo.

The final piece was truly special.  If one were to choose a year to mark the division between the Baroque and Classical eras, 1772 might do very well.  For this was the year Haydn composed his Op. 20 string quartets, thus giving birth to an entirely new genre.  Artistic movements never have their genesis in a vacuum; they are invariably a reflection of political and social upheavals occurring about them.  The second half of the eighteenth century was in Western Europe just such a period of turmoil, one that was to culminate in 1789 in the French Revolution.  In his excellent biography of Beethoven, Jan Swafford has given a detailed account of the Enlightenment principles, known in Germany as the Aufklärung, that underpinned this transition from a moribund feudal society to the modern era as characterized by the rise of the middle class.  The resulting impact of the Aufklärung on the arts was profound and would lead in the early nineteenth century to the rise of Romanticism with its strong emphasis on the individual and the plight of the common man.  But already in the mid-eighteenth century there arose a proto-Romantic movement termed sturm und drang whose fevered emotionalism was perhaps best illustrated in Goethe's Werther.  Haydn is well known to have been under the influence of this movement though he never explicitly acknowledged his own music's debt to it.  It's ironic then that Haydn, perhaps to impose a defining structure on the chaotic emotions unleashed by sturm und drang, should move in the opposite direction from Goethe and instead institute the traditional form of the Classical string quartet.  The piece performed at this recital, the No. 3 in G minor. is an excellent example since the use of minor keys was always indicative in the work of Classical composers of strong emotion that is here held in check and disciplined by the work's four movement structure whose careful design imparts to the work an overall unity.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Juilliard Recital: Drew Petersen, piano

I rarely attend solo recitals at Juilliard but made an exception yesterday evening for Drew Petersen.  I've heard him perform chamber works several times with the Jupiter Players and have always been impressed by his talent.  More recently, I saw a webcast of his solo performance at WQXR's Greene Space.  It was an excellent program that began with Bach and then moved swiftly to the Romantic era of Schumann and Liszt.

In contrast, yesterday evening's program was divided into two parts.  In the first half , Drew played two very different works for solo piano.  The second half was then given over to the performance of chamber music and here Drew was assisted by a string quartet consisting of Stella Chen and Max Tan, violins, Bethany Hargreaves, viola, and James Kim, cello.

The first solo piece was Ravel's Sonatine (1903).  What's most interesting about this delicate, ephemeral sounding three movement work is its genesis whose history is related in a post on the Henle Verlag blog.  Apparently, Ravel wrote the Sonatine's first movement as an entry in a contest sponsored by a weekly cultural review.  This is far different from the usual practice in which commissions are awarded by orchestras or even other musicians.  In later years, Ravel shied away from discussing the origins of the piece and it's possible he was embarrassed by the chain of events, especially as there exists no proof that he won the contest and that it may in the end have been canceled for lack of entries.  It hardly matters, though, why this work was created.  It's a lovely piece and deservedly one of Ravel's most popular piano works.  It has a haunting quality that at times can be almost hypnotic. 

The second piano work was Elliot Carter's Piano Sonata (1945-1946).  Before beginning the work, Drew spoke briefly about what the piece meant to him and also mentioned that the composer had once asked the pianist Ursula Oppens to play it because he felt it was not performed often enough.  There are actually several reasons why this relatively early work is so rarely heard. One is that it's so technically difficult that few pianists can even attempt it.  Another is its seriousness of purpose.  In many ways it presages the works of Carter's late period to the extent that the two movement piece is throughout characterized by very abrupt changes in key and rhythm   (Those who wish an in depth analysis of the work's composition are referred to a 1990 thesis entitled An Analytical Study of Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata.)  Although in his introductory remarks Drew cited both Romanticism and jazz as influences upon Carter in this piece's composition, I had difficulty in recognizing their presence.  As it was, after having heard Ravel's Sonatine performed immediately before, I found Carter's Sonata jarring and discordant.  I still felt lucky to have encountered it, however, not only because it was a great work in its own right but also because it offered a key to better understanding the whole of Carter's oeuvre.  I don't expect to have many opportunities to hear it again anytime soon.

After intermission, all five musicians appeared onstage to perform César Franck's Piano Quintet in F minor (1879), a work with a fairly scandalous history that one does not usually associate with chamber music.  It seems that Franck, after having enjoyed for many years a proper bourgeois career as a church organist, suddenly in his mid-50's experienced a mid-life crisis and became infatuated with his pupil Augusta Holmès (who in her photographs hardly looks the part of a femme fatale).   Throwing discretion to the winds, Franck thereupon composed his quintet, one of the most explicitly passionate pieces in the repertoire.  In so doing, he not only managed to upset his wife but also his pianist, fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Whether Saint-Saëns had feelings of his own for Ms. Holmès or whether he was simply put off by the unceasing modulations of the music, he made a scene at the end of the performance when he stalked offstage without accepting the manuscript Franck had dedicated to him.  Leaving all this aside, the surging rhythms and shifting chromatic harmonies make this a truly gripping work that invariably stirs the emotions of the audience.  (They also led Liszt to remark that the piece exceeds "the legitimate bounds of chamber music.")  Personally, though, what I've always enjoyed most about the quintet is the piano's romantic melody at the beginning of the first movement.

This was an excellent recital. While it's hard to predict any pianist's eventual level of success when first starting out, Drew Petersen obviously has the talent to become a full fledged virtuoso and perhaps we shall one day hear him in solo recital at Carnegie Hall.  I hope he does well.

Monday, February 20, 2017

NYHS: Tattooed New York

The New York Historical Society, which hasn't nearly the budget of the city's major museums, makes do by regularly offering offbeat exhibits that are often quite fascinating.  The current exhibit, Tattooed New York, is no exception.

The exhibit, which strives to be a comprehensive overview of the tattooing industry in New York, begins logically enough in colonial times as it notes the prevalence of primitively applied tattoos among Native American inhabitants.  This part of the show consists primarily of paintings, such as John Simon's 1710 Four Kings of the New World, as well as several handwritten books into one of which a Native American chief had copied his tattoos as a form of signature.

Once past these, the show quickly turns to more modern examples of the tattooist's art as the visitor is introduced to a little known part of the city's history.  As a major port, New York has always been a stopping off point for sailors and it was to cater to these that the tattoo industry set up shop in those areas of the city, almost entirely located in Manhattan and Brooklyn, nearest the waterfront.  The business really took off when the electric tattooing pen was first introduced in the nineteenth century and there are a number of these pens from various periods on display, including an adaptation of one originally developed by Thomas Edison to perforate paper.  Some of the most charming parts of the exhibit are the illustrations of tattoos that once adorned the early twentieth century shops and that were meant to provide customers an illustrated catalog of the designs available to them.  There's a delightful naivete to many of these old tattoo designs, such as one of Betty Boop, that now seem rather simplistic compared to the elaborate artwork that later became fashionable.

In the first half of the twentieth century when tattoos (and their wearers) were generally looked down upon, tattoo parlors were confined to less prosperous neighborhoods.  One of the highlights of the exhibit is a short excerpt from Lionel Rogosin's classic 1956 film On the Bowery.  Although the documentary clip doesn't actually show any tattooists at work, it does provide a thrilling look at that Skid Row milieu at a time when it had hit bottom and become a port of last call for the most hopeless derelicts, many so far gone they weren't even able to stand up on their own.

As the exhibit moves toward the modern era, it discusses the 1961 ban that was imposed by New York City authorities on tattooists following an outbreak of hepatitis, even though there was never any proven link between the hepatitis cases and tattooing.  It was much more likely that the ban was instituted as a means of "cleaning up" the city prior to the opening of the 1964 World's Fair.  Astonishingly, the ban lasted all the way to 1997.  There were many, however, who flouted it and continued to work clandestinely.  Among these was Spider Webb whose ads I remember having seen years ago on the back page of The Village Voice.

In the last section of the exhibit, there are shown a large number of expertly done, large format color photographs of inked bodies, mostly seen from the back.  It's these that form the heart of the show, and some of the illustrations tattoo artists have come up with are genuinely amazing.  A touching special section shows photographs of women who have gotten tattoos to cover up, or perhaps celebrate, their mastectomies.

NYHS has gone to great lengths to give viewers a truly immersive experience.  During the time I was there, a tattoo artist was busily employed giving a live demonstration of the inking procedure.  The young man who was his subject already possessed several tattoos and was quite relaxed while having another added to his arm.

The exhibit continues through April 30, 2017.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Juilliard Piano Performance Forum Recital: Mozart, Brahms, Schumann and Liszt

On Wednesday afternoon I went to Paul Hall to hear a roughly ninety minute recital given under the auspices of the school's Piano Performance Forum.  There were five pianists, each of whom - except the first - played a single major work from the solo repertoire.  Almost all these pieces were taken from the Romantic era and even the most notable exception, a Mozart sonata, was so melancholy in character that it fit perfectly with the general mood of the performance.

The first pianist to take the stage was Rachel Breen who proceeded to play four works by Scriabin, Bach and Chopin with only the slightest pause between each.  The works were Scriabin's Prelude in C major, Op. 11, No 1; Bach's Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu dir, Jesu Christ, BWV 177 as arranged for piano by Ferruccio Busoni in 1898; Chopin's Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 69, No. 1 (1835) nicknamed Valse de l'adieu (the "Farewell Waltz") and finally the same composer's Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1 (1846).

The twenty-four preludes that comprise Scriabin's Op. 11 were composed between 1888 and 1896 and were among his earliest published works.  At the time, he was still deeply enough under the influence of Chopin to have been inspired by that composer's Op. 28.  The No. 1 was accordingly a thoroughly Romantic piece that set the mood for the three works the pianist played afterwards.  While the Bach prelude may have been a bit austere in its original form, Busoni's masterful transcription imparted to it such tenderness that it did not seem out of place in this sequence and it served well as an introduction to the two Chopin pieces whose mood could perhaps best be described as wistful, most especially in that sad waltz that marked the composer's parting from his former fiancee Maria Wodzińska.

The next musician to appear onstage was Christian DeLuca performing Mozart's Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310 (1778).  The sonata is only one of two that Mozart composed in a minor key and, based on its date of composition, has traditionally been associated with the grief Mozart experienced over the death of his mother earlier that year.  There were other difficulties in the composer's life during that period - his dissatisfaction over his position in Salzburg and his disappointment at Aloysia Weber's rejection of his romantic overtures - and these too may be reflected in the sonata's bleak sonority that seems more appropriate to Beethoven in his middle period than to Mozart.  Although this is one of the composer's better known works from his final years in Salzburg, it's not that often performed and this was the first time I'd heard it in quite a long while.

Next came two works from the late Romantic era.  First, Jae Young Kim performed Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 9 (1854).  I had not previously been familiar with this piece and hearing it performed live was for me the highlight of Wednesday's recital.  It's a wonderful work and I don't think it would be going too far to consider it Brahms's first great masterpiece in any genre.  The theme itself was taken from the fourth of Schumann's Bunte Blätter, Op. 99, upon which Brahms then composed a set of sixteen variations, many of which contain references to other Schumann works.  The circumstances under which the variations were written are well worth noting.  Brahms had only become acquainted with the Schumanns in October of the preceding year when he had received from both Robert and Clara a rapturous reception.  In fact, Schumann went so far as to praise his newfound protege in print in an article in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.  Then, in February 1854, Schumann attempted suicide and had to be confined to a mental institution.  It must have been apparent at once to everyone concerned that Schumann's breakdown was complete and irreversible.  One wonders then at Brahms's own state of mind as he composed the variations based on Schumann's music, dedicated to Schumann's wife, and written immediately after Schumann's own Geistervariationen.  Could Brahms have already begun to see himself as the older composer's musical heir?  Perhaps Schumann's famous statement in his Neue Zeitschrift article that Brahms was "fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner" gave the younger man the confidence he needed to achieve a genuine artistic breakthrough.

The music that followed was by Schumann himself, four sections from his Humoreske in B flat major, Op. 20 (1839), as performed by Taek-Gi Lee.  This was among the last of the compositions for solo piano to which Schumann had dedicated much of the 1830's.  The third of a trio composed during his stay in Vienna, it shared some similarities with the other two works, Arabeske and Blumenstück, including the adoption of a one movement format.  Also like those others, it left behind the playful worlds of Kinderszenen and Carnaval to address a much more complex set of emotions.  No Florestan or Eusebius here but instead, in Humoreske at least, a series of jagged shifts in mood.  Years before his breakdown in 1854, Schumann had already begun to experience severe depression and it's possible that the work's unsettling dislocations may have been the result of his already deteriorating mental state.  They may also account for the work's less than enthusiastic critical reception.  In spite of this, I've always considered Humoreske to be one of Schumann's greatest creations and very much enjoyed hearing it so finely played at this recital.

The program closed with pianist Yilan Zhao performing Liszt's virtuoso showpiece, Rhapsodie espagnole (1863).  Liszt had toured both Spain and Portugal in 1844-1845, years before this piece was written and yet something of those countries' elegance and profound musical traditions must have stirred his Romantic temperament and have remained in his mind until he finally addressed them in his own work.  Despite the inclusion of variations on the ancient Folies d'Espagne et jota aragonesa, this is very much the Spanish idiom as interpreted by a more northern sensibility.  Liszt was not striving here so much for authenticity, as he did in his Hungarian Rhapsodies alongside which this work was originally published, as he was seeking to capture the essence of the Iberian spirit.  He did quite well with it too.  The Spanish flavor appears natural and never forced.  And what a thrilling opportunity for a pianist to show his or her skills at the keyboard.

As was the case at last week's Wednesdays at One installment, this recital afforded New York's music lovers yet another occasion on which to hear some of the finest piano works in the repertoire performed by top level musicians who consistently displayed a deep passion for all the works on the program and who played them impeccably well.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde

Alfred Stieglitz was arguably the greatest photographer in the history of the medium.  His work, as seen in the "key set" at the National Gallery of Art, displays a mastery that has never been surpassed.  Photographs such as  "The Terminal" (1893), cannot fully be appreciated until one recalls they were created in an era when the only equipment available consisted of bulky view cameras that held similarly cumbersome glass plates.  Even so, "The Steerage" from 1907 is often considered the finest single photograph ever taken.  

And yet there is another side to Stieglitz that is equally important and yet often overlooked.  In his quest to have photography fully recognized as an art form, Stieglitz managed a succession of galleries, beginning with 291, that displayed not only photography but also the most important modern art of the period.  In the years before the 1913 Armory Show, Stieglitz had already introduced to America some of most influential artists in Europe.  The 291 shows included the first showing of Rodin's late pencil and watercolor figure drawings (1908), the first exhibition of Matisse's work ever held in the United States (1908), the first U.S. one-man show given to of Cézanne (1911) and first one-man show given to Picasso (1911) outside France.  Though the primary mover behind these exhibits was Edward Steichen, who was located in Europe at the time, Stieglitz deserves every credit for having recognized the importance of these artists and for having purchased their work for his own collection.

In addition, Stieglitz acted as patron and mentor to several seminal American artists.  Most prominent among these were John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Max Weber.  And of course it was Stieglitz who discovered Georgia O'Keeffe and immortalized her in a stunning series of portraits while at the same time doing everything in his power to promote her work.  It is without question that the course of art in this country would have been significantly different without Stieglitz's herculean efforts.

There has recently been given more attention to Stieglitz's role as artistic muse. In 2011, New York's Met Museum staged an excellent exhibit entitled Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O'Keeffe comprised of works from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection bequeathed to the museum by Georgia O'Keeffe over a period of years following the photographer's death in 1946.  The irony is that the museum, in the person of its curator Bryson Burroughs, had in 1911 refused to purchase the eighty-three Picasso works shown by Stieglitz at 291 when offered them for the paltry sum of $2,000.

Long before the Met Museum exhibit, however, a groundbreaking study of Stieglitz's complex relationship with modern art was published in 1977.  This was Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde by William Innes Homer.  Homer, who died in 2012, was a knowledgeable critic of American art who also authored books on Thomas Eakins, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Robert Henri.  His expertise was invaluable in this book in evaluating Stieglitz's role in the development of the American avant-garde.  He was moreover a sympathetic biographer who in this volume displayed a deep understanding of both the photographer's strengths and weaknesses.  Homer also traced here the careers of the American artists Stieglitz championed and noted the influence upon them of the Europeans artists shown at 291.  In later chapters, he discussed the work of O'Keeffe and Paul Strand.

Homer's style, while erudite, is engaging and highly readable.  If there is a fault with this book, it's not due to him.  That fault is the quality of the illustrations which are here only shown here in black & white reproductions, a major shortcoming when discussing the works of artists such as Matisse.  I'd suggest keeping on hand a copy of the lavishly illustrated catalog to the above mentioned Met Museum exhibit as an adjunct to remedy this situation.  Otherwise, Homer's study stands on its own as a major piece of scholarship.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Juilliard Piano Recital: Haydn, Carter, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy and Brahms

I went to Alice Tully Hall earlier this week to hear a one-hour recital that formed part of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series.  This installment focused on piano music and, despite the limited time frame, managed to feature works by a number of radically different composers.

The program opened with Anran Qian performing Haydn's Sonata in E major, Hob. XVI:13 (c. 1767?).  This was a fairly short and simple three movement work that certainly sounded like Haydn's music even if its authorship has not been conclusively established.  A note on the IMSLP website states:
"According to Grove Music, this work is 'probably authentic; Haydn’s statements in 1803 concerning his authorship were contradictory'."
This lack of certainty is not surprising.  If the date of composition is correct, Haydn at this time would still have been only 35 years old and only recently appointed Kapellmeister to the Esterházy family, a position he was to hold until 1790 when he was more or less pensioned off and given his freedom to travel.  It's important to remember that the predominant keyboard instrument in the 1760's was still the harpsichord.  Though the piano had been invented in Italy at the turn of the century by Bartolomeo Cristofori, its progress through Europe over the following decades had been slow and somewhat haphazard.  Thus a distinction is usually drawn between Haydn's first nineteen "sonatas" (the composer himself referred to them as "partitas") and those that followed.  The first group were devised primarily as pedagogical tools for the use of Haydn's students rather than as musical works meant to stand on their own.  The composer placed no great value upon these early pieces and some may have been lost simply because Haydn gave them to his students without bothering to keep copies for himself.  They were, at best, intended as no more than entertaining divertimenti.  The present work fits that description very well.  It was charming to hear but had no profound depths nor any of the innovative features that were to characterize Haydn's later keyboard music once the introduction of the fortepiano had allowed him to endow his sonatas with greater complexity.

The next musician to take the stage was Qi Xu who proceeded to perform works that moved from the twenty-first century back to the Romantic era.  First came Elliot Carter's Catenaires (2006).  The best description of this very brief late piece, written for Pierre-Laurent Aimard, is that furnished by the composer himself:
",,,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." 
Immediately following this decidedly modern work, the pianist performed two Schubert songs that had been transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt in 1838.  These were Gretchen am Spinnrade (1814, its text taken from Goethe's Faust) and Liebesbotschaft (from a text by Ludwig Rellstab), the latter posthumously published in a collection appropriately entitled Schwanengesang.  In his transcriptions, Liszt had a genius for capturing the spirit of the original works.  This is especially true of Schubert's music.  Listening to these lyrical works, one would never suppose they had not originally been composed for piano, so artfully did Liszt arrange them.

The bulk of the recital was then given over to a performance of one of Schumann's finest works for solo piano, Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (1838).  Despite the injury to his hand that ended his hopes for a career as a concert pianist, the 1830's were generally a happy time for Schumann.  He was deeply in love with Clara Wieck, no matter her father's objections, and had made one of his most important musical connections when in 1835 he had first met Mendelssohn.  Schumann had a habit all through his career of concentrating his talent by composing a number of works for one particular genre before moving on to the next.  The 1830's were no exception.  It was during this period that he composed almost all his greatest works for solo piano including Carnaval, Kreisleriana and the Fantasie in C.  What distinguished Schumann's piano music from that of other composers was that many of these works, with the exception of the Fantasie, were programmatic in their content.  Already, years before his mental breakdown, Schumann was inclined to retreat into fantasy worlds of his own imagining.  In Kinderszenen, he visited scenes of childhood play with wonderfully fortuitous results.  There's a fairy tale quality to these thirteen movements, each of which is so brief and ethereal it seems to vanish almost before it's begun.  The pianist here was Vatche Jambazian who did a fine job capturing the subtlety of each of Schumann's scenes, most especially when playing that perennial favorite Träumerei.

In the recital's remaining ten minutes, there was just enough time for two short pieces.  The first of these was Debussy's L'isle joyeuse (1904) as performed by Sylvia Jiang.  The piece was inspired by a painting, Watteau’s enigmatic L’embarquement pour Cythère, that actually exists in two versions, the first completed in 1717 and the second the following year.  Debussy was always seeking to promote French culture and would take this passion even further a decade later when his country confronted Germany in World War I.  For example, his 1890 Clair de Lune was inspired by a poem by Verlaine who not so coincidentally also wrote another in praise of Watteau.  There is more to Debussy's musical piece, however, than a mere a celebration of French culture.  As the article in Wikipedia indicates, the painting depicts a fête galante and "celebrates love." And love was very much in the mind of the middle aged composer in 1904.  He had secretly begun an affair with a banker's wife and had impetuously taken her on a romantic getaway to the island of Jersey where he revised the present work (hence the use in the title of the English "isle" rather than the French "île").  As in his orchestral work La Mer, Debussy in this piece invokes at points the movement of the sea.  Far more than an impressionistic rendering of nautical sounds, though, this is an impassioned paean to illicit love as only a Frenchman could write.

The final piece was by Brahms, his Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35 (1863), expressly designed to showcase a pianist's skills.  This was for Brahms a great departure.  Even if he had begun his own career as a pianist, he had little interest in composing music that would allow a soloist to flaunt his prowess at the keyboard.  Despising ostentation and never one to favor style over substance, he would stubbornly work and rework a piece until he was fully satisfied with its structure and internal consistency with little or no regard to surface brilliance.  Brahms made an exception, however, for his friend Carl Tausig.  For Liszt's former student, the composer turned to Paganini, that most sensational of violinists, and chose a theme from the famous Caprice No. 24 in A minor, the same that Rachmaninoff later was to use as the basis for his Op. 43.  Brahms then devised a series of intricate variations upon this theme that remain among the most difficult in the entire repertoire.  The pianist at this recital was Ming Xie who played the pyrotechnics to the hilt and ended the program with a flourish.

The Wednesdays at One performances invariably offer a sharp contrast between audience and musicians.  The former, consisting mostly of older individuals, are generally a relaxed crowd seeking little more than to pass an hour listening to a free performance of pleasant sounding music.  Onstage, though, it's a different story, particularly at piano recitals such as this.  The works chosen are almost always those that present the greatest difficulty in performance and whose correct execution would pose a challenge to the skill of even the most experienced virtuosi.  While the audience sits back comfortably in their seats, the pianists strive mightily to offer them thrilling renditions that would not be out of place on the main stage of Carnegie Hall.

Finally, a note of thanks to pianist Qi Xu who did an excellent job on the Carter and Schubert pieces and was courteous enough to take the time to supply me with the titles of the two Schubert lieder that for some reason had been omitted from the printed program.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Budapest Festival Orchestra Performs Beethoven #8 and #9

On Monday evening I returned to David Geffen Hall to hear the second concert given by the Budapest Festival Orchestra with its music director Iván Fischer once again conducting.  As had been the case on Sunday, the performance was devoted entirely to the music of Beethoven and on this occasion featured the composer's final two symphonies.

The program began with the Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812).  This is the least often performed of Beethoven's symphonies and the most misunderstood.  One can sympathize with the perplexity of the audience at its 1814 premiere at which the Symphony No. 7 was also performed.   By this point, the Viennese had come to expect the outrageous in the composer's symphonic works and were prepared to be alternately thrilled and horrified when attending a Beethoven premiere.  What they must never have expected, however, was to be confronted with a work that was, on its surface at least, a return to the four movement Classical symphony invented by Haydn in the previous century.  The third movement is even marked as an archaic menuetto rather than as a scherzo.  As one listens, though, one begins to realize that something is slightly off.  Much in the manner of Prokofiev's First Symphony, the piece seems, if not quite a parody, still something of a reinterpretation of the earlier style.  It is filled with oddities - the lack of a slow movement, the clock-like syncopation of the second movement, and finally the unusual shifts of key in the fourth movement.  The result of all this was to leave the audience at its premiere puzzled and not quite sure of what they'd just heard nor of the proper way to respond to it.

After intermission, the concert concluded with a performance of the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1824).  Beethoven's Ninth is more than just a musical work, of course - it is one of the touchstones of Western culture and one of the greatest expressions of universal brotherhood ever devised.  Jan Swafford, in his monumental biography of the composer, has linked the sentiments contained within it to Beethoven's youthful exposure to the Enlightenment principles then prevalent in Bonn.  Certainly, it is the culmination of all the composer had learned over the years regarding both life and art.  There's a magnificent irony in the fact that this obstreperous morose man who was often so difficult in his private life should choose to celebrate the common thread that binds all men together and to give voice to Schiller's An die Freude when his own life had predominantly been one of loneliness and suffering.

The Ninth has always offered a message of hope and has been criticized by some for its naivete in sounding so simplistic a call to brotherhood.  Nevertheless, at a time when the news is daily filled with accounts of political turmoil and the most basic values of Americans have been called into question, the symphony has more than ever something to offer those of us who are at times brought close to despair by current events.  If nothing else, we are given hope simply by the fact that such a transcendental masterpiece should exist in the first place.  It demonstrates the heights that can be reached by one man, cursed with deafness and nearing death, acting on behalf of us all.  We have to feel that if Beethoven could overcome the obstacles fate had placed in his path then so too can we triumph in the face of horrible adversity.

The soloists for the final movement were Laura Aikin, soprano, Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano, Robert Dean Smith, tenor, and Matthew Rose, bass; James Bagwell led the Concert Chorale of New York.  In an unusual tactic, the chorus was scattered among members of the audience in the hall's orchestra and first tier sections.  No one knew they were there - at least I didn't - until the time came for them to give voice to Schiller's words in the final movement.  At that point, they rose from their seats, sang their lyrics and then sat back down again.  While this was probably extremely distracting to those audience members seated immediately behind the singers, it did have the effect of bringing the audience more directly into the spirit of the piece and its plea for universal brotherhood.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Budapest Festival Orchestra Performs Beethoven #1, #5 and Piano Concerto #4

Yesterday afternoon, I walked down to David Geffen Hall to hear the first of two concerts given by the Budapest Festival Orchestra under the baton of its music director Iván Fischer.  Both concerts featured all-Beethoven programs and thus gave me an opportunity to hear several of the master's symphonies performed side by side.

The concert began with the Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21.  By 1800, the year Beethoven's first symphony premiered at the Burgtheater, Vienna had already, thanks to Haydn and Mozart, established itself as the musical capital of Europe, a position it would continue to hold well into the twentieth century.  Beethoven had already been a resident of the city for several years at this time, having arrived from Bonn in 1792, but had hitherto been known primarily as a pianist.  The 1800 concert is significant because it marked Beethoven's first serious attempt to establish his reputation as a composer to be reckoned with.  He was none too subtle in the manner in which he went about accomplishing this.  First, he included works by both Haydn and Mozart on the same program, thereby implying that his own works were strong enough to stand beside theirs.  To drive the point home, though, it was necessary that Beethoven meet his predecessors on their own ground.  Recognizing very well that it was in the creation of symphonic works that the two earlier composers had reached their zeniths - indeed, it was Beethoven's teacher Haydn who had virtually invented the genre as we now know it - Beethoven completed the symphony he had begun sketching as early as 1795 and made ready to present it to the audience that would best be able to appreciate it.  This included the work's dedicatee, Baron van Swieten, a musical connoisseur if ever there was one.  The baron had also been a patron of Haydn and Mozart and the dedication served to enhance Beethoven's aim of taking his rightful place beside them.  As might be expected, the composer did not stray far from the Classical models of his two predecessors but instead deliberately followed the traditional four-movement form in order to decisively demonstrate his own competence at it.  He varied the formula only enough that he could not be accused of lacking originality.  So, in the opening of the first movement, there is the "joke" as the orchestra searches for the right home key; likewise, the third movement menuetto is marked allegro molto e vivace so that it becomes in effect a scherzo, still another of Haydn's inventions.  It is unfair to judge this first symphony in light of the eight that followed it; taken for what it was at the time, the Op. 21 is a significant work that announced the accession in Vienna of a major compositional talent at the dawn of a new century.

The next work was the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1805-1806).  The concerto is a world away from the Op. 21.  In the scant eight years that separated the public premieres of the two works Beethoven had left behind his first somewhat derivative efforts as a composer and triumphantly entered his middle "heroic" period.  Now he was not so much concerned with being in the same company as Haydn and Mozart as he was in showing his audience how far he had surpassed them.  Unlike the 1800 concert, the 1808 marathon at the Theater an der Wien featured only works by Beethoven, not that there was room for anything else.  To mark how far he had come, Beethoven left behind in this concerto the traditional interrelationship between piano and orchestra.  Instead of having the orchestra begin the work with a flourish, Beethoven had the unaccompanied piano softly introduce the main theme with the orchestra following behind and answering.  He also divided the orchestra into sections with brass and percussion appearing only in the final movement. These new roles for soloist and orchestra were most evident in the andante con moto when the two played in confrontation with one another rather than in support.  Arthur Rubinstein once said of this second movement that it had been "written by a man in mortal fear."  And so it must have been because this was the last time Beethoven, plagued by ever encroaching deafness, performed in public as a pianist.

The soloist at this concert was Richard Goode whom I consider one of the finest musicians now active.  His conservative style, one that eschews any pyrotechnics and puts the music first, was well suited to this work with its nuanced interplay between soloist and orchestra.  He did not play loudly but every note was crystal clear.  It was as fine an interpretation of Beethoven's piano music as I've heard.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-1808), one of the most celebrated works in the entire repertoire.  Placing its performance after that of the Op. 58, with an intervening intermission, mimicked the program of the 1808 premiere of both works and made it possible for me to better guess the feelings of the Viennese audience who encountered them for the first time.  Only three years before, at the same venue, these music lovers had been shocked by the premiere of the Symphony No. 3, the majestic Eroica, and were no doubt anticipating something equally unusual at this performance.  To an extent, they were disappointed.  The Op. 67, despite the dramatic opening that has fate knocking on the door, was in traditional four movement form and much shorter than the Op. 55.  It is only as one listens that one realizes that this brevity was the deliberate result of the composer's ability to concentrate his musical material into a piece that does not unwind so much as it explodes.  There is in it a persistent anger, amounting to fury, that permeates each movement and gives the work its character.  Certainly not one to meekly accept his fate, Beethoven here railed against the curse of his deafness with every ounce of strength he could muster.  In this regard, the composer's choice of C minor as the home key is telling.  It invariably was used when Beethoven wished to create a sense of tempestuousness and near chaos as he did here.  The finale is particularly violent and suggestive of mortal combat.  It is as if the Romantic hero finally confronted his nemesis face to face and sought to overcome it once and for all.

In the last movement of the Fifth, Iván Fischer brought onstage members of the Juilliard and Bard orchestras.  It must have been a thrilling moment for them.  The BFO is one of the finest ensembles now performing and I consider myself extremely lucky whenever I have an opportunity to hear them.  They outdid themselves yesterday afternoon and well deserved the rapturous standing ovations that followed the conclusion of the concert.  I can't think of any orchestra, other than the Berliner Philharmoniker, that has performed Beethoven with as much power and assurance.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Simon Rattle to Conduct Mahler with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2018

Earlier this season I was lucky enough to have seen Simon Rattle conduct two Mahler symphonies at Carnegie Hall.  In October, he led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of the No. 6 and then in November, in one of his last outings as Music Director of the Berliner Philharmoniker, he conducted the No. 7.  Both concerts represented brilliant interpretations of Mahler's music, among the very best I've heard.

I was very pleased then when I received an email earlier this week announcing the 2017-2018 season of Great Performers at Lincoln Center and learned that Maestro Rattle will be leading the London Symphony Orchestra in May 2018 in still more performances of Mahler's music.  On May 4th, the Ninth Symphony will be performed; on May 6th, Das Lied von der Erde; and finally, on May 7th, the Tenth Symphony as completed by the late British musicologist Deryck Cooke.  These performances promise to be among the highlights of next season and shouldn't be missed by anyone who appreciates Mahler's music.

There are other events scheduled for the Great Performers series that are almost equally exciting.  Gustavo Dudamel will be conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic on two dates in late April 2018 in performances that will include Beethoven's Ninth and Shostakovich's Fifth; in January, Iván Fischer will lead the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony; and in October, John Eliot Gardiner will explore Monteverdi's influence on early opera in performances of Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses, and The Coronation of Poppea.  As for recitals, Christian Tetzlaff will perform two sonatas and two partitas by J.S. Bach for solo violin on March 28th; and Richard Goode will play works by Brahms, Debussy, Beethoven, Haydn, and Janáček on April 17th.

Years ago, the Great Performers offered some of the finest music available in New York City but then in recent years fell behind in the level of performances offered.  It seems that the Lincoln Center series is now attempting to regain its former stature and once again showcase classical music's foremost artists.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Staatskapelle Berlin Performs Mozart and Bruckner #9

After having heard the WQXR broadcast of a concert given by the Staatskapelle Berlin this past Friday, I walked down to Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon to hear a live performance by this same orchestra.  They were once again led by their Music Director Daniel Barenboim and the program continued to showcase works by Mozart and Bruckner.

The concert began with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488 (1786) and of course featured Daniel Barenboim as soloist conducting from the keyboard.  The concerto is notable for several reasons.  For one thing, it displays Mozart's increasing interest in using woodwinds, particularly the clarinet, in his orchestrations as a foil or counterbalance to the strings.  Though the clarinet had been invented at the turn of the eighteenth century by Johann Christoph Denner, in its earliest incarnations it produced an unpleasant shrill sound, and it was only through continued modification that it achieved the much more mellow tone we are familiar with today.  This was what caught Mozart's attention and gradually led him to consider the tone of the clarinet to be the closest in quality to the human voice.  It can't be coincidence then that the composer used the instrument so prominently in a work composed at nearly the same time he was completing work on Figaro, the first of the Da Ponte operas. In this regard, many commentators have noted the operatic character of the concerto's second movement adagio, the only movement Mozart ever composed in the key of F sharp minor.  Most of Mozart's slow movements are marked andante; none have the heartbreaking pathos that the composer evoked here.  It is as if this supreme genius had been granted some foreknowledge how little time he had left in the world.

After intermission, the concert concluded with a performance of Bruckner's final work, the Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1896).  At the time he began work on it Bruckner, whose physical and mental health had never been particularly robust, knew that he was dying.  Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, also in D minor, had all along provided a blueprint of sorts to Bruckner in creating the structure of his own symphonies, and he saw the parallels more clearly than ever while composing what he realized would be his own last work.  For example, it can be seen from the surviving sketches that Bruckner intended to conclude his Ninth in the key of D major just as Beethoven had ended his own.

The other great influence on Bruckner's oeuvre had always been God himself.  A deeply religious man, the composer had seen his symphonies to be just as much hymns to God as any liturgical music might claim to be.  All the more so in this case when Bruckner believed he would soon be face to face with his maker and so dedicated the work dem lieben Gott.  The religious overtones can be heard most clearly in the third movement langsam that Brucker explicitly termed his farewell to life.

The study of Bruckner's symphonies has always been a musicologist's nightmare.  Even during the composer's lifetime there were endless debates as to what constituted the authoritative version of any given symphony.  The problem was not only that Bruckner was an extremely diffident individual who lacked confidence in his own abilities, but even more that his fervent admirers for some reason did not consider him the best judge of what he was attempting to write.  These well meaning but thoroughly misguided disciples were continually demanding the composer make changes that may have brought his works more in line with popular tastes but completely failed to take into account the composer's own talents and musical knowledge.  This lack of certainty concerning the composer's true intentions is even more obvious in the case of the No. 9 than in that of earlier symphonies since Bruckner unfortunately died before having finished it.  (He might, in fact, have actually completed it if he had not been forced to waste several years revising his earlier works at his friends' insistence.)  There have been several critical editions published following that presented in 1903 by the conductor Ferdinand Löwe that offered only a mangled - there is no other word for it - version of Bruckner's vision.  Adding to the problem is that the composer's sketches for a projected fourth movement are incomplete but have nonetheless inspired any number of academics to come up with arrangements that they would like to believe reflect Bruckner's wishes but really represent nothing more than guesswork.  At this concert, the orchestra wisely eschewed these drafts and presented only the three movements that Bruckner actually composed before his death.  This course did not not mar the integrity of the work nor lead the audience to experience any sense of incompleteness; as it was, the stately third movement adagio provided a perfectly fitting conclusion to this magnificent work.