Friday, December 14, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich

I recently posted about the first chamber music recital I saw at Juilliard's Morse Hall this past Sunday. The second, at 2:30 p.m., was just as exciting as it featured works by Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich.

The program opened with Beethoven's 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.

The performers were cellist Tomsen Su and pianist Johanna Bufler; they were coached by Julian Martin

The next work was Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major Op. 44 (1842). In an earlier post, I compared this piece to the Piano Quartet, Op. 47 and wrote as follows:
"In general, and to oversimplify, the Quintet has a bigger sound that is at times almost symphonic while the Quartet is a more intimate work. The Quintet's opening movement, marked allegro brillante, is designed to impress the listener while the funeral march that follows is the very essence of Romanticism. And at the end is the vibrant finale that is among the finest chamber movements Schumann composed during his short career. In addition, this is the first major piece to pair the piano with string quartet, and Schumann deserves credit for having established with it a new musical genre. It was Mendelssohn, filling in for an ailing Clara Schumann, who premiered the work at a private gathering and his suggestions led Schumann to make a number of revisions before the public premiere (at which Clara did play), but the honors are all due to Schumann himself."
Schumann himself succumbed to madness in 1854 after first having attempted to drown himself in the Rhine.  He died two years later while still institutionalized.

The quintet was performed by Ariel Seung Hyun Lee and Sophia Steger, violins, Frida Oliver, viola, Sanae Kodaira, cello, and Salome Jordania, piano; their coaches were Astrid Schween and Joseph Kalichstein

After intermission, the program resumed with Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940). This is without doubt one of the greatest chamber works of the twentieth century and a high point in Soviet musical history. Shostakovich, whose work was so often charged with "formalism," was even awarded a Stalin Prize for his effort. Listening to the piece, it's easy to understand why it was so successful. This a sophisticated modernist work composed in an unusual five-movement format that drives relentlessly forward. At the same time, though, it possesses an emotional range that renders it easily accessible to its audience.

The musicians were Elaine Qianru He and Ariel Seung Hyun Lee, violins, Ao Peng, viola, Jenny Bahk, cello, and Jeong-Min David Kim, piano; they were coached by Joseph Kalichstein and Joel Smirnoff.

It was by now close to 4:30 p.m. and though one work still remained on the program, Elliot Carter's Woodwind Quintet, I felt I had heard enough for one afternoon.  I had reached the point where I was no longer able to appreciate the subtleties of the music and so took early leave.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schubert, Strauss, Weinberg, and Brahms

On Sunday afternoon I went again to Juilliard's Morse Hall to hear chamber music.  On this occasion I found the programs so interesting that I actually stayed for the second recital as well as the first and ended up spending almost four and a half hours at the school before finally calling it a day.  In this post I'll describe the first event I attended, the noontime recital, that featured works by Schubert, Strauss, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, and Brahms.

The program opened with Schubert's Fantasie in C major, D. 934 (1828).  Written near the end of the composer's brief life, and only published posthumously in 1850, the piece is something of an orphan among Schubert's late works.  Even today this piece is not often played and is not generally held in high esteem.  Certainly, it was a resounding failure when premiered by violinist Josef Slavík and pianist Carl Maria von Bocklet.  As one critic unhappily reported:
"The Fantasie occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of this piece."
This despite the fact that the fantasie is built around a theme and variations taken from one of Schubert's most popular songs, the 1822 Sei mir gegrüβt, that set to music verses by the influential Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert. Part of the problem may have been that Schubert was too self-consciously attempting to create a virtuoso showcase for Slavik whom the composer, rightly or wrongly, regarded as highly accomplished a violinist as Paganini. Whatever the cause, the piece cannot be ranked among Schubert's successes. Even if it did not merit the harsh reception it received at its premiere, it still remains a slight work and somewhat insipid. I personally found it less than engaging.

The violinist on the fantasie was Chener Yuan; his accompanist on the extremely demanding piano part was Jiaxin Min. They were coached by Jerome Lowenthal and Joel Smirnoff.

The next work was Strauss's Violin Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 18 (1887-1888).  This was one of the composer's youthful efforts and his last real attempt at chamber music before coming fully under the spell of Liszt and Wagner and embarking on his series of tone poems.  Already in 1884 he had met the composer Alexander Ritter who was related to Wagner by marriage and who proved a decisive influence on Strauss.  It was thanks to Ritter's guidance that Strauss began composing Don Juan in 1888 almost immediately after having finished work on the violin sonata.  Indeed, there are already intimations of the tone poems' heroic stance in the sonata's rousing conclusion.  There are other innovative touches in the music, particularly in the second movement "Improvisation" that is anything but.  Here the tender andante cantabile displays a restrained passion that may have had something to do with Strauss's infatuation with Pauline de Ahna, the soprano whom he was later to marry.

Violinist Wei Zhu and pianist Yilun Xu gave a particularly strong performance of the sonata; they had been coached by Daniel Phillips and Matti Raekallio.

After a brief intermission, the program resumed with a performance of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 24 (1945). This was a true masterpiece of startling originality by a composer whose works deserve to be heard more often. It was for me the highlight of the two recitals I attended.

This was not the first time I had heard the piece. Last year, I attended a Juilliard faculty recital at which the trio was performed by violinist Laurie Smukler, cellist Joel Krosnick and pianist Qing Jiang. On that occasion, 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 involvement in the "Doctors' plot." Even though Weinberg spent most of his career laboring in obscurity, a victim of Stalin's anti-Semitism, he was a prolific composer whose works were championed by his close friend Shostakovich, a mentor who exerted a great deal of influence on the development of Weinberg's style.

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 remained silent for comparatively long intervals.

The trio was performed by Christine Wu, violin, Drake Driscoll, cello, and Tomoni Sato, piano; their coach was Darrett Adkins.

The final work on the program was another trio, Brahms's Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101 (1886).  This is a late piece invariably described by critics as "terse" or "compact," but that's actually an understatment.  It is, in fact, so brusque that, despite a few charming touches here and there, it is overall almost completely lacking in charm.  Instead, it pushes relentlessly forward as if Brahms were determined to thrust his musical ideas upon the listener.  And this was not a peculiarity of Sunday's performance.  I have a 1986 recording by the Beaux Arts Trio, and the same qualities are present there as well, if not more so.  The second movement scherzo that so delighted Clara Schumann is over almost before it begins (the critic Donald Francis Tovey aptly described the movement as a piece that "hurries by, like a frightened child"), and even the third movment andante grazioso seems rushed rather than expansive as one would normally expect.  Brevity has its merits, of course, but the trio nevertheless struck me as unnaturally forced, a dry exposition rather than a pleasant Romantic interlude.

The musicians were Xingyu Li, violin, Drake Driscoll, cello, and Carmen Knoll, piano; they were coached by Daniel Phillips and Noam Sivan.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Met Opera: Plácido Domingo Sings Gianni Schicchi

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear a performance of Il Trittico, Puccini's trio of one-act operas consisting of Il TabarroSuor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi.  The performance was a near anniversary of sorts - it took place almost exactly 100 years after the work's world premiere at the old Met opera house on December 14, 1918 when Geraldine Farrar sang the title role in Suor Angelica and Claudia Muzio the part of Giorgetta in Il Tabarro.

Puccini was always quick to note new developments in opera.  Eighteen years before, having witnessed the success Leoncavallo and Mascagni had enjoyed with their verismo operas, Puccini had followed suit with Tosca.  But this was not enough.  Feeling his two rivals' success may also have been due in part to the brevity of their compositions, Puccini resolved to write his own set of one-act operas.  In this, he was strongly opposed by his publisher Giulio Ricordi, and it was not until after his death in 1912 that Puccini was able to move forward with his project.  Italian that he was, he first envisioned three pieces that would correspond with the three sections of Dante Alighieri's immortal poem.  In the end, however, only Gianni Schicchi had any association with the Divina Commedia and only a peripheral one at that.

The first work to be completed, with libretto by Giuseppe Adami, was  Il Tabarro.  As with Tosca, it may have been the lurid subject matter that most tempted Puccini.  As early as 1912 he had become interested in the play La houppelande by Didier Gold and had described it as "an apache piece."  Later he wrote to his long time associate Luigi Illica:
"[La houppelande is] almost - and really - Grand Guignol.  But that doesn't make any difference.  I like it, and it seems very effective to me."
When it came time to work on the next two operas, Puccini chose as his librettist Giovacchino Forzano who provided original stories for both Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.  According to the Met's program notes, it was Forzano who convinced a reluctant Puccini to take on the story of Gianni Schicchi, a character who appears very briefly in the 30th canto of the Inferno.  The composer eventually grew more enthusiastic, perhaps because the story hearkened back to his original idea of an adaptation of the Divina Commedia, and Gianni Schicchi ultimately proved to be the most popular of the three operas.

The last time I saw Il Trittico in the 1980's, Teresa Stratas sang all three leads magnificently, but at this performance they were apportioned among three different mezzo-sopranos.  Of these Kristine Opolais stood out in title role of Suor Angelica.  Her rendition of Senza mamma, bimbo, tu sei morto was flawless, and she had strong support in her part from Stephanie Blythe as the Princess.  

The real star of the show, though, was Plácido Domingo in the title role of Gianni Schicchi, another of his late baritone roles.  Seemingly ageless, he fully commanded the audience's attention during his time onstage.  After all the great dramatic roles in which he has appeared, it was fascinating to watch him here masterfully take on a comedic part.

The conducting of Bertrand de Billy was a bit better than when I saw him conduct Verdi's Luisa Miller last season but it was still far from satisfactory.

Jack O’Brien’s production was extremely handsome and well thought out, one of the best I've seen at the Met recently.  The set for Suor Angelica was especially pleasing even if the vision of the sister's dead son at the conclusion was a bit trite.  And the use of an ascending stage at the end of Gianni Schicchi worked very well.  I didn't see the point, however, in randomly updating the settings.  After all, the interior of a Catholic convent couldn't have appeared much different in 1938 than it had in 1918.  This was a minor point, though, and didn't interfere with the audience's enjoyment.  In fact, if I hadn't read the program notes I probably wouldn't even have realized that the action had been updated.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Juilliard Vocal Arts: Schumann, Debussy, Gounod and Leoncavallo

I went earlier this week to Alice Tully Hall to hear another installment in Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series.  On this occasion the vocal arts were featured with a program that included works by Schumann, Debussy, Gounod and Leoncavallo.

The recital began with five selections from Schumann's Liederkreis, Op. 39 (1840) - #1, In der Fremde; #3, Waldesgespräch; #6, Schöne Fremde; #9, Wehmut; and #12, Frühlingsnacht - that set to music poems by Joseph Eichendorff.  Schumann was compulsive in his compositional habits.  He would work exclusively on a particular genre for a year or so and then move on to another when he had exhausted the first.  Accordingly, 1840, in the course of which he composed no less than 138 songs, is known as his Liederjahr with the Op. 39 one of its outstanding successes.  Nowhere is Schumann's Romanticism so openly on display as here in his adaptations of one of the nineteenth century's premiere German writers.  And of course, there was a personal side to it as well, for 1840 was the year Schumann was finally able to wed his beloved Clara.  The selections were sung by bass-baritone James Rootring who was accompanied by pianist Chris Reynolds.

Next were the three songs - La flûte de Pan, La Chevelure, and Le Tombeau des naïades - that make up Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis (1897-1898).  The songs take as their source an eponymous collection of prose poems by Pierre Louÿs that constitutes one of the most infamous hoaxes in French literary history.  The poet's accomplishment was to pass off as genuine antique Greek verses, all of them with explicit lesbian themes, poetry of his own invention.  The work was of such high quality that even after Louÿs's authorship had been revealed the poems continued to be admired as masterpieces of fin de siècle French literature.  Whether or not Debussy was aware of the hoax, he treated Louÿs's poems with absolute respect and even went so far as to use modal scales to give the songs a properly antique flavor.  The vocalist on these works was mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosio; Chris Reynolds was once again the accompanist.

The next set of musicians to take the stage were Dashuai Chen, tenor, and Richard Fu, pianist.  Together they performed two songs by Gounod - L'absent (1876) and Où voulez-vous aller? (1839) - followed by Leoncavallo's Mattinatta (1904).  Of the two works by Gounod, L'absent was by far the more interesting, both for its sensuous melody and for its scandalous backstory.  The composer had fled the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War by traveling to England with his wife for a lengthy sojourn.  In point of fact, Gounod's stay proved much longer than that of his wife who returned to France as soon as hostilities had ended.  The composer, meanwhile, tarried in England with a newfound mistress, one Georgina Weldon, now remembered as much for her campaign against British lunacy laws as for her love of music (she was an amateur soprano).  When Gounod finally tired of Weldon and returned to France, he found himself not only the object of his wife's wrath but ostracized by Parisian society as well.  The composer wrote the lyrics and music to L'absent in an attempt to solve both dilemmas and was remarkably successful in each instance.  

Où voulez-vous aller? was a much earlier effort by Gounod, the first of his published songs and the only one to have been composed before he won the prestigious Prix de Rome.  Based on a poem by Théophile Gautier entitled Barcarole, this is a song of seduction in the final stanza of which la jeune belle has the last word when she confounds her would-be seducer, who has tempted her with voyages to exotic lands, by telling him she wishes to travel only so far as la rive fidèle, i.e. fidelity's shore.  The poem was later set by Berlioz in an entirely different manner as the concluding song of Les nuits d’été.

In contrast to Gounod's lyrical songs, Leoncavallo's Mattinatta was conceived as a bravura showpiece for tenor Enrico Caruso to whom it was dedicated and who first recorded it.  Since then it's been part of the repertoire of every major opera tenor (almost all of whose renditions can now be heard on You Tube) and for good reason.  When sung well, it's certain to bring down the house at any performance, just as it did on Wednesday afternoon.

For completeness sake, there were also included in the program works by two other composers that I did not stay to hear.  These were, respectively, three selections from Love After 1950 by Libby Larsen followed by three selections from Hair Emergency!, described in the program notes as "A cycle of songs inspired by online reviews of hairdressers," by Richard Pearson Thomas.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schumann, Beethoven and Brahms

On Sunday afternoon, much. to the delight of the Upper West Side's classical music lovers, Juilliard held at Morse Hall one of its chamber music marathons, a series of recitals that stretches from noon to 9:30 p.m.  Programs are never announced beforehand and are as a result something of a grab bag.  Since I only had time to attend one performance, I chose the first and was delighted to discover the program included performances of works by three of the nineteenth century's most prominent composers - Schumann, Beethoven and Brahms

The program opened with Schumann's Bilder aus Osten ("Pictures from the East"), Op. 66 (1848), a work consisting of six impromptus for piano four hands that was here performed by Jun Hwi Cho and Zhu Wang and coached by Jerome Lowenthal.  It's of course well known that Mahler was inspired by the poetry of Friedrich Rückert, but I was surprised to learn that Schumann too had been influenced by Rückert's work, though in this case the verses were not original but rather an 1826 translation from the Arabic, entitled Die Verwandlungen von Abu Serug, of the maqāmāt of Al-Hariri of Basra. Rückert was esteemed during his lifetime as an Orientalist, but even his skills must have been taxed in preserving something of the rhymes and wordplay of the Al-Hariri's fifty poems.  What attracted Schumann to the work was the resemblance he perceived between Al-Hariri's hero Abu Seid and the fourteenth century German prankster Till Eulenspiegel.  Schumann didn't attempt to set the verses themselves to music; his impromptus are better viewed as his impressions of these verses, but they do succeed in conveying to the listener a sense of eastern music.

The next work was Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (1806).  After having complained just last week of my disappointment at having heard only one movement of this piece performed at another Juilliard recital, I had an opportunity on Sunday to hear the entire work. Commissioned by the Russian ambassador Count Andreas Razumovsky, not only a wealthy patron but also a talented amateur violinist who maintained his own string quartet ensemble, the three quartets were the first written by Beethoven during his middle period and marked a sharp break from the staid Haydnesque classicism of the six Op. 18 quartets even if the composer did retain the Classical four movement structure.  Even on first hearing, it's evident that Beethoven was here attempting to break new ground.  In the C major, for example, he began the first movement with a stately introduction, marked andante con moto, that bore no relation to the fast paced allegro vivace that followed.  The breadth and complexity of all three quartets was such that critics compared them to the Symphony No. 3, the Eroica, completed only two years before. Connoisseur that he was, Count Razumovsky must have been astounded when the works were presented to him.  He had exclusive rights to the pieces for a year, and they were premiered privately by his own ensemble with the redoubtable Ignaz Schuppanzigh performing on first violin.

The quartet was performed by Heewon Koo and Ann Cho, violins, Sequoya Sugiyama, viola, and Mizuki Hayakawa, cello, and was coached by Timothy Eddy.

After a ten minute intermission, the program closed with Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26 (1861).  The work was published in the same year as its companion piece, the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25; but Brahms, that diehard perfectionist, had actually begun work on both several years earlier and had then constantly revised each before finally submitting them for publication.  In their final form, the two quartets are a study in contrasts.  While the G minor is passionate and fiery, not least in the final movement Rondo alla Zingarese, the A major is far more genial and unhurried to the extent that it constitutes, at roughly fifty minutes in performance time, Brahms's longest piece of instrumental music.  This refusal to be rushed is nowhere so evident as in the second movement adagio, the heart of the work, that Brahms referred to as a "Night Piece" and that is in fact a nocturne subtly flavored with "gypsy" accents.  The final movement also differs from that of the Op. 25 in that it is in sonata form rather than being a true rondo.

The musicians for this final piece were Eunsae Lee, violin, Sophia Sun, viola, Thapelo Masita, cello, and Jansen Ryser, piano; their coaches were Joseph Lin and Jerome Lowenthal.

This was a highly satisfying recital.  The program was excellent and all three works very skillfully performed by talented musicians.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven, Kim and Mendelssohn

Earlier this week I went to hear the latest instsllment of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series at Alice Tully Hall.  On this occasion the program was devoted to chamber music, specifically string quartets.

The recital began with a performance of the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (1806), the third of the "Razumovsky Quartets."  I have to admit that I always find it annoying when musicians elect to perform only a single movement of a given work.  In music, as in any other art, a creation must be taken as a whole if it is to be properly appreciated.  Presenting individual movements as stand alone pieces necessarily gives listeners an incomplete and sometimes distorted understanding of the composer's intentions.  If three complete works cannot be accommodated in a single program it would be far better, in my opinion, to perform only two and end the recital a few minutes early.

The next work was the world premiere of a string quartet entitled Shadowplay by Sunbin Kim, winner of the 2017 Gena Raps String Quartet Prize.  This was a highly interesting single movement atonal work, approximately 20 minutes in length, whose music often had a piercing quality in the upper registers.  The composer was present at the performance and attempted to say a few words to introduce the piece.  Unfortunately, he was not given a microphone and his remarks were largely inaudible.  According to his website, Sunbin Kim, who is also a pianist, is a graduate of Bard and is currently enrolled as an MM candidate at Juilliard.

Both the above pieces were performed by the Azure Quartet who were participants in the 2017-2018 Honors Chamber Music Program; the ensemble consists of K.J. McDonald and Brenden Zak, violins, Hannah Geisinger, viola, and Yifei Li, cello.

The final work on the program was Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 (1847).  To me, this is the most fascinating of Mendelssohn's works in any genre.  For the most part, his compositions are the refined and accomplished pieces, filled with light and engaging touches, one would expect of so cultured and cerebral a composer.  While undoubtedly works of genius, they are so utterly proper and carefully thought out that one sometimes feels the composer is wearing a mask behind which he hides his real feelings and emotions.  Not so, however, in the present work.  Titled "A Requiem for Fanny," the quartet was written immediately aftet the death of Mendelssohn's beloved sister, a tragedy that left the composer devastated.  It is nothing less than the final testament - Mendelssohn himself would be dead within two months after having completed it - of a highly cultivated man who has suddenly seen his carefully constructed world come crashing down around him.  Not only is it written in the dark F minor key, but its accentuations and tempos (some of which were later adapted by Shostakovich in his own F minor quartet, the No. 11) are filled with a sense of anxiety and dread that makes the work sound curiously modern.  One can hear the furious racing of the composer's heart as he confronts his own mortality.  Properly performed, the Op. 80 is a truly harrowing piece, a glimpse of a soul robbed of all its certainties and staring death in the face.  

The piece was performed by the Abeo Quartet consisting of Ludvig Gudim and Nijoma Grevious, violins, James Kang, viola, and Drew Cone, cello.  They are currently participating in the 2018-2019 Honors Chamber Music Program.

Monday, November 26, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Fauré and Rameau

On Saturday afternoon I went to David Geffen Hall for the second time within a week to hear the New York Philharmonic.  On this occasion the first half was given over chamber music while the second half featured selections from a rarely heard Baroque opera.

The program opened with the Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15 (1879, rev. 1883) by Gabriel Fauré as performed by orchestra members Sheryl Staples, violin, Cynthia Phelps, viola, Carter Brey, cello, and guest artist Shai Wosner, piano.  This was a relatively early work by Fauré, although by the time he wrote it he was already a respected composer.  It was written during a time of personal anguish after his fiancée Marianne Viardot, daughter of the famous soprano Pauline Viardot, had broken off their engagement for reasons that are not entirely clear.  Also unclear is the impact, if any, that this disappointment had on the composition of the present quartet.  True, the third movement adagio has a definite air of melancholy, but then again this is not at all unusual in a slow movement and does not necessarily reflect the composer's own feelings.  If there were any reference to the breakup in the final movement allegro we will never know as the entire movement was thoroughly rewritten and the original destroyed.  Taking the music on its own merits, it is an interesting but certainly not profound work that places a great deal of emphasis on style, often to the detriment of substance.  It was played extremely well by all four musicians at this concert.  It's always interesting for me to hear orchestra members perform chamber music that allows their individuality to appear more clearly than when playing with the entire orchestra.

After intermission, the orchestra, led by Baroque specialist Emmanuelle Haïm, returned onstage to perform the final work on the program, selections from the opera Dardanus (1739, rev. 1744) by Jean-Philippe Rameau.  Though already age 50 when he began his career as an opera composer, Rameau nevertheless stirred a great deal of controversy with his "avant-garde" style, that is, his refusal to compose in the same manner as his illustrious seventeenth century predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lully.  In spite of this opposition, Rameau achieved a great deal of success and his works were regularly staged at the Paris Opéra.  While Dardanus was not an overwhelming triumph when it first appeared, the original production did have a respectable run of 26 performances, much to the chagrin of the lullists.

Dardanus is a tragédie lyrique, a particularly French form first introduced by Lully in the preceding century; in some respects the genre resembled opera seria in that it adapted its plots from classical mythology and emphasized the noble ancestry of its characters.  Dardanus follows the pattern as it relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, the ancestor of the Trojan people.  Perhaps the best description of the selections performed at this concert was that given in the program notes:
"Following the call-to-order of the Ouverture, the suite assembled here by Emmanuelle Haïm includes numerous winning examples of French dances — menuet, tambourin, gavotte, rigaudon — but even those formal types are crafted to their dramatic moments and are in no way stereotyped....  Also included are several symphonies, instrumental expanses that provided dramatic underpinnings to specific scenes: a celebratory Marche pour les différentes nations (March for the Various Nations...), the strutting Entrée pour les guerriers (Entry of the Warriors), the bristling Bruit de guerre (Noise of War), and the tender Sommeil... The suite concludes just as the opera does, with an extended chaconne..."
While the orchestral forces used in Wednesday evening's performance of Handel were, in keeping with the original eighteenth century instrumentation, quite slight and never amounted to more than a  modest chamber ensemble sometimes consisting only of strings, those employed for Dardanus were much closer in size to a modern orchestra and made use of a much wider array of instruments.

Emmanuelle Haïm, who was previously a harpsichordist with Les Arts Florissants, founded her own ensemble, Le Concert d'Astrée, in 2000.  This series of concerts marked her debut with the Philharmonic.  She displayed considerable skill on the podium; I was especially impressed by her work on the Dardanus suite which I found to be highly enjoyable and much more fun than one would expect of so serious a work.  Rameau's music did, in fact, sound extremely innovative and I could well understand how his contemporaries might have found it avant-garde.  

Friday, November 23, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Handel's Water Music

I began celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday a day early by attending a Wednesday evening performance given by the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall.  Conducted by Baroque specialist Emmanuelle Haïm, the program featured the music of Georg Friedrich Händel, including two suites from that perennial favorite Water Music.

The program opened with Handel Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 1 in G major, HWV 319 (1739).  The soloists on this piece were orchestra members Sheryl Staples and Qianqian Li, violins, and Carter Brey, cello.  While the two giants of the German Baroque, J.S. Bach and Handel, were both inspired by Italian music, they each followed different models.  Bach was most impressed by Antonio Vivaldi and went so far as to transcribe several of the latter's works for his own use; Handel, on the other hand, was most influenced by Arcangelo Corelli whom he had met while living in Rome years earlier.  Handel's publisher John Walsh was also a great admirer of Corelli and had already published that composer's Twelve concerti grossi, Op. 6 (1714).  It was not at all a coincidence then that Handel's concerti were also labeled Op. 6 by Walsh.  None of this, however, should be taken to imply that Handel's works were slavish imitations of those by Corelli.  Far from it.  Although Handel adhered to the general formula employed by Corelli in which solo instruments (concertino) interact with the larger ensemble (ripieno, or tutti), his concerti are highly individualistic and filled with drama.

The Concerto No. 1 consists of five movements, the first of which, marked a tempo giusto, is a reworking of an early draft of the overture to Handel's final Italian opera, Imeneo.  The other four movements, however, are entirely original and show the composer at his creative best.  This point was made quite strongly by Charles Burney in an appreciation of the fourth movement allegro that was reprinted in the Philharmonic's program notes:
"The fugue upon an airy pleasing theme, is closely worked and carried on from the beginning to the end without episode, or division foreign to the subject, and in a modulation strictly confined to the key note and its fifth: those who know the merit and difficulty of this species of composition can alone be sensible of our author’s resources and superiority, whenever fugue is in question."
The two Water Music suites performed next were the No. 3 in G major, HWV 350 and the No. 1 in F major, HWV 348.  Guest artist Sébastien Marq, a recorder virtuoso, was soloist on the Suite No. 3.  All three suites were premiered on July 17, 1717 by some thirty musicians in a barge on the Thames as they accompanied George I who was traveling in a separate barge from Whitehall to Chelsea.  Handel's association with George actually predated the arrival of either in London.  In 1710, shortly before he traveled to England, Handel had become Kapellmeister to George while the future king was still Elector of Hanover.  It was only natural then that once in England George should turn to Handel when he wished to impress his new subjects with his magnificence.  It was an excellent choice.  Other than Henry Purcell, the English had produced no significant native composers and Handel's festive suites, especially when performed in so unusual a setting, must have been without question the most exciting musical event London had yet witnessed.

Selections from Rameau's Dardanus were scheduled to be performed in the second half of the concert, but since they were to be repeated at a concert on Saturday afternoon that I also planned on attending I didn't bother staying to hear them on Wednesday evening.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

WQXR / Carnegie Hall: Andris Nelsons Conducts Mahler No. 5

On Monday evening WQXR broadcast live from Carnegie Hall a concert featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by its Music Director Andris Nelsons, performing works by HK Gruber and Mahler.

The program opened with Gruber's Aerial (1998-1999), a concerto for trumpet and orchestra that Gruber had written for Håkan Hardenberger, the trumpet virtuoso who premiered the piece in London in 1999 and who was also soloist at Monday evening's concert.  The work consisted of two movements representing aerial views of landscapes (hence the title) entitled respectively "Done with the compass—Done with the chart!" and "Gone dancing."  The first, a slow movement whose title was taken from the Emily Dickinson poem "Wild nights—Wild nights!," combined multiphonics, jazz and a cow horn.  The second movement was an imaginary aerial view of a planet from which all inhabitants had disappeared, leaving behind only a sign that read "Gone dancing."

As one could well conclude from the preceding, Gruber is something of a maverick in contemporary German music and has been hailed as the principal force behind the "Third Viennese School."  The work, complete with spacey sound effects in the early part, was highly accessible and was very well received by the audience.  The trumpet part, in particular, was for the most part mellow and even downright blusey at times.  To me, though, the work seemed more showmanship than music.

After intermission, the concert ended with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 (1901-1902). Marking the start of a new century as well as a new direction in the composer's music, the No. 5 moved away from the programmatic content of the first four symphonies, collectively known as the Wunderhorn symphonies, to the sphere of absolute music. This shift certainly reflected a new self-confidence on Mahler's part. He was sure enough of himself, and his music, that he felt he no longer needed sung texts or ambiguous program notes to make himself understood. He had now not only reached the pinnacle of his conducting career as music director of the Vienna Court Opera, then regarded as the world's finest, but he had also become engaged to Alma, "the most beautiful young woman in Vienna." (It's almost obligatory to mention at this point that the fourth movement adagietto, whose correct tempo is forever argued among composers, was intended as an engagement present to Alma.) But the fact that Mahler went back some ten years later to revise the orchestration is an indication that he may have overestimated his abilites. As Jens Malte Fischer notes:
"In a letter to conductor Georg Göhler, he [Mahler] admitted that even as a forty-year-old composer at the height of his powers, he could still commit the sort of mistakes that a novice might make: the experience acquired in his first four symphonies let him down - a new style needed a new technique. But while working of the Fifth Symphony he was not yet aware of this shortcoming."
Nor is the No. 5 without flaws even in the revised version. The ending of the final movement is not entirely satsifying and suggests that Mahler, after the bold innovations of the earlier movements, was at a loss how to top them and so instead settled for what was essentially a compromise.  This deficiency was very much in evidence at Monday evening's performance.  I also found the rendition of the adagietto, beautiful as it is, too drawn out and ethereal for my taste.  Rather than an integral part of the symphony, it seemed here more a dreamlike interlude.

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

Met Opera: Sondra Radvanovsky Sings Tosca

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear Tosca, the lurid masterpiece created by Giacomo Puccini and libretttists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.  This was, of course, the David McVicar production that was surrounded by such scandal when it premiered last New Year's Eve after having lost almost its entire original cast as well as two successive conductors.  I have to admit that one of my reasons for attending was to see what all the fuss had been about.

In its original form Tosca was a drama written by Victorien Sardou as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, inarguably the most famous actress of the late nineteenth century.  It was, in fact, after having witnessed Bernhardt's performance that Puccini resolved to adapt the work.  Like the opera drawn from it, the play contained not only murder, torture and suicide but for good measure a tempestuous woman's revenge for sexual blackmail; it is this last element that has most riveted modern audiences.  Many attending the opera do not realize that Tosca's confrontation with Scarpia is taken largely intact from Sardou's play.  The Met program notes helpfully quote the play's dialog to make clear the connection:
"Ah, you abuser! You tormented me for an entire night, should I not thenhave my turn? She bends over him, staring at him eye to eye. Look at me, scoundrel. Ah, to delight in your agony, and dying by a woman’s hand, you coward! Die, wild beast, die despairing, enraged, die, die, die!"
Set on a specific date (June 17, 1800), both play and opera use the Battle of Marengo between French and Austrian forces as a background for the action onstage.  It's an interesting device, one that serves to intensify the action among the fictional characters as the forces of history swirl about them and provide a context for their personal dilemmas. The allusion would have been very familiar to the Roman audience attending the opera's 1900 premiere as Italy was then preparing to celebrate the battle's centenary, but its significance is largely lost on those seeing the opera today.  One would think that setting the opera on a given date would preclude any attempt to update the action, but that hasn't stopped several producers from trying. A 1986 production, for example, set the opera in 1944 Nazi-occupied Rome with Scarpia as chief of the Fascist secret police.

Perhaps Tosca's most important legacy is its contribution to verismo.  One doesn't ordinarily think of Puccini as a composer of verismo but it must be remembered that this opera was composed within ten years of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (1892) and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (1890).  Puccini was definitely astute enough to recognize a new trend in opera and to capitalize upon it.  It may have been this aspect as much as Bernhardt's performance that determined the composer to adapt Sardou's play in the first place.  Not only was the gritty action far more naturalistic than that in Puccini's earlier operas but the music too was far more raw and incorporated such non-orchestral sounds as church bells.

I had heard Sondra Radvanovsky sing the title role of Tosca several years ago and greatly enjoyed hearing her reprise it at this performance.  She is without question one of the finest sopranos now active - I've previously seen her triumph at the Met in Norma and in Donizetti's Tudor Queen operas - and she has rightfully become one of the company's brightest stars.  Her rendition of Vissi d'arte brought down the house on Saturday afternoon and even had one fan shouting for an encore.  Joseph Calleja, whom I heard sing the role of Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra two years ago, was excellent as Cavaradossi.  He sang exceptionally well, and his Act III duet with Tosca was truly touching.  Claudio Sgura was less successful in the role of Scarpia, the evil genius whose malignant presence drives the action forward much as Iago's did in Otello.  Finally, conductor Carlo Rizzi, hardly a household name, did a much better job on the podium than I had anticipated.  Perhaps the fact that he too had studied at the Milan Conservatory endowed him with an affiinity for Puccini's music.

The production by David McVicar was one of the most satisfying staged by the Met in recent years.  It was unapologetically opulent.  Strongly reminiscent, especially in Acts I and III, of the fondly remembered Zeffirelli production, it marked a return to the lavish settings beloved by conservative New York audiences.  Hopefully, the Met has at last given up on its ill advised search for "relevance" and returned to its core values.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Scriabin

Yesterday afternoon I went to Juilliard's Paul Hall for the first time this season to hear a recital given by the school's Piano Performance Forum.  The recital featured four pianists who among them performed works by Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Scriabin.

The program opened with Ke Wang performing Mozart's Piano Sonata in D Major, K. 576 (1789), one of six written for the Prussian Princess Friederike.  It is the extensive use of counterpoint in both the opening and final movements that renders this sonata so difficult to perform.  As a program note from the Seattle Symphony states:
"A playful Allegretto born of a simple melody sets the music in motion. Once Mozart presents the tune he immediately adds a contrapuntal second theme constructed from rapid 16th-note triplets. This new motive appears in inverted form above the main theme, creating an example of expert double counterpoint, a nod to Baroque era polyphony. The composer had clearly absorbed old Bach’s rich fugal style that Mozart first fully explored in 1782 when Baron von Swieten, Imperial Viennese Court librarian, had lent the composer scores from his collection of music by the Cantor of Leipzig."
I had last heard this work performed almost exactly three years ago by virtuoso András Schiff in one of a series of recitals that featured the late sonatas of the four great masters of that genre - Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

The next work was Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 (1820) as performed by Jansen Ryder.  This piece was the first of the master's three final sonatas and, together with the Diabelli Variations he wrote during the same period, the culmination of his thoughts on music composed for the piano.  In its structure, the Op. 109 differs so markedly from all the Beethoven sonatas that had preceded it that it is fair to call it revolutionary.  The first movement is extremely short, so much so that it has been suggested that the composer originally intended the work to consist of only the latter two movements and added this one on later.  The third movement is most unusual for a sonata in that it contains a theme and variations.  Beethoven wrote the piece at the same time he was working on the Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis and it was obvious that he was moving into uncharted territory.  His inability to hear his own works or those of other composers had completely isolated him by this point from the world around him.  Terrible as it must have been to have been so afflicted, his condition can actually be seen as an advantage in the sense that he was free to move forward with the development of his own musical ideas without having to concern himself with popular taste or even the sound of his own works when played.  More than any other artist before or since, he was locked into the world of pure imagination and freed from any other considerations.  

This sonata too I had heard performed in 2015 by András Schiff in still another of his recitals featuring late sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The series culminated the following year when Sir András peformed the very last sonatas by the same four masters. That performance turned out to be one of the most thrilling piano recitals I've attended at Carnegie Hall.

The next pianist to take the stage was Angie Zhang who proceeded to perform works by Beethoven and Debussy, respectively the Variations WoO 80 and the lyrical L'Isle Joyeuse.

Beethoven's works without opus number generally date from the earliest part of his career and for the most part represent youthful efforts that the composer did not consider worthy enough to be assigned a number, that designation being reserved for more important pieces.  The 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 (1806), however, date from the middle period when Beethoven had attained full mastery of his talents and are roughly contemporaneous with the Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony.  Although the variations certainly do not constitute a major work, it's not entirely clear why Beethoven held them in such low esteem.  They are actually quite powerful.

Debussy's L'isle joyeuse (1904) 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 program closed with a very brief work by Scriabin, the wonderfully titled Poème satanique, Op. 36 (1903) performed by Armen Sarkisian.  The composer himself did not think highly of the work.  He complained to the critic Leonid Sabaneyev that it was "the apotheosis of insincerity. It is all hypocritical, false."  The work was written at the very end of the composer's first period when he was still very much under the influence of such Romantic composers as Chopin and Liszt, and this may account for the disdain he later felt for it.

Juilliard has an incredibly strong piano department, and the musicians at this recital demonstrated a high level of skill in performances of works that were without exception technically challenging.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Omega Ensemble Performs Beethoven, Schumann and Ravel

It was a madhouse on the Upper West Side on Sunday afternoon as runners from the New York City Marathon and the families and friends who had come to cheer them on thronged the streets and avenues.  Since many streets had already been closed off due to security concerns, traffic was at an absolute standstill.  In spite of these hectic conditions a loyal group of classical music lovers somehow managed to make their way to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear a chamber music recital given by the Omega Ensemble.

The first musician to take the stage was "Next Generation Artist" Astra Phoon, a ten-year old prodigy who proceeded to dazzle the audience with performances first of Fabel, No. 6 of Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 (1837) and then of Liszt's Au Bord d'une source, though the program failed to note which of the three versions was used.

The recital proper opened with Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major (1923-1927). As the numbering would indicate, this was the composer's second attempt at a violin sonata. The No. 1 in A major, however, was a student piece from 1897 of which only the first movement was completed. The No. 2 was an entirely different matter. This is one of the most intriguing violin sonatas in the twentieth century repertoire, and I've always been puzzled that it is not performed more often in recital. Here Ravel is masterful and inventive while purporting to demonstrate the basic incompatability of the violin and piano. This can be seen most clearly in the first movement where the two instruments are not so much playing with one another as against one another. But it is the second movement marked Blues - Moderato that is the most interesting. Ravel had encountered the blues first hand in Paris when W.C. Handy had toured there, but the French composer adapted it through his own sensibilities so that it became, in his own words, "French music" distinct from its sources. The work was performed by violinist Kevin Zhu and pianist David Fung.

The next work was another Schumann "fantasy piece," Drei Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 (1849), originally written for clarinet and piano but here arranged for cello and piano. Though Schumann was the first to coin the term fantasiestücke, the concept of fantasy was at the heart of the Romantic movement; its origins can in fact be traced back to the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The present piece fits the term very well. The first two movements are for the most part dreamy and ethereal but the third, marked Rasch und mit Feuer ("Fast and with Fire") spins off crazily as if the musicians were suddenly possessed. One thinks, of course, of Schumann's breakdown five years later and wonders if there is in this music a premonition of that calamity. On this piece pianist David Fung was joined by cellist Gabriel Cabezas.

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

The Omega Ensemble has been in existence since the 1970's and consistently provides a high level of musicianship at its performances.  Sunday afternoon's recital was no exception.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Bach, Chopin, Haydn and Rachmaninoff

Earlier this week I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the first installment of this season's Wednesdays at One, Juilliard's midday series of concerts and recitals at which promising musicians have an opportunity to display their talents.  On this occasion it was the solo piano music of Bach, Chopin, Haydn and Rachmaninoff that that was featured during the hour-long recital.

The program opened with a performance by Sylvia Jiang of Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 (1722-1723).  The French Suites (a name never given the work by Bach himself) are a set of six keyboard suites, each of which contains several Baroque dance movements, written for instructional purposes during the composer's sojourn in Köthen. a period during which he wrote some of his most important works, including the cello suites, the orchestral suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos.  The Suite No. 5 contains seven movements, the most famous of which is the gavotte.

There were several works by Chopin on the program.  The first was the lovely Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60 (1845-1846) as performed by Alexander Yau.  The barcarolle form itself is derived from Venetian gondoliers's traditional folk music and is charactierized by a rhythm reminiscent of the sweep of oars through still waters.  Probably the most famous example of this genre is the hauntingly beautiful Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour that opens the third act of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman.

The next pianist to take the stage was Jun Hwi Cho who performed Haydn's two-movement Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:48 (1789).  Although short in length, the sonata contains some of Haydn's most original music as the composer here took advantage of recent improvements in fortepiano design.  The opening movement is a free form fantasia that employs Haydn's signature alternating, or double, variations while the second movement rondo is filled with the wit that would characterize his later works.  It's apparent from this sonata that Haydn was finding new confidence as a composer even before achieving the fame that accompanied his first visit to London two years later in 1791.

Rachmaninoff, one of the twentieth century's greatest composers for solo piano, was represented at this recital by four of his Op. 23 Preludes (1901-1903) - No. 1 in F-sharp minor, No. 2 in B-flat major, No. 3 in D minor, and No. 5 in G minor - as performed by Aleksandra Kausman.  Though for obvious reasons Rachmaninoff's Preludes are often compared to those by Chopin, the two actually have little in common.  To me, Rachmaninoff's have always seemed to display deeper feeling; they are truly suffused with the spirit of Russian Romanticism.  I once heard Vladimir Horowitz play two of the Op. 32 Preludes (the G major and G-sharp minor) and thought them the high point of that long ago recital.  The Op. 23 G minor, composed two years before the others, is deservedly the best known of the earlier set.  The pervasive sense of melancholy in the central section never fails to move the audience. 

The program concluded with a performance by Biguo Xing of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842, revised 1843).  The ballade genre itself was Chopin's own invention and was reputed, at least by Robert Schumann, to have been inspired by the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz.  All four are extremely complex works but the fourth most especially so in its extensive use of counterpoint and its simultaneous development of both the first and second themes.  It's a truly amazing work and arguably Chopin's greatest achievement as a composer.

This was an excellent recital with an eclectic program in which the Romanticism of Chopin and Rachmaninoff was nicely balanced by the Bach and Haydn selections. The Juilliard pianists were all extremely skilled and each drew a large round of applause from the audience.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Czech Philharmonic Performs Dvořák

On Saturday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Czech Philharmonic, led by its Music Director and Chief Conductor, Semyon Bychkov, perform a program consisting of only two works, both of them by the most famous of all Czech composers, Antonin Dvořák.  This was especially appropriate as the following day, October 28th, marked the 100th anniversary of the Czech Republic's independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The concert opened with a performance of the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (19894-1895)  that featured Alisa Weilerstein as soloist.  If the works Dvořák composed while visiting the United States aren't his greatest - though I for one strongly feel that they are - they are certainly his most popular, notably the Symphony No. 9 and the String Quartet No. 12.  There was something about the Native American and Afro-American music he heard while in this country that brought out the best in the composer.  The Cello Concerto, however, the last work Dvořák wrote before returning to Europe, does not show these influences as strongly.  Instead, the most compelling influence on the concerto was the music of fellow European Victor Herbert who was on the faculty of the National Conservatory of Music during the period when Dvořák served as its Director.  Herbert, who at the time he met Dvořák was on the cusp of beginning his career as the most famous composer of American operettas, was himself a superb cellist.  His own Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor greatly affected Dvořák when he heard it performed in New York City and determined him to write his own.

Another influence on the composition of the Cello Concerto was far more personal.  Dvořák intended the work as a tribute to his sister-in-law Josefina who was then suffering her final illness.  He went so far as to quote in the melancholy second movement Kéž duch můj sám, Josefina's favorite among his four Op. 82 songs.  It was this deep personal significance that led Dvořák to reject any changes to the piece as he had written it.  This led to conflict with his friend Hanuš Wihan, the cellist for whom he had originally written the work, who had composed two cadenzas that Dvořák ultimately refused to accept.

After intermission came the final work on the program and another in a minor key, the Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1885).  Though long overshadowed by the enormously popular No. 9, it is really the No. 7, written some eight years earlier, that is generally considered the composer's finest symphony.  It also carries with it more baggage than any other of Dvořák's works.  Proposed sources of inspiration range from the death of Dvořák's mother two years earlier to the arrival of a trainload of Czech political activists at the Prague railway station.  It seems far more likely, however, that Dvořák, enjoying a growing international repuation ever since having won the Austrian Prize in 1876 and 1877, wanted to come up with a powerful work that would cement his position as a leading European composer.  This would account for the absence of the Czech folk sources that had previously characterized Dvořák's work and in their place a far greater attention to classical structure.  Dvořák had been greatly impressed by the symphonies of his mentor Brahms and no doubt wanted to compose an orchestral work of comparable stature even if different in style.

The No. 7 is filled with somber moments, most particularly in the opening and closing movements, and Dvořák himself wrote on the score the inscription "From the sad years."  And then there is the funeral march in the final movement.  Nevertheless, it is usually a mistake to confuse an artist's creations with his or her biography.  Any sense of tragedy would more likely be due to the serious intentions Dvořák brought to this project than to any events in his personal life.

The Czech Philharmonic, though it doesn't receive as much attention as some other European orchestras, is an excellent ensemble and its leader, Semyon Bychkov, whom I had not seen in several years, a top-notch conductor.  The Cello Concerto, played beautifully by Alisa Weilerstein, was especially moving at this performance.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Mrt Opera: Elīna Garanča Sings in Samson et Dalila

On Saturday afternoon I paid my first visit to the Met Opera this season to see the new production of Samson et Dalila, the three act opera composed between 1867 and 1876 by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Though Saint-Saëns was already a well known composer by the time he commenced work on Samson et Dalila - this was his Op. 47 - neither he nor his librettist Ferdinand Lemaire had had much actual experience with opera.  (Lemaire was, in fact, an amateur poet who had come to Saint-Saëns attention only through his marriage to the composer's cousin.)   Saint-Saëns had originally thought to compose an oratorio along the lines Voltaire had suggested in his own libretto for Rameau's opera Samson.  In the event, it was Lemaire who convinced Saint-Saëns that the subject would be better treated as an opera.  Astonishingly, even though Rameau's eighteenth century work had never been staged due to troubles with the French censors, or so at least Voltaire claimed, Saint-Saëns was unaware that his own opera would face the exact same problem.  He should certainly have realized that even in worldly nineteenth century Paris Biblical stories were not considered proper fare for the stage.  When at length Saint-Saëns learned of the dilemma he very nearly gave up the project and even went so far as to stop work on it for two years.

If anyone is to be credited with the eventual success of Samson et Dalila it is Franz Liszt.  After having played through the score of the opera as it then stood, the former Weimar Kapellmeister promised Saint-Saëns he would arrange for a performance once the work had been completed and proved as good as his word.  The libretto having been translated into German for the occasion, the opera premiered in December 1877 and was a resounding success even though several more years elapsed before the work found a permanent place in the repertoire.

As the Met's program notes point out, the key to the opera's success is a series of contrasts juxtaposed one against the other.  Thus, at the very opening, the austerity of the Hebrew chorus immediately precedes the more lightweight and exotic music of the Philistines.  This helps reinforce the religious nature of Samson's story as one in which love of God is set against shallow worldliness.  The conflict between these is developed inexorably through the three acts until it at last finds resolution in Samson's destruction of the pagan temple.

The cast was excellent but unfortunately Samson et Dalila, filled as it is with beautiful music, does not contain that many noteworthy arias.  As it was, Elīna Garanča, as Dalila, was superb when singing Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix in Act II, and Roberto Alagna was truly affecting when voicing his repentance while toiling at the grist mill in Act III, Scene 1.  One only wishes Saint-Saëns had given these two more opportunities to display their talents.  On the podium, Mark Elder's conducting was adequate if undistinguished.

As for the production by Darko Tresnjak, it was obvious the Met was ready yet again to sacrifice dramatic integrity to special effects.  The sets for Act II as well as Act III, Scene 1 were more appropriate to a low budget sci fi movie than French grand opera.  The flash-bang finale itself could have come from a Star Wars film.  The costumes for the famous Act III Bacchanale ballet were also a disappointment though I thought the choreography itself very accomplished.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Met Museum: Delacroix Paintings and Lithographs

After having seen in September the Met Museum's exhibit of Delacroix drawings (see my October 1 post) entitled Devotion to Drawing, I returned to last week to see the even larger exhibit of paintings and lithographs entitled simply Delacroix.  To call the show immense is an understatement; it stretches through multiple galleries and contains representative masterpieces from all phases of the artist's long career.  Only the large mural paintings, such as the iconic Liberty Leading the People, are missing as these were too fragile to travel from the Louvre.  The show was obviously intended to be the blockbuster exhibit of 2018, and it succeeds admirably in its aim.

There are over 150 works on view at the exhibit and their very abundance in so many different genres can bewilder the viewer.  As one proceeds through the galleries, however, certain themes and motifs become apparent.  The first and most apparent of these is of course Romanticism, the movement that had begun in the artist's youth and was still a powerful force in the arts at the time of his death in 1863.  One has only to look at Delcroix's youthful self-portrait as the character Ravenswood, from the Walter Scott novel The Bride of Lammermoor, to see the influence Romanticism had upon him and how closely he identified with it.  It informed not only his choice of subjects, many of them taken from the works of legendary Romantic writers, but also his manner of painting in which he rejected Classical academic formulae in favor of broad sweeping brushstrokes and a dazzling array of colors.

A large number of works at the exhibit were inspired by Delacroix's journey to Morocco in 1832 as part of the official French diplomatic mission to the court of Sultan Abd er-Rahman.  Though the mission itself was a failure and could not prevent the outbreak of the Franco-Moroccan War several years later, the locale did provide Delacroix with a wealth of imagery that was to form the basis of some of his most satisfying paintings.  Viewing works such as Street in Meknes and Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, it can readily be seen that it was Delacroix rather than his rival Ingres or the academician Gérôme, who was the true father of Orientalism in the early nineteenth century.

So much attention has been given to Delacroix's Romanticism that the utter naturalism of his technique has often been overlooked.  The artist's absolute fidelity to nature can be seen most clearly in his depictions of animals.  There are several studies of tigers at this exhibit, and it's obvious the artist spent quite a bit of time observing these powerful animals.  The best is the 1830 Young Tiger Playing with its Mother in which the playfulness of the young cub is in sharp contrast to the stately bearing of the adult female.  Much more dramatic is the 1828 lithograph Wild Horse Felled by a Tiger that is absolutely devoid of sentimentality as it depicts the ruthless struggle of animals in the wild to survive.  Horses themselves were another favorite subject of Delacroix, and were often shown in battle scenes such as the action filled 1826 oil on canvas Combat of the Giaour and Hassan whose subject was taken from an 1813 poem by Byron.  It is an indoor scene of two horses alone, however, that is most stirring in its compact rendering of a life and death struggle.  The late 1860 oil on canvas Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable must certainly represent a scene Delacroix had actually witnessed almost thirty years before in Morocco and had never been able to put from his mind.

One cannot discuss the corrent show without mentioning Delacroix's seventeen lithograph illustrations for a new edition of Goethe's Faust.  Seen here together for the first time, they provide an illustrated narrative as compelling as Goethe's own.  In fact, upon seeing Plate No. 16 in which Faust and Mephistopheles gallop past the scaffolds on Walpurgis Night, Goethe is said to have remarked that Delacroix had thought out the scene better than had the poet himself.  There's more than a touch of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique here, though the musical work was not composed until several years after Delacroix had completed his series.  And Plate No. 15, in which Marguerite's ghost appears to Faust, is a truly Gothic vision whose macabre elements reveal Romanticism taken to its ultimate extent.  This plate, like the others displayed here, is not in its final state and has doodles to the side of the frame that were later removed in the final version.  The offhand drawings provide a fascinating insight into the artist's creative process.

The exhibit continues thtough January 6, 2019.

Monday, October 15, 2018

WQXR / Carnegie Hall: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique Performs Berlioz

Yesterday afternoon, WQXR broadcast a live concert from Carnegie Hall that featured the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by its Artistic Director Sir John Eliot Gardiner, performing the first of two all-Berlioz programs, the second of which takes place this evening.

Berlioz is remembered today primarily for his youthful Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830).  It's an extraordinary achievement, of course, but its very success has had the unfortunate consequence not only of overshadowing the major works that followed but also of handing down to posterity the garish image of Berlioz as a love-besotted opium addict pounding furiously on the drums at the work's premiere.  He himself was aware of the problem he had so thoughtlessly created and later in life tried to distance himself as much as possible from the Symphonie's lurid program, writing on the score in 1855, a quarter century after the fact:
"If the symphony is performed on its own as a concert piece... one may even dispense with distributing the programme and keep only the title of the five movements. The author [Berlioz] hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention."
If nothing else, the ORR's two-night stand at Carnegie Hall should hopefully give the audience a better appreciation of Berlioz's accomplishments, especially as the second concert will feature a performance not only of Symphonie but also of its far calmer "sequel" Lélio, Op. 14b (1831).  

Sunday afternoon's program opened with Le Corsaire Overture, Op. 21 (1844). Though Berlioz's source of inspiration for this rousing piece has been attributed to both Byron's The Corsair and James Fenimore Cooper's The Red Rover, both of which would have appealed to Berlioz's Romantic imagination, the music is certainly original enough that there's no need to strain to make it fit a literary program.  Since the overture was actually composed in a tower in Nice where Berlioz was recovering from an illness, its original title La tour de Nice is probably as appropriate as any.

In addition to his orchestral writing, Berlioz composed extensively for voice, though much of this music is not often heard.  At this concert, mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot first performed the ill-fated La mort de Cléopâtre (1829), the third of four cantatas submitted by Berlioz to the Paris Conservatoire over four successive years in hopes of winning the prestigious Prix de Rome.  (He finally achieved his goal with the fourth, the 1830 Sardanapale, which he subsequently destroyed.)  It's not difficult to understand why Cléopâtre failed to win an award.  The conservative judges must have been shocked to hear this morbid music so well suited to the death throes of a suicidal queen.  So subversive was the piece - one can actually hear the slowing of Cleopatra's heart after she's been bitten by the asp - that no award at all was given that year.  Berlioz himself was unrepentant, writing:
“It’s a bit difficult to write soothing music for an Egyptian queen bitten by a poisonous snake and dying a painful death in an agony of remorse.”
Following the cantata came an orchestral selection from Part II of Les Troyens (1856-1858), the only one of Berlioz's operas to have attained anything like a permanent place in the repertoire.  Chasse Royale et Orage, which makes rare use of "sax-horns" among the brass, also allowed Ms. Richardot's voice a needed rest before she began singing the aria Je vais mourir ... Adieu, fière cité, the death scene of Queen Dido also from Part II of Les Troyens.  I thought this an excellent choice as it allowed the audience to judge for themselves the different manner in which Berlioz treated the deaths of two legendary queens after an interval of so many years between the composition of the respective works.

After intermission, the program closed with a performance of Harold en Italie, Op. 16 (1834) that featured violist Antoine Tamestit as soloist.  Although subtitled a "Symphony in Four Parts with Viola Obbligato," the work is neither a traditional symphony nor a viola concerto but could more properly be termed a tone poem (very) loosely based on Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.  In a sense, Niccolò Paganini, for whom the work was originally composed, was quite right to reject it as the piece is much more an inward journey in which Berlioz revisits his memories of Abruzzi than it is a virtuoso showpiece.  And yet the viola, Harold's voice, is at the same time an integral part of the music.  Berlioz himself provided a brilliant analysis of the instrument's role:
"As in the Symphonie fantastique, a principal theme (the viola’s opening melody) is reproduced throughout the work. The difference is that whereas in the Symphonie fantastique, the idée fixe keeps obtruding like an impassioned obsession on scenes that are alien to it and deflects their course, Harold’s melody is superimposed on the other orchestral voices, and contrasts with them in tempo and character without interrupting their development."
Along with Liszt and Wagner, Berlioz was one of the three great proponents of the "new music" and extremely innovative in developing what then purported to be a revolutionary musical idiom.  The ORR deserves a great deal of praise for bringing his music to a wider audience in such exemplary fashion.  The conductor, orchestra members and soloists all contributed to an outstanding performance.

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