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.