Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Mannes Orchestra Performs Wagner, Hindemith and Stravinsky

On Monday evening I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the Mannes Orchestra, under the baton of its Music director David Hayes perform one of the most ambitious programs I've encountered this season.  Two of the works performed, the first and the last, can rightfully be said to have been turning points in the history of Western music.

The concert opened with the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1857-1859).  After having just heard last week Act II of the opera performed in concert at Carnegie Hall, I now had an opportunity to hear the Prelude that opens Act I complete with its famous "Tristan chord" as well as the Act III Liebestod the concludes the opera.

The next work was the piece I had really come to hear, the Konzertmusik for Wind Orchestra, Op. 41 (1926) by Paul Hindemith.  When one thinks of German music in the 1920's the works that first come to mind are those of Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School. And in 1924, in fact, Schoenberg had completed his own Wind Quintet, Op. 26 that was among the first works to utilize the twelve-tone system.  The problem, however, at least as far as Hindemith was concerned, was that such works had nothing to do with popular German culture but were almost exclusively the province of musicologists.  Hindemith's great interest, in contrast, was in Gebrauchsmusik, that is, music that was accessible to the general public and could easily be performed by amateurs.  He saw his great opportunity to further the cause of such music in the 1926 Donaueschingen Festival on whose committee he served; he accordingly issued invitations to composers to submit works of this type for performance while at the same time writing for it his own Op. 41.  In the event, the Festival failed in its aims when none of the amateur wind musicians who had been invited decided to take part.  It was probably just as well since the pieces that had been written for them, including Hindemth's own, ironically proved too advanced for the skills of amateurs.  The various composers' efforts were not entirely in vain, however, for when they emigrated to the US in the 1930's while fleeing the Nazis, they found American wind orchestras that were much more receptive to their compositions than had been the amateur ensembles in Germany for which these pieces had originally been written.

After intermission the musicians returned onstage to perform Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps (1913).   So fixed a place in the repertoire has this monumental work now attained that it's difficult to believe it could once have been as controversial as its history suggests.  Everyone knows the story of the infamous premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that ended in a riot, though there were those who claimed at the time that this was a response to Nijinsky's choreography rather than Stravinsky's music.  (Years ago I saw a recreation of the original production staged by the Joffrey Ballet and thought it magnificent.)  What can't be denied, however, is that this was one of the earliest triumphs of modernism no matter that it had its roots firmly in the Russian folk tradition.  Even now, despite its familiarity, there is something deeply unsettling in the savage rhythms that burst out of nowhere and challenge the sensibilities of the audience.  There are very few other works in the repertoire so gripping as this.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schubert and Beethoven

On Sunday afternoon I went to Juilliard's Morse Hall to hear the first half of a chamber music recital featuring works by Schubert and Beethoven.

The recital opened with Schubert's Fantasie in F minor for Piano Four Hands, D. 940 (1828) performed by Chenchun Ma and Max YiLong Ma.  I've always thought Schubert the greatest composer for the piano, even more so than Beethoven, and this fantasie, along with the late sonatas one of his last works for the instrument, contains some of his most inspired writing.  There is something incredibly poignant in Schubert's final year of life.  He was fully conscious of his gifts, enough to recognize in himself the true successor to Beethoven, and yet he could only look back on a life filled with poverty and disappointment made all the more bitter by the hideous disease that was slowly killing him.  One wonders then at his state of mind when he dedicated the fantasie to his pupil Karoline Esterházy with whom he no doubt intended one day to perform the piece.  (In the event, Schubert eventually premiered the work with fellow composer Franz Lachner.)  It's after all well known that Schubert was infatuated with the youngest daughter of the aristocratic Esterházy family.  According to one source, Karoline once asked him why he did not dedicate one of his compositions to her. "What would be the use?" he said. "All that I do is dedicated to you."  If F minor is truly the key of hopeless love, it was never more so than here.  Not only was Schubert too poor and of too common birth to ever aspire to the hand of an aristocrat, but his terrible disease, whose name even today one hesitates to speak in polite society, put out of reach even the lowest born woman and effectively condemned him to die alone.  Fantasies are wonderful things if there is some hope, however remote, to keep them afloat, but for Schubert there wasn't even that.  The dedication is not so much wistful as ironic, a bitter acknowledgment by the composer that all that remained for him now was death.

The second work was Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2 (1801-1802) performed by Julia Glenn, violin, and Angie Zhang, piano.  This is one of those pivotal works - like the B-flat major String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6 - in which the composer can be seen readying himself for the move from his early Classical style to the Romanticism of his middle period.  Written at roughly the same time as  the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, the sonata clearly reflects the torments of a soul who through the impending loss of his hearing stands to lose everything that held any meaning for him.  As such, the work is filled with drama and is at times almost giddy in its violent mood swings.  This can be heard immediately in the opening movement whose tightly coiled first theme expresses both defiance and despair that in the second movement, marked adagio cantabile, turns into a prayer.  The brisk third movement scherzo seems to belong to another work altogether as if Beethoven had been so distracted by his emotions that he momentarily lost sight of what he was about.  Then in the final movement he recollects himself and returns with a vengeance to the dramatic passion of the first movement.  Throughout the sonata the piano is given as full a part as the violin and propels the music forward with restless energy.  Beethoven is here not only moving in a new direction but developing a new vocabulary with which to give voice to the works that were to come.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Met Opera: Plácido Domingo Sings in Luisa Miller

On Saturday afternoon I wen tto the Met Opera to hear one of Verdi's early operas, Luisa Miller, the 1849 work based on an eighteenth century play Kabale und Liebe ("Intrigue and Love") by Friedrich Schiller.

This was the first time I'd ever seen this opera, but that's not to say it's infrequently performed.  In fact, it's considered one of the most significant of Verdi's early career and according to many musicologists marked the beginning of his middle period when he finally achieved the international fame he so well deserved.  Not that the opera's history was an easy one.  It only came to be written after the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples refused to release Verdi from a contract that had been signed without his consent by his publisher Ricordi.  There followed a series of byzantine intrigues, themselves worthy of an opera, in which the theater threatened to sue the librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, with breach of contract for failure to deliver a finished text.  When Verdi, too honorable to desert his associate, finally capitulated he then found his first choice of subject, L'assedio di Firenze ("The Siege of Florence"), was off limits because it was too politically sensitive for the censors' tastes.  It was only then that the choice fell on Schiller's play that in its turn also required substantive changes in order to avoid the wrath of the censors.  In the end this proved an advantage as it allowed composer and librettist to focus on the love story between  Luisa and Rodolfo to the exclusion of the political elements that had formed the crux of Schiller's play.

As one reads the history of Luisa Miller, one is impressed by the manner in which Verdi sought to accommodate Cammarano.  Certainly, at least as outlined in the Met's program notes, he was far from the imperious composer one usually associates with Italian opera.  The description furnished is worth quoting as it provides a great deal of insight into the working arrangements between composer and librettist:
"Cammarano envisioned an aria for Luisa, a solo quartet, and an aria for Rodolfo, while Verdi wanted a duet for Luisa and Wurm, another for Wurm and Walter, the quartet, an aria for Rodolfo, and 'then something else well suited for the end of an act.' ... After the usual complex negotiations were done, the two men together provided the second act with a chorus; a scena and aria ('Tu puniscimi, o Signore') for Luisa; a recitative, scena, and duet for Walter and Wurm ('L’alto retaggio non ho bramato'); a quartet for Luisa, Federica, Walter, and Wurm ('Presentarti alla Duchessa'); and a scena and aria for Rodolfo ('Quando le sere al placido')."
This season's revival of Luisa Miller - the first in more than ten years - was originally to have been conducted by James Levine.  Following his summary ouster as Music Director Emeritus in December, the thankless task of replacing him was given to Bertrand de Billy, currently chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.  It was in my opinion an unfortunate choice.

In contrast to the conducting, the singing was uniformly excellent.  Soprano Sonya Yoncheva in the title role and tenor Piotr Beczała as Rodolfo displayed real chemistry together.  The latter's Act II aria Quando le sere al placido was one of the performance's high points while Yoncheva's Act III duet with her father La figlia, vedi, pentita was truly touching.  The real star of the afternoon, however was Plácido Domingo in the role of Luisa's father in yet another of his late career performances as a bartione (though he's still listed as a tenor in the program notes).  This true opera superstar had such a commanding presence that he effortlessly stole every scene in which he appeared.

The 2001 production by Elijah Moshinsky was a dingy monochromatic affair.  Why it was found necessary to move the setting from the grandeur of the Tyrolean Alps to the squalor of early Industrial Age England is beyond me.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Carengie Hall: Jonas Kaufmann Sings in Tristan und Isolde, Act II

I've always considered Tristan und Isolde to be Wagner's greatest opera, and on Thursday evening I had an opportunity to hear Act II performed in concert at Carnegie Hall by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Music Director Andris Nelsons.

Despite all his talk of "new music," Wagner had always been a Romantic at heart and I firmly believe his affair with Mathilde Wesendonck had far more to do with the creation of the opera's passionate love story than any reading of Schopenhauer.  Even if neither the composer nor the poet acknowledged the liaison openly - both were after all married to someone else at the time - there can't be any doubt that Wagner was infatuated with Mathilde while writing the opera.  Even the most obtuse listener can at once discern that the passages Wagner gives to Tristan are deeply personal and reflect his own emotions.  It is a commonplace that in attempting to give voice to his or her feelings and to impress his muse with the work he has devised in her honor an artist will somehow transcend the limitations of his talent and attain new heights of creativity.  While Schopenhauer's writings may have provided a philosophical grounding for the action of the opera, the intense passions the two lovers feel for one another go far beyond any theoretical expression of human will.

Act II describes the night that Tristan and Isolde spend together while King Marke is away hunting with Melot and his men.  The two lovers' duet becomes a musical expression of their sexual union and is one of the opera's climactic moments.  The treachery of Melot, who leads the king to the guilty pair, is designed to contrast the purity of Tristan's and Isolde's love with the baseness of an individual who allows his desire to corrupt the idealistic regard in which he once held Tristan.  In his treachery he shows none of the remorse Tristan suffers for his betrayal of the king's trust.  But it is really King Marke who is the tragic figure here as he grapples with the pain Tristan has caused him and tries to understand what led his loyal retainer to commit such a crime.

It was inevitable that the opera should be misunderstood by contemporary critics.  Wagner's experiments with dissonance, most famously in the "Tristan chord," opened the way for the music of Mahler and later the Second Viennese School and as such broke with traditional notions of harmony in Western music.  In so doing, the opera only emphasized the differences between Wagner's music and that of Brahms, the Classical Romanticist.  Not suprisingly then the most vociferous critics of the opera turned out to be the staunchest supporters of Brahms, including the critic Eduard Hanslick and the pianist Clara Schumann who described the opera as "the most repugnant thing I have ever seen or heard in all my life."  As with most critics, however, it was not only the music but the subject matter of illicit love that the strait-laced Clara found so objectionable.  She continued:
"To be forced to see and hear such crazy lovemaking the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated and by which not only the public but even musicians seem to be enchanted – that is the saddest thing I have ever experienced in my artistic life..."
Clara's moral indignation was echoed in an 1865 review in the influential Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung that read in part:
"We cannot refrain from making a protest against the worship of animal passion which is so striking a feature in the late works of Wagner...  The passion [in Tristan] is unholy in itself and its representation is impure, and for those reasons we rejoice in believing that such works will not become popular... Wagner's music, in spite of all its wondrous skill and power, repels a greater number than it fascinates."
It would be easy to dismiss such comments as no more than mid-nineteenth century prudery, but even as recently as 2012 an article in The Telegraph contended:
"Perhaps that’s a clue [Hans Sach's unwillingness to become another Tristan] to why Tristan and Isolde is both so magnetic and repulsive. We all long for love that defies convention and common sense. Wagner's musical genuis [sic] allows us to indulge in this fantasy – but the lovers are too solipsistic to be sympathetic."
I had no trouble obtaining a ticket to Thursday evening's performance since it was actually part of my Great American Orchestras subscription series, and so I was unprepared for the crowd milling about 57th Street before the performance began while scalpers were everywhere doing a brisk business.  It was only when I saw the program that I realized tenor Jonas Kaufmann would be singing the role of Tristan with soprano Camilla Nylund as Isolde.  Kaufmann, whom I had previously seen several seasons ago in the title role in Massenet's Werther, gave a brilliant performance that revealed the depths of his character's dilemma in struggling to reconcile his love for Isolde with his betrayal of King Marke.  The tenor was in excellent voice even though he paused often between numbers to take long drinks of water.  The two leads were supported by an excellent cast that included Mihoko Fujimura as Brangäne, a woman torn by guilt for having provided Isolde the fateful potion, and Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke.  The latter was especially impressive in revealing his heartbreak and bewilderment at Tristan's betrayal.  Here was a man who suddenly realized that despite his royal power he was all alone in the world with no friend or wife in whom to place his trust.

The BSO has always been a fine orchestra, but under the leadership of Andris Nelsons it has risen in recent years to even greater heights.  On Thursday evening the musicians did an excellent job not only in supporting the singers but in fully realizing the beauty and passion of Wagner's music.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Juilliard Lab Orchestra Performs Beethoven and Brahms

Earlier this week I attended a performance of the Juilliard Lab Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall, part of the school's Wednesdays at One series.  While these concerts normally last only an hour, this particular one, due to the length of the works performed, continued for some 80 minutes.

The program opened with Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 (1806).  This is a work that when first heard appears strangely out of place.  If Beethoven's middle period was characterized by his striving in the manner of the Romantic hero to overcome the handicap of his deafness, the turbulence of the No. 3, the Eroica, is much more in accordance with the image of the tortured composer than is the relaxed playfulness of the No. 4.  At least part of the answer may have to do with the work's origin.  Beethoven wrote it as well-paid commission from Count Franz von Oppersdorff with whom the composer was staying after having violently quarreled with his patron Prince Lichnowsky.  The count maintained only a small personal orchestra and this necessarily limited the scope of what Beethoven could hope to achieve.  (The Op. 60 is scored for the smallest orchestra of any Beethoven symphony.)  It may be then that the composer, forced by necessity to write for a classical size ensemble, returned to the forms of his early period but in a not entirely serious manner.  The playfulness Beethoven evinces, most particularly in the final movement, is perhaps an indication that he can no longer approach the models he had learned from Haydn with the same degree of gravity he expressed in his first two symphonies.

The second and final work was Brahms's Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884).  This is not an easy work to appreciate on first listening.  Even when the composer premiered the work in a piano four-hand version for an audience of critics and prominent musicians it was met with a puzzlement so intense that even his staunchest ally Eduard Hanslick famously expostulated  "For the whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people!"  How much more frustrated then is the general listener.  At least part of the problem, it must be admitted, lies with the modern audience.  As Brahms scholar Walter Frisch has commented:
"...it [the No. 4] is not a work, like the Second, whose sensuous beauty beckons listeners inside. In his last symphony, Brahms seems to be writing precisely for the kind of cultivated, musically literate listener whose disappearance at the end of the nineteenth century he sorely regretted."
Not that there isn't much for the musician to admire in the No. 4.  It was after all on the basis of the "developing variations" in the first movement that Schoenberg came to see Brahms as a progressive rather than a conservative composer.  Nevertheless, for the non-musician the symphony remains a work whose greatest appeal is to the intellect rather than the emotions.  At this performance its meticulously calculated structure stood in stark contrast to the Beethoven symphony whose music seemed to stream forth effortlessly as it caught the listener in its flow.

There were four diffeent conductors at this concert - Elinor Rufeizen, Jesse Brault, Jane H. Kim and Benjamin Hochman - each of whom conducted a different movement in each of the two symphonies.  All four did an excellent job on the podium and the orchestra itself displayed an impressive level of musicianship throughout the performance.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mixed Ensembles

I went to Juilliard on Monday evening to hear a program of chamber music simply entitled "Mixed Ensembles" that had been coached by renowned flutist Carol Wincenc.  The program featured works by a number of 20th and 21st century composers, all of them for flute and various combinations of other instruments with a harp featured prominently among them.

The full program was as follows:


All the works were interesting, but the one I thought most deserving of mention was Sato Matsui's City of Lights that was actually given its world premiere at this recital, not an event one normally encounters at a Juilliard student recital.

There was no intermission at this performance; but while the musicians were setting up for Sextuor Mystique Ms. Wincenc, with composer Sato Matsui at her side, took a moment to address the audience.  After first having mentioned that the Villa-Lobos work was a "mascot piece" performed every year, Ms. Wincenc went on to explain that she had asked Ms. Matsui to compose an original work for the same unusual combination of instruments - celesta, harp, guitar, saxophone, oboe and flute.  Ms. Sato then described the inspiration she had found in big cities such as New York that were filled with sights and sounds and that she accordingly had sought to capture a similar "explosion" of light and sound in her own composition.

The roughly ten-minute work was highly enjoyable and, not suprisingly considering the instrumentation with which Ms. Sato had to work, had a truly unique sound with the saxophone at times imparting to it a definite jazz aura.  Even the celesta, hardly ever given a starring role outside Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," was featured prominently and actually given the cadenza to play.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Carnegie Hall: András Schiff - Recital #2

On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the great pianist András Schiff in recital, the second the pianist gave in New York City in the space of a week.  The eclectic program was built around the works of Brahms but also included so many well known pieces by other composers that the recital became in effect a retrospective of piano works from the Baroque through the Romantic era.

The program opened with Schumann's Theme and Variations in E-flat major, WoO 24 (1854), more commonly known as the Geistervariationen, or "Ghost Variations."  Schumann was, of course, one of the greatest composer of solo piano works, most particularly in the early part of his career when he was courting Clara, herself a virtuoso pianist.  He returned to the genre in the early 1850's; but it is his penultimate attempt, that played here, that has always attracted the most attention since its composition was inextricably linked with the onset of Schumann's psychosis.  Hearing it performed in recital is always an eerie experience.  While the theme is farily generic - in his rapidly deteriorating mental state Schumann thought it had been dictated to him by angels, although it was actually one of his own invention that he had previously employed in his 1842 F major string quartet, Op. 41, No. 2, in his 1849 Liederalbum für die Jugend, Op.79, and finally in his D minor Violin Concerto completed only the year before in 1853 - the variations are notable precisely for their lack of variation.  The first three, in fact, make no modifications whatsoever to the theme.

A curious aside is that Brahms, who only came to know the Schumann's immediately before the onset of Robert's psychosis, years later came to use Robert's theme in his own Variations on a Theme of Schumann in E flat major, Op. 23.  The four-hand piano piece was dedicated to Schumann's daughter Julie, and one wonders what the young woman must have thought upon receiving so macabre a gift.

Appropriately enough, the next work was the first of Brahms's three final pieces for piano - Three Intermezzos, Op. 117 (1892), Klavierstücke, Op. 118 (1893), and Klavierstücke, Op. 119 (1893) - that were interspersed with the works of other composers throughout the length of the program.  All three collections date from the end of Brahms's career.

In the Op. 117 Brahms continued his late exploration of piano miniatures he had previously begun in his Op. 116.  By this time he had more or less retired from composing, or so at least he had insisted in an 1890 message to his publisher.  He found himself unable, however, to refrain entirely from creating new pieces while seated at his piano no matter how brief and ethereal they might be.  The urge to create must simply have been too strong for him to resist.  The Op. 117 consists of only three pieces that have been compared to lullabies, and the first in fact makes reference to the Scottish lullaby "Lady Anne Bothwell's Lament."

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

The Op. 119, made up of three intermezzi (a somewhat generic term when used by Brahms) followed by a rhapsody, was the composer's penultimate work for solo piano. Like those comprising the Op. 118, these short pieces are filled with the melancholy of a man approaching his life's end.  All three collections were published in 1893, only four years before his death at age 65.  But the composer did not here indulge in any nostalgic return to old forms but instead moved forward into an exploration of dissonance.  As he wrote to Clara:
"Every bar and every note must be played as if ritardando were indicated, and one wished to draw the melancholy out of each one of them, and voluptuous joy and comfort out of the discords."
Among the great composers, Mozart was represented at this recital by the Rondo in A Minor, K. 511 (1787).  This short piece, only about ten minutes in length, was one of the finest Mozart ever composed for solo piano.  Like most of his works in a minor key, the rondo is a dark work; but whether it is meant to be tragic or merely pensive (as Vladimir Horowitz once suggested) is open to interpretation.  Certainly, if it is an expression of grief it is handled in a thoroughly restrained, almost stately, manner.

Mr. Schiff is justly famous for his mastery of Bach's keyboard pieces, and the recital would not have been complete without the inclusion of one of the composer's signature pieces - the Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I.  The WTC, whose confusing title has to do with a particular method of tuning keyboards, was written in two parts, the first in 1722 and the second in 1742.  Both were used primarily for pedagogical purposes while at the same time serving as a vehicle intended to showcase the composer's mastery of counterpoint.  In a certain sense, both parts, known as Books I and II, overlapped one another as each presented exercises for all 24 major and minor keys.  In fact, some of the those that appeared in Book I were used again in Book II but transcribed for different keys than in the original.  Chopin later adapted Bach's idea in the composition of his Preludes, Op. 28 which were again written for all the major and minor keys.  While Bach intended the work for the use of his students, and indeed required them to write out all the preludes and fugues in their own hand, each is technically challenging and can only be attempted by an exceptionally skilled pianist.

The recital concluded with with Beethoven's Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major,Op. 81a (1809-1810).  The work's French nickname Les Adieux was given it at the publisher's insistence; but the German Das Lebewohl is what Beethoven himself wrote over the score's first three chords and insisted came closer to the meaning of farewell he had had in mind when writing the piece.  It's not really surprising that the composer, at least at the time, wanted nothing to do with anything French as the piece was begun in May 1809 in anticipation of Napoleon's siege of Vienna.  In fact, the work was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph who was forced to flee with the rest of the Austrian nobility as the French forces approached the city.  It was only on Rudolph's return in January 1810 that the composer completed the final two movements, ending with the joyous Das Wiedersehen ("Reunion").  The sonata thus became one of the few instrumental works by Beethoven to have an extra-musical program attached to it.  Rarely did he display his emotions as openly as he did here.  Along with the earlier Op. 53 and Op. 57, this is considered one of the three major piano sonatas of Beethoven's middle period.

One interesting feature of this recital was that Mr. Schiff performed the entire first half with only the briefest of pauses between pieces. He blended them so seamlessly together that they sounded to the listener like a single magnificent work.  The effect on the audience was mesmerizing.  In the second half, Mr. Schiff again performed the first two works with no substantial pause between them and only stood up for a brief bow before immediately commencing the final work, the Beethoven sonata.

The two recitals taken together constituted a wonderful display of virtuosity.  At the end of the second I felt I had a much greater appreciation of all the works performed but most especially the Brahms miniatures.  Hearing all the late Brahms piano pieces played in sequence allowed me to better follow his creative process.