Thursday, February 27, 2014

Juilliard Chamber Music: Bartók and Dvořák

Yesterday afternoon's one-hour recital, part of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series, featured works by Béla Bartók and Antonin Dvořák.

The first work was Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Sz. 40, Op. 7 (1909).  This was a fairly youthful work inspired by the composer's unrequited love for violinist Stefi Geyer.  It contains similarities to the Violin Concerto No. 1, which he wrote for the same woman and then long suppressed, and begins with a slow mournful movement Bartók described to his beloved as a "funeral dirge."  The later movements are more lively and were characterized by Zoltán Kodály as Bartók's "return to life" as he recovered from his heartbreak.  The quartet is also notable for the contrapuntal writing and for the references to Hungarian folk music in the final movement.

What struck me most about this performance, which had been coached by Sylvia Rosenberg, was the restraint which the students displayed through almost the entire length of the work, almost as though it were a refined drawing room piece.  It was only in the final movement that there was some attempt at animation as the musician's encountered the folk elements contained within it.  This careful approach was very much in contrast with other renditions I have heard, most recently a live broadcast from Carnegie Hall by the Takács Quartet, that showed a great deal more vigor and liveliness in keeping with the spirit of Bartók's music. 

The second piece was Dvořák's Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90 (1891), nicknamed the Dumky.  This was the second time I attended a performance of this work recently, and again there was evident a strong difference in approach.  The first occasion on which I heard the piece was at Juilliard's Chamberfest last month.  That performance featured three pre-college musicians, most notable of whom was pianist Adria Ye, and had been coached by Adria's teacher, Yoheved Kaplinsky, Juilliard's Piano Chair.  There was, not surprisingly, a great deal of emphasis placed on the piano part.  In contrast, yesterday's performance was coached by two renowned string players, cellist David Finckel and violinist Ida Kavafian.  Accordingly, there was a very noticeable shift in the configuration and the emphasis placed on the various parts.  At times, the piano (Alan Woo) seemed to be used primarily as accompaniment to the violin (Fabiola Kim) and cello (Jeonghyoun Lee).  In fact, the piano was physically placed directly behind the strings so that no eye contact was possible among the musicians.  I found it fascinating to compare the two interpretations.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Alice Tully: Juilliard Quartet Performs Bach, Berg and Beethoven

Yesterday evening at Alice Tully Hall, the Juilliard Quartet gave a performance as part of the Saidenberg Faculty Recital Series that went from Baroque (J.S. Bach) to twentieth century (Berg) back to classical (Beethoven).

The program opened with Contrapuncti I - IV from Bach's Die Kunst der Fugue, BWV 1080 (1746).  More than ten years ago, I heard the Juilliard Quartet, then with a different membership, perform this same Bach work in its entirety; and I immediately went out and purchased their recording of it.  I felt that their interpretation for string quartet (Bach himself did not provide any instrumentation for the work) was as close to definitive as it was possible to come.  The performance I heard yesterday evening did nothing to diminish that view.  Though the first four contrapuncti are the "simplest" (since the movements progress in an ascending order of difficulty), this was one of the chamber repertoire's greatest works performed as close to perfection as it is possible to come.

The next piece was Berg's  Lyric Suite (1926).  Although the abstract theoretical nature of the twelve-tone system might lead one to believe that its adherents were a group of dry academics, nothing could be further from the truth.  The private lives of these composers sometimes resembled a soap opera in their romantic entanglements.  In this case, though Berg nominally dedicated his Suite to Alexander von Zemlinsky from whose Lyric Symphony he took the title of his own piece, the work actually had a secret program and dedication to the married Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, sister of Franz Werfel, at whose home in Prague Berg had been a guest.  In the annotated score which Berg presented to Hanna, he wrote:
"It has also, my Hanna, allowed me other freedoms! For example, that of secretly inserting our initials, HF and AB, into the music, and relating every movement and every section of every movement to our numbers, 10 and 23. I have written these, and much that has other meanings, into the score for you. ... May it be a small monument to a great love."
After intermission, the program closed with Beethoven's String Quartet in C, Op. 59, No. 3 (1807).  It was extremely interesting to have heard this work after having so recently attended a performance of the composer's Third Symphony given by the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.  Both works were written early in Beethoven's Middle Period and both are nicknamed the Eroica.  More importantly, both represent breakthroughs in their respective genres as well as in Beethoven's style of composition.  Just as the Third Symphony was utterly unlike any that had come before it, so the Razumovsky quartets transcend in their complexity all earlier string quartets, including those written by the composer himself.  One online article goes even further in suggesting that the three quartets taken together should not necessarily even be considered individual pieces:
"Many have suggested that Beethoven conceived of the three separate Razumovsky quartets as a unified whole...  A performance of the complete set in a single concert gives this very impression. With the proper preparation for its context within this larger setting, the third quartet acquires a further triumphal radiance. The distinguished scholar Leonard Ratner suggests that all of Beethoven’s quartets may even form a kind of mega-work, a single great narrative that stands apart from all other music in history."
While it is difficult to conceive that any composer, even one of Beethoven's genius, should have been capable of such an accomplishment, it is still a fascinating thought.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Philadelphia Orchestra Performs Strauss, Shostakovich and Beethoven

The Friday evening program at Carnegie Hall opened with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in an excellent rendition of Metamorphosen (1945) by Richard Strauss.  It was fascinating to compare this late work with the tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, written a half century before, that I had just heard performed the evening before by the Mannes Orchestra at Alice Tully.  In contrast to proud self-assurance of the earlier piece, Metamorphosen is a reflective and low key work in which Strauss mourns the loss of the entire German civilization whose foremost representative he had once been.  A dense textured piece for strings, it conveys perfectly the ineffable sadness the aged composer experienced while witnessing the destruction of all he had once loved and while foreseeing all too clearly his approaching death.  As the program notes:
"The Munich house in which Strauss was born, the opera theaters in which he first encountered the masterpieces of German art and in which his own operas premiered, were damaged or obliterated.  'My life's work is in ruins,' he stated.  Nostalgia reigns in much of Strauss's late music, and in Metamorphosen the mood is even more elegiac and tragic.  He confronts ends: of the war, his own life, and also of an entire era of music."
Following the Strauss came the Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, Op. 107 (1959) by Dmitri Shostakovich.  It was fitting that the work of these two composers should be juxtaposed.  Just as Strauss had been the premiere German composer of his time, so Shostakovich was the best known representative of twentieth century Russian music.  In his own life too he had experienced incredible distress and hardship while enduring persecution by the Stalinist regime.  Written for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, this is one of Shostakovich's most important works.  Although entirely original, it is filled with the spirit of Russian music.  The difficult piece was brilliantly performed at this concert by soloist Johannes Moser, a last minute replacement for Truls Mørk who was forced to withdraw after a skiing accident.

After intermission, the concert concluded with Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55, the Eroica (1803).  This is, of course, one of the best known symphonic works in the repertoire and long familiarity has obscured the turmoil that this composer too experienced while writing it.  Disillusioned with Napoleon and facing impending deafness, Beethoven overcame these obstacles to create a revolutionary work that completely redefined the symphonic form.  Even now, this epic piece is startling in its originality when compared to the works of MozartHaydn and Beethoven himself that had preceded it.

All in all, this was a fabulous program performed by one of the country's best orchestras.  Nézet-Séguin proved himself a remarkable conductor as he displayed complete mastery of the radically different styles employed by each composer.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Alice Tully: Mannes Orchestra Performs Glass, Ran and Strauss

Yesterday evening, the Mannes Orchestra traveled to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center to give an eclectic performance of works by Philip Glass, Shulamit Ran and Richard Strauss.

The program began with Glass' Interludes 1 & 2 from The CIVIL WarS (1984), an excerpt from the "Rome" section of the lengthy opera conceived by Robert Wilson. Originally commissioned for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, it was intended to include the music of a number of composers.  Due to funding difficulties and missed deadlines, the opera was never completed as envisioned and has never been performed in its entirety.  The Interludes were about ten minutes in length and had a fairly traditional sound.  They are described on Philip Glass' website as follows:
"Part of Robert Wilson's multi-composer epic for the Olympic Games of 1984, the Rome Section of "the CIVIL warS" is a unit all its own, non-narrative, and portrays the future, the present, the past (both near and distant), and the legendary - all existing simultaneously. The opera is symbolic, metephysical [sic], realistic, metaphomical, and its stage ranges from ancient Athens to the spaceship-filled future of the human race."
The next piece was Ran's Violin Concerto (2003) featuring soloist Laurie Smukler, a member of the Mannes faculty.  The choice of music by Israeli-born Shulamit Ran was particularly appropriate for this concert as she is herself a graduate of Mannes.  Though its sound was often vigorous, almost strident, at the core of this concerto was a heartfelt elegy for the composer's mother to whom she was obviously deeply attached.  The program quoted Ms. Ran as follows:
"Though generally sparser and more intimate than the other two movements, it is the slow last movement, I believe, that functions as the work's emotional center.  From its meditative, prayerful opening solo, through a gradual instrumental build-up leading to a more intense cadenza and a final 'resolution,' it is a 'farewell' movement dealing with the inevitability of loss."
The evening ended with a performance of Strauss' most famous tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra  (1896).  I have to admit I've never cared all that much for Strauss' tone poems.  To me, they've always sounded self-indulgent and even slightly bombastic.  It was the later Strauss, the composer who wrote amid the ruins of a Germany almost obliterated by the World War II bombings, who has always most fascinated me.  In any event, hearing this particular piece has never failed to bring up associations with the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, a film I had seen long before I was familiar with any of Strauss' work.  

Though I thought the opening of the Strauss a bit uneven, the orchestra played extremely well under the direction of David Hayes.  It was obvious the students were striving their utmost to give the audience a great performance.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Juilliard Chamber Music: Haydn and Beethoven

Despite the rain, a large crowd  was in attendance yesterday afternoon at Alice Tully to hear a one-hour program of piano trios composed by Haydn and Beethoven.  Part of Juilliard's Wednesday at One series, the recital featured three Artist Diploma Performers - Elizabeth Fayette (violin), Jiyoung Lee (cello) and Andrew Tyson (piano) - who together gave an outstanding performance.

The program began with Haydn's Piano Trio in C, Hob. XV/27 (1797).  Although Haydn is often referred to as the "godfather" of both the classical symphony and string quartet, this prolific composer also produced an astonishing number (45!!) of piano trios whose innovative style bridged the gap between the Baroque sonata with continuo and the modern piano trio as written by Mozart and Beethoven.  This particular trio (#43) was one of Haydn's last and composed during his stay in London.  Dedicated to the accomplished pianist Theresa Bartolozzi, the piece contains a very demanding piano part but also gives the violin and cello more fully realized parts than are typical of the "accompanied sonata."  The work is in many ways the culmination of Hadyn's development of the genre and is a cheerful bright work that is thoroughly enjoyable to hear.

The second piece on the program was Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat, Op. 97 (1811), nicknamed the "Archduke" for its dedication to Archduke Rudolph of Austria.  Considered by the composer to be among his finest works, the work has always been his best known piano trio and one of his most popular chamber pieces.  It was also the final trio Beethoven wrote and the last, due to his increasing deafness, on which he performed as pianist.  The Wikipedia article quotes violinist Louis Spohr:
"In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted."
The work is also notable, when compared to the "accompanied sonatas" written by earlier composers, for raising the violin and cello parts to the same level of importance as that given the piano.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Carnegie Hall: St. Petersburg Orchestra Performs Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff

Saturday evening's concert at Stern Auditorium featured a program of all Russian music by Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff as performed, appropriately enough, by the St. Petersburg Orchestra under the direction of Yuri Temirkanov.

The evening began with Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 (1935) with Julia Fischer as soloist.  Written for Robert Soetens, the style of the work is neoclassical in the Stravinsky manner.  Its "international" character, including the use of castanets and Spanish accents for its Madrid premiere, is often commented on and was addressed by the composer himself:
"The variety of places in which [Violin Concerto No.2] was written is a reflection of the nomadic concert-tour existence I led at that time: The principal theme of the first movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the orchestration I completed in Baku, while the first performance was given in Madrid in December 1935."
In any event, I found the piece extremely spare and austere and not in the style usually associated with Prokofiev.  To my mind, only the ending showed any real passion.  Here the soloist played wildly in 5/4 time in a coda whose ending was marked tumultuoso.  As if to make up for the restraint displayed through most of the concerto, Ms. Fischer later played as an encore the final movement of Hindemith's Solo Violin Sonata in G minor, Op. 11, No. 6, a fiery piece and one filled with sufficient flourishes to provide the violinist an opportunity to display her virtuosity.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of the complete version of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1907).  This is a lush romantic piece that sounds to me totally different in structure from every other symphony in the repertoire and at times seems more to resemble a film score as its music swirls about the audience.  As the program notes:
"... the Second Symphony is an expansive summation of Rachmaninoff's early style.  The second subject of the finale and the main theme of the slow movement are two of the most extended tunes he ever wrote, and the soulful opening movement is a continual stream of brooding melody."
The work is also famous for being Rachmaninoff's second attempt at symphonic writing after the disastrous reception of his First Symphony in 1895.  Although he had by then composed his Second Piano Concerto, following a long period of psychoanalysis and hypnosis, Rachmaninoff still needed seclusion in which to work out his ideas and so resigned as conductor of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and moved with his family to Dresden.  The Symphony No. 2 proved a great success and still remains one of the composer's most popular works.  It was through this symphony that I first came to hear and appreciate Rachmaninoff's music and eventually to realize that he was indeed one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Impressionist Camera

Impressionist Camera: Pictorial Photography in Europe, 1888 - 1918 was published to coincide with an exhibit of the same name at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2006.  The exhibit had traveled to that institution after first having appeared at  the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes in 2005.

The history of pictorialism has always been inextricably linked to that of the Photo Secession and its founder Alfred Stieglitz.  This may have partly been due not only to Stieglitz' preeminence but also to the influence of the organization's publication Camera Work which offered to its readers superb reproductions by a number of important pictorialist photographers, including Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, Frank Eugene and Clarence White.  In the magazine's very first issue, Stieglitz declared his commitment to the pictorialist cause:
"Only examples of such works as gives evidence of individuality and artistic worth, regardless of school, or contains some exceptional feature of technical merit, or such as exemplifies some treatment worthy of consideration, will find recognition in these pages. Nevertheless, the Pictorial will be the dominating feature of the magazine."
What is often overlooked in all this is that the pictorialism actually originated in Europe (in 1869 when its principles were first promulgated by Henry Peach Robinson) and that some of the best examples were by European photographers.  Impressionist Camera is one of the few histories that detail the development of pictorialism as an art movement in Europe and trace its progress from one country to the next.  Not surprisingly, the two countries which contributed most were England, where the Linked Ring flourished and established strong ties with the Photo Secession, and France, home to the great Robert Demachy who wrote passionately on photography as art while at the same time producing a series of stunning gum bichromate prints.  Nevertheless, there were clubs and photographers working in many other countries who created magnificent bodies of work.  The interaction among them was one of the factors that the gave the movement its vitality.

Today, pictorialism is considered pretty much a dead issue.  If its purpose was to convince the public that photography should be considered a legitimate art form, the argument runs, that has long ago been accomplished and there is no longer any need to manipulate photos in order to achieve such an end.  This, at least, has been the prevalent school of thought since the ascension of straight photography and the Group f64 school in the early 1930's.  Such an argument, however, fails to take into account photographers' continued interest in alternative processes such as gum bichromate, bromoil, and platinum printing.  It should also be noted that the fifth highest price ever paid for a photographic print was $2,928,000 at a 2006 auction at Sotheby's for Steichen's pictorialist masterwork The Pond - Moonlight (1904).  This fact alone should be sufficient to validate the pictorialist aesthetic.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Juilliard415 at Holy Trinity: Lawes, Handel, Locke and Holborne

I had always wondered about the name Juilliard415, the appellation of the school's Baroque student ensemble.  Reading yesterday's program, I discovered that it is actually taken from the pitch (A = 415) most commonly used in the performance of Baroque music.  The group is extremely accomplished and has a long list of credits, including performances with such early music luminaries as Ton Koopman, Harry Bicket and Christopher Hogwood.  Its one-hour recital yesterday afternoon was devoted to English music from the very end of the sixteenth century to the early decades of the eighteenth century.

The first piece on the program was the Consort Sett a 5 No. 3 in C minor (c. 1635) by William Lawes who is best remembered today for his death in the service of Charles I at the Battle of Rowton Heath in 1645.  The suite consisted of four movements - a Fantazya, a Paven and two Aires.  The Paven quotes the somewhat maudlin song Flow My Tears by John Dowland.  The suite was arranged for organ, two violins and three violas da gamba.

Lawes' work was not the only piece of consort music to be performed.  As the program notes:
"Consort music was a popular genre in England since the 16th century.  With the rise of instrumental music during the Renaissance, instruments were often built in sets of instrumental families, consisting of four to seven instruments.  With such consorts, it was possible to achieve a homogeneous sound, ranging from soprano to bass."
The other piece of consort music was the Sonata no. 5 in E minor from The Little Consort of Three Parts (1656) by Matthew Locke written for two violins, cello and theorbo.  Like Lawes, Locke was a composer in the service of an English king, here Charles II, and also composed operas and music for masques, including Cupid and Death (1653) by James Shirley.  Like the other nine suites in The Little Consort, this sonata consisted of four movements - Pavan, Ayre, Corant and Saraband - that proceed from the slowest to the most lively.

The program contained two sonatas from Handel's Op. 2 (1732).  These were the Trio Sonata No. 5 in G minor and the Trio Sonata No. 4 in F.  The No. 5 was arranged for oboe, violin, bassoon and harpsichord and consisted of four movements (larghetto, allegro, adagio and allegro) while the No. 4 replaced the oboe with a flute and had only two movements (larghetto and allegro).  Late last month, I saw a performance of another Op. 2 work, the Trio Sonata No. 3 in B flat, by the Juilliard Baroque and it was interesting to compare that with those played yesterday by the 415 ensemble.  

The final piece on the program was A suite of dances (1599) by Antony Holborne, here arranged for two violins, two violas, cello and harpsichord.  What was most intriguing about this work were the evocative names the Elizabethan composer assigned to the various dances, such as Honiesuckle, Muy Linda and The Night Watch.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Carnegie Hall: The English Concert Performs Handel's Theodora

Yesterday afternoon, Stern Auditorium was less than half full as a handful of Baroque music lovers skipped the Superbowl parties to instead spend four hours attending one of Handel's lesser known oratorios as it was played on period instruments.

That Theodora is not as famous as Messiah is in no way a fault of the music - this work contains some of Handel's best work.  It was written when he was 64 and had reached the height of his powers.  Its initial lack of success is rather a reflection on eighteenth century English audiences' antipathy toward anything that might be considered "papish," including tales of early Christian martyrs.

The oratorio, composed in three acts, is the story of the chaste virgin Theodora of Alexandria, here transposed to Antioch, who is condemned by the authorities to become a prostitute in the Temple of Venus as a penalty for having refused to make sacrifice to the ancient Roman gods.  Her savior is the centurion Didymus who eventually is beheaded with her as punishment for having helped her escape.  Though the story is largely apocryphal, those who have read Durrell's Alexandria Quartet will find a certain resonance in a story of religious prostitution set in that city.  An interesting aside is that the oratorio's libretto was based on a 1687 novel by the Irishman Robert Boyle who was much better known as a physicist ("Boyle's law") and chemist than as a religious writer. 

Handel himself was bitter at the reception given this work.  (It closed after only four performances.)  He often declared that this was his favorite oratorio and, when asked if he saw the Hallelujah chorus in the Messiah as his masterpiece, stated flatly: "No, I think that the chorus as the end of the second part in Theodora is far beyond it."  This stunningly complex chorus, entitled "He saw the lovely youth," is in fact one of the high points of the entire Baroque repertoire.  It is described in the program notes as follows:
"In the same dark F-minor key as the duet [between Theodora and Didymus], the first part opens with a halting, dirge-like orchestral ritornello; the choral voices enter one by one with grieving descending phrases.  The miracle is described with accelerating ascending scales, the various choral entrances sounding like a crowd murmuring in astonishment at what they're witnessing.  The final, lavishly contrapuntal section begins with the altos in their deepest, most womanly tones proclaiming 'Lowly the matron bow'd,' and concludes joyously and resplendently in B-flat major."
The English Concert was conducted by Harry Bicket, who also played harpsichord, and starred soprano Dorothea Röschmann as Theodora and countertenor David Daniels, winner of the 1997 Richard Tucker Award, as Didymus.  The chorus was provided by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street.  Everyone involved displayed the greatest devotion to the Baroque spirit as they zealously performed this overlooked masterwork. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Juilliard Focus 2014: Gubaidulina, Kancheli and Schnittke

Yesterday evening marked the final performance in Juilliard's Focus 2014 celebration of the music of Schnittke and his circle.  This has been a wonderful series that has provided a rare opportunity to hear together a number of works, many of them seldom performed, by a group of composers from the former USSR who have had a tremendous influence on late twentieth century music.

The first part of the program began with the orchestra performing a work by Sofia Gubaidulina entitled Fairy Tale Poem (1971) that could perhaps best be considered a brief tone poem.  This was its New York premiere.  It was appealingly light and melodic and easily the most enjoyable piece I've heard to date by this composer.  It is ironic that she herself does not hold the it in high regard.  As the program notes:
"Gubaidulina's publisher, Sikorski, says that although the piece has been performed frequently with the greatest success, she cannot imagine why, since she considers it a work of her youth, written before her own voice emerged."
The next piece was And farewell goes out sighing... (1999) by Giya Kancheli.  It's easy to see why this Georgian composer has attained such success.  His style is neo-romantic, even down to the choice of Shakespearean title and text, blended with plentiful references to liturgical music.  Taken together they create in the mind of the listener an impression of the mystical and spiritual.  This performance featured well executed solos by violinist Ken Hamao and countertenor John Holiday, both of whom were enthusiastically applauded by the audience at the work's end.

The program, and the series, concluded after intermission with the US premiere of Schnittke's Symphony No. 8 (1993).  This was another late work written after the composer had already suffered a series of debilitating strokes that were to finally end his life in 1998.  It is most notable for the fragmentation of the orchestra into smaller ensembles, each of which take turns playing passages from the various movements.  According to the program:
"The entire orchestra is almost never used together until the coda.  Schnittke certainly did not invent the idea of employing the orchestra largely as a collection of chamber ensembles; Mahler, whom he deeply admired, is famous for it."
I thought the symphony displayed an austere beauty despite its brooding and bleak atmosphere.  It presented a stark contrast to the lighter and more accessible music played in the first half of the program.

The talented orchestra at this performance was exceptionally well conducted by Anne Manson.  She showed complete control throughout the evening and elicited from the music every drop of feeling the composers had put into it.  For that matter, the entire series was well produced and displayed at each concert I attended the highest level of professionalism.