Friday, May 30, 2014

Paul Hall: ACJW Ensemble Performs Bartók, Hindemith and Brahms

On Wednesday evening the ACJW Ensemble gave its last performance of the season at Juilliard, and a listener could not have asked for a more interesting program than one which featured well known works by Bartók, Hindemith and Brahms.

The first piece was Bartók's String Quartet No. 2, Sz. 67 (1915-1917) composed eight years after the Quartet No. 1 (1909).  Bartók spent the interval between the two pieces recording ethnic folk songs on location throughout Europe and North Africa.  This self imposed task included a brief visit to Algeria in 1913 where the composer was exposed to the Arab music whose influence can be heard in the quartet itself.  It is ironic that a work that sounds so "modern" to today's audiences should be based on folk traditions that extend back through several centuries.  The quartet's final movement is a desolate lento, characterized by Kodály as "suffering," that hearkens back not only to the opening movement of the Quartet No. 1 but also to the work of Strauss and the Romantics whose influence over him Bartók was on the verge of leaving behind as he progressed toward his more mature compositions.  The movement can also be seen as a meditation on the horror of the world war then raging about the composer and curtailing his ethnographic travels.

Next was Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1, Op. 24 (1922) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, accordion, piano, string quintet and percussion.  (The accordion part was originally written for harmonium but was changed at a later date by Hindemith when the particular harmonium he had in mind became unavailable.)  This was an extremely enjoyable piece of the sort one likes to imagine might have once been heard during the 1920's at a seedy Berlin dance hall.  The sometimes raucous music contained a  melange of styles, from jazz to foxtrot, whose incongruity with one another was made all the more striking by the idiosyncratic choice of instruments on which they were played.  According to the program notes, Hindemith, perhaps with tongue in cheek, wrote in 1938:
"One wonders why people made such a fuss about this piece at the time.  It is not at all badly written, and there is nothing, apart from a few harmonic and melodic teething troubles, to upset innocent souls."
It is easy to understand why Hindemith's works might have caused some discomfort among the Nazi hierarchy who eventually labeled them "degenerate" and forced the composer to flee to Switzerland.  The fact that Hindemith's wife had Jewish ancestry probably did not help matters.

Following the intermission, the Ensemble closed the program with Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 (1891).  This is a late work and among several chamber pieces that Brahms wrote for clarinet after he had already announced his retirement as a composer.  It was in fact the playing of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld that inspired Brahms to once again begin writing chamber music.  Although the quintet has often been referred to as "autumnal" - and it certainly does sustain a mellow mood throughout its length - I do not myself hear in it any sort of valediction.  It seems instead a major work by a composer then at the height of his powers.

The musicians of the ACJW will soon be graduating from the two-year program and moving on to their individual careers.  Having attended their recitals at both Paul Hall and Weill Recital Hall, I've seen more performances by them than by any other group this season.  I've been consistently impressed by their high level of their musicianship and would rank their virtuosity alongside that of much more established chamber ensembles.  They deserve every success, and I hope to see more of them in coming seasons.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Japan Society: Points of Departure

The exhibit currently on view at Japan Society, Points of Departure: Treasures of Japan from the Brooklyn Museum, was enabled by the temporary closure of the Brooklyn Museum's galleries for renovation.  This made possible a loan of choice artifacts from the Museum's permanent collection for display in a carefully designed setting at the Society's Gallery.

The exhibit was not at all what I had expected and quite different from other exhibits of Japanese art I have encountered over the years.  Perhaps this was partly because so small a number of items were chosen to document so vast a cultural history.  The folding screens and ukiyo-e one customarily associates with Japan were here, of course, but so were artworks whose presence I found surprising.

The exhibit began with a selection of ceramics and everyday items from the earliest periods of Japanese history.  These included ceremonial bells meant to be buried in the fields at planting time, polished hand mirrors, sword hilts and early examples of glazed pottery whose technique had been imported from China.  Also shown were two earthenware pottery Haniwa pieces from the Kofun period - a horse's head and a figure of a shamaness.  It was the very primitiveness of these two pieces that made them so impressive.

There was also from the Muromachi period a homely Negoro wine ewer whose beauty lay in the manner in which the red lacquer coating it had rubbed off in an irregular pattern through repeated daily use.  The owner's ability to appreciate its worn appearance derived from an understanding the aesthetic principles of wabi and sabi that are so fundamental to Japanese culture.

Immediately following these were a number of examples of contemporary ceramics created by still living artists.  Among these were Kishi Eiko's Recollected Vista (2012), a geometrically shaped stonework in which had been implanted thousands of tiny tiles to form a mosaic effect, and Fukami Sueharu's Infinity II (1994), a glazed porcelain whose futuristic shape was reminiscent of a Brâncuși sculpture.

In the next room were several religious sculptures, including two cypress wood lion guardians (Koma-Inu) from the Kamakura period, two small Bodhisattvas (whose hand gestures, or mudra, were unfortunately not explained to viewers) and a large image of a seated Buddha from the Heian period.  A crystal had been implanted in the Buddha's forehead in place of the usual caste marking as though to indicate the Buddha had transcended all worldly rankings.

Following this, one entered a room dominated by two large folding screens, both of them anonymous works from the Edo period.  The first of these, Cherry Blossom Viewing Picnic, is one half of a set (the other half is in a private collection in Japan) and depicts a woman surrounded by ladies-in-waiting and escorted by samurai, none of whom appear particularly warlike, as she walks among the sakura.  The second, Views in and Around Kyoto, is an enormous work that shows everyday life in that city.  Many of the most famous festivals and shrines are carefully depicted.  So great is the detail that one could spend hours searching through it from one scene to the next.

Finally came the ukiyo-e, though there were not as many examples as I had expected and all were familiar works by well known artists.  These included Andō Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai and Tōshūsai Sharaku.  Hiroshige was represented by several prints from the series Three Views of Japan (c. 1855) while those by Hokusai included two prints done almost entirely in shades of blue from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1826-1833).  Another lesser known print by Hokusai was the Announcement of a Farewell Performance of Bando Mitsugoro III (1820), a simple depiction of the seven changes of outfit this actor would use in his valedictory appearance onstage.  The most striking print on view was Sharaku's portrait from 1794 of the famous female impersonator Segawa Kikunojō III in costume and makeup.  It succeeds very well in depicting how completely the actor was able to assume his role as a woman and is one of the artist's best known Kabuki portraits.

The most exciting part of the exhibit came at the very end in a collection of Ainu craft works.  Their presence at this exhibit was a something of a surprise since the primitive Ainu were not recognized as being Japanese by Wajin until the Meiji period even though they had inhabited the northern island of Hokkaido since time immemorial.  The inclusion of these works in the Brooklyn Museum collection was due to the efforts of ethnographer Stewart Culin who represented the Museum on field trips to Japan in the early 1900's.  (During these trips Culin also amassed a large personal collection, later acquired by the Museum, portions of which were shown in a small room at this exhibit.)  The Ainu crafts were highly sophisticated works whose style immediately reminded this viewer of similar pieces created by Native Americans in the U.S. Southwest.  Among other items, there were two gorgeous long robes, carved wooden prayer sticks and beaded necklaces.  What made these beautiful pieces so striking was the contrast they presented to traditional Japanese art tradition, a contrast that unwittingly emphasized the isolation this indigenous race had endured for so long a time.

All things considered, this is an exhibit well worth seeing for its unique viewpoint on Japanese art.  It has been thoughtfully organized and, though the selection is small, the priceless pieces on display do enable a better understanding of one of the world's greatest cultures.

The exhibit continues through June 8, 2014.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Good Shepherd Church: Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players Perform Reicha, Chausson and Franck

Back in 1986, when I was first developing an interest in classical music, I saw the Jupiter Symphony perform at Town Hall under the baton of the late Jens Nygaard.  Though I don't remember much about the performance after all this time, I still have a fond recollection of Mr. Nygaard's enthusiasm as he addressed the audience.  Afterwards I lost track of the orchestra and assumed that it had long ago disbanded.  It was not until I spoke with a Mannes violin student during intermission at a recent concert at Carnegie Hall that I learned members of the orchestra had continued as a chamber ensemble in tribute to their departed and much loved conductor.  On Monday afternoon I attended a matinee at Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street where these talented musicians performed several little known works from the chamber repertoire.

The program began with the Octet in E flat, Op. 96 (1817) by the obscure Bohemian composer Anton Reicha.  This was the first time I'd heard any of Reicha's music, and what little I know about his life and work I discovered on Wikipedia.  If he is remembered at all today it is primarily as a lifelong friend of Beethoven and later as an instructor at the Conservatoire de Paris where he taught Liszt, Berlioz and Gounod.  That he is so overlooked today is mostly Reicha's own doing.  He steadfastly refused to allow his works to be published and would not perform them himself.  He wrote:
"Many of my works have never been heard because of my aversion to seeking performances [...] I counted the time spent in such efforts as lost, and preferred to remain at my desk."
What's really fascinating about this composer is the extent to which he carried his musical experimentation and in so doing anticipated a number of techniques fundamental to modern twentieth century music.  In his 1803 treatise Practische Beispiele, for example, he was already exploring the principles of bitonality and polyrhythm.  Even so, the Octet is not a particularly distinguished piece of music, at least not to my ears.  For one thing, though the instrumentation is evenly divided between strings and winds, the strings are almost inaudible in many sections of the work while the winds dominate the sound.

The next piece was the Chanson perpétuelle, Op. 37 (1898) a plaintive song written by Ernest Chausson based on a poem by Charles Cros.  Although best known in its orchestral version, the composer also completed the present arrangement for soprano, piano and string quartet.  This was Chausson's last finished work before he died, at only age 44, as the result a bicycle accident the following year and is representative of his mature period after he had broken from the influence of Massenet and Wagner.  In the song, sung in twelve stanzas, the narrator laments the loss of her lover as she makes plans to kill herself by drowning.  It is a very lyrical work and was sung movingly here by soprano Gina Cuffari who is also well known as a bassoonist affiliated with a number of major ensembles in the New York area.

After intermission, the program concluded with the Piano Quintet in F minor (1878) by César Franck.  This almost impressionistic work is extremely personal and indeed can be viewed as a confession of the composer's romantic infatuation with one of his students.  Perhaps for this reason the work was intensely disliked not only by Franck's wife but also by its dedicatee Saint-Saëns who played the work at its premiere in 1880 but who was so infuriated by the music that he refused not only the dedication but also the composer's offer of the manuscript at the end of his performance.  

I was very impressed by the high quality of the musicianship shown by the Jupiter Chamber Players.  It made it readily apparent why this ensemble attracts such a loyal and enthusiastic audience as that which thronged Monday's matinee and gave a standing ovation at its end.  The group will be giving three more recitals on Monday evenings in June and July at another West Side church and I definitely plan to attend.  They are well worth hearing.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Bavarian Radio Symphony Performs Adams, Strauss and Berlioz

Yesterday evening, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra gave the first of three concerts at Carnegie Hall under the baton of Mariss Jansons who became its music director in 2003 and whose contract has been extended through 2018.  With the exception of the opening piece, the program centered on the late nineteenth century; it included works by John Adams, Strauss and Berlioz.

The concert began with Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox (1996), a tribute to the composer's friend, the Russian-American composer Nicolas Slonimsky who died in 1995 at age 101.  Slonimsky himself was quite an eccentric character.  He began his long career in music as assistant to Serge Koussevitzky in the early 1920's and ended it as a friend of Frank Zappa.  Along the way, he conducted in 1931 the premiere of Ives' Three Places in New England and wrote a number of influential books on music.  The work created in his honor by Adams takes Le chant du rossignol by Stravinsky as its source.  Wikipedia describes the piece succinctly as "a step toward integrating standard minimalist techniques with a more complex contrapuntal style."  It starts with a cacophonous opening that eventually subsides and makes way for the rhythmic pulsations associated with Adams' minimalist period before once again raising the volume for a forceful ending.  

The next work was Strauss' Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888), the first of the composer's famous tone poems.  According to Strauss, the work was based on an unfinished poem by Nikolaus Lenau, but it should also be remembered that Strauss had the year before conducted Mozart's Don Giovanni in Munich and must necessarily have obtained some ideas from that experience.  At any rate, Don Juan was the composer's first great international success and launched his career and fame.  From its grandiose opening through its lyrical romantic episodes, this short work is tightly constructed and displays throughout a confident mastery unusual for a composer still only in his twenties.  It is also filled with the self-indulgence that would characterize much of Strauss' early work.  As one listens, it is apparent that Strauss was his own greatest admirer.  In many ways the character of Don Juan is a projection of the composer's persona as he wished it to appear.  This youthful arrogance makes the work less enjoyable than would otherwise be the case and more difficult to appreciate.

After intermission, the program concluded with Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830).  Like Strauss' Don Juan, this symphony is also an example of program music.  Berlioz himself was quite explicit on this point:
"The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment. As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance. The following programme must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression."
The scenes which the music is intended to illustrate are the most melodramatic and lurid imaginable - including a March to the Scaffold and a Witches' Sabbath - a fact that no doubt is partly responsible for the work's continued popularity.  As a depiction of a self-destructive artist enraptured by a beautiful woman, the work is clearly intended as a self-portrait.  It is a representation of an opium dream and it is obvious that Berlioz, besotted at the time with with his love for the actress Harriet Smithson, was under the influence of some strong stimulant while composing it.  My own favorite comment on this is that of Leonard Bernstein as quoted in Wikipedia:
"Leonard Bernstein described the symphony as the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature, and because history suggests Berlioz composed at least a portion of it under the influence of opium. According to Bernstein, 'Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.'"
None of this, however, should distract from the power and innovation displayed in the music itself.  Whatever else may be said about it, Symphonie Fantastique is a truly revolutionary work.  Though Beethoven's symphonies had been written only a few years before, this is in a completely different vein.  It is safe to say nothing like it had ever been composed before, and it had enormous influence on a number of composers who followed.

I was very impressed by the performance of both orchestra and conductor at this concert.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony is a truly top notch organization and one of the best I've heard this season.  It gave a careful and exciting reading of each work performed.  I was shocked that there were so many empty seats for such an outstanding group performing such a popular program.  Though the audience actually present was highly enthusiastic, these highly talented musicians deserved much better.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Dvořák

Yesterday afternoon the Met Orchestra, under the direction of James Levine, performed the final concert of its Sunday matinee series at Carnegie Hall this season.  For the occasion, the orchestra played an all Dvořák program.featuring some of the composer's best known works.

The program opened with the Carnival Overture, Op. 92 (1891).  Written shortly before he left Europe for America, this is one of three overtures Dvořák intended to be viewed as constituting a single series.  The overture is joyful but at the same time contains hints of melancholy as the viewpoint is that of an outsider looking in at festivities to which he has not been invited.  In the program notes, the composer is quoted as follows:
"The lonely, contemplative wanderer reaches the city at nightfall, where a carnival is in full swing. On every side is heard the clangor of instruments, mingled with shouts of joy and the unrestrained hilarity of people giving vent to their feelings in their songs and dance tunes."
The next piece was the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1894-95).  The work was written during Dvořák's sojourn in New York as director of the National Conservatory and was inspired, at least according to Wikipedia, by a cello concerto composed by fellow teacher Victor Herbert of all people.  Often considered the greatest cello concerto ever written, the piece was originally intended to be premiered by Dvořák's close friend, Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan.  An altercation arose between the two, however, when Wihan expressed a wish to insert his own cadenzas.  Dvořák strenuously resisted this idea as he had intended the third movement as a tribute to his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzova, and would allow no changes whatsoever to be made.  In any event, Wihan was unable to attend the concerto's premiere in London and the work was instead premiered by Leo Stern.

The soloist at yesterday's performance of the concerto was the well known cellist Lynn Harrell.  Mr. Harrell is a fine musician whom I've seen many times before.  He did full justice to the Dvořák and then, after a brief speech, played a Bach prelude as an encore.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to conclude the program with Dvořák's Seventh Symphony in D minor, Op. 70 (1885).  Inspired by the premiere of Brahms' Third Symphony as well as an invitation from the Royal Philharmonic Society, this is one of Dvořák's best crafted works, one in which he moves away from the pleasantries of Czech folk music to a more somber view of his country's heritage.  The symphony, right from its brooding opening, is considerably darker in tone than most of the composer's other orchestral works.  The Met musicians gave a powerful rendition of this complex masterpiece as Mr. Levine guided them through the four tightly constructed movements.  I found the hushed Poco Adagio particularly affecting.

Before the performance, I encountered members of the orchestra standing outside the hall distributing leaflets regarding their current labor negotiations with the Met management.  While I have sympathy for the musicians - they certainly deserve to be properly compensated for their skills - I think they would be well advised to look at the reality of their situation.  That opera is a vanishing art form, at least in the U.S., has been demonstrated conclusively by the recent failures of the City Opera and the San Diego Opera.  As older audiences die off, there are no younger ones to take their place.  So irrelevant has opera become to the current American lifestyle that I would not be surprised if even the Met itself were forced to shut down at some point in the foreseeable future.  Bitterly fought labor actions will only hasten the arrival of this sad eventuality. If there is a strike or lockout this fall, the real losers will be those remaining audience members who still cherish opera and its traditions.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Juilliard415 at Holy Trinity: Clérambault, Bach and Hoffmeister

Juilliard415, the school's period instrument student ensemble, performed its final recital of the season at Holy Trinity Church yesterday afternoon.  The hour long program featured a wonderful selection of little known works by a variety of Baroque composers.

The first work consisted of excerpts from a 1716 choral piece entitled L'Isle de Delos, itself taken from the larger work Cantates françoises à I. et II. voix avec simphonie, Livre III by the prolific Parisian composer Louis-Nicolas Clérambault.  As organist and choirmaster of the Church of Saint-Sulpice, Clérambault pioneered the development of the French cantata of which the four songs presented form an excellent example.  L'Isle de Delos, an idyllic evocation of the Aegean in classical antiquity, was scored for flute, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord and was sung brilliantly by mezzo-soprano Johanna Bronk.  Before the commencement of the work, Juilliard's program director announced that the instrumentalists and Ms. Bronk will be forming a permanent ensemble that will be touring the European festivals this summer.

There were two works by J.S. Bach on the program.  The first was the Sonata in E minor, BWV 1023 (1714) scored for violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord.  As in Bach's other trio sonatas, the violin shares the melody with the harpsichordist's right hand while the left hand, together with the viola da gamba, provides the continuo.  The work is based on the sonata da camera, a form of composition developed in the seventeenth century in Italy.  As such, it consists of dance movements such as Allemande and Gigue.  There is some question as to the dating since only one copy, that in the Dresden Court Library, is known to exist.  

The second Bach piece was a double concerto, the Concerto in C minor for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060R (1736).  This was a later work Bach composed during his Leipzig period while directing the Collegium Musicum, a program of secular music held weekly at Zimmermann's Coffee House.  Aside from the two soloists, the work was scored for two more violins, viola, cello, double bass and harpsichord.  The piece in its present form is actually a reconstruction taken from the Concerto for Two Harpsichords, BWV 1060 as musicologists now believe that all Bach's keyboard concertos were transcriptions by the composer of his own earlier concertos for violin, oboe or (as here) both, none of which now exist in their original form.  Though the violin and oboe are given equal weight as soloists, the sound of the oboe dominates throughout the work as that of the violin tends to merge with the sound of the other string instruments. 

In between the two Bach pieces, the Juilliard students performed the Double Bass Quartet No. 2 in D by Franz Anton Hoffmeister.  This is essentially a string quartet in which a double bass replaces one violin.  In  presenting this configuration, it is almost as though Hoffmeister were setting himself a musical puzzle in which he could solve the various problems presented by the substitution of one instrument for the other.  In so doing, he gave the double bass a prominent role in all four movements.  As for Hoffmeister himself, he was a very well known figure in Viennese musical circles but more for his role as publisher than composer.  During his long career, he published works by many of the leading composers of his day, including Haydn, Mozart (who dedicated to him his String Quartet in D, K. 499) and Beethoven (who once addressed Hoffmeister as "my most beloved brother").

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Alice Tully: Aeolus Quartet Performs Haydn, Theofanidis and Ravel

Juilliard's annual Lisa Arnhold Memorial concert was held yesterday evening at Alice Tully Hall.  For the occasion, the Aeolus Quartet - Nicholas Tavani (violin), Rachel Shapiro (violin), Gregory Luce (viola) and Alan Richardson (cello) - performed a program of chamber music by Haydn, Theofanidis and Ravel.

The first piece on the program was Haydn's Quartet in D, Op. 76, No. 5 (1797).  The distinguishing feature of this work is the second movement, marked Largo, which is so lengthy and in such an unusual key (F sharp major) that it does not seem to fit in with the rest of the work.  One wonders if Haydn had not composed it as a separate piece and then inserted it in a larger work when the opportunity arose.  As it is, the movement is extremely moving and clearly anticipates the Romantic era.

There followed Ariel Ascending (1995) by Christopher Theofanidis.  Although the composer has received commissions from Orpheus (for their New Brandenburg series) as well as the San Francisco Opera and the Houston Grand Opera and has won any number of awards, including a Grammy in 2007 (for his The Here and Now based on the poetry of Rumi), this was the first time I'd heard of him, let alone listened to any of his music.  According to the composer, Ariel Ascending was inspired by Sylvia Plath's poem Ariel.  In the program notes, Theofanidis is quoted as follows:
"I started Ariel Ascending after reading the poem 'Ariel' by Sylvia Plath, which conjured in me a feeling of both the beautiful and the nightmarish.  I was struck by the sense of motion Plath creates - one can almost feel the wind as the poem progresses."
Plath's inspiration can be heard most distinctly in the final movement in which the music fairly takes wing and soars over the audience.

After intermission, the program concluded with Ravel's Quartet in F (1903).  The work is famous first of all for its role in the so called "Ravel Affair" when the composer left the Conservatoire de Paris after the quartet had been rejected for both the school prize and the even more prestigious Prix de Rome.  Even Fauré, to whom Ravel had dedicated the piece, had harsh words for it and described it as: "stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure."  A Carnegie Hall program note has a more sympathetic comment on the work:
"Ravel treasured the quartet for its classicism, its way of looking back at and drawing on the past. Of course that past could not be recovered, and in all of his works, there is a sense of loss. At times the feeling is wistful, at other times melancholic, even devastating."
This was the second time this season I'd heard the work performed.  In October, members of the NY Philharmonic played it as part of the matinee series' season of French chamber music.  I found it interesting to compare the two interpretations.  While it would be easy to give the advantage to the more experienced Philharmonic musicians, the version performed by the Aeolus Quartet had a freshness and vitality that riveted the attention of the audience and was quite compelling to hear.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Park Avenue Church: Omega Ensemble Performs Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn

Yesterday afternoon was the second time this season I've seen the Omega Ensemble perform at the Park Avenue Church.  On this occasion, the ambitious program included works by Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn.

As is traditional with this group, a young guest was given an opportunity to play for the audience before the scheduled program began.  The "Next Generation Artist" was a Japanese violinist named Mieu Imai.  Ms. Imai is currently a seventh grader at the Horace Mann School and also attends Juilliard's pre-college program.  What impressed me most about her performance of the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28 by Saint-Saëns was not her technical ability, which I had expected, but rather the profound feeling she showed for the music at such a young age.  Her playing displayed deep conviction.

The first work on the program was Rachmaninoff's Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor (1892).  This was a youthful work without opus number that was composed when Rachmaninoff was only 19 and still a student.  It was not published, however, until 1947 by which time Rachmaninoff was already long dead.  The one-movement work contains references to both Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 as well as to that composer's elegy to Nikolai Rubinstein.  In that sense, the trio can be seen as a youthful tribute to the Russian composer whom Rachmaninoff most idolized. In fact, upon the death of Tchaikovsky two years later, Rachmaninoff composed in his memory his Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D minor, Op. 9.  As an elegy, the earlier trio conveys an appropriate sense of melancholy and mourning.  It is astonishing that so early in his career Rachmaninoff had almost fully developed the distinctive romantic style heard in his more mature works.

Next was Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 5 in F, Op. 24 (1801) nicknamed "Spring."  This was the first time Beethoven broke with tradition and used four movements rather than the traditional three in one of his violin sonatas.  It was not all that revolutionary a change, though, since the scherzo is in fact extremely short.  The work is the most popular of Beethoven's violin sonatas and easily the most accessible.  It conveys a feeling of hopefulness that one associates with the spring season and that probably accounts for the nickname given it.

After intermission, the program continued with Schumann's Five Pieces in a Folk Style, Op. 102 (1849).  It's important to note that these are not adaptations of actual folk pieces but rather Schumann's conception of what folk music might sound like.  The five are all short works written for piano and cello with the cello given prominence and the piano playing a muted accompaniment in the background.  This was the first time I had heard these lively pieces and was taken by their originality.  I cannot understand why they are not performed more often.

The final piece was Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 (1839).  Next to the Octet, this is the composer's most famous chamber work.  Though Mendelssohn is not usually considered a Romantic, this piece at least belongs firmly in that tradition for its almost heartrending pathos.  In reviewing it, Schumann wrote of the composer:
"He is the Mozart of the 19th century, the most brilliant of musicians, the one who most clearly perceives the contradictions of the age, and the first to reconcile them."
As the recital progressed, I found myself deeply impressed by the level of professionalism shown by the musicians taking part.  Although Kristin Lee (violin) and Kwan Yi (piano) were noted in the program as "Guest Artists," they played as seamlessly with Program Director Andrew Janss (cello) as if they had worked together as an ensemble for years. All three displayed the highest level of talent, and I would strongly recommend seeing any of them in performance whenever the opportunity arises.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Richard Goode Performs Janáček, Schumann and Debussy

Yesterday evening, in recital at Carnegie Hall, the pianist Richard Goode performed a program of lesser known works by Janáček, Schumann and Debussy.  Although the auditorium was less than half full, those music lovers who did attend were treated to an excellent display of musical prowess by a world class musician.

The four pieces by Janáček that opened the recital were all taken from On the Overgrown Path, Book I (1911).  In order of performance, these were "Our Evenings," "A Blown Away Leaf," "Come with Us!" and "Good Night!"  The title is taken from a Moravian wedding song, and the works were originally composed for harmonium at the request of one Josef Vavrá who wished to include them in his collection Slavic Melodies.  Though Janáček's piano works rarely receive the attention they deserve, I did attend last month a recital by Gilbert Kalish and Timothy Eddy that featured the composer's Pohádka (A Tale) and found Janáček's work in this medium well worth hearing.  

The next work was Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David), Op. 6 (1837).  This is a series of eighteen short pieces setting forth the interaction between two imaginary characters, Florestan and Eusebius, who represent the two aspects of the composer's personality, i.e., the outgoing and the introspective.  They were written at a time when Schumann was still courting Clara Wieck and are based on a mazurka (Op. 6, No. 5) she had written.  The first of Schumann's pieces creates a theme based on the mazurka's opening, and the following seventeen pieces are comprised of variations on this same theme.  Schumann's forte was his work for solo piano and this is one his is one of his greatest achievements.  It is played all too seldom, perhaps because it requires a mastery of the keyboard that few musicians are able to attain.

After intermission, the program concluded with Debussy's Préludes, Book I (1910).  These are twelve short pieces, each of them given by the composer an intriguing title such as La cathédral engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral).  The best known is probably the melodic La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair).  Though Debussy loathed the term "impressionism," this is nevertheless the best description available of these pieces.  Their ethereal tones create a mood that is almost hypnotic as they provide the listener with musical descriptions of the titles provided. Although the pieces need not necessarily be played in the published order, Mr. Goode did in fact follow the composer's listing in his recital.

I was unfortunately only able to stay for the first encore which was "Ondine" from Debussy's Préludes, Book II.

Mr. Goode is an extremely accomplished artist and deserves recognition as such.  I have attended his recitals over the years, though more sporadically than I might have wished, and have always come away with a deeper understanding of the music played than I had previously possessed.  Usually Mr. Goode has chosen programs for his recitals that have eschewed popular "showpieces" in favor of works that, while they might not be as well known, have deep significance for those wishing to better understand a composer's full oeuvre and its relationship to the piano repertoire.  I felt very privileged to have been able to attend yesterday's recital and to have heard such an impressive performance.