Friday, October 30, 2015

CMS Webcast: Zemlinsky Cycle

Yesterday evening the Chamber Music Society webcast the Escher String Quartet performing all four quartets by the Austrian composer Alexander von Zemlinsky.  I knew almost nothing of Zemlinsky's music and had never heard any of his quartets, so I was quite looking forward to this performance.  For an understanding of the composer's development as an artist the quartets seemed an ideal place to start as they were written over the full course of his career.

Zemlinsky began his studies in 1884 at the Vienna Conservatory where he was a student of Johann Nepomuk Fuchs.  It was Fuchs who first introduced Brahms to Zemlinsky's music.  The older composer, in turn, shortly before his death recommended Zemlinsky to his publisher Simrock.  It was around this same time that Zemlinsky first met Schoenberg; their friendship was cemented when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister Mathilde in 1901.  (Several years later there was a major scandal when Mathilde briefly left Schoenberg for the Viennese artist Richard Gerstl who then committed suicide when Mathilde returned to her husband.)  Although Zemlinsky and Schoenberg were quite close - it was Zemlinsky who taught the latter counterpoint - Zemlinsky remained aloof from the Second Viennese School and never wrote any atonal music or made any use of the twelve-tone system.  Instead, after his initial attraction to Brahms's music had worn off, he was influenced by Mahler, who conducted Zemlinsky's second opera in 1900, and later by neoclassicism and the Neue Sachlichkeit.  Unfortunately, the composer never received anything like the recognition given his brother-in-law and was forced to support himself as a conductor first in Vienna, then Prague and finally Berlin (where he was assistant to Otto Klemperer).  After the rise of the Nazis, Zemlinsky was forced to flee Europe altogether, as was Schoenberg,  and he finally died in obscurity in 1942 in New York.

The quartets were played in chronological order beginning with the Quartet No. 1 in A major for Strings, Op. 4 (1896).  It was written after Zemlinsky had graduated from the Conservatory and had joined the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein where he first came in contact with Brahms.  Not surprisingly then, the quartet shows a strong Brahmsian influence throughout.  It was in the same Romantic-Classical style that Brahms espoused and the work could be interpreted as a sincere tribute to the older composer.  Or as a ploy on the young Zemlisky's part to win Brahms's approbation.  The fact that Brahms immediately afterwards introduced Zemlinsky to his publisher Simrock can be taken as a sign that the effort was successful.

The Quartet No. 2 for Strings, Op. 15 (1913-15) reveals a Zemlinsky much changed from the young man who tried to impress Brahms.  The romantic Viennese mood of the first quartet has been replaced by a much more anxious outlook.  Critics have seen in it an attempt to come to terms with the suicide of the promising artist Gerstl after the disastrous affair with Mathilde as well as with his feelings for Schoenberg whose failure as a husband had caused the unfortunate situation to occur in the first place.  The work is filled with turbulence that only finds its resolution at the conclusion of the final movement.

The Quartet No. 3 for Strings, Op.19 (1924) differs sharply from the two preceding it.  There is a palpable feeling of anger in the work, especially in the final movement, and this most probably had to do with the composer's sense that he was being ostracized by Schoenberg and, with the notable exception of Berg, by his associates in the Second Viennese School.  By then Schoenberg, who was at times an insufferable egotist, had more or less set himself up as the sole authority on modern music and this highhandedness could not but have irked his former teacher.  (No doubt Zemlinsky was also upset by the unseemly haste with which Schoenberg remarried after the death of Mathilde.)  The quartet can then be seen as a deliberate attempt on Zemlinsky's part to demonstrate that his work was not in any way anachronistic but instead as "modern" in its own right as that of the twelve-tone school.

The Quartet No. 4 for Strings, Op. 25 (1936) was written as a memorial to Zemlinsky's friend, Alban Berg, who had died unexpectedly at the end of the previous year.  While the quartet's six-movement structure is modeled on Berg's Lyric Suite (which was itself dedicated to Zemlinsky), the music follows the path taken in Zemlinsky's previous quartet.  The tone here is, if anything, even more strident.  The second movement is marked "Burleske" as was the final movement of the third quartet.  In both cases, this is a reference to the "Rondo-Burleske" in Mahler's Ninth Symphony.  In addition, the intricately structured final movement is noteworthy for the double fugue contained within it.

Throughout the length of marathon recital, almost three hours in length, the members of the Escher Quartet gave an intense and focused performance of each of the pieces played.  In the end, the audience received an excellent introduction to the work of this unjustly overlooked composer. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Bachauer Piano Recital: Haydn, Ravel, Liebermann and Gershwin

I attended yesterday the annual Bachauer Piano Recital at Juilliard's Paul Hall.  The evening showcased this year's two winners of this prestigious competition, Yun Wei and Tristan Teo, as they performed works by Haydn, Ravel, Liebermann and Gershwin.

The program opened with two works performed by pianist Yun Wei.  This is the second consecutive year that she's been awarded the prize in this competition.  According to the event's press release, she is currently a graduate level student at Juilliard where she studies with Robert McDonald.

The first work the pianist performed was Haydn's Sonata in A-flat Major, HOB. XVI:43 (1783?).  I was curious why she had chosen this particular sonata as it is one of the composer's lesser known works in this genre and contains few of the creative innovations that characterize the best of Haydn's pieces.  As critic Richard Wigmore has stated:
"The A flat sonata here, No 43, published in London in 1783 but almost probably composed a decade or so earlier, is a far slighter work. Indeed, with the autograph lost, some commentators have even doubted the sonata’s authenticity. If it is by Haydn, it shows the composer at his most blithely galant. The monothematic first movement has a certain amiable charm but none of Haydn’s usual sense of adventure or delight in surprise."
The second work performed was Ravel's notoriously difficult “Scarbo” taken from his 1908 suite Gaspard de la Nuit.  This is one of the most (in)famous pieces in the piano repertoire and a test of any virtuoso's skill.  After having written it, the composer indicated that he had deliberately set out to create a work even more difficult to perform than Balakirev's Islamey.  The suite itself is derived from a series of poems by Aloysius Bertrand in which the poète maudit introduced a series of fantastical vignettes said to have been given him in book form by an old man sitting in a park.  "Scarbo" deals with the visions witnessed by an insomniac as he turns restlessly in his bed while trying to fall asleep.  The imagery is that of everyday things that in the dark take on a more sinister and frightening appearance.  An interesting paper by Alexander Eccles on the Stanford University website describes the work as follows:
"Scarbo is truly the work that represents transcendental virtuosity. The music is unbelievably difficult and seems very advanced and dissonant for Ravel’s time. Literally every key of the piano is used. Furthermore, the virtuoso elements become a vehicle for conveying the poetry, which like the music is frenetic and bizarre, almost drugged-out."
Pianist Yun Wei gave a brilliant performance of both these works as well as a short encore, Shotakovich's Prelude No. 10 in C-sharp minor.  As I watched, I was as impressed by her poise at the keyboard as by her virtuosity.

After breaking for other business, the program continued as pianist Tristan Teo took the stage.  He is a third-year undergraduate student at Juilliard, where he studies with Jerome Lowenthal, and is a recipient of the Kovner Fellowship.

The first work played by Teo was Liebermann's Nocturne No. 4 (1992), originally commissioned by the North West Arts Board in Great Britain.  Liebermann is considered something of a neo-romantic as his works make use of traditional tonality and eschew any form of modernism while looking back fondly to an earlier era.  The present nocturne, a short subdued piece, certainly did recall the romantic mood of Chopin's own works in this genre and was thoroughly enjoyable to hear.

The evening ended with Teo's performance of Gershwin's piano reduction of his ever popular Rhapsody in Blue (1924).  The work, originally scored for orchestra and piano, was commissioned by the influential bandleader Paul Whiteman who had previously collaborated with Gershwin on the George White Scandals of 1922 at which the composer's opera Blue Monday had premiered.  Despite the fact that the opera had received dismal reviews and been removed from the program the next day, Whiteman had been impressed by Gershwin's unique blend of jazz and classical music and had wanted a similar piece in concerto form for a jazz concert he was then planning.  The 1924 sold-out premiere at Aeolian Hall - Rachmaninoff was in the audience - was a tremendous success and launched Gershwin's career as a serious composer.  The work is still a huge crowd pleaser and Teo's excellent performance won him a standing ovation from the audience.

The evening also included the awarding of a well deserved prize for music education and community outreach to harpsichordist and educator Melody Hung Nishinaga for having arranged musical performances for such disadvantaged groups as patients at VA hospitals and those suffering from Alzheimer's.  She spoke briefly but eloquently of the joy music has brought to these individuals.  The entire event was hosted by WQXR's Robert Sherman who announced that the recital would be broadcast by the radio station on Wednesday, November 4th.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Geffen Hall: Valery Gergiev Conducts Bartók

There was a great deal of excitement, at least for me, as the London Symphony Orchestra, led by Valery Gergiev, performed an all-Bartók program at David Geffen Hall yesterday afternoon.  Although Gergiev is known primarily for his mastery of the Russian repertoire, he did an impressive job when I saw him conduct Bluebeard's Castle at the Met Opera this past February and I was interested in hearing how well he would do with Bartók's orchestral works.

To me, Bartók was, along with Mahler and Stravinsky, one of the three greatest composers of the twentieth century.  Each of them in his own way changed the face of modern music.  Of their different approaches, though, it may have been Bartók's grounding in ethnomusicology that in the end was the most radical.  I don't think Bartók is often enough given credit for the considerable influence he exerted on later composers or sufficiently appreciated for the innovations he introduced into his work.  There's a poignancy to the last days he spent ailing and largely unrecognized in New York City.  Whenever I have an opportunity then to hear Bartók's music performed by quality musicians I jump at the chance.

The program opened with the Dance Suite, Sz. 77, BB 86a (1923).  This six movement work (in Hungarian, Táncszvit) was composed in 1923 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the amalgamation of Buda and Pest into a single city.  It was Bartók's first commission and proved to be one of his most popular and accessible works, so much so that he later completed an arrangement of it for solo piano.  One reason for the work's success was the composer's ability to take Hungarian folk melodies as sources and then rewrite them in his own idiom.  This had come about as a result of the composer's travels through the countryside, beginning in 1908 in the company of Zoltán Kodály, in an attempt to record ethnic Magyar folk melodies before they were lost to the encroachment of civilization.  This research, invaluable in itself, provided him with many of the themes that can be heard in the present suite.  I thought he most interesting part of the work was the fourth movement "night music" marked molto tranquillo.

The next work was the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Sz. 95, BB 101 (1930-1931).  The work is considered one of the most challenging in the piano repertoire, one which pianist András Schiff - who has recorded all three concertos with Iván Fischer and the BFO - has described as a "a finger-breaking piece."  This even though Bartók claimed to have deliberately tried to make the work less technically difficult than his First Concerto.  Bartók's view of the piano as a percussive instrument is readily apparent in the Second Concerto, particularly in the piano's dialog with the tympani in the second movement.  The influence of Stravinsky can be heard in the first movement in which the strings are entirely silent just as they are in that composer's 1924 Piano Concerto.  The soloist on Sunday afternoon was Yefim Bronfman and he gave as powerful performance of this work as one could wish.  He demonstrated in each movement his full mastery of the piece and at its conclusion brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation after which he remained onstage to play an encore.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to play the Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123 (1943).  The work, originally commissioned by Koussevitzky at a time when the composer was ill and badly in need of financial assistance, was so titled because each section of the orchestra is called upon at one point or another to take the part of soloist.  This is a colorful work that sums up many of Bartók's concerns as a composer - from the folk melodies in the second movement, to the use of "night music" in the third movement to the dance rhythms in the final movement.  I've heard the work performed many times before, but this rendition - brilliantly conducted by Gergiev - was the best I can remember.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Juilliard Chamber Music Recital: Brahms and Schubert

I went to Friday afternoon to hear the Honors Chamber Music Recital at Paul Hall.  It lasted a full two hours including intermission and featured three well known pieces by Brahms and Schubert.  Before the musicians began playing, violinist Joseph Lin took the stage to make introductory remarks and to correct the program notes that had listed him as the sole coach for all three works.  He indicated that other faculty members - among them Joseph Kalichstein, Ida Kafavian, Sylvia Rosenberg and Laurie Smukler - had been involved as well.  He also stressed that what we were about to hear was not a finished product but a work still in progress.

The program opened with Brahms's String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1 (1873).  Brahms, forever hearing behind him Beethoven's footsteps, was a perfectionist.  He labored painstakingly over his works before allowing them to be published and ruthlessly destroyed any attempt he deemed unsuccessful.  As Misha Amory writes on the Brentano Quartet's website:
" famous story has him revisiting a house he had lived in years earlier, and, to the astonishment of the tenants, ripping into a wall to extract sheets of music he had used to plug up a leak."
According to rumor, Brahms discarded twenty or more quartets before allowing publication of the C minor and A minor by which time he was already forty years old.  One might fear then that the final attempt would be so overworked that it would be lacking in all emotion and spontaneity.  But that is not the case with this quartet.  It is, if anything, more impassioned than the bulk of Brahms's compositions.  Though some critics have suggested that this display of sentiment may have been influenced by the recent death of the composer's mother, there is no direct evidence to support this.  The work was performed at this recital by Katherine Kyu Hyeon Lim and David Chang, violins; Robert Donowick, viola; and Noah Koh, cello.

The next work was Schubert's String Quartet in A minor, D. 804, Op. 29 (1824) nicknamed the "Rosamunde Quartet."  In his approach to composition, Schubert might be in a sense considered the opposite of Brahms.  Compositions fairly poured forth in a steady stream from his pen - he completed more than 1,500 during the course of his abbreviated career - and his output only increased as he grew more aware of his impending death and how little time remained.  As the syphilis that would kill him four years later entered its final phase, Schubert experienced a mood of profound despair as he composed this quartet and that following it, in the same year, the even more famous D. 810 quartet, "Death and the Maiden."  In the latter, which takes as its source the composer's 1817 lied, the theme of death is pervasive throughout.  The D. 804, also based on an earlier work, the incidental music Schubert had composed for Helmina von Chézy's 1823 drama, while not so bleak in outlook as the D. 810 nevertheless projects a feeling of wistful regret.  Both quartets display a remarkable advance from Schubert's dozen earlier attempts in the same genre.  It as though the knowledge of death caused him to look within himself and goaded him to ever greater heights of creativity.

This was not the first time I'd heard the Calliope Quartet, the ensemble that performed the Schubert.  Last May, I had heard the same musicians give an excellent interpretation of Bartok's First Quartet at the Juilliard String Quartet Seminar Recital.  Though all the members - including Julia Glenn, violin; Molly Goldman, viola; and Hélène Werner, cello - played extremely well, I was most impressed at both performances by Tianyang Gao who showed exceptional talent on first violin.

After intermission, the program concluded with Brahms's Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25 (1856-1861).  This was an early work in which Brahms, perhaps unable to disguise his feelings for his beloved Clara (who in fact played the piano part at the Hamburg premiere), let his attraction to the Romantic tradition shine forth most clearly.  It also displayed his inclination, even then, to lengthen and expand thematic content until it attained almost orchestral proportions, an accomplishment that had already caused Schumann to refer to Brahms's piano sonatas as "veiled symphonies."  Though all four movements are masterpieces of composition, the real attraction - perhaps because it is so atypical of Brahms - is the final movement marked Rondo alla Zingarese, the celebrated "Gypsy Rondo."  Brahms, as pianist, had toured in 1853 with the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi, and it was from him that the composer acquired his love of that country's music, an attraction that would lead in 1869 to the composition of the Hungarian Dances.  After having heard the quartet, the virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim complimented Brahms on his fidelity to his Hungarian sources.  At Friday's recital, the quartet was given a bravura performance by Philip Zuckerman, violin; Jasper Snow, viola; Edvard Pogossian, cello; and Tomer Gewirtzman, piano.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Carnegie Hall: Andris Nelsons Conducts Elektra

On Wednesday evening Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony in a concert performance of Elektra at Carnegie Hall.  This was not first time I'd seen Nelsons at work.  I posted in April my enthusiastic comments regarding his interpretation of the Shostakovich #10 at another concert at this same venue.  I had been impressed by the vitality Nelsons had brought to that performance as well as his handling of the orchestra.  It had been a long time since I had heard the BSO play so well, and I was looking forward to hearing how the music director would fare with Strauss's opera, especially as I had just heard on Friday evening a performance by the American Symphony Orchestra of the composer's Also sprach Zarathustra.

Elektra, which premiered at the Dresden State Opera, in 1909 was the first collaboration between Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, author of the 1903 play from which the libretto was adapted.  As one would expect of a work written in Freud's fin de siècle Vienna, the libretto emphasized the dark psychological elements that underlay the drama.  As Elektra descends into madness and as the story approaches its bloodsoaked climax, both play and opera grow ever more disturbing.  No doubt it was precisely this lurid aspect that attracted Strauss in the first place.  He wanted to shock listeners just as he had done in his recent Salome, the notorious work that had earned him his greatest renown.   He may have succeeded better than he intended.  As one critic wrote:
"The whole thing impresses one as a sexual aberration.  The blood mania appears as a terrible deformation of sexual perversity. This applies all the more because not only Elektra, but all the women are sexually tainted."
Others have suggested that Strauss abruptly ceased work on Elektra's composition in 1907 not because, as is usually claimed, he was worried that the plot too closely resembled that of Salome but because it raised in the composer's mind unpleasant associations from his childhood when he had been in constant conflict with his father.  Whether this is true or not, the opera probed far more deeply into the protagonist's psyche than audiences were at that time accustomed to hearing.  In so doing, it anticipated many of the trends, particularly those pioneered by Antonin Artaud, that were later to dominate twentieth century theater.

The great advantage to hearing an opera in a concert performance is that it allows the listener to concentrate fully on the music and singing without being distracted by the staging.  This is especially important when hearing Elektra, for in it Strauss built upon the modernist techniques he had previously employed in Salome.  Just as he went beyond the conventions of nineteenth century opera in his psychological approach to dramatic characterization, so he also moved beyond convention in his use of dissonance and in his individualization of characters through the assignment to each of a distinctive chord, most notably in the case of the protagonist the Elektra chord.   This is as far as Strauss would go.  Following the premiere of this work, he would once again return to the harmonic traditions to which he had previously adhered.  In much the same way, Wagner took a step back after having finished Tristan and Mahler after having completed his Seventh Symphony.

For a singer, the role of Elektra in one of the most demanding in the repertoire.  The soprano is onstage for over 90 minutes, almost the entire length of the one-act opera.  For much of that time her voice has to compete with the sound of a huge orchestra in order to be plainly heard.  On Wednesday evening Christine Goerke gave a solid performance that showed sympathy for Elektra and her plight while doing nothing to diminish the madness and vengeful bloodlust that welled up within her.  She had able assistance throughout from Gun-Brit Barkmin as Chrysothemis, Jane Henschel as Klytämnestra and James Rutherford as Orest.  Andris Nelsons was superb on the podium as he elicited from his musicians an overwhelmingly powerful performance that was truly shattering in its effect.  This was a fine orchestra at its peak.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Juilliard415 Performs Couperin, Marais, Leclair and Rebel

To the delight of those who enjoy Baroque music, the Juilliard415, the school's period instrument ensemble, gave a full length recital (75 minutes with no intermission) yesterday afternoon at Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West.  The program of French music from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries featured the works of several of that era's most notable composers - Couperin, Marais, Leclair and Rebel.

The program began with a fascinating programmatic piece, François Couperin's La Apothéose de Corelli (1724).  In his youth Couperin, along with most other French composers, had been deeply influenced by the sonatas of Arcangelo Corelli.  The present work is not so much a tribute to the Italian composer, though, as an attempt - together with its companion piece La Apothéose de Lully - to reconcile the French and Italian styles of music.  As one source puts it:
"Couperin was in fact far too individual a composer to slavishly adhere to any style, and his great achievement was to seek a reconciliation that, in the words appended to the final movement of his Lully Apotheosis, would 'achieve a new perfection in music.' This philosophy was above all articulated in that work, which appeared in 1725, and the Apotheosis of Corelli, published the previous year. In taking the two greatest protagonists of the opposing styles for his subject matter, Couperin was clearly laying out the philosophy which had guided his artistic career."
The most interesting by far of the seven movements was the fifth, a gently played lullaby.

The next work was Marin Marais's Suite No. 2 in G minor (1692) that was originally published in Pièces en trio pour les flûtes, violons et dessus de viole.  The work was an anomaly in Marais's oeuvre, first in that it was in trio form, and secondly in that it specifically included flutes in the instrumentation.  The winds were, in fact, given a great deal of prominence in the composition and were exceptionally well played at this performance by Melanie Williams on flute and Caroline Ross on oboe.

Following the Marais came Jean-Marie Leclair's Ouverture in A major, Op. 13, No. 3, taken from Ouvertures et Trios (1753).  Leclair was not only a well known composer in his day but a virtuoso violinist as well.  Sadly, he came to a bad end when he was found stabbed to death in his home in 1764.  The present overture showed the influence that both the French and Italian styles had in the development of his music.

The musicians then returned to Couperin and performed two selections, a Sonade and an Allemande, from La Françoise.  As mentioned above, Couperin had been in his youth greatly influenced by Corelli and an anecdote retold by oboist David Dickey in the Program Notes regarding an early performance of the sonata illustrated very well the extent of his infatuation.
"Couperin was keen to have this sonata performed in the same concert series where he had heard Corelli's music.  To do this, he rearranged the letters of his name to sound Italian, knowing the keen appetite of the French for foreign novelties above all else.  Perhaps he did not want to pen his own name on music so strongly influenced by the Italian style for an audience full of French music lovers.  Couperin says the audience devoured his music with eagerness and that his Italian name brought him considerable applause."
The program ended with Jean-Féry Rebel's Les Caractères de la Danse (1715).  Rebel was intimately associated with the Paris Opera - first as violinist, then as harpsichordist and finally as conductor - and with its ballet company as well.  It was through this association that he first met one of the company's prima ballerinas Françoise Prévost for whom he wrote a number of dance pieces beginning with Caprice in 1711.  These were among the first of a new art form, the ballet pantomine (also referred to as the ballet d'action), that attempted to tell a story solely through movement and gesture without the use of words.  Although Les Caractères became a huge success for Prévost, it was even more so for her students Marie Sallé and Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo.  Sallé, who had performed the work in 1727 in London with Handel conducting, created a scandal in 1729 in Paris when she danced her part in street clothes and without the use of a mask.  So impressed was he with Sallé's dancing that Voltaire was inspired to write:
"Ah! Camargo how brilliant you are! But Sallé, great gods, is ravishing! How light your steps; but how sweet are hers! You are fresh; she is inimitable Nymphs jump like you, But the Graces dance like her!"
The Juilliard415 is an extraordinarily talented ensemble; and the noontime recitals they give at Holy Trinity, while informal, represent New Yorkers' best opportunity to hear Baroque chamber music played on authentic period instruments.  I'm looking forward to attending more performances in this series.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Bart Feller

Early Saturday evening, I attended a short pre-college faculty recital - only about forty minutes in length - given at Paul Hall by flautist Bart Feller.  It was an all-Handel program that began with three sonatas and ended with an early cantata.  Feller was accompanied in his performance by cellist Loretta O'Sullivan and harpsichordist Robert Wolinsky.

The first three works on the program consisted of the Sonata in C major, HWV 365 (c. 1712), the Sonata in F major, HWV 369 (c. 1712) and the Sonata in E minor, HWV 359b, originally composed as a violin sonata (c. 1724).  The three are also referred to, respectively, as Op. 1, Nos. 7, 11 and 1b and were, according to Wikipedia:
"...first published in or shortly after 1726—in a collection of twelve sonatas titled Sonates pour un Traversiere un Violon ou Hautbois Con Basso Continuo Composées par G. F. Handel—purportedly in Amsterdam by Jeanne Roger, but now shown to have been a forgery by the London publisher John Walsh.  Walsh republished this sonata in 1731 or 1732 under his own imprint in a similar collection, containing ten of the earlier sonatas and two new ones, with the new title Solos for a German Flute a Hoboy or Violin With a Thorough Bass for the Harpsichord or Bass Violin Compos'd by Mr. Handel."
In performing these pieces Feller used a modern flute with a wooden holder attached to its front while cellist O'Sullivan played what looked like a Baroque cello even though there had been placed at its base the spike that allows the instrument to be placed on the floor rather than held between the knees as is customary with period instruments.

After having performed these works, the musicians briefly stepped offstage and then returned with soprano Ilana Davidson to perform the cantata Nel dolce dell' oblio, HWV 134 (1707-1708).  Handel was only about age 21 or 22 when he composed this work and was at the time living in Rome.  Although Handel had shortly before written several operas while sojourning in Florence, where he had been invited by Ferdinando de'Medici, operas of any type were banned during this period in the Papal States and Handel was consequently limited to the production of cantatas and oratorios.  The work took classical mythology as its source, as was customary in the Baroque era, and was quite pleasant to hear.

The recital was an informal affair - Feller addressed the audience from the stage regarding the material played and the instruments used - and enjoyable enough that I wished it had been longer in length.  It's always a treat to hear Handel's music, especially when played so well. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Carnegie Hall: ASO Performs Schuller, Dutilleux, Muhly and Strauss

The American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its music director Leon Botstein, gave its first performance of the season - a benefit for itself - at Carnegie Hall on Friday evening.  The ASO is a valuable resource that provides listeners with an opportunity to hear a number of modern and contemporary works that most mainstream orchestras, more dependent on ticket sales, play rarely if at all.  The first half of the program consisted of compositions by Gunther Schuller, Henri Dutilleux and Nico Muhly while in the second half the orchestra gave its interpretation of a well known tone poem by Strauss.  The theme announced for the evening, intended to provide a common thread for these wildly different compositions, was impressively titled Mimesis: Musical Representations.  In explaining the title in his introduction to the Program Notes, Botstein asked the unanswerable (and grammatically defective) question: "How does music mean?"  There wasn't really any need for such speculation, though, as these musical works were strong enough on their own merits that they did not need the encumbrance of any philosophical baggage.

The evening began with Schuller's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (1959).  Schuller, who only died this past June, was a polymath equally at home with both jazz and classical music.  Few recipients of the MacArthur "genius" award have deserved the honor as much as he.  Not only a noted composer, author and historian, he was also an incredibly talented horn player who worked and recorded with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Miles Davis.  In 1959, he left his position as hornist at the Met Opera Orchestra to become a composer of what he termed "third-stream" music, an attempt to incorporate elements of both jazz and classical music within a single piece.  Seven Studies is the most famous of the works he wrote in this style.  In it Schuller sought to find musical equivalents to seven visual works created by Paul Klee who was himself, of course, an extremely talented musician.  As Schuller wrote:
"Each of the seven pieces bears a slightly different relationship to the original Klee picture from which it stems.  Some relate to the actual design, shape, or color scheme of the painting, while others take the general mode of the picture or its title as a point of departure."
The entire piece presented a kaleidoscope of shifting sounds and impressions from one study to the next.  Those that were most successful were the movements in which the jazz rhythms could most clearly be discerned.

The next work was Dutilleux's Correspondances (2002-2003), a choral work that the composer first revised to include a new movement for an additional Rilke text and then altered yet again shortly before his death in 2013 in order to provide a different finale for a recording being sung by soprano Barbara Hannigan.  (Dutilleux was fascinated by the vocal artists with whom he came in contact.)  The title is taken from a poem by Baudelaire though the composer did not set the verse itself to music.  Instead, each of the five movements takes as its text poems and letters written by Rilke (first and fourth movements), Mukherjee (second movement), Solzhenitsyn (third movement) and Van Gogh (fifth movement).  The soloist here was Sophia Burgos, a graduate student at Bard who in 2014 appeared at the Lucerne Festival and in 2015 at Tanglewood; she did an excellent job in conveying to the audience the power of the texts contained within Dutilleux's musical settings.

Following intermission,  the orchestra returned with Muhly's Seeing is Believing (2007).  I have to admit that before this concert I had never heard of Muhly even though he is located here in New York City.  I also wasn't sure what to expect of his music.  On his website (as well as within the Program Notes), he described the present piece as follows:
"Seeing is Believing references the exciting and superstitious practice of observing and mapping the sky; while writing it, I wanted to mimic the process by which, through observation, a series of points becomes a line   This seemed like the most appropriate way to think about a soloist versus an orchestra. The electric violin is such a specifically evocative instrument and has always reminded me of the 1980’s, and I tried, at times, to reference the music attendant to 80’s educational videos about science, which always sounded vast and mechanical and sometimes, quite romantic."
I found the music compelling even though I failed to find within it the promised reminiscences of the 1980's.  And Muhly deserves credit for having implemented so well the unique sound of the electric violin.  The soloist Tracy Silverman played remarkably well on his chosen instrument and was in large part responsible for the work's success at this concert.

The final work on the program was Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896).  To tell the truth, I have never particularly cared for Strauss's tone poems.  To me, their hubris represents perfectly the arrogance and hauteur that Germany displayed at the turn of the twentieth century as it goosestepped blindly toward the cataclysm of World War I.  Nevertheless, this is probably the most familiar piece the ASO has attempted in recent memory and listening to it gave me a chance to better judge the ability of the orchestra and its conductor.  All in all, it was an excellent performance and Botstein, even if his approach to music is at times too intellectual for my taste, an insightful conductor.  By the end of the evening, I had heard several excellent contemporary pieces for the first time and had had an enjoyable experience.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Juilliard Piano Recital: Beethoven, Schumann, Paul Frucht and Liszt

While recently looking through Juilliard's listings of events for the current season, I noted  that no piano performances had been scheduled for the popular Wednesdays at One series.  There were, however, several "forum recitals" calendared for weekday afternoons at Paul Hall.  On Wednesday, I attended the first of these, a roughly ninety minute performance, given without intermission, of solo piano works by Beethoven, Schumann, Paul Frucht and Liszt.

The program opened 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.  The piece was expertly performed by Yilan Zhao.

The next work was Schumann's Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17 (1836-1839) performed by Ryan Reilly.  This, of course, is one of the greatest works of the Romantic era and often considered the composer's masterpiece for piano.  He began with the first movement which he entitled Ruines and intended as a tribute to his beloved Clara whom he had yet to marry over her father's objections.  Appropriately enough, it contained a quotation from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, the 1816 song cycle in which the master expressed with unparalleled intensity his longing for his distant beloved.  Schumann then decided to write a longer work, of which Ruines would become the first movement, as his contribution to a planned memorial to Beethoven in his hometown of Bonn.  Eventually, after the work had been rejected by two publishers, Schumann arrived at a final version which he then dedicated to Liszt, perhaps because the latter had proven to be the Beethoven monument's most generous benefactor.  Since then it has become one of the most popular pieces in the piano repertoire and a virtuoso showpiece.

Following the Schumann came a modern piece by composer Paul Frucht, a doctoral candidate at Juilliard.  The work was performed by Robert Fleitz who, before beginning, gave a short speech in which he mentioned that he himself had commissioned the first movement and that the work had already been given its premiere this past summer at the Danbury Music Festival.  This was not the first piece I'd heard by the composer.  In April, I attended a Juilliard recital at which his piano trio Levity was performed.  I enjoyed this four movement ("Lilt," "Variation," "Shift" and "Pep") solo piece much more than the last and, for what my opinion is worth, thought it one of the better contemporary works I've heard recently.

The afternoon ended with two works by Liszt - his 1868 transcription of Wagner's Liebestod from Tristan and his own 1863 Rhapsodie espagnole - both performed by Christian DeLuca.  It was the first that most caught my attention.  I've always been amazed at Liszt's ability to reduce a full orchestral score to a composition for only one or two pianos.  Several seasons ago, I heard a wonderful performance at Juilliard, coached by Seymour Lipkin and Jerome Lowenthal, of Liszt's 1853 transcription for two pianos of Beethoven's Op. 125.  This performance of the Liebestod was equally engaging, and the pianist thoroughly convincing in capturing the full sense of Wagner's music.  As an aside, I recently came across a fascinating article on the publisher Henle's blog detailing the printing errors Liszt had failed to catch when proofreading the 1868 and 1875 Breitkopf & Härtel editions of this work and which Henle had subsequently addressed in preparing its "urtext."  As I listened to the music, I couldn't help wondering which edition the pianist at this performance had studied. 

I've attended many Juilliard piano recitals over the past few seasons and have noticed that the works chosen are always the most difficult and technically challenging in the repertoire.  There are no easy pieces here.  Instead, the musicians are given an opportunity to display their considerable talent and skills to the fullest.  They all play so well that it's sometimes difficult for a non-musician to realize how much practice must go into preparing for each piece.  The final performance, usually given from memory without the use of a score, seems so effortless that it can be truly deceptive to the listener.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jupiter Players Perform Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Medtner

After just having seen the Jupiter Players last week, I went on Monday to another of their afternoon recitals at Good Shepherd Church.  On this occasion, they performed an all-Russian program that included works by Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Medtner.

The program opened with Borodin's String Quintet in F minor (1859-1860) for two violins, viola and two cellos.  Borodin holds a solid place in the history of Russian music due to his membership in The Five (a/k/a The Mighty Handful), a group of composers that also included Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, whose aim was the rejection of European styles of music in favor of those of their own country. To the extent that Borodin is known at all in the West, it's mainly for the Polovtsian Dances from the end of Act II of the opera Prince Igor.  But he also wrote a number of noteworthy chamber works, the most famous of which is In the Steppes of Central Asia.   I'd always admired that piece for its exoticism and so was very interested in hearing the present string quintet.  Like Schubert's famous Quintet in C major, this work doubles the cello rather than the viola.  In Borodin's case, this was not surprising as he was himself a cellist.  Though closer to European models than was In the Steppes, the quintet still had running through it a strong undercurrent of Slavic music.

The next work was Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (1876-1877).   The composer was well known for the insecurity he expressed throughout his career regarding his own music.  This was never so true as when he composed for the cello, an instrument with which he had no familiarity whatsoever.  When he finally decided to write an orchestral piece that featured the cello as solo instrument - he never wrote a full scale concerto - he was more than a little apprehensive in approaching it.  His lack of self-confidence was most evident in his decision to seek help from his associate at the Moscow Conservatory, Wilhelm Fitzhagen. to whom the work was dedicated.  But if Tchaikovsky was filled with self doubt, the cellist was sure of himself to the point of arrogance.  Though he played the work as Tchaikovsky had written it at its 1877 premiere in Moscow, when it came time to submit the work for publication Fitzhagen took it upon himself to thoroughly revise the piece without having first consulted with the composer about the changes he demanded be made.  And these were substantial. The cellist not only rewrote the solo part but changed the order of the variations and eliminated one of them altogether.  Even the coda was altered.  The publisher was horrified and promptly wrote to Tchaikovsky:
"Horrible Fitzenhagen insists on changing your cello piece.  He wants to 'cello' it up and he claims you gave him permission. Good God! Tchaikovsky revu et corrigé par Fitzenhagen!"
In spite of the publisher's objections and Tchaikovsky's own reservations, it was the Fitzhagen score that became the standard version.  It was not until 1941, again in Moscow, that the composer's original score was finally played as written.  At yesterday's performance, an arrangement by David Stromberg for cello and winds (flute, oboe, horn, bassoon and clarinet) was substituted in place of the full score for reduced orchestra.

I have seen David Requiro, the soloist on the Tchaikovsky piece, many times over the course of the past few seasons.  He is a regular with the Jupiter Players and has always excelled as a member of the ensemble.  In Monday, his exceptionally fine playing brought the piece to life as he masterfully explored the nuances of Tchaikovsky's score.  He truly deserved the enthusiastic standing ovation he received at the end of his performance.

After intermission, the program continued with two selections, October and November, from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, Op. 37a (1875).  Although the work exists in a number of arrangements, at this recital the two short pieces were expertly played on solo piano by the remarkable Russian pianist Alexander Kobrin, winner of the 2005 Van Cliburn Competition and a former student of Lev Naumov at the Moscow Conservatory.  The two pieces were simple and understated, and perhaps for that very reason conveyed a powerful emotional impact.  As appropriate to the season they depicted, they were filled with a sense of gentle melancholy.

The afternoon ended with a performance of Medtner's Piano Quintet in C major, Op. post. (1903-1949).  This was the piece I'd really come to hear.  Though I'd heard Medtner's name mentioned many times over the years, I 'd never before had an opportunity to hear his music.  The quintet seemed the best place to start since almost every source I came across invariably referred to it as the "summation" of Medtner's life work.  I certainly didn't know what to expect of a piece that the composer had worked on and revised over the course of more than 45 years and then had died before ever having heard it performed publicly.  (He did manage to record the piece, though, shortly before his death.)  It turned out to be completely unique, unlike anything I had heard before - often wildly romantic, at times mystical, and totally impassioned throughout.  Medtner was a virtuoso pianist (all his many compositions feature this instrument), and the piano part he wrote here was intricate and demanding.  I came away with a very high regard for this three movement piece.  It definitely deserves to heard more often.

All in all, this was an excellent chamber recital that featured great works, two of which, the Borodin and Medtner, are too rarely performed considering their originality and high quality.  As far as I was concerned, this was the best recital the Jupiter Players have given so far this season; all the musicians involved displayed deep commitment to the music and incredible talent.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Met Opera: Yannick Nézet-Séguin Conducts Otello

Yesterday afternoon I went to the Met Opera for the second Saturday in a row, this time to hear the new production of Otello with which the company opened its season last month.  I've always considered this late work to have been Verdi's finest achievement and, in fact, the greatest of all nineteenth century operas.  With a libretto written by Arrigo Boito, himself a major Italian composer, it has so much power and freshness that it seems more the work of a artist still in his twenties than that of a revered idol already in his seventies.

That Otello was composed at all was something of an accomplishment.  After having completed Aida in 1871 and the Requiem in 1874, Verdi had decided to retire from any further musical composition.  Much of this had to do with the state of Italian music in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Though it is difficult to believe now, considering how venerated a figure in opera history Verdi has become, he and his work were actually quite controversial in Italy in the late 1800's, a situation outlined by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz in her biography of Puccini.  At the time, Verdi was seen as the leader of the "old guard" who stood in the way of progress.  A group of progressive artists, known as the scapigliati, sought to modernize Italian music by incorporating into it current trends from France and Germany and while so doing railed against the traditionalism represented by Verdi.  Ironically, it was Verdi's future librettist Boito who took the lead in this movement.  As Phillips-Patz writes:
"In 1863, though, Boito ripped a large hole in the fabric of Italian culture by insulting Manzoni and Verdi, Italy's revered 'Old Men.'  He delivered his outrageous slap at them during a banquet organized to honor Faccio and his new opera, I Profughi Fiamminghi, for which Ghislanzoni was the librettist.  Near the end of the evening Boito read a long ode to the health of Italian art.  In it he railed against the older generation and added an offensive line that Verdi never forgot.  The old men were, Boito said, 'scrofulous' and 'idiotic,' and they had left 'the altar of Italian art soiled like a whorehouse wall.'  Not surprisingly, after this event Verdi cut Boito out of his life for about twenty years."
Verdi, for his part, resented what he saw as the newcomers' lack of patriotism.  It was at least partially his disgust with the incessant bickering that determined him to give up writing music.  In any event, he had already composed so many timeless classics that he had nothing left to prove.  His reputation as the greatest Italian composer was secure.

It was only through the combined efforts of the publisher Giulio Ricordi, horrified at the thought of the money his firm that would lose if Verdi were to retire, and a repentant Boito, his arrogance curbed by the failure of Mefistofele, that the composer was convinced to set to work once again.  The enticement was the possibility of staging an opera based on a Shakespearean tragedy.  Verdi had always been a fervent admirer of the English playwright, though his earlier adaptation of Macbeth had not been a resounding success, and could not refuse the bait.  Not only did he compose Otello but afterwards returned once again to his Shakespearean sources when in 1893 he completed his final opera Falstaff.

There were no big names in this production of Otello, but the cast was uniformly excellent and worked perfectly together as an ensemble.  Aleksandrs Antonenko was more than competent in the title role.  If I don't sound more enthusiastic about his performance, it's only because I remember the many occasions on which I saw Domingo electrify the audience with his portrayal of the tragic Moor and now find it difficult, even after all these years, to imagine anyone else singing the part.  Sonya Yoncheva was a big surprise as Desdemona.  I don't remember ever having heard her before, but she was magnificent here and I'll look forward to any future engagements in which she may appear.  Željko Lučić had the pivotal role of Iago.  The part requires not only great singing and acting but psychological insight as well.  The singer must be able to penetrate the depths of Iago's dark mind in order to make the character convincing to the audience.  Lučić managed to do this extraordinarily well.  He not only did full justice to the singing but also made Iago a totally believable presence rather than a merely two dimensional villain.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a brilliant conductor whom I've heard many times lead the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.  Yesterday, he showed that he was as accomplished with operatic works as with orchestral.  He was truly masterful in his interpretation of Verdi's score.

The sliding glass partitions in Bartlett Sher's production reminded me of nothing so much as the chic facades that pop up one after the other on Columbus Avenue storefronts, and the I didn't find the images of waves shown on the projection screens to be particularly imaginative,  (At times, they reminded me more of drifting layers of cigarette smoke.)  Nevertheless, as long as nothing got in the way of the singers or the action I've no reason to complain.  More importantly, as reported by NPR and other news media this past summer, the current production was the first to abandon the use of "black face."  The Met should have given up this anachronistic and hurtful tradition long before now.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Juilliard Sonatenabend: Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann

On Thursday, Juilliard's collaborative piano program staged its first Sonatenabend of the season at Paul Hall.  The event was a wonderful opportunity to hear exceptional pianists performing beside talented student musicians.  The early evening recital, about an hour and a half in length with no intermission, on this occasion consisted entirely of violin sonatas.  Written by Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann, these represented some of the best known works in the chamber repertoire.

The program opened with Beethoven's Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2 (1801-1802) performed by Anastasia Dolak, violin, and William Kelley, piano.  The date of composition is significant.  Beethoven set to work on the piece shortly before he wrote the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, a never-sent letter to his brothers in which he agonized over his approaching deafness and expressed suicidal thoughts.  The episode marked a turning point in Beethoven's creative life as he moved away from the classical training he had been given by Haydn and sought instead to produce radically new forms of music that would be entirely his own and that would allow him to overcome the tragedy he was now facing.  This sonata, in its power and complexity, clearly anticipates the revolutionary works Beethoven would compose during his middle period.  The prominence given the piano part here is no accident.  (The Op. 30 pieces were in fact entitled upon their publication "Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with the Accompaniment of Violin.")   In seeking out a new path, Beethoven was well acquainted with the possibilities the piano offered and used them here to full advantage.  In the end, the sonata is fascinating not for what it is but for what it presages.

The next work was Brahms's Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, Op. 78 (1878-1879) performed by Amos Fayette, violin, and Katy Felt, piano.  Although the Program Notes for Thursday's recital listed this work as "for Violin and Piano," I believe the correct title as shown on the published score is "for Piano and Violin."  This would seem more appropriate considering the large role the piano is given; it is most definitely not used simply as accompaniment.  Brahms was already age 46 when the work was written, and one may wonder why the composer had not completed a work in the violin sonata genre before this (although he may have made several earlier attempts which he, a fanatical perfectionist, then subsequently destroyed).  It's possible that the impetus was finally provided by the untimely death of his godson Felix Schumann, the youngest child of Robert and Clara, at only age 24.  Brahms had been closely involved in Felix's artistic endeavors and had even set several of the young man's poems to music.  How deeply he was affected by the loss can easily be heard throughout the work's three movements (it lacks the customary scherzo) but most especially in the final two.  Here he made reference to two songs, Regenlied and Nachklang, he had written to texts by Klaus Groth in his 1873 Op. 59, and in so doing gave the sonata itself the nickname Regensonate.  It is the repetitive allusion to falling raindrops that largely imparts to the music its nostalgic and melancholy mood.

The final work was Schumann's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor, Op. 105 (1851) performed by Hahnsol Kim, violin, and Ho Jae Lee, piano.  After having seen Schumann's two violin sonatas performed many years ago at Carnegie Hall by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, I gained a new appreciation of these pieces and have since come to consider them among the most underrated of the composer's chamber works.  One reason they may not be held in greater esteem is that they were written in a period of turmoil in Schumann's life as he began to experience the first symptoms of the mental breakdown that would lead him to attempt suicide in 1854.  At the time the sonata was written, Schumann was music director of the Düsseldorf Orchestra.  This proved to be one of the most frustrating episodes of his career.  No matter how skilled a composer he may have been, he was utterly lacking in ability as a conductor.  As a result, he retreated as much as possible from his orchestral duties and concentrated instead on forming chamber ensembles with the best of his musicians.  He himself did not care very much for the A-minor sonata and claimed: "I did not like the first Sonata for Violin and Piano; so I wrote a second one [the Op. 121], which I hope has turned out better."  Musicologists took him at his word and paid little attention to the piece, seeing in it only evidence of Schumann's mental collapse.  But it is actually an extremely absorbing and innovative work that deserves to be heard more often.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Jupiter Players Perform Dotzauer, Thieriot and Brahms

Yesterday afternoon, the indefatigable Jupiter Players gave another recital at St. Stephens Church, under the title German Romanticism, this one featuring the music of Friedrich Dotzauer, Ferdinand Thieriot and Johannes Brahms.  As I had never before even heard the names of Dotzauer and Thierot and was unfamiliar with the Brahms in its present arrangement, I had an opportunity to hear an entire program of music that was new to me.

The afternoon began with Dotzauer's Bassoon Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 36 (1816).  Other than the brief Wikipedia biography, I could find nothing online regarding this composer or his work.  A German cellist active in the first half of the nineteenth century and best remembered today for the pedagogical exercises he composed, he was first a member of the Meiningen Orchestra, then the Leipzig Gewandhaus (where he was also a member of the Leipzig Professors' Quartet) and finally the Dresden Court Orchestra.  His works with opus number exceed 175, so he must have been exceptionally prolific as a composer.  As a teacher, according to the Jupiter Players' website, he founded the Dresden School at a time when "the Dresden Court had become an important center for the study of the cello in Europe."

The next work on the program was Thieriot's Clarinet Quintet in E-flat major (c. 1880).  There is almost as little information on this composer as there is on Dotzauer.  He spent most of his life in Hamburg and was highly regarded as a composer until his death in 1919 at which point his music disappeared from the repertoire.  His greatest claim to fame is that he was once a friend of Brahms.  The clarinetist at today's performance, Vadim Lando, speculated that one reason Thieriot is so little known is because the bulk of his unpublished scores somehow ended up in Russia and so were unavailable to Western musicians during the Soviet period.

No matter how obscure the two opening works, they were actually much more accomplished compositions than I had anticipated and were both enjoyable to hear.  I found the opening of the Dotzauer quartet somewhat reminiscent of Mozart's compositions for winds.  

After intermission, the program closed with Brahms's Piano Trio in G major.  If the title of the work is unfamiliar, it is because the piece was not originally composed as a piano trio by Brahms (he wrote only three that are definitely attributed to him - the B major, Op. 8; the C major, Op. 87; and the C minor, Op. 101 - although he may also have authored a trio in A major that was only discovered in 1924), but is instead a transcription of his String Sextet No. 2, Op. 36 (1864-1865).  The arrangement for piano, violin and cello was completed by Theodor Kirchner with Brahms's approval.  This was not their only collaboration; Kirchner also completed the vocal score of Brahms's German Requiem and arranged the third and fourth sets of Hungarian Dances for solo piano.  It is not clear why Brahms worked so often with Kirchner, though the latter was recognized as a talented composer in his own right; these commissions may have been acts of generosity on Brahms's part to a fellow musician who was almost always in need.  As the Jupiter Players' website tactfully puts it:
"Although essentially forgotten, Kirchner was Brahms's friend, Schumann's protégé, Mendelssohn's pupil, Wagner's accompanist, Dvorák's arranger, dedicatee of Reger's second Violin Sonata, Clara Schumann's lover (a brief, discreet, unhappy liaison in the early 1860s), and would-be lover of the poet and writer Mathilde Wesendonck (she was immortalized by Wagner's "Wesendonck Songs").  Kirchner was universally admired as a marvelous musician, but he could not maintain a job or marriage, and his gambling and extravagance led to destitution in his later years, so much so that his publisher and friends, including Brahms, bailed him out of debt."
In any event, hearing Brahms's chamber piece in this arrangement provided a novel listening experience. Although I still prefer the composer's original scoring for strings, the use of the piano was quite effective, particularly in the third movement poco adagio. It also helped a great deal that the pianist, Max Levinson, was such an able musician. His playing showed wonderful sensitivity and a thorough understanding of Brahms's music.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Met Opera: Anna Netrebko Sings in Il Trovatore

Yesterday afternoon, I attended the Met Opera for the first time this season and heard an outstanding performance of Il Trovatore, a work that has always been a mainstay of the Met's repertoire.  It was actually the the third opera the company staged in its first season in 1883.  Since that time, according to Wikipedia, the Met has given 615 performances, obviously not counting those scheduled for this season.  The last time I saw Trovatore was back in the late 1980's when James Levine conducted an all-star cast headed by Pavarotti.  Ever since, I've always considered Manrico to have been the tenor's greatest role.

The opera, with libretto by Salvadore Cammarano (who died before its completion) and Leone Emanuele Bardare, was composed between 1851 and 1852 when Verdi was at the height of his powers.  He had had only just completed Rigoletto and had already started La Traviata.  (It's astonishing to realize Trovatore and Traviata had their respective premieres only two months apart in January and March 1853.  It must have been a nerve wracking time for Verdi as he prepared for opening nights in two different cities, Rome and Venice.)

Much has been made of the bizarre nature of the opera's plot, taken from Antonio García Gutiérrez's equally outrageous 1836 play El Trovador.  (Another Gutiérrez play provided the source for Simon Boccanegra.)  And it is true that Verdi instructed Cammarano to emphasize these twisted elements and not to soften them.  The Met's Program Notes quote the composer as writing to his librettist: "If we cannot do our opera with all the bizarre quality of the play, we'd better give up."  In general, though, I've found most opera plots to be thoroughly implausible.  Other than in verismo works, most composers and their librettists have never seemed to have placed the creation of believable situations high on their list of priorities.  What has always mattered more, especially to a composer so concerned with dramatic effect as Verdi, is to have the stage filled with action that catches up the audience and moves forward rapidly.  Having said that, there are some scenes in Trovatore that are definitely over the top, and it's no great surprise that it was this work that the Marx Brothers chose to parody so hilariously in A Night at the Opera.

Yesterday's matinee was as excellent a performance as one could hope to see at the Met.  A wonderful cast brought the opera to life and realized Verdi's intentions to their fullest.  There wasn't a dull moment in any of the four acts, and the audience gave the singers one loud ovation after another.  I've heard Anna Netrebko in the past and thought quite highly of her when she sang Tatiana in Eugene Onegin two seasons ago.  On Saturday, though, she surpassed herself as Leonora.  Her delivery was flawless throughout and fully the equal of that of any of the great sopranos I've heard over the years.  The dependable Dolora Zajick, who first sang Azucena when she debuted with the San Francisco Opera in 1986, was excellent as always in this critical role.  Yonghoon Lee, whom I can't remember having heard sing before, seemed to start a bit slowly as Manrico but was fully in control by the rousing end of Act III.  The real center of attention at this performance, though, was veteran baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky who took time off from treatment for a brain tumor to make three appearances this season as Count Di Luna.   A recent article published on WQXR's website contains a video of the singer's highly emotional September 25 curtain call on the Met stage.

I've only seen conductor Marco Armiliato twice in the past and was more impressed by his performance here than I was with his prior work on the podium.  He appeared to have a real flair for Verdi's music, and I thought handled the complex score very well.

David McVicar's handsome production was traditional and showed great respect for the composer.  The Charles Edwards sets were muted and unobtrusive and, most importantly, did not call for any unduly long delays between acts.  The oversize crucifix in one corner of the stage seemed oddly out of place, though, except of course in the convent scene at the end of Act II.  I thought the backdrop used as the curtain, a detail from one of Goya's "black paintings," was especially effective considering the opera's setting.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art

One would have expected to find a great many European influences in the artwork of a painter such as Thomas Eakins.  In his youth, he studied in Paris at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, where he was instructed by none other than the renowned academician Gérôme. Afterwards, he spent several months traveling through Europe as he completed his own version of the "Grand Tour."  In spite of these expatriate wanderings, though, Eakins went on to become a quintessentially American artist as well as the possessor of a fiercely independent character that could have been produced nowhere else but in the United States in the late nineteenth century.

It's interesting that, after having returned to America, Eakins chose to remain in his native city of Philadelphia and never expressed any desire to once again visit Europe.  One would have expected that an individual who wished to pursue painting as a career would at least have relocated to New York where there were many more opportunities for recognition.  But Eakins, like many other artists before and since, showed more ability at creating art than at making money  He never learned to produce work that would sell.  Nor did he want to learn.  No matter how disheartened by the lack of acceptance and sales he encountered, he nevertheless doggedly continued to paint in the style that best accorded with his own aesthetic even if it were not the most marketable.

Eakins's refusal to conform carried over into his personal life as well.  His near worship of the nude human form would have been unconventional enough even in our own time.  In the staid Philadelphia society of the late 1800's, it was considered totally unacceptable.  It was Eakins's shocking lack of decorum that led inevitably to his dismissal from the teaching staff of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as well as to his removal as lecturer at the Drexel Institute.  His emphasis on nudity and sexuality may also have been a factor in the suicide of his troubled 23 year old niece, Ella Crowell, in 1897.  Her sister later claimed the cause of the tragedy was "the wearing effect of unnatural sexual excitements practiced upon her [by Eakins] in the manner of Oscar Wilde."

Non-conformist as Eakins was, it was only natural that he should have been an admirer of Walt Whitman who was also known for his scorn of convention and whose Leaves of Grass had been condemned as obscene.  In 1887, Eakins traveled to Camden, New Jersey, where the poet was living out his last years, in order to paint his portrait.  The two men shared a mutual respect for one another and became close friends.  It was Eakins who prepared Whitman's death mask after the poet's demise in 1892.

At the heart of Eakins's painting style was a rigid adherence to the principles of one-point perspective he had originally been taught by Gérôme.  There was nothing intuitive in Eakins's art.  He painstakingly worked out every detail of a composition before putting its components in a grid on the canvas surface.  Very often this resulted in a rigidity and loss of spontaneity that rendered the painting lifeless.  It became more an academic exercise than a work of art.  At its best, though, such careful planning created a realism that was almost photographic in its minute attention to detail.

It's not surprising in light of Eakins's absorption with perspective and the correct rendering of details that he should have become involved with photography.  A number of his platinum prints have survived, and it can be seen from them he was quite a competent photographer.  He also used the medium for the practical purpose of obtaining studies on which to base his paintings.  In addition, he was very involved with the early experiments by Eadweard Muybridge, another American original, that eventually led to the invention of motion pictures.  He and Muybridge worked closely together in Philadelphia in 1884-1885 during which time Eakins came up with a number of improvements to the equipment and methods used by Muybridge in his famous photographic studies of animal locomotion.

Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art by William Innes Homer is a fair and balanced biography that makes no attempt to whitewash the artist's numerous shortcomings.  In well written prose, Homer narrates the major incidents in Eakins's life and discusses in depth all his major paintings as well as the preparatory sketches that preceded them.  The descriptions of these works - accompanied by high quality reproductions of the pieces themselves - are insightful and display a thorough understanding of nineteenth century American art.  At the very end of the book, there is a telling quote by Robert Henri written shortly before Eakins's death:
"Who [Eakins] was in love with the great mysterious nature as manifested in man and things, had no need to falsify to make romantic, or to sentimentalize over to make beautiful."
This apt description could just as well apply to Homer's biography as to the artist himself.