Friday, November 27, 2015

Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts and Crafts

Though Arthur Wesley Dow is little remembered today, the crafts movement he founded and influenced was at the turn of the twentieth century a powerful force in American art, and Dow's ideas still resonate in any discussion of the aesthetics of the period.  As an instructor at Pratt, the New York Art Students League and the Columbia University Teachers College, he was able to disseminate his ideas among his students, many of whom went on to become artists in their own right.  Among them were such luminaries as Georgia O'Keefe and Max Weber.

While Dow was born in New England and trained as an artist at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris, the real source of his inspiration came from Japan.  During the late nineteenth century, many European artists such as Whistler and Van Gogh were profoundly influenced by the artworks, particularly the ukiyo-e woodblock prints, that had begun to appear after Japan had finally been opened to the West in 1853.  Japonisme became something of a vogue and was even used for decorative purposes.  Dow's interest, however, ran far deeper.  After having encountered the work of the printmaker Hokusai he wrote:
"It is now plain to me that Whistler and Pennell whom I have admired as great originals are only copying the Japanese.  One evening with Hokusai gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study of pictures."
Dow then befriended Ernest Fenollosa, at the time curator of the Boston Museum's Japanese collection, and began an exhaustive study of printmaking techniques.  So successful was he in mastering the ukiyo-e process with the assistance of Sylvester Koehler, the museum's print curator, that in 1895 Dow's prints of New England scenes were given a one-man exhibition organized by Fenollosa.  But Dow's achievement was more than a technical success.  He had recognized in the ukiyo-e prints he had viewed the underlying Japanese principle of notan, the massing of blocks of light and shadow, and had been able to incorporate it into his own style and to promote this aesthetic in the creation of modernist works. 

Dow was also a talented photographer and member of the Boston Camera Club.  He applied to his photographic work the same concept of notan that he had used in his printmaking.  As such, he found himself firmly in the camp of the Pictorialist movement.  Not only did he instruct such prominent photographers as Gertrude Käsebier, Barbara Morgan and Alvin Langdon Coburn, he also hired Clarence White to teach photography at the Teachers College.

Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts and Crafts was written to accompany an exhibit given by the American Federation of Arts in 1999.  It consists of two short essays and a number of excellent reproductions not only of  Dow's own works but those of his students as well.  The first essay, written by Nancy E. Green, is the more useful and provides a broad outlook over the course of Dow's career.  Unfortunately, Green is so determined to demonstrate the depth of Dow's influence on the course of American art that she spends more time discussing his students and followers than she does the artist himself.  The second essay, written by Jessie Poesch, has a much narrower focus and limits itself to an overview of the ceramics inspired by Dow's teaching.  In spite of its limitations, the book is a useful introduction to an important American artist.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In Memoriam: Seymour Lipkin

According to an obituary recently published in The New York Times, the wonderful pianist and Juilliard faculty member Seymour Lipkin passed away on November 16th at age 88.  

I was fortunate enough to have heard Mr. Lipkin, who won first prize at the Rachmaninoff Competition in 1948, perform several times in the past few seasons.  He gave an impressive solo recital at Juilliard in 2013 where he expertly played sonatas by Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.  More recently, he performed, again at Juilliard, at a joint recital with violinist Laurie Smukler.  In the solo portion of that program, he gave his interpretation of two impromptus from Schubert's Op. 90.  At the time, I described his work at the keyboard as "limpid."  Then, in an appearance with the Jupiter Symphony Players, he accompanied guest violinist Miriam Fried and members of the ensemble on Mozart's great piano quartet in G minor, K. 478.  

In addition to his considerable skills as a pianist, Mr. Lipkin was also an able conductor who served as music director and principal guest conductor of the Joffrey Ballet Company (1966-1979) and as music director of the Long Island Symphony (1963-1979).

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Lipkin once at intermission before a performance and found him to be a friendly approachable man with a good sense of humor who appeared to sincerely appreciate my words of praise.  Though he never received the wide public recognition he most surely deserved, he was held in high esteem both by his colleagues and appreciative audiences.  He will be missed.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Omega Ensemble Performs Beethoven, Gershwin and Brahms

On Sunday afternoon at the Park Avenue Church the Omega Ensemble gave the second of their semiannual "Gift to the City" recitals, this one featuring works by Beethoven, Gershwin and Brahms.  It was a fairly short affair, only an hour in length with no intermission, but for all that an enjoyable respite on a Sunday afternoon.

The program opened with Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 4 in C Major, Op. 102 No. 1 (1815) performed by cellist Andrew Janss and pianist David Kaplan.  Though not the best known or most often played of Beethoven's chamber works, the two sonatas that make up the Op. 102 share an important place in the composer's canon - along with the piano sonata, Op. 101, they mark the beginning of Beethoven's late period.  Just as the composer's middle period was precipitated in 1802 by the onset of his deafness, so the late period began when that same disability had grown so acute that he he had entirely lost his hearing (it was in 1818 that he began keeping the "Conversation Books") and suffered as well from an illness he termed an "inflammatory fever."  In addition, Beethoven was engaged in a bitter custody dispute over the guardianship of his nephew Karl.  As a result of all this, Beethoven had temporarily withdrawn from most society, but he did nevertheless find time to enjoy a few idyllic summer months as the guest of Count Peter Erdödy and his wife Anne Marie to whom the Op. 102 is dedicated. While with them, he spent time with his fellow guest, the distinguished cellist Josef Linke for whom the sonatas were actually written.  The transition from middle to late period is immediately noticeable in the concision with which Beethoven now composed.  Although there are still moments of intense emotion, particularly in the second movement, the expansiveness that marked the middle period works has entirely disappeared along with anything not vital to the integrity of the work.  Beethoven in fact referred to the C major as a "free" sonata because it consists of only two movements in which the composer has tightly compressed his musical ideas in order to give them more power.

The next work to be performed was the Gershwin's Three Preludes (1926), here arranged for clarinet and piano and performed by clarinetist Mark Dover and pianist David Kaplan.  The music is immediately identifiable as vintage Gershwin to anyone who's heard the Rhapsody in Blue.  The work has at its heart the composer's signature jazzy blues sound that has grown so familiar over the years it could well be a soundtrack for New York City itself.  It's difficult for us today to comprehend how shocking this music, originally composed for solo piano, must have sounded to the early twentieth century audience who were in attendance when Gershwin premiered all three preludes at the Roosevelt Hotel in 1926.  Originally written for solo piano, the piece has since been orchestrated and arranged for any number of instruments.  That played here, for clarinet and piano, was to me much for evocative than the original for piano alone.  The entire work ran only a little over five minutes in length and consisted of a slow blues movement, marked andante con moto e poco rubato, flanked by two fast outer movements, both marked allegro ben ritmato e deciso.

The program concluded with Brahms's Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op. 114 (1891) performed by Mark Dover, clarinet; Andrew Janss, cello; and David Kaplan, piano.  Every admirer of Brahms knows the story of how the composer, intent upon retirement after having completed his String Quintet, Op. 111, took up his pen once again after having heard virtuoso clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in a performance with the Meinin­gen Orches­tra.  The most famous work that came out of Brahms's collaboration with Mühlfeld was the Quintet, Op. 115, but the composer also produced two Sonatas, Op. 120 as well as the instant trio.  The trio has never received as much attention as the other pieces and has often been referred to as both "academic" and "austere."  Like many of Brahms's compositions it at times seems too carefully thought out and lacking in spontaneity. Brahms himself may have been somewhat aware of this when he described his style as "thinking logically in music."

I thought the quality of the musicianship at this recital even higher than on the previous occasion in May when I had last heard Omega members play.  All three performers were exceptionally talented and, equally important, were able to function very well together as an ensemble.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Carnegie Hall: Berliner Philharmoniker Performs Beethoven #9

The highlight of the classical music season this year was without question the Berliner Philharmoniker's appearances at Carnegie Hall last week where the orchestra performed the full cycle of the Beethoven symphonies under the baton of outgoing music director Simon Rattle.  In honor of the occasion, WQXR on Thursday broadcast live a performance of the #8 and the #6, the Pastoral.  (Click here to hear the archived broadcast of that concert.)  But the real thrill for me was when I was lucky enough yesterday evening to be at the hall to hear the orchestra give their interpretation of the #9, the Choral.

Whether or not the Ninth is Beethoven's greatest work - personally, I would give that honor to the late quartets - it is undeniably one of the most important and most powerful symphonies ever written.  It was not only Brahms who stood awe stricken in its shadow, but every composer up until our own day as well.  This is a monolithic work in which Beethoven brought to bear the full weight of his genius and a lifetime of experience.  It had had its genesis years before in the 1808 Choral Fantasy, Op. 80.  In that earlier piece the composer had prefigured the symphony's most controversial element, the introduction of choral forces in the final movement.  It was as though even then Beethoven felt he had to move beyond a purely instrumental level to give voice to his thoughts.  A significant change in outlook, however, occurred in the sixteen year period that separated the composition of the two pieces. The key concept in earlier work had been that of strength as Beethoven stood firm against his suffering and determined to overcome it.  While the composer had not been totally pleased with the text with which he had worked, he did wish to retain that specific term if a new text were to be substituted at some later date.  That he was adamant in this regard can be seen in a letter he wrote to his publisher that is quoted in the Wikipedia article:
"You may wish to print another text, as the text like the music was written very quickly ... Still with another set of words I want the word kraft ["strength"] to be kept or one similar to it in its place."
On the other hand, Schiller's Ode to Joy expressed, in the most exalted terms possible, a celebration of brotherhood and the interconnectedness of all mankind.  In taking this life affirming message as his text, Beethoven, no matter how cruelly cut off from society by his deafness, was determined to assert his place as a member of the family of man.  The symphony can then be viewed as a refutation of the solitude circumstance had thrust upon him.  While not denying his individuality, the composer saw himself as part of a greater whole.  In that sense, the Ninth really deserves to be considered one of the earliest masterpieces of the Romantic tradition.

In a post written earlier this month I mentioned my belief that in composing his final piano sonatas Beethoven must have felt that he had exhausted all the possibilities the piano offered him.  Recently, I came across a quote on the Ninth by Dennis Matthews that echoes this sentiment very well.
"As with other late-period works, there are places where the medium quivers under the weight of thought and emotion, where the deaf composer seemed to fight against, or reach beyond, instrumental and vocal limitations."
Terrible as it is to say, Beethoven's deafness, however catastrophic an affliction it may have been for him, was a boon for future generations of music lovers to the extent it propelled him beyond the limits imposed upon other composers.  The very fact that he could not hear his own works caused him to think in terms of pure music, so much so that his compositions tested the capabilities of the instruments for which he was writing.

The performances by Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker, both on Thursday evening and yesterday, were simply the finest renditions of Beethoven I've heard.  Despite his flamboyant personality, Rattle is at bottom a master craftsman who carefully wrung from the music all the nuance and meaning Beethoven had invested in it.  Every note was carefully considered and then impeccably executed by the musicians onstage.  The Westminster Choir and soloists Susanna Phillips (replacing Annette Dasch), Eva Vogel, Christian Elsner and Dimitry Ivashchenko were uniformly excellent as well.  I was impressed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Carnegie Hall: Leif Ove Andsnes Performs Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin

Yesterday evening I attended a recital at Carnegie Hall given by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes whose playing I've admired since I first heard him years ago in Lincoln Center's Great Performers series.  On this occasion he performed a thoughtful, well balanced program that featured works by Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin.

The recital began with selection of smaller works by Sibelius - Kyllikki, Op. 41; “The Birch Tree,” Op. 75, No. 4; “The Spruce,” Op. 75, No. 5; “Forest Lake,” Op. 114, No. 3; “Song in the Forest,” Op. 114, No. 4; “Spring Vision,” Op. 114, No. 5.  Today Sibelius is known primarily for his symphonies, his violin concerto and such tone poems at The Swan of Tuonela, but up until his withdrawal from composing in 1926 he was extremely prolific - his opus numbers reached 117 and he had thirty or so more works that were unnumbered.  It's all the more surprising then that Sibelius produced so little during the last thirty years of his life.  Much the same situation was to occur with Charles Ives.  In both cases, the composers grew so self-critical that they were no longer able to create new works.  The piano works performed at this recital covered almost Sibelius's entire career from Kyllikki which, despite its opus number was completed in 1904, to the three selections from the Op. 114 which date from 1929 when the composer had all but retired.  These were all quiet meditative works, almost brooding at times.  The image that came to mind as I listened was that of autumn leaves gently falling into still waters.

Following this came a sonata from a turbulent moment in Beethoven's life.  The Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3 dates from 1802, the same year in which the composer wrote the famous Heiligenstadt Testament in which he expressed his anguish over the loss of his hearing.  Most musicologists consider the writing of this document to be a turning point in the development of Beethoven's art and mark from it the beginning of his Middle Period.  None of the composer's despair is evident, though, in the present sonata.  It's as bright and cheerful a work as one could wish.  This is at least partly because the piece contains no slow movement (although the third movement minuet, marked moderato e grazioso, was here played much nearer the tempo of an andante).  But the sonata can also be seen as a farewell to the Classical forms Beethoven had learned from Haydn.  This was the last of the composer's piano sonatas, other than the Op. 106, to be structured in four movements and the last to contain a minuet.  One can imagine Beethoven in this work looking back fondly over the ground he has traveled before turning away and moving on toward new goals.

After intermission, the program continued with several works by Debussy - “La soirée dans Grenade” from Estampes; Etude No. 7, “Pour les degrés chromatiques”; Etude No. 11, “Pour les arpèges composés”; Etude No. 5, “Pour les octaves.”  The first of these, “La soirée dans Grenade” ("An Evening in Grenada") is the second of the three Estampes ("Prints") for piano composed in 1903.  Though Debussy loathed the term "impressionist," there is really no other way to describe this short tone poem in which the double harmonic major scale (a/k/a the "Gypsy" scale) is used to counterfeit the sound of guitar strumming to create a brilliant evocation of the Spanish spirit.  Debussy's set of twelve Études, three of which were performed at this recital, were written in 1915 when he had already begun to suffer from cancer and are among his last major works.  Dedicated to Chopin, whose own Études Debussy had only just finished reediting, these are more than a simple set of exercises.  They are actually extraordinarily difficult and intended to test the virtuosity of the performer as the composer himself made clear when he wrote regarding them:
"In point of technique these Études will usefully prepare pianists for a better understanding of the fact that the portals of music can only be opened with formidable hands."
The program closed with four works by Chopin in different genres - Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29; Etude in A-flat Major from Trois nouvelles études; Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1; Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52.  These were all familiar works but the one that most demanded the listener's attention was the last, the Ballade No. 4.  Written in 1842 and revised in 1843, it is often deservedly considered Chopin's masterpiece.  It is an introspective work, thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Romanticism, in which Chopin set out to express pianistically everything he had so far learned about life.  As such, it was a fitting conclusion to the program.

Leif Ove Andsnes proved once again at this recital what a fine musician he is.  There is nothing flashy in his style and his respect for the music is evident in every note.  It was a truly enjoyable evening for the appreciative audience and they responded warmly to both the music and the performer.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Neue Galerie: Berlin Metropolis

Viewing the current exhibit, Berlin Metropolis, at the Neue Galerie can be a frustrating experience.  For one thing, there is not enough space to easily view all the artwork on display.  Since only the third floor and one room on the second floor of this former townhouse have been given over to the exhibit, works are crowded together and placed on the walls one over the other even in the third floor hallway and in the tiny closet that opens off it.  One has to crane one's neck to see the full array, and even then a viewer must have excellent eyesight to make out the details in those pieces hung nearest the ceiling.  More important is the lack of documentation.  Tiny cards placed beside the artwork contain only minimal information.  For example, on the second floor there is a series of a dozen intriguing photographs taken at night with available light.  A single card explains that these show the exterior of the Capitol Theater in Berlin and were taken by a photographer named Venneman.  Why the photographs were taken and how they relate to the other architectural studies shown in the same gallery is never explained.  Nor is any information given regarding the photographer, other than his name, or the equipment he used.

A good deal of the exhibit is devoted to cinema.  There are a large number of movie posters and film stills, and one can view on small screens Fritz Lang's two great masterpieces, Metropolis and M, while on the second floor an entire wall is has been set aside for the screening of Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis, the 1927 experimental film directed by Walter Ruttmann (who later was assistant to Leni Riefenstahl and died in 1941 while working as a war photographer).  In addition, there are a number of evocative drawings showing set and costume designs for Metropolis, though the names of the designers themselves are nowhere provided.

Two walls of the second floor gallery are given over to architectural drawings that portray the modernist vision of what Berlin might one day have looked like.  These include studies for Erich Mendelsohn’s Einsteinturm (Einstein Tower) in Potsdam and Hans Poelzig’s interior design for the Grosse Schauspielhaus (Great Theater) as well as photographs of the Berlin-Britz complex and the Siemensstadt housing estate.  The most compelling - and the one that most clearly shows the influence of the Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus aesthetic - is easily Mies van der Rohe's plan for a skyscraper on the Friedrichstrasse, a huge charcoal and graphite drawing on brown paper.

There are a number of works shown by major artists and a summary of these is given on the museum's website:
"Herbert Bayer, The Lonely Metropolitan (1932), Max Beckmann, Film Studio (1933); George Grosz, Metropolis (1917); Raoul Hausmann, Dada Triumphs (The Exacting Brain of a Bourgeois Calls Forth a World Movement) (1920); Ludwig Meidner, I and the City (1913); Lily Reich, Collage (1930); Rudolf Schlichter, Blind Power (1937), Georg Scholz, Of Things to Come (1922), as well as major works by John Heartfield and Hannah Höch."
Unfortunately, these are never put in context.  No attempt is made to explain the relationships and the differences that existed among the major schools - Expressionism, the Neue Sachlichkeit, Dadaism - to which these artists belonged.  Instead the show is divided into five parts: The Birth of the Republic; A New Utopia; The "Neue Frau," or New Woman; The Crisis of Modernity; and Into the Abyss.  These themes are vague enough to begin with and are never meaningfully developed into a cohesive whole.  It would have been much better, I think, to have divided the show by the art movements represented and then to have shown the attempts to synthesize these widely divergent styles during the Weimar era.

There are many important works missing from this show and no reference is made to them.  It's hard to imagine anyone attempting an exhibit with this title and not including Otto Dix's masterpiece, the Metropolis triptych.  But this is only the most glaring example.  Among the photographers, for instance, there are no works shown by August Sander, Lotte Jaocbi or Yva, all of whom helped define the aesthetics of the period in their work.

In conclusion, there are many important works to be seen at this exhibit, some of them rarely displayed, and it definitely is worth taking the time to see them.  The real problem here, though, is that this is simply too large a theme for so intimate a venue.  The Weimar era was a cultural watershed that did much to define the style and outlook of the twentieth century.  I would be much more interested in seeing a major museum with more resources available to it stage a large scale show that was better able to do justice to its subject.

Those seeking a better idea of the artistic ferment that occurred in Berlin during the 1920's would do well to refer to Before the Deluge by Otto Friedrich, a fascinating and comprehensive study that's also extremely readable.  Copies are probably available in the Neue Galerie's bookstore, though I've never taken the time to look for it myself.

The exhibit continues through January 4, 2016.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Juilliard Piano Recital: Schubert, Liszt, Beethoven, Brahms and Stravinsky

I went on Wednesday afternoon to Paul Hall to hear a program of solo piano works played by the Piano Performance Forum.  One couldn't have asked for a more exciting selection for this full length recital (one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission) in a program that featured some of the greatest works of Schubert, Liszt, Beethoven, Brahms and Stravinsky.

The recital began with the first two movements of Schubert's Sonata No. 15 in C major, D. 840 (1825) performed by Jiayan Sun.  These were actually the only two movements Schubert troubled to complete.  Like the more famous Eighth Symphony, this is an unfinished work, most probably because Schubert was not satisfied with it and put it aside to work on other pieces.  The work's nickname, Reliquie, was given it by its publisher, C.F. Whistling, in 1861 either because he honestly thought this was Schubert's final work or, more disingenuously, because he wanted to provide to his customers a plausible reason for its incomplete state.  But even without the final two movements, this is still a major work.  Before beginning to play, Jiayan Sun quoted the critic Donald Tovey's claim that the first movement was one of Schubert's two most perfect realizations of the sonata form.

The next work was Liszt's Mephisto Waltz (1859-62) performed by Jiaqi Long.  Liszt actually wrote four Mephisto Waltzes of which the best known is the No. 1 composed some twenty years before the final three.  Originally written for orchestra, it was later reduced by Liszt to versions for both solo piano and for two pianos.  It takes its source from Lenau, the German romantic poet who died in an insane asylum, rather than from Goethe's better known play.  This programmatic piece is a musical description of a wedding party which Mephistopheles and Faust happen to pass by.  Mephistopheles plays the fiddle while Faust dances in a scene that grows increasingly surreal.  The wild passionate music gave Liszt an opportunity to show off to the fullest his skills on the piano.

Following the Liszt came Beethoven's Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 (1820) performed by Yandi Chen.  The Op. 109 was, of course, the first of Beethoven's final three piano sonatas and I was particularly interested in hearing it after having recently attended a recital at Carnegie Hall where András Schiff had performed the Op. 111.  I think it can be argued that Beethoven, in writing the three final sonatas, felt he had exhausted all the possibilities offered him by the piano.   After having completed the Op. 111, he in fact wrote that the piano was "after all an unsatisfactory instrument."  His last traditional sonata composition was really the Op. 106, the Hammerklavier.  The final three, on the other hand, took the sonata into new territory in which the composer can be seen questioning the form of the genre itself.  The mood of the Op. 109, when compared to the Op. 106, is much softer and introspective as though Beethoven were having a conversation with himself while writing it.  It's often pointed out that the first two movements contain elements that foreshadow the theme of the third movement.  I think it's possible then to view the theme and variations as an attempt to find a resolution to the larger musical questions Beethoven had posed to himself in the previous two movements.

Next came Brahms's Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 2 (1852) performed by Qilin Sun.  Brahms is customarily referred to as a Romantic and yet in temperament he seems as far removed from that designation as can be.  In the majority of his works one listens in vain for any burst of spontaneity or passion.  Brahms was meticulous in his craft, perhaps overly so, and carefully labored over and reworked each composition until he was satisfied with it and then burned those pieces that didn't reach his high standard.  He even revisited one early work, the 1854 Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8, and painstakingly removed from it any trace of youthful ardor.  The Op. 2 then is a distinct anomaly in its intensity and virtuoso flourishes, and that may be one reason Brahms did not allow it to be first publicly performed until 1882, thirty years after it was composed.  The fact that he chose the C major sonata over it to be his first published work is an indication of the doubts he already harbored concerning it.  Not surprisingly for such a romantic work, its dedicatee was Clara Schumann, the married woman whom he had only recently met but with whom he was already infatuated.

The afternoon ended with Stravinsky's The Firebird (1910) in a 1928 transcription for solo piano by Guido Agosti as performed by Re Zhang.  Agosti was a student of Busoni and by all accounts a virtuoso pianist himself.  Stage fright, however, kept him from a full time career as a performer and instead caused him to devote himself to teaching.  Only a few recordings by him are known to exist.  His reduction of the famous ballet, Stravinsky's first great success with the Ballets Russes consisted of three selections - Danse Infernale, Berceuse and the Finale.  A Gramophone review of a 2014 Jenny Lin recording referred to the transcription as "cripplingly difficult" and it certainly seemed all that and more as Re Zhang gave it a bravura performance that concluded the recital.  It would have been difficult in any event to have followed so exciting a piece.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Jupiter Players Perform Hummel, Dvořák and Mozart

Things did not go smoothly for the Jupiter Players while planning yesterday's recital at Good Shepherd Church.  The program which featured works by Hummel, Dvořák and Mozart, was originally to have been performed by members of the ensemble playing alongside guest musicians Seymour Lipkin and Miriam Fried.  I had seen these two great musicians last season when they had played together on the Mozart G minor Quartet and had very much been looking forward to hearing them together once again.  Unfortunately, Seymour Lipkin has canceled several appearances this season due to ill health, and then Miriam Fried recently injured her arm (according to the information given on Jupiter's website) and was also unable to appear at this recital.  Their places were taken by Drew Petersen, piano, and Itamar Zorman, violin.

The matinee began with Hummel's Clarinet Quartet in E flat major, S. 78, WoO 5 (1808).  Though Hummel has been relegated today to a mere footnote in the history of the Viennese Classical period, he was during his lifetime quite famous.  In his youth he was regarded as a child piano prodigy on the same level as Mozart whom he in fact studied under before beginning a tour of Europe in 1788.  Afterwards, he was widely recognized not only for his talent as a pianist but also for his abilities as a composer second only to Beethoven and was even selected as Haydn's successor as Konzermeister at Esterhazy.  Even today, his music is recognized as a vital link between the Classical period and the Romantic era that followed.  Despite all that, the present piece was neglected even during Hummel's own lifetime and was only rediscovered in the twentieth century when a single surviving manuscript was located in the British Library.  Its most interesting feature is the second movement, entitled La seccatura ("The Nuisance") in which each instrument is given a different time-signature, i.e., the clarinet part is in 2/4, the violin in 12/8, the viola in 3/4 and the cello in 6/8.

The next work was Mozart's Piano Trio No. 1 in G major, K. 496 (1786).  This was actually the first of two trios the composer wrote in the key of G major.  The second, the K. 564, was the last of Mozart's works in this genre and was written two years later in 1788.  Mozart's trios have for some reason never received the attention accorded the earlier but much better known piano quartets.  That may be because they were written to be performed by others, very often amateur musicians, rather than by Mozart himself and are consequently less challenging than the quartets.  This particular trio was written at approximately the same time as Figaro, and the demands on Mozart's time are very often put forward as the cause of the unusual number of corrections and emendations, some of them in red ink, that the composer made to the score,  

After intermission, the program concluded with Dvořák's String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 51 (1879).  Though the work was written at the request of the Florentine Quartet in 1878, it was premiered the following year in Berlin by the Joachim Quartet.  This was a heady time in Dvořák's life.  He had just won the Austrian Prize competition whose jury had included not only the famous critic Eduard Hanslick but Brahms as well.  Brahms was at the time the most famous composer in Europe and the patronage and friendship he offered Dvořák following the presentation of the award represented a turning point in the young composer's life and raised him to the stature of an internationally known artist.  When shortly thereafter he composed this piece, he was only just beginning to incorporate the Brahmsian influence in his work. (He had already dedicated the previous quartet, the No. 9, to his new mentor.)  This approach can be heard most clearly in the third movement Romanza. Nevertheless, the folk elements that influenced his earlier compositions are still present, most notably in the second movement Dumka.    In fact, Dvořák never lost touch with the folk tradition and went on to transmute it in his most famous "American" works.  Like most of the composer's early quartets, the No. 10 remained relatively unknown.  Its composition was overshadowed by the enthusiastic reception given the Slavonic Dances, a work commissioned by the publisher Simrock on the advice of Brahms.

Even without big name performers on hand, yesterday's recital went extremely well and was thoroughly enjoyable.  The musicianship on the Dvořák quartet, in particular, was exceptional and allowed me to fully appreciate this work which I was only hearing for the first time

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Gallery: 19th Century Landscapes

I walked across Central Park on Thursday afternoon to view the exhibit of nineteenth century landscapes from the Jay McDonald collection now on view at Hans P. Kraus, Jr.  The gallery specializes in showing work from the very beginning of photography and so offers visitors a rare opportunity to see images otherwise locked away in private collections or only occasionally put on display at the Met Museum.

The photographs shown at the current exhibit were all landscapes, most of them taken in the 1850's less than twenty years after Talbot's invention of the medium.  The process still in use at that time was Talbot's original "salt print" method in which paper was hand sensitized with a solution of silver chloride.  This was a printing out process (POP) distinct from the calotype negative, a developing out process (DOP) in which the paper, after having been first sensitized with silver iodide, was dried and then coated with potassium iodide before being allowed to dry a second time.  The calotype method was preferable for use in negatives because it greatly shortened the necessary exposure time in the camera.  The earlier salt print method, on the other hand, was generally used for positive prints because it was easier to use, less expensive and, at least in Talbot's opinion, gave more attractive results.

Obviously, the taking of landscape photos was much more problematical in the mid-nineteenth century than it is today.  The equipment - consisting of large format view camera, tripod and plate holders - was cumbersome to carry even to a nearby location in the countryside.  How much more amazing then are the photographs of Ernest Benecke - represented here by Coptic Village in Upper Egypt (1852) - who worked in the Mideast and Linnaeus Tripe who created portfolios documenting his journeys in India and Burma.  The primitive conditions in which these photographers were forced to work, not to mention the extremes of heat to which they were exposed, were much more arduous than any faced by modern day shooters working for National Geographic.  

Benecke and Tripe are celebrated today for having been among the earliest travel photographers. In spite of this, little is known of Benecke's life other than the bare facts of the Grand Tour he took through the Near East in 1852.  It was only in 1992 that a portfolio of his work was located and the extent of his accomplishment in ethnography made clear.  A 1994 New York Times article details the discovery and the subsequent purchase of the portfolio by the German collector Werner Bokelberg.  More is known of Tripe who was an officer in the British East India Company and official photographer of the Madras government.  In 1855 he accompanied an British expedition to Burma where he photographed sites previously undocumented by Westerners.  Tripe was also incredibly proficient at his craft.  Though he also used the salt print process, he achieved greater sharpness by apparently treating the prints with a coating of albumen.  (Though I have a working familiarity with some of the alternative photographic processes, I have never come across a description of this particular method and am curious to know how it is achieved.)  Also, in contrast to other photographs from this period in which the sky shows no detail at all, only a blank white surface, Tripes's prints - The Hill Fort at Trimium, Poodoocottah, India (1858) and Beekinpully, Veerabuddradroog, Madras, India (1857-1858) - have a great deal of detail in the sky area.  When I asked at the gallery how this was possible, I was told he touched up these areas of the print with watercolors.  If this was indeed the case, Tripe was masterful in his use of paints.  Even on close examination, no trace of brushwork can be seen in the finished prints.

The works of many other photographers were on display at this exhibit.  The most notable of these were Charles Nègre, who once studied painting under Ingres and whose medium format (9,3cm x 10.8cm) Woman at the Seashore (1860's) was my personal favorite among the images shown, and Roger Fenton, who shortly thereafter gained great acclaim for his photographs of the Crimean War.

The exhibit continues through November 20, 2015.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Juilliard Chamber Recital: Hadyn and Schubert

Yesterday afternoon, I attended my first Wednesdays at One recital of the season, this one featuring an hour of chamber music by Haydn and Schubert. The musicians were the Calliope Quartet - Tianyang Gao and Julia Glenn, violin; Molly Goldman, viola; and Hélène Werner, cello - whom I had heard perform at another Juilliard recital just last month.

The first piece on the program was Haydn's String Quartet in C major, Op. 74, No 1 (1793). The work was written in Vienna in the interval between the composer's London journeys of 1791-1792 and 1794-1795. The showpieces of these highly successful tours were the symphonies Haydn wrote for both occasions, but he was also pressed to compose chamber works by Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario who had arranged the trips and had produced the London concerts. Salomon was not only a canny showman (it was he who gave Mozart's 41st Symphony the nickname "Jupiter") but a superb violinist as well and wanted chamber pieces that he could perform himself in public recitals. This was at the time a fairly new phenomenon; previously, chamber music had been intended only for private performances, such as those held at the Esterházy court where Haydn had been vice-Kappelmeister, and the move to public venues was one sign that serious music was no longer the sole preserve of the aristocracy. Haydn responded to Salomon's request by producing the six quartets now known as the Opp. 71 and 74 dedicated to Count Anton Apponyi, who paid very well for the privilege.

Because Haydn's six quartets were intended for public performance he altered his method of composition while writing them. As a set of CMS Program Notes state:
"Haydn, who was always sensitive to accommodating his audiences, made the Quartets suitable for the concert hall by providing them with ample dramatic contrasts, basing them on easily memorable thematic material, allowing a certain virtuosity to the first violinist in the fast movements (to show off Salomon’s considerable skills), and giving them an almost symphonic breadth of expression."
When considering Haydn's quartets I think it's best to view them as a series that extended over the length of his career beginning with the Op, 1 in 1762 through the Op. 103 in 1803. Though most attention is paid to the Opp. 20 and 33 in which Haydn formalized the structure of the quartet, he was always innovating and proving his reputation as "the father of the string quartet." The Apponyi quartets are a good example of this constant refinement of expression. The same Program Notes quoted above find in Haydn's later works "stylistic elements that presaged the dawning Romantic age" and point out examples in the C major played here.

I've been fortunate enough over the past few seasons to have heard the Orion Quartet perform a number of Haydn's string quartets, and their interpretations have been as close to definitive as one can hope to come. The Calliope Quartet, while not yet quite at that level, gave yesterday a thoughtful and accomplished performance that I enjoyed a great deal.

The ensemble also gave a repeat of the piece they had played at last month's recital, Schubert's String Quartet in A minor, D. 804, Op. 29 (1824) nicknamed the "Rosamunde."  I've already posted my comments on that performance and have nothing new to add here.

Monday, November 2, 2015

WQXR Archived Broadcasts

Last month, I posted my comments on a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra of Strauss's Elektra that I had recently attended at Carnegie Hall.  I had been incredibly impressed by the conducting of Andris Nelsons who is now in his second season as the orchestra's music director.  On the following evening, I heard a broadcast on WQXR of the same orchestra and conductor performing an all-Russian program that consisted of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky cantata and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, two masterpieces of twentieth century music.  That broadcast can currently be heard on the radio station's website.  A link is provided below.

The following week I attended a performance given by the London Symphony Orchestra led by Valery Gergiev at Geffen Hall.  I later posted my comments on that concert as well.  It was an all-Bartok program and featured the great pianist Yefim Bronfman in a stunning performance of the composer's Second Concerto.  Coincidentally, I had heard the evening before on WQXR a broadcast from NJPAC of the same ensemble, this time performing a program that included both Bartok's Third Concerto and the Miraculous Mandarin Suite, the work I've always considered the composer's masterpiece.  In addition, the second half of the program featured one of the best renditions I've heard of Stravinsky's complete ballet music for The Firebird.  That archived broadcast can also be accessed on the station's website via the link below.

I don't know how long either broadcast will be available, but they're both certainly well worth hearing if one has the time.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Carnegie Hall: András Schiff Performs Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert

At Carnegie Hall on Friday evening the highly acclaimed pianist András Schiff gave a recital that featured the final piano sonatas of the greatest of the Classical composers - Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.  This was not the first occasion on which the pianist had performed a program of these composers' works.  I had in March attended another recital at the same venue at which Mr. Schiff had played a different set of sonatas by these same masters.  As on that prior occasion, it was incredibly exciting than to hear what are arguably the greatest works in the piano repertoire interpreted by so capable a musician.

The program opened with Haydn's Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 52 (1794).  If this was the last of Haydn's solo piano works it was also arguably his best.  A good deal of the credit for this accomplishment is due to the evolution of the instrument itself and to its changing role in Western music.  In the Baroque period, the keyboard most commonly in use was the harpsichord, an instrument employed primarily as a form of basso continuo within the context of the concerto.  In other words, the harpsichord supported the soloist, and parts for it were not generally written out.  The very construction of the harpsichord, in which the strings were plucked by quills, precluded any expressive use on the part of the performer and thereby rendered it unsuitable as a solo instrument. This tradition was still in place when Haydn began his career.  Accordingly, most of his earliest solo sonatas - some now thought lost because he did not think highly enough of them to copy out - were intended as exercises for his students rather than as pieces to be published and publicly performed.  This unsatisfactory situation had already begun to change with the introduction of the fortepiano, pioneered by Bartolomeo Cristofori at the beginning of the eighteenth century, an instrument in which the strings were hammered rather than plucked.  This development, which gave much greater control to the performer, allowed the rise of the piano virtuoso, such as the young Mozart and later Beethoven, and caused composers to view the piano in a new light as a solo instrument.  But even then it was not until Haydn encountered the modern piano, manufactured by Broadwood, on his second trip to London that he was able to realize the full potential of the instrument.  At that point he was encouraged to produce his finest work by the presence in London of the excellent pianist Therese Jansen, a former student of Mozart's one time rival Clementi, to whom the autograph of the score was dedicated.

The next work was Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 (1821-1822).  This, of course, was not only the composer's final sonata but also one of the last pieces he wrote for the piano.  It's an astounding piece of music and just about everything that can be said about it has already been said, most often in superlatives.  But the most telling comment was Beethoven's own, made shortly after he'd completed the work, that the piano was "after all an unsatisfactory instrument."  One has to bear in mind that Beethoven had begun his career as a pianist before he was ever known as a composer.  It was his skill at the keyboard that won him his first renown and that was central to his conception of the music he composed in his early and middle periods, even those in which the piano did not appear as a solo instrument.  It was only in his late period, when his deafness had become total and he was no longer able to play, that his vision was finally able to extend itself beyond the possibilities offered by this instrument.  I think it would then be better to view this sonata not so much as a summation but as a turning point.  After this, aside from the Diabelli Variations, a project that after all was thrust upon him, his major works - the Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony and the late quartets - had no connection to the piano.  By then, thinking in pianistic terms as he had done all through his career had become a hindrance rather than a help.  The Op. 111, magnificent as it is, was really only a stopping point beyond which the composer still needed to travel in order to make the profound musical statements that were yet to come.

After intermission, the recital continued with Mozart's Piano Sonata in D Major, K. 576 (1789), one of six written for the Prussian Princess Friederike.  It is the extensive use of counterpoint in both the opening and final movements that renders this sonata so difficult to perform.  As a Program Note from the Seattle Symphony states:
"A playful Allegretto born of a simple melody sets the music in motion. Once Mozart presents the tune he immediately adds a contrapuntal second theme constructed from rapid 16th-note triplets. This new motive appears in inverted form above the main theme, creating an example of expert double counterpoint, a nod to Baroque era polyphony. The composer had clearly absorbed old Bach’s rich fugal style that Mozart first fully explored in 1782 when Baron von Swieten, Imperial Viennese Court librarian, had lent the composer scores from his collection of music by the Cantor of Leipzig."
The program ended with Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 (1828).  While listening to this magisterial work it's difficult to believe that Schubert's sonatas remained unappreciated and rarely played until well into the twentieth century.  Even Schumann, who should have known better, had little positive to say about them.  Today, of course, the late sonatas are recognized as being among Schubert's greatest creations, comparable in quality to Beethoven's own final works in the genre, and have become mainstays of the piano repertoire.  Taken together, they reflect the composer's awareness of the shortness of the time left him and convey a sense of resignation underlain by quiet grief.  Their meditative aspect can be heard clearly in the opening movement of the D. 960 in which shifts in tonality create in the mind of the listener an illusion of traveling from familiar ground to an unknown destination.  While the work may not have been intended by Schubert as a valedictory piece, there is nevertheless within it a keen awareness of individual mortality.

I've long considered András Schiff to be among the best pianists now active.  If I'd ever harbored any doubts concerning his ability, there were none remaining after his triumphant recital on Friday evening.  Familiarity with the accomplishments of the major Classical composers sometimes deadens audiences to an appreciation of how innovative and technically challenging their works actually are.  Mr. Schiff brought a freshness to all the pieces performed that allowed the listener to hear them anew and once again marvel at their depth and ingenuity.