Friday, February 26, 2016

CMS Webcast: Anne-Marie McDermott Performs Haydn

Joseph Haydn is so often remembered as "the father of the string quartet" and "the father of the symphony" that it's often forgotten he also pioneered the Classical piano sonata.  Wikipedia lists some 62 of these works, seven of which are lost, seven are doubtful, one is incomplete, and one is a different version of another.

At the time Haydn began composing sonatas in the mid-1750's the modern piano was not then available to him.   Though the piano had been invented in Italy circa 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, it did not come into wide use in northern Europe until the latter part of the eighteenth century when Viennese designers such as Johann Andreas Stein and his daughter Nannette Streicher began to manufacture the fortepiano.  Before that time the keyboard instrument most widely in use - that for which J.S. Bach composed his sonatas - was the harpsichord.  There is a basic distinction between the harpsichord and the fortepiano.  While with the former the strings are plucked when the musician strikes the keys, with the latter the strings are hammered.  This innovation allowed greater volume and sustain than had previously been possible.  The development of this new instrument thus granted the musician greater freedom of expression and made possible the advent of the virtuoso pianist.

When Haydn began composing his sonatas he was writing for the harpsichord.  Since there were then no such thing as a piano soloist - Mozart would be among the first - these works were not intended for publication but as exercises for his students.  The reason several of Haydn's earliest sonatas were lost was because he placed no value upon them and in some cases did not even bother to make copies.  It was only as the fortepiano came into increasing use that Haydn paid more attention to the sonata as a serious form of composition.

In a sense then the history of Haydn's sonatas parallels that of the fortepiano itself.  His final sonatas were written only after he had encountered the Broadwood piano, the most modern then available, on his second sojourn in England.  The Broadwood was the first to have a range of more than five octaves, and so impressed was Haydn that he took three of them with him when he returned from London to Vienna.

On Thursday evening, the Chamber Music Society webcast a recital by pianist Anne-Marie McDermott whose program consisted entirely of Haydn sonatas.  The works performed were, in order performed, the Sonata in G major for Keyboard, Hob. XVI:40 (1784); the Sonata in C minor for Keyboard, Hob. XVI:20 (1771); the Sonata in C major for Keyboard, Hob. XVI:50 (c. 1794-95); the Sonata in F major for Keyboard, Hob. XVI:23 (1773); and the Sonata in E-flat major for Keyboard, Hob. XVI:52 (1794).

All the above were of great merit, but the two I found most interesting were the No. 50 in C Major and the No. 52 in E-flat major.  These were both among Haydn's last three sonatas; they were written during his second and final visit to London and dedicated to Therese Jansen Bartolozzi, an accomplished pianist who had once been a student of Muzio Clementi.  Into these sonatas Haydn put everything he had learned of the form over the roughly forty years he had spent working with it.  He was here at the peak of his powers and writing for a virtuoso performer fully capable of realizing whatever challenges he set before her.  The No. 52, in particular, demonstrates a maturity of style coupled with a boldness of invention that clearly anticipates Beethoven's late sonatas.  I had already heard András Schiff perform this work in recital in November and appreciated the opportunity to hear another excellent performance.

Anne-Marie McDermott is not as well known to the public as some other soloists - primarily because she devotes so much of her time to chamber music - but she is an exceptionally accomplished pianist who shone at this intimate recital.  Her reading of the Haydn sonatas gave me great insight into the venerable composer's accomplishment as a master of the sonata form.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Juilliard Wind Orchestra Performs Mozart

Though it was raining heavily in New York City yesterday afternoon, there was still a good size crowd on hand for this week's Wednesdays at One installment that featured at this performance the Juilliard Wind Orchestra.  Only one work was performed at the hour-long recital, the Serenade No. 10 in B-flat Major, K. 361 (1781) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

While it was not Mozart who gave the work its name Gran Partita, the title is fully deserved both for the serenade's length and its grandeur of expression.  Those which Mozart had composed in Salzburg were much shorter and of lighter weight, more in the nature of divertimentos.  The music here progresses in a more stately fashion while still possessing a captivating beauty.  If the K. 361 was indeed composed in 1781, as determined by the paper type used by Mozart when writing it, the work would have been one of the first pieces the composer devised upon his arrival in Vienna.  Wind orchestras had great popularity during this period, and Mozart may have intended the work to be played at some public celebration as a way of introducing himself to the Viennese citizenry.  Its premiere must have been successful because an abbreviated version consisting of only four movements was encored three years later at a concert given by the virtuoso Anton Stadler for whom Mozart later wrote both his Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 and his Clarinet Concerto, K. 622.

The work is scored for thirteen instruments - twelve winds and a double bass.  The use of a stringed instrument implies that the work was originally intended for indoor performance; if the piece were on some other occasion to be played in an outdoor setting a contrabassoon could easily be substituted in its place .  (There can be no question of which instrument Mozart had in mind when composing the work because the bass part contains pizzicato markings.)   Unusually, at yesterday's performance both a contrabass and a contrabassoon were included in the instrumentation.  No reason was given for this arrangement.

I had not heard Juilliard's Wind Orchestra in some time and was impressed at the high level of performance.  This was as seamless a presentation of Mozart's great work as one could have wished.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Met Museum: Celebrating the Arts of Japan, Rotation 1

The Met has been celebrating its Department of Asian Art's 100th Anniversary all through 2015 and into the current year.  The Masterpieces of Chinese Painting exhibit I reviewed in December is part of that event as is the show I saw more recently, Celebrating the Arts of Japan, a selection of works from the Mary Griggs Burke Collection.  Judging from the pieces on view, Ms. Burke was an exceptionally discriminating collector.  Together with her husband, Jackson Burke, she began acquiring masterpieces of Japanese art in the 1960's.  They began with ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints that are to Western eyes the most accessible forms of Japanese art.  Upon her husband's death in 1975, Ms. Burke continued on alone until her own passing in 2012.  The number of masterpieces contained in the Burke collection is astonishing.  It's no wonder that it was the first Western collection ever to have been exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum.

After having seen so many great landscapes at the Chinese painting exhibit, it's not surprising that the works I was most drawn to here were of the same genre.  In some cases it was easy to make a direct comparison.  Take, for example, Landscape after Xia Gui, a Muromachi period work attributed to the Buddhist monk Tenshō Shūbun I had only just seen Xia Gui's Mountain Market, Clearing Mist and been incredibly impressed with the painter's brushwork.  In his own work, which consisted of two six-panel folding screens placed side by side, Shūbun (if he were indeed the artist) employed the same technique of using rough strokes in the foreground and then ink washes to make the background appear to dissolve in mist.  He also made deliberate use of the "one corner" style but here moved the detailed foreground closer to the work's bottom center.  The influence of the "one corner" style can also be seen in the much later Goose and Reeds; Willows and Moon, a six-panel folding screen by Edo period artist Maruyama Ōkyo.  Here almost all the detail is at the bottom on the first three panels with the fowl strategically placed a bit higher on the fourth panel; the fifth and sixth panels are left completely blank.

The extensive use of massive folding screens is uniquely Japanese.  While most Chinese works are done on a handscroll so that the landscape is slowly revealed to the observer as the scroll is unwound, the Japanese screens in contrast offer huge panoramas that deliberately overwhelm the viewer.  These two totally different approaches to apprehending the same subject create in the mind vastly different impressions.

A similar difference in presentation could be seen in the juxtaposition of Sakai Ōho's 1839 Six Jewel Rivers (Mu-Tamagawa), a small format handscroll, with Utagawa Hiroshige's 1857 Six Tamagawa Rivers from Various Provinces (Shokoku Mu Tamagawa), a series of six polychrome woodblock prints.  As the museum's website notes of Hiroshige's work, "the groupings and postures of the figures in each of the prints nearly exactly echoes those found in a set of handscrolls by Sakai Ōho."  But though the subjects and their arrangement are nearly identical, one experiences completely different emotions when viewing the two artists' paintings.

My favorite works were those that showed the Japanese pursing their characteristic love of beauty.  As anyone who has traveled through Asia knows, aesthetic appreciation in the East can be expressed in forms completely unfamiliar to Westerners, as in the gold leaf painted folding screen Women on a Bridge Tossing Fans into a River that shows elegantly appareled court ladies standing on a low bridge and talking among themselves as they watch the current carry their painted fans away.  Or in Zhou Maoshu Admiring Lotuses, a hanging scroll by Kaihō Yūsetsu portraying the Chinese philosopher bending over the edge of a small boat to better see the lotuses floating on the lake's surface.  In the same manner, the Japanese love of music is expressed in highly stylized form in the mystical representation of Jizō Bosatsu Playing a Flute, a hanging scroll from the Edo period painted by Kanō Tan'yū that depicts the bodhisattva standing on a cloud with the moon behind him as he plays his phoenix-headed flute.

Though not announced as such on the museum's website, this is a two part exhibit.  The first rotation runs through the early part of 2016 (contact the museum for an exact date) while the second rotation continues through January 22, 2017.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Juilliard Piano Recital: Haydn, Chopin, Corigliano, Bashaw and Ravel

I went on Wednesday afternoon to Paul Hall to hear a recital given by Juilliard's Piano Performance Forum that featured the music of Haydn, Chopin, Corigliano, Bashaw and Ravel.

The program opened with Haydn's Sonata in E Major, Hob: XVI:31 (c. 1776) performed by Seungyeon Lee.  Even though this is not one of the composer's better known sonatas it's still of the highest quality and well worth hearing.  In this work it's the E minor middle movement, an allegretto, that most immediately captures the listener's attention.  The sound here is more reminiscent of a stately Baroque form than a classical work.  The development section is never resolved but leads without pause directly into the final movement theme and variations.

The next piece was Chopin's Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 (1844), one of the composer's most technically demanding works.  Though composed some five years before his death, Chopin was already in failing health at the time of its composition and may already have been looking toward his legacy when writing this work.  At any rate, it contains one of his most brilliant evocations of the Romantic ethos.  The third movement largo, in particular, is filled with yearning but at the same time a sense of peaceful resignation.  For some reason Chopin never performed this work in public, but he must have realized that the "galloping" final movement was so daunting that there were very few pianists who possessed the virtuosity needed to successfully render it.  At this recital it was played exceptionally well by Peng Lin.

This was followed by the piece I found most intriguing at this recital, Corigliano's Fantasia on an Ostinato (1985), performed by Tomer Gewirtzman.  In addition to the original piano version played here, originally composed for the Van Cliburn Competition, Corigliano prepared the following year an orchestration that was premiered by the New York Philharmonic.  The endlessly repeating ostinato form is a perfect vehicle for Corigliano's minimalist style, and it also allows him to revisit Beethoven's use of ostinato - consisting of of a quarter note, two eighth notes and two quarter notes - at the beginning of the Seventh Symphony's second movement.  The result contains distinctive echoes of Beethoven throughout while still retaining an uncompromising modernist sound that is almost hypnotic.

The program ended with an incredible display of virtuosity by Ming Xe who performed Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit (1908) prefaced by contemporary composer Howard Bashaw's Prelude: Dita correnti.  Bashaw is a Canadian composer, and this was the first time I'd had an opportunity to hear any of his work.  The Prelude performed here worked very well as an introduction to the Ravel's longer work.  As for Gaspard itself, this is one of the most onerous in the repertoire, most especially the final "Scarbo" section, and it seems a favorite of the Julliard pianists - at another recital last month I heard Christopher Staknys play "Ondine" - who are continually seeking out the most challenging works available for their performances.  It's exactly this willingness to take on the pieces known for their difficulty that make attending these recitals so rewarding.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Mitsuko Uchida Performs Mozart

Yesterday evening, famed pianist Mitsuko Uchida performed as soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra on an all-Mozart program consisting of two concertos and a symphony.  Ms. Uchida conducted both concertos from the piano. .

The program opened with the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453 (1784).  After having relocated from Salzburg to Vienna, Mozart gave a series of subscription concerts at which he played piano concertos he had composed for the occasion.  He was at the time only recently married and badly in need of means to support himself and his wife.  Still better known in Vienna as a pianist than a composer, Mozart used the concerts as a showcase for both his virtuosity and his musical writing.  The No. 17, however, was written for a talented student, Barbara Ployer, who paid "handsomely" for the privilege.  It turned out to be a great success and was only one of six to have been published during the composer's lifetime.  At its premiere in the suburb of Döbling, where the soloist's father had hired an orchestra, Mozart himself later played the piano part on his Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, K. 452 and then joined his student on a performance of his Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448.  Mozart had brought along as his guest the celebrated Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello and may it have been as much for the latter's benefit as that of his student that he worked so hard to make the evening a success.

The opening movement of the K. 453 is distinguished by a second theme that moves rapidly through several keys, an idea Beethoven later used in his own G major concerto.  Since the concerto was written to be played by another, the first movement contains one of the few cadenzas Mozart took the trouble to write out, usually improvising them at the keyboard when he was himself the soloist.  The second movement is noteworthy for the prominent part given the winds, an unusual innovation for that period.  The third movement is a theme and variations, and one of the most often told stories of this work is Mozart's pet starling's ability to sing almost perfectly the simple theme.

The next work was the Symphony No. 34 in C major, K. 338 (1780) led by the orchestra's concertmaster William Preucil.  This is a festive cheerful work, the last symphony Mozart wrote before leaving Salzburg for Vienna, and its good nature might have something to do with his impending departure from a position where he had never been happy.  The opening movement, similar in style to an Italian overture, sets the mood for the rest of the piece; the middle movement, while marked andante di molto, contains a note that the music should be played more quickly; and the final movement, in 6/8 time, is as lively as one could wish.  There is evidence that the work was originally to have been in four movements - Mozart began a minuet on the back page of the opening allegro and then tore out the remainder, if indeed he ever completed it.  Critic Alfred Einstein conjectured that a stand alone minuet, K. 409, might be the missing movement but the instrumentation does not match (the K. 409 contains flutes while the K. 338 does not).  It's more likely that Mozart felt the minuet, at least as he had envisioned it, would not fit in with the rest of the symphony's boisterous character and so decided to discard it.  While enjoyable, this is not a major work.  Listening to it, one has the sense Mozart was happily killing time until he was finally able to leave town.

After intermission, the program concluded with the Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503 (1786).  This is the last of Mozart's masterful subscription concertos and its stately elegance - Mozart included both trumpets and timpani in the orchestration - epitomizes perfectly the Classical ethos.  It begins with a long first movement in sonata form that is characterized by quick shifts from major to minor keys.  The second movement andante is also in sonata form but lacks a development section.  The final section, an allegreto, opens with ballet music adapted from Idomeneo and then quickly moves to a more introspective mood.  (Unlike the K. 453, this was a work Mozart had written for his own use and so had not bothered to put on paper the cadenza he intended to play; Ms. Uchida therefore performed her own.)  It was as though in this work the composer wished to show off, in the most stately fashion imaginable, everything he had learned of the concerto form.

Mozart's music, along with Schubert's, is Mitsuko Uchida's specialty and in her dual roles of pianist and conductor she displayed a profound understanding of the composer's work throughout her performance.  She had already played this same program on Friday evening with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall and her sold out appearance yesterday evening at Carnegie Hall was a huge success with the appreciative audience.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Juilliard Piano Recital: Beethoven, Chopin, Granados, Scriabin and Liszt

This week's Wednesdays at One performance was devoted to music for solo piano.  The one-hour recital at Alice Tully featured relatively short pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, Granados, Scriabin and Liszt.

The program opened with Beethoven's Sonata No. 22 in F major, Op. 54 (1804).   This is a curious work, not often performed, that seems to puzzle everyone who listens to it.  One has the sense that Beethoven was here taking a break between composing the much more ambitious sonatas, the "Waldstein" that preceded it and the "Appasionata" that followed it.  Or it may have been that Beethoven was still searching for new techniques that that would enable him to break more fully from the classical style he had learned from Haydn and that the entire piece was intended by him as nothing more than a form of experimentation.  Written in two movements, it swerves in an idiosyncratic manner from playfulness to a much darker feeling.  The pianist was Mackenzie Melemed.

The next work was Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat major, Op. 61 (1846) performed by Kevin Ahfat.  This is one of the composer's lesser known pieces, perhaps because it lacks the Romantic charm of the waltzes and nocturnes.  It is certainly a much more complex work in which Chopin deliberately tries to forge a new style by melding the forms of the fantasy and polonaise into a single work.  Along with the F minor Mazurka (Op. 68, No. 4), it comprises the totality of his "last" style.  Marked by a melancholy elegance one does not usually associate with this composer, it progresses in an extremely self conscious and deliberate manner.  While it requires more attention on the part of the listener, it is no less beautiful for that.

This was followed by Granados's Los Requiebros, the first movement of the Goyescas suite (1909-1911).  In writing the Goyescas, the composer had been inspired by the paintings and etchings of the influential Spanish artist Francisco Goya to attempt a musical recreation of Spanish life as it existed in the artist's time.  Anyone who knows Goya only from his grotesque etchings and his "Black Paintings" might be surprised by his earlier efforts as a court painter when he worked in a much more academic style in portraying the the majos, the flamboyant and elaborately dressed youths from Madrid's lower classes.  It was six of these works, including the playful El pelele, that Granados had in mind when composing first the suite and then a few years later the one-act opera of the same name.  The opening movement, Los Requiebros, is set in the form of a jota, a type of Aragonese folk dance music.  The pianist was Tristan Teo who recently won the Bachauer Competition.

Next was Scriabin's Fantasie in B minor, Op. 28 (1900). This is a very popular work, one of the most often performed of the composer's solo piano pieces, and every time it appears on a program the notes invariably tell how Scriabin had forgotten he had composed it until reminded by the critic Leonid Sabaneyev who had begun playing it while Scriabin was in the next room.  The fantasy has been seen as a transition piece between the composer's early romantic works and his later more subtle and mystical creations.  This exceptionally challenging work was performed by the multi-talented Gabrielle Chou whom I had heard play violin the evening before in a performance of the final two movements from Bach's Sonata No. 3 in C major.

The recital ended with Liszt's Rhapsodie espagnole, S.254, R.90 (1863).  The composer worked hard to give this piece authenticity, incorporating into it series of variations based on the jota, the same that Granados was later to use in Los Requiebros, as well as the traditional melody Folies d'Espagne.  The work was premiered by Hans von Bülow, who was at the time still Liszt's son-in-law, in Amsterdam in 1866.  Here it was performed with a great deal of flair by Angie Zhang.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Juilliard Violin Recital: J.S. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas

On Tuesday afternoon I walked down to Juilliard to hear a violin recital given by the students of Lewis Kaplan.  The program, a windfall for anyone with an interest in Baroque music, consisted of the complete Sonatas and Partitas of J.S. Bach.

The Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001–1006) were composed over a number of years and completed by 1720; they remained unpublished, however, until 1802,  Though we in the twenty-first century are accustomed to thinking of Bach as the greatest of the Baroque composers, a giant whose work is as essential a part of the repertoire as that of Mozart and Beethoven, that sad truth is that he was largely forgotten by the public for a century after his death.  These pieces might very well have been lost in the eighty odd years that elapsed between their composition and publication if the autographs had not been passed down within the Bach family to grandson Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach.  It was only when the virtuoso Joseph Joachim began playing them regularly in his recitals that their true value at last came to be recognized.

Compositions for solo violin were not Bach's invention.  He had a number of precedents in the works of such well know composers as H.I.F. Biber and Johann Georg Pisendel.  The most immediate influence on Bach, though, may have been the solo partitas of Johann Paul von Westhoff, a composer with whom Bach had actually worked while in Weimar.  But certainly Bach raised the genre to an entirely new level and in so doing revealed possibilities for the instrument that modern composers are still exploiting.  The absence of accompaniment, or continuo, meant that the violin writing was forced to take on added complexity in order to make up for this lack of additional instrumentation and to necessarily become polyphonic so as to make the composition whole.

The works were not performed in catalog order at this recital as they usually are.  When at intermission I spoke with Mr. Kaplan and asked him if there were a reason for this, he mentioned that some of the musicians were also performing in an opera being staged at Juilliard that same evening and needed to play their pieces first.  Each work was divided among several violinists, with each playing one or two movements and their place then taken by another performer.

In the order of appearance, the first work was the Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001.  The adagio and allegro were performed by Erika Mitsui and the siciliana and presto by Agnes Tse.  Next was the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 with Leerone Hakami playing the allemanda and corrente, Haemin Lee the sarabanda and giga, and Iris Chen the famous ciaconna.  This was followed by the Partita No. 1 in B minor BWV 1002 which is distinguished by having four pairs of movements.  In this work each movement has its own variation, or double, played at a much faster speed than the original.  James Luo performed the allemanda and corrente and their doubles, and Seohee Min the sarabande and tempo di borea (a form of bourée) and their doubles.

The first piece to be performed after intermission was the Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 whose grave and fuga were played by Lifan Zhu and the andante and allegro by Chisa Kodaka.  Next was the Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005.  The adagio and fuga were played by Momo Wong and the largo and allegro assai by Gabrielle Chou.  Finally, the recital ended with the Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006.  Daniel Yue played the preludio and loure, Momo Wong the gavotte en rondeau and the menuets, and Lifan Zhu the bourée and gigue.

It goes without saying that the Bach solo violin works are among the most demanding in the violin repertoire.  There are any number of double and triple stops contained in these works and advanced bowing techniques are required.  I was incredibly impressed by the virtuosity of the Juilliard musicians who performed these works so admirably at Tuesday's recital.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

KUSC Broadcast: Alexandria Le Piano Recital at LACMA

On Sunday evening KUSC broadcast live a piano recital given by Alexandria Le, a recent alumna of the ACJW Ensemble, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The performance featured the music of Bach, Mozart and Mussorgsky.

The program began with Ferruccio Busoni's 1893 transcription of J.S. Bach's Chaconne for solo violin from the Partita No.2 in D minor. BWV 1004 (1717-1720).  This was far from being the only piece of Bach's music that Bussoni arranged.  The Bach-Busoni Editions comprise some thirty-two volumes compiled over a thirty year period.  So associated with Bach was Busoni in the public's mind that his name was often thought to be Bach-Busoni.  The Chaconne itself, the closing movement of the partita, is considered the most beautiful in the violin repertoire.  Brahms wrote of it:
"On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."
Coincidentally, I had attended earlier in the evening a violin recital at Juilliard (about which I'll blog at a later date) at which all Bach's works for solo violin were performed.  I was thus able to hear both the original and the transcription on the same date.

The next work was Mozart's Twelve Variations from Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman, K. 265/300e (c. 1782).  The concept of theme and variations was immensely popular during the Classical period and was to form the basis of some of Beethoven's greatest music.  Often a composer or performer would take a popular melody as a theme and complete a series of variations upon it.  In this case, Mozart composed twelve variations, the last being a recapitulation of the preceding eleven, on the simple source material from which the children's songs "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Baa-Baa Black Sheep" are derived.  Originally thought to have been written during Mozart's Paris sojourn of 1778, it has now been dated to 1782 when he was already living in Vienna.  What was most interesting here was that the tune is still instantly recognizable to the listener.  I therefore had a rare chance to experience what late eighteenth century audiences must have felt when they heard Mozart, and later Beethoven, take a favorite piece and transform it before them.  Listening, I was thrilled by the apparent ease with which the composer handled the music.  So adept was the transcription it seemed at times a conjuring trick.

The program concluded with Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).  Most listeners are familiar with this work through Ravel's superb orchestration, but Mussorgsky originally composed it as the virtuoso piano piece performed here.  It was intended as a tribute to the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann who died of an aneurysm at only age 39,  Like Mussorgsky and other members of "the Five," Hartmann had been an strong advocate of promoting nationalist themes in Russian art. and this had formed the basis of the pair's close friendship.  Upon Hartmann's death, an exhibit of his artwork was staged in Saint Petersburg as a memorial to him.  It was while viewing the exhibit that Mussorgsky hit upon the concept of the work as a musical representation of a viewer passing through the show and pausing to look at one Hartmann picture after another.  Ironically, most of the original artwork has since been lost and it is only through Mussorgsky's music that these paintings now exist.  The music itself is much more powerful in the original piano version; it has a rawness and a hard edge that has been subsumed in Ravel's elegant transcription.  

All the above pieces were obviously chosen for their difficulty.  Any pianist, no matter how accomplished, would have found this program a daunting challenge.  I had previously heard Alexandria perform only chamber works with the ACJW, and this was my first opportunity to hear her in solo recital.  It was something of a revelation as I'd never before been able to appreciate how truly talented she is at the keyboard.  She gave here a recital that was equal to or better than many given on Carnegie Hall's main stage.  I'm very much looking forward to hearing her perform in person at some future date.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Hugh Owen at Hans P. Kraus, Jr.

Not much is known of the life and career of the photographer Hugh Owen (1808 - 1897).  What little I could find is almost entirely derived from Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840–1860 by Roger Taylor with Larry J. Schaaf.  According to this source, Owen was a British railway employee located in Bristol who began his photographic career as an amateur daguerreotypist.  In 1845, though, he began corresponding with Henry Fox Talbot and by 1847 had attained sufficient proficiency in that inventor's process to draw critical praise for his entries at a Calotype Society show given in London.  In 1852 his work was exhibited beside that of Henri Le Secq, Gustave Le Gray and Roger Fenton at the Society of Arts show, the first ever dedicated solely to photography, after which he became a founding member of the Photographic Society.  The following year two volumes of his work were published by James Cundall.

Already, though, technical advances had made Talbot's original process increasingly obsolete.  In 1854 Owen defended his continued use of the calotype negative in the Journal of the Photographic Society, but the battle was a lost cause.  After having exhibited shortly thereafter views taken while traveling through Portugal, Owen gave up working in the medium even though he lived on for more than another forty years.  The last mention of him is his obituary, some six years after his death, in the May 8, 1903 edition of the British Journal of Photography.

In light of all this, it's fairly safe to say that the current exhibit at Hans P. Kraus, Jr. is the first to have been held in quite some time.  This is unfortunate because all fifteen works shown are of the highest quality.  Fourteen are albumen prints and one, a smaller format street view of Bristol, is a salt print; all were made from calotype negatives.  The first thing the viewer notes is the sharpness of the images, very unusual in prints made from paper negatives.  The craftsmanship is uniformly excellent - composition, focus and exposure have been carefully thought out and perfectly executed.

As far as subject matter, Owen, like most early nineteenth century photographers, was forced to work only with landscapes and still lifes due to the inordinate exposure time then required.  But Owen had a good eye and his images are never dull. Some, such as his Harvest scene with stooks and Cart and thatched kindling storehouse appear to have been influenced by Talbot's The Pencil of Nature.  But there are also views of oyster boats at Swansea (presumably taken when the waters were very still) and even two of a derailed train, the No. 20 on the Bristol & Exeter line.

To help put Owen's oeuvre in context, the exhibit also contains prints from the same period by Benjamin Brecknell Turner and by Talbot himself.  Of special interest here are two nearly identical views of Loch Katrine that Talbot must have taken on the same occasion with two different size plate holders.  One image is 17.8 x 21.8 cm while the other is only 8.6 x 10.7 cm.

The exhibit continues through March 18, 2016.

Friday, February 5, 2016

CMS Webcast: Bartók Cycle II

On Thursday evening at Rose Studio the Jerusalem Quartet completed its performance of the complete Bartók quartets with renditions of the Second, Fourth and Sixth.  Once again the entire recital was webcast live on the Chamber Music Society's website.

The Quartet No. 2, Sz. 67 was begun in 1915 and completed in 1917 while World War I was still raging throughout Europe.  The closing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's borders during this period severely curtailed Bartók's exploration of ethnic folk music.  Unable to travel, the war years became a period of consolidation in which the composer sought to understand how the different musical forms he had encountered could best be amalgamated into his own work.  He was also hearing more of modern music.  Already influenced by the work of Strauss and Debussy, he was now exposed to that of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well.  All these strands came together in the Second Quartet and allowed the composer to create music that stood removed from the European tradition in which he had been trained.  The second movement, for example, owes a great deal to the Arabic music that Bartók had heard while traveling through North Africa.  In that sense, the Second Quartet can be seen as a breakthrough that was to lead to the compositions of Bartók's maturity when he fully developed his unique style.  Kodály saw in the work a personal accounting that portrayed various episodes in the composer's life.  But it's not really necessary to read so much into the work.  Whatever connection the final movement had to Bartók's actual experiences, it summed up perfectly the bleak outlook with which he and other European musicians viewed human existence at a time when a cataclysmic war threatened to put an end to the Western art and culture they had known.

Written only a year after the Third Quartet, the Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91 shows a strong connection to that earlier work but also breaks new ground in its implementation of an "arch" structure.  Originally conceived in four movements, Bartók added another in the interest of symmetry.  He would use the arch again in the Fifth Quartet.  The centerpiece of the work, its keystone, is the third movement, the only slow movement in the entire quartet.  Around this Bartók structured the other movements and used them to balance one another so that the fourth movement reflects the second and the fifth movement mirrors the first.  There is also a symmetry in length with the second and fourth movements only roughly half the length of the other three.  The third movement, which Bartók termed the "kernel," is the still point around which the others revolve.  In it, the composer makes use of his nachtmusik technique and allows the use of his folk sources to be more clearly apprehended by the listener.  I had heard an excellent performance of this work at Juilliard this past May that gave me a greater appreciation of what a masterpiece this work is.  It could be argued that from a purely musical point of view this is the most successful of all six quartets.

One can only imagine Bartók's state of mind as completed the Quartet No. 6, Sz. 114 in late 1939.  Germany had invaded Poland only weeks before and World War II had begun in earnest.  The composer realized perfectly well that it was only a matter of time before the Nazis gained full control of Hungary which had already in 1937 signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler.  His publisher in Vienna, Universal Editions, was now under Nazi ownership and had sent him and the other composers it represented a questionnaire demanding the details of their ethnicity and ancestry.  To those who had lived through the horrors of World War I, this must have seemed the cruel repetition of a nightmare.  There could have been no doubt in Bartók's mind of the need to flee.  All that held him to his native country was his mother who was at the time desperately ill.  Her death shortly after the quartet was completed, while another sad blow, finally severed his last link to Hungary and allowed him to emigrate.

All this serves as a background to the music, each of whose four movements is marked mesto, meaning "sad."  The composer's state of mind can perhaps best be seen in the second and third movements.  The second contains an off-kilter march that might represent Europe once again goosestepping toward the abyss like some drunken soldier.  The third, entitled Burletta ("burlesque"), only emphasizes this sense of despair and hopelessness in a world gone mad.  The final movement, rewritten by Bartók upon the death of his mother, is an elegy not only for a lost parent but for European civilization as well.  This was the last piece of music Bartók composed while still living in Hungary and it is filled with the bitterness anyone must feel when forced by circumstances to leave one's homeland, probably forever, to live in exile.  If the ending of the Second Quartet was bleak, that which concludes the Sixth plumbs the very depths of despair and unhappiness.

The Jerusalem Quartet's decision to play the odd numbered quartets on one evening and the even on the next is the way the cycle is usually performed.  The Takács Quartet followed the same pattern a couple of seasons ago at Carnegie Hall.  I think, though, that whatever inconvenience may be entailed it would be better to stage these works in chronological order so that the audience can better understand not only the progression of Bartók's artistry from one to the next but his state of mind as well.  In the six quartets he leaves not just a personal account of his life but a record of the chaos that consumed all Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Carnegie Hall's 2016-2017 Season

Carnegie Hall has recently announced its upcoming schedule for next season, and the lineup is very impressive to anyone with an interest in classical music.  As a current subscriber, I was already able on Monday morning to place my order for the series I wished to attend.  The four series I chose were all orchestral.

  • The International Festival of Orchestras III whose highlights include Simon Rattle conducting Mahler's Seventh with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Barenboim leading the Staatskapelle Berlin in Bruckner's Third, and Franz Wesler-Möst conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of Schubert's Ninth.

  • Concertos Plus featuring Gustavo Dudamel conducting Messiaen's epic Turangalila-symphonie with the Bolivar Symphony, Valery Gergiev leading the Munich Philharmonic in Beethoven's Third, and another Staatskapelle Berlin performance of a Bruckner symphony, this time the Third.

  • Great American Orchestras with Rattle conducting another Mahler symphony, the Sixth, this time with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Andris Nelsons leading another performance of Beethoven's Third.

  • The Met Orchestra, once again led by James Levine, will perform three concerts in June after the regular season has ended.  Each of the three will feature the music of single composer - Mahler, Brahms and Sibelius.  Guest artists will include Susan Graham, Maurizio Pollini and Christian Tetzlaff.

At the same time I placed my subscription order I also reserved my seat for October's Opening Night when Dudamel will lead an all-Stravinsky program with the Bolivar Symphony.  The two works on the program are Pétrouchka (1947 version) and Le Sacre du printemps.

In addition to all these, I will also be purchasing single tickets this summer as soon as they go on sale to subscribers.  Here I will focus mainly on piano recitals.  Uchida Mitsuko, Yefim Bronfman, András Schiff and Richard Goode will all be performing on the main stage.  In April, Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin will appear together to play works for two pianos by Mozart, Stravinsky and Debussy.

These are, of course, only my personal choices.  There are many other outstanding performances that listed on Carnegie Hall's website that are well worth attending.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Juilliard Orchestra Performs Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Babbitt

As part of this year's annual Focus series, Milton Babbitt's World, A Centennial Celebration, the Juilliard Orchestra gave a concert on Friday evening at Alice Tully that featured a challenging program of modern works by Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Babbitt himself.  The ensemble was conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky and included pianist Conor Hanick as soloist.

The program began with Brahms's Chorale-Prelude Es ist ein Ros entsprungen ("Behold a Rose is Blooming"), Op. 122, No. 8 (ca. 1896) as arranged for orchestra by Erich Leinsdorf.  Any connection between the traditionalist Brahms and the arch-modernist Babbitt is difficult to discern even on close examination.  They were, in the character of their work, as different from one another as night and day.  Nevertheless, Babbitt had a high regard for the Viennese composer, even more so because he was held in such high esteem by Schoenberg for the meticulous craftsmanship he invariably displayed in his compositions.  Schoenberg had in fact orchestrated Brahms's Piano Quartet in G minor, a work that later served as the basis for the ballet choreographed George Balanchine.  The Op. 122 was Brahms's last work and was published only posthumously in 1902.  Unlike the music that followed, it was lyrical and firmly based in nineteenth century Romanticism.

Next was Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (1909, rev. 1949).  Schoenberg, in his relentless search for a new musical direction, was without doubt the greatest influence on Babbitt and his style of composition.  I had heard earlier this month at Chamberfest Schoenberg's Second String Quartet that dates from roughly the same period as the Five Pieces.  It's fascinating to witness in both the determination with which Schoenberg moved away from nineteenth century form and tonality in order to create a new path for himself.  That these pieces were essential steps to the eventual realization of the twelve-tone technique can be seen from a statement made by the composer in a 1928 letter:
"For the present it matters more to me if people understand my older works.... Only those who understand...them will be able to hear [later ones] with any understanding beyond the fashionable minimum.... I do not attach so much importance to being a musical bogeyman as to being a natural continuer of properly understood, good old tradition."
The reception the Five Pieces received at  its 1912 London premiere (a year before Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps made its tumultuous debut in Paris) was as harsh and uncomprehending as that which had met the Second Quartet and the First Chamber Symphony in Vienna.  Strangely, at Friday's performance the work, while hardly melodic, sounded far less discordant than one might have expected.  This was the 1949 version which Schoenberg had created for smaller orchestral forces in the forlorn hope of increasing the number of its performances.

After intermission, the program resumed with Stravinsky's Variations (Aldous Huxley in Memoriam) (1963-64).  Late in life, Stravinsky was dismayed to learn that he and his neo-classical works had been superseded as relevant forces within modern music by Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School.  Not ready to be left behind, he quickly adapted to the times.  Having been introduced to Webern's music, he found that he could live with the twelve-tone technique he had so long disdained. This piece was already in progress when Stravinsky learned of the death of his long time friend Huxley, author of The Doors of Perception, whose life I've always considered the most fascinating of all twentieth century British literary figures.  The work, only about six minutes in length, was as dense as it was concise.

The evening concluded with Milton Babbitt's Piano Concerto No. 2 (1998).  I have to admit that, though I do enjoy modern music, this was the first piece I'd heard by this composer.  Commissioned by James Levine, who conducted the premiere with the Met Orchestra, it was one of only a handful of orchestral works that Babbitt produced during his lifetime.   He commented that in order to project its "pitch, temporal and dynamic properties," he had chosen to work with only a small size orchestra to which he had added a vibraphone, marimba and harp.  Knowing Babbitt's connection to electronic music, I was disappointed that none had been included in the concerto.  But even without it, this was as uncompromising a piece of contemporary music as I've encountered.  Roughly a half hour long, it made no concessions to its listeners.

It's been a couple of years since I last saw the Juilliard Orchestra.  I thought the entire ensemble performed the difficult program extremely well under Jeffrey Milarsky's accomplished direction.  Soloist Conor Hanick outdid himself on the complex concerto and entirely deserved the huge round of applause he drew from the audience and the orchestra members after its conclusion.